One-woman play by Toy Factory Productions puts Kwa Geok Choo front and centre
Madam Kwa Geok Choo is a figure almost every Singaporean knows of, but often not much beyond the fact that she was Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.
Toy Factory Productions’ latest play will, for the first time, shed light on a woman who had a unique role none will assume again, or ever really comprehend: wife to Singapore’s founding prime minister, and mother of its third.
Kwa Geok Choo is a self-acclaimed “family love letter” to all Singaporeans, a tribute to a woman who has played a far more pivotal role in shaping citizens’ lives than most realise.
The 90-minute production, directed by Goh Boon Teck and written by playwright Ovidia Yu, will trace the little-known chapters of Kwa’s life. It starts from her childhood, to when she was so brilliant in her studies that she topped the whole of Malaya in the 1936 Senior Cambridge examination.
It then highlights her successful career as a top conveyancing lawyer (and the main breadwinner of the family), before she was better known for a life of walking “two steps behind” her husband.
While she mostly stayed in the shadows and was also known to be intensely private, Kwa’s influence and effect can be seen and felt if one would just look.
She had a hand in drafting the constitution of the People’s Action Party, was involved in the Women’s Charter, and wrote the text that ensured Singapore’s continued water supply when it separated from Malaysia.
Water will take a strong theme in Kwa Geok Choo, with the protagonist described as the “waves, current and tides” that shape our lives in Singapore.
Singaporean actress Tan Rui Shan will play Kwa and the play will be presented as a monologue. Apt and fitting, to finally bring the character into the spotlight.
The A List spoke to Ovidia Yu to glean insights into what drew her to penning her first play in 11 years, and what she hopes audiences will gain from the production.
Did you feel any pressure, whether covert or overt, in writing a play of a rather loaded nature and of a person who, while deeply private, was a very public figure?
The main pressure I felt was to do her justice. I believe for all of us, the more we came to know of her, the more love and respect we felt. We wanted to tell her story because I believe knowing it will enrich all our lives. But at the same time, her ability to separate personal life values from public responsibility was one of her greatest strengths, and it was a fine balancing act to portray that without betraying it.
What were some of the greatest challenges for you in penning this, and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge was the blind men and the elephant situation. Due to her position, so many people knew of her and everyone saw her differently. Family, classmates, children, colleagues, Singaporeans both political and apolitical… We all know who she is while knowing next to nothing about her. As impressions go, everyone is entitled to theirs but our challenge was to thread them into a cohesive whole. I hope you’ll see in the play how we overcame this issue, but I won’t give it away here!
We tried to show how it might have felt for her, as a wife and mother, living with these sacrifices to duty. Aside from this, we tried to be as accurate as possible to facts and dates.
Was it challenging to write this play about someone who was very private and never said much in public? How did you go about gathering the info and research needed?
There was a lot of ploughing through thick books to find one paragraph about her! A lot of digging for very little material. The richest material on her family life came from Lee Wee Ling’s newspaper columns. And some people whose parents had known her shared memories. What came through most strongly was the respect and affection they had for her and I’ve tried to make this come through in the play.
What were some of the themes that were important for you to come through in the play?
It was most important to show how completely committed she and her husband were to their partnership. They were two very intelligent people who supported each other through a partnership that had an incredible influence on and beyond Singapore. But all of that was only possible because their commitment was always to expect, do the best for, and bring out the best in each other. It’s really a remarkable love story.
This play is delivered as a one-woman monologue. What was the rationale behind this?
Throughout her life, Mdm Kwa was a very private person who played a supportive role to a man in a very public position. Since we wanted to focus on Madam Kwa, we decided to turn this inside out and put her in the spotlight, with men in supporting roles. Also, a monologue from her point of view seemed perfect for highlighting her different facets against a backdrop of the events she influenced.
What do you hope the audience will glean or learn from the play, or what do you hope their takeaways will be?
Madam Kwa excelled in and shaped the world around her. She did so well in the GCE O-Level examinations that Raffles Institution (which didn’t accept girls then) started a special class just for her. She was the first female conveyancing lawyer in Singapore. She spoke up for fair pay for women and fair treatment for wives. Many of the things we take for granted now came about thanks in part to her.
I hope the audience will see themselves in the young Madam Kwa and be inspired to discover their potential in their own time. But I also hope they’ll take away the incredible love story that is their partnership. These two strong, smart people were partners in work, life, and love that lasted all their lives and birthed not only a family but a nation.