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Literary Arts

Cheong Weng Yat (Zhang Hui)

Chinese-language short story writer, essayist and visual artist.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I feel that today's young art lovers are more fortunate than those of my generation. You can see in the newspapers just how many choices they have with regards to art education and opportunities. We didn’t have those in the past…Perhaps the government can be even more open, allow greater freedom… to encourage the development of young talent… If a young person likes art or likes writing, I would encourage him or her to pursue it and not be like me, afraid to give up my career.

Cheong Weng Yat, more popularly known by his pen name, Zhang Hui, is a Chinese-language short story writer, essayist and artist. In his writings, he has captured for posterity events in Singapore history and highlighted important heritage issues, such as the local Chinese community’s loss of cultural identity. Additionally, through his work and advocacy, he has helped to revitalise the field of Singapore Chinese literature and raised its profile internationally. A longtime Chinese language and art teacher, Cheong was awarded the National Book Development Council’s Book Award for Chinese-language fiction and the SEA Write Award in 1992, the Chunlan Worldwide Short Novels Competition Award in 1994, conferred by a publishing house in China as well as the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize (Commendation Award) for Chinese fiction. Come Oct 2016, Zhang Hui will also be conferred an award by the Singapore Literature Society.

Cheong Weng Yat was born on 28 December 1942 in Selangor, Malaysia. As a young boy, he came to Singapore and settled with his family in a small village called Shuang Kou Ding located somewhere between Alexandra Road, Queenstown and Jalan Bukit Merah in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

In the village, he attended a small Chinese-language primary school where he was taught calligraphy, Tang poetry and literature. In his graduating year, he wrote a poem for his mother. His principal, after reading it, submitted it for publication in a youth journal. Cheong was greatly inspired and began to write in earnest.

Cheong subsequently attended River Valley High School and, after graduating in 1961, began teaching at Kallang Primary School. In 1963, he also began taking evening courses at the Teachers' Training College while teaching and he graduated two years later with art as his principal subject.

In 1968, he got married, began taking art lessons from acclaimed artist and art educator Cheong Soo Pieng, and joined Bukit Panjang Government High School as a teacher of Chinese language and art. While still teaching, he studied part-time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and in 1988 graduated with a Diploma in the Teaching of Art. He continued teaching at Bukit Panjang Government High School until his retirement in 2007.

During this time, Cheong wrote and painted regularly. In the ‘70s, he was particularly active as an artist and exhibited his works twice, first in 1971 at the Dazhong Art Exhibition, and later from 1971 to 1974 at the National Day Celebrations Arts Exhibitions. However, although he practised his art-making regularly, working mainly in watercolour, it would be almost four decades later before Cheong would exhibit his artwork in a solo exhibition.

From the mid ‘70s, it was his writing that took centre stage. Modest and unassuming in person, Cheong was a man with something to say, and it was in writing that he found his best medium of expression. Inspired by his own students' school "diary" submissions, he began producing a torrent of Chinese language short stories, novellas and essays and illustrated them himself, often setting his stories against events in local history such as the students’ and workers' strikes of the ‘50s, colonial rule, and the Independence Movement.

His first work, a collection of short stories, entitled Goodbye, Teacher! (《再见, 老师!》) introduced readers to the topics that most concerned Cheong – identity, heritage and education. He followed this up with numerous collections of essays and articles, including, in 1980, A Horse's Grouses《马的牢骚》 and in 1982, That Flicker of Light 《那一豆灯光》, all of which garnered a widening readership.

In the early ‘80s, the Singapore government made English the medium of instruction in schools nationwide. Even in Chinese language schools such as Bukit Panjang Government High school where Cheong taught, all subjects previously taught in Chinese had to be taught in English. With this policy change, Cheong, who had been teaching art in his Mother Tongue, had to be "converted" to teach using English – a language that is unfamiliar to him. On top of that, he had to deal with the devaluation of his identity caused by what was felt to be an unjust education policy. This brought about a lull in his creative writing between 1984 and 1987.

