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Low Ing Sing

One of Singapore Chinese language theatre's founding fathers.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I stay active in order to stay young. I want to live my life with the attitude of being young at heart.

Lianhe Zaobao

Low Ing Sing (刘仁心) is one of Singapore Chinese language theatre's founding fathers. For about 60 years, he worked both on and offstage as a playwright, director, actor, instructor, critic and advocate. Besides performing in hundreds of plays across Malaya, he also founded the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan's arts and cultural troupes and the Singapore Amateur Players (now known as the Arts Theatre of Singapore), directed and staged many acclaimed productions, published three full-length and six short plays, published a collection of poems, trained generations of Chinese-language dramatists and actors, and wrote numerous essays on local Chinese theatre. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1985 and the Literary Appreciation Award in 1990.

Low Ing Sing was born on 16 August 1924 in Sibu, Sarawak, in East Malaysia, to parents of Fuzhou descent. He spent his formative years there and cut his teeth on school theatre productions while in primary and secondary school.

In 1938, when the Japanese invaded China and the Chinese community in Malaya began raising funds to help their compatriots, Low and other theatre enthusiasts began participating in street drama performances in Sarawak to raise awareness and funds. The war was still raging in China when a 16-year-old Low graduated in 1940 from Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (C) Su Ming, Sarikei, Sarawak, and came the year after to Singapore, where his father owned a guesthouse on Stanley Street. It was named the Hua Nan Inn (华南栈) and catered to Chinese travellers from Fuzhou stopping over on their way to Sibu. At the inn, Low slept in whichever rooms were unoccupied.

He enrolled in Chung Cheng High School to further his studies and, there, his patriotic Chinese sentiments were further fuelled by a teacher, Du Cang Bai, an intellectual, writer and ex-military analyst.

Four years later, on 15 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered. Low, then 21 years old, made his way back to Singapore. He resumed his studies at Chung Cheng High School. He also resumed his theatre activities in school and joined the first-post war professional Chinese drama group, the Experimental Drama Troupe as an actor. With the troupe, he toured Malaya and performed in more than 100 performances in a year, an experience that taught him much about playwriting, directing and acting. In 1946, together with some friends, he started a professional Chinese language theatre company, Singapore Practical Drama Group, but the company wound up after less than a year due to financial troubles.

In 1947, Low got married to a young lady and fellow Chung Cheng High School student his father had brought to Singapore from Fuzhou. He graduated from school and found work the following year as a teacher in Taiping, Perak, where he started a family. Three years later, he moved back to Singapore with his family and settled here. He worked as a full-time teacher at Nan Chiau School for a year or two and subsequently taught at Kong Hwa School for almost two decades and also at his alma mater, Chung Cheng High School.

At Chung Cheng, he initiated and participated in Mandarin drama activities, directing, staging and acting in school productions. With Chung Cheng's Chinese theatre group, he staged several very well-received productions, putting up four within a year (1953-1954), one of which ran for 13 days. The success of Chung Cheng's drama society sparked the establishment of drama associations in other local schools during the ’50s.

Shortly after, in 1954, Low, together with other theatre enthusiasts and longtime friends, co-founded in 1955 the Singapore Amateur Players (SAP, which later in 1995 became known as the Arts Theatre of Singapore). In November that year, the group staged its first production – Cao Yu's famous Sunrise 《日出》 at the Victoria Memorial Hall, with Low playing the brothel servant.

It was around that time that he began writing his own plays and essays on film and theatre, using several pseudonyms including Shaofei (少飞), Kaishan (开山), Tianshan (天山) and Jianke (剑客). Among his most successful plays was He's Not Dead which drew an audience of 110,000 over 11 nights. For the next few decades, with Low and his peers at the helm, the company would go on to stage acclaimed productions based on modern Chinese as well as Western classics such as the works of Ibsen and Gogol.

In 1976, Low, his eldest son and the latter's friends set up their own company, Pan-World Precision Engineering Pte Ltd. Three years later, he retired from teaching and focused on his second career as Chairman of the company, a position he retained until 1997. Despite his new career. Low did not reduce his involvement in theatre but became even more active in it, both within and outside of SAP.

