Tag Archives: Singapore

Basics about Toji Cultural Centre

When I was preparing for my time here one big difficulty was finding anything (in English) about what life at this residency would be like.

I had read the official notes of course and knew this place is run by the Toji Cultural Foundation and is set in the rural mountains near Wonju.

I also learned about Pak Kyong Ni (1926-2008) who has a status in Korean literature that has no equivalent in Singapore–but I’ll write more about her, about Korean literature and about what it’s like to be a Korean writer today… later.

Today this is about the very, very basics and I’m writing with future Singapore or at least English speaking residents in mind.

The internet connection is very good if you’re in the right place. This is the block where I’m staying and the connection is simply great. Worth putting up with occasional leaky toilets for:

ImageThis used to be known as the ‘white building’ where most foreign residents are housed and though it was painted orange while I was here, they still refer to it as the white building.

I really love it here, but it’s an old building so there are leaks and cracks and occasionally the floor boards warp and twist but the Uncles who fix everything from the gardens to the lights here come with mallets and whack them back in place.

This is my room on the ground floor of the white/orange house:

ImageIn true Singapore style I’ve got a washing line and washing stand outside. There is a washing machine in the main building but no dryer and a line is a really good idea because we wash our bedding ourselves too. Or could… one of the other residents said he’d been here over two months and it hadn’t occurred to him to wash his sheets so I guess it’s optional. But so far a laundry round once a week is keeping me healthy.

Also fantastic is the food here, which is usually rice and an array of vegetables, either picked fresh or taken out of the kimchi containers. We get our own breakfasts. The kitchen door is unlocked at 6:30 am and white bread and eggs are available in the fridge next to the cast iron griddle which I really love using. I don’t like the white bread but have been experimenting with pancakes and frozen waffles and so far it’s been good. Lunch and dinner are communal meals at 12noon and 6pm. There’s a white board in the dining room and if you’re not eating in you sign out on the board next to your name and room number. I love the food here which is largely vegetarian. Occasionally there’s fried fish or chicken or (today) what looked like spam cubes but there’s always plenty of other stuff I and another vegan writer can eat.


This is our future meals growing and fermenting–the plot is next to our block.

My daily routine here is wonderfully basic: Because of the days getting longer it’s easy to wake up around 6 am. I write my morning pages on 750 words. Breakfast around 7am followed by a short walk, 9 am to 12 noon writing ‘Angels of Life’, Lunchtime at 12noon followed by email and facebook catch-ups, then reading for 2 hours (At the moment I’m reading ‘The Taj Conspiracy’ by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar and Jung’s ‘Synchronicity’) then editing ‘The Blackmore Girls’ from 4pm to 6pm and Dinner. After dinner there’s time for a slightly longer walk and then shower and web surfing till around 10pm when I’m falling asleep.

Of course this is just a rough guide. There are days when I just want to go out and explore a new trail and then I do because the changes here are so dramatic. When I got here everything was still brown and then suddenly within a week it was all green. What was just a clump of green stalks with one brave purple flower turned overnight into a thick mass of irises–which are now all gone. Likewise the crowds of sunflowers bursting out and tons more flowers I don’t know the names of. Beware though–what looks from a distance like a field carpeted with pretty white blossoms turns up close to be knee deep in dry straw and last season plants and the flowers are actually growing up through that and bloom at waist and chest height (on me at least) another wonderful experience in spite of the thorns and snakes!

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Posted by on June 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Day 54: Taking Time Off for SWF!!!

I thought today would be a good writing day after the incredibly exciting weekend at SWF events… but it was hard getting anything on paper. No, I mean it was hard even sitting down at the computer when I’m still buzzing and there are more talks coming up and so many things I want to see!

So–I’ve got Orchid Chan up to 16, 355 words and I’m going to take some time off from the history mystery. I’ll catch up over November, so far there’s nothing scheduled then except one book launch, discussion at Books Actually with Tarn How and Tze Chien, feedback session for the Golden Point short story shortlist and writing a skit for the FCC Christmas show.

To survive, I’m cutting down on writing time for now. I can catch up with everything in November and at the very worst, over December (which means no yoga retreat 😦 but is much better than cracking now!)

