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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Fertile Ground

Allan Perera & Indi Nadarajah: a hilarious Heckle & Jeckle duo

Antares undergoes MenAPause 

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Heckle & Jeckle, animated magpies
from the 1950s

Allan Perera and Indi Nadarajah discovered each other through the legendary Instant Café Theatre, of which both were early members.  The mirth-provoking chemistry between them is reminiscent of classic comedy double acts like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Belushi and Akroyd, Cheech and Chong.  What’s more, both happen to also be accomplished musicians and songsmiths.

As Loga and Singham, a pair of loquacious Indian pub pundits, they were an absolute knockout.  The success of their double piss-take on all things Indian (and Malaysian) led to the formation of Comedy Court.  And now Perera and Nadarajah have done it again, in drag, as Mertle and Thavi.

Their latest venture, MenAPause opened to packed houses at the Actors Studio Theatre, Bangsar, on July 26 and ends its run on August 4.  Looks like they’ve hit the sitcom jackpot once again – and the Malaysian funnybone – with their comic study in banality and bathos.  My companion, who comes from an Eurasian-Indian household, said all the jokes cut painfully and hysterically close to the bone.  For a very large proportion of the audience, MenAPause must have been something of a cathartic experience.

Indi Nadarajah as Thavi Kanagasabai & Allan Perera as Mertle Rodrigo

Allan Perera’s “Mertle Rodrigo” is a bossy, sharp-tongued middle-aged Eurasian housewife with two teenaged kids, John-boy (capably played by the never-aging Patrick Stevens) and Shirley-girl (somewhat self-consciously portrayed by Valerie Dass).  Indi Nadarajah plays “Thavi Kanagasabai” – Mertle’s terribly Tamil childhood friend – with nonchalant ease and tremendous gusto.

The fast and furious flow of colloquial wit kept everyone in stitches.  Thavi’s revelation that one of the Selvadurai kids was the illegitimate product of Mr Selvadurai’s brief affair with a Malay telephone operator elicits this barbed response from Mertle: “Well, one thing you can say about Indians, they’re very fertile.”

A kitchen scene where Thavi waxes lyrical on the occult virtues of rasam (a spicy Tamil soup) leads to a full-blown eulogy on the culinary creativity of the sub-continent: “India is the source of all foods – so what if people are starving there – all the food comes from India.”

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Uncrowned Kings of Comedy Court

There are even a handful of songs thrown in (no Indian production is complete without a few song and dance numbers).  Perera and Nadarajah are no Lerner and Loewe but the musical moments successfully kept up the play’s momentum – although it would be more accurate to describe MenAPause as an extended skit rather than a play.  A large proportion of the humor seemed purely gratuitous – thrown in just for laughs – but most of it was quite irresistible, even silly bits like the delivery boy’s misreading of Mertle’s name as “Mentle Rodrigo.”

John-boy examines the package from Aunt Agnes and sees a card inscribed: “Happy Menopause!”  He asks his mother what the word means and Mertle’s reply is worth quoting: “Well, when a woman reaches a certain age, she gets more and more beautiful… until the very sight of her is enough to make men, er… pause.”

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They deserve their own TV series

As to be expected the contents of the package from Aunt Agnes are rather naughty – the main item being a battery-operated dildo which Thavi innocently uses to stir her rasam.  The stage is set for the arrival of Sister Margaret (winningly portrayed by Gracie Low)… and Mertle’s gossipy relatives from Penang.  But, then, in Mertle and Thavi’s world, all relatives ever do is gossip.

2 August 2001

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A RARE FLOWER IN FULL BLOOM

Chowee Leow stars in a 2006 movie ‘Cut Sleeve Boys’

Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow – co-creators of this highly acclaimed one-person play describe it as “an intercultural horticultural wandering in a Wonderbra.”

I would call it a homecoming party for an exquisitely gifted, Malacca-born performer (who has spent a significant part of his life in the UK) – and a sociocultural manifesto for those exotic creatures who dwell in the phantasmagoric realm of hermaphrodite fantasies; and who wend their curvaceous way along the fine line dividing male from female; whose very presence provokes snide sniggers from the sexually unambiguous and horny hoots from hooligans.  Those Ah Quahs, Mak Nyahs and pondans, (crossdressers, transvestites and transsexuals) who have always been a part of, and yet existed apart from, society.

