Finding Francis: A Poetic Adventure

Finding Francis: A Poetic Adventure is a slim tome that recounts Eriko Ogihara-Schuck’s quest to find the lost poet, Francis P. Ng. Francis wrote F.M.S.R., a poem that was regarded as “the first notable work of English poetry produced by a Singaporean writer”. Drawing inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, it described a train journey between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The poem was first published in 1937 by Arthur H. Stockwell in London and only a handful of copies of the work have survived.

Eriko had chanced upon the poem in her research on T.S. Eliot and his influence on Asian literature. She was intrigued and wondered why the poet never published in spite of notable reviews from other poets of the day such as Sylvia Townshend Warner. It seemed the poet had disappeared at the onset of Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942. Eriko later discovered that that Francis P. Ng was the pseudonym of Teo Poh Leng, a burgeoning Singapore poet who had been published alongside the likes of Robert Frost and W.B Yeats. Eriko’s tireless search eventually unravelled the mystery of a long forgotten Singapore poet, and also the moving story of a family’s war-torn past.

Teo Poh Leng was born in 1912 to a Teochew family in Singapore, then a part of the Straits Settlements under British control. In 1934, he graduated from Raffles College with a Diploma in Arts and was employed as a teacher in a government school. Poh Leng was actively engaged in politics, education and social welfare. He was multi-talented and had many passions including the love for classical music and fine arts. Tragically his life so full of promise came to an end when he fell victim to war atrocities during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Poh Leng and his eldest brother Kee Leng were taken by Japanese soldiers and killed on 28 February 1942. They were among the many thousands of Chinese men (estimated to be between 50,000 to 100,000) that were executed by Japanese soldiers in what came to be known as the Sook Ching massacre. His only surviving brother, Teo Kah Leng, himself a poet, expressed his profound grief in a poem, I Found A Bone. This and other poems of his were posthumously published in 2016.

Finding Francis is an important part of Singapore’s literary heritage and affords an opportunity for us to reacquaint ourselves with a lost literary treasure from the 1930s.

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