Interview: Jean Tay for BOOM

What inspired you to write BOOM?
In 1998, I wrote a play, entitled Plunge, about the Asian Economic Crisis. Ten years later, however, Singapore was instead facing a stock market and property boom, and when someone raised the idea of writing a sequel to Plunge, I jokingly suggested the title “BOOM”. I could see that rapidly rising property prices and en-bloc phenomenon were starting to impact the lives of ordinary Singaporeans and not necessarily in a positive way. I was interested in exploring the redevelopment of older buildings and loss of historical heritage.
How is Singlish used in the show?
Singlish is used very liberally throughout the show. In fact, all the characters speak their own brand of Singlish. It’s what distinguishes them from each other. This is actually the first play I’ve ever written that uses so much Singlish. It was a deliberate attempt to ground the play very specifically in this country, and to have authentic characters that the audience could relate to.
What were the biggest challenges writing the script?
I really didn’t want to write a typical, cliched piece about en-bloc sales with your typical villains. So I tried to make sure that my characters were more than just caricatures. They are real people dealing with very real issues. Another challenge was writing in Singlish. It’s much harder than it looks. You have to really hear the voices in your head before you can put them down in paper. The grammar and syntax of Singlish is so distinctive and specific.
Were the individual characters modeled after real life people?
I think almost everyone in Singapore has heard or read about en bloc sales and how they can divide neighbors, turning them nasty. There were a couple of articles that stuck in my head. The first was the case of an old woman who refused to move out of her apartment because she was afraid the spirit of her dead husband wouldn’t be able to find his way home. Another was about a couple in China, who initially refused to sell their house. The developer dug a massive moat all around their home, so that they were, quite literally, marooned.
One of the unique characters in the show is a corpse. What is the significance of having a dead character?
Someone told me about the fifteen year bury-in policy in Singapore. After fifteen years, the government has the right to exhume your body from the grave, to reallocate the land. Even the dead are not spared from the pressures of redevelopment and progress. It made sense to introduce a corpse to represent one of the “voiceless” victims of progress.
How are metaphors used in the play?
Physical, inanimate objects such as a decaying corpse, houses, and even a fig tree, play important roles. They symbolize the relationships within the play and memories of the human characters, bringing an added dimension to the themes of decay and renewal.
What would you like audiences to take away from the show?
I want to highlight that even in times of prosperity and progress, there are individuals who slip in between the cracks. There are untold, quiet tragedies that will continue to occur when we are so single-minded about progress. I also personally find it quite sad that a lot of the buildings that I grew up with, that were part of my youth, are slowly disappearing. With the upcoming exhumation of graves at Bukit Brown cemetery and redevelopment of old flats at Rochor and other locations, I hope to remind the audience of the importance of these historical sites. We have to fight to preserve them.
BOOM is on June 29-Jul 1, 8pm; July 1, 8, 3pm; 6-8, 8pm at the DBS Arts Centre home of the Singapore Repertory Theatre.