Chicken curry for the soul

Cancer, curry and kin—these are the ingredients that make up Tan Jia Yee’s debut play Chicken Curry; a recipe that, after a year’s worth of preparations, is set to finally stir all the feels this weekend.

The story takes place in a Singaporean household, where a stricken daughter tries to master her mother’s signature chicken curry dish before she loses her, and the recipe, to cancer forever. It might hit closer to home than you think—the story’s premise draws from Tan’s own recent experience of losing her mother to ovarian cancer. Over a kopi in Toast Box (no chicken curry, unfortunately), the 28-year-old Singaporean playwright recalls harrowing moments in the years leading up to her mother’s passing.

Once, she had to make the executive decision to consent a surgical blood transfusion on her mother’s shoulder blade—a decision that would inflict pain on both patient and signee. “I was only 24," said Tan. "I was so scared—what if something happened? But I had to sign it."

Her first foray into acting was in Junior College, which sparked off an active involvement in the local theater scene for the next few years, halted only when her mother relapsed in 2013. After a three-year break, Tan returned in 2016, putting her pain to pen in time for the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition, organized by local performance company TheatreWorks. The first draft of Chicken Curry was born—but rejected, which Tan today attributes to her use of absurdism in the play.

"It was very absurd, mainly because I don’t like to be vulnerable," she admits. “Maybe it’s the only child syndrome—you know, I’ve got to be strong; I didn’t want to dig too deep."

But one year on, Tan is ready to stage the polished, final edition of her play—vulnerability and all. The play, which opens Jul 27, is one of four staged by Toy Factory Productions, under a series called The Wright Stuff, where Tan was personally mentored by the company’s artistic director Goh Boon Teck.

Tan and her fellow young playwrights from The Wright Stuff will debut their plays from Jul 22-Aug 7.

Sheepishly, Tan confesses that Goh, a heavyweight in the theater community, still scares her, but that she is grateful for having been chosen during the 2016 open call. “I think he saw something more in the script that he could dig from me,” she said.

Funded under NAC's major grant, Toy Factory Productions is subjected to having all performed scripts vetted by the government. When asked whether state sponsorship of the arts affects her creativity, Tan was quick to point out that the stories she tells—namely, family-centric—keep her largely safe from censorship and messy grant controversies.

But it needs to be more transparent, she added firmly, alluding to the recent, revisited debacle over local graphic novelist Sonny Liew. In 2015, the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew an $8,000 publishing grant for Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye due to “sensitive content”. Earlier this month, the very same novel won three Eisner awards at the annual Comic-Con in San Diego.

"We have to ask what was the conversation had between NAC and him," said Tan. "Was it one-sided, like, ‘oh I’m just going to pull out without any explanation'? How you manage the situation and conversation is sensitive; it’s crisis management."

Diplomatic as she is—Tan works full-time as a creative consultant who has tangoed with NAC in the past—she is still very much supportive of local artists’ efforts to make waves, here and abroad.

"Artists are always trying to push the boundaries. They’ll keep pushing until maybe the state says ‘okay, cannot’, then they will try something else," she said. "And actually sometimes restrictions make you more creative."

That creativity Tan hopes to explore in the future, where she wants to create “new worlds that are realistic and believable”—and that don’t necessarily draw from her own personal stories. For now, though, she’ll stick to writing what she knows.

Read on as Tan tells a little bit more about her play.

Why did you decide to bring something so personal onto a public stage?

Pain is universal, we all know someone who has gone through pain. So staging it was about bringing that aspect out, and using that as a storytelling tool. How does a young person cope with something like this happening in a family? And at the very core the play is something I want to dedicate to my mum. When she was around, I used to write poems for my grandfather, and she’d be like, "Oh when are you going to write something about me?" But she never got to see that.

What’s the story behind using chicken curry?

My mum used to cook very well. When she was gone, I would try to cook. There’s this one dish I can’t get right; it’s actually very easy—steamed egg, but all the steamed egg I made was very ugly and dry. But imagine if the play was called Steamed Egg! I thought chicken curry might be good, because I can't eat spicy food, so my mum used to tailor it to my taste. And in Chinese funerals, chicken curry is served, so I thought it would be a good dish to bring out the theme.

Is chicken curry a recipe you genuinely have trouble with?

Actually I can cook chicken curry pretty well, because it’s quite straightforward. But the egg I can’t get it right.

This is your first play as a playwright. How is it different going from actor to playwright?

I started acting when I was really young, so I think I’ve gotten type-casted since—the angry teenager, the student. It was very experimental, but as the playwright I focus a lot on the narrative itself. And it’s quite a big learning experience. It’s weird; I used to be the one auditioning, but now I’m sitting on the other side of the panel, so the next time I go to an audition I kinda know what directors would ask for.

How hard is it for a theater newbie to be selected for something like The Wright Stuff mentorship?

These days there are more avenues for young new playwrights or people new to the industry to have an entry point. But I think what’s really difficult is depending on yourself. Writing is actually very lonely; along the way a lot of people just get discouraged and stop. It’s important to have a support system, be it industry people, a mentor, your friends who say "omg your stories are so great, I love reading your posts". I think that’s way more important than having the entry point.

Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?

I really wanted to serve chicken curry at the end of the play, but it couldn’t be executed because of (health) regulations. It’s a pity.

How do you define a successful play?

I remember a play that I watched many years back—coincidentally it was by Toy Factory as well. It’s called First Light, about a group of people being caught in a limbo state in the afterlife. I was crying my eyeballs out during the play; it was very touching, and a play that I could really relate to. It’s not very famous—I haven’t seen it staged since then, and that was close to 10 years back. So I think for me that was a successful play, because I could still remember it 10 years on. I still remember the cast, the set design, how I felt. That to me is successful.

What kind of takeaway do you want your audience this weekend to have?

Think about your family.

Chicken Curry will run from Jul 27-29, 8pm, at 17A Smith Street. Tickets are available here.