Life Movements

Liu Kang, Life by the River, 1957, oil on canvas, 126 x 203 cm (National Gallery Singapore)

When Liu Kang painted Life By the River in 1975, it had already been a little over 20 years since he discovered Bali’s charms and colours. He didn’t plan on starting an art movement but Bali made him an inadvertent advocate for painting local and owning the local visual narrative. 

Liu Kang was a Chinese émigré who arrived in Malaya in the mid 1900s (then Singapore and Malaysia under the British) with no recourse to return to the Motherland because the Second World War had begun. The irony was that he had escaped China for Muar, in Malaysia, where his family had a business and home, due to the escalating Sino-Japanese war. The Liu family had thought that Malaya would be a safe haven, not realising that Japanese soldiers were hot on their trail. No, Liu Kang wasn’t a spy, he was a painter. 

Fast forward some years and WWII ends. Liu Kang decides to remain in Malaya for personal reasons and to make Nanyang his home. To the mainland Chinese, anywhere south of China was known as Nanyang — the Southern Seas. Nanyang included Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

Having lived in Nanyang for some time, I feel a sense of emptiness […] I also feel an unspeakable aridity, as though trudging thousand of miles in the desert, unable to find any dewdrops and greenery, or any villages.” Liu Kang, The Voice of the Motherland, 1937.

Liu Kang, Essays on Art and Culture

As an artist, Liu Kang found Nanyang arid and devoid of aesthetics. He was dismayed at the lack of artistic education, and the lacklustre efforts at promoting art in Singapore by the colonial government. However, Liu Kang plodded on and formed an art collective where he gathered artists like himself for dialogues and discussions. In many essays written in Mandarin Chinese, later translated into English, he outlined his feelings and his thoughts on the art scene in Singapore. In these essays, it’s clear to see that being a pioneer is never easy, especially when one’s vision doesn’t align with the status quo. 

Liu Kang was trained in Shanghai in Traditional Chinese landscapes and in Paris, where he learnt European-style paintings. In Paris, he was enthralled by Gauguin and Cézanne and other Impressionists. He really wanted to go to Tahiti like Gauguin who painted the landscape and locals there. But the war thwarted Liu Kang’s dreams. He had big dreams for himself and for art. 

As some dreams have a way of coming true and manifesting themselves differently, Liu Kang found a new kind of hope when he travelled with 3 fellow émigré artists to the island of Bali in 1952. There, he found another way to paint that would revolutionise the art world in Nanyang. Fast forward more years: Liu Kang founds the art movement known as the Nanyang Style. Since then, generations of art viewers have been privy to a large body of work on display at the National Gallery Singapore, where Nanyang-styled art works can be viewed. 

Movements begin and Movements end. But Movements start because communities or collectives of people want to find a way to manifest their desire or their hope for change. A Movement is a revolution, if you will. 

There is a need for a Movement in Singapore to promote and elevate the literature that is being written and produced on the island-nation, or the Little Red Dot, it’s friendly moniker. I speak about KidLit in particular. I’ve mentioned many times before that Singapore’s KidLit production and market is still in its infancy. It’s young but not green as there have been some people writing for children since the late 1990s. There are also many self-published KidLit authors in Singapore or those whose work have been commissioned by various organisations. Organisations do use picturebooks to reach out to their target audiences and to raise awareness of causes and the work they do. 

I believe some 12-15 years ago, the government of Singapore offered grants and awards or prizes to encourage people to write children’s books. This started a small movement of writers lured by the rewards to write for children. Many have become established children’s book authors and their books are selling well locally and some even internationally. However, these children’s books are not reaching the kind of international audiences that books produced in America and the United Kingdom are. Why? 

A Movement takes concerted effort. It takes a village. In Singapore, the various governmental organisations who promote the arts work disparately and often competitively. The village is divided but the people are all striving for the same thing — to elevate their status. As one knows only to well: “divided we fall …”

Then, not everyone knows about the plans and policies (unless you’re an interested or curious party and go looking; many of the government’s plans are online anyway, and can be found) that the government is putting into action or wants to put into action; these plans are the guidelines that stakeholders are encouraged to take note of and follow. This just means that the stakeholders or the target audiences aren’t being reached, unless they take it upon themselves to look out for these plans and policies, and remain in the dark while attempting to do the job of elevating the state of the arts in Singapore. The result is that everyone’s trying to build a town hall in the village but the builders are lacking guidelines or instructions. 

