Jannis Jizhou Chen, a Chinese Literature Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and a Graduate Student Associate at the Harvard Asia Center, is the author of a recently-published book of short fiction, The Stories of Eng Watt Street (發街事). The book, his first, was published by Linking Publishing in Taiwan and is a collection of twelve short stories that all take place on Eng Watt street, which is located in the Tiong Bahru area in Singapore.
Chen received his master’s degree from Harvard University (Regional Studies East Asia [RSEA]) in 2017, and his research interests include Sinophone literature, modern Chinese literature, Sino-German literary and cultural exchange, film studies, Chinese art, periphery and identity studies, and more importantly subjectivity and sociality in cross-generic and cross-disciplinary contexts. In recent years, his research has been increasingly engaged with the debates surrounding ecology, sociality, and posthumanism.
Born in China and raised in Singapore, Chen grew up in a multicultural and multilingual environment, which introduced him to his “gateway language” of German—the language that opened up study for him in the rest of Europe. His global interests were welcomed and expanded upon at Harvard, as the RSEA program allowed him to pursue his studies in Chinese Literature as well as his interest in other European languages and literatures.
According to Chen, his ten formative years in Singapore were spent on the periphery of a “central” culture. His interest in the study of the periphery and related interdisciplinary works, which Sinophone literature embodies, came out of this marginalized position—or as Chen tends to think of it, “a membrane with many things passing through.”
In the grand scheme of literary migration, Singaporean Chinese literature has always occupied a precarious position. For many readers in China, Taiwan, or the non-Chinese-speaking world, Chinese literary production in Singapore is often perceived as interesting but irrelevant or heard-of but never-read. In this vein, it is both “major" in terms of language and lineage but “minor" in terms of readership and circulation. However, Chen proposes a radically different perspective regarding binaries such as the center/periphery and major/minor.
Similar to the format of Joyce’s Dubliners, Chen weaves twelve seemingly independent narratives of twelve households into a literary tapestry that depicts the multimodal trajectories of their inhabitants, be they from Sichuan or Singapore, Beijing or Paris. Their global movements open up a timely, fresh perspective on migration and movement in our current political climate. Additionally, by juxtaposing different strands of leitmotifs—race and species, history and sexuality—Chen’s book enacts this very movement, real or imaginary, via his unique style that vacillates between uncanny lyricism and decadent grotesque.
The Stories of Eng Watt Street (永發街事) is available in all major bookshops in Taiwan online or offline. Read (in Chinese) more about the book, including an interview with Chen in Unitas: