Mother-daughter actresses Tan Kheng Hua, Lim Shi-An reminisce 1990s local theatre in SIFA play

A nostalgic glimpse into a bygone era.

Amanda Tan

Published: 19 May 2023, 11:31 AM

When reminiscing about the 1990s, some Singaporeans recall fond memories of chatting with friends over MSN Messenger. To others, it was the iconic era of Tamagotchis and brick-like cellphones.

For 60-year-old actress Tan Kheng Hua, it was the golden years of the local theatre scene.

“I call those years, the glorious years,” shares the veteran actress, most known for her roles in Phua Chu Kang and Crazy Rich Asians.

The 1990s also marked the birth of her beloved daughter Lim Shi-An, now 25.

Two decades later, she’s reliving the magic of the 1990s, this time alongside Shi-An who is following in her footsteps of becoming an accomplished actress.

As part of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), the mother-daughter duo will stage a theatrical performance, part of The Vault: Past Perfect. It’s a collection of works that draw from practitioners’ memories of theatre in the 1990s, conceptualised by non-profit arts organisation Centre 42’s co-founder Robin Loon and Executive Director Casey Lim.

The Vault: Past Perfect sits under the SIFA X: there is no future in nostalgia programme titled after local poet Arthur Yap’s poem about the fatigue of urban renewal.

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Shi-An shares that the project served as a good opportunity for mother and daughter to bond as Kheng Hua is largely based overseas. PHOTO CREDIT: KENDELL DICKSON


Kheng Hua and Shi-An’s act is a 15-minute segment exploring how Kheng Hua discovered theatre and how it impacted her life and decision-making at the time.

The dramatised reflection, which will be done via video format, has been scripted as a conversation between mother and daughter. It will be accompanied by some excerpts from key, original English Language Singaporean plays from that time.

While Shi-An didn’t exactly live through those years, the National University of Singapore undergraduate shares that it’s a subject matter that greatly interests her. Robin is her professor, and she once took a class under him that was specifically about Singapore English Language Theatre in the 1990s.

“I think a lot of Singaporeans might think of theatre as something that originates from the West…but we have so many interesting original Singapore theatre plays that have developed as a result of that time in the 1990s.

“I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but I just want people to hear it because it’s so amazing that this tiny country can develop like an art form on its own,” remarks Shi-An.


Robin (second from left) has been an active participant of the Singapore English Language Theatre scene since 1991. PHOTO CREDIT: CENTRE 42


Kheng Hua also affirms that Shi-An was “very well chosen” to be a part of The Vault: Past Perfect

Having Shi-An on the team brought about fresh perspectives and a great dynamic, says Kheng Hua. 

“One of the joys of (belonging to) a family where everybody loves the same thing is the conversations we can have about that particular interest.

“But how a 60-year-old looks at it and then how a 25-year-old looks at it is completely different.”

Moreover, Shi-An is academically trained in the art form, unlike Kheng Hua who operates purely on emotion and instinct.  

“It’s very, very nice to learn from somebody in the room like Shi-An who can frame things with more than just her heart,” Kheng Hua adds.


Kheng Hua shares how the bulk of her developmental years as a young adult was closely intertwined with her experiences in the 1990s. PHOTO CREDIT: SHAVONNE


As for Shi-An, collaborating with her mother on The Vault: Past Perfect proved to be a good opportunity to spend time together given how often Kheng Hua is out of town.

Additionally, her great investment in this project stems from her love for her mother and her hopes for others to discover the “lesser known part of her career”, as opposed to just her screen works.

This performance also holds a deeper purpose for Kheng Hua: to encourage young writers and actors like her daughter to believe that with passion and devotion, embarking on an artistic journey is possible.

“Because we all went through it…we created a whole industry out of nothing and it was because of everything we went through in the 1990s.”

The Vault: Past Perfect will be staged at Black Box @ 42 Waterloo Street, 42 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187951. Showtimes include May 20 at 8pm and May 21 at 3pm. Tickets are priced at $25 each.

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