Written by Tan Hui Shan
Dated 6 Nov 2015

Yong Shu Hoong is a writer who, having no formal education in literature, only ventured into writing later in life. A graduate from computer science in the National University of Singapore, Yong started out as a programmer. Thereafter, he enrolled in Texas A&M University at College Station in America for his Masters in Business Administration, where he joined a writers’ group. Yong’s first break into local literature occurred upon his return to Singapore in 1994, armed with a manuscript of poems that he had written while away—a manuscript submitted and shortlisted for the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize. He then established a working relationship with Enoch Ng, a writer he had first met during National Service. Ng shared his intentions to start a publishing house (which would end up becoming Firstfruits Publications) and they decided to publish the manuscript, now titled Isaac, after various rounds of editing. With that, Yong’s writing career began. 

Yong’s lack of formal education in literature (which Cyril Wong, in a previous essay on Yong’s work for, notes was a point Yong reiterated often in his early readings) and his cross-continental education, imbue his writing with a preoccupation with intersections, particularly those of disciplines and cultures. It is thus useful to look at dowhile, Yong’s second collection, first, as his programming background is brought to the fore in the book. As its title suggests, dowhile is an exploration of how the technical use of computer language can be reconciled with poetry. In programming language, the title is a statement that serves to execute a set of instructions under a condition. Structurally, the collection is split into three sections, two that are demarcated by the binary 0 and 1, mediated by “notes from the border”. It is in this volume that Yong demonstrates his ability to use his non-literary training as a platform for expression—a meeting point of art and science. Within the collection, Yong continues to address the relationship between his writing and his computer science training:

Because as a Computer Science student
I was besotted by the beauty of structure
          within the syntax of Pascal.

          (Were you expecting
                    a more intellectual discourse?)

A truer version:

I had one day chanced
          upon Jim Morrison’s verses
exclaimed to myself “how easy! how profound!”
and decided to be adventurous exactly once

Just to find out what I could get away with. 

(“Why Poetry?”)

Here, Yong recalls his writing influences, in particular Jim Morrison and the Beat poets, whom he was exposed to during his time in America. “Why Poetry” is Yong’s raison d'être—his reason for beginning to write. The beauty of the form employed in this poem lies in its close resemblance to lines of code, challenging the generalisation that coding and poetry are on different ends of a language spectrum. For example, the use of parentheses and indents in the lines “(Were you expecting / a more intellectual discourse?)” is comparable to how punctuation would be employed in writing code. Here Yong’s distinct writing style—the “easy” unfolding of seemingly quotidian observations into profound concerns—is on full display.

However, dowhile not only focuses on the intersections between disciplines, but also explores the notion of physical displacement, particularly from places that the persona is familiar with. Certain themes are frequently present in Yong’s works: the notion of home and identity, and loneliness. The second section of the volume indicates Yong’s penchant for exploring what home means to him, in a piece aptly titled “Home”:

All I need is a stroll
through the labyrinth
beneath the Orchard Road junction

And upon surfacing
a skip across the crossing
just before the flashing man turns red.

This poem narrates the experience of a “stroll / through the labyrinth / beneath the Orchard Road junction”. There is no romanticising the landscape, yet, the persona’s subtle sentimentality is revealed when he expresses his “need” to embark on this walk. To the persona, the essence of home can be evoked from as little—or much—as a mere stroll in Orchard Road. Yong recognises that such daily happenings are what produce the ‘lived’ experience of home, and his unornamented, affective snapshots serve to evoke a phenomenological sense of belonging.

Returning to Yong’s earlier poetry, Yong’s first published collection, Isaac, is split into three sections, and charters Yong’s experiences from the macro to the micro—it begins with him being in America (under the first section titled “Wild America”) transitioning to his journey home (“Urban Renewal”) and eventually the reason for his return home is revealed in the title of a poem as “A Family Matter”. The structuring of the collection into these sections highlight how Yong starts off with a global perspective, exploring the intersections between foreign countries and cultures (in this case, America) to that of home (Singapore); Yong continually returns to home as a reference point for his writing, and this is also evident in his later contributions to the anthology Lost Bodies. His frequent concern with home, identity, and loneliness are illustrated through “Heroics of Loneliness”. In this poem, the persona is acquainted with a stranger in a foreign land, instigated by the stranger’s offer to introduce the persona to the city:

When the time came for parting,
we shook each other’s hand long and hard.
Not without a tinge of something.
And in what more appropriate setting
than the train station.
Of course we promised to keep in touch. Et cetera.
I never forgot his kindness.
It was only later that I realised
we never quite broached the subject of loneliness.

