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G. T. Lye is a Singaporean actor and playwright actively involved in wayang Peranakan or Peranakan theatre. He was a member of the Gunong Sayang Association, a Peranakan social club that promotes the preservation of dondang sayang, the singing of Malay poetry. Lye wrote, directed and acted in many Gunong Sayang stage productions when he was a member of the club from 1984 to 2006. He is a veteran female impersonator who has played the role of the Peranakan matriarch numerous times on stage and on television. Outside of performing arts, Lye is a consultant on Peranakan arts and culture.
G. T. Lye was born to a wealthy Peranakan family in 1939. His father, Gwee Peng Kwee, was a rubber broker and a prominent pantun composer and dondang sayang performer. Sometimes referred to as "musical debating", dondang sayang is the singing of four-line verses set to music. The verses are almost always improvised.
Although from a well-to-do family, Lye had a difficult childhood. He was given up for adoption because a fortune teller told his mother that his birth would bring ill luck to the family. Her fears were reinforced when she started hemorrhaging at his birth. At the age of six, Lye was sent to sell fruits as a means to help his adoptive mother make a living. At 10 years old, his natural mother brought him home but he was treated like an outcast in the family due to his time away.
Despite his struggles, Lye persevered with his studies at Telok Kurau English School. He eventually graduated with a Senior Cambridge certificate from Bartley Road Secondary School in 1956. After secondary school, he did a number of part-time jobs such as clerical work and teaching before securing a permanent job as a dispenser at the Singapore Medical Hall.
He then joined his father's office as a typist until the company was liquidated in 1961. The young man was appointed the personal assistant to two Members of Parliament from 1961 to 1976. After 15 years of public service, Lye ventured out to establish his own travel agency.
It was only at the age of 44 that Lye got involved in wayang Peranakan or Peranakan theatre. He saw an advertisement in the newspaper calling for Peranakan dramatists and applied for a role. He was cast as the father in Pilih Menantu (Choosing In-Law), which was produced by the Ministry of Culture. It was the first such production to be staged in Singapore in 25 years. The success of the production proved to the president of the Gunong Sayang Association that Peranakan theatre was a moneymaking venture. Before that, the Association concentrated more on staging dondang sayang performances.
It started staging dramas in 1984 and roped Lye into producing the shows and starring in them. The most important person in a Peranakan family is the matriarch and it was crucial that the club found the right person to take on the lead role. Lye volunteered to impersonate a matriarch when no one stepped up. In the past, it was traditional for men to impersonate women in theatre, as the latter were not encouraged to go on stage. Lye felt that he was suited for the role because he was exposed to Peranakan theatre since a very young age. The fact that his father, Gwee Peng Kwee, was a well-known female impersonator who performed at the Association's shows also influenced his decision.
His impersonation was so successful that Lye became a household name in the local theatre community. He went on to play a matriarch in the Malay-language television series, Mother’s Pet. From 1984, Lye was invited to appear in various wayang Peranakan productions by Gunong Sayang Association.
He said that in those days, scripts were very bare and actors had to ad lib for their roles. This was when he realised that he had the gift of improvising and coming up with impromptu verses—elements that would eventually lead him to explore reciting pantun and performing dondang sayang.
Between the ’80s and ’90s Lye expanded his knowledge of pantun and dondang sayang by shadowing a group of professional pantun performers in Malacca, Malaysia. He became their disciple and studied the art form. By the early ’90s, Lye had become a well-known figure in the Malay entertainment scene. He would be invited to perform dondang sayang at charity shows at old folks’ homes and hospitals, and appeared on radio and television programmes to share insights on the Peranakan culture.
In 2000, Lye wrote his first script, Chuy It Chap Goh (First Fifteen Days of the Lunar New Year). The next three years saw him writing wayang Peranakan for the Gunong Sayang Association in quick succession. They were Hujan Balik Ke Langit (The Impossible), Kipas Cendana (The Sandalwood Fan) and Belum Mati, Belum Tahu (Not Dead, Not Known). The playwright was able to draw from his experience growing up in a Peranakan household with all manner of matriarchs.
By the early 2000s, Lye had become known as an authority on Peranakan culture. He continues to give talks and is often consulted in all matters concerning Peranakan arts. In 2010, he joined veteran singers Momo Latiff and Hyrul Anwar in Kelab Dondang Sayang, a programme produced by Esplanade for Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts. He has also taken on consultant roles for Peranakan weddings, travelling as far as Paris, Japan and Seoul to conduct traditional weddings.
Lye remains active in promoting Peranakan arts and culture. Most recently, he wrote the play, Maternal Aunts, about multicultural relationships and is looking for a producer to stage it.
Born in Singapore.
Started to listen and get into dondang sayang, pantuns and other Malay and Peranakan arts. He picked it up from his father.
First full time job as a dispenser at Singapore Medical Hall.
Typist at his Rubber Broker father's office.
Personal Assistant to two Members of Parliament.
Tour guide and travel agent.
Honed skills with professional pantun singers in Malacca where he was taken as a disciple.
Active years at Gunong Sayang Association where Lye performed dondang sayang.
Officially started in the arts, answered an ad in the papers that called for Peranakan dramatists.
Ministry of Culture produced the first Wayang Peranakan and Lye applied for a role. Selected to act role of father in a show entitled Pilih Menantu.
Played the role of the matriach in television series Mother's Pet.
After seeing Pilih Menantu, then President of Gunong Sayang Association started working on Peranakan dramas and invited Lye to play the role of the matriarch for several following productions.
Became more involved in the Malay entertainment scene with stints in Malay television channel Suria, and radio channels like Warna.
Also performs dondang sayang for charity event two to three times a year.
Wrote first wayang Peranakan script entitled Chuy It Chap Goh (The first 15 days of the Lunar New Year), which received critical success.
Promoted Dondang Sayang in Jakarta, Indonesia. (c. 2000s)
Travelled to Paris, Chengdu, Tokyo, and Seoul to conduct Peranakan weddings.
Wrote third script Hujan Balik Ke Langit (The Impossible).
Wrote second script Kipas Cendana (The Sandalwood Fan).
Wrote script titled Belum Mati Belum Tahu (Not Dead, Not Known).
Sang dondang sayang with Momo Latiff at Esplanade in Kelab Dondang Sayang, a Pesta Raya programme.
Completed a script of a Peranakan play titled Maternal Aunts.
Member of the Singapore Peranakan Association.
Retired but is still sought after to conduct talks and frequently consulted on Peranakan arts and culture.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.