Singaporean playwright Damon Chua's play debuts in New York

Playwright Damon Chua (above) on his work, about an American spy who is embroiled in the mysteries of post-war China. -- ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM
Playwright Damon Chua (above) on his work, about an American spy who is embroiled in the mysteries of post-war China. -- ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIMST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

Damon Chua's award- winning Film Chinois to show off-Broadway next year

The scene opens with a woman, smoking and nursing a coffee as she watches the smoke curl up into the darkness of the ceiling.

She turns to address the audience. "The year, 1947. The city, Beijing," she says.

Actually, the city is New York; the year, 2015, and New York-based Singaporean playwright Damon Chua, 48, will be in the audience watching intently as his play, Film Chinois, makes its off-Broadway debut.

If you had asked Chua two years back if he had expected to see his name in lights in New York City, he would probably have said no. Back then, he was still sending his script over the transom to various theatre companies.

Film Chinois is one of the few Singaporean works staged in what is regarded as one of the world's theatre capitals. Previous instances include US-based Singapore playwright Chay Yew's A Language Of Their Own, which was staged in New York in 1995.

Speaking to Life! at the New York office of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, which is staging the show, Chua is grateful the company has picked up the play, which he admits is "technically quite challenging" especially in terms of recreating the period and mood.

"The plays I write are not very produceable," he says, scrunching his face, almost apologetically. With a hint of resignation, he adds: "I just write what I'm attracted to."

This would be the second time Film Chinois, a film noir-inspired piece about an American spy who gets embroiled in the mysteries of 1947, post-war China, is being staged.

The play is not an unknown entity, having picked up the prize for Best World Premiere Play at the Ovation Awards in 2007 - the Los Angeles equivalent of the Obie Awards in New York.

It was published by Samuel French in 2008.

Although written in 2006, the themes in Film Chinois seem more timely than ever, especially as the US and China struggle to define what has been dubbed a "new model" of great power relations, and the US engages in the much talked-about Asian rebalance.

Says Chua of his play: "It's about America going out there to intervene in domestic politics. How do they straddle the line between meddling and doing what is right?"

Adds Ms Tisa Chang, 72, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's founder and artistic producing director: "We have not done a mystery in 30 years and to do one with political relevance is enticing."

The play, she says, will cost US$150,000 (S$193,340) to stage at The Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street and will be directed by Kaipo Schwab, who was born and raised in Hawaii.

Chua, an Oxford-trained lawyer with a Stanford master's in business administration, wrote the piece after having lived in America for five years.

"I was trying to understand America; it helped me understand the country's role in the international arena," he said, adding that this was the first play he wrote in the US. His other full-length plays include 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape, A Book By Its Cover and The Ghost Building.

His current day job is in educational consulting, where he assists students with their university application, but most of his time is devoted to his writing.

Prior to this, he had been an investment banker and a film executive in Hollywood.

While he has no interest in writing a film, Chua says that "Film Chinois is in part a homage to film noir a la Wong Kar Wai", referring to the cult director known for making nostalgia-tinged movies about romantic longing.

Asked if it was always his dream  to have a show in New York City, the  son of a retired businessman and housewife says: "I don't think it was consciously on my mind, but it was more subconscious."

He does, however, remember his first trip to New York with his parents and recalls watching a musical on Broadway.

"What struck me was the energy of New York at the time, but I never imagined I would have a play here," he says.

Rehearsals will begin next month, but the short film which goes with the play is already being produced and Chua says he is excited to see the outcome, though he feels no pressure to win another award for his work.

"Sure, if people think it's good enough, but what I want is a good production. I would love for a new audience to see what a Singaporean playwright has to say."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

Previews for Film Chinois begin on Jan 17. The show opens on Jan 22 and will run until Feb 8. Tickets are available at www.telecharge.com