The veteran playwright, whose Emily of Emerald Hill is one of Singapore’s quintessential plays, talks to Terry Ong about Peranakans, pulp fiction and park life.

I grew up in Emerald Hill, which was somewhat isolated.  Most of my time was spent at Oberon, a big house that was ruled over by my grandma, the matriarch of my extended family.  

My mother was an actress, who especially loved Shakespeare. She studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Because of that, I got very interested in stagecraft and production work.

I also started writing at a very early age. Before I could actually write, I was dictating the stories to my mum and she would write them down. 

Both sides of the family were the “enlightened” Straits Chinese who had moved away from the old Peranakan language and dress, and were English educated. The women went to university and were “liberated” from the confined roles of traditional Peranakan women. 

I was not brought up to speak the Peranakan dialect or cook the cuisine. I never saw any ladies sewing beaded shoes or patchwork quilts either.

I wanted to be a doctor, pilot or writer growing up—a pilot because I read a lot of boys’ books about aerial battles and a doctor because many members of my family were doctors. 

I didn’t make it as a doctor, but I still do some alternative healing stuff where I can help people with headaches. 

Inventiveness and creativity turn me on.

It was most enjoyable to have Oberon (the old mansion that I lived in) recreated for the exhibition Emily of Emerald Hill: Singaporean Identity on Stage at the Peranakan Museum. The curators sent their workmen to detach the antique bowl lamps from Oberon that were hanging in my current home. They also provided substitute lamps so I wouldn’t be in the dark when I was there.

I go to Mass on Sundays, meditate on Wednesdays, exercise a couple of evenings a week, but otherwise mostly work, play, and do what I like.

I collect books, mostly pulp fiction, but I try to clear out the shelves these days. I don’t want to collect a lot of stuff that my  heirs would have to sort out and throw away in the future. In fact, I try not to accumulate plastic bags and things like that.

Books inspire me, as well as local scenery or settings that are spacious and wide, like the new Bishan or Kallang Park. They give me the feeling that even in crowded Singapore, we can have space for our souls to breathe.

I treat myself for a writing weekend retreat from time to time. I will either check into a hotel or go to somewhere in Malaysia so that I can “quarantine” myself for a few days. If I have a big writing project on, that’s what I would do. 

Mindless racist vituperation makes me sick in the stomach.

There’s not enough money to live on from writing, so I must be doing it out of love.

At the end of it all, you try to live with love in the heart. After all you don’t want the last words to be “‘Basket’! That fellow didn’t pay me….