Thomas Lim’s journey towards writing Grandmother Tongue began far away from home. He was studying drama in Exeter when he started thinking about the languages we love… and the ones we’re forced to learn.
“In my first term, there was a module that taught us different ways to think about things,” explains Thomas. “The post-colonial lecture really got to me. It made me question how a great deal of our identities are products of decisions made by other people.”
One of those decisions is the bilingual language policy that has long been a fact of life for students in Singapore. Apart from English, everyone is required to study their mother tongue as a second language. For Chinese students, that takes the form of mandatory Mandarin classes.
“I found myself wondering why I studied Mandarin in school,” Thomas recalls. “The government says that it’s my mother tongue, but my mother doesn’t speak Mandarin. And my grandmother can’t speak it at all.”
It’s particularly aggravating to Thomas that we’ve grown accustomed to conflating ‘Mandarin’ with ‘Chinese’, when it’s really just one dialect amongst many.
“We say things like ‘I’m studying Chinese’ or ‘Tomorrow got Chinese exam’ all the time,” he points out. “But it’s not the same! It’s very insidious – the way we are made to feel that Mandarin is somehow ‘our’ language, when it could have been any other dialect.”
For Thomas personally, he has an emotional connection to the Teochew dialect that he does not have with Mandarin. “I never really connected with Mandarin – I’ve hated it all my life,” he says matter-of-factly. “But, whenever I speak or hear someone speaking Teochew, I know I’m home.”
Naturally, Teochew is Thomas’ grandmother tongue. It’s the only language (with a hint of Hokkien and some Malay) that he can use to communicate with his 86-year-old grandmother.
“I’m the last of my generation to have been raised by my granny before going to primary school,” he observes. “My younger cousins never had that, so they can’t speak Teochew at all. They get by with little things like ‘jiak ba buay?’, but they can’t have a deeper conversation with my granny.”
These ideas, and many more anecdotes from real life, have found their way into Grandmother Tongue. “People who know me will recognise some of the stories in there,” teases Thomas. “Of course, I had to exercise a bit of creative license and make things a bit more drama lah!”
Over the past few weeks, Thomas has been working hard on refining his script for the Festival, following creative workshops with his cast and Festival Dramaturg Alfian Sa’at.
“I learned a lot from Alfian,” he enthuses. “My biggest takeaway thus far has been having a dramaturg look at my work and give me feedback on how I can move it forward. He pointed me to things I can read, and taught me how to structure and present my ideas in a more coherent way.”
Working on Grandmother Tongue with W!LD RICE has also been an eye-opening experience for Thomas. Although he’s been involved in countless productions in his day job as a drama educator and as an amateur theatre-maker, this is his first time working as both director and playwright in a fully professional capacity.
“I come from a just-do-everything-yourself background,” he admits. “Suddenly, I’m working with professional actors, instead of students and amateurs. I’m having meetings with professional lighting and set designers, when I used to do those jobs myself! It’s all moving at a pace I’m still trying to get used to. It can be very scary. But everything, to me, is a luxury on this show, and I’m thrilled by this opportunity!”
He’s also thrilled by the opportunity to tell a story that hits so close to home. Coming into contact with local theatre in secondary school was what set Thomas on the path to becoming a playwright.
He joined Catholic High’s drama club at the age of 13 because of a friend, but wound up staying out of interest. His first, life-changing experience with theatre came about when his mentor and current boss, Nora Neo-Crothers, worked with him and his fellow students on devising a play based on their own experiences.
“I had thought that being in the drama club would be all about staging Shakespeare and classic American plays,” Thomas recalls. “But my first contact with theatre was a local piece, as well as a collective effort – something we created ourselves! It made me realise just what Singapore theatre can be.”
He hasn’t looked back since, and speaks with great passion about wanting to contribute to and expand the canon of stories and theatre in Singapore.
“I want to tell stories about us, about Singapore,” Thomas says with conviction. “Because I’m planted here, you know? My soul is here, my spirit, my family is here. All my stories are here. And there are so many stories here that should be given a voice.”
Grandmother Tongue, written and directed by Thomas Lim, plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 7 to 10 July 2016. Tickets are sold out. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!
Images courtesy of Thomas Lim.