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6 personalities on books that changed their lives

From Enid Blyton to Martin Aston, these authors have impacted six of Singapore's top minds.

1. Jennie Chua
Chairman, Alexandra Health Systems
The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton

Jennie Chua, Ambassador to the United Mexican States  “I learnt not to dwell on things or become bitter or self-absorbed. Just look at the situation, learn from it, and move on. And moving on is the most important part.”

“When I first started going to school aged five, I was enrolled by my parents at the Chinese-medium school, Nanyang Kindergarten. But later, when they saw the merits of having an English education, I was transferred to Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS), aged eight.

At SCGS, I did very well in Mathematics and was allowed to skip a year. But little did my teachers know, I was nearly illiterate when it came to reading and writing in English. My first two years at SCGS passed in a blur, with me half guessing what was happening in class.

Still, even as a child, I resolved to improve my English and set out to pick out the thickest book I could find from the collection of storybooks the class had to share. That thick hardcover book was The Castle Of Adventure by Enid Blyton, a book I slowly but meticulously deciphered from cover to cover.

For me, completing that one book ended my “illiterate” status and, in many ways, sparked a love of reading. I went on to devour books such as The Secret Seven and Famous Five series.

Getting a chance to experience the magic of storytelling so early on helped me escape the economic hardships I was experiencing at the time, if only for a while.

I consider discovering The Castle Of Adventure a milestone in my life. After all, that one book is perhaps why I still read a book every night before bed, nearly 60 years on.”

(Related: The Power List 2015 – Jennie Chua)

2. Bjorn Shen
Chef and owner of restaurants Artichoke and Bird Bird
Au Pied de Cochon: The Album by Martin Picard

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“I first read this book in 2010 when I was trying to find my own personality as a chef. I was always a rebellious kind of guy, but all the famous chefs who had written cookbooks seemed to take a very formal approach to food – think pretty plates, smart dining rooms and happy-looking people.

As much as I enjoyed those books, I never connected with a cookbook until I read Au Pied De Cochon (loosely translated from French to mean the foot of a pig). Written by Martin Picard, the owner of Montreal’s innovative restaurant of the same name, it was the first rebellious, rock ’n’ roll cookbook that I had come across.

It contained gory cartoon images and ridiculous recipes such as foie gras poutine and “duck in a can”. The kicker was the last page which featured a picture of Picard sitting on a toilet bowl, with his pants down around his ankles.

I was hypnotised by that book. Reading and learning about his success as a chef and entrepreneur despite his crass mannerisms made me let go of a few shackles that were holding back my own personality. It has made me unapologetic about certain aspects of my branding and learn that unwavering resolve is crucial to building a strong, unique brand.

Back in 2010, I was too afraid to come out guns blazing because I was too concerned about what people would think. But Picard’s self-assured ways helped unleash my own full personality as a chef and restaurant owner, in all its crude and imperfect glory.”

(Related: Chefs to watch in 2016)

3. Quek Ling Kiong
Resident conductor of Singapore Chinese Orchestra and music director of Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra
Fu Lei Jia Shu (Home Letters by Fu Lei) By Fu Lei

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“I borrowed this book from the National Library in 1989. It’s an exchange of letters between a father, Fu Lei, and his son, Fu Cong, from 1954 to 1966. Fu Lei is a well-known scholar, writer and French translator.

When I first read the book, I had just finished national service and was thinking about the next step to take in my life. I was inspired and moved by how Fu Lei shares with his son – who became a famous pianist – about music, art and his life philosophies.

My parents are neither musically nor artistically inclined and, in their time, they felt that it was most important for me to get a job, become independent and support the family.

Everyone thought I was crazy when I decided to study music. But in the book, Fu Lei shares with his son that one does not need to accomplish huge things in order to serve society. As long as we are sharing whatever we know wherever we are, we are contributing to the country. That statement gave me the motivation and drive to do what I am doing now.

