An interview with Wang Gungwu (in the mid 1980s)

Robert Yeo

Wang: I might start at the beginning. I’m not one of those schoolboy poets who wrote and published while still at school. When we arrived the very first month of the foundation of the University of Malaya in October 1949. it was a very exciting time for all of us. There was a sense of being at the start of a new moment in educational history. And with new freshmen on campus, you can imagine what that was like in those days. We had a period of ragging – about a month or so – and we were all ragged. And I think in that atmosphere, some pretty silly ragging activities were going on I had a very memorable experience of that with Beda Lim. He was a year senior to me. And he didn’t rag me like the others. His idea of ragging was to read me poetry and ask me what I thought.

Yeo: His own poetry?

Wang: No, no. He would read something like Auden, some modern poet. And that started us going and we became very close friends almost immediately after we met, even though he was a year senior to me and a bit older than me. And that was because he discovered that I had read and heard of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and so on. He was quite surprised by that, so we hit it off straightaway. When he read me more of their poems, I was able to respond with appreciation. I can’t remember what I actually said but I responded and we became close friends. He was a great friend. He aroused in me a great deal of interest in poetry and music and he then began to tell me about what they had been doing the year before, since he came to the campus, in the way of Malayan literature. He talked about the writings of the previous year, it was still Raffles College then, in the context of Malayan nationalism, the possibility of independence one day, and what we would do when we have a literature of our own. He was not alone, of course. There were people like Richard Ong. Unfortunately, Richard Ong had left by the time I came and was no longer writing. I never met the man, but it was a very inspiring moment when Beda recited Richard Ong’s famous poem “Multiplicity of cultures”. Beda has an excellent memory and virtually never forgets anything he reads. He came to me with the poem and read it as if it was a classic. In fact, it had been written a couple of years earlier, or perhaps a year before, and he says, ‘This is the sort of thing we are trying to do, you see’ and he conveyed an additional layer of excitement to what was already very exciting times for all of us.

To be in a new university at a time of expectant change towards a whole new society, a new state of Malaya – with the Emergency out there with all that shooting and killing while at the same time various parties were negotiating about the future, with preparations for independence. The British were themselves, in a way, caught in their own rhetoric, promising that a new generation must be prepared for nationhood. They were giving up power in India; there were many lessons to learn from India and Palestine: notably the racial conflicts leading to killings between Indians and Muslims, Palestinians and Jews, and between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. All these were happening and the British was very conscious that Malaya was going to be a problem with all the races there. So, it was a time when, as Wordsworth would say, ‘It was great to be young.’ When things were so stimulating, it’s very hard to say what was the role of a poet, what was the cause for someone writing a poem. I think it was just the whole atmosphere, you just felt like wanting to do something; and talking to Beda was probably the most important single influence in my trying to write poetry. I just sat down and started to write, I had no preparation, never thought of doing it and I wrote my first poem, which was ‘Moon Thoughts’.

Yeo: That’s right.

Wang: I wrote my first poem, I think, within days of meeting Beda and I wrote really as an exercise to show him.

Yeo: I see.

Wang: You know, and after that, he was extremely encouraging, he thought it showed I had some talent, encouraged me. I was only nineteen years old. Very soon, somebody even showed it to a couple of lecturers, I have forgotten who they were now … They sort of said, “Keep going”.

Yeo: But when you wrote ‘Moon Thoughts”, did you sort of imbibe some kind of notion of the kind of language that was necessary. I mean, you said that Beda introduced you to modern poetry and I think if I recollect some of the verses written during that time, I think I made some of these points in the questions I sent you earlier, a lot of them were imitative.

Wang: Yes, ‘Moon Thoughts’ is a sonnet.

Yeo: As far as the form is concerned but not the language.

Wang: Not the language, yes, but I would myself look upon it today as pretty conventional, poetic language in English as I understood it. I don’t think I made any conscious effort to write a new kind of literature. I wasn’t conscious yet, certainly not doing it consciously.

Yeo: Beda had read Auden and Eliot and so on and he didn’t talk about Modernism?

