Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

How We Disappeared is a profound tale told by Jing-Jing Lee which gives a voice to a forgotten generation of Singapore after the Second World War.

The narrative is split into three different focalisations: Wang Di in first person at the age of seventeen as Singapore surrenders to the Japanese in 1942; Wang Di in the year 2000, observed by a semi-omniscient narrator; and lastly eleven-year old Kevin who discovers an earth-shattering confession from his ailing grandmother the same year. Each story is interwoven into the other to showcase the deep scar left in Singapore following the Japanese Occupation, and the way in which so many were forgotten as the city developed into a bustling first-world metropolis. 

Wang Di’s story begins with an idyllic picture of kampong life in Singapore; however, we are additionally presented with the underlying patriarchal values that stifle her self-esteem. During the Fall of Singapore in 1942, she is stolen from her home and brought to a brothel where she lives for the remainder of the occupation. Her account of a Japanese ‘comfort house’ illustrates the atrocities the women captured experienced by the Japanese soldiers. Lee chooses to present this experience from a first-person point of view to truly reveal the pain, struggle, and subsequent humiliation thrust upon these women when they returned to a home that no longer welcomed them. Wang Di’s courage during her abuse is made clear to the readers, and we feel infuriated when her resilience is met with a silencing sense of shame from the family she yearned for. Her story resonates heavily with a modern-day audience, as #MeToo and other movements against sexual assault are becoming more prevalent. Lee provides a thought-provoking criticism of the way in which post-war Asian cultural norms silenced victims with humiliation and marginalisation, instead of demonstrating empathy towards the sexually abused.

This is made even clearer as we flash forward fifty-eight years later. Wang Di is now seventy-five years old and mourning her late husband. She is illiterate, quiet and slowly fading into the background as she has no family left to remember her. Her primary income comes from collecting old cardboard, a profession that her new neighbours turn their noses up at. Singapore has grown rapidly around her, and the stifling of her once vibrant personality her experiences during and following the war caused her to internalise her shame and humiliation. This leaves her with a lingering regret that she never let her late husband share about his own struggles during the war, and a longing to understand his hidden past. In an aged Wang Di, we are shown the struggles of the ‘Silent Generation’ of the elderly within society today as they begin to disappear into the shadows. We are called to take a step back and examine the way in which we treat not just the older generations within our families, but those who are a part of our collective community and Singapore’s national identity.

Alternatively, Kevin’s narrative serves as a representation of a younger but equally unseen generation. He is only eleven years old, but he is extremely perceptive of his father’s struggles with depression and his mother’s attempts to maintain the illusion that there is nothing to worry about. He manages to evade his parents’ infrequent gaze and investigates his Ah Ma’s secretive past. While his parents aren’t negligent, there is still a premature independence that is thrust upon Kevin as an only child in a household with two working parents. He is the new questioning generation in Singapore who pushes against the perceived norms to find the truth.

All in all, Jing-Jing Lee provides a stunning historical narrative that incorporates the heart-breaking, forgotten story of those who were forced to disappear; however, she also reveals the way in which modern society, not only in Singapore, must strive to remember a past we cannot escape. How We Disappeared pays tribute to those left behind and those who were not able to speak up, and in doing so brings them back to life.

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