The Life Interview With Tham Yew Chin

The Life Interview with Chinese novelist Tham Yew Chin: Eye for detail

Chinese novelist Tham Yew Chin gets under the skin of her characters, weaving in personal observations and experiences

When award-winning Chinese novelist Tham Yew Chin was a Secondary 3 student, she submitted a story about a fisherman's life which was published in Hai Xing Bao, a now-defunct Chinese newspaper here.

Feeling rather proud, she showed it to her father, who, after congratulating her, told her that he thought the story was a failure.

"He said to me, 'You are only 16. You've never lived as a fisherman and you don't know any fishermen. You should at least live with them, observe their lives and try to understand their thoughts. Only when you portray reality can your writing come alive,'" recalls Tham, 65, who is better known by her pen name, You Jin.

It was a pivotal life lesson that shaped her attitude towards writing, a craft she has honed in a career of more than five decades - to ground one's prose in reality by weaving in personal observations and experiences.

This insistence on walking a mile in someone's shoes extends throughout her entire oeuvre - an assortment of 85 books - which include short story collections, novels, travelogues, essays, biographies as well as articles and columns for publications in Singapore.

"Once, I was writing about MacRitchie Reservoir and I forgot how the flowers and plants there smelled like, so I took a break and drove there to take a walk. I must have enough research and material. I don't rely solely on imagination," she tells The Straits Times in a three-hour interview at her two-storey semi-detached house off Holland Road.

Tham's writing, which has endeared her to readers here and abroad, is much like the homemade orange chiffon cake she insists on serving this reporter upon arrival - gentle, warm, yet richly textured.

In this interview, she peppers her answers with food analogies and metaphors often found in her stories. Meals, the culinary enthusiast suggests, can be used to describe her written works: "Short stories are like desserts, they're short and sweet and you can write about anything. A novel is like a dinner with many courses - you need multiple characters and incidents to string it together."

Many of her stories are based on seemingly quotidian events, such as a colleague's betrothal or a new family moving into the neighbourhood. But with a journalist's eye for detail and a writer's lyricism, she skilfully fleshes these out, weaving in introspection and insight.

In the novel, Joys And Sorrows In The Desert (1987), she mines a stint spent trailing her husband when he was posted to the Middle East in the 1970s for work, writing about life in the hermetic Saudi Arabian kingdom.

In one chapter, she likens an unhappy expatriate couple to an "unlikely" pair of animals: "The water buffalo laboured away without complaint, in order for the peacock to be comfortable... The pity of it was, the peacock was incapable of gratitude, viewing this instead as the natural state of affairs."

The book was translated into English by author Jeremy Tiang and published by Epigram Books in 2010. Along with two other recently published books, Teaching Cats To Jump Hoops (2012) and In Time, Out Of Place (2015), it marks Tham's first exposure to English- language readers here.

In an e-mail interview, Tiang says: "I enjoyed how chatty You Jin's prose is. She gets under the skin of her characters, making you feel like you're there with them."

The same could be said of Tham in real life - the former Chinese teacher, bespectacled with a neat crop of hair and a benevolent smile, is soft-spoken yet expressive in her speech, often elucidating her points at great length, in crisp, clearly enunciated Mandarin.

She has chalked up accolades - from the Mont Blanc-NUS Centre for The Arts Literary Award (1996) to the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest arts accolade, in 2009.

The medallion is an achievement she especially treasures - the front-page articles reporting the event from The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao hang on the wall of her living room.

"It was important to be recognised by my own people. I was not surprised to win, but I was happy," she says.

Born in 1950 in the town of Ipoh in Perak state, Malaysia, Tham is the second among four children. Her mother, Tan Toh Yen, was the daughter of a rubber industry merchant, while her father, Tham Sien Yen, was a Chinese resistance fighter who had fought alongside war hero Lim Bo Seng against the Japanese.

As a tribute to her parents who died here in 2003, she wrote and published a biography titled Father And I last year, which chronicles their lives and includes diary entries from her father on his anti-war efforts.

The book details how Mr Tham tried to start various businesses such as a newspaper and a mining venture. None of those endeavours took off, so the family moved to Singapore in search of greener pastures in 1958.

