‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.
I’d written before on the captivating energy of the lion dance – as an outsider looking in, the clamour of the gongs and cymbals and the colour and vigour of the dancers seem like a hallmark of cultural artistry to some, and a fantastic spectacle to most. It was only after I had gotten a chance to join the lion dancers at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (岡州会馆) along New Bridge Road that I gained a tiny glimpse into the world that really exists behind these performances. Continue reading
A small indie local bookstore in the heart of the Central Business District. Something of an ignominy that, at the same time, makes Booktique all the more valuable a discovery amid the glitzy retailers of City Link Mall. After traversing glaring storefronts for Levi’s and Cotton-On in Singapore’s largest subterranean shopping mall, my eyes caught a sudden splash of colour – the warm glow of the wooden counters and shelves that pulsed subtly past the harsh fluorescent of the rest of the mall. It felt like a quaint refuge shielded from the throbbing commercial bustle around it – after all, it was where writers, some of society’s most imaginative and often unintentionally isolated people, shop.
Already, a small crowd had gathered near the front of the store for a spoken word performance. The poet was Ng Yi Sheng – a queer poet, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, and one of the country’s more quixotic artists. There were well-heeled middle-aged women next to enraptured schoolgirls and young men in T-shirts and slacks: a rare segment of the more artistically-inclined, I presume, who only revealed their inclinations through their presence at this event. I drew nearer, and was approached by a slight man with large round glasses that gave him a mouse-ish appearance. “Are you here for the event?” he had asked timidly, and when I nodded he retreated into a hidden storeroom to retrieve an extra chair. He was Anthony, the owner of its store and its only employee, and seemed to blend into the backdrop as much as the books he was selling.
Yi Sheng’s poetry drew me in. When I arrived, he had begun on a poem about the sex scandals throughout modern Singaporean history – with all the words that had been blacked-out in its original publication now freely spoken to the public. A galumphing chorus, dovetailing into singsong, echoed sharply into the space. What followed was an eager wave of applause. After several swigs from a water bottle and riffling through manuscripts, he began to intone another poem – the slow, ominous lines from ‘外婆’ (‘Grandmother’ in Mandarin), detailing stories of his grandmother’s life until her passing, sinking to his knees as he recalled the ‘sons and daughters / growing in her belly’. The ominous became the hysterical as he started another poem on the national pledge while screaming with a pen in his mouth, and climaxed in the aptly-named ‘Loud Poem’ involving him hitting himself over the head with the aforementioned bottle. (“I usually use a smaller one,” he confessed to concerned viewers). As scandalous as some of these poems would have been to a general audience, I couldn’t help but have the feeling that they offered a peek into the psyche of a special subset of locals – one that is hardly ever expressed except behind closed doors.
He thanked the audience for coming. Everyone burst into a final, enthusiastic round of applause. The crowd broke up around the bookstore, and in his white shirt and jeans the rapturous poet now looked just like any other patron. My fingers flew over the cover of a newly-minted lifestyle magazine (‘GENDER: A CHANGING ROLE’), the burgundy cover of a poetry anthology by an Australian Sikh convert, and the shiny yellow paperback of the story of the Indian man of the untouchable caste who cycled across eight countries to meet his beloved in Switzerland.
They came to rest on a mural at the side of the counter, depicting Anthony as a penguin in his journey to set up the store. “He suffered from depression,” he told me quietly about the artist. “When he was depressed he would draw in lines, and the lines would come together to form a circle. So he drew the circle into a penguin to tell his story in a cute way. It’s not so much a motif; more like an inspiration.” He passed me a worn picture book: ‘The Black Box’, featuring the same penguin on its cover.
For all its cute illustrations, the story of this book was unnervingly, poignantly raw. Through thick, black lines and frank visuals, the artist made his struggle with depression unflinchingly clear. It was a story that is often difficult to relay to the public, let alone in a refreshingly direct way, but the artist had done it. The words from the second-last page echoed in my head: ‘I hope that more people will understand my story.’
“If you see this chart,” Anthony continued, pointing to the mural, “I’ve been working from 2007 to now. I’ve been working everyday since I started. Sometimes I get part-timers, but most of the time it’s just me. I’m closing the shop in six months. I’ll be closing for two years because I need a break, and then I’ll be opening a new shop somewhere else. Yeah, a break will definitely be good for me.”
