Singaporean food and fiction come alive in Fanny Lai's books for kids

Growing up in multi-cultural country enriched Fanny Lai, Singaporean author of children books. Discover how she translates her experience as a Singaporean parent into her beautiful comic illustrations for children.

Fanny Lai Singaporean author Food binds the Singapore community - even our young ones!

Over the last 50 years, this little red dot that we call  home has developed and evolved in countless ways.

As Singaporeans, we are fortunate to live in a safe city and to bear witness to how the country has grown into a beautiful sanctuary of diverse cultures and traditions.

We had an exclusive chance to reach out to a Singaporean author who draws and writes about our local heritage in a bid to share special roots, values, and stories close to the hearts of the country's youth.

We caught up with Ms. Fanny Lai, comic illustrator and author of  Nini Eat First, Talk Later, one of the 74 projects supported by the Singapore Memory Project’s irememberSG Fund. Created for children aged 10 and below, her cookbook-inspired novel aims to bring back the memories of Singapore’s food heritage, triggering interest in preserving this piece of our culture whilst inspiring readers to treasure each dining experience with their loved ones.

Nini Eat First, Talk Later is a sequel to the book Nini in Changi Village, which was selected as a must-read for young readers by the National Library Board’s annual 'READ! Fest' event and was later adapted into a play by Theatre Practice in 2014.

How's that for someone who threw herself into writing after her retirement despite no formal training in illustration?

Fanny also shares her quirky experiences and observations in the form of weekly comics, Nini and Polahand is currently busy with her "wild" hobby as well as penning new books. Read on to find out what's up her sleeve these days.

What inspired you to write books revolving around Singapore's culture and heritage?
I grew up in Changi Village in the '60s with lots of fond memories of village life, experiences of a simple lifestyle, and valued relationships with people and the environment that I would like to share with young readers before it is too late.

Fanny Lai Singaporean author Which is your favourite curry puff or kali pok??

What led you to delve into writing children's books and, in particular, in Mandarin?
I love the beauty of the Chinese language, especially when illustrating Singapore’s dining heritage and the name of traditional foods with rich Chinese roots blended with Malay, Indian, Eurasian, and Peranakan flavours. For example, I have a chapter talking about "Kueh," its history and variety. I hope that this light-hearted graphic novel not only encourages young readers to appreciate local cuisine but also to use our mother tongue more.

How much of the stories are drawn from your own experiences as a child/parent or from your children?
It is a melting pot of personal experiences and stories from friends, garnished with imagination.

After coming up with your own Singaporean works, what were the takeaway or eureka moments you had with respect to how Singapore evolved in the last 50 years?
In just 50 years, our family values, structure, roles, beliefs, attitudes, ideals, and aspirations have shifted with a heavier emphasis on wealth creation and economic achievement. Now that we have "arrived," we should refocus on attaining better social values and preserving our heritage.

Read on to find out what inspired Fanny Lai to write this particular kids book about Singapore's food heritage.

Fanny Lai Singaporean author People whom she grew up with, culture which Fanny Lai is so familiar with... all these translated into easy-to-read books for our children.

How did the idea of a cookbook-inspired novel for kids come about?
Besides wildlife, I also love food. My children and their friends, having grown up in the '90s, are fascinated with the nostalgic dishes no longer sold in markets and old dining experiences they consider "shocking," so I decided to capture these in Nini Eat First, Talk Later for all of us to reminisce the good old days.

How does being a parent in Singapore help shape your thoughts and influence your cultural roots?
I grew up with a lot of Chinese, Malay, and Indian friends, and I am always fascinated by our cultural diversity, which led to me being curious about other ethnic groups around the world. Although I am romantic about my Chinese roots, I embrace multi-culturalism, social integration, and cultural assimilation.

What led you to make a career switch to become an author?
Three years ago, at 55, I retired from the corporate world to pursue my hobby in field conservation and in creating comic illustrations. I have since published two graphic novels and one coffee table book on giant pandas to raise funds for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). I always follow my heart to do what I really want in life.

Now that you shuttle between Denmark and Singapore, how different is it to bring up kids in Asia compared to other parts of the world?
In general, Danes have a high level of life satisfaction and a positive day-to-day attitude, pride in accomplishments, and enjoyment of life. Like us, most families are small with both parents working, but without a live-in maid. Both husband and wife equally share the responsibility of managing the household. As they do not have affordable food centres, Danes entertain frequently at home, and they take great care with the maintenance and decoration of their home to reflect the "success" of their family.

Like in most western nations, children (in Denmark) are raised to be independent from an early age, and marriage is not a prerequisite to starting a family. Many couples live together without legalising the arrangement with marriage.
I have travelled extensively around the world, especially in Africa and South America; I feel that women’s role in the Singapore society has come a long away, although there is still room for improvement.

Will there be more local books in the pipeline?
Currently, I am finishing the Chinese version of Nini Eat First Talk Later, with <<饭桶食家妮妮’>> as its working title. My next graphic novel is likely to be an adventure in the tropical jungle, recollecting my travel experiences and encounters with exotic wildlife.

Are there any parenting tips you can share with our readers about what it's like having to shuttle between two countries you call home, along with two grown-up kids?
The world is getting smaller and well connected, so long as we have our PC and mobile phone on hand;  keeping in touch is no issue. At 58, I just wake up, get out, and do my thing. Life is short, live it!

Fanny Lai Singaporean author Excited fans checking out Nini Eat First, Play Later at the National Library Board exhibit. Source: MarieFranceAsia.com

Fanny's passion and belief in making a contribution to society, especially for the future generation, is admirable. With her rich journey from the corporate world to being a parent in a two-country household, her constant pursuit of growth and enjoyment in what one does is awe inspiring.

The same can be said for our country. This island was once a Plain Jane, with not much natural resources to boast. But seeing Singapore's evolution over the years, especially how it has become globally recognized for its development and prosperity, is akin to watching a beautiful butterfly unfurl itself from its chrysalis to spread its wings and reach new heights. As Singaporeans, we are blessed to be where we are - our safe motherland.

Which aspect of our local culture do you and your kids enjoy most? Who are your favourite Singaporean authors whom have touched your hearts? Tell us in the comments below!