SWF Highlights for me so far, just noting down so I don’t forget:

1. Sir Andrew Motion on writing poetry, on responsibility as a writer, as writing as a person. Fifteen minutes into the conversation he said, “so what is it really like for gay and lesbian people in Singapore?” (informal conversation after the opening ceremony. If I didn’t worship him before I would now), the way he read Serenade at the ‘In Conversation’ with Professor Thumboo, I thought I knew the piece but in his voice it was at once much simpler and more poignant, and I learned there are recordings of him reading his work online. I want to go look them up instead of writing!!!!!

Trivia: his wife’s passport had only 4 months left so she couldn’t come with him, he writes in the morning and is usually done by 9am,

2. Yang Lian. He is even more calmly, deliberately, beautifully sensuous, intelligent and provocative in person than on the page. It struck me ‘this is a Writer’ not just someone who writes. What he said about all the writer’s responsibilities seemed to say we can have only individual responsibility because there are different views about everything. But it is also a writer’s duty almost to be aware of and alert to all that is happening in the world around him as well as in history. And that tied in to what the China historian said about the blank years during the Cultural Revolution and goes back to ‘those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

Much much much more of course. All still buzzing in my head. I want to write so many different things and so much more of each of the many different things.

Oh 3) Meeting all the people I haven’t run into for so long until now. The old friends, the old teachers, the new teachers, new friends, before the opening ceremony I was already awed and honoured to be sitting with Lee Tzu Pheng when OMG Steven Levitt came and joined us *still in shock*

It was a ‘gods walk among us’ moment. I feel like I’ve suddenly been shocked back to life.

Now I want to read so many things–enormous gaps in my reading I’m only aware of now. But when? When? Even with an hour of reading a day I’m barely scratching the surface. I think I have to up reading time to 2 hours a day for a start and see how that goes.

I’ve been thinking about the stuff that came out in the panels I attended, am wondering about the ones I couldn’t make it to. There were so very many exciting things all on at the same time.

It’s going to be more of the same over Deepavali on Wednesday when my panel is. I’ve chatted with Chris Mooney-Singh but I’m not telling (here) what we’re going to be talking about 🙂 Then on Thursday and Friday I’ve signed up to attend the Publishing Fair, two full days. Then on Saturday and Sunday more SWF events, it’s wonderful! 🙂 🙂 🙂

Though also tearing me in different directions, why didn’t I go on writing poetry? Why isn’t Yang Lian a Nobel Laureate? Can I write honestly and truly and make valid points in the forms I’ve chosen?

In the short story forum they (F Sionil Jose, Dave Chua, Jeffery Lim, chaired by Koh Tai Ann) talked about writing short stories like solving math equations (or something like that) and I realised with a shock that that is what writing murder mysteries is for me. Like a math puzzle or a mandala I have the fixed form to anchor me and within that limiting structure I can be more free (as a limited consciousness) than if offered complete freedom!

But I think that of all the events I attended what moved me most was the Migrant Voices event. Simple, straightforward, heartfelt pieces were read first in the original languages I am too limited to understand then in English. Of all of them I liked this one best. I took a copy with me and I hope the writer forgives me for including it without his permission.


Singapore’s Cat by Yin Jian Jun

I came to Singapore to work for a year and a half, got injured and lived at Geylang. One night I woke up to pee. Because the room was especially hot, I walked to the veranda to cool off and saw a few cats playing. I also saw a rat not very far from where the cats were, looking very calm. It ran over here for a while and it ran over there. The few cats looked at the rat, indifferent, sedentary. The cats must have eaten; they were not hungry. They can only be Singapore’s cats,

I don’t know how the intention comes across in the original Mandarin but in English there is something very chilling about the complacent well fed vermin catchers being noticed only by foreign eyes. And knowing those cats themselves are in danger of being culled on orders by others even more well fed and complacent.




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Day 43: Focus On The Writing

Very glad I’m excited about the writing I’m doing now… have decided what’s over is over or rather what’s been published is out of my hands. It’s all a learning process right? At least the writing part is still fun and I can’t think of anything else I could love to do as much.

