Chinese poet Wong Yoon Wah, who grew up during the Malayan Emergency, was not able to talk about his life story until recently
By Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times, 4 Jun 2012
Noted Chinese poet and educator Wong Yoon Wah grew up in a barbed wire compound during the Malayan Emergency, suffering British guards who bayoneted his schoolbooks and communist guerillas who set fire to his classroom.
But when speaking of his childhood, he remembers first of all the forest he grew up in and a home which was surrounded by fruit and rubber trees.
During holidays, he would collect the rubber sap with his mother or watch her at work with her employees, experiences that later evolved into verse.
And just like tapping a tree's vein, a simple query about the 71-year-old's past generates a flood of surprising facts as he shifts into educator mode.
For example, ask about his siblings and he first says he is the second youngest of six children.
After a pause, he corrects it to seven, four boys and three girls.
'We were four brothers, not three, but we dared not tell people one was in mainland China, so I'm already used to that number,' he explains.
Over interviews conducted at The Arts House and his book-lined home at Faber Terrace near Clementi, he reveals the entire tale, giving the listener a crash course in hidden history.
Growing up during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, during which armed forces from the Commonwealth fought against the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, he says, it was dangerous for families like his to avow even the slightest connection with communist ideas, let alone admit that a close family member lived in 'Red China'.
Yet his eldest brother was originally sent to China for his own protection.
Professor Wong's father worked in a British tin mining company and was often away from home. As the Malayan Communist Party rose against the British government, communist guerillas would come secretly to the family plantation and urge his mother to let her sons join their cause.
A neighbour's son had been killed for refusing to join the communists, while British forces were known to act swiftly against communist sympathisers. Unwilling to offend either side, Prof Wong's parents sent their eldest son away to relatives in China and two others to family in Ipoh.
Then in 1951, the British uprooted the remaining members of the household, moving them to a 'concentration camp' surrounded with barbed wire and housing about 500 Chinese families. This was to isolate them from the communists.
Prof Wong lived in this 'new village' for 11 years, until he entered Taiwan's National Chengchi University.
It was an unforgettable childhood. On one hand, he had to leave behind his beloved plantation home and a garden full of fruit trees that used to be the envy of his classmates.
On the other hand, the houses had electricity and running water, unlike his attap and wood residence in the plantation.
His new home was larger, even if it did have a zinc roof, badly suited to the climate, which baked the living area like an oven.
But worst of all, in the 'new village', his family had to cope with endless scrutiny from jumpy British forces.
His father had to join the neighbourhood guard, which, along with British soldiers, searched women, including Prof Wong's mother, before they left in the morning to work in the fields or plantations.
These women were not allowed to take packed lunches in case the food was meant for the communists. Schoolchildren such as Prof Wong, then 10, were similarly searched for eatables, medicine or communist literature before they took a bus to the local school.
A few kilometres from the compound, his bus might be waylaid by the communists seeking recruits, money or food. Once, agitated over some slight, they set the vehicle alight and fled only on hearing a nearby British patrol.
'We got another bus and continued on to school,' he recalls phlegmatically.
Some days later, one of the school buildings too was torched because the principal refused to give the guerillas a donation. Or perhaps it was because Prof Wong, in his capacity as blackboard monitor, had wiped away an inflammatory message.
It was not deliberate - he did not understand the complex Chinese characters used. But as a result, 'for two months, I had to go to school in the afternoon because there were not enough classrooms'.
As memories like these tumble out in conversation, it seems incredible that this prolific writer in Chinese, with dozens of poetry collections and academic works to his credit, took decades to decide to commit these dramatic incidents to words.
Though he is never to be seen without a little notebook to scribble ideas in and can concoct two verses while walking in the Botanic Gardens, it was only in the late 1990s that he began writing more about the tumultuous times he grew up in.
It was not an entirely unhappy period, he points out scrupulously. The new village afforded better living conditions in some ways and his parents continued living there until the 1970s, well after the communists were contained.
In fact, he paid a visit to the village in 1998 for research and nostalgic purposes.
However, until recently, one could not discuss the 'new villages' and their attendant circumstances openly for fear of causing offence or sparking unwanted political drama.
'Just 20 years ago, you were not allowed to write about this subject. You could not expose yourself like this,' he says.
So he kept mum about this part of his life for much of his career as a writer and academic.
With a doctorate in Chinese literature from the University of Wisconsin in the United States, he joined Nanyang University's department of Chinese language and literature in 1973. He stayed on when the National University of Singapore was formed in 1980 by merging Nanyang and the former University of Singapore, and headed the university's department of Chinese studies from 2000 to 2002.
