SG50 Arts: The Sum of Us

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By Wahid Al Mamun (15A01A), William Hoo (15A01E), Alex Tan (16S03B), Karen Cuison (16A01D), Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E) and Adelyn Tan (16A01E)

This article is a preview from the upcoming Issue #5 of the Rafflesian Times, slated for release this week.

dim sum dollies
The Dim Sum Dollies trio. From left to right: Pamela Oei, Selena Tan and Denise Tan

Remember that catchy ‘Train is coming, train is coming!’ jingle? Does The History of Singapore ring a bell? Fronting the SMRT courtesy campaign, as well as recent musical romps about our nation‘s past are the quirky and eternally funny Dim Sum Dollies®.

The Dollies are known for the sharp, sassy and accessible humour with which they tackle local concerns – in full-length musicals, no less. From Operation Coldstore to MRT breakdowns, no affair in Singaporean history is too small or political to escape the Dollies’ sly eyes and fun puns. Naturally, the trio has grown to become a well-loved fixture in Singapore’s
arts scene.

Selena Tan, Pam Oei, and Emma Yong founded the Dim Sum Dollies in 2002. Following Yong’s passing in 2012, Denise Tan joined the group. Of the four, Selena Tan (RJC, 1988), Pam Oei (RJC, 1989) and Emma Yong (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993) are graduates of RI.

Tan and Oei have come a long way since their RI days. As the founder of Dream Academy®, Tan oversees company direction and welfare. Oei currently juggles motherhood, Dolliehood, fronting and writing for a rock band, and preparing to direct a play at the end of the year. We caught up with the duo amidst their busy schedules for a quick chat about where they came from, and where they are today.

The Dim Sum Dollies’ pre-university days played no small part in their growth. Both Oei and Tan first realised their passion for the stage in their secondary school days, where they honed their creative sides through a bevy of theatre-related activities. Oei’s calling was made known to her after she volunteered as a backstage crew member for Beauty World. She consequently turned down subsequent offers to be part of other crews. School plays had taught Oei that she would rather be on stage than behind it.

Tan was inspired by various Shakespearean performances and workshops held in her secondary school. Teachers constantly helped her unearth and develop her passion for theatre. Back in Fairfield Methodist School, Tan was part of the English Language Drama and Debate Society (ELDDS). The teacher-in-charge of the Society, Ms Lim, encouraged Tan to attend a drama camp – and attend it she did. She fell in love with the art form, taking on theatrical projects from the tender
age of 14.

Following secondary school, Tan’s time in Raffles Junior College was defined by her ‘good education’ in the Humanities Programme, as a student of 88A01B. Tan muses, ‘We were taught to think… and to question. We did a lot of extra stuff on our own.’ Her class once put up a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest all by themselves in Lecture Theatre 3. Oei, who studied Physics, Chemistry, Math and Economics as a member of 89S06A, unflinchingly – and laughingly – recalls her academic disinclination. ‘I was probably one of the banes of the teachers’ existences,’ she jokes. ‘I think the choice of subjects was a poor one!’

Tan’s experience as a debater stood her in good stead for her degree in law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Oei opted for a degree in architecture at the same university. As university students, they worked odd jobs to make ends meet while establishing their reputation in the theatre scene. Day jobs paid the bills, and night theatre jobs paid paltry sums with the completion of entire projects. Nonetheless, fuelled by their hunger for the stage and an awareness of their potential, the two soldiered on.

Tan remarks, ‘By the time I finished my law degree, I’d actually been an actor and a singer much longer than I had been a lawyer!’ Despite the fact that she had already been actively pursuing theatrical opportunities from a young age, her decision to go professional as a stage actress still did not sit well with her parents initially. After all, she was willingly abandoning the law profession – and with it, her sizeable salary – for a field with uncertain monetary prospects.

‘They said “don’t do it”. I remember thinking very carefully about it, and then I planned it. I planned it on my birthday. I brought my parents out to a coffeeshop in the morning – thought there wouldn’t be any big major outbursts there – and told them quite plainly that I was going to give it a try. I had my resignation letter, told them how much money I had, and that I would be able to survive, and not to worry. Then I went to work.Then I came home at night and my mother was crying. And my mother asked, “Do you want to reconsider?” And I said, “No, I’ve already decided.” After that, she was just resigned, I suppose.’

The Dim Sum Dollies’ subsequent success was fraught with its own set of trials. Despite the group’s job offers and collective experience, establishing their presence in local theatres remained an uphill task.

Tan’s business acumen and foresight was instrumental towards securing The Dollies’ foothold in the arts scene. As Oei put it, The Dollies aimed to ‘create the shows [they wanted] to create’, effectively charting their own paths. It was a daunting and risky shift, especially for actors accustomed to living from job to job. ‘[We had to] put a lot more risk out there in order for there to be a plan forward,’ Tan recalls. Oei is quick to praise Tan for her drive: ‘I can think of very few actors who would be able to create a company for [themselves] and plan a future in this career.’

