Penman No. 363: A Singapore Swing


Penman for Monday, July 22, 2019

I’VE BEEN visiting Singapore nearly every year for one reason or other, usually for a conference or at least passing through Changi on my way elsewhere, but this month Beng and I decided to fly there just to have a little fun.

I did have an official excuse, sort of, for this particular swing—the 3rdSingapore Pen Show held at the Marina Mandarin on July 13, which brought together the country’s and region’s premier sellers of pens and related products. I thought I would drop by for a look-see as the “old man” of Philippine fountain pen collecting, and happily I was accompanied by a small but very knowledgeable Pinoy contingent that included adwoman and artist Leigh Reyes (who also happens to be the new president of our Fountain Pen Network-Philippines), medical executive Joseph Abueg, and avid collector Micah Robles, among others. We were all proud to see two major Filipino companies represented at the Singapore show and generating brisk sales and inquiries: Jillian Joyce Tan’s Everything Calligraphy, which was showing off its new line of Philippine-made Vinta inks, and Arnold Ang’s Shibui leather pen cases, which can easily compete in quality and design with the world’s best.


I’ve been to many other pen shows around the world, chiefly in America where they happen year-round, and while Singapore’s may be relatively smaller because newer, it also showcased Asia’s strengths as the producer of some of the world’s finest pens—the high-end Japanese Nakayas, for example, which are rarely seen in the West. Eurobox, which has a formidable collection of vintage pens, came in from Tokyo; and André Mora of the renowned Mora Stylos flew in all the way from Paris with a bevy of their coveted Oldwins. Pen shows are as much about people as they are about pens, and I was delighted to see some old friends like Lai Kim Hoong of Malaysia’s PenGallery, as well as make some new ones like Tan Fong Kum of Singapore’s Aesthetic Bay and Ng Lip Sing of Singapore’s Straits Pens.

So did I buy anything? I normally step out of pen shows with a wild man’s stare, clutching four or five precious finds in my fists, but the great thing about having too many pens is that you know when to stop and to just enjoy the scenery, which is what I did. I came to Singapore to talk pens with kindred spirits, and brought a selection of 12 of my most interesting vintage and modern pens, and had lively conversations about a few of them. Unlike our Manila Pen Show—the next one of which will take place November 16-17 this year—which is far busier and which features more side events like lectures and demos, Singapore’s was still more of a market than a community, and I would’ve liked a longer chat over coffee with our local counterparts, but maybe next time.

Our other objective for this Singapore trip was to visit the National Gallery, which somehow doesn’t figure on most tourist itineraries like the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens by the Bay. Built where the old City Hall and Supreme Court stood, the National Gallery is both an imposing but also welcoming structure, with guides and docents ready to walk you through the exhibits. Aside from Singaporean art, of course, the gallery’s strength lies in its collection of Southeast Asian art, which is breathtaking in its range of styles as well as in its commonality of themes—nation, nature, people. Filipino talent is well represented throughout the exhibit—from the ground floor, where Mark Justiniani’s mind-blowing (and, for the vertiginous like me, unnerving) “Stardust” bridge obliges the visitor to take a literal walk through bottomless space, to the succession of galleries on Levels 3-5 where “Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century” is on show.

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A trio of less-known 1940s Amorsolos is flanked by the orchestrated chaos of a Purugganan; an early and dark Edades exudes primal energy; elsewhere are exemplary pieces by Galo Ocampo, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Napoleon Abueva, Bobby Chabet, Ray Albano, Santy Bose, and Imelda Cajipe. But the piece de resistanceof Filipino modernist representation is H. R. Ocampo’s Dancing Mutants, encountering which made our whole Singapore trip worth it. And the curators themselves must have been aware of the specialness of this stunning work from 1965, according it its very own corner in the gallery, almost altar-like. I’ve seen many Ocampos (with Beng restoring quite a few of them), but this one made me want to fall on my knees in praise of its creator.


And purely by serendipity, when we stepped out of a mobile-phone shop on North Bridge Road, I noticed that the building across the street was none other than the National Library, which I’d visited as a journalist on a previous assignment. Let’s go in, I told Beng, I want to show you something. So we did, and there on the 11thfloor was a permanent exhibit on “Singapore’s Literary Pioneers”—featuring not only the books of the country’s best writers, but also their pens, typewriters, and even their eyeglasses. This, I told Beng wishfully, is how writers should be revered. Always better than a pen show is seeing what comes out of those pens, at their very finest.




Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore


Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016



DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.


“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]



Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016



IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.


Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.


And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)


There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.


Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.


In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.


Penman No. 225: Sayang in Singapore


Penman for Monday, November 11


TO US Filipinos, sayang has one meaning and one meaning only: a regrettable loss, something that causes us to shake our heads or hold our palms to our hearts and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But elsewhere in the region, from some sultry corner of which the word worked its way up our archipelago, sayang means that and more: the love which may have been that which was lost, love as both a noun and a verb, or even an endearment, depending on the nuances of its intonation. So love and loss—the former all too often trailed by the latter—coexist in this wonderfully complex word, through which we Filipinos can at least claim some vestigial connection to the heart of Asia.

Sayang was very much on people’s lips in Singapore last week—you would have thought a lovefest was going on, and in a sense, it was. But the love was for books and literature, the occasion being the Singapore Writers Festival, which I was visiting for the third time after a hiatus of five years. Sayang had been chosen as the festival’s theme, and the word was festooned against a suitably floral backdrop all over the Arts House area where most of the festival events took place.


Now on its 19th edition, the SWF began in 1986 as a biennial event, but it has since become a fixture on the regional cultural calendar (alongside the Singapore Arts Festival), cementing the city-state’s reputation—like its iconic Merlion—as the fountain of artistic endeavor in this part of the world. (I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t that be us, the Philippines, with our long tradition of cultural expression and our bountiful artistic talents?” But I’ll tell you what festival director Yeow Kai Chai—himself a poet and journalist—told me over lunch: “I can’t believe you Filipinos have yet to establish a Department of Culture!”)

