Mon, Aug 10, 2009
The Straits Times
A river of memories, captured in verse

IT WAS a circle with a star on top, like a ring you could slip on your finger.

The logo of a 1960s leftist political party, it was one of the earliest images to have imprinted itself in Chinese-language writer Chia Hwee Pheng's mind, as the Barisan Sosialis ran the kindergarten he attended.

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Then one day, he went to the school near his kampung to find it boarded up and surrounded by police. The Government had closed down the kindergarten.

'As kids, we knew nothing about politics, we just remembered the 'ring' logo and how one day, there was no more kindergarten. We were thrilled because we could go back to playing games,' recalls the 52-year-old poet and short story writer with a laugh. He writes using the nom de plume Xi Ni Er.

It was one of many colourful incidents in a childhood spent in a Teochew kampung by the Kallang River. Memories of the river have inspired many of his poems, including the one he penned for Insight.

A huge fire in 1964, which destroyed some 200 of the attap huts near his home, is yet another image that has stayed with Mr Chia, who was a Cultural Medallion winner last year.

The politics of the time provided ample drama. Competing political parties ran kindergartens as part of their outreach. And when fighting broke out between the Chinese and Malay kampungs in the area during the race riots of the mid-1960s, he recalls hiding with his family in their attap hut.

His father, a first-generation immigrant from Chaozhou, China, made and sold chwee kueh (a Teochew snack) for a living. His mother looked after him and his three siblings. It was a hardscrabble life, but had its carefree moments. Bonds among the villagers were strong.

'The whole kampung shared one TV set and all the families would gather around it. We would read the old newspapers lying around in coffee shops because we couldn't afford to buy,' he says in Mandarin.

That life ended when he turned 12. The kampung was demolished to make way for public housing and light industry, and his family was resettled in a government flat along Old Airport Road.

He struggles with the knowledge that 'there is now not even a tree or building or road left over from my childhood'.

'So what is left to stimulate people's reminiscences of the land and of this country? Nothing. It's sad. In recent years we have been doing more in terms of conservation, but in the early days of Singapore's industrialisation, people were not so careful, it was like the faster old things were demolished, the better.'

His words come out in spontaneous, rapid-fire bursts, as though straining to keep up with the intensity of his thoughts and memories.

An engineer in a battery manufacturing firm, he has found time to publish eight books: a collection of essays, three poetry anthologies and four collections of short fiction - one of which won in the Chinese category of last year's Singapore Literature Prize. The father of two grown-up children is also president of the Singapore Association of Writers, and chief editor of one of the literary journal Singapore Chinese Literature.

His works often reflect on Singapore history and society, Chinese culture and notions of home, heroism and idealism.

'I write about this piece of land, it's the place where I was born, the place I am familiar with,' he explains.

Among other things, he has written about Lim Bo Seng, the wartime hero during the Japanese Occupation, as well as his own national service experience.

Compared to poets of his generation, he notes, younger Chinese-language poets tend to 'write more about their personal feelings, their personal lives - nothing wrong with that'.

He remains optimistic about the future of Chinese literature here, despite the general decline in Chinese-language standards over the last 20 years, saying: 'More students are now taking Higher Chinese... Another plus is the new immigrants (from China) who have a strong foundation in the language.'

As editor of a literary journal, he understands the power of publishing. Anthologies of local poetry across all languages have a vital role in preserving cultural heritage for the next generation.

'If during the Tang Dynasty, no one recorded Li Bai and Du Fu's poems, could we still read them today? There must have been someone who did the editing work,' he says philosophically.

'Maybe there is not much interest in Chinese poetry now. Never mind. What if 100 years later, people look back and want to read the literary works of this period? This anthology will be a very good reference.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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One people, one nation in poems
Inspired by those morning bus rides
A river of memories, captured in verse
Love for library that held more than just books
The RI boy who hawked pancakes

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