We are all familiar with the life and work of Lee Kwan Yew. But what do we know about the woman behind the man?
Before she became Mrs Lee Kwan Yew, Kwa Geok Choo broke glass ceilings, little by little advancing the world around her with her extraordinary drive and spirit.
She was the first girl to advance to pre-university having topped the whole of Malaya in her Senior Cambridge examination that Raffles Institution had little choice but to accept her in a time when they didn't accept female students.
She went on to become the first woman in Malaya to earn a first class honours Law Degree and start her own law firm with her husband in 1955.
Kwa Geok Choo didn't just marry modern Singapore's founding father, she also raised its Prime Minister. And with the men of her family firmly in the spotlight, Madam Kwa receded into the shadows, seen mostly in public by Mr Lee's side.
Madam Kwa is Singapore's original enigma. So little is known of her outside of her formal obligations. A new play, simply titled Kwa Geok Choo, hopes to offer a glimpse into who she was as a woman, a mother, a friend — a person independent of the men that she supported.
We talk to the play's director, Toy Factory Productions' Chief Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck, and writer Ovidia Yu about what to expect from this brave new work and how they delved into the psyche and life experiences of one of Singapore's most beloved women.
Why did you decide to create this story now?
Boon Teck: The idea had been brewing for more than 10 years. It's like a missing piece of a very interesting part of Singapore's history.
Somehow, people want to know or are curious about it, but it's hard to figure out. It's the same for me. I have a lot of curiosity, respect and admiration for this woman and every time I look around Singapore and see how wonderful it is…
I'm very intrigued by the hidden heroes or the people who supported the heroes, like Madam Kwa who probably gave a lot of guidance to our government during that time.
There were many opportunities to stage it, but they came and went. I hadn't found the right writer till Ovidia came on board. So this a dream… to finally have the courage and the correct team, and to feel that the energy is right for it.
Why did you need courage?
Boon Teck: It's not easy to stage a production about Madam Kwa.
Everyone has their expectations of a production like this, so (it was a question of) how to find that pure sincerity to back it up and stage it with a genuine story and the right delivery.
What angle did you take when writing it?
Ovidia: There was no one angle we could take because everybody saw her differently. Starting with her family, her classmates, the people around her time… her children, her colleagues… everyone seems to have a different version (of her).
We are actually trying to say there was no one perspective. She was different things to different people, even to herself. So we are showing the different facets… but most of all from her side, how it must have been for herself in that moment in time, changing so many things.
She actually created the mould around her. Girls didn't go to pre-U at that time. She did so well in her Cambridge exams, but RI (Raffles Institution) didn't take girls, so they started a class for her, and thanks to her, they started taking girls.
She was the first woman lawyer in Singapore; before her, there were no qualified women lawyers. And after that, she started a law firm.
She had to create every step of the way what we take for granted now. She actually carved it out bit by bit. She was changing the world around her so it's hard to say what she was.
How does the story play out?
Ovidia: It's a soliloquy, and it's the different hers talking. Most of feedback we got came from people who reacted to her in different ways, you see.
So it's her reaction to various people. Hopefully, you get a composite picture as you see her reacting to the different people and incidents in her life.
What are some of the striking things you learned about her?
Ovidia: When you dig into her story, what is very striking is that you would think that she's an institution, something like Queen Victoria, very proper and right. But her staff loved her, you know?
When she got sick at the end, it was the people who worked for her for years who went to visit her faithfully.
I mean, you can have rich, posh people sucking up to you because of who you are, but it was the servants who came out of respect and love for her. That says a lot about who she was, don't you think?
How did you research her?
Ovidia: (Laughs) You read whole horrible thick books and then you find one paragraph about her! So it was a lot of digging for very little stuff.
Most of it was from Lee Wei Ling's newspaper columns and from Lee Kwan Yee's writings and memoirs.
We strung all that together along with (information from) people whose parents knew the Lees. She was an MGS (Methodist Girls School) girl, so there were daughters of other MGS girls who sort of knew her.
Do you think you managed to get into her mind when writing the play?
Ovidia: To be honest, I don't know.
But what I tried to do was find all the verifiable facts and link those things into a composite picture because we know happened those things happened, we know she was there.
Did you ever meet her in person?
Ovidia: Once. I got to shake hands with her and say hello, that was it. (laughs)
Boon Teck: Not even in NDP when I was directing. You don't get to see her at all.
Why did you choose Tan Rui Shan to play Madam Kwa?
Boon Teck: We've worked with her on a couple of productions and she has this soulful voice that can command the monologue well.
This was the number one consideration for choosing her. Her openness, too. She's very young and vibrant and has a lot of energy.
We always see Madam Kwa as quite serious because we only saw her at formal occasions.
But beyond that, we need to portray that she's a very lively, colourful, creative and intelligent woman, so I think Rui Shan can do her justice in this more-than-one-dimensional portrayal of her.
What would you like audiences to take from this play?
Ovidia: I think it's really seeing the other side of Madam Kwa. When Rui Shan did the first reading for us, it was like magic.
That was exactly what I was hoping to bring out, the girlish, youthful, liking pretty things side of her, and yet that complete commitment and dedication once she decided to do something.
You don't lose your girlishness, your self and your playfulness when you're focused on the goal.
I like the way Boon Teck is using guys to support the woman (in the play) because it's a reversal of her life where she was always the one supporting the man in her life and she did that very successfully.
I don't think Singapore would be as it is without her influence, her love of nature. Remember, LKY said after she stopped them from fumigating the Istana grounds, all the birds came back because the insects were still there.
So I suspect when it came to the upgrading of our city, a lot came from her indirectly.
But, it's not enough that she advanced the cause of women, the next step is men must come up and be able to support women and that's what we want to portray next if we can.
Are we gonna cry when we watch the play?
Boon Teck: Yes! I guarantee you.
Kwa Geok Choo runs from July 8 to 31 at Victoria Theatre. Tickets are available from Sistic.
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