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Cover image: Ho Ho Ying in his studio, 1970s. Image courtesy of the artist.
Driven by self-reflection, spontaneity and freedom of gesture, Ho Ho Ying championed the path towards abstraction in 1960s Singapore. Born in Hainan, China in 1935, Ho is a prominent pioneer of modern art in Singapore and co-founded the Modern Art Society Singapore in 1964. A self-taught artist, he often draws inspiration from Chinese culture, calligraphy and philosophy as well as the spontaneity of abstract expressionism. The exhibition Ho Ho Ying: The Path I Pursue 《何和应：我追逐的路》at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) presents abstract, figurative and calligraphy paintings, along with creative calligraphy works, sketches and materials from the collection and personal archive of Ho and his family.
Apart from his artistic practice, Ho also pursued multiple creative paths through literary prose and essays on art and art criticism. A scholar of Chinese language and literature, Ho has authored numerous books, short stories and contributed to the growing parameters of critical artistic discourse in Singapore. His essays offered critical and incisive thoughts on artistic developments over the decades. He wrote under several pen names in his literary works, Zimu (子木) for short stories and Jiading (甲丁) and Qieyi (且乙) for prose. Ho’s works and writings are deeply intertwined and reveal his ethos, beliefs and motivations while offering intimate glimpses into his life, observations and explorations. Both the written word and art are equally important mediums of expression for Ho.
As part of the exhibition, selected texts from the 1950s to the 1990s have been translated into English, with the intention of lending greater insight into the symbiosis of writing and art in the development of Ho’s distinctive voice. These texts range from a short story to essays that reflect on his artistic journey. At times personal and meditative while sharp-witted and perceptive in others, these writings reveal the perspicacious mind behind them.
Below are transcriptions of five texts in Chinese with their accompanying English translations. All translations are by Tan Yong Jun.
This essay captures the heart of what drives Ho: the relentless pursuit of originality, spontaneity and creativity. He uses the analogy of the ‘shadow of a bird in flight,’ expounded by the Warring States period logician Gongsun Long. Similar to the shadow that is continually disappearing and appearing, in Ho’s works, change and growth are constant tenets of his practice.
现代的意义，不必从经典找；现代就是：今日不同昨日，明日又和今日不一样；当你抓住现代时，它已经不是现代；因为现代是一个永远向前移动的 “飞鸟之影”1, 你所见的 “飞鸟之影”，即是旧的消失，而新的即将来取代。
我很注重结构的新奇性，力求每幅作品有所不同。凌空结构，或建筑物般的构造是我所乐取；线条是自由的流线，上下左右倾斜画布，以期达到我所要的趋向和长度。线求灵活，笔触求豪放，有时泼色代替笔扫的运用，顺其自然，不加修饰。从底色发展到最后一层，没有事先的腹稿，顺应着即现的图纹发展，至到最后满意为止。若有不满意的现象则涂掉，重新再来。时间多久才可完成一幅？须着顺手不顺手而定。整个画在视觉上要求是一个 “活” 字，若有生命存在是我所祈。
1 辩家公孙龙等辩题 “飞鸟之影不动” 与 “白马非马” 齐名；“飞鸟之影不动” 的证果是：影子之所以移动，是错觉现象，其实是旧的影子在飞鸟飞行时不断消失，而前进的新影子不断出现；并非旧的影子向前移动。电影的底片经过光射，一格又一格的移动，产生银幕上动作，最易旁证此理。
2 老子道德经：“道可道非常道；名可名非常名”。据此引伸， 我画上的题名是出于不得已，为方便观赏的一种指示而己。
3 正方形，可移倒为棱形，但此种棱形的左下角度仍然是 90 度，所以说本质不变。
The essence of modernism need not be sought in the classics; to be modern is to be different from the day before and to ensure that tomorrow will be different from today. When you manage to grasp the modern, it has ceased to be modern. The modern is the ‘shadow of a bird in flight’1, always moving forward; the ‘shadow of a bird in flight’ you see is the vanishing of the old and the new coming forth to take its place.
My paintings capture the ‘shadow of a bird in flight’, striving to be different from yesterday, to change and change in anticipation of the unknown future.
I place a lot of emphasis on the originality of my compositions and make an effort to ensure that none of my paintings are alike. I am partial to compositions with a bird's eye view or evoking architectural sensibilities. Linear expressions are free lines, crisscrossing the canvas in all directions in order to move in the direction and length I desire. Linear expressions need to be lively, brushstrokes need to be bold, and at times paint can be applied in splashes rather than with a brush, following natural rhythms and without interventions. From the priming layer to the final one, I do not follow any drafts and paint in conversation with the image as it is until I am satisfied with what is before me. If there are elements I do not like, I will remove them and start again. How long does it take for me to complete a painting? It depends on how I feel when I am painting. The picture as a whole needs to evoke a sense of liveliness, and life within the image is what I desire.
I value spontaneity and serendipity. I believe that a painting needs to have these two elements before it can have a sense of transcendence.
When I paint, I lay the canvas flat on the floor. I apply paint both by splashing them onto the canvas and with a brush. If I require the effect caused by free-flowing paint, I move the canvas to a vertical position and, when I am satisfied with the effect, I lay it flat again to dry. Tonality is produced by the free synthesis of different pigments on the canvas, adding layers of colour above still-wet layers often evokes a natural, diffusive and mesmerising charm. My paintings cannot be corrected—when corrected, it spoils. I have no choice but to repaint if the image is not satisfactory. It is also impossible for me to create an identical copy unless I use a printing plate. Therefore, each work is singular, and I am not willing to create paintings that are similar to each other.
In my paintings, emotions are more important than intentions. I name the painting only after it is completed, based on my impression of its character derived from the painting's structure and tonality. In fact, it is more appropriate for the paintings to have no titles2, to allow the viewer to explore the image and intervene in the process of according the painting a meaning. I have been accused thus: ‘to paint without a pre-determined mood or plan of action and to title the painting after the image has been produced, is that not preposterous?!’
I reply, ‘when the heaven and the earth was formed, what intention was there? When the foetus is still within the womb, how do you name her/him? Is it not more logical to wait for the child to be born and to name it according to her/his gender and countenance?’
Some of my paintings can be hung in any direction so long it does not create a sense of visual imbalance. A purely geometric composition places no restrictions on the way you display it; no matter which way up you present circles, lines and quadrilaterals3, its essential visual meaning does not change. The direction is chosen only after a long period of consideration and reflects what I think as the best way to present the painting. However, I encourage others to find a more suitable hanging direction.
Some would laugh at a painting hung the wrong way up. This is only taboo in the case of figurative paintings. If purely abstract works like mine are improved by hanging it differently, I readily welcome it.
It is not that I cannot paint figurative paintings, just that I do not wish to; my paintings in the early 1950s are all figurative. After the 1960s, I realised that to be innovative was to abandon all figuration and existing painting techniques. It was only when I moved toward areas where no one else had tread could I then emancipate myself from figuration and advance freely into the realm of abstraction.
