Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

Banking and the theatre may seem like uneasy bedfellows, but Benjamin Yeoh - who is a London-based investment analyst for Dresdner Kleinwort Bank and one of the first British Chinese playwrights to be appreciated in Britain - finds both disciplines come equally naturally to him.

'Investment analysis can be a creative process,' he says. 'Both writing and financial analysis generally happen in relative isolation with a lot of lateral thinking and they do not interfere with one another. If pushed, I would call myself a playwright first. But, while labels and boxes can be useful shorthand, they can also be misleading. It's a mistake to try and fit anyone into a box.'

Yeoh believes this is also the case when it comes to assessing and judging individuals on the basis of their cultural heritage. 'I am proud of my heritage. I was born to a Malaysian Chinese father and a Singaporean Chinese mother in London and I was educated in London, Cambridge and Harvard, with frequent visits to Southeast Asia. So I think of myself as British, Chinese and international.'

Yeoh, 30, won a scholarship to London's prestigious Westminster School then studied natural sciences at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He went on to study dramaturgy and playwriting at Harvard University.

He says: 'I was always involved in theatre at Cambridge, mainly as a director, so it was not a big step to studying it at Harvard. I also continued to study some science at Harvard. There was no epiphany as such, but I do remember thinking that I had always written creatively and I had enjoyed directing theatre, so why not write for theatre?'

Yeoh attended London's Soho Theatre Young Writers' Programme and has been involved with the Royal Court Writers and BBC Radio, as well as groups such as Moti Roti, Talawa and Yellow Ink.

Time Out magazine described his third play, Yellow Gentlemen, as having a 'vertiginous sense of possibility and regret present in the intelligent script'.

The Guardian was effusive about his most recent play, Nakamitsu - an adaptation of a Japanese Noh play, calling it 'small but exquisitely formed'.

Says Yeoh: 'As a writer I like to challenge myself and write what I feel passionate about, in a form I believe will help the characters, story and theatre. If that ends up being high-risk in others' view, then so be it.'

Some critics have suggested his plays require a giant leap of imagination, dealing with contrasting cultures, but Yeoh disagrees. 'There's always a demand for good stories and plays that both reflect our experience but also take us outside of our everyday lives. Many of the most popular plays are both universal in themes but specific in story.'

He is also related to actress Michelle Yeoh. 'We are distant cousins. We've never worked together. Yet. But never say never.'