Though I must say the book looks good!

Especially in the hands of the doyen of Local Theatre…

Singapore's most glamorous academic, Dr KK Seet


Though it seems to have shocked Step-Brother and friends…


Casey Lim and Chien-Seen Chiu


Nothing throws my sweet Robin--sorry, the respected Dr Robin Loon--off balance!


Getting over a bit of a health blip but all’s stabilising now. Have sketched in the ending for the Orchid Chan novella and during practice this morning was thinking of all kinds of little things to add in but will wait and see. It’s supposed to be a Short novella and I’m already at 12,500 words without developing my motives and red herrings!

I should be able to take The Lizard’s Tail to 30,000 words by this weekend. Just received some information about the French nuns who were working in Singapore and Malaya at the time–wonderfully relevant. Actually Singapore during the period between the wars was a fascinating place. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not writing a history though now I’m thinking of classifying the ACF book as a mystery-documentary!


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Day 27: Shanghai International Literary Festival 2012!

Thrill of my life–I’ve been invited to the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2012!!!

It’s not till March next year but I’m already excited 🙂 My first literary festival outside of Singapore! Amy Tan is going to be there and A.B. Yehoshua and Alan Hollinghurst and Nury Vittachy…

My late mother was Shanghainese and I’ve never been to Shanghai before so that adds to the excitement and anticipation. If you believed her, not only were Shànghǎi rén the most cultured, Shanghai women were the most beautiful… in China you ask? In the world, I suspect she thought! Of course, as I mentioned she was Shanghainese herself so there may be some bias there! 🙂

So now I’m trying to figure out how to make travel arrangements, will see if I can get help with the airfare–but I’m going to say ‘YES PLEASE’ to them first and I’ll get there one way or another!!

And I’m going to get my first look at 8 Plays tomorrow. Ruth at Epigram says the books have come in and I can go get them to take a look (thank you Ruth!!)

It was very hard to settle down to do any writing with all the excitement so I ended up doing a lot of laundry, cleaning dogs’ teeth, walking dogs a bit more than usual… and then finally when I was too tired to fidget I sat down and got my words for the day in…

Not the greatest writing in the world but I don’t want to break my rhythm/ routine just because I’m bouncing off the walls being happy! There will be time to smooth things out during the rewrites. For now–marked out plot points and Forced the characters through their paces making them describe what they saw/ felt/ ate/ suspected/ wore… believe it’s harder to write when I’m happy than when I’m sick!

And I thought of a great idea for a mystery novella, an extended short story really. I’ve got the structure all in my head and think it will flesh out quite nicely at around 20,000 words.

Crazy thought: if I can finish the first rough of The Lizard’s Tail before December I can write the Novella in December, January and bring it over to Shanghai with me in March !

Well better to dream big than not dream at all right? Tonight I’m very very happy. And I made my word count for the day. And treated myself to seedless grapes. Life doesn’t get much better than this!


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Posted by on September 27, 2011 in Life Happens, Uncategorized, Writing Life


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DAY 8: An excerpt for Jasmine Croll

Still groggy and stuffed up and I don’t know how these pages are going to look with my eyes fully open but then I’ve learned not to expect too much from first drafts, so… the words are getting bulked down and that’s the main thing.

Have got my 5000 words down for this week and ready to start researching for next week’s writing. Really enjoying this in spite of the throat, the eyes, the helpful doglets who try to lick me back to health if I try to lie down during the day…

What is so wonderful is finding real life people in Singapore history who were so dramatic! Like even though I’m hoping to have Chief Inspector Onraet appear regularly in the series as foil to Miss Blackmore–occasionally reeling her in, he was a pretty heroic figure in real life.

Plus he was known, apparently for warning Singapore and the other Straits Settlements about Japanese intentions years before Pearl Harbour and the Occupation but his warnings were dismissed.

Anyway a short mix of fact and fiction, today’s excerpt dedicated to Jasmine Croll who says she can’t wait…! 🙂

Chief Inspector Onraet was not a happy man that morning.

