Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Literary Arts

Suchen Christine Lim

Award-winning novelist and author of works such as Rice Bowl and A Bit of Earth

Calendar

Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

I write to discover. Writing is a journey of discovery for me. It’s not implementing an already planned and plotted route.

Writing Historical Fiction: A Dialogue with Suchen Christine Lim, Asiatic, Vol 3, No. 2, Dec 2009.

Hailing from Malaysia, Suchen Christine Lim was born in 1948 across the Causeway, but moved to Singapore with her family at age 14. A former teacher, Lim later turned her love of writing into a full-time occupation as an award-winning novelist. The winner of the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992, Lim’s most well-known works include Rice Bowl (1984), Fistful of Colours (1992) and A Bit of Earth (2000). Her historical fiction with an incisive look at personal changes against a backdrop of larger, societal transformation has garnered her both accolades and prestigious residencies across the world.

A pioneer of the historical novel, Malaysian-born and Singapore-based Suchen Christine Lim draws from her own rich experiences as a third-generation Chinese resident in Southeast Asia to weave tales of fortune-hunters and taboo-breakers.

But not all novelists know from the start that their calling is to pen award-winning works. Certainly not for Lim, who had said on her own website, “I did not set out to be a writer. As a child, I wanted to sell chicken porridge. As a teenager in the late 1960s, I was a romantic. I dreamt of making revolutionary changes for a better, kinder Singapore. I was with a band of students, led by a Catholic nun. We were out to change Singapore … I was a failed revolutionary who became a teacher who became a writer … I write because writing keeps me sane and out of trouble. Writing gives me the illusion I am doing something worthwhile and non-violent.”

Indeed, Lim’s earlier years were of a more conventional nature. She moved to Singapore in 1963 with her parents. After receiving a postgraduate diploma in Applied Linguistics, Lim joined the Ministry of Education as a curriculum specialist. The former teacher at Catholic Junior College stumbled upon writing creatively only in her late 30s, when she started to doodle and write during an invigilating lull in a school examination.

The doodling and writing eventually led to her first fiction work Rice Bowl (1984)—a novel that questioned the pragmatic politics of the country—published while she was still a curriculum specialist. In her mid-50s, the SARS crisis in Singapore led Lim to re-examine her priorities and she resigned from the Ministry of Education. With four works of fiction already published, Lim segued into being a full-time novelist naturally.

Exploring other written formats, Lim also experimented with playwriting, giving rise to The Amah: A Portrait in Black and White (1986) which earned her the Merit Prize in the National University of Singapore-Shell Short Play Competition. A return to the novel form with Gift from the Gods (1990) saw Lim examine the value and role of women, viewed through the lens of three generations of daughters with folklore and superstition in the background.

It was her third novel Fistful of Colours that carved for Lim an indelible place in the Singapore literary scene. The novel, which developed one of Lim’s favourite themes personal dilemmas seen against a larger macrocosm of societal change—was awarded the inaugural $10,000 Singapore Literature Prize (Fiction) in 1992. Fistful of Colours is a multi-layered look at what it takes to define and develop one’s Singaporean identity, as experienced by Suwen, a young teacher who navigates her way through a tapestry of socio-political changes, and along the way recalls the similar trials of the nation’s early immigrants.

Threading through all of Lim’s works is the influence of her personal ancestry—one that saw her Tangshan-born grandparents cross the seas to Malaysia; the Chinese tin mining background in colonial Malaysia that her parents had settled in; and the next move and re-settling to Singapore for this Chinese diasporic family. All this is especially encapsulated in her fourth novel A Bit of Earth (2001).

In more recent years, Lim has again returned to working with various writing formats. Her non-fiction work Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora (2005) and her collection of short stories, The Lies That Build A Marriage (2007) were her two first works after leaving her full-time education job, while Writing the City (2010) was a film project initiated by the British Council that saw Lim emerge as a film scriptwriter and mentor to aspiring writers.

Lim has also written several picture books for young children.

With a novel always currently in progress, she continues to helm writing workshops and projects for young writers.

Timeline

1948

Born in Malaysia.

1956 to 1962

Enrolled in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) in Penang and Kedah, Malaysia.

1962

Moved to Singapore.

1964 to 1966

Enrolled in CHIJ Katong, Singapore.

1967 to 1968

Enrolled in CHIJ Victoria Street for pre-university studies.

1969 to 1972

Graduated from the University of Singapore with BA in English.

1974

Attended the National Institute of Education, Singapore.

1975 to 1987

Teacher, CHIJ Victoria Street.

Teacher, Catholic Junior College.

1980

Received Merit Prize (children’s story) from Ministry of Education for The Valley of Golden Showers.

1982 to 1983

Graduated from the University of Singapore with Honours in Literature.

1984

Published novel Rice Bowl, inspired by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

1986

Wrote play The Amah: A Portrait in Black & White..

Received Merit Prize in the NUS-SHELL Short Play Competition for The Amah: A Portrait in Black & White (with Ophelia Ooi).

1989

Graduated from the SEAMO Regional English Language Centre (RELC) with Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Linguistics.

1990

Published novel Gift from the Gods.

