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This is going to be a bit long as a photo essay, so I apologise in advance. There will only ever be one of this, unless, and this is unlikely, I ever return to theater.

I should probably talk about this in chronological order. I had been involved in drama way before sec 3. I was in some drama club in primary school, wrote a few skits for school. Played a bit part in the Buckley house Drama Feste. It wasn’t an entirely happy experience, because the sec 4s wouldn’t allow a sec 2 to have any input. But I did hear the judges single out one Kenneth Yap for praise because what he had written was “unusually mature”.

The prototype

1992 was a very special time for me. I had spent most of sec 2 in a funk, which was quite a shame because that was the year that I was part of a very special class. But I just couldn’t pull myself together. When I finally did, at the beginning of sec 3, it was a good time, and it was a special time and I told myself, “you will excel at creative writing, mathematics and music”. In fact, you could say that was the mission statement for the rest of my life.

First significant thing for me was Valentine’s day, 1992. It was a strange day. The three schools of the GEP were collaborating to stage 2 plays. There was “News at Nine”, a Monty Python style comedy. There was also “Mahjong”, which was written by Kenneth Yap. There was something magical about that night, other than me being out on town for the first time and seeing that it was Valentine’s day, and everybody was going about in pairs. City Hall MRT is near to Capitol Theatre, where a lot of people met up for a night on the town. There was the refurbished MPH, starting its ill fated foray into the music CD retail business. I had just purchased “ChangesBowie” and was trying to make sense of it. I went in and saw CD copies of the Bowie catalogue for the first time. Ziggy. The Man Who Sold the World. Then I crossed the street to the National Library (which got fucked over, of course) and then to the Drama Center.

“Mahjong” was a great play, or at least I thought. I was pretty bowled over by it, but it was the first time I got really impressed by a school production. The idea behind Mahjong was simple. There were 4 women, and they were meeting for mahjong, each of them were miserable in their own way, each of them had the mistaken impression that there was something to envy about the each other’s lives, but all of them were equally miserable. I was so impressed by that. You saw the stuff that drama is made of, the dramatic tension when people are lying and fibbing to each other on stage. I saw possibilities. The main thing I learnt that night was that you could be bowled over by a stage production. Just because you were that young, it didn’t mean it had to be half baked. Suddenly, instead of drama production being a dreary experience you had to sit through in order to get ECA points, I started seeing in it the possibility of fulfilling artistic ambition. It was both a way to touch the hearts of others, and a sport to see how good a show you could put up.

And it occurred to me that two years down the road, I’d have a shot at it. It wasn’t a burning ambition, just a nice thought. I felt like Audrey Hepburn singing “wouldn’t it be lurverly”. And of course, later that night, I walked across the road to Fort Canning and to ACPS where I was already nostalgic for my happier days in Primary school.

It was one of those evenings when a lot of the things you will see over and over again are introduced to you in a flurry, like in the overture of an opera. The next day, of course, was the 50th anniversary of the surrender to the Japanese. Another weird coincidence that tells you that there’s some magical shift in the alignment of the stars.

The Long Fallow

The next step, of course, would be my participation in the Creative Writing Program. Nothing much came out of it, but I did bump into some guy called Alfian, as well as a girl I would later on have a brief relationship with. I didn’t earn myself a mentorship. In a teenager’s feverish imagination I was hoping for a transcendental experience that didn’t quite materialize, but it was a good program, because it got us to confront some home truths about the creative process: what is art, how do you create it. I think that experience probably foreshadowed that I was probably not the greatest artistic collaborator in the whole world. Later on, Dawen would write and direct the Buckley house drama feste. I maybe did a small part, the sound or something. I couldn’t remember much. But that wasn’t the main story.

The main story was what I ended up doing with my spare time in the interim. Because I had started a habit of acquiring music, I spent a lot of time digging through cassette racks. I spent a lot of time reading magazines in bookstores. I didn’t have a very specific ambition, but I just somehow hoped that one day I would produce a great work of art. I didn’t even know what form it would take. But in the process of reading reviews, and evaluating the artistic merits of music, some things took shape in my mind. I started to understand what made a good work of art good. I read movie reviews, and they would always talk about why something was great, and why it was crap. It made me think a lot about how the media circus works, and that would also come in handy later on.

Literature education would be important for me as well. But though their analytical frameworks like theme / character / literary devices are useful, it wasn’t front and center in my methodology. With all due respect to my literature education and after all I still consider it a highlight of my time at RI, I learnt more about creative writing by leafing through the pages of, say “Rolling Stone” magazine and reading movie reviews. And I learnt something that was somewhat different from what they teach you in “O” levels, because it gets repeated over and over again: storytelling. Plot. Narrative. Excitement. Drama. I had already made up my mind. Playwriting had to be more about going from point A to point B, and not so much about wanking my erudition and cumming onto the faces of my audiences. I may have come up with my first play in a flash of inspiration, but behind that flash of inspiration was a long period of study.

I once told somebody, “a drama production is like an engineering project. You have to make sure that the system works and the pieces fit.” She made a face at me and left. I was 17, she was 17. But probably she had stars in her eyes, and I didn’t.

Our Literature Education

That leads me to the first problem with our literature education. We are made to only study works that are presumed to be exemplary and we don’t actually ask ourselves, “what makes this a great work?” So you can go and memorise all the quotes from Shakespeare or JB Priestley or whatever you want. But I wouldn’t feel anything in the heart. It was quite unsatisfying. I didn’t give a shit about the “Merchant of Venice”, I didn’t give a shit about the “Inspector Calls”. Maybe a few of the “Touched With Fire” poems meant something to me. It taught me something, no doubt. But it’s certainly not enough to make you understand the creative process. Perhaps we weren’t at a level where we were allowed to judge whether something’s good or not.

The second great problem I have with literature education, we break things down analytically. When we make arguments about works of literature, we give reasons why this is so. This is very useful when understanding works of fiction, and this is part of a great education. But it is only one small part of a great education. Understanding something with the heart, unfortunately, is not taught in “O” level literature. It’s very easy to break the text down over and over again. But it doesn’t teach you about the process of creation, where you have to step back and see the whole picture.

I like what Scott Adams said. Don’t follow your dreams. Don’t follow your passion. Build a system and use that system to achieve what you’ve always wanted to do. Personally I had a few parts of the system up and running for a few years, and I figured out that the system would not work out in the long run.

The Genesis / Inspiration

The following year, there was a call for plays. There would be three selected to stage. I had taken note of that, and had half a mind to submit something.

This first play will always be my masterpiece. There were some things going on in my head. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here, but anybody who’s seen what happened to Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee will find what happened in there familiar. I still remember sitting in the Hullett library in RI Bishan, looking at the spiral stairs in the middle, and thinking, what if it were a secret doorway to some magical hideaway? Suddenly, and quite rapidly, the idea for “Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse” was born. I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down the main ideas for the plot. After a while, I was like the guy who opened up the mah piu poh and gagged on his char kuay teow because he had just found out that he was the toto winner. I realised quickly that I was on to something good. This was 1993.

I had help from a friend, but other than that it was a solo effort. It was Christopher Ong who gave me the last piece of the puzzle: the part about manipulating the media. Also, one of our favourite cartoon shows on TV was Batman the Dark Knight animated series. That gave me the idea of people donning a cape not for the superhero powers but because the character you inhabit is an extension of a (possibly disturbed) state of mind. Those guys were basically asylum inmates. This would be the type of superhero that the Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse was.

It’s a play that’s one part Tiananmen Square (because of the uprising part and the tank guy), one part Ziggy Stardust (because of the death of a rock and roll star narrative and because of the part about manipulating the media to your advantage), one part Chee Soon Juan (because of the false messiah narrative – I even wrote in a part about somebody cheating on a hunger strike). It was one part Don Quixote because of how he’s tilting against windmills. It was one part Batman the Dark Knight because you get into the psyche of what makes a man want to be some kind of a superhero? It was one part Bridge to Terabithia because of the part about a secret playground for kids, and the idea of a haven that would be destroyed, the theme of a lost innocence. Even the part about a guy dashing out in front of a bulldozer was a nod to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I had stolen some little thing from all these great stories.

A bunch of kampong boys would be protesting plans to develop the land that their kampongs were built on. They would dress up as superheroes and become a media sensation, and for a while, having the rest of the nation egging them on. Then they would stage a hunger strike in order to up the ante, except that some of the younger kids were allowed to cheat. Then when the bulldozers come, one of the kids realizes that they’re going to find the secret stash of food. He rushes over and tries to hide it, and gets run over by the bulldozer. The caped crusaders gang breaks apart over a bunch of recriminations.

It was anachronistic in two ways. First, this was the 90s, and we were way too late to have people complaining about kampongs being cleared. All that stuff was already done in the 1970s. And second, the political climate in the 90s was so conservative that the idea of an uprising happening in Singapore was unthinkable. Amos Yee was born after 1993. In fact, I decided not to say anything about the government being the bad guy here, and I made it look like the leader of the caped crusaders was responsible for this. But when I see the Amos Yee and Roy Ngerng sagas play out, I think in some small way they resemble my characters from that play.

