A FEW YEARS AGO, when everyone was excited about the formal launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), The Nation ran a box on its front page that gave the traditional greeting phrases used in different Asean countries. For Singapore, it said “Nihao”, but when I forwarded the article to my Singaporean friend, who’s fluent in Mandarin, she wasn’t happy about it. In recent years of attending the Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay’s annual “Huayi: Chinese Festivals of Arts”, I’ve realised that, despite the vastness and diversity of the Chinese diaspora, the programming of performing arts in Singapore and Hong Kong has given me the most opportunities to learn about it. And meanwhile, thanks to these theatre performances with English surtitles, my Mandarin remains limited to basic greeting phrases and food names.
Performers from Singapore, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong migrated in various paths. Photo/Jeannie Ho
The Theatre Practice (TTP) is the oldest professional bilingual (Engish and Mandarin) theatre company in the island state – indeed, it’s as old as the independence of this country where the majority of the population is of Chinese descent. Every year, they also organise the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, where audiences can watch works from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, most with English surtitles.
The Esplanade commissioned TTP to create a new work for this year’s Huayi – its largest production to date staged at the 2,000-seat Esplanade Theatre, which was more than half filled on the Saturday evening. I cannot recall ever watching local plays on this stage before, though I have seen plenty of musicals there.
“I came at last to the seas” was originally written by playwright Wu Xi from the structure suggested by director Kuo Jian Hong who later developed it with members of her multi-national cast.
Based on the Buddhist philosophy’s six roots of sensations which refer to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, the play traces the different migration paths of the six main characters and reflects the complexity of the Chinese diaspora. They are: A Fu, a blind traveller; Gong Ye BB, an IT service-man; Curious Nose, a wanderer suffering from a mid-life crisis; Le “Petit” Prince, a middle-aged wanderer; Miss Dong, an expert; E-Jun, a music conductor and Mdm K, an entrepreneur.
Most of the stories are compelling and the fact that the play was staged in such a large theatre meant that Kuo, who is also a filmmaker, needed to fill it with projections of images onto the set. For this, credit must go to designers Genevieve Peck and Ric Liu, who deftly made sure they didn’t upstage the characters and their stories. But maybe because I was among the minority in the audience who had to completely rely on the surtitles, the play as a whole felt overwrought and much more for the head than the heart. This overwroughtness also reminded me of a few other Singaporean plays I have watched in the past decade.
Kuo wrote, though, in her director’s note: “I am not an intellectual. I am not trying to tell you something. I just want to tell a story and I want to tell it well, with a bit of humour.”
I wished there had been more than a bit of humour, although her deftness in using her ensemble actors in different parts of the play and the way in which she unified all elements of the production were highly commendable.
And in this day and age, it’s nice to be reminded before we seriously discuss migration issues that migration has always existed. And that’s why one doesn’t need to go to Singapore’s Chinatown, or indeed Bangkok’s, to find the most delectable Peking duck.
The writer wishes to thank Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay’s See Ling Ling for all kind assistance.
COMING UP NEXT
The Theatre Practice’s next work, by the same director, is “Four Horse Road”, inspired by actual events on Waterloo Street, where the company is located, and exploring the themes of identity and the sense of belonging. It tuns from April 2 to 28. Visit www.Practice.org.sg.
At the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, theatregoers are booking tickets to watch the National Theatre UK’s multi-award-winning production of an internationally renowned novel of the same title “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. It runs from Thursday to April 8. Visit www.Esplanade.com or book online at www.Sistic.com.