Play on family history a labour of love

My Grandfather's Road is produced by Neo Kim Seng (above, left) and features (from second left) Tan Cher Kian, Karen Tan and Gary Tang.
My Grandfather's Road is produced by Neo Kim Seng (above, left) and features (from second left) Tan Cher Kian, Karen Tan and Gary Tang.PHOTO: NEO KIM SENG

Theatre-maker and producer Neo Kim Seng's new production, My Grandfather's Road, is inspired by Neo Pee Teck Lane in Pasir Panjang, which was named after his late paternal grandfather.

Neo has written and directed two versions of this family history, which runs at Centre 42 from Thursday to Sunday.

Actress Karen Tan performs a monodrama in English. Actors Gary Tang and Tan Cher Kian perform a version in Cantonese, with English surtitles, written specially for Neo's mother, Madam Thong Oi Lin, who is in her 80s. (His father died a few years ago.)

"She sat through my English shows, although she couldn't understand much," says 54-year-old Neo. "I wanted to do a Cantonese show that she could understand."

My Grandfather's Road is a storytelling project tying together what Neo knows of his family history to its present-day relationships.

He knows that his late grandfather was a businessman, who died 10 months into the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II.

He owns an old street sign for Neo Pee Teck Lane, auctioned off by the Land Transport Authority when the colour and format of Singapore's street signs were changed. (Neo paid $52 for the sign and the only other bidder, he found out later, was his sister.)

  • BOOK IT / MY GRANDFATHER'S ROAD

  • WHERE: Centre 42 Black Box, 42 Waterloo Street

  • WHEN: English performances - Thursday, 8pm; Friday, 3pm; and Saturday, 8pm. Cantonese performances with English surtitles - Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm; Sunday, 2.30pm

  • ADMISSION: $25; e-mail nptlane@gmail.com

  • INFO: mygrandfathersroad.wordpress.com

Neo is an independent producer, curator and artist who graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1987. His past credits include the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore International Film Festival. He was a programmer with the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay from 2002 to 2009.

In 2015, he presented the first version of My Grandfather's Road for Cake Theatrical Productions' 10th-anniversary celebrations.

That installation performance featured old family photos and a monologue performed by actor Bjorn Lee Varella.

Last year, two Cantonese versions of My Grandfather's Road were performed at Centre 42, as part of the centre's The Vault programme.

Actor Tang performed a version in Singaporean Cantonese, while Tan Cher Kian performed in Malaysian Cantonese, highlighting the differences in dialect between the two countries.

My Grandfather's Road has evolved as Neo became closer to his family in recent years - looking through old photos for the 2015 production helped.

Although he and his parents almost always shared the same home - they moved out of Pasir Panjang in 1973 into a Housing Board flat in Clementi - they used to speak little to one another.

Neo says this started when he was 18 and his older brother, 21 then, died in a motorcycle accident. Grief took a toll on family ties - he also has two older sisters.

"I didn't know how to handle it. I didn't understand it. I wasn't close to my family and because they were grieving on their own terms, we didn't talk that much."

Things are different now and more conversations with his family are helping him further develop this play, which talks about the past. "I've a different relationship with my family now," he says, "and this is about me getting back with them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2018, with the headline 'Play on family history a labour of love'. Print Edition | Subscribe