Culture Vulture

Blur ethnic lines to promote different cultures

Arts festivals can push boundaries by crossing ethnic lines to help unlock better understanding between cultures

I have been ruminating recently on the ties that bind ethnicity and culture. And wondering if there are better ways of teasing apart these intertwined strands, thanks to the shows I caught at the unabashedly ethnically programmed Huayi festival.

It has become a mainstay of Singapore's cultural calendar, held annually at the Esplanade after Chinese New Year, just as Pesta Raya, which comes after Ramadan, and Kalaa Utsavam, held after Deepavali, have staked their claims on the year's arts programming.

I look forward to these festivals as they have given me entrees to different communities and other ways of seeing. Thanks to Kalaa Utsavam, I saw a rollicking, Bollywoodised version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, delivered in Hindi, and India Ink's masterful The Candlestick Maker, powered by Jacob Rajan's tour de force performance in which he switched effortlessly between roles, aided by masks.

While I appreciate the shows that have been brought in with these festivals, I also question this ghettoisation of culture along ethnic lines.

No doubt pegging cultural programmes to ethnic festivals is an easy way to market these shows to a built-in demographic. It gives programmers a clear, overarching theme to build on and marketing managers can zoom in on the community that celebrates a particular festival and tap into the goodwill that comes with the occasion.

To give organiser Esplanade its due, these festivals have, over the years, reached out to more than just the hardcore culture vultures. I have seen middle-aged and senior audience members, evidently on their first venture into the Esplanade, at these events.

But, in the light of rising global tensions over ethnic divides in recent times, I am also wondering if the Esplanade's festivals could do more to cross ethnic lines as opposed to a convenient capitalisation on such easy divisions. After all, it is the 21st century and it is about time Singapore moved past the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) categorisations that bedevilled communities here in the 1960s and 1970s.

Moreover, while ethnicity is more tightly intertwined with race and genetics, it can be argued that culture is not so rooted in ethnicity and perhaps could be used as a key to unlock better understanding between different cultures. This latter thought was crystallised, ironically, at the recent Huayi festival, where I watched three productions.

I had been looking forward to Actor, Forty because it was actress Yeo Yann Yann's return to the stage after a long hiatus. And she rewarded audience members with a nimble, bravura performance that segued seamlessly from comic to tragic.

Dionysus Contemporary Theatre's take on A Midsummer Night's Dream was a blockbuster compared to this modest black box monologue. Starring veteran Hong Kong actors Anthony Wong and Candice Yu, this was a rambunctious take on Shakespeare via the Stephen Chow-brand of knockabout comedy.

Then there was Taiwanese theatre doyen Stan Lai's Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land. The 2007 Huayi staging of this play ranks among my top three productions of all time, so I was looking forward to this restaging with fevered anticipation. The play did not disappoint. The elegance of the structural conceit - in which two different theatre groups are booked into the same space for rehearsals - emphasises the magic of theatre, with the audience members buying into the illusion of theatre-making even as it is being deconstructed right in front of them.

On first encounter, all these productions are Chinese in the sense that all are being played by actors of that ethnicity, and in associated languages. But after watching the shows, my most vivid takeaway was how they displayed the diversity of Chinese identities, the different Chineses that exist in the East Asian sphere.

Actor, Forty is of course closest to Singaporean Chineseness and it was striking because the play presented a cultural sphere that is peculiarly South-east Asian. This could perhaps be attributed in good part to the fact that the play was written by Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma and directed by Singaporean director Alvin Tan.

Malaysian Yeo speaks a relatively accentless Mandarin for most of the play, but she also returned to her roots with a Malaysian- accented Mandarin in some segments and depicted Taiwanese and Hong Kong characters with pitch-perfect regional accents.

She also spouted Malay and English with a fluency that can come only from a Malaysian and Singaporean upbringing. This easy code-switching between languages and accents is something that Singaporeans manage fairly easily, not just in Chinese but also in other languages, thanks to Singapore's history as a nation of immigrants in a post-colonial society.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was Shakespeare given a very Hong Kong twist. While I understand very little Cantonese, I caught enough to understand the translated script toggled between formal Cantonese and colloquial speech. The rather 1980s music soundtrack and the dramatic costumes for the fairy king and queen conjured memories of Cantopop's heyday in my mind while the knockabout comedy bits hewed evidently to Hong Kong film comedy tradition. It might have been a Shakespearean play, but the adaptation sprang from a distinctly Hong Kong cultural milieu and sensibility.

Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land is as much an elegiac lament for a lost motherland as it is an impassioned valentine to theatre. The story of young lovers separated by the upheavals of China's civil war is as much an allegory of the geopolitical and spiritual severing of Taiwan and China as it is a microcosm of experiences writ large across thousands of Chinese lives affected by history. This play is born of a very Taiwanese experience and is told from that perspective.

These three productions give lie to the perception of a monolithic Chinese ethnicity and are vibrant testimonials to the differences in identities that have sprung up in migrant Chinese communities. If one ethnicity can create such different perspectives, I cannot help but wonder what I am missing in the cultural creations of other communities, both in Singapore and the world.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Blur ethnic lines to promote different cultures'. Print Edition | Subscribe