I utilised any means possible in my quest for innovation. I have applied pigments with my hands, a cloth, with a roller, with a knife, with a brush and by sweeping it over the canvas. I have gone from using watercolours to oils to acrylics to emulsion paint. Now, I rotate the canvas to allow the emulsion paint to flow freely—this is the most characteristic of my practice.
I am not bothered when others say that my paintings are unconventional; to be honest I am indeed being unconventional, in accordance with this belief of mine: ‘only geniuses can be unconventional in art, and I admire them the most.’
On the road of artistic production, everyone should have their own ideals. I value what I value and do not oppose other's preferences.
Ho Ho Ying
1 Logicians such as Gongsun Long discoursed on the paradox 'the shadow of a flying bird does not move' to similar acclaim as 'a white horse is not a horse'. The logical proof that 'the shadow of a flying bird does not move' is as such: it is an optical illusion that shadows move—the old shadows of the flying bird continually disappears while the new shadows continually appear. Therefore, it is not the old shadow that is moving forward. This conclusion is easily supported by films in cinemas, where frame after frame is projected onto the screen by a source of light and results in the illusion of action.
2 Laozi wrote in the Daodejing: "the Dao that can be followed is not the eternal Dao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name." Extrapolating accordingly, I am compelled to give my paintings their titles in order to convenience their viewers and to give a sort of signal.
3 A quadrilateral can be shifted to become a diamond. However, these diamonds are still angled at 90°, and thus I say that their essence has not changed.
Originally featured in the catalogue for Ho’s solo exhibition in 1966, this essay lends insight into how he was charting out his journey as an artist. Ho talks about the varied sources of inspiration from his teacher, prominent first-generation artist Chen Wen Hsi, to Western modernist artists and Chinese literature and philosophy.
Ah! The road ahead is long and winding—
I shall explore every inch of it.
– Qu Yuan
Ever since I first read the Li Sao1, this couplet has stuck with me. I do not have the aptitude to memorise texts and have since forgotten most of Li Sao's wonderful lines—with the exception of this couplet, firmly lodged in my mind. This is not without reason. These lines have showed me that the route towards an ideal state of being is strewn with difficulties and can only be overcome with unyielding persistence—such is also true in my art practice! Whenever I feel unsettled and fearful in the face of life's challenges, I regain my strength when I recite this couplet. Ah, just like this, I slowly make my way through the painter's winding road, not pondering how far ahead lies success, only requiring of myself confidence and fortitude.
I can still recall how, fifteen years ago, art became a part of my life: when I enrolled in The Chinese High School2. I, contemplative by nature, became attracted to painting because of my art teacher Chen Wen Hsi's inspiring pedagogical spirit and encouraging tenor. Besides the compulsory art classes conducted twice a week, I also attended his weekend sketching sessions. His direct criticisms and demonstrative methods strengthened my interests in painting. I progressed from graphite and charcoal to pastels to a focus on oils; from still lifes to painting en plein air to imaginative expressionism. The year I graduated was when my paintings were first selected for an inter-school art exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Society. The painting was well received and I, now confident that I was at least on par with other painters, strived even harder with great idealism. I did not foresee that when I left school, my hectic teaching schedule would leave me with precious few hours for painting. The few paintings I managed to find time for were of the surrounding villages, mostly executed in pastels. My knowledge of art was then superficial, and I only strived to mimic nature; though I was not able to produce anything new, I was still very satisfied with my work. Later, in Mr Chen’s studio, I had the opportunity to peruse artbooks featuring the paintings of many leading modernist artists and was suddenly awakened by the mysterious colours, lines and compositions of these paintings. Thereafter, I started to realise that mastery in painting lies not within mimicry but in vibrant lines, expressive strokes, sophisticated use of colours and unconventional compositions. All masterful paintings are defined by innovative forms, extraordinary compositions, vivid strokes and captivating colours. They intrigue the viewer and invite contemplation.
I subsequently purchased artbooks of modernist masters, including that of Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, Rouault, Chagall and Braque. I perused them day and night, broadening my horizons. Since other painters could produce such good works, why could I not do the same? Since other painters could think of such interesting compositions, why did I not think of that? I pondered and thus concluded: I did not put in as much effort as these painters who painted every day. I only painted when I was in the mood. While other painters spent most of their energy innovating, I did not give much thought to my paintings and only produced a superficial scene without a deeper engagement with the subject’s aesthetic spirit. To evoke the aesthetic spirit of your subject matter, you need to have exceptional powers of observation. Though you may not initially perceive this, it becomes clear after some time. For example, take Modigliani’s human figures with swan-like necks, Picasso’s geometric compositions, Van Gogh’s fiery paintings, Klee’s fairy-tale fantasies, even Leger’s steel beams and concrete. All of them honed in on a specific remarkable aspect of the subject matter and distilled it before emphasising them, eventually allowing this mode to become emblematic of the artist’s practice. To be too fawning of your subject matter’s natural beauty and not utilise the subject matter’s character as your point of creation is to reduce millennia of artistic production to a single idea: to copy. What is being copied? Nature, and if this is so how can human culture seek to improve? To give an analogy, it is natural for the first generation of artists to represent nature. However, if a second-generation artist continues to represent nature, s/he cannot be said to be allowing art to develop. Though her/his boundaries may broaden, the painting’s essence is still first-generational. Therefore, the second-generation artist needs to move towards a deliberate treatment of nature. A third-generation artist needs to seek nature in her/his own mind, a fourth-generation artist needs to create nature, and a fifth-generation artist would be pushed towards a purely abstract image without a clear subject matter. This is the logical progression of artistic development and also the way humanity’s aesthetic philosophy should evolve. Although, in reality, art historical development is never as simple as my analogy frames, its basic tenets are the same. Sometimes it takes two or three generations for a progressive step to be made.
In university, I had the opportunity to read more on literature and philosophy, which provided more evidence for my conjectures. Henceforth, my practice has become clear and with mustered courage, I readily threw myself into the new field of modernist painting, producing abstract paintings that are often mocked as incomprehensible expressions. I was inundated with work in university and often failed my exams. Naturally, I was unable to free myself from my studies and dedicate myself to this new form of painting. I knew clearly that I could not count on much financial support from my family, and at this point, to embark on the long and arduous route of becoming an artist was no different from becoming a beggar. After much consideration, I adopted a strategy that gave me stability and flexibility—I concentrated on my undergraduate degree and treated painting as an after-hours activity. All the while, I would wait for an opportunity where I could support myself by painting before I dedicated all my energy to it.
However hard we try, we cannot plan the future. I was awarded my undergraduate degree, but it was not the ticket to a stable life that I imagined it to be. I was without a job for a year and a half and my quality of life was impacted. I could do nothing but daydream in my spartan attap abode in a Coronation Road kampung. No one else had a claim on my time, and I spent it painting, writing and chatting with my close friends deep into the night. This freedom allowed me a carefree and unrestrained spirit. I painted significantly more but none of them eased my living expenses. Then, I associated closely with fellow ‘unemployed nomads’, most of them daydreamers as well. Because we had similar interests and lived in similar conditions, our thoughts were also alike. Under these conditions, the seven founding members of the Modern Art Society Singapore began our formal association.