The closure of this little nook will be something that is regretted. With its intimate setting and eclectic collection of books, the indie bookstore lends itself to a profusion of voices – the little-known writers, poets and dreamers among us. It was a rock pool for rare literary voices, and at the same time a vital ground for the discussion of social issues that would be too taboo for mainstream media. But with the competition arising from large-scale bookstore chains and the e-book market, shops like Anthony’s were inundated. He smiled and waved as I left. And I let my eyes travel back along the shelves, knowing that they would vanish before the end of the year.
Perhaps bookstore owners like him hope that more people understand their stories, too.
Night seems to be the time when some people, like certain species of nocturnal wildlife, wake up and crawl out from within their shells. I found myself pounding down North Bridge Road as the late afternoon sunk into the pallid violet of evening. Rows of halal eateries gave way to kitschy cafés and galleries in narrow sidestreets, and then spread out to reveal a white square building surrounded by long wooden tables peopled with lively well-heeled millenials chatting over hand-made burgers and fries. I sat in the restaurant and watched as the fall of darkness intensified the amber glow of the woodwork and drew a new sort of crowd past its doors.
The Beast, sitting right across from the arty Aliwal Street, is one of the many establishments that had indirectly been fed by Singapore’s growing upper crust. It was made to resemble an all-American saloon with walls imitating wooden panelling, a bourbon bar stretching half the length of the restaurant, and wait staff in identical red flannel shirts. Before evening fell, the only other customers besides myself were an American family of three playing Uno over plates of fried chicken and a pair of British men talking in low voices. And at the end of the restaurant was a small stage with a microphone and a tiny speaker. I ordered a mac-and-cheese, sat down, and waited for night to fall.
A large man with a shaggy beard quietly stepped onto the stage. He slung his guitar across his shoulder and began to strum a few slow bars. “My name is Shaq,” he announced with a laconic drawl. “If any of you wanna play you can use my guitar. After I’m done usin’ it, of course. I’ll just keep playing songs until then, yeah.” His presence grew behind the mic. A strident voice echoed off the woodwork, playing soulful acoustic covers of pop songs ranging from Corrine Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl Put Your Records On’ to Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Everyone craned forward to listen and sway in time to the music. Shaq was quick to shrug off the waves of staccato applause that came with each song. “Please lah, I’m just playing music.” It was, as the regulars would later mention, ‘a quiet night’, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Immersed in his music, he continued playing to a tiny crowd, steeping the room in the poignant melancholy of his music.
As he played, more characters seemed to step into the restaurant, as if they had materialised from the thick of the night outside. A tall slender woman with a curly bob flounced in, followed by a man in a pastel blue dress shirt. While one of them sang along and whooped at Shaq’s playing, the other had a pen in hand and was busily sketching the musician’s face onto a brown napkin. “Oh are you alone?” she asked, sweeping me over to the high stools where they sat. They introduced themselves as Jocelyn and James – one, the organiser of the weekly open mics, and the other a friend who happened to be tagging along. “We do all sorts of crazy things!” James exclaimed. “Jocelyn writes poetry and she will sing randomly on the street. She’s also a nurse. I like to sign up for different courses, like white-water rafting.” Looking at how free-spirited both seemed to be, the thought of their having mundane day jobs seemed almost incredulous. I felt like I was being ushered into another world: one darker, and more mysterious, than the one we roamed in during the day.
We stepped outside for Jocelyn to have a smoke. A solitary star twinkled above the roar of traffic along Victoria Street and the strobing city lights. “Jocelyn, that’s Venus, isn’t it,” James remarked, before introducing me to the other hidden constellations in the sky: Pisces and Altair were lurking, unseen. The same could be said of the deeper, more reflective sides of these bar-goers I met that night. Below is some of the conversation I had with James:
“I draw on napkins because I don’t bring my sketchbook with me everywhere. In my work there aren’t many opportunities to sit down and sketch. My job may sound interesting, but the pay is low. But it’s still enough to cover my bills, until I switch to my next job. On Fridays I like to go art jamming just across the street. You just go there to paint, and the proceeds go to some needy people. I forgot to get my brother a housewarming gift, so I painted him something. Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. Another, I would say, is Rene Magritte. He’s a French Surrealist artist. I don’t really follow certain artists, but look at the brushstrokes and the way they use colour. Drawing is just a hobby for me. You have to know when to keep your hobby separate from your job, otherwise it will consume you.”
“Jocelyn and I have been friends for eight years. We were in a musical together. I was her co-actor. I think it’s important to try out new things. Of course that doesn’t mean doing something like this,” and here he pointed to Jocelyn who had a plume of cigarette smoke wafting from her lips. “I get a different sort of high from rock-climbing. I’ve done six of the thirty-six things I have on my list. When I was younger I was afraid of trying new things, until one of my university lecturers used to reminds us, ‘Don’t try, don’t know. Don’t try, don’t know.’ During my university days I went on a trip to Hanoi. Then I went to Macau, and began skydiving in 2015. Jocelyn, you know I have a health condition that impedes my flexibility and physical movements. But I don’t let it stop me.”
