Director and playwright Chin San Sooi returns with an opera on Malaysian nurse and freedom fighter Sybil Kathigasu

'Solace of Papan' is inspired by the WWII stories shared in Sybil's memoir, 'No Dram of Mercy'.

Solace of Papan marks firsts for (from left) Lam, Chin and Woo, who bring different talents to the production (Photo: Sam Fong/ The Edge Malaysia)

"If faith can move mountains, it must move music lah, whatever it takes.” Such is the conviction of director and playwright Chin San Sooi, who wrote an opera and handed it to Lam Siu Chong to compose the score. The latter brought in players he has taught and directed over the years, among them conductor Woo Pui Lai. Thus, Solace of Papan is set to open in Selangor in July.

It is no coincidence that faith is at the heart of this work inspired by the WWII story of Sybil Kathigasu. The nurse-cum-midwife, together with her husband Dr Abdon Clement Kathigasu, helped wounded members of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army at their dispensary in Papan, a small town south of Ipoh.

In 1943, betrayed, arrested and imprisoned, Sybil was tortured by the Kempeitai, the Japanese army’s military police, out to extract information on the guerillas she helped. They ran needles into her fingertips below the nail, applied heated iron bars to her legs and back, and subjected her to the infamous water treatment: gallons of water were forced down her throat, after which they stamped on her stomach, resulting in water and blood pouring out of her orifices.

But Sybil’s lips were sealed. When the war ended in 1945, she was flown to London for medical treatment and two years later, awarded the George Medal for bravery by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

Sadly, in June 1948, she succumbed to septicemia in her jaw and was buried in Scotland. The following year, her body was brought home and she now rests at the Roman Catholic cemetery in St Michael’s Church in Ipoh.

Chin, 83, first encountered Sybil through her memoir, No Dram of Mercy, in 1957 at the Anglo-Chinese School Ipoh library. Even as he was struck by her resilience and trust in God, he noted that Sergeant Eiko Yoshimura, head of the Ipoh Kempeitai, “recognised he could not break her. He was angry but also frustrated mainly because she was so strong in her faith”.

Over the years and many rereadings, he thought of writing a play based on the book but felt although it had the characters, the psychological conflict needed to make it exciting was missing as Sybil focused primarily on herself.


Chin’s first opera in English is inspired by Sybil’s memoir, 'No Dram of Mercy'

Then Covid-19 struck and among the deluge of works he wrote in isolation was Solace of Papan, shaping it as an opera as he mused on her life. “I thought if someone could compose the music to bring out the emotional parts, it would jadi (work out).”

He kept close to the theme of her story but underlying the tale of an ordinary woman who was loyal and unflinching in the face of a horrific end is that of her interrogator Yoshimura, who was condemned by many and sentenced to death for war crimes. Chin injects a positive element in this character, plucked from his “acceptance” that Sybil’s strength lay in her faith, and “there must be some beauty in life”.

With opera in hand, Chin’s next move was a leap of faith. Someone introduced him to Lam, founding principal of L & J Conservatory of Music and founder in 1983 of the PJ Youth Chamber Orchestra (renamed the Petaling Jaya Philharmonic Orchestra, or PJPO, in 2010). Without giving any instructions on what to do or how, he just passed Lam the script and “trusted his creativity”.

Lam, 74, had never explored an opera before because of the difficulty of mixing the speaking parts and music. Noting that it is common practice to start from scratch with one, he set out to make it happen, within seven months.

Keeping in mind the myriad emotions that would have assailed Sybil helped him come up with the score for this dark and violent story and determine the instruments for the 60 odd musicians, most of whom he has worked with or taught. There will be tense percussion music to remind viewers of military rule, and loud snatches when she is tortured. In between are softer pieces that depict the war atmosphere.

LED projections on a screen will create the backdrop, with scenes of planes and bombing making the circumstances more realistic. Different ethnic communities will represent townsfolk lamenting how their country has been affected by the conflict.


The Petaling Jaya Philharmonic Orchestra with composer Lam (front left) and conductor Woo

Solace of Papan is the first opera Woo is conducting. She is not daunted by the challenge of bringing Lam’s music to life so people can get to know Sybil, who was exemplary in her loyalty to the country.

“The opera is quite interesting and a local product too. He was my teacher and brought me up in the orchestra,” says the percussionist who learnt the piano under Lam more than two decades ago.

Coordinating musicians and actors is no mean task because once the music starts, there is no break for 1½ hours. And it is the conductor’s role to guide anyone “lost” along the way to get back into the rhythm again. What does Woo get most from Sybil’s story? “I see a woman who, although tortured, did not give in. She saved many people.”

Chin adds: “With the ongoing conflicts worldwide,  the opera’s anti-war message and themes of resilience and courage are more relevant than ever. With mezzo-soprano Chiang YiLing and the PJPO,  audiences can expect a showcase of talent and artistry.”

Rehearsals are in full swing and already he is thinking of another show. Chin has completed a second opera, Not Not Land, based on Puteri Gunung Ledang but with a modern plot that brings in plastic pollution. “People are going to the mountains to hike and camp and they throw things all over the place.”

He hopes writers and composers will come forward to do more more because “we have so many lovely legends, both living and dead”.

SEGi University is offering its hall for Solace of Papan. That takes care of the venue but there are still many things that require funding. Typical of thespians who act first and worry about money later, Chin is appealing for support for the project.

“You have to be foolhardy to do things. If you’re not, you cannot get things done. I’ve been foolhardy all my life,” he says. The umpteen plays and musicals he has written, directed and produced since 1964 speak of a diehard veteran with the same indomitable spirit as his latest protagonist.


'Solace of Papan' will be staged on July 20 and 21 at SEGi University Hall, 9 Jalan Teknologi, Taman Sains Selangor, Kota Damansara, PJU 5, Petaling Jaya. Buy tickets here.

This article first appeared on May 6, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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