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!)
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.”
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