As we near the two-year mark of a pandemic-stricken world, one can’t help but wonder how the local literary scene has been faring. Book launches and exhibitions – let alone plays or concerts – have yet to return to full swing, even as the Sing Lit scene was marred by a scandal involving one of its biggest proponents. And even so, do people still have time for books and plays when there are Youtube shorts and Marvel flicks to be had? Writer and theatre practitioner Neo Hai Bin certainly thinks so.

In fact, he’s a stalwart of genre increasingly alien to Singaporean readers in an increasingly globalised world – that is, Mandarin literature. His published works include Fang Jian Xu Yu and Da Hai De Ren (The People of the Sea) – the latter of which he will be drawing on for an upcoming one-man show called Being, a production by Wei Collective & Collaborators (which he co-founded in 2017).

Neo Hai Bin profile

Ahead of his performance, the 36-year-old talks about how he ended up in the literary scene, and where he hopes it’ll go in the years to come, pandemic or no.

What got you into Chinese literature?

I grew up in a primarily Mandarin-speaking household, and have always been surrounded by Chinese culture and language. Mandarin is therefore a language that is very close to my heart, one that represents warmth and affection for me. 

I first started writing as a child for fun – and interestingly, I did so in English before gravitating towards Chinese. This may be because Chinese – with its square shapes and forms – offered me a sense of comfort that no other language did, and that’s how I eventually found myself in the world of Chinese literature. 

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Are there any influences from your own life that you bring into your work?

From young, I have always been fascinated by myths and legends — where mythical characters of all shapes and forms live in curious yet enchanting worlds, effortlessly captivating the imaginations of young minds like mine. Even as an adult and writer today, this childlike fascination for all things imaginative continues to shape and influence my work. When I write, I hope to inspire creativity and boldness, and encourage my readers to imagine the impossible with me. 

Books have been, and continue to be, one of the biggest influences for my work, as well as one of the biggest joys in my life. Opening a book is like stepping into a wondrous adventure alongside its characters — it’s an opportunity for me to experience things that I would never have in real life. And the best part is that the experience doesn’t end when the story concludes. Each time I finish a story, I make new realisations about the real world, which let me see the world a little differently. There’s something new with every turn of the page, always. 

How do you think the literary scene has grown, or waned, over recent years?

Over the years, Lianhe Zaobao literary columns have been a valuable platform for local authors to showcase their writing, and an opportunity for readers like me to discover a wide range of literary works. As a child, I would carefully cut out my favourite columns and stories from the newspaper, compiling it in a small notebook that I could revisit anytime I wanted. My own career as an author, perhaps, could be traced back to the combined influence of all these authors.

In recent times, I have also seen promising signs of life in the local Chinese literature scene. Young writers are not only composing Chinese literary works of their own, but have even started poetry clubs, rallying together to publish collections at their own expense. I believe that the future will bring more people who are interested in and love local literature, particularly Chinese Sing Lit – and that is something that I am definitely looking forward to. 

With technology, do people still have time for books?

There are indeed an increasing number of mediums jostling for our limited attention these days. But what I came to realise is that my friends and I have also begun to venture into e-books, which we find particularly convenient. Even as the form in which we consume books changes, reading will remain close to the hearts and minds of every book lover. 

Amidst the chaos and complexities of our world today, reading offers a new possibility — a reminder that we can choose to slow down and press ‘pause’; to flip through a book and just read. 

At the same time, I also believe that we are not yet past the era of physical books. Look no further than our daily commutes on the train — I still see people holding a book in their hands, deeply engrossed in the stories within. 

Even for writers, I recently met some who shared that they are currently working on full-length novels. Indeed, in this day and age, there are those who remain enamoured with the way profound meanings are unearthed from vast pages of text. 

(Related: Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal shares her secrets for success)

How about Mandarin’s popularity with readers?

We have at least three independent Chinese-language bookstores in Singapore (Grassroots Book Room, City Book Room, and Sea Breeze Books), in addition to Hook on Books — a Chinese-language bookstore that caters specifically to the little ones. Just recently, the zall bookstore also opened up in Singapore, bringing a two-storey building with over 30,000 Chinese book titles to the local literary scene. 

These bookstore owners are also book lovers, and I think it’s extremely valuable that they’ve chosen to help build a vibrant and flourishing Chinese cultural landscape in Singapore in this day and age. They are bringing more ways for youths today to experience and love local Chinese literature, and with that, keep the Chinese language alive in our city-state. 

Where do you see Sing Lit 20 years from now?

Even as times change, and technology evolves with every passing day; even as what we know as a book may take on few shapes and forms; even as the way in which we write alters, human emotions are timeless. 

This is why I believe that people will continue to write, people will continue to publish books, and people will continue to buy and read these books. 20 years down the road, our Sing Lit community will remain vibrant and alive. 

As for myself, writing and reading are already integral aspects of my life that can no longer be separated from who I am. 20 years later, I think that I will still be reading and writing, much like what I am doing today. 

BEING promo 1
Being, a solo act which Neo Hai Bin stars in (Credit: Daniel Teo)

What’s next for you?

2022 is looking to be an exciting year for the local arts scene. The #BuySingLit movement, for instance, just recently returned with a refreshed identity – Sing Lit: Read Our World. Now that it has expanded into a year-long movement, I’m looking forward to many more industry initiatives that will celebrate our diverse literary community and introduce readers to new ways of looking at Sing Lit. Just recently, I was part of My Sing Lit (Chinese Programmes), organised by the movement to spotlight Sing Lit in its vernacular languages, where I held a workshop exploring the connections between poetry and our human bodies. 

In January 2022, I will be performing at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, based on my novel The People of the Sea. We wanted to bring to audiences a production that serves as a timely reminder to breathe in spite of the difficult two years we’ve had. Using light, sound, and textures as the main mediums of the performance, we hope to inspire our audience to reconnect with nature, as well as with our own breaths.

Finally, any book you’d like to recommend? 

I will recommend The Little Prince. It’s a classic that you can read over and over again at any stage of your life — the little prince is a character that feels like a lifelong friend, who grows and learns alongside you. I guess this is the power of reading. Throughout their lives and wherever they may be, book lovers will always be able to find strength to carry on. 

Main photo credit: Daniel Teo