When he started writing again in 1988, it was with an outpouring of frank emotions and renewed confidence. Central to his writing were issues arising from the new education policy, the tensions associated with them, as well as the displacement of Chinese-educated intellectuals in both the work and social arenas in Singapore. The latter was a highly sensitive issue during that era, one which was almost taboo to discuss openly.

His second collection of stories, Conference Confidential 45.45 《45.45会议机密》, comprising 23 short stories, was published in 1990. Simple in style and acerbic in tone, the collection comprised stories and characters gleaned from Cheong’s rich experience as a Chinese language and art teacher in Singapore "converted" to teach in English. Stories included that of Mu De, the 16-year-old boy who cracked under the pressure of being forced to study English, a language alien to him. They featured an English-speaking principal who cruelly belittled her Chinese-educated teachers in a staff meeting and announced her plan to force these "converted" teachers, who made up 45.45% of the teaching staff, to ask for a transfer by increasing their workload unreasonably. Conference Confidential 45.45 won critical acclaim from both Chinese- and English-language literary reviewers and readers in Singapore and China.

Having been a judge of local literary awards, Cheong was awarded the 1992 S.E.A. Write Award conferred by Thailand to top writers in ASEAN in recognition of their literary works. In the same year, his book Conference Confidential 45.45 won the Book Awards for Fiction (Chinese) Category conferred by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. And a third collection of short stories followed in 1992.

Another book entitled Ten Dream Series 《十梦录》, comprised 30 stories, most of which were works of magical realism that delved into the aspirations of the Chinese-educated in Singapore in the 1960s. It too helped Cheong win the 1994 Chunlan Worldwide Short Novels Competition Award, conferred by a publishing house in China.

Cheong followed his successes with more literary works while serving as Chief Editor of Literary Biannual (1988-1992), flagship publication of the Singapore Association of Writers, and Chief Editor and Illustrator of Mini-fiction Quarterly (1992-1995), another of the association’s publications. His work was also featured by reputable China-based publishing houses such as Lu Jiang Publishing House in literary critiques and anthologies, and his writings were translated into English and included in 1990’s Anthology of ASEAN Literature – The Fiction of Singapore and 2001’s Droplets.

By the early 2000s, Cheong had published 10 self-illustrated books of poetry, short stories, novellas and essays, and had written countless essays and short works of fiction for local Chinese newspapers, including the now-defunct Nanyang Siang Pau and, subsequently, Lianhe Zaobao.

Cheong finally retired from teaching in 2007. But far from retiring in leisure, he plunged into more activity. He immediately began giving talks on both creative and essay writing to audiences in established institutions in Singapore and Taiwan such as the Nanyang Technological University, and creating new works of fiction, many of which were published in Lianhe Zaobao.

He also delved into art once more. In 2010, he held his first exhibition, Watercolour Landscape Paintings Exhibition, at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce to raise funds for Singaporean ballerina Lee Meiyi to train with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. The following year, he followed up with a second solo exhibition, Watercolour Landscape Paintings Exhibition, at the National Library Board.

In 2012, Cheong was awarded the National Arts Council Arts Creation Fund (Literary Arts, Chinese Fiction). With that, he published, that very year, his first collection of self-illustrated short stories and essays in six years, Absurd ●Local Sentiments《荒谬●乡土情》.

In 2013, Cheong formed, with several local writers, the Society of Literature Writing. Its objectives include promoting cultural exchanges through literature, as well as local literature through the Internet. Helmed by Cheong as President, the society has in place a three-year programme to cultivate young writers in junior colleges and secondary schools.

He has also just published a new book of short stories. Entitled The Last Generation of Chinese Educated Students - Their Ensnarled Years (《末代华校生的网中岁月》-- 张挥短篇与微型小说选 ) it deals with the sense of displacement and injustice suffered by Chinese-educated intellectuals in the wake of government policy, and hints at the sense of loss and failure they continue to suffer.

