By Leong Weng Kam, Senior Writer
Since the early 1970s, Chinese newspaper writer and novelist Teoh Hee La has won numerous literary prizes and awards, including the prestigious South-east Asian Writers Award for Singapore in 2000.
She said she could not have done so without the unceasing encouragement from her former Chung Cheng High School teacher, Madam Leong Marn Harn.
Ms Teoh said that years after she had left Chung Cheng in 1972, Madam Leong, her mentor and fan, continued to encourage her.
The senior correspondent at Lianhe Zaobao, now in her early 50s, had spent only two years in the school to do her A levels. But it laid a solid foundation for her to be a successful writer. After leaving the school, she started work as an editor-cum-writer for a Chinese student magazine before joining the People's Association as a reporter in 1975.
Remembering her former school teacher's earnest efforts to see her succeed, Ms Teoh - better known by her hanyu pinyin name Zhang Xina - said: 'One day in 1985, the year after I joined Lianhe Zaobao as a features writer, I received a surprise call from Madam Leong reminding me to go for the second Golden Lion Award Chinese literary writing competition organised by Zaobao.
'To make sure I would win, she even helped me to copy the short story I submitted for the contest in her own beautiful handwriting.'
Her story, titled Dou Shi Yin Mai or Haze In The City, about the plight of the Chinese-educated in Singapore in the 1980s, won the first prize.
Contacted by The Sunday Times, Madam Leong - now retired and in her late 60s - said she pushed Ms Teoh to win more writing competitions so that her works could be more widely read.
'She showed great potential even in school and I found her stories relate well to real-life situations,' added Madam Leong, who taught in Chung Cheng in Goodman Road between 1967 and 1981. She herself is a published writer of short essays.
Chung Cheng was a Chinese- medium school till 1979 when it became a Special Assistance Plan school.
Founded in 1939 as a private Chinese school in Kim Yam Road by a group of businessmen and community leaders, Chung Cheng expanded into two campuses when it acquired a plot of land in Goodman Road in 1947.
The campus in Goodman was renamed Chung Cheng High School (Main), and the original school in Kim Yam Road, Chung Cheng High School (Branch). The branch moved to Guillemard Road in 1969, and moved again to Yishun in 2005.
Ms Teoh did her former teacher proud by winning the same Golden Lion Award again in 1987, 1989 and 1991.
To date, she has published a total of 10 books of fiction, prose and other writings - including one based on her interviews with successful Singapore women which was translated into English in 1996.
Ms Teoh and Madam Leong are among the large pool of Singapore Chinese writers who are either former students or teachers of the 70-year-old Chung Cheng High, which has an illustrious past as a breeding ground for literary talent.
An old boy, Mr Yap Koon Chan, 74, listed and collected published works by alumni members and former teachers for a literary exhibition at Chung Cheng High in Yishun earlier this month. More than 600 of their books were featured. He said that among Chinese-medium schools in Singapore, the school produced the largest number of writers, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mr Yap, who taught at his alma mater in Goodman Road for nine years between 1961 and 1969, is also a prominent Singapore Chinese writer. He published his works under the pen name Luo Ming. He is president of the 30-year-old Singapore Literature Society, which promotes Chinese literary writing.
In the directory of Singapore Chinese literary writers he edited in 2005, he counted close to 180 - out of a total of 500 listed - who were either former students or teachers from Chung Cheng.
They included several well-known writers, poets and playwrights - both past and present - such as Liu Renxin, Kuo Pao Kun, Han Laoda, Qiu Xinmin, Xu Yunqiao, Liu Si, Zhou Can, Du Hong, Miao Mang and Yuan Dian. Also in the list was former television producer turned writer Choo Lian Liang, who recently published the bestseller Zhui Hong (Chasing The Rainbow) - a story about her family spanning four generations.
Why are there so many talented writers from Chung Cheng?
Mr Yap said he owed it to the many good teachers the school had, such as Xie Baihan, Liu Si, Qiu Xinmin, Chen Zhenxia and Wang Meichuang in the 1940s and 1950s. All of them were very accomplished writers and poets themselves, and were role models for the students.
He said two of them, Liu Si and Chen Zhenxia, were also moonlighting as literary arts editors at the now-defunct Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau newspapers. As a result, many of Chung Cheng's students got their short stories, poems and essays published in the two Chinese dailies. It was tremendous encouragement for the budding young writers.
Other reasons he cited were the school's excellent library, its strong promotion of the literary and performing arts and the students' literary publications - such as Hui Liu, and later Hu Sheng, which were among the best in Singapore from the 1950s till the late 1970s.
Another former Chung Cheng student turned writer, Mr Liu Kechuang, 65, a retired school teacher, said at a forum held in conjunction with the Chung Cheng Alumni Literary Work Exhibition that the turbulent times in the 1950s and early 1960s also inspired students to write. The school was then a hotbed of radicalism, and students took part in political and trade union activities.
'And of course, there is the beautiful lake in the school's compound where students had drawn their inspiration from for their
poems and other writings,' added Mr Liu, a well-known poet better known by his pen name Chang Yao.
The more than 600 works collected for the literary work exhibition by the alumni of Chung Cheng High School will become a permanent collection at Chung Cheng High in Yishun.
Among them are three volumes of prose and short essays by Madam Leong, written under her pen name Bai He between 1977 and 1999.
She said: 'I hope the young Chung Cheng students will borrow our books to read and be inspired to write and keep the good literary traditions of the school alive.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.