Mum taught me to confront my emotions, emerging Singapore writer says of her mother, poet Leong Liew Geok

Mother and daughter writing duo, Teh Su Ching (left) and Leong Liew Geok.
Mother and daughter writing duo, Teh Su Ching (left) and Leong Liew Geok. PHOTO: SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY WEE KIM WEE CENTRE

Like mother, like daughter. Looks like that is how life played out for full-time writer Teh Su Ching, daughter of prominent local poet and literary critic, Leong Liew Geok.

Teh, 30, who is also a screenwriter, film producer, playwright and actress, started writing poetry last year. She recently wrote a screenplay for a telemovie, titled Baby Bumps, which will air on Channel 5 in March. She is married to Ho Ren Hua, the elder son of Banyan Tree Holdings power couple Ho Kwon Ping and Claire Chiang.

Leong, 68, has two poetry collections under her belt - Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women Without Men (2000). She is working on her third, Passions, slated for publishing next year. She taught at the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore for 21 years, until her retirement in 2002.

Mother and daughter shared the stage for the first time on Tuesday evening, during a monthly writers' sharing session, Writers Talking, organised by the Singapore Management University's (SMU) Wee Kim Wee Centre. The session was chaired by SMU academic and poet Kirpal Singh.

It is apparent that the two have been inspiring each other in their literary output.

After Leong read out her poem, Sisters - I, about how Teh, then 14, reacted to her elder sister's departure to the United States for university, Teh had tears streaming down her face.

"That poem brings back memories," said Teh by way of explanation. She then proceeded to read The Other Woman, a Mandarin poem she wrote last year about her childhood wish to marry her mother.

Born in Penang, straight-talking Leong is known in some quarters to be a feminist poet.

"I wrote a poem railing against Chinese New Year, because this is the annual ritual for the enslavement of women," she said. Her poem talks about how women have to fulfil many expectations during the festive period such as doing all the spring-cleaning.

But she added that she also writes about siblings, teacher-student relationships, as well as nature.

Leong edited the popular anthology, More Than Half the Sky (1998), which comprises writings by 30 Singaporean women. Her poem, Forever Singlish, was recently performed in the Wild Rice theatre production, Another Country, which dramatised extracts from choice works by Singapore and Malaysian writers.

Teh recalled, to laughter from the audience in SMU's cosy university lounge, writing her first story at age five about a classroom haunted by pontianaks. It was documented, along with drawings of the local ghost in white sheets, in a scrapbook her mother gave her and her two older siblings as kids.

Teh said her mother taught her that "sometimes emotions are difficult, and they are not always politically correct. But it's fine to confront and express them".

As if to illustrate this point, a teary Teh told the audience: "Sorry I'm emotional. I'm breastfeeding, which messes with your hormones."

She and her husband have a three-month-old son. They will be moving to Bangkok next week, following Ren Hua's recent appointment as chief executive officer of starch and consumer foods company Thai Wah Group.

Her parents-in-law are themselves formidable public intellectuals - Banyan Tree Holdings chairman Ho is also SMU chairman and a former journalist, while Banyan Tree Holdings senior vice president Chiang is a former Nominated Member of Parliament. Being surrounded by such prominent personalities is "absolutely inspiring", Teh told The Straits Times after the dialogue.

"No matter what kind of environment you are in, especially if it's your job to write, then everything inspires you."

She is also close to her brother-in-law Ho Ren Chun, 21, who published his own poetry collection, Shrines And Streetlights, in 2012.

Teh admitted that she used to shy away from the local poetry scene in favour of film and theatre "because I felt it was my mother's scene".

She appears more confident of her place in poetry now, after making her first public foray last April during the Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo, where writers wrote poetry responding to daily prompts on a dedicated Facebook page.

Her poems were published last year by Math Paper Press in two anthologies, SingPoWriMo 2014 as well as A Luxury We Cannot Afford.

Incidentally, her mother also started writing poetry in her 30s.

Said Teh with a smile: "It's like a family business, where you've grown up thinking and talking about these things."