She was only 18 the year Madam Kwa Geok Choo died.
Today, actress Tan Rui Shan, 30, assumes the role of Madam Kwa, better known as the wife of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on stage.
“There are so many different interpretations of her, yet there is so little resources and information about her online. There’s so little about her but there are so many opinions about her so that’s where I think the pressure comes from,” Tan tells TheHomeGround Asia.
Tan plays the woman behind two prime ministers of Singapore in a play named after Madam Kwa. It premieres today (8 July) at Victoria Theatre and will be staged until 31July.
Kwa Geok Choo, a new play by Ovidia Yu, is the first monologue for the dancer-actress, who has works such as The Amazing Celestial Race by Wild Rice, Forbidden City Musical by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and Lim Boon Keng Musical by the Musical Theatre Limited under her belt.
Some of her choreography credits include The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Behind the Wall by Gateway Arts.
“It’s not really the form that matters to me. I think, more importantly, it’s the story that’s being told and it’s a great opportunity to learn about Madam Kwa, so why not?” says Tan, who is also a drama teacher.
Kwa Geok Choo – the play
Madam Kwa is perhaps Singapore’s original enigma.
Before she became Mrs Lee Kwan Yew, she broke glass ceilings. She was the first girl to advance to pre-university having topped the whole of Malaya in her Senior Cambridge examination and was accepted into Raffles Institution (RI), which, at that time, did not have any female students.
She became the first woman in Malaya to earn a first class honours Law Degree and started her own law firm with husband Lee Kuan Yew in 1955. Madam Kwa did not just marry modern Singapore’s founding father, she also raised its third Prime Minister.
Yet so little is known of her outside of her formal obligations so the play hopes to offer a glimpse into who she was as a woman, a mother, a friend, even a person independent of the men that she supported.
Tan says the play is very special “because I think the fact that they made it a one woman monologue and have the men support her in the show”.
“It is a very interesting concept in itself, a complete reversal of how she was during the time when she was alive. She supported all the men around her so well and this time when we are telling her story, it is just the other way around and I think there is something very special about this concept that rings and resonates with me very well,” she adds.
Three other actors play supporting roles and life illustrators.
“They are actors Mitchell Fang, Edric Hsu and Wah Ahmad. … Sometimes they pop in to deliver a few lines and illustrate the scene for me. So in a way, there is support from behind, which is really nice. At the same time, (the play) is really being very clear about her journey and being very sure about what part of that journey we are trying to convey and in what way,” Tan says.
Becoming Kwa Geok Choo
“The story that we are telling here is also very different. It is really about her and how she had gone through all these challenges – raising three children and a nation at the same time,” Tan adds.
Not having met Madam Kwa, Tan gets her information on her from any way she can – researching on the Internet, watching clips and videos of Madam Kwa and speaking to people who had met her or interacted with her..
The team managed to invite one of the lawyers who worked at Madam Kwa’s law firm Lee & Lee and who had interacted with her to come share his experience.
“That was nice. At least, it was like a more personal touch. That’s what we try to also show in the production – to show not only this one-dimensional side of her that we all see, the very stoic political front that we all see; but also what she was like talking to her kids, what she was like talking to the maids in the house – those are the smaller things that we are more interested in,” she says.
“He also mentioned that she was quite a feisty person. We all painted her to be a very gentle and caring (person). But there was this other side of her where, when she really wanted something or when she wanted to work hard for something, she was not afraid. And she was quite a rebel, a trailblazer. It must take a certain level of courage and rebelliousness to be able to do that kind of thing. For me, it is really discovering all these little things and really looking beyond the surface and finding out the more multi-dimensional side of her,” Tan says.
Tan is still continuously reading about Madam Kwa up to the time the curtain rises for the premiere as “all this new information never stops adding meat to my skeleton”.
And to get into Madam Kwa’s psyche, Tan is also listening to the music that Madam Kwa used to like.
“I actually created this little Spotify playlist of the music she liked. Listening to them helps me understand her. You know, art, like poetry and music, were a kind of escape for her, and she loved them so much. I kind of dabble into all these little things as well to fully understand the dynamics of her,” she says.
Tan says the moment chief artistic director of Toy Factory Productions Goh Boon Teck, who is directing the play, and playwright Ovidia Yu mentioned the focus is really about telling Madam Kwa’s story – her growing up and being the woman behind this powerful man, “the pressure kind of really wore off”.
And to ensure the play goes on smoothly, “It is about going through it over and over again – the way she would go over Mr Lee’s scripts and contracts and speeches. It’s really going over and over again and making sure you practice until there is no room for failure,” Tan says.
And in Madam Kwa’s voice and clipped British accent, Tan says, “You can never defeat the rising tide but don’t fear it. You must look beneath the surface or you’ll never know the beauty of the rocks beneath or learn to flow and adapt like water, with the water.”
Kwa Geok Choo runs from 8 to 31 July at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets start from S$58, and you can get them here.