Recently, I came across the National Arts Council’s (NAC) ‘OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2022’ for Literary Arts. Yes, I know, it’s 2020 and this plan was my new discovery! See what I mean about plans not reaching target audiences? In this plan, the arts council, essentially a governmental body, as all arts councils are, put forward solutions to encourage reading and steps to increase literacy on the island-nation, focusing on Singapore Literature as texts to develop empathy and develop a sense of the Singaporean identity. Note that it’s simply Singapore Literature with no specific mention of Singapore KidLit. And, it is also Literature that is Singapore-centric and Singapore-related. 

The OUR SG ARTS PLAN begins this way “Literature is more than just words on a page. It captures our stories, experiences, aspirations, and cultures — in short, literature is an important expression of our Singaporean identity.”  Then, it goes on to mention a large amount of money being injected into the “first Literary Arts Plan in 2020”, we’re talking SGD$24 million. 

Ethnic Fiction

Stories and novels whose central characters are black, Native American, Italian-American, Jewish, Appalachian or members of some other specific cultural group. Ethnic fiction usually deals with a protagonist caught between two conflicting ways of life: mainstream American culture and his ethnic heritage.”

Writer’s Digest University

As a children’s book author who simply writes and not write ethnically, I find this plan rather short-sighted. Its focus on only Singapore Literature is limiting since the Singapore KidLit scene is a fairly new one, with only a handful of authors writing specifically Singapore-centric and -related literature. If I were to be more specific, the Singapore KidLit scene is newer still compared to the generic Singapore Lit scene. (And, if I were to be brutally honest, not all Sing KidLit being produced is of good quality. There is such a desperate drive to produce Sing KidLit that publishers are taking in anyone who can write and then rewriting or revising their manuscripts just so that these are publishable.) Besides, debates about ethnic writing and writers are also very America-centric, where writing has become so politicised. While it’s good to heed and take note of what’s going on in the writing world at large, it’s not good to mimic a movement that has no semblance to the reality of what’s going on in Singapore. And, the irony is that most Singaporeans would buy and read KidLit which is America-centric or Euro-centric over Sing KidLit, which is Sing-centric and good for developing a love for the nation and self. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Although the literary scene is now more vibrant, awareness and appreciation of Singapore literature is low — just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature. We need more quality literary arts experiences to interest Singaporeans who are not familiar with Singapore literature.” 

OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2020

On the other, I do understand the NAC’s focus on local literature since the diet of books fed to local children seem to be Eurocentric or America-centric, these book markets being more mature and aggressive. Secondly, with so much western-centric media influence be it TV, social media, movies,and/or music, local anything in Singapore does get a poor following. Research undertaken by government agencies in Singapore also points to a pitiful 44% of the public reading (Singapore literacy rate is 97.05%), and these readers are not always reading fiction. Singapore’s obsession with reading falls into the tight brackets of self-help books (mostly to do with how to make more money and/or mental health since living in wealth-obsessed Singapore is very stressful) and nonfiction tomes about notable personalities. I guess like many reality-TV obsessed viewers, the average Singaporean loves the minutiae of important people’s lives. Yes, people do read but it’s not quite KidLit and fiction. Then, there is a section of the population who specifically seek moralistic books that teach their children good values instructionally. A lack of imagination stops many well-intentioned parents from seeing that all children’s books teach good things and more often than not are wells full of solid good values, even the funny ones. I’ve also been asked to write educational books that will help local children improve their English language learning. This indicates to me that fiction is not the main interest of result-oriented local parents who do want their kids to read but are often not discerning enough to know the difference between good writing and great literature, and that it is literature that develops the critical thinking often needed to ace in exams, not merely pass them. As I say this, it’s also fair to mention the many parents out there in the tropical forest of Singapore’s literary woods who take a profound interest in pointing their children to quality writing; I applaud these parents for their mindfulness in swimming upstream with the salmon. 

So back to what I was saying about the SG ARTS PLAN being limiting. Where is there wiggle room in the plan for writers like me—a Singapore-based children’s book author, with books that aren’t always Singapore-centric or -related, who write fiction and am never didactic—to march in unison with the rest of the local (KidLit) writers? I ask this because the ARTS PLAN specifically states that “[w]e need to work hard at articulating a Singaporean identity and to enlarge common spaces for diverse communities.” All this, I understand, is to accommodate the many new Singaporeans who’ve taken citizenship but do not as yet identify Singaporean. It’s also to be inclusive, I understand, as Singapore is really a melting cauldron of cultures and ethnicities. And, here’s the irony: When I do submit a Singapore-centric and Singapore-related manuscript to local publishers, it gets rejected because it’s too Singapore-centric. [LOL emoji appropriate here] The frustration, folks! I digress. Back to the PLAN.

Then, the PLAN goes on to mention positioning SG as a global literary nation in the region and finding ways to collaborate with literary agencies and organisations in the Southeast Asian region. It’s an ambitious plan it must be said. But Singapore is not a nation of insipid planners. It’s a tiny nation with big dreams. And this plan highlights the nation’s dream of being great literary literally. But, I find yet another caveat.

