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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.



8 Brilliant Plays in 4 Tumultuous Years

ImageHuzir Sulaiman must be sick and tired of being called precocious, an enfant terrible, a veritable prodigy. But that’s only because people believe him when he says he was born in 1973.

After reading his recently published Eight Plays, I’m convinced that Huzir must be at least several years my senior and ready to withdraw his EPF money. Either that or he’s suffering from progeria – a wasting disease that grossly accelerates the aging process – because I distinctly recall acting with Huzir Sulaiman in a 1981 production called Struggles of the Naga Tribe when he claimed to be only seven. Well, even then, he seemed rather precocious – and a whole lot more approachable than the image of the enigmatic and disdainful savant he sports today.

But I’ll say this: few people I know deserve to be called “creative genius” as much as Huzir Sulaiman does, regardless of mental age or attitude towards his audiences.  I have no idea what his formative years were like. I know his parents are incredibly smart (his dad was one-time president of the Bar Council, and featured prominently as a senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s defence team) – but what books did he read, was he good at sports, did he like girls? I’m told he was a top student at Princeton, though I haven’t a clue what his major was. All I know is that Huzir returned to KL in the mid-1990s looking like a tweedy middle-aged Ivy League professor.

But, boy, could he act! He was superb in every rôle he played, even when cast as a Malaysian “Mr Bean” in a silly TV sitcom series. Then he tried his hand at directing – and the results were outstanding. Next thing I knew, this prodigious enfant terrible had churned out a slew of plays – all of them excellent, damn him!

And now Silverfishbooks have published eight of them in an affordable paperback edition. Unfortunately the laminated covers curl as soon as you begin to read. Well, one either lives with this or holds out for a hardcover edition. And this collection undoubtedly deserves a permanent place in any library. Not everyone thinks plays are good reading but in this case I found the text extremely engaging as literature, and the exercise actually forced me to change my mind about some Huzir productions I’d seen (but more about that later).

It’s true Huzir’s first play, a one-man show called Lazy Hazy Crazy, was pretty much an Instant Café Theatre revue – but without the rest of the famous cast, of which he had been a member for a season or two. It was nonetheless hilarious and wackily inspired, and established his Straits Theatre Company as a cutting edge force. The playwright decided to omit this early effort from the collection – either because he prefers the numeral 8 to 9, or perhaps he felt it didn’t quite match the elegance and sophistication of his subsequent works.

A strategic move: because his second play, Atomic Jaya, was simply explosive. No, it didn’t bomb. On the contrary, it was arguably the most scathing, timely, and intelligent satire ever seen in these parts. The first version had the incredible Jo Kukathas playing all 14 parts. It was revised and restaged three years later in Singapore with the phenomenal Claire Wong as the entire cast.

Who can resist quoting a brief exchange between Dr Mary Yuen (nuclear physicist) and General Zulkifli (who commissions her to build the first Malaysian atom bomb)?

General Zulkifli welcomes Dr Mary Yuen to the research laboratory of Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn. Bhd.

YUEN:  Yes, I was confused about the sign. You mean this is a private company?

GENERAL:  It’s not my decision. Everything they must privatize now. But it’s okay. The directors of the company include seven generals and one Prime Minister’s son. You must have Prime Minister’s son. Keep them busy. Otherwise if unemployed they will start the NGO.

Exquisite precision. Atomic Jaya had the same electrifying intensity as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s hyperrealistic Brazil. It was delightful to be able to read the script and be mesmerized all over again by the sparkling wit and sheer inventiveness of this brilliantly mad exposé of the psychopathology of Bolehland.

The Smell of Language – an involuted and priapic experiment in verbal synesthesia (no doubt inspired by the fractal semantic constructs of Jorge Luis Borges) struck me as one huge wank when I saw Huzir perform it – albeit a highly erudite one with serious political undertones. But as a printed text, it holds enormous appeal for anyone who takes pleasure in cunning linguistics and the ruthlessness of intellectual virtuosity.

