Goh Boon Teck has a pretty impressive CV. Born and raised on the Chinese opera stage, he went on to set up his own theatre company, Toy Factory Productions, when he was just 18 years old.
In the past two decades since then, he’s worked on dozens of plays as director, playwright or technical designer. His company’s repertoire is vast: they’ve done everything from Broadway-style musicals like Cabaret to bizarre avant-garde Mandarin dramas like the Kafka-inspired K. He’s also twice been commissioned to direct Singapore’s National Day Parade, in 2007 and 2008.
Through all this time, he’s never made a secret of his being gay. In fact, his boyfriend of 12 years, Justin Wong, works as executive producer in his company. When he began publishing his scripts two years ago, his first volume was a compilation of his gay-themed plays: Posteterne, Purple and A Tinted Edge.
This year, he’s decided to bring back the most popular of these works, Purple. Written in 1995, it’s based on the actual life story of a Singaporean transgender entertainer named Maggie Lai. Boon Teck read an interview with her in a Mandarin-language magazine, and was moved to tears. He immediately contacted the reporter so he could meet her and learn the whole of her story.
“I think it’s special for any human being has to live through so much pressure and pain,” Boon Teck says. “[Transgender people] have no choice but to be transgender, yet they have to shoulder so much societal burden. They should be treated with respect.”
His script tells the tale of how she survived childhood bullying, her careers as a sex worker, stripper, masseuse, business owner and actress in the Hong Kong movie Bugis Street; and her father’s eventual acceptance of her. It also takes Singaporeans to task for our habit of mocking transgender women and lays bare the whole painful procedure of a gender-reassignment operation. “It’s quite bloody. It’s not something everyone can do,” he says.
Purple has been staged twice before, with sold-out runs in ’95 and ’98. This time round, Boon Teck’s rewritten the script to include more songs and humour. Director Rayann Condy will bring the atmosphere of the traditional transgender hangouts of Bugis Street, Desker Road and Changi Village to life. She’s also selected a cast of young actors for the show, including Matilda Chua, Elizabeth Loh and Rebecca Spykerman as the chorus of nurses and Shane Mardjuki as Maggie herself.
When Boon Teck first interviewed Maggie, she reflected on the fact that many transgender women don’t live very long, and predicted that she’d be dead by her 40s. Fortunately, she was wrong: she’s alive and well in her 50s, and has even taken up work as a getai singer during the Hungry Ghost Festival. She’s been invited to the performances as well, as a guest of honour.
We decided to ask Boon Teck a little more about his career in theatre.
æ: Age, sex, occupation, location?
Boon Teck: 40, male, theatre playwright/director, Singapore.
æ: How did you get involved in drama?
Boon Teck: I was involved since birth! My mother was a Chinese opera actress, so I practically grew up on the Chinese opera stage.
In the past, I hoped to be a tenor singer, then I wanted to paint. But while I was studying in NAFA for Fine Arts, I started doing theatre backstage with The Theatre Practice. We learned a lot of things from [director] Kuo Pao Kun, so a team of us set up Toy Factory in 1990.
æ: What were those early days like?
Boon Teck: We started as a puppetry company, and then we did a lot of physical drama, with no text. Then we tried some Mandarin plays, then some English plays. We were not that fixed in terms of artistic genre – I think now, also! We sort of like it when we do whatever we feel like doing.
æ: What was your first gay-themed play?
Boon Teck: I think it would be Posteterne in 1992. It’s based on the Chinese classic of The Butterfly Lovers, but there’s a gay story inside. [Editor: The Butterfly Lovers tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man so she can study the classics, and falls in love with male student.]
In the story, the hero dies when he realises she’s a woman, so we elaborated that he did that because he didn’t want her to be a woman! We were a bit crazy. We rehearsed that play for one whole year – and I was in NS also; I injured myself, and I was on crutches and rehearsing.
But I think before that we did physical drama or visual plays – there might have been some gay things going on but because they were abstract and left up to your interpretation. We did Redear in 1991, a visual play inspired by the opera Madam Butterfly. So we created all these visuals of Madam Butterfly, and she had a lot of male friends and the male friends had some relationships between them. (laughs) It was a very liberal, very out-of-context reinterpretation of the story.
æ: Besides those and Purple, did you write any other gay plays?
Boon Teck: Tinted Edge. That was in the Singapore Arts Festival, 2000. It was a gay love story, quite tragic. Everybody was unhappy because of secrets and lies and hidden messages that weren’t conveyed. I think that was the time I’d just come back from London. There were many gay plays staged in the UK, and I watched a lot of them while I was there. I think those plays inspired me.
It was quite a short run actually. The Arts Fest got the National Trades Union Congres (NTUC) to sponsor this play. So the first night was NTUC night. I could feel that the audience was so uncomfortable, and the VIPs were like, “Marketing Manager, what did you sponsor?” After the play, I think they went out of Jubilee Hall and lao sai [had diarrhoea].
I love that play. I want to restage it. It has a Greek chorus inside it. The protagonist is always telling lies; the Greek chorus says what he’s actually thinking about. Quite fun to direct.
æ: On a personal note, how did you meet your partner?
Boon Teck: We met at Taboo. That’s why we’re forever grateful to Addy, the boss. So please go clubbing to get your partners. That’s what I tell my younger friends: they don’t club, they don’t do anything and they expect to get hitched. I say, “You think your boyfriend will drop from the sky, is it?” Or maybe it’s a different world now. They just use the Internet.
æ: And how long have you been together now?
Boon Teck: 12 years.
æ: How have you managed to stay together so long?
Boon Teck: It’s not always easy. It’s not like we can talk about everything – it can still be quite difficult. But dinner is not a problem, and weekends are not a problem. I think we get along. And you always have to grow together in your relationship. If you don’t learn and grow and communicate it will die off. It’s not easy, but it’s a mission.
æ: Last question: why, out of all your old plays, are you restaging Purple?
Boon Teck: It seemed to be more memorable to more people. Over the years we keep joking about it, how much fun we had doing it. And some Toy Factory followers and friends have been saying how much they miss this play.
Also, the respect is not there for transgender people. Society has changed, but we still see them as people who are not the same as us. They often still have problems getting employment.
This is no longer about the story of Maggie Lai: it’s become the story of Singapore, being castrated in many ways. So Maggie Lai is a representation of Singaporeans losing their voice and courage. And what we hope to achieve is by watching Purple you will stand up for what you want to do, what you are, what you want to believe in.
Purple is playing from 2 to 18 August at Joyden Hall, Bugis+ (formerly known as Iluma). The performance is rated R18. Tickets are available from Sistic.
For more about Toy Factory Productions, visit toyfactory.com.sg. You can also buy Goh Boon Teck’s bilingual play collection: “A Soul Has Two Edges: Plays on Homosexuality” from leading bookstores.