by Nureza Ahmad
Michael Chiang (b. 1955, Malaysia–) is a prolific playwright who has received accolades for his contributions to the arts in Singapore. Mostly loved for his comedies and musicals, such as Army Daze and Beauty World, his works have been runaway successes at home and abroad. Beauty World, which was so popular that it toured Japan in 1992, was adapted into a television production in 1998 to raise funds for the fourth President’s Star Charity event.
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. He enjoyed the production of plays so much that he preferred to work backstage, rather than perform on stage.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”,4 “Singapore’s most successful playwright”,5 and “Singapore’s most bankable playwright”.6
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 write scripts after office hours. Deadlines, whether for plays or new issues of his magazines, were part of his life.7
The commercial success of Chiang’s plays has been attributed to several factors. Behind the witty one-liners and jokes, the situations, issues and stereotypes addressed in his plays come from astute observations of life in Singapore.8 This emerges through themes such as shopping and competitiveness in Beauty Box;9 the fear of singlehood in Love and Belachan;10 the focus on national service in Army Daze;11 Cantonese melodrama and nostalgia in Beauty World;12 subtle “programming” of a conformist society in Mixed Signals; exploration of the plight of transsexuals in Private Parts;13 the role of art in My Art Belongs to Me;14 censorship issues in Singapore in Mortal Sins;15 and the plight of the Malaysian immigrant in search of his identity in My Lonely Tarts.16 As evidenced by the large crowds that turn up for each of his new plays, many welcome Chiang’s ability to draw on popular culture.17
After My Lonely Tarts, Chiang stopped writing plays to concentrate on his publishing career – he was helming over 20 magazines at one point.18 After a long hiatus, his new play, High Class, directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, opened in July 2013. This is a comedy about tai-tai (wealthy married woman), and explores if women still wish to be a tai-tai in modern Singapore.19 In 2014, Chiang released the anthology Play Things: The Complete Works, 1984–2014, and launched The A List, a fortnightly arts and culture guide commissioned by the National Arts Council.
Chiang wrote the screenplay for Our Sister Mambo, a drama-comedy film which was released in July 2015 to mark Cathay Organisation’s 80th anniversary.20 Chiang’s play, Mixed Signals, was also retold as part of a television series that premiered in late 2019.21
Army Daze and Beauty World
Army Daze (1987) is a comedy about five army recruits undergoing mandatory national service in Singapore.22 First written as a novel in 1984, it was then reworked into a play in 1985.23 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.24 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 1996.25
Beauty World, which was first staged by TheatreWorks in 1988, is Singapore’s first major original home-grown musical. It tells the story of a small-town Malaysian hairdresser who moves to Singapore to look for her father. Beauty World is a story of loveable misfits and lost souls searching for their identity. It was helmed by Chiang himself, composer Dick Lee, choreographer Najip Ali, and director Ong Keng Sen.26
The musical had a second run in 1992. Thereafter, it toured four Japanese cities – Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka – in September 1992.27 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.28
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 2019, December 9 from AsiaOne website: https://www.asiaone.com/node/27026
2. Michael Chiang. (2016, October 12). Retrieved on 2019, October 23 from The Esplanade website: https://www.esplanade.com/offstage/arts/michael-chiang
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. Martin, M. (2014, September 29). We RAT on Michael Chiang. Retrieved 2019, December 9 from Today website: https://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/we-rat-michael-chiang
8. Pandian, H. (1992, May 14). Let’s get serious. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Chia, H. (1989, August 18). Don’t look at me, I’m just the playwright. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Ngui, C. (1985, September 3). Hot stuff at the dinner table. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Lim, M. (1985, December 14). ‘An initiation, a stepping stone and a pain in the…’. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chia, H. (1989, August 18). Don’t look at me, I’m just the playwright. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tsang, S. (1992, July 6). A play that’s found wanting in Parts. The Business Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Oon, C. (1999, December 6). Give the tarts a bit more bite. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Heng, H. (1994, April 23). Playing Private Parts again. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Martin, M. (2014, September 29). We RAT on Michael Chiang. Today. Retrieved 2019, December 9 from TODAY website: https://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/we-rat-michael-chiang
19. Martin, M. (2013, May 7). Michael Chiang goes from Army Daze to tai-tai craze. Today. Retrieved 2019, December 9 from TODAY website: https://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/michael-chiang-goes-army-daze-tai-tai-craze
20. Michael Chiang. (2016, October 12). Retrieved on 2019, October 23 from The Esplanade website: https://www.esplanade.com/offstage/arts/michael-chiang; Lui, J. (2015, June 12). Local film Our Sister Mambo to mark Cathay's 80th anniversary. The Straits Times. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. What’s dating in Singapore like in the digital age? Find out in a new TV comedy. (2019, October 24). Channel NewsAsia Lifestyle. Retrieved from Channel NewsAsia website: https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/trending/michael-chiang-mixed-signals-series-12031030; Infocomm Media Development Authority. (2019, November 21). Singapore Media Festival 2019 kicks off with local premiere of Anthony Chen’s Wet Season. [Media release]. Retrieved from Gov.sg website: https://www.gov.sg/resources/sgpc/media_releases/imda/press_release/P-20191121-1
22. Lim, M. (1985, December 14). ‘An initiation, a stepping stone and a pain in the…’. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Holmberg, J. (1996, February 23). Cathay returns to film-making with Army Daze. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Ee, J. (1996, February 23). Cathay to make movies again, after 20 years. The Business Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Tan, S. (1996, November 27). Home-grown army comedy on target. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Yeo, R. (1988, July 3). Something to celebrate --- a landmark musical. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Beauty World, Tang Da Wu to perform in Japan festival. (1992, July 14). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. 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)
Chiang, M. (2014). Play Things: The Complete Works, 1984–2014. Singapore: Really Good Books.
(Call no.: RSING S822 CHI)
The information in this article is valid as at December 2019 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.
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production
Motion picture producers and directors--Singapore--Biography
Chiang, Michael, 1955-