'[Culture is] in our blood, and you cannot change the blood that’s in you'
In 1990, an 18-year-old boy named Goh Boon Teck decided that he wanted to set up his own playground, a place where he can go and have fun every day. He called it Toy Factory. More than two decades later, that boy’s dream bloomed into one of Singapore’s most renowned bilingual theatre groups. ‘Twenty-five years just flew by. I wasn’t really counting,’ says Goh when we met him. ‘It’s a milestone, but it’s just part of the journey.’
Instead of celebrating the anniversary with a brand new play, however, Goh dug into the company’s illustrious repertoire to bring back one of their most beloved works. First staged in 1994, Titoudao is what he describes as Toy Factory’s ‘best armour; the most precious child’. It’s won a string of awards and toured to cities such as Cairo and Shanghai, but ultimately, Goh picked it because it’s a work that’s close to his heart.
For starters, the story is based on the life of his mother, Madam Oon Ah Chiam. Born into a family of ‘too many girls’, as Goh tells us, she and her sister were sold into a Chinese opera troupe called Sin Sai Hong – they were Singapore’s oldest opera group at the time, but closed last year – to lessen her family’s financial burden. Although Madam Oon fell in love with the stage and still performs wayang today, her personal life was fraught with poverty, inequality and other struggles. Titoudao, which is named after the comedic male character with whom Madam Oon became associated, throws both her public and private lives into the limelight.
The play will be restaged for the fifth time, and Madam Oon has watched every single production. But it hasn’t been easy, Goh recalls: ‘She used to cry each time because it brought back painful memories. But her tears have finally dried.’ She’s even the vocal coach for this performance, giving her son notes after rehearsals.
This time, though, Goh has given Titoudao a facelift – only the script remains the same. The hair and makeup, for instance, are inspired more by the Taiwan and Hokkien styles of opera as opposed to the Beijing style, which means there’s ‘a lot of blue eye shadow and sequins!’ Goh promises. But the main difference is the brand new cast: Audrey Luo stars in the lead role, supported by Timothy Wan, Daphne Quah and Trey Ho, among others. Goh encouraged them to adopt a different perspective, and jokes that he had to ‘act stupid’ to draw out fresh ideas from them.
There’s another reason Goh wants to restage Titoudao. ‘We should bring it back every few years to remind people that the traditional arts still need saving,’ he says, adding that he hopes the younger generation can relate to the cast, all of whom are younger than 35 years old. ‘If the actors can perform it, the audience can understand it.’
Goh wishes more youths would seek out wayang performances after catching Titoudao, which he considers an introduction to Chinese opera. ‘I try to go to as many Chinese opera performances as I can with my mother. It’s like our bonding activity,’ Goh smiles. ‘Culture is very important. It’s in our blood, and you cannot change the blood that’s in you.’