After three years and five Modern Art exhibitions, some of these friends had ventured overseas to further their practice. I remain buried under the pressure of work and, because I paint infrequently and produce few works, have not seen much improvement. Under the encouragement of my friends, I have selected, with much strain and shame, slightly over thirty paintings for this exhibition3.
The over thirty paintings exhibited here are of different styles, and include works completed over a number of years. My practice underwent a series of changes, even so for works completed just last year. This proves that I have been exploring all aspects of painting and, no matter how much I survey various art styles, I have been dedicated to new forms of art.
Ho Ho Ying
16 November 1966
2 (Trans.) Present-day Hwa Chung Institution.
3 Ho’s first solo exhibition at National Library of Singapore.
The experiences of the lead character in this short story, Kede, likely has close resonances to that of Ho’s when he first embarked on his journey as an artist. The story chronicles the challenges Kede faced as a young artist and how he remained steadfast in standing by his beliefs.
Days of Dejection
His family did not subscribe to the newspapers. For his daily reading, he would head down to the kopitiam at the market near the crossroads. He developed the habit of perusing the papers daily because of these reasons: firstly, the job advertisements on the newspapers offered him a sliver of hope; secondly, reading allows time to pass in a way that is not inert, and it does not feel good to have too much time on one’s hand. He could have spent much of his time painting but his finances did not allow him to purchase the required oil paints and canvases. Oil painting is a costly affair. He was poor and he fell in love, unfortunately, with a line of work destined to hardship. If he had the support of familial resources, things would have been different—he might be an internationally famous artist by now. Riddled with poverty, he could only rely on his own confidence and dogged determination to bring his artistic practice to fruition. His father could render support only in spirit. Of course, he could have his three meals a day at home. A domestic servant without any special skills, his father’s monthly salary of $150 has to support a family of six, four of whom are in their schooling years. He could not have come up with the money to support the impractical career of an artist! After dropping out from university, he borrowed some money from his close friends in order to sustain this undignified lifestyle. It was embarrassing for him to borrow increasing amounts of cash from his friends and so he had to find a job as soon as possible. The job advertisements in the newspapers gave him some hope.
“Kede, my friend, have you found a job?” The friendly kopitiam boss greeted him.
Kede shook his head with a forced smile, found a newspaper, sat himself in a corner and ordered a kopi o.
“Today’s newspaper featured an advertisement for an art teacher, I think it’s run by X Secondary School.” The boss brought Kede’s coffee and searched for that advertisement.
“This is a good opportunity, why don’t you give it a go?”
Looking at where the boss was pointing, Kede saw that it was indeed an advertisement for an art teacher.
“Let me try my luck.” He made his way home, not reading the rest of the news. He quickly waxed his hair, unruly due to a lack of care, and combed a clear parting. He rushed off to the office of X Secondary School after putting on a decent set of clothes and bringing a set of his résumé. After entering from the ground level, he easily found the principal’s office. Upon explaining his reason for coming, the principal of X Secondary School invited him to take a seat before asking:
“Which academy did you graduate from?”
“I am not academy-trained.” He gently shook his head before adding, “But I’ve taught art at a secondary school near Commonwealth. I have been interested in art ever since secondary school and can be said to be a self-taught artist. My artworks have been awarded…”
“You are self-taught but our school hopes to find an art teacher with official qualifications.” The principal’s solemn face foretold Kede’s pending disappointment.
He would need to give it his best. Even if there was just a sliver of hope, he would grasp it tightly. He said:
“I am confident that I can competently facilitate the art programme at your school, I…”
“Your self-taught art is remarkable… however, there are now many others with formal art qualifications. If we do not employ them and give this opportunity to an uncertified person, we would not be able to answer to our school and to society. I hope that you can understand our difficult position!”
Kede gave a strained smile and politely bade farewell to the principal. He felt nauseous from seeing this opportunity slip away from him before his very eyes. His resentment was not directed at any particular person, but at this mechanically regulated society–qualifications were more important than actual abilities.
A friend, Li, was waiting for him at home. Li was a secondary schoolmate and now teaches at a primary school. He had asked Li to keep an eye out for any job openings.
“Would you be willing to be a home tutor?” Li asked, after the initial greetings.
“I’m not in a position to choose. Who is looking to hire one?” Kede replied.
“My colleague is looking for a home tutor to help his four children with their homework. I’ve not asked how much he is willing to pay. If you are interested, I can ask for more details.
“Please do. I’ll give you a treat if I get the job.” He smiled.
“With me, you don’t have to stand on ceremony.” Li started to take in the pictures hung on his walls and changed the topic, “have you been painting recently?”
“Barely.” After a brief pause, he replied solemnly, “I’ve not been in a good mood.”
“Cheer up. You’re not the only person to find it difficult to be an artist.”
“I have learnt to take things philosophically. Otherwise, I would not have been able to live with such a pleasant mood.”
The next day, Li came back looking for him. He was expecting Li to bring some good news and was taken aback when Li told him directly, “He wants to hire a female tutor. There’s nothing we can do.” Li gave him a helpless look.
“Are male tutors less capable teachers?” Kede asked, puzzled.
“All four children are his precious daughters. He is worried about male teachers, especially single youths.”
“My God! Another one! Another person stuck in the 18th century. If we have more of them in our society, I think all single youths would have to give up teaching.”
“The older generation’s way of thinking is always some distance from ours.”
“My friend, why did you not say to him, ‘It’s a blessing to you if someone takes a fancy to your daughter!’” Kede’s recent rejections had made him rather acrimonious.
“How could I be so sarcastic to an acquaintance?”
“It is precisely because you are an acquaintance that allows you to make these jokes.”
Kede saw yet another advertisement for a teacher on the newspapers posted by a rural primary school. Lacking the courage to apply for a position in a secondary school, he made the wise decision to lower his expectations and accept what he could during these hard times. He wrote a letter of introduction and mailed it to the school with a copy of his résumé but did not receive a reply after nearly a month’s wait. He was tempted to turn up in the principal’s office and enquire about his application, about whether he stood a chance or not. Even if the school decided not to employ him, they should have at least issued a response, it was almost criminal to keep someone in such suspense. Re-reading the job advertisement, Kede found the words ‘suitable candidates would receive a mailed invitation for an interview’ at bottom of the text. “No wonder. I suppose I was not found to be suitable and thus have not heard back after such a long time.” He muttered to himself.
He met Li in the city not long after. The two of them chatted and vented in a kopitiam for almost two hours. Of course, Kede had more complaints than Li. Li had only a few bad experiences in relation to his search for a partner but Kede’s daily struggle had turned his discontent into an angry critique of society. This was especially after Li told him that, according to reliable sources, job opportunities posted by most government-aided schools are just for show–the position has been filled before the opening is advertised.
“Damn it. Even the sacred educational world is not immune to this idiocy,” Kede said with a severe tone and expression. His expression was stiff, as if he was the recipient of an immense personal attack.
“Is the educational world sacred? I’ve had my doubts for a long time.” Li said, his words laced with contempt.