Cheong has plans for new works of fiction and a possible exhibition of his artworks. When they materialise, they will undoubtedly be valuable additions to an important body of work that continues to enrich our local Chinese literature and our understanding of Singapore’s history and cultural heritage.

Timeline

28 Dec 1942

Born in Selangor, Malaysia.

1956

Poem published in 《少年报》

1961

Graduated from River Valley High School.

1962

Teacher, Kallang Primary School.

1965

Graduated from Teachers' Training College

1968

Married Mok Soh Wang.

1968 to 1970

Learnt art from Cheong Soo Pieng.

1968 to 2007

Teacher, Chinese language and Art at Bukit Panjang Govt High School.

1971

Artwork displayed at the Dazhong Art Exhibition.

1971 to 1974

Artworks selected for the National Day Celebrations Art Exhibition.

1976

Published short novel 《再见,老师!》 (Goodbye, Teacher!).

1978

Published collection of essays 《琐屑集》 (Trivia).

1980

Published collection of essays 《马的牢骚》(A Horse’s Grouses).

1982

Published collection of essays 《那一豆灯光》 (That Flicker of Light).

1988

Graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts with a Diploma in Teaching of Art.

1988 to 1994

On judging panels for a number of writing competitions including The Golden Point Award (NAC-SPH), The Golden Lion Award (SPH) and The Youth Literary Award (Singapore Rotary Club).

1990

Published collection of essays 《马的唠叨》(Ramblings of a Horse). Published short novel 《45.45会议机密》(Conference Confidential 45.45).

1992

Received Southeast Asian Write Award.
《45.45会议机密》(Conference Confidential 45.45) won Book Award, National Book Council. Published short novel 《十梦录》 (A Chronicle of Ten Dreams).

1992 to 1995

Chief Editor and Illustrator, Mini-fiction Quarterly, published by the Singapore Association of Writers.

1994

Published collection of poetry and essays 《木雕与我》 (The Wooden Sculpture and I).
Received Commendation award, Chunlan Worldwide Short Novels Competition, China.
《海外华文文学名家》(Reputable Chinese Overseas Writers) published literary appreciation of Zhang Hui's works, China.

1995

Published collection of short novels, essays and poetry 《张挥文集》 (A Collection of Zhang Hui's Writings).
《东南亚华文文学大系: 新加坡卷–张挥文集》 (Southeast Asian Chinese Literature: A Singapore Collection – An Anthology of Zhang Hui's Literary Works) published by Lu Jiang Publishing House, China.
Poem 《给母亲》 (For Mother) published in Hong Kong publication, 《我的母亲》.

1996

Published short novel 《尘中岁月》 (Years in the Dust).

1998 to 2002

Chief Editor of Literary Biannual, flagship publication of the Singapore Association of Writers.

2002

40 of Zhang Hui's novels featured in《世界华文微型小说精品赏析: 张挥卷》 (A Critical Appreciation of Chinese Micro-fiction of the World: The Zhang Hui Collection), China.

2010

Organised his first personal art exhibition Watercolour Landscape Paintings Exhibition at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce to help raise funds for Singapore ballerina Lee Meiyi.

2011

Organised his second art exhibition Watercolour Landscape Paintings Exhibition at the National Library Board.

2012

Published a multimodal genre of short novels and essays with artworks by Zhang Hui《荒谬●乡土情》 (Absurd●Local Sentiments). Judge of the essay category of The Fangxiu Award for Singapore and Malaysian Literature.

2013

Founding member, Shu Xie Literature Society.
President, Shu Xie Literature Society.

May 2013

Published short novel 《末代华校生的网中岁月》-- 张挥短篇与微型小说选 (The Last Generation of Chinese Educated Students - Their Ensnarled Years).


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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