In the early hours of March 31, prize-winning freelance journalist Clarissa Tan quietly passed away aged 42, after a year and half of battling colon cancer. A Malaysian by birth, Tan studied and worked in Singapore for 20 years before moving to London to complete a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. She spent the last few years of her life living in London, writing TV reviews and cultural comment pieces as a staff writer for British current affairs and culture magazine The Spectator.
Tan was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1972. She moved to Singapore at the age of 15 and completed her secondary and tertiary education here, before staying on as a freelance journalist for 20 years.
In 2007 her piece “The Visit” won The Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul memorial prize, awarded for ‘the most acute and profound observation of a culture evidently alien to the writer’. Her writing so impressed Fraser Nelson, now editor of The Spectator, that he asked her to move to London and work with the publication.
It is Nelson who now offers up the most eloquent rendering of her life, in his tribute ‘Remembering Clarissa Tan, 1972-2014’:
“On her desk, there is a list, headed ‘advantages of my current situation’. She had found 23 upsides. This is — was — Clarissa all over. She was defined by indefatigable optimism, humanity and love of life.”
Tan was a writer of remarkable breadth, and wrote for titles as varied as The Business Times (Singapore), asia! (an online blogging platform), Reader’s Digest Asia and The Daily Mail (UK), amongst others. Her topics spanned the financial world, the arts, lifestyle, education, and cultural commentary, and she was also working on a novel.
However among her most moving, poignant and beautifully-written pieces are the three in The Spectator (“I am not my cancer”, “This coming year, I want to live” and “The ideal death show”) in which she deals with the topic of death – specifically, her own death. In “This coming year, I want to live”, just a few months after she was diagnosed with cancer, she writes:
“This coming year, I resolve to do more of the things that make me feel awakened rather than dead. I’ll lean into uncertainty a bit more, and see what treasures lie there. I’ll try to say what I mean and mean what I say. I aspire to open my heart as much as possible to friends, and to vulnerability, and to love. I want to fashion my own rainbow, my own groovy disco ball.
“This coming year, I want to live.”
As of Tuesday April 1, the top six most-read stories on The Spectator’s website were all by Clarissa Tan. It is perhaps the most fitting tribute of all for an incredibly talented writer.