Melissa De Silva On Reclaiming her Eurasian Heritage

Being Chinese and a part of the majority here in Singapore, I am privileged. The fact that I barely had to think about race during my formative years speaks volumes about the comfort I had. Sure, bullying and other nasty phases of growing up still happened but they seldom boiled down to my skin colour or the culture I am born into. And this is why Melissa De Silva‘s ‘Others’ Is Not A Race is such an important book to read.

About the seldom spoken about Eurasian community right here in Singapore, the book brings to light the very culture that’s born here and yet is barely understood by the rest of the population. It is a read that provides more information and context to what the Eurasian culture and heritage is – in the food, the language – as well as the very real fight to keep it alive. As a minority in this country, representation is few or close to none and I think this is a good enough reason to educate ourselves on it – as part of the larger community, this is the least we can do.

To acknowledge, learn and not let percentages determine what is kept alive or not in this country – be it in history, memories or the future.

Popspoken is fortunate to speak with Melissa, and to learn more about the inspiration behind the book that really shed some light on Eurasian culture in Singapore.

Popspoken: What inspired you to write ‘Others’ Is Not A Race?

  1. To reclaim my own Eurasian culture and heritage

  2. To help spread awareness about who Eurasians are, especially to other Singaporeans

  3. Because I felt a great sadness at the thought that in a few generations, my community and culture would be gone as Eurasians increasingly intermarry and our language and traditions get dissolved

Each piece in the book has its own story behind it. ‘The Gift’ was the first short story I wrote. Before that I only wrote for work (I was a magazine journalist). But my grandmother Patsy Pinto’s death was a catalyst that made me feel the loss of my mother tongue Kristang, and my Eurasian culture, and I realized I had left it too late to learn my ancestral tongue and my cultural traditions. I felt compelled to articulate my thoughts and feelings in that story, and come up with a fictitious resolution in which I was able to learn my mother tongue.

‘Meeting with the Sea’ documents some of the difficulty growing up as a Eurasian in Singapore I personally experienced, such as racism by a schoolteacher who mistook my friends and I for Indians. It points to some of the blatant racism enacted by the majority race against Indians in this country, which is appalling. The story also documents my travel to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, where my father’s family is from, and it was there that I finally– to my great surprise– found a place where I felt like I fitted in, where my identity and appearance were not questioned.

The piece that the title is adapted from, ‘Letter to Anonymous Policy Maker (RE: ‘Others’ is Not a Race)’ is also very significant to me because it articulates my feelings about Eurasians being put into the ‘Others’ category under the CMIO policy. I feel that this curtails our visibility to the rest of the Singapore population, and contributes to the lack of awareness of what Eurasians are and the fact that we are Singaporeans too.

Other pieces, like the oral history pieces by my mother, my father, and my relative Kerry Kessler, are special because they speak of our family’s memories and cultural inheritance, and a number of Eurasians have told me that they find so much that is familiar in these memories and anecdotes, even though we are unrelated. When I began my project, I realized I knew very little about my parents’ childhoods, or they had told me some snippets but I kept forgetting. So these recordings are important for me personally as documentation of our family’s past, our traditions such as Christmas baking, making chinchalok and belachan, and the obsession of Eurasian boys spending the night in graveyards, which I never knew about before this!

Popspoken:: Personally, I knew close to nothing about the Eurasian community and it is only through your book that I managed to get a glimpse into the traditions and the language. Where else can we learn more about your traditions and culture? 

The Eurasian Association carries out a number of activities and there are Eurasian festivals held by various organisers. These would be a great opportunity to learn more about Eurasian culture and traditions.

Popspoken: What is it like being such a minority in Singapore? 

One very pronounced thing for me as a Eurasian in Singapore is the struggle to be understood. Time and again I have tried to explain what being a Eurasian is and I still find it shocking that this concept, of how our community is made up of people who historically were of European and Asian heritage because the colonials formed unions with women in Asia, seems difficult to grasp.

Many Singaporeans also seem ignorant of the fact that there are many Eurasian communities all over Asia, wherever there is a colonial legacy—Indonesia where the Dutch were, India, Burma, Macau, Hong Kong, Malaya where the British were, the Philippines which the Spanish colonised, Vietnam and Cambodia by the French. All these Eurasian communities have their own distinctions but in Singapore, the Eurasians of various heritage eventually drew together and formed bonds as a community and married one another. I find it interesting that when I explain this to people from other parts of the world, they understand immediately about this legacy of colonialism in Asia, even if they had never heard of the word ‘Eurasian’ before that. So the ignorance of some Singaporeans, who themselves are living in this geographic region and possess this history, is particularly puzzling and often frustrating to me.

Popspoken: Do you think labels and race should still be relevant in the globalised world today? 

Since genetic science has shown us that there are no fewer genetic variations between people of the same racial group than between people of different racial groups, the concept of race is truly a construct. I do think the idea of ‘race’ only creates false barriers between human beings, when in actual fact, all that differentiates us are physical appearance and cultural traditions. I think the idea of race often only promotes racism and should be done away with.

Popspoken: Is Crazy Rich Asians truly a win for Asians, specifically in Singapore? 

I thought it was great that Singaporean actors of standing gave excellent performances, such as Tan Kheng Hua, and that many among the cast were Singaporean. However, I do not think the depiction of Singapore as a hyper-materialistic bubble of gross overindulgence (on so many levels) is something I could ever be proud of. For many in the international audience, this may well be the only portrayal of Singapore they have ever seen, and what they come away with is the image of a wealth and status-obsessed clan living in a microcosm of over the top extravagance. 

I think of other films like, such as Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo,  Kelvin Tong’s Eating Air and Royston Tan’s 15, which offer a far more truthful, nuanced portrayal of Singapore. These are films which I consider a win for us, for their artistic excellence and the window into real life.  

To purchase the book ‘Others’ Is Not A Race and to find out more, look it up here.

BooksActually also has a Shophouse Fund to finally purchase a permanent space to house its books. Read more here.

Reads is a series by Teo Dawn on Popspoken. Learn more about local writers, their inspirations and what they think is worth writing about. After all, one writes about what one cares about. Got a book you want featured? Drop her an email here

Featured image: Straits Times


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