There was little in the Straits Settlements that Rene Onraet had not seen. The first gazetted officer (as opposed to an ex-army man) to head Detective Branch, he had crippled organised gambling in the 1910s, netting previously elusive organisers and crooked policemen thanks to his flawless Hokkien that allowed him to infiltrate the dens, disguised as a Chinese drain inspector and his observation that the ‘Gamblers’ Luck’ Tiger Idol was always present outside the house where the big bosses of gambling. Thanks to him many dens were closed and thirty ringleaders banished. It was said Onraet understood the diverse peoples of Singapore better than any other white man… perhaps even better than any local man could. He was not just a leader, dogged in pursuit of justice. He worked the field with his men, even pulling a rickshaw to help locate communists and gamblers. Of course rumours about his skill and drive were abundant but his was that rare case in which rumours did not match his actual achievements. He had the loyalty and confidence of his men and for obvious reasons it was best that the public did not

In 1922 he was made superintendent and director of Singapore’s Criminal Intelligence Department. In the few years since he had transformed it from a nest of jealous rivals into a cohesive unit, now called Special Branch. Special Branch dealt with racial and religious issues and handled serious crime but chiefly they monitored developments in the colony and region. This was not the most exciting work a man could do but it was necessary and important work and Chief Inspector Onraet far preferred investigating suspected bomb making equipment than the death of a young woman. Especially one found dead in the home of an acquaintance.


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Day Five: Writing In Sickness and in Health

I have a drippy head cold, rats!

But I’m still on target for word count, largely because I just scribbled in low hanging fruit… for example I wrote the intro today.

Along with the ‘this is a work of fiction though actual historical characters and buildings appear’ disclaimer bit I put down some things I’ve learned about my heroine sleuth…

Sophia Blackmore (1857-1945) the first woman missionary sent by the Methodist Women’s Foreign Missionary Society to Singapore was born in Australia to a family which had migrated from London. With the support of the Reverend Oldham she helped to found two girls schools (known today as the Methodist Girls’ School and the Fairfield Methodist Secondary School) and set up a boarding home for girls. Known initially as the Deaconess Home because it also housed single lady missionaries and teachers and then as Nind Home after Mary C. Nind, the home served as residence to school-going girls as well as runaways, mui tsais, abandoned girls and orphans who became known as The Blackmore Girls.


I love the sound of ‘The Blackmore Girls’!

And now I am going to bed…


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Day One!

My first day on the new book!

Slower start than I expected. Though I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to write I kept getting distracted by things like ‘what kind of abbreviations did they use in 1920’s Singapore’ and ‘did Jazz Age fashions make their way to Singapore?’ and ‘if Loy Ah Koon of Ya Kun Kaya Toast first arrived in Singapore in 1926 could I have him make a cameo appearance in the book?’

All fascinating, all distracting. Maybe I should work somewhere without internet access. But then how would I look up stuff? I know I can always LIVECOW what I need to know but it’s not the same. And some very interesting things come up in the course of serendipitous searches.

Since this is the first draft I’m letting myself play a little and explore stuff… as long as I get my 1000 words a day (or 5000 words / week)  down. There’s a risk of course that when I edit over Saturday and Sunday I’ll end up cutting out everything I wrote in the previous week but right now I’ll try not to cut too much. I need some bulk to begin with so that later I can carve out the shape I want. Right now I’m still mixing clay and collecting scraps of ‘found’ material!

But yes, I’ve got the rough idea, the wire framework inside and I hope it supports all the stuff I’m throwing at it now.

Some of the things I’m finding most fascinating are what people were eating and wearing. I suppose that comes closest to home. It’s harder to imagine chamber pots and rickshaw pullers with bleeding feet.

Bright Write notes:

I got invited to be on a panel in the Singapore Writers Festival and it’s a lovely topic–“Where do ideas come from?” at least it’s something I always want to know when I’m talking to other people… an extension of why do we do what we do, think what we think… push some things out of our minds while pulling others in and obsessing about them… looking forward to that!

And my footnote gripe has been resolved. After I threw my e-tantrum the lovely wise mature people at Epigram sorted everything out and everything is all right. And the book 8 Plays (what I’ve seen of it in pdf anyway) looks lovely!

So today is a happy happy writing day!




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