The Lullaby of a Childhood | Japanese Tourism in Singapore’s Arab Street

Think of your favourite lullaby. Your mother, father or any other paternal or maternal figure sang it to you when you were just a baby. You probably have no recollection of the event, but you would remember the song if you heard it, wouldn’t you?

Lullabies can be found all over the world and they have existed since ancient times. It is a soothing piece of music that is played for or sung to children. They are usually used to lull infants to sleep. But a lullaby accomplishes a lot more than that. It can pass down knowledge and tradition, develop and hone communication skills, indicate emotional presence as well as regulate behaviour in young children. The music is usually simple and repetitive.

It’s the same story with many of the memories that we possess from our childhood. They’re deeply rooted into our subconscious without us realising.

The Beatles Tune Golden Slumbers mourns those moments where we are looked after as children that we can never get back–not till we have our own children. The year Golden Slumbers was recorded, McCartney left The Beatles. He moved to southwest Scotland, to bring up his own children. He had found a way ‘to get back home’.

In 2019, I returned ‘home’ after a 12 year hiatus. Here’s what I found waiting for me.

The Apple

There is an old adage that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Since I was raised in an international business family, I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world from a young age. Whenever I met someone from a different culture – I often felt an indescribable longing to visit their countries, eat their food and know how they lived their lives.

My family had a shophouse in the Arab Street area in Singapore – one of the few areas left in Singapore that still retains that pre-war charm. We ran our family business on the ground floor and we lived in the two stories above. It was a unique childhood by Singaporean standards. By the time I was born, most Singaporeans worked for the government, at a large corporation or at an SME and had taken up residence in an apartment.

But not my family. We sold textiles from our shop in Arab Street: an area that did and still continues to attract tourists from all over the world. We had both wholesale and retail customers.

I would get roped in to help out in the shop after school, on weekends and during school holidays. Like most kids, I would rather have been out playing with my friends. But I was promised candy, chocolate and a little extra pocket money if I showed up. So I showed up. Children are not that difficult to bribe.

I was introverted at that age so I felt shy about speaking to the customers. This is a trait I have long since outgrown. In either case, there are numerous laborious tasks to running a business. There’s more to it than being a smooth-talking and slick salesperson.

Stock takes. Opening up goods to show customers. Unfolding and folding the textiles. Displaying things. Wrapping things up if they were gifts. Cleaning. Sweeping. Prayers. All kinds of things.

I wound up with the task of bookkeeping and administration. I kept the account ledgers and did the filing. I was the cashier and took charge of the till. I can still remember counting wads and wads of notes of all denominations at the end of the business day. I loved the scent of freshly minted notes. I enjoyed playing with coins and would often separate and stack them. All kinds of currencies from all over the world passed through my fingers.

I didn’t know it at the time – but life didn’t want me hidden away behind-the-scenes. It would push me out of my naturally reticent nature into the spotlight. I just didn’t know it at the time.

But it was during these stints doing part-time work at the shop that I encountered large numbers of Japanese tourists. Our shop had been featured in many Japanese magazines so we were often frequented by tourists who came in those huge tour buses.

All the elders and grownups in my family spoke Japanese. They’d learnt it during the Japanese occupation of World War II. When trade resumed after the war ended, the elders in my family made the best out of a bad situation and used their Japanese proficiency to profit. Off they went, to the port city of Kobe to seek their fortune, yet again.

Whenever the packs of Japanese tourists came to our shop, my great-grandfather would quickly get up and say, “Irashaimase! Welcome!” Great-grandpa was an old man and by that I mean that he was in his 80s. But he still had that charm. The hordes of Japanese tourists would circle around him. He spoke Japanese fluently and was well-known in Japan at the time. He’d been interviewed by numerous travel magazines.

The Japanese would come to our shop to buy omiyage for their colleagues, friends and family. Gift-giving is a big part of Japanese culture and the tourists who visited Singapore would buy dozens and dozens of omiyage. The most popular omiyage was a small-sized carpet that we would individually wrap, the way the Japanese liked it.

The profit margin on each individual omiyage wasn’t particularly large, but multiply that by the volume each tourist would buy; and then multiply it again by the number of people on each tour bus and we’re in business.

When I was a kid, we still functioned as a joint family where everyone had a rank and role based on their age and gender. It could, in a way, be described as a form of feudalism; but not in the same way that it was in the European context.

In either case, all those years of managing finances for the family business groomed me into a very savvy business person at a young age. But still, I never saw myself entering the world of business. There was still a massive piece of the puzzle I was missing.

Perhaps, like Paul McCartney, it is time for me to find my way back home. Just give me a second, I’ll get that flying carpet.

Flying Carpet by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov

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