I came into the performing arts by accident. I was just 16 and a half years old when I accompanied a good friend from secondary school to an audition for the SAF’s Music & Drama Company (MDC). I didn’t even know what the MDC was! Ironically, I got selected, but she didn’t. I was working as a stock clerk for an American corporation at the time, and MDC offered to pay me 30 dollars more every month. That sealed the deal!
You’d never know it, but I was once officially enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces! To join the MDC, you have to sign on as a soldier… so I had a rank and everything. I was a private, and was considered uniformed personnel. I didn’t undergo BMT though; our training was purely in the performing arts. Working in the MDC was a full-time job – we would go from camp to camp entertaining soldiers. It was a good experience. Ultimately, I stayed with the MDC for 20 years.
I found my way to the theatre thanks to Ivan Heng! He joined the MDC after I had been there for ten years. He asked me, ‘Why not go into theatre?’ And I had never contemplated that before. I used to think theatre was very atas (‘high-class’), and what we were doing in the MDC was just pure entertainment – very ‘grassroots’ stuff. But Ivan helped me apply to enrol in Kuo Pao Kun’s Practice Performing Arts School. For six months, I worked in the MDC while attending two courses in acting and directing.
My first professional job in the theatre was Lao Jiu, Pao Kun’s original play (on which the musical is based), in 1990. I appeared in just two scenes, playing a nurse who spoke many dialects. Later that same year, I took on the challenge of appearing in the Chinese version of Emily Of Emerald Hill. I went from a small part in a show to doing a two-hour monologue by myself! Ivan was incredibly supportive throughout, because I was still with the MDC and had to apply for leave in order to perform.
The show that changed my life is 0Zero01 – a piece I don’t think a lot of people saw. But the entire process of creating it was very inspiring. The show was called 0Zero01 because all our creative workshops began one minute after midnight. Pao Kun drove the four cast members all over Singapore, and left us – one by one – in places like Bukit Timah Quarry. We would stay there until 6am. He felt that this was the best time for us to really look for ourselves, for who we were – since we would be tired and fighting sleep, our thoughts would not be overly ‘decorated’. I was exhilarated by the experience. It made me realise that the possibilities in theatre were endless. That’s when I felt that I had a calling – theatre became my religion.
Before I set foot on stage, I always step up my strength training. Theatre is live, and you need stamina to get through every single performance. In preparation for Grandmother Tongue, I’ve been jogging and exercising more since May. I also pay some visits to a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner to beef up my immunity. It’s actually harder to play someone older than myself! My character in the show is about 80 years old. I need to have the strength to maintain that character’s physicality – the way she moves and walks. I want her to be ‘embodied’ within me, so that she’s not just a voice or the dialogue. That requires a great deal of training and discipline.
I always try to do justice to the characters I play. I’m Hainanese myself, and I could speak Teochew well enough before I did Grandmother Tongue last year. Nonetheless, I’ve been working with a language coach because there’s no way my character would speak Teochew the way it is spoken today. Dialects in Singapore are now in the Nanyang style, so to speak – they’re a mix of so many different languages. I didn’t even realise that I was pronouncing words the Hokkien way. But I want to get it right for this character, who would speak proper Teochew. After all, it’s the only language she knows.
As a performer, my greatest challenge is to keep every single performance organic. That’s not to say we don’t rehearse, of course. In fact, we have to rehearse to the point that we feel confident enough to make every performance raw and real. That’s my goal for this revival of Grandmother Tongue: I want to truly be in the moment in every performance. It’s important not just for me, but for the audiences as well. After all, I may have performed this part many times, but it will be their first time encountering this character and this story.