These poems were originally written in Chinese by Tian Si and Xin Yin respectively. They were translated into English by Tan Kok Chiang and subsequently edited by The Select Centre.
The former Nanyang University (Nantah) in Singapore was founded in 1956 mainly with donations by the Chinese community across Southeast Asia. Modelled on a modern Chinese university, it has often been mischaracterised as a sino-centric institution. In fact, for most of its short life, a significant proportion of its classes (especially in science and commerce) was taught in English. It was also the first university in Singapore to have a Malay Department, with Malay as the language of instruction. Suratman Markasan, one of Singapore’s most illustrious Malay poets, was one of the many Malay intellectuals who graduated from Nantah. Compared to the University of Singapore, which originated as a colonial institution set up to train the elites of society, Nantah was a true “people’s university” that had support across all strata of society.
Its promising life was cut short with its merger with the University of Singapore in 1980 to form the National University of Singapore. While the move has been justified as one based on declining enrolment and a lack of education quality, many of Nantah’s alumni remain bitter over what they perceive to be a decision driven by politics. To accusations that the institution offered substandard education, they pointed to the many graduates who had gone on to advanced degrees and illustrious careers around the world. For a comprehensive English-language history of the university from the perspective of a graduate, one can refer to My Nantah Story: The Rise and Demise of the People’s University by Tan Kok Chiang.
The psychological scars left by Nantah’s closure have had a significant influence on Singaporean Sinophone literature. We have chosen to feature two well-known poems by alumni expressing their sense of loss at the closure of their alma mater.
The first refers to the red bean, an object of great metaphorical significance in traditional Chinese literature. Legend has it that a faithful wife, awaiting the return of her husband from the war, stood under a tree every day, her tears eventually turning to droplets of blood, which hardened to become small red beans. The second speaks of Nantah lake, a key landmark of the campus, that was constructed by the students themselves in the early years of the university.
by Tian Si
There was once an emerald lake
formed from the blood and sweat of those who planted the trees
There were once ten li of verdant forest
rolling forward like green waves of yearning
There were once red bricks and green tiles
imbued with the scent of books and learning
There was once a stately arch
that honoured the deeds of our pioneers
Even when the waves rage
and the west winds roar
even after the red walls have fallen
and the arch replaced
even when our yearning is thwarted
and the mission to pass on learning halted
the bright red bean
will continue to live on in all our hearts.
by Xin Yin
A poet once sang praises of
Every hill shows its ravishing beauty,
every tree arouses a longing.
But I wish to tell this poet,
that had there been no lake to reflect these colours,
have become this remarkable place that gave birth to such talents?
Tens of thousands of students,
across the seven continents and four oceans,
do the sparkling waters,
contain their parting tears?
Now that you are but half of what you were,
your visage distorted beyond recognition,
it is only your heroic bearing of the past,
that remains forever embedded in the hearts of these wanderers.
Tian Si enrolled in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of the former Nanyang University as part of the tenth batch of students.
Xin Yin is a graduate of the College of Commerce of the former Nanyang University.
Tan Kok Chiang is Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, Canada. A graduate of Raffles Institution, he subsequently became an active member of the Singapore Chinese Middle School Student Union and Nanyang University Student Union. He was part of the first batch of students to study at Nanyang University and continues to work towards paying his debt to his alma mater.