By Bryan Tan
SINGAPORE — If the name Lim Boon Keng rings a bell, you are not mistaken. It is etched on the signage of Boon Keng Road and is the namesake of Boon Keng MRT station. But who was Lim Boon Keng, and why write a musical about him? Lim Boon Keng – The Musical is written by Singapore playwright Stella Kon (author of the seminal monodrama Emily of Emerald Hill), and directed by Jeremiah Choy.
The musical, which opened at Victoria Theatre on Thursday (10 Oct), is a loving tribute to local pioneer, Dr Lim Boon Keng, who is also Kon’s great-grandfather. The first Chinese boy ever to receive a Queen’s Scholarship to study medicine, the show takes us on a historical journey through Lim’s life of trials and tribulations. He had strong views on social reforms, and fought hard on issues like education for women and cultural reforms in China.
Throughout the musical, Lim’s many struggles and conflicts are depicted, including his loyalties to both China and Singapore, the Peranakan community’s resistance to his progressive reforms, and being caught between the Japanese occupiers and the people of Singapore. The supporting cast, playing roles reflecting the diverse races of Singapore, would mock him in Baba Malay for being a non-conformist by taking Margaret (Audrey Luo), a highly educated cina gerk (“low class” China Chinese) as his first wife.
Lim was a Peranakan, and the musical is a grand salute to Peranakan culture, featuring its distinct patois language Baba Malay and a fun number about Peranakan food (sambal belachan!). The pioneer is played by acclaimed “Broadway Beng” Sebastian Tan, and is accompanied by his loyal baba buddy Song Ong Siang (George Chan). However, see past the polished façade of dapper three-piece suits and tuxedo coattails, and you will find a man who fought valiantly for his ideals and never backed down from conflict.
The story showcases all of Dr Lim’s milestone achievements – from being elected to the Legislative Council to receiving an Order of the British Empire for his services. Yet, these achievements are often overshadowed and characterised by tumult in his personal life and poisonous gossip from the public. Powerful and lingering emotions are evoked when his wife Margaret dies from tuberculosis and Boon Keng takes a second wife, Grace (Celine Rosa Tan), only to be judged wanting by the unforgiving masses. Inevitably, he grows distant and spends much of his second marriage overcome with grief.
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Lim is ultimately branded a traitor to the country that he so lovingly tended to over many decades. By then, he had co-founded the Singapore Chinese Girl’s School and the Straits Chinese British Association – now The Peranakan Association Singapore, which celebrates its 120th anniversary next year as one of the oldest societies in Singapore.
Sebastian Tan showcases yet another facet of his flexible acting prowess, giving a quiet dignity and poise to a man considered an eminent figure of pre-independence Singapore. Lim Boon Keng – The Musical is a colourful spectacle of costume and song, although it was a pity that the tunes were not more memorable. The show celebrates not only the achievements of a pioneering father of Singapore, but more importantly acknowledges his life which was fraught with conflict and made him who he was in spite of it all.
Bryan Tan is the Treasurer of The Peranakan Association Singapore and Editorial Committee Member of the Peranakan Magazine. The views expressed are his own.