“During N.S. I received many rejections by universities. Australian Royal University, they accepted me. Jocelyn was the valedictorian! I still remember her graduation speech: ‘The world is your oyster’. My advice I can give to you for life is: say as many ‘I love you’s as you want, hug as many people as you want, say as many ‘Thank you’s as you want. Just remember that if things don’t work out, always remember to let go.”
Sometimes, it appears that the privilege of unwinding that the night affords individuals can bring out the musicians and artists that lie dormant in them, yearning to be expressed. I looked at James’ napkin drawings and the little notebook – ‘an existentialist’s guide to the universe’ – that Jocelyn had left on the table in front of her. During the clamour of their day jobs, these would be dismissed as nothing more than curiosities. Now, however, they sat as intriguing symbols of the inner lives of their owners. But as I walked away from the restaurant into the flooding light of the streetlamps, I could feel the memories of the night slip away – for I seemed to be slipping between worlds.
As long as there has been a contemporary art scene, artists have attempted to use their craft to make sense of their belonging to a community. The City Book is another of those attempts to take a fresh spin on the decades-long issue of Singaporeans negotiating their identity to the city-state. Published by the local art design studio Production Q, it compiled the works of six artists using their respective media to relate the stories and ways they view this urban island. I went with a friend, who shall be referred to as V, to their opening reception at Robertson Quay, hoping to find out more about how others have also tried to explore what their city means to them.
We edged past throngs of well-heeled socialites in business suits and cocktail dresses to find a browsing copy of the book. We were almost embarrassingly out of place: a pair of teenagers attending what appeared to be a swanky reception in an avant-garde retail-art-food market, complete with waiters bearing trays of champagne and truffle mushroom toast. V and I sat on a pair of beige rattan high stools, thumbing through the pages while looking out over the Singapore River gleaming under the night lights. A symbol of the island’s lifeblood, juxtaposed against an artistic dedication to the lives that have gone on around it, mostly oblivious to its presence.
One thing that stood out to me from the art I found in the book was an undercurrent of absence. A selection of what was covered: overlooked urban spaces, the disconnectedness of people in proximity to each other, the reclaiming of the urban by natural forces. I was particularly struck by Zhao Renhui’s photographs highlighting the artifice of nature in urban Singapore, as well as Charles Lim’s pondering Singaporeans’ lack of connection to the sea despite being surrounded by the ocean. I, too, felt discomfited by how many locals seemed to concentrate their yearning for the past on the recently bygone, oblivious to the natural and cultural losses that also go on around us. It seemed like the way these artists had chosen to frame their personal journeys was through looking back, through loss. It was something I found myself unconsciously relating to.
“It isn’t anything new,” V remarked. We had gone a quarter of the way into the book. “It’s just a different way of expressing what we already feel.” Several of the artists had stated they weren’t doing what they did for sentiment or nostalgia – a disclaimer, of sorts. And yet, in spite of the book’s main purpose as an expression of their views on the city, what they pointed out couldn’t help but sting a little. It stung because of what it, like its literary predecessors, had subtly highlighted: a chronic dissatisfaction of the present generation with the state of our city. Perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that also spurs me, to an extent; maybe it’s also what drives me to look towards and glorify the past.
I looked behind through the window-panes at the people inside. How many of them understood the book and its artworks beyond its abstract aesthetic value? How many of them would seriously think about the themes it raised? How many of them would be able to contribute to a greater conversation that this book points towards, one where we as a nation can decide how we can truly belong?
V and I continued talking as we walked to the bus stop. We discussed Dawn Ng’s psychedelic compositions of typically mundane objects that could be found in households and provision stores. “I guess we’re privileged in that we’re able to distinguish the quotidian from an artistic standpoint,” he went on, “but I wonder if the people who actually use it would recognise it as the quotidian.”
And even if we recognise it as such – what then?
The search for, and celebration of, the quotidian is arguably another big driving force behind what I write about. It can easily be seen as a sort of quizzical, inane idealism. But I guess it is precisely the fact that I feel the everyday needs to be celebrated that points to a deeper, unspoken absence that many Singaporeans would feel – hence a common national attraction to nostalgia.
And yet, I hope that one day I’ll be able to find artists who don’t just mention the keen loss of the past, but also pride over the future. A piece of art that shows how we can celebrate our country holistically without mourning what we wanted to keep.
