Face-To-Face With The Tale
The ancient art of storytelling is enjoying a revival in Singapore and beyond as a way to be entertained while learning about life, culture, moral dilemmas and the importance of doing good.
By Lilian Wu
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
— Philip Pullman, Author of The Golden Compass
You may know Henry ‘Bobby’ Pearce to be one of the best scullers in the early 20th century, but have you heard the story about how he stopped mid-race in the quarterfinals of the 1928 Olympics to let a mother duck and her ducklings pass in front of his boat? Not only did Pearce go on to defeat his opponent, the Frenchman V. Savrin, in the race, he also won the hearts and minds of the crowd, especially the children. Because of this incident and his amazing prowess as a sculler, Pearce became a sporting legend who was widely celebrated for this act of kindness.
That caught your attention, didn’t it? That’s how stories work. They have an amazing ability to inspire and create the human connection, unlike mere facts. According to Kamini Ramachandran, founder of the Storytelling Association (Singapore), storytelling is a communication tool that helps humans to receive information better, and, as a result, retain and recall knowledge better. Annette Simmons, bestselling author of The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling shares a similar view, “The story is your opportunity to create in your listeners’ imagination an experience that feels real.”
Communicating Through Stories
Storytelling has beguiled generations with its ability to capture people’s imagination, help different cultures understand each other better, teach valuable lessons and generally keep the human heritage alive.
Nobody knows when the first story was told, as the earliest tales predate writing and recorded history. In fact, most historians and psychologists believe that storytelling is one of the many things that shape humanity, sustain communities as well as bestow identities. Humans are perhaps the only animals that create and tell stories.
“Humans use stories all the time, whether or not they are aware of it,” says Rosemarie Somaiah, storyteller at the Asian Storytelling Network. “Given the strength within stories, there have been times and places when they have been frowned upon, discouraged or actively forbidden, often as a form of control.
However, in times of change, latent stories tend to push their way through to the surface, thereby forcing society to reassess, to challenge assumptions, and to provide fresh perspectives. “Yet, one finds the same threads weaving through the stories — how do the vulnerable negotiate with the powerful, the weak with the strong? How do we deal with problems besetting us? What is justice, what is the purpose of life? There is a reason why myths and legends have been part of societies. Our villains and heroes are composite creatures with superhuman features conjured to inspire and provoke us to think.”
Sheila Wee, pioneer of Singapore’s storytelling revival, adds, “It is a natural way of communicating for human beings as we actually think in stories because they are easier to remember and absorb.”
Bigger Than Ever
There’s been a slow but growing demand for storytelling globally, and fortunately, there is no shortage of masterful storytellers who can use their skills to impart wisdom, beliefs, and values to children in schools and communities. Even corporates are waking up to storytelling as an influential communication tool for engaging their employees. In Singapore, storytelling’s growing power has been strong enough to create a community of professional storytellers, and for the creation of the Storytelling Association (Singapore), in 2006. Local and regional festivals have emerged, signalling overdue recognition of this enduring art form.
Tuning In To Tales
In Singapore, the business of storytelling has long been going on. People once gathered around storytellers on the streets and hung onto their every word while a burning joss stick kept time. Back then, before the advent of radio and television, storytelling hotspots that included Eu Tong Seng Street and Merchant Street served as natural gathering points for the community.
The arrival of radio in 1919 paved the way for local stories to evolve and become hugely popular in the 1950s. Storytelling programmes in Chinese dialects on Rediffusion, Singapore’s first cable-transmitted commercial radio station, were the rage back then. They delighted audiences with evergreen classics such as Dream of the Red Mansion and Journey to the West, and made master storytellers like Lee Dai Sor, Ng Chia Kheng and Ong Toh household names. While many people couldn’t afford radios then, Rediffusion’s low subscription rates and its near ubiquitous presence at coffee shops meant that more people could tune in to their favourite storytelling segments. In fact, it was estimated that up to 100,000 listeners faithfully followed the storytelling programmes.
Still Casting Its Spell
The new millennium brought with it ways to make sharing stories more immediate. The fast pace of the information age meant that stories could be transmitted in various ways — emails, blogs, social network sites — as people kept pace with technology and life speeded up. The old ways of sharing folk tales as a community seemed a thing of the past.
