I never met Justin Chin, and now it’s too late. He died on Christmas Eve after his family took him off life support. Two people wrote me separately to ask if I knew Justin Chin. Why ask me? Because we both moved from Singapore to the States, and we both are poets and gay. Born in Malaysia, Justin Chin grew up in Singapore. He was just one year older than I am. He probably went to Anglo-Chinese School. I’m guessing from the comment on an obituary left by Singaporean actor and comedian Hossan Leong. Hossan Leong was a classmate of Justin Chin’s since six, and Hossan Leong studied at ACS and ACJC.
After ACS, Justin Chin went to the University of Hawaii before transferring to San Francisco State University. In the 90’s he made a name for himself on the San Francisco poetry scene, writing and performing work that was full of “humor and raw vulnerability,” as the POETRY Foundation website describes it. The website also calls him “fiercely political.” Justin Chin published many books, of poetry and non-fiction. Gutted (2006), a book of poems about tending to his dying father, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and won the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award.
All this I learned from a few minutes of googling. There is obviously much more to learn and to be said, but already questions crowd my mind. Who is his literary executor, the person responsible for preserving and disseminating his literary legacy? Will the executor advocate for the different aspects of Justin Chin’s life and work, not only his gay identity but also his Singaporean/Malaysian origins? Will Singapore literature claim him as one of its own? Does Justin Chin wish to be claimed by Singapore literature? Who will decide now that he is no longer here to express his wishes? None of the three American obituaries I read mentions his relationship with Singapore after he left. In all three, he is identified or identifiable as Asian American. What is and will be his status in Asian American literature and American gay literature?
A broader question: who are the writers writing in the USA who are originally from Singapore? By “who,” I don’t just mean the names, but the meaning of these writers. There are many of us here: Wena Poon, Sandi Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Colin Goh, Yen Yen Woo, Damon Chua, Marcus Yi, Jeremy Tiang, Amanda Lee Koe, Lo Kwa Mei-en, to reel off some names. And if we include Canada, even more, including pioneering writer Goh Poh Seng and Lydia Kwa. Who will write our story, and what will our story say?
All these questions may seem beside the point when a man has just died. They affect, however, how we mourn for Justin Chin, or even if we mourn at all. Family and friends mourn for the person that they knew. Those of us outside the circle of personal intimacy find our own reasons to mourn this death, coming at the closing of the year. Reasons to do with common sexual orientation, national origin, or personal history. What I find affects me most is the loss of the poet that he was. These three poems published in Shampoo make me want to read more of his poetry.