Theatre review: Drama Box's IgnorLAND Of Its Time explores Bukit Ho Swee

IgnorLAND Of Its Time, a performance-tour involving community performers by bilingual theatre company Drama Box. It takes place in and around Bukit Ho Swee. -- PHOTO: DRAMA BOX
IgnorLAND Of Its Time, a performance-tour involving community performers by bilingual theatre company Drama Box. It takes place in and around Bukit Ho Swee. -- PHOTO: DRAMA BOX

Singaporeans tend to have a strong attachment to space, perhaps because there is so little of it, and so little that remains the same.

In recent years, thousands have thronged the OH! Open House art walks, peeking into heartland homes in Marine Parade and Tiong Bahru; others might have experimented with a spell#7 audio tour through alleys and MRT trains. Audiences here seem to love interacting directly with spaces and excavating their stories, perhaps a spillover from our anxieties over our lack of physical heritage and fears of being cast adrift by the very spaces we call home.

Which brings us to the third edition of Drama Box's IgnorLAND series, which previously brought audiences to places such as Geylang and Labrador Park. The place in this year's spotlight is Bukit Ho Swee, most notoriously connected to the 1961 fire that wiped out thousands of homes and displaced thousands of people. Today, conspiracy theories continue to abound over the neighbourhood's history, but Drama Box wisely avoids the ceaseless politicking of assigning blame, and chooses instead to celebrate the people who built this community.

IgnorLAND Of Its Time is an intimate tour of the area with a few dramatic flourishes, a two-hour traipse through flats and shops (comfortable clothes and shoes are recommended). Its narrative framework is very simplistic - an older woman (played by Fanny Kee) brings us around while feeding us nuggets of history and offering us a glimpse of her relationship to the area, a heavy-handed metaphor for our own relationship to the past.

Kee almost seems to be playing an extension of her character in Jean Tay's popular 2008 play, Boom, an ageing mother who cannot bear to let go of her decrepit home. Incidentally, Tay helped to write the script for IgnorLAND. There are clear resonances between the two scripts, which fit into the same push-pull of holding on and letting go of our past.

In this sense, the performance-tour does not quite do anything particularly groundbreaking. Yes, the stories told here are important and intriguing, but there is little of a new approach when it comes to exploring our country's history, just a slight shifting of the lens. Of course, there is nothing wrong with continually examining our links to the past, but there comes a time where we must go beyond despairing over our disappearing physical heritage, because it can confine rather than enable.

"The past is a cage!" our narrator declares, dispensing similar platitudes from time to time, and she later requests that we walk "hand in hand with the past" as we leave. This is often what I find most problematic with the art of nostalgia, the way productions embrace its rosy glow but do not inspire us to reclaim what is lost, or assess the possibilities of the future - choosing to be instructive over being constructive. As much as we look back, we must also remember that we are inevitably going forward.

But IgnorLAND does strengthen this narrative with a timely and powerful reminder that our physical heritage is not just the attap huts that have burned down, or the languor of kampung life that has all but disappeared - but also the mortality of our pioneer generation. Drama Box gently honours the first people to make a living in this country, to iron out the teething pains of a young nation.

The elderly Mr Tay Ah Chuan, 75, for instance, who helped to found the Beo Crescent Market Hawkers Association, had to deal with the roughness of gang life around him and smooth over conflicts affecting his hawker colleagues. Mr Tay almost glistens with pride when he points out the association's tiny office space, and how they introduced a public address system in the hawker centre so that everyone could hear announcements at the same time, or even listen to a little light music. Then there is soya bean milk seller Alison Koh, who was elected chairman of the Hawkers Association by her fellow hawkers last year, much to her surprise, and who offers insight into what it means to adapt and be part of a community.

It is Drama Box's wonderful work with these community performers - mostly senior citizens - that gives this edition of IgnorLAND its heart. It is clear that co-directors Koh Hui Ling and Han Xuemei have made a genuine and large-scale effort to engage the Bukit Ho Swee community in presenting their universe to us, and here, there is an echo of the well-received Parallel Cities performances that the theatre company also helped to curate for the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival, where audience members made voyeuristic visits to a printing factory in Kallang.

I hope groups will continue to wrestle with this question of space, but in ways that interrogate our past, not simply memorialise it. And Drama Box does this best when it also connects with people rather than solely fixating on place.

As we meandered through the tightly-packed neighbourhood, observing its lights rising against a thick night sky, there was the sense that we were interrupting others' daily lives (we picked up many curious passers-by at each stop), but that we were also part of this larger fabric of our community - a reminder not to forget who our neighbours are, and how important they were in bringing our country to life.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Book it

IGNORLAND OF ITS TIME: THE PERFORMANCE-TOUR

Where: Meet at Kim Seng Community Centre, 570 Havelock Road

When: Till Aug 1, 7.30pm daily (no show on July 28)

Admission: Free, but registration is required. Go to ignorland-performance.eventbrite.sg

Info: Presented in English, Mandarin and Hokkien