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Creating a stunning new coffee table book on Fort Canning Hill, Singapore

By: Verne Maree

We meet the authors of this coffee table must-have 

Expats Jyoti Angresh and Melissa Diagana so loved Fort Canning Hill that they decided to write a book about it. Verne Maree asked them all about their authorial collaboration.

American Melissa is a molecular biologist. Fashion marketing and management professional Jyoti worked with several leading brands in Bangalore before moving to Singapore.

How did you two meet?

Through a group of mutual friends who still get together about once a month for a glass of wine. We two clicked immediately and soon discovered a mutual love for Fort Canning Park.

How much writing had you done here, prior to embarking on this book?

Melissa: As Chairperson of the Environmental Committee of the AWA (American Women’s Association), I wrote articles for the AWA’s Bamboo Telegraph. I also regularly write on environmental and health-related themes for the Singapore American Newspaper. I contributed chapters to the past two editions of Living in Singapore, and of course earlier wrote scientific articles.

Jyoti: I wrote the 40th anniversary commemorative coffee table book titled Little Steps to Giant Leaps for NUS Cooperative, chapters on Heritage and Traditions in the past three editions of Living in Singapore, and regular contributing articles for the Singapore American Newspaper.  I also produce the monthly newsletter for the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore.

Why Fort Canning Hill?

Jyoti: This was a book just waiting to be written! Because we loved the park so much, we looked to see what had already been published on it. There was almost nothing. All we found was a collection of beautiful paintings by the Japanese Association, published around 1997, we think.

Melissa: It was strange, considering that the Botanic Gardens garners a book every decade. I wanted to memorialise the place in some way, if only for my own family. At first I thought of doing a small e-book but Jyoti said no, let’s go the whole way.

How did you go about getting support for the project?

Melissa: A coffee table book like this is not really cost-effective for its publisher, and so without funding it would not have happened. We approached Professor Tommy Koh, honorary president of the National Heritage Board (NHB): he has a great interest in not only Singapore’s architectural heritage, but also in its natural heritage.

Jyoti: Professor Koh directed us to the NHB, who were happy to support our project with funding from the Heritage Industry Incentive Program (HI2P), and put us in touch with our publishers, ORO Editions.

It’s a beautiful piece of work. How did you decide on the format and contents?

Melissa: First, we had to come up with an outline for the publisher to submit to the HI2P. Next, we had to write the first chapter – it happened to be the one on military history – for our approach to be approved; it couldn’t be too academic in style. Then we made a detailed storyline and simply divided the sections up between us.

Jyoti: We knew that the usual coffee table book, with lots of big images and little bits of writing, would not do our complex subject justice; it had to be much, much more than that. Fortunately, finding material was not difficult: people have always written about Fort Canning Hill, in everything from old newspaper articles published during British colonial times to contemporary blogs. Through all its phases and different names, Fort Canning has kept its place in the community’s consciousness.

Where did you get such an extraordinary variety of photographs, sketches, maps and more?

Melissa: About a quarter of the images are by our publisher’s photographer, See Chee Keong, who took some very good and artistic shots; and I contributed a number of photographs myself. The National Parks Board was very generous with images, and we collected many others from the National Archives of Singapore, the National Museum of Singapore, the Peranakan Museum and several other government agencies. The Urban Sketchers were another rich source, as were the private collections of several generous people.

Jyoti: Night after night, we’d go through NHB’s online archives until the wee hours. It was completely addictive! Melissa was the one who kept track of what we found there; I call her the Excel Queen.

In most collaborative coffee table books, one person writes and the other takes pictures. How did you divide the writing between you?

Melissa: Actually, we wrote the first section together. But when we had just 200 words to show for an afternoon’s work, we knew that wasn’t going to work!

Jyoti: As we wrote our allotted sections, we continually sent material back and forth between us. We gave each other complete latitude to edit or even rewrite each other’s work – so much so that it’s hard to say now who wrote any particular line, let alone section. At the same time, we were completely non-judgmental of each other and very appreciative of each other’s ideas. We were also cognisant that the book needed to resonate with just one voice.

Melissa: There were absolutely no issues between us, I’m glad to say. In this sort of collaboration, you have to trust your partner and let go of ego. In retrospect, it was an incredibly smooth process; and, best of all, the product you see is just what we had in mind.

Fort Canning Hill: Exploring Singapore’s Heritage and Nature is available at all major bookstores and costs $58.85.