Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Writing HERStory: An Interview with Otto Fong by Rui An
May 28, 2011, 12:20 pm
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HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory, a festival commission created by Drama Box opens on 28 May 2011. Inspired by the personal story of his mother, Mdm Chen Poh Chang, playwright Otto Fong has crafted a story that speaks of the hidden sacrifices made by the women who lived through the turbulent times of the 1950s-60s. In this interview, we speak to Fong, son of prominent trade unionist and political detainee, Fong Swee Suan, on the process through which he excavated the personal memories of his family to tell a story that speaks for a generation of silenced women.

Q: HERStory involves the very personal story of a woman set against a turbulent socio-political climate. In writing the play, how did you bring these two disparate strands of social history and personal memory together?

Otto Fong (OF): The script jumps between three main eras, namely the 1950-60s, the 1970s and the first seven years of the 2000s. The whole story is essentially about this woman, who I created based on the experiences of my mother, and how she had to deal with the end of a century and the start of the next.

I did write more about the historical background in earlier drafts of the script and there were also more characters, but all these were eventually taken out because I wanted to focus on the mother. Anything that did not serve this central character was removed. Even during the episode in which her son comes out as a homosexual, there isn’t that much emphasis placed upon the opinions of the son, for at the end of the day, I wanted to go back to the mother, her reactions and her feelings.

Q: Can you elaborate on the process through which you excavated the memories from your mother?

OF: Heng Leun, the director, and I asked her many questions over two major interview sessions which lasted hours. I also read through all the letters my parents exchanged when my father was in prison in Muar, which took an entire week.

Q: How open was your mother throughout this process?

OF: Well, she didn’t say no to any question and shared what she was asked to share. But as always, we have to take it with a pinch of salt. Despite what she said, we have to acknowledge that it’s just one point of view.

Q: Do you believe that the experiences your mother went through are representative of those of other women who were also living through that era?

OF: I believe so. Women of that era, in general, were really required to stand behind their husbands and play the supportive role. This was true even for the well-educated women in the upper class. Many of these women were kept out of politics, because their husbands decided that it would be an all-men affair. The women, despite their statuses and backgrounds, were required to be shadows of their husbands. Even if you look at someone like Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, you can see that her decisions were mostly made through her husband.

Q: It seems to me that women of that era are then in a way depoliticised by their society. This situation is particularly interesting in the case of your family when you have a woman living alongside two men – one, an anti-colonial unionist and the other, a gay man who decided to come out publicly –, who clearly are very adamant about asserting their own beliefs. In this light, was there any attempt on your part to shed light on the beliefs your mother held as an individual, if she had any at all?

OF: It is difficult for me to portray what she believes in, for these are things we can only guess. We don’t talk about these things in daily communication. Of course, personal beliefs can also be very fluid. Even if she makes a certain statement, we may not interpret it in the way she means it. So there is really no way I can put myself fully in her shoes and understand everything that’s going on in her mind. For that reason, we left her as quite a mysterious character. We deliberately didn’t want to pin her down.

Instead, what happens in the play is that we just look at her, acknowledge that she made certain decisions – don’t put a right or wrong to it, don’t judge it – and eventually ask ourselves: Were the sacrifices that she made really worth it?

This is a woman who supported her family all the way into the twenty-first century and it is naturally very difficult for her to reconcile her personal vision for her family with how her son eventually turned out to be, given that her son, unlike her, is someone who clearly does not conform to the rules of society.

Q: What are the differences between the mother and the father which are highlighted in the play?

OF: My mother only had a primary school education, while my father self-studied till he got two degrees. So in terms of their thinking, they are very different. One reads a lot of books. The other is more streetwise and prefers to work with her hands and eyes and not deal with abstract concepts. So when I came out, my Dad took it as a more academic thing and decided to read more literature about the subject. Also, as a person who experienced jail for six years, he had a more Zen attitude towards life. My mother, on the other hand, only knew about what the press wrote and as you know, in the last twenty years or so, the press has been very one-sided in their treatment of this issue. So I couldn’t expect her to take a very enlightened stance.

Q: Choral music features heavily in the play. What is its significance to the story?

OF: My mother picked up choral singing after her retirement. In fact, I realised a lot of women joined these choirs in their 50s to complete their dream of wanting to sing. What is significant is that in choral singing, you are not singing as an individual, but as a group, so what it brings to these women is a sense of community and belonging for they are able to meet a lot of other women who feel the same way as them.

Q: Did writing this play bring about any personal transformation in you, given that you are drawing from the memories of your own family?

OF: It was a maturing process for me. You know how when we were young we tended to wonder why the adults did certain things that you didn’t like? But when I put myself in her shoes and imagine the kind of era which she was in, I realised that I would probably have made worse decisions.

Reading the letters was a revelation. For one, I didn’t know I was such an outdoor person as a child. I always thought I was an introvert, when in reality, I was more like a social whore. At two years old, I would run to my neighbours and disappear without asking for permission. My mother, who was managing the household alone while my father was in jail, beat the hell out of me whenever that happened. But I realise now that that was the only reasonable thing to do due to the turbulent times we were in.

Q: What do you hope the audiences can take away from the play?

OF: I think there is a huge group of us who don’t communicate with our parents. If people go away from the play thinking about how they can better reach out to their parents, I think we have succeeded. The other thing is that I hope that young artists can go away with the affirmation that we have good stories here in Singapore to tell.

HERStory runs at The School of the Arts Studio Theatre from 28 to 29 May 2011. More information here.

Ho Rui An


Interview with Yukichi Matsumoto of Ishinha by Rui An
May 19, 2011, 2:07 pm
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The performance by the Osaka-based theatre group, Ishinha, When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched just ended its spectacular run at the festival on Tuesday evening. In this interview, we speak to writer and directer, Yukichi Matsumoto on the performance and its connections to memory, place and the body.

When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha

When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha

Q: In investigating migrant histories, the production brings together the dual elements of history and place, which together are responsible for engendering our sense of home. How does the production engage with the differing notions of home today, particularly in a time of increased mobility and intercultural exchange?

Yukichi Matsumoto (YM): It is true that the means of mobility and intercultural exchange have changed a lot after the World War II. Before the war, people used boats for transportation. Moving through boats took more time and widened distances. It is beyond our imagination how long it used to take. That was why the Japanese emigrants then felt a strong sense of nostalgia for Japan. They built shrines and Japanese gardens and named the local flower ‘Nanyo Zakura’, after ‘Sakura’, the national flower of Japan, to create “small Japans” in the places they lived. They were aware of their Japanese identity which they had never been conscious of when they were back in their hometown.

Today, we do not build shrines anymore even when we live outside of Japan, but we are still aware of our identity when we are abroad. This production draws from both the past and present to express the ways of people’s movement across borders. I predict people will continue moving like this in the future.

Q: How has the local and regional histories and geographies of the place (both Singapore and Southeast Asia as a whole) figured in this re-staging?

YM: The islands of Southeast Asia are included in the show as part of the Sea of Asia or the South Sea Islands. The islands of the Philippines and their village called Barangay under Spanish occupation is representative of the story of the South Sea Islands. The local histories and geographies of the region are expressed in the lines and the design of the stage sets.

Q: In speaking of the experiences of Japanese migrants in the region, there is a rather unsettling tension involved given Japan’s involvement in the Second World War. Are these tensions processed and presented in the work in any way?

YM: I have heard that this place is the site of a hard-fought battle between Britain and Japanese troops. There are some feelings of nervousness when I think of Singapore’s memories of World War II. Therefore, it is meaningful and important for Ishinha to perform at this memorial place in Singapore.

This production mainly focuses on the life of Southeast Asia before the World War II, however, many young Japanese who carried hopes and dreams along with them to Southeast Asia were also shattered by the war. The stories of two Japanese emigrants will be performed.

Case 1: Mr. Momojiro Yamaguchi worked hard for 30 years to open a Japanese restaurant and a little Japan in Saipan, but his efforts were destroyed by a general attack by the Americans.

Case 2: Mr. Kinjyuro Matsumoto emigrated to the Davao Island in the Philippines to cultivate Manila hemp. He married to a local lady and raised a family there, but his family was torn apart after Japan opened an attack on the Philippines.

Q: How do the elements of architecture, light and shadow come into play in this work, noting that you are drawing from the existing landscape of Singapore? How does the iconic and spectacular nature of this urban landscape interfere or interact with the set design, particularly since the production was last staged in Inujima, a small, remote island in Japan?

YM: It is very interesting that the view of the stage was stretched vertically by the city skyline. A movie screen and a stage of theater are usually composed within a 3 x 4 ratio, but this is more like 10 x 1. Furthermore, it is also exciting to see a remarkable contrast of the skyscrapers of Singapore and the olden Asia scenes on the stage:

  • Lifelessness and life
  • Artificial and natural
  • Straight lines and curves
  • Verticality and horizontality
  • Heaven and ground…

These contrasts convey stronger impressions and give depth to the vision that is presented to the audiences.

Q: The movement for the production is devised by the actors instead of a choreographer, which brings us back to the personal in the form of the body. How is the movement devised such that this personal dimension is brought out?

YM: Ishinha is particular about creating dance with our bodies. Everyone has a different body and each body responds differently when it dances. We try to create our own unique movements which are comfortable for us to perform. This production is based on the point of view of the unsung emigrants. Therefore, it is very personal and is not written based on or related to the national historical charts.

Ho Rui An

Lack of (he)art by junzpow
May 18, 2011, 1:20 am
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You know,I realised why the Festival Village is so lacklustre these past 5 days is because of the absence of art! Yes, there’re great food and disco music… (yes, disco music!)… but these don’t make a village arty. Yes, I know there will be a few musicians playing there or films being shown later on, but there must at least be some visual appeal, other than navigating through the 2-storey-high kelong (Malay for stilt house) to get to the Main Stage.

So I suggest we bring in both the fashion models and the performance artists! The latter are the most portable and quirky and will surely draw a crowd or entertain those who are already at the village. It would be great to see Yellow Man (aka Lee Wen) prance around from stall to table, or a bunch of male and female beach-wear models showing off the city’s latest creative talent alla Ashley Isham. Then, at least my brotwurst (sausages) and Tung Lok buns might taste a tad more delicious. Time for interventionist art! Don’t be shy, be yourself at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival!

Jun Zubillaga-Pow

Academy of Ancient Music by junzpow
May 15, 2011, 10:15 pm
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The Academy of Ancient Music will be conducted by Richard Egarr with Korean soprano Sumi Jo in a breathtaking showcase of English and Italian Baroque music at the Esplanade Concert Hall for two evenings on 16 and 17 May.   The first programme features a set of luminous arias composed by Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi, and also includes chamber works from Albinoni’s Concerto for 2 Oboes to Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. After a pre-show talk at 5pm on 17 May, the Academy of Ancient Music will perform an impeccable selection of solo and ensemble pieces in programme that includes Handel’s Organ Concerto, Bach’s perennially beloved Concerto for Violin and Oboe, and Handel’s Overture to Saul.  

The Academy of Ancient Music, formerly directed by Christopher Hogwood, has long received wide and critical acclaim for its impeccable period performances.  Musicians of the Academy also perform on a stunning collection of early Baroque instruments.  In a recent interview, Richard Egarr, Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music, spoke with Singaporean musicologist Jun Zubillaga-Pow on what audiences can expect from the showcase. 


Q:  How does the quality of period instruments affect the way a new member of audience might come to perceive the sound of the Academy of Ancient Music? Is this sound more European, possibly?

A: “Baroque instruments have colours inherently connected to their time and place of origin.  A seventeenth-century violin from Mittenwald is discernibly different from a late eighteenth-century Italian violin, and Baroque wind instruments vary according to their place of origin likewise.  A significant part of the creation of an ‘authentic’ Baroque sound involves the apprehension of such acoustic variegations and in light of the incorporation of said differences.”

Q: Does the Academy of Ancient Music acknowledge, approach and interpret English, Italian, and German music in discernibly distinct ways likewise?

A: “Yes!  Each musical language has its own characteristic inflections, and such stylistic variations should be reflected in any given concert.”

Q: Do you suppose a period performance that reflects an understanding of historically-informed Baroque style and technique is a means by which instrumentalists might seek to remember the past?

A: “Musicians of the Academy use period instruments to understand the music that was written for them.  This is coupled with a historical and technical understanding, and such is reflected in the music we perform for modern audiences today.”

Q: How might a new member of the audience come to approach a period performance? 

A: “This music was written by incredible composers like Bach, Purcell, Vivaldi, and Handel; people who wrote music for communities from several walks of life.  This is music that people can and will respond emotionally to.  I’m sure that this great music can connect with any audience!”

Q: What special arrangements or care has the chamber ensemble taken in light of shaping and shading its performances for a venue as large as the Esplanade Concert Hall? 

A: “We have to use everything we have to create maximum expression.  That means playing as loudly as possible, but also, (and more importantly), playing as softly as possible – always the most special moments in a concert for me.”

Written and compiled by Duana Chan


When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha by junzpow
May 13, 2011, 11:13 am
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Thursday 12 May 2011 7.15pm / Review by Jun Zubillaga-Pow

Attending a contemporary theatre performance is like partaking in a ritual of play and make-believe. At least for this reviewer, this show felt like a long period drama set between 1898 and 2000 with everything compressed within the two-hour outdoor grandeur. (Hot!) So there is really not enough time to sink oneself into the melodrama of small town friendship or the vexation of wartime catastrophes. One scene tails another with contrast as the sole teleological criterion.

We began on the seafront as the 37 actors (including 11 from Singapore) danced their sacred ritual with gestures of knitting and towing. Coiled in a bent posture for most of the opening scene, their choreographed synchrony was just as good as or even better than our annual NDP (National Day Parade) formations. After some knee-lifts and tip-toeing, the characters with all their faces painted white, quasi a derivative of traditional kabuki, started to tell their tales.

Scripted mostly in a question-and-answer format, they tossed personal narratives among themselves: “Where are you? Who are you?” The replies came without hesitation so atypical of Asians when asked about these facts. On this point, the acting came through as stale. Despite the enrichment of the theatrical misé en scene, the tales of growing up and starting a business or family have failed to convinced this reviewer of their sincerity in sharing intimate details. It felt as if the actors have merely regurgitated the life stories of their estranged compatriots.

Perhaps there is a good excuse that the characters are all Japanese immigrants who have sailed along the ‘Black Current’ at different times of the last century and settling down in obscure locales like Saipan (USA), Benguet (Philippines) and Pulau Morotai (Indonesia). The accompanying music was nevertheless more coherent. I spoke to the musical director Kasuhisa Uchihashi (who will also be playing the daxophone at Blu Jazz Cafe on 18 May!) at the Festival Village Tuckshop and he concurs that his one-man-band was not out to re-create the politically-correct sounds or music of the ethnic people. Instead, what one hears throughout the 120-minute ‘soundscape’ (as one Royston Tan calls it) is a pervasive tussle of your heart-strings.

The music is powerful and so is the choreography, such as that of the twelve maidens welcoming people home with their totemic hand gestures, at times wriggly, at times subdued. Their involvement acts like ephemeral transitions, weaving in and out of major scenes with them chanting a polyphonic onomatopoeia of what the troupe calls “Osaka Rap”. At least for this evening, their impeccably crisp delivery stood out best among the cast. All in all, the show title best sums up this work of art; Absurdism has established itself in East Asia.

SAF 2011: Making the audience work hard by szechan
February 28, 2011, 11:51 pm
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SAF 2011 early bird bookings start tomorrow. Wow!  I am really excited about Living Dance Studio, Arco Renz/Amrita, Swee Boon’s new work, the retrospective programming on Pina Bausch, Kazuo Ohno and Merce Cunningham, Javanese court dance, a Samoan Tempest…

But finding all of it is just a chore and the SAF website is DRIVING ME NUTS and making me ask WHY. The programming is split up by obscure themes like “Histories”, “Lost Languages”.  No option to list by genre or artist, and works listed by title and date without the names of the artists upfront.  There is no single festival calendar, with the listings split up again by the obscure themes or the incomprehensible categories “Great for all”, “Great for Students” and my favourite, “Great for teachers and artists”.  Harh?

I know Merce told me that I gotta love dancing to stick to it.  But must reading the arts fest programme be this painful for two years running?

Chan Sze-Wei

Remembering the National Theatre, 20 Nov 2010, 6-11pm by Ng Yi-Sheng
November 15, 2010, 4:12 am
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Okay, the official title of this event is “Picnic under the stars”, but I figure this sums it up better.  The theme of the 2011 festival is “I want to remember”, so they’re looking back at our memories of old performing spaces.  Here’s the brief:
Officially opened in 1968, the National Theatre was built as a cultural symbol to commemorate Singapore’s attainment of self government. Fondly known as the “People’s Theatre”, it was a significant landmark for Singaporeans to congregate. Due to structural reasons, the National Theatre was demolished in 1986.

As we remember the old performing spaces in Singapore, this event will see the People’s Theatre come “alive” again! Have fun communing with like-minded people and catch a series of film screenings which include short films by local director, Royston Tan.

For the picnic, artists and the public are invited to share their memories of performances and experiences of the National Theatre through a song, dance or story.
Date: 20 November 2010
Time: 6 – 11 pm
Venue: Former National Theatre Site (Open field along River Valley Road)

Free Admission!

What’s more:

  • The first 300 participants to register online will receive a goodie bag!
  • Special picnic baskets will be given away to to the first 20 persons who share their personal stories and and memories of the performing space at the event.

Terms & Conditions:

  • Registration is on a first-come-first-served basis and subject to availability.
  • 300 goodie bags will be given out on a first-come-first-served basis upon registration. One registration entry will be entitled to only one goodie bag.
    ·  Only the selected 20 participants (by National Arts Council, NAC) sharing their stories of National Theatre at the event will receive the special picnic baskets.