Malaysian literary pioneer Wong Phui Nam has died aged 87

Poet Wong Phui Nam seen in 2019 with a new version of his book 'The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-Taui'. He died last night in Kuala Lumpur aged 87. Photo: The Star/Filepic

Wong Phui Nam, one of the revered Malaysian literary pioneers who helped to shape the local English language writing scene and elevate the art of poetry in South-East Asia, died in his sleep last night in Kuala Lumpur. He was 87.

The news was confirmed by fellow poet-author Malachi Edwin Vethamani.

Born in 1935 in Kuala Lumpur, Wong - first schooled in Chinese and later in English - received his early education at the Batu Road School and later at the Victoria Institution.

In the late 1950s, he went on to study economics at the University of Malaya in Singapore (now National University of Singapore), and later entered a corporate career mainly in development finance and merchant banking.

But he never lost his passion to write and also critic and nurture developments in the local English language scene.

In his early years, Wong found a balance between his economics studies and his aspiring writer dreams.

In Singapore, he was active in the poetry scene, playing a role in The New Cauldron, a literary magazine founded by Raffles College students.

Legendary Singapore poet Edwin Thumboo’s collection Rib Of Earth (1956) was also an inspiration as the young poet began writing. During that period, Wong was co-editor of Litmus One and 30 Poems, both anthologies of university verse. In 1958, he put out a collection of university-era poems titled Toccata On Ochre Sheaves.

Later, Wong's poems produced during the 1960s appeared in Bunga Emas, an anthology of Malayan writing published in Britain in 1964. These poems were subsequently put together in book form by Tenggara and published as How The Hills Are Distant in 1968.

"Poetry gives you the capacity to examine yourself, a self-reflection of sorts. I think it’s important that people don’t go through life blindly," said Wong in an interview with The Star in September, 2019.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Wong remained relatively inactive in terms of new published works.

Nevertheless, his published volumes of poetry - relating to multiracial diversity - were used in academic texts and found a new generation of fans. In 1988, all his poetry was translated into French and published by the Université de Lille-III in France.

His second volume Remembering Grandma And Other Rumours was released in 1989, a book that further underlined his unsung pioneering role in the world of literary English works in Malaysia.

In the early 2000s, Maya Press in Kuala Lumpur published his collected works titled An Acre Of Day’s Glass, a gateway publication which broadened his audience beyond academics and students of poetry, while a self-published collection Against The Wilderness showcased a darker side to his works.

A sonnet sequence, The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui was published by Ethos Books in Singapore in 2013, but Wong - during his retirement - revisited those works and added more material to the book in 2019.

The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui was re-released by Blublack Productions in 2019, featuring 53 sonnets dealing with the search for spiritual freedom amidst religious bigotry.

“With many of my poems, what I wanted to explore was the lack of spirituality in this country ... true spirituality," he was quoted as saying in 2019 about the works in The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui.

On the theatre stage, Wong had written two plays - Anike and Aduni - in the early 2000s.

Anike was a Malaysian version of the Greek tragedy Antigone, written by Sophocles. Originally a play about the fates of the human race in the hands of the gods, Wong provided an interesting parallel between the world of Sophocles’ Antigone and Malaysian society. Aduni was an adaptation of Euripides' Medea – a Greek tragedy.

On social media, tributes to Wong have come from the literary community and beyond.

"Today we lost a poet who has been contributing to Malaysian poetry in English since the 1950s. Wong Phui Nam received accolades and international recognition for his fine poetry throughout his long poetic life. Phui Nam in recent years was actively involved with young Malaysian poets. He was a judge for a national poetry competition in 2021 and he took time to write advice to young Malaysian poets and he even met them and encouraged to write poetry. He was deeply concerned for Malaysian poetry in English and wanted to see it develop with new young voices with fresh ideas," said Malachi Edwin Vethamani, a poet friend who worked closely with Wong in recent years.

"Only a few weeks ago, Wong Phui Nam and I completed our recording of all his poems from How The Hills Are Distant in 1968 to The Hidden Papyrus of Hen-Taui in 2019. We spent many evenings together talking about death, poetry, and supporting young poets. He was a passionate man and a voracious writer. An outspoken literary critic and a humble reader," said Brandon Liew, poet and doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne, who organised the A Wasteland Of Malaysian Poetry In English audio exhibition in KL last month.

"I had the privilege of showcasing his voice at my exhibition A Wasteland Of Malaysian Poetry In English. I saw first-hand the eager joy of young poets listening to and discovering his work. So many asked me for his books and I was always disappointed that I had none left to give. For a brief moment in time, Wong Phui Nam was my friend and confidant, support and inspiration. To us, he is the image of a Malaysian poet and the under-appreciated vanguard of our time. How fortunate we are, to have his legacy as our tradition," he added.

"I just got the devastating news that Wong Phui Nam died last night in his sleep. This news is unbelievable and difficult to accept, seeing as I just met him two days ago - and he was in good spirits. It is incredibly hard to find the words now. For now, it may suffice to say that he was a true original in Malaysian English poetry, and his brilliance was unmatched. Yet he was always still humble and seeking to learn, never satisfied with his writing and understanding of poetics," wrote Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Singaporean poet and critic, who also edited the revised version of Wong's The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui.

"One fond memory I have of him is the two of us eating durians by the roadside in Geylang in Singapore, when he visited some years back. He was living nearby, at a relative’s place, and as we were walking around he suddenly asked, 'Do you like durians? There’s a stall nearby.' As we devoured the durians - there was a look of pure joy on his face - the oddness of our friendship, between two people born 55 years apart, struck me. Our shared love of poetry and writing (and durians!) somehow erased these distinctions. I am deeply glad to have been his friend, and to have met him just before the end. Rest in peace, Mr Wong. You live on in your work," he added.

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