And I will be working towards that, too.
This expressive bamboo sculpture of the Chinese God of Wealth, dressed in a Qing dynasty official’s cap and magua jacket with an abacus under one arm, was one of the many wooden sculptures I found within the Singapore Chinese Opera Museum. The museum was tucked away in a tiny lot on the first floor of Sultan Plaza, and I had arrived hoping to learn more about traditional Chinese opera forms. Instead, the first thing that leapt out at me upon my arrival were the rows of wood sculptures neatly arranged on tables and shelves lining the premises. The heady smell of camphor incense wafted through the air, accompanied by the soft lilt of qin (zither) music playing over the sound system.
These sculptures were all part of the personal collection of Mr Bian Huibin, a soft-spoken man in his forties and the museum’s owner. I first saw him quietly drifting in and out of the museum, while his wife Mdm Huang Ping attended to a small steamer at a side table surrounded by bowls of rice and pickled vegetables for his lunch. “I looked for and imported these all myself,” he told me, speaking in Mandarin as he ushered me into the area, beaming with barely-concealed pride over each of his valuable pieces. “The middle row,” he said while pointing to a line of dark-coloured Guanyin sculptures in the centre of the room, “are from Indonesia, and the rest are from China. There’s one sculpture in the corner that’s about 200 years old, but the rest are fairly new.” He admitted that as a Chinese opera instructor he used the space to conduct classes on the weekends, but seemed to take an especial interest in these artefacts. When I asked them why he collected them, he told me with a simple sincerity, “I like them. I like all forms of art.”
As I surveyed each of the sculptures, Mr Bian followed me steadily, eager to share his knowledge of each of these pieces. Each of them had been carved in the likenesses of various Chinese religious or historical figures, infused by the artist with a startling liveliness in their vivid expressions or the flowing creases of their robes. All of his sculptures gained a deep, soft lustre in the glow of the museum’s fluorescent lights. He picked each of them up in turn, flipping them over to reveal the rings that signalled each sculpture’s beginning as a humble block of wood. When I asked him in halting Mandarin which of them was his favourite, he answered within a heartbeat. “It’s this statue of Zhuge Liang at the back,” was this enthusiastic response as he moved swiftly to a sculpture that had been prominently displayed on a pedestal at the back of the room. “Zhuge Liang symbolises of wisdom in China, and this carving is so lifelike. It’s also very heavy, and I enjoy feeling its weight.” He went on to elaborate on the special features of each of the different types of wood used to carve sculptures, and how the density of each sculpture was indicative of its worth. I began to have a sense that he was taking pride not just in his role as a collector, but also in his efforts to highlight Chinese culture.
It took some scrutiny to find signs of the stated focus of the museum – Chinese opera. I had to peer past the statues to see the information on the histories of different types of Chinese opera on the walls. Each dialect group in different regions of China has its own variant of opera – besides the ubiquitous Beijing Opera there are other styles such as Fujian, Teochew and Cantonese (Yue) opera that have historically been prominent in Singapore due to its large southern Chinese diaspora. I looked at the pictures of actors and actresses in flowing, richly-embroidered brocade costumes; their faces heavily made up in the standard white and deep pink that is characteristic of the genre. Chinese opera is a demanding art, involving not just singing and choreography for distinct roles, but also martial arts training for the many mythological and historical tales that are the subjects of many a traditional play. It was also a vanishing tradition, with many troupes seeing slowing demand and a lack of young actors. I thought that he would have been more openly proud of this particular tradition that he was helping to safeguard.
And yet Mr Bian was modest, if not reluctant, about mentioning his involvement in the Chinese opera scene. “You must enjoy looking at my pictures,” was his only wry comment when I came to a series of framed newspaper clippings at a corner. In bold Chinese characters, it proclaimed the couple’s status as one of the leading promoters of Chinese opera in Singapore, and mentioned the many shows they had participated in. His wife, herself still an active performer and instructor, gave no indication of the recognition she enjoyed in her hushed conversations with her husband while I was in the room. And yet under his mild-mannered exterior, Mr Bian had an eclectic of talents. He had published a photo album on the stray cats of Singapore and held his own exhibition, and a drinks menu pasted above a register referenced the opera-themed cafe he had opened along Kandahar Street.
“It’s tiring,” he put it bluntly. “I’m a musician. I also run photography classes and opera classes. It’s a rich life, yes. A rich life, but busy.” He appeared a man of simple desires, content to avoid the trappings that fame would have wrought upon him. Perhaps he delighted more in the joy he gained from his hobbies and the joy of an honest conversation than his hectic career as a Chinese opera instructor. The museum was in itself a product of his subtle but refined tastes, and reflected well who he appeared to be. Small and nondescript, but brimming with a rich and understated cultural life.
