Book Review: The Brilliant Oil Lamp


They pass by vegetable farms and forests and finally arrive at the new housing estate. The children gasp when tall buildings come into view. The apartments are stacked on top of one another -- up to twenty stories high!

The Brilliant Oil Lamp

When Asha's family moves to the new HDB flats in Toa Payoh, the first thing to do is set up the altar and light the brass diya, a beautiful oil lamp in the shape of a peacock that shines as though it were gold.

The third book in the series that begins with Quek Hong Shin's The Amazing Sarong, The Brilliant Oil Lamp marries traditional cultural elements with imaginative play. Once again, readers are transported to Singapore's past in a story with a very gentle educational bent and plenty of heart.

In this outing, the past is a place of change. Unlike previous books in the series, this one puts more of an emphasis on historical events, depicting Asha' family and friends as they move for the very first time into the new HDB flats in Toa Payoh.

There's a certain tension between the old and new. While the book takes the opportunity to detail how Asha's Amma and Appa go through traditional housewarming rituals -- from inviting the priest to light a housewarming bonfire to smashing a coconut to the ground to bless the new home -- the kids seem to have abandoned their sarong games for the new black and white television set.

But when a blackout puts out the new electric lights, the lit diya becomes a source for the kids to light candles to brighten the homes of their new neighbours, help the kacang puteh man keep his business running into the night, and even discover the simple joys of shadow play.

With so many different story elements in play, the use of the diya -- as a cultural object, as the last source of light during the blackout, and as a means for shadow games -- deftly ties everything together.

As a source of light, it also provides lots of opportunities for arresting visuals throughout the book. One of the most striking images in the book is a page of the HDB block with every single flat darkened except for the warm colours of the diya's light in Asha's home. The same warm light echoes along the familiar length of a HDB corridor when the kids bring their candles to their neighbours. The difference between light and dark resolves when the children discover how to use the light and the dark to best advantage by forming shadow puppets with their hands, using the diya's flame to create imaginative figures of darkness for screen-free fun.

Like the interplay between the light and the dark, coexistence resolves the tension between tradition and change by the last page of the story.

While it might seem that there is less traditional play in this instalment of the series, other historical tidbits and a exciting story make for a pacy book that kids will wholeheartedly enjoy.

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