If you have heard of the word McGuffin, the destruction of the kampong was a mcGuffin. It was a nod to my father’s family who grew up in a hovel. But it was the pursuit of that thing that drove the plot forward.

Then again, no matter how clever your plot is, there has to be an emotional core for the play, otherwise it doesn’t work. That was my last year in the gifted program. My last year of having a privileged existence. My childhood was about to be over, everything was busted. I would soon be an adult, saddled with anxieties and responsibilities that I would never fully resolve. That was why my play was about somebody who comes into a crazy situation, the whole world is going bonkers, and he’s barely able to cope. In other words, you had Eden / kampong / childhood / friendship / superhero media sensation getting quashed by property developers / adulthood / responsibility / death and destruction. Obviously, that’s the stuff that great drama is made out of.

Once I put together the main plot, I knew that I had to write the play. I felt like I had hit the jackpot, I had never come up with a yarn as good as that (possibly I would never come up with that again). Everybody has one great story in them, and that was mine. With a backbone this good, even an amateur playwright like myself could make some decent product.

The Frantic Dash to the Finish

Problem is, this was 1-2 weeks before the deadline. So I told people that I was going to write this. Some people laughed, probably they didn’t understand that I had a winning idea, and I had already won half the battle by then. My parents were like “this is an ‘O’ levels year, why are you doing this?” The only other guy who had any clue what was going on was Chris Ong. I pulled 2 consecutive all-nighters and wrote my first major play. I actually submitted it one day late.

I also defied convention as far as I could. I remember the house play – not Dawen’s but the one we did in Sec 2, the one which touched on gay topics and who won a special prize for that. I am sympathetic towards LGBT causes, but I didn’t want it to be too politicised. Thus my guys were protesting the destruction of their kampong, which was the least political issue I could think of. I knew that people associated high art with symbolism and being dark and serious. In that LGBT house play, the director wanted all association with comedy expunged. I didn’t like that idea, so I made this a comedy, at least in the beginning. I hated the idea of plays taking themselves too seriously, so I deliberately made it look lowbrow. To be sure, it wasn’t lowbrow. It had aspirations to being great art. But I just thought, “take all that arty farty-ness and stuff it up your ass”. Non linear story telling techniques – out. Heavy handed symbolism – out. I didn’t want it to be driven by ideas. Yes, it touched a lot of ideas, but it revolved around plot, not ideas. Everybody wanted things to be dark and deep and “meaningful”. I gave them something that looked like garish 80s Hollywood. I gave it a jokey title, because why? Fuck you. And at the end of a play with a jokey title, I kill a little boy. Why? Fuck you. It was an act of defiance – against my classmates, against my parents, against the prevailing artistic norms of theater, against my own image as a maths geek, against modernisation (but I typed it on a word processor), basically against everything. Very teenager. Fuck all of you, fuck everything.

But also I’m a hybrid of a mathematician and artist. I liked to think of structure and form and function. I didn’t like high falutin arty-farty concepts. It wasn’t about the glitz and glamour. It was more about “well that was a pretty good experience”. If I had been a half competent self-promoter, you’d have heard of me long before I started writing my memoirs.

Also, I was a fan of MASK and Transformers, like a lot of kids my age. I tried to do that “illusion is the ultimate weapon” / “more than meets the eye” thing. The audience was led to believe they were watching at superheroes skit at first. It was not, it was about revolutionaries and social issues. The main character was supposed to be a hero at the beginning. He was not, he was an anti-hero. Almost a villain. They were led to believe it was a comedy. No, it was actually a tragedy. I did something that is almost never done: I killed off a cartoon character. Why? Because fuck you that’s why, I’m the playwright and I do what I want.

I wanted it to be the kind of play which sets your expectations up one way and then it turns out to be a totally different beast. Like I was watching “American Beauty” and I thought it was going to be one of those “suburbia is hell” shows, but it turned out to be a meditation on spirituality and life. Sorda.

The competition judge understood this. He wrote me, “your idea is I give you something that makes you laugh, and the audience laughs, and then after that I do something that makes you really sick. I like that.” Not a lot of people grasped that, and the reaction – to the extent that there was any at all – was most definitely not unanimously positive. But it won’t be if you’re genuinely trying to be different, so I guess I’m fine with that.

