Goh Poh Seng
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an excerpt from If We Dream Too Long
Goh Poh Seng was an award-winning author and poet, physician, playwright and entrepreneur. A literary pioneer of his time, he played a key role in championing arts and literature in Singapore post-independence. While studying medicine at the University College in Dublin, Ireland during the 1950s, he began writing poetry, after being influenced by the thriving literary scene there and the friendships he formed with prominent poets such as Patrick Kanavagh and Brendan Behan.
Upon his return to Singapore in 1961, Goh became committed to the development of arts and literature in post-independent Singapore. With the intention of giving both Singaporean and Malaysian writers a viable platform to publish their works, he founded the literary magazine, Tumasek, in 1964, and co-founded Centre 65 a year later to promote the arts. It was during this time that he started writing plays, with his first play, The Moon Is Less Bright (1964), being set in rural Singapore just before and during the Japanese Occupation. He went on to write two more plays, When Smiles Are Done (1965; later re-named Room With Paper Flowers) and Elder Brother (1966), with both pioneering the use of Singlish in drama. This lended a distinctive Singaporean voice to his works, in a time when theatre in Singapore was dominated by its Eurasian community.
Goh continued contributing his time and expertise to various arts and cultural organisations, chairing the National Theatre Trust and serving as vice-chairman of the Arts Council from 1967 to 1973. He was also integral in laying the groundwork for institutions such as the Singapore National Symphony, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore Dance Company.
Much like the driving force behind his founding of Tumasek, Goh was keen on publishing the works of both local and other Asian writers in order to bring a wider readership to them, and proceeded to set up his own publishing company, Island Press, with his wife Margaret.
In 1972, Goh published his debut novel, If We Dream Too Long and is considered by many as the first English-language Singaporean novel. Following the journey of a young Chinese man’s search for self-realisation in an increasingly urban and materialistic post-independent Singapore, the book’s narrative resonated with many Singaporeans at the time and was the first to use local colloquial English in its dialogue. The novel was awarded the NBCDS Fiction award in 1976 and has since been used as literature text by the University of Malaysia, the National University of Singapore and the University of Philippines. Following the success of his first novel, Goh authored three more novels — The Immolation (1977), A Dance of Moths (1995; which won the NBDCS Fiction Award in 1996) and Dance With With Clouds (2001).
Having only previously published his poems in his university magazine, Goh would go on to author five volumes of poetry: Eyewitness (1976), Lines from Batu Ferringhi (1978), Bird with One Wing (1982), The Girl from Ermita & Selected Poems, 1961-1998 (1998) and As Though the Gods Love Us (2000).
In 1982, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Literature for his contributions to the literary arts. The 80’s also saw Goh spearheading movements to culturally preserve and re-envision the Singapore River and Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market.
In addition to the literary arts, Goh had been a great promoter of music, and set up Rainbow Lounge, Singapore’s first theatre disco lounge, and Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, providing a place for live poetry readings and jazz. He was also pertinent in organising Singapore’s first, and only, David Bowie concert at the National Stadium.
Following the closure of Rainbow Lounge in 1986, Goh emigrated to Canada with his family and set up a medical practice there. He divided his time between writing and practicing medicine, before a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 1995 forced him to retire from medicine altogether. Goh focused his energy solely on writing after that, and did not return to Singapore until 2007, when he was invited by the National Arts Council to be the keynote speaker at the Singapore Writers Festival that year. He was working on chronicling his family’s emigration from China to Malaysia, when he passed away on January 10, 2010, from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Throughout his life, Goh has made appearances at literary festivals around the world, reading his works in places such as India, the Philippines, Korea, the United States, Mexico and Russia. His literary works have also been translated into various languages, including Russian, Tagalog, Japanese, Macedonian and French.
Goh’s legacy continues to live on in Singapore’s literary scene. His last completed work, detailing his formative years as a student and aspiring poet in Ireland, was posthumously published by the National University of Singapore press in 2015 under the title, Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernised Oriental Gentleman.
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