Theatre Review: Spirited crash course in Singapore history, told through cross talk

Crosstalk veterans Johnny Ng (second from left) and Yong Ser Pin (third from left) are cast members of It Could Have Been, a 120-minute crosstalk production written and directed by Han Lao Da (left) and Kok Heng Leun (right). -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Crosstalk veterans Johnny Ng (second from left) and Yong Ser Pin (third from left) are cast members of It Could Have Been, a 120-minute crosstalk production written and directed by Han Lao Da (left) and Kok Heng Leun (right). -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

SINGAPORE - This cross talk theatre production was a spirited crash course in Singapore history from the viewpoint of the Chinese educated, but one wished that its jokes carried more bite.

The premise for the history lessons is a birthday party that Liu Da Po (Johnny Ng), born on the same day as Singapore 50 years ago, is planning for himself, to jolt the memories of his dementia afflicted father (Yong Ser Pin).

Through the talk the Lius have with their guests, key episodes in Singapore's history are presented from a bottom-up perspective in this play by Cultural Medallion winner Han Lao Da, founder of the Xin Feng Xiang Sheng Society.

A folk art that started in the late Qing period, cross talk uses humour and sarcasm as a way to express people's views on current affairs and is suitably used here to tell the folk history of Singapore.

Emphasis is given to the stories overlooked by the textbook history of Singapore, such as that of carpenter Cao Ya Zhi, or Cho Ah Chee, who was believed to have helped guide Stamford Raffles to land in Singapore. 

Or the anti-Japanese resistance fighters who subsequently joined the Malayan Communist Party and were barred from returning to Singapore thereafter. An image of To Singapore With Love, film-maker Tan Pin Pin’s documentary about Singapore exiles was flashed on the screen, in a nod to them.

This segment represented one of the more introspective moments of the 120-minute production, as did a "ah gong kung gor" (grandpa speaks of the past) soliloquy by Yong's character.

In a poignant passage, he reflected on how even as Singapore has gone from the Third World to the First, those outside the English-speaking strata of society are still very much a disadvantaged group. 

If ah gong as a young man was given the go-around when he went to the immigration authorities in colonial days, ah gong is equally befuddled by bureaucratic procedures in present-day Singapore. 

Yong's character lamented they should be Paimia instead of Pioneer Generation, using the Hokkien term for ill fortune.

Elsewhere, the cross talk format kept things light hearted as the characters banter on about whether Sang Nila Utama really saw a lion or why some older Chinese Singaporeans had names like Lao Chao Boh - meaning old woman in Hokkien.

But most of the jokes hardly brought on belly laughs, much less laughter verging on tears.

For instance, a segment comparing the separation of Singapore to the birth pangs of a mother was rather cliched.

While fireworks went off on a screen during the final scene, the play fizzled out in a feel-good ending that featured a token Malay and Indian character as well as celebratory toasts that rang hollow.

Still, there were a few exceptions, such as a segment on new and old Chinese immigrants that offered new insights and made one reflect more deeply on one's biases. 

Take a joke about how the new arrivals from China - caricatured to carry a loud voice - were actually afraid to speak out. For their poor English offend Singaporeans who speak only English, while their excellent Mandarin offends those who speak only Mandarin.

It could have been - a truly memorable production - if more of its jokes had packed more bite and sting.

hoaili@sph.com.sg

BOOK IT

IT COULD HAVE BEEN

Where: Esplanade Theatre 

When: Saturday (May 9) at 2pm

Admissions: $30, $50 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)