It was clear, from the minute I stepped out into Changi’s arrival area, that the National Arts Council, under Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, had once again pulled all the stops to guarantee a pleasant and efficiently managed experience for all SWF attendees, expected to number about 20,000. I was here as a journalist on coverage for the Star (I had attended the SWF as a participant in 2008, and returned to cover it in 2011) and I knew what to expect, but like they say, you never cross the same river twice, and this year’s festival offered a steady stream of 300 events spread out over ten days from November 4 to 13. There were over 300 official participants registered, with a hundred of them coming from overseas.

That makes the SWF one of the world’s largest and longest festivals of its kind, if not probably the most multilingual one, with its support for literature not just in English but also in Bahasa, Chinese, and other Asian languages. According to Yeow, the goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the SWF’s programming, going so far as to offer facilities for the hearing-impaired.

The fullness of the festival programme required selectivity, so I cherry-picked my way through the three days of my stay there, paying special attention to literary developments in Singapore itself. I’ve often remarked—most recently at a reading in Diliman featuring authors brought over by Ethos Books, one of Singapore’s most energetic presses—that the Philippines and Singapore have enjoyed a longstanding “bromance” going down the generations: between F. Sionil Jose and Edwin Thumboo, for example, followed by Krip Yuson and Kirpal Singh, then Joel Toledo and Alvin Pang, to name a few. We’ve published books together; not too long ago, Isabel Mooney and Lily Rose Tope worked with their Singaporean academic counterparts to edit a landmark anthology of Southeast Asian writing in English. So I wanted to see where things were at.


The first session I attended addressed the diasporic element in Singaporean literature—but unlike our exodus of workers and writers to the far reaches of the planet, this diaspora was inbound, and a voluntary one. Moderated by the Filipino expat poet Eric Tinsay Valles, the panel comprised the Eurasian short story writer Jon Gresham, who had come to Singapore via the UK and Australia; the Filipino fictionist and diplomat Cathy Torres, who had moved from her posting in Singapore to Germany; and the American creative nonfiction expert Robin Hemley, who’s married to a Filipina and who now teaches in Singapore.

They discussed how, in the words of Eric, the diaspora could be “a creative space” within which the experience of estrangement could create some positive value. Being away from one’s home, the three agreed, made new impressions and expressions possible. The writer’s struggle to adjust and adapt was in itself the story. Jon spoke about how “It isn’t so much about roots as routes—the journey, the getting there” for the diasporic writer. Adverting to the title story of her debut collection, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Cathy observed how “Diasporic stories are like butterflies. They may look alike but no two are truly the same. I try to catch them and send them out into the world.”

But the it was the keynote talk by Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian who’s become something of an intellectual rock star in the region, that both charmed and alarmed the packed chamber where the Singaporean parliament used to meet. Dr. Noor introduced his talk thus:

“How a word can have multiple meanings at the same time, and have their meanings change over time, is an interesting mirror to the unfolding of history. This lecture looks at one word in particular, sayang, charting its path of adaptation from pre-colonial and colonial histories to the post-colonial present; and considering how the changes in its meanings and applications—from fables to novels to cinema and pop culture—tells us more about ourselves, like how our own sensibilities and worldviews have evolved, leading to the postmodern present which we inhabit today. The word remains the same, but do we sayang today as our ancestors did?”

Looking back on how concepts of love evolved over time in the region—including love across species in folklore, and love for the colonial master—Farish noted how “Words are what we have left of the past, and the past is far more complicated—more rich, more deep—than the present. Today, in the age of Facebook, ‘love’ has been reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button.”

During his turn in the chamber, Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo looked back on a lifetime of literature in his country thus: “Young poets no longer write about nation because the nation has been constructed for them. It’s no longer a problem….. It’s so easy now to get published but I don’t think there’s enough revision going on. People are anthologizing like mad. Be patient. Always think you can do better.”

The renowned American critic Marjorie Perloff spoke at the last event I attended, and she closed SWF 2016 for me with a rousing challenge: “Avant-garde poetry has crossed the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, but poetry hasn’t changed in 70 years the way painting and music have. We need another kind of revolution!”

Many thanks again to my hosts and to my SWF friends—it was all sayang and yet no sayang for me this past weekend. In a coming column, I’ll digest two interviews I conducted with Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and our very own Eric Tinsay Valles on what it’s like to be a poet in Singapore.

Penman No. 106: Penguins and Paranoia

Tango_Makes_3Penman for Monday, July 21, 2014


LAST WEEK, I wrote a piece extolling the emergence of dissident themes and voices in Singaporean literature, particularly in the novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, who reminded us how much of that city-state’s wealth and power grew on the back of its underclass. I’m sure that there are many voices harsher and more strident than Suchen’s among Singapore’s younger writers, which is good. We’ve long expected this kind of literary insurgency to happen, as it is almost invariably the writers of any nation who form the spearpoint of social protest.

As I said last week, many Filipinos—whether mistakenly or not—take Singapore’s enviable prosperity as the result of a pact with the devil of authoritarianism, a compromise between getting fed well and shutting up. So we’re glad to see Singaporean society loosening up and speaking out, and to meet the humans behind the industrial facade. Surely, we’d like to think, Singapore’s economic ascendancy and its emphatic claim to full modernization deserve to be crowned by a more liberal, compassionate, and inclusive democracy. A rich nation should be able to afford more, not less, freedom.

Or so we thought. Very recently, Singapore’s government delivered another rude reminder of how deep in the dark cavern of the feudal mind its ministers remain, even as their citizens have begun to step out into the sunlight.

