“I asked my students –– if they had a time machine, where would they like to go?”
Ho Kwen Khee, a volunteer guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH), is also a full-time Chinese tutor by profession.
“I was hoping some kids would choose to visit the past –– our history is so colourful and exciting. Sadly, all my students chose to travel to the future. Looks like I am the only one who wants to go back to the Qing dynasty!” laughs Kwen Khee.
Her love affair with history dates back to her childhood. Thinking back, she attributes this passion to her history teacher in secondary school.
“She’ll talk history for two straight periods without looking at the book. I remember thinking to myself, Wow, she knows everything by heart. It was really admirable and inspiring,” she recalls with a smile. Kwen Khee seems to have imbued her own storytelling with the same qualities.
Life-long history lessons
Kwen Khee’s relationship with SYSNMH began quite by chance, with an invitation to a friend’s tour six years ago. “I fell in love with the place,” she sighs fondly. “It is small and humble, but its stories are endless and fascinating.”
“I wish more Singaporeans knew their history. This particular history is not (yet) in our textbooks; people do not realise the importance of Dr Sun Yat Sen in our own Singapore story,” says Kwen Khee about the exhibits.
Indeed, many Singaporeans do not know of Dr Sun’s revolutionary ideas and crucial role in Singapore’s intellectual development. According to Kwen Khee, even tourists from Taiwan and China have been surprised by what they learned at SYSNMH.
“They are always very grateful to learn. In China especially, their story is told very differently back home,” Kwen Khee explains. “This part of history is missing in the Chinese narrative. Some Chinese tourists even told me –– gosh, we do not know our own history!”
A storyteller at heart
A gentle and unassuming individual, Kwen Khee says she is not like other docents. Shyly, she confides that she has had a lifelong fear of public speaking. This is why she teaches private tuition instead of in public schools, she adds. One-to-one sessions with students are not as daunting as facing a whole crowd.
Why sign up to be a docent, then, and have to speak to large tour groups all the time? “Sharing stories is very rewarding. I like to tell stories,” she explains.
Kwen Khee is driven by her passion to educate, and pass important knowledge on to others. Besides, being a docent has helped her to overcome her phobia, she adds. Today, public speaking is no longer as difficult for her as it used to be.
“I use my own success story to encourage others who are afraid of public speaking too,” Kwen Khee shares candidly. “I tell them, just try. It might just help you get over your fears.”
Teachers’ knowhow helps
At SYSNMH, there is no one primary or main demographic. Visitors range from primary school students to tourists from all over the world, or senior citizens from various Voluntary Welfare Organisations.
Being a teacher, Kwen Khee is able to sensitively codeswitch and pitch appropriately to her crowd. As her students range from primary school all the way to junior college, she is used to varying her use of language –– speaking more clearly and simply to the little ones, and allowing more complexity and nuance to the older ones.
Furthermore, teaching has made Ms Ho very good at reading her audience; she is very sensitive to their needs and reactions. “It’s all in the eyes,” she chuckles. “From their eyes you can tell who is confused, who is engaged, who is dreaming!”
All these crucial skills allow Kwen Khee to simplify or complicate her language and content wherever needed. This helps her to tailor her speech to many diverse groups of listeners, keeping them happy and interested throughout the tour.
Growing as a docent
Becoming a tour guide at SYSNMH was not easy for Kwen Khee. “We did our own independent research, and wrote our own 5,000-word script,” she says.
She has been attached exclusively to the museum since she began giving tours in 2013. Selfless and dedicated, Kwen Khee goes above and beyond her tour guide duties. She also assists the memorial hall in arranging and scheduling special tours, as well as manages larger crowds by organising them into smaller groups before tours begin. This way, Kwen Khee helps to ensure that everything runs without a hitch.
It is clear to see that Kwen Khee’s passion and dedication to sharing knowledge permeates her tours. Truly, SYSNMH visitors are all the better for it!
By Chew Wei Shan and Nurudin Sadali