October’s rain arrived and Kede remained miserable. He had almost stopped believing in the newspapers’ job advertisements and began to lose interest in asking his friends for recommendations. He avoided going out of the house, the rain kept him indoors and compelled him to read and to sketch out his fantasies with a pencil . This had become his daily exercise.
His home was a rented room within a small structure built with zinc sheets and wooden planks, within which Kede and his four brothers and sisters were cramped. His father lived in his employer’s servants’ quarters five miles away. He returned only once a week.
The room’s insulating board was low and only had a door and a single window for ventilation. Roughly ten inches beyond the window opening was the next structure’s wall and thus Kede’s room did not receive good air circulation. In the sweltering season, the sun projected its heat mercilessly onto the zinc roof and wooden walls. Hot air would be trapped within the room, which became like a heated pot, unfit for habitation. Cool wind only entered the room at night around 10pm. Unfortunately, this breeze came from the back of the building and carried with it the stench of ‘beautiful garden’ fertilisers; one would have to pinch one’s nose or close the window to avoid the stench. During the rainy season, the room would be cool and comfortable. The sound of rain hitting on the zinc roof was music to Kede’s ears and allowed him to ease into fantastical thoughts.
There were no decent pieces of furniture in his room–the desk was pieced together with empty wooden crates. Two creaky milk crates acted as his chairs; the condition of the crates was due to his younger siblings, who would sit on them in all sorts of positions despite his frequent yet futile reprimands. They would probably not last through the year. Two beds took up half the room’s floor space, though Kede’s siblings slept on beds assembled with wooden boards of various sizes. Kede uses a single-sized metal bedframe discarded by his father’s employer. Though it was old, a mattress and some sheets made it comfortable and cosy.
The corners of the room and the underside of the bed were crowded with worthless glass bottles, metal containers, old newspapers and magazines and old clothing. His father treated this trash as though they were precious items and forbade him from discarding them.
“We might need them in the future. If we throw them away, where will we find them when the need arises?” His father often explained. Whenever his father returned home, he would check on this trove of old items to ensure that Kede did not throw them away and that they were not destroyed by mice. The three living things Kede hated the most—bed bugs, mosquitoes, and mice—acted as though they conspired to interrupt his sleep. After buying some insecticide, the bed bugs have slowly disappeared but the small airplane-like mosquitoes still harassed the sleeping Kede with their song. He was often forced to wake from his slumber to deal with them. In the daytime, while reading or painting in his room, he would often get irritated by the sight of mice sneaking about. He would reach for a wooden rod but, at his slightest move, the mice would quickly disappear into the many nooks and crevices hidden within his walls and floor. In the dead of the night, they appear again and slowly chew on the milk cartons used to hold rice, their edges riddled with tooth marks.
Two metal wires acted as a divider and hung across the room. Clothes half-dried or kept from the rain would be hung on these lines. Kede’s hair would often be messed up by this still-wet laundry while he moved about the room.
Besides photos cut from newspapers, magazines and calendars, the walls were decorated with his paintings. When he got tired from reading, Kede would move his gaze around the room and admire his own artworks, refreshing his mind. He believed that art is extremely beneficial to one’s emotions and spirit. One would get excited and have a sense of elegance by being in a room with art displayed; the nobility of one’s character and the clarity of one’s emotions are often produced in this atmosphere.
Although his room was ugly and spartan, his walls were covered with paintings. This was not something you would find in other low-income houses. Many neighbouring kids would ask for his permission to enter his room and admire his paintings. Besides this, the mess would prevent a normal person who loves cleanliness from entering. When Kede first moved in, the weather was scorching hot so he could not stay in his room for long. He often read his books elsewhere. Now, in the rainy season, he could stay in his room for most of the day.
In the afternoon, as the rain eased up, Kede had been lying on his bed reading a novel for a few hours. The zinc roof still lightly resounded with falling raindrops.
“Brother De, there’s an angmoh1 outside looking for you.”
“Who’s that?” Kede could not remember a foreigner within his friends. “He probably got the wrong address, but I’ll still have to meet him at least.”
He thought to himself, while straightening up his clothing, preparing to go out.
A westerner with brown hair, blue eyes, a high nose and dressed in a long-sleeved shirt with a tie stood outside. He smiled in greeting as he saw Kede and said in English:
“Mi-si-te Yang2, I’m glad to see your home. Do you remember me? Kurt Hillman.”
The surname Hillman reminded him of a previous exhibition, where a senior artist had introduced them. This person bought one of his paintings then, but after many years, Kede had forgotten about this episode. He only remembered this as he saw Hillman.
“Please enter!” Kede said in English and gestured his welcome.
Hillman entered the room and said:
“I would like to take a look at your oil paintings. Do you have any recently completed works?”
“There are two or three in my room,” Kede said while leading Hillman into his room, “if you don’t find this condition unpleasant, please enter.”
“I’ll not stand on ceremony.” Hillman went in, still wearing his leather shoes. Evidently, he did not know that one should remove one’s shoes before entering. Kede did not remind him of that.
As Hillman entered, he noticed the landscape painting drying on the easel. Two trees were bent over in the painting, toward the left and right respectively. An embankment was in the centre of the image, where five or six people fished, sitting or standing. A pair of lovers conversed on a bench below the tree on the left. The palette of the painting was harmonious.
“Where is this?” Hillman said after spending some time admiring the painting.
“This is a seaside scene in Johor Bahru, painted from my impressions.” Kede said, pointing at the image.
“Has it dried?”
“I’d like to buy this painting. How much would that be?” Hillman moved his gaze towards Kede.
“Alright, I’d like to pick another piece.”
Hillman started to view the paintings hung on the wall. Kede removed the clothes drying on the wires so that Hillman could move about and have an unobstructed view of the paintings.
“I’ve seen this painting before.” Hillman leaned on the desk and looked at a painting of some grasscutters. This scene was captured by Kede when he went sketching in the forest. On the way there, on the mound where the radio station stood, he saw a group of Indian women dressed in red, yellow and green cutting grass with their sickles. He found the posture of the women beautiful and executed a few sketches. When he returned home, he refined the composition until he was satisfied with it, moving the scene to the canvas afterwards. The painting was completed three days later.
“What’s your opinion?” Kede would like to hear the opinions of this art lover who does not paint.
“Your compositional techniques and use of colour are quite special. You have your own flair.” Hillman paused for a moment before asking, “Only these few pieces? Do you have more?” It was as though he hoped that Kede would bring out some artworks stashed away.
“None other than these. I destroyed the rest because they weren’t satisfactory. I do not produce a lot of works. To put it nicely, I emphasise quality instead of quantity.”
“Young man, you have a bright future. You should paint more.” Hillman said while patting Kede’s shoulder.
“Thank you for your praise.” Kede smiled gratefully.
“I should get going. Could you sell me the painting of the grasscutters too? How much would it cost, alongside the painting of Johor Bahru’s seaside scene?” Hillman sat on the bed and produced a chequebook, ready to fill it in.
“You can have them for $300!” Kede said, happily.
Kede brought the paintings onto Hillman’s car. Suddenly, Hillman recalled something and reached into his pocket. He took out a name card and passed it to Kede, who was standing outside the car.
