Revisit 15 Classic Singapore Plays

Beauty World, which featured actresses such as (from left) Esther Yap, Judee Tan and Cheryl Miles, was presented again by Wild Rice 20 years after it was first shown here.
Beauty World, which featured actresses such as (from left) Esther Yap, Judee Tan and Cheryl Miles, was presented again by Wild Rice 20 years after it was first shown here. -- PHOTO: WILD RICE
Like every good superhero, theatre in Singapore has its origin stories. And more often than not, theatre tells the story of the country it comes from, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Each instalment of the Classic Singapore Plays series introduces a play and then takes a closer look at several of its key aspects. These include the historical context in which the play was written; the themes and ideas that the play tackled or brought to the fore; the inspiration for the play and how it was crafted; the route it took to the stage and its impact on the audience and society.


For each play, I spoke to playwrights, directors and actors about their experiences with the work – whether in writing it, interpreting it or bringing it to life. I hope that the Classic Singapore Plays series might work as a sort of primer and introduction to the narrative Singapore playwriting, both for the general reader and the avid theatregoer.

This 15-part series ran in Life from June 2014 to Aug 2015. 

Lim Chor Pee's Mimi Fan

This column was first published on June 24, 2014. 

 Courtesy of the Family of Lim Chor Pee

It is the swinging Sixties and Chan Fei-Loong, a well-heeled English-educated Singaporean, returns home from Britain to work in the family business. He meets the intriguing good-time girl Mimi Fan at a bar, and the disillusioned intellectual finds himself caught up in a tangle of relationships, set against a modernising Singapore. This confident character study looks at an era when women were expected to find fulfilment through marriage and presents two women who decide instead to choose their own paths (and partners): the free-spirited 19-year-old Mimi of the title, and her friend and foil Sheila – intense, fiercely independent and whip-smart.


Robert Yeo's Are You There, Singapore?  

This column was first published on June 21, 2014. 

The first of Yeo’s Singapore Trilogy, the play blends heated debates about Singapore’s state of government with the coming-of-age story of a group of Singaporean university students studying abroad in London. The main characters, brother and sister duo Chye and Hua, together with their friends Richard, Fernandez and Sally, undergo a sexual and political awakening of sorts as they compare the openness of London society with their conservative home country. As they navigate an unruly demonstration at Trafalgar Square and an unplanned pregnancy, they learn more about Singapore – and themselves.


Stella Kon's Emily Of Emerald Hill

This column was first published on Aug 26, 2014. 

A charming Peranakan woman, Emily Gan, evolves from frightened young bride to a strong-willed matriarch. She tells of her deft manoeuvring in a new household to endear herself to her mother-in-law, her son’s mysterious suicide and her husband’s infidelity. The audience rejoices with her triumphs, but also feels deeply for her heartbreak and regrets. This beloved monologue has travelled around the world and starred artists such as Margaret Chan, Pearlly Chua and Ivan Heng.


Kuo Pao Kun's The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole

This column was first published on Oct 1, 2014. 

A man recalls the bizarre happenings at his grandfather’s funeral in this Kafkaesque play. The cortege arrives at the burial site only to realise that the coffin is too big for the hole. As he tangles with the authorities over what to do with the coffin, what ensues in this brief monodrama is a powerful allegory for Singapore’s restrictive bureaucracy, its growing homogeneity and what it means to be of a “standard size”.


Michael Chiang's Beauty World

This column was first published on Oct 28, 2014. 

 Ivy Chan, a small-town girl from Malaysia, travels to Singapore in search of her long-lost father. The only clue she has is a jade pendant bearing the words Beauty World – which turns out to be a seedy cabaret brimming with quirky characters and headlined by the va-va-voom cabaret girl Lulu. Ivy joins the cabaret undercover to find out more about her past. Mistaken identities, soulful ballads and cheeky cha-chas ensue.


Tan Tarn How's The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine 

This column was first published on Nov 25, 2014. 