This willingness to take risks enabled a milestone in the Dollies’ career: Tan made a radical decision to move the Dollies from the 400-seater Jubilee Hall in Raffles Hotel, to the 2000-seater Esplanade. Oei recalls her apprehension upon the announcement of the move. ‘After punching her I said, “How are we going to do it?!”’ But do it they did – their opening show played to a full house.

Pam: You were yawning backstage. I remember that.
Selena: I told you already, my yawning is a defence mechanism.
Pam: Who yawns when stressed out?! This is just ridiculous.
Selena: Trying to get as much air into my brain as possible!
Pam: Yeah, that was a truly horrifying terrifying night.
Selena: But it was fun.
Pam: It was. But terrifying. Terrifying and fun. Like a rollercoaster ride.
Selena: Really.

The show’s resounding success prompted the Dollies to realise that they were willing and able to forge ahead, both in their line of work and as an act.

The Dollies carry out the ‘terrifying’ on a regular basis too – and by regular, they mean at every show. Selena shared, ‘For many Dim Sum Dollies shows, we’ve been dangled in the air, up in the rafters waiting to… [be] flown down. But before you’re flown down you have to go up, and you actually have to hang in the dark for a long time. So in the dark, it’s just you and your harness, looking at the little lights in front of you!’ Oei quips, ‘Dangling in the dark is a true Dim Sum Dollies experience.’

Speaking of the regular, the Dollies’ current stage commitments are relentless. Rehearsals are gruelling, and there is no space or time for backing out. After all, venues have already been booked at least a year in advance, and audience expectations have to be met. Furthermore, the Dollies are too iconic to be substitutable. They have no doubles. Stopping is simply not an option. ‘There’s no such thing as a good day or a bad day…. There are so many other people working with you, for you, and you can’t not want to do what you need to do,’ came the candid remark from Oei. It was promptly echoed by Tan. ‘[Preparing for a show] is like an assembly line, I suppose. If you drop a ball, everybody else is affected.’ Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), good days are far more common than less-good ones. Oei sums up the sentiment neatly: ‘At the end of the day, I still love it.’

To both women, the significant growth of the local theatre scene is largely a product of changing perceptions. In terms of practitioners, more people are taking the plunge into full-time work. ‘It’s much bigger now, definitely. It’s more professional; most of us are working full-time. We’re full-time practitioners, whereas it was unheard of before. Everyone had day jobs. Everyone was a lawyer. Everyone rehearsed at night,’ Oei says.

Perceptions are also changing when it comes to the nature of the discourse that local English theatre is allowed to engage in. Today, boundaries are being pushed further than ever before. The Dim Sum Dollies’ December show, The History of Singapore Part 2 went to so far as to reference controversial moments in Singapore‘s history. These include Operation Spectrum, the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987. The Dim Sum Dollies were let off easily, with light script revisions by the Media Development Authority. This was possibly due to theatre’s relatively niche viewership, compared to, say, television. In the words of Oei: ‘We get away with a lot more, I think.’

Is the status quo going to be challenged even further? Apparently, the answer lies in the hands of the people. Tan declares: ‘If everybody agrees that they’re all ready, they’re ready.’ Oei adds thoughtfully that society today is governed less by the authorities and more by the people.

All in all, the Dim Sum Dollies soundly embody Singapore theatre today – vibrant, full of ideas, and growing in reach. With their majority appeal in a minority field, the Dollies fill an important role in the local arts scene. This is especially so with their witty, timely messages that just about toe the line between the spoken and unspeakable, and that serve as barometers of local sentiment. As Singapore society continues to flourish and mature in terms of its ability to carry out meaningful dialogue on the issues that hit home, the Dollies will surely be there every step of the way, adding every news bite to every new play.

In 2012, Emma Yong (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993) passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 37. A student of the Humanities Programme, she graduated from RJC in 1993. Emma’s time in RJC nurtured her passion for the arts. She performed in plays and musicals, and was a member of the Film Society. In particular, joining the film society developed her eye for literature – so much so that she won the Angus Ross Prize in 1994, awarded to the top non-British student in the Literature A-Levels. ‘Emma was very bright,’ remarked her Literature tutor, Mr Geoff Purvis. ‘She was very interested in literature, very intense… quite sharp.’

Upon graduation from RI, Emma completed an honours degree at University College London in English Literature. Following this, she completed her post-graduate degree in musical theatre at London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Noted Mr Purvis: ‘We all admired the fact that… talented as she was, [she did] not become yet another lawyer… [we admired] her integrity in pursuing what she loved… especially in those days when serious professional theatre in Singapore was in its infancy.’

While Emma went on to star in numerous theatrical productions, she is best remembered as a Dim Sum Dolly.

In her memory, the Emma Yong Fund was established in 2012 as a means to honour Emma’s life and work, and to give financial aid to theatre practitioners in Singapore who are suffering from critical illnesses.

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