Tan Shou Chen had no idea he was a hundred per cent Teochew until he performed in Grandmother Tongue at the 2016 Singapore Theatre Festival.
“For some reason, I always thought my dad wasn’t really Teochew, because he spoke mostly Hakka with my grandmother!” he laughs. “Through conversations I had with my family for this show, I found out that my late paternal grandfather – who died before I was born – was Teochew too!”
This is just one aspect of his identity that has come into sharper focus via Grandmother Tongue, which returns in September for a sold-out run at the SOTA Studio Theatre.
In Thomas Lim’s thought-provoking play, Shou Chen plays a grandson trying his best – despite his patchy command of his own dialect – to connect with his grandmother, who speaks only Teochew.’
“The beauty of Thomas ’ script is that it’s simple but very heartfelt,” he observes. “Also, it’s in Teochew – the language of a generation of Singaporeans who have largely been silenced in the mainstream.”’
Working on the show has re-connected Shou Chen with his own Teochew roots.
“My maternal grandfather was one of the pioneers of the Teochew Presbyterian Church in Singapore,” Shou Chen recalls. “I was immersed in Teochew as a child – I remember sitting through my grandfather’s sermons in Teochew, even though I didn’t understand a word!”
He lost touch with the culture and dialect when his father was posted to the States for two years. Shou Chen and his brother stayed on after that to complete their university education.
Some years after they returned to Singapore, their grandfather passed away. For the benefit of the younger generation, Shou Chen’s other relatives switched to speaking in English or Mandarin. As a result, Shou Chen lost contact with Teochew as a medium of communication.
Prior to Grandmother Tongue, Shou Chen’s grasp of Teochew would have been similar to many Singaporeans of his generation – those who grew up under the mother-tongue policy that officially stripped Chinese dialects from public spaces.
“I could listen very well,” he recalls. “I understood what people were saying and could communicate some basic ideas. But I had problems when it came to intonation.”
Learning the language all over again for Grandmother Tongue has been challenging, but also “a very big treat”.
“When I was preparing to audition for this role, I got my mother to teach me my Teochew lines,” he laughs. “We were on the plane to Bangkok for a holiday and, for two hours, she went through my lines with me, and told me stories from her childhood. It was really nice also, because, for the first time, she was seeing what I have to do as an actor.”
“Working on Grandmother Tongue has been a really meaningful experience,” he concludes. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to take time to connect with this part of my story and heritage.”
The Art of Communication(s)
Negotiating complex – and, occasionally, conflicting – identities is something with which Shou Chen is very well-acquainted.
For several years, he juggled his passion for the arts with a full-time job as a public relations (PR) consultant.
“My corporate work was invaluable,” he says. “I cannot say that I’m less of an artist because of it. It gave me insight into the corporate world, something a lot of artists often never get to experience for themselves.”
One of the artistic endeavours Shou Chen undertook while working in PR was young & W!LD. To be a part of the pioneer batch of W!LD RICE’s training programme for young theatre-makers, he forfeited sleep, took leave and answered e-mails during breaks.
Years later, it’s clear Shou Chen still believes it was all well worth the effort. “We’re the only youth theatre ensemble that has been nominated for and won Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards,” he recalls with pride.
He’s particularly grateful that he had the opportunity to tackle the title character in a production of The Hypochondriac – the sort of “big, amazing role” that young actors rarely get to play.
But his time in young & W!LD also helped him realise an important truth: “You do not dabble in the arts. It’s all or nothing.”
Five years ago, Shou Chen finally made the decision to become a full-time artist.
“At the magical age of 30, I decided it was now or never,” he laughs. “I had some shows lined up, so I resolved to spend a year not worrying about what’s going to happen. And here I am, five years later!”
In addition to acting, Shou Chen has begun working as a director.
Working in the arts, however, has not always been easy.
“It’s a tough industry to stay in,” Shou Chen points out. “You have to work bloody hard, and the money as a freelancer isn’t regular. You have to constantly put yourself out there, but people don’t always appreciate what you do.”
In that case, what keeps him going?
“There is inherent value to Art – there is meaning and purpose,” he explains. “Art challenges, it makes us think beyond ourselves, holding up a mirror to our lives. At the same time, it brings beauty and connection in an increasingly divided and lonely world.”