Classic Singapore plays #1 - Mimi Fan

Life! picks Singapore's English-language theatre classics and tells readers why they matter in this monthly 15-part series that kicks off today

Play: Mimi Fan (written and staged in 1962)

Playwright: Lim Chor Pee

What it is about: 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.

The 1960s were a heady, tumultuous time for Singapore.

It had just attained full internal self-government in 1959, with the People's Action Party thrust into power under the leadership of a young lawyer, recently graduated from Cambridge University - Lee Kuan Yew.

In 1962, Singapore was on the cusp of a merger with Malaysia, and another young lawyer (incidentally, also educated in Cambridge) was on the brink of making history, but in quite a different way.

His name was Lim Chor Pee, he was working in the Government Legal Service and, after office hours, he went home to write what would become a milestone in Singapore's English-language theatre: Mimi Fan.

Prior to the work of the late Lim and his contemporary Goh Poh Seng, home- grown English drama reared its head very sporadically, written mostly by students and rarely published or performed. There was plenty of Western theatre staged by amateur expatriate clubs. Local plays, however, were never seen.

But with the stirrings of a national identity and Singapore's birth pangs came a concerted effort to establish a Singaporean voice on the stage.

In a 1964 article for the journal Tumasek, Lim made his case for home-grown writers: "The amateur theatre anywhere in the world is the place where the future professional theatre begins. And there can be no proper theatre unless there are playwrights."

With a rising interest in the theatre fuelled by a better-educated strata of students, the Experimental Theatre Club was set up by Lim and other university undergraduates in 1961, and Goh's arts space Centre 65 followed in the year Singapore gained independence.

In an in-depth oral history interview (accession no. 2588) with the National Archives of Singapore in 2001, Lim said: "I wanted to write a play about the English-speaking new generation.

"It went down quite nicely because the audience could feel and see for themselves that is... you can identify yourself with one of them on stage because it's the way we normally would have spoken or would have reacted in a similar situation, rather than some foreign play which is of foreign values that is totally not known to us, you see."

The play followed the three-act structure popularised by Western forms of drama and played to packed houses over its three-night run at the former Cultural Centre Theatre in Canning Rise. Tickets were sold at Cold Storage and Robinsons - there were no ticketing agencies such as Sistic then - and cost $1 to $3.

The late Malaysian theatre director Krishen Jit noted in a survey of modern Singapore theatre: "Both Lim and Goh hew close to the dictates of the Western naturalistic tradition of drama, yet they fail to contain their irrepressibly romantic and melodramatic impulses, whose source could well be the Cantonese soap operas that were enormously popular in Chinese movie houses and on the radio in the 1950s and early 1960s."

Mimi Fan received generally good reviews, with The Straits Times' critic Victor Doggett calling it "a balanced and extremely well-written story of love and a courtesan".

 

The actress who originated the role of Mimi Fan was Mrs Annie Wee, in her 70s, who later became an institutional banker at Citibank, a senior adviser at Temasek Holdings and recently retired as chief executive of Wealth Management Institute.

She laughs as she recalls her stage debut, which had come about by accident. Her roommate at the University of Singapore was supposed to play the part of the teenage "lady of leisure" Mimi Fan, but backed out due to a scheduling conflict and coaxed Mrs Wee to go in her stead as a one-time substitute reader.

Mrs Wee came back from the reading and told her roommate tartly: "I have no interest in it. And neither should you." Her first impression of the script had not been particularly gripping.

But the creative team coaxed her into returning and she was eventually won over. She says: "On reflection, these were all works of pioneers, but when we were at it, we weren't conscious we were doing it. We were conscious we were trying new things and breaking new ground, but we didn't view ourselves as heroes."

The show was produced by Ronald Bloom and Khoo Hin Hiong, and its cast members included Lim Teong Qwee, now a retired judicial commissioner and father of well-known actor Lim Yu-Beng, as well as the late Kiru Joseph, one of the founding members of the Experimental Theatre Club. They played the characters of Fei-Loong and his womanising friend Baram respectively. Briton Bloom, who had theatre experience, also directed and acted in the show.

Lim Chor Pee's wife, Mrs Silvia Lim, now in her 70s, recalls going for one or two rehearsals at the Tangle Inn, a pub along Tanglin Road, which the cast had visited to get a sense of the constraints and feeling of being in a bar. She also helped him to type up his scripts.

Lim went on to write A White Rose At Midnight (1964), a romance between an English-educated university graduate and a Chinese-educated former nightclub singer. Just a few months later, Goh's The Moon Is Less Bright was staged by The Lotus Club at the University of Singapore.

Mimi Fan was not restaged until 1990, when theatre company TheatreWorks held its Retrospective, a five-week festival celebrating Singapore theatre of the past. This revival was directed by Rani Moorthy and starred familiar faces Karen Tan (Mimi), Gerald Chew (Fei-Loong) and Jacintha Abisheganaden (Sheila).

Moorthy, 52, tells Life! the play is very close to her heart and that she identified strongly with the character of Sheila who, like herself, had "opened up slightly, wanting to express her sexuality but was hemmed in by social mores".

She adds: "Maybe these are not questions in the 21st century in Singapore anymore, but even in the 1990s, these questions were asked - we couldn't just marry anyone we liked. How does one negotiate one's emotional inner life with those constraints that society has on you - of race, class, caste, how does that impact you? And these are questions that I would ask myself.

"There are many things about this play that were of its time and yet also looking at a future where young people can be like that and not have to question."

Moorthy marvels at how non- judgmental Lim was as a playwright in shaping complex, flawed characters that the audience could empathise with.

"It's easier to deal with the polemic and create something very simple, and on the surface, Mimi Fan appears to be a very simple play," she says. "But when you delve into it a little bit more, you can see the universality of each of those characters. They step out of just a Singaporean context."

After this burst of activity in the 1960s came many years of comparative drought when Goh and Lim stopped writing for the stage. Lim started his own private practice in 1964 and admitted in his oral history interview that he would not have been able to earn a living as a professional playwright back then. He died in 2006 aged 70 after a battle with lung cancer.

But the 1960s were still a time of significant artistic growth.

The National Theatre, now long demolished, was built with contributions from the people and officially opened in 1963 at Fort Canning Park. Groups such as the Experimental Theatre Club and the Theatre World Association continued to put on shows, even if they were mostly Western plays.

As Mrs Wee, the first Mimi Fan, puts it: "In retrospect, we were part of the beginnings of self-consciousness in nationhood. All these little beginnings, in the fields of the arts, in politics, were all happening at this time.

"We were not aware of it then, but we were part of nation-building, of discovering that we could be ourselves."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Mimi Fan is available at Epigram Books at $13.90 (www.epigrambooks.sg)

The next instalment of this monthly series will be published at the end of next month.