The Overlooked Singapore: An Interview with Dave Chua

Thursday, February 2, 2012

By Vicente Garcia Groyon

Singaporean writer Dave Chua won a Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award in 1996 for his novel Gone Case, which he recently adapted into a two-volume graphic novel in collaboration with artist and writer Koh Hong Teng. The second volume was released in October 2011. Mr. Chua holds a degree in Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley, but has since shifted from IT work to full-time writing and editing.

Gone Case is a quiet, powerful bildungsroman set in an unnamed government housing estate. It offers a glimpse into the life of such communities, filtered through the perspective of its young protagonist. Upon reading the novel, I decided to contact Mr. Chua online to learn more about his book and his writing practice.

Vicente Garcia Groyon (VGG): In what ways is "Gone Case" autobiographical (in the sense that all art is, to some extent)?

Dave Chua (DC): Well it's definitely a work of fiction. Some incidents are extensions of my own experiences of course, such as the tension between religions, familial tensions and the disruption caused by a death in the family. My own childhood experiences also played a part. I'm actually Malaysian, and lived in Johor Bahru, the nearest town next to Singapore, before coming here at the age of 10, so in a way I've observed various aspects of Singapore life while still being removed from them.

VGG:  How crucial do you think this distance or outsider status is in the writing of fiction about a place?

DC: I think it just gives a certain perspective, especially when I compare Singapore to my own country, Malaysia.

VGG: Having been a Singapore resident for three decades, do you still think of yourself as an outsider?

DC: I don't think of myself as an outsider of Singapore; I'm quite familiar with it, but I think so much about what makes this country amazing, or special, is often overlooked.

VGG: In your novel, there seems to be a kind of love for the government housing estate setting, along with a recognition and acceptance of its grimmer aspects. What are your own feelings about the HDB (Housing Development Board) "Heartlands" and life in these housing projects?

DC: Yes, “Heartland” is a term I find hard to grapple with. If you speak with many Singaporeans there's an overwhelming negativity about living in a housing estate, but I think there is a charm and wonder about it. Sure, not everything is perfect. There's never a feeling of strong community, but one can't reside in such a large community without being taken in by the lives of the residents—elderly residents walking their grandchildren, using the new-fangled exercise machines; skateboarders practicing at void decks, hiking enthusiasts with backpacks climbing stairs. There is a charm that's often overlooked in Singapore life. Just because the blocks are uniform doesn't meant that everyone behaves the same way.

VGG: Do you feel that "Gone Case" reflects life in the Heartlands accurately?

DC: I think it reflected life in a housing estate plausibly. It wasn't my goal to reflect it accurately but to at least sort of tell a story set in an estate, surrounding a family of Singaporeans and the turmoil that they have to go through.

VGG: What about the broader picture of Singaporean life?

DC: It might, but that wasn't what I was trying to achieve. I don't ever think it's possible to write the Great Singapore Novel, and one should not even bother to try. Even for a country as small as Singapore, there's an infinite amount of possibilities and stories within this space.

VGG: How do you think your fiction fits into Singapore literature? Do you think of yourself as belonging to a certain tradition of writing, or as starting one?

DC: I think it fits into stories set in a housing estate in Singapore. I don't think I belong to any tradition, mainly because of my training. I'm not sure how I would classify it. I don't think I'm starting one either.

VGG:  You seem to position yourself as an outsider to the literary scene and tradition of Singapore as well.

DC: That's because I'm not sure if there's such a thing as an insider to the literary scene. I think the local scene is fragmented, which is a good thing, and still finding itself.

VGG: In Gone Case, the character Liang is such a sympathetic, tragic figure, more so because there seems to be no place for someone of his type, with his problems, within the world of the novel. As author, why did you choose to have him disappear from the hero's life the way he did?

DC: I think in Singapore, friendships and relationships are shuffled away. From personal experience, once one leaves a school or workplace, there's little reason to keep in touch. I also think it was a way to write about my own experiences and the streaming process. People went their separate ways after the various exams that partition a young Singaporean's life, particularly in the pre-Facebook days.

