The first R-rated play

Chin Woon Ping’s Details Cannot Body Wants was the first Singapore play to receive a Restricted (R) rating, which grants admission only to viewers at least 18 years of age. First performed at The Substation’s Guinness Theatre on 12 September 1992, it was one of two plays staged in the double-bill Renewable Women by the National University of Singapore Society.1

In June 1992, Robert Yeo, a producer and recipient of the Public Service Medal in 1991 for the promotion of drama, submitted an application to the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) requesting a license for the double-bill Renewable Women.2 Staged by the National University of Singapore Society, the double-bill featured Yeo’s play Second Chance and Chin’s Details Cannot Body Wants.3

Having not received a response by August 1992, Yeo enquired about the status of his application. He was informed by PELU that a license would only be granted after certain omissions and amendments were made to some objectionable sections of Details Cannot Body Wants.4

Yeo submitted an appeal to PELU and a compromise was reached after some negotiation.5 While PELU objected to some of the language and gestures used in Details Cannot Body Wants, it allowed the play to be staged uncut and uncensored, but with an R-rating.This was the first time such a license was issued for a play in Singapore. However, PELU would only grant the R-rated license if a disclaimer was added to all publicity materials surrounding Renewable Women. The disclaimer would read: “This play contains adult language and patrons below 18 are discouraged from attending”. Although the word “discouraged” did not imply an outright ban on those under 18, it was made clear to the National University of Singapore Society that it was responsible for preventing anyone below 18 years old from attending, failing which the society would be held answerable to PELU.Hence, ushers had to check the identity cards of those who looked “suspiciously young”.8

Chin accepted PELU’s decision as her play was essentially an ideological piece.9 The play was staged on 12 September 1992 without much incident. The identity cards of eight ticket holders were checked and all were let through once their ages were verified. More than 300 people attended the three shows held over the weekend. The audience consisted mainly of adults in their 20s and 30s.10

Directed by K.K. Seet, Details Cannot Body Wants is a 45-minute monologue in which a character, played by Chin herself, enacts the societal, emotional and cultural restrictions of being an Asian woman in a world of mixed sexual and cultural influences. A feminist play, Chin wanted to portray the social construct of women and their intimate experiences, particularly the concept that women are “made women” and not “born women”. It is a four-part performance art piece that explores four concepts that both define and entrap women in life.11

The four concepts of the play are: (i) details – details of life with which women are saddled; (ii) cannot(s) – rules imposed on women in their attempt to shape their identity or destiny; (iii) body – (by) which women are objectified and defined culturally; and (iv) wants – women’s socialised wants or desires.12

With a three-person chorus behind her and the aid of props such as an inflatable sex doll, masks, an inflatable bra and tarty costumes, Chin’s character rants against restrictions such as foot binding, the cultivation of the coy voice, the correct way a woman should sit and the male objectification of women in society.13 Her play is a heady combination of advertising jargon, African-American rap, Christmas carols, Cantonese jingles and Indonesian pantuns.14 It also alludes to a range of Asian and Western cultural figures, including Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, the Japanese geisha, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, the Platters, Shakespeare and Sutardji Calzoum Bachri.15 Chin felt that the success of her play hinged on its ability to evoke sympathy from the audience for the plight of women in society.16

Reception and later developments
The play received mixed reviews due to its unconventional form, with then leading theatre critic Hannah Pandian describing it as “a formless mishmash of all things woman-oriented, kept afloat by a gimmicky collection of songs and sketches”,17 while David Britton gave an alternative opinion of the piece.18

Following the performance, Chin gave a reading of it in Canada which was recorded and aired on ABC Australia.19 It was later restaged in New York by Ubu Repertory Theatre in 1998.20

The play has been published by Times Book International in the book The Naturalization of Camellia Song & Details Cannot Body Wants together with Chin’s first collection of poetry comprising 69 poems dating to the late 1960s.21


Nureza Ahmad

1. Ong Soh Chin, “Singapore’s First R-Rated Play,” Straits Times, 9 September 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Ong Soh Chin, “Two Plays Restricted to Those 18 and Above,” Straits Times, 9 September 1992, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Ong, Soh Chin, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play,” Straits Times, 9 September 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Ong, “Two Plays Restricted to Those 18 and Above.”
5. Ong, “Two Plays Restricted to Those 18 and Above.”
6. Ong, “Two Plays Restricted to Those 18 and Above”; “No Under-18s Caught at S’pore’s First ‘R-Rated’ Play,” Straits Times, 13 September 1992, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Ong, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play.”
8. “No Under-18s Caught.”
9. Ong, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play.”
10. “No Under-18s Caught.”
11. Ong, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play.”
12. K. K. Seet, “Playful Phoenix”: Feminist Manipulations of the Gaze in Contemporary Singapore Plays,” e-PAI (2001)
13. Ong, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play”; Seet, “Playful Phoenix.”
14. Seet, “Playful Phoenix.”
15. David Britton, “Alternative View on Chin’s Play,” Straits Times, 18 September 1992, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Seet, “Playful Phoenix.”
16. Ong, “Singapore’s first R-Rated Play.”
17. Hannah Pandian, “A Mishmash of Sorts,” Straits Times, 14 September 1992, 3 (From NewspaperSG); William Peterson, Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001) (Call no. RSING 792.095957 PET)
18. Britton, “Alternative View on Chin’s Play.” 
19. “Naturalised Writer,” New Straits Times, 5 February 1997. (From Factiva via NLB’s Proquest Central website)
20. E. A. Kaiden, “What’s Going On and Where,” Straits Times, 1 April 1998, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chin Woon Ping and Koh Buck Song, “A Woman and the World,” Straits Times, 5 September 1992, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Chin Woon Ping, The Naturalization of Camellia Song & Details Cannot Body Want (Singapore: Times Book International, 1993). (Call no. RSING M821 CHI)

The information in this article is valid as at October 2018 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.