Raffles Reads: How We Disappeared

By Clara Shen (20A01A) and Kelly Leong (20S07C)

Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.

No one wants to remember the Japanese Occupation, most certainly not Wang Di. In fact, even at the deathbed of her ailing husband, Soon Wei, she still tries to completely avoid the topic of her war experiences. 

This inability of Wang Di to confront her past sets up the novel. From where her husband goes every year on the 12th of February, to what happened to the child she was not to speak of, How We Disappeared is full of secrets that need uncovering. Through the eyes of two very different characters, one is taken on a journey to understand the scars that the Japanese Occupation has left on many in Singapore. 

The book begins by introducing the first perspective, Wang Di. Unwanted by her parents due to the traditional preference for males in the family in the 1920s, Wang Di’s name is a manifestation of her parents’ hopes to have a son (望弟; “longing for a brother”). She doesn’t seem to exist as herself, but rather as just a symbol of good luck for her family—her mother bore two sons after her. As war descended upon Singapore, Wang Di was taken from her village at the tender age of 17, stripped of rights and thrown into sexual slavery for the Japanese troops. 

The next perspective we are thrown into is Kevin’s, a young schoolboy who faces bullies at school, and carries around his Ah Ma’s tape recorder for comfort, as well as to record the sounds around him and create an archive of memories. The meat of Kevin’s story starts out with the passing of Ah Ma, before Kevin decides to delve more into Ah Ma’s memories, and uncovers secrets hidden behind old Teochew opera tapes. Through letters and oral histories he journeys, understanding more about Ah Ma, his family and his identity. 

His quest into Ah Ma’s backstory after her cryptic words at her deathbed eventually reconciles his timeline and experiences with those of Wang Di’s, and the two perspectives are united in a heartwarming ending. It is a bittersweet closure for a woman who finally finds the answers to the questions she asked herself for a lifetime, and a boy whose curiosity eventually leads him to the answers that completes his family. 

It was certainly emotional to revisit this strikingly dark time in Singapore’s past through Wang Di’s narrative, and learn about the Japanese Occupation through someone’s first-hand experiences rather than a textbook. The largely descriptive nature of the novel made it hard to stomach due to the nature of the experiences, but also made the book vivid and reflective.

One particularly memorable scene occurs when the Japanese troops arrive at Wang Di’s village. Wang Di’s village bows out of fear, but her younger brother, Meng, speaks out as the troops approach.

The men stood in a cluster by their trucks, as if waiting for a command. Then, out of the tight silence, my brother opened his mouth.

‘Konnichiwa.’ [Hello.]

Everyone froze. Meng was smiling, proud that he remembered the words, that he got it right. The soldiers looked around and laughed with surprise. 

The tension is palpable in the scene, from the vivid imagery of people bowing in fear, to the silence broken by a naive young boy that wins the approval of the Japanese soldiers. It serves to flesh out the frightening prospect of children being so malleable and impressionable, in contrast to those who are cognisant of the atrocities that the Japanese are committing. The book is filled with equally attention-drawing scenes—heart-stopping, fear-inducing, and most certainly suspenseful. 

I nodded, wondering if I could speak again, trying to remember the things I used to say in my past life as a daughter, someone’s child, but I wasn’t sure there was enough of me left. 

Like Wang Di’s name, ‘welcoming a brother.’ The wait for someone who didn’t exist yet. Who might not ever exist, but was longed for. She had been waiting for so many years that it was almost no surprise when the boy called. 

Raw emotions pulse in many parts of the book, a recurring reminder of the sensitive nature of the topic, and was especially poignant in the scene below: it narrates how Wang Di clutches at her child—one that she did not want, under terrible circumstances. Yet, she protected her son as fiercely as she could— even when she could barely even keep her own life.

I ran with both arms wrapped around my child, felt only then the coolness of his skin, his limp body, the shards of dry, fallen fruit embedding themselves into my feet. 

