This story was first published in Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Pioneering Tradesmen at National Museum of Singapore that was exhibited from 15 March till 23 June 2013.
Thangaraju s/o Singaram - Letter Writer
At 85 years old, Mr. Thangaraju is healthy and spends his days attending to customers at his son-in-law’s shop in Little India to keep himself active. It has been more than 60 years ago when he first arrived in Singapore to look for work; instead he has found a home. His children are Singapore citizens, and enjoyed opportunities for higher education and careers that he himself had sought. Now a grandfather, the story of the Tamil immigrant is one of tenacity and optimism. His positive attitude towards hard work and contributing to those in need of help has helped him build a life and a home in Singapore.
Back when long-distance phone calls were a rare luxury, handwritten letters were the only affordable means of communication between families separated by oceans. Few immigrants could read or write then, so they turned to individuals such as Mr. Thangaraju s/o Singaram to help them craft messages to relatives back home.
Thangaraju, who arrived in Singapore in 1951 from South India, had the rare privilege of formal schooling. Hence, he found himself writing letters for immigrants who shared his quarters in Little India. On weekends or public holidays, Thangaraju would sit over a cup of tea with his clients, mostly older men who did hard labour for a living, and read to them or pen down what they wanted to tell their kinsfolk in Tamil Nadu. His own experience as an immigrant added empathy to his penmanship and Thangaraju would assume the role of mediator and counsellor, softening harsh words and helping to resolve misunderstandings between far-apart spouses or siblings.
By the 1970s however, most older immigrants had passed away or moved back to their homeland, and newer immigrants were usually educated enough to compose their own letters. That spelt the end of Thangaraju’s letter-writing days.
Educators Guide & Activity Sheet
About the Exhibition
Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Pioneering Tradesmen draws on firsthand accounts of six tradesmen and community contributions to provide fresh insights on old trades of Singapore. In spotlighting the lives of six individuals and placing their contemporary accounts at the heart of storytelling, the exhibition's approach presents old trades as practiced and the tradesman's story as a history of negotiating change in modern Singapore.
A community exhibition presented by the National Heritage Board, Trading Stories also showcases the memories, personal photographs and memorabilia of Singaporeans who have come together to contribute their stories. This exhibition is as much a tribute to the fortitude and entrepreneurial courage of Singapore's older workforce, as it is an acknowledging nod to the many experiences and voices that make up the fabric of the Singapore Story.