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Literary Arts

Catherine Lim

Doyenne of Singapore literature.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

I write because I enjoy it. I write about things that interest me—human behaviour, human relationships, the not-so-pleasant abilities people possess to deceive one another, seek revenge, inflict pain. And their capacity to bear it as well

Catherine Lim was born on 21 March 1942 in Penang, Malaysia. She moved to Singapore in her 20s. Often described as the doyenne of Singapore literature, she is known for her popular tomes of historical fiction and romance, set in the perfumed and exoticised worlds of old Singapore and Malaysia (Little Ironies; The Bondmaid; The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream; The Teardrop Story Woman). An accomplished writer, she is also an outspoken voice on contemporary social and cultural issues, regularly giving talks at international seminars and writing festivals, and writing commentaries for international dailies.

Catherine Lim was born in Penang, Malaysia, as the eighth child in a family of 14 children. Growing up, she frequently listened to the stories of her grandfather and mother. This early exposure to storytelling, together with her early education in a convent school, would greatly influence her later literary work.

Lim would go on to graduate from the University of Malaya with a Bachelors in English, the National University of Singapore with a Ph.D in Applied Linguistics, and Columbia University in New York and University of California in the Fulbright Program.

She started her professional career in education, teaching in local schools and junior colleges. After stints as an administrator and lecturer at the Regional Language Centre and the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, Lim began writing full-time in 1992. At the same time, she also wrote a column for The Straits Times.

Her first book Little Ironies: Short Stories of Singapore was an instant bestseller, and brought her into prominence. Her second book Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories established her position as a literary voice. These two collections of short stories—comprising vignettes of life in Singapore—would become Literature examination texts for the GCE O level examinations.

She moved on to writing novels, and it was these works that would bring Lim to international renown and acclaim. Earlier receiving awards from the National Book Development Council of Singapore for her short story collections, she also received the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award in 1998 and the prestigious South East Asia Writers Award in 1999. She was further awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature by Murdoch University, Australia and received the Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres by the Ministry for Culture and Communications of France for her contributions to literature.

A running theme in her writing is the spirited female protagonist caught in the proverbial clash between tradition and modernity, who makes interesting and often difficult life choices. Her works contain strong themes of traditional Chinese culture, which becomes a backdrop against which she stages her characters' struggles for independence.

Lim herself is a larger-than-life personality in literary and artistic circles, describing herself as “a mass, and a mess, of irreconcilables”. She is frequently seen and heard dispensing witticisms while immaculately dressed in her stunning cheongsams. Today, Lim continues to maintain a personal website (catherinelim.sg), where she regularly publishes short pieces of social and political commentary.


21 Mar 1942

Born in Penang, Malaysia.


Graduated from St. Anne's Convent and the Penang Free School.


Graduated from University of Malaya with Bachelor of Arts in English.


Moved to Singapore


Published Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore.


Published Or Else, The Lightning God and Others.


Published her first novel The Serpent’s Tooth.


Published The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream: Love Stories.


Obtained Ph. D in Applied Linguistics, National University of Singapore.


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


Joined Fulbright Program at Columbia University, New York, and University of California, Berkeley.


Left her career in education to become a full-time professional writer.
Published poetry collection Love's Lonely Impulses.


Published The Bondmaid.


Published The Teardrop Story Woman.


Received the S.E.A. Write Award.


Received Honorary Doctorate in Literature by Murdoch Univerty, Australia.


Published Following the Wrong God Home.


Conferred Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Ministry for Culture and Communications of France for her contributions to literature.


Published The Song of Silver Frond.


Miss Seetoh and the World published.


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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