An unnamed nation (or a thinly veiled Singapore) is in search of “soul”, and civil servant Derek is tasked with soul-searching as part of the Committee For The Creation Of A Vibrant Nation. The three finalists are a communist, a supporter of the arts and a mama-san, the titular “lady of soul”.


Eleanor Wong's Mergers And Accusations

This column was first published on Dec 30, 2014. 

Lawyer Ellen Toh is in a bit of a bind – she is a closeted lesbian, attracted to women, but forced to put on a heterosexual front in her high-powered workplace. She marries her best friend and colleague, Jonathan, only to have her marriage unravel when she meets Lesley, a rising young lawyer who is startlingly candid about her sexuality. This play, which became the first part of Wong’s Invitation To Treat trilogy, picks apart the knotty affairs of the heart.

Haresh Sharma's Off Centre  

This column was first published on Jan 27, 2015. 

Two patients meet at the former Woodbridge Hospital: Vinod, a straight-A student and articulate school debater with severe depression whose high-flying parents are distant; and Saloma, a withdrawn vocational student wrestling with schizophrenia who has a poorly educated but caring mother. Off Centre paints an honest, unflinching look at how the mentally ill are regarded in Singapore and how far society has to go to give them acceptance and support.


Chay Yew's A Language Of Their Own 

This column was first published on Feb 24, 2015. 

Two men, Oscar and Ming, struggle to deal with their crumbling relationship after Oscar discovers that he is HIV-positive. As they break up and turn to other partners, Daniel and Robert, the four men grapple with cultural differences, discrimination, sexual politics and, ultimately, the meaning of love.


Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral 

This column was first published on March 31, 2015. 

At first glance, the play examines the origins of the historical figure of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who was sent in the 15th century by the Ming emperor to explore the globe, from India to Arabia. There are scenes detailing the great wonders that he sees, the painful act of losing his manhood and a great loneliness of being cast adrift. But the lyrical piece is also a meditation on rootlessness, displacement and being a cultural orphan.


Huzir Sulaiman's Atomic Jaya 

This column was first published on April 28, 2015. 

Physicist Mary Yuen gets the shock of her life when she is summoned to help build Malaysia’s first atomic bomb. As she collides with one wacky character after another, from a shady uranium smuggler to an army general with a Napoleon complex, the political satire takes on racial issues, national hubris and the post-colonial hangover. It was designed as a one-man show, with one actor playing all 16 parts.


Natalie Hennedige's Nothing

This column was first published on May 26, 2015. 

Six main characters – from a writer of erotic Chinese novels to a dengue inspection officer from the National Environment Agency – come together and pull apart in a strange sort of no man’s land. Together with a bevy of colourful peripheral characters, small and absurd moments of their lives are presented as short vignettes as they grapple with what it means to die, to live and to love.


Jean Tay's Boom 

This column was first published on June 30, 2015. 

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.


Chong Tze Chien's Charged 

This column was first published on July 28, 2015. 

Over Chinese New Year at an army camp, a Chinese soldier, Russell, shoots his Malay colleague Hakim, then kills himself. The play unfolds as a Rashomon-type investigation into the tragedy, and the two soldiers’ families, colleagues and friends – as well as the country at large – must deal with the interracial prejudices and panic that come crawling out of its wake.



The cast in the first run of Cooling Day in 2011 comprised (from far left) Peter Sau, Neo Swee Lin, Jo Kukathas, Tan Kheng Hua, Najib Soiman and Rodney Oliveiro.PHOTO: WILD RICE

In the lead-up to the 2011 General Election and after, playwright Alfian and the cast interviewed dozens of Singaporeans, from the man in the street to prominent figures, including students, cab drivers, political figures, retirees, teachers, first-time voters and new citizens. These interviewees from across the political spectrum spoke on everything from casting their first vote to worries about the future. They form a portrait of a politically charged Singapore and its concerns, both bread-and-butter and emotional.