Quarters: A look at Singapore in the 1970s

The play, with a budget of $120,000, is about the lives of six Indian families, one Chinese family and one Malay family.
The play, with a budget of $120,000, is about the lives of six Indian families, one Chinese family and one Malay family.PHOTO: AVANT THEATRE & LANGUAGE

Quarters is a comedic take on how families in one living quarters got along

For the upcoming multicultural play Quarters, Indian actor Haaran Pjey had to learn to speak Hokkien and understand Malay.

However, the 18-year-old student, who is fluent in English and Tamil, is not alone - his Chinese and Malay castmates also had to pick up one another's mother tongues.

They also had to learn to recognise their stage cues, which are mostly in Tamil, for this upcoming production by amateur Indian theatre group Avant Theatre & Language.

Actor Awad Salim, 45, tells Life!: "Sixty to 70 per cent of the play is in Tamil, so we have to pay attention to the punch line and know when to come in."

The hardest part for actress Sharon Tan, though, is not picking up a new language but trying to forget she can speak standard English.

The Republic Polytechnic lecturer, who declined to give her age, says: "I have to pretend to be a middle-aged woman who doesn't know how to speak English.

"I have to say things like 'no run, no run' instead of 'don't run, don't run' and it's so difficult because I instinctively speak standard English."

Quarters portrays life in Singapore in the 1970s and is set in a two-storey Public Utilities Board (PUB) quarters where the organisation's multiracial workers and their families live.

This was the environment in which the play's director G. Selvananthan, 47, grew up - Chinese, Malay and Indian families lived in the PUB quarters and shared a toilet and kitchen, forging bonds despite the language and cultural differences.

Playwright Arivazagan Thirugnanamalso has a similar background, having lived in the Public Works Department quarters when he was a child.

Selvananthan is the artistic director of Avant Theatre & Language.

Having studied in Melbourne, he set up Avant Theatre there in 2001 to cater to the Indian community before expanding it to Singapore a decade later.

Quarters will be the biggest of the group's four yearly productions, with a budget of $120,000, which comes from the SG50 Celebration Fund, the National Arts Council and other sponsors.

The cast of 35 portray six Indian families, one Chinese family and one Malay family.

Having a large cast posed a challenge for Selvananthan as all the actors are on the two-storey set at the same time.

The married father of two daughters aged six and five says: "In a normal play, you can engage with just one scene but I'm directing eight scenes at the same time."

However, he is confident this would not be distracting for the audience, because at any point, one scene will take centre stage. The dialogue also comes from one scene at a time.

Even so, Selvananthan says, there remains plenty of interaction among the families. "There will be intermingling among the races and the characters will each speak a mix of languages, which was exactly how people in Singapore used to communicate in the past. The scenes are not separated by race and language," he says.

In fact, it is this very mix of languages that contributes a lot to the play's comedic tone.

For instance, the Chinese family mispronounces an Indian female character's name, Pakkiyam, as Paittiyam (Tamil for "mad").

However, the jokes will not be lost on members of the audience who do not understand Tamil, as there will be English surtitles.

Quarters also aims to transcend age barriers by attempting to invoke nostalgia in the older generation, while helping the younger generation understand how Singapore's unique diverse culture and characteristics came about. This includes the inception of Singlish, which originated because people of different races had to find a way to communicate simply with one another.

The same lessons were picked up by the cast members, who are aged from eight to 82.

Tan says acting in the play reminded her of how her mother used to communicate with their Malay neighbours when she was a child.

Pjey, who is too young to have gone through the same experience, says "every moment is astonishing".

"What really shocked me about how people lived in the 1970s was the unity - people just walked into one another's houses and the children all knew one another," he says.

This kampung spirit is somewhat reflected during rehearsals.

The older actors, many of whom are veterans of local Indian theatre, often gave advice to their younger and less experienced counterparts.

The cast members also taught one another their languages and wrote out the pronunciations to help with the lines.

Tan says: "Being in this play is like being a Singaporean to me. Regardless of race, language or religion, all of us come together to rehearse and support one another."

ongkx@sph.com.sg