Another kind of intersection is perhaps explored here as well: that of prose and poetry. Interestingly, the poem seems to blur the boundary between prose and poetry, particularly through enjambment. For example, in the lines “when the time came for parting, / we shook each other’s hand long and hard,” both lines function as effectively as a sentence, with or without the line break. The reason why the lines can be read as a sentence or lines in the poem is because of the placement of punctuation. In the poem, most of the lines are end stopped, contributing to the blurred boundary between poetry and prose. 

Furthermore, the lines in the poem are unmetricated, seemingly more reminiscent of a transcribed conversation between two strangers than belonging to the realm of poetic artifice. The laconic quality of the line, “Of course we promised to keep in touch. Et cetera,” highlights how the persona does not actually believe that he would keep in touch with the stranger, nor does the persona believe that either party would be committed to doing so. There is a focus on the fleeting nature of human encounters, exemplified by the persona’s relationship with a stranger and his kindness. Just as human encounters are transitory, emotions are also implied to have the same characteristic in “Away from Home,” where the persona muses on homesickness:

Maybe homesickness does strike
without me even knowing—
like tiny pangs of hunger,
a longing ever growing.

But isn’t it better to ignore
or to try to find a cure
than to drown in desolation
and consciously endure?

So I’ll bask in this foreign sun
and let the love of strangers atone.
For now, wherever the water runs
is a home I’ll call my own.

The abcb rhyme scheme, characteristic of the ballad stanza, gives the poem a song-like quality. Because all three stanzas follow this rhyme scheme, it brings cadence to the persona’s eventual conclusion that he can live with his loneliness by making a home out of strangers’ affections. The form contributes to the persona’s take on homesickness by harking back to ballads of the weary traveller—the figure upon which he “[lets] the love of strangers atone”. Yong’s notion of home is also revisited, with the conclusion that the persona is content that “wherever the water runs / is a home [he’ll] call [his] own”. Home is not a fixed location, neither for the persona nor Yong, but is localised in specific happenings or emotions experienced by the persona.

In Frottage (2005) and Lost Bodies: poems between Portugal and home (2016), the idea of home and identity surfaces again. These collections are parallel to IsaacFrottage documents Yong’s experiences in Australia, while the latter explores his travels to Portugal. Both collections indicate that another aspect of home also lies in being physically displaced, which also contributes to Yong’s writing process. Lost Bodies, an anthology authored with Heng Siok Tian, Phan Ming Yen, and Yeow Kai Chai, provides a meditation of time and love with loss. The anthology originated from the idea of embarking on a journey in order to write poetry together. However, the group was faced with the absence of one person, which resulted in the anthology chronicling a “long-distance writing affair”. Yong’s piece, “Wish You Were Here” contemplates the absence of his friend on their passage in Portugal:

The truth is: every monument here
that we didn’t know better to stop for
adds up to the different ways we’re
missing you. Just now, we spared
another thought for you. Just now,
we walked past yet another igreja
without pausing to ogle its columns
or take a group shot—even though,
just now, the light was good.

The piece documents the process of the group’s self-imposed inhibition in their travel as a result of the addressee’s absence. In the first few lines of the quote, the presence of various monuments is juxtaposed against the absence of one friend, indicating that the monuments are less significant to them as a group of friends, compared to the point of view of other, more typical tourists. The physical distance between the persona and the addressee is also acutely expressed, while highlighting that these people, and perhaps even more so for Yong, are compelled by a need to be physically displaced from home in order to create new work. 

The central concerns of Yong’s works—loneliness, a sense of identity, and home—are woven into his most recent chapbook, Right of the Soil (2015), which tackles issues of belongingness and birthright. The chapbook attempts to weigh different responses to the question: What does it mean to be Singaporean? One answer arises is in “Northbound,” where the persona mulls over the act of leaving the country, to perhaps return with a fresh perspective:

Leaving home, even if departure is by
a side door that opens out to a bridge
crossing strait water into hinterland, is
a therapeutic act of rebooting the system

In this piece, the persona travels to another country—specifically, Malaysia—and reflects on his act of “leaving for the / sake of leaving and then returning this same / way with renewed leniency for the present”. Again, being away is important to understand what home means. Following Pico Iyer, there is, for the traveller at least, the sense that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same act. Given that more Singaporeans are developing a penchant for seeing the world through travel, it is useful to consider Yong’s body of work here as acts of seeing home through leaving it.

Works cited

Iyer, Pico. “Why We Travel.” Pico Iyer Journeys. Web. 18 Mar 2000.

Yong Shu Hoong. Isaac. Singapore: firstfruits publications, 2007.

—. dowhile. Singapore: firstfruits publications, 2002.

—. Frottage. Singapore: firstfruits publications, 2005.

—. Lost Bodies: poems between Portugal and home. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016.

—. Right of the Soil. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015.

Wong, Cyril. “Critical Introduction: Yong Shu Hoong.”, 4 Nov 2015.