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Goh Chin Lian
Monday, May 5, 2014

Singapore

The ballerina who overturned tables

The Straits Times | Goh Chin Lian | Monday, May 5, 2014

Madam Goh Lay Kuan is Singapore's dance pioneer and wife of the late theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun. They started a performing arts school in 1965, now called The Theatre Practice. Both of them were awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest honour for the arts.

Singapore's dance pioneer Goh Lay Kuan, 75, lived through the tumultuous 1950s, when Chinese middle-school students took to the streets to fight against military conscription by the British colonial government.

These political upheavals, coupled with a Chinese education, imbued in her a strong sense of social responsibility, she says.

She and her late husband, theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun, started a performing arts school in 1965, now called The Theatre Practice.

The works they wrote and performed broke new ground in their critique of social injustices.

Both of them were awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest honour for the arts.

Madam Goh relates to Goh Chin Lian her struggles as a professional artiste in Singapore and her detention without trial in 1976, together with her husband, under the Internal Security Act.

You received a Chinese education up to age 19. How has it influenced your thinking?

During the colonial period, English schools provided "slavery education" to produce people who knew English, but were obedient. You first learnt, "Yes, sir", followed by "British is the best".

In Chinese schools, we were linked to our traditional culture. We were taught to be sensitive to social issues.

When I saw children weaving through traffic and endangering themselves to sell mah piu poh (Cantonese for newspaper carrying horse-racing lottery results), I was disturbed and unhappy.

The Malay children were also out on the street selling curry puffs.

So, I wrote a musical about children selling rice dumplings. It wasn't welcomed because it was seen as political criticism.

You studied ballet at age 15. How did you develop the interest and pursue it?

Soonee Goh (co-founder of Singapore Ballet Academy and from a family of ballet dancers, including Goh Choo San and Goh Soo Khim) had just returned from Britain and offered lessons at a special price of $10, which was a lot of money then. I paid in four instalments: $2.50 every week, using my pocket money. I went hungry for it.

The class started with 15. In the end, I was the only one left.

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