“If you like, you can come look for me on Sundays. Unfortunately, I am not free in the weekdays and would not be home.”
After Hillman’s car had gone, the landlady curiously watched Kede return home.
“Why did that angmoh take away your paintings for?” The landlady asked.
“He bought them.”
“How much for?”
“Two for $300. I’m poor and can only sell them cheaply.”
“Wow! You sold them for so much! Looks like you don’t actually need to look for a job.” The landlady widened her eyes and said, sticking her tongue out.
“This time, money looked for me. Do you think this will happen often?” He replied to the landlady, who was making too much out of this.
The neighbouring kids heard that two of Kede’s paintings sold for $300 and came over to congratulate him. They did not really believe that the two paintings they saw, which were neither a good imitation of nature nor nice to look at, were sold for $300. It must be that the angmoh was mentally deficient.
Kede’s younger sister innocently said:
“Brother, wouldn’t we get a lot of money if you sell him all your paintings?”
“Sister, you really don’t know how this world works. Paintings are only valuable if someone like them. If it does not draw admiration, even if I gifted it, the other person wouldn’t want to accept it!”
“Ah, so it works this way.” His little sister seemed to have understood something.
That evening, Kede’s three siblings returned from their school’s afternoon session and heard that their brother had come into a sum of money. Excitedly, they demanded to be brought to the movies and to buy this and that. Of course, Kede did not disappoint them.
He was still without a job and money had not gone looking for him since. He tried not to leave his house because that necessarily entailed spending money. He painted and read at home; he did not even care if the heavens would give way when he is painting. When Kede’s father returned home on Sunday, he saw Kede facing the wall, in deep thought. He did not even notice his father coming in.
“De, how would you get a job if you stay at home all day? You should go out and see if your friends have any recommendations!”
Kede awakened from his daydreams and, seeing his father enter, hastily stood up and received the paper bags from his hands. The paper bags were filled with old newspapers and magazines, unwanted items of his father’s boss that he brought back to entertain the children.
“I am waiting for good luck to come calling.” Kede said, putting on a nonchalant smile.
“What damned luck are you waiting for!” His father was dissatisfied with his lackadaisical manner. “Why not go look for Uncle Zhichang? He knows a lot of people and might have a way out for you.”
Uncle Zhichang was a distant relative; Kede did not know which common ancestor they shared, or how many generations ago. He was a few years older than Kede’s father and, according to the family’s generational distinctions, should be addressed as Kede’s bobo3. This uncle operated a bar in the city with some small businesses on the side. They rarely communicated; Kede had not met Uncle Zhichang for three years. If not for his father’s reminder, he would not have remembered this person.
He could not go against his father’s words. The next day, he arrived at X Bar, asking for Uncle Zhichang. The bar was air-conditioned with only two or three customers inside. The bargirls, much like bewitching spirits, saw him enter and mistook him for a good customer, sending him their alluring gazes. Uncle Zhichang happened to be by the counter and, seeing Kede, gave a smile of recognition.
“What wind has brought you here, Kede?”
“The north-western wind.” Kede replied, humorously.4
Uncle Zhichang pulled out two nearby chairs and invited Kede to take a seat with him. The radio was playing the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The two smiled at each other before Uncle Zhichang said:
“You’ve lost weight.”
“That’s because the north-western wind was too chilly.”
“What a joke. Are you still in university?”
“I’ve left some time ago.”
“I dropped out.”
“Why did you not continue your studies?” Uncle Zhichang asked with concern.
“The reason was simple – I had no money to do so.”
“Are you employed now?”
“I’m measuring roads.”
The server brought two cups of coffee.
“Would you like some cake? My cakes are quite good.”
“I’ve just had lunch. Please do not trouble yourself.”
Still, Uncle Zhichang told the server to bring some cake.
“Please have some and do not stand on ceremony.”
“I suppose your business is doing well?” Kede asked, picking up some cake while taking a sip of coffee.
“It was not bad a few years ago but now that there are so many places for leisure, so it is hard for a small business like this to survive.” Uncle Zhichang changed the topic, “so what are your plans now?”
“I have my plans but have no money to see them through, so they are futile in the end. I would like to find a job. Can beidei5 make use of a person like me here?” Kede took the chance to express his intentions.
Uncle Zhichang thought for a while, frowned, and replied solemnly:
“How could I make use of you here? Moreover, the jobs a bar can offer will not provide you with a good future.”
“One should not be concerned that a hero came from a humble background. I am only planning to work here temporarily. However menial the job is, my priority is to be able to support myself before I look out for other opportunities.”
Looking at this distant relative, Uncle Zhichang could not help but feel pity for his nephew’s aggrieved expression. However, his bar did not have any vacancies and business was not good; it was not a wise move to hire another person. Moreover, Kede received higher education and would be rather prideful. How could he get used to a job in the bar? Although they were relatives and should help each other, he was not financially comfortable at the moment and was not able to help his poorer relatives. Yet, he could not possibly deal Kede such a huge disappointment. After choosing his words carefully, he replied:
“I think it’s still best if you wait patiently. It is normal to be unable to find a job. Honestly, if you work for me as a server, it will ruin your future. What would your future friends and schoolmates think if they find out that you were once a server in a bar? Even though you do not think that being a server is beneath you, society will look down on you and mock you. A person who was in university for two years ‘ended up working in a bar as a server’. Think about it, I can’t be wrong.”
“I have my own thoughts and plans. I have never bothered about what other people said.” Kede showed his strong character.
Uncle Zhichang found himself in a tricky situation—this nephew could not be cajoled. He would have to come up with another plan, and thus said:
“Can you speak English?”
“I majored in English.”
“I think you’re more suited to work as a clerk in a commercial firm. I know some managers in this industry and will talk to them another day. Perhaps they will have a place for you.”
They drank their coffees, facing each other. Their conversation came to a brief pause. Uncle Zhichang asked:
“Besides this, what other skills do you have?”
“Oh, I heard from others that you studied painting and participated in exhibitions. You even had the ambition to study in Paris. That’s good, a young person should learn a wide variety of skills to have an easy career path. Can you typewrite?”
“I did not learn that.”
“You should. Commercial firms require typewriters.”
Kede felt impatient and bothered with Uncle Zhichang’s perfunctory words and stood up, bidding farewell.
“You’re leaving so quickly?”
“I’m going to look for some friends.”
“I’ll inform you if there are any opportunities. Do you still stay in the same place? Are your younger siblings alright?”
Kede gave a series of nods.
Uncle Zhicheng followed Kede to the door, pulled open the folding door and produced two red banknotes. Kede insistently rejected the banknotes as Uncle Zhichang tried to place it in his hand, saying:
“I am still able to pay for myself, thanks beidei for your good intentions!” He pushed away Uncle Zhichang’s hands and walked away.
Uncle Zhichang drove to Kede’s. The landlady told him that Kede was home and so he walked to Kede’s bedroom-cum-studio-cum-living room. It was around 11am and Kede had just woken up. Wearing a singlet and pyjama bottoms, he was facing the canvas, thinking. He had his back to the door and did not notice Uncle Zhichang standing behind him.
