Richly diverse Chinatown

Jodi Chan (left) and Sabrina Sng star in Chinatown Crossings.
Jodi Chan (left) and Sabrina Sng star in Chinatown Crossings.PHOTO: DRAMA BOX

Drama Box's new site-specific show takes viewers through stories of old Singapore and reveals the people behind them

Known for its site-specific performances that draw out the histories of communities and places around Singapore, Drama Box hopes to revitalise the kampung spirit of Chinatown with its new promenade theatre experience, Chinatown Crossings.

Written by playwright Jean Tay and directed by the troupe's associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling, Chinatown Crossings will show for 30 evening performances starting on Friday and ending Aug 18.

The show starring Pavan Singh, Jodi Chan and Sabrina Sng is based on interviews conducted with current and former residents of Chinatown. It takes viewers through locations in Kreta Ayer and Keong Saik.

It is not, however, a tour of the location, say Koh and Singh, during an interview at Drama Box's offices in a Trengganu Street shophouse, in the heart of Chinatown.

"Immediately, you think it's a tour but it's not," says Singh. "It's a theatrical experience." He is not allowed to veer off-script, nor is he allowed to improvise based on participants' interest in specific areas, as a tour guide could.

He plays Kunalan, a man who grew up in a Chinatown shophouse during the 1960s and 1970s and who has returned to trace his past. The story follows Kunalan's interactions with his landlady and her family and is based on the stories of three Indian men who grew up in Chinatown.

Koh says it was a deliberate decision to have an Indian character take the lead to show the multi-ethnic nature of Chinatown. "Our Chinatown is special in its diversity," she says. "All other Chinatowns around the world were Chinese towns. But in Singapore, it was quite common to see other families as well."

  • BOOK IT/ CHINATOWN CROSSINGS

  • WHERE: Meeting point will be revealed closer to date.

    WHEN: Friday and Saturday; June 28 to 30, July 5 to 7, 12 to 14, 18 to 21, 25 to 28, Aug 1 to 4, 8, 10 and 11, 15 to 18. All shows start at 7.30pm.

    ADMISSION: $68 from chinatowncrossings. peatix.com. Shows on Friday and Saturday and July 26 are sold out.

    INFO: Performed in English, with some Cantonese. Translation in English will be provided upon request.

    More at www.chinatowncrossings.sg

Chinatown Crossings is a pilot project as Drama Box looks to community theatre projects that can also help sustain the troupe's operations. Previous site-specific works such as the IgnorLand series in 2014 and 2016 were either free to watch, or required a small donation for materials key to the experience.

The work is supported by the Singapore Tourism Board among other sponsors, but was developed with Singaporean viewers in mind, rather than tourists. Instead of an area tour focusing on activities, Chinatown Crossings focuses on the people behind the stories being told.

While interviewing dozens of residents and business-owners, including the family running the souvenir shop below Drama Box's office, the team heard how the area struggles to retain a sense of community.

Singh says: "Chinatown is tourism and business now but, in the past, it had the village spirit where everybody knew everybody. The wet market was where you got all your news. If someone was sick, someone else from the other end of Chinatown would bring them porridge."

Drama Box has conducted trial workshops with businesses on Mosque Street and is looking to involve more players in Chinatown in future outings. Koh says: "We're trying to see how we can contribute to the people who have been here for generations and are trying very hard to let Chinatown be meaningful, not just commercialised."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'Richly diverse Chinatown'. Print Edition | Subscribe