Life and works of Singapore literary pioneer, Khoo Seok Wan, on exhibition at National Library

MOS Sim Ann (right) with Mr Ong Cheng Kian (centre), grandson of Khoo Seok Wan, and Ms Yeoh Chee Yan, Chairman, NLB

SINGAPORE - The life and works of Singapore literary pioneer, Khoo Seok Wan, take centre stage at the National Library's latest exhibition, Khoo Seok Wan: Poet & Reformist.

For the first time, more than 150 rare artefacts depicting his life and poetry are on display in Singapore.

Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education, launched the exhibition at the National Library Building Thursday.

Master Poet of the South

Born in 1874 in China, Khoo Seok Wan was a prolific poet and well- known literary figure in Nanyang (Southeast Asia) at the turn of the century.

His first poem at the young age of 15 won him fame as the "Master Poet of the South", for his ability to weave observations of daily life into lyrical verses of classical Chinese poetry.

He wrote over 1,000 poems, covering personal reflections, politics, and social commentary on the world around him.

The people and culture of Singapore inspired him to compose "Nanyang-flavoured" poems on local traditions and lifestyles, which even included a sprinkling of Malay words.

A Life of Community Involvement

Khoo was an active community leader, and strongly advocated Chinese culture and education in early Singapore. He donated money to the founding of Singapore Chinese Girls' School in 1899, in support of education for girls.

To aid children in their study of Chinese, he updated a 1,400-year-old Chinese text, Thousand Character Classics, with more familiar phrases relevant for children living in Southeast Asia.

Khoo also followed the political developments in China at that time closely.

He was a supporter of the Reform Movement which called for China's modernisation, and became known as a foremost reformist leader in Southeast Asia in the late 1800s. He set up the Thien Nan Shin Pao (天南新报) newspaper in 1898 to promote reformist ideas in Singapore, and donated generously to the reformist cause in Singapore, China and abroad.

His contributions played a part in the emergence of an overseas Chinese nationalism in Nanyang, at a time when many Chinese immigrants still considered China as their home. Ms Tan Huism, Head of Exhibitions and Curation, National Library, said, "Khoo Seok Wan was among the earliest poets to write about Singapore-inspired scenes. His poetry paints a vivid picture of life in early Singapore. Khoo's involvement in social reform also raised local awareness for the social issues of the time, and offers us a glimpse of the Chinese community's concerns during that period."

Exhibition highlights

The exhibition includes highlights such as Khoo's hand-written manuscripts dating back to 1898; letters between Khoo and his close friend, Kang Youwei, a leader of the Reform Movement; and a 1.5-metre tall couplet bearing the seal of the Guangxu emperor.

Through the exhibition, visitors will also find out more about the social and cultural landscape of early 20th-century Singapore.

Visitors can also immerse themselves in 20 of Khoo's poems, brought to life at special multimedia stations. These selected poems unfold in beautiful calligraphy on the screens, accompanied by Mandarin and Hokkien recitals.

Khoo Seok Wan: Poet & Reformist is held from Nov 22, 2013 to May 18, 2014 at Levels 7 and 8, National Library Building. Admission is free.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the National Library will organise guided curator tours, and workshops on Chinese classical poetry.