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03 July 2014

Noel Barber: Tanamera

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Great Saga of Early Singapore
After many years it gave me great enjoyment to revisit this wonderful epic historical romantic saga of the early days of Singapore. TANAMERA is in the same league as TAIPAN and THE THORNBIRDS,  but is probably closer in content to two epic sagas of WWII by Herman Wouk, THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE.

In 1902, Jack Dexter,a pioneer wealthy colonialist in Singapore, built a huge house for his family 3 miles from Raffles Place, the centre of Singapore, which he called TANAMERA (Malay for red earth). Grandpa Jack, as he was later known, had made his fortune in shipping, rubber, land and any other enterprise that would make money. His house was next door to P P Soong, one of the richest and most influential Chinese in Singapore. Tanamera is the story of the interconnected lives of the Dexter and Soong families, especially just before, during and after the occupation of Singapore and Malaya by the Japanese.

Johnnie Dexter was born in Tanamera in 1913 and grew up with his elder sister Natasha and brother Tim, playing and laughing with their next door neighbour's children Paul and Julie Soong. While close relationships were possible at this level, strict colonial conventions separated the white settlers from the local Chinese. Tanamera is a story about this relationship as a forbidden romance develops between Johnnie and Julia.

The story is also a history of Singapore and Malaya before, during and after the war. Noel Barber paints an indelible picture of pre-war colonial life in Singapore for both the white setters and the Chinese - the heat, the social life (tennis and "curry tiffins"), and institutions that still exist like the Raffles Hotel. It also follows the buildup of "fortress Singapore" by the British and the many mistakes made by the military and the colonial administration that let the Japanese capture Singapore Island comparatively easily. The story continues during the occupation as Johnnie joins in guerilla warfare against the Japanese in the jungles of Malaya.

This is a great love story about Johnnie and Julia through days of peace and war, taking in the differences of class and race at that time as they tried to break through current conventions. It is a long way from the modern world of today's Singapore. The book had a great impact on me because, as an Aussie, I know today's Singapore well as a frequent stop on travels to Europe and a port of embarkation for Asian cruises. Also in the 1980's I spent several weeks in Kuala Lumpur at a time when some of the older colonial houses in the style of Tanamera had not yet been visited by the wrecker.

This is a wonderful, but fairly long, book, part history, part romance, part family and traditions. Noel Barber brings an authentic touch through his own experiences as a foreign correspondent. Despite being written in 1981 the intimate scenes were quite advanced. The story has not dated, in fact it has probably matured as we see history clearer with the passage of time. This book is a proud part of my modern classics collection of recently released ebooks of memorable epic sagas which had been out-of-print for some time.

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