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Actors Jalyn Han (the grandma), Tan Shou Chen (the grandson), and Rei Poh (various roles) are simply excellent.

Jialat! Coping with modern S'pore as a dialect-speaking senior citizen

15/07/2016 - 05:50

IN Grandmother Tongue, playwright Thomas Lim not only crafts an intimate portrait of his granny, but a realistic snapshot of what it means to be a dialect-speaking senior citizen in Singapore these days.

Whether he tackled issues like aging or family dysfunction, the regular sniffles from the audience meant that the play struck a close chord with many.

This is Lim's first play and he has managed, with sensitivity, to tell his own story as well as to show the personal impact of public policies on dialects.

The plot is simple but reflective, with the main protagonist also playing the role of narrator to add context to different scenarios.

Having been brought up by his grandmother as a child, a young man returns from his studies to live with her again after the divorce of his parents - an event which has been kept from the grandmother. Being re-immersed in Teochew because his grandmother doesn't speak anything else, the young man begins to examine his own experience with language and dialect.

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Lim captures many facets of what it means to be a senior citizen in Singapore today - painting a very vivid picture of an 84-year-old woman getting alienated from a rapidly changing Singapore and also her own children and family, who are undergoing changes of their own. So there is alienation on both the domestic and public fronts.

It is endearing at first - to see filial piety in the grandchild going to stay with his grandmother, and getting a chance to brush up on his Teochew again. But the alienation is underscored particularly when it comes to crucial issues - like government missives delivered in Mandarin (broken, sometimes) and English, and hospital care provided by foreigners who speak only English.

Lim also keenly observes the Pioneer Generation's general quirks and habits: the outspoken mistrust of government; their thriftiness; and Teochew quirks like the use of peng seh (borax) to make fish or meat balls bouncier. (A tiny nitpick, though: isn't jialat a Hokkien term rather than Teochew?)

Actors Jalyn Han (the grandmother), Tan Shou Chen (the grandson) and Rei Poh (various roles) are simply excellent. Rei Poh deserves a shoutout for the way he effortlessly slips into his multiple roles - from a Chinese school discipline teacher to a Filipino nurse. His attempt at Teochew itself is convincing on the whole, with only a few slip-ups tone-wise.

There's little to be done now to reverse the no-dialect (rather, the Speak Mandarin) policy, especially when generations have grown up without speaking it at home. But as Lim spells out his views on what challenges Singaporeans face today, his wish is to encourage Singaporeans to think more critically and be more reflective. Grandmother Tongue is a play which does more showing than telling - but speaks volumes nonetheless.