VGG: What do you mean by “the streaming process”?

DC: When you reach certain grades such as Primary 4 and 6, you have to taken an exam that will decide what your next educational options are. It's a very stressful time for everyone. I know it was for me.

VGG: As a foreigner, I find it very difficult to relate to your description of how friendships dissolve after school is done. Is it because of the extreme focus on doing well at school?

DC: I think the life of a student here is quite regimented, with tuition and schoolwork often the focus. I've spoken to students whose schedules are swamped by tuition, and they're not even bad students.

VGG: Do family ties compensate for the impermanence of friendships?

DC: I think this varies, but I wouldn't make a general call on this issue. I think every family has a degree of closeness, but it's a very competitive society. I think families here don't do that much together in this day and age.

VGG: Please tell us a bit of how Gone Case came to be written.

DC: I won the Golden Point short story writing contest in 1995, and that inspired me to tackle a short novel. In between jobs, I took the time to write it, putting down about a thousand words a day. I had a vague idea about the concept—a coming of age novel set in a housing estate. For inspiration I took walks around the neighborhood, gathering ideas. It took me about three months to write and edit it, and I submitted it to the Singapore Literature Prize, which at that time looked for unpublished works. It won a commendation award.

VGG: I think aspiring writers would be interested in knowing how you managed to get a thousand words down in a day, and finish in three months. What’s your method? Is this related to the training you mentioned?

DC: I guess it's more my background. I'm very results focused, and I know one has to get those words out. Gone Case is quite a short work of around 30,000 words, so I just went with it and knew I had to put aside this amount at the end of each day. The Singapore Literature Prize, which accepted new manuscripts, had a deadline which was very helpful in pushing me. I'm actually terribly undisciplined and can go let time slip away. These days you have NaNoWriMo, which asks its participants to write a 50,000 novel in a month, and hats off to all who manage who accomplish it. I know my weekends are sacred and if I write everyday I'm likely to burn out.

VGG: What made you decide to adapt it into graphic novel form?

DC: It wasn't my decision. I was approached by artist Koh Hong Teng at an art exhibition where I was the emcee. He found out that I had written a novel set in a Singapore housing estate, and after reading it, wanted to adapt it. I was surprised at first; an adaptation was definitely going to take quite a substantial amount of time away from his work, but he pressed on, and the result is a wonderful adaptation of the book.

VGG: Given your work in film, does this signal a preference for more visual storytelling?

DC: I enjoy the comics and film media, but have never really thought too much about film adaptations or more comic book works. I certainly don't have a preference; I enjoy prose writing, and it allows me to explore situations and worlds where I do not need to worry about budgets or the constraints of what's allowed.

VGG: I understand that you were hands-on in the process of adapting the novel into a comic. How much work did you do for the project?

DC: I always took the angle that this was an adaptation, and that while I gave feedback on ideas, situations, characters, and such, he would be the main person in charge of the project. It's kind of akin to having a director adapting your work. I think his artwork is amazing and gives a fresh perspective on the work.

VGG: What are your thoughts on collaborative work?

DC: I think collaborations are always tricky. I've written scripts for television that have been massacred, particularly due to the budget and time constraints that we have here. I believe one needs to occasionally compromise when it comes to certain ideas and stories, but that is part of the process, and it's exciting when it goes into a new direction where you both push yourselves to create something utterly new.

VGG: What personal writing projects are you working on? Can we expect another novel, or fiction collection, in the near future?

DC: I have a collection of short stories coming out soon entitled The Beating and Other Stories, and am currently working on a novel.

Bricks in the WallStorytelling as Warning

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Vicente Garcia Groyon has published a novel, The Sky over Dimas (De La Salle University Press, 2003), and a collection of short stories, On Cursed Ground and Other Stories (University of the Philippines Press, 2004), as well as edited anthologies of Philippine short