Tham credits her father for stoking her lifelong interest in the Chinese language and literature.

"He felt education was important and insisted that we attend school, no matter how poor we were. My brothers and elder sister transferred to English schools when they came to Singapore, but my dad saw how much I loved Chinese, so he let me stay on at a Mandarin-speaking school," she recalls.

Tham graduated from Nanyang University in 1973 as the top student in her cohort, with first-class honours in Chinese language and literature.

Three years into her first job as a librarian at the National Library, she quit to join Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau as a features reporter and, later, as an editor.

"I loved reading and bringing books home to read, but there was no social interaction. I'd always wanted to be a journalist. It is my first love - you get to meet different people and every day is a challenge," she says.

Tham ran into trouble when her expose of overcharging practices by trishaw riders in 1976 incurred the wrath of the riders, who turned up at the newsroom demanding to see her.

"They claimed that I'd fabricated the story, but my editor and colleagues stood by me. You know (singer-songwriter) Liang Wern Fook? His father, Liang Zhen Ying, was my colleague and he sent me home that night," she recounts.

Around that time, Tham married engineering consultant James Lim, 70, with whom she has three children - Danny, 38, Ivan, 33, who both work in the banking industry, and Jacinta, 31, a lawyer. The couple have two granddaughters.

Lim, who was born in Malaysia and studied in Australia and New Zealand, can speak Chinese, but cannot read it. He converses with his wife in English.

He admits that he cannot read most of her works, but says: "Most of what she writes is inspired by the trips we've taken and some of the photographs are taken by me. We travel a lot - it exposes her to different cultures and countries so she has more to write about."

Juggling her duties as a mother and wife with a journalist's long and irregular hours proved to be difficult, but she persisted with her writing. At times, she would stay up to write, sleeping for only about four to five hours a day.

She published her first book in 1979 and quit the newspaper in 1981.She became a teacher in 1982, teaching first at Hua Yi Secondary School, then Pioneer Junior College. She taught for almost 30 years.

Her experiences in dealing with students, parents and fellow teachers inspired her writing as well.

The Chinese teacher took the Chinese literary world by storm in 1991, when a publisher in Zhejiang, China, released five of her travelogues in the country.

The travelogues - The White House In The Desert, The Lost Monsoon, That Faraway Friendship, A Trip Of Romance and The Sun Does Not Go Home - detail her trips through countries in South America, the Middle East and Europe.

From Guangzhou to Shanghai, her books swiftly sold out and she was invited for meet-the-author sessions, where the snaking queues of fans stunned her.

Asked to explain the appeal behind her travelogues, she says: "I don't write about scenery, but I evoke the country through the people I encounter. I tell their stories and I link the country's politics, economy and culture to their lives."

As her popularity soared, controversy soon followed - a Chinese publisher falsely branded an erotica series with her name in 1993 to drive sales. "I later clarified the matter in a statement in the Chinese papers," she says.

In 2000, the You Jin Research Centre was set up in the city of Chongqing for university students to analyse her works and writings by other South-east Asian authors. Seven years later, she was the first author to be invited for a writing residency in the city of Chengdu.

"One can feel alone while writing, so it was nice to get that kind of recognition," says Tham, who has had 92 books published in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Tham's close friend of 15 years, linguist and educator Chua Chee Lay, who was the late founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew's Chinese tutor, says he knew of her through her writings before meeting her.

He adds: "You Jin is probably the most influential and best-selling Singaporean writer in China. She has introduced Singapore to the Mandarin-speaking world through her works."

Since she stopped teaching in 2009, she has travelled with her husband to more than 100 countries across five continents - from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to the seaside towns of Bulgaria to the Khyber Pass in Pakistan.

"I don't travel solely for writing. You come to Earth only once. It's a one-way ticket, so you should try to see the many homes - the countries in this world - that in a way, belong to you," she says.

As a freelance writer and teacher, she contributes columns regularly to Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao as well as to periodicals in China and Hong Kong.

She says: "People's words are like a whetstone - I use them to sharpen my writing. Reading is like the oxygen that nourishes me and words are in my blood. When I write, I can feel them flowing out of me and onto the page."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline The Life Interview with Chinese novelist Tham Yew Chin: Eye for detail. Subscribe