Cultural Medallion: Novelist Chia Joo Ming is champion of Chinese literary scene

Mr Chia Joo Ming, 62, is a part-time senior executive sub-editor at Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.
Mr Chia Joo Ming, 62, is a part-time senior executive sub-editor at Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - He is an acclaimed novelist and a senior newspaper sub-editor, and has just bagged the Cultural Medallion - Singapore's most prestigious award for the arts.

But Chia Joo Ming, 62, is still, by his own description, "an ordinary uncle".

The part-time senior executive sub-editor at Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, whose works often concern history and the lives of everyday people, takes all his achievements in his stride.

"These extra labels are a bonus," he tells The Straits Times in Mandarin. "Just be happy about it for a day and that's enough.

"Tomorrow, you still need to return to work with a calm, steady mind. Once I walk out of this door, I'm still an ordinary uncle."

He received the Cultural Medallion on Wednesday (Nov 24). The award is conferred by the President on individuals who have contributed significantly to the arts and culture of Singapore. Administered by the National Arts Council and regarded as the highest arts honour in the country, it comes with a trophy and access to the Cultural Medallion Fund for funding of up to $80,000. 

Chia, the fourth son of a chye tau kueh hawker and housewife, grew up in the Kallang area. He has written a dozen Chinese-language books, including the Singapore Literature Prize-winning novels Kian Kok (2018), m40 (2009) and Reconstructing Nanyang Images (2005).

His 2015 book Exile Or Pursuit, a coming-of-age story of a young Singaporean set in yesteryear, was added to the O-level Chinese literature syllabus in 2018 and adapted as a stage play this year.

When Chia was growing up, he devoured wuxia novels by famous Taiwanese writer Gu Long and also read children's magazines. He found some early success at 17, when his creative writing was published by Shin Min Daily News. He kept writing.

In 1978, he published an essay collection with his elder brother, poet and novelist Chia Hwee Pheng, who is better known as Xi Ni Er and received the Cultural Medallion in 2008.

After he graduated from the Singapore Technical Institute, he thought about working at an air-conditioning company, but eventually took up an offer from Shin Min Daily News when it contacted him.

"For someone with educational qualifications like mine, I didn't have many choices. People chose you - you didn't get to choose them," Chia says wryly.

In 1984, he joined the paper as a sub-editor and became the founding editor of its Urban Literature pages. Three years later, he moved to the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation as a scriptwriter for the sitcom Neighbours.

Then, in 1988, he hopped over to Lianhe Zaobao, where he sub-edited the literary pages and started what would be a more than three-decade career at the paper.

Chia, who comes across as modest but talkative in person - "men get long-winded with age" - says many members of Singapore's Chinese literary scene are now "old, ragged soldiers".


Mr Chia Joo Ming feels Singapore Chinese literature is in a "trough" at the moment. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

He recalls that in the early 1980s, a poem by Taiwanese poet Luo Fu sparked a debate in Singapore that lasted more than three months. Writers clashed over whether poetry should be obscure or more limpid.

In 2018, the year Luo Fu died, one of the writers involved in the debate lamented in a Zaobao article: "Today, perhaps no one would argue about a poem any more."

Chia says: "The community used to be bigger. Now, there are fewer of us and we are huddling together for warmth. From the late 1980s, Singapore started to become a very capitalistic society, people started to move away from these ideals."

He received the Young Artist Award in 1993. His other prizes include the Golden Lion Literary Awards, National Book Development Council of Singapore's Book Awards and the S.E.A. Write Award.

He is married to a former clerk, and their son, 23, is studying business at the Nanyang Technological University.

Asked if working in the media has affected his literary style, he says: "You need to be self-aware. After a while, you slowly manage to separate the two."

Journalistic skills have also come in handy - having an eye for newsworthy detail, knowing how to write in an objective way and using archival material judiciously.

His SG50-centric novel Kian Kok, for instance, uses snippets of text from newspaper articles.

He adds: "Dong Qiao, the famous Hong Kong writer, once said that editing a piece of writing takes more time than writing it.

"When I write something for the first time, I am an author. The second time round, I am a sub-editor. Later, when it's completed, I need to think about what I left out and how I can 'fatten' it up. Then, you need to trim it."

He writes at a slow pace, works best in the morning and tries to stop writing by 9 or 10pm. "If the mind is too active, it affects your sleep."

He is candid about the falling standards of Mandarin in Singapore, and notes that many of the youth who win awards here were born in Malaysia and China.

Asked what could be done to improve young people's Chinese standards and get them more interested in the language, he says: "(Founding prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew once said that language issues in Singapore are political issues. So, you need to return to the political policies."

Over the years, he has given young creative writers a platform in the papers. He has also played a key role in events such as the Zaobao Book Choice, Best Selected Works of Literary City and Zaobao Literary Festival.

He feels Singapore Chinese literature is in a "trough" at the moment.

But perhaps it is not all doom and gloom. "Individual writers can still work in their own 'micro environments' and continue to write - even if the wider environment is not favourable to them.

"Once you put your pen down, you don't need a large sky - instead, you can keep exploring, digging deep."