Yong Shu Hoong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2004, 12:00am

Writers from China's diaspora

Yong Shu Hoong occasionally considers turning away from the Singapore poetry community he helped establish. Living overseas made him a poet in the first place, he says, so there's every chance that life in a new country would improve his writing and find a bigger audience for his published work.

But although organising readings and supporting the island state's poets is hard work, Yong, 37, says Singapore's mingling cultures offer the best raw matter for writing. 'Some-times I think, 'What's the point?'' he says of the monthly readings at the Book Cafe he arranges for up to 30 people - although often far fewer attend. 'But it needs to continue. It's important for people to know that there's always something happening.

'Singapore is my home country,' he says. 'It makes sense for me to be here, writing in English, as English literature is starting to flourish here. I want to do more interesting portrayals of its urban landscape and history. I want to use Singlish or Indian in my work - the food, the people, things that are seen as exotic by foreigners, without making them cliched or simplistic for Singaporeans.'

Pragmatism is a word rarely used on poets. But by stamping his writing with the trait, Yong has shaped one of the most established writing circles in Asia.

After completing a computer science degree at the National University of Singapore, he headed to the US in 1991 for a master's degree in business at the Texas A&M University. With no previous interest in literature, he started writing poems.

'That was the first time I'd been away from home. It made me want to write, to document being in a strange place. It gave me the spare time to start expressing myself. Then, being part of a poetry group in Texas helped me to express more. It opened my eyes to what poetry can be.'

Yong returned to Singapore to start a career that mixes journalism with compiling online marketing brochures and content for banking services. It's hardly the resume of an impoverished poet. 'I'm content with where I am right now. The job allows me to do what I like most - to write. After travelling around I have a feeling there's no such thing as a perfect job or a perfect country.'

By 1995, he'd written enough poetry to submit an anthology, Pangs of Hunger, for the Singapore Literature Prize. After making it to the shortlist, he came into contact with Singaporean writers eager to be published and form writing groups. 'We kept in touch, this bunch of young people who didn't win,' he says. 'Within three years, we'd already started publishing. It just went on.'

Sitting in a Wan Chai hotel, Yong's collared shirt is neatly ironed, his trousers are from the wardrobe of an office worker. Like his clothes, Yong's writing shows an aversion to the bohemian pose and a willingness to appeal to more than just literature fans. 'My poems are very prose-like. But in the simplicity there are different meanings. I want to reach people with little knowledge of literature or even the English language.'

His breakthrough came in 1997, with Isaac. Four years later he published Isaac Revisited, followed by dowhile in 2002. He hopes to release Frottage

next year.

Inspired by his appearances in March at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Yong says that, as he begins to experiment more with Singapore's cultures, his Chinese heritage will make its presence felt. He admits to being ignorant about his family history. His father was born in Malaysia. His mother is probably from Fujian. 'After reading and hearing people like Maxine Hong Kingston [at the festival], I realised how their appreciation of Chinese language can be used to flavour English.'

After leaning towards western influences in writing and lifestyle, Yong describes his efforts to find a place for China in his poems as 'a process of growing up'. 'It's quite common for writers to step away from a place to start writing about it. I need that anchor. As you get older, there's always the need to explore my roots.'

The interesting thing about the Chinese is that they go everywhere, Yong says. 'My family adopts certain aspects of Chinese culture. I don't see my family as being too different to Chinese families in China or Hong Kong or Singapore.'