Questioning Conventions

Ang Jin Yong and Andy Ang of TrendLit.
Ang Jin Yong and Andy Ang of TrendLit. PHOTO: SAM CHIN

First started inside the Chinese Division of HASS, the Chinese literary society TrendLit has in a few years established itself as a contemporary champion of Chinese writing in Singapore. Founder Andy Ang and current editor Ang Jin Yong share their journey in breathing new life into language that many Singaporeans have come to regard as traditional, and how they have made new connections and convergences amidst the renewed interest in SingLit today.

It must be unusual for you to run a Chinese literary society and to be doing this interview in English. I suggest you speak in the language you are comfortable in and I’ll translate it for our English-speaking audiences.

Andy Ang (AA): This is a problem we face too. Regardless if you interview the English or Chinese community in Singapore, the languages we speak are very diverse and mixed. One of the challenges in publishing《WhyNot 不为什么》is the need for translation when we want to borrow ideas from outside the Chinese community.

This is also why we started. Most existing Chinese literary societies and publications in Singapore have a very outdated belief that Chinese content must be linked to China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. This is especially true with regards to the older generation of writers. They tend to have a very strong “bond” with China, and that affects our definition and creation of a Singaporean Chinese literature. We feel this view is not contemporary. To get more people interested in Chinese and want to read in Chinese, we need to be more attractive, especially in outlook and packaging. Nowadays, information comes from different sources around the world, so we cannot confine ourselves.

So how is TrendLit trying to do things differently?

AA: I would say Chinese is a medium for us. It is a language that we are more familiar with, but our content is not restricted to Chinese culture. We can introduce French literature, Latin literature, Brazilian literature, and we are not restricted by language. Singapore’s existing Chinese literary magazines are not doing enough of that and they are always focused on China and “traditional Chinese values”—making literature that reads like a 好公民 lesson (Editor’s note: Good Citizen was a Chinese textbook series to teach civics and moral education).

Ang Jin Yong (JY): This makes their content very repetitive. It’s always very safe, very sunny, and very happy. If not, they will be lamenting on the demise of Chinese culture in Singapore, which is very much linked to the closing of Chinese schools from the 1980s. So we are trying to do something different to attract a different generation of readers and writers.

Was creating content for young Chinese readers like yourself the starting point for TrendLit?

AA: I was—and still am—not pleased with our Chinese publishing scene. I felt the mainstream media is restrictive, and the existing literary magazines are very traditional in outlook. They tend to be politically correct, and not want to publish essays on topics such as politics and sexuality. This sells to schools better but is damaging to “creativity” and the “freedom” to imagine and express ourselves. When I published the first issue, my dad asked, “你出杂志会不会被抓?”(Won’t you be arrested for publishing a magazine?). This is a very typical mindset of the Chinese-speaking community as they went through an era where the Chinese language was accused of being linked to communism, and also chauvinistic for not accepting other languages.

While I could try publishing overseas, I felt foreign to these overseas Chinese communities. I felt I was 负面受敌 (Attacked from both ends). How do you say that in English..

JY: Kiap (Sandwiched) in the middle…

[Everybody laughs]

AA: Literary magazines are a tradition in the Chinese writing scene, so as a second-year undergraduate I suggested we create one for our division. The then head, Professor Quay Sy Ren, was very supportive and arranged for those interested to meet. I always wanted a magazine that was 心系本土, 放眼世界. That is its heart and soul must be with Singapore, but we venture into the world out there. This is also the tagline of the NTU’s Chinese Division. However, the other students wanted a magazine oriented towards China, Taiwan and the “big Chinese family”. After months of debate, it just didn’t work out.

But I was determined to not let the idea die so easily. I convinced my batch mate and good friend, Tan Boon Hui (陈文慧), to join me, and serendipitously on that very day we bumped into our friends, Tay Ee Teng (郑伊婷), Fang Zhen Kun (房振坤) and Sha Yi Jing (沙怡靖). Within a day, the five of us formed TrendLit!

Up to a month before our first issue was out, we still had no name for the magazine. That was when we attended a talk by another local magazine, Encounters, and we asked why they started. They mentioned, “There is no such magazine in Singapore. So why not we do something like that?” That’s when it hit us that “Why Not” was a good concept. I also knew a gay bar in Tanjong Pagar that used to have the same name. I felt “Why Not” had a very avant-garde and youthful flavour to it: It represented an attitude we wanted to bring to our magazine: That we are doing something because we love it. So instead of asking “Why do it?”, we decided to adopt the attitude of “Why Not”.

Besides publishing a magazine, what else does TrendLit do as a Chinese literary society?

JY: For the past three years we have been running 一首诗的时间(In A Space of A Poem), a poetry writing month similar to SingPoWriMo. For one month, we post prompts daily on Facebook, and invite people to contribute poems. Another project we are working on is a compilation of 50 Chinese poems by 50 Singaporean writers from the last 50 years. This was done to shed some light on a side of Singaporean Chinese Literature that is lesser known, as most (or all) of the poems in this compilation are unique works, works that are different from the sunshine and warmth better known to Singaporean Chinese literature. It is in the midst of being published.

During the recent Singapore Writers Festival, we also ran a tag poetry event, working with renowned Chinese-language writers and poets from overseas. The participating poets were given a few lines that they had to continue and pass on to the next poet until a poem was complete. We are always experimenting with different projects and activities to try and recreate and redefine Singapore Chinese literature.

