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Published: Sunday April 12, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM

Updated: Sunday April 12, 2015 MYT 9:45:06 AM

Bunga Emas: An Anthology Of Contemporary Malaysian Literature (1930-1963)

 

 

 

Author : Editor: T. Wignesan

Genre : Fiction

Publisher : Silverfish Books

Review

 

Treasure trove of stories from Malaya

BY CATALINA REMBUYAN

 

This reprint is a valuable collection of literature in English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil from before Malaysia’s Independence.

 

The second edition of Bunga Emas: An Anthology Of Contemporary Malaysian Literature (1930-1963) is a must-have for any Malaysian bibliophile.

 

Edited by T. Wignesan and published by Silverfish Books, this anthology offers a glimpse of Malayan and Malaysian literary production in English, Chinese, and Tamil during this country’s nascent years, and is accessible to both the devoted researcher and the casual reader interested in creative writing of this era.

 

The first edition of Bunga Emas was published in 1964 and has long since gone out of print and circulation.

 

If you are one of the lucky few to have owned a copy of that, the structure and content of this edition will be familiar.

 

It opens with a preface by the editor, who states that this anthology is “the first anthology of non-Malay literatures of Malaya and Singapore”.

 

It is divided into three sections: writings in English, Chinese, and Tamil (the latter two translated into English by Prof Wang Gung-Wu, Lee Ting Hui, S. Ramachandran, K. Perumal, and R. Balakrishnan).

 

Most of the works featured are poetry or fiction, although there is a play included, B.S. Narayanan’s “Love Of Eyes”. Some of the authors anthologised may be familiar to readers – Wong Phui Nam and Lee Kok Liang are included here – but some others, like Goh Poh Seng, Oliver Seet Beng Hian, Tan Han Hoe, Lee Geok Lan, Ooi Boon Seng, and Awang Kedua are perhaps only recognisable today to researchers.

 

Creative writing in Chinese and Tamil from authors like Wei Pei-Hua, Tu Hung, Chien Shih, Miao Hsiu, Wei Yun, Sung Ya, Ho Chin, N. Palanivelu, K. Perumal, T.S. Shanmugam, R. Kathigesu, and Narayanan are made accessible to English-speaking readers through the translations.

 

Also included is a selection of essays that help the reader to contextualize the works. Eric Mottram’s essay on Wong Phui Nam is included here, and there are very useful essays by Prof Wang and Wignesan himself on the development of English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay literature in Malaya and the early years of Malaysia.

 

There is a priceless bibliography of Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil works up to 1963. Although (by the editor’s own admission) the bibliography offers only a selection of works and is not complete, it offers strong leads for any researcher investigating the literature of that period – in fact, the anthology is worth getting for the bibliography alone.

 

There is a glossary of local terms, presumably aimed at the Western reader.

 

The first term defined in the glossary is the title of the book, “Bunga Emas”, that also serves to further explain the initial intentions of the anthology – as “a ‘tribute’ by these writers to their several mother cultures”.

 

The most significant difference in the second edition is the added preface, revealing the long and arduous legal wrangling that the editor had to undergo to wrest for control of Bunga Emas and allow for the possibility of a second edition. This lengthy process may have been a blessing in disguise. The release of the second edition is timely and the works featured in the anthology now gain a different quality.

 

They are now more than just representations of works from an era. They are proving their timelessness.

 

My favourite work, Awang Kedua’s “A New Sensation”, is unnerving and unsettling.

 

Lee Kok Liang’s essay, “Return To Malaya”, becomes a deeply personal tour of this country for the post-Independence, post-1969, post-Mahathirist Malaysian reader.

 

Wong Phui Nam’s poetic sequence, “How The Hills Are Distant”, gains an almost mythic quality as the opening text for this anthology.

 

Despite clear indications of its era – there are references to communism and mentions of “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Communists shop[ping] from the same butcher” – I was surprised by how current the works feel. The emotions surrounding the awareness, anxiety, and optimism concerning nation-building that can be found in the works and essays felt strangely similar to the concerns of today’s citizens about the direction this country is taking and the issues cropping up now.

 

I find it both interesting and distressing that of the essays included in Bunga Emas, only the one on Malay literature feels dated. Is this because we have not really moved on from the issues that affect our nation’s identity since our country’s birth?

 

Still, these works’ resonance may be related to something more uplifting: good stories have a way of transcending the limitations of time and geography and connecting with our emotions and experience, and the works in Bunga Emas are able to do just that.

 

The second edition of Bunga Emas also comes with a bonus anthology: a re-publication of Wignesan’s own poetry collection, Tracks Of A Tramp. It is another fine example of early literary work in English in Malaya. The generous sprinkling of local diction and references has prompted Eric Mottram, the writer of this collection’s introduction, to suggest that it may be a direction for “Malayan poetry”.

 

Once again, the fact that Malaysian poets today still wrestle with similar issues is something I find both interesting and unnerving.

 

Compiling, archiving, and tracing our nation’s literary history (especially for literature produced in non-Malay languages) is a necessary task, and yet it is often neglected. The second edition of Bunga Emas is clearly a labour of love. It is not only an important re-publication of a literary landmark, it is also beautifully designed.

 

The choice of typeface is elegant (I prefer it over the typeface in the first edition), and the cover, which shows a collage of newspaper prints from our country’s Independence, is a powerful visual cue for context.

 

The book is a pleasure to read, to hold, and to keep. It is a valuable and worthy addition to anyone’s personal library.

 

TAGS / KEYWORDS:

Bunga Emas, An Anthology Of Contemporary Malaysian Literature 1930 1963, T Wignesan

 

 

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