Bak Kut Teh for the Soul

24 May 2013
Interview by Sam Kee
Photo by Leow Yangfa

I Will Survive: Personal gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender stories in Singapore brings together real-life experiences of love, grace, faith, dignity and courage from 21 ordinary people who have survived extraordinary circumstances.

We recently interviewed Leow Yangfa who is the editor of the e-book (published by Monsoon Books in December 2011) & the print book (published by Math Paper Press in April 2013). Professionally trained as a social worker, he has spent most of his adult life involved in social services, including a previous job in a large statutory organisation, and volunteer work with an HIV/AIDS group in Singapore and a charity for the homeless in London.

bak kut teh for the soul

Frankly speaking, the first thought that came into my mind was, is this a book like Chicken Soup for the Soul – a popular inspirational book series during my school days in the 90s?

I suppose it’s a mix of trying to be inspirational, honest and hopeful, all at the same time, and there’s something for everyone. So you’re probably right; although as a veggie myself, I might prefer to call it a mushroom or sweetcorn soup instead.

While Chicken Soup for the Soul was largely a foreign/western context, some of their stories and advices would not have been relevant to our predominantly conservative Asian society. So I was thinking, maybe your book could become a series of Bak Kut Teh for the Soul, specially tailored and relevant for the local context.

A whole series? Let’s get more writers on board! OK let’s order up a lotus root & groundnut soup (as a starter), and red bean soup (for dessert) then?

Through this collection of true stories, what did you wish this book could bring for the society? (or everyone in general)

a) To bring awareness to those in the LGBT community who are still afraid and struggling with the judgement of others?

b) To share these stories, hoping that through this form, LGBT persons can draw empathy, be encouraged and consoled?

c) To be a point of contact that they could reach for in desperate times?

d) To bring awareness to the rest of the society the truth of what goes behind the doors in the lives of their fellow LGBT persons’ lives?

(e) All of the above.

Tell us the true motive, outcome(s), and impact(s) us that you hoped to achieve when you published this book with Math Paper Press.

The idea behind the book – and the subsequent process of collecting the stories – came about as a result of losing a gay friend through suicide. Back in March 2009, I saw a note he had posted on Facebook, and it was clear he was talking about death and suicide.

Ironically, I was then in Sydney attending the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. While online, I was only able to engage him through Facebook messages. We talked about how he was feeling, and then the conversation trailed off and ended.

Less than 2 days later, I heard from mutual friends that he had killed himself. As we found out later, he was living with depression, and was having some relationship problems. It also seemed that he had planned to kill himself a few days before his birthday.

So you could say part of my intention to collect stories was to deal with feeling helpless about not being able to prevent his suicide. As a gay man, and a social worker, I felt I had to do something, and turn this personal tragedy into something positive that would hopefully have a wider impact on others.

Was it hard to get a publisher to publish a book with such controversial content in Singapore? (We feel really glad that it was published by a local publishing house, instead of having to go through the trouble in getting a foreign effort to support this very local and critical social issue.)

It was hard finding publishers who would take on the work, but it was not because it had an LGBT theme. From talking to the few publishers I had the pleasure of meeting, the primary concern seemed to be financial viability. I had never been published, and no one had heard of me as far as the publishing and writing fraternity was concerned. Naturally, any publisher would be cautious about signing me on and putting their money into this.

After lots of emails and a few meetings with some publishers, I eventually went with Monsoon Books who had a novel idea – to keep costs low and publish it as an ebook, and distribute it as widely as possible online through ebookstores. So we did that in December 2011. Although it became accessible to readers worldwide, locally the ebook market is still pretty small and limited.

In 2012 I started talking to BooksActually, a bookstore in Tiong Bahru, who through their publishing arm Math Paper Press was very keen to support local LGBT literature. And so the print book was born, and we’re currently working hard to publicise it, so thank you for this opportunity to be featured in your website!

Having said all that, I must add that my experience of meeting with and talking to various publishers has been extremely positive. Whether it was through sheer coincidence or design, both publishers I eventually worked with turned out to be really wonderful straight men!

Phil Tatham, who runs Monsoon Books, is a lovely gentleman, and someone I would gladly sit down and share a few drinks with.

Kenny Leck, who runs BooksActually and Math Paper Press, is probably one of the coolest straight guys I know, with the funkiest hair.

One thing I’ve learnt from them is to have lots of patience with publishers, especially independent ones. They’re usually very well-meaning but often overworked!

Suicidal Tendencies & Counsellors

As a social worker, could you tell us if there is an increasing correlation between LGBT issues (including homophobia & transphobia issues) and suicidal tendencies in Singapore?

You know, if it’s one thing we’re lacking in Singapore, it’s research on the link between homophobia/transphobia and mental health/suicide in the local LGBT community.

Oogachaga Counselling & Support has published their report on homophobia & transphobia in Singapore. You can read more here:

Separately, the Singapore Department of Statistics also releases annual suicide figures, which average about 400 per year, or 1 or 2 deaths per day. But we don’t know how many of them are LGBT, and what their motives were.

Internationally, research in North America, the UK and Australia have shown that LGBT youths are up to 3 to 4 times more likely to self-harm or die by suicide, as compared to their non-LGBT peers. The common factor seems to be social-environmental, rather than individual: suicide happens in the LGBT community when there are higher levels of bullying, discrimination and homophobia, and a lack of social acceptance from family and community.

Is there any interventions or advice we could give to our friends or youths-at-risk who may be facing these difficulties? (Struggling with coming to terms their identity and orientation, in denial due to various instilled moral construct and/or religious values, fear of disappointment etc.)

Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a very personal process. There are theories about the stages of coming out & acceptance that I shouldn’t bore you with, but basically what’s important for everyone to understand is that it’s often a difficult process for an LGBT person in Singapore to come out in an often homophobic social environment.

Homophobia refers to one’s feelings of fear, hatred or disgust towards homosexuals, and the prejudiced view that lesbians and gay men are wrong, immoral, sick or sinful.

For example, when a gay man or lesbian is telling you about their same-sex partner, it is ignorant and homophobic to ask “So who is the man and who is the woman in your relationship?”

At a social level, it is also homophobic for a religious leader to preach and call for the continued criminalization of gay men, because it’s against their religious morality.

At the policy level, it is homophobic to retain a piece of legislation that denies rights to a minority group. Institutionalised homophobia in Singapore is best exemplified in section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises adult gay men for consensual sexual behavior. It is so deeply entrenched that any attempts to achieve equality by repealing it is perceived as a threat to society.

So when you encounter someone who may be struggling with their identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person, here are a few things you can do for yourself and for them:

If your friend comes out to you, be a true friend in return. Thank them for sharing that very personal part of themselves with you.

Here are a few suggestions how you can continue to show your friendship and support for them:

• Understand your own feelings about LGBT people and issues.

• Understand why you feel it is important to support your LGBT friend.

• Understand what is homophobia and heterosexism.

• Learn more about the LGBT community.

• Don’t “out” people unless given permission to do so.

• Don’t make assumptions; ask about things you don’t understand.

• Talk with and learn from people whom you know are LGBT.

• Stay close to your LGBT friends; they need your support, understanding and non-judgemental attitude!

(the above points are adapted from SAFE – Supporting, Affirming & Empowering our LGBTQ friends and

You see, I used to be a teacher in a government school, I suppose most of these advices and stories would be very useful to educators and school counsellors who are concerned with the social-emotional well being of their students. Have you thought about making your books more accessible to youths, in order for early interventions to be made?

Not surprisingly in Singapore, the Ministry of Education is one of the most homophobic institutions. This probably stems from the misguided and highly offensive belief that LGBT people (especially gay men) should not be in positions where they are working with young people, as there is the risk of inappropriate sexual conduct. If we are to believe that, then we should just completely stop hiring men to be teachers, as straight men can also be perceived as also at risk of sexually abusing female students. And as we have seen through recent cases, female teachers may also find themselves in situations where they have sexual relationships with their male students too.

Having said that, one way of making the book more accessible to young people is to have it in print form. Soon after the ebook was published, I remember receiving an email from a young person who said he had difficulty getting a copy, as he did not have a credit card to make online payment, and borrowing his parent’s would mean having to explain what the ebook was about as it would show up on the bill.

So although it is highly unlikely that this book will be widely circulated among MOE teachers, stocked in any school libraries or listed as a set text, in addition to BooksActually, it is now available in a bookstore chain (Kinokuniya) and as a local publication, will be found in all National Library branches.

Just not long ago, Ng Yi-Sheng published SQ 21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and your very own story was published inside. Were you somehow also inspired by him/his book?

This was back in 2006, and that was how I first met Ng Yi-Sheng, who was introduced to me by a friend. As he was looking for people to interview in his book.

He interviewed me for my coming out story, and when the book was published, I was struck by how powerful it was to have all the stories written in the first person voice.

So yes, you could certainly say his presentation of SQ21 was a source of inspiration for me and influenced the form that the stories in I Will Survive eventually took.

Yi-Sheng also wrote a very kind review of the ebook, which was published on the Asian LGBT portal; at the recent launch of the print book, he was invited to read excerpts from the story “My hopes and dreams”, about Lester who was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 18.

Another obvious source of inspiration (for the book title) was the gay anthem by disco diva Gloria Gaynor!!!

I like your earnest and honest approach in relating the stories. There seems to be no underlying connotations or glamourizing of the LGBT identity/community. It seems like there is no hidden agenda besides wanting to relate these stories as they are to the rest of the world. Is this what you wish to intend?

Yes, you’ve put it rather nicely for me, thank you!

But it was a really tough decision I had to make, almost mid-way through the whole process, driven as I was by my emotional reaction to my friend’s suicide initially. I set out to collect stories from people who had been through difficult times, yet still managed to triumph and thrive.

Along the way, I sent out draft chapters to friends (who were either writers themselves, or whose opinions I valued) to get their feedback and perhaps endorsement.

One friend in particular, whom I shall not name, very candidly said to me that he was worried about the tone of some of the stories. He felt that perhaps some of them were too depressing, which might have the effect of sending out a disturbing message to LGBT youths. Additionally, he expressed concerns about the stories perpetuating negative LGBT stereotypes to non-LGBT readers.

It was a shock for me to hear this feedback, and I took it seriously. It certainly was never my intention to portray the LGBT community in any negative light to the wider community, or frighten young readers who may just be discovering their own sexual orientation or gender identity.

Re-reading some of my drafts, I found myself focusing quite heavily on the process of struggle, sometimes at the expense of highlighting the contributor’s resilience and resourcefulness. So I had to re-work some chapters, and consciously reminded myself that in all interviews, I needed to continue to ask how they coped, and what helped them along the way, so as to accurately describe how each one of them was also resilient in their own way.

Lastly, drawing experiences from my close friends, it seems that breaking the news of their sexual orientation to their parents seems to be the hardest hurdle to cross. In one short sentence, what would you say to them?

Come out of the lonely closet (Narnia doesn’t actually exist in there), and when you do come out, always do it in your own time and in your own terms.