In good books
Prolific writer Yeng Pway Ngon may have won the Cultural Medallion, but at 66, he is still not resting. -ST
SINGAPORE - One sits down with feted Singaporean novelist Yeng Pway Ngon, 66, and is all ready to discuss things literary or maybe some deep social or philosophical issue.
Instead, he and his translator wife Goh Beng Choo bicker good-naturedly about their first date.
"She asked me out!" the Chineselanguage writer and Cultural Medallion recipient declares, beaming.
Madam Goh, 61, interrupts: "I asked you out? I've forgotten."
We are chatting in the living room of their quiet Bishan HDB flat, where the couple, who have been married for 37 years, exchange laughs.
Behind us, on shelves groaning with yellowing books, sit titles as diverse as Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Saul Bellow's Herzog, the I Ching and works by Lu Xun and Mo Yan.
Yeng met Madam Goh when she was just a 16-year-old secondary school student. He had already been making a name for himself as a poet and writer at Ngee Ann College (now Ngee Ann Polytechnic) when they met in a bookstore, introduced by the head of a literary magazine.
She wrote him a letter. He wrote back.
"I didn't dare to chase girls back then. I had very low self-esteem. I thought I was very unattractive," the writer recalls. "Plus, I didn't have money. I didn't even talk that much to girls. So she boosted my confidence."
Things are different these days, with Yeng regarded as a prolific stalwart in Chinese literary and intellectual circles here. Many readers have followed his incisive newspaper columns in the Chinese press and the author with his wire-frame glasses and forthright manner is now a recognisable face and name.
Three of his novels have won the Singapore Literature Prize: Unrest (2002), Trivialities About Me And Myself (2006) and The Studio (2011). The latter two were selected by the journal Asia Weekly for its prestigious annual list of the 10 Best Chinese Novels in the World, along with the works of Nobel laureate Mo Yan and acclaimed contemporary writer Yan Geling.
And in 2003, the modernist writer received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest artistic honour.
Publisher Fong Hoe Fang, 58, who first met Yeng five years ago, describes him as a "giant" in the local literary scene.
Says Mr Fong, whose Ethos Books has published several of Yeng's poetry collections in English through its affiliate, The Literary Centre: "I like the insights and perspectives which he brings to life in his books... The issues he discusses are contemporary and even though some of his novels and poems were written in the 1970s, their relevance to society permeates even today."
The Grassroots Book Room, a 900sqft bookstore at North Bridge Centre that Yeng set up in 1995, is something of a cultural landmark. It stocks thousands of titles, including specialised and limited-edition books on history, philosophy and literature.
Local playwright Lee Chee Keng, 41, a regular at the bookstore, first met Yeng in the 1990s, when the senior writer was running the literary magazine Encounter.
Lee, who started reading Yeng's works as a teenager, has nothing but praise for his work. The assistant professor at the National Institute of Education says: "There are a lot of people writing short stories here, but not many people tackle the novel. You really have to give it to him for his stamina."
The playwright adapted a short portion of The Studio for the stage last year. He notes how Yeng's writing style straddles both the Western and Eastern tradition, toying with modernist styles when many Chinese writers were rooted in social satire and realism.
Former journalist Madam Goh is her husband's staunchest supporter. She has translated several of his works into English, including his first novel, A Man Like Me (1987), which won an award from the National Book Development Council of Singapore.
During the interview, she is quick to supplement his answers with excited elaboration. She is also the first to read any of his manuscripts and give him feedback. Their chemistry is palpable.
Does she feel that she is constantly playing second fiddle to her husband? "Of course not."
She confides: "Actually, I don't think my translation is good enough for his work, but someone has to translate it. It's a responsibility for me to do something."
She adds: "He has taught me many things... I wasn't very cultured, so a lot of my knowledge about literature comes from him. I also really admire his sincerity towards people and his strong conviction about what is right."
They have a 32-year-old daughter, who is a freelance piano teacher.
Speaking in Mandarin with a smattering of English, Yeng comes across as earnest and self-effacing, with a ready laugh.
"I'm not very talented - if I'm doing one thing, I can't do something else," he says, chuckling. "Sometimes when people ask me to write essays for them, I'll tell them, 'But I'm writing a novel, I can't do other things.' And I write very slowly. Maybe because I'm getting old." Yeng was born in 1947 in the Bugis area. His late father was a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and his late mother worked in a coffee shop nearby. His sister, a retiree, is a year younger.
As a boy, Yeng excelled in Chinese and art classes at Catholic High, but scraped through or failed everything else.
One day, his Chinese teacher set the class an assignment: Write an essay on any topic. Instead of turning in an essay, Yeng submitted a sonnet. To his surprise, his teacher gave him a good grade. On impulse, he sent the poem to a newspaper for publication and it was published.