Wee holds firm to the old ways, though. “Just because something is old doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. The original form of storytelling can still be powerful. You don’t have to have all this technological whizzbang. Once you get people to switch off their laptops or put their smartphones away, you can hold their attention.
“I’m amazed how attentive students can be and teachers are regularly amazed, especially when they haven’t had storytelling before…they don’t expect it”.
Anchor and Identity
“Stories anchor society and give you identity,” Ramachandran explains.
“When somebody asks my son ‘why do you have a god with an elephant head?’ he can respond from mythology. Or, if he’s asked ‘why do you eat with your hand?’ he can respond based on culture.
“The importance of legends, myths, fairy tales and folktales lies in creating your identity. I think governments, educators and sociologists around the world are very aware of this power behind stories.”
Wee observes that as societies modernise, they have been spending less time sharing stories and more time amassing wealth. In the process, they are losing sight of the richness in their heritage and the tales that define their culture and who they are. But she also believes all is not lost: “With the rise of technology and the fast pace of society, people are looking for warmth, and these kinds of human connections can be found in storytelling.”
Storytellers for Good
A new breed of storytellers who share their tales to inspire good has emerged with the recent revival in this ancient art.
There are stories told for entertainment and then there are stories told to create better understanding in the world. Zulkifli bin Amin, a specialist volunteer from the National Library Board of Singapore (NLB) travelled recently to Bandung, Indonesia, to share his enthusiasm for stories with local students where he was taken by surprise to realise it was a mutually beneficial experience. For many of the students, it was their first time meeting a foreigner. For Zulkifli, it was “realising that not only was I there to teach, but I could learn from them too”.
Since 2012, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) has been sending Singaporean volunteers to Bandung to conduct storytelling sessions with primary and secondary Indonesian students. This is part of the Words on Wheels (WOW) programme. It involves sessions to allow cultural exchange between volunteers and students and also aims to broaden their cultural horizons. Says NLB volunteer Mark Soh, “I don’t speak Bahasa. But even though the students and I don’t speak the same language, the universality of storytelling allows us to transcend even cultural and language barriers through facial expressions, actions and hand gestures.”
WOW aims to develop a culture of public reading and to nurture a nascent spirit of learning amongst Bandung’s schoolchildren. A mobile library filled with 2,000 English and 1,000 Bahasa Indonesia books makes daily rotational visits to 15 schools. This gives 4,000 students access to the library, Internet and multimedia facilities. In addition, specialist NLB librarians train up to 200 local librarians to better captivate Indonesian library users and encourage repeat borrowers.
For more information on WOW, visit sif.org.sg
Bringing stories to life
Our Better World believes in the power of stories and the power of people. They work to put the two together to create a force that will change the world.
Stories are magical.
They’re living organisms that can light fires, breathe life and spark hope. And when a well-told story reaches an audience, that audience will be inspired to change the world. That’s what the team at Our Better World believes.
Alexis, Ashima, Josh, Noelle and Rebecca wanted to read, share and tell stories of ordinary people doing inspiring things in Asia, their neck of the woods; stories that weren’t being told: of human spirit, courage and hope. And when they started looking, they learnt that these stories were everywhere, just waiting to be told.
Like that of Shweta Chari, an engineer who decided that children in India needed a space to be children, so she set up Toybank, a non-profit toy library.
The team realised that when they started telling stories like hers, things happened. In Shweta’s case, they told her story to a Singapore couple about to embark on a two-week adventure across India. The couple decided to raise funds for Toybank. The $15,000 they raised will now help Shweta reach 5,000 more children across India, on top of the 50,000 Toybank has already helped in eight years.
Over in Sri Lanka, Anura saw the Our Better World video story and was inspired to set up a similar project for kids there and got connected with Shweta to get her advice. Stories entertain, conjure and soothe, but they can also touch, challenge and move. The team at Our Better World has seen what sharing a story can do and feels privileged to share the magic of telling powerful stories to a global audience. Most importantly, they know that when you — the reader — share a story, you become a part of its growth, part of its magic, part of our better world.
Our Better World is an initiative of the Singapore International Foundation and can be found at www.ourbetterworld.org
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