Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Writing HERStory: An Interview with Otto Fong by Rui An
May 28, 2011, 12:20 pm
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HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory, a festival commission created by Drama Box opens on 28 May 2011. Inspired by the personal story of his mother, Mdm Chen Poh Chang, playwright Otto Fong has crafted a story that speaks of the hidden sacrifices made by the women who lived through the turbulent times of the 1950s-60s. In this interview, we speak to Fong, son of prominent trade unionist and political detainee, Fong Swee Suan, on the process through which he excavated the personal memories of his family to tell a story that speaks for a generation of silenced women.

Q: HERStory involves the very personal story of a woman set against a turbulent socio-political climate. In writing the play, how did you bring these two disparate strands of social history and personal memory together?

Otto Fong (OF): The script jumps between three main eras, namely the 1950-60s, the 1970s and the first seven years of the 2000s. The whole story is essentially about this woman, who I created based on the experiences of my mother, and how she had to deal with the end of a century and the start of the next.

I did write more about the historical background in earlier drafts of the script and there were also more characters, but all these were eventually taken out because I wanted to focus on the mother. Anything that did not serve this central character was removed. Even during the episode in which her son comes out as a homosexual, there isn’t that much emphasis placed upon the opinions of the son, for at the end of the day, I wanted to go back to the mother, her reactions and her feelings.

Q: Can you elaborate on the process through which you excavated the memories from your mother?

OF: Heng Leun, the director, and I asked her many questions over two major interview sessions which lasted hours. I also read through all the letters my parents exchanged when my father was in prison in Muar, which took an entire week.

Q: How open was your mother throughout this process?

OF: Well, she didn’t say no to any question and shared what she was asked to share. But as always, we have to take it with a pinch of salt. Despite what she said, we have to acknowledge that it’s just one point of view.

Q: Do you believe that the experiences your mother went through are representative of those of other women who were also living through that era?

OF: I believe so. Women of that era, in general, were really required to stand behind their husbands and play the supportive role. This was true even for the well-educated women in the upper class. Many of these women were kept out of politics, because their husbands decided that it would be an all-men affair. The women, despite their statuses and backgrounds, were required to be shadows of their husbands. Even if you look at someone like Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, you can see that her decisions were mostly made through her husband.

Q: It seems to me that women of that era are then in a way depoliticised by their society. This situation is particularly interesting in the case of your family when you have a woman living alongside two men – one, an anti-colonial unionist and the other, a gay man who decided to come out publicly –, who clearly are very adamant about asserting their own beliefs. In this light, was there any attempt on your part to shed light on the beliefs your mother held as an individual, if she had any at all?

OF: It is difficult for me to portray what she believes in, for these are things we can only guess. We don’t talk about these things in daily communication. Of course, personal beliefs can also be very fluid. Even if she makes a certain statement, we may not interpret it in the way she means it. So there is really no way I can put myself fully in her shoes and understand everything that’s going on in her mind. For that reason, we left her as quite a mysterious character. We deliberately didn’t want to pin her down.

Instead, what happens in the play is that we just look at her, acknowledge that she made certain decisions – don’t put a right or wrong to it, don’t judge it – and eventually ask ourselves: Were the sacrifices that she made really worth it?

This is a woman who supported her family all the way into the twenty-first century and it is naturally very difficult for her to reconcile her personal vision for her family with how her son eventually turned out to be, given that her son, unlike her, is someone who clearly does not conform to the rules of society.

Q: What are the differences between the mother and the father which are highlighted in the play?

OF: My mother only had a primary school education, while my father self-studied till he got two degrees. So in terms of their thinking, they are very different. One reads a lot of books. The other is more streetwise and prefers to work with her hands and eyes and not deal with abstract concepts. So when I came out, my Dad took it as a more academic thing and decided to read more literature about the subject. Also, as a person who experienced jail for six years, he had a more Zen attitude towards life. My mother, on the other hand, only knew about what the press wrote and as you know, in the last twenty years or so, the press has been very one-sided in their treatment of this issue. So I couldn’t expect her to take a very enlightened stance.

Q: Choral music features heavily in the play. What is its significance to the story?

OF: My mother picked up choral singing after her retirement. In fact, I realised a lot of women joined these choirs in their 50s to complete their dream of wanting to sing. What is significant is that in choral singing, you are not singing as an individual, but as a group, so what it brings to these women is a sense of community and belonging for they are able to meet a lot of other women who feel the same way as them.

Q: Did writing this play bring about any personal transformation in you, given that you are drawing from the memories of your own family?

OF: It was a maturing process for me. You know how when we were young we tended to wonder why the adults did certain things that you didn’t like? But when I put myself in her shoes and imagine the kind of era which she was in, I realised that I would probably have made worse decisions.

Reading the letters was a revelation. For one, I didn’t know I was such an outdoor person as a child. I always thought I was an introvert, when in reality, I was more like a social whore. At two years old, I would run to my neighbours and disappear without asking for permission. My mother, who was managing the household alone while my father was in jail, beat the hell out of me whenever that happened. But I realise now that that was the only reasonable thing to do due to the turbulent times we were in.

Q: What do you hope the audiences can take away from the play?

OF: I think there is a huge group of us who don’t communicate with our parents. If people go away from the play thinking about how they can better reach out to their parents, I think we have succeeded. The other thing is that I hope that young artists can go away with the affirmation that we have good stories here in Singapore to tell.

HERStory runs at The School of the Arts Studio Theatre from 28 to 29 May 2011. More information here.

Ho Rui An