This educator's guide is created alongside the little red comma microsite series for English language and literature educators looking to explore the intersections of place, history and society through adaptations of Singapore literature using digital media.
Each guide comprises three to four suggested lesson activities and handouts you can consider enacting with your students in the Literature or Language Arts classroom across one to two 50-70 minute lesson periods.
This educator’s guide presumes the availability of Personal Learning Devices (PLDs) in the classroom, or any other devices that afford individual students direct access to the little red comma microsite during the activity in class.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
Re-membering Childhood Memories
In this pre-reading activity, teachers can introduce the theme of memories–and particularly the ways in which we experience memories in fragments, or how they are triggered by objects. Teachers can use childhood memories as an example.
Teachers can start by asking the class the question in whole-class discussion:
Sharing extended definition of “remember”
Teachers can share with students that while one literal definition of ‘remember’ is to ‘bring back to mind, or conscious awareness’, another one exists. If to ‘dismember’ is to take apart something, then to ‘re-member’ is to put them back together.
Teachers can share the following explanatory notes from the creators of the microsite before sending students off to read the short story for the main class:
Notes from Tanjong Rhu microsite creators
For this microsite, we've organised the story into seven sections that involve two different approaches:
In this story, the writer takes on a third-person limited narrative perspective that follows Mr Li as he recalls his interactions with his mother prior to her passing. This allows us access to his inner thoughts and feelings, and at the same time, also observe the thoughts and feelings of other characters as observed from what Mr. Li himself sees.
From Chapter 1:
Even though Mr Li was apparently “not upset by his mother’s funeral”, he was still “disconcerted” and feeling uneasy while standing and looking out from his office window over Shenton Way.
After Mr Li reached for the binoculars and counted the ships out at the harbour, he arrived at a few specific numbers and began to feel differently. The narrator then says:
“Seventy-eight – that was the number for today. He repeated it to himself with satisfaction. Numbers were strong, numbers he could hold on to. Seventy-eight ships, 18th floor, 63 years old.
Like the co-ordinates of some private graph, these numbers anchored him in space and time.”
Question 1: Re-read Chapter 1. Based on the narrator’s description above, what feelings do you think Mr Li experiences from the act of counting? Why do you think he feels this way?
From Chapter 3:
Just before leaving the house to go to Mr Li’s office for the binocular viewing, his mother takes her time to pray to his late father about the visit. While Mr Li himself grew impatient, his daughter Ying tried to hurry his mother up but to no avail.
Question 2: Re-read Chapter 3. What thoughts and feelings do you think Ying and Mr Li’s mother experience over the act of praying at the altar? Why do you think they each feel that way? Give at least two points per character with supporting evidence.
From Chapter 5:
Back in the present, Mr Li returned to use the binoculars and looked out towards Tanjong Rhu from his office once more. Mr Li wondered about what his mother could see that morning. He begins to question different fragments of his childhood memories of growing up in Tanjong Rhu that his mother could see that he struggles to recall himself.
Question 3: Re-read Chapter 5. What thoughts and feelings do you think Mr Li was experiencing as he tried to recall the memories of Tanjong Rhu? Why do you think he feels that way? Give at least two points with supporting evidence.
From Chapter 6:
At the hospital, Ying explains to Mr Li about her argument with her aunt over her grandmother’s burial clothes. Ying encourages Mr Li to speak to his mother, carefully pulling up her grandmother's eyelids in order for Mr Li to have a conversation with her, as he tries to ask her about their memories of Tanjong Rhu. When she did not reply, he snapped at Ying, asking her to close them. Shortly after this tense exchange between Mr Li and Ying, Mr Li’s mother began to stir. She began to speak about the keys to the altar, but Ying and Mr Li would ask her not to worry. After this moment, the writer implies that she passes on.
Question 4: Re-read Chapter 6. What thoughts and feelings do you think Ying and Mr Li have towards Mr Li’s mother in her last moments? Why do you think they each feel that way? Give at least two points per character with supporting evidence.
In this story, the motif of sight is strongly connected to the theme and experience of memory. Recall our pre-reading discussion about the fragmented nature of memory and how it is often triggered by our associations with objects.
By paying close attention to how the writer describes the reasons for buying the binoculars, as well as their differing views when using it, we can observe how it reveals the thoughts and feelings of each character.
From Chapter 1:
Near the end of Chapter 1, the narrator explains why Mr Li bought the binoculars for his mother:
“The binoculars had been for her cataracts, he remembered, a feeble attempt to persuade both himself and her doctors that an operation could be forestalled.”
Question 1: Re-read Chapter 1. What does the reason for buying the binoculars for his mother reveal about Mr Li’s thoughts and feelings about his mother’s declining eyesight?
From Chapter 2:
Initially, Mr Li’s mother was not interested in using the binoculars that Mr Li had bought for her, thinking that it was not important as she already has everything she needs. However, she begins to have a change of mind when Mr Li explains that the binoculars can “help [her] see things faraway”. She eventually takes up the offer after considering how she can see where Mr Li’s father used to work at Tanjong Rhu. Even then, she says to Mr Li:
“Not that I really need those glasses of yours anyway,” she said. “I can see Tanjong Rhu well enough,” she paused for emphasis. “Behind my eyes."
Question 2: Re-read Chapter 2.
a) Identify one use of figurative language by the mother.
b) What does the mother’s use of figurative language here reveal about her character?
MOTIF OF SIGHT
By paying close attention to how the writer describes Mr Li’s mother’s eyes and their differing views from the binoculars, we can observe a consistent use of irony to highlight the missed connection between mother and son.
From Chapter 4:
At the office, Mr Li’s mother appears to be unable to see through the binoculars at what is presently out on the harbour. This is when Mr Li responds by “press[ing] her head back down towards the binoculars, making her hold on to them more steadily” and asking her to look out again. His mother responds by looking back at him. Eventually, she begins to claim to see what are fragments of their past in Tanjong Rhu. This annoys Mr Li who pleads with her to stop it and finally takes back the binoculars from her.
Question 3: Re-read Chapter 4.
a) What is ironic about this moment between Mr Li and his mother? Why is it ironic?
b) How does the writer use diction and dialogue to highlight this irony?
Give one example with reference to the mother, and one example with reference to Mr Li, and explain why it is ironic in each instance.
Nah Dominic is currently a PhD candidate at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, at the English Language and Literature Academic Group. His doctoral research draws from classroom data in Singapore mainstream secondary schools to examine how students respond to ethically oriented Literature pedagogies in receptive and resistant ways. He is the co-author of Teachers’ Guide to Sense and Sensitivity (2019) and the forthcoming study companion (2023) to the latest O-Level Singapore short story collection How We Live Now: Stories of Daily Living by Ethos Books.