At issue was the decision of the National Library Board—supported by the Information Minister—to remove three children’s books from the shelves and to destroy all remaining copies, out of fear that the books, because of their unusual content, would condone and promote homosexual behavior. (Singapore still has a law criminalizing sex between men, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.)

Reports say that the banned books include “And Tango Makes Three,” based on a true story about two male penguins that raised a baby penguin in a New York zoo. In “The White Swan Express,” children are adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race, and single parents. The third book, “Who’s In My Family,” includes gay couples among different types of families. Because a conservative parent complained about these books, an internal review was undertaken by the NLB, which then deemed them unsuitable and subject to removal and destruction.

Not surprisingly, Singapore’s writers, artists, and academics—the liberal types every authoritarian regime fears and detests—are up in arms over the decision. Three prominent judges have resigned from the board of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, and writers’ and gay organizations all over the world have denounced both the homophobia and the Hitlerite evocation of bookburning that the NLB action embodies. They point out, fairly enough, that conservatives who disagree with the books have a choice not to read them, but that others should have the option and opportunity to read them should they want to.

One of the strongest voices raised against the NLB was that of Suchen Lim, who last Thursday keynoted the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference at Singapore’s Arts House. (I should’ve been there, but thanks to Typhoon Glenda, my flight was canceled and I couldn’t rebook myself in time to catch my two events, so I decided to stay home and mend our typhoon-battered roof.) The Singapore Straits Times would report on Suchen’s impassioned attack on the NLB thus:

“Lim, 65, was a single parent to her two sons and was also brought up in a single parent family for a time before her mother remarried. She said the removal of these books was a disappointment.

“’In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don’t count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility,’ she said.

“The audience in the Chamber of the former Parliament House stood and applauded her words, including Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi and Singapore writers Verena Tay and Josephine Chia. Also present was writer Felix Cheong, who along with fellow authors Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan and Prem Anand, withdrew from an NLB panel discussion last week, to protest against the withdrawal of the picture books.

“Cheong, 49, wore a brand-new T-shirt decorated with three penguins, a logo which has been adopted by those against NLB’s removal of the books.”

Had I been there, I would’ve stood up myself and cheered Suchen on, even at the risk of being blacklisted and turned away the next time I present myself at Changi’s immigration line. The fight against prejudice and censorship knows no national boundaries, which is why I’m writing up this issue for Filipino readers who couldn’t care less about Singapore and gay penguins.

In truth, I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore and have been the appreciative guest of both its government and of my fellow writers there. A couple of years ago, its tourism ministry took me, among other journalists, on a tour of Singapore’s cultural landmarks, including the National Library, and we were suitably impressed. I wrote glowing reports about Singapore’s emergence as a new cultural hotspot in Asia. Why not? The view from The Hub—a glass bubble at the top of the library—was breathtaking, and I was moved by a special exhibit their ultramodern library had of their prominent writers’ memorabilia. When, I thought, would we come around to making these investments in books and culture in the Philippines?

But as I noted last week, there are always two sides to Singapore, and this book-banning incident reminded me of (for us Filipinos) a much sadder story from almost 20 years ago, when Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, convicted of murder, was about to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi prison. As the editorial writer then of the now-defunct Today newspaper, on the eve of Flor’s execution, I looked helplessly at this painful spectacle and remarked:

“Something went terribly wrong with Flor’s dream—whether through her fault or someone else’s, as now seems highly plausible, only God for the moment knows for certain. Two people died, allegedly by Flor’s maddened hand, and that was tragic enough. Today, Flor Contemplacion will die in turn in judicial payment for those lives—and that, too, will cause untold sorrow, especially among her people who have rallied to her defense.

“But almost as saddening, perplexing, and infuriating as these losses is today’s freshest reminder of savagery in what had been held up, for all the world to see, as the very model of civilized society and behavior in our time. And this was hardly the savagery of individuals gone amuck, but the institutional primitivism of a government which, for all its claims to modernity and discipline, has finally revealed nothing but its simian brain and tom-tom heart. Flor’s execution will be a quick and convenient end; any further complications, by way of entertaining an appeal for a stay and a reinvestigation, would have strained the brutish simplemindedness of Singaporean justice.”

They were harsh words for a harsh situation, and even as I subsequently accepted and enjoyed, with not a little guilt, Singapore’s official hospitality, hoping that things had changed, I never quite lost the suspicion that beneath the First-World ease was a hair-trigger reflex that could be set off by any perceived threat to stability and security.

A government that fears that the carefully constructed and presumably robust society it has built can be unraveled by the affection between two male penguins is exhibiting not just ignorance but paranoia. One has to wonder of what use it is to tout such 21st-century marvels as the Marina Bay Sands—and, yes, a state-of-the-art National Library—when the consciousness that directs the place is stuck somewhere in the 16th century.

But before we Filipinos beat our chests and congratulate ourselves over how much more open we are to such modern concepts as tolerance and acceptance, let’s not forget that our own public officials share something with their Singaporean counterparts. When our President denied the accomplished actress but alleged drug user Nora Aunor the National Artist Award for fear that honoring her would encourage Filipinos to run out for their nearest dose of shabu, it showed that governments everywhere don’t have the foggiest idea of how art and artists work. But they do know that art works—much more effectively than government PR—and in that knowledge, perhaps, lies the source of their fear and disquietude.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 37: The 2014 APWT Conference Tentative Program


Bridging Cultures: Creative Writing and Literary Translation in Asia Today

17-20 July 2014 

The Art House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore

Program (Draft@24 April)* 

*Sessions or times are likely to change, so check back before the event.

Our ‘roundtables’ are so-called to encourage audience participation in conversations started by the featured authors.

Speaker biographies can be found here:

Thursday 17 July

08:30     Blue Room           Sign in, collect conference badge and handout.

Tea/coffee, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

09:00     CHAMBER           Welcome and Introduction.