If books are containers of stories that help children and adults develop empathy and find a sense of their places in the world, then it should be books that’s the focus rather than only Singapore books or literature. Yet, I do know that courtesy begins at home. So, in all this focus, it is also the Singaporeans themselves who should be reading and buying SingLit, and not only because the government says so. Where’s the home team support? The National Literary Reading & Writing Survey (2015) tells us that only “ […] just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature.” It’s not a want of trying on the government’s part, I should say. But Singaporeans need to be told what to do in order to do what they should be doing sponteneously. So, it’s time to cheer for the home team, folks — the G needs ya to and Sing KidLit creators need your support. The PLAN says so!

#BuySingLit is a local Movement that takes place in March annually. The government injects a.lot of money in the form of book vouchers and initiatives in terms of events to encourage local readers to buy SingLit. This spans all genres and age-related Singapore literature. However, year on end, the “take up” rate is less than 40% island-wide. Buy SingLit is still in its infancy and only in its third iteration as far as my sources tell me. I’ve taken part a couple of times and will take part again this year in a privately organised story concerto to entice young readers to read through music and play. In my experience, the S$10 vouchers with an expiry date hardly gets utilised. And, buyers ask if they can buy other books apart from “just” SingLit. Where is the courtesy, Singaporeans? 

All said and criticised, the OUR SG ARTS PLAN is a positive move towards encouraging reading and literacy. But the work is not even half done yet. As with any plan, a lot of the work is in getting folks to “buy in”. As I write this, a quiet Movement is beginning to take root on this island-state. It’s a ground-up Movement as most movements are. The Movement took shape when a bunch of local writers or those of us who identify ourselves as such got together to discuss how we can make some noise about what we write about and what we’re planning to do to change the KidLit scene in Singapore. Like superheroes, the KidLit S.E.A. Community (KLSEAC) will be rescuing locally- and regionally-written stories and helping young readers in Singapore and the region to “own our narratives” and to appreciate all the good books produced locally, even those non Singapore-centric and -related ones. As courtesy begins at home, KLSEAC will start with Singapore produced KidLit. Books lovers stay tuned.

Like Liu Kang and the Nanyang style, KLSEAC will find a way to move the people with locally produced KidLit. Forging an identity is only one aspect of reading. The biggest aspect of reading is reading itself and when Singapore starts to produce better quality KidLit, discerning parents will flock to BuySingLit, to buy SG KidLit. It will take a village and a village is what we have. Watch this space, Singapore readers.

A New Decade Awaits Us

Families are made up of many important ingredients, with love being the only ingredient that matters.”

Eva Wong Nava

The NAVA family began this decade with the entire family getting together to celebrate many things.

The philosopher-princess is now a science graduate and her title has moved a notch up to philosopher-scientist-princess. In Italy, a graduate or laureato/laureata is also known as la dottoressa, a title when translated into English means ‘doctor’, something reserved only for PhD graduates in the English education system. It may seem rather ordinary today to obtain a (basic) degree as more and more of the world compete for education, with individuals from various countries continually upping one another in the race to be more and better educated. Centuries ago, in countries like Italy, France, and many parts of Europe, a graduate is something of a super star. On the other side of the world in China, the Imperial examinations were only available to those who could afford to be educated. Sitting and passing the imperial exams elevated one’s status and ability to have a career within the Emperor’s court. For many Chinese who finally did become mandarins or court officials, huge sacrifices were made on their behalves to enable them to study and be learned. And, there were many of those who took years to pass the Imperial exams; there are stories of graduates well past their prime, who never gave up the race to become a laureato. Basic degrees are easily obtainable these days in a matter of 3 to 4 years, with many continuing on the path to specialise in their fields by reading a Masters and perhaps a PhD. This laureata will continue her studies in London reading a Masters of Science in Biomedicine, specialising in cell biology. Need I say that I’m so proud of her.

Scientists thrive on precision and the philosopher-scientist-princess is no different. You’re looking at a photo of the pasta dish she cooked up in the Italian Alps where we were hibernating for a few days after Christmas. This Sicilian pasta dish is known as Pasta a la Norma. It’s name is derived from the name of an opera by Vincenzo Bellini because an Italian writer by the name of Nino Martoglio pronounced this pasta sauce made from aubergine and ricotta as the real Norma! Who knows why this was his exclamation when he ate melanzane con ricotta but let it be known that this dish by the elder daughter is the real Norma. I’m so proud of her exacting culinary skills.

