Singapore Dim Sum Dollies – The History of Singapore Part I, Elaine Chan (Musical Director), Esplanade Theater, Singapore, 19.06.2015 (RP)
Cast List: Dim Sum Dollies: Selena Tan, Pam Oei, Denise Tan
Chopstick: Hossan Leong
Loh Mai Guys: Ash Ali, Ryan Ang, Farhan Hassan, Ferris Yao, Hafeez Hassan, Gino Babagay
Selena Tan: Book & Lyrics
Glen Goei: Director
Elaine Chan: Composer, Musical Director, & Arranger
Andy Cai: Choreographer
Joel Fernandez: Sound Design
CK Chia: Set Design
Teo Kuang Han: Lighting Design
Frederick Lee: Costume Design
Ashley Lim: Hair Design
The Make Up Room: Make-Up Design
To paraphrase Cole Porter, they’re delightful, they’re delicious, they’re de-lovely, and they’re daring. They are the Dim Sum Dollies, a Singaporean institution of sorts, who have been delighting audiences and providing very funny and biting insights into contemporary social issues in Singapore since 2002. As for their style, they look far and wide for inspiration, including American television sitcoms, Broadway musicals, Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue, and the great comediennes such as Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. And of course, those are just the American cultural touch points. There must be countless others from Asia and the rest of the world, of which I am totally oblivious.
The Dollies’ accomplice is Hossan Leong, whose impersonations range from dashing Malaysian prince to glamorous beauty pageant contestant. Lithe of frame, rubber faced, and with expert comedic timing, Leong is the perfect foil for the Dollies. There are also the singing and dancing Loh Mai (a classic dim sum dish) Guys, who do double duty as chorus girls. It all adds up to a rollicking evening of song and dance, with flashy production numbers, lots of laughs, patriotism, and more than a touch of humanity.
The History of Singapore Part I, first staged in 2007 and updated for the present run, depicts events in Singapore’s history from the days of Sang Nila Utama, the legendary founder of the Kingdom of Singapura in 1299, until 1965, when the modern state of Singapore was founded. Aggressive real estate agents, escalating housing prices, the solvency of Singapore’s social security system, the Central Provident Fund (raising the retirement age to 103 should do the trick), and sales restrictions on alcohol in ethnic Indian neighborhoods are just some of the real, hot button social issues that were in the Dim Sum Dollies’ sights. A few references are a bit dated. The Spice Girls and Girl Power are pretty much consigned to history, but the spice trade was the reason that Europeans first came to Singapore. Piracy is still a threat (this same week an oil tanker with 22 crew members and $5.6m of unleaded petrol went missing in the South China Sea), but DVD piracy less so.
Seldom is a history lesson such fun, but it was not all laughs. Three Japanese Kamikaze pilots suspended in air, prematurely ejaculated (pun intended and driven home) from their plane prior to completing their mission, sing woefully of who will tell their grandchildren what really happened during the war ̶ as pertinent a question today as it was then. In another scene, on his march to the sea, Gandhi encounters Mao Zedong. Twisting Gandhi’s words, Mao asserts “Violent revolution is the answer!” The most poignant vignette was “Samsui Woman,” dedicated to the Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore in the first half of the 20th century to work construction jobs. Wearing the Samsui women’s trademark red cloth hats, this was a heartfelt tribute to their sweat and toil which helped build the city-state. That was real girl power.
One has to tread lightly, and respectfully, when referring to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, and Tan does so. Heong’s Miss Singapore justified her tears at being tossed out of the Miss Malaysia pageant in 1965 with “if he could cry, so can I.” School girl crushes on “Him” were sent up with the taunt, “You are just a political slut.” The retort, of course: “Who are you calling political?” Lee’s drive to modernize also brought dislocation. In “The Kampung Blues,” three neighbors bemoan the loss of traditional ways of life and community when forced to move to modern housing flats: just one of the many human costs in Singapore’s transformation into one of the world’s economic miracles.
The finale was replete with fireworks, paeans sung to Singapore, and a flag-waving audience. However, the Dim Sum Dollies wear not only their patriotism on their sleeves but also their hearts. In a letter in the program, “Selena Says,” Tan voiced her support and urged others to do so for Pink Dot. Pink Dot Sg is a non-profit movement started by a group of individuals who “care deeply about the place that LGBT Singaporeans call home,” where homosexuality is still a criminal offense. Prior to sending the audience home with one final reprise, Pam Oei gave a poignant appeal for The Emma Yong Fund. Established in 2012, it provides financial aid to Singaporean theater practitioners, suffering from cancer and other critical illnesses, who often have no or inadequate health insurance. Yong, an original Dim Sum Dolly, died of cancer that same year. These ladies not only entertain, they make you think.