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An Interview with Chong Tze Chien

Credit: Tuckys Photography

Serendipity—this is what best describes Chong Tze Chien’s life.

Literature, Drama and Theatre

The award-winning playwright has always been interested in the creative arts since he was in primary school, often representing his class in storytelling competitions. However, it was only in secondary one that his interest in theatre was cemented. “Everything happened in Secondary One,” he chuckled. “Literature, drama and theatre.”

It was then that he first encountered Literature, a subject that completely blew his mind by the end of the first lesson. Following a brainstorming session on the meaning of Literature, his teacher had concluded the lesson with a poignant statement that struck a chord within him, that “Literature is the mirror of life.”

Notably, her impact spurred him to join the Drama Co-Curricular Activity (CCA), which she was also the teacher-in-charge of. He was initially unsure of what it entailed besides “just acting”, but soon fell “totally in love” with the theatre games, improvisations and other fun activities that dotted his CCA’s drama workshops. And so twice a week, it was drama at about 10 in the morning, followed by a quick lunch before heading to lessons at about 1pm.

“One thing led to another,” he smiled. It was not long before he became involved in The Necessary Stage (TNS), one of the only two theatre companies in Singapore at the time—and an incredibly young one at that! In particular, his sister roped him in for one of its lunchtime performances, P. S. S. B (Propagation of Safe Sex Bureau), for which they needed two child actors.

Although he only had one line, the production nonetheless marked Chong’s first public performance with a professional theatre company.

The Necessary Stage for Chong’s Playwrighting

Credit: Anderson Junior College, Wikipedia

Given these, it is therefore no surprise that Chong joined the Drama Club when he entered Anderson Junior College (AJC) four years later. “Serendipitously,” he noted, “the Drama teacher was one of the founders of The Necessary Stage.”

The theatre company was fully established by then, and had begun conducting drama acting workshops, which he actively participated in. Consequently, not only did he get reacquainted with the people whom he had worked with in P. S. S. B, but he also became more involved in TNS productions in one form or another, either as an actor, a stage manager, or part of the backstage crew. He even had to clean the wardrobe on occasion—a testament to his commitment to TNS, and his passion for theatre indeed!

Surprisingly, his interest in playwrighting was amplified during his stint in Tekong. Overwhelmed by the stagnancy and fatigue that underscored army life, he was eager for a change in the environment. However, it was his realization that he’d forgotten how to spell “Elephant” one day that compelled him to sign up for the Writers’ Lab playwrighting workshop (organized by TheatreWorks), despite harbouring a hatred for writing at the time. “I had a mini panic attack,” he recalled sheepishly. “My brains needed moving!”

Sure enough, this honing of his playwrighting skills was not in vain. During his days in NUS, he turned one of his drafts into a full-length piece for the Singapore Dramatist Awards (1998)—and he won. In particular, he bagged first place for the Amateur Category with P. I. E (Pan Island Expressway); it was his first national prize with regards to the creative arts, and is his most memorable accomplishment to date.

“I didn’t think I would win. I showed [my entry] to all my friends and they found it too dense and hard to understand,” he said. “On top of that, you get $2000 as prize money, a huge sum back in the nineties.”

And to think this was only a distraction from school and TNS!

NUS Days!

Indeed, Chong had only submitted his script for P. I. E because he needed an outlet to counter the stress he was experiencing as an Assistant Director for an NUS theatre production at the time. This was on top of his major in – you guessed it – Theatre Studies (TS), and his continued involvement in TNS productions.

He would, in fact, plan his modules in a way that allowed him to devote more time to TNS. “I was a part-time student,” he grinned, noting how he would cram all his modules in a day so that he would have a short school week. “I would have lessons from 9am to 6pm with no breaks, and then I’d be at Cairnhill the next day.”

Notably, his fondest memory of his time at NUS is the Arts canteen—particularly for its (then) famous char kway tiao stall, and its iced lemon tea. “The two faculties with the best food were Arts and Bizad,” he said. “The Arts canteen’s iced lemon tea was to die for.

Photo of NUS Arts Canteen:​

“Some students would also bring their own vodka to mix with the lemon tea… and then we’ll have our own Long Island Tea,” he added with a grin. “My friends and I were those students, the crazy ones. Once, while studying late at AS7 late at night, we made ourselves very comfortable in the lift and just studied inside it.”

Certainly, his NUS days were dotted with happy memories. The Theatre Studies programme also augmented his overall experience, giving him a space to apply whatever knowledge or skills he had learnt in TNS productions to his own school projects.

Interestingly (and “strangely”), his parents were supportive of him, and primarily wanted him to graduate with a University degree. Chong himself had never thought about practising theatre full-time, despite his active involvement in TNS and TS. “It was just out of passion,” he said. “But once again, all the stars aligned.”

As P.I.E was staged and received good feedback, Chong joined TNS as an associate playwright upon graduation in 1999, under the mentorship of Haresh Sharma. He eventually joined the company full-time six months later, writing and directing, from 2000 to 2004. In 2004, he moved to join The Finger Players (TFP), who had approached him for his expertise in writing. TFP felt that Chong’s playwrighting skills would help in interpellating an adult audience into puppetry works, thus breaking the stereotype of puppets as merely children’s play.

Credit: Sistic

Chong produced a number of exceptional productions during his time in TFP, such as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2005), and, of course, Poop! (2009). A small fun fact: Poop! was actually written in less than a day. According to Chong, who is also the director of the play, “It was one of those Eureka moments where the whole story just writes itself.”

Poop! is told from the perspective of an 8-year-old girl, triggered by her father’s suicide; and the title itself seems to be an inflection of this. It raises poignant questions about the meaning and value of life and death through a fascinating blend of puppetry, perspective, and imagination.

It will be held at The Victoria Theatre at the following dates and times:

20 Oct (Fri), 8pm 21 Oct (Sat), 3pm (with post show dialogue) 21 Oct (Sat), 8pm 22 Oct (Sun), 3pm

So what are you waiting for? Get your tickets now, and get ready for a mind-blowing experience 😉

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