Published children’s book 12 Big Books for Young Children, which includes:

Granny
When My Baby sister Came Home
Grandpa
Woo Won Ton
The Biggest Hongbao in the Whole Wide World
Roti Prata
Ants in a Hurry
Julius Fatball
Nanny Nanny Poo Poo
Cheep Cheep Cheep
The Hatching
Mano Made A Promise.

1992

Published Fistful of Colours, a novel revolving around three women who pursue alternative life choices.

Won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize (Fiction) for Fistful of Colours.

1996

Fulbright Writing Fellow, International Writing Workshop, University of Iowa, USA.

1997

Mentor, Creative Arts Programme, National University of Singapore.

1998

Published short story Bandong in The Merlion and the hibiscus: Contemporary short stories from Singapore and Malaysia. Dipika, M., Singh, K., & M. A.Quayum (Eds.).

1999

Judge, Commonwealth Literature Prize (Asia-Pacific Region).

Member, Singapore Writers Festival.

1999 to 2001

Mentor, Mentor Access Programme, National Arts Council.

2000

International writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, USA.

Published short story Two Brothers in Virtual lotus: Modern fiction of Southeast Asia. Shaffer, T. (Ed.). (2002).

Published short story Clash of the Clans in World Literature Today, 74 (2).

Published novel A Bit of Earth.

Panel Judge, Young Artist and Cultural Award, National Arts Council.

Judge, Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize.

2001

Member, Singapore Writers Festival.

2002

Published short story Tragedy of My Third Eye in More than half the sky: Creative writings by thirty Singaporean women. Leong, L. G. (Ed.)

Member, Assessors Panel, National Arts Council Arts Education Programmes in Schools.

2002 to 2003

Mentor, Creative Arts Programme for Gifted Students, National University of Singapore.

2003

Leaves the Ministry of Education to devote herself to full-time writing.

Writer-in-residence, NICA Centre, Yangon, Myanmar.

Writer-in-residence, University of Western Australia.

Published short story Christmas at Singapore Casket. First published in The Straits Times on December 25, 2003.

Published short story Ah Nah – An Interpretation.

Published short story Retired Rebel..

2004

Invited author, SchoolFest: Victoria, University of Wellington, at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Featured Writer, Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival.

Speaker, Symposium on the Representation of Malays & Malay Culture in Singaporean-Malaysian Literature in English, Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Keynote Speaker, Creative Arts Programme for Gifted Students, National University of Singapore.

Featured Writer, New Zealand Post Writers’ Festival.

2004 to 2005

Writer-in-residence, Moniack Mohr, Scotland, UK.

2005

Published non-fiction book Stories of the Chinese Overseas.

Published non-fiction book Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora..

2006

Guest Writer, International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Guest Writer, 1st Reading of The Morning After at Christmas Service in the Arts House, Free Community Church, Singapore.

2006 to 2008

Honorary Writer-in-residence, Good Shepherd Convent, Singapore-Malaysia Province.

2007

Published short story collection The Lies that Build a Marriage.

Published short story Gloria.

Featured Writer, Asia-Africa Literature Festival, Jeonju, Korea.

Member, Steering Committee, Singapore Writers Festival.

Speaker and Tutor, Creative Arts Programme, National University of Singapore.

Keynote Speaker, Reading Asia, Forging Identities in Literature: Policy, Research and Practice, Ateneo de Manila University, The Philippines.

2008

Short story collection The Lies That Build A Marriage shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize.

Co-Tutor in Writing Workshop, with Jeremy Sheldon, British Council, Singapore.

Writing Tutor, Moniack Mhor Writers’ Centre, Scotland, Arvon Foundation, UK.

Writing Tutor, Creative Arts Programme, National University of Singpore.

Arts Advisor, National Arts Council.

2009

Writer-in-residence, Toji Cultural Centre, Wonju, South Korea.

Published children’s picture book My New Monster Truck.

Short story The Morning After made into TV film for MediaCorp Singapore.

Featured Writer, Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Co-Tutor, Writing From Life, with Patrick Gale,; British Council, Singapore.

2010

Published short story Big Wall Newspaper.

Co-wrote film scripts in Writing The City: 1) The Writer’s Eye 2) Characters 3) Encounters 4) Memory of the Past 5) The Magical 6) The Individual & the City 7) Looking Forward.

Distinguished Speaker, Spring Lecture, English & Me, Hiroshima Jogakuin University, Japan.

Co-Tutor, Writing the City Workshop, with Jeremy Sheldon,; British Council, Singapore.

2011

Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing, English Department, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Distinguished Speaker, Fiction, Imagination and the Surprises They Bring, the 7th Singapore Soka Association’s Student Peace Lecture, Singapore Management University.

Featured Writer, Hong Kong International Writers’ Festival.

Panel of Selectors, NUS-Arts House Writers’ Residency Programme.

Published children's picture books, Miss Missy Mynah and I Don't Want to Dance.

2012

Received SEA Writer Award.

Judge, Singapore Literature Prize.

Published short story Big Wall Newspaper in Monsoon Feast (a Singapore-India writers' project), edited by Verena Tay.


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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