An Occasional Orchid, premièred in Malaysia by Dramalab in May 2004, is seeing its second run in Kuala Lumpur at the K.R. Soma Auditorium.  If you missed it the first time around like I did, be sure to catch it before it closes.  It’s a superb production on every level.  The effervescent, witty script evokes a poignant sense of tragicomedy while providing some privileged insights into the rarely discussed subject of transsexuality; the lovingly plotted lighting design (by native Singaporean Ivan Heng, last seen in KL as the indomitable Emily of Emerald Hill) accentuates and complements Chowee’s every mood, every move; the provocative props, consisting of imitation Barbies and original Jimmy Choo stiletto shoes, serve most charmingly as orchids and telephones; the slickly edited sound effects and music add dramatic texture to the never-boring monologue; and Chowee’s alluring wardrobe keeps changing before your very eyes (though it stops short of being a strip-tease, but only just!)

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Chowee (extreme right) with theater mates in Singapore

Chowee Leow is phenomenally articulate and charismatic as herself as well as himself.  No red-blooded male in the audience would turn down an invitation for babi pong teh and coffee at her place (unless they’re strictly into halal food, of course).  A fetching figure in a tight-fitting gown and ever-so-squeezable Wonderbra – get yourself an aisle seat in the front rows if you want a cheap thrill! – Chowee’s soul- (and bottom-) baring on stage gives beautiful voice to the highs and the lows of a sensitive, gender-blurred psyche.

Most of the queens I’ve encountered have invariably been sex-obsessed and tiresomely self-centered.  But here’s one whose candor, intelligence and self-awareness facilitate access into the intricacies of his/her private reality on a down-to-earth human level.  It doesn’t take long for one to feel comfortable with the fact that life isn’t quite so straightforward.  Indeed, it’s remarkably easy to accept the fact of Chowee’s confident and sensuous femaleness.  One can fully empathize with the hardships he must have endured as a diffident, doll-loving boy growing up in a less-than-harmonious home.  After years of independent living so far from home, Chowee (or at least his alter ego) has erupted voluptuously into a full-fledged she-male.  But how to break the earth-shaking news to Mama?  The last line of the play is a real knock-out.  No, I won’t reveal it here – but it’s certainly among the most effective closing lines I’ve ever heard, guaranteed to trigger unreserved applause.

Fear of Father and emulation of Mother often establishes the behavioral patterns of those feminine souls inhabiting masculine bodies unhappily born into a patriarchal society.  Chowee takes us on a fascinating guided tour of a transsexual’s lovelife – which, ultimately, doesn’t differ all that much from that of heterosexual couples except that a she-male has to try harder to hang on to a man, or so it seems.

The admonitory voice of Chowee’s conservative father, warning him against marrying a foreign girl while he’s studying abroad, is powerfully ironic.  I’m reminded of another she-male I know whose daddy happens to be a retired army general.  You can imagine the problems that inevitably arise between father and “son.”

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Chowee (left) with actress buddy Neo Swee Lin & her dad

Chowee Leow is one of those rare flowers whose artistic talent would never have blossomed if he had just stayed on in Malaysia.  I recall our very first meeting a few months ago at a friend’s birthday party: we had exchanged only a few words when I was prompted to remark that he must have been a famous Chinese opera diva in a previous life – at which his entire countenance lighted up with pleasure.  After watching Chowee in action in An Occasional Orchid, that initial impression is further reinforced.

In a fun-negating and punitive society where stern Fathers frown at “artistic frivolity” and religiously deride  “sexual deviants” – will Chowee Leow be welcomed as a returning hero?

Will he be forced to forever call England home?  Or perhaps Singapore – where more than a few extremely talented former Malaysians reside? If such were to be allowed to happen again, our loss would truly be their gain.

31 May 2004

A Mandarin Vision of Clockwork Oranges

Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew

By George (Nonis); Angsana Books, 200 pp, 1991  

Imagine a sophisticated republic such as Plato might have conceived, where the poet is called a fool and madman – and secret policemen supply the jokes. Wink and nudge, jury and judge. Dissent by numbers. Does it sound like Singapore?

Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s
second prime minister

Then read Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew by George (Nonis). You can do it in less than an hour: it’s mostly cartoons. “The book everybody thought was impossible to publish,” says the backcover blurb. Chuckle chuckle.

“I’m not disrespectful of my leaders,” Nonis declares. “Lee Kuan Yew is my favorite politician, and Confucius my favorite philosopher.” He even thinks it’s a good idea (after witnessing CNN’s Gulf War on TV) to spend money on guns, tanks and missiles. “We should all take war seriously.”

That was a dead giveaway. The book’s an apology masquerading as brave new political satire. An apology for whom or what?, you may ask.

Why, for the wonderful way of life in Singapore and for Lee Kuan Yew’s mandarin vision of clockwork oranges. Confucius, he say: “Gong Xi Fa Cai!”  The same to you, I say.

ImageThe artwork and text are inoffensively engaging – and I was initially charmed by Nonis’s easy wit and fluid cartoon style. He draws female torsos and legs very well (did he perhaps escape from an ad agency?). But his repetitive claims to red-hot controversy and daredevil taboo-bashing prove quite unfounded. No, I can’t believe that even a Singaporean could regard Hello CT, Goodbye KY as a radical breakthrough in socio-political commentary.

Still, the book should sell well in Singapore where the government’s campaign to make people read more has been remarkably effective. And this is a book that lends itself to being picked up, flipped through, bought on impulse, and then discarded like so much styrofoam (Singapore’s most lethal export).

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s quote on the very first page sets the tone of the book: “We believe in making Singapore an enjoyable place for all of us. At the right occasion, I think we should all have a good laugh, even to the extent of laughing at ourselves.” [Emphasis mine].

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s
“God of No Mercy”

There you have it. Writer-cartoonist George Nonis has his official sanction to tease the hitherto uptight Titans of Total Rule. I bet Chok Tong has a whole stack on his desk. I can just hear him chortling: “Have you seen this? Ha ha ha. It’s damn funny, you have to read it!” Chortle chortle.

Oh dear, I don’t mean to be mean – but I’m inclined to believe that the Singapore government’s brave new Fun Policy provides for subsidized evening classes in Good Clean Chortling. Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew will most likely be a prescribed text. 

[First published in the New Straits Times, 7 September 1991]

Aye, William!

Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, aka Dick Head

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Polyphemus in
‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’

Weeks have gone by since I caught the final performance of Ozzie actor William Gluth’s aggressively cerebral dramatization of I, Cydops at the Actors Studio Box. As far as KL theatergoers are concerned, the event has come and gone ‑ and thank goodness! I’ll bet the sweaty hordes of artsy types in the Kiang Valley who gave the show a miss are feeling righteously smug about having saved themselves a couple of hours of feigned absorption and 35 ringgit to boot.

I was tempted to keep procrastinating till it became totally pointless to even try and get my head around the idea of reviewing the… er, experience. But a couple of raggedy stray thoughts ‑ about touring actors in particular and high‑brow theater in general ‑ began rummaging through my garbage bins of deep memory and fishing out and sniffing the putrid remains of my own intellectual pretensions.

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The Cyclops in Muppet Odyssey

Don’t get me wrong. William Gluth was good. Very good indeed. It was a treat to watch the man in action, He knew his stuff, William did. And you could tell he was relishing every moment of his own incredible proficiency as an actor. Only a very dedicated and dynamic narcissist would put so much effort into lounging and strutting about on stage for over an hour in a seedy suit and a pair of silver‑rimmed shades, spouting a heady blend of literary erudition and rudeness from a moribund Greco‑Roman tradition.

I, Cyclops is, by any measure, a very verbose play written by Robert McNamara (not to be confused with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense). It’s exactly the sort of egghead fare that might have found a receptive audience in Georgetown University’s drama department or among final‑year acting students at NIDA.

The epic monologue was originally entitled I, Polyphemus or Dead in the Head: an Ancient Fable with a Modem Sense. Now, as everyone knows, Polyphemus is the dull‑witted cyclops blinded by Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Every cultured person has at least heard of Homer, and not merely in the context of The Simpsons.

