Ovidia Yu

Singapore Infopedia


Ovidia Yu (b. 1961, Singapore–) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is the recipient of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore Foundation Culture Award (1996), the National Arts Council Young Artist Award (1996) and the Singapore Youth Award (1997).1 Her plays have been performed locally and abroad.2

Early life
Yu came from a book-loving family where her father was a doctor and her mother was a mathematics teacher and school choir mistress.3

Yu’s passion for literature began in her childhood.She read extensively and began writing at Methodist Girls’ School.5 When she was 10, she was writing her own sequels to short stories. Reading became her outlet in school when classes began to feel boring.6

Yu’s pathologist father wanted his daughter to study medicine. She complied and successfully gained admission to the medical faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS). However, she left a few months later to take up English literature.Having set her heart to writing full-time, she turned down a PhD scholarship at the University of Cambridge after completing a master’s degree in literature.8 In 1990, Yu attended the University of Iowa’s acclaimed International Writing Programme.9


Yu’s debut play was staged when she was studying at Anglo-Chinese Junior College.10

Through collaborations with theatre groups such as TheatreWorks, The Necessary Stage, Action Theatre, Wayang-Wayang Theatre Company,11 plays written by Yu were staged for both local and international audiences.12 She has written over 30 plays.13 Yu tries to write strong characters in her plays because characters “drive the play”, and are “put in situations”. Some of her best-known plays are: Playing Around, The Women in a Tree on a Hill, Haunted, Breast Issues, Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, Viva Viagra and Hitting (On) Women. Described as “Singapore’s first truly feminist writer” by academic K. K. Seet, her plays delve into the changing roles and identities of Singaporeans, particularly issues relating to the marginalisation of women.14

In the earlier part of her career, Yu wrote primarily during the day, between 9 am and 5 pm.15 A source of inspiration for her stories is her shopping trips, during which she walked around shopping centres and eavesdrops on conversations.16 Yu kept a notebook in her bag and in her car, taking notes almost wherever she goes. She wrote down her thoughts and observations, snippets of overheard conversations, appointment notices, as well as notes to herself and others. Note-taking is a habit for her as well as a necessity. This is because she suffered from occasional black-outs and memory lapses due to epilepsy.17 Besides writing, Yu has also shared her skills and experience with students by conducting creative writing workshops.18

After turning 50, Yu left her corporate life and focused on writing fiction. Yu made a name for herself internationally with overseas publishers. In 2012, her children’s book The Mudskipper was published by Scholastic India. In 2013, Yu’s first book of “Auntie Lee’s” series of mysteries about a nosy Peranakan cook was published by Harper Collins’ imprint William Morrow in the United States and later, in Britain. The mystery novel became a hit and three more books in the series follow suit.19 Yu continued her success as a mystery novelist with her 2017 historical mystery novel  The Frangipani Tree Mystery.20

 First prize, Asiaweek Short Story Competition for “A Dream of China”.21

1985: Second prize, short play competition organised by the NUS’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Shell Group of Companies, for Dead on Cue.22
1992: Commendation Award, The Singapore Literature Prize organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore.23
1993: Scotsman Fringe First Award, Edinburgh Fringe Festival for The Woman in a Tree on a Hill.24
1996: Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore Foundation Culture Award.25
1996: National Arts Council Young Artist Award.26
1997: Singapore Youth Award (Arts and Culture).27

 Moses Yu (Dr), a pathologist.
 First name also Ovidia, a mathematics teacher and choir mistress.

Brother: Peter Yu, a dentist.

