Special Focus on Leong Liew Geok – “Father’s Orchids”

The intent of Singapore Poetry’s “Special Focus” series is to highlight an important aspect of the work of an established poet of Singapore. This aspect may be a thematic thread, formal preoccupation or recurring image; it will provide a vital way into the poet’s writings. By making available a substantial selection of poems, SP hopes to encourage both readerly and critical immersion in the poet’s body of work. We begin to see connections, reiterations and reformulations that are missed in reading just one poem.

SP is very pleased to begin this series by bringing you the extraordinary gardening poems of Leong Liew Geok. Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong moved to Singapore in 1981. Thereafter, she published two important collections of poems, Love Is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). The gardening poems in her second book represent a signal achievement in Singapore poetry. Alternating between lyrics and dramatic monologues, they are a sustained engagement with the cultivation of both self and environment. The poems will appear on this website, one every Thursday, in the course of the next ten weeks. The series will end with the publication of a new gardening poem by Leong. Photographs taken by the poet provide intimate glimpses of her garden and, by extension, Singapore, the Garden City.


Father’s Orchids
by Leong Liew Geok


Vandas, spathoglottis, oncidiums, mostly —
Strong, fat, undying. He slapped cowdung,
Misted fungicide, packed coconut husk,
Brick and charcoal when needed. On mornings
When he ladled urine from the earthen jar,
Mixing piss with water, the garden
Stank with the tonic he had mixed
To feed them once or twice a week.

Of all his orchids — and of those that live
Or die on me, I think of Father most
With uncommon Dendrobium anosmum:
Purple-pink; scented petals tapering,
A pair of purple spots deep-staining lip;
They hold for days. My father grew his
On branches of chiku and nona
To breathe, sun and bathe.

Treeless, mine live in a pot hanging
On bonsai copper strung between palms.
Four blooms have opened from one pseudobulb,
A lone fifth from another. I see
How they bloomed for him, at least
Twice in size, on whiter, stronger stems
Than mine. He had a way with his tree-borne
Orchids. I grow to remember, but belittle.


Reprinted with the kind permissions of author and Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd, the poem “Father’s Orchids” first appeared in Women without Men (Times Books International, 2000).


Leong Liew Geok

Born in Penang, Malaysia, Leong Liew Geok has lived in Singapore since 1981. She is the author of Love is Not Enough (1991) and Women without Men (2000). She edited More than Half the Sky: Creative Writings by Thirty Singaporean Women (1998; repr. 2009 ) and Literary Singapore: A directory of contemporary writing in Singapore (2011) for the National Arts Council. She taught at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore from 1981-2002. More recently, her poems have appeared online in Softblow Poetry Journal and Blue Lyra Review. She is (still!) working on her third collection of poems, envisaged for publication in 2016.


father's orchids

Photo by Leong Liew Geok. The orchid is Catasetum pileatum “Red Pena.”

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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