Of slaves and odd-job workers. Wesley Leon Aroozoo pays tribute to Singapore’s unsung immigrants who helped make Singapore the trading port it is today.

What comes to mind when you think about Singapore’s history? Perhaps the horrors of the Japanese Occupation? Or maybe our declaration of independence after the inevitable separation from Malaysia?

This gem of a story by Wesley Leon Aroozoo (author of I Want to Go Home) sheds light on the unseen and uncelebrated. Set in the year 1870, it acknowledges the slaves and odd-job workers who kept Singapore running and helped turn it into the global hub port and maritime powerhouse it is today. 

The Punkhawala and the Karayuki-san

The story follows the lives of two main characters. There’s Gobind, who was brought to Singapore from India to serve his prison sentence as a Punkhawala

With unyielding guilt in his heart, Gobind – whose job as a Punkhawala is to pull the rope that controls a ceiling fan – tries to atone for the crimes that he had committed by performing acts of good.

And then there’s Panjang, a Karayuki-san or Japanese prostitute. When word got out that her journey to Singapore was a treacherous one, her survival deemed her lucky, thus bringing luck to anyone who sleeps with her. 

She was originally sent to Singapore to get married but was brought to a brothel house instead, compelling her to find meaning behind her twist of fate. 

Albeit their differing circumstances, they share a common goal: to return home. Fate eventually led them to cross paths, and you get to follow them on their journey of trying to get back home. 

The surprising humour within the heaviness

Despite tackling heavy topics like slavery and human trafficking, the book did not shy away from making snarky and sarcastic remarks, keeping the story lighthearted and getting you to chuckle at the most inappropriate of times.

The diverting interaction between the Englishman Osbert and his French business partner Bastiani also brought in comic relief and additional lightness to the story. But as the story progresses, you realise there is much more tugging at Osbert’s heart that may alter his path.

The book as it is

The book captures your imagination from the get-go, with the opening line igniting your curiosity and whetting your appetite to know what lies ahead. Wesley’s writing style also adds depth to a story with an already enticing plot.

He gives you great insight into why home is so important to the characters, and you feel the sense of longing that they’re feeling. He makes it easy for you to empathise and you cannot help but have an emotional connection with Panjang and Gobind.

There are also ample amounts of unexpected twists and turns that will literally make you gasp and keep you on the edge of your seat. You’re constantly wanting to know whether Gobind and Panjang will make it home eventually. 

I would highly recommend this book to Singaporeans as it draws a newness to Singapore’s history, while establishing an emotional connection that is tough to come by with stories of the nation’s turbulent past. Overall, this book gets 4/5 stars!

Review by Cindy Abner