Off Stage

Finding Peranakan roots through theatre: Udang Sebalek Batu by Gunong Sayang Association

Eugene Tay and Audrey Tan (both left) play lovers in a Peranakan comedy
Eugene Tay and Audrey Tan (both above) play lovers in a Peranakan comedyPHOTO: GUNONG SAYANG ASSOCIATION

Eugene Tay, 36, plays the romantic male lead in the upcoming comedy, Udang Sebalek Batu (Hidden Truth) by Gunong Sayang Association.

Alongside actress Audrey Tan as his childhood love interest Daisy, he plays soft-spoken Jeff in this tale about a love that has to overcome the odds, including Daisy's matchmaking mother.

This production marks the 105th year of Gunong Sayang Association, which aims to create awareness of Peranakan culture through acting, singing and dancing.

Tay, who is single, is the founder of creative agency Monsters Under The Bed.

How did you get involved with Gunong Sayang Association?

I'm one of the rare few Peranakans left in this generation who can still lay claim to being full-blooded. I was in my late 20s and suffering from an early onset of terminal mid-life crisis - that was when I started looking for my roots.

Coincidentally, the son of the proprietor of a Peranakan restaurant was working for me in 2007. He knew the association was looking for actors for a production titled Pagar Makan Padi (Unreliable) and signed me up for it.

Nobody told the Gunong Sayang Association that I couldn't speak the language. I was given a pretty key role as a character that was in every scene and I had to master the language and pronunciation in a very short span of time.

This is, I think, my fifth performance with the association.

How did you prepare for this role?

I did something that I have been avoiding all my life: I watched romantic comedies as I have to play a lovey-dovey guy, but I initially looked sneaky and cheeky in rehearsals.

One other important thing I did was hit the gym because there's a scene in which I have to carry Daisy and I've got to do it without looking like I'm breaking a sweat.

How similar or different are you to your character Jeff?

Jeff is a goody two-shoes who grew up alongside his single mother and is very proficient in housework.

I'm extremely terrible at housework. Coming from a Peranakan family, the men weren't allowed in the kitchen and generally were not allowed to do housework.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I absolutely refuse to touch the script. You will find me bouncing around backstage singing songs and doing improvisational comedy or just clowning around.

This allows me to discharge any stale energy. I want it to be that when I'm on stage, the reaction and the emotions are brand new. Audiences tend to pick up on these things.

Do you get stage fright?

I get the jitters when I'm standing by the curtain waiting for my turn.

Will I trip? Is my zip up? Is this my turn? What if I forget my lines? What if...

And then it's my cue to go up on stage. The minute I step out and the stage light is on my face, I'm a different person. I simply love the thrill it gives me.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Finding Peranakan roots through theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe