By: Wahid Al Mamun (15A01A), William Hoo (15A01E), Karen Cuison (16A01D), Alex Tan (16S03B), Adelyn Tan (16A01E)

Remember that catchy ‘Train is coming,  train  is  coming!’  jingle?  Does The  History  of  Singapore  ring  a  bell? Fronting the SMRT courtesy campaign, as well as recent musical romps about our  nation‘s  past  are  the  quirky  and eternally funny Dim Sum Dollies®.

The Dollies are known for the sharp, sassy and accessible humour with which they tackle local concerns – in full-length musicals,  no  less.  From  Operation  Coldstore  to  MRT breakdowns, no affair in Singaporean history is too small or political to escape the Dollies’ sly eyes and fun puns. Naturally, the trio has grown to become a well-loved fixture in Singapore’s arts scene.

Selena Tan, Pam Oei, and Emma Yong founded the Dim Sum Dollies in 2002. Following Yong’s passing in 2012, Denise Tan  joined  the  group.  Of  the  four,  Selena  Tan  (RJC,  1988), Pam Oei (RJC, 1989) and Emma Yong (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993) are graduates of RI.

Tan and Oei have come a long way since their RI days. As the  founder  of  Dream  Academy®,  Tan  oversees  company direction  and  welfare.  Oei  currently  juggles  motherhood, Dolliehood, fronting and writing for a rock band, and preparing to direct a play at the end of the year. We caught up with the duo amidst their busy schedules for a quick chat about where they came from, and where they are today.

DSD Samsui (casual)

O R I G I N S

The Dim Sum Dollies’ pre-university days played no small part in their growth. Both Oei and Tan first realised their passion for the stage in their secondary school days, where they honed their creative sides through a bevy of theatre-related activities. Oei’s calling was made known to her after she volunteered as  a  backstage  crew  member  for  Beauty  World.  She  consequently turned down subsequent offers to be part of other crews. School plays had taught Oei that she would rather be on stage than behind it.

Tan was inspired by various Shakespearean performances and  workshops  held  in  her  secondary  school.  Teachers constantly helped her unearth and develop her passion for theatre. Back in Fairfield Methodist School, Tan was part of the English Language Drama and Debate Society (ELDDS). The teacher-in-charge of the Society, Ms Lim, encouraged Tan to attend a drama camp – and attend it she did. She fell in love with the art form, taking on theatrical projects from the tender age of 14.

Following secondary school, Tan’s time in Raffles Junior College was defined by her ‘good education’ in the Humanities Programme, as a student of 88A01B. Tan muses, ‘We were taught to think… and to question. We did a lot of extra stuff on our  own.’  Her  class  once  put  up  a  performance  of  The Importance  of  Being  Earnest  all  by  themselves  in  Lecture Theatre  3.  Oei,  who  studied  Physics,  Chemistry,  Math  and Economics  as  a  member  of  89S06A,  unflinchingly  –  and laughingly – recalls her academic disinclination. ‘I was probably one of the banes of the teachers’ existences,’ she jokes. ‘I think the choice of subjects was a poor one!’

Tan’s experience as a debater stood her in good stead for her  degree  in  law  at  the  National  University  of  Singapore (NUS).  Oei  opted  for  a  degree  in  architecture  at  the  same university. As university students, they worked odd jobs to make  ends  meet  while  establishing  their  reputation  in  the theatre scene. Day jobs paid the bills, and night theatre jobs paid  paltry  sums  with  the  completion  of  entire  projects. Nonetheless,  fuelled  by  their  hunger  for  the  stage  and  an awareness of their potential, the two soldiered on.

Tan remarks, ‘By the time I finished my law degree, I’d actually been an actor and a singer much longer than I had been  a  lawyer!’  Despite  the  fact  that  she  had  already  been actively pursuing theatrical opportunities from a young age, her decision to go professional as a stage actress still did not sit well  with  her  parents  initially.  After  all,  she  was  willingly abandoning the law profession – and with it, her sizeable salary – for a field with uncertain monetary prospects.

‘They said “don’t do it”. I remember thinking very carefully about it, and then I planned it. I planned it on my birthday. I brought  my  parents  out  to  a  coffeeshop  in  the  morning  – thought there wouldn’t be any big major outbursts there – and told them quite plainly that I was going to give it a try. I had my resignation letter, told them how much money I had, and that I would be able to survive, and not to worry. Then I went to work.Then I came home at night and my mother was crying. And my mother asked, “Do you want to reconsider?” And I said, “No, I’ve already decided.” After that, she was just resigned, I suppose.’

G R O W I N G   A S   A   T R I O

 The Dim Sum Dollies’ subsequent success was fraught with its own set of trials. Despite the group’s job offers and collective experience,  establishing  their  presence  in  local  theatres remained an uphill task.

Tan’s business acumen and foresight was instrumental towards securing The Dollies’ foothold in the arts scene. As Oei put it, The Dollies aimed to ‘create the shows [they wanted] to create’, effectively charting their own paths. It was a daunting and risky shift, especially for actors accustomed to living from job to job. ‘[We had to] put a lot more risk out there in order for there to be a plan forward,’ Tan recalls. Oei is quick to praise Tan for her drive: ‘I can think of very few actors who would be able to create a company for [themselves] and plan a future in this career.’

