Classic Singapore Plays

Playwright Jean Tay's Boom is a sign of the times

Life! picks a classic of Singapore's English- language theatre and tells you why it matters in this 13th instalment of a monthly series

Play: Boom (September 2008)

Playwright: Jean Tay

What it is about: An elderly woman and her property agent son, Boon, are divided over the potential en-bloc sale of their long-time home. Their house holds many memories for Mother, who is adamant on staying. In the meantime, civil servant Jeremiah is tasked with the exhumation of graves, but this gets complicated when one of the corpses insists on staying put. As the two stories collide, Boom paints a picture of the struggle between Singapore's push to develop and the pull of the past.

During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Jean Tay wrote the play Plunge, drawing from her economics background to bring the downward spiral of various economies into sharp focus.

A decade later, the region had picked itself up, Singapore was doing well economically, its property market was scaling frenzied heights and Tay, who had been an economist with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, joked to herself that she ought to write a play called Boom.

While on a playwriting residency at Britain's Royal Court Theatre in 2007, she did just that.

The en-bloc buzz caught her eye as, one by one, older estates underwent redevelopment and there were many unhappy home owners who found themselves having to move out of their long-term homes - because 80 per cent of their neighbours agreed to the sale.

The extremes of prosperity and poverty were intriguing to her because this seemed a world away from plunging stock markets. She wondered: "How would prosperity create adverse effects for people and impact their lives in a negative way?"

At the same time, her civil servant husband, who was working at the Ministry of National Development at the time, gave her another nugget of information that was new to her - in Singapore cemeteries, the dead are given a 15-year lease.

"The Government has the right to exhume the body and essentially kick you out. I always thought when we said, 'rest in peace', it meant, well, a longer time period - maybe forever," she says with a laugh. "At least a lot of our property leases are 99 years."

She adds: "We know that land is scarce in Singapore, but is it really scarce to the extent that both our dead and living are constantly being relocated? It feels like nothing can stand against progress or the redevelopment of land."

Tay later read several news articles that would inspire the development of some of her characters. In a story set in China, she found an arresting image of a lone house standing against demolition, the only one left standing when all the rest had been bulldozed to the ground. In Singapore, there was a woman who refused to move out of her home, believing that the spirit of her dead husband would not be able to find her.

Tay says: "For the dead, usually no one speaks for them. So what if I gave the dead a voice?"

So she created two stories that would unfold in tandem - one between an elderly mother and her son, another between an earnest civil servant and a talking corpse.

She was resident playwright at the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) at the time and had the chance to shape her play together with its director Tracie Pang, now co-artistic director of theatre company Pangdemonium, as well as the cast and SRT staff. These early readings with the actors gave her room to write several drafts of the play.

She credits Pang with helping her to maintain her focus on the story, which she realised belonged largely to the character of the property agent Boon, originated by Sebastian Tan of Broadway Beng fame.

The Britain-born Pang says: "For me, coming from the United Kingdom where we have a huge history of landmarks in all sorts of areas, not just in architecture, listening to the stories she was trying to tell, I could understand where she was coming from, this feeling of - are we losing something really important?"

She adds: "I thought for modern Singapore, it was a very important story to tell. There were no right or wrong answers... What do we lose in the journey to progress? What should we try and keep a hold of? How much of people's emotions and cares do we have to hold on to when we're carrying out this progress?"

This 10-month process of development gave Tay some much-needed breathing space. Some of the actors gave her suggestions and she recalled how Fanny Kee, who played the mother, felt that a woman of that age and education level might not be able to speak as fluently or artfully as she did on the page. So Tay worked on "degrading" the language, removing with some wistfulness "the beautiful lyrical bits", but at the same time being true to her characters.

She says: "It's not me speaking anymore, it's the character speaking and I have to allow the characters to speak in their voice."

The original work was also "significantly heavier", she says, without as many of the touches of light, witty humour that give the play levity but also make its dramatic moments that much more intense.

Pang says this gave the audience a bit of a "respite" and also "breathes life into the piece, and a sense of reality - that even in our darkest moments, we find something to laugh about".

The creative team also deftly navigated some unexpected circumstances, eventually incorporating some of them into the piece. For instance, actor and funnyman Chua Enlai, who played civil servant Jeremiah, had injured his foot and was hobbling around during rehearsals with a walking stick. This was turned into an umbrella, which became an integral part of the actual show, where Chua would use it both as a crutch and also to poke certain objects rather irreverently - including the corpse's tombstone. The umbrella later also becomes a powerful image when Jeremiah does a final send-off of the corpse (played by Brendon Fernandez).

Tay also had to dredge up memories of conversing with her grandmother in dialect from her childhood for the Hokkien used in the play. Like the erasure of Singapore's physical landscape, the use of Chinese dialects is another fragment of heritage that is also fast disappearing.

Actress Kee, whose dialogue contained many Hokkien phrases and terms, struggled with the dialect. She had to approach her parents for help with definitions and pronunciation, but eventually earned a Life! Theatre Award nomination for Best Actress for the role.

She also performed in a revival of the play by Sight Lines Productions in 2012, with a younger team of cast members and creatives mostly in their 20s. Its director, Derrick Chew, had also been through the en-bloc process with his former home.

The team visited Bukit Brown cemetery to prepare for the play and was struck by how the emotional cost of economic process was still being overlooked. Part of the cemetery is slated to make way for a highway.

Kee says: "Bukit Brown was a huge eye-opener for me. Architectually, some of those tombs are gorgeous. They tell the stories of people who were buried there. How much of that is valued and what do we value now?"

She adds: "Boom brings home very strongly for me that progress is not sentimental. No matter how wonderful and poignant we think the past is, it has to go and we are helpless against it."

Pang feels one does not need to be Singaporean to feel the resonances of the play, which was a reason she felt drawn to direct it - the first local piece of theatre she tackled.

Tay witnessed this first-hand when the show travelled through the UK under the umbrella of British company Yellow Earth Theatre in 2009. While the execution of the work was questionable, with non-Singaporean actors attempting very poorly to speak in the same accent, Tay was part of a talk-back session in Greenwich where an "appreciative" audience said it could relate to a lot of the play, whether it was the tussle between old and new, or a child wanting to move out of the family home, or linking the play with homes being displaced by the impending 2012 London Olympics.

Tay continues to create plays based on Singapore's physical heritage and lesser-known histories. She wrote Senang (2014), about the prison riots on Pulau Senang in the 1960s; as well as Sisters: The Untold Stories Of The Sisters Islands (2013), blending a real-life murder with folklore. She is working on a Singapore International Festival of Arts commission with theatre group Drama Box, which will be set in Bukit Brown.

She sums up that perennial struggle articulated in Boom: "Progress does not come without a cost. And yet, if you can't let go of these things, if you can't let go of the past, you can't move on. You can't stay there and moulder and stagnate - that's also not what you want. There's always a fine balance that has to be struck between the two."

She adds: "There will always be negotiations and contestations. But I think if people are more aware of the issues, of heritage, of what they are sacrificing, before they just plough on and move on, that debate becomes more considered. You know what you are sacrificing - you don't just do it blindly. You think of other ways in which you can retain your heritage or the past."

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Boom by Jean Tay is available from Epigram Books at $13.90.

The next instalment of this 15-part series, will be published at the end of next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Boom a sign of the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe