Playwright Loretta Chen (right) and the cover of her autobiography, co-written with Pearlin Siow.
Singaporean playwright Loretta Chen’s memoir reveals a life lived against the grain.
Two central themes of Loretta Chen’s book Woman On Top – sexuality and censorship – come at a timely moment for her home country of Singapore. In June, a record crowd turned out for a gay rights rally in the city-state, an event opposed by some religious groups that want to maintain a legal ban on same-sex relationships.
Then a debate on censorship erupted after the Singapore National Library removed three children’s books, including one about two male penguins hatching an egg, following complaints they were not “pro-family”. It has since reinstated two of the books, but placed them in the adult section.
Chen, an award-winning theatre director, uses her at times hilarious autobiography to take readers through the highs and lows of a life dedicated to shaking up her conservative homeland. She made it her personal mission to challenge the status quo after the suicide of her ex-girlfriend while she was a post-graduate student in the US.
Doing this can be difficult in Singapore, where authorities vet scripts prior to performance, meaning Chen sometimes have to rewrite scenes to ensure they could be performed. Still, Chen tries her best to tackle challenging issues, whether they be about an infamous Singaporean porn star, or the perceived hypocrisy of upper and middle class society in newly-independent 1960s Singapore.
Chen speaks about her book and current debates raging in Singapore.
What made you write your autobiography at the age of 38?
I wanted to write this book for my 24-year-old self who was very broken and had no one to talk to about my depression. All the self-help books out there at that time were providing an American perspective and it was a taboo in Asia to be outpouring grief. There is an undercurrent of repression because of people’s fears of being judged. Grief is seen as a sign of weakness so they deal with it with immense discipline and stoicism.
Although it is uniquely Asian, I felt it is my duty to get my story out there and, in the process, dispel the myth of depression because if it remains stigmatised, people will not talk about their guilt, pain and shame. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was when another close friend committed suicide last year. The book became timely following the reunion with co-author, Pearlin Siow, after two decades.
You have been very candid about your sexuality and active engagement with civic politics in Singapore, how do you think the government’s attitude towards censorship has changed?
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first took office, I felt we were truly opening up. For once, we did feel an air of change but the proliferation of social media and the loss of some (electoral) constituencies scared them (the government). The fear of losing made them clamp down on certain things to appease voters. It is almost like a defensive mechanism where it kicks in and becomes more protective which ironically leads to people wanting to revolt even more.
Can Singapore maintain censorship rules and become an Asian hub of arts and culture?
Singapore is living a dual identity with censorship. On one hand, Singapore wants to promote herself as a liberal, cosmopolitan, accepting city but with that comes dissent and a proliferation of voices, which I think we are not ready for yet. As a result, we put in more barriers and barricades.
The government wants the liberty of what a true democracy is but on the other hand, economic performance pressures often compel them to use an iron-fist approach. This has resulted in a lot of insidious censorship and self-censorship that hinders the progress of a mature democracy, including the developing arts scene. – Reuters