Wang: Yes, we did but then I went and wrote this sonnet with rhyme and everything, you know, and still he was very encouraging. I never wrote another sonnet again. (Laughter from both.) I’m just illustrating what happened, that was my very first effort. After that I played with other ideas but it was never systematically discussed, we had no formal poetry groups. Principally it was Beda talking to me and, looking back, the key for me really was Beda. Other people wrote, you know, Augustine Goh Sin Tub wrote his poems and so did Lim Thean Soo, but I never had much contact with them, partly because of the difference between the Malayans and the Singaporeans. The Malayans stayed in the hostels, Goh Sin Tub stayed at home, Lim Thean Soo stayed at home, and we never saw much of them. And they were also my seniors. They were both two years my senior, doing their third year in English Literature, whereas I was just a freshman taking various miscellaneous subjects. But Beda was in the hostel with us; he came from Penang and he was just around the corner from my dormitory. That meant that, after class, the Malayans got together and we saw a lot of one another. Only a few Singaporeans were privileged to share in this, and it was an extraordinary experience for us. In my mind, the Malayans had a much more enjoyable undergraduate life, from the very beginning, than the Singaporeans. The Singaporeans stayed at home, then came for lectures and went home again. They were non-hostelites and they did later form a non-hostelites organization but it was never much of an organization, you know. So for most of those who enjoyed university life, they were almost all Malayans. There were a few singaporeans who won special scholarships that required that they stay in college, and we got to know them better, people like Hsu Tse-Kwang, Stephen Sim.

Yeo: Stephen Sim of Shell?

Wang: Yes, of Shell and Hsu Tse-Kwang, Head of Income Tax. We were all in the same dormitary, they were the only two Singaporeans in my dormitory. There were about twenty of us, the rest were all from Malaya. Normally, the two Singaporeans were with us, but then on week-ends, they would disappear home. For us, there was nowhere to go, so it meant that seven days a week, we went down to the canteen, and to dinner. Although we were not in the same class, we spent all our free time, dropping in on one another to talk about music adn about politics. One of my dear friends was James Puthucheary we talked about politics a lot and we were very soon drawn into student politics. So our talk about poetry was never really free from politics.

Yeo: But why poetry, why not fiction, for instance or drama even?

Wang: Well, in my own case it was because of Beda, because he talked poetry to me.

Yeo: You couldn’t say why Beda had special feelings for poetry as against other forms of writing?

Wang: I think he just loved poetry. He had a beautiful, fantastic memory and a good voice. So, he would sit there and recite all kinds of poems from memory. In fact, he had such an excellent memory, I think it was probably that — never tell him that! — which inhibited him from ever being creative. Because he couldn’t think of a line —

Yeo: That he could write that could compare with —

Wang: Because whenever he wanted to say something, there is a line in his mind that is a quotation from someone else … He had never really tried to write poetry himself; he encouraged me but he never did it himself. Me, I had not read much poetry, there was nothing to inhibit me from writing my own words, I couldn’t remember anybody else’s whereas he had such an excellent memory. But I think, in a way, it was one of his great strengths, his excellent memory and his excellent voice. He spoke very well and had the best pronunciation of English among all of us. So when he read, from Shakespeare to Eliot, it was always well-done, clear and read with feeling and understanding. It was a great influence.

Yeo: Were there other ‘influence’?

Wang: In the Philippines. The Rockefeller Foundation in Manila, under the directorship of Charles B. Fahs, organised a Writers’ Conference in 1950. And the man they brought out to lead the conference was a novelist, an American novelist whose name was Stegner, Wallace Stegner — not Wallace Stevens the poet, but Wallace Stegner, the novelist. And he was a sort of chairman of the programme. What the organisers did was they found some money from a generous foundation – the great days of American, what you might call, literary colonialism! They took the trouble to look around for some local talent to invite. They brought some very lively Indonesians together with the Filipino writers. Somebody put them on to m, though I have no idea who that was. I think it must be some staff member of the University, I was never told who it was. One day, I suddenly received this invitation to go. So I was thrilled to pieces and went along, although I felt I was there under rather false pretences because I had written nothing of any distinction. I had just produced a couple of stories and published a few poems here and there in local student magazines. Anyway, I went along and met some very interesting people. I met many aspiring writers and have kept in touch with some of those in the Philippines. The man who was the leading writer then in the Philippines was N.V.M. Gonzalez. He was the local man. And from Indonesia were people like Rosihan Anwar the journalist and Usmar Ismail, the pioneering film director who sadly died young.