This willingness to take risks enabled a milestone in the Dollies’ career: Tan made a radical decision to move the Dollies from  the  400-seater  Jubilee  Hall  in  Raffles  Hotel,  to  the 2000-seater Esplanade. Oei recalls her apprehension upon the announcement of the move. ‘After punching her I said, “How are we going to do it?!” ’ But do it they did – their opening show played to a full house.

Pam:  You were yawning backstage. I remember that.

Selena:  I told you already, my yawning is a defence mechanism.

Pam:  Who yawns when stressed out?! This is just ridiculous.

Selena:  Trying to get as much air into my brain as possible!

Pam:  Yeah, that was a truly horrifying terrifying night.

Selena:  But it was fun.

Pam:  It was. But terrifying. Terrifying and fun. Like a rollercoaster ride.

Selena:  Really.

The show’s resounding success prompted the Dollies to realise that they were willing and able to forge ahead, both in their line of work and as an act.

The Dollies carry out the ‘terrifying’ on a regular basis too – and by regular, they mean at every show. Selena shared, ‘For many Dim Sum Dollies shows, we’ve been dangled in the air, up in the rafters waiting to… [be] flown down. But before you’re flown down you have to go up, and you actually have to hang in the dark for a long time. So in the dark, it’s just you and your harness, looking at the little lights in front of you!’ Oei quips, ‘Dangling in the dark is a true Dim Sum Dollies experience.’

Speaking of the regular, the Dollies’ current stage commitments are relentless. Rehearsals are gruelling, and there is no space or time for backing out. After all, venues have already been  booked  at  least  a  year  in  advance,  and  audience expectations have to be met. Furthermore, the Dollies are too iconic to be substitutable. They have no doubles. Stopping is simply not an option. ‘There’s no such thing as a good day or a bad day…. There are so many other people working with you, for you, and you can’t not want to do what you need to do,’ came the candid remark from Oei. It was promptly echoed by Tan. ‘[Preparing for a show] is like an assembly line, I suppose. If you drop  a  ball,  everybody  else  is  affected.’  Fortunately  (and unsurprisingly),  good  days  are  far  more  common  than less-good ones. Oei sums up the sentiment neatly: ‘At the end of the day, I still love it.’

P E R K S   O F   T H E   N I C H E

 To both women, the significant growth of the local theatre scene is largely a product of changing perceptions. In terms of practitioners, more people are taking the plunge into full-time work. ‘It’s much bigger now, definitely. It’s more professional; most of us are working full-time. We’re full-time practitioners, whereas  it  was  unheard  of  before.  Everyone  had  day  jobs. Everyone was a lawyer. Everyone rehearsed at night,’ Oei says.

Perceptions are also changing when it comes to the nature of the discourse that local English theatre is allowed to engage in.  Today,  boundaries  are  being  pushed  further  than  ever before. The Dim Sum Dollies’ December show, The History of Singapore Part 2 went to so far as to reference controversial moments  in  Singapore‘s  history.  These  include  Operation Spectrum, the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987. The Dim Sum Dollies were let off easily, with light script revisions by the  Media  Development Authority.  This  was  possibly  due to  theatre’s  relatively  niche  viewership,  compared  to,  say, television.  In the words of Oei: ‘We get away with a lot more, I think.’

Is  the  status  quo  going  to  be  challenged  even  further? Apparently, the answer lies in the hands of the people. Tan declares:  ‘If  everybody  agrees  that  they’re  all  ready,  they’re ready.’ Oei adds thoughtfully that society today is governed less by the authorities and more by the people.

All in all, the Dim Sum Dollies soundly embody Singapore theatre today – vibrant, full of ideas, and growing in reach. With their majority appeal in a minority field, the Dollies fill an important role in the local arts scene. This is especially so with their  witty,  timely  messages  that  just  about  toe  the  line between  the  spoken  and  unspeakable,  and  that  serve  as barometers of local sentiment. As Singapore society continues to  flourish  and  mature  in  terms  of  its  ability  to  carry  out meaningful dialogue on the issues that hit home, the Dollies will surely be there every step of the way, adding every news bite to every new play.

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REMEMBERING EMMA

In 2012, Emma Yong (RGS, 1991; RJC, 1993) passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 37. A student of the Humanities Programme, she graduated from RJC in 1993.  Emma’s time in RJC nurtured her passion for the arts. She performed in plays and musicals, and was a member of the Film Society. In particular, joining the film society developed her eye for literature – so much so that she won the Angus Ross Prize in 1994, awarded to the top non-British student in the Literature A-Levels. ‘Emma was very bright,’ remarked her Literature tutor, Mr Geoff Purvis. ‘She was very interested in literature, very intense… quite sharp.’

Upon graduation from RI, Emma completed an honours degree at University College London in English Literature. Following this, she completed her post-graduate degree in musical theatre at

London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Noted Mr Purvis: ‘We all admired the fact that… talented as she was, [she did] not become yet another lawyer… [we admired] her integrity in pursuing what she loved… especially in those days when serious professional theatre in Singapore was in its infancy.’

While Emma went on to star in numerous theatrical productions, she is best remembered as a Dim Sum Dolly.

In her memory, the Emma Yong Fund was established in 2012 as a means to honour Emma’s life and work, and to give financial aid to theatre practitioners in Singapore who are suffering from critical illnesses.

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