Kuo Pao Kun exposes the personal wreckage left in the wake of the state’s aggressive pursuit of international financial status in the 1960s.
This was the first full-length play by Singapore’s theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and was a sensation when it was first staged in 1968, drawing rave reviews. Starting from the 1960s, the Singapore government embarked on an economic strategy of attracting foreign investors and multinationals, and building up tourism as an economic pillar, often at a significant social cost. The play struck a chord in a population asked to sacrifice their heritage, way of life and even their mother tongues in the national effort to become a modern metropolis serving the world.
Scene 3: The Interview
Chorus: A distorted society
develops in deviant ways
The kind toil their entire lives
for just two simple meals a day
Most do not strive for a life of indulgence
why must they be consigned to the margins of
a better existence?
“To work hard” is now a symbol of
“To find a shortcut” is now the way to good
“Diploma, status, connections, money”
Why is it that the obsessions of our young are so
What is it that makes them lose faith in
their parents’ toil?
What is it that deadens them to their
Is it because the young today are born
Or is it because their minds have been
poisoned by some external influence?
Pop music in the background.
Miss Lily TAN is being interviewed by Mr. LIM (the company director), Mr. LIEN (the manager), and Miss HAN (the secretary).
LIEN Let me be frank with you, Miss Tan. Your
qualifications are decent but we are not looking
for part-time staff. Those we recruit will need
to undergo training. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to
balance your work here with your job
at the beauty salon.
TAN Isn’t the work mainly at night?
LIEN Mainly, yes, but not always. Our timing is
determined by the needs of our clients.
TAN Oh! (Hesitates)
LIEN Do you make $300 a month now?
TAN Slightly more. How much can you give?
LIEN That depends on what you have. Ten bucks
an hour with a third as commission to
the company. How much you make depends on
TAN Is there a base salary?
TAN Ouch, that’s quite harsh.
LIEN It’s free competition! Why don’t you think
about it? If you decide to come work for us,
report to our first branch office at 9 a.m. on
Monday morning. Thank you.
LIEN She’ll show up for sure.
LIM (To HAN) How about the next one?
LIEN walks over to HAN who hands over a photo.
HAN She’s a recent graduate.
LIEN She doesn’t look half bad. (Looking at photo)
LIM She looks like the bright and naïve sort. (To LIEN)
Be courteous. Don’t be too direct.
LIEN nods to HAN.
HAN (To the telephone) Number 65, Miss Lu Siow May.
HAN Miss Lu Siow May?
MAY Yes. (Walks over to HAN)
HAN You’re eighteen?
HAN A Singapore citizen?
MAY Singapore citizen.
HAN Your ancestral home?
HAN Besides Mandarin, what dialects do you speak?
MAY Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese . . .
MAY A bit.
HAN Just enough to understand or can you converse?
MAY I can probably handle basic conversation.
MAY Just a bit. I’ve never had formal lessons.
HAN Do you have a driver’s license?
HAN Can you swim?
MAY A bit.
HAN Can you sing?
MAY A bit.
HAN Can you dance?
MAY Yes . . . what type of dance?
HAN Regular social dance.
MAY Oh, I don’t really know that.
HAN What type of dance can you do?
MAY The ones you do in school. Extracurricular dancing.
HAN Your height?
MAY (Puzzled) Five foot three.
HAN Your weight?
MAY (More puzzled) A hundred and six pounds. Why
are you asking these questions?
LIEN That’s enough, Miss Han.
MAY turns around and realizes that there are two men behind her.
LIEN (Stands up)
Miss Lu, please sit over here.
MAY looks uncomfortable as she sits down under the gaze of the two men and one woman.
The two men look her over for a while, confident but not crude.
MAY (Unable to stand it any longer) May I . . .
LIEN (Interrupts) I know you have lots of questions
Miss Lu. What sort of organization is this
“tourist assistance agency”? What type of
business does it do? What sort of employees are
we recruiting through our newspaper
advertisements? Why did we ask for your photo?
Why did we ask such funny questions?
Am I right?
She instinctively nods her head as he correctly guesses all her questions.
LIEN In other words, you find us deeply dubious.
MAY That was not what I meant—
LIEN (Interrupts) There’s no need to explain, Miss Lu.
It’s natural you would think this way. I would have
the same concerns if I were you. It would be
strange not to be suspicious! Especially
since you’re young and educated. It’s inevitable
that you would be suspicious of what you do not
understand. There’s no need to apologize. It’s
MAY (At a loss for words) Can you tell me what you do
LIEN Of course! An interview is an opportunity for two
parties to share their thoughts and ideas. I will
first introduce our organization and then it’ll be
your turn to speak. All right? (Pause) In recent
years, a new industry, the sightseeing industry,
has emerged on the global scene. Some call it the
“tourism industry.” Most people here still think
sightseeing is simply going on a tour of different
places, looking at scenery. This view is out-of-
date. By its definition, sightseeing should mean
allowing the person to experience different
lifestyles and cultural traditions in different places
and countries, to indulge in what he cannot enjoy
at home. Not only does this involve the promotion
of our country’s culture, it can also be an
important economic force. It has become a pillar
in some economies that have a developed
tourism industry. For example, Spain possesses
the most developed sightseeing industry in the
world. Tourists contribute to 82% of its GDP. A
Spanish poet once said, “If we Spaniards want to
make a living in front of the Lord, our children
need to work as hard as women, our women need
to work as hard as men, and our men need to be
as fierce as beasts.” That is because Spain lacks
natural resources and it’s hard for its people to
get by. But Spaniards today say, “When we want
to make a living in front of the Lord, we only need
to smile. We just have to take good care of the
tourists and that is enough.” That is the motto of
MAY I see. You’re a tour agency!
LIEN (Joins the other man in laughter) No, Miss Lu.
What we provide is a complete “cultural and
LIEN Giving tours is just a small part of what we do,
Miss Lu. Our organization owns swimming pools,
bowling alleys, hotels, yachts, nightclubs, and
various performance troupes. This tourist
assistance agency is just one of our many
subsidiaries. The Golden Hotel downstairs
belongs to us. We have more than 600 full-time
employees and 400 part-time employees. We pay
millions in income tax alone each year. You can
just imagine the scale of our operations.
MAY is flabbergasted.
LIEN Miss Lu, I’ve gone one big circle to tell you all this
because I want you to understand that we are not
a run-of-the-mill company. We do not engage in
run-of-the-mill business. We do things very
differently from others. You may have heard
rumors about the sightseeing industry, especially
scandals involving tour agencies. I can tell you
that there is much truth in them. However, we are
not part of that. Those are not things that an
organization of our size engages in. You can put
away any suspicions that you have about us.
MAY What sort of employees are you recruiting?
LIEN That’s hard for us to answer because we do not
know your preferences and what you are most
suitable for. Even if you make it through this
interview, you will need to undergo a period of
training before we can decide. We are looking for
talent. We are looking for new blood who have
different types of skills and who want to develop
careers in this industry. We are especially strict in
selecting our talent because we take our work
seriously. Help us understand your background
and thoughts now, shall we?
Not expecting the conversation to be so blunt and direct, MAY is caught unaware and does not seem to know where to start. Four eyes bore into her as the secretary prepares to take notes.
MAY I don’t come from a well-to-do family. My father
was a taxi driver who died when I was eight. I’m
an only child and my mother brought me up by
working as a laundry woman. I have always done
well in school but I had disappointing results for
my final examination. I wanted to be a teacher but
I failed to qualify. I don’t know what I want to do.
I can’t continue to study but I’ve yet to find a job.
When I saw your advertisement, I had no idea
what sort of person you wanted. I sent in an
application just because it was there, not even
knowing if I qualified . . .
LIEN Qualifications? That’s something one can acquire.
What’s important is whether one is willing to
learn. You’ve just left school and your
understanding of society is, if you may pardon my
saying, lacking. However, if you’re willing to
learn, you can join our training course to give it a
try. What do you think?