A cyclops named Polyphemus? The cyclops were a mythical race of giants with a single prominent eye. Legendary dickheads, you could say. “Polyphemus” means “spoken of by many” or perhaps even “multilingual” which suggests to me that Homer might have been hallucinating monster TV sets. If you want to put an Orwellian twist on everything, Polyphemus could even allude to a global espionage network. Was that why Gluth togged himself up like some jaded spy in a Graham Greene novel? He last performed I, Cyclops at La Mama in Melbourne. I wonder if there were lots of Greeks in the audience.

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Let thine eye be single…

The Odyssey has thus far been read from a Grecocentric perspective. The great Greek hero Ulysses outsmarts Polyphemus at every turn, getting him drunk and blinding his all‑seeing eye with a burning stake. Now, at last, Polyphemus gets his turn on stage. Listen to his drunken lament, his Rabelaisian tale of woe. Commiserate, if you can, with his cyclopean downfall. Poor Polyphemus, all he wants is someone to pat him on the back while he rants and raves and scratches his balls.

It was indeed invigorating to be caught up in this crisply articulate and twisty yarn spun by an intelligent and supremely confident actor, but I couldn’t help wondering why some people would go to such lengths to impress. Why do such in‑grown academic exercises in theatrical esotericism continue to get written and performed? Because it’s sheer bloody hard work, I expect. And because, being so goddamn uncommercial, it simply has got to be High Art.

Aye, William, it was all worthwhile, I’m sure.

29 September 2000

LOOK OUT, HERE COMES ANOTHER RAVE!

Members of the Gamelan Club in a rare group portrait

Antares angles for a KICKBACK from the Gamelan Club 

How much does a minister get paid? RM9,000 a month? RM15,000? Okay, let’s say RM12,000. How much in kickbacks? Hmmm. Well, I’d be willing to take on a ministerial post for a year or so, just so I can make sure the Gamelan Club gets it own gamelan, instead of having to rent a set for practice sessions. And I’d make it a point that arts funding is channeled only to those with proven talent and pride in their craft, not to extravagant exercises in neo-fascist propaganda staged in glittering palaces.

Being a minister may get my hands dirty, but at least it’s an alternative to writing online reviews and being accused of gushing whenever I stumble upon something really fantastic. Yikes, I’m trying so hard NOT to rave, this review might turn into a self-indulgent ramble.

Perhaps I ought to begin with some mild criticism of what may well have been the new millennium’s most exciting breakthrough in Malaysian music, apart from Saidah Rastam’s emergence as an internationally recognized composer.

The amplifier in The Actors Studio Theater at Dataran Merdeka hums audibly and this annoyance was like a smudge on the lens marring an otherwise perfect composition.

It would have prolonged the pleasure if a brief intermission had been inserted two-thirds into the program. Forty minutes is a comfortable duration for the ears. Instead we were treated to more than 80 minutes of bumper-to-bumper gamelan experiments; and though none of it was boring or mediocre, too much of a good thing at one sitting is inadvisable. A short pause for some fresh air (or a hit of nicotine) would have been most welcome. The Gamelan Club, in their irrepressible enthusiasm, left us little time to absorb and integrate the very novel and invigorating sounds we had just heard.

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What a full gamelan ensemble looks like

This ensemble is destined to go places. It would help if the male members of the Gamelan Club didn’t dress like paramedics or overaged sixthformers. The women all looked like earthy, fun-loving angels. I kept thinking the group would gain greatly in visual appeal if the guys were less conservative in their apparel. Nonetheless, the sheer exuberance and easy camaraderie of the group made their vivacious performance a tremendous joy to watch.

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The remarkable Jillian Ooi

And what of the music? The Gamelan Club successfully blends musical integrity with popular accessibility. The introduction of electric guitar and 6-stringed bass (gracefully and tastefully played by Isyam Swardy Daud and Zailan Razak) was handled with wonderful finesse and sensitivity.

Take a bow, musical directors Shahanum Shah and Jillian Ooi, not least for the exemplary way you have instilled inner discipline in such a large group of diverse individuals without stifling their spontaneity. The fact that there was no visible leadership or hierarchical displays during the performance is proof that democracy works – at least in the arts.

The resonant tones of the gamelan evoke courtly scenes of regal splendor. It is indeed the music of gods and world-conquerors, heard throughout most of Southeast Asia, from Burma to Borneo since the start of the Bronze Age. Gamelan players treat their instruments with reverence, remembering their ancient pedigree and mystical kinship with other pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, the t’rung, and the xylophone.  A gamelan orchestra usually consists of a few sarons (bronze xylophones) accompanied by bonangs (small breast-shaped bells), and a variety of large gongs.

For this performance the Gamelan Club had 14 members playing, apart from the traditional gamelan, a wide range of ethnic drums (including Malay gendangs and an African djembe, impishly played by the precociously percussive Mohd. Kamrulbahri Hussin) plus contemporary stringed instruments (acoustic and electric guitar, 6-stringed bass, and 3-stringed Thai lute). The only thing missing were winds.

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Zailan Razak, ace bassist

The effect was nothing short of mesmerizing, especially since the gamelan retained its characteristic nobility and sonority throughout. New genres in world music were generated by this bold synthesis of traditional and contemporary musical modalities: gamelan funk-fusion, gamelan pop, gamelan symphonic, even a touch of gamelan rock. Others have attempted it before, but never with such authentic dedication to the gamelan mystique and its hypnotic and elevating qualities.

Gaia, composed and arranged by Susan Sarah John, was a glorious paean to Mother Earth’s beauty in an ethereal “new age” mode. Malu-Malu Kucing, composed and arranged by Jillian Ooi with lyrics by Juliana Mohamed, was an amusing vocal duet rendered in vintage asli style. Zailan Razak’s Putra Variation No. 2 was a daring showcase for his superb, Stanley Clarke-ish jazz-funk basswork, and Sluku-Sluku Bathok (pardon my French) was a happy marriage of whimsical keroncong and hardcore jazz.

I think it was the intricate bonang passages in the elegant finale, Kosalia Arini, that reminded me of Burmese opera (heard blaring from battered radios on the shores of Inle Lake). But the evening’s highlight for me was a beautiful pop ballad written and sung by Maya Abdullah, Don’t Speak Too Loud, which stands a chance of extensive airplay and could turn out to be the album’s chart-topper when released.

I certainly hope someone rich has the aesthetic sense to step forward and offer financial support to the Gamelan Club. They’re ready to record a groundbreaking album, but they should opt for a live rather than studio ambience. What they need is a series of performances in an acoustically supportive space – with state-of-the-art microphones and the services of an audio engineer experienced in field recordings of classical concerts.

Once the new, upbeat Gamelan Club has produced its own CD, they’ll be ready to take on the world. For a start, I expect they’ll be a big hit at next year’s Rainforest World Music Festival. It has been a 7-year gestation for the group, which attracted a surge of interest through the inspired leadership of Sunetra Fernando (who has since left to do her own thing in the UK), but this new incarnation of the Gamelan Club is simply too funky and too brilliant to ignore. If you’ve been having trouble feeling patriotic of late, the Gamelan Club will soon have you yelling, “Malaysia sungguh boleh!”

17 September 2002

Perfect Union of 3 Children

3 Children at the Shanghai Theater Academy: Yang Wenqi, Wu Wencong & Hou Zhongping

There we all were, on Row E, sitting proud and pretty: the unofficial Malaysian delegation to the 11th and final performance of Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children at the Singapore Drama Center.

A few seats away sat the playwright. And beside her was Chin San Sooi, the man who initiated her into the mysterious allures of playacting and playwriting; and who midwifed her brilliant entry into the forefront of Malaysian theater with Emily of Emerald Hill.

In July 1988, 3 Children was premiered in Kuala Lumpur, with San Sooi directing.  It came across well enough for TheatreWorks, a leading company in Singapore, to take it on as their first major co-production with a Malaysian group, Five Arts Centre.

The experiment entailed more than a change of cast and venue: Five Arts Centre co-founder, noted academician, theater critic and drama doyen Krishen Jit was engaged to direct TheatreWorks’ production of 3 Children.

He spent every weekend over a 3-month period commuting to rehearsals by plane (despite an inherent fear of flying).

In his absence Ong Keng Sen, TheatreWorks’ artistic director, functioned as co-director, getting the performers in shape by putting them through a rigorous regimen of improvisations – accompanied by training sessions in Chinese opera, voice, and tai-chi.

