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Michael Chiang is a playwright and writer who pens comedies and musicals with a distinct Singapore flavour. He is best known for iconic stage works Army Daze and Beauty World, which were both adapted into screenplays for film and television respectively. Having started his career as a journalist with Singapore Press Holdings, Chiang went on to become CEO at MediaCorp Publishing, and considers himself an "accidental playwright", having always written his plays while holding full-time jobs.
After taking a hiatus from writing scripts for 14 years, he returned with High Class, a play about high-society ladies, in 2013. The following year, he released an anthology of his works, PlayThings, and launched The A List, a fortnightly arts magazine commissioned by the National Arts Council.
Born in 1954 in Muar, Malaysia to a schoolteacher and a housewife, Michael Chiang came from an English-speaking environment at home. He has six siblings, most of whom are schoolteachers. His eldest brother, Dr Chiang Hai Ding, is a retired ambassador and former Member of Parliament in Singapore.
Chiang arrived in Singapore at the age of 11 for his primary six education and subsequently attended Anglo-Chinese School during his secondary school years. It was here that the young Chiang got his first taste of theatre production. He was part of the literary society and helped out backstage at theatre productions. While he found being involved in plays fun and exciting, he was not interested in actually performing on stage. He preferred to stand at the back and watch everything come together.
As a young man who was about to enter the workforce, Chiang did not even consider breaking into the arts industry. Instead, his lifelong ambition was to join Singapore Airlines (SIA) so that he could enjoy the privileges and travel around the world.
After graduating from the then University of Singapore with majors in English Literature and Philosophy, he got a job at SIA, but was posted to the technical supplies department, and only stayed four months. He decided that the job was not for him.
It was also during this time that he was freelancing for Singapore's national newspaper The Straits Times writing travel articles. He enjoyed his freelance assignments so much that he decided to try his hand at journalism. His first job at Singapore Press Holdings was at New Nation where he covered the arts, culture, entertainment and lifestyle beats.
He also reviewed plays, concerts, movies and restaurants. When New Nation folded, Chiang moved to The Sunday Times where he wrote features and a humour column. His column got him noticed and someone suggested that he should try writing a play. He decided against it at first because he felt he had no experience in playwriting. But he wrote a short one in 1983, called Beauty Box, which was part of a larger stage production called Bumboat, showcasing home-grown pieces.
Beauty Box is a 30-minute comedy about a beauty pageant to find Singapore's next shopping queen. Even though the critics panned the production, Chiang was encouraged by the audience's positive reaction – they seemed to enjoy it! Therefore, one of his aims as a playwright has always been to humour and entertain the audience. To him, it is important that viewers believe his stories and connect with his characters.
In 1985, Chiang wrote Love and Belacan, which was followed by Army Daze in 1987, Beauty World in 1988, Mixed Signals in 1989, Private Parts in 1992, My Art Belongs to Me and Mortal Sins in 1995, and My Lonely Tarts in 1999.
His most recognised work is Army Daze partly because the play has been restaged a number of times and also because of the popular 1996 movie adaptation. To come up with the story, Chiang tapped into his personal experience at Basic Military Training during his National Service days. First staged in 1987, it delighted audiences for its liberal use of Singlish and a cast of recognisable characters. In 1996, Cathay Organisation adapted Army Daze into a movie, which grossed $1.6 million in ticket sales.
Beauty World, another of Chiang's popular plays was considered Singapore's first major home-grown musical. It debuted in 1988 in Singapore and went on to tour four Japanese cities in 1992.
While writing all his plays, Chiang stuck with his day job as a journalist, editor and publisher. After nine years at Singapore Press Holdings, Chiang joined Caldecott Publishing, later renamed MediaCorp Publishing, to work on various magazine titles such as 8 Days, I-Weekly, Lime, Manja, FHM, Elle Singapore, over a span of 19 years.
In 2009, Chiang left MediaCorp Publishing to set up his own consultancy, A Little Imagination.
In 2013, he wrote his first script in 14 years. High Class is a play about five high-society ladies working on a talk show. A year later, he released an anthology of his works Play Things: Michael Chiang, The Complete Works: 1984 – 2014, and launched The A List, a fortnightly arts and culture guide commissioned by the National Arts Council.
Most recently, Chiang wrote the screenplay for Our Sister Mambo a drama-comedy film produced to mark Cathay Organisation’s 80th Anniversary. Released in July 2015, the story highlights five women who have to deal with relatable Singaporean issues. Just as with all his works, Our Sister Mambo is a light-hearted yet poignant story that features Singapore humour and the well-executed use of Singlish.
Often referring to himself as an "accidental playwright", Chiang continues to be actively involved in the Singapore arts scene. His latest project involved working with theatre practitioner and musician Dick Lee on the latest production of Beauty World, which was staged at Victoria Theatre in November 2015.
Born in Muar, Malaysia.
Arrived in Singapore to attend Anglo Chinese Primary School to complete his primary six education.
Attended Anglo Chinese Secondary School.
Graduated from the University of Singapore with BA (Hons) in Philosophy. He majored in English Literature and Philosophy, with Chinese Studies as a minor, for his BA.
Started freelancing for The Straits Times, the national newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.
Feature writer, New Nation, Singapore Press Holdings.
Wrote a short play Beauty Box as part of an anthology stage production entitled Bumboat.
Writer and editor, The Sunday Times, Singapore Press Holdings.
Debut of the play Love and Belacan.
Debut of popular play Army Daze.
Editor, GO magazine.
Debut of Singapore stage musical Beauty World.
Debut of Mixed Signals.
Editor-in-chief, Shusse Publishing.
Joined Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, subsequently appointed Chief Executive Officer of Caldecott Publishing.
Vice President, Senior Vice President, Publishing, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. Launched 8 Days magazine in 1990.
Debut of Private Parts.
Beauty World the play toured four Japanese cities.
Chief Executive Officer, Caldecott Publishing.
Wrote My Art Belongs to Me and Mortal Sins.
Army Daze the movie was released and went on to earn $1.6 million in box office receipts.
Rebranded RTV Times (Chinese) and launched it as I-Weekly magazine.
Debut of My Lonely Tarts.
Relaunched Elle Singapore.
Launched Manja magazine.
Launched Kids Company & Family.
Launched Style magazine.
Launched Style: Weddings magazine.
Editorial director, MediaCorp Publishing.
Relaunched FHM Singapore.
Set up his own consultancy A Little Imagination.
Wrote the play High Class.
Published an anthology Play Things: Michael Chiang, The Complete Works: 1984 – 2014.
Launched magazine The A List.
Singapore film Our Sister Mambo was released in July. Chiang wrote the screenplay.
A revival of Beauty World, co-created by Chiang and Dick Lee, is presented at Victoria Theatre, Singapore.
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Portraits of the artist as a young innocent: Studio shot of Michael Chiang, age 3, with his mother Chan Sue Lan, Muar, Malaysia. 1957.
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Let's hear it for the (NS) boys: Michael Chiang (in white) with the original cast of Army Daze at the old Drama Centre on Fort Canning, Singapore. 1987.
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Welcome to our world: Michael Chiang (right) and his Beauty World collaborator, composer Dick Lee, Singapore. 1998.
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Meet the prez: Michael Chiang (second from left) posing with the late president Wee Kim Wee and the First Lady, after the Beauty World gala at the old World Trade Centre auditorium, Singapore. 1988.
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.