09:15    CHAMBER            Opening Keynote (TITLE TBA) by Suchen Christine Lim.

09:50    CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. ‘What is Literature For? featuring the conference keynotes: Suchen Christine Lim with Linda Jaivin and Merlinda Bobis. Moderator TBC.

11.00     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

11:30     LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. Poetry: Art and Soul of It – This is a free-wheeling conversation about what poetry is and isn’t, led by Alfian bin Sa’at, Martin Alexander, Mani Rao, Menka Shivdasani, and Joshua Ip. Moderated by Jennifer Crawford.

11:30     CHAMBER           ROUNDTABLE. Twisting the Truth: Truth in Fiction, Lies in Non-Fiction. An exploration of story-telling as art and why we tell stories, with David Carlin, Lisa Walker (TBC), Michael Vatikiotis and Philip McLaren (TBC) – Moderated by Jose Dalisay.

12:45    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC.

2:00      WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Martin Alexander (COUNCIL ROOM) and Tim Tomlinson (Green Room). SEE DETAILS.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Remembering. This broad conversation about writing memoir will be kicked off by Sally Breen, Tony Birch), Jessie Cole (TBC), and Victor Marsh in conversation with Francesca Rendle-Short.

2:00       CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Forgetting. Fiction can take us away from our ‘real’ lives into different ways of seeing the world. Novelists talk about their work, featuring Kathryn Koromilas, Dipika Mukherjee (TBC) and Angelo Loukakis, in conversation with Maria Carmen Sarmiento. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM   Conversation on Writing Today from Pakistan with Iram Shafique and Farheen Chaudhry and Qaisra Shahraz.

2:45        CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape in Indonesia. A panel discussion led by John H. McGlynn with others (TBC) includingIwan Sulistiawan who will talk about changes ‘From Discrimination to Multiculturalism: Indonesian Chinese in Indonesian Novels’. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

3:30     Blue Room       Refreshment, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:45    LITERARY WALK (TBC), organized by the Arts House. Meander through the fiction, non-fiction and fantasy of Singapore with award-winning writer Rosemary Lim (TBC). You will follow in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, explore locations that inspired Rex Shelley and Edwin Thumboo. Discover Singapore as muse to novelists, playwrights and poets as you travel in time from colonial days to the present day through words and imagination.

4:00       Earshot Café     NEW WORK- Book Launches.

Help celebrate the launch of five new books. Menka Shivdasani launches an anthology of women’s writing from India; Eu Yoke Lin will launch her first book of poetry; John McGlynn launches a translation of a classical Malay tale “Krakatau: The Tale of Lampung Submerged”; Victor Marsh launches his memoir that draws on his experiences as a disoriented Australian who is initiated by a young guru; and Mani Rao will launch a Singapore edition of echolocation (Math Paper Press). Details will be available on a separate link.

6:30      Blue Room        Welcome Cocktails (TBC) – courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

EARSHOT CAFÉ (?)     Singapore Outloud (TBC). Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Martin Alexander and Alfian Sa’at.

Friday 18 July

09:00     WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Tony Birch (COUNCIL ROOM) and Nury Vittachi (Green Room).

09:00    CHAMBER            KEYNOTE: ‘Border Lover in Uncertain Times: Story-Making Across Cultures, Languages, and Literary Forms’ by Merlinda Bobis

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableWhat Women in Asia Write About Now, with Merlinda Bobis, Menka Shivdasani (TBC),Mridula Chakraborty, Farheen Chaudhry, and Qaisra Shahraz. Moderated by Judith Buchrich

09:45     LIVING ROOM Roundtable – TBA

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45    LIVING ROOM   Gender Politics: Forcing the Issue– Victor Marsh, Jhoanna Cruz and Alfian Sa’at speak about issues that brought them out as writers. Moderator TBC.

10:45     CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#1). This session discusses new magazines and other platforms with Zafar Anjum, Simon Clews, Martin Alexander, Kulpreet Yadav and others TBC, with participating moderator Kelly Falconer (Asia Literary Agency).

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

1:00        LIVING ROOM   Book launches. Help celebrate the launch of books by Lydia Kwa, Bhavna Khemlani, Bob D’Costa and Farheen Chaudhry. Details will be available on a separate link.

2:00    Workshops (4 hours) with Sally Breen (COUNCIL ROOM) and Merlinda Bobis (Green Room). See

2:00     CHAMBER      Writing Under Political Pressure. ‘Prison Makes Poets of Us All,’ wrote Filipino political prisoner Alan Jazmines. Maria Carmen Sarmiento discusses the literary work of some political prisoners in the Philippines. At the age of 18 Jose Dalisay was himself a political prisoner for seven months under Filipino martial law (1973) and wrote his first novel about that experience (1992). He now writes nonfiction history of that period. Others on this panel include Alfred Birnbaum who translated the censored work of Burmese novelist Nu Nu Yi. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

2:45        CHAMBER           Links and Fragments into Narrative Wholes

What can be done when a novel gets stuck – when the writer just cannot imagine what the next action is?  Tim Tomlinson has suggestions, while prolific author Nury Vittachi adds advice of his own. Cristina Hidalgo who has authored more than 30 books will also offer a few tips. Moderator TBC. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM     IN CONVERSATION. Shirley Lee, translator of North Korean poet Jang Jin Sung’s recently published disturbing memoir Dear Leader, in conversation about the book, its success and the issues associated with its translation, in conversation with her with her agent Marysia Juszxakiewicz of Peony Literary Agency. TBC

3:30        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

4: 00       CHAMBER           Roundtable. On Teaching Creative Writing in English and the Influence of the Mother Tongue. Join this discussion withDai Fan who teaches one of the few English language creative writing courses in China, Jayanthi Manoj who teaches in Trichy, India, Filipino teacehers Hope Sabanpan-Yu and Christine Godinez-Ortega (TBC), and Indigenous Australian author and professor Tony Birch. Moderated by Francesca Rendle-Short.

4:00     LIVING ROOM

5:30        EARSHOT CAFÉ                 Singapore Outloud #2 – Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Joseph Ip and Mani Rao.

Saturday 19 July

09:00     Workshop (4 hours) with Francesca Rendle-Short (COUNCIL ROOM). See details.

09:00        CHAMBER        KEYNOTE: Found in Translation – In Praise of a Plural Worldby Linda Jaivin.

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableTranslation Thrills and Spills. Translators speak about their translation process and challenges, and share hilarious moments from their experience translating authors and poets who are too close, too far, and even omnipresent. Linda JaivinKyoko Yoshida, Andrea Lingenfelter and Menka Shivdasani with participating moderator Mani Rao.

09:45   LIVING ROOM   CONVERSATION “ASIAN SAVVY”. Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#2). Join in this lively conversation led by Nury Vittachi who contends that ‘Asia’ is poised to lead the literary world.

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45     CHAMBER           How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

10:45     LIVING ROOM   Language and Politics: New Dynamics. Has the role of English shifted significantly in a postcolonial scenario? A dominant group can seize, assimilate, domesticate … is it any different when translating from English to vernacular languages? When so-called local, native or indigenous texts present culturally specific contexts, how can they be translated into more ‘universal’ contexts without misrepresentation? What goes into making non-English texts, “world literature”? If translation has now been exposed as colonial discourse, has it changed in a postcolonial context? Mridula Chakraborty, Antonette Talaue, Shafique Iram, Dipika Mukherjee(TBC) and/or Shirley Young-Eun Lee (TBC), moderated by Shelly Bryant.

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC


1)      Re: Joint issue of Griffith REVIEW/ASIA LITERARY REVIEW publishers Susan Hornbeck (GR) and Martin Alexander (ALR), introduced by Jane Camens.

2)      Re: World Readers Award by Nury Vittachi.

3)      Overview of 2015 Meeting in the Philippines with Jose Dalisay (and the Filipino organizers).

1:00        CHAMBER           ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING of AP Writers. All members of AP Writers welcome. Appointment of a new Director and a new Translation Chair, account by the Executive Director of finances, and other matters aimed at improving and expanding AP Writers.

3:00        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:30 pm Literary Walk #2 TBC organized by the Arts House.

5:00        EARSHOT CAFÉ     Singapore Outloud #3 Readings, with participating moderators Bernice Chauly (TBC) and Sally Breen.

Sunday 20 July FREE PUBLIC DAY

 Full Public Program to come.

10:00   WORKSHOP Bring Out Your Best at POETRY SLAM with Marc Nair, organized by Word Forward. For poets intending to participate in our closing poetry slam. (Registered conference participants can perform in the Slam without attending this workshop.) Details to be provided soon.

From 10 AM, all day

  • Author conversations with Singapore and visiting authors before a public audience.
  • Readings with a Singapore audience.
  • Children’s session (2 pm) with Nury Vittachi. Other possible authors for this children’s session Bhavna Khemlani? Cris Barbra Pe? Angelo Loukakis? Others?

POETRY SLAM, organized by Word Forward.

Penman No. 73: A New Home in Erehwon

IMG_2568Penman for Monday, November 18, 2013

I HAD a good chat with Metro Manila Concert Orchestra founding music director Josefino “Chino” Toledo recently at the inauguration of the MMCO’s new rehearsal space at the Erehwon Center for the Arts in Quezon City. Also a gifted composer and conductor, Chino is a fellow professor of mine at the University of the Philippines, and a batchmate under UP’s Arts Productivity System. We’ve run into each other during UPAPS ceremonies, but never really got to talk until the Erehwon event.

But let me digress a bit and say something about Erehwon itself first. Founded a couple of years ago by businessman Rafael Rivera Benitez, Erehwon is actually a big white building nestled in a corner of Old Balara in Quezon City (you can find the map and more details on that Raffy converted and devoted to serving as Metro Manila’s newest arts mecca—a studio cum gallery cum performance space cum residency and meeting venue.

Raffy himself is an old friend and compadre of mine, someone I spent one of life’s most privileged experiences with—prison time and space in Fort Bonifacio under martial law, when both of us were in our late teens. He made his mark in the baking and printing businesses, but late in life (he very recently turned 60), Raffy decided to pursue another passion—patronage of the arts, giving rise to Erehwon. (People our age will remember the late, lamented Erehwon Bookshop in Ermita—which was right next to my old NEDA office on Padre Faura, providing me with a perennial excuse for an extended lunch break. That Erehwon, however, has nothing to do with the new one.)

And now, thanks to Raffy Benitez and Erehwon, the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra will have a new home through a venue grant offered by Erehwon to the MMCO, which until lately was lodged with Miriam College, where Chino Toledo also held certain responsibilities. Its arrangement with Miriam having ended, the MMCO needed a white knight to come to its rescue, and that turned out to be Erehwon, which has also been seeking partners to work with in arts promotion.

Erehwon couldn’t have found a better partner than the MMCO, which was established in June 2000 and has since become one of the country’s leading semiprofessional orchestras. I asked Chino what set the MMCO apart from the others, and he told me that they were especially receptive to new and young Filipino composers and musicians. I noticed, during the inauguration, that the orchestra’s musicians were predominantly young, most of them clearly in their 20s and 30s. That’s exactly the kind of push our young musical talents need, particularly as orchestral music, like theater, involves the effort of a community working as one, and an individual really succeeds only insofar as he or she can find membership and nurturance within that community.

