Introduction by Wong Koi Tet
I started writing in my junior college years and published a poetry and a prose collection when I was an undergrad at NUS. However, short-story and novel have always been the genres that I aspire to write although the progress and result were exceedingly slow due to my inattentiveness. A couple of short-stories and some tele-movie scripts were done when I graduated and joined the local newspaper as a journalist, the first and only full-time job I had. After 8 years of news reporting, the experience of which fuelled the story-telling desire in me, I resigned and pursued a MA degree at NTU’s post-graduate programme.
During this period, I embarked on a loosely scheduled timetable to formulate a series of short-stories that would juxtapose real historical incidents of the past decades into a fictional framework. I treated them as my Singapore Stories, or to quote the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, a form of petit récits, as opposed to the mainstream grand-narratives propagated in textbooks and media.
I have published five pieces and drafted another three. The original idea was simply to re-tell some forgotten events and weave them into the fabrics of that period. It wasn’t until I have written the last word of the second story that I came to the realisation that, besides the trivial historical realism and daily facets of living, there exists a common theme in all the episodes: the body as a social and cultural metaphor. Most if not all the protagonists in the stories is literally or symbolically linked to the “organ of the lower stratum”, a Bakthinian body that interacts and reflects the society at large. It could be a melancholic coming-of-age narrative in the backdrop of political unrest, or a somewhat comedic tale about reclaiming one’s manhood and masculinity in the midst of rapid urbanisation, but the overall motif I wish to explore is the same: the inspirations, anxieties and obsessions of the common folks in the tides of changes.
I lecture part-time at NTU’s Chinese Division when I have completed my MA. One of the modules that I still teach is Creative Writing minor. Imparting the techniques and joy of writing to the younger minds fills me with a sense of satisfaction not so different from the actual craft itself. I was selected to be the NAC-NTU Writer-in-Residence in the beginning of 2015 for a semester and has been working on a novel set in Dakota Crescent, the nostalgic childhood I grew up in that will be no more.
Translating Wong Koi Tet
Our group – 13 of us – translated six short stories by Wong Koi Tet, also known as Huang Kai De, who is a journalist, writer and poet in Singapore. We had the privilege of meeting him and plaguing him with quite a few questions about his work, and I hope we’ve done justice to his weird and wonderful stories. Save for one of the stories, the rest were all set during different periods of Singapore’s early post-independence history, from the 1960s to the 1980s. The stories include quite a few significant milestones from Singapore history, including the Marxist conspiracy, the Chinese student riots, general elections, and the Stop At Two family planning campaign.
In five stories, the parallels between Singapore’s nation-building and the characters’ coming-of-age is quite clear. You feel a lot of their ambivalence about this passage to manhood, and sense their uncertainty and confusion – and you can also draw a parallel between this sort of male insecurity and post-colonial angst. One of the stories, Turtle Fever, translated by my coursemates Caterina and Zhang Meng, looks at the koro epidemic in Singapore in 1967 where there was a mass hysteria among men in the region who believed their genitalia would shrink and disappear. It’s quite evident that the stories deal very strongly with this idea of masculinity – but also a loss of masculinity, an emasculation. Our workshop leader, Shelly Bryant, observed that it was quite interesting that a dozen women – and just one man, Chee Keng, who unfortunately wasn’t able to attend the boot camp – were wrestling with very male issues throughout this translation process.
The stories don’t just look at that of course, they also put into the spotlight a sort of marginalisation of Chinese education and culture, an erosion of Chinese-language education in Singapore – such as the closure of Nantah University – and a move to a more anglicised culture, long after the British had left the country. And in quite a few of the stories, we see a lot of cultural references to martial arts – whether through the films of Bruce Lee in the story I Am Bruce Lee, translated by Kit and Jiawen – or Moebius Strip, translated by Agnes and Yuxin. There are mentions of wuxia novels, kungfu TV series – we think reflecting a fascination with male virility in the popular imagination of that time and how this was connected to martial arts skills. This is also a main thread in The Nine-Nine Divine Skill, translated by myself and Hwee Min.
The other story not in this oeuvre is Marine Boy, translated by Xiangyun. It’s a much more recent story; the rest were written in the early to mid-2000s. Marine Boy was written shortly after the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami. It’s very stylised, like a parable almost, very different in form from the other five works. It’s also much more experimental. This story in particular, I think, gave us a different view of Kai De’s writing, and demonstrated his versatility and literary flair.
We found that Kai De’s writing was generally very rich and evocative, and had a lot of very wry humour. Some of his stories were quite absurdist, and you could see the ironies in the characters’ struggles quite clearly – they would struggle to attain something but then get waylaid by something else. There’s also a bit of magical realism. Another thing we noticed were his subtle, almost throwaway references to politics – which became even more pointed because they were so understated. On the last day of the boot camp, we were discussing whether this sort of voice in Chinese writing is politically engaged because it is a more marginalised voice, or marginalised because it is politically engaged. We didn’t quite come up with an answer, but it was an interesting point of debate.
Here on New Writing you can read The Nine-Nine Divine Skill. This story is set against the backdrop of the 1984 general election (I just found out that the constituency in question in this story is Mountbatten, which is where I grew up.) It’s a coming of age story about a 12-year-old boy, Ah Bing, who meets a mysterious sailor, Wu Zai, and as they get to know each other, the older man starts to share some of his secrets.
By Corrie Tan, from the Chinese to English track of the Translators Lab, run by the Select Centre, Singapore, in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich.