Rex Shelley (b. 1930, Singapore – d. 21 August 2009, Singapore), was an award-winning Singaporean writer best known for his quartet of novels that centre on the lives of Eurasians in Singapore and Malaya. An engineer by training, and a member of the Public Service Commission of 31 years, Shelley started writing at the late age of 61. His first novel, The Shrimp People clinched the National Book Development Council of Singapore’s top prize in 1992. His subsequent three novels also received positive critical responses and went on to win book awards. In recognition of his literary achievements, Shelley was honoured with the Singapore S.E.A. Write Award in 2007.
Born in Singapore in 1930 to an English father and a mother of Portuguese, Malay and Bugis descent, Shelley’s early education was at the St. Anthony’s Boys School. His mother, who was a teacher, taught at the St. Anthony’s Convent next door. His father was working for the Fiat motor company which closed when the war in Europe broke out. In search of employment, the family moved up to Butterworth, Malaya where his father found work at a shipyard. They were there until the onset of the Japanese invasion. In trying to escape from the Japanese, the family fled south to Singapore and took refuge in a relative’s house that was located in the Jewish quarters. However their plans backfired when Singapore, too, fell to the Japanese. Hence Shelley spent the period of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. His wartime experiences provided rich material for his creative imaginings and play an integral role in the plots of his novels.
Education and Career
Shelley studied in a Japanese school during the Occupation years, but his education was cut short when his mother withdrew him from school for fear that he would be sent to Japan for training. In its place, his father found work for him as a carpenter’s apprentice in a Chinese shipyard. Shelley was aged 13-14 then. After the war, the family returned to Butterworth. Shelley came back to Singapore at the age of 21 when he was admitted on a scholarship to study chemistry at the Raffles College. After graduating in 1952, he went overseas for his postgraduate studies in engineering at the University of Cambridge. During his time in England, he was briefly involved in leftist student politics. In 1955, he returned from his studies and settled down into his career and marital life.
He was working in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan until 1965, when he moved back to Singapore where he was employed by Hume Industries, a pipe-making company. He was appointed manager (planning) of Hume Industries (Far East) in 1973. By this time Shelley was already a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Municipal Engineers. He was also serving on the management board of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, and the Singapore Science Centre Board.
In 1971, Shelley decided to pick up the Japanese language because he thought that it would be useful for his business. He later wrote two non-fiction works on Japan. Shelley’s knowledge of Japanese culture has found way into his works where a number of Japanese characters are featured in wartime Malaya. The characters, however, are atypically given a sympathetic rendering.
From 1980-1986, Shelley was a general manager of business development with Intraco, and from 1976, Shelley was a member with the Public Service Commission, a position which he held for 31 years. After his retirement, he kept up an active life and ran his own trading business.
When Shelley first began writing, he wrote mainly short stories and completed a short autobiographical novel which was never published. He also wrote technical articles on a regular basis. His first novel, The Shrimp People, was only published when he was 61. The novel tells the story of two generations of Eurasians - a people of mixed descent and a result of Western colonialisation, that spanned from Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s to Australia in the 1980s. Shelley’s debut work won the National Book Development Council’s top prize in 1992. Judges and critics were impressed with the novel’s extensive scope and its keen exploration of the Eurasian and minority experience. The Shrimp People is generally regarded as the first novel that gave a prominent voice to the Eurasian consciousness and identity. The novel’s length and ambitious scale also makes it a strong contender for the title of “The Singaporean Novel”.
Shelley, himself an Eurasian, once explained his motivations for writing The Shrimp People, saying, “I think, at the back of my mind, I wanted to put down some record of the social history of this Eurasian minority community. I think this community is going to disappear; it is too small to survive.”
Shelley’s subsequent three novels were also set in the Eurasian community. Some of the characters in Shelley’s recur in his later novels, thus creating a sense of community and interconnectedness between people and histories. The People of Pear Tree and Island in the Centre took home book awards from the National Book Development Council, and his last novel, A River of Roses won the first Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize in 2000.
Though Shelley began writing at a late age, his stories are drawn from the experiences of his youth and set in the period of the war, the struggle for independence and the nation-building years.
In the opinion of renowned poet and literary academic Edwin Thumboo, Shelley’s late entry into writing worked to his advantage. He said, “Rex was a sensitive and acute observer of life. Because he started writing late, the material that generated his fiction was well digested … He brought to bear on it all the insights of an engineer, businessman, administrator, public servant and a person who loved life. His character analysis was therefore penetrating, and his range of characters are fully reflective of the society he wrote about.”
