Introduction to “Learning Me Your Language”

Philip Holden

Wang Gungwu is best known as a historian of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, and for a stellar academic career commencing at the University of Malaya in Singapore and culminating in periods as Vice Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, and Director of the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Wang was a young adult at a turbulent time when modern Southeast Asia was being made during the period of decolonization immediately following the Second World War. The University of Malaya, where Wang studied during his undergraduate years from 1949 to 1952, was caught up in this process. Its new name, replacing those of its colonial predecessors Raffles College and the King Edward College of Medicine, pointed to the future of an independent Malaya. Yet the process of decolonization, especially for members of the Anglophone elite who attended the university, was also riven with conflict. By 1948, the brief “Malayan Spring” of post-War political pluralism had given way to the Malayan Emergency, a conflict in which Marxist guerillas conducted an insurgency against the colonial state.

Writing in the student magazines The Cauldron and its successor The New Cauldron, undergraduates at the University debated the shape that the new Malayan nation that would take; like later governments in Singapore and Malaysia after 1965, they strove to imagine a new national culture that might emerge after colonialism and that would reflect the multicultural nature of the new nation-state. An editorial in The New Cauldron called for “a courageous attempt at synthesis” of all the different “tributary traditions” that had been kept apart by a colonial plural society (“The Way to Nationhood” 6). Central to such synthesis would be the evolution of a common Malayan language that “would arise out of the contributions these communities” might “make to the linguistic melting pot.” This language would then “wait for a literary genius” to give it “voice and a soul, a service which Dante performed for the Italian language” (5). These hopes might seem naive given the hindsight that history now affords, yet they did give rise to attempts to write poetry that responded directly to a Malayan environment, mostly in English, but also initially in the artificial interlanguage of “Engmalchin,” incorporating English, Malay, and Chinese, the three most dominant languages in Malaya at that time.

Wang’s poetry collection Pulse, published in 1950, was perhaps the most lasting achievement of all the university poets. As Wang himself was to remark in retrospect in his article “Trial and Error in Malayan Poetry,” the project the poetry undertook was perhaps too ambitious, and the quality of writing is uneven. Yet Wang’s unique position among his fellow students as someone who was functionally trilingual (he published poems in Chinese and Malay, as well as those predominately in English) made his contribution unique. His first poem, “Moon Thoughts,” for instance, draws on imagery from both Chinese and British traditions, mixing imagery from Tang poetry with that from the English Romantics, and adding local “coffee dregs” and “rubber trees” to negotiate with, at times awkwardly, an “impure” cultural environment. Later poems, such as “Three Faces of Night,” are more successful in the complex manner in which they represent a Malayan urban landscape and a multilingual environment, using devices such as direct translation (“cool tea” for the Chinese liang cha 凉茶), or phonetic transcription (“fun” for fen 粉 rice noodles). The best poems in the collection express in equal measure both the exhilaration and the uneasiness of a rapidly changing society emerging from colonialism. Other English-language poets in Malaya, and later in Malaysia and Singapore would follow, and produce more substantial oeuvres, but Wang’s contribution has lasting value as the first collection of English-language poetry to attempt to articulate a distinctively Malayan voice.

Work Cited:

“The Way to Nationhood.” The New Cauldron. Hilary Term, 1949-1950. 3-6.

Philip Holden is associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, teaching and researching Singaporean and Southeast Asian Literatures. He is also currently vice president of Singapore Heritage Society.