You know a play is going to be interesting when it already needs at least three adjectives to be summed up – ‘musical, comedy, mystery’. I am very glad to report that Now You Simi 2 did not just surpass any expectations I had of it, but completely threw me out of the water. I was one of a large number drawn to the Faith Performing Arts Center not just to support a pair of budding actors, but also by the promise of a good show. Perhaps ‘good’ would be too nondescript an adjective to describe what I watched – something even I can’t succinctly describe. Regardless of its characterisation, however, three things shone through. The wit and humour of the two-man cast, their sincere heart of service and the sheer passion they had distilled into their work.
I was surprised at the diversity of the audience around me on the play’s opening night. There were the elderly and middle-aged brushing shoulders with gaggles of teenagers and young adults toting congratulatory bouquets. They were in themselves testament to the hard work put in by the friends and supporters of the two cast members, Matthew Ryan and Kevin Wong, in bringing in a crowd. In two of the front rows were also twenty-odd guest viewers from the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, an institution aimed at rehabilitating and integrating boys-at-risk back into society. The production manager Saad told me that they had invited these young men as a show of appreciation for one of the crew members’ mothers, who had volunteered with the organisation. Gracing the occassion as the guest-of-honour was none other than the CEO of Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore himself, Mr Keh Eng Song. Even before the play started, it was grounded in the good faith of these two young actors’ desire to use their talents to give back to the greater good.
The play itself started off riotous, cheeky and colourful. The opening scene took place during the victim’s funeral in a church, which quickly made a sharp segue into a random musical number and spoof ad placement by Watson’s. The plot rolled on, unabashedly un-self-conscious. In the bumbling-but-good-natured detective Seah Loke Hong’s (read it out quickly and see what other detective’s name it resembles) quest to uncover the murderer of bank-teller Daniel, the audience is hurtled through jokes, puns, and references as eclectic as the startling range of characters played by both actors. A Bollywood-style dance erupted during an interrogation, a gratuitous Elvis Presley-mimic leaps onto stage with a codename playing on a Korean boy band, and a conversation between Seah Loke and a High Poet (himself lampshading a certain local drag queen) progresses into an edgy Hamilton-esque rap. Of particular glee to many audience members was how the fourth wall came crashing down early into the performance. One of Seah Loke’s initial investigations even involved interviewing a member of the show’s technical crew, who proceeded to read out aloud from the show’s actual script and have a back-and-forth with the crew in the box.
That is not to say that the play was devoid of any meaningful depth whatsoever. To my surprise, the play was focused not so much on the standard police-and-thief story as it was on the development of its only constant character. Though he is often the hapless straight man to Matthew’s array of eccentric supporting characters, Kevin’s Seah Loke ultimately reveals himself to be truly, heart-warmingly, dedicated to his role. As the play takes a darker turn in the second half, he is confronted with a potential challenge to his identity, and a renewed resolve after a brief dive into his personal background. While there was still enough humour to keep the audience at ease during the play’s darker moments (special credit to Matthew for somehow making a squashed banana vanish!), it was balanced out with a sharp wit and intelligent parlaying by both characters as Seah Loke got closer to solving the case. (I shall not reveal much of the final clue save that it somehow connects Pythagoras’ Theorem, slam poetry and the gallows sensibly in the sentence.)
That said, the constraints faced by Matthew and Kevin in writing, directing and acting in their own play meant that there were certain aspects of the play that unfortunately fell short. I personally felt that there was a lack of emotional gravitas at some crucial moments in the play, and that jokes playing on the fourth wall in particular became a tad over-used later in the show. Nevertheless, the fact that they accomplished this show on such a scale is enough credit to overshadow what were otherwise minor defects. Scene changes by the volunteer crew were woven surprisingly well into the acting, with the crew even managing to create a menacing atmosphere in one scene by creeping on stage in white masks. Many of the props were also cleverly used as visual puns or simply for added comedic effect. I was especially impressed by their ‘medieval torture device’ which had been constructed in a friend’s workshop and fitted with chains.
I left the theatre feeling every bit as Matthew and Kevin had said that I would in my previous interview with them. I had no idea what I had just watched – in the best way possible. I, and many of the other audience members, must have felt immensely glad that all their hard work had paid off that night. Their acting has gone towards many good causes: the funding of their selected charities, the entertainment of friends and family, and a celebration of virtually anything you can make a punchline of.