“Are you painting, Kede?” Uncle Zhichang gently asked Kede, who was deep in thought.
“Oh, its Zhichang beidei, please sit!” Kede brought over the relatively new rattan chair for Uncle Zhichang.
Uncle Zhichang sat down and took a quick look at the room, saying:
“You really should tidy up this room.”
“I don’t really care about my appearance and neither do my siblings. If you get used to it, you won’t notice it.”
“It won’t be good if others see this.”
“Let the others say what they will. Anyway, this is a small place cluttered with many items and I have no way to start tidying them up. In the future, when I am able to afford a house, I will organise it well.” Kede said. He then walked into the kitchen, where his sister was cooking, and told her to make some tea for Uncle Zhichang. He said on the bed after coming back; the bed was unmade.
“I have some good news for you.” Uncle Zhichang said, happily.
“Oh? What sort of news?” Kede was surprised.
“My friend, a manager, wants to meet you and have a look at your paintings. He might want to help you hold an art exhibition or send you to Paris to further your studies.”
“This is good news indeed. Was this the result of beidei’s negotiations on my behalf?”
“All I initially said was that my nephew was looking for a job and to ask if his company had any vacancies. He asked, ‘what skills does your nephew possess?’ I introduced you honestly and he said, ‘bring him and his paintings to me and let’s have a look. I am also very interested in painting. If your nephew is truly talented, I will help him to the best I can.’” Uncle Zhichang paused after this long explanation, then asked, “How many paintings do you have right now?”
“I have more than 10 paintings that are ready to be shown.”
“Bring them all for him to have a look. Go change into something decent and we’ll head to his office right away. I’ve called him beforehand and he has the time to see you today… Do you have a tie?”
“I do not.”
“You should buy one. You need to wear a tie when you meet people from high society.”
Uncle Zhichang brough Kede to a seven-storied building in the city. Kede carried a big stack of paintings while Uncle Zhichang helped him with a smaller stack. In the lift, Uncle Zhichang asked Kede, with concern:
“Are you sure your English is fluent enough?”
“Please do not worry. At the very least, I will be able to answer his questions.”
After entering the office of X Company, Uncle Zhichang introduced themselves to the female receptionist by the door. The female receptionist picked up the phone, muttered a few words, and told Uncle Zhichang in English, “You may go in. The manager is waiting for you.”
Uncle Zhichang and Kede entered the manager’s office one after the other. The other employees in the office looked curiously at this pair, one old and one young, stumbling under the weight of the stacks of paintings.
The manager was a middle-aged man. He looked like he was just over 40 with a healthy flush. His round face was bisected by a pair of black spectacles. He was reading some documents. As Uncle Zhichang and Kede entered, he looked up and greeted them in English:
“Welcome, mi-se-te Yang.” He glanced at Kede. “Is this the nephew you told me about?”
“Yes, Manager Fang. This is my nephew Kede.” Uncle Zhichang respectfully introduced Kede. He then instructed Kede to lay out the paintings on the floor.
“Please take a seat!”
After the guests had sat down, Manager Fang said to Kede, “your ang-ke6 has told me about your situation. You are rather hardworking and I like youths like that. Youths need to be diligent to have a future—don’t you think so?”
“Yes, you’re right.” Kede replied in English.
“How many paintings did you bring?”
“Ten small ones.”
“Alright, please unbundle them and let me have a look.”
Uncle Zhichang and Kede untied the stacks of paintings and lined them along the walls. Manager Fang stood up and paced about, admiring the paintings one at a time. His maintained a serious countenance and seemed like a connoisseur. After a while, he asked Kede:
“Do you paint anything realist?”
“I did so in the past, when I just started to paint. However, I now like to express myself through art and paint in an abstract manner.”
“Can you tell me why you paint expressionist and abstract paintings?”
“I feel that realist paintings are stiff and lifeless. They cannot be compared to the boldness of expressionist paintings and the intriguing nature of abstract art.”
“This means that you like modern art.”
“Yes, it suits my temperament well.”
“But I never understood why the so-called modernist painters are so fond of painting things that are so hard to understand. Paintings need to be understood–they are meaningless otherwise, however well they are executed.”
From these words, Kede could tell that Manager Fang’s so-called interest in art was limited to dissolute traditionalism. Kede’s aesthetic thought transcended most ancient art forms and could retort to these laughable fallacies in a hundred different ways. However, as he has only just met Manager Fang, he had to ensure that his words do not cause tension. He explained:
“When the viewer does not understand the painter’s art, they often accuse the painter of being confused, of seeking the new just for the sake of it, etc. Rarely does the viewer stop and reflect on themselves. Did they spend some effort to study and understand modern art? How much do they understand about the artist’s philosophy and its application in the creation of this piece of art? How much knowledge about the evolution of art do they have? Did they consider how much can be expressed with a white plane and a thick, black line?”
“Based on what you said, the viewer needs to defer to the artist.”
“I did not mean that the viewer has to mindlessly yield to the artist. I believe that, no matter what, the viewer that wants to understand art needs to become involved in art.”
“Your aesthetic views seek to bring art to the public.”
“That’s exactly it. I feel that unless art is brought to the public, it is very hard for art to be understood. To take an example, mi-si-te Fang, your English is fluent and your choice of words are pertinent because you have received a rather comprehensive education in English. If we are talking about someone that has not studied English, however, he would probably not be able to understand what you are trying to say, am I right?”
“I see that you have been influenced by Picasso, but Picasso’s skills in realist painting are excellent.”
“I do not deny that Picasso is skilled in realist paintings. However, why did Picasso set realist painting aside and develop Cubism? Mi-se-te Fang, think about it. Would an artist that strives to improve himself be satisfied with his past achievements? Time advances mercilessly and artists whose works cannot meet contemporary expectations will need to end their careers.” Kede paused his eloquent explanation as he noticed Manager Fang take out his cigarettes. He continued, “With regards to Picasso’s influence on me, are you talking about my artworks?”
“Aren’t these paintings all in the style of Picasso?” Manager Fang gestured at the paintings by the wall.
Kede saw that Manager Fang did not have a good idea of what contemporary art was, did not understand Picasso’s creative process and could not clearly discern what characterised Picasso’s paintings. However, he was not a lecturer in art and did not know how to start explaining this to Manager Fang in a succinct manner. Kede pondered for a moment, then said, with a slight smile:
“Mi-si-te Fang, you’ve misunderstood me. An ambitious painter would not wear someone else’s jacket.”
Manager Fang began to look embarrassed and stroked his chin. He was like a student who had given the wrong answer and was being mocked by his teacher for his carelessness.
“You would like to study painting in Paris?” Manager Fang asked, after some time.
“I have this dream.”
“Paris is the capital of art. Many Singaporean painters hope to try their luck there.”
“I would like to capitalise on my youth and broaden my horizons.”
“I heard from your ang-ke that you have spent two years at university. Why didn’t you focus on painting?”