I still remember dashing off to school on a Saturday, and I was completely bleary after working non-stop for the last 12 hours. I have plenty of great memories from RI, but this one was the most magical, and typically, I was all alone, locked up in my bedroom, bashing away at something I only half expected to be successful, keeping it a secret and, of course, murdering one of my main characters like some bored deity. When I finished it, I had a feeling more powerful than the best orgasm. I took it to school, met no-one, dumped it into somebody’s pigeon hole. On the way home, I bought myself an ice cream at the BP station that used to be at the junction of Bishan and Braddell. Best ice cream I ever had.

Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography about watching Charlie Parker and Dizzy play for the first time. He said “that was best feeling I ever got with my pants on.” Submitting that play was for me the best feeling I ever got with my pants on, since you don’t walk around RI on a Saturday without your pants on. It was good enough that I half expected it to be chosen. Either that play was going to be staged, or 3 plays that were considered better than mine were going to be staged. Either way, I would be watching what happened, if they didn’t select mine and it turned out that those plays were lousier, I’d have wanted to go up to kaopeh kaobu. As it turned out, they forgave me my one day of lateness and it was chosen to be staged.

The Reveal

One month later, my literature teacher (you know, the one who likes to say “slap your face”) was ranting at all of us, and pointing to a few of us, one by one. “you’re not that interested in literature, neither are you, you and you.” And then she looked at me, and said, “you may be really good at maths, but you’re not much of a literature student”. I looked at her with this funny smirk on my face. One month after that, she handed me the fat envelope and said, “congratulations, your play is going to be part of GEP 10th anniversary celebrations”. Haha, not much of a literature student.

I still remembered the time when she said that even the Kenneth Yap got an A2 because he was too much of a smartass and didn’t write the exam to the rubric. I was thinking to myself, are you kidding? If you gave me a choice between an A1 for Literature and the opportunity to stage a school play in public, it’s a no brainer which one I’d choose, so long as my literature grade doesn’t disqualify me from my choice of a JC. (I got an A2, the only time I got higher than a B, and I got into RJC).

It might be easy to say that I defied everybody – my classmates, my teacher, my parents and succeeded against the odds. But that’s stretching the truth. The truth was that for whatever reason – I had a lot of trust issues at that time. There were very few people I trusted enough to tell them about what I really wanted to achieve. And of course, at that time I just did what I felt like doing and I myself didn’t know what I really wanted to achieve. I cut out just about everybody, so apologies are in order. But seriously, what do you expect me to tell the teacher? “I go to the shopping centers 3 time a week and I wander around there for the whole afternoon”?

But from conception to finish, it was barely 1 month, there wasn’t any time to get anybody involved. In retrospect, way before that 1 month, I did all the right things in order to succeed at a creative venture. I read up a lot, I absorbed and learnt a lot, I spent a lot of time wandering alone in my own thoughts. Almost the perfect creative fallowing process.

I knew that play was far from being the complete product. Unfortunately, and I ought to be ashamed of this, I didn’t do very much to improve it. I could have done some research on what real life in an actual kampong was like, I didn’t. I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I was well aware that I was about to take the audience on a great adventure and a crazy story that almost nobody would ever believe, and I knew that it wouldn’t work unless I established an emotional connection, and I never did. But thinking back, I didn’t need to put in a separate story for that. Getting the audience in for the ride would have done the trick.

The Production

The execution left much to be desired. I had left RI by the time the play was to be staged, and as a result, very few of my peers are aware of the existence of this play. I’m proud to say that all three winning entries came from RI. Our reputation as not being particularly artsy is not borne out by reality. So that’s another fuck you to the world, to ACS and RGS for thinking that you’re more arty than us. Other than myself, one from Musa, and one from some guy in sec 3, one from me. So the sec 3 guy got RI to put up his play, Musa got RGS, and since my play was about guys, I got ACS.

I was quite guarded about the teacher put in charge for staging my play. I had heard that she just did whatever she felt like doing. During my first few months in JC, I could have joined any ECA and established myself in it, but I decided to go watch them like a hawk and make sure they didn’t mess around with my favourite play.

Unfortunately, there were creative differences. Perhaps they don’t matter – I suppose teenagers are way too sensitive about things that don’t matter. But quite a few of the things that they changed, they were going to change the meaning of the play. They were going to edit out the aspect where people were rebelling against the property developers, and they were going to downplay the nostalgia for kampong life, which they thought was stupid. They wanted to play up the superhero aspect and play down the revolutionary aspect, which was the opposite of what I wanted. I fought them as hard as I could.