In 1982, he was appointed chairman of the working committee for the 1982 Singapore Festival of Arts production of The Little White Sailing Boat (小白船), and managed to get all the local Chinese-language drama groups on board for the collaborative production. That same year, he became General Affairs Manager of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, and promptly set up, within the association, a traditional Chinese music and dance troupe for young people. In 1984, Low once again headed a team that brought Singapore's Mandarin drama groups together, this time for Oolah World (乌拉世界), an original production at the Singapore Festival of Arts that year. He also published a collection of poems, Songs of Singapore (新加坡颂).

In 1985, Low led the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan music and dance troupe to stage two performances at the Victoria Theatre, and also directed and staged The Coffeeshop 《咖啡店的春天》, a seminal original play featuring a multiracial cast of 100, on which theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun would later base his play, Kopi Tiam.

In 1986, Low established, within the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, an arts and cultural troupe and became its director and occasional actor. By the mid ’90s, he had published three full-length plays, six short plays (including He's Not Dead [他并没有死], No More Concubines [废除侍妾], Chasing the Rainbow [金鱼缸边], Yellow Dreams [黄色梦]and The Man Nurtured by the Hundred Year-Old Tree [百年树人] and numerous essays on theatre and film including Theatre and Life 《戏剧与人生: 戏剧评论》, an important work of theatre criticism. During this time, he also gave many talks and lectures on the history of local Chinese theatre and the art of performing to organisations such as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, the Cathay Organisation (国泰演员训练班) and Rediffusion. For his significant contributions to local Chinese theatre and literature, Low was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1986 and the Singapore Literature Society’s Literary Appreciation Award in 1990.

A decade later, on 1 Mar 2000, Low passed away at the age of 76, survived by two daughters (his two sons having tragically passed away while still relatively young). Although in 1993, the Singapore Amateur Players changed its focus to staging children's plays and, in 1995, changed its name to the Arts Theatre of Singapore, the group is still one of the most respected Chinese theatre groups in Singapore. Low remains a highly esteemed theatre practitioner, remembered for his vigour, good humour and great love of drama.

Timeline

16 Aug 1924

Born in Sibu, Sarawak, East Malaysia.

1938

As the Japanese invaded China, began participating in street drama performances in Sarawak to raise funds for war relief.

1940

Graduated from Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (C) Su Ming, Sarikei, Sarawak.

1941

Came to Singapore where his father owned the Hua Nan Inn. Attended Chung Cheng High School.

Stopped attending school during the Japanese occupation. Worked on the Thailand-Burma Railway (the Death Railway). Later, escaped to Bangkok.

1945

Returned to Singapore after the war and resumed studies at Chung Cheng High School. Joined the first-post war professional Chinese drama group, The Experimental Drama Troupe, and toured Malaya.

1946

Started a professional Chinese language theatre company, Singapore Practical Drama Group, with some friends. The company lasted only several months.

1948

Worked as a teacher in Taiping, Perak, Malaysia.

1950

Started writing his own plays under several pseudonyms. (c. 1950s)

1951

Relocated to Singapore.

Worked as a full-time teacher at Nan Chiau School.

1953 to 1979

Taught at Kong Hwa School.

Initiated and participated in school Mandarin drama activities.

1955

Together with peers, co-founded the Singapore Amateur Players (SAP). SAP staged its first production – Cao Yu's famous Sunrise (日出) - at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1976 to 1997

Chairman of Pan-World Precision Engineering Pte Ltd.

1979

Retired from teaching.

1980 to 1990

Published three full-length and six short plays.

Gave many talks and lectures on the history of local Chinese theatre and the art of performing to organisations such as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, the Cathay Organisation and Rediffusion.

1982

Appointed chairman of the working committee for the 1982 Singapore Festival of Arts production of The Little White Sailing Boat.

Became General Affairs Manager of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan and set up its traditional Chinese music and dance troupe for young people.

1984

Headed a team that brought Singapore's Mandarin drama groups together for an original play Oolah World for the 1984 Singapore Festival of Arts.

Published a collection of poems, Songs of Singapore.

1985

Led the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan music and dance troupe to stage two performances at the Victoria Theatre.

Directed and staged The Coffeeshop 《咖啡店的春天》.

1986

Established within the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, an arts and cultural troupe.

Awarded the Cultural Medallion.

1990

Received Literary Appreciation Award, Singapore Literature Society.

1993

The Singapore Amateur Players changed its focus to staging children's plays.

1995

SAP changed its name to the Arts Theatre of Singapore.

1996

Published a work of theatre criticism, 《戏剧与人生: 戏剧评论》or Theatre and Life: theatre criticism.

1 Mar 2000

Died at age 76.


TributeSG

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.

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