Returning to Nanyang: Interview with Lee Yung-ping (Part 1)
By Kiew Li Lian
Going home is always on the mind of the wanderer. However, the road home for Lee Yung-ping, the “Wanderer from Nanyang”, was especially long. Yet, everyone returns home eventually. After decades of being away, Lee finally returned to the region after he accepted the writer-in-residence invitation from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in September 2016. Three editors from Chou Sing Chu Foundation were granted an interview with Lee at NTU.
Leisurely Touring the Lion City
Lee grew up in the British Crown Colony of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. To further his studies, he travelled to Taiwan, where he settled for decades. Lee has not been back to Singapore since his first trip in the 1960s. Although it has been almost half a century, Lee still remembers the hustle and bustle of Clifford Pier, the port crammed with boats, the small hotels along the pier, and his first visit to Yunnan Garden as if it were only yesterday. Revisiting Singapore after the turn of the century, Lee believes that it was a heaven-sent opportunity that has allowed him to fulfil the dream of his youth to study at Nanyang University.
What has not changed through the years is Lee’s disposition to wander. Not long after arriving in Singapore, Lee purchased a bicycle that he rode practically everywhere – from the campus to the nearby neighbourhoods and hawker centres. One time, he found that he had ridden into a deserted area, and could only see cemeteries around him. He only calmed down after a military camp came into view and continued cycling under the scorching sun from NTU to Choa Chu Kang Market — a distance of nearly 10 kilometres! The Singaporean sun burned fiercely but Lee did not mind cycling alone. He thought: “What does it matter? Singapore is a safe country.” And besides, having grown up in Kuching, which sits along the Equator, he knew what real heat was!
In addition to riding his bicycle, Lee also took to public transport to explore the island, frequently travelling to different places on buses and trains. He especially loved riding on the upper storeys of double decker buses as he could take in the scenery and marvel at the old-time charms of Geylang – the old streets, old houses, and the old and famous restaurants. It also let Lee, who loves a good bowl of laksa, sampled the very best on the island. Even though his stomach suffered afterwards, he could not resist paying a second visit to the shop!
The Long Road of Nurturing Literary Talents
Within the short span of a few months, Lee went all about the island, and developed a great interest in Singapore’s public housing. As a non-Singaporean, perhaps Lee’s perspective on the matter comes with some valuable objectivity. He notes that while these housing blocks may look the same on the surface, matched by the uniformity in the distribution of flats, a true novelist has to find difference from the superficial similarity. In his eyes, HDB blocks epitomise Singapore, and should be written about – no matter in Chinese, English, Malay or Tamil – in a manner that captures the distinct characteristics of language in Singapore, such that it can adequately express the nature and features of the country. He adds that the history of Singapore’s founding is rich with stories that should provide enough material for a few good novels.
Does Singapore literature have a future? Lee is optimistic, noting that several students in his creative writing class at NTU have the potential for success. Though they require more training, these are small issues that will not affect their ability to become fine novelists in the future.
However, Lee also feels a touch of pessimism. The avenues for publication in the local literary scene are limited. Writers lack the appropriate support and are left to fend for themselves, reminding Lee of the 19th century Jews writing in Yiddish – although the situation in Singapore and Malaysia is somewhat better. Lee was visibly moved when he expressed his admiration for the older generation of Chinese writers in Singapore – such as Yeng Pway Ngon, Chia Joo Ming and Zhang Hui (Cheong Weng Yat) – who still persevere in contributing to and preserving the local Chinese literary legacy.
Even if the stories like those in World Children greatly inspired his interest in writing, Lee feels that he is a writer who was “100% Made in Taiwan”, since it was in Taiwan that he received his actual education in literature. He believes that Taiwan has been able to produce literary talents generation after generation – such as Pai Hsien-yung of the old guard and the younger generation’s Gan Yao-ming – because of a comprehensive system to nurture them. The children in the local primary schools can make submissions to Mandarin Daily News, while university students have more professional channels for training, including a creative writing institute at National Dong Hwa University, where Lee used to teach.
These are lacking in the Chinese literature scene in Singapore but change cannot happen overnight. Meanwhile, Lee encourages local writers to step out of the country and pursue literary development on their own.
*We would like to thank the Division of Chinese at Nanyang Technological University for arranging this interview.
About Lee Yung-ping
Lee Yung-ping was born in Sarawak in 1947. A well-known Taiwanese author and translator, his books include Son of Borneo, The Jiling Chronicles, The Eagle Hai Dongqing, The Snow Falls in Clouds, The End of the River and The Book of Zhu Ling. He has received several awards, including Taiwan’s National Award of Art, the Hsing Yun Global Chinese Literature Award, and the National Taiwan University Distinguished Alumni Award.