Work of lost Malayan poet Teo Poh Leng republished after 78 years thanks to ST article

A photograph of the Raffles College students who graduated in 1934. Pioneer poet Teo Poh Leng attended teacher training courses at the college and is likely to be in the photograph, but is unidentified.
A photograph of the Raffles College students who graduated in 1934. Pioneer poet Teo Poh Leng attended teacher training courses at the college and is likely to be in the photograph, but is unidentified.PHOTO: NUS CENTRAL LIBRARY

SINGAPORE - A little-remembered but pioneering Singapore poet named Teo Poh Leng who disappeared during World War II will have his work republished after 78 years, thanks to a Feb 22 article in The Straits Times.

On Oct 10, Ethos Books launched Finding Francis: A Poetic Adventure, edited by literary researcher Eriko Ogihara-Schuck and the poet's niece Anne Teo.

The 60-page book includes a long modernist poem by the late Teo and ends over two years of literary detective work by Dr Ogihara-Schuck, who first encountered his work under his pseudonym Francis P. Ng.

It is now known that Teo was killed during the World War II Occupation of Singapore barely five years after he wrote the book-length F.M.S.R., a poem about a train journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on the Federated Malay States Railways. It was inspired by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

F.M.S.R. was published in 1937 by Arthur H. Stockwell of London. Stockwell's offices were bombed during World War II, leaving only a handful of copies of Teo's work in the world. One was read in 2013 by Dr Ogihara-Schuck, who lectures in American Studies at Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and was then researching Eliot's influence on Asia.

Having lived in Singapore for six years from 1988, when her father, who worked for Panasonic, was transferred here, Dr Ogihara-Schuck, 40, felt an immediate connection to F.M.S.R. and hoped to republish it. She also wondered what happened to the writer, who had apparently never published again in spite of receiving good reviews from other poets of the day, such as British poet Silvia Townsend Warner and Cornish poet Ronald Bottrall.

Part of F.M.S.R. first came out in the 1937 issue of British Literary Magazine Life And Letters Today. Dr Ogihara-Schuck found through the magazine that Francis P. Ng was the pseudonym of Teo Poh Leng, a primary school teacher in Singapore who was born in 1912.

A trip back to Singapore yielded little more so, hoping to reach a wider audience, she wrote about her search in the National Library Board's quarterly magazine BiblioAsia. The Straits Times also featured her story and a request that readers would write in with clues as to Teo's fate or directions to his family.

Within hours of the story being printed, a reader wrote in to suggest that Teo Poh Leng might have been the brother of Teo Kah Leng, who taught at Montfort which was then called Holy Innocents. Dr Ogihara-Schuck wrote back to the reader, trawled The Straits Times' online archives for Teo Kah Leng's obituary and then finally connected with Madam Anne Teo, Kah Leng's daughter.

Madam Teo, 65, reached out to the researcher after reading the ST article: "I recognised my uncle's name but who was using it after half a century? Did she have the right person? I never knew him as a poet."

Madam Teo's father Kah Leng had also been a poet and teacher, later principal of the junior section of Montfort School. He died in 2001, age 92.

His older brother Kee Leng, and the youngest, Poh Leng, were killed during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Kah Leng only escaped because he was visiting a friend elsewhere.

He wrote about his grief in a poem, I Found A Bone, published in the school magazine. A former student of Montfort's sister school St Gabriel's recalled this poem when he read the ST article about Teo Poh Leng, and wrote in to suggest the connection.

Dr Ogihara-Schuck says: "I was completely astonished to find out that Teo Poh Leng's brother Teo Kah Leng was also a poet. This result was completely unexpected. Uncovering the story of their brotherly bond through poetry was the most moving part of my entire research."

Kah Leng's work was never published but now the poem I Found A Bone is included in Finding Francis, along with Poh Leng's F.M.S.R. Other works by Kah Leng will be published separately.

Madam Teo is excited about the Finding Francis book which will keep her father's and uncles' stories alive for her five children and their children too. "We will not be around soon to tell them these stories," she says.

Ethos Books' founder Fong Hoe Fang says Finding Francis is an important part of Singapore's literary heritage. He is printing 500 copies of the book and says: "We felt it was important to highlight a lost literary treasure from the 1930s when a purported fishing village like Singapore had a poet who was published on the same platform with writers like Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats.

"And this was published at a time when Professor Edwin Thumboo, long recognised as one of Singapore's literary greats, was only four years old."

akshitan@sph.com.sg

Finding Francis: A Poetic Adventure edited by Eriko Ogihara-Schuck and Anne Teo ($13.91) is available at Books Kinokuniya and via www.ethosbooks.com.sg