Cousins and Taxis – interview with Teh Saw Im (9 April 2008)


In the last edition of my newsletter, I asked if any storytellers would like to be interviewed. I received a few requests and one of them is Teh Saw Im. I was interested in her story and without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Teh Saw Im …

Aneeta: Saw Im, thank you for contacting me regarding your request to be interviewed.

Saw Im: Thank you for having taken the trouble to provide me with this interview, Aneeta.

Aneeta: Tell me, please, something about you. Where were you born, what do you do for a living, where do you live now and anything else you’d like to share with my readers.

Saw Im: I was born in Penang, and went to school there, until just after Form 5. I then joined boarding school in the UK in winter, skipping the autumn term and imagining I could ‘save a year by merely missing a term’. It wasn’t as simple as that. The winter was cold and unfriendly, and descending on it suddenly took a bit of while to get used to. I found Chaucer unmanageable, having overlooked a term of him. The other subjects were not too troublesome, even having to take on ‘O’ level Latin. I needed at least two credits in GCE O’s for two European languages, for the courses I was interested in applying for. I didn’t remember any of the declensions after that! Post the exam, that is.

Prior to all this, in the middle of Form 4 in Penang, this friend and I decided to give up Additional Maths or Higher Science, so that we could take up French, which wasn’t even taught at our school. We thought it’d be fun. For this, we had to go and hunt for this French nun in some convent far away.

Apparently, our decision to do this caused quite some flurry and furore at school, with some teachers who reminded us that we wouldn’t ‘score’ very well in a subject which was so foreign and unfamiliar, especially when we had taken it up at such short notice. Anyway, it felt much more romantic than some dry science subject. Why, when we would be able to fare well in a subject we were already good in? Why, indeed. I don’t believe we emerged from all this with a scandalously great grade in French, but miraculously, we did pass.

In the dark recesses of the mind, I am convinced I wasn’t even aware then, that I’d need two European languages for my university application, since I didn’t exactly know what course I’d be aiming to do. (I wonder why Malay wasn’t subsequently considered. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t connected to the course I eventually applied for.) I was grateful that somehow, those choices made to do drop a Science subject for French, had turned out to have been a wise move, and the Latin challenge had been seen to, after it was realised that it was necessary..

When I returned from schooling abroad (I read History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and went on to the Institute of Education for my Post-graduate Certificate in Education), I stayed for a while in Penang. After that, I came to Singapore, and have remained here since, though I continue to visit Penang as often as I can. I am now Singaporean.

Aneeta, I was a teacher for many years, and enjoyed those years teaching. I always found immense meaning in that. The students perpetually have much to offer, and one learns a lot about life through them. It isn’t so much like the teacher providing the information, as a process of sharing. Mind you, when it comes to language ‘instruction’ per se, there has to be a fair amount of skills-provision and correction, as well as improvement. With suggestions included.

I enjoyed teaching the General Paper. I consider it a subject of tremendous challenge, as it is a subject which is a combination of many social studies. On a far-reaching scale, one can probe many subjects for delving into, and for students who enjoy precisely this, they will find meaning.

Therefore, those students who are strong in English normally love it, as it can be approached in a range of ways. Some might see it as an easy subject; others would go so far as to say it’s ‘no sweat’. Those who can’t grasp English satisfactorily, flounder and are unable to see the subject as an opportunity to investigate, discuss and do research, so they will obviously hold views which are at odds regarding GP.

Owing to ill health, I stopped teaching some years back. Since I had always wanted to write, I decided, why not? I now had the opportunity to spend full-time on something I had always wanted to so. Write. So I did precisely that. (I refused to do one of those ‘short-cuts-to-success’ books for exam improvement. These would only be putting on paper what had transpired in the classroom. Some people encouraged me by pointing out that I’d be helping students who were weak in English, and direct them towards a pass.)

I thought I’d rather write a book of a different sort. It might not be commercial, but I had always wanted to start off with this book. I had been carrying around these stories from my cousin in Penang for a truly long time, so it was an instinctive move to ‘unload’ these memoirs.

Aneeta: How did you first become interested in writing and storytelling?

Saw Im: I had always been interested in writing, so it wasn’t a case of ‘becoming’. I suppose, all the way through school, both as a student and teacher, I had been connected with English. It was that link which urged me on. When I took up teaching as a career, it was a question of choice, and the association with English was always there.

Whenever I had gone to Penang, my aged cousin would relate her experiences of her growing up in China, until she was 13, and then coming to Malaya (as it was then known). Like all new immigrants, it was imagined that gold was easy to locate; instead, she ended up as a cabaret girl. I found her stories most intriguing. They were like repeating record-players, but always drawing you to listen to them. They were most fascinating. Eventually, I decided, why not write them out, instead of just making mental notes of them?

Aneeta: I understand that you have two books: Cousin June and Taxi Talk. Can you please describe them?