“Before I entered university, I considered putting all my time and effort in painting. However, I realised that my background was disadvantageous to this dream and I could not just plunge myself into the world of colours and lines—it was best for me to take a detour. University was a way for me to get some qualifications and make it easier for me to find a well-paying job. Only then could I concentrate on my practice. However my plan was unexpectedly derailed and I could neither graduate from university nor find a job.”
“If you had the chance right now to complete your degree or to focus on developing your practice, which would you choose?”
“I would choose the latter, because the latter is my goal while the former is the means to that goal.” Kede said, without hesitation.
“Alright, mi-se-te Yang, let’s do this. Before I decide on whether to help you, I would need to seek the opinion of an expert. Leave your paintings here and I will notify your ang-ke when I have my decision. I still have some work to complete, so please excuse me.” Manager Fang bade farewell to them.
A week later, Uncle Zhichang came looking for Kede and told him that Manager Fang wanted to see him.
“Did Manager Fang say anything else?” Kede was anxious to know his decision.
“Nothing else, only to bring you to him.”
Kede met Manager Fang, uneasy about what would ensue. Manager Fang again looked stern and said, after some formalities:
“Mi-si-te Yang, I am very sorry. I am going to say some words that you may rather not hear. The expert I have asked to look at your paintings told me that Singapore has plenty of artists of your calibre.”
This was a disappointing verdict. What was implied need not be said; anyone with deductive abilities could tell that Lady Luck has forsaken Kede. Kede was disappointed and, with a melancholic look and recalcitrant attitude, said:
“Mi-si-te Fang, who was this expert you engaged? Could you let me know?”
“You don’t have to know who it was.”
“Perhaps he is an unqualified expert.”
“Mi-si-te Yang, you are sounding very arrogant.” Manager Fang said, his face stiffened.
“Mi-se-te Fang, please forgive him. My nephew is a youth without worldly experience and does not know how to communicate properly.” Uncle Zhichang threw Kede a look, beseeching him to remain decorous.
“I’m sorry, I spoke too directly.” Kede reluctantly said to Manager Fang.
“You were not only direct; you have also insulted the expert I engaged.”
“If you felt that that was my intention, then please apologise to that expert on my behalf!”
Kede began packing up the paintings still lining the wall, feeling regret about his desire to find an easy way out. He regretted going according to what Uncle Zhichang said and allowing his paintings to be insulted by people who may not have understood art. He tried his best to control his impulsive tendencies. Uncle Zhichang also bent over and helped him pack up.
“Can you leave me with one of your artworks?” Manager Fang said, walking towards an obviously angry Kede.
“Why?” Kede raised his head and asked in turn.
“How much would it cost? I’ll buy it.”
“I’m so sorry, this painting is not for sale.”
“How about that piece then?” Manager Fang pointed at another painting.
“That is also not for sale.”
“I believe that the other paintings are also your masterpieces that are not for sale.” Manager Fang said, warmly yet sarcastically.
“That’s right.” Kede said, impetuously.
“Mi-si-te Yang, you value your paintings too much!”
“In this society, if an artist does not value his own painting, who else would do so?”
“Alright, goodbye mi-si-te Yang! Sorry for making the both of you make this wasted trip.” Manager Fang said politely and considerately.
In the lift, Uncle Zhichang said to his silent nephew:
“Why didn’t you sell him a painting? You could’ve asked for two or three hundred dollars!”
“I cannot sell myself out and allow someone who does not appreciate my art purchase my paintings. That is tantamount to self-abuse.”
1 (Trans.) Angmoh – 红毛 hongmao (red-haired) in Hokkien. Colloquial term referring to White foreigners.
2 (Trans.) The author transliterated ‘mister’ as ‘mi-si-te’ 密斯特 in Chinese, in order to emphasise the characters’ use of English.
3 (Trans.) Bobo 伯伯 in Chinese refers to one’s father’s elder brother/cousin.
4 (Trans.) The north-western wind (西北风 – Xibei Feng) is a colloquial expression referring to a state of hunger brought about by poverty.
5 (Trans.) Beidei (伯爹, in mandarin Bodie) is a Hainanese honorific term for elder males in general and one’s father’s elder brother in particular.
6 (Trans.) Similar to the author’s use of ‘mi-si-te’, ‘ang-ke’ (昂克) is a transliteration of ‘uncle’.
Ho expounds on his relationship with writing in this essay published in Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau in the 1980s.
同学中知 《绿酒初尝》 是我写的，廖裕芳鼓励我多写，但我並不多写，那时我的兴趣开始多样化，除画外，哲学、玄学、命理学，每天除上课与清理作业外，花在和几位高谈阔论之士，如徐本钦 、曾炽豪 、廖裕芳等，在茶室餐厅的辩论时间颇不少。我的一把好辩口才，应是那段期间训练出来。美术论文开始出炉，所引起的反应比短篇小说热烈，因我所持的是现代艺术思想，难於见容传统思想之辈。《正觉世人对现代绘画的谬论》一文，激起一位作者连续三篇的反击 ; 反击的反击 《再论世人对现代绘画的谬见》，三十馀张稿纸和若干画照插图，却一投不返。事过境迁，重读草稿，火药味瀰於纸，大有拉人出来打的气慨，老编不用也有其道理，遂投入火堆。此后美术论文一帆风顺，每投见用。但我自珍毛羽，无特别感触与发现也不多写。
Writing and I
I had a penchant for writing ever since secondary school, complementing my enthusiasm for reading. Back then, I loved reading novels and there were no renowned works of world literature (if translated to Chinese) that I did not want to devour, whether borrowed or bought. This was how I became obsessed with the works of 19th century Russian masters such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev, working my way through these weighty tomes without rest. I often neglected my homework and did not pay attention in some classes; all I fantasised about was to one day be regarded among the great writers.
I started to keep a diary and wrote some short stories. I had no interest in essays or poetry. Whenever I completed a short story, I would send it with relish to various newspapers' literary supplements, but would never receive a reply. None of my writings had seen the light of day even as I graduated from junior college. This was a significant blow, and after some introspection, I arrived at this conclusion: perhaps my talents are not suited here. I shifted my interests to painting, which was indeed successful. Thereafter, I put most of my time and energy in painting and only occasionally picked up my pen.
My first novel A Sip of Green Wine was published when I was a student at Nantah1. The novel's title was initially appended with ‘... Easily Intoxicates’.2 The editor of the Nanfang Evening Post's literary supplement Oasis removed the latter portion, keeping the title simple and elegant. As you can see, this editor’s literary prowess was above mine. I gradually accepted that my previously rejected writings were substandard.
My schoolmates learnt that I wrote A Sip of Green Wine. Liaw Yock Fang encouraged me to write more, but because my interests had begun to diversify, I did not do so. Besides studying painting, philosophy, metaphysics, fortune-telling and other miscellaneous administrative duties, I spent my time in the tearoom debating with several learned friends, including Shee Poon Kim, Tzeng Chee Ho and Liaw Yock Fang. My debating skills must have been trained in that period. When my writings on art began to be published, the reaction was far stronger than that regarding my short stories. This response was because I espoused a modernist aesthetic viewpoint that could not be accepted by those who were traditional in thought. The essay ‘In correction of some fallacies society holds toward modern painting’ provoked a writer’s response in three consecutive articles. My subsequent defence was mounted over thirty sheets of manuscript and several supporting images, but this was not published. Now, looking back at the manuscripts, I found that my tone was overly provocative, almost as if I wanted to flog that writer. The editor naturally had his reasons for not publishing my response and relegated it to the fire. Since then, all my writings on art have been published without fail. However, I have become protective of my reputation and only write when I have particularly strong thoughts or opinions.
