Leong ’13 and Choi ’14 write book about graduate alumnus
The book, entitled “Singapore’s Lost Son,” describes the personal transformation of Kaiwen Leong GS ’11 — who is not related to the author — and is now a successful professor and businessman in Singapore. Leong’s childhood was defined by sexual abuse, bullying and poverty — pressures that lead him to eventually drop out of high school. But after resolving to begin a new life for himself in the United States, Leong studied independently for a pre-college exam in Singapore and performed well enough to gain admission to Boston University, where he began his studies in 2002.
Leong earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from BU. There he began to dabble in stock trading and real estate investments, first making trades from public computers in the school library. Later investments in China would yield about $1 million, which his mother-in-law then donated to Buddhist temples in China, reportedly by stuffing the cash in donation boxes.
In 2008, Leong was awarded a graduate fellowship and came to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. At the University, he became a resident graduate student at Rockefeller College and met the two students who would chronicle his life story.
Choi first encountered Kaiwen Leong in the basement of Fisher Hall late one night in 2009. After a series of conversations in which the two discussed Leong’s eventful past, Choi was inspired by the Singaporean’s personal story. He composed three reflective pieces about some of the more memorable events that Leong had described to him in his notepad and decided to broach the topic of co-authoring a book.
“At some point, I was just like, ‘Well, you have this absolutely ridiculous story ... It’s almost beyond belief,’ ” Choi recalled saying to Leong. “[I then asked] two questions: ‘How come everybody doesn’t know about this?’ And secondly, ‘How come you don’t tell everybody about this?’ ”
Though Leong was initially hesitant, he agreed to the writing project after reading Choi’s reflections on their conversations. The project broadened to include Elaine Leong after she mentioned in casual conversation among the three in the kitchen of Witherspoon Hall a year later that she liked to write creatively.
“I mentioned that I like to write, and Kaiwen is someone who likes to give chances to people to prove their skill or their talent,” Elaine Leong recalled. “Undergrads in Princeton are obviously very talented, but not everyone gets the chance to showcase their talent, right?”
After Kaiwen Leong invited her to join the project, Elaine Leong briefly hesitated because “to say that you want to write a book in Princeton is just like, something very crazy.” But after considering the difficulty of balancing writing and school, she decided to co-author the book anyway.
Though Kaiwen Leong graduated from the University in 2011, the project continued. After graduation, Leong worked for the Singaporean government in the capacity of “economist,” founded an enrichment program called Princeton Mind and became an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Over the next two years, the three authors identified key parts of Leong’s narrative, wrote chapters and circulated edits via email. Each chapter was rewritten several times to standardize the book’s tone. The book also underwent substantial edits each time the group received feedback from potential publishers. According to Choi, the authors contacted over 40 separate publishers.
“It was, simply put, madness,” Choi said, describing the process of writing and publishing the book as a “learn-as-you-go” experience. “It was a lot of work, [and] we put a lot of time into it.”
In 2011, the three approached the publishing company Marshall Cavendish, which agreed to publish the book on the condition that the authors make the house’s recommended edits and bear the cost of editing services.
Back on campus, Choi and Elaine Leong also approached prominent members of the Princeton community — including Tilghman, Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and former trustee Shelby Davis ’58 — with copies of the manuscript for review.
Tilghman reviewed the book favorably.
“Part memoir, part parable, it speaks of the importance of self-reliance and determination, as well as compassion and friendship. Ultimately, it suggests that ‘nothing is impossible’ if one sets a long-term goal and faithfully pursues it,” she wrote.
Journalism professor Evan Thomas also received a copy of the manuscript from Elaine Leong last year. He read it and encouraged her to continue writing, saying he was glad to “see that she and her friends have produced a book.”
Asked whether “Singapore’s Lost Son” might appeal to the Princeton community, Thomas said that he thought students could relate to the story.
“It’s a story of determination and overcoming adversity, so it has a lot of relevance to students here, who are hard workers and have to deal with adversity all the time,” he said.
The book was released in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish on Sept. 28 and 2,000 copies were printed. As of now, Marshall Cavendish has only released hard copies of the book in Singapore, but it will soon be distributed to other Southeast Asian countries and is expected to reach the U.K. in February 2013. The e-book is available to Amazon customers in the U.S. and the U.K.
Correction: Due to reporting errors, a previous version of this article contained several inaccuracies. The article incorrectly stated that the students bore the cost of printing and editing services, when the students only bore the cost of editing services. The article incorrectly stated that the book sold 2,000 copies, when 2,000 copies were printed. Further, the article should have stated that money donated by Kaiwen Leong GS ’11 was placed by his mother-in-law in donation boxes at Buddhist temples. The 'Prince' regrets the errors.
Clarification: A previous version of this article should have stated that Leong passed a pre-college exam in Singapore. In addition, the money he earned was made in China and donated to Buddhist temples in China.