Renowned Playwright Stella Kon Tells The Story Of Her Great-Grandfather Lim Boon Keng In New Musical
More than three decades since it was first staged, Stella Kon’s one-woman play, Emily of Emerald Hill, has become an enduring classic of Singapore theatre. Homegrown thespians, from Margaret Chan to Ivan Heng, have made the story’s formidable Peranakan matriarch their own. (In fact, Heng reprised his gender-bending performance last month, marking another milestone for theatre company, Wild Rice, with the opening of its new theatre in Funan.)
Kon explores distinctly Singaporean themes in her body of work. “I grew up in the first years of independence. As a citizen of a new Singapore, you are almost obligated to do your part for nation-building.” There is one story, however, that she has been wanting to tell all these years—that of her great-grandfather Lim Boon Keng, a prominent figure in Singapore’s history.
Who was Lim Boon Keng?
Born in British colonial Singapore in 1869, Lim was the first Chinese student to receive the Queen’s Scholarship to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. At age 26, he was appointed a member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council. He was also a businessman who led social and education reforms, and a co-founder of the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation and Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. He also believed in empowering people through education, becoming the first president of Amoy University (now Xiamen University) in China.
More than 20 years in the making and “innumerable drafts later”, Kon is finally ready to stage Lim Boon Keng, The Musical at the Victoria Theatre from October 10 to 13. Presented by Musical Theatre Limited (MTL), the arts charity she co-founded in 2006, the musical stars Sebastian Tan, with music by Desmond Moey, and directed by Jeremiah Choy. “When I first started writing, I was overwhelmed by all these details and couldn’t use all the material. But we are celebrating a man for his entire lifetime of good work. If you want to see what Lim Boon Keng has done, just look at the Singapore economy,” says Kon.
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I grew up in the first years of independence. As a citizen of a new Singapore, you are almost obligated to do your part for nation-building
— Stella Kon
Reviving public memory of Lim Boon Keng's achievements
Yet, in his old age, Lim was accused of collaborating with the enemy during the Second World War. In actual fact, he was forced to lead the Overseas Chinese Association, purportedly to foster co-operation between the Japanese and local Chinese. “He was put on trial, and was fully exonerated by the British. Despite this, the Chinese people shunned and ostracised him. This was a shadow on his later life.” Kon explains. “I hope the musical will revive public memory of Lim Boon Keng’s achievements, and bring back the honour due to a great man.” The musical also offers a look at Lim’s relationships with his first wife, Margaret Huang, who left him heartbroken when she died young, and his second wife, Grace Yin, to whom he was married for over five decades.
Musicals with a mission
MTL’s mission is to create original Singapore musicals and enrich the local arts scene. More than that, the IPC-registered charity uses some of these works to empower the disadvantaged groups in society through its creative arts programmes. These include enrichment courses and skills workshops such as songwriting and sound recording, along with an incubation programme that helps writers and composers write new musicals. “Our main emphasis is on musicals with a social aim, with possible outreach to the various communities which require help,” says Kon.
Such collaborations have been serendipitous thus far. Case in point: My Love is Blind, the 2017 musical based on the life of Tan Guan Heng, a former president of the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped, who lost his sight in his 20s. “I’ve known Tan Guan Heng for years. I’d helped him edit his first book, My Love is Blind, and said to myself then that it’s a very good title for a musical. So we went ahead to write and produce it.” The musical showcased the talents of members of the blind community.
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With all that she is doing for Singapore theatre, Kon hopes to see “a return to less glitzy, glamorous productions. I like productions which are small and focused on the story and acting and staged in a small space. Hopefully, the new Wild Rice theatre at Funan as well as the upcoming theatre at the Esplanade would help in that direction”.
- Photography Max Chan/101Teamwork
- Art Direction Jana Tan
- Hair Benedict Choo, using Giorgio Armani Beauty
- Make-Up Benedict Choo, using Giorgio Armani Beauty
- Images Lim Kok Ann and family
- Location Victoria Theatre & Victoria Concert Hall