And there was a third writer from Indonesia whose name slips my mind. And there was also someone from Thailand whose name I cannot now recall, but the group consisted mainly of young Filipino poets and short story writers. Somehow the organisers found me and brought me there to join them. And I really enjoyed that. While I was there, I wrote a short story. I wrote some poems too. Some of them I never published. The short story I wrote there was published in The Malayan Undergrad. It was called, ‘The Cone‘ — a rather simplistic story about a Manila prostitute. I was reminded of this because I recently read the Asiaweek review of Goh Poh Seng’s book of poems. Did you see that? About an Ermita prostitute, a sad poem about this girl from Ermita, somewhat like what l wrote thirty years ago about a Manila prostitute. Another reason why I’m reminded of this story is that Beda recently went to Manila and wrote me a postcard, saying that the conditions described in ‘The Cone’ are still present there! (he laughs) and then of course …

Yeo: This was later?

Wang: No, no, just a few weeks ago. He was there a few weeks ago. I was still in Australia, just before I came here. I got a card from him saying that. And yesterday I read in Asiaweek the review of Goh Poh Seng and I read his poem. I saw his poem only yesterday.

Yeo: ‘The Girl From Ermita.’

Wang: Ermita, you see. And there was this review which included a photograph of two naked women, near naked women dancing, and so on. Suddenly I was reminded of all these associations with my Manila trip. But that was the only writers’ conference I’ve ever attended. After that, all the conferences I attended while at university involved student politics. I went to Delhi, Colombo, conferences on student politics. Never again did I …

Yeo: That was the first one?

Wang: The first and last. But you see, what is impressive, when you talk about colonialism, or neo-colonialism: one must take one’s hat off to them, how quickly they were on to it, the Americans. You know, that the old colonialism was going out and the Americans were the great conquerors of the next stage. How quickly they moved in. Charles B. Fahs, a very intellectual sort, probably unusual for a Rockfeller Foundation Director, immediately wanted to set up a writers’ conference and bring them together, using the Philippines as a kind of bridge between the United States and the rest of us. You see, up till that point, the Americans had no influence in Malaya and Singapore.

Yeo: None at all.

Wang: None at all in those days. For me, I think, they were the first Americans I ever met. I met the odd American when I was a student in China, but the first Americans I ever knew were Charles B. Fahs and Wallace Stegner, who were both there at the conference. And it was the Foundation that put up all the money. N. V. M. Gonzales was the key man. He was already an established writer, and he gave me a lot of hints about writing short stories. So it was because of him that I wrote a short story there during the conference. Because he, I still vividly remember, told me what a sweat it was to write. He talked about it to me privately. He inspired me. So I could have turned to short story writing had I not been drawn to student politics. His great model was Katherine Anne Porter. And he would bring Katherine Ann Porter stories to show me why he thought they were so good. I’m re- reading them now. I don’t think they’re that marvellous. But anyway they’re quite good. He would tell me the number of drafts he wrote, how he re-wrote and re-wrote and so on. He told me if you want to take it seriously, you must do all that (he laughs) – and sweat! And re-draft: draft after draft.

So, in that sense the opportunities to be a writer were there. But, deep down, and I think this cannot be said of others but probably can be said of many of my friends and some of those in the group that met in Manila, that we had this anti-colonial feeling, and nationalist feeling. But when I write, there was a little more, sort of anti – you to some extent. It’s my autonomy, my independence from you, my desire to be free from you. Some of us shared this feeling. Looking back, I think that prevented me from really mastering the techniques that the established writers at the conference could have taught me if I had been a bit more humble. Like many of my generation, we had our own kind of arrogance, out of our own nationalism, let’s say.

