Remembering Clarissa Tan

Remembering Clarissa Tan

SINGAPORE - What can I say. Clarissa Tan was a friend. She posted a photo of herself on Facebook barely a week ago. She looked fine. She was not supposed to die.

I remember a gamine-faced girl, barely in her 20s, who first joined BT as a rookie reporter in 1996.

We called her an "NYT" or "nubile young thing" - a catchphrase we used on all the pretty interns and fresh grads who passed through our newsroom under the roving but harmless eyes of our resident Casanovas.

She was no pushover, though. She became one of our sharpest business news reporters, until she left to join a news agency.

We found out she wasn't so much a business writer but a novelist in the making when she won the Spectator magazine's Shiva Naipaul creative writing competition in 2007.

The girl who could massage numbers so well had a killer precision with prose, which her Spectator editor Fraser Nelson aptly described in his beautiful tribute to her: "she had a potent combination of a hard head and a light pen".

When she freelanced for BT from 2007 until 2011, she wrote about the arts with a simplicity and incisiveness only she could achieve.

Gaurav Kripalani of the Singapore Repertory Theatre remembers travelling with her to Hong Kong in 2010 to watch its Bridge Project of The Tempest. He says fondly: "The producer said Clarissa was one of the best journalists he had met. Even the reticent lead actor Stephane Dillane opened up to her when she interviewed him one-on-one."

As for us, I sent her on a wild goose chase to Abu Dhabi in 2009 to nail down an interview with Jeff Koons, the artist for our Christmas magazine.

She arrived in the dead of night, in a country she'd never been to, in a large hotel, with no inkling of how to find Koons.

She called me, almost wailing: "I don't know where he is, they said he might not show up, there're palm trees in the hotel lobby and sheikhs everywhere..."

I, unsympathetic as usual, just told her, "find him". Not only did she do that, Koons was so taken with her that he spoke to her for 11/2 hours, and even took her to meet his family.

That was Clarissa. She was the best writer BT ever had - fierce intellect combined with the curiosity of a puppy - and the Spectator knew they had a prize when they hired her.

She had already been living in London for some time before she discovered she had cancer. She was working on her novel and she enrolled in a creative writing course in the hope of finishing it and having it published.

Plus, she'd always wanted to be in the UK - it was on her "bucket list", she once told me. But it was no premonition. Before that, she dropped everything in Singapore just to live in Paris for a few months, because it was on her list too.

That was just the way she was - she wanted to experience life.

Yet, she never treated her diagnosis as a death sentence. Instead, it was a curiosity to be explored, to question. She was always positive, and almost astounded at how "people have become so nice to me".

I saw her around August last year - she looked good and ate well. She had even hoped to fly to Singapore in September. I don't know if she did. It wasn't unusual not to hear from her, and there seemed no reason for worry since her regular Facebook postings and articles in the Spectator continued to give us hope.

Sometimes, you wonder which comes first - the sickness or the person. It's as if the fun-loving friend you used to know suddenly morphs into this fragile, alien creature you don't know how to deal with.

What do you say? Can you touch her? Is she breakable? Are you allowed to talk about IT? It's all in the head.

Clarissa was not her cancer. She said it herself. She was - right to the end - always Clarissa. And maybe the best way to honour her memory is to remember that.

This article by The Business Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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