Conjuring Dublin and Singapore in Goh Poh Seng's work August 24, 2015 14:03
The Irish Ambassador Geoffrey Keating and his wife generously hosted a reception on 14 August 2015 to celebrate the publication of Singapore literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng’s Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman, a vivid and evocative memoir of the author’s time in Dublin as a student in the 1950s. The evening was convivial, and a testament to the power of words to make one hear, feel and see cities and persons anew.
Joined by guests from academia, the embassy, and government agencies, as well as publishers, writers and personal friends of Goh Poh Seng, a few words about his memoir were said by Ambassador Keating, NUS Press Director Peter Schoppert, NTU Professor Koh Tai Ann, and Northern Irish-Canadian writer George McWhirter through Irish editor and writer Rosemary Lim.
Worlds Within World
“I loved the book”, his Excellency stated plainly. “To me, as a Dubliner, it is extremely and deeply evocative. And even though the city Dublin has changed so much over the past 60 years, the city he describes is almost instantly familiar and recognizable.”
Goh, he mused, was lucky to have made his way into the artistic and literary circles of 1950s Dublin. Indeed, one of the central stories in Tall Tales is an intense discussion with Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh over what it means to be a poet. His Excellency suggested a literary pilgrimage to the UNESCO City of Literature, enticing us to see the traces of Wilde, Beckett, and Shaw, as well as walk the paths of Joyce’s Stephan Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. In fact, Dublin prides itself on having produced the most Nobel Prizes for Literature than other city in the world.
The Reinvented Man
Next was Professor Koh Tai Ann, who was also a personal friend of Goh’s and was one of the persons responsible for the republication of Goh’s first novel with NUS Press. She regaled the audience with the insider information about its publication – and its rejection by Paul Theroux’s publisher for being “too local” – and other aspects of his life, such as the poetry slams and supper club at his establishment Rainbow Lounge, and his foresight with building conservation and tourism. But Prof Koh also pointed out that his idealism and pluck was accompanied by an overreaching and a lack of business sense.
Highlighting that the memoir was titled “Tall Tales”, she wondered about which parts were fact and which fiction. Nonetheless, Goh’s first poem was written in Ireland and the form of Goh’s first novel If We Dream Too Long had parallels to Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: as Joyce’s characters trek through Dublin, Goh’s tracks 1960s Singapore from Changi to Chinatown, to Esplanade and Tanglin Club, capturing in print both the physical landscape of the time and, through the stream of consciousness, its zeitgeist.
A Star-Lovely Art
Northern Irish-Canadian writer, and Vancouver’s first Poet Laureate, George McWhirter’s reflections on the publication were read out by Rosemary Lim, an Irish writer and editor who also also conducts literary tours of Singapore.
Like his Excellency, McWhirter enjoyed the way Goh brought Dublin to life, “Like Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal, Goh Poh Seng’s book lets me see Ireland with other eyes and feelings for my native land that are intimate and ironical, loving and leery, spliced from something very Celtic and Chinese in the braided history that brings Poh Seng and binds him to the island. The book also has his very own way of looking, his young bucko’s oriental, will o’ the wisp in the eye. Full of cheeky curiosity, he loves theatre and goings-on, and is blessed to find himself in a city where every room and street is a stage, and there’s always something going-on. ”
Drawing the event to a close, his Excellency thanked all present and announced that dinner was served, along with free-flow Guinness, and – to hearty cheers – whisky from both parts of Ireland! Certainly an apt way to affirm that home can come to us in more ways than one.
NUS Press would like to thank Ambassador Geoffrey Keating, his wife and the Embassy of Ireland, for their hospitality; Neil Murphy for making the connection; and Koh Tai Ann, George McWhirter and Rosemary Lim.
Goh intended to write a three-volume memoir, but unfortunately passed away before he could complete it. Margaret Goh, the wife and literary executor of Goh's estate – and once director of Singapore University Press, the former NUS Press – passed away in 2014. Their children now manage the estate.
Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Westernized Oriental Gentlemen and If We Dream Too Long are available at NUS Press.