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2020-12-31

A flickering flame of the literary jungles — Mahua Writer-Professor Ng Kim Chew

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Sino-Malaysian writer and literary critic Ng Kim Chew was born in Johor, West Malaysia and now lives in Taiwan, where he is a professor of Sinophone literature at National Chi Nan University.

Mahua, or the Sinophone literature of Malaysia, has been the focal point of studies from establishments such as Guangzhou’s Jinan University since the 1990s to international academia such as American sinologists after 2005. In fact, their research often congregate on the literary output coming from a small Mahua community in Taiwan, from which novels are most popular but other creative forms and critiques flourish as well, and Ng is known for them all. 

His published essays include those that address the legacy of Chinese leftist influences embedded within the Mahua literature written by Chinese Malaysians, theorize about the construct of Malaysian Sinophone literature, and profile how Malaysian literature as a whole occupy an unique sphere within the wider Mandarin-language literary repository.

Ng’s creative works include novels and anthologies such as “Memorandums of the South Seas People’s Republic (南洋人民共和國備忘錄),” “From Island to Island: Carved Spines (刻背),” "As if Seeing Fuyu (猶見扶餘),” “Fish (),” and “Rain/Yu ().”

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Ng is uniquely well-versed in both literary critique and creation. Uprooting in 1986 from his family home among the rubber estates of Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia, he has remained largely in Taiwan since his university years. Delving into memories of the cackling stove fire of his rainforest childhood to escape the throbbing pain of separation and homesickness, Ng began to write.

He changed his major from agriculture to Sinophone literature during his first year at National Taiwan University, identifying naturally with the last-row occupants of each classroom — overseas Chinese compatriots from places like Hong Kong and South Korea. He even recalls escaping the monotonous “pressure cooker” environment of the university by the way of jumping through classroom windows on more than one occasion; a small gesture of defiance in the face of a conservative curriculum that emphasized only ancient texts and Chinese classics.

Ng decided to reside in Taiwan upon graduating from NTU, completing his master’s degree at Tamkang University in Danshui and receiving a doctoral degree in Chinese literature from National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu. In revisiting his own life and personal development, the writer began to realize that the literature of Malaysia, so long characterized by “Malaysian affairs shrouded by banana leaves and coconut trees swaying in the rain” and the delightful, interchanging use of the official Malay language and a plethora of indigenous languages and dialects, was barren and weak when it came to Sino-Malaysian output. 

Ng began targeting the root cause of this drainage, namely the Chinese leftist origins of Malaysia’s Sinophone literature and the inheritance of their ideological framework. The rippling waves of public dialogue, containing both the appreciative and the indignant in response to his barrage of literary critiques, became known as the “plantation-burning incident of Sino-Malaysian literature (燒芭事件)” after the common slash-and-burn cultivation method for clearing forest land to make way for banana farms.

Throughout this incident, Ng was derided as “suckling on Taiwanese teats” and “pandering to US imperial ambitions.” But his “Taiwanese voice” provided stark contrast to the “Communist accent” of his leftist attackers, garnering support for proclaiming the embarrassing lack of professional standards and the non-existence of a body of Sino-Malaysian works that can be considered “canon.” Better to burn it all to the ground and start anew, Ng argued.

Life experience and memories form the well that Ng drinks from to savor the homesick-tinged emotions that drive the interactions between families and friends leading separate lives in Taiwan and Malaysia. A sip awakens his recollections of the invisible racism here that divided university professors, local students, and overseas Chinese compatriots, evident only by examining the reluctance of the first two groups to interact with the latter. This Taiwanese sense of presumed superiority over anyone from Southeast Asia remains pervasive in society today, he adds.

By weaving strands of Nanyang, or Southeast Asian, history into the fabric of his writings, Ng aims to “further stimulate, mobilize global literary resources for the purpose of helping Mahua authors find their rightful places on the battleground of contemporary Sinophone literature.”

For more than two decades, the NCNU professor has worked towards fulfilling this set of aspirations, seeking to expand the horizons of Malaysia-born Sinophone writers through a steady release of novels, critiques, anthologies, and essays, and garnering several literary awards in the process. Nonetheless, in a reflection of Taiwan’s disdain for Mahua and other Southeast Asian literature, commercial sales never exceed a couple hundred copies per year here.

Malaysia’s Sinophone literature has long been slighted by Mandarin-reading communities and overseas diasporas, which was why it came as a surprise when his 2018 novella “Rain” sold over 20,000 copies within four months of debuting in China, despite encountering two supply disruptions within that frame of time. 

Ng, who is now a Taiwanese national, has stood by NCNU since 1996. As a “living neon sign” for the university’s Department of Chinese Language and Literature, even Dr. Hugh Pei-Hsiu Chen (陳佩修), dean of the NCNU College of Humanities, admits that “the person ‘Ng Kim Chew’ is likely to be more recognizable than the actual name of the school.”

NCNU may be based in the proverbial heart of Taiwan, nestled within the mountains of the central Taiwanese township Puli, but it remains distant from mainstream academic bustle. But to many, the easygoing, uncomplicated, and rustic tempo of living at the unassuming countryside is more suited to academic pursuits than any other metropolitan setting.

Regarding his decision to settle down in Puli for teaching and living purposes, Ng comments with a laugh that some may find him unambitious, but he values the importance of “personal and job security, access to medical resources, and the freedom to do what he likes.” Free and away from materialistic and social temptations, the professor chooses to focus on research and writing, indulging his shopping whims through the internet when physical bookstores remain scarce in Nantou County for now.

