Memories of a Pioneer Generation Mr Yap Koon Chan


Singapore Memory Project
Yap Koon Chan

What happens to a 2-year-old toddler as an infant in the arms of his mother from Fukien (Amoy) in China and his father in a slow boat in 1937 to Singapore?  
The boat trip took 7 days to arrive at Collyer Quay at the bank of Singapore River. 
He did not expect to remain in Singapore for 77 years as a Singapore citizen.  He has 3 grown-up children, 1 son and 2 daughters.  He now has 7 schooling grandchildren, all Singaporeans.
The child, Yap Koon Chan was too young to know what had happened in Singapore with his parents.  Many years later when he was older, Koon Chan's father told him that in China, in 1937, there was the Nanking Massacre during the tumultuous periods.  Many villagers from Fukien escaped to "Nanyang" in Malaya and Singapore.
In February 1942, the Japanese military forces attacked Singapore when Koon Chan was 5 years old.
During the Japanese Occupation in Singapore, Koon Chan was unable to attend formal education in school.
His parents were Chinese language teachers and were unable to teach in the schools in Singapore.   Koon Chan studied at home from his parents.
In September 1945, when the Japanese surrendered and returned Singapore to the British administration in Singapore, Koon Chan started schooling at 11-years-old.  His formal education started in Primary 3 at Tao Chiau Chinese School (导桥华校) in Kim Chuan Road.
There were many teachers from China, like his parents.  These elderly teachers spoke with a dialect accent of their respective province in China.  However, the Chinese teachers were dedicated, loyal and were teaching their students with passion and love.  The students were taught moral education and to build their good characters to contribute to society and the nation.
Koon Chan was inspired by his Chinese language teacher Mr Yao Zi at Dao Nan School and became an avid reader of Chinese literature books.  He became a "bookworm" and love reading as a lifetime hobby.
Mr Yao Zi would bring his students to bookshops to recommend the good books.  He also asked the students to bring 2 books per student to school to contribute to building a mini library.  There were hundreds of books in the school's mini-library and Koon Chan borrowed his favourites back home to read.
He often read books until past midnight and was never without a book to read in his hands.  Later, one of his classmates who did not like reading lent Koon Chan his library card so he was entitled to borrow more books from the school library.
In 1951, Koon Chan submitted essays and articles to the Chinese newspapers "Nanfang Wan Bao (南方晚报)" with the encouragement of the school teachers.  He was inspired to contribute his articles in magazines and newspapers which gave him a sense of satisfaction when his achievements were published in the media.

Koon Chan is a tireless advocate of Singapore Chinese Literature since 1950s and is also best known by his pen name Luo Ming (骆明)and is one of Singapore’s most famous writers in the Chinese language. His passionate and steadfast advocacy has given fruit to countless trailblazing achievements in the development and promotion of Chinese literature in South-East Asia and to the world, and he has successfully placed this region on the map of the Chinese literary world.  For his dedication to the development of Singapore Literature, the Singapore Government awarded him the Public Service Star Award BBM in November 2014; the Nanyang Technological University honoured Koon Chan with the Nanyang Distinguished Alumni Award in Oct 2012 and Nanyang Chinese Literature Award from Confucius Institute, Nanyang Technological University (CI-NTU) in 2011.  

From the 1960s to 1970s, Koon Chan was an educator in Chung Cheng High School and Catholic High School, holding various positions from Teacher, Dean of Studies, to Principal. During that period, he was also the Secretary General of the Singapore Middle Schools Chinese Teachers’ Association. Apart from his contributions to education, he also helped bring back to life two publications, Nanyang Education and Singapore Youth. Koon Chan also published Journal on the Teaching of Chinese Language, and planned the publication of two book collections on the teaching of Chinese Language. 

In 1980, he became the President of the Singapore Literary Research Association, later known as the Singapore Literature Society, and has held the position for the past 30 years. Under his leadership, the Society published many literary journals and book collections, including Singapore Chinese Literature Magazine, Singapore Chinese Literature Newspaper, and other publications.  

A passionate literary activist, Koon Chan has spared no effort in the promotion of Chinese Literature. He has planned and organised many international seminars, camps, and symposiums on Chinese literature, such as the ‘Conference on International Chinese Literature’, the ‘Singapore Chinese Literature Award’, the ‘Lian Shi Sheng Award’, ‘Literary Salons’, ‘Focused Literature seminars’, ‘Yao Zi’s Literature Development Path’ and promoted Singapore Chinese Literature overseas, such as the inter-cultural programs, overseas exhibitions etc.

With a vision to promote ASEAN Chinese literature to the rest of the world, Koon Chan founded the biennial ASEAN Literature Camp in 1988.  The first ASEAN Literature Camp was held in Singapore, allowing Chinese-language writers from the six ASEAN countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Brunei to come together. The camp created an important platform for exchange on Chinese creative writing, and opened a window for Chinese literature in ASEAN to the world. 

In the 1990s, Koon Chan began to systematically publish collections of Chinese literary works, including a book collection of ‘Studies on Chinese Writers in Singapore’, ‘Singapore Chinese Literature Award Winners’, ‘Salute to the Elderly’, ‘Deceased Writers’, ‘Young Writers’, ‘Chronicles of Living in Flats’, ‘Chronicles of Flyovers’, amongst others. To systematically organise information for a fuller picture of Chinese literature in Singapore, Koon Chan also worked with Singapore’s National Library Board on A Photographic Catalogue of Manuscripts of Writers who Came South,Research Materials on Writers Who Came South and Yao Zi’s Literature Development Path.  In addition, he worked with other Literature organizations to publish the Biographies of Chinese Language Writers in Singapore. 

Koon Chan has not stopped writing for the last 50 years amidst his busy schedule publishing essays, travelogues and critiques. To date, he has published 25 books.  They include works such as Travel Tracks, New to the World, ASEAN Chinese Literature – Another Realm of Influence, Wishful Thinking, Thoughts, Pilgrimage in September, The Works of Luo Ming and others.

To honour his pioneering work in literature, Koon Chan has received the Intercultural Literature Relations Award from the Beijing TV and Broadcasting station, and the Public Service Star Award BBM from the Singapore Government in 2014, the ASEAN Literature Award in Dec 2014, the Nanyang Chinese Literature Award from Confucius Institute, Nanyang Technological University (CI-NTU) in 2011, as well as accolades from Thailand and the Philippines. 

In March 2012, the Singapore Museum of Chinese Literature was finally established – a project Yap Koon Chan began a decade ago. The tireless scholar envisions the museum to be a valuable information repository for the research and promotion of Singapore Chinese literature, as well as for the international exchange of literature. It is an embodiment of the value of Singapore Chinese literature. 

Koon Chan is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Southeast Asian Chinese Literature Research Centre of China’s Xiamen University.

Koon Chan travelled widely to many European countries and China, thus he was able to cultivate an interest in literature, philosophy and the arts for the West and East.
He had influenced his children and his family is three generations of educationists. At his home, the walls are lined with favourite books of 20,000 to 30,000 specially selected good books.
Over the decades, Koon Chan has contributed his professional knowledge and skills as part of the pioneer generation of Singaporeans to develop hundreds of thousand students in Singapore over the decades.  As Secretary of the Singapore Chinese Teachers' Society, the teachers in Singapore have also benefitted from his experiences to share and learn.  
A youthful and energetic 80-year-old pioneer generation writer with knowledge and wisdom to meet.
(Memory collected based on interview with Mr Yap Koon Chan by Mr James Seah for SMP on 10 Nov’14.)