Grandmother Tongue: An Interview with Playwright Thomas Lim and Actor Tan Shou Chen

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The fastest selling show at W!ld Rice’s 2016 Singapore Theatre Festival was none other than Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue, so it makes complete sense that they’re bringing it back this September for an extended month long run!

Starring Tan Shou Chen, Jalyn Han and Rei Poh, Grandmother Tongue follows a grandson as he attempts to connect with his octogenarian grandmother, who can only speak Teochew. We follow them as they bond in various ways, from teaching her to use a mobile phone to visiting her in hospital after a fall, as he discovers the true cost of exiling a dialect and language from our system.

Last seen in Forbidden City as the spoilt son of Empress Cixi, Tan Shou Chen certainly plays a very different role here as a filial grandson trying all ways and means to bond with his grandmother. As for writer/director Thomas Lim, Grandmother Tongue remains a more than satisfyingly successful maiden production, and we can’t wait to see how he grows as a writer from here. We spoke to both of them about the play, and you can read the interviews in full below!

Thomas Lim

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BCM: Having dabbled in theatre during your schooldays, what was it that ultimately made you decide to pursue theatre professionally? 

Thomas: There wasn’t any particular event or person that made me decide to work in the theatre professionally. Looking back, I think it was an entire series of choices, all of which felt right at the time I made them. I had never taken much interest in the theatre and I joined the school’s Drama Club in Sec 1 because I had a friend in there.
It must have been the very first play that we read that piqued my interest. This was Haresh Sharma’s Lanterns Never Go Out. It was life-changing because at 12, I never thought that people so similar to me, or even people I knew, could appear on the pages of a published text, or exist on stage. I felt that these were people I knew being represented, and that meant a lot to me. So I was really guided by that experience and I wanted to share it with other people.
I went on to do a course in Applied Drama in SP and worked with communities, in schools and youth theatres for about 6 years. I wrote a lot during this period, mostly for schools, but there were sensitive areas I could never touch, otherwise the work will get axed or heavily edited. I wanted to do more and write more, and I had stories in my head that would never pass in schools, so I decided to take a shot at doing this professionally.

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BCM: Grandmother Tongue first premiered at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2016, what was it that made you submit it to W!ld Rice for consideration?

Thomas: In 2015, Ivan, Tony, Glen and Alfian invited the young theatre artists, collectives and companies to come together to share what we have been up to, pool resources, talk about our triumphs, challenges and to see how W!ld Rice could support us. They told us about the Singapore Theatre Festival happening the next year and invited us to submit proposals and ideas. I had the idea for Grandmother Tongue earlier that year, but I knew it would never pass in schools, so I thought, why not?

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BCM: Grandmother Tongue has proven to be a hit, having enjoyed two sold out runs. Why do you think Grandmother Tongue resonates so strongly with audiences and draws in the crowds?

Thomas: I can’t say for sure I know the reasons for this, though I think it could have something to do with the challenges that many Chinese citizens face. A lot of my friends, myself included, had our struggles with our prescribed ‘mother tongue’ in school, and then the same struggle at home with our ‘grandmother tongue’ when talking with our grandparents. The conflict that I have experienced is not only in the languages we speak, but also in the undercurrent of values and worldview that are transmitted within the language.

It might have something to do with the access that the play gave as well. I wrote it mostly in Teochew for my grandmother because I wanted to bring her to the theatre. But in another way, it created an opportunity for younger people to have access to Teochew and perhaps even to their grandparents. There isn’t a lot of things going on in our dialects that are easily accessible. TV programmes in dialects are aired during school and working hours. So when there are plays, films or events in dialects, there is usually a packed house of different generations. I remember watching the audience come into the theatre last year and many of them came in families, those of my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation and my generation.

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BCM: With the support of such big industry players in Singapore and having already received such a strong start in the local theatre scene, what can we expect to see from you in future?

Thomas: While I don’t have any specific plans or ideas for the future, I know I will continue to write. I think that’s something that I have always been sure of. At present, I am working on a new play for next year and am thinking of developing some of my previous work for schools that were either not fully realised or not allowed to be performed. I’m just taking everything one line at a time.
Tan Shou Chen

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Photo from Tan Shou Chen’s Facebook

BCM: What first drew you to auditioning for Grandmother Tongue last year? Are there certain types of roles that immediately catch your attention when looking through casting calls? 

Shou Chen: I remember Alfian (Sa’at) calling me to audition for Grandmother Tongue. Then the script was still being worked on by Thomas, so all I got were audition character sides (excerpts written for auditions). The proposition was immediately interesting to me because it had to do with the Teochew language. I’m drawn to works that challenge me and also resonate beyond the theatrical space. 

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BCM: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing for your role in Grandmother Tongue?

Shou Chen: It was definitely speaking Teochew. I am Teochew but I am hopeless with the language. I grew up speaking English. So learning how to speak it, and then act with it, was a big challenge for me. So I started Teochew lessons quite early on, before the actual rehearsals began. You gotta come in prepared.

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BCM: What was the process like of working with Jalyn Han to develop the keen sense of onstage chemistry seen in Grandmother Tongue? 

Shou Chen: Little known fact: before auditions, when Alfian asked my opinion for who might be good to play the grandmother role, I said “Jalyn for sure”. It’s been great. Jalyn is an extremely open and dedicated artist. I first met her when she cast me in my first Mandarin play, 远角She took quite a big risk with me as it was a very challenging piece. It was not only in pretty ‘cheem’ Mandarin (I ‘jiak kentang’ one), the staging was also quite experimental. I would say we built a pretty good foundation of trust during that period, and remained good friends and colleagues after. So chemistry is actually easier to develop when there is a foundation of trust and respect. 

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BCM: Grandmother Tongue has seen two sold out runs in the space of a year. You and Thomas should be encouraged by the great response. Despite the pressure of performing at the top of your game every show, how do you enjoy the process?  

Shou Chen: I have to attribute that to Rei, Jalyn, Thomas and the production team supporting the process.  We share a lot of laughs and that’s important. I think coming back to the play and the same team is always wonderful because you get to build on the relationships that you have worked on, and also to see how each person has grown since the last time we collaborated. And now because we know the show better than the first time, we can breathe a bit more. That’s the best space to create. 

I have also been rediscovering my Teochew heritage and that often means eating a lot of food. Perhaps we can go on a culinary/arts expedition 🙂

Photo Credit: W!ld Rice
Grandmother Tongue will play at the SOTA Studio Theatre from 28th September – 21st October at the SOTA Studio Theatre, and will be performed in Teochew, Mandarin and English, with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets available from SISTIC
Grandmother Tongue
When: 28th September – 21st October
Where: SOTA Studio Theatre
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