Rex Shelley



Rex Anthony Shelley (b. 1930, Singapored. 21 August 2009, Singapore)1 was an award-winning Singaporean writer best known for his quartet of novels that centre on the lives of Eurasians in Singapore and Malaya.2 An engineer by training and a member of the Public Service Commission for 31 years, Shelley started writing at the late age of 61.3 His first novel, The Shrimp People, clinched the National Book Development Council of Singapore’s top prize in 1992.4 His subsequent three novels also received positive critical responses and went on to win book awards.5 In recognition of his literary achievements, Shelley was honoured with the Singapore S.E.A. Write Award in 2007.6

Early life
Born in Singapore in 1930 to Eurasian parents, Shelley received his early education at St Anthony’s Boys’ School. His mother  taught at St Anthony’s Convent next door, while his father worked for the Fiat motor company, which closed when war in Europe broke out.7 In search of employment, the family moved to Butterworth, Penang, where his father found work at a shipyard.8

In their attempt 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 area of Singapore. However, Singapore fell to the Japanese too, and Shelley lived through the period of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.9

Education and career
Shelley studied for a year in a Japanese school during the Occupation until his mother withdrew him from school for fear that he would be sent to Japan for training to become key civil servants back in Singapore.10 His father then found him work as a carpenter’s apprentice in a Chinese shipyard.11 After the war, the family returned to Butterworth.12

Shelley came back to Singapore when he was admitted on a scholarship to study at the then University of Malaya in Singapore.13 After graduating with an honours degree in chemistry in 1952, he left for England for his postgraduate studies in engineering and economics at the University of Cambridge.14 During his time in England, Shelley was briefly involved in leftist student politics.15

Shelley worked in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, until May 1965 when he moved back to Singapore to work for Hume Industries, a pipe-making company.16 He was appointed manager of planning at Hume Industries (Far East) in 1973. By this time Shelley was already a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Municipal Engineers, and the Institution of Engineers, Singapore. He was also serving on the management board of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, and the Singapore Science Centre Board.17

In 1971, Shelley decided to learn the Japanese language because he thought it would be useful for his business.18 He later wrote two guide books on Japanese culture: Cultures of the World: Japan (1990) and Culture Shock!: Japan (1993).19 Shelley’s vast knowledge of Japanese culture found its way into his novels, in which he had depicted the Japanese  as deserving our sympathy instead of portraying them as brutal oppressors.20

Shelley was appointed a member of the Public Service Commission in 1976, a position he held for 31 years until 2007. From 1980 to 1986, he was general manager of business development with trading firm Intraco.21 After retirement, he kept up an active life and ran his own trading business.22

Writings
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.23 His first novel, The Shrimp People, was published when he was 61.24 The novel tells the story of two generations of Singaporean Eurasians that spanned Singapore in the 1950s to Australia in the ’80s.25 Shelley’s debut work was the winner of the English fiction category of the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) awards  in 1992.26 Judges and critics were impressed with the novel’s extensive scope and keen exploration of the Eurasian and minority experience.27 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 made it a strong contender for the title of “The Singaporean Novel” in 1992.28

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”.29

The focus of Shelley’s subsequent three novels was also the Eurasian community.30 Some of the characters in Shelley’s first book recur in his later novels, thus creating a sense of community and interconnectedness between people and histories.31 The People of the Pear Tree and Island in the Centre took home the Highly Commended award  in the NBDCS book awards in 1994 and 1996 respectively.32 His last novel, A River of Roses, won the first Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize (now known as Singapore Literature Prize) in 2000.33

Although Shelley began writing at a late age, his stories were drawn from the experiences of his youth and set in the period of the Japanese Occupation, Singapore’s struggle for independence and its nation-building years.34 

In the opinion of renowned poet and literary pioneer, Edwin Thumboo, Shelley’s late foray 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”.35

In assessing Shelley’s literary legacy, associate professor 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”.36

Favourite authors and hobbies
Some of Shelley’s favourite authors include Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Joseph Conrad.37 In his spare time, Shelley enjoyed swimming, playing the piano accordion, and fabric painting.38

Death
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 Joseph Pemberton Paglar, was published by Straits Times Press in 2010.39

Family40
Wife: Cora.
Children: Michael, Linda and Martine.
Grandchildren: Ria, Jillian, Talya, Chantal, Alik and Sasha.
Sisters: Joy and Ruth.