The MMCO now counts about 50 musicians in its ranks, coming from various schools in the metropolis. (“The number of people in an orchestra will vary depending on the piece,” Chino told me, “but at full complement, an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic could have as many as a hundred members.”) They hold an average of one concert a month, and practice at least twice a week. The conductor, Chino explained, functions as the team coach, and the concert master acts as the captain ball, leading the execution of the coach’s plan.

Funding is always a problem, Chino added; as a semi-professional orchestra, the MMCO does its best to pay its members what they deserve, but as with most other artistic endeavors, it’s love of music that really drives the group and Chino himself forward, and sustains the commitment of a faithful corps of supporters that include Executive Director Chinggay Lagdameo and MMCO Foundation President Corazon Alma de Leon.

Here’s hoping that the MMCO’s move to Erehwon will result in a new season of growth and prosperity for the orchestra and for Philippine music as a whole.

SPEAKING OF cultural initiatives, last week marked the staging of the fourth Philippine International Literary Festival (formerly known as the Manila International Literary Festival), spearheaded by the National Book Development Board in cooperation with four universities in Manila—the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of Sto. Tomas, and De La Salle University—and the Ayala Museum. The urban setting was deliberate, because this year’s festival theme was “Text and the City,” focused on how centrally the city figures in Philippine and regional literature.

I joined a panel at UST with colleagues Jing Hidalgo and Charlson Ong in a discussion of how the city informs our writing. In broad terms, I noted that the city, not surprisingly, has figured in a major way in Philippine fiction, particularly in English, because most of the fiction published in the Philippines has been written by city-based middle-class writers. It has often been presented as the site of violence, poverty, and corruption, in contrast to the romantic conception of the countryside as a place of peace, plenitude, and spiritual regeneration. In more politically aware writings, however, that line has become blurred, as the feudal roots of urban wealth and power become more clearly exposed.

Our focus on the familiar city, however, comes at a great price—the near-absence of new writing that deals with the Philippine countryside in anything but a romantic mode. (By “romantic” here I mean I mean not only the highly idealized representations of rural maidens by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, but also my politicized generation’s expectation of ascending into the mountains—joining the armed struggle—as a kind of revolutionary apotheosis.) As it happened, I was in Baler, Aurora that weekend, and rushed back to Manila at dawn to make it in time for the UST event. On the six-hour ride, over mountain roads with a view of the great ocean, I remarked how conspicuously absent the sea and the mountains were in our contemporary literature, despite the fact that we pride ourselves in being a vast archipelago. Our stories today take place in Starbucks Katipunan, or in some cozy corner of Bonifacio High Street that may as well be another country.


In UP, I was happy to introduce an old friend, the Singaporean fictionist Suchen Christine Lim, a guest and featured speaker of the festival along with other international writers including the Hong Kong-based fictionist Xu Xi and cultural critic Peter Swirski. Suchen is a delightfully gifted writer whose title story in the collection The Lies That Build a Marriage (available at National Book Store) blew me away; her prose is crisp and to the point, but her command of character displays the depth and sophistication of her perception.

I noted how the Philippines and Singapore have had a long and special literary relationship, probably nurtured by the fact that we share the same colonial language, English. Among writers, Frankie Sionil Jose was a contemporary and good friend of Edwin Thumboo; Krip Yuson, Charlson Ong and I have had fruitful contact with Kirpal Singh, Robert Yeo, and Chris Mooney-Singh; our younger writers like poet Joel Toledo (who’s doing a PhD in Singapore) have their counterparts in Alvin Pang and Joshua Ip. Some years ago, Filipino and Singaporean poets got together to produce a joint anthology titled Love Gathers All. You’ll note that all of these pairings are between men, so it’s refreshing and important to remember that women writers have also figured prominently in Singaporean literature, aside from Suchen Lim—the fictionist Catherine Lim and the playwright Stella Kon among them.

Next year, Singapore will host the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators conference, followed by us in 2015. It’s events like these that will help put the Philippines where it deserves to be, squarely on the global literary and cultural map.

Penman No. 12: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (2)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 10, 2012

ANYONE WHO doubts that Singapore is going through a cultural renaissance just has to drop by places like the Goodman Arts Center, the Arts House, the National Library Board building, and any one of the many museums that have sprung up around the city-state city-state celebrating everything from historical heritage to biodiversity and toys.

On a recent media visit to Singapore, I was shown by my hosts from the National Arts Council around many of these cultural hotspots, and they offered a wealth of insights into contemporary Singaporean society and its concerns.

Housed in what used to be a school run by the La Salle Brothers, the  seven-hectare Goodman Arts Center in the Mounbatten district opened last year and has quickly become Singapore’s largest arts enclave, serving as a studio, meeting place, and performance venue for both local and international artists. Studios in the GAC are generously subsidized by the government, and “There’s a long waiting line of artists wanting to use the center,” said Evan Hwong of The Old Parliament House Ltd., which manages the GAC.

Being a complex of converted school buildings, there is nothing particularly impressive about the GAC on the outside; but open one of the many doors and instantly a world of artistic creation meets the eye and swarms the senses. During our visit, we encountered Jerry Hinds, an expat Briton who’s helping young Singaporean cartoonists sharpen their skills not just in terms of drawing but also in sharpening their narratives; Iskander, a longtime transplant from the Netherlands, who’s working to help people see comics not just as entertainment but also as an art form; Sonny Liew, Malaysian-born but Singapore-based, who’s already drawn for Marvel Comics; Japanese artist Eriko Hirashima, who’s turning books into art objects in themselves; and Singaporean copywriter Amanda Lee and artist Winnie Goh, whose Studio Kaleido explores crossovers between visual and literary art.

Not only professional artists are welcome at the GAC. Ongoing at the GAC this month and open to the public are a batik painting workshop, a professional singing course in Mandarin, and classes in contemporary dance, hot glass bead-making, bookmaking, and pottery, among others.

