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Ovidia Yu, writer of moving theatrical piece Kwa Geok Choo, on why she chooses to write stories about Singapore

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon8/2/2022 10:10 PM GMT+08  • 7 min read
Ovidia Yu, writer of moving theatrical piece Kwa Geok Choo, on why she chooses to write stories about Singapore
Ovidia Yu, writer of moving theatrical piece Kwa Geok Choo, on why she chooses to write stories about Singapore
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How much do you know about Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew? I bet the answer would be not much. That is exactly what prolific playwright Ovidia Yu admits to and with that, she wrote
the powerful monologue Kwa Geok Choo, directed by Toy Factory Productions’s chief artistic director Goh Boon Teck.
After dropping out of medical school, Yu wrote plays and short stories before switching to traditional mysteries with quirky characters, authentic issues and (more or less) happy endings.
As an author, her books include the Aunty Lee Mystery series featuring Peranakan amateur sleuth and professional kaypoh Aunty (Rosie) Lee and the crime mystery series set in 1930s Singapore featuring Peranakan sleuth Chen Su Lin. Two of her books — The Paperbark Tree Mystery and The Mimosa Tree Mystery — were recently shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger. Her latest book is The Mushroom Tree Mystery.
Options catches up with her via email fresh from the successful run of Kwa Geok Choo at Victoria Theatre to chat about the play that shed light on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s mother and writing stories from a Singaporean point of view.

Why was it important for you to tell the story of Kwa Geok Choo?
The play started as [Toy Factory Productions’s chief artistic director Goh] Boon Teck’s idea — it only became important to me after I did some research and found out how little information there is about Madam Kwa on public record. We all think we know her but we know so little!
She is both well-known and an enigma to most Singaporeans. As the wife of our first Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, repeatedly acknowledged by him as a primary partner and support, she’s probably influenced our nation more than any other person who’s never held public office in Singapore.
Growing up under a racist British regime and during the Japanese Occupation, she broke barriers as a brilliant student (Raffles Institution changed its no girls policy to admit her) and the first female conveyancing lawyer practicing in Singapore. Though she deliberately stayed out of the limelight, she spoke on the right of women to get equal pay and drafted the PAP’s Women’s Charter Bill.

Actress Tan Rui Shan (above) portrays Kwa Geok Choo as an inspiring pioneer and a multi-faceted leader

What, in the course of your research, did you uncover about Mrs. Lee that no one else knew?
I think what surprised me the most was how affectionately she’s remembered by people who knew her and worked with or worked for her. I didn’t find any dark secrets, but the eye-opener was how relatable her human side was.
I wanted to show what was beneath Madam Kwa’s formal and official presence as the wife of Lee Kuan Yew, and I was struck that what I found was the incredible love story between her and Lee Kuan Yew that lasted all their lives.

See also: Two best friends create Spindle and Moon to tell stories about Singapore through a wide range of homewares

You dropped out of medical school to pursue writing. How can we persuade more Singaporean playwrights to tell stories about Singapore?
I don’t think you need to persuade people to tell stories. Telling stories is something people do naturally — given the right audience or any audience at all. And given they believe they have something new or different to say.
True, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun' but everything looks different from a different point of view and since you are a unique individual, how the world looks to you from your perspective is unique. I think we spend too much time assuming everyone sees things the same way we do.
But that’s part of the story you tell yourself — and you’re always your own first audience. There’s what feels like a magic moment when you realise you can change yourself with the stories you tell yourself. And then a much greater, more magic moment when you dare hope that with the stories you put out into the world you can maybe change the world a little too.
It might sound counter-intuitive but I believe if you want Singaporean playwrights to tell Singapore stories you should send them out of Singapore for a while at least. It helps you sort out how much of what you think is ‘you’ is really you reacting to your environment. Until then we’re like fish unable to describe water or humans unable to describe gravity because we’ve always taken it for granted.
It was when I was in South Korea (thanks to the Toji Cultural Foundation and the National Arts Council) that I started writing about Singapore and Singapore’s history. I think that gave me the kickstart I needed because I started my first book there eleven years ago and I’ve got eleven books published now.

What are some of the key milestones in your career?
Dropping out of medicine was probably the first milestone. There’s nothing wrong with studying medicine if you want to practice medicine, but I really didn’t. As far back as I can remember I wanted to write. It wasn’t even an ambition, just a fact.
I didn’t have a plan, I got lucky so many times. I started writing short stories and plays and I won an international short story competition with A Dream of China and which led to my first book Miss Moorthy Investigates with Landmark Books (thank you Goh Eck Kheng)
The book went out of print but was picked out of a bin by my first agent. This got me the book contracts for my murder mystery books which I’m still writing now.

What does it mean to be a storyteller?
I think it’s being able to show people a different side of the story, sometimes a different side of themselves. If you’re even a little successful, you get to distract and entertain people so that they laugh and cry and go back to their lives refreshed.
If you’re very successful you give them just a little insight into other people’s lives, maybe what they’re struggling with or what they’ve triumphed over and into their own lives, awakening their own power and potential. Best of all is if they start creating and telling their own stories.

How do you approach a new writing project?
That very much depends on the project. With Kwa Geok Choo I’m afraid my first thought was ‘three months, I’ve got to conceptualise, research, write a draft and two rewrites in three months’ because that was all the time I could spare when Boon Teck spoke to me about the project.
But then once I started researching, Kwa Geok Choo the character took over and I felt almost a calling to convey what she would have wanted to pass on to her ‘children’ because if Lee Kuan Yew is the father of modern Singapore, Kwa Geok Choo was in a sense our mother.
I wanted to understand what it might have felt like to be her. I believe she wouldn’t have wanted to have a show done about her ... but she might have accepted it if it helps the next generation (who never knew her) move forward with her courage, dedication and love.
Actually when a project starts, it’s usually this trying to understand what makes someone else tick that drives it on. It’s my way of trying out many lives in one lifetime.


Hopes and dreams for the future?
For me right now? To finish the books I’m currently working on, to learn to write better, my dream is to write books people read as light entertainment, but that will ‘teach’ them about history, life, environmentalism ... a whole host of things. For Singapore? That we no longer worry about producing writers who write ‘about Singapore’. Instead, we’ll have writers writing about life, the universe and everything ... from a Singaporean point of view.

How are you celebrating National Day?
I’ll be watching the National Day Parade from home but looking forward to this first post-Covid-19 spectacle!

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