This post is coming all the way from Singapore, where I’m holidaying! And it has been a feast for the senses. While food is high on my list of reasons for visiting this amazing little island, I have heard good things about theatrical activities here for some time. When I checked my dates, however, I found very little to whet my appetite. What I did eventually find was an interesting piece produced by a Peranakan community organisation to explore how a traditional theatrical style works in modern Singapore.
First, I might digress a little to put some cultural context around this. Singapore’s Peranakan community is a Chinese cultural group within Singapore’s amazing cosmopolitan microcosm. They constitute a sizeable
proportion of the population, and are otherwise known as the Straits Chinese, as they descend from Chinese migrants to the Straits Colonies of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia during the colonial era.
I would also like to make the point before expressing my opinion on this play that there is much that I will have missed or failed to understand because I am not familiar with the particular theatrical tradition this play
flows from. This is also the first time I have been to theatre anywhere in Asia, and I may be influenced by irrelevant Australian expectations. Much of the audience talked about the play as it was being performed, which I would have expected to draw the odd tsk tsk from an Australian audience, but it seemed natural here, and after a little time it didn’t even bother me. It may be a Singaporean tradition (my theatre history reminds me that in the period in which the English dominated Singaporean social life, talking in British theatres was likewise acceptable; perhaps this didn’t change in Singapore?). It is also worth noting that as I do not understand any
Mandarin, Malay, or Patois Peranakan, I was dependent on the subtitles through much of the play.
The play itself is probably not a masterpiece. Written by local Peranakan teacher, Victor Goh Liang Chuan, it is an attempt to modernise a long-standing Peranakan theatrical tradition that the student of British Theatre might recognise as having much in common with the Well Made Play. A core element of this tradition, however, is humour, and even this ignorant Aussie found much to laugh at in this production.
The story is readily relatable. Madam Tay has raised two sons and a daughter since the death of her husband, and in adulthood feuds break out. The eldest son isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, the next son is clever but
disloyal, and the daughter, though a university graduate, is waiting for the right job to find her while she freeloads off her mum. With two daughters in law to contend with and the area’s busiest busybody for a best friend, it is only a matter of time before the stress of life puts Madam Tay into hospital.
I’m sure I’ve seen something like this on the SBS.
The plot is predictable, and the characters very thinly drawn, but the performers do a great job with what little they have to work with. There is something very genuine and heart warming in this production, and it may just
flow from the oddity of having the audience chatter through the whole play. I felt at the end that I’d just spent a couple of hours amongst a true community. And I’d tolerate the silliness of the whole thing to be a part of