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A RARE FLOWER IN FULL BLOOM

Chowee Leow stars in a 2006 movie ‘Cut Sleeve Boys’

Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow – co-creators of this highly acclaimed one-person play describe it as “an intercultural horticultural wandering in a Wonderbra.”

I would call it a homecoming party for an exquisitely gifted, Malacca-born performer (who has spent a significant part of his life in the UK) – and a sociocultural manifesto for those exotic creatures who dwell in the phantasmagoric realm of hermaphrodite fantasies; and who wend their curvaceous way along the fine line dividing male from female; whose very presence provokes snide sniggers from the sexually unambiguous and horny hoots from hooligans.  Those Ah Quahs, Mak Nyahs and pondans, (crossdressers, transvestites and transsexuals) who have always been a part of, and yet existed apart from, society.

An Occasional Orchid, premièred in Malaysia by Dramalab in May 2004, is seeing its second run in Kuala Lumpur at the K.R. Soma Auditorium.  If you missed it the first time around like I did, be sure to catch it before it closes.  It’s a superb production on every level.  The effervescent, witty script evokes a poignant sense of tragicomedy while providing some privileged insights into the rarely discussed subject of transsexuality; the lovingly plotted lighting design (by native Singaporean Ivan Heng, last seen in KL as the indomitable Emily of Emerald Hill) accentuates and complements Chowee’s every mood, every move; the provocative props, consisting of imitation Barbies and original Jimmy Choo stiletto shoes, serve most charmingly as orchids and telephones; the slickly edited sound effects and music add dramatic texture to the never-boring monologue; and Chowee’s alluring wardrobe keeps changing before your very eyes (though it stops short of being a strip-tease, but only just!)

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Chowee (extreme right) with theater mates in Singapore

Chowee Leow is phenomenally articulate and charismatic as herself as well as himself.  No red-blooded male in the audience would turn down an invitation for babi pong teh and coffee at her place (unless they’re strictly into halal food, of course).  A fetching figure in a tight-fitting gown and ever-so-squeezable Wonderbra – get yourself an aisle seat in the front rows if you want a cheap thrill! – Chowee’s soul- (and bottom-) baring on stage gives beautiful voice to the highs and the lows of a sensitive, gender-blurred psyche.

Most of the queens I’ve encountered have invariably been sex-obsessed and tiresomely self-centered.  But here’s one whose candor, intelligence and self-awareness facilitate access into the intricacies of his/her private reality on a down-to-earth human level.  It doesn’t take long for one to feel comfortable with the fact that life isn’t quite so straightforward.  Indeed, it’s remarkably easy to accept the fact of Chowee’s confident and sensuous femaleness.  One can fully empathize with the hardships he must have endured as a diffident, doll-loving boy growing up in a less-than-harmonious home.  After years of independent living so far from home, Chowee (or at least his alter ego) has erupted voluptuously into a full-fledged she-male.  But how to break the earth-shaking news to Mama?  The last line of the play is a real knock-out.  No, I won’t reveal it here – but it’s certainly among the most effective closing lines I’ve ever heard, guaranteed to trigger unreserved applause.

Fear of Father and emulation of Mother often establishes the behavioral patterns of those feminine souls inhabiting masculine bodies unhappily born into a patriarchal society.  Chowee takes us on a fascinating guided tour of a transsexual’s lovelife – which, ultimately, doesn’t differ all that much from that of heterosexual couples except that a she-male has to try harder to hang on to a man, or so it seems.

The admonitory voice of Chowee’s conservative father, warning him against marrying a foreign girl while he’s studying abroad, is powerfully ironic.  I’m reminded of another she-male I know whose daddy happens to be a retired army general.  You can imagine the problems that inevitably arise between father and “son.”

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Chowee (left) with actress buddy Neo Swee Lin & her dad

Chowee Leow is one of those rare flowers whose artistic talent would never have blossomed if he had just stayed on in Malaysia.  I recall our very first meeting a few months ago at a friend’s birthday party: we had exchanged only a few words when I was prompted to remark that he must have been a famous Chinese opera diva in a previous life – at which his entire countenance lighted up with pleasure.  After watching Chowee in action in An Occasional Orchid, that initial impression is further reinforced.

