[Interview] Victoria Chen struggles with identity in upcoming audio drama, Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis

What should a Chinese woman achieve before she reaches 30? While the answers may vary, one thing is for sure; the list of expectations is long, and so is the number of people willing to contribute to that list.

Victoria Chen has always struggled with familial and societal expectations of what a Chinese woman in Singapore ought to be. When she moved to the UK for university, she was eager to live her life away from those expectations, but soon realised that being Chinese meant something different there.

Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis, a five-episode audio drama, is Chen’s way of exploring the themes through the character of Jade, who goes to Beijing in the hopes trying to discover herself.

I contacted Victoria Chen to find out more about this project.

What inspired you to create this audio drama?

Growing up in Singapore, I already knew I couldn’t live up to familial and societal expectations of what a Chinese woman in Singapore had to be.

As I lived through my 20s, I grew to realise that these expectations were arbitrary anyway. Many friends and counterparts don’t feel like they can or want to live up to these expectations. And I learnt that the generation before us—mothers, aunts, and mentors—never really agreed to these expectations that they’re also complicit in perpetuating. So why do these expectations still exist? Because of our heritage? Because tradition says so? This project sets me on a journey to find out.

Why did you decide to use the medium of audio drama to tell this particular story?

The beauty of audio works is that they leave much to the imagination. While Jade’s story is specific, I want the audience to draw from their personal experiences to form the images in their heads. Furthermore, I want this work to reach people around the world, and an audio experience felt like the most accessible way to do it. 

Speaking of access, I recognise that those with hearing difficulties will not be able to experience this work the way I intentionally designed it. If we manage to exceed our funding goal, I can acquire resources to make a transcript of the work accessible at a later date.

What were some of the difficulties in writing the script of this audio drama?

It was difficult to be patient as the story needed the time and space to grow into its current shape. The idea for this story originated in 2015 during an arts residency in Beijing. Back then, I had collected a ton of research, but the first draft was a terrible word vomit. It was incredibly discouraging. 

Seven drafts and seven years later, it’s a wholly different story and I’d like to think it’s gotten a lot richer as I’ve grown through my 20s. 

The story also transports the listener to different locations and time periods. So it’s a challenge to make that transition seamless yet clear to the listener when we don’t have visual cues, but we have a brilliant composer on board so I’m sure it’ll be fabulous. 

The story is partly inspired by your experiences living and studying in the UK, could you tell us a particular incident that made you question your identity?

I’m a fluent English speaker and I grew up speaking English as my first language. When I studied in Scotland, there were English speakers who didn’t understand what I was saying. Then I met a group of students from mainland China, and they didn’t understand me either! So now I’m stupid in two languages that I’ve been speaking since preschool. How is that possible‽

On the bright side, these experiences made me incredibly proud to be Singaporean. It’s like we have a secret language only five million people in the world would understand. You can identify a fellow Singaporean within the first 10 seconds of speech. I love that. 

Another concern of yours is Asian representation. Do you aim to put out an authentic Chinese story with this project?

I don’t think this is an authentic Chinese story. This story is for anyone who spent their 20s realising how much they have to unlearn, in order to fully manifest their own personhood and individuality, told through the lens of a Singaporean woman. 

Having created works here in Singapore and abroad, what is one misconception about Asian artists that annoys you?

One misconception that annoys me is that we can only depict Asian characters, tell Asian stories or exist within Asian narratives. Hello‽ Cast us in fantasy, write us into chick flicks, put us in Shakespeare, let us just exist without it being a statement on our ethnicity! We can do anything. 

As this is an independent project, it is difficult to get funding. Apart from covering the upfront costs, what would it mean to you and your team if your audience contributed to your Kickstarter campaign?

Anyone who backs any project is essentially saying, “I see value in what you do, I believe in your ability to execute it, I’m willing to be part of making this happen, and I’d like to be there when it’s done.” It means so much to anyone to have that kind of support!

Crowdfunding essentially reminds people that things can happen when a community comes together. Choosing to crowdfund this project wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did because it reinforces my belief that an artist’s work is always for an audience, and that there are people out there who want to see and be part of your work. Word of mouth can go a long way, and small contributions from many people can make a real difference.

I still believe that what goes around comes around, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that others still believe in that too. At the very least, it’s similar to purchasing an early bird ticket or season pass… but you also get perks!

If you had to give some advice to young adults experiencing a quarterlife crisis, what would it be?

If anyone has the answer I’d love to know too! We may be on different paths but we’re all still on the same journey. I hope Jade will be able to provide some perspective. Let’s figure it out together?


Support the Work

The team behind Jade: The Quarterlife Crisis is currently running a Kickstarter campaign. Supporters will not only bring this project to fruition, but are entitled to a variety of perks.

[Interview] Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips on Being Vulnerable

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

The next major highlight of Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, “Take It Personally”, is an eight-part podcast titled Vulnerable. Written and performed by Cheyenne Alexandria Phillips, it chronicles her experience of the pandemic as a creative freelancer living with congenital heart disease.

I contacted Phillips to find out more about her inspirations and her process.

Your last project with Checkpoint Theatre was A Grand Design, a one-woman monologue presented in an audio format. Was there anything interesting you learnt from that which you are bringing to this podcast series?

A Grand Design was initially going to be staged at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum as a performance-lecture, presented as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2020. The move to an audio experience was initially a practical decision when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, born out of the desire for the work to meet an audience.

I was extremely thrilled when I listened to the audio experience. There is an intimacy that comes with listening with your headphones on, and Shah Tahir’s sound design brings a whole different quality to the experience. I had hoped for the staged version of A Grand Design to be immersive and experiential, and the audio experience version achieved those objectives for me. I’m extremely proud of it. It made me more open to the idea that you do not need bodies in a physical space to share an intimate story, which is also very much the case with Vulnerable.

Why did you decide to create another audio presentation as opposed to a filmed performance?

I needed the audience to focus on the words. Vulnerable comes from a raw personal experience, and every word has its own place. It’s very intentional. With a filmed recording, where audiences may focus more on physical performance, cinematography, etc., the qualities that are so essential to the work would have been diluted.

In a sense, the story required an aural format to bring out its delicacy, and I crafted the words around that. Vulnerable acts like a secret; it should be told directly into the audience’s ears through their headphones.

The experience of the pandemic can be trying. What compelled you to take your deeply personal and difficult experiences and turn it into a podcast series?

Writing Vulnerable has been a process of discovery. I’m learning to be vulnerable, in all the meanings of the word. Deep down, I have to admit that I am still uncomfortable releasing this work — no one wants to divulge personal information like medical history, or loss of freelance gigs and income! But those are the realities that came up when I finally reclaimed that permission to write for myself. If it wasn’t for the support from the team at Checkpoint Theatre, I don’t think Vulnerable would have made it to production.

Did you discover any new insights into what you went through as you articulated your experiences and shaped the narrative of the series?

It’s not really an insight but a challenge: In all our efforts to be nimble in adjusting the work and releasing it as quickly as possible, the situation is constantly evolving on global, national, and personal levels.

The very week we started recording, new clusters were found at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. While in the studio, Huzir Sulaiman, the director and dramaturge, asked me to write a new piece, on the spot, to add to the narrative. This is a line from that piece:

I knew that writing about an ongoing pandemic would mean that something could happen and my story would change and there would be no closure. Because there is truth in the phrase, ‘Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.’

I’ve had to accept that chronicling my experience comes with that level of specificity in capturing time. There’s still material that I go back and forth on, wondering whether it should have made the final cut. But it is this one line that encapsulates why every stage of the journey matters to all of us.

Do you have any advice for those who are feeling uncertain or vulnerable during this difficult time?

I don’t know if I can give advice. I’ve been in that position and I wonder whether advice is the right thing to give. At most, I would encourage you to find the people you can fall into, and land softly. And if this pandemic has weighed you down in any way, I hope you listen to Vulnerable and know that you are not alone.


Catch it!

Vulnerable premiers on Thursday, 17 June 2021. It will be available on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify with two new episodes released every two days. Click on the icons below to access the podcast from your preferred platform.


Related Event

How do we make art to capture history as it unfolds? Will new developments render our stories irrelevant? How do we build resilience for ourselves, and tell these stories with empathy?

On Fri 25 June at 8pm, Cheyenne Alexandria Philips, the writer-performer of Vulnerable, and director-dramaturg Huzir Sulaiman will be in conversation with Daniel Tham, senior curator behind the National Museum of Singapore’s Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 in Singapore.

Join us for this exciting discussion, moderated by Wong Kar Mun Nicole, about exposing our personal triumphs and struggles, reckoning with upheaval through art, and why we need to memorialise a pandemic that we would all rather forget.