Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review: Lim Boon Keng : More Than Just an MRT Station

Lim Boon Keng : More than just an MRT station

10 Oct, 2019 at the Victoria Theatre
Review by Jeremy Lee

When I first heard that there was going to be a Lim Boon Keng - The Musical, my first thought was: “Oh finally, they are going to do a musical on the Barisan Socialis leader who was Lee Kuan Yew’s political ally and could have even become our PM if things worked out differently. Is it a Bicentennial companion piece to the LKY Musical?”

Yes, I sheepishly admit my ignorance in thinking the protagonist of the latest production by Musical Theatre Limited was Lim Chin Siong -- but admit it, wouldn’t most people?

However, the absence of Dr Lim Boon Keng in our collective consciousness is actually a sad reflection of how a true Singaporean pioneer was virtually wiped from history. Unless the average Singaporean can be bothered to do a search for the scant information about him in the National Archives of Singapore, what would they know about the man besides the fact that an MRT station is named after him?

Thus book writer Stella Kon, who is Dr Lim’s great-granddaughter, hopes to change that, and remind us of her ancestor’s achievements. The “Emily of Emerald Hill” scribe was just 12 when he died, and had to do research on her own to find out more about him.

It turns out that as portrayed by the musical, which is running till 13 October at the Victoria Theatre, Dr Lim was a man of great ideals, but also a man of contradictions.

The show takes great pains to showcase how as a Peranakan, Dr Lim is a true blend of East and West -- on one hand, he spoke English, was a Queen’s Scholar and received the Order of the British Empire. On the other, both his wives were born in China, and he was so passionate about China’s modernisation and Chinese language learning that he was president of Xiamen University for 16 years.

He also had progressive ideas for the time, urging the then-still very conservative Peranakans to send their daughters to school and founding the Singapore Chinese Girls School for that purpose.

However, when we first meet Dr Lim as a young man, the show chooses to highlight his lofty ideals by depicting him as somewhat of a blowhard, with his penchant for lecturing his long-suffering wife Margaret, despite her being herself a noblewoman who was educated in the West. One wonders why she eventually marries him and becomes the love of his life, considering she can’t seem to get a word in edgeways.

Her life is (mercifully?) cut short when she dies of consumption, and Dr Lim, for all his progressive ideals, ironically succumbs to a match-made second marriage. This is where the show got a bit confusing for me, as this was depicted in a non-linear fashion, i.e. one moment he is with Margaret, the next his second wife Grace pops up and in the scene after that he introduces Margaret as his wife again. Presumably, this is so the audience can be treated to a lovely number with both women singing together, but otherwise I’m not sure why that decision was made.

The actresses playing the women who put up with Dr Lim, however, are the most watchable things about the show. Audrey Luo, an always-delightful veteran of the local theatre scene, shines during her unfortunately-too-short time on stage as Margaret, who despite being encumbered with a behemoth of a dress that manages to look frumpy despite being eye-blindingly red, manages to convey her intelligence and pluckiness amid a world of men. The show would have benefited from giving her more stage time.

Celine Rosa Tan gives off quiet dignity but no less intelligence as second wife Grace who, spending a lifetime by the side of Dr Lim, is of great help and comfort to him. Her magical singing voice also transforms otherwise-forgettable songs into plaintive glimpses into the mind of a woman who will always be overshadowed by her husband’s first love.

The always-dependable Sebastian Tan, better known as Broadway Beng, showcases his soaring voice and impeccable diction in a variety of languages for a very charming but not very intimate portrayal of the man. However, he does capably in the challenge of reflecting the full weight of 80 years of a man’s life in just 90 minutes of stage time without intermission.

Ah yes, the length -- while the 3.5-hour original cut would have been punishing for the audience and the cast, making the decision to trim it to an unconventional 90 minutes (a musical is typically about 2 hours plus, with an interval that would give rise to an appropriately dramatic first act finale) means that the pages of history are brutally rendered impactless -- as such, the musical feels like it should be longer, and strangely enough, also somehow feels like it should be shorter.

To move things along, the chorus members thus function as sort of a Greek chorus. Through what they say to one another, we learn the historical background and what happened that wasn’t portrayed on stage. While it’s a serviceable way to condense 60-plus years of history (from 1865 to 1957) into 90 minutes, it means that your attention just has to wander for a couple of seconds and you might miss an important bit of information that would render the next scene bewildering.

Perhaps the spiels about his affection for Chinese culture and British education could have been further shortened or cut to foreground what, in my opinion, is the most relatable part of the show for local audiences -- not the love story, but Dr Lim’s Peranakan local roots and how he tried to change the ideas of Straits Chinese in Singapore to their derision.

Being of Peranakan background myself, I appreciated the effort put into recreating what Peranakans were like in bygone years (what, you mean they bound girls’ feet too? I thought only China people did that!). Thus I wished that apart from crowd-pleasing songs like “Merci Buku” and the ode to “Sambal Belachan” serving as delightful but inconsequential bon mots of Peranakan life, the show would have delved more into his interaction with the local community, and his efforts to bring them into the future.

Nevertheless, when the final act, which showed Dr Lim denounced as a traitor who collaborated with the Japanese and turning into a bit of a recluse, came around, I was somewhat exhausted from bounding across decades of history in one night. But I was also grateful that for this rarity: An original musical that could be made only in Singapore, which speaks directly to Singapore audiences, and with a top-notch cast.

Above all, I was grateful for the opportunity to go on this journey into the story of this little-known son of Singapore.

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Musical Sanctuary - 13 October 2019

Hi everyone, I am hosting a classical vocal concert at the Armenian Church on 13 October 2019, 6pm. It features talents from our music and theatre circles and a special guest from Hong Kong (Francis Wong). Other performers are Steven Ang, Jonathan Khoo, Lowell Tan and Sindy Keng, accompanied on the piano by Francesca Lee. Please check out our page for more information. Hope to see you there!

Check out our exclusive interview with Hawk Liu HERE!