Stella Kon writes musical about her great-grandfather Lim Boon Keng

Playwright Stella Kon (left) began writing the musical about Singapore pioneer Lim Boon Keng almost 30 years ago. (Right) In a photo taken in the late 1940s, Dr Lim holds Kon, while his second wife Grace Yin holds their great-grandson Lim Su Min.
Playwright Stella Kon (left) began writing the musical about Singapore pioneer Lim Boon Keng almost 30 years ago. (Right) In a photo taken in the late 1940s, Dr Lim holds Kon, while his second wife Grace Yin holds their great-grandson Lim Su Min. PHOTOS: THE MAKEOVER INC, COURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF DR LIM KOK ANN

A new musical about Singapore pioneer Lim Boon Keng traces the ups and downs of his life, emphasising his attitudes towards education, society and love.

It is penned by his great-granddaughter, playwright Stella Kon, who is also responsible for the renowned monodrama Emily Of Emerald Hill, first performed in Malaysia in 1984.

The 75-year-old told The Straits Times she hopes the new production, titled Lim Boon Keng - The Musical, will help audiences understand Dr Lim as an eminent, idealistic figure who managed to hold on to a sense of dignity despite having a shadow cast on his life.

She said: "I think the musical is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of disappointment."

Dr Lim (1869 to 1957), a Peranakan, co-founded the Singapore Chinese Girls' School, championed education for girls and rallied support for many public causes of the day. In 1918, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Boon Keng Road and Boon Keng MRT station are named in his honour.

However, according to the show's synopsis, Dr Lim was also accused of being a spy and collaborator of the Japanese during World War II. In his later years, he lived as an ordinary citizen.

Kon recalled: "Until I was 12, when he died, my family visited him during Chinese New Year. By then, he was already a reclusive old man who did not mix around or talk much.

  • BOOK IT /LIM BOON KENG - THE MUSICAL

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Today to Sunday; 8pm (today and tomorrow), 3 and 8pm (Saturday), 3pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $60 to $80 (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

"In the 1990s, I felt there was very little written about him in history books despite his role in Singapore's history. So I did research on him - visiting the National Archives of Singapore and the old National Library in Stamford Road - and started writing a musical about him."

The material she found on Dr Lim was very scant, she said.

"It was not enough to create a documentary or dramatic play, so I decided that a musical - where relationships can be painted in broad strokes - was the best way to do it."

One of her frequent collaborators, singer-songwriter Desmond Moey, wrote the music.

Theatre practitioner Jeremiah Choy came on board as the director in July last year.

Choy, 57, said: "Summing up 80 years of a man's life in one show was a challenge. Initially, the production was 3½ hours, with 23 songs. For the audience's sake, we cut it down to about 90 minutes and 13 songs.

"But thankfully, we managed to keep the songs which we felt best reflected Dr Lim's life and times."

For example, a show-stopping number, Sambal Belacan, is themed around how gathering over food was, and continues to be, a way of life for Peranakans.

Another song, Laugh At Life, expresses a worldview of Dr Lim's - that death is never far away and, therefore, one should celebrate life in the present.

The cast includes actor Sebastian Tan as Dr Lim, Audrey Luo as his first wife Margaret, Celine Rosa Tan as his second wife Grace, George Chan as his friend Ong Siang as well as a 17-strong ensemble.

Kon said: "When I began writing the musical almost 30 years ago, I envisioned it to be performed by only four people.

"To see it come to life on such a big scale and how much effort the production team and cast have put into it, I am totally overwhelmed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2019, with the headline 'Stella Kon writes musical about her great-grandfather Lim Boon Keng'. Print Edition | Subscribe