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Ong Keng Sen

“I filled in the details,” Keng Sen told me later, “Krishen executed the bold strokes.”

Meanwhile, the playwright had reworked the material, though not to an unrecognizable extent.  Sequences were reshuffled, a few expanded, additional scenes written – with the result that we witnessed what San Sooi described as “an entirely different play.”

He was right, in a manner of speaking – but I prefer to think of it as the same play, radically transformed by a different energy and vision.

In the course of being transplanted from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, 3 Children had evolved and matured with the same miraculous swiftness that very young children exhibit in their development. Those who had seen the KL production four months ago could only shake their heads in wonder and exclaim: “My, my, my, but how you’ve grown!”

More than once I found myself fighting back tears. Not tears of vicarious grief as one engrossed in a soap opera might shed – but tears of poignant rediscovery and revelation, brought on by emotions and insights seeping from subterranean sources of sudden remembrance.

Only very sincere and very great art has the power to stir the ancestral memory; to reawaken cellular experience long encrusted with routine and trivia.

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3 Children in New York (2005)

With 3 Children, Puay Tin dug deep into her own psyche and struck the motherlode of collective dream consciousness.  The further in one looks, the farther out one expands. The personal becomes universal, becomes transpersonal.

To call Puay Tin’s work “Joycean” is perhaps too easy and the most obvious thing to do.  But I can’t think of anyone else offhand who succeeded as well as James Joyce in fulfilling the role of shaman-poet for a entire civilization. The heavy-but-nourishing Irish stew Joyce concocted from disparate thought-clusters floating through the minds of assorted Dubliners can be said to contain an entire Cosmos.

Similarly, Puay Tin has cooked up for us a tasty Teochew porridge, if you like, of human experience drawn from a tiny puddle of life called Kappan Road in Malacca.

Her three children – two girls and a boy – undergo multiple permutations as two sisters and a brother; mother, father, daughter; husband, wife, mother-in-law; sister, brother, mother; old man, young woman, matriarch. And so on.

Their interactions are so intense and dynamic that Krishen Jit felt a more neutral party was needed, if only to take some of the strain off both audience and performers. Hence the introduction of a narrator – sort of an animated academic footnote-cum-Greek chorus ably played by Neo Swee Lin. In any case the narrator also came in handy moving the occasional prop about; still, I can foresee her role expanding, should the production be exported farther abroad (as it fully deserves to be). Audiences in, say, New York would surely appreciate having a few localisms like “jamban” and “ang tau chooi” explained.

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The New York cast of 3 Children
perform in Hong Kong (2006)

Staged against a muted shadow-play-within-the-play enacted on huge staggered screens (how could Krishen resist this tribute to that most ancient of theater forms, wayang kulit?), 3 Children was an inspired synthesis of poetry, drama, dance, opera, and group therapy.

Never have I seen a more intelligent and effective blend of avant-garde and traditional elements; nor a happier combination of words, movement, music, and visual environment. (Justin Hill designed the quietly expressive set; Mark Chan created the sparing, tasteful musical augmentations; William Teo and Sebastian Zeng designed the versatile costumes; and Dora Tan did the superb lighting.)

Three metaphorical children ride imafinary horses through a symbolic jungle. They are played by Lim Kay Tong, Lok Meng Chue, and Claire Wong (Chui Ling) with extraordinary ability, agility, and skill. More need not (and, indeed, cannot) be said: their tight, disciplined, pull-out-all-the-stops performance (after such a protracted run) left me breathless.

Sometimes it seems the children are searching for something… a temple on a hill, spiritual truth, succor, enlightenment.  Sometimes they appear to be running from something… an unseen persecutor, inevitable punishment, damnation, death, demons.  At one point they find themselves horseless; at another, barefoot.

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Lim Kay Tong

Perhaps they are trapped forever in hell. Quite possibly they are at the very gates of heaven. The sparse, suggestive dialogue resonates with significance.

“Look! We are free at last! The walls are gone, the gate is open, we are free to come and go as we please!” says the optimist.

“The fire is dying swiftly, soon it will be dead!” says the realist.

