Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2010

Travels in Asia, MWF #3

It was interesting to note that nearly everyone in the audience for this session was older than me, and resolutely Anglo-Saxon.  I suspect that (like me) they were attracted by the name and fame of Simon Winchester, but went away rather pleased to have discovered two interesting new Asian writers as well.

According to the program guide,  Simon Winchester, Ouyang Yu and Kim Cheng Boey were to compare their different experiences of the continent that will dominate this century, and collectively consider how their writing shapes the rest of the world’s understanding of Asia.  I’m not entirely sure that this latter aim was achieved, but I left at Question Time to meet The Spouse for lunch, so I may have missed it.

Kim Cheng Boey, from Singapore, spoke first. He’s a poet and academic who has been in Australia since the late 1990s.  Between Stations (published by Giramondo) is a series of essays about Singapore, informed by a powerful sense of nostalgia for the country left behind.  One memory triggers another, about a Singapore now lost due to the pace of development from the 1980s onward.

Now the Spouse and I visited Singapore five years ago, and will be there again on our forthcoming trip.  We love it.  We think it is an exciting city with an eclectic vision of itself, inclusive of its colonial past as well as its ancient Asian heritage.  Their Asian Civilisations Museum at Empress Place is a real treat, and we plan to visit the other one in Armenian Street this time.  We also like the literary tourism aspects of Singapore and at left you can see me taking in the delights of Raffles Writers’ Bar named for Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad amongst others.  And we like the pristine cleanliness of Singapore too, its beautiful flowers and the smart paintwork everywhere.

So it was intriguing to learn that Kim Cheng Boey feels nostalgia for the smells of a rather grubby old Singapore, down by the docks and its old markets.  The sense of smell, he says, is the most primordial, and a place needs to have smells to be memorable.  He feels that the Singaporean obsession with cleanliness has made it anonymous.  Does this mean that my experience of his city is inauthentic?

Ouyang Yu is a poet too, but also a prolific writer of criticism, essays, translation and fiction.  His novel The English Class (published by Transit Lounge) is being launched this week. He talked about there being three ways of travel: personal travel, cyber travel and imaginative travel.

I was fascinated to hear him talk about his own personal travels in Japan.  He said it was like visiting the dead, because so much havoc in Asia was caused by the Japanese in the Second World War.  He said they were the most hurtful in the past, and the longest remembered as the creators of destruction in the world. (More than colonialism, presumably, though he didn’t say this.) If his feelings are representative, it is a heavy indictment on Japan, and it’s a story we need to hear more about.  After all, if it’s a widespread point-of-view, do other Asians resent Australia’s hasty postwar reconciliation with Japan and the long friendship between the two countries?  We in Australia have tended to focus on what happened to our POWS under Japanese brutality; we have yet to concern ourselves much with what they did throughout the countries they occupied.  I wonder if our trade relationships preclude an honest reappraisal of this aspect of our shared history?

Ouyang Yu is a fan of armchair travel, because of its potential for spreading knowledge about his world.  He told us that there are countless Chinese bloggers who offer a window on the new China, but alas, there are no links to these on his blog so I don’t know how to find them.  (Assuming they are written in English.)

It was when he came to armchair travel, that his words really began to resonate with me.  When we imagine ourselves in different places, we change from who we are as well as where we are.   These imaginings can become ‘memories’ and then ‘reality’ in a novel, and I love the idea of this.  I love to travel, but I also love the planning and the imagining that takes place beforehand; I have my own kind of reality before I leave which is not just excitement but an imaginative construction of how it might be when I get there, which becomes reality on arrival, and memories afterwards.  Which of these is ‘true’?

Simon Winchester spoke last.  He’s a witty raconteur, and he had the audience laughing in no time.  We chez T & L have read many of his books, my favourites being Outposts, The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Map that Changed the World but today he talked about his travels in far-flung places from Afghanistan to Korea.  He said he developed a taste for epic travel when he first reached Hong Kong, and he certainly seems to have been everywhere since then!

A most interesting session.

Which is more than can be said for the writing seminar I went to after lunch.  There were two writers, but one of them hogged the presentation for two straight hours while the other sat there looking frustrated.  I bet I wasn’t the only one who didn’t return from the five-minute break to hear the second writer; I was completely fed up.

There was no real attempt to address the topic, how to write literary fiction, and this is not surprising given that the author’s definition of literary fiction (as distinct from the other kind) was a vague  ‘quality of the writing’ and scornful dismissal of anything obscure and difficult which didn’t sell.  She put her audience through a couple of inane writers’ exercises so that she could promote a book she wrote about how to write a novel, and then shamelessly promoted her latest book by recounting the structural problems she had with it, and how she resolved them.  The plot sounded like a melodrama to me, and it turns out that Kim at Reading Matters has described this book not as literary fiction but as ‘a light, entertaining read, something that goes down easily without having to think about it too much, [not]  high-brow literature by any stretch of the imagination, but … accessible and enjoyable’.

Never mind, I have discovered two new authors to pique my interest, and it was a pleasure reading Madame Bovary coming home on the train.


  1. So, I take it Louise Doughty was a pain in the you-know-where. LOL.

    The first session sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve just read a book about North Korea — review coming as soon as I can get my act together — and it’s really piqued my interest in Asia, an area I’ve not explored beyond the inside of various airports (Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Bangkok) enroute to Oz. I would really love to travel to Japan, because Tokyo just seems like an amazing 21st century city.

    An interesting take on Japan… I’ve read a couple of fiction titles about the Japanese subjugating Koreans in the war, in particular forcing Korean women to pretend to be Japanese in order to “service” the troops sexual needs. Just horrendous. So not only do these women have to give up their cultural identity, they have to become prostitutes as well. Grim.


  2. I think what this session reinforced for me is that there is a wealth of great writing from our region, but we know very little about it. I mean, it’s hard enough to find out about new titles from New Zealand, and there isn’t even the language barrier between us. Most of what we find in the bookshops and in the media is from the US, followed by UK titles if it’s award-worthy or written by someone famous, and then there’s not much else – though to be fair there are some small publishers bringing us works in translation from Europe.
    Anyway, today was a start…i’m going to chase these books up when I get back home again…
    PS What were the novels you mentioned called?


  3. ‘Comfort Woman’ by Nora Okja Keller

    ‘A Gesture Life’ by Chang-Rae Lee


  4. Thanks, Kim… two more for the wishlist!


  5. Hi!

    I started following your blog not too long ago, and have decided to emerge from lurkdom after reading this post – I am a Singaporean born and bred (but currently living in the US) and well, I don’t entirely agree with what Boey says about the anonymity of my country. It is definitely a cleaned-up version (then again, I was an ’80s kid, and this was when the cleaning up was in motion), sanitised version, especially what tourists usually see. But I think that a venture out into what’s called the ‘heartlands’ (kind of like the suburbs), visiting the wet markets in the morning and the neighbouring hawker centres for a local breakfast of roti prata/chwee kueh/kopi would provide a good sense of the smells and daily life of Singapore. While I do think that Singapore has too many of the same old shopping malls and stores, I don’t really want to go back to those days when the Singapore River stank to high heaven!


    • Welcome to you Olduvai! I’m delighted that you’ve come out of lurkdom at last, especially since you have an insiders view of this issue.
      Maybe Boey’s perspective is a bit like those here in Australian cities who get nostalgic for the ‘sense of community’ that used to exist in slum communities in the inner city, and yet when we look at the historical record at how appallingly unhealthy those slums were, especially for little kids growing up in them, no one could ever really want those days back…


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