The Faghag and Her Director: Pam Oei & Ivan Heng Interview Each Other!

These two veterans of Singapore’s theatre scene have been friends and colleagues for decades. In this in-depth interview, they chat about their friendship, their love of theatre, what it means to be an LGBTQ+ ally, and more!

Ivan, rate Pam as a Faghag upon 5 stars, and explain your rating!

IVAN: 5 STARS! 5 UPON 5! Pam is not just a best friend. She’s a champion for the LGBTQ+ community. She is an ally and she walks the talk, and she gets very angry on our behalf whenever there’s a sense of injustice, or inequality [regarding LGBTQ+ issues]. And she acts on it. I don’t think that I could ask for a better Faghag.

Ivan, can you share your coming-out story with us?

IVAN: I always realised I was different, but in the 1960s and the 1970s, when I was a teenager and a young boy, we didn’t have the internet, the literature or the vocabulary we do now. I didn’t know I was gay. So I think it was quite a confusing time. The first person I actually came out to was my sister. I think I was 15 or 16.

PAM: Really, your sister?!

IVAN: We were studying for our exams.

PAM: Great timing, great timing!

IVAN: Yeah, it was the middle of the night, and I just felt this urge as I was walking upstairs to bed. I just felt this impulse to say, “Ivy,” – that’s my sister’s name, Ivy and Ivan – “Ivy, I think hia is gay.” Then she basically just looked up from her books and said, “Yeah, I know.” So anticlimax.

PAM: [laughing] I can so see Ivy doing this!

When did you know that theatre was the career for you?

PAM: I think I knew pretty much from my first professional role in Michael Chiang’s Beauty Box in 1994. It was a small role in a short play. And I pretty much knew that was it lah, for me. But then I didn’t go into it full-time. I went to architecture school leh – lao niang went architecture school for six years, understand! I became an architect and I really didn’t have the courage to do theatre full-time until my mother died. She died young at 54, of breast cancer, and that’s when I went, “Okay, life is too short, better just do it.” At that point, I thought – if hungry, go back architecture, you know? But I never went back. And now, I want to go back to architecture, but I can’t. Because last time I used ruler and pen to draw one, now it’s computer, I cannot already!

IVAN: I always knew that theatre was a happy place for me, because I felt I belonged. I felt I was in my element. I only knew and had a kind of inkling about pursuing theatre as a career when I went to drama school in Scotland. Because, my first day there, I understood that there was actually industry, and there were actors getting agents. In Singapore, there were just one or two companies. So there was no career to talk about. Everyone was either a lawyer or a whatever by day, you know what I mean? But when I went to the UK was when I saw and understood the possibilities. And once I understood that and I graduated, I then felt the pull to come back to Singapore, because it felt that there was a lot happening here, and I felt I could make a difference. And then we just created something together, all of us together – it’s been the work of a community actually.

Ivan cheers Pam and music director Julian Wong on during a pre-show soundcheck

How can allies support their LGBTQ+ loved ones who are struggling with coming out?

PAM: I think everyone in their own time, and there are also some people who, for whatever reason, cannot come out. Maybe they are part of a religious group, maybe they are in a straight marriage with children. They just can’t come out. I think – always offer them support. Tell them that you will be there for them. So always just keep reassuring your LGBTQ+ friend that, if everybody else fails them, you will be there for them. And it’s okay to be who they are, with you. Just offer a one-person pillar of support first – just tell that person: “I am here for you, okay? No matter what, there’s me. I’m here for you.”

IVAN: Yeah, because you’re a starting point. I mean, the world is straight. So, when a LGBTQ+ person comes out, it’s really coming out to a straight world. the ally is that first point of contact, that first person that says, “You’re safe, you’re okay with me.” So I think that when LGBTQ+ allies realise that – it’s an important role. That’s who you are for us. Thank you.

PAM: I just heard a story today, that a straight ally decided to put a little Pride flag on the table in her office for Pride Month. And just that little gesture – everybody, even though it was quite a liberal office, became loosened up. And then a very closeted colleague came out to her. This colleague was closeted to the whole world, but was so relieved that she could come out to this one person who put the gay flag on the table. You know? So every little gesture does count. When I light up my home in pink [for Pink Dot], I look out the window, and try to look for other lights of pink, and in my area, there are not many. But I hope that my lighting up of my window in pink, and people can see it bright and pink and clear, that it gives a little bit of something to somebody else – “Okay, I’ve got one window rooting for me.”

What advice would you give people – young and young at heart – who want to work in the theatre?

PAM: It’s very hard work and now COVID, no work. So do something else first. Be a teacher. Be an environmentalist. Don’t do it.

IVAN: Don’t do it. [both laugh] Don’t do it unless you have to do it. Because it’s a hard life. But it’s a good life, because it makes you a better human being – it makes you care about people, it makes you care about society. You’ve got to go through a lot. But you will be richly rewarded… not financially! But it’s good for your soul!

With 377A on the books, we’re still a long way from marriage equality. Ivan, can you tell us what it means to you to be married to your wonderful husband, Tony?

IVAN: First and foremost, for us, it was a celebration, a milestone – for us to be equal. We never thought about it as a political act. Because I believe in marriage. I love the idea of marriage – that someone will always be there. But it’s also public! Marriage is a public declaration, and you need witnesses. And so we were very happy to have our friends witness. But then, of course, because it was on the front page of The Straits Times, everyone also witnessed it and, I think we’re stronger for it. We are happy to share and very happy to be married.

PAM: I think that, for other LGBTQ couples or members of the community, seeing someone like you get married – legal, out there, ‘this is my husband, he cooks for me’… it means something for someone who may not be able to say that or do that.

IVAN: Yes! But I think it’s important to say, it’s not just ‘gay marriage’. I think the term that I like using is [in unison with Pam] ‘marriage equality’.

Ivan and Pam hard at work in rehearsals for Faghag

What’s going to be different about the Faghag we see in 2021 vs 2018?

PAM: We are 3 Pink Dots later; a lot of the climate has changed. So we’re gonna address that, look at what other discriminations the LGBTQ community has faced in the three years since the last staging. We have a brand-new cast member, Gino Babagay, who has added a whole new dimension to our rehearsals and our performance.

IVAN: It’s at Wild Rice. It’s at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre at Funan. That’s very different.

PAM: Yes, it is very different, because it’s much larger and also it’s a three-sided audience.

IVAN: I’ve told Pam that I think she should be playing the Indoor Stadium but, for now, this is the next level. Levelling up!

PAM: I also want to go Indoor Stadium, or Wembley Arena!

IVAN: Hong Lim Park would be a good place though – to stage this show! 😜

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