His choice to not return home was not an easy nor hasty one. The practical considerations included how academic credentials issued by Taiwanese universities were not widely accepted by Malaysian authorities at the time, resulting in significant financial challenges and employment hurdles for those who did return after completing their overseas studies in Taiwan. Such conditions made it impossible for writers to pursue their craft.

Having made his decision, Ng then spent the next decades in Taiwan, writing in his own “ethnic language,” Mandarin. He is confounded, however, by the sheer frequency of being asked why he hasn’t written more about his experiences here. The promise of freedom, openness, and diversity long championed by Taiwanese society proved to be the draw — and also the source of disillusion — for Ng and many other compatriots from Malaysia. He describes Taiwan as an aimless vessel that has lost its direction in recent years and is seeking new coordinates in his 2019 anthology “Slow Boat to China (民國的慢船).”

He notes that Taiwan’s early achievements through the establishment of traditional Mandarin schools across Southeast Asia have now been eclipsed by the empiric rise of China and its lavish deployment of scholarships to Southeast Asian compatriots.

The growing disparity between the two countries separated by the Taiwan Strait, however, is evident just by the difference in student aptitude these days. Even the Chinese students that come to study at NCNU after graduating from second- or third-tiered academic institutions across the strait still out-perform those who have studied their entire lives here, says Ng.

“Once, the more advanced students would initiate discussions with professors to map out their thesis points,” he says. “But more students these days lack individual thoughts and oftentimes their instructors are the ones having to provide options, even summaries and booklists; graduate institutions are essentially functioning as undergraduate programs.”

He sees a similar institutional rot corroding the integrity of Taiwan’s literature. For example, he is often greeted by “politically correct” folks who chair the panels that review applicants for benchmark events such as the National Award for Arts or even the government’s subsidy program for novels and other long-form works.

Alluding to the party color of the current administration, Ng argues that these “grassy green” judges who self-censor or actively pander to political agendas only keep up the pretext of procedural fairness, and that literary awards are now rampant with plagiarized or run-of-the-mill prose submissions.

This growing lack of awareness of the greater world beyond Taiwan, both in public discourse and the Taiwanese consciousness, does not bode well for the future development of Taiwan literature. So Ng pushes his students out of their comfort zones and encourages them to travel and sightsee for a glimpse of the many different ways of living possible.

For example, Taiwan’s academic freedom and extensive literary canon attract those who value such attributes. Here, researchers have freedom to choose and make mistakes, unlike those working on another side of the Taiwan Strait, where politics govern all levels of activity and dialogue.

While the professor laments how many published writers cease their creative journeys upon reaching a certain stage in life, Ng himself has been facing new challenges after developing Myasthenia gravis (MG), an incurable neuromuscular disorder that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. With physical energy levels affected, he can no longer reliably measure how much longer he will be able to concurrently teach, research, and create. His prolificacy over the past years belies, driven by even, this medical condition.

Once an “enfant terrible” in the eyes of David Der-wei Wang (王德威), an academician with Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, the flame that Ng tends for writing and penning criticism has not dimmed with age. The sharpness of his strokes, technical finesse, and the completeness of his original theories advance with each delineation of the oddities that characterize — or defy — the literary societies and public figures of Taiwan and Malaysia.

He has, however, desisted since from making any negative comments about works by his personal literary friends, after someone expressed displeasure over a few choice words in a fresh critique piece of his. Why make a public statement at all, he reasons, if I cannot even say something nice?

For those who have only met Ng through text, many may fancifully imagine him with stubby horns or long fangs. One of his many defendants is Qi Li-yan (亓立妍), a Chinese literature major in her third year, who has been steadily pursuing courses developed by Ng on modern novels and creative writing, contemporary prose and case studies, and literary theories and the art of critique.

Described by fellow students as echoing the candor of her professor, Qi states that “it is worth investing time to learn from him, Professor Ng is very logical in his feedback, takes his teaching job seriously, and always answers our questions thoughtfully.”

“He preaches the importance of honesty and veracity, and never breaches these guidelines to appease students. Someone enrolled in a required course could still receive a ‘nonsense’ comment in a formal test,” she says with glee. “But this, to me, shows that the professor cares about foundational values and theoretical soundness, to always be able to back one’s statement with facts.”

In his day-to-day life, the Sinophone writer is preoccupied with gardening and growing his own fruits and produce; he is also accompanied by several cats with distinctive personalities. As he recounts feline tales and green thumbs, Ng lights up with slight shyness and a smile, settling in the “approachable” mode identified by discipline Zixia (子夏) in the “Analects of Confucius (論語)”: "An enlightened man undergoes three changes. Seen from afar as stern, he is mild when approached, yet decisive in speech (君子有三變:望之儼然,即之也溫,聽其言也厲).”

In his ascending quality and creative output, one can sense a clearly defined personality that is not nourished by materialistic desires, but by a restless pacing along the borders of society. The scorching anxiety of rubber estate fires are amiss from the Taiwanese township of Puli, as too the heat of ambition that emanates from metropolises. As such, the sanctity of nature and clarity of distance afford Ng a unique vantage upon which to observe what unfurls below. A Mahua master of the literary arts, based at NCNU, bestowing additional depth to Nantou’s title as a veritable cradle of Taiwan’s academia.

English text by Min Chao

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