“It is dead, everything is dead, even the ghosts bare dead!” says the pessimist. “But what can we do?” They find themselves in a house, hunting for a key.

They find themselves in a theater, acting in a play.

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Claire Wong

Interspersed throughout their dream/nightmare ride deep into the jungle, fragments of childhood memories from Kappan Road: And my grandmother said… pass water and the bad dream will go away… grandmother is old, she is full of feelings…

The Famous Five went on an outing to the Green Pool: naughty dog Timmy, he ran off with Anne’s sausage… Ang Tau Mooi sold ang tau chooi every day after school in the alley.

Tragicomic tales spun from working-class lives.  From the banal and the inconsequential to cruel twists of horrible fate.  Altogether forming an organic mass that spills over into different dimensions of time and space.

Aunt Ah Kim was given away as a baby; she grew up, married a taxi driver, and gambled her life away. Is she remembered with fondness, guilt, regret, shame? Does the softhearted porter in Limbo keep the gate open for her so she can linger longer, a restless ghost, among the living?

Within this writhing, seething morass of human experience – of laughter, pain, and madness – like a river the life-pulse courses. This river is Time and it receives the dead, as well as offerings for the deceased.

The ride through the jungle begins when the brother crosses the river (with the aid of his “yin-tuition”) to join his two sisters. It ends when they finally reach the temple on the hill, the court of last resort – only to find no Judge present, no one at all. But what difference does it make?

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Neo Swee Lin

The history of Kappan Road remains a mystery – to the three children as well as to the 3,000 or so theatergoers in Singapore who came… and were bewildered, impressed, amazed, delighted, excited and very nearly enlightened by this epoch-making prodigy of a co-production. It was an experiment founded on solid theater experience culled from both sides of the Causeway, and presented with consummate attention to detail.

Obviously, the right spirit (bold, adventurous, exploratory) had found the right form (polished, precise, professional) to produce a perfect union.

[First published in the New Straits Times, 28 November 1988]

POSTSCRIPT: I’m happy to report that Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children has been produced in various countries by a variety of theater companies since this review was written.

 

KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE – WITH TOURIST DOLLAR$

ImageIn Praise of Kuta by Hugh Mabbett (166pp, January Books, 1987) 

Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies observed in the 1930s that the Balinese have “a suppleness of mind which has enabled them to take what they want of the alien civilizations reaching them for centuries and to leave the rest.”

The fact that half a century later Hugh Mabbett (a New Zealander with a rightful claim to intimate knowledge of the region) can reaffirm this view is comfort indeed to those who have relished the splendor of Bali and are therefore loath to see it vulgarized and venalized by massive tourism.

In Praise of Kuta, Mabbett’s second book on Bali, is a highly readable little book with a big heart and noble vision. Adroitly combining the skills of journalist, historian, back-alley guide and social commentator, Mabbett has turned in a significant, topical study of general interest. His prose is fluid and lucid throughout and his perceptions warm and wise. A great deal of the research put into it is first-hand and intensely personal – an approach that has produced more than a few gems of insight.

Kuta’s outstanding characteristic, according to Mabbett, is that “it has grown much of its own accord, with only slight intervention from government or big business. It is a do-it-yourself resort, created by individual entrepreneurs, not by companies.” (For the uninitiated, Kuta is Bali’s de facto tourist capital, the “hip” hangout and global village that sprang up higgledy-piggledy in the late 1960s and is today one of the world’s most famous holiday destinations.)

Pride and dignity

Mabbett is convinced that “if by some weird mischance the tourists should vanish, the beach lose its surfers and bathers, the hotels and bars and restaurants crumble, the old Kuta would emerge from the ruins and carry on. There is a persistence here, and energy and pride and dignity, that the casual visitor may not perceive.”

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Kuta’s legendary white sand beach

Most visitors to Bali have little opportunity or inclination to study the sociocultural mechanisms that underlie the legendary gracefulness and self-confidence of the Balinese. Obviously, Mabbett has not spent his extended stays in Bali acquiring a tan and getting drunk on the island’s scenic offerings. Instead, he has assigned himself the mission of a quick-eyed and quick-eared anthropologist and emerged with a wealth of valuable information, especially concerning the banjar system: a unique form of local government named for “the modest buildings where members of these extraordinary organizations meet.”