He says: "I even got money for it. It was just a few dollars, a token of encouragement, but I started paying more attention to poetry."
During his time at Ngee Ann, where he obtained a bachelor of arts in Chinese literature, he began to submit his works to various publications here and abroad.
Several years later, he opened his first bookstore, the Vanguard Bookshop at Golden Mile Tower. He soon sold the business and opened the first incarnation of the Grassroots Book Room at Textile Centre along Jalan Sultan Road. Rent was cheap then - just a dollar per square foot.
While hazy on the business mechanics of a bookstore at first, Yeng learnt the ropes quickly, seeking out good books and making sure they were always in stock. He continued to write and his vigorous critique of social issues led to a run-in with the authorities.
A friend falsely implicated him of being a communist and, in 1977, Yeng was detained under the Internal Security Act for alleged leftist sympathies. He spent most of those four months alone in prison. Madam Goh visited him when she could and they would have telephone conversations divided by a glass window.
He is reticent about his time in detention. In measured tones, he says: "I think it's best not to write about this. It isn't very meaningful."
Shortly after he was released, he closed the Book Room: "I just didn't have the heart to keep doing it."
But Yeng continued to write. He turned to freelance work in the late 1970s and the 1980s, churning out newspaper columns for the Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao and its predecessor, Nanyang Siang Pau. It was during this period of time that he wrote the well-received A Man Like Me, which startled with its frank treatment of erotica.
He also spent a year in Hong Kong in 1994, where he worked as a columnist for publications such as United Daily News, Ming Pao and Sing Tao Daily.
He has dabbled in just about every genre of writing. Apart from his five novels, he has authored two short story collections, three poetry volumes and two collections of plays. He also boasts 11 volumes of essays, a collection of literary criticism and another of social critique.
But it was the novel that appealed to him the most. He says: "A novelist is like an actor. You can be anyone you want to be and say anything you want to say. You can use your own life experiences or the experiences you want to have and let your characters live them out."
Many of Yeng's own experiences are embedded in his works.
For instance, he drew from his memories of detention to write Unrest, a work of meta-fiction that reflects on the act of novel-writing itself and one that wrestles with Singapore's leftist past.
More recently, he incorporated his own struggle with prostate cancer into his 500-page epic, The Studio.
The heavyweight novel's protagonist is a painter who eventually dies from cancer. Yeng, fortunately, did not share this fate. He says affectionately and with a hint of the morbid: "I suppose my protagonist wasn't as lucky. He didn't make it, maybe because he didn't have a wonderful wife to look after him."
Madam Goh insisted that he saw a doctor in 2007 after realising that he was always tired and needed to use the toilet often. He had dismissed it as signs of old age. They discovered that the cancer had spread and that surgery was not an option. So he started radiation therapy.
In between the nearly 40 visits to the hospital, Yeng grappled with the various side effects of his treatment, such as the inability to control his bowels and his bladder. But he also forced himself to write The Studio as quickly as he could.
He says: "The most important thing on my mind was to finish the novel.
The Studio, which he completed over the course of his treatment, chronicles the lives of a group of artists from the 1960s to the present day.
Yeng's cancer is now in remission and it has motivated him to take better care of his health. He tries to sleep by 11pm and wake at 7am to go for a brisk walk or a jog. His determination and strong conviction can also be seen as stubbornness.
He says: "If I think I'm right, I can be very stubborn. I will refuse to admit that I have lost."
Last year, after a high-profile libel suit, Yeng was ordered to pay $10,000 in damages and $20,000 in costs to artist Tan Swie Hian. Tan had accused Yeng of libelling him in a 2005 letter which the latter had sent to The Straits Times and the National Arts Council.
Yeng is determined to move on from the episode. He says of the challenges he has faced: "I guess what I've taken from all these experiences is that when you're faced with something, you confront it, accept it, solve it, and then you let it go.
"I can't be upset every day about what happened. There's no meaning in that. Since it's over, it's over. And I guess it can be used as material for my books."
For now, Yeng is tying up his term as the first participant in the Nanyang Technological University Chinese department's writer-in-residence scheme. The stint, which started in January, saw him teaching classes on Chinese literature and novel-writing. He has also started to devote more time to a novel about the lives of Cantonese opera actors.
These days, he is happiest when writing and minding his bookstore. This despite the fact that his customer base has dwindled and most of his patrons are immigrants from countries such as China or Malaysia. The rent is steep at more than $4,500 a month, but there are good months, which cover for the bad.
The sales of his own books are more encouraging: The Studio has sold at least 2,000 copies here and in Taiwan, and is into its second print run.
But Yeng is not resting. He says disarmingly: "I still feel like I haven't written the book I was meant to write."
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