MAY (Happy and at a loss for words)
LIEN Please report to our first branch office at 9 a.m.
on Monday. The receptionist outside will give you
the address. (Shakes her hand) Good-bye.
LIM We can put in a bit of effort on this one.
LIEN (Gives a knowing smile and walks over to HAN)
Send the next one in.
Light dims. Curtain falls. Chorus for the next scene begins.
Scene 4: The Training
Chorus: They say
this is a place filled with opportunities for
this is a paradise for making money and
treachery thrives when there’s “free competition”
and a preoccupation with profit is what comes
with “investment promotion.”
—They do not care if this brings a blight upon others.
—They do not care if this goes against the moral conscience.
Our young have been given the chance to study
this does not mean that they can think.
To pass exams and get a diploma is easy
this does not guarantee anything.
What happens when naïve youth
meets the dirty and dangerous world?
The case of May is a good example.
A newly renovated office, with pop music playing in the background.
The secretary Miss HAN arranges some documents while Uncle BOCK repairs a filing cabinet on the side.
The phone rings.
HAN (Answering the phone) Tourist assistance agency
first branch office. Good morning!
Oh! It’s Mr. Wong. How are you? Let me check.
(Checks her record book) She doesn’t have an
appointment tonight. I’ll inform her. What time
and where? That’s fine. If it's difficult for her to
get there on her own, we'll have the driver take
Another three ladies? What dialects do they need
to speak? Do you want to choose them yourself or
should we do that for you? That’s fine. You’re an
old customer so we won’t just send just anyone
over. May I enquire about your friends’ status? I’ll
let the girls know to get them mentally prepared.
Thank you. Not at all. Certainly. (Records the
information, picks out some names and calls)
Hello, is that the garage? Andrew? Go pick up
Chin Mei at 8:30 p.m. An appointment with Mr.
Wong. Yes, the same one. Have her at Dragon
Palace Night Club at 8:45 p.m. Swing by here to
get Miss Lam, Miss Chian, Miss Soon, and Miss
Mok before you go. Mr. Wong is entertaining
guests today, Indonesian customers. I’ll get them
to wait downstairs at 8:15 p.m.
LIEN brings a group of new girls out from his office.
LIEN Remember, the basic objectives of entertaining
tourists are to make them happy with their stay
and ensure that they get the experience they
want. But there are two other goals we want to
achieve. What’s the first one, Miss Tan?
TAN To get them to stay as long as possible.
LIEN Good. And the next one, Miss Lam?
LAM To leave them with a deep impression so that they
want to come back again.
LIEN Why, Miss Lu?
MAY The longer they stay, the more they spend. And
leaving a good impression is an investment for
BOCK shows surprise when he notices MAY in the group of girls.
LIEN These principles are easy to understand but I
often find that we forget these fundamentals and
start neglecting our clients over time. Never
forget, our entire economic foundation—the
company’s and yours—is built on the satisfaction
of our clients. The customer always comes first.
This is of the utmost importance under any
circumstances. All right, you can go with Miss
Woon now for your data processing class.
Please stay back, Miss Lu. Have a seat.
After the others have left and the conversation is about to begin, the phone rings for LIEN.
HAN Mr. Lien, it’s the nightclub manager, Mr. Ho.
LIEN Hello, old friend! Not yet. In a few days, perhaps.
They just started. They’re still learning the basics.
I know. Who was the one who asked? Mr. Tay?
The businessman? Give me a second, I’ll talk to
you inside. Pardon me, Miss Lu. (Goes into his
HAN How has it been so far, Miss Lu?
MAY It’s all right. I’m not too used to this.
HAN You’ll need time to adjust. You’ve just left school. I
was just like you.
MAY You don’t go out into the field?
HAN Hardly. I can’t leave this office.
LIEN (From his room) Miss Han.
HAN You see? Keep an eye on the place while I’m
gone. (Goes into LIEN’s office)
BOCK (The opportunity finally comes and he puts down
his work) May!
MAY (Surprised) Uncle Bock!
They are interrupted by the phone.
MAY Hello? Yes, this is the tourist assistance agency.