Aside from the evocative writing, How We Disappeared has many other praiseworthy aspects to it. From the dialogues to the atmosphere, the author’s colourful descriptions and choice of words made it easy to immerse oneself in the time period reflected in the character’s experiences. Most relationships between characters were also well-developed and pronounced, with nuances that made them more realistic, such as the complexities of Wang Di’s marriage or the relationships that Wang Di had which soured after the war through no fault of her own. 

It took me several beats to recover myself, before I said the first helpless thing I could think of: ‘Who? What do they say?’ 

‘Everyone. My classmates. They told me what you are. They called me a traitor, just because you’re my sister.’ 

Before I found my tongue again, he was getting up. ‘You should have just stayed with the riben guizi [‘Japanese devils’: referring to the soldiers]. You should have just stayed dead.’

The book managed to capture a perspective that the textbooks often neglect—the internalised shame comfort women feel about their actions, the condemnation by society, and the arduous journey of recovery for these women. Though the war was long over, Wang Di’s life was far from returning to normalcy, as she had been shunned by her own family after the war. The judgement Wang Di receives over what she was forced into, and how it continues to affect her life after the war, is heart-wrenchingly written by the author. In fact, Wang Di had been told to speak nothing of her time as a comfort woman, for fear that it may disgust her future partner. Like comfort women in other countries, Wang Di lived her life bearing the aftermath of shame and trauma for her experiences. 

At times, the book was able to smoothly inject humour and bring out some light-hearted moments by weaving Wang Di’s experiences with Kevin’s, sometimes a welcome respite from the heaviness of the war experiences. The young boy’s observations of surroundings and actions of the adults was refreshing. At the beginning of the book, Kevin’s character was fleshed out to be immature and naive, as he was fixated on things typical twelve-year-old boys would concern themselves with. As the plot progresses, Kevin gradually sheds the childish innocence he started out with and unknowingly grows as he discovers the truth.

The scene below depicts the challenges and disappointment Kevin encounters as he desperately tries to find the answers to his identity; as compared to the start of the novel, Kevin’s character portrays a new level of emotional depth.

I had one thing left to do and now, now there was nothing. Nothing. I wanted to stay on the train and be driven back and forth across the country. West to East. East to West. I wanted to never get off and go back home to the empty flat. Grandmotherless. One less grandparent, and then two less. Can you lose something you never found?

However, the jolting contrast between the dual perspectives and multiple timelines made it tenuous to consistently follow the plot. While its intention could have been to keep the plot a mystery, it was difficult to see the connection between Kevin and Wang Di from the beginning. The reader might be left in confusion quite often as the perspective changes; as such, we believe that Wang Di’s experiences would have been better presented as a whole, rather than in fragments. 

To a certain extent, Kevin’s character played second fiddle to Wang Di’s story, and his persistent search for the answers to his family’s mystery felt like a mere plot device that efficiently drove Wang Di’s narrative. Nevertheless, the novel was made more meaningful because it was Kevin, an unsuspecting twelve-year-old, who enabled Wang Di to summon up the courage, the courage she was unable to find for decades to uncover the truth about her husband and to tell her own story. It was with Kevin’s help that Wang Di was finally able to find closure.

Overall, How We Disappeared is a way for us to remember and honour the lives of those forgotten in the face of history and to confront brutal realities of our island’s past. The title of the book itself expresses the central themes of the novel: the disappearance of men and women from their homes during the Japanese Occupation, the interpersonal connections that were lost or built during the war, and more deeply, the fading of memories associated with demolished buildings in Singapore—a city constantly in a state of renewal. It also pays tribute to people that society has unconsciously sidelined: the live-alone elderly, children whose parents are too busy making ends meet to care for them, and comfort women who have been too ashamed to speak out. It is a gripping tale of how one young girl’s resilience and strength shines brightly in daunting times. With how quickly Singapore has progressed as a nation from the trauma of war, How We Disappeared is a good read that provides a fresh reminder that the experiences of the time are not one to be taken lightly, and reframes how the ravages of time have either healed or left those affected to suffer in silence.

Leave a Reply