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On the road, 'Imagining Asia'

Writing Chinese


Having met some fantastic writers, translators, and academics at the 'Imagining Asia' symposium at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and eaten far too much excellent food, Writing Chinese is now back in Leeds, a little jet-lagged, but full of ideas for the new year!

A group of us from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, the School of English, and the School of History at Leeds made the trip to Singapore (though unfortunately not all of our luggage did the same), and we started the week off with visits to a number of schools, where we received unfailingly warm welcomes, and were delighted by the enthusiasm of all the students and staff. It was really interesting to hear from the students about their experience of literature and translation, and to have the opportunity to introduce the project to a new audience, hopefully building our network even further.

After finishing our school visits, it was time to head to NTU for the Imagining Asia conference. The conference was held as part of a collaboration between the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at NTU and the University of Leeds, and aimed to explore the intercultural links and connections surrounding the idea of 'Asia'.

One of the delights of an interdisciplinary conference like this is hearing papers and talks on unfamiliar subjects, so it was great to get a glimpse of chinoiserie in eighteenth century America, an unexpected blast of Korean pop music, archive photographs of early European travellers on the silk road, a showcase of street photography of the Occupy Central movement, and many other things, all in the space of a few days.

And as we concentrate so closely on writing in Chinese for this project, it was also interesting to hear about other aspects of East Asian and South East Asian writing. So I particularly enjoyed the panel on Asian diasporic identities, with papers by NTU students Kuah Ting Ting, Yao Xiaoling, Eric Tinsay Valles and Leah Jolene Tan, who discussed the writers Amitav Ghosh, Yan Geling, Jose Garcia Villa, and Tan Twang Eng.

For my own paper, I talked about some of the writers we've featured or are planning to feature in this project, and the ways in which their work deals with the uncanny and strange. I discussed the influence both of traditional Chinese tales of the strange, and of broader intercultural traditions of the fantastic and weird.

Author Can Xue and NTU conference organiser Professor Shirley Chew,

Author Can Xue and NTU conference organiser Professor Shirley Chew,

In fact, one of the Chinese writers whose influence can be seen on contemporary authors just happened to be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. Can Xue's (残雪) strange and grotesque tales are fascinating, disturbing, and very possibly unlike anything you've read before... She read from one of the stories in her collection Vertical Motion, which involved 'little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert' and possibly an existential crisis... You can read the full story here in The White Review.

It wasn't only the work of established authors we heard, however. The NTU creative writing students, taught by Professor Neil Murphy, held a poetry reading for the launch of their anthology Kepulauan (meaning 'archipelago' in Malay). Several of the readers read poems mixing together English and Malay or Chinese, showcasing Singapore's rich linguistic hybridity, as well as suggesting that we may well be hearing more from some of them in the future, as they join Singapore's flourishing poetry scene.

NTU students at the launch of their book 'Kepulauan'.

NTU students at the launch of their book 'Kepulauan'.

Two poets I was particularly happy to meet were Chee Lay Tan, and his translator Teng Qian Xi, who's also an award-winning poet herself. Both have previously been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and we're happy to report that they'll be visiting us on the Writing Chinese blog later this year, to talk about their work together. For now, you can read Qian Xi's great essay on translating Chee Lay's poetry here.

We ended the conference in impressive style with 'Dinner in Paradise', right by Singapore's beautiful Botanic Gardens. And three days of lively discussion is certainly enough to work up an appetite for some delicious food, not to mention yet more lively discussion, whilst soaking up a warm January evening...

So thank you to Professor Shirley Chew, Seeto Wei Peng, and the staff and students at COHASS for an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding few days. And we're looking forward to seeing you in Leeds!

Thanks as well to the brilliant Jeremy Tiang for introducing me to what's going on in the Singapore literary scene.

And last but not least, thanks are also due to Hwa Chong Institution, United World College of South East Asia, the Anglo-Chinese Junior College, and Tanglin Trust School, for their warm welcomes.