In a fun-negating and punitive society where stern Fathers frown at “artistic frivolity” and religiously deride  “sexual deviants” – will Chowee Leow be welcomed as a returning hero?

Will he be forced to forever call England home?  Or perhaps Singapore – where more than a few extremely talented former Malaysians reside? If such were to be allowed to happen again, our loss would truly be their gain.

31 May 2004

A Truly Ballsy Emily of Emerald Hill

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Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in a 2011 restaging of Stella Kon’s classic monologue

I’d forgotten what it was about families and society in general that made me rebel as a teenager. Stella Kon’s classic study of a Nyonya matriarch in postwar Singapore – the highly acclaimed Emily of Emerald Hill – brought it all home to me. For hours, no, for days after seeing Emily for the third time (each time with a different Emily), I was awash in an ocean of memories and long-forgotten feelings. Such is the power and scope of Stella Kon’s 1983 masterpiece that it holds up admirably to repeated scrutiny, regardless of who’s playing Emily Gan. In this particular instance, it was a remarkably talented bloke named Ivan Heng – but more about Ivan later.

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Doing Emily in drag… twice!

The subject matter of the monologue is complex indeed – and far too rich for any short essay or review to do it justice. Doctoral dissertations can be (or ought to be) written about Emily of Emerald Hill. But in the final analysis, it’s all about life… and control issues… and thwarted love, deformed by ambition.

As a dramatic text, Emily of Emerald Hill deserves the highest accolades. Rarely does a playwright hit on such a mother lode of inspiration and succeed in crafting it into such an unforgettable theater experience.

The first Emily Gan I saw was played to perfection by Leow Puay Tin. Her transcendental performance permanently imprinted the aesthetic pleasure of witnessing an excellent monologue brilliantly realized for the stage. For me, Emily Gan will always look like Leow Puay Tin – just as the Professor Higgins I know bears a striking resemblance to Rex Harrison.

True, I never saw Margaret Chan’s interpretation of Emily Gan – and thus must beg her pardon for my unreasonable bias. However, I caught the revival of Emily starring Pearlly Chua – whose meticulous portrayal was impressive, but a touch too soap operatic for my taste.

So how did Ivan Heng fare as the latest incarnation of Emily Gan? First of all, anyone who saw Ivan in Ovidia Yu’s Woman in a Tree on a Hill or in his autobiographical Journey West is probably an ardent fan of this ebullient theatrical prodigy from Singapore. Ivan Heng is incredibly talented and always watchable – even when he’s having a little fun at his own and the audience’s expense. In other words, Ivan’s pretty damn good even when he’s plain showing off.

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Ivan Heng with a model of his new Emily of Emerald Hill set

With Krishen Jit as dramaturgical catalyst and sounding board, Ivan created a savvy and sophisticated Emily Gan. Or, as an astute reviewer put it, Ivan’s Emily had balls. His flamboyance got almost burlesque at moments, but the strength of Stella Kon’s text grounded the action in the human dimension at all times.

The jazzy and staccato lighting by Mac Chan was adventurous and actually worked very well – except at moments when the audience was blinded by the irritatingly intrusive glare of a “chandelier” in the Gan mansion and the house lights would come on, compelling audience participation (that’s a little too in-your-face if you ask me). An elaborate art deco set by Raja Maliq appeared quite redundant after a while. It was extremely tasteful nevertheless, never mind the visual incongruity of the giant framed screens upon which colors and images occasionally played. That’s Krishen Jit’s signature motif, the wayang kulit screen.

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Emily of Emerald Hill reloaded

For any accomplished actress (or actor), playing Emily Gan is the equivalent of a solo Channel crossing for a championship swimmer. Ivan Heng, I’m happy to report, made it to the opposite shore (he couldn’t possibly have failed, such is his reserve of sheer prowess). but whenever I hear the name “Emily Gan” I can’t help but see someone who looks like Leow Puay Tin. It’s hard to improve on perfection. I only hope Puay Tin will do Emily one more time – and let herself be filmed for posterity.

15 October 1999

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