We have many. Of all races. Conversant in all the
dialects. It’s ten dollars an hour with a minimum
booking of three hours. Photographs? Yes. You
can come choose them yourself. Our service ends
at midnight but the office closes at ten. May I have
your name please? Hello? That’s strange . . .
(hangs up the phone)
BOCK Are you working here, May?
MAY I wouldn’t say working. I’ve only been here for
slightly more than a week. I’m still in training.
BOCK What do they do here?
MAY They’re a tour agency.
BOCK What does that involve?
MAY They bring people sightseeing.
BOCK Oh, they bring foreigners around!
MAY Not always. They also have local customers.
BOCK Why do locals need a guide?
MAY Some have friends from overseas but no time to
show them around . . .
BOCK Is it good work? Going out with people . . .
MAY You don’t understand. This is a very big company,
not the shady kind. They have strict regulations.
BOCK Oh . . .
MAY Where’s auntie working today?
BOCK In Tanglin.
MAY Hasn’t that hotel been completed?
BOCK They’re rushing like mad. They have to work till 8
or 9 p.m. every night. I hear that the hotel and
your agency share an owner.
Miss HAN appears, interrupting their conversation.
MAY Someone just called but he hung up halfway.
HAN Oh. (Not too concerned)
(Turns to BOCK) Hey, are you done?
BOCK All done.
HAN How much?
BOCK Thirteen dollars and sixty-five cents.
HAN Why so much?
BOCK It’s not much at all. The materials cost five dollars
and sixty-five cents and I’m just charging you
eight dollars for labor.
HAN Eight dollars for something so simple?
BOCK It’s not expensive. The going rate is nine dollars
for a day and a half of work.
HAN Doesn’t matter. I’ll pay you thirteen. It’s a nice
round figure and our manager hates dealing with
small change. (Her decision is final and she passes
BOCK the money). Sign here.
BOCK I’m not good with writing. Can I not sign?
HAN These are our regulations. Just make any mark here.
Finally, BOCK leaves, giving a slight farewell nod to MAY.
Several women dressed in gaudy clothes enter. Some go into another room while the others walk over to collect their pay.
CHIAN Is my pay for yesterday ready?
HAN It’s here. From 8 p.m. to midnight, twenty-eight
dollars. Andrew will come get you at a quarter
past eight tonight. You’re going with Chin Mei to
Mr. Wong’s party at a quarter to nine.
CHIAN (Counts her money and signs on the voucher)
Where are we going?
HAN Dragon Palace Night Club.
CHIAN What sort of people?
HAN Three Indonesians here on business.
Miss CHIAN leaves and Miss SOON and Miss LIAO enters.
SOON The one from the day before. We went together.
HAN Blue Sky Nightclub. Three hours in all. Twenty
dollars each. Sign here.
MAY takes in all this and is impressed.
SOON Nothing for me today?
HAN Oh, yeah. You’re going with Chin May. Wait
downstairs for Andrew at a quarter past eight.
LIAO/SOON Mr. Lien.
LIEN Miss Soon, Miss Liao. No difficulties recently?
LIAO/ SOON None at all. Thank you. (Leaves)
LIEN You’ve been training here for a week now, Miss
Lu. Are you still interested?
MAY It’s been interesting.
LIEN Are things different from what you first
MAY I had no idea that there’s so much to learn for
something like this.
LIEN I’m happy to hear that, Miss Lu. I need to ask you
again. Are you certain you want to work in the
office and not go into the field?
MAY . . . Yes . . .
LIEN Is that what you really want? Or is it because
your mother disapproves?
MAY My mother . . .
LIEN . . . still doesn’t understand? (MAY nods) Did you
try explaining to her?
MAY I . . . I feel it’s more practical for me to start
working in the office.
LIEN You have a way with words, Miss Lu. That’s
certainly a polite way to say it. I hope we can find
a few girls as quick as you are in this new batch.
Of course, I won’t force you to do anything you
don’t want to. I just think it’s a shame. You’re
giving up ten dollars an hour. You know, office
work pays just a hundred dollars a month.
