Meeting Abigail Chay (above) was really a pleasant experience; her amiable and easy-going personality easily warms your heart, and being named recently by a Singapore newspaper as one of the faces of 2012 indicates that her future may be as bright as her wide signature smile.
This musical is the second time Chay has had her life documented. A television programme in which she was profiled in, Life Story was aired in Singapore in 2006. Now the musical I am What I am focusses on the physiological path she took to her sex-change as well as her life as a whole; her family, friends, career and even her love interests. She has found herself forced to look back again as others evaluate her life, a process she still finds it difficult to cope with.
Chay has said that seeing the show is like rewinding her life and seeing the different parts of it anew – the things she didn’t she do as well as the ones she did; the things she over did – at the same time thinking of resolutions for the future. When she was asked after a performance of the show what she would do differently now, Chay answered that she would try harder to turn the woman in her back to a man rather than undergo the operation. She explained this by saying that she could feel the pain in her family and understood how her wishes went against their traditional family values. She had no regrets about herself; she would love, though, to be able to reduce the pain and suffering she had brought to her family.
“I was moved by certain scenes, especially those which involved my parents.” Chay said. “And the last scene where everyone important walked onto the stage, made me feel lucky and blessed.”
Thirty years ago, without the help available today’ through the information accessible via the internet, Chay had to spend days and nights in the library trying to figure out the woman deep inside her. In the musical, the protagonist (played by Angus Chan, one of the founders of the production company a & g), says that he is a female trapped in a man’s body.
In one scene, he kneels down and begs his mum and dad to lend him money to undergo the operation. The reaction of his parents is expected, but what triggers the audience’s emotions is the way his family responds to his action. Despite their opposition to his plea, we can tell the parents themselves are struggling to accept the fact that their son wants to be a woman. They finally give him the money to live his dream. They show the unconditional love of parents, who, though they can’t feel or understand what their son feels, still stand by him.
Chay went through a broken marriage after her sex-change, but this isn’t the relationship on which she looks back and ponders; even now she still thinks what would have happened if she had married her girlfriend before she had the operation. She’s already lost contact with this girl, and to meet would just give them pain as there’s nothing they can do, they couldn’t get married, and she could never change back to being a man.
From left: Abigail Chay (Angus Chan), Joseph (Garrick Wong)
Of course there has been more than the man portrayed in the musical in her real life. Chan told me that the limitations of writing a musical left not enough room for everything, and the choice of events and of the men to mention was really critical in telling Abigail’s story. They ended up having to summarise and simplify the events in her life, which meant fewer men. So they combined a few things for easier understanding and with the help of music filled the gaps in certain events. The notion of doing a musical was not only the sheer preference of the producers, it was also a very appropriate way of addressing Chay’s life in the entertainment industry. She showed a lot of courage in revealing to the world the secret that she was a transsexual woman after having been blackmailed by her business partner, whose boyfriend she had refused to engage in a fake marriage so that he could stay in Singapore.
The musical is conducted in Cantonese and Mandarin, each for two shows. Credits go to the entire team. Honestly, when I first met actor and co-director Angus Chan, I was a bit in doubt whether he could pull it off as Chay. Once he stepped out on the stage the worries just flew away.
“Most of my friends thought it was a really big challenge for me, my parents even worried it would bring too much pressure on me,” he told me. Chan mentioned his friends’ reacted similarly after learning he was going to play a transsexual.
“As an actor, I am more than willing to try playing different characters and even playing an opposite gender. At first it was a bit weird, but it was a challenge for me which I overcame after I got into character and started to understand the emotions in Abigail.”
As a debut performance for a&g, this was a brave and highly successful show. Luckily, Chay had given absolute freedom to the production team, as she and one of the founders, producers and actors Garrick Wong has been friends for years.
Abigail is a really down to earth person, who believes in herself and urges others to pursue others to do the same. I am what I am is truly her motto. With her optimism nothing can get in her way. The musical has immortalised her life as an inspiration to those who are uncertain about themselves.