Nureza Ahmad

1. Joshua Lye, “Ovidia, You Got It,” Straits Times, 15 July 2000, 22; Eunice Ng, “She’s Got the Write Stuff,” Straits Times, 13 October 2009, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Cheah Ui-Hoon, “Taking Note of Ovidia,” Business Times, 2 June 2001, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
3. B. Sunuja, “Hooked on Books,” Straits Times, 11 April 1993, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Sunuja, “Hooked on Books.” 
5. Rebecca Chua, “Pragmatic Ovidia Writes to Win,” Straits Times, 27 December 1984, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Ng, “She’s Got the Write Stuff.” 
7. Chua, “Pragmatic Ovidia Writes to Win.”
8. Sunuja, “Hooked on Books.” 
9. “Writers from Singapore,” The University of Iowa, accessed 26 November 2018.
10. Ng, “She’s Got the Write Stuff.” 
11. Clarissa Oon, “Sit under the Mango Tree and Watch a Play,” Straits Times, 28 June 1999, 6; Susan Tsang, “How Do the Plays Fare on the Stage?Straits Times, 23 November 1996, 32. (From NewspaperSG); Kirpal Singh, Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, vol. 8: Interviews II (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009), 259, 263. (Call no. RSING S820.9 INT)
12. Cheah, “Taking Note of Ovidia.” 
13. “Ovidia Yu,” Harper Collins Publishers, accessed 29 November 2018; Ovidia Yu, Eight Plays (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2011). (Call no. RSING S822 YU)
14. Cheah, “Taking Note of Ovidia”; Ng, “She’s Got the Write Stuff”; Ovidia Yu, “A Female Counter-Canon: Ovidia Yu and the Politics of Gender,” in Eight Plays (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2011), ix, xiii. (Call no. RSING S822 YU)
15. S. Long, “I Like Money a Lot,” Straits Times, 7 February 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Raoul le Blond, “Six Young People with the X-Factor.” Straits Times, 2 July 1997, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Cheah, “Taking Note of Ovidia.” 
18. le Blond, “Six Young People with the X-Factor.”
19. Akshita Nanda, “Ovidia Yu’s Fresh Change for Fame at 52,” Straits Times, 9 October 2013 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “Peranakan Page-Turners,” Straits Times, 17 January 2017, 2; “Page 1 Advertisements Column 1: Local Books Going Global,” Straits Times, 17 January 2017, 1; Akshita Nanda, “Singapore Stories Go Global,” Straits Times, 3 September 2015, 4–5 (From NewspaperSG); Billy Heller, “Required Reading,” New York Post, 28 September 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
20. Helmi Yusof, “Delightful Whodunit,” Straits Times, 30 December 2017 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Harper Collins Publishers, “Ovidia Yu.”
21. Chua, “Pragmatic Ovidia Writes to Win.” 
22. Ovidia Yu, “Lines to Hook Your Reader,” Straits Times, 26 September 1987, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Koh Buck Song, “Lim's Sweet Irony,” Straits Times, 9 September 1992, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Hannah Pandian, “Singapore Play Wins Two Awards at Edinburgh Fest,” Straits Times, 11 September 1993, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Scholarship Is a Step Towards Her Dream Foreign Service Job,” Straits Times, 27 March 1996, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Poet and Composer’s Shining Hour,” Straits Times, 31 August 1996, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. le Blond, “Six Young People with the X-Factor.”
28. Sunuja, “Hooked on Books.” 

The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Ong Keng Sen


Ong Keng Sen (b. 1964, Singapore–), the critically acclaimed artistic director of TheatreWorks, a local theatre company, is best known for his intercultural Shakespeare-inspired trilogy of works – Lear, Desdemona and Search: Hamlet. He was the artistic director of an international arts festival, In-Transit, held at the House of World...

Leong Yoon Pin


Leong Yoon Pin (b. 5 August 1931, Singapore–d. 13 April 2011, Singapore) was a composer, conductor and educator. Described as the doyen of Singapore composers, Leong was well known for his choral compositions, many of which were locally commissioned and performed by both amateur and professional choirs. His compositions were...

Desmond Sim


Desmond Sim Kim Jin (b. 1961, Singapore–) is a playwright, poet, short-story writer and painter. He is best known for his short stories and plays that he has penned and staged. His accomplishments include winning the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry (Merit) for his collection of poems Places Where I’ve...

Cultural Medallion


The Cultural Medallion honours individuals who have achieved excellence in the fields of literary arts, performing arts, visual arts and film, and contributed to Singapore’s cultural environment. The award is conferred by the president of Singapore and administered by the National Arts Council (NAC). Instituted in 1979 by Ong Teng...

Catherine Lim


Catherine Lim Poh Imm (b. 21 March 1942, Penang, Malaysia–) is the doyenne of Singapore stories having written more than nine collections of short stories, five novels and a poetry book. She began as a teacher; then project director with the Ministry of Education; specialist lecturer with the Regional Language...

Dick Lee


Lee Peng Boon (b. 1956, Singapore–), popularly known as Dick Lee, is one of Singapore’s best-known personalities in the arts scene. Besides his creative output as a musician, playwright and designer, Lee is also involved in events management and advertising. In addition, Lee sits on the advisory boards of several...

Quek Ling Kiong


Quek Ling Kiong (???) (b. 1967, Singapore–) is a percussionist and the resident conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO). Winner of the National Art Council’s Young Artist Award in 2002 and recipient of the NAC Cultural Fellowship in 2013, Quek is committed to spreading his passion and knowledge of...

Lee Tzu Pheng


Lee Tzu Pheng (b. 13 May 1946, Singapore–) is one of Singapore’s distinguished poets. A retired university lecturer, she has published in anthologies and journals internationally. Her three volumes of poetry, Prospect of a Drowning (1980), Against the Next Wave (1988) and The Brink of an Amen (1991), have won...

Choo Hoey


Choo Hoey (b. 20 October 1934, Palembang, Sumatra, Indonesia–) is the founder and conductor emeritus of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). He was the SSO’s resident conductor and music director from 1979 to 1996. A master in his field, Choo has gained a reputation for his expert handling of the...

Indie music in Singapore


Independent (commonly shortened to “indie”) music encompasses a wide range of musical genres, including rock, pop, metal and folk. Indie music is associated with alternative, non-mainstream productions and forms of distribution. Increasingly, the term “indie music” is also used to refer to musical styles that deviate from the mainstream, popular...