'Even my parents don't know who Russell Lee is': True S'pore Ghost Stories writer shares more about himself after 32 years

His real identity is probably one of Singapore's best-kept secret.

Fasiha Nazren | February 06, 2021, 05:05 PM

If you grew up in Singapore in the early 90s, the name "Russell Lee" is probably one that needs no introduction.

But in case you do need it, Lee is the writer behind the "True Singapore Ghost Stories" (TSGS) series that is especially popular among the younger crowd.

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As someone who is younger at heart, picking up the recently published Book 26 brought me back to when I was an 11-year-old who insisted on sleeping with her parents after getting the creeps from the special feature on the "Devil's child" in Book 6.

Apart from the book series, Lee is also known for concealing his identity, often attending meet-and-greet sessions garbed head-to-toe in black.

Photo courtesy of Flames of the Forest Publishing (Angsana Books).

Ostensibly a very private person, a quick Google search doesn't reveal much about the writer aside from the fact that he is a Singaporean author of the TSGS series.

We do have to admit, however, that this mysterious persona adds to the charm of the supernatural series.

So much so that this writer felt goosebumps when she received a phone call some time in January 2021 from the man himself, saying that he is about to send us his answers to all of our questions.

(And just to get this out of the way, he sounds very much like your average Singaporean man, though there were no lahs or lehs in our very short two-minute conversation.)

Singapore's best-kept secret

Apart from the size of the national reserves, Lee's real identity probably comes next as Singapore's best-kept secret.

Ever so mysterious, Lee told us that he could "fill an entire book" to answer why he keeps his identity a secret.

In fact, even the people around him don't know of his author persona.

He said: "I am a faceless man. When I am in public, nobody knows me other than my friends. And even they don't know who Russell Lee is. Even my parents don't know."

Photo courtesy of Flames of the Forest Publishing (Angsana Books)

Because of this, many readers have made several assumptions like claiming that he is a white man posing as a local Singaporean.

Some also believe that he is Jim Aitchinson (also known as James Lee), the writer of the children's horror series Mr Midnight.

"Funny right? Many think they know who Russell Lee is and even venture guesses. I've given up commenting on these claims because they will never stop."

Remaining unknown to live like your everyday Singaporean, however, seems to help him get the writing juices flowing for the book series.

He explained: "The books do all the talking for me. Also, it allows me to write the books without any ego because a man with no face cannot possibly claim any credit."

Stories require research and site visits

And hiding behind a facade seems to work, considering that he has churned out a total of 27 books, including the 25th-anniversary special, since 1989.

However, he shared that the TSGS series isn't the fruits of just one man's labour.

Instead, he likens himself to a "head chef" with many "cooks" working together with him.

Along with his team of writers, Lee said that they are always on the prowl for stories and would do thorough interviews, research, and even site visits.

"We search every nook and cranny to unearth gems. 'The Silat Princess' in TSGS Book 26, for example, is the result of interviews, research, and numerous site visits."

On top of that, he also told us that he receives story submissions from his fans on an almost daily basis.

"One of the most difficult aspects of doing the TSGS books is to identify with the experiences of some of the characters in the stories. You can almost relive the harrowing experiences of those who suffer from supernatural attacks.

Of course, there are supernatural experiences that are bliss too. An example is when an angel visits to help someone in need or to pass on an important message."

Believes in supernatural

He also credits his belief in the supernatural as part of the reason why the series has garnered a huge following in the region, including Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong.

Lee explained: "Who wants to hear ghost stories from a skeptic? The stories would lack conviction. Without conviction, how then can they be compelling?"

"I'm not alone in taking the supernatural seriously. Far from it. Folks from all walks of life, throughout history and from every corner of the globe join me, as well as major religions which teach that there's an existence after death.

I make no apology in asserting — with billions of others of faith — that there are good and evil forces, angels and demons, and that the soul of a man goes on to an afterworld where there's either bliss or torment."

However, the writer also emphasised to us that at the end of the day, the stories that he shares in the books are for entertainment.

So has a writer who has spent more than three decades scribing and reporting on almost all things supernatural faced any supernatural encounters himself?

Rather matter-or-factly, he replied, "Yes, of course. Who hasn't?"

However, supernatural to Lee doesn't just mean horrifying ghostly encounters.

"Singaporeans generally witness supernatural events regularly. Heard of miracle healings? Haven’t you seen devotees walking on fire and carrying kavadi (a structure made of steel or wood), with spears poking various body parts? And yet the devotees feel no pain. Aren’t these events extraordinary? Try poking yourself with a needle. Just one needle, a tiny one. It’s painful. The examples are endless."

Still S$9.90 after 32 years

The TSGS series has sold over 1.5 million copies since 1989, a pretty impressive feat for a locally-produced series.

Even though a lot of time has passed and the book series is still much in demand (the first book has been reprinted more than 30 times), each book still goes for just S$9.90.

While it is normal for a lot of things to be more expensive after a few years due to inflation, why has the price remain unchanged even after close to 32 years?

Well, here's why: "I suspect they will hold the price for as long as it is possible. It isn't about the money for either them or me. Knowing that readers enjoy the book is reward enough."

To put things into perspective, the writer added:

"S$9.90 is still a huge amount for many readers and parents buying for their kids. After forking out for essentials, many struggle over discretionary spending. I have seen this many times over."

Just your average Singaporean guy

Lee enjoys his job so much, he said that he will "never" retire and will keep going until he can no longer do so.

That being said, writing isn't even his day job.

While he wishes he could write full-time, it is actually a passion that he has to find time to do.

And that is typically after the daily grind during the "unearthly hours" of the day (night?), he says.

But the mysterious character and ghost stories aside, who really is the man behind Russell Lee?

Considering himself to be your regular Singaporean guy, the writer has dropped some hints about his personal life.

(Though not much to differentiate him from, well, a regular Singaporean guy.)

"I'm a football fan. I'm also into other sporting activities. Of course, I love to read. I keep in touch with current affairs. Travelling has not lost its charm and wherever I find myself, I make it a point to explore cultures by immersion and blending in. I don’t watch much television though.

And when I am meeting TSGS readers, I am usually on a break as well — another added incentive to meet readers!"

Might reveal his identity... one day

If it gives you some hope, Lee said that he may reveal his true identity one day.

Photo courtesy of Flames of the Forest Publishing (Angsana Books)

But that will only happen when he is done with the book series, which according to the title of the books is always "almost complete":

"I might [reveal my identity]. When all the books are done, I will consider it.

By now, most readers don't really care about Russell Lee's identity. They know him through and through."

We're pretty sure he's wrong. We really, really want to know the real person who has contributed to the sleepless nights we've had from reading the books under the blanket too late into the night.

And then thank him for making our childhood a little more thrilling and bone-chilling from the massive collection of supernatural stories he has curated over the years.

Top image courtesy of Flames of the Forest Publishing (Angsana Books) and @publiclibrarysg on Instagram.