2021 Cultural Medallion recipient Chia Joo Ming shares his influences
Novelist Chia Joo Ming has been honoured for his contributions to Singaporean and regional Chinese literature with the 2021 Cultural Medallion. (Photo: National Arts Council)

2021 Cultural Medallion recipient Chia Joo Ming shares his influences

Chia Joo Ming has published a dozen novels since 1976 that delve deeply into Singaporean life in pre- and post-independence times – earning commercial success and critical acclaim along the way.

He has won the Singapore Literature Prize for Chinese-language works three times (with Reconstructing Nanyang Images, m40 and Kian Kok) and international recognition has built steadily. Taiwanese literary magazine Wen Hsun picked m40 as one of the Top 20 Novels published between 2001 and 2015, while Asiaweek put Chia’s 2018 novel Kian Kok on its Top 10 list.

When your novel becomes part of the school curriculum, you can really say you are part of the cultural fabric of the nation. Chia achieved this rare distinction in 2018 when Exile or Pursuit was added to the O-Level Chinese literature syllabus.

Exile or Pursuit was an interesting choice for a school text book. Characteristically, it is a bildungsroman – a story that focuses on a character’s moral and psychological development from childhood to adulthood. Chia’s protagonist Hok Leong is something of a misfit; an ordinary, rather passive fellow just trying to get by as his country embarks on an era of turbocharged development – and while the three women in his life (Chia is one of those rare male writers able to imbue female characters with real depth) move onwards and upwards without him.

Chia has been a tireless promoter of local and regional Chinese language writing. He was founding editor of the Urban Literature section for Shin Min Daily News in 1984. After moving over to the literary section of Lianhe Zaobao, the largest Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper, he organised a series of projects to nurture new writing talent – taking on the role of lead planner, organiser and editor for Zaobao Book Choice and subsequently for Best Selected Works of Literary City. For the past few years, Chia has been an active committee member for the Zaobao Literary Festival.

An impressive collection of literary gongs amassed over several decades is testament to Chia’s consistent excellence. He won Golden Lion Literary Awards in 1987, 1989 and 1991, leading to a Young Artist Award in 1993. There was a hiatus after winning the National Book Development Council of Singapore’s Book Award in 1996, but a new burst of creative energy saw Chia win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2006, 2010 and 2020. In 2017, he received the S.E.A. Write Award for outstanding literary achievement and now, in 2021, the Cultural Medallion.

The A List asked Chia Joo Ming about his biggest influences in his early days as a novelist.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as an artist?

It takes time. Your craft is the accumulation of reading, writing and most importantly, of your experiences.

Who has been most influential in your career as an artist, and why?

After graduating from secondary school I read New Trend, the literary section of Shin Min Daily News at the time, and thought I might give it a try, so I started submitting articles. I later found out that the editor was Yao Zi, a famous novelist. I was only 17 years old, and Yao Zi’s encouragement was important. Later, I submitted articles to the Fudiao section of the then Nanyang Siang Pau. It was only later I found out the editor was Toh Lam Huat, an important promoter of modern literature in Singapore, and so I began to write literary works.

Find out more about the Cultural Medallion here.

We can’t wait to share more awesome content with you. This is going to be so much fun.

Give us a heads up on the topics that interest you: