A Hypothetical Anthology

This semester, I took a module on Singapore English-Language Theatre. It made me realise how rich our local theatre history is and how one generation of playwrights builds on the previous generation. As part of our course assessment, we are required to put together a hypothetical anthology and write a critical introduction to said anthology. The following is an excerpt from the introduction which offers a brief analysis of all the plays to be included in the anthology based on the theme of invisibility.

If you are interested in reading the plays, click on the links to either purchase or borrow (when they are not freely available) the collections which feature the particular play.

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This collection starts with Elangovan’s Talaq. It is arguably the most controversial play of the collection as it was perceived to be against Islamic principles which offended the Indian Muslim community (Hamilton 1999). This resulted in the English version being banned in 2000. Talaq explores the plight of Muslim brides from India being married off to Indian Muslim husbands in Singapore. They are often ill-treated and Islamic precepts are intentionally misinterpreted as a justification for their subjugation. The use of monodrama thus empowers the wives as we only hear their perspective and anguish which is normally silenced in the public sphere. Having the wife voicing the comments made by her husband and her community gives one a vivid impression of how she is personally affected by it. Cyril Wong (2014) also notes that it evokes a sense of schizophrenia and that “[i]n a world gone insane, patriarchy is the unscalable wall that the victimised woman in the monologue rams and rails against, and predictably to no avail.” In a society that is so afraid to discuss anything pertaining to religion, Talaq boldly breaks the silence and insists we take a look at what is happening to Indian Muslim women.

Apart from its historical importance of it being used as incriminating evidence against members of Third Stage, Esperanza by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng, presents the struggle of maids trying to earn a living in Singapore (Li 2012). It is unfortunate that, despite a rise in advocacy of their rights, some of the scenes in the play still ring true almost 30 years on. The employment of naturalism allows the playwrights to present situations that mirror the treatment of maids in some households.  This affords easy identification with the plight of the maids which is evident from the sympathetic and positive press reviews of the performance (Speeden and Sampang 1986). Yet, Esperanza is controversial in other ways. It raises the question of why there was a clamp down on this rather tame play with modest ambitions and whether the maid character is truly pitiable considering that she did certain things out of revenge. While there are no easy answers, this play should not be dismissed simply because it was mired in some political controversy.

Russell Heng’s Lest The Demons Get to Me is one of the few plays that depicts the experience of a transsexual in the face of societal pressures and expectations. While it is also a monodrama, Heng adds an additional layer by including the voices of other characters but they are only heard off-stage. This gives a sense of the public intruding on the private—familial and societal demands encroaching on the privacy of Kim Choon (KC) as she has to decide whether to capitulate and conduct her father’s funeral rites as the only son, or to secretly pay her respects as the disgraced son-turned-daughter. To make matters worse, the impending closure of Bugis Street also threatens the collective memory of her and other transsexuals. Should she hold on to the identity that she identifies with or should she conform to that which society puts on her? Unlike other plays which present issues about transsexuals within a socio-political framework as camp is used to subvert societal norms, Heng’s poignant piece is firmly grounded in a personal struggle. The title is most fitting for as a child, KC wears an earring to ward off traditional supernatural demons. But as an adult, she must decide if she wants to don her earrings to reclaim her identity and fend against demons of tradition.

While the prevalence of dementia is generally known, it is rarely talked about. Haresh Sharma’s Don’t Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association of Singapore. Such a collaboration shows that organisations can tap into the potential of theatre to inform without resorting to a skit filled with clichés and awkward writing. This lyrical piece juxtaposes the reality of the dementia patient to that of the caregiver and it depicts the struggles that both face. Getting the mother and daughter to converse in different languages not only marks the generation gap but it also emphasises the difference between the two realities as both try to reach out to the other. Kenneth, the day care centre manager, delivers the medical information but without sounding as if he is reciting a medical brochure. The ability to write such a heartfelt piece while including the need of educating the audience about taking care of dementia patients is a strong testament to Sharma’s skill as a playwright. It is unfortunate that this play had a short run before touring to selected communities for it deserves more attention not only for the message, but for the writing as well.

In terms of technique, Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings can be said to be the most complicated of this collection. Similar to Asian Boys Vol. 1, this play has a strong inter-textual element in which Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris (1992) lies at the heart of the play. The play revolves around Joe who sets out to write a novel called Peculiar Chris. In the process of crafting his novel, his Muse and the characters in the story will question his authorial choices and the audience gets to see the storyline of the novel being enacted. Based on this simple premise which is enhanced by meta-theatrical (the actor playing Joe will play Chris) and meta-narrative (the Muse and characters asking him whether the plot should be that way) devices, Alfian Sa’at presents us with a typology of gay men and some of them will be based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in a hetero-normative society. We are thus compelled to examine our own perceptions, especially if we are heterosexual, of the gay community. This is emphasised further by the characters discriminating among themselves or arguing over whether they should agitate for change or be content with the limited freedoms that they have. Whatever opinion one holds, Happy Endings makes you recognise that the gay community is not homogeneous and perhaps convince you to get to know the individuals better.

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All the plays in this anthology have received previous publication. The details are as follows:

Elangovan. “Talaq.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 13-53. Print.

Heng, Russell. “Lest The Demons Get To Me.” Fat Virgins, Fast Cars and Asian Values. Singapore: Times International, 1993. 28-53. Print.

Sa’at, Alfian. “Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings.” Collected Plays Two: The Asian Boys Trilogy. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 191-272. Print

Sharma, Haresh. “Don’t Forget To Remember Me.” Don’t Forget To Remember Me. Singapore: Necessary Stage, 2013. 124-146. Print

Wong, Souk Yee, and Tay, Hong Seng. “Esperenza.” 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of  Five Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chuan. Third Stage, 2004. 100-129. Print.

 

Works Cited

Hamilton, Andrea. “The Rights of Marriage: A One-woman Play Has Caused a Stir in       Singapore’s Little India.” Asia Week. Cable News Network, 26 Mar. 1999. Web. 12    Apr. 2015. <http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0326/feat3.html&gt;.

Lee, Johann S. Peculiar Chris. Singapore: Cannon International, 1992. Print.

Li, Lisa. “Third Stage: Theatre Company or “Marxist Network”?” Remembering 1987. 26 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015 <https://remembering1987.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/third-stage-theatre-company-or-marxist-network/&gt;

Speeden, Muriel, and Crisanta Sampang. “Play May Help Bridge A Yawning Chasm.” The Straits Times 7 June 1986. 34. Print.

Wong, Cyril. “Preface.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 5-9. Print.

[Book Review] Beyond The Village Gate by Tan Mei Ching

Beyond The Village Gate

Mei Ching Tan

Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.

SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.

When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.

The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.

The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.

Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.

One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.

They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.

Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.

As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.

I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.

Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child.  I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.

That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.