Fictional works
1991: The Shrimp People.41
1993: People of the Pear Tree.42
1995: Island in the Centre.43
1997: A River of Roses.44

Non-fictional works
1990: Cultures of the World: Japan.45
1993: Culture Shock!: Japan.46
1995: Sounds and Sins of Singlish: And Other Nonsense.47
2010: Dr Paglar: Everyman’s Hero.48


Awards

1975: Top prize for an essay, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.49
1992: Top prize (English fiction category) for The Shrimp People, NBDCS.50
1994: Highly Commended award for People of the Pear Tree, NBDCS.51
1996: Highly Commended award for Island in the Centre, NBDCS.52

2000: Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize for A River of Roses.53
2007: Singapore S.E.A. Write Award.54



Author

Gracie Lee



References
1. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 39. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Rex Anthony Shelley. (2009, August 22). The Straits Times, p. 80. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Lum, M. (1998, January 12). Rex Shelley a sell-out in some storesThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78The Straits Times, p. 7; Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Book on Eurasians by former civil servant wins top prize. (1992, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Man of all ages. (2009, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 80. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. National Book Development Council of Singapore. (2016). S.E.A. Write Award. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from NBDCS The Book Council website: http://bookcouncil.sg/awards/s.e.a-write-award
7. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 39–40. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
8. Man of all ages. (2009, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 80. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 40. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
9. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, pp. 40–41. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
10. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
11. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
12. Man of all ages. (2009, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 80. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 43. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Wicks, P. (2007, August 13). Rex Shelley (1930–). The literary encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from University of Southern Queensland website: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/2829/1/Wicks_Rex_Shelley.pdf
16. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45; People in business. (1973, February 23). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. A ‘SISIR’ stamp means quality product. (1969, June 19). The Straits Times, p. 4; People in business. (1973, February 23). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
19. Gupta, A. F. (n.d.). Rex Shelley: An introduction. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from Postimperial & Postcolonial Literature in English website: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/literature/shelley/intro.html; Shelley, R. (1990). Cultures of the world: Japan. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSEA 952 SHE); Shelley, R. (1993). Culture shock!: Japan. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING 952 SHE)
20. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 49. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT); Gupta, A. F. (n.d.). Rex Shelley: An introduction. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from Postimperial & Postcolonial Literature in English website: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/literature/shelley/intro.html
21. Raj, C. (1986, January 6). More Intraco officials resignThe Straits Times, p. 1; Intraco recruits new execs in expansion drive. (1980, October 23). The Straits Times, p. 15; Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Wicks, P. (2007, August 13). Rex Shelley (1930–). The literary encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from University of Southern Queensland website: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/2829/1/Wicks_Rex_Shelley.pdf
23. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 44. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
24. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Koh, B. S. (1992, May 30). Is this the great Singapore book? The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Book on Eurasians by former civil servant wins top prize. (1992, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Koh, B. S. (1992, May 30). Is this the great Singapore book?. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 44. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
30. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Gupta, A. F. (n.d.). Rex Shelley: An introduction. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from Postimperial & Postcolonial Literature in English website: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/literature/shelley/intro.html
32. Record 42 book awards given, no winner for English fiction. (1994, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 4; Gwee, E. (1996, October 12). Judges, swamped by horror, hold back top prize for fiction at book awards. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Gupta, A. F. (n.d.). Rex Shelley: An introduction. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from Postimperial & Postcolonial Literature in English website: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/literature/shelley/intro.html
35. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Yap, S. (2009, August 25). Acute observer of life. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Klein, R. D. (2001). Rex Shelley. In Interlogue: Studies in Singapore literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books, p. 45. (Call no.: RSING 809.895957 INT)
38. Wicks, P. (2007, August 13). Rex Shelley (1930–). The literary encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from University of Southern Queensland website: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/2829/1/Wicks_Rex_Shelley.pdf; Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Luo, S. (2009, August 24). Author Rex Shelley dies, 78The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Rex Anthony Shelley. (2009, August 22). The Straits Times, p. 80. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Shelley, R. (1991). The shrimp people. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RCLOS S823 SHE)
42. Shelley, R. (1993). People of the pear tree. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 SHE)
43. Shelley, R. (1995). Island in the centre. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 SHE)
44. Shelley, R. (1997). A river of roses. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING S823 SHE)
45. Shelley, R. (1990). Cultures of the world: Japan. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSEA 952 SHE)
46. Shelley, R. (1993). Culture shock!: Japan. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING 952 SHE)
47. Shelley, R. (1995). Sounds and sins of Singlish: And other nonsense. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 SHE)
48. Shelley, R. (2010). Dr Paglar: Everyman’s hero. Singapore: Straits Times Press. (Call no.: RSING 610.92 SHE)
49. Shelley wins gold medal for essay. (1975, November 18). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
50. Book on Eurasians by former civil servant wins top prize. (1992, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51. Record 42 book awards given, no winner for English fiction. (1994, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
52. Gwee, E. (1996, October 12). Judges, swamped by horror, hold back top prize for fiction at book awards. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
53. Ong, S. F. (2000, December 4). Winning work of imagination. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
54. National Book Development Council of Singapore. (2016). S.E.A. Write Award. Retrieved 2016, October 24 from NBDCS The Book Council website: http://bookcouncil.sg/awards/s.e.a-write-award



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.

 

Subject
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Writers
Shelley, Rex, 1930-2009
Authors, Singaporean--Biography
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors