Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the October 2016 issue

Hey, Wake Up!

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
                            elders’ labor?
                            Is it because the young today are born
                            without innocence?
                            Or is it because their minds have been
                            poisoned by some external influence? 

Curtain rises.

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?

LIEN                    No.

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.

TAN leaves.

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.

MAY enters.

HAN                    Miss Lu Siow May?

MAY                    Yes. (Walks over to HAN)

HAN                    You’re eighteen?

MAY                    Eighteen.

HAN                    Unmarried?

MAY                    Unmarried.

HAN                    A Singapore citizen?

MAY                    Singapore citizen.

HAN                    Your ancestral home?

MAY                    Canton.

HAN                    Besides Mandarin, what dialects do you speak?

MAY                    Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese . . .

HAN                    English?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Just enough to understand or can you converse?

MAY                    I can probably handle basic conversation.

HAN                    Malay?

MAY                    Just a bit. I’ve never had formal lessons.

HAN                    Do you have a driver’s license?

MAY                    No.

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
                            our organization.

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
                            lifestyle experience.”

MAY                    (Bewildered)

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.

MAY leaves.

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
                            They say
                            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.

Curtain rises.

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
                            the future.

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                    (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.

LIEN appears.

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
                            the field.

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 
                            Ocean Club.

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
                            somewhere else.

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.

Read more from the October 2016 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.