Currently, he shuttles between Taiwan and Malaysia for work, returning to Singapore on weekends to relax over books with his wife, noted writer Lew Poo Chan. The couple have no children.
He is director of the international language and culture centre at Taiwan's Yuan Ze University and senior vice-president of Southern College in Malaysia, recently granted university status by the Malaysian Ministry of Education.
In 1996 and 1997, during research sabbaticals in Iowa City and Isla Vista, California, he finally began writing about events such as British soldiers searching through his schoolbooks or finding grenades in a basket of fruit.
A year later, encouraged by Singapore literary pioneer Edwin Thumboo, he asked a colleague at the National University of Singapore, Ms Ho Lian Geok, then an administrative assistant at the Centre for the Arts, to help him translate the verses to English.
However, it was at least another decade before these verses were offered for publication, again via the urging of Prof Thumboo. Singaporean imprint Ethos Books finally printed them in The New Village in April. Each poem comes with fascinating footnotes that put the poems in context and reveal snippets of family history.
In his introduction to the book, Prof Thumboo, 79, explains why he was so eager that these poems reach the English-literate reading public: because his colleague has been 'crucial, even remarkable' in the development of the Chinese literature of Singapore and Malaysia.
He tells Life! that Prof Wong 'is the most broadminded fellow I know', able to appreciate the contributions of various cultures, not only Chinese, to Singapore and Malaysia, and incorporate these ideas in his own writings.
Indeed, Hindu temples and tribal Dayak trackers inspire some of the poems in The New Village.
Poet Ng Yi-Sheng, who added to Ms Ho's translation of The New Village, agrees that Prof Wong needs to be read more widely: 'I feel it's really important for our generation to be aware that our literary history is more, is richer than what's in the English language canon.'
The 31-year-old, like Ms Ho before him, was deeply moved by the older writer's themes, especially his allusions to nature.
'Nature for us in Singapore is Underwater World,' says the poet and playwright. 'These poems remind us of where we came from.'
Prof Wong credits his interest in writing and the resulting awards, including the 1984 Southeast Asia Write Award, 1986 Cultural Medallion and 1993 Asean Cultural Award for literature, to his years in the 'new village'.
With great good humour he points out the irony, that before the Malayan Emergency 'the Chinese lived isolated from one another. The 'new village' brought them together. They became a community, their sense of history became stronger'.
Villages like his began taking pride in Chinese literature and organising competitions to write new songs in Chinese.
His interest grew to such an extent that he applied to study Chinese literature in Taiwan. 'But I was very good in English so they made me study English literature,' he says with a laugh. 'When I was in America, in the university of Wisconsin, I finally did my master's and PhD in Chinese literature.'
He met his wife during their university days in Taiwan. Both moved in literary circles and they were drawn together by mutual fondness for verse.
Both insist that the other is the better writer and recite each other's accomplishments for the listener's benefit.
Ms Lew, 69, is better known by her pen-name Dan Ying and received the Cultural Medallion a decade after Prof Wong. The secret to their relationship of nearly five decades is mutual tolerance, she says: 'I have my inside world, I don't interfere with his.'
There remains friendly competition between them and each is the other's sternest critic. 'I'm getting nervous, he writes so many things,' she adds with a laugh. 'His poetry develops very fast. He has a lot of ideas, he won't write the same thing twice.'
Where they work best together is probably in the kitchen. Prof Wong cooks, Ms Lee is the 'assistant'. He jokes that theirs is a traditional relationship, since in their Hakka culture, it is the men who cook while the women work.
He has several pots on the boil at present. Apart from his academic commitments in Taiwan and Malaysia, he is working on more poetry and also drafting an autobiography.
'In poetry, you cannot write in detail so I'm thinking I should write my memoirs,' he says. 'Twenty years ago, you could not talk about these things. Now I can.'
My life so far
"Before we moved into the 'new village', my family house was without electricity and running water. But in the new village we had electricity and water too. The roads were well built. This is why the British were successful in fighting communism. If you make people suffer, they won't support you."- Summing up the "new village" experience
"The British used the words 'black' and 'white' to describe whether communists have penetrated the area. The village I lived in was not the worst. We belonged to the third-class black area. People in the first-class black area could not cook in their homes, they had to eat in a common kitchen."
"I remember my mother used to eat a lot in the early morning. You had to eat before you left for work. You could not take food outside the gate in case you gave it to the communists."- How the British ensured food supplies were not given to the communist