The amateur theatre anywhere in the world is the place where the future professional theatre begins. And there can be no proper theatre unless there are playwrights. – Lim Chor Pee
This week’s feature book Mimi Fan is a novelization of the three-act play by the late Penang-born lawyer-playwright Lim Chor Pee, written and first staged in 1962. Fans of local plays would probably know the plot by heart, but for the uninitiated, the play is described as“a haunting tale about love, escapism and broken hearts searching for healing.” The ‘L’ word (besides being the playwright’s surname) has always been the central theme of many popular plays, for the simple fact that as humans, it’s an emotion that we have gone through at least once in our lives. Everyone has at least one favourite love story tucked away unashamedly somewhere, whether it’s a Baudelaire poem, The Butterfly Lovers or an Austen novel.
Set in the heady days of the early 60s, Lim’s debut play is about an encounter between a ‘teenage bar girl’ Mimi, and Chan Fei-Loong, a sophisticated English-educated Singaporean. It
is a familiar theme, vaguely reminiscent of other well-known plays likeEducating Rita and My Fair Lady, both of which involve encounters between the classes. The familiarity ends there, however, as Lim wrote both his plays in what was a white heat of “anti-colonialist fervor” and a reaction of sorts against the dearth of local plays.“A national theatre cannot hope to survive if it keeps staging foreign plays,” Lim once said “and there can be no proper theatre unless there are playwrights.” Thus the era of political and social upheavals occurring in Singapore – the merger and subsequent split with Malaysia, the emancipation of women etc – served as the backdrop to the story of two female characters, Mimi and Sheila, who broke away from tradition and decided to choose their own futures. It’s a determination which pits Mimi against her love interest.
Mimi Fan is widely regarded as Singapore’s first English-language play written by a local. It made its debut courtesy of the Experimental Theatre Club, a group formed by Lim with other university undergraduates. Its initial run from 19 to 21 July 1962 at the Cultural Centre Theatre was described by The Straits Times as “a milestone in Singapore’s English-language theatre, playing to packed houses over its three-night run.” It was re-staged by TheatreWorks in 1990 as part of a festival called The Retrospectives.