My Singapore Writers Festival 2014 Journey

Last weekend was the closing weekend of the Singapore Writers Festival, the annual literary arts festival held to celebrate the love for the written word in Singapore. Somehow, I always happened to be away during the festival period previously, so since I was finally in town this year during the festival, I decided to pop by and check out some of the travel writing related programmes.

Firstly, the SWF is quite massive. For just $20 for a festival pass, you had access to hundreds of events over the 9 days.Having to pick and choose what to go for can be a little intimidating! I ended up doing 3 things – checking out a panel discussion on travel guides, attending a lecture by a travel writer, as well as taking a tour of Singapore’s outlying districts to see how they inspired our own local writers.


First I popped by the panel for Beyond Travel Guides, which features Canadian travel author Michael Buckley, who’s written quite extensively about Tibet, and China guidebook writer/publisher Yap Seow Choong for a discussion on guidebooks in this day and age.

SWF2014 - Beyond Travel Guides
Beyond Travel Guides panel. Moderator Pamela Ho (left) with Michael Buckley (center) and Yap Seow Choong (right)

It was Saturday morning, so a smallish group, and there were a small handful of travel writers and bloggers in the audience even. Quite an interesting discussion, here are a couple of discussion points that I enjoyed:

  • The diversity of guidebooks – Guidebooks aren’t all packaged or written the same way, even if they belong to the same publisher. It depends very much on who their audience is and what their interests are. On hindsight, I wonder why this has never occurred to me that Lonely Planet New York perhaps might have quite different formatting than Lonely Planet Beijing for example – I’d always just assumed the standard layout would be the same.
  • The overexposure of guidebooks – places change when they’ve been listed in guidebooks, I liked this discussion on the dilemma of the ‘responsibility’ of the writer to write about what he/she knows at the risk of irreparably changing the place by exposing it to the world.
  • The best sources of information – both writers advocated talking to the locals to get the best information, though they said locals sometimes tend to have quite a different perception on what is interesting or not. Seow Choong likes talking to taxi drivers and students especially
  • Travel guides still rock – both writers still used travel guidebooks quite frequently despite the information age – you don’t need data and you definitely don’t have to spend all your time researching when all the information is in one place – the book is still the most reliable source to turn to quite often, even if somewhat outdated


After that hour, I headed over to the School of the Arts for a special lecture called The Roads I Travelled by Paul Theroux, famous for this books featuring train travel like The Great Railway Bazaar, and one written in the 70s set in Singapore called Saint Jack, which was also turned into a movie. There was a separate ticket at $20 for this event, separate from the festival pass, and it was a sold out event! I was lucky to get a seat quite near close to the stage the front in the lower levels.

SWF2014 - Paul Theroux
The Roads I Travelled lecture by Paul Theroux, moderated by Yeoh Siew Hoon

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never read any of his books before, but I enjoyed his lecture where he talked about how places changed and what it was like to travel.

  • Travel as transformation – He said that one of the most enlightening things is to go back to a place and see how it transformed. He talked of how Singapore looked back in the 70s, with barely any tall buildings
  • Travel as flight and pursuit – simultaneously, travel is to flee and get away from your daily life, as well as a pursuit and chase to discover new things, or to follow others, and that the secret about travel is to discover whether or not we were meant to go back to where we came from. I’m pretty sure I’ll go back home, but then again, who knows?
  • Travel vs Tourism – he broke it down as travel being about having a bad time, that the hardships of travel revealed what you were truly like to yourself, whereas tourism was all about having a good time and enjoying yourself. Now I still don’t like how we sometimes glorify the word ‘travel’ over being a tourist because I believe we are all tourists when it comes down to it, but this was an interesting way to look at it.
  • Travel breeding humility and compassion – this was how he said travel changed him, making him into a more humble and compassionate person. And while his travels in recent years were more limited to the USA rather than global travels, it made him realize the a lot of the problems he had seen overseas were actually right here at home, as he told an anecdote of a woman telling of her son going to Africa to ‘help people’, when their home state in the USA needed so much help of its own


On Sunday, yet another precious early morning where I was awake, I headed back to the Festival Village and hopped on the bus for the Balik Kampung Literary Walk of the Outer Ring, which would bring us to far-flung parts of Singapore that even not many of the locals would visit unless we lived there ourselves or had some reason to go there.

Balik Kampung, which is Malay for ‘going home’, is the name of an anthology of short stories by local Singaporean writers inspired by the neighbourhoods they lived in and edited by Verena Tay. For this tour, we were going to hope on a coach and visit 4 of the locations in the Western and Northern ends of Singapore to see the places that inspired the writers to create those story which will be found in the upcoming 3rd editions of the anthology series. We were a group of about 30 people accompanied by the writers themselves as well as the editor Verena.

SWF2014 - Booklet
Reading material on the bus – we received A4 printouts of story excerpts, as well as had the authors talk to us about the process, inspiration and other story details.
SWF2014 - Outer Circle
Nature meets the city state

Story 1 was based in Bukit Gombak by Joey Chin and Wong Hongyi, a story set around a muslim coffee shop called Thohirah. This neighbourhood has a large Muslim population and is more popularly known as Little Guilin, a disused quarry where they used to film period Chinese dramas. We walked through the estate, a little like lost ducks as the writers pointed out bits of the neighbourhood.

SWF2014 - Bukit Merah
Joey and Hongyi showing us the coffeeshop in the distance

Story 2 was based on an old crime and urban legends by Christopher Fok, and we stopped by Choa Chu Kang Park for a quick toilet break.

SWF2014 - Suicide Bridge
The pedestrian bridge across the expressway in the distance is apparently known around this parts as suicide bridge because people had taken to jumping off that bridge. It otherwise looks quite innocuous.

Story 3 brought us northwards to Yishun, which was writer Colin Cheong’s old neighbourhood, and he had pretty funny stories to tell about his past as a coast guard and teacher in charge of outdoor activities. We visited Yishun dam, where you can find mangroves, the last fishing village in Singapore and apparently crocodiles so you should think twice about sitting close to the water’s edge. I’d been here once before at night, but it’s a pretty nice serene spot.

SWF2014 - Yishun Dam Panorama
Panorama of Yishun Dam

Our last story brought us to Seletar Hills, once an old airbase which they have recently converted into a modern aerospace hub. I liked that the author Brandon Chew brought us out to the park where some of his story took place and read his excerpt out there – the rest of the authors read their excerpt on the bus, which at least made those journeys feel less lengthy but I felt like I spent most of my time on the bus.

SWF2014 - Seletar Hills
Under the tree in Seletar with Brandon

Overall I thought the tour was a great idea, but since it was the first time they were doing it too, I think they can afford to do more to keep it more interesting in future – it is quite dependent on how interesting the authors were (some more so than others). I would have liked more interactivity with the various neighbourhoods, perhaps a smaller more intimate group, and to have come away feeling like I’d really been behind the scenes of the stories.

So that was this year’s Singapore’s Writers Festival for me – did anybody else attend? If it did one thing, it definitely made me want to get cracking on the writing, which I know I’ve been slacking off on!

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