Ee Tiang Hong (b. 1933–1990)
Written by Mandy Chi Man Lo
Dated 9 Oct 2016
Like many other English-educated writers, Ee Tiang Hong’s choice of language as his vehicle for expression was not necessarily political; instead, it served as his most convenient and effective means of expression. Yet, he did not hold back on offering his opinions on the nation-building project that was the then newly-formed Federation of Malaya. Many Malayans had a burning desire to contribute to the formation of a national identity and culture. For Ee, in contrast to some writers who sought to unite Malaya through Malay language and culture, “Malayan identity [ . . . ] meant additional Malayan cultural influences, joined onto their Peranakan and British colonial heritage” (Keong 47). In the poem “I of the Three Monkeys,” the persona’s identity is heterogeneous, resisting assimilation, reflecting Ee’s desire for a similar attitude towards the Malayan people:
I of the many faces
Guilty and penitent,
Assume a mitigation
Of what you will pronounce,
When the people’s court arise [sic].
Of my being a puppet
Of a government
Not of the people.
According to Ee, a unified Malayan national identity was forced upon its people, who were then treated as puppets by the government. Despite the multiple ethnicities and cultures in Malaysia, the government enshrined the rights of a single ethnic group, emphasised Malay privileges, and turned “Chinese, Indians, and Eurasians into second-class citizens” (Thumboo 6). In the name of securing independence, the ruling class believed they should reduce the power and influence of the recently-departed British colonisers by replacing English with Malay at all levels of national activities (Quayum 16). Literatures in English, Tamil, and Chinese, which were not considered “indigenous” languages, were abandoned in the classroom (Quayam 21). Ee, an English language poet as well as a Peranakan, was thus doubly marginalised. Once believing that “being a baba / was being Malayan, or Malaysian” (“Heeren Street”), Ee must have felt that the government was displacing him from his own country.
Naturally, discrimination, disorientation, and injustice are recurring themes in Ee’s poetry. In “New Order,” for instance, Ee deplores the exclusivity and obstinacy of the nation-building project:
They have succeeded
in changing the names
of things and places
as they pleased–
streets, bridges, monuments,
buildings, parks, playing fields,
whatever they deemed alien to our nationalism,
as they defined it.
as when you saw with your own eyes
the destruction of our Fort,
the blasting of an unyielding stone,
the pious licence [sic] with word and meaning,
I, too, could only watch,
The persona laments the Malayan government’s power to shape the national imagination and its indifference towards the realities of a multi-ethnic and -cultural society. Considering the government’s dismissal of the inclusive view in constructing the idea of the nation, Ee laments in an essay that “the very meaning of Malaysia had been altered” (“Literature and Liberation” 24). In the face of monoethnic nationalism, Ee’s persona reacts with helplessness, shown especially in the last two lines of “New Order.”
For Ee, the Malayan identity should be “based on multiculturalism, [and] English-education” (Keong 47). Ee’s poetry is expressively vernacular and sentimental, a strategy developed to re-write the monoethnic nationalist narrative and establish a literary sensibility reflecting the heterogeneity of the contemporary local context. Ee “[a]bandon[s] the rhyme and meter of English poetry” in an attempt to own the language, to write a Malayan poetry dissociated from its colonial roots (Keong 47). Nevertheless, as Ee reflects in his later years, Anglophone writers could not completely free themselves from the English poetic tradition; “[i]t seemed impossible then to retain the medium without carrying a substantial part of its content” (Responsibility & Commitment 10). Mohammad Quayum notes that localising poetry was a difficult task “as there was no local tradition to emulate and writers were basically brought up on English literature” (19). Although Ee’s project was not immediately successful, his poetry is today a part of that local poetic tradition.
Caught in a double bind—on one hand, his nationalism desired freedom from British rule, on the other, his poetry remained bound to the English language—Ee eventually decided to emigrate to Australia. In “Exile,” the persona suggests that such leaving is a reluctant inevitability—“the only way out / for the sake of all / he held most dear, / left one quiet evening.” Despite this, the disorientation and rejection Ee felt did not leave him; Malacca, Malaysia and Singapore remain backdrops to his poetry written after 1975. The lines “Travelling separately, living under / different flags, but not so far apart as to / lose our bearings, we’ve kept in touch” in his “Nearing A Horizon” convey a lingering spiritual and emotional attachment to Malaysia. Although no longer living in what used to be Malaya, Ee still professes an unceasing love for the land through his words:
[ . . . ] in the cycle of earth,
wind and water, in the wheel
of mind and heart and soul–
may it also rain sometimes
from here to Malaysia,
and Singapore. (“For Wong Lin Ken”)
Although writing through the specific lenses of ethnicity, language and nationalism, perhaps Ee’s “strongest allegiance was to ‘common humanity’” (Quayum 30). Ee’s concern for society is ultimately a concern for the individual, and his writing represents private experiences to the public, including a number of poems on friendship, family, and death, in addition to those overtly about Malaya. Ee’s poems, which express anger at discrimination and injustice, pity for a disappeared past, disconsolation over irresolvable dead ends, sorrow over departure, dejection at unrequited love, and anxiety owing to a near death experience, speak for all, regardless of nationality and ethnicity.
Bennett, Bruce. “Foreword.” Nearing a Horizon. Singapore: UniPress, 1994. xi-xv.
“Biographical Note.” Lines Written in Hawaii. USA: East-West Center, East-West Culture Learning Institute, 1973. 39.
“Biography.” Tranquerah. Singapore: Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, 1985. 77. Print.
Ee Tiang Hong. I of the Many Faces. Malacca: Wah Seong Press, 1960.
–. “Literature and Liberation: The Price of Freedom.” Literature and Liberation: Five Essays from Southeast Asia. Ed. Edwin Thumboo. Manila: Solidaridad Publishing House, 1988. 11-41.
–. Myths for a Wilderness. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1976.
–. Nearing a Horizon. Singapore: UniPress, 1994.
–. Responsibility & Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo. Ed. Leong Liew Geok. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1997.
–. Tranquerah. Singapore: Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, 1985.
Keong, Neil Khor Jin. “A History of the Anglophone Straits Chinese and their Literature.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I. Eds. Mohammad A. Quayum, and Wong Phui Nam. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009. 36-57.
Quayum, Mohammad A.. “Editor’s Introduction.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I. Eds. Mohammad A. Quayum, and Wong Phui Nam. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009. 11-35.
Thumboo, Edwin. “Preface.” Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I. Eds. Mohammad A. Quayum, and Wong Phui Nam. Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009. 6-10.