Do you know Teo Poh Leng?

Japanese academic seeks pioneering poet who went silent after the fall of Singapore

Twenty years after she left Singapore, a Japanese researcher is looking back to the island for answers about a little- remembered pioneering Malayan poet who disappeared here during World War II.

"My story is very much about my search for the unknown things about this man, Teo Poh Leng," says Dr Eriko Ogihara-Schuck in a Skype conversation from Dortmund, where she lives with her German husband, a physics teacher, and their two children.

"I'm hoping you can write an article and ask the public if anyone knows or is related to him. I'm trying to gather every piece of his biographical information. My ambition is to republish his poems."


Dr Eriko Ogihara-Schuck hopes to republish pioneering Malayan poet Teo Poh Leng’s poems whose last publication was before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War II. PHOTO: DR ERIKO OGIHARA-SCHUCK

Dr Ogihara-Schuck, who turns 40 this year, teaches undergraduate courses in American studies and Japanese at the Technische Universitat Dortmund.

Two years ago, she was preparing for a conference on American-born poet T.S. Eliot and discovered via Wikipedia that in 1937, a Singapore-based Chinese writer had published a book-length poem emulating Eliot's famous work, The Waste Land.

Having lived in Singapore for six years from 1988, when her father, who worked for Panasonic, was transferred here, she felt an immediate connection and desire to read the poem. Titled F.M.S.R., it describes a train journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on the Federated Malay States Railways and is attributed to a Francis P. Ng.

 

The book's London publisher, Arthur H. Stockwell, was bombed during World War II and only a few copies remain extant: a couple in the National Library of Singapore's reference and used book collections and at least one in the British Library in London, where the researcher eventually read it.

Delighted to discover that the poet was not copying T.S. Eliot's style, but had "created his own voice and sound... a Malay modernism", she made F.M.S.R. the subject of a scholarly paper presented at a conference in Poland in August 2013.

Next was to find out what else the author might have written. A footnote in F.M.S.R. indicated that part of the poem had been published in the 1937 issue of British Literary Magazine Life And Letters Today. That magazine revealed that Francis P. Ng was the pseudonym of Teo Poh Leng, apparently born in 1912 and a primary school teacher in Singapore.

That meant a trip back to Singapore for Dr Ogihara-Schuck, where she knocked on various doors hoping to find out more.

The Immigrations and Customs Authority turned up an address for Teo - 700 Serangoon Road - while St Joseph's Institution had his Cambridge examinations records showing excellent marks in English literature.

Other records showed he entered teacher training at Raffles College with the late conductor Paul Abisheganaden - sadly, the Abisheganaden family knew little more - as well as with Lokman Yusof, former mayor of Kuala Lumpur.

Teo also edited the Raffles College Union magazine, was influenced by the Cornish poet Ronald Bottrall and took one of his mentor's Christian names, Francis, for his own pseudonym.

Two other poems written by Teo emerged: Time Is Past, which appeared in The London Mercury magazine in 1936, and The Spider, in a 1941 issue of Chorus, the journal of the Singapore Teacher's Association.

Struck by the density and imagery of Teo's work as well as their modernist outlook, Dr Ogihara-Schuck wrote of her search in the National Library Board's quarterly magazine BiblioAsia, hoping to introduce his works to a wider audience.

Agreeing with her that Teo needs to be more widely read are local poet Alvin Pang, 43, who discovered F.M.S.R. more than 10 years ago and wants to see him acknowledged as a pioneer writer, as well as Ethos Books' founder Fong Hoe Fang, 60, who would like to republish Teo's work.

"I am a little ashamed to say that I don't know enough about our early writers. It makes it all the more important that we republish this," says Mr Fong.

The problem lies with intellectual property laws. In Britain, an "orphan work" may be republished if an exhaustive search has not turned up a copyright holder, but in Singapore, copyright is held for "70 years from the end of the year in which the author died".

Nobody in Singapore or elsewhere seems to know what happened to Teo after Singapore fell in World War II. The Spider in 1941 was his last publication and Dr Ogihara-Schuck suspects he might have died during the Japanese Occupation.

She hopes readers of this article in The Sunday Times will write in with clues as to Teo's fate or directions to his family.

"The Japanese Occupation is not necessarily the reason I have been keen on this project," she says, when asked.

"I can imagine myself working passionately on this project even if the Occupation was not an important historical background. More than anything, I find it painful that a literary work that is as minutely crafted and sophisticated as F.M.S.R. has become an orphan work and its author has remained long forgotten."

"It matters to me that this particular orphan work was written by a Singapore author," she adds.

She studied at the Japanese School and American School in Singapore, going on to do a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and a master's degree in education from the University of Tsukuba, a master's in American Studies from the University of Iowa and a doctorate from the Technische Universitat Dortmund.

"Singapore is my second home where I grew up as a teenager. My special attachment to this country is another reason I have strenuously pursued this research," she says.

akshitan@sph.com.sg