Once Upon a Time in Singapore: Local Spin-offs to Foreign Fairy Tales by Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal and Sarinajit Kaur

…fairy tales come in many versions and are in turn interpreted in varied ways that speak to specific social concerns, struggles, and dreams.

Bacchilega, 2013, p. 3


Modern fairy tale adaptations for a digitally-savvy generation are not uncommon, as well-loved tales of grand balls and royalty, glass slippers and happily-ever-afters are re-imagined to provide more contextualized meanings and give space to varying realities beyond the original Eurocentric stories. This is a testament to the timelessness of fairy tales that lend itself to hybridization and transformation allowing readers to not only be passive consumers to the enchantment it provides, but active agents of societal change. The localized permutations may serve as subtle acts of subversion or a more innocuous turning over of beloved characters on their heads, infusing them with culturally-relevant sensibilities with the stories transfigured to include socially-approved norms and moral values. Singapore, a country which has just celebrated its 50th year of Independence in 2015, has its own spin-offs to foreign fairy tales as evident in award-winning Singaporean author Cyril Wong’s Strange Tales: Let Me Tell You Something About that Night in 2009. These are fairy tales for adults told with moribund twists, surreal trans-figurations of characters (male elf turned woman), dark places that defy (or even scoff at) happy endings – all the while challenging gendered expectations of heteronormativity, womanity, and masculinity. Singlish (Colloquial Singaporean English) versions of fairy tales have likewise been written by local designer Casey Chen in 2013: The Three Little Pigs Lah and The Red Riding Hood Lah, providing a delightful parody of well- known fairy tales suffused with familiar colloquialisms such as leh, lah, lor, hor, die die. However, the author himself admitted that while based on a child’s fairy tale, he claims that it is “not very suitable for children” with its use of Singlish and graphic language that is frowned upon by some ultra modern and conservative parents (Ang, 2013).

In 2014, modern retellings of foreign fairy tales specifically aimed for a childrens audience have been tackled by a few of Singapore’s luminaries in various fields (theatre, drama, food) in three Singaporean permutations of well-known foreign fairy tales. The sale of the books which carry a social enterprise mode will have part of the sales proceeds go to the Society for the Promotion of ADHD Research and Knowledge (SPARK). All three books make use of relocation (Bacchilega, 2013) as their primary adaptive strategy by situating the stories in places such as an HDB (Housing Development Board) flat in Ang Mo Kio in Hansel and Girl Girl, Upper Thomson in Goh Bee Lock and the Three Boars, and Katong Community Centre and HDB flat in Pek Kio in Little Red in the Hood.


Hansel and Girl Girl is written by Adrian Pang, a well known TV celebrity and the artistic director of Pangdemonium, a Theatre Company; and illustrated by Cultural Medallion recipient Serbian-Singaporean artist, Milenko Prvacki, a Senior Fellow at Lasalle College of the Arts.

Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

While there are certain elements that are retained (evil and rejecting stepmother, passive and largely ineffectual father, a house of candy owned by a witch-like woman, brother-sister who had each other’s backs), there are a considerable number of modifications. Instead of a gingerbread house (which is not an item in Singaporean culture), the reader sees The Sweety Sweet Shoppe managed by a scary Auntie (a term used to describe older females in Singapore) with a beehive for hair and wearing a sarong (a kind of wrap around skirt worn mainly by the Malays). In this version, it is Girl Girl who is locked up as the Auntie plans to fatten her up as an entry to the Plump Girl Contest (a satirical reference to the element of competition in Singaporean society) in the hopes of winning a cash prize of SGD $100,000, a car and a condo (affectionately known as the 3Cs that mark financial success in Singapore). Hansel, then, needed to come up with a strategy to free his sister, tapping into the locals’ love of freebies and giveaways (an allegory to typical local penchants), allowing the siblings to escape unnoticed and take the MRT ride back home (the Mass Rapid Transit rail system of Singapore). Similar to most Asian folktales, the didactic elements are as compact as the nonya kueh chang (glutinous rice dumpling – that the siblings were asked to purchase by their stepmother), with the story ending with an injunction “A little candy is nice, but too much candy is too much! I will never, ever, be greedy again!”


Image used with permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

In Goh Bee Lock and the Three Boars, there is still a discernible moral evident from the first page of the story: “She had to study hard and could only play educational computer games, but only after she had finished her homework.” There is also reference to her mummy’s shoe collection and her daddy’s golf sets – constant allegories that provide an insight into generalized local behaviours of the pursuit of academic success, love for shopping and golf as favourite adult pastimes. While there remains a consistent ‘moral’ vein running through the story, this was ingeniously underplayed by the infusion of a wide range of culinary elements. This may be attributed to the fact that the author, J F Seetoh is known as Singapore’s foremost food guru and champion for hawker food. Naughty Goh Bee Lock, despite the parents’ well-meaning advice, snuck out to the nearby Pierce Reservoir where she discovered a small house in the middle of the forest. Instead of three bears (which are not naturally existent in Singapore), this is home to a family of three boars, also quite common in what-passes-for-Singapore’s-jungles. Here, the author allows readers with ample contextual knowledge to make reference to a recent national concern of over population of wild boars as well. Goh Bee Lock is no simpering, golden-haired girl either as her mere presence caused the three boars to faint on the spot, giving her the brilliant opportunity to transform this unconscious family of boars into a delectable meal of “wild boar satay with a dip made from sambal and crushed peanuts,” and Singapore’s famous “bak kut teh” with garlic and pepper cooked over low fire, and the delectable kong bak ba (steamed buns filled with wild boar meat). There are commendable attempts at subtlety in the interplay between text and art, with visual elements added by artist Gavin Goo that are not articulated in the text. The overall design and layout provide a more dynamic feel which may also be attributed to Goo’s being an art director. The presence of the big bad wolf in the end added a layer of intertextuality, reminding readers of other fairy tales with the wolf as villain. The story ends with Goh Bee Lock promising to never be naughty again and the father holding up a plastic takeaway container of her favourite braised pig’s trotters.



Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

Little Red in the Hood raises the bar in these three stories with the presence of a loud, muscled, kickboxing Grandmother named Rambo outfitted in white singlet and sweat pants; and a cute granddaughter named Little Red who likes drawing bright red wolves and making fluffy red bags (an apt reference to red as a colour of auspiciousness in Singapore culture). The story makes reference to the typical local lifestyle of most young parents and common childcare arrangements – “Little Red’s parents were property agents. They worked all day, leaving Little Red in the care of her grandmother” – providing an apt insight into Singaporean life and practices. Unlike the first two adaptations which aimed to close the stories neatly with a clearly- defined lesson, there are no such attempts here with leading film and theatre director Glen Goei turned children’s book author, eschewing such moralistic expectations and simply having unapologetic fun in twisting the narrative. Instead of Grandmother falling ill, it is Little Red who gets sick with a high fever. Rather than a basket filled with home-made goodies, Rambo “made a frantic trip to NTUC Fair Price” (a popular local grocery store frequented by many in Singapore) to buy ingredients to make chicken soup. The sinister undertones (that will make for a thrilling read-aloud) are retained as Rambo slowly finds her way to Little Red’s metal gate (a typical feature of HDB flats) “on the seventh floor of the oldest block in the estate. It was run-down and shabby, and home to an odd mix of people.” Instead of finding Little Red, Rambo encounters a tall woman with a red hooded sweater and a long skirt admiring her loud and acerbic voice: “My, what a sharp tongue you have” to which Rambo replied “All the better for me to scold people with.” This ‘scolding’ by Aunties and old folks are fairly common in Singapore where filial piety and respect for elders are valued highly: with the Auntie here representing the more experienced and wise elder whose advice/scolding is actually revered. It turns out Rambo is in the wrong flat and Little Red chided her apparently-poor-sighted Grandmother for screaming at Auntie Devi: “And why are you shouting like that? So garang to her for what?” The infusion of local colloquialisms (garang meaning fierce) and sound effects that tap into local people’s sensibilities (Hiiyaa! and Pak! as Rambo attacks Auntie Devi) render even greater authenticity and further sealed the Singaporean ownership to this tale. The story ends with no moral injunctions but with Little Red accompanying Rambo to an optometrist to buy prescription glasses. The dynamism of the story is heightened with Eisner-nominated-artist Andrew Tan’s (also known as Drewscape) rendering the illustrations with a comic book feel to it with storyboard panels and localised sound effects. Through subtle permutations and hybridization from the original fairy tales, the content which is infused with a myriad of local references and allusions, provides a cultural insight into the peculiarities and essence of Singaporean lives. The Singaporean authors successfully provide a sneak peek punctuated with items, behaviours and places close to the Singaporean heart. This is authenticated further with each book bringing in an angled lens specific to the respective author’s area of expertise coming quite clearly through each depiction. While these three stories would have benefited from a Glossary of Terms for those who are unfamiliar with local delicacies and unique linguistic expressions, this may serve as a post-reading activity that teachers can consider asking their young students to do in the classroom.

Jack Zipes (2012, p. 17) noted: “All tales want to be relevant, in the same way that we seek to make ourselves relevant through storytelling. Tales do not have agency. They are not alive, but they breathe and are vigorous, and as they are passed on to us through traditions of storytelling, they almost assume a life of their own.” In these three Singaporean fairy tales, readers get to see beloved tales transformed and given new life with a distinct “gula melaka flavour puddled under the tongue.”


About the authors:

Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal is an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.  She is the Programme Leader of the Masters Program in High Ability Studies and Gifted Education. She serves as the Chairperson of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content held annually in Singapore. As a passionate reading advocate, she has also edited three books on the rediscovery of children’s literature in Asia. She has three book clubs in Singapore with children and adults, and shares her passion for reading and book hunting in her website gatheringbooks.org.

Ms Sarinajit Kaur, MEd (Special Education) joined the Early Childhood and Special Education Academic Group as a Teaching Fellow since 2011. She currently teaches and coordinates a myriad of courses across various cohorts in initial teacher preparation as well as in service courses. She serves as in service coordinator for courses which equip mainstream teachers in inclusive practices and in supporting diverse learners. She is also engaged actively in supporting trainee teachers and allied educators during their school experience and practicum periods. Her interests include teacher training, mentoring and on how these impact positively on the inclusive mainstream educational landscape.

Ang, B. (2013). ‘My Singlish is not very good.’ The New Paper; December 10,
2013. Retrieved from online publication:

http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/my-singlish-not-very good?page=0%2C0

Bacchilega, C. (2013). Fairy tales transformed? Twenty-first century adaptations and the politics of wonder.Detroit, US: Wayne State University Press.

Zipes, J. (2012). The irresistible fairy tale: The cultural and social history of a genre. Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.





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