It’s easy to see why Hip-Hopera – Huzir’s shot at writing and directing a feel-good rap musical – proved such a box-office hit, playing to packed houses for a full month. The characters are breezy and instantly likeable, the tunes lively, funky (and forgettable), but the lyrics… the lyrics are something else, check this out:

I’m a soap-box preacher, a lyrical teacher
And if you come into my theatre there’s an usher who will seat ya
And if you come into my parlour I’m sure I’m pleased to meet ya
And if you come into my bed you can see the main feature
Got a lot of philosophy that just might reach ya
Cause I dig Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche
I need ya, I’ll feed ya, I’m never going to cheat ya
But if you lie like the President I am going to impeach ya

Genuinely capable and inventive individuals like Huzir Sulaiman are the only cure for Terminal Malaysiabolehitis. Their creative contributions rescue us from chronic cultural embarrassment or, worse, premature self-congratulations.

I regret missing Zahim Albakri’s performance of Notes on Life & Love & Painting, which received critical accolades. Reading it was truly an aesthetic experience and further reinforced my admiration for the way Huzir Sulaiman has integrated his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. His diatribe on the myth of artistic originality is worth framing as a poster and I feel compelled to quote a portion of it, truncated for brevity:

We have rubber trees because rubber trees were brought here from Brazil by the British. Chilli is not indigenous. Chilli was imported from South America 500 years ago. What comes from Malaysia? We buy our rice from Thailand now and our sarongs from Indonesia. Was the novel invented in Malaysia? No. Did we invent films and television? Is painting indigenous to Malaysia? No. Is abstract art an outgrowth of weaving mengkuang? Like fuck it is. So why should anybody expect me to be original? It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. Would you like some coffee? No? It’s Colombian.

He even succeeds in ending the monologue on a positive, life-affirming note. Awesome! It’s one of those wonderfully self-contained masterpieces one wishes one had written.

The neo-existentialist mood of Election Day annoyed and depressed me when I caught the play, staged as it was nine days after a bitterly disappointing election that saw business-as-usual triumph over ethical and environmental considerations. But in the ensuing years, I have come to accept that Huzir was right – the male ego’s desire to screw something terribly sexy, like an exotic woman or an entire country, transcends belief systems and underlies all acts of betrayal. However, I’m still unhappy with the way Huzir disposes of two of his characters, getting them hauled off by the cops for assaulting a police officer. Surely he could have found some way to invoke the dreaded ISA?

Those Four Sisters Fernandez represents the playwright’s exploration of his own Malayalee roots. There are many scintillating moments and memorable lines, yet the play leaves a great deal unresolved – but I suppose life’s a lot like that. As an attempt to document the collective psyche of a fascinating subculture and how it responds to change, the play carries considerable value. Nonetheless, it isn’t my favorite in the collection.

The last two plays – Occupation and Whatever That Is – have only ever been staged in Singapore. The former was commissioned by the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival while the latter was presented as part of an evening of 10-minute plays entitled Squeeze and SqueezabilityOccupation is a masterful and disciplined exploration of internal puns and rhymes, and the nebulous nature of historical reconstruction. I found it a tad clinical yet strangely heartwarming. What impressed me most was Huzir’s knack of capturing the inflections of his characters’ speech in print.

Huzir Sulaiman of Studio Wong Huzir

If one must draw comparisons, it’s Salman Rushdie who comes to mind: I regard Rushdie as one of the most engaging contemporary writers in English, a happy and unexpected by-product of the late great British Empire, whose “native” soul fuses ecstatically with his “colonized” mind. Well, we don’t want a fatwa on Huzir’s head – but it definitely does me proud to claim dat young fler as an old friend (no pun intended). And to think he used to call me “Uncle.” This is ridiculously mature work for someone who just turned 29.

Whatever That Is reads like a miniature gem in the chic and cerebral style of Yasmina Reza (whose award-winning play, Art, was staged by Huzir’s Straits Theatre Company in June 2001). Huzir certainly knows how to play with pregnant pauses, making silence speak louder than his wonderfully crafted words.

An extremely hearty slap on the back to Silverfishbooks for making Huzir Sulaiman’s Eight Plays available in print. What an excellent public service. May it reach far and wide and redeem our pygmified intellectual self-esteem. I hope we don’t lose one of our finest creative minds to a neighboring country for lack of appreciation.

[First published on, December 2002. A year after this review, Huzir Sulaiman decided to settle in Singapore, where he married Claire Wong, another former Malaysian and an absolutely superb actress.]

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