Lau Siew Mei
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Lau Siew Mei (b.1968, Singapore - ) is a Singapore-born writer best known for her acclaimed debut novel, Playing Madame Mao. She has also produced poems and short stories, and worked as a journalist. Lau migrated to Australia in 1994 and resides in Brisbane.
Early life and education
Lau was born in Singapore in 1968. Her paternal grandparents were immigrants from China and her father was born in Singapore, while her mother’s side of the family was from Malaysia. Her mother was a former teacher who published textbooks and anthologies of poems. Lau completed her primary and secondary education at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, and then attended National Junior College.
In 1988, as a first-year Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, she won the second prize in the prose section of the university’s Poetry Writing/Creative Prose Competition (no first prize was awarded) with The Story of Jonas, a fable about the loss of childhood innocence. The story was published in The Straits Times. She was also awarded a Special Book Prize for attaining the best results in the university examinations for the academic year 1987/88. She graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor or Arts degree in English Literature and Philosophy, and then obtained a Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Murdoch University, Western Australia.
The writer recalls being surrounded by books as a child, with memories of many books at home and being left at the bookshop with her father while her mother was shopping for groceries. She was an avid reader and storyteller, and as a child she made up her own stories and told them to anyone who would listen. Her favourite writers then included Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Rice-Burroughs and C. S. Lewis.
Work and emigration
Lau worked as a freelance journalist for The Straits Times from 1987, and as a columnist and fashion consultant for Her World women’s magazine. She later wrote for newspapers in Brunei and in Australia. In 1993, she obtained a visa as an Australian permanent resident. Feeling constricted by what she saw as Singapore’s conservative environment, Lau migrated to Australia in 1994 in search of literary opportunities and freedom of speech. She now lives in Brisbane, where she works for the public service.
Lau’s short stories have been published in newspapers such as The Courier Mail in Australia and journals such as the Asiatic IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature, Australian Short Stories, Overland, Westerly, and Planet: The Welsh Internationalist. Her stories have also been broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National.
Her poems have been collected in No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry and Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry, among others.
Lau’s debut novel Playing Madame Mao was published to critical acclaim in 2000. The novel combined the exploration of oppression and its effects with myths and literary references including Chinese legends, Singaporean folktales, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Catholic theology in a magic realist style. It was shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2001 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and the 1999 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for Best Emerging Queensland Author. Playing Madame Mao was also Highly Commended in the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the 2000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The shortlists put Lau in competition with renowned writers such as Peter Carey, Frank Moorhouse and Alex Miller. The novel was also translated into Greek and published in Greece in 2001, and in the United Kingdom in 2002.
Lau received the Varuna Writers’ Residential Fellowship from the Eleanor Dark Foundation in New South Wales, Australia, and an Asialink Literature Residency from the University of Melbourne in 2001. She used the latter residency to study Peranakan culture in Malaysia for her second novel, The Dispeller Of Worries. In the same year, she received a $25,000 Developing Writers grant from the Australia Council’s Literature Board.
In 2007, Lau published the children’s book Yin’s Magic Dragon. In November that year, The Dispeller Of Worries was published.
Literary style and influences
Playing Madame Mao played with the notion of time as a linear narrative, and worked in many literary, philosophical and cultural references such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Singaporean culture and existentialism.
Lau cites Peter Carey, J. M. Coetzee, Yasunari Kawabata, Elias Canetti, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Patrick Suskind as writers she admires. In Singapore literature, Lau has been influenced by Catherine Lim, Boey Kim Cheng and Wong May.
Lau holds an interest in quantum mechanics and reality, and has researched books on the nature of time by the likes of Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking.
Selected published works
2000 : Playing Madame Mao
2007 : Yin’s Magic Dragon
2007 : The Dispeller Of Worries
1999 : Shortlisted in the 1999 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for Best Emerging Queensland Author for submitted manuscript of Playing Madame Mao.
2000 : Highly Commended in the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the 2000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Playing Madame Mao.
2001 : Shortlisted in the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2001 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards for Playing Madame Mao.
Alvin Chua and Joanna HS Tan
England, K. (2000). Eastern and Western Mythologies. Australian Book Review, June 2000, Issue 221. Retrieved on January 15, 2009, from http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/June00/eng.html
Forbes, E. (2009, July 30). The writing life…Lau Siew Mei. Eric Forbes’s book addict’s guide to good books. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/2008/04/on-couch-lau-siew-mei.html
Great leap backward. (2001, October 6). The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 28, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Lost innocence. (1988, March 26). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from NewspaperSG.
Milliner, K. (2000, June 17). Quiet achiever. The Courier Mail. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from Factiva.
National Book Development Council. (2010). Lau Siew Mei. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.bookcouncil.sg/_writers/writers_l.php
Quayum, M A. (2007). Interview with Lau Siew Mei. In Quayum, M A. Peninsular Muse: Interviews with Modern Malaysian and Singaporean Poets, Novelists and Dramatists (pp. 283-292). Peter Lang.
(Call no.: RSING 820.99595 PEN)
Seet, K. K. (2001, November/December). Writing away: For these two writers, distance brings objectivity and inspiration to the creative process. Esplanade: The Arts Magazine, 50-52.
(Call no.: RSING 791.095957 E)
Tan, H. H. (2002). Playing Against Type. Time. Retrieved on January 15, 2009, from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,335944,00.html?iid=chix-sphere
Tan. R. (1988, March 26). Giving unlived lives a chance to breathe. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from NewspaperSG.
The critical side of love. (2001, August 18). Business Times Singapore. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from Factiva.
The story of Jonas. (1988, March 26). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from NewspaperSG.
Tucker, S. (2001). Life in a World of Mirrors. Hecate’s Australian Women’s Book Review, Vol. 13 Number 2, 2001. Retrieved on January 15, 2009, from http://emsah.uq.edu.au/awsr/recent/132/n.html
Wagner, T. (2005). Occidentalism in novels of Malaysia and Singapore (1819-2004): Colonial and post-colonial financial straits and literary style (pp. 273-285). Edwin Mellen Press.
(Call no.: RSING S823.009321821 WAG)
Where's the NUS spirit? (1993, July 31). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved on February 28, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Writing grants. (2001, November 2). The Courier Mail. Retrieved on October 25, 2010 from Factiva.
Lau, S. M. (2000). Playing Madame Mao. Rose Bay, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger
Lau, S. M. (2007). Yin’s magic dragon. Fitzroy, Vic.: Black Dog Books.
Lau, S M. (2008). Bird on the Road. Asiatic IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature, Vol. 2 Number 1, June 2008. Retrieved on January 18, 2009, from http://asiatic.iiu.edu.my/Archive/articles/Bird%20on%20the%20Road.pdf
Lau, S. M. (2009). The dispeller of worries. Kuala Lumpur: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Lau, Siew Mei, 1968-
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature