The ballerina who overturned tables

Singapore's dance pioneer Goh Lay Kuan, 75, lived through the tumultuous 1950s, when Chinese middle-school students took to the streets to fight against military conscription by the British colonial government.

These political upheavals, coupled with a Chinese education, imbued in her a strong sense of social responsibility, she says.

She and her late husband, theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun, started a performing arts school in 1965, now called The Theatre Practice.

The works they wrote and performed broke new ground in their critique of social injustices.

Both of them were awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest honour for the arts.

Madam Goh relates to Goh Chin Lian her struggles as a professional artiste in Singapore and her detention without trial in 1976, together with her husband, under the Internal Security Act.

You received a Chinese education up to age 19. How has it influenced your thinking?

During the colonial period, English schools provided "slavery education" to produce people who knew English, but were obedient. You first learnt, "Yes, sir", followed by "British is the best".

In Chinese schools, we were linked to our traditional culture. We were taught to be sensitive to social issues.

When I saw children weaving through traffic and endangering themselves to sell mah piu poh (Cantonese for newspaper carrying horse-racing lottery results), I was disturbed and unhappy.

The Malay children were also out on the street selling curry puffs.

So, I wrote a musical about children selling rice dumplings. It wasn't welcomed because it was seen as political criticism.

You studied ballet at age 15. How did you develop the interest and pursue it?

Soonee Goh (co-founder of Singapore Ballet Academy and from a family of ballet dancers, including Goh Choo San and Goh Soo Khim) had just returned from Britain and offered lessons at a special price of $10, which was a lot of money then. I paid in four instalments: $2.50 every week, using my pocket money. I went hungry for it.

The class started with 15. In the end, I was the only one left.

Was your mother supportive?

My mother, a teacher, was open-minded because both my parents had learnt music (Madam Goh's father, a resistance fighter, was killed by the Japanese in 1945) but Pao Kun's family (his father was a businessman) wanted to sever ties with him.

To them, an actor was someone who wandered from place to place like a beggar. It was a case of "my family is wealthy, my only son has gone to be an actor; even worse, he's found a dancing girl!"

Only after he had become more successful did his parents come around to accepting what he did.

Singapore had no arts schools or facilities in the '50s and '60s. How did you pursue your interest?

After I finished my high school education, I worked in Singapore for a year as a kindergarten teacher in the morning, a relief teacher in the afternoon, and a tutor at night, before I left for Australia to learn ballet in late 1959. I continued to work part-time.

Pao Kun went to Australia in early 1959 and worked for Radio Australia as a translator-announcer. He also repaired roads because the job paid better. Later, he stu- died theatre production while working. His father was furious but could not do anything about it.

You and your husband returned to Singapore in 1964 and 1965, respectively. What drew you both home?

We were doing well and earning money but we heard of two developments in Singapore in 1963: A TV station had been set up and the National Theatre had been built.

We could nurture a new group of professional dancers and actors through the TV station. Even better was the National Theatre. You need to hone your acting skills on the stage.

We rushed back, but the TV station had nothing. They asked me what's a choreographer? I told them the dance would not be right without a choreographer, who must also be paid. They said: "Really? I thought you could just dance once I put the record on?" They were so ignorant.

They were miserly, too. I was paid $10 for my first TV programme, a half-hour dance show.

Any other reason?

There is one important reason. When we were in Australia, we had events like the Malayan ball. The Malays, Chinese and Indians could dance only their own ethnic dances.

Later, at an international gathering, they asked us Malayan students what we wanted to perform. What should we sing? Geylang Sipaku Geylang? Malay songs? The Indonesians were singing too. Dance? Students from China were dancing, as were the Indian students and the Filipinos.

We did not even have a simple song we could call our own. We were strongly affected by this. We felt we didn't have our own identity and culture. We felt we'd got to do something.

What main challenges did you and your husband face in starting a performing arts school in 1965?

It was founded a month before Singapore gained Independence. We had no grants and refused financial help from our families.

We did everything ourselves, including the stage set and costumes. I didn't get a salary for 13 years, only money for transport. We took 17 years to pay our debts.

Government permits for the performances were hard to get.

We had a skit called gai si de cang ying (Chinese for "damn the fly") around the time of the Keep Singapore Clean campaign (a yearly campaign that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started in 1968).

Lee's authority struck fear in the people at the TV station. Once, there was a fly when he arrived to give the National Day address. You can imagine how everybody reacted. Turn off the light! Ten minutes later, the light was turned on and they resumed. But the uncooperative fly came back.

The light was turned off and Mr Lee was asked to rest in a dressing room. They had to do the recording a few times before it was finished.

Pao Kun, who was the producer-announcer, felt it was very funny. It was just a fly, but everyone was so frightened, as if a whole army had arrived. So at a drama camp, gai si de cang ying was performed. It was about the funny situations created by a fly at a fruit stall.

We did not make any direct criticism, but they thought we had a Communist ideology.

Were you often denied a permit for your shows?

I developed this temper of mine because of them. From the early days to the 1970s and 1980s, I was the only one able to obtain the permit for our school. They knew I overturned tables and slammed the door very loudly.

You and your husband were accused of communist activities in 1976. Looking back, why do you think you were detained?

It's cumulative. They called you to account for each one of the performances you put up. We had also raised issues about children and their poverty, sometimes in songs, short plays or on stage.

When Singapore was just founded, we needed huge foreign investments. We especially wanted the Japanese investors.

I had heard of an award-winning story about the Second World War where the Japanese were out to kill a Malayan freedom fighter.

But someone hid the man. The Japanese said they would kill the whole family of this courageous rescuer.

I felt it was good material for a dance performance but it was not approved. We argued that the story was out in the open, and it did no harm to our country.

We did not know why, but a few days later, we heard Japan's emperor and empress were invited to visit Singapore (in 1970).

However, I also want to thank them for detaining me because I became even more forthright in my speech.

Why did you put up those performances?

Theatre is about life. It's about people, about how we see, how we think, how we feel. It is so simple, yet so powerful.

When I see some wrongdoing, I will talk about it. This is my right. This is why I became an artiste.

What happened during your detention?

Many things happened inside there. I found it funny that when they detained me, they asked me to draw a gun. I didn't even know how to draw a toy gun.

I said: "Why do you want me to do this? I have no idea." I drew (an inverted L shape). I said I knew where they pulled the trigger, but I didn't know where they put the bullets.

As I spoke, they kept laughing, and I also kept laughing.

Later, I discovered their intention was to charge those of us who were detained with having received military training. Luckily, I didn't know how to draw.

When they threatened me, I told them: "If I don't care whether I'm alive or dead, what can you do with me?"

I was not easily intimidated. I even overturned their tables.

Do you want to set the record straight now? Are you bitter?

I have already spoken about it to the oral archives (from August 2000 to March 2001).

I don't talk about many things that happened inside because I want to be fair to them. After all, developing Singapore to what it is today is no easy feat. I'm not saying they have no merit. I'm saying that certain things were simply outrageous.

Do you think they awarded you the Cultural Medallion in 1995 to appease you?


Why were you unwilling to receive the award initially?

I've never wanted any award because this is my responsibility and my job as an artiste, and as a Singaporean. Otherwise, why did I come back to Singapore? I'm trying hard to do my best. That's all.

As a pillar in the arts community, do you think we have evolved a Singaporean culture as we approach 50 years?

Someone said to me: "I'm not Chinese. I'm Singaporean." I asked for his name and said: "Sorry, that's a Chinese name. Give me a Singaporean name."

Do you think by singing Geylang Sipaku Geylang, you're a Singaporean?

When we first came back, we were proactive in working with Malays and Indians, to have a basic understanding of each other's culture. This will create mutual understanding. Today, our "basic" is: "We all like laksa and char kway teow."

What can be done to build a Singaporean culture?

Every culture has its unique characteristics and similarities with other cultures. The commonalities provide a basis for us to understand each other. The differences teach us to accept others.

If we are more accepting of others, we will learn from each other. By learning from one another, we will discover much precious material for creative work. When a few cultures interact, the sparks will be especially colourful.

But as we look to the West and learn from them, we must also look within us. It is by looking inside that we can find our uniqueness. If you learn from others, you are learning basically technique and experience. You can improve your technique, but we need a deeper and broader cultural foundation for the road ahead.

The material for our arts must come from our daily lives - what we see, think, feel and express - that inspire us in our creative work, especially in such a rich multicultural environment which Singapore is blessed with.

Only our own creative work has the ability to make our people feel more familiar and closer to one another.

That's why I believe that we can create a unique culture of our own that can't be copied. The experience that we've been through in this generation could also be a legacy for future generations. We should earn our dignity by developing our own arts.

This article was published on May 3 in The Straits Times.

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