Remembering the younger days
A survivor of the tragic Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961, James Seah has found a way to deal with his younger days by blogging about it.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Sixty-five-year-old James Seah knows a lot about the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961 as he not only survived the fire (which made him and his family and over 16,000 people homeless) but also grew up in the kampung in the area. However, he has found a way to deal with the memories of that tragic day and much more, by starting a blog that he calls “Blog To Express” in 2007.
Since starting the blog, he has been mentioned in the PM National Day Rally in 2011 and has been invited to share his blogging experiences, including at the recent 50plus EXPO 2014 Forum Talks. The father of two and grandfather of one, who is currently doing data-entry work on contract, shares his past and how his blog has helped him:
When did you start your blog and how young were you then?
That is a long story. I grew up in the Bukit Ho Swee area and that included surviving the fire. It was many years ago and I didn’t want to talk about my past as I wanted to leave it in the past. I heard about Victor Yue, known as the “Chinatown Boy” who runs a nostalgia blog called Bullockcartwater during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech in 2005. I went onto his site and found it very interesting and decided to e-mail him. I was never born in Chinatown and was curious to learn more.
Late 2006, Victor introduced me to a lecturer in history at the National University of Singapore (NUS) called Loh Kah Seng. He was submitting a thesis for his PhD and it was on the Bukit Ho Swee kampung and he thought I could assist him and be one of the interviewees. Because of his request, I spent two nights doing homework to prepare. I found that as I thought back, my memories became more and more vivid.
After I did the interview, using what I had remembered, I decided to do a post onto a National Library Board (NLB) website called “I remember” in early 2007 on the Bukit Ho Swee fire (www.iremember.sg/index.php/2012/02/27/overcoming-the-bukit-ho-swee-tragedy-james-seah/). I told my daughter in the UK to read my post and she asked me how come I didn’t tell her about the fire and my younger days. Because of that, I decided to share my stories through my own nostalgia blog. So in November that year, I started “Blog to Express” at the age of 59.
Why title it “Blog to Express”?
It is a blog to express myself individually and in the first person, and it is about telling my memories.
Any initial trials and tribulations?
I was inspired by Victor’s blog so I wanted it to be the same format. No one had written about Bukit Ho Swee so it meant I had to do a lot of research. The blog really serves to inspire. I write mostly about the past in Singapore, not just on Bukit Ho Swee.
Other challenges were getting photos from the past. I only got a camera when I was in my 20s so I didn’t have a lot of important photos. I ended up finding old photos courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore. Also since I had not written down a diary when I was younger, I had to rely a lot on memory of four to five decades which was challenging.
Furthermore, you need to accept criticisms when doing a blog as people do leave comments. It is not all a bed of roses. However, I make sure the topics I touch on are not controversial so I avoid topics of privacy such as why I broke up with my girlfriend, for example.
Starting a blog was new to me. It was like me being back at school writing composition after so many years being away. It was an experiment as I didn’t know how difficult the topic and content was going to be. The starting of the site was not difficult as I was already Internet-savvy so it was easy to learn how to post, etc. Writing was tricky initially but when I kept doing it, I got better. As I didn’t want to be repetitive and do topics I had already posted, so coming up with different content each time was a challenge. I blog twice a month. I particularly like blogging about my younger days.
What benefit do you gain from blogging?
As my site is not commercial, I do it as it is fun to do. And remembering the past is not only a good memory exercise but a chance to share my childhood memories with others.
A few seniors I understand have been inspired by my blog and have started their own nostalgia blogs where they tell their own interesting stories.
How many posts have you done and how many page views?
I have 326,498 page views and have posted 470 posts.
Since blogging, like Victor, you too have been mentioned by the PM’s National Day Rally speech in 2011 on the Bukit Ho Swee fire. Can you share some other vivid memories from your younger days?
My mother had bought me a lantern which was my favourite and I had recycled it every year for five years. It was foldable and I kept it safe and nice until one fateful night in the Autumn Festival when I was 10. As I was playing with my childhood friends with my lantern, there was a group of other young boys who came around who were very mischievous. They had made a rubber-band catapult with the buah duku (also called langsat) fruit that they aimed at my lantern and as a result, it burned. It was very sad of course and I was disappointed, as I couldn’t buy that lantern again.
When I went home, I had only the frame of the lantern and I recounted the story to my mother. I told her that next year I didn’t want to play any more. It was my way of consoling her that I had gotten older and it was ok that the lantern was gone.
Another memory was before the fire at Bukit Ho Swee. There was the marriage of a primary school teacher who happened to be my neighbour. I had never seen a non-traditional Chinese marriage before. They tied up cans at the back of the car. Since living in a kampung, this was big for me.
I read your post on “I remember” about the Bukit Ho Swee fire and your vivid recounts. Could you share a few words about that fire?
As I was only 13 years old and the first time to experience such a major fire, I was not frightened. I remembered I was frozen on the spot watching the fire happening in front of my own eyes as if I were a curious spectator. Fortunately, my mother immediately dragged me to our home and she collected the pre-packed sarong with all the important stuff in case of emergencies to rush out of the house.
I then learned the dangers of fires and to escape to a safe place quickly. Although no major fires have happened [to the extent of Bukit Ho Swee fire] in Singapore since 1961 and we no longer have wooden and attap kampungs, it is still important to remind everyone to learn emergency civil defence safety and the prevention of fire.
Besides blogging, what else keeps you busy? Are you still volunteering?
I am a volunteer with the Singapore Memory Project Corp where I provide training to students on how to interview ex-teachers and school staff on their memories. I also share my experiences with others.