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Letters Home: Singaporean artist Joe Lui talks abandoning military service, self-discovery and what ‘home’ really means

Amber Ziye Wang

Wed Jun 24 2015


SINGAPOREAN artist Joe Lui’s upcoming show Letters Home addresses his decision to abandon his home country through personal letters written to his parents. Amber Ziye Wang caught up with the artist to talk about his new performance,  journey of self-discovery and the artist’s understanding of what ‘home’ truly means to him. 


Joe Lui will be performing his new show, Letters Home, at Theatre Works from July 1 – July 12. Image supplied.

The story behind artist Joe Lui‘s latest one man show, Letters Home, stretches back ten years ago. The autobiographical show was inspired by the director, writer and designer’s journey of self discovery and finding a place he could call his home.

It’s a deeply personal and honest story about confronting one’s past to forge the future, as the Singaporean-born artist boldly defied the state law of his home country to avoid the compulsory military service required of all Singaporean males. Now, he’s seen as a criminal by his parents and his home country. He can never return home.

“I moved to Australia at 17 to study at university over here,” said Lui, now 29.

“The deal was that I could start earlier so I could finish the course and go back to do the military service, but then I decided it was really not my thing,” he said.

Lui says the political climate in Singapore and its treatment of artists never made him comfortable.

“Meanwhile the friends I grew up with who did the service ended up very different people,” he said.

Lui’s decision later led to a decade’s worth of estrangement and separation from his family. It was also during this time where Joe struggled between embracing his free self and battling the repercussions of his past.


Instead of going through mandatory military service, artist Joe Lui opted against it, marking him a criminal in the eyes of Singapore and his parents. Image supplied.

This exile lead to Lui writing down his thoughts and feelings in letters addressed to his parents. However instead of sending them home, Lui decided to share these personal notes with a large audience. Part spoken-word, part reading and part live memoir, the artist incorporates live music and clips from his time as a child actor while recounting the letters on stage.

“The main thing that triggered me to write the show is the realisation last year that a lot of me is still part of and a consequence of how I was brought up, and what my home was,” the artist reflects.

“The idea of how much we are truly us and how much we decide who we are is determined by circumstances of our childhood and social context. I think it’s an interesting question for everyone.”

Lui’s journey of self-discovery started once he settled in Australia where his perceptions of home, and more importantly what home means to him, were changed.

“I’ve always felt that I’m an artist [and] that there’s nothing else I could do,” he said. “In Australia I felt I [had] the opportunity I never had in Singapore.”

“Also, I felt much more comfortable [with the] people around me – my circle of friends. [Meanwhile] the political climate here was more relaxed and liberal,” he said.

“As an artist I had a taste of the life I wanted to lead.”


“The idea of how much we are truly us and how much we decide who we are is determined by circumstances of our childhood and social context. I think it’s an interesting question for everyone,” says Joe Lui. Image supplied.

But the push and pull between past and present continues to loom large many years after his self-defining decision.

“I still feel I would like the support of my family, even though I can never return home and will be immediately arrested if I do,” Lui said.

Lui hasn’t talked to his dad for more than ten years but does speak with his mum once every year or two. He says his parents, currently living in Singapore, still find it hard to reconcile as law-abiding citizens with traditional Chinese values.

“I don’t think they would understand a lot of what I wrote,” Lui said, which also explains why he never sent out all those letters.

But when asked if he expects them to understand him better through the show, Lui said, “I hope so.”

Letters Home will be hosted at Theatre Works from July 1 to July 12 and is part of a double bill with fellow Singaporean artist Jamie Lewis and her performance, Saltwater.

Full priced tickets to the double bill will cost $50 while concession tickets will cost $40. Tickets just for Joe Lui’s performance of Letters Home will cost $30 and $25 for full price and concession respectively. 

For more information about Lui’s performance as well as other upcoming shows at Theatre Works, head over to the venue’s official website to learn more.