Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History is I" by Spell #7 and Ho Tzu Nyen

Drama Centre Black Box
9-13 August, 2006
Review by Ng Yi-Sheng
(article first appeared in the Substation Magazine in 2006)

It's a curious thing to be Chinese in Singapore. We're the majority race, wielders of tremendous political and economic power, and yet we're never quite native to our country. So much of our national identity lies in Malay culture, yet we only remember this at odd moments - when we hear foreigners assume we're a Muslim country for the crescent on our flag, for instance when we garble the words of our national anthem.

So it's a surprise to encounter "National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History is I", a night of works that centre on the act of the Chinese Singaporean venturing forth into Malay culture to discover a sense of identity. And it's an exceptionally well-curated group of works; one of the best evenings of the Singapore Theatre Festival, channeling the energy and experimentalism of contemporary visual arts into the world of drama.

Even before one enters the Drama Centre Black Box, one is confronted with Ming Wong's "Four Malay Stories", a work of video art comprised of the artist's one-man re-enactments of scenes from four prominent P. Ramlee movies. It's a weird and delightful work, thoroughly accessible to the layman, picked as the STF's "Best Intermission Entertainment" by Life! reporters, and it prepares us for many of the themes we're about to encounter.

Ming is first asking why a Chinese Singaporean shouldn't pay tribute to Ramlee - though revered as a Malaysian icon, he was a great actor/director working in pre-independence Singapore, whose films shaped Malay popular culture on both sides of the Causeway. But by drawing attention to his own inadequacy in filling these shoes (the videos include out-takes of his imperfect Malay), Ming further illustrates the strangeness of entering another culture and claiming it as also your own. He is at once P. Ramlee's puppet and the wilful desecrator of the auteur's body of work - the borders of identity and their respective allotments of power become blurred in the performance.

Spell #7's "National Language Class", directed by Paul Rae, similarly begins with a re-enactment, as Yeo Yann Yann and Effendy Ibrahim play out the Bahasa Melayu class depicted in Chua Mia Tee's 1959 painting of the same name. We're greeted first by Yann Yann, dressed as the nerdiest '50s Chinese woman ever, chattering away with us in Mandarin as we stream in through the doors, and minutes later Effendy enters as a teacher, instructing the audience in basic Malay sentences.

The play's ostensibly situated in a time when many Chinese were learning Malay to discover an empowering new national identity, separate from the strictures of British colonialism. However, the play's less concerned with historical context than exploring what it means to be caught inside a picture - hence Effendy's erasing and rewriting the same date on the blackboard with each lesson, and the progressively deeper analysis of the painting. Teacher and student detail the objects in the room in the Malay and Mandarin, from the wall poster to the rectangular and round tables to the nine students and teacher themselves; they voice theories to explain why particular students are laughing or sleeping. There's an futile obsessiveness to these act, suggesting the dead-endedness of the project of learning Malay - Singapore, after all, broke away from Malaysia, and most Chinese eventually learnt very limited Malay. But the very energy of the drama references the condition of Malay language and culture in Singapore even today: it haunts the Chinese Singaporean like a persistent ghost, seldom taking flesh but never quite vanishing.

Yann Yann's character reveals more of itself across the play - in her actions, her desire to describe the world in her own language becomes evident. I'd wanted there to be an escalating conflict between her and Effendy's character, with her turning the tables on him and exposing the violence of cultural imperialism by forcing him to learn Mandarin, both of them maybe even exploding into dialect or Tamil to explore how history might have chosen yet another path away from our present English and Mandarin-dominated society. Yet Yann Yann never truly usurps the teacher's position, and the few words of Mandarin Effendy speaks are spoken more in kindliness and empathy. This is the limited world of the canvas - the two characters must find compromise in silence, outlining the exchange of glances with waggling fingers, closing the play with a scene of the student patiently waiting after the teacher rises from prayer.

It's a tender yet unsettling piece, working well beyond its original performance art incarnation as a feel-good Malay language class for the public. But its unresolved, mysterious ending is no handicap to the night's performances, especially when the show to follow is Ho Tzu Nyen's "Utama: Every Name in History is I", a performance lecture to explain the inspiration and theory behind his 2003 Substation exhibition of the same title.

"Utama" is presented as a slide show, accompanied by a spoken lecture by the artist, who's currently being featured in the Singapore Biennale. The video from his original work is also presented in its entirety, with some unfortunate repetitions of information from the earlier speech. This is not a big issue - having attended the 2003 exhibition and seen his video work again presented at ICA (Singapore)'s "Islanded", I'm convinced that the performance lecture provides the best medium for communication of his eccentric, elliptical ideas to audiences unused to conceptual art.

Like "National Language Class", Tzu Nyen's piece is also intrigued with history. However, it brushes aside both Chinese and colonial influence on national identity to locate our historical origins in the Malay legend of Sang Nila Utama, the first founder of Singapore. It's the very concept of "origins", in fact, which forms the focus of this work, but this concept is quickly destabilised - Sang Nila's multiplicity of names and dubious lineage (all the way back to Alexander the Great and King David) make him a nonce of a founder, a historical cipher. And while the video narration may be in Malay, to pay homage to our "original" culture, the actors playing Sang Nila and his assistant speak in faux-archaic English. There's as much historical realism here as in the scenes where Chinese actresses recreate the Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon - a fable of how the hunt for a goddess leads only to false images and doom.

"Utama" reduces history to pastiche, glorying in the superficiality of Sang Nila as an icon, parading him down the Esplanade in antique regalia on a trishaw for the benefit of tourists. Tzu Nyen even has us question the authority of the performance medium - he exposes his techniques of simulating canvas paintings with photographic printouts in his exhibition, and compares the setup of a video projection with the deceptive images of Plato's Cave. The work concludes the essay that "Four Malay Stories" began: it acknowledges the significance of a Malay tradition in the Weltanschaung of a Singaporean, Chinese or otherwise, but ultimately celebrates the generative power of the artist to reinterpret those ideas today.

I'm sure "National Language Class/Utama" got its support from various quarters on the principle that it'd promote intercultural understanding. And it is important that the work inspires us with the excitement of learning about a culture close to home, highlighting the fact that we are not just a Chinese city - no matter how much we speak Mandarin in mixed-race company, send children to SAP schools, or promote business in Suzhou. There is a chance that these work will promote other Chinese Singaporeans to read up on the Malay language, or pre-colonial Southeast Asian history, or pre-independence film.

But there's ultimately a very existential thread running through the works of the evening, which reject an essentialist definition of national identity in favour of one formed through individual actions and gestures. Ming Wong's impersonations of film characters, Spell #7's teacher and student's experiments with their own and the other's languages, and Tzu Nyen's revisionist view of legend - all these are acts that engage with Malay culture, but refuse to allow it to subsume the separate identity of the self. Singapore is not a Malay city either, remember - we are a composite of parts, a political fiction.

One is also drawn to recall an opening scene from Royston Tan's movie "15", when a truant gangster kid sings an oddly hybridised lampoon lyric, a parody of a ritual chant he's forced to endure every morning at school. Perched on a rooftop, he intones:

"Mari kita-ra, da jia tiao lou zi sha, bian chen roti prata, sayonara..."*

In the end, perhaps it's fine to contort the words of our anthem. Just as long as you're reinventing them, infusing them with your own meaning.

*The Hokkien Words in this mean "everyone commits suicide, become roti prata."

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