AA: We will also be publishing with Ethos Books new voices who write “differently” from the mainstream. We also visit schools and introduce “new” ideas of Chinese literature. This is important for exposure and to subtly construct the students’ understanding of what constitutes to local Chinese literature.

When people talk about the revival of SingLit today, they are likely thinking of English literature instead of Chinese. How do you see a Chinese literary society like TrendLit in relation to this phenomenon?

AA: We are definitely marginalized, but that doesn’t mean we stop doing what we do. We see all four national languages—or even more—as Singapore literature. If someone is writing in Tagalog about Singapore, why not? We are a part of the bigger SingLit family and we work very closely with the English literary community because they have progressed further, are more active and have many ideas. We learn from one another.

JY: Take our recent issue for instance, we have an article on prostitution in Singapore written by the English writer Ng Yi-Sheng. Such edgy topics are written more in English. So Yi-Sheng wrote the piece for us in English and we translated it into Mandarin. I thought that it is important to borrow the views of people outside the Chinese literary community so we can learn more about Singapore.

AA: If we want to present Singapore Chinese literature differently, and we have yet to receive support from the older generation, then we have to work harder for them to see the significance of our work while sourcing for other avenues. For instance, we are working with BooksActually and Ethos Books to put out our publications. We may be segmented in terms of resources such as government funding, but we are always trying to building stronger relationships with these other communities.

But why translate to Chinese when one could argue that most people in Singapore today can read in English?

AA: Translation is an important channel to export our content to the Chinese world, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan. They are very interested to learn about Southeast Asia. We want to recover a relationship with these Chinese communities and present Singapore in a manner that is not stereotypical.

One of our objectives is to re-examine the discourse of Singapore Chinese literature. We don’t want it to be just defined around issues such as the closure of Chinese schools and the lifestyle of the elderly. It’s an image that is not beneficial to our literary scene moving forward, especially when our counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan are discussing issues that are more contemporary and interesting.

WhyNot 不为什么 features interviews with Boo Junfeng, Alvin Pang, and even articles by Yi-Sheng whom are all well known to the English-speaking community. Do you see the magazine as producing content in Chinese or “Chinese content”?

AA: It’s a mixture of both. As chief editor of the first three issues, I focused on a Chinese way of expression in language, but in terms of content, I presented the interviewees thoughts yet also highlighted contrasting views expressed by the Chinese community. For instance, if you are talking about sexuality in Singapore, we note that the Chinese community is traditionally more pro-family and not very comfortable in discussing such issues. We don’t offer answers. Instead, we try to provide perspectives for readers to ponder about. We like our readers to not assume that all Western or Chinese values are bad. Instead, how can we come to a consensus and make more room for discussion?

JY: I’ve continued with this philosophy since taking over as chief editor from the fourth issue. We are more concerned about the topic and the language is just a medium. So we try to have as many perspectives as possible. We always try to get interviewees from different languages, and also from different disciplines.

AA: But when we cross languages, we also cross cultures. So what may interest the English-speaking community may not excite us. For instance, when we talk about national identity, the English-speaking community is more about building a “Singaporean identity”. But when the Chinese community talks about identity we are discussing concepts like “Sinophone” (Editor’s note: The relation of a Chinese-speaking person with his of her relation to national, ethnic and cultural identity).

As a Chinese in Singapore, we face that kind of a struggle because our language originates from China. If we take the extreme of saying we are Singaporean Chinese, we are accused of forgetting our ancestral roots. But to say we are traditional and pro-Chinese would invite accusations that we are abandoning our Singaporean identity.

Another issue is the works of English writers are naturally thought to represent “Singaporean literature” (新加坡文学). But why is it that what we write is known as “Singapore Chinese literature” (新加坡华文文学) instead? It’s a complicated question for the development of Singapore literature where English as a discourse is drowning out the other languages.

JY: The biggest problem that many have pointed out is we are using Chinese, a language that carries a lot of histories and cultures that have pre-existed since a long time ago. The struggle then is in how we use this language and make it ours.

It’s been five years since TrendLit started. How would you assess its success?

AA: Personally, I feel we have had some impact. I just came back from giving a talk in Taiwan and was posed the same question. It’s hard to evaluate, but at least we did what we can in our time. Every single period needs people to push things forward, but for a very long time this has been lacking in the Chinese literary community. And unlike other Chinese literary societies that are very closed up, TrendLit has built a lot of bridges to the other communities.

We want to cross borders and mediums. Why must literature be confined to just writing Chinese composition essays? We could be introducing ideas from other disciplines like drama, music, dance. We also look at overseas literature trends and try to introduce them into the local scene.

JY: At the core of TrendLit is publishing, but we are also trying to experiment with different ways to achieve our goals: that is to redefine, recreate or rethink what Singapore Chinese Literature is. For very long, it’s been about the good and the sunshine…

AA: …and making secondary school students read You Jin (尤今)! In fact, Kenny Leck of BooksActually once defined TrendLit as “They are stirring shit!”

And you agree with that?

AA: Actually, I think so. [Laughs] No lah, whatever we do is to not be stagnant. English literature in Singapore is already popular with the public, so if the Chinese literary community does not up its game then we are just going to continue to be in decline.


This interview has been translated, condensed and edited. It was first published in Sites of Convergence, a project that explores the connections between the arts, media, design, social sciences and humanities via Nanyang Technological University’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS).

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