Theater has always been particularly strong and popular in Singapore, and performance venues abound, such as the landmark durian-shaped Esplanade, the elegant Arts House at the Old Parliament Building along the river, and the Drama Theater of the School of the Arts.

We had a special encounter with an icon of Singaporean theater, the playwright and novelist Stella Kon, at the Peranakan Museum which had dedicated an exhibit to her play Emily of Emerald Hill, much performed and beloved of generations of Singaporeans since it debuted in 1982. Although born in Edinburgh (she later reacquired Singaporean citizenship), Stella is of Peranakan origins, referring mainly to the Chinese who settled centuries ago in certain places around the Straits of Malacca, particularly in Penang, Melaka, and Singapore. The Peranakans have contributed richly to the economy, culture, and cuisine of their host countries; most outsiders will recognize, for example, the sarong kabaya immortalized by the TV ad’s “Singapore girl,” a stylized version of traditional Peranakan dress.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a long dramatic monologue in English (most recently and brilliantly performed by the cross-dressing Ivan Heng) that takes the audience through the colorful life of Emily Gan, who rises from poor Peranakan girl to powerful matriarch. It’s a sad story but one that has resonated powerfully with its viewers (it’s being taught here in the Philippines by Dr. Lily Rose Tope, our new departmental chair in UP, in her Southeast Asian literature class), and it’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the play, but meeting the author herself as we walked through the Peranakan Museum was a special treat. “It used to be that being Peranakan was something of a disadvantage,” said Stella, “but today’s it’s become chic.”

The stories of the Peranakan—and much more—are lodged in the National Library of Singapore on Victoria Street, a breathtakingly modern building whose collections comprise not only the traditional hardbacks but a growing library of digitized e-books as well. (Just how far ahead Singapore is in the digital game struck me when I overheard someone mention a “Donate your old iPad” campaign being undertaken there for the use of schoolchildren.) “We don’t actually keep all that many books here,” a reference librarian told me, “because they’re sent out to the public libraries.” In other words, Singaporeans are busy reading. The National Library Board also runs a vigorous publishing program, and its products—such as an annotated bibliography of contemporary Singaporean literature in English—are available for free to anyone interested. The library’s collections are searchable online. At the time we visited, a large and groundbreaking exhibit featuring the letters of Singapore’s colonial founding father, Sir Stamford Raffles, was just about to open; there was also an exhibit upstairs of the personal memorabilia and writing tools (the pens were of particular interest to me) of some of Singapore’s most prominent writers. And here’s a travel tip: the best view of Singapore’s skyline can be had at the National Library’s Pod venue, open by special arrangement.

We ended our visit with dinner and music at Timbre at the Arts House, a bar and restaurant along the breezy riverfront operated by a group led by Danny Loong. Danny was himself a musician but has moved on to become one of Singapore’s leading arts managers and music entrepreneurs. (Danny told me that he was due to fly to Manila soon to judge at a blues-band competition; he’s also brought some Pinoy bands over to Singapore.) The music scene in Singapore was varied and dynamic, Danny told us—and we could hear that for ourselves, as a local trio essayed Bon Jovi on acoustic guitars. Some years ago, a Singaporean rap tune called “Why You So Like Dat?”—in Singlish, of course—was a big hit on the airwaves, and you can still catch it on YouTube. A message on the TV monitors at Timbre reminded the audience that they could send in their dedications to one another via SMS. It was a Monday, just the start of the work week, but the young Singaporeans around us were clearly enjoying themselves—and the great food and wide range of beers—at prices that weren’t going to bust anyone’s wallet.

It’s this kind of popular enthusiasm that Singapore’s cultural planners want to tap into, toward the creation of even more original material that would engage Singaporeans of all ages and levels. There’s a master plan behind all this, and it’s contained in the recently released Final Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which noted among others that “Since 1988, our cultural vibrancy has increased exponentially, with activities rising almost twenty-fold. Local audiences now have a year-round selection of festivals, fairs, events and activities to choose from. Demand for arts and culture has kept pace with vibrancy, with ticketed attendances and museum visitorship rising three-fold and eight-fold respectively.”

The review is a very detailed plan that our own cultural poobahs can learn a thing or two from—such a streamlining funding requirements for the arts (the NCCA, bound by COA procedures, makes our artists go through hoops of fire for the simplest things). And it should be noted that Singapore’s National Arts Council is backstopped by its Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth—leaving us, again and parochially, one of the few large Asian countries without a Department of Culture to spearhead these initiatives at the highest levels of government.

On a more personal note, I was happy to be able to indulge myself this last visit in some of my favorite Singapore pastimes—feasting on the chicken rice at the Kopitiam, looking for bargains at the Sunday flea market on Sungei Road, and ducking into the Aesthetic Bay pen shop at ION Orchard for a bottle of ink. On my last morning walk, I stumbled serendipitously into a sidestreet that led me to Emerald Hill, the setting of that fabled play.

And even in Singapore’s smallest corners I found a Pinoy connection. Chatting with Kenny Leck, the owner of Books Actually (who publishes handsome little poetry chapbooks under the Math Paper Press imprint), I discovered that a Filipino poet—my old student and beer buddy Joel Toledo—lived just across the street in Tiong Bahru. Joel’s in Singapore to do his PhD, and has begun to make his mark there, with his Ruins and Reconstructions sitting on the same shelf alongside the works of Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, and Kirpal Singh. I flipped through a copy of the Asia Literary Review in the bookshop, and found contributions by the Ateneo poet Anne Carly Abad and the Leyte-based poet Michael Carlo Villas. One way or another—and let’s not forget the forthcoming Singapore Literary Festival in November—Filipinos will figure in Singapore’s cultural reawakening.

