By Yasmeen Banu
It was 4:30 in the afternoon and Toast Box was crowded, and really noisy. He was seated in the middle of the coffee shop, across a mother and her son and I greeted my ex-lecturer, excited to be seeing him again. He suggested we went to another coffee shop a floor above, since that wouldn’t be too noisy.
“How do you write with all that noise?” I asked. “It is exactly the noise that makes me focus better,” he said. He is Felix Cheong, a Singaporean author, and poet who just released his new book- Singapore Siu Dai: The SG Conversation in a Cup.
Singapore Siu Dai is a collection of satirical tales. It is filled with humour, tongue-in-cheek stories, and accounts that Singaporeans can definitely relate to. Spending most of his afternoons writing the book at 112 Katong’s Toast Box, Felix Cheong completed Singapore Siu Dai within three months.
“This book started as a series of Facebook updates, sometime last year. Remember the haze in June last year? There was often this disparity between what the PSI figure was and what you actually experience. So I was playing with this (disparity) and creating little stories around this disparity,” Cheong said.
The Our SG conversation last year also got Cheong thinking if he had to write an SG conversation as a writer, what would the approach he would have taken been. He wondered about the “form this conversation would take about Singaporean-ness”, since the SG conversation is essentially about projecting into the future and knowing the kind of Singapore we as a nation, would want.
“For me as a writer, I was fascinated with having a conversation about who we are as a people, where we have come from and why we are the way we are. For example, kiasu. Why are we like that? Or why we have this propensity to queue up for Hello Kitty toys,” Cheong said.
These thoughts became ideas and Cheong soon began writing these little snapshots of Singaporean moments and eventually had enough stories to approach his publisher.
The incidents and accounts in Singapore Siu Dai resonated well with Cheong, having finished it within three months. He laughed and said it was the shortest time it took for him to write a book, believing that this book just happened as compared to a novel he was due to write, but never could get past a few thousand words.
Singapore Siu Dai is Cheong’s ninth book. He has written four collections of poetry, two young adult fictions’, a non-fiction anthology of interviews and a short story fiction titled ‘Vanishing Point’, which was longlisted for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Award in 2013. In 2000, Cheong received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist of the Year Award for Literature, and four years later, he was nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize.
Cheong started as a producer for Mediacorp producing TV show ‘Gotcha’, and ‘Sunday Morning Singapore’ before leaving and joining CNBC as a TV studio director. After seven years with CNBC, Cheong left and did his Master’s degree in Creative Writing.
Ever since he got back, he has been freelancing and writing for The Edge, doing film reviews and a weekly column for Today.
When Cheong is not busy writing, he spends his days teaching as a lecturer in Murdoch University, University of Newcastle, Temasek Polytechnic and LASELLE College of the Arts.
Cheong offered insights into the mind of a writer, explaining stereotypical poets dating back to the old days. He once wrote a poem in the voice of a serial killer titled ‘Instructions from a serial killer’, and after extensive research realized he found the connection to serial killers- an experience that although produced a good poem, tapped into a place within himself he did not like at all.
I asked Cheong about any of his works that he had most trouble writing about. Without missing a beat he said his most traumatic poem was one written to his son titled ‘Daddy’s not home’. Then Cheong hesitated and said, “It was poem that almost led to me wanting to stop writing altogether.”
It was a poem for my son, trying to explain to him why I left the family. At that point in time, my ex-wife and I were discussing a divorce. I’m very close to my son…and I was trying to write a poem to explain to him the circumstances as to why I had to leave.
He recalled how he was writing the poem in the middle of a coffee shop and it became so traumatic that he was crying as he was penning it down. Right at that moment, Cheong decided that he had to give up poetry.
After a few days however, Cheong went back to the days where he wanted to become a writer, in Secondary Two. He realized that giving up wasn’t a decision he should take lightly.
If I was born to be a writer, I have to continue, regardless.
Cheong eventually finished the poem, and got himself a tattoo because he wanted a painful and physical reminder to keep writing. He wrote his first poem and short story on a typewriter, and that was what he got- a tattoo of a typewriter.
“This would be a symbol of who I am, an emblem, as well as a branding. Literally a branding,” Cheong smiled.
Singapore Siu Dai is out in major bookstores in Singapore.