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AS a child, Charmaine Leung became suspicious of her environment when she noticed how every time she entered a room full of adults, they would either soften their voices or stop talking altogether. What were they talking about that was so anathema to a child's ears?
Outside her shophouse home at 15A Keong Saik Road in the 1970s, there were always men who hung about, staring at or calling out to the young women walking towards the adjoining unit 17A - the unit where Ms Leung's mother and grandmother had worked for years. Who were these men and women, the young girl often wondered.
It was only when Ms Leung was seven years old that she got the confirmation that something was not quite "normal" about her childhood. "I was about to start my first day of primary school when my mother told me that I mustn't tell anyone where I lived… That's when I realised my background was a source of shame. And that became a defining moment of my childhood," she shares.
Ms Leung recently published her memoir titled 17A Keong Saik Road which recalls her growing-up years in the prominent red-light precinct in Chinatown. Her mother was a brothel operator at 17A who supplied nubile young women to a mostly rich male clientele. Next door at 15A, Ms Leung was being raised by a nanny who never once spoke of what her mother did - only to say that "your mother needs to work to support you".
Ms Leung slept with her nanny nightly. But sometimes when it was late, her mother would instruct the nanny to bring the child over. "When there was little chance of the police coming in to inspect the brothel, my mother would let me sleep with her at 17A. That was her workplace as well as her living quarters."
In 2014, Ms Leung left a high-flying job as the marketing director of alcohol distributor Pernod Ricard to start her own business consultancy firm Green Tangerine, and also find time to write the book. "Green" and "tangerine" are the external colours of the two shophouses where she and her mother lived, respectively. And the book ultimately is her attempt to reconcile herself with those years in Keong Saik.
You're in your 40s now. Why did you feel a need to revisit the past?
Today Keong Saik is regarded as a hip street with all these bars and restaurants. So I felt I had to write the book and recall its history from the perspective of someone who lived there. Of course, I have other more personal reasons too. My childhood was both real and surreal. I didn't have a lot of kids to play with in Keong Saik - it wasn't exactly a place to raise a family. So I grew up with so much confusion. Eventually in my early teen years, I learnt to channel some of them by writing a journal. It was through writing that I was able to address this sea of emotions - though that didn't stop me from still being an angsty girl who quarrelled a lot with her mother. But writing kept me sane then. And that is why I've returned to writing again.
You had a hint of how unusual your environment was when your mother told you not to tell your classmates where you lived. You were seven then. But when did you finally piece together the full reality of your situation?
The turning point was when I was 10 or 11, as I was reaching puberty. That was when I understood the reasons why men milling about the streets were looking at the young women. I understood sexual attraction. Before that, I had seen certain things but assumed nothing of them. I thought when a man went into a room with a woman, it was to simply go to sleep. But during those years I chanced on my friend's Mills & Boon novels and realised how I'd been wrong. Everything then became amplified with the arrival of puberty - the shame, the disappointment, the feeling that I couldn't fit in with the other girls in school because I had so much to hide.
Did that adversely shape your ideas of love and marriage? For instance, some kids grow up with an entirely Disney-esque idea of romance - they expect a knight in shining armour, so to speak. Did you grow up with other ideas, knowing there was this darker side to life?
I think because of those experiences, I almost never saw men as knights. I had a mother who was working to raise me, so I knew that women can be strong and stand on their own two feet. I was surrounded by other women from China, Malaysia and other countries. They were all working to support themselves and others back home. My father was a Hong Kong businessman who didn't live in Singapore, even though he supported my upbringing and stayed in touch. But where men were absent, women filled up the roles. So I embraced the strength of women.
How does that shape you as an adult and a businesswoman?
It helped me to be very observant about people and be pragmatic about certain things - I understand they're just part of life. My childhood also helped me to be unafraid to venture into foreign territory to examine markets and do feasibility studies. I've worked extensively in North Asia. I've gone to places so remote, no plane or train can take you there. But I'm not scared to take calculated risks.
How is your mother now?
She's 79 and lives in a studio apartment I bought for her, and I see her at least once a week. We went a medical check-up not long ago, and our results were nearly identical - that's how strong and healthy she still is.
The book 17A Keong Saik is priced at S$19.90 and available at good bookstores.