Yeo: How did this arrogance fit in with the fact that you were all using English, or did you accept it simply because it was the medium of instruction?

Wang: Ah, that was the question at the heart of it all. You see, that was the language those of us at MU had common. If we wrote in Chinese, only some would understand. Beda, for example, would not understand. If we wrote in Malay, Beda could understand but my Malay wasn’t good enough, and many of the others could not have done it. So, at least for ourselves, we were caught. We wanted to write for one another.

Yeo: Right. You had to write in English.

Wang: We had to write in English. Just for one another. Again, poetry seemed appropriate. With poetry, you are not writing for the world. We were just writing for one another. We were not even writing for the Chinese outside or for the Malays. We were not political in that sense, not writing to arouse the masses, you know. Just writing to and for each other, and therefore the only language was English. It never occurred to us to do otherwise. We were caught by nationalism. I don’t think Naipaul was ever caught by West Indian nationalism. It was not the sort of problem for him, you know. And it was a self-imposed thing. Looking back on it now, it was totally unnecessary, and probably silly. It was self-imposed and it killed many possibilities, possibilities that were killed off by imposing that contradiction on ourselves: that we were not writing for those genuinely nationalistic, but were writing for ourselves. And, therefore, it never occurred to us whether there was an audience out there reading in English, because they were not our audience. Our audience is here on campus. And when even we looked at that audience, how many of them would read the English that we write?

But we had this ‘block’, a kind of mental block, a nationalist, anti-colonialist block that led us to think that … we are not writing for you lot, you know. We’re writing for our lot — and our lot is very small, (he laughs) and not getting any larger. And, anyway, even among our lot a lot of people laughed at us and didn’t take us seriously at all. So, you can see these are the kind of inhibitions of being an anti-colonial writer in those days.

Yeo: But I think it was understandable given the period. I mean, because later on the fervour subsided after Independence.

Wang: Just after Independence. I think —

Yeo: Then you could worry about things like an audience, publications and so on.

Wang: Yes, but in those days we had all kinds of hang-ups. For example, we never showed it to any of our lecturing staff. Never. We wrote it and we published it. We never consulted them, never asked them anything, never asked their views. We took the view that we couldn’t care less what you think. If you like it, good. If you don’t like it … That’s the sort of stupid childishness, a kind of demonstration of our rebelliousness against your parent kind of thing. Most colonials suffer from this. We suffered from it in a way, by wanting to assert ourselves and developed a kind of arrogance that was totally unnecessary. We didn’t qualify to be arrogant anyway, and looking back on it now, it was rather silly. At the time it was a matter of principle. We would never bend a knee to these chaps. Never. And that’s how we felt.

I don’t regret it. I’m not regretting it. I’m just saying that, looking back on it now, you ask, ‘Why do that?’ You know, you could have learned a-hell-of-a-lot. I mean, I could have been a better writer. I could have been a better poet if I had submitted my pieces to people who know more, and who know the language better than I do. Why shouldn’t I have done that? It was their language. I should have consulted them. But no! No way! You see, in that way Edwin benefited from learning from Shamus Frazer.

Yeo: He did too.

Wang: Because Shamus was his school teacher. He was also a special and very personal friend. So Edwin learnt from Shamus Fraser, as he has said himself again and again. He learnt in a way that none of us did. We never learnt from an Englishman, nor did we learn from anybody else. We just wrote ourselves. Who would we turn to? You see, all the teachers in the English department were English. Who would we turn to if we didn’t turn to them? And none of us had started in school. And, you know, even in our school our literature teachers were Englishmen. And already we were not prepared to … So, as I said, we had a sort of self-imposed, self-inflicted limitation on our own development as writers. So, very soon we just ran out of steam. In our group, I don’t think any one of us wrote out of a tremendous urge to write, a natural and irrepressible urge to write for its own sake. Certainly that was true of me. As I said, I didn’t even think of it until Beda talked about it and then I wrote. I went on writing for a while but … it was something always I did on the side.