Saw Im: Cousin June is a family memoir, really. I thought it might be interesting to write it out and readers might find some things to relate to, that they might wish to do research on their own grandfathers or grandmothers, or people in their families. I suppose I simply conveyed what my aged cousin transmitted with her power to reveal, her ability at oral history. My cousin June is very good indeed, in her skills at explaining rituals, rules and codes of a past era. Through her, I gathered the material for my first book, and appropriately named it after her. I merely put into words as best I could, what I had accumulated.

A friend once said to me, who would want to read YOUR family memoir? You are no famed (she then named a string of people), so really, who would want to read about your family? I suppose I had seen through the stories of my cousin what diverse and unique bygone practices were like, or unlike, and there were just so many experiences worth writing about, for general interest.

At this point, I should mention and thank the National Arts Council for their support. It was a morale booster of sorts.

As for ‘Taxi Talk’, it was my second book. Nothing mind boggling. Just a piece of light reading. It came soon after ‘Cousin June’, and didn’t really take that long to type, though the publishing stretched a bit. The book came about after 18 years of taxi-riding, and this feeling, ‘why not put into words, some experiences’. Now, how do I explain that? I hope it doesn’t sound egoistic.

I write better when it’s in the style of beginning from some place or person I feel a link towards. Then I move from there to imagining something else, or taking what is normally given to a writer. A certain amount of space.

‘Taxi Talk’ resulted from many years of taxi-riding. Travelling in these vehicles and listening as well as participating in discussions with taxi-drivers gave rise to a wealth of observations. To give you an idea of this, the blurb for the book speaks of it being an ‘interlocking set of stories about an inimitable cast of drivers and passengers, describing life’s many journeys (comic and otherwise) and how we try to connect (or don’t) with one another’. That just about sums it up.

For further information about these books, please visit

Aneeta: You also use a pseudonym – Zheng Shuying. Why?

Saw Im: I thought the ‘hanyu pinyin’ version of ‘Teh Saw Im’ sounded more romantic, so decided to go ahead with using it for publishing. I think it was a mistake. Almost everyone I knew wasn’t aware of this move. In a way, it was almost hilarious to be anonymous. Still is, actually. That certainly hadn’t been my intention at all. One of my friends said wryly, it didn’t matter. Whatever name one used, so long as one’s book was worth reading, people would buy it. A rose by any other name, huh? Obviously, I didn’t have enough draw. There wasn’t sufficient sensationalism or the right doses of what attracts readers. Now that’s a bit of deflation for you!

Aneeta: In your email to me, you mentioned that your friends had bought one copy of the book and circulated it amongst themselves. I smile as I write this. It sounds familiar! I want to know, why do you think people do this? Why not just buy a copy of the book for themselves rather than share it?

Saw Im: That happened in Penang. The joke about Penangnites is that they’re known to be stingy. That’s not necessarily true. It’s a bit unfair. Anyway, when I saw ‘Cousin June’ at MPH, it was relatively expensive there. But then, everything is ‘relative’. The belief was why spend on an un-required item when a common one can be shared?

As for getting one’s own copy, it’s a question of not wishing to fork out the money unnecessarily when it can be saved. I assume it’s along the same lines of that philosophy.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice do you have for those who would like to become storytellers?

Saw Im: I don’t have that much writing experience, though I’ve spent many years teaching. At any rate, one shouldn’t give ‘advice’ because ‘to each his own’, don’t you think? Somewhat pretentious. I have a small group of friends who are supportive. I find that helps. For some people with flagging spirits, this will certainly prop them up a bit.

Each person has his or her personal style of writing. I wouldn’t venture to suggest any ‘methods’. It is more one’s overall view to any situation. The entirety of it. When it comes to writing ‘success’, again, this is a relative term. For me, it is the effort, and the journey. I am convinced the ongoing activity never ends, and it is precisely the meaning of this which features in the wishing, the necessity and the push. This continual experience is personal, and brings its individual rewards, recognised and felt only by the aspiring writer.

The ultimate may not be reached, but it doesn’t matter. We may all have our own reasons for yearning to write. I wouldn’t dare ‘advise’ your readers. I’d just like to share my reasons for wanting to write. It keeps me healthy mentally, though physically, my health hasn’t been that wonderful. At least, I believe I can do something with my time. It is something I find I need to do for myself.

Aneeta: Saw Im, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Saw Im: I’d like to suggest to your readers, if possible, to always have with one, a little notebook within reach so that when one has a sudden flash of ideas or an experience crops up, this can be quickly recorded. This might prove to be meaningful for subsequent reference or expansion. Because I have memory problems, I find this helps. Sometimes, one might lose some idea or piece of inspiration or imagination, which might then disappear, and one is unable to reproduce it. Having a notebook at hand might perhaps alleviate this tremendously.

Aneeta: Thank you.

Saw Im: Aneeta, it was a pleasure to have had the chance to have chatted with you.

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