MAY I know.
LIEN (Sighs) It’s hard cultivating new talent. Of course,
it’s partly the fault of some bad apples in our
industry. Their dubious dealings have made
things more difficult for the rest of us. Fine then. I
won’t insist. But I hope you’ll continue the basic
tour guide training with the rest of the girls. You’ll
be prepared should you change your mind in the
future. That’s fine, too. You can go now.
MAY Thank you. Mr. Lien. (Goes for her class)
LIM walks in.
LIEN How’s work proceeding at the site?
LIM You need to jump on them every day.
LIEN Can we make it for the opening of the tourism
LIM Probably. Hey, I heard Chin Mei entertained a
client without informing the company yesterday.
Andrew just told me. He saw it with his own eyes.
LIEN Oh? Was it with that Wong fellow?
HAN I don’t think so. Mr. Wong called just now to
book Chin Mei and another three girls to go to
Dragon Palace tonight.
LIM Then who could it be?
LIEN Miss Han, go check the files. Take down who
she’s been with.
Miss HAN leaves.
LIM Our approach to monitoring is still too weak. It’s
too easy to go behind our backs. See if there’s any
way other than tailing every single one.
LIEN These double-dealers think they can profit at our
expense once they’ve learned the ropes.
Unfortunately, we’re at a time when our veterans
have turned yellow but the new girls are still too
green. We’ll have to be careful not to promote
these new girls too quickly.
LIM How is that Miss Lu doing?
LIEN She certainly has qualities. Very quick and good
poise. But she’s still too wary. Refuses to go into
LIM She’s adamant?
LIEN Very much so.
LIM She can’t be induced?
LIEN Probably not at this time.
LIM (Picks up and flips through the customer
registration book. Thinks hard) Try my way.
LIEN And what’s that?
LIM Give her an official assignment.
LIEN (Thinks) Ah. We can give it a try.
LIM But a gentler approach, all right? So that even
if she refuses, she won’t be scared away.
LIEN OK. (Picks up the phone) Get Miss Lu in here.
The two men wait calmly as MAY enters.
MAY Mr. Lim, Mr. Lien. Are you looking for me?
LIEN Yes, sit down. There’s something I’d like to
discuss. Miss Lu, you’ve been here more than a
week. You should know how we do things here.
We don’t force anyone to do what they don’t want
to. But there’s a matter now that we hope you will
give due consideration to. The company has seen
a sharp rise in its business recently and we’ve had
a deluge of clients, more than what we can
handle. There’ve been occasions when we’ve had
to turn some away. We received a call just now.
There’s a party that requires girls who can speak
multiple dialects fluently. We’ve assigned
everyone at our main and branch offices. We only
have our new recruits left. We respect your
decision but it’s really hard to find anyone from
this batch that’s as good as you. We’d like to
solemnly request you to consider helping the
company just this once. We’ll even waive our
commission, which will go to you, as a gesture of
appreciation for your help. As for your mother,
it’s just this once. It doesn’t matter whether you
tell her or not. Can you help the company in this
time of difficulty, Miss Lu? (Pause) I can send you
there and pick you up when you’re done.
MAY (Struggles with conflicting emotions. Finally nods)
LIM Miss Lu, the company is indebted to you.
LIEN Thank you. You can pick out a set of clothing
from the women’s section on the third floor and
charge that to the company. I’ll come and pick you
up at 7 p.m. sharp. We’re going to the West
MAY There’s no need. I’ll come to the office.
LIEN That’s even better. I’ll wait for you here.
MAY goes out. HAN walks in with some files.
HAN Are you referring to these records, Mr. Lien, Mr. Lim?
LIEN (Taking the files) This can wait. Assign Miss Lu
and three of the new girls to the reception at West
Ocean Club tonight. Send the original four girls
HAN goes to make a call.
LIEN walks over and shakes LIM’s hand.
LIM It gets easier once one begins.
Lights dim, curtain falls.
© Kuo Pao Kung. By arrangement with the estate of the author. Translation © 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.