Becoming Eighty: A reflection by Robert Yeo
In the book, Robert Yeo at Eighty, more than 40 contributors—including Singapore Literature Prize winners, renowned poets, veteran wordsmiths, among others—pay tribute to a man Tommy Koh called "a literary icon", in the form of poetry, essays, fanfiction and more.
In this essay though, Robert Yeo looks back on his career and muses about becoming eighty.
The number eight (8) is usually considered a lucky number by Chinese people.
I turned eighty on 27 January 2020, so I guess I must believe, though I am not superstitious, that luck is on my side. I’m lucky to be eighty, and remain in good health; and as a writer, to remain relevant.
Ah, Health, I greet you daily when I get up every morning; and grieve with relatives and friends who succumb to dementia or death. I remain relatively fit, I play Roger Federer’s game twice a week, sometimes thrice, sometimes even singles.
There was a scare though; in 2009, I had open-heart surgery — but I survived it. I am eternally grateful for the medical provisions in Singapore and the skill, caring and compassion that saw me through. (Of course, I only know one medical system and cannot compare it to others, but likely it is second to none in the world.)
My family, my wife and two daughters and their families think that I have a guardian angel that watched over me. I told them of two occasions when I could have died. In Kerala, India, some years ago, I was swept by a rip-tide close to shore but was rescued by someone who saw me in trouble and pulled me to safety. On the same trip, I stood up in a moving bus, it jerked and I fell backwards into the driver’s “cockpit” in a way that could have broken my neck or spine—but I picked myself up unscathed.
A guardian angel presupposes some kind of religious saviour but I am secular: I suppose I have to believe in some kind of spiritual protector who acts like my time is not up.
Protector apart, what about ancestors? Who do I thank for the gift of writing? My paternal grandfather sang pantuns and played the violin in a dondang sayang orchestra; and my father was a wizard with a cue and made 28 centuries playing snooker/three-ball billiards.
I must speak of my mother too. She passed on when she was 97 and her youngest sister is still around in her nineties. If you think I have youthful looks, it comes from mum.
Poetry-wise, play-wise, I have had some highlights in the past.
I published my first book, poems in Coming Home Baby in 1971, staged my first play, Are You There, Singapore? in 1974, wrote my first newspaper column (also in 1974), edited my first book of short stories in 1978, published my first novel The Adventures of Holden Heng in 1986 …
But I feel my time is NOW. So what will I do to kick off this new decade?
Well, I recently published a longish poem, a romantic cone called “Small Town Romance” which took up the entire page of The Mekong Review. In February, the Stage Club, as part of its 75th anniversary season, will present Are You There, Singapore? 46 years after It was first performed. The play will run from 5 to 8 Feb, and it will mark the first time the Stage Club, Singapore’s oldest theatre company, will offer a Singaporean play!
Also in February, the indefatigable composer John Sharpley and I will present excerpts for a revised version of the opera, Fences, that was first staged in 2012. It was Singapore’s second full-length opera which played to full houses and excellent reviews. This time around, it is part of the Esplanade programme called Cool Classics and our offering is entitled Fences of the Heart, made up of two 45-minute sets featuring five scenes from the opera performed by four singers.
In the third quarter of the year, another theatre company is planning to scale the high mountain that is The Singapore Trilogy—the collection of plays comprising Changi, One Year Back Home and Are You There, Singapore?. It is heartening to see that my work remains pertinent and a whole new generation will be discovering my plays.
There is unfinished work too, which I hope to get on with. One of them is the sequel to my only novel, The Adventures of Holden Heng. Miraculously, my unlucky (with girls) anti-hero, Holden, bless him, still resounds with some readers. I had previously started on the sequel—I wrote a few chapters but later abandoned it. I suppose 2020 is the time to pick up where I left off.
Also, author and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Ismail Talib will edit a celebratory volume based on my writings to commemorate my 80th year. Friends and fans will write about the books, plays, essays, memoirs, librettos for opera that have given them pleasure—or perhaps, pain!
What will they celebrate? Longevity? Consistency? Variety? Identity? Contradictions? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.