Michael Chiang (b. 1955, Malaysia–), a prolific playwright of the 1980s and 1990s, has received accolades for his contributions to the artistic scene in Singapore. Mostly loved for his comedies and musicals, such as Army Daze and Beauty World, his works were runaway successes at home and abroad. Beauty World, which was so popular that it toured to Japan in 1992, was adapted into a television production in 1998 to raise funds for the fourth President’s Star Charity.
The youngest of five siblings, Chiang came to Singapore at the age of 11 and attended the Anglo-Chinese School. As a child, he enjoyed watching movies, particularly the Hong Kong classics of the 1960s.1 During his secondary school years, he joined the literary society, and helped out in the backstage during theatre performances. While he found the production of plays fun and exciting, he was not interested in performing on stage, and preferred to remain backstage and observe everything coming together.2
When Chiang started as a playwright, he had to juggle it with his day job which included being a journalist and the chief executive officer of Caldecott Publishing.3 Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Chiang has been hailed as “Comedy King of Singapore” (1992),4 “Singapore’s most successful playwright” (1995),5 “Singapore’s most bankable playwright” (1999),6 and “inarguably Singapore's foremost proponent of situational comedy” (2002).7
Chiang stumbled into comedy writing quite by accident in 1984. That year, producers of Bumboat, a 1984 stage production showcasing home-grown plays, needed a light piece of theatre. Chiang then penned Beauty Box, a 25-minute spoof on beauty pageants. From then on, he began writing commissioned plays and musicals. He found time in the evenings to squeeze in script-writing after office hours. Deadlines, whether for plays or new issues of his magazines, were part of his life.8
The commercial success of his plays has been attributed to several factors. His plays are an expression of all things Singapore: situations, issues and stereotypes. Behind the witty one-liners and jokes, his plays speak about issues of the heart. They are humorous, yet astute, observations of all aspects of local life.9 The strong local flavour in his plays is found in themes such as shopping and Singaporean competitiveness in Beauty Box;10 fear of singlehood in Love and Belachan;11 Singapore Armed Forces in Army Daze;12 Cantonese melodrama and nostalgia in Beauty World;13 subtle “programming” of a conformist society in Mixed Signals; exploration of the plight of transsexuals in Private Parts;14 question of art in society in My Art Belongs to Me;15 censorship issues in Singapore in Mortal Sins;16 and the plight of the Malaysian immigrant and his search of identity in My Lonely Tarts.17 Singaporeans welcome Chiang’s ability to tap popular culture as evidenced by the large crowds that turn up for each of his new plays.18
After My Lonely Tarts, Chiang stopped writing plays to concentrate on his publishing career – he was helming over 20 magazines at one point.19 After a long hiatus, his new play, High Class, directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, opened in July 2013. This is a comedy about the local tai-tai (wealthy married woman) culture, and explores if women still wish to be a tai-tai in modern Singapore.20
Army Daze and Beauty World
Army Daze (1987) is a comedy about the experiences of five army recruits undergoing their mandatory national service in Singapore.21 First written as a novel in 1984, it was then reworked into a play in 1985.22 Staged in 1987, it delighted audiences with its mixed bag of army recruits speaking Singlish. It went on to become a movie, produced by Cathay Organisation in 1996. Cathay Organisation had chosen to produce Army Daze as its first movie upon returning to the filmmaking business after an absence of 20 years.23 Army Daze became a box-office hit for a locally produced movie, grossing S$1.6 million in ticket sales after a 42-day run in 1996.24
Beauty World, staged by TheatreWorks, is Singapore’s first major original home-grown musical, which is about a small-town Malaysian hairdresser who moves to the bright lights of Singapore to look for her father. Beauty World is a story of loveable misfits and lost souls searching for identity. It was helmed by a team of who's who in Singapore arts: Chiang himself, composer Dick Lee, choreographer Najip Ali and director Ong Keng Sen.25
It had a second run in 1992, thereafter went on to tour four Japanese cities – Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka – in September 1992.26 In 1998, it was reproduced as a television musical production for the fourth President’s Star Charity, an event that managed to raise a total of S$2 million.27
Works (first performances)
Jun 1984: Beauty Box
Sep 1985: Love & Belachan
Jun 1987: Army Daze
Jun 1988: Beauty World
Jun 1989: Mixed Signals
Jun 1992: Private Parts
Oct 1995: My Art Belongs to Me
Nov 1995: Mortal Sins
Dec 1999: My Lonely Tarts
Jul 2013: High Class
1. Tan, C. (2013, July 17). Michael Chiang knows what tickles the S’porean funnybone. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from AsiaOne website: http://news.asiaone.com/news/showbiz/michael-chiang-knows-what-tickles-sporean-funnybone
2. Tribute.sg (2015, June 2). Michael Chiang. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from Tribute.sg website: https://www.tribute.sg/artist-profile-michael-chiang#artist-profile-michael-chiang/?chapter=0
3. Chew, D. (2004, July 27). The accidental playwright. Today, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Pandian, H. (1992, June 27). Parts against their nature. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Tsang, S. (1995, November 1). Seriously, it’s time to sober up. The Business Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Oon, C. (1999, December 3). Play on. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Seet, K. K. (2002). The write stuff: The development of Singapore Literature in English. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from Laporan Negara website: http://ppat.dbp.gov.my/ppat2001/ldrseet.htm
8. Martin, M. (2014, September 29). We RAT on Michael Chiang. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from TODAYonline: http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/we-rat-michael-chiang
9. Pandian, H. (1992, May 14). Let’s get serious. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Chia, H. (1989, August 18). Don’t look at me, I’m just the playwright. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Ngui, C. (1985, September 3). Hot stuff at the dinner table. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Lim, M. (1985, December 14). ‘An initiation, a stepping stone and a pain in the…’. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Chia, H. (1989, August 18). Don’t look at me, I’m just the playwright. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tsang, S. (1992, July 6). A play that’s found wanting in Parts. The Business Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Gwee, E. (1995, October 20). Tongue-in-cheek-one-man play on people of the art world. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Koh, B. P. (1995, November 8). Brave new work seeks to touch deeper nerve in S’porean psyche. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Oon, C. (1999, December 6). Give the tarts a bit more bite. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Heng, H. (1994, April 23). Playing Private Parts again. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Martin, M. (2014, September 29). We RAT on Michael Chiang. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from TODAYonline: http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/we-rat-michael-chiang
20. Martin, M. (2013, May 7). Michael Chiang goes from Army Daze to tai-tai craze. Retrieved 2016, April 20, from TODAYonline: http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/michael-chiang-goes-army-daze-tai-tai-craze
21. Lim, M. (1985, December 14). ‘An initiation, a stepping stone and a pain in the…’. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Holmberg, J. (1996, February 23). Cathay returns to film-making with Army Daze. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Ee, J. (1996, February 23). Cathay to make movies again, after 20 years. The Business Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Tan, S. (1996, November 27). Home-grown army comedy on target. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Yeo, R. (1988, July 3). Something to celebrate --- a landmark musical. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Beauty World, Tang Da Wu to perform in Japan festival. (1992, July 14). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Chin, S. F. (1998, February 6). Beauty World returns for Presidents Star Charity. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Chiang, M. (1994). Private parts and other play things: A collection of popular Singapore comedies. Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING S822 CHI)
The information in this article is valid as at 2004 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Motion picture producers and directors--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production
Chiang, Michael, 1955-