Penman No. 11: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (1)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 3, 2012

I’VE BEEN to Singapore many times since my first visit in 1983—almost yearly, in fact, since 2008—but I don’t think I understood and appreciated the place as much as I did when I flew in again last weekend to cover the launch of this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. What I found was not only a vibrant writing and publishing scene, barely mindful of the censorship we instinctively associate with that city-state, but also an explosion of artistic talent in fields as diverse as cartooning, music, and theater. This week I’m going to report on the SWF and writing in Singapore, and next week I’ll talk about the other arts.

For Filipinos more accustomed to thinking about Singapore as a place for upscale shopping and high finance, the notion of “Singaporean culture and arts”may seem a strange one. Singapore, we’ve assumed, just buys and borrows someone else’s art. Indeed, thirty years ago, Singaporean writers were humble enough to acknowledge the fact that they had a lot of catching up to do. In his introduction to 1983’s Stories from Singapore, George Fernandez observed that “Multiracial Singapore is in the throes of evolving a national literature. In this field of national literature in English we are certainly only a fledgling, and we have much to learn from the older and more experienced countries like the Philippines and India.”

That was then. Today, the reality is that—thanks to substantial government support and to a newfound confidence among Singaporean writers and artists—Singapore has become a major cultural hub in Southeast Asia, attracting international talent while nurturing its own.

The Singapore Writers Festival—whose 15th edition will run from November 2 to 11—is a case in point. Formerly held every two years, its organizers have seen fit to turn the SWF into an annual event, bringing it up to the level of other regional events such as the Sydney Writers Festival and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

I was a participant in last year’s SWF, engaged in a very lively conversation with the British playwright and novelist Caryl Phillips, but it was different to be going backstage this time and to watch the event being set up. The festival was being launched more than two months in advance to start generating publicity and ticket sales, but our small press group (which included Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald and Parisa Pichitmarn of the Bangkok Post) was treated to a preview of the kind of talent to expect at the festival itself, and to an introduction to the Singapore book scene.

Before we even met the authors, we met the books—and a familiar authorial accessory, beer. “Books & Beer” is a regular event that takes place around Singapore at different venues, and this time it was at Lil Papas Wieners Bistro at Tanjong Pagar Plaza, right next to the central business district. Aside from selling a mindboggling variety of craft beers from all over the world, Lil Papa’s features a revolving library operating on a simple principle: bring a book, and take one home. The crowd is decidedly young, but the books on the shelves go beyond perennial favorites Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, and Alex Garland to include Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, and John Le Carre.

At Select Books on Armenian Street, we sat down with a group of Singaporean or Singapore-based writers—Hadijah Rahmat, who writes poetry and fiction in Malay; KTM Iqbal, a Tamil poet; Chow Teck Seng, a poet and fictionist in Chinese; Shamini Flint, an ex-lawyer from Malaysia whose crime mysteries and children’s books in English have sold over 500,000 copies since she began writing six years ago; and Neil Humphreys, a British humorist who has made Singapore his home and whose most recent book, Return to a Sexy Island, recently made Singapore’s bestseller list.

The multiracial composition of the group couldn’t have been more Singaporean, representing the four official languages (English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) and the experiences—both pluses and minuses—as well of each of these writers and the language they wrote in. Not surprisingly, Neil and Shamini found it easiest to break through to a larger market—Neil had just returned from a book launch in Malaysia—but even so, barriers remain. “I found that my publishers were much more interested in book with no Asian content,” said the eminently adaptable Shamini, whose books have gone as far as South Africa. Chow Teck Seng saw a way out of the madding crowd by publishing his poems with photographs and other catchy graphics that seem to have clicked with younger readers.

I was both relieved and distressed to find that Singaporean and Filipino authors had much in common. Books are expensive in Singapore, averaging about S$17 (almost P600) for paperbacks and $30 for hardbacks. With a population of 6 million, the market is inherently small. Translation grants—vital in a multiracial, multilingual society—are new and few. “We don’t read each other” was a lament I heard more than once, particularly across the linguistic divide. With the exception of Neil and Shamini, most local writers still need to keep day jobs, usually as teachers.

As for taboos and political no-no’s, they’re still in place—writing too pointedly about race and religion could land you in the hot seat, and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is still officially banned—but Singaporean writers have learned to test and push the limits. Humphrey’s solution is humor—lots of it. “I’m known as the foreigner who whacks Singapore and survives,” he said. “Regulation encourages creativity,” another writer told me. An anti-homosexuality statute is still in the books, but that hasn’t stopped Jee Leong Koh from writing and publishing overtly gay poetry. And sometimes the poetry comes from people you least expect to write poems, especially traditional sonnets, such as Joshua Ip—the pseudonym of a major in the Singaporean army—whose Sonnets from Singlish has been gaining some traction in the bookshops.

Speaking of book stores, there are around 40 of them in Singapore, including a few prized “indie” bookshops such as Select and Books Actually. The recent global closure of Border’s was a big letdown for book buyers, but old reliables like Kinokuniya are still operating, and even sell some local literature.

There’s a palpable sense of a cultural and literary renaissance in the place, and the forthcoming SWF will be sure to project Singapore’s cultural vitality even more strongly, with Pulitzer prizewinner Michael Cunningham (The Hours), travel essayist Pico Iyer, and Man Asian prizewinner Shin Kyung-Sook leading an impressive list of literary luminaries in attendance (including our own novelist Charlson Ong). All in all, the SWF will feature 138 local and 46 international writers in 200 events spanning ten days.

“And for the first time, we’re having a festival fringe focused on the origins of desire and sexuality in literature,” said the young and energetic festival director Paul Tan, from the National Arts Council. The staid riverside Arts House, which used to be the parliament building, will be hosting dicsussions on (surprise, surprise) 50 Shades of Grey and burning questions like “Do women write better sex?” and “Can you be a feminist and still enjoy women’s magazines?”

If only for that, it should be worth booking a visit to Singapore between November 2 and 11.