25 August 2020
By Ethel Pang
From left: Ling Xi Min, Regina Hong, and Professor of Humanities (History) Naoko Shimazu. Image provided by Ling Xi Min, Regina Hong, and Naoko Shimazu.
On 27 March 2020, Yale-NUS College Professor of Humanities (History) Naoko Shimazu and alumni Regina Hong and Ling Xi Min (both Class of 2017) published a jointly-authored book with the National Library Board (NLB) titled Postcard impressions of early 20th-century Singapore: perspectives from the Japanese community.
The book is a collection of more than 150 Japanese picture postcards, which offers insight into the Japanese community that resided in Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other than illuminating the lives of the Japanese community, the book also explores themes like migration, tourism and war through the study of postcards.
Although the subject matter may seem esoteric, Prof Shimazu explained that the book provided a good amount of historical detail about pre-war Singapore, written in language accessible to the layperson. “One of its strengths is that our book has a strong historical contextualisation, perhaps more so than other books of photographs of early Singapore,” said Prof Shimazu.
Ms Hong added, “Tracing migration history is always interesting because it often requires the historian to try and walk in the shoes of the people they are studying. You pay attention to little details like where people stayed, how long they stayed there, what they were doing, what they felt, and then take a step back to contextualise all these tiny, seemingly insignificant details into the bigger picture.”
Another aspect that makes the book special is the collaborative nature of the project.
The NLB was heavily involved in the editing process, and lent its expertise in book production. The owner of the postcard collection, Mr Lim Shao Bin, was involved in providing invaluable input to Ms Hong and Mr Ling during the translation and interpretation process.
Prof Shimazu, a historian of the Japanese empire with an interest in southeast Asia, was a natural candidate to take on the project when the call was put out by the NLB in 2017. She had the idea of involving future historians of Singapore in the project, and thought of her former students Ms Hong and Mr Ling, both of whose final-year capstone theses she supervised. Both have a keen interest in Japanese history, and are fluent in Japanese.
In fact, both did their capstones on Japanese history, with Mr Ling winning the Outstanding Capstone Prize for History in 2017 and Ms Hong the runner-up. In addition, shortly after their graduation from Yale-NUS College, they moved to Hokkaido to work under the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
Regina Hong and Ling Xi Min (both Class of 2017). The couple met while schooling in Yale-NUS College, and got married in 2018. They are both currently pursuing their graduate studies in America.
Prof Shimazu said that working together with her former students on a project that involved both Singapore and Japan was the most rewarding aspect of the journey.
She shared, “Regina and Xi Min took much of the initiative in preparing the first draft, and I can truly say that without them, the book would never have materialised.”
On their end, the couple moved abroad for work and graduate study from 2017 onwards, which was also when work on the book started. They had to do a lot of work remotely, which was difficult since archival work tends to be quite hands-on. In addition, they found it challenging having to translate older styles of Japanese writing. Despite the challenges, this extraordinary opportunity to work with experts to conduct original research was an invaluable process that he gained a lot from, shared Mr Ling.
He said, “Being part of a wider community of scholars helped a lot, as we could draw on the experience of others, including Prof Shimazu and Mr Lim.”