Another quote that has deeply influenced me says that a person is considered great only when he or she helps others. One should pursue knowledge to help others, and not for self-glorification. This is one of my mottos. I continually upgrade my skills and learn new things so that I can share these things with everyone.

There are so many quotes that resonate with me that I borrowed the book countless times, so that I could write down all the quotes I like.

I finally bought my own copy of the book in 1997 from a bookstore in China, when I was studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. I have since bought many copies of the book and given them to my students. I hope the book will inspire them as much as it has inspired me.”

4. Chris Lee
Founder and creative director of design agency Asylum
Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD By Martin Aston

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“British independent record label 4AD is the single most important entity that has shaped the last 25 years of my life. The beautiful covers of these records show me how design can be used to describe something as abstract as sound. I have always felt that I could hear the music just by looking at the packaging.

Through the record label, I became more visually aware of the things around me every day and sought to find beauty in the ordinary.

I read this book about the label, written by music journalist Martin Aston, in 2014. I was browsing in Rough Trade Records in London and I could not believe my eyes when I saw it. I had been waiting for a long time for someone to write this.

The label’s enigmatic founder Ivo Watts-Russell inspires me. He had a vision and he made things happen. He is quoted in the book as saying “For a while, we participated in something pure and unique. Those records will vibrate long after I’ve ceased to do so.”

Similarly, as a designer, I believe in building a legacy. I hope that what I do will be around long after I am gone. I also trust my intuition and gut, not focus groups.

The book also talks about Watts-Russell’s battle with depression. Although the label became increasingly successful, he grew unhappy with the direction it was taking.

It came to a point where he just upped and left for the New Mexico desert and became a recluse. His experiences have led me to constantly ask myself: “What is success? What is it that I want from my work and out of this life?” ”

5. Ong Keng Sen
Artistic director of Theatreworks
Sandakan Brothel No.8: Journey into the History of Lower-class Japanese Women by Tomoko Yamazaki

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“I heard about this book when I was in New York doing my master’s in 1995 and commissioned a classmate to help translate it from its original Japanese text to English.

The book, written by Tomoko Yamazaki, was officially translated in 1999 and traces the lives of Japanese prostitutes who were abducted and taken to North Borneo during the 1860s to the 1920s.

I remember reading this book for the first time with tears streaming down my face because the emotion expressed in it was so visceral and hit so close to home. In it, Yamazaki expresses her own confusion while telling the stories of these women – often questioning whether she was invading their privacy or inadvertently perpetuating their abuse by recounting their stories.

The confusion and guilt she felt resonated with me deeply, given that the challenge of telling stories ethically and responsibly is at the heart of my work as an author and theatre practitioner.

It has been many years since I first read it, but I still thumb through the book occasionally and can still feel the emotion in her words. It is a book that has left a mark on me and it continues to remind me of my own culpability when trying to tell a story. That struggle and thought process continue to influence the work I do and will always impact the way I work.”

6. Stefanie Sun
Singer
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

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“I read it a year ago when one of my girlfriends was talking about how this book was very popular. I found the author quirky and her ideas interesting.

One rather silly anecdote was on how to keep your socks. One would usually roll them up and then turn one inside out, but actually the socks do not like it. I mean, can you imagine somebody flipping you out from your mouth and then wrapping your whole head with it? So it makes sense to just put them together in a pair and then roll them up neatly.

Marie Kondo talked a lot about sparking joy – things that do not spark joy should not be in your life. I believe in energy, that you should surround yourself with people who lift you up and, after reading the book, I realised that things can also bring you down or lift you up.

I have read the book three times and enjoyed it for different reasons each time. The first time was because she is so quirky. The second was when I actually started clearing out some stuff and de-cluttering my life using Kondo’s methods. The third time was just for the pleasure of reading it again.

Beyond just managing your things, I think it is important to know when enough is enough and having more does not actually mean that you have more. Material possessions do not fill up your life in other aspects. I would not say the book is life-changing, but it has altered my perception about owning things.”

Adapted from The Sunday Times.