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Kuta Square in the 21st century

The banjar, unlike its bureaucratic counterpart in other societies, emphasizes the element of human  interaction within each Balinese community rather than the institutional aspects of administration. Each family appoints two members (“usually husband and wife”)) to the district council, which arrives at decisions by consensus.

When a couple marry or on the birth of their first child, they are considered banjar members, superseding their parents – which “means that membership is mainly youthful and that rule by geriatrics is avoided.”

Change is kept under control by the spirit of community and a sense of organic continuity generated by banjar suka-duka rituals – cooperative participation in events of pleasure and sorrow – be they weddings or funerals, births or cremations, harvest time or the curbing of crime.

So effective has the banjar system proved, Mabbett declares that it is “as vital as it ever was – and certainly larger (in Kuta).”

Surfing was introduced to Bali in 1936

Kuta’s incomparable, cosmopolitan appeal (along with a few popular misconceptions) are entertainingly discussed in chapters devoted to:

SURFING: “Virtually all writing about surfing in Bali falls over itself in praise of the waves.”

THE DRUG SCENE: “The most dangerous delusion any visitor to Bali can entertain is that Kuta is still… a place where anything goes. If a visitor thinks and acts like that, all that goes is the visitor to jail, and not just for thirty days.”

THE NOT-SO-UGLY AUSTRALIAN: “During weeks in Kuta, speaking to scores of people, I found not a single Balinese who voiced any antipathy towards Australians. A typical comment was that some drank too much and acted stupidly, but most were good people.”

And, of course, Mabbett offers amusing anecdotes about Kuta’s hedonistic titillations: from Wet T-Shirt competitions at the Bali Waltzing Matilda to the beautiful Balinese beachboys sought after by white women on solo sun-&-fun vacations.

Beyond this, Mabbett argues that “the Australians are actually making a useful contribution to maintaining Balinese culture.  Even young Kutanese can remember hard times. The town is vastly more prosperous now, and prosperity has brought with it the means to restore banjar buildings and temples and to engage more fully in cultural and religious occasions… tourists who are in Kuta only for its beach and its bars are not likely to have much impact on the way of life. In this sense Kuta is a useful quarantine station.”

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Mads Lange, merchant-adventurer, lived in Kuta from 1839 to 1856; his daughter married into Johore royalty

But it is in the capacity of historian that Mabbett most impresses: his accounts of Kuta’s past are brief but evocative  – from the arrival of a Dutch expedition in 1897 to the introduction of surfing in 1936 by a young American, Robert Koke, who later (with his future wife Louise Garrett, whose drawings are featured in the book to great effect) founded the Kuta Beach Hotel, forerunner of today’s native-style homestays… and the beginnings of Kuta’s cult status in the 1960s as the place to be.

An interesting chapter on Mads Johansen Lange, a Danish merchant adventurer who lived in Kuta from 1839 to 1856, climaxes with the revelation that Lange’s third child was a daughter, Cecilia, delivered by his Chinese wife Ong Siang Nio; the same Cecilia Lange who went to school in Singapore where she met and married the future Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore – and became great-grandmother to Sultan Iskandar, Malaysia’s 8th Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Protect Kuta’s spontaneity

Mads Lange apparently had far-ranging and ambitious genes: “no fewer than seventeen Langes are listed in the 1985 Singapore telephone book. ‘Miss Singapore 1986’ (Farah Lange) was a Mads Lange descendant.”

The tight-paced documentary effect that Mabbett has achieved with In Praise of Kuta makes it an exemplary work in contemporary chroniclership. Photographs abound, many in color (and hence, perhaps, the somewhat stiff pricing of the book). But as the blurb on the back cover says:

“Kuta is a fun place. Don’t wait for the video, read about it instead.”

Mabbett concludes with some very cogent advice to the forces responsible for tourism development: “What Kuta does not need is the cold and clinical hand of an overzealous town planner. A single big-city shopping complex would be a crime, and more than one would be a disaster. The paramount need is to protect Kuta’s spontaneity…”

[First published in the News Straits Times, 24 April 1987]

For a  magickal glimpse of this island paradise, read KEMBALI KE BALI

 

 

 

 

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