Bruschetta con pomodori e basilico, fatta in casa a la Raffaella

The second daughter aka the ballerina-princess also tried her hand at cooking. She made us this delicious bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes and basilico leaves torn by hand to extract its herby perfume. She even plated it like a professional chef would. A clove of garlic finishes this dish with that oomph every tomoto and basil salad needs. Watching my girls cook us–her father and me–dinner is a wonderful sight. There are eight years between the two girls yet they get on like a house on fire, both with so much love for each other that watching them being together squeezes my heart. Love is myriad sensations: warm gushes mixed with pain, a good kind of pain; ripples of happiness mixed with waves of fear, fear of losing these two precious beings; contentment mixed with anxiety, an anxiety for them to experience the world and be safe. This ballerina-princess will continue her education in London this year, sitting the International Buccalaureate Diploma Programme examinations in 4 years’ time. She wrote an impressive school entrance essay that got her a place at Southbank International School, Westminster.

The Italian who has travelled many roads and eaten many dishes with me continues to be that reliable and stable man I married more than a decade ago. As we plan the next decade ahead, we take into account what we’ve done for each other and what we will continue to do for love and committment. He’s come a long way since we met and started sharing a life together. Living in Asia has also been an eye opener and he has gotten to know and understand the culture in which I was socialised by and into. He has also come to know how some individuals are not determined by culture but by an individual choice to be different and to make a difference. Culture aside, underlying what we feel and do is our humanity. How I love this Italian of mine.

Eva at the Readers’ Choice Awards Ceremony 2019

Since I started my stint as a published author of children’s books, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful writerly moments. Having my debut picture book, The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs nominated for the Readers’ Choice Awards in Singapore is a huge achievement. I’m so grateful to the many readers and people who made this happen.

The publishing industry in Singapore, especially for children’s literature is a young one. There is great potential in this island-state for Asian and/or local literature to develop and grow. My resolution for 2020 is to write more meaningful picture books that entertain, engage, and enlighten young minds. I’ve been lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read when I was young. It’s a rare thing, I would say, for someone born in the decade I was, because Singapore then was busy building a nation, far less interested in fiction and stories from other worlds, yet these books existed because there was nobody publishing Asian stories that mattered when I was growing up. I was fed a diet of books written by authors who had no idea what living in Asia entailed; many who wrote about Asia had never lived in my part of the world. Likewise, I had no idea what life was really like in the worlds I read about. Snow-capped mountains, apple pies and cream, picnics in the park, drinking lemonade and eating finger sandwiches with cucumber were non-existent when I was growing up in humind and tropical Singapore. Yet, they were as real as their authors had described them in the books I read. Imagination is a wonderful thing. When I then got to see my first snow-capped mountain as an adult, I remember the very book I’d read that made me see and feel what snowy mountain peaks are like. I’ve had many Heidi moments since.

With Nyonya Josephine Chia, who taught me what having many lives is really about

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C.S. Lewis

Life is all the more meaningful when it’s filled with friends. Studies have shown that one of the secrets of longevity is being able to count in one hand the people whom you can call friend. I made a new friend in 2019. Like me, she’s a writer and a Chinese-Peranakan, who has lived in England for more years than we care to count. Here we are, having un bon repas and a tête-a-tête in a newly opened Peranakan restaurant at Claymore Connect in Singapore. Her elegant head of hair matches my snow-white t-shirt. Her glowing smile is no match for my shy coaxing one, though. But in nyonya phine, I’ve found someone whom I feel I can be myself.

While I’m here, I’d also like to mention two other people: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. These special people have become more than friends. June is the co-author of Mina’s Magic Malong and a forthcoming picture book biography, The Accidental Doctor, published by World Scientific Asia, launching in June 2020. Debasmita continues to work with me on various projects, with the most recent one, Sahara’s Special Senses, launching early this decade. She and I also co-founded Picture Book Matters, a mentoring platform for picture book creatives in Asia. We have workshops and courses starting in March in conjunction with the Singapore Book Council.

I was lucky to have met a wonderful soul in the person of Chen Wei Teng. She’s also a fellow colleague, a children’s book writer [Murphy, See How You Shine]. This is just one of her many talents. Her heart is made of pure gold: she is a special education needs teacher, dedicating her life to educating children often left behind by the mainstream. In a recent incarnation, she is a poet, composing haikus filled with philosophy and deep thought.

Two more people I’d like to mention are Uschi and Claire, who both live far from me but who are always an email or text away. I love these two girls for their courage, their inner-strength, their kindness, and their values. And just like this, I need another hand to count the most important people I call friend in my life. But let’s not complicate things too much, less is more and more is obsolete. I love these six people with all my heart.

Time is short but Life is long. Make every moment count.”

Anon

I leave you with this quote. Wishing all my friends and readers a very happy new year. Make every moment count.