In the future, I would get retribution for the way that I dealt with my cast and crew for “Caped Crusaders”. Perhaps I should have paid less attention to preventing them from messing around with my work, and paid more attention to how productions were made. Then again, it wouldn’t have been easy to work other peoples’ inputs into the script. It is difficult to write a play by committee because usually what happens when you compromise somebody’s artistic vision is that the quality suffers. In fact Musa had chosen to hang out with Raffles Players, and when he saw his play, he wasn’t happy about one or two things he felt he might have intervened in.

The Letter

One of the judges was a prominent playwright in Singapore, not going to say who, maybe he knows. He signed up to being a consultant. I wrote him a letter, “help, my cast and crew are staging a mutiny, what shall I do?”

He wrote me a letter – 10 fucking pages! – you can imagine why that letter would be the first thing I would save from my house in the event of a fire. You can see very clearly that he writes on top of the letter, “this is between you and me and nobody else”. So I’m not going to reproduce it in full, and I’m not going to name him. But I’m going to assume that he said that because he – very reasonably – didn’t want that letter to be part of a political battle. And neither did he want that letter to be used as a testimonial. So let’s assume that it’s neither of those things. Let’s assume that he’s come to see the fact that I didn’t get a mentorship as a mistake. (It was, but to be fair, the portfolio I submitted 1 year earlier was not that impressive). Here are the main points, which are pretty uncontroversial other than the last.

  1. Being an artist is one hell of a hard slog. You are expected to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop.
  2. There will always be disagreements with the cast and crew and you have to work with the director closely to come up with a compromise. (I assume that he’s is very very good at this because he’s worked with the same director for, what, 30 years?)
  3. I really enjoyed reading your play.

Obviously after reading the last point, I was over the moon.

The production

Let’s just say that it would have been a little difficult to produce something that matched the splendid visions I had in my head, but it wasn’t half bad. That hundreds of people would be congregating in a dark room, half of whom are probably thinking “what the fuck is this Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse shit?” Those are the things that I live for. I felt like I had punked all of them.

Kenneth Yap? He was there too, and I got a thumbs up from him, which is nice because good as “Caped Crusaders” was, I don’t think it matched up to “Mahjong”, an extremely tough act to follow. Many years later he would write the Law IV production, and that play was about Tiananmen. I’d like to think I had something to do with that.

After the play got performed, a friend of mine came up to me and said, “you know, what’s good is that you tried, and you took a shot at it. I wonder what would have happened if I had tried.“ Also, during the last 2 weeks when I was writing my play, my sister briefly considered turning in a script too. (She’s really competitive.) But in both cases, they underestimated how far along the road I had already travelled – this is partially because I had been in stealth mode. I already had a product that was good enough that I expected it to win. I’m not an entrepreneurial person. I’m not a risk taker. By the time I get off my ass to do something, I’m already 50% sure it will succeed. It was like a cross country race, where everybody sees you crossing the finishing line, but they’re all wondering how you got there, because they didn’t see most of the race that you ran.

The End of the Beginning, and the Beginning of the End

That was the incident that more than anything else taught me something about what success looks like. I was on my own, armed with nothing more than the courage of my convictions. I do it because you want to do it, not because somebody sets it for me as an assignment. I wasn’t explicitly looking for success, but there was something that I just liked doing, and in the end, it morphed into a concrete achievement. Later on in life, I would be the type of person who may not be very good at getting work done within a system, but the lack of a support system is also not any kind of an impediment at all.

People will usually be tempted to say that this play was a fluke. In a way it was, because I was lucky to have the opportunity to put something up like that and performed in public. I didn’t have to slog away for years. I spent 2 weeks putting the idea together, then 2 nights writing the play itself proper. But I had plenty of conversations with my collaborator. I had spent a lot of my time watching TV. I had spent a lot of time standing in front of magazine racks, rummaging for anything they failed to shrink wrap, and reading all the opinion pieces on art. Many of my classmates considered me lazy and I did nothing to change their opinion. I had some notion of what true art is all about. There’s absolutely no such thing as a completely naïve artist. Some people called that play “thoughtful”. Yes, I had thought it through, that’s for sure. Back in the day I definitely wasn’t trumpeting it to everyone and asking everyone to go watch it. But I kinda regret that now: after all that work, it shouldn’t be forgotten.

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  1. […] one month later, in what I considered to be my crowning achievement of my secondary school days: I wrote a school play. I had grown up a little, and I knew that I had progressed quite a bit from a few years earlier […]

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