Rex Shelley: An Introduction

Anthea Fraser Gupta, School of English, University of Leeds

Rex Shelley was born in 1930. He currently has his own trading business, and has had a long term involvement with the Public Service and Education Service Commissions. He is a member of Singapore's 'Eurasian' community and his four novels centre on the experiences of that community. His novels have been well received in Singapore, where most of them have won prestigious awards from the National Book Development Council of Singapore, but they are little known outside Singapore, and may be hard to find.

Shelley began writing in his '60s, but he draws his plots principally from the years of his youth. The experiences of the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942-1945 are central in many of his novels, as are the years of the Malayan "Emergency" which saw racial and political tensions in Singapore out of which the modern independent states of Malaysia and Singapore ultimately grew.

Some of Shelley's characters appear in several of his novels, so that as a reader reads all four, the sense grows of being a part of a community in which people have complex and known pasts, are related to each other, and act upon each other in a variety of ways. A further interest is added by his portrayal of Japanese characters, especially in People of the Pear Tree and Island in the Centre. Shelley has considerable knowledge of Japanese culture (he has written two guides to it -- Culture Shock Japan and Cultures of the World: Japan. His portrayal of Japanese characters is unusual in being a sympathetic treatment of Japanese people involved in an occuptation that is usually portrayed as brutal.

Shelley is a very conscious stylist. He has also written two books on language, including a witty guide to Singapore English (1995. Sounds and Sins of Singlish). Talib (1998) identifies Shelley's first novel, The Shrimp People, as being the most successful representation of language use in a Singaporean literary work, and Gupta (fthcg 2000) also discusses his presentation of language in Island in the Centre.


Gupta, Anthea Fraser (fthcg 2000). "Marketing the voice of authenticity: a comparison of Ming Cher and Rex Shelley." Language and Literature.

Talib, I S. (1998) "Singaporean Literature in English," in J. A. Foley; T Kandiah; Bao Zhiming; A F Gupta; L Alsagoff; Ho Chee Lick; L Wee; I S Talib and W Bokhorst-Heng English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Management / Oxford University Press, pp. 270-286.

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