In assessing Shelley’s literary legacy, poet and literary editor Kirpal Singh said that although Shelley’s influence on the literary scene was not as far-reaching as one may expect, his works are significant contributions to the Eurasian community and Singapore at large. He said, “Rex belongs to the small but significant group of writers who have articulated the experiences of the Eurasians. I think, some over-writing notwithstanding, Rex's contribution in this respect is admirable…At its best, Rex's writing is passionate, humane and highly focused. Though he generally kept a low profile, his literary works will stand the test of time, combining a sharp sense of observed commentary with historical detail.”
Favourite Writers and Hobbies
Some of Shelley’s favourite authors include Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Joseph Conrad. During his life, he enjoyed swimming, playing the piano and piano accordion, and fabric painting.
Shelley passed away from lung cancer, at the age of 78, at the Assisi Hospice, leaving behind his wife, three children, six grandchildren and two sisters. His last book on prominent Eurasian leader Charles Paglar is expected to be published by the Straits Times Press in 2009.
Children: Michael, Linda and Martine
Grandchildren: Ria, Jillian, Talya, Chantal, Alik and Sasha
Sisters: Joy and Ruth
1997: A River of Roses
1995: Island in the Centre
1993: The People of Pear Tree
1991: The Shrimp People
1995: Sounds and sins of Singlish, and other nonsense
1993: Culture Shock! Japan
1990: Cultures of the World: Japan
1984: Words mean business: a basic Japanese business glossary (Editor)
2007: Singapore SEA Write Award
2000: Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize for A River of Roses
1996: National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Highly Commended Award for Island in the Centre
1994: National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Highly Commended Award for People of the Pear Tree
1994: National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Commended Award for Culture Shock! Japan
1992: National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) Book Award Winner (Fiction) for The Shrimp People
1975: Singapore International Chamber of Commerce Essay Competition Top Prize
Gupta, A. F. (n.d.). Rex Shelley: An introduction. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/literature/shelley/intro.html
Intraco recruits new execs in expansion drive [Microfilm: NL10765]. (1980, October 23). The Straits Times, p. 15.
Klein. R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews (pp. 38-54). ). Singapore: Ethos Books.
(Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
Koh, B. S. (1991, December 30). Minority spirit. The Straits Times. Retrieved on March 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Koh, B. S. (1992, May 30). Is this the great Singapore book? The Straits Times. Retrieved on March 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Lum, M. (1998, January 12). Rex Shelley a sell-out in some stores. The Straits Times. Retrieved on March 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78. The Straits Times. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from Factiva database.
National Book Development Council of Singapore. (2009). NBDCS Book Awards. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from http://www.bookcouncil.sg/_writers/pdf/NBDCS_book_awards_winners_list.pdf
National Book Development Council of Singapore. (2009). Winners of the Singapore Literature Prize (1992-2008). Retrieved December 16, 2009, from http://www.bookcouncil.sg/_writers/pdf/SLPWinners%20_1992-2008.pdf
Obituary [Microfilm: NL30135]. (2009, August 22). The Straits Times, p. C31.
Ong, S. F. (2000, December 14). Winning work of imagination. The Straits Times. Retrieved on March 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
People in Business [Microfilm: NL7305]. (1973, February 23). The Straits Times, The Business Times Section, p. 16
Raj. C. (1986, January 6). More Intraco officials resign [Microfilm: NL15300]. The Straits Times, p. 1.
Shelley wins gold medal for essay [Microfilm: NL8528 ]. (1975, November 18). The Straits Times, p. 7.
Shelley, R. (2002, September/October). The Eurasian psyche as characterised in my novels. The Arts, 10, 23-28.
Talib, I. S. (1997). Emigration as a resistant factor in the creation of a national literature: Rex Shelley’s The Shrimp People. In Kain. G. (Ed.), Ideas of home: Literature of Asian migration (pp. 101-113). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
(Call no.: R 810.9995073 IDE)
Wicks, P. (2002). Eurasian images of Singapore in the fiction of Rex Shelley. In Quayum, M. A. & Wicks P. (Eds.), Singaporean literature in English: A critical reader (pp. 377-383). Malaysia: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press.
(Call no.: RSING 820.995957 SIN)
Wicks, P. (2007, August 13). Rex Shelley (1930-). The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from http://eprints.usq.edu.au/2829/1/Wicks_Rex_Shelley.pdf
Wong, P. (1998). Rex Shelley’s The Shrimp People: What manner of beast is it? In Singh, K. (Ed.), Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 1: Fiction (pp. 45-54). Singapore: Ethos Books.
(Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
Wong, P. (2002, September/October). Rex Shelley and ‘Eurasian literature’. The Arts, 10, 29-31.
Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, Life!. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from Factiva database.
Yong, M. (1991, June). ‘They played the oldies that had been danced for years:’ The reconstruction of the Eurasian past in The Shrimp People. Southeast Asian Review of English, 22, 46-49.
(Call no.: RSING 820 SARE)
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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Shelley, Rex, 1930-2009