The people that I met and events that I experienced were the basis for many of my short stories. I strove to shape unique and unexpected plots, and with meticulous planning, refrained from mirroring stories I had previously read. This sometimes involved a strong imaginary element. I had the gift of imaginative and fantastical thinking, and could often, in the dead of the night, conjure up herds of cows and sheep with just the sight of a breeze settling over a patch of grass as a stimulus. For example, A droplet on a taro leaf, Trapped, and other stories were derived from my imagination. However, they contain a sense of realism that comes from my experiences and general knowledge, resulting in the plot’s logical development. I have also written a science-fiction short story Moon Landing. However, because I have not found it interesting after re-reading it, it is now in cold storage and has not been published.
I was jobless for a few years after graduating from Nantah. This period of forced leisure compelled me to write more. Moon by Day, Seven Youths, Days of Dejection were all written during this time; they were later published separately. Among them, Moon by Day was significant. First published in the bi-monthly TV & Radio Magazine, the editor published Moon by Day over four issues. Some readers requested that the editor publish the story in a single instalment to avoid cliff-hangers. After each issue, I found that there were more positive than negative reviews and opinions. Moon by Day was based on real events, even the ‘I’ in the story was real. Some readers opined: ‘with such unbarred realism, how can the female protagonist in Moon by Day face society?’ I did not agree. Compared with biographies and other related literary forms, Moon by Day was a trivial piece of realist writing. If literature based on biographies and real events could be seen as masterpieces and not be criticised for its realism, what threat did my ‘trivial’ story pose? I did not write it with evil intentions and only aimed to flesh out a female character that has become uncommon in today’s society. The title, Moon by Day, was an invention and not the female protagonist’s actual nickname. My schoolmates and I nicknamed her ‘little moon’ or ‘classical beauty’.
The title Moon by Day came unexpectedly. Then, though I had not settled on a title, I had planned out the plot and finished writing some chapters. I was walking back home from tea with Tan Teng Kee at about 4pm when we saw the moon hanging above Coronation Road. I think it was Teng Kee that said, ‘wow, the moon can appear in the daytime as well?!’ This suddenly reminded me of the ‘little moon’ I was writing about… I serendipitously found an ingenious title for my story.
The reaction to Moon by Day greatly encouraged me to write more in my leisure. My confidence in my short stories had grown. Unfortunately, my full-time job and increased social engagements meant that it was impossible for me to find any spare time to write more regularly.
I enjoy shaping a novel around real humans and events. I found a huge advantage in this—the story will not coincide with the characters or set-up of any classic piece of literature. For a person that has read so many renowned works, there is a danger of consciously or subconsciously falling under the shadow of a master.
The novel is a form of art that demands a high level of technical prowess; it is primitive to fixate on whether the plot is moral or not. The sculpting of characters, development of the story and control over literary techniques are all essential elements in writing a novel. Besides a large and colourful vocabulary, the author also has to be creative in her/his choice of words, use of phrases and sentence structure. The author cannot expect to stand out without a large amount of mental effort. How can a plot point be captivatingly narrated? How should a phrase be selected such that it changes the mood of the prose, even by just manipulating a single word? I admit that my abilities regarding these techniques are not yet sufficient, and that there is still a lot of room for growth. I have also not been able to dedicate my full attention to writing because of my varied interests and I feel that I have let down those who enjoy reading my short stories.
If, one day, I could have all 24 hours to myself, I believe that I will be able to write better and satisfy my readers.
1 (Trans.) Nanyang University, Nantah for short, was Singapore's only Chinese-medium university. It was in existence from 1956 to 1980. Ho Ho Ying graduated from Nantah with a Bachelor (Arts) in Chinese Language and Literature in 1962.
2 (Trans.) This title was taken from a poem by Yan Shu.
From 1996–1997, Ho enrolled in a postgraduate course at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China, to further his knowledge in Chinese art history and criticism.《杭州日记》Hangzhou Diary documents Ho’s year-long journey at the academy in detail, capturing his daily observations and encounters as well as his academic experiences. The introduction to this book encapsulates his thoughts on the importance of keeping a diary. Several sketches by Ho that depict life in the city accompany his written observations.
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These sketches were drawn between 1996-1997 while Ho pursued his studies in Chinese art history and criticism at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Images courtesy of the artist.
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These sketches were drawn between 1996-1997 while Ho pursued his studies in Chinese art history and criticism at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Images courtesy of the artist.
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These sketches were drawn between 1996-1997 while Ho pursued his studies in Chinese art history and criticism at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Images courtesy of the artist.
《杭州日记 – 序》
Hangzhou Diary – Introduction
The diary is the most untrammelled literary form, allowing you to write as you wish without recourse to any stylistic expectations. Diaries do not require you to adhere to a certain theme; you can record within it all quotidian experiences—what you see, hear and feel. You can also write as much as you wish—a long entry if you have something to discourse on, a short one if you have just a few thoughts, or just not writing if you have nothing to express. These are all subject to your personal fancies, to record what you wish and to be silent when it suits you. There is no one to pass judgement on what you wrote (if you do not publish your diary) and all you have to do is to write to the best of your knowledge and conscience. However, what you write has to be true and cannot be a fictional representation of events. The events about or relating to you have to be structured by space and time; the characters, events, locations and settings have to be grounded in reality. Only then can you express your range of emotions regarding these events, with the ability to mock or critique as you wish. To avoid legal implications, however, it is best to anonymise the characters in your entries when you refer to public scandals. In case your diary falls into the hands of others, or when publication results in shame and anger. This will harm relations and is neither kind nor generous.
Diaries can aid our recollection. As time passes, many of our treasured experiences fade, discolour or are forgotten. Diaries safeguard these memories in a reliable manner, awaiting your perusal when the mood arises.
Diary keeping is essential training for writers, just as sketching is a basic technique that painters have to master. Diary keeping subtly improves the sensitivity of your thoughts and the fluency of your text—one of many skills you can develop to aid your writing, whether it is an expressive short text, an exegesis, or novels long or short.
I started keeping my diaries in 1952. Though I sometimes go on a hiatus, my passion for diary writing has not diminished over the past forty years. The reason why I chose to publish Hangzhou Diary now is simple—it has been a year since I, in retirement, furthered my studies in Hangzhou's China Academy of Art. Living in a foreign country, everything I encounter is interestingly novel. As we reach our senior years, our thinking becomes more mature. We are more able to approach issues with clarity and to touch on them in a simple and elegant manner, devoid of youthful passions. I share these entries with my readers and hope that they are not stinging, instead being mellow like China’s yellow wine and soil.
30 December 1997
More information on Ho’s practice and his pivotal contributions to Singapore’s art scene can be found here.