Acclaimed Chinese-language writer Yeng Pway Ngon dies aged 73

Yeng Pway Ngon's work spanned genres, ranging across poetry, essays, plays and more.
Yeng Pway Ngon's work spanned genres, ranging across poetry, essays, plays and more.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Yeng Pway Ngon, one of Singapore’s most eminent Chinese-language writers, died on Sunday (Jan 10) after a long battle with cancer.

The Cultural Medallion recipient and three-time Singapore Literature Prize winner was 16 days shy of his 74th birthday.

He wrote more than 20 works, including acclaimed novels such as Unrest (2002), Trivialities About Me And Myself (2006) and Art Studio (2011).

The latter two were selected by the journal Asia Weekly for its prestigious annual list of the 10 Best Chinese Novels in the World, alongside works by Nobel laureate Mo Yan and Yan Geling.

Yeng had been battling prostate cancer since 2007 and was later also diagnosed with colon cancer. In May last year, doctors discovered cancer in his pancreas. He underwent surgery to remove it, but later fell sick from unstable blood sugar levels. By last month, the cancer had spread to his entire body.

His wife Goh Beng Choo, 68, who was also his long-time translator, says that in his last days at Assisi Hospice, he did not suffer much pain.

“He was strong in spirit,” says Madam Goh, with whom Yeng had a daughter and two grandsons. 

“He endured pain since the day he had prostate cancer 14 years ago and never let it affect the quality of his writing. He was always telling me about the ideas he had for new stories and poems. I am sad he did not live longer to create more good works.”

He was mourned by many in the local arts and literary scene. Singer-songwriter and xinyao pioneer Liang Wern Fook wrote in Chinese on Facebook that he had learnt of Yeng’s passing on a rainy day, recalling a similar rainy day years ago when he had chatted with the author about literature in Yeng’s bookshop Grassroots Book Room.

In a tribute poem that referenced Yeng’s debut novel A Man Like Me (1987), he wrote: “Some say this is a desert/ A man like him/ leaves behind deep footprints all the way to the horizon of literature.” 

Poet Alvin Pang, who worked with Madam Goh to translate some of Yeng’s poetry into English, called the late author “one of the great innovators of Singaporean Chinese literature”. 

“He was one of the very few writers anywhere who excelled across genres – poetry, fiction and theatre,” says Pang, 48, who had been on his way to visit Yeng in the hospice but missed him by half an hour.

Mr Fong Hoe Fang, founder of Ethos Books, which published several of Yeng’s poetry collections in English through its affiliate, The Literary Centre affiliate, says the author inspired a generation of readers in both the Chinese and English literary sectors.

“The gentleness and integrity of his personality informed his writing, which sought a highly nuanced understanding of society without compromising the need for dignity and social justice,” says Mr Fong, 66.

Yeng was born in 1947, the son of a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and a coffeeshop worker.

As a student at Catholic High, he was given an assignment to write an essay on any topic. Instead of an essay, he submitted a sonnet, which to his surprise received a good grade. He sent the poem to a newspaper and got it published, thus commencing a storied literary career.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote newspaper columns for Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao and its predecessor, Nanyang Siang Pau. He went on to publish A Man Like Me, which was translated into English by Madam Goh and won a National Book Development Council Book Award.

Yeng founded Grassroots Book Room in 1975 and reopened it after a hiatus in 1995. 

Ms Tan Wain Ching, founder of bookstore and publisher City Book Room, used to work at Grassroots and recalled her former boss to be “humorous, sincere and hardworking”.

“When I set up City Book Room, he was very concerned and tried to support whenever he could,” she says. City Book Room would go on to publish some of Yeng’s final works.

“Even when he was sick, he still ran the bookstore and shared his literature journey with many young authors there,” says Ms Tan, 37. “It really showed his ‘sheng ming li’ (vitality).”

Yeng eventually decided to close Grassroots in light of his poor health and an exhausting libel suit with artist Tan Swie Hian in 2011, which Yeng lost. The bookshop was taken over in 2014 by three of his fans, who moved it to its current location in Bukit Pasoh Road.

A hugely prolific writer, Yeng’s work spanned genres, ranging across poetry, essays, plays and more. His writing was translated into English and even Italian.

His numerous accolades include the South-east Asia Write Award. In 2018, he was honoured at the Singapore Writers Festival with an exhibition on his “deeply existential and universal” works. 

Many of his novels balance profound psychological portraits with insight into moments of Singapore’s history.

Unrest, which looks at the country’s leftist past, drew on his own detention for four months in 1977 under the Internal Security Act for alleged leftist sympathies. 

Pang calls Unrest “one of the boldest and most ambitions works of fiction to have been produced in Singapore in any language”. The novel, he says,“tests boundaries of sex, politics, culture and art”.

Yeng’s 500-page epic novel Art Studio (2011), which charts the lives of artists from the 1960s to the present, was adapted for the stage as a three-hour play in 2017 by Nine Years Theatre.

He drew on his own struggle with prostate cancer to write Art Studio. He was later also diagnosed with colon cancer as he was finishing his novel Opera Costume (2015). The day before he entered surgery, he badgered his editors to finish the book’s proof so he could read it before he went under the knife.

In 2017, he told The Straits Times that his doctors had given him three more years to live, but that he was determined despite the pain and fatigue to keep writing anyway.

This he did, producing new work up until the end, including novel Colour Of Dusk (2019) – about an elderly writer struggling with loneliness in the twilight of his career – and poetry collection Stone (2020).

Ms Tan, who visited him last Friday in the hospice, recalls: “He looked great. We played the songs that he liked, or appeared in his novels. 

“He still joked with me. I remember his charming smile.”

The author’s wake will be held from Monday (Jan 11) evening to Tuesday night at Blk 127, Bishan Street 12. The cortege will leave at 8.40am on Wednesday for Mandai Crematorium Hall 3.