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Radio plays are an old and largely forgotten form of entertainment.

Before television, CD and DVD players, Netflix and YouTube, people used to tune in to radio plays as a form of entertainment.

Unlike radio programmes these days, which tend to be music shows with deejays or news talkshows, these plays were 15 to 30-minute audio dramatisations, sometimes even going up to an hour.

Back in the 60s and 70s, those radio plays were the main form of entertainment other than going to a cinema, since not all households had a television.

It was a different time back then. Singapore had just gained its independence, HDB blocks were only just springing up and families were being resettled from their kampongs.

Playwright with heart

Glowers Drama Group Singapore
Peggy Ferroa (second from left) with Glowers Drama Group founder Catherine Sng (left). Image source: Peggy Ferroa

It is precisely this period that writer-producer Peggy Ferroa was looking to recapture when she came up with her radio play, Chap Lau, which is a sequel to her previous play, Kampong Chempedak. Chap Lau, or “10 Storeys” in Hokkien, is set in the 1960s, and revolves around the lives of some newly resettled residents in a HDB block and how they adjust to living in a modern city.

Peggy tells The Pride: “I wanted to use ‘chap lau’ because it’s so generic. It can refer to anywhere. When i say chap lau, it could be in Circuit Road, Tanglin Halt or even in town, so it’s a conversation starter already.”

The veteran drama educator captures this era perfectly with a sense of humor and charm. For example, in episode 1, which starts off in a coffee shop, you can simply close your eyes and let the sounds of the story take you back to the 60s.

All the stories from Chap Lau and Kampong Chempedak came from the people from the Glowers Drama Group.

The group was formed in 2008 with the aim of engaging seniors, especially retirees, through drama. It provides a platform for seniors to stay mentally and physically alert and active, showcase their acting talent and expand their social network. To date, they have created performances in English, Mandarin and Chinese dialects.

They have also engaged elderly residents in the heartlands and represented Singapore at overseas arts festivals in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

In fact, Peggy says that she took pains to include certain details that would resonate with those who grew up then. “One of the cast members reminisced about how it was so difficult to hang laundry outside HDB flats because she was short, so I included that detail in the play!”

She adds with a laugh: “Actually, her exact lines were ‘who’s the stupid fellow who designed this?!’”

Even though the actors from Glowers had experience on stage and in front of a camera, radio plays were both new yet nostalgic to them.

“Most of them have never been to a recording studio before,” says Peggy.

Seniors with talent

Sylvia Liew recording at ITE College Central.
Sylvia Liew (right) recording at ITE College Central. Image source: Peggy Ferroa

Sylvia Liew, 73, a Glowers member for 10 years, plays the narrator for Chap Lau.

She tells The Pride: “The role was challenging as you’re not just reading the play, you’ve got to enthuse, excite and generate interest for the listeners to want to tune in to see what’s happening in the next episode, and the next!”

Radio plays are a good way to draw her fellow seniors, out of a sense of nostalgia. It also creates talking points between generations, allowing them to share personal stories and life lessons.

Her daughter is now one of her fans, laughs Sylvia.

“It helps (the seniors) remember the good old days. Even for younger listeners like my daughter, she asks me ‘oh mum, did that happen?’ and i would say ‘oh yes, it did!’”

A retired English literature teacher, Silvia used to get her students excited about Shakespeare by localising the content.

“I got them to think of the Lims and the Tans having a feud in Singapore. And they wrote and performed their own plays — that was how they learned to love literature. Similarly, I think that if we could get seniors engaged in local issues or express how they feel, it would help them in their mental wellbeing”.

Sylvia shares that she believes being part of Glowers helps seniors stimulate their minds and entice them to get out of their shell to participate in invigorating activities. It’s a great way for them to discover potentially hidden talents for the arts!

“I have never taken on the role of narrator. I have never been in a recording studio so this was a first time experience and a really wonderful one”.

Active Aging - Studio Recording at ITE CC
Tony Quek(second from left), and Beatrice Cheng (third from right) recording their lines at ITE College Central. Image source: Peggy Feorra

Another actor is Tony Quek, a retired ITE teacher who plays Cikgu (“teacher” in Malay) and Ah Cai.

Explains Peggy: “Tony actually started out as a professional actor. But because of a fall, he is now wheelchair bound. So I told him that I was going to bring him back on stage. And got him to act in Chap Lau. He said that was my gift to him!”

Peggy also talks about a bittersweet moment with one of her actors.

“Beatrice Cheng (who plays Rita), had cancer but didn’t tell us about it. She finished the production and passed away peacefully.”

Says Peggy: “This is very important for me to know how my actors are. How did they live life? Was (Beatrice) happy at the end of the day? She was.

“In the last month of her life, she spent it with the people she loved, who valued her and gave a lovely performance that she had a lot of fun doing. Now, people are saying, ‘oh I couldn’t not tell (that she was ill)’. I tell you, she (Beatrice) would be laughing up there!”

She explains that that is what is important — giving seniors something to be proud of, a sense of accomplishment doing something that they love, and leaving a piece of themselves behind for their families.

“That’s what we want to leave. a sense of dignity for the elderly, a sense of something that they can do. At this point in your life, you want to be doing something meaningful rather than waiting for death to knock at your door. It’s keeping a part of your soul alive, to inspire others.

Glowing for seniors

Glowers Drama Group Promote Active Aging
Image source: Glowers Drama Group

As we continue to transit into a post pandemic era, it has become more of a challenge for our seniors to remain socially engaged.

Many are stuck at home, left to themselves and can’t go online or to use a smartphone or computer confidently. Social contact has become limited and its takes a toll on their emotional and social well-being.

That’s why the efforts of senior-centric organisations like Glowers are so crucial in these times.

Peggy says: “One area that Glowers focus on is Kampong Glam, which has many elderly people living alone in one-room flats, they don’t want to go out”.

Before the pandemic, Glowers had reading clubs, singing sessions and drum circles to engage the elderly. But since the pandemic started, it has taken its activities online.

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“There are drama workshops once a week for anyone who is interested. There’s a wonderful mix of English and non-English speakers.”
In fact, say Peggy, Chap Lau was meant to be a stage play but due to pandemic restrictions, it was converted to a radio play instead. And it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“A stage play, unless recorded, has no legacy. I’m excited for having this radio play on the internet as I can get it out to more communities. We are already planning version 2!”

For those who listen in, radio plays give them a chance to remember forgotten stories and reminisce about the past with loved ones and family members.

Says Peggy: ‘That’s what I want. To have people look at (their seniors) with new eyes. For young people to start conversations. In a family, you often talk about the same old mundane things. This is a chance for our seniors to say ‘this is my history, would you like to know it?’, or for my actors to tell their families, ‘I have done this special thing, would you like to hear it?’”

“That way, we spark a new conversation.”

The radio play, which was funded by Oscar@SG and the National Arts Council, can be found online in both English and Mandarin with its prequel Kampong Chempedak on the Glowers Drama Group YouTube channel. It is also on the National Arts Council YouTube channel.

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Top Image: Glowers Drama Group with owner, Catherine Sng (front centre) PHOTO: Peggy Ferroa