Written by Hazel Tan
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Heng Siok Tian is a writer, poet and schoolteacher who has published five collections of poetry. Her first volume of poetry,Crossing the Chopsticks and Other Poems was published in 1993. Following this, she published My City, My Canvas (1999),Contouring (2004), and more recently, Is My Body a Myth (2011) and Mixing Tongues (2011). It is no coincidence that the titles of the first three collections all start with “C”s. These volumes were conceptualised as Heng’s version of the five Singapore “Cs”. Alvin Chua notes that her mentors were Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap; her cited influences include Emily Dickinson, John Keats, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few.

In the foreword of Crossing the Chopsticks and other poems (1993), Edwin Thumboo notes that her first collection is a “significant addition to the body of Singapore poetry”. He also notes that her poetry suggests “a quiet, sensitive, strong, self-effacing personality and quick, sharp mind that is consequently not worn on the brow” (Chopsticks ix). Heng finished much of the writing of this collection in 1986, and it was eventually published seven years later, in 1993. The volume is divided into three sections: “Interiors,” “Words,” and “Sights and Sounds”. In these sections, she writes about themes that would later become recurrent in her later works. In “Interiors,” she speaks of personal experiences of family, alienation, religion and the paradoxes that can be found in mundane life. Heng, who was brought up in a Teochew family but underwent English-medium education in Singapore, also frequently addresses the tensions between eastern and western thought and culture (Chopsticks viii). For instance, in her poem “Chopsticks,” she expresses this tension as experienced by those from colonised countries:

My pragmatics teach me
western convenience
in fork and spoon.
My parents frown at my
cultural unrespectability
in crossing the chopsticks

(handling lives).

Suddenly how to handle chopsticks
involves a moral dimension.

One of the techniques that Heng uses to bring our attention to these issues is the shifting of focus from speaker to metaphor. In doing so, she subverts the reader’s perspective of everyday life. For instance, in “Toothbrushes,” she writes:

Father says
its an objective case:
hard bristles
pampered teeth,
affordable luxuries
stubborn habit.

What do the toothbrushes have to say?

Such twists or the unveiling of a sudden shift in perspective suggest that Heng, as Thumboo says, “pushes hard,” and yet is sensitive (Chopsticks ix).

As can be seen, Heng is fond of personification, and a similar animation of objects is also found in other poems. For instance, in the section “Words,” Heng’s persona wrestles with words:

Halfway through my sleep
I coughed up tuberculoid
they lay a bloody mess:
sticky enzymes
slimy saliva.

Likewise, in Contouring (2004), a volume exploring the theme of technology, she again uses visceral images to illustrate her constant struggle with language. In “I Begin to Tire from Tossing,” she writes:

my vocabulary swilled out
like disemboweled guts of a hara-kiri

ghazals, couplets, quatrains, sonnets, villanelles
they threw themselves onto the hard concrete

left as a scraggly skeleton

In My City, My Canvas (1999), she addresses words as juvenile delinquents:

Those urchin words
run off
at the end of a page
leaving behind
a truant blank

Ong Sor Fen suggests that these self-reflexive poems demonstrate a postcolonial Heng at work with a language both ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ at the same time.

In the same volume, Heng explores the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in “Mother’s Saga,” one filled with “harsh love” and “unquestioned sacrifices,” and developing a theme that continues to be powerful for her over the course of several books (Alfian). In Is My Body a Myth (2011), a book that she dedicates to her mother, Heng further explores these maternal dynamics (“To Mummy, With Love” par 1). She does this especially in the titular poem, priming the stage with a prologue-like section, where the mother’s voice takes centre stage:

I watch you grow up unchinese,
go out with boys, then men, with Jesus too

When contrasted with Heng’s voice in the following six sections of the poem, the reader realises that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the speaker to find her way back to her mother, because her identity is torn between eastern and western culture.

The following six sections of the poem also tell of the speaker’s awareness of what is to come for them both as time passes: a struggle with her identity, a desire to reconcile this identity with her mother, finally thwarted by the inexplicable inability to express herself perfectly. In the epilogue, the speaker finds herself alienated from her mother:

She has wept for me.
How do I tell her I weep for her too?

Likewise, in Mixing Tongues (2011):


between holding on
and letting go
lies a world

in which she tries to live,
gasping [ . . . ]
mixing tongues.

Words grow as penicillin
culturing new strains.

Here, the speaker struggles between conforming to either eastern and western ideals. However, while this conflict rages on, the poem suggests that it is through words that the speaker—and by extension, the reader—finds reconciliation. This is a marked progression from her previous volumes: where words previously teased and agonised, they are now life-saving medicine, new strains from the mixing of tongues.

Heng’s work suggests that language is constantly evolving. Her poems “do not conclude, especially when we think they have been pinned down by a butterfly upon the wheel” (Thumboo xiii). Heng’s use of visceral language and the animation of inanimate objects continues to shed light on the ordinary, transforming them into new insights. It is through these techniques that Heng’s language, images, and insights create an evocative experience for the reader, one where her words continue to “permutate, as potential for another reading” (Thumboo xiii).

Works cited

Alfian Sa’at. “Of malls, small and stalking myself.” The Straits Times 11 Dec 1999.

Chua, Alvin. “Heng Siok Tian.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board Singapore, 2009. Web.

Heng, Siok Tian. Contouring. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2004.

—. Crossing the Chopsitcks and Other Poems. Singapore: UniPress, 1993.

—. My City, My Canvas. Singapore: Landmark Books, 1999.

—. Mixing Tongues. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2011.

—. Is My Body a Myth. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2011.

Ong, Sor Fern. “Tongue Ties.” The Straits Times 27 Mar 2004.

“To Mummy, With Love.” The Straits Times 26 Jan 2012.