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Arthur Yap

i cannot chew the month to days
masticate the days to hours
and line the hours each to each
saying, out of context, i die.
where once a single day
was a day and a night
it is now the amoeba of day
of night,
–Arthur Yap, expansion

Friday night at the Arts House: a celebration of Arthur Yap’s legacy-gift to the National Cancer Centre (NCC) research fund.

Yes, Dr Arthur Yap died two years ago of laryngeal cancer. Didn’t realise how time had passed till I talked to his sister Jenny who I haven’t seen since the wake & she said “It’s been two years–”

But it’s not just the days & nights of that time that’s difficult to grasp as having passed into an amorphous mass–it was trying to understand how it could be that this man could have evolved so drastically given my very limited POV!

Once I regarded him as no more than a lecturer/tutor. True, he was one of the most good looking guys in the department (in my opinion… & given how seldom I’m impressed by how men look, that’s something)

He was dutiful & precise, had great respect for the English language. He required of us similar respect & application. But gradually you recognised (over time–) he was also intelligent (not saying other staff weren’t!), had a droll, deadpan sense of humour & most of all he was a gentle and kind man.
Okay, given my state of mind/behaviour in those years, I should classify anyone who didn’t give up on me as ‘kind’–they were, believe me, & patient! But still–

Dr Yap made you feel he respected you–you the unformed, erratic, hormonally crazy student–in a way that led you to respect yourself–for what you were as well as for what you could become.

Then I discovered, probably later than most of my coursemates (hey, I grew up in the Science stream, how would I know anything about poetry??) that Arthur Yap was a poet. In fact, The poet who wrote ‘2 Mothers in an HDB Playground‘–this was about 2 years after his book ‘Down The Line’ in which it appears came out (yes, I was slow).
And yes, I only got a copy because he was a tutor.
But then it suddenly blew my mind/eyes/ears open to what poetry could/should be–larger/smaller/greater/more immediate, relevant, striking yet homely, familiar, singlish & much more recognisable as connection/communication than the dutifully memorized ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ & ‘Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit–‘

ah beng is so smart,
already he can watch tv and know the whole story
your kim cheong is also quite smart,
what boy is he in the exam?
this playground is not too bad, but I’m always
so worried, car here and car there.

from 2 Mothers in an HDB playground, Arthur Yap

I was also attempting poetry at that time (aside: we all were–easier to finish than novels, cheaper to produce than plays & less need for structure than stories… if people didn’t like them we could look soulful & say they didn’t ‘get it’)
Dr Yap’s poems came as ‘permission’ to write in the language we talked/thought/listened in.

But even then he was still a lecturer-who-wrote to me.

It was only after I left NUS, matured (somewhat) in life & reading/writing, I came to see Arthur Yap as a Poet-who-happened-to-lecture. I mean this the guy who received the Cultural Medallion for Literature.
And yes, kicked myself over not having appreciated the fact when I was still on campus.

So much was missed then–not just Dr Yap but Lee Tzu Peng, Leong Liew Geok… & of course Kirpal Singh & Prof Edwin Thumboo–who I was even more in awe/cautious of because he’d been a classmate of my mothers… because I was living in a self-centred haze/daze of imagined lurve fantasies/imagined depressions…

Sorry, got distracted.
It was only later I came to see all these people as poets & writers who happened to teach/lecture.

And even later I realised Arthur Yap was a painter as well as poet. By then he was already ill (pre-remission at the time).

On Friday night yet another side surfaced when we learned he had left not only the paintings (6 on display at the Blue Room) but also his apartment to be divided between NCC and his church. NCC will get about 650K towards four main areas of research. I know it doesn’t sound like much–

(aside: in the court case I’ve been sitting in on, 650K mysteriously disappeared from a bank account & remains unaccounted for so far… just one of the many sums that may have been taken)

–but it’s a lot when you consider where it came from & a lot more if you see it in light of how the man lived–as a quiet but very strong example.

(plug: If you’d like to follow up on this, cheques can be made to ‘NCC Research Fund’ or email NCCFoundation@nccs.com.sg)

The evening was wonderful in a reunion way too.

High points:
Jenny Yap sharing that dear Dr Yap is in a good place now. People who don’t hold with dreams won’t believe this, but I believe God finds ways to communicate what we need to know. 3 times she dreamed of him–after praying for some/any confirmation he is all right. I won’t go into details here but the dreams communicated 1) he is happy 2) he is with fellow artists 3) he is able to talk!!!
I don’t want to say more here (it’s up to her to) but I am sure others will be as happy to know of this as I was.
& Jenny told me where she got her snazzy almost punk earring–

Soo Khee Chee talked about the different areas of head & neck cancer they’ll be focusing on next. Later he said he’d once been a neighbour of mine. Thinking I’d pegged down who he was, asked “You married Jonathan Foo’s sister?” & he said “Actually I married Jonathan’s aunt…”
Bit awkward but yes–a high point.

Meeting all my favourite people/writers in the flesh–Lee Tzu Peng, Leong Liew Geok (“My house still leaks!” she said “It will leak forever!” I once threatened to turn her d-i-y house into a play), Siok Tien (in a glamorous black dress), Felix (who had his typewriter tattoo covered up), Shu Hoong (who’s letting me off MAP next year–I’m going to follow up on my current students instead), Qian Xi (who’s going to be reading at Contradiction 7 Aug, 7:30 pm at 72-13–come watch!), Kenny (who I mistook for a student–he was looking like a teenager!), KK Seet (back from Switzerland with a tan & jet lag but who still managed to make it).

Playing writing games–Wai Han (sp?) was responsible for this. She had this Chinese poetry writing game, based on people’s names. With my lamentable Chinese abilities I couldn’t play but she used my pen so I’m claiming some credit! Tried to do the same with haiku & English syllables but it didn’t work so well…

The food was good too–Viet Lang, we sat in arranged tables but helped ourselves to the buffet. Not just delicious, it was definitely heavy on the health/veggies side & I could eat almost everything!! Okay, let me amend that to the food was great!

But still, all these good feelings & interactions, all the happy people talk, laughter & nostalgia will fade & merge. Not necessarily a bad thing but it will happen. We’ll all be dropping off one by one–by dying & by forgetting & disconnecting.
Like the growing & changing house/people/cities Dr Yap writes of, we have to learn to lean on each other & to recognise our integration in the larger whole.

the line of sponge houses
soaks in the sky
as the sponge sky
seeps into the houses.
where once houses hung from sky
they now are clutches.
so one urban expansion
has to lean on another
or they die
while the tree of night grows and grows
–Arthur Yap, expansion


One Response

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and learned about a new poet. thank you.

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