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Literary Arts

Arthur Yap

Singapore poet

Calendar

Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

words have sometimes a way of stilling themselves
& then, no, we have a way of stilling words
in a way to still ourselves:
a choice of being still
& quiet to be still.

– words, the space of city trees: selected poems, 2000

Arthur Yap was an important second-generation Singapore poet. His poetry, featuring the use of simple language, humorous wordplay and Singapore colloquial English, captured vividly the colours and rhythms of everyday Singaporean life and the spirit of the people with wit, insight and compassion. Once described as writing with the “eye of a painter”, Yap was also a visual artist once chosen to represent Singapore at the 1972 Adelaide Festival of Arts. The numerous awards he received during his lifetime including the National Book Development Council's 1976, 1982 and 1988 awards for poetry, and the 1983 Southeast Asian Writers Award. In 1983, Yap received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature.

Born in Singapore in 1943, Arthur Yap Chioh Hiong studied at St Andrew's School, where he began writing poetry for school magazines, and then pursued further studies at the University of Singapore where he obtained a BA Hons in English Literature. He then went to the UK and obtained an MA in Linguistics and English Language Teaching at the University of Leeds, returning to Singapore to obtain a Ph.D at the National University of Singapore. At the Teachers’ Training College, he attained a Certificate in Education.

Yap began his career as a teacher in the late ’60s, teaching Pre-University English Literature at Serangoon Gardens English School. Later on, he taught at the National University of Singapore’s Department of English Language and Literature from 1979 to 1998.

Throughout his studies and his teaching career, Yap pursued poetry writing as a hobby and a craft. In 1971, he published his first volume of poetry Only Lines, which five years later garnered the National Book Development Council's first award for poetry. This was followed by three more poetry collections: Commonplace in 1977; Down the Line in 1980; and Man Snake Apple in 1986. His poems were also featured in the poetry collections Seven Poets (1973) and 5 Takes (1974), as well as in the The Straits Times Life! section and in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore in 2001.

Yap’s poems were uniquely and purposefully grounded in the heart, soul and soil of Singapore.
Yap was fond of using Singapore vernacular in his poems, and incorporated Singapore colloquial English in his poems, often making it the subject. An example is his poem The Correctness of Flavour:

waiting for the lime sherbert to arrive,
mother turned around to her vacuous child:
boy, you heard what i said earlier?
nowadays, they emphasise english.

boy rolled his squinty eyes to the ceiling.
waitress returned, flustered, and started
on her own emphases:
lime sherbert today don't have.
mango got. strawberry also don't have.

mother, upset and acutely strident:
today DOESN'T have.
today DOES NOT have.

Written in simple language and completely lowercase text, and exhibiting humorous wordplay, Yap’s poems captured the colour, spirit and rhythms of Singapore life while providing commentaries on local events, situations and attitudes with gentle humour, irony, perceptiveness and compassion.

His work won numerous prestigious awards including the National Book Development Council's 1976, 1982 and 1988 awards for poetry, the 1983 the Southeast Asian Writers Award, and the 1998 Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for English Literature. It also garnered acclaim from contemporaries—A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess described his experience of reading Yap’s Down the Line as one of “elation and occasional awe”. In 1983, Yap received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature.

Yap had two of his poems—In Passing and Old House at Ann Siang Hill—featured in The Calling of Kindred: Poems from the English-speaking World, a poetry anthology used as a text in the O Level examinations in Singapore in 1996 and 1997. His poems have also been studied in a literature course offered by McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and his books have been translated into other languages such as Japanese, Mandarin and Malay, and published in various Asian countries.

In 2000, Yap published The Space of City Trees: Selected Poems, a compilation of poems from his previous collections. He also made a recording of himself reading his poems in a series of CDs produced by the National University of Singapore’s Department of English Language and Literature. Having been a mentor for the NUS Centre for the Arts and the Gifted Education Branch of the Ministry of Education’s joint Creative Art Programme, Yap has been a source of inspiration for aspiring writers such as Toh Hsien Min.

In addition to writing poetry, Yap also found a creative avenue in painting, beginning his foray into art during his time in the Teachers’ Training College. The avid painter held seven solo exhibitions of his paintings—the first in 1969 featuring 44 abstract paintings shown at the old National Library—and also participated in numerous group exhibitions in Malaysia, Thailand and Australia. In 1972, his paintings were selected to represent Singapore at the Adelaide Festival of Arts and he was also invited by the British Council to exhibit his paintings in Bangkok, Thailand.

On 19 June 2006, Yap passed away from laryngeal cancer, leaving to the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) part of the proceeds from his property for cancer research. Following this, the NCCS held an event on 11 July 2008 in honour of the poet-artist that featured recordings of Yap’s poetry reading and an exhibition of some of his paintings at The Arts House.

In 2013, the comprehensive The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap was published by NUS Press Singapore and launched in November at the Singapore Writers Festival. This marked the first time that Yap's entire corpus of poems were published in a single volume.

Today, Yap’s poetry and paintings continue to inspire generations of Singapore writers and touch a chord in the hearts of those who encounter his work.

Profile image of Arthur Yap courtesy of National Arts Council

Timeline

11 Jan 1943

Born in Singapore.

1950 to 1962

Attended St Andrew's School.

1965

Graduated with BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Singapore.

1966

Worked as a Pre-University English Literature teacher at Serangoon Gardens English School.

1967

Obtained a Certificate in Education from the Teachers' Training College.

13 Apr 1969

Held first solo art exhibition featuring 44 abstract paintings at the National Library.

Nov 1969

Solo art exhibition at the National Library.

1971

Published poetry collection Only Lines.
Published A Brief Critical Survey of Prose Writings in Singapore and Malaysia.

1972

Artworks chosen to represent Singapore at the Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Exhibited paintings in Bangkok, Thailand on invitation by the British Council.
Solo art exhibition at Alpha Gallery.
Group art exhibition at Alpha Gallery with 11 other artists.

Oct 1973

Solo exhibition at Alpha Gallery.

1974

Published Five Takes with four other poets.
Solo exhibition at Alpha Gallery.

1974 to 1975

Received a British Council scholarship to study at the University of Leeds.
Graduated with MA in Linguistics and English Language Teaching from the University of Leeds, England.

1976

Received National Book Development Council award for poetry for Only Lines.

1977

Published poetry collection Commonplace.
Held his last solo exhibition.

1979 to 1998

Taught in the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.

1980

Published poetry collection Down the Line.

1982

Received National Book Development Council award for poetry for Down the Line.
Obtained a PhD from the National University of Singapore.

1983

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature.
Received Southeast Asian Writers Award.

1986

Published poetry collection Man Snake Apple & Other Poems.

1988

Received National Book Development Council award for poetry for Man Snake Apple & Other Poems.

1992 to 1996

Mentor, Creative Arts Programme, Ministry of Education.

1998

Received Montblanc - NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for English.

2000

Published a poetry anthology of The Space of City Trees: Selected Poems.

19 Jun 2006

Passed away from laryngeal cancer, at age 63, in Singapore.

Nov 2013

The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap published by NUS Press Singapore and launched at Singapore Writers Festival 2013.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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