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Memory bridges and barriers

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the faceless transcribers who listen to National Archives oral interviews done in Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese, and transcribe them in Chinese characters.

I don’t understand the three aforementioned languages, and besides, listening to hours of tape recordings made in the 1980s - usually with poor audio quality - can be an exhausting chore.


Instead, with transcriptions, I can read the Chinese characters at a quicker pace, and scan entire blocks of text for keywords. My command of Chinese is not very strong, but regular practice has made it better.


Thanks to the transcribers’ labours, a whole world of memories and experiences from the 1920s to 1980s - lived history - has opened up for my study. Many interviewees were already elderly folk when they were recorded in the 1980s. They were born in the 1920s, 1910s, 1900s, one in 1894. They should have passed on by now.


I wonder how much I would have missed out if I had not understood Chinese script. I also wonder how much I’m missing out by not comprehending Malay and Tamil.


Despite relying on Chinese transcriptions to access interviewees’ recollections, I still occasionally listen to their voice recordings, if only just to feel them addressing me from another time, another realm.

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