Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon, 70, writes on despite cancer

Author Yeng Pway Ngon (above, with his wife Goh Beng Choo) is behind The Non-Existent Lover And Other Stories.
Author Yeng Pway Ngon (above, with his wife Goh Beng Choo) is behind The Non-Existent Lover And Other Stories.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Author Yeng Pway Ngon, who has been told he may have only three more years to live, is still putting out works

In the title story of Chinese- language writer Yeng Pway Ngon's latest collection, The Non-Existent Lover And Other Stories, an ageing writer is visited by the fictional character he created as a younger man, falls in love with her and begins to question if he himself is real.

At 70, Yeng has created plenty of colourful characters across a career that has seen him publish 26 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays and more, win the Singapore Literature Prize three times and receive the Cultural Medallion - although, he adds, he does not wish to be visited by any of his creations.

Speaking in the Bishan Housing Board flat he shares with his wife and long-time translator Goh Beng Choo, Yeng seems sprightly, often jumping to his feet and pulling books off overstuffed shelves to illustrate his point.

It belies the fact that he has stage four prostate cancer and stage three colon cancer. According to his doctor, he has three more years to live.

Yeng has decided to not pay attention to this prognosis, having outlived previous predictions during his first bout with cancer nine years ago. "I try to be happy and not to fight with my wife," he says in Mandarin. "I am very tired all the time and my bones ache, but I still have a new novel I want to write."

Whatever his doctors say, he is not planning to go gentle into that good night just yet, with a number of new publications coming out this year and a stage adaptation of his work.


Author Yeng Pway Ngon is behind The Non-Existent Lover And Other Stories (above).

This Sunday, he is launching The Non-Existent Lover, translated by Madam Goh, 65, a former bilingual reporter at The Straits Times. They have been married for more than 40 years and have a daughter and two grandsons aged three and 11/2.

The 17 stories in the collection span decades, the earliest was written in 1968 and the latest in 2003. They trace Yeng's evolving concerns as a writer, from his earlier literary experimentation to more socially conscious tales after the 1970s to his micro-fiction in the new millennium.

In the 1985 story The Tidbit Stall Woman, he strives to capture memories of snack stalls and Rediffusion radio from his childhood in North Bridge Road, near what is nowBugis Junction mall. "A lot of things have been taken down. If I did not write it down, I would have forgotten it too."

Other stories are more chilling in their provenance. In Misdelivered Mail (1979), a man tries to get himself posted to the United States, but ends up in a mental hospital.

Yeng drew on his wife's experience of working in Woodbridge Hospital, where patients were dressed in colonial-era police uniforms for lack of a better attire, and also on his own detention in 1977 under the Internal Security Act for alleged leftist sympathies.

"They told me they had arrested me for my own good, otherwise I would have become like the others and have to go on TV and make confessions," he recalls. He quoted then, as his character does to the psychologist assessing his sanity, a line from the 1970 film Love Story: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Madam Goh says she decided to translate the stories for the collection, which received a National Arts Council grant of $5,500, to "capture readers of another language". She has translated several of his works, including the 2011 novel Hua Shi (Art Studio), and describes her husband's writing as "not Chinese for the sake of being Chinese; rather, it is universal".

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The book was also translated into Italian as L'Atelier. It got the couple invited to Mantua, Italy in 2014 for the Festivaletteratura, an international literary festival, where they were shocked to see long queues of Italians clamouring for Yeng's autograph. "This had never happened to me in Singapore," he says.

Art Studio will make its stage debut next month as Nine Years Theatre adapts it for the Singapore International Festival of Arts. The novel, which charts the lives of artists from the 1960s to the present, draws on Yeng's struggle with prostate cancer.

He entered remission, but was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015 as he was finishing his most recent novel, Xi Fu (Opera Costume). 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.

The novel will come out later this year in an English translation by New York-based Singapore author Jeremy Tiang, who also edited The Non-Existent Lover.

Yeng went to Hong Kong to research 1930s Cantonese opera and even trained in opera singing to better understand the art form.

He still practises every day and, with some persuasion, he gamely sings a few bars of a song about pipa players by Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi. "If I were younger, I would learn the dramatic aspect too," he says.

In the novel he is now writing, the elderly protagonist observes other old people and the problems that come with age - sickness, failing memory and loneliness.

Solitude, however unpleasant, has been vital to his career as a writer, he says. "Many cannot tolerate it. It is very difficult."

He gets up and paces around his living room in a square that is a little over 2m wide. "For four months, I was in a cell this size on my own," he says, referring to his detention in 1977. "So, yes, I do know a thing or two about loneliness."

What keeps him going, he says, is his belief in writing for a reader - "some people will brag that they don't need readers, to which I say, just go write a diary" - and writing with freedom of the mind.

"I find Singaporeans tend to be restricted either by self-censorship or by worry about what will make money," he says. "There can be no policemen in your mind, no fear when you write. The freedom of the mind is most important."

•The Non-Existent Lover And Other Stories ($15) is available at City Book Room and BooksActually.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Writing on in spite of cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe