Capturing history with passion

Mia Chee and Tay Kong Hui star in Art Studio, which reimagines Yeng Pway Ngon's novel about a group of artists.
Mia Chee and Tay Kong Hui star in Art Studio, which reimagines Yeng Pway Ngon's novel about a group of artists. PHOTO: TAN NGIAP HENG



Nine Years Theatre

Singapore International Festival of Arts

Victoria Theatre/Thursday

Art Studio frames observations about the nature of art and what it takes to live as an artist. It also presents lives as works of art, literally on stage in Nine Years Theatre's detailed stage adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon's 2011 novel Hua Shi.

Novelists use text to frame their ideas and the challenge for Yeng was representing people who draw or paint through monochrome words.


  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 11 Empress Place MRT: City Hall/Raffles Place

    WHEN: Today, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $35 to $65 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: Advisory 16 (mature content). Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles. Go to

The challenge is now reversed. Theatre is a visual genre. The three- hour run plods in moments when scriptwriter-director Nelson Chia puts Yeng's 240,000-word text centre stage. It flies by when Chia places his athletic cast in a position to express the stories and personas of the characters through movement and the positioning of their bodies.

In one scene, art teacher Yan Pei (Tay Kong Hui) faces questioning from the black-clad members of the ensemble in a neatly contrived info dump, after a student with known communist leanings disappears from Singapore.

English surtitles crowd the screens on either side of the stage, but the menace of the situation is obvious at a glance. Then a cast member rises and moves slowly towards Yan Pei as the questions intrude into the matter of his broken marriage to Wan Zhen (Mia Chee). The mood changes deliberately towards love and loss. Every second is neatly, literally framed by rectangular sets from Wong Chee Wai, a splash of colour offered by the little red books the ensemble holds in a visual nod to communist hunts in 1970s Singapore.

Scene by scene, snapshot by snapshot, Art Studio is beautiful, another stand-out work commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts over the past four years. Multimedia by Genevieve Pek, music by Chong Li-Chuan and sound by Ng Jing are wielded like brushstrokes, sometimes expansively, sometimes in fine details such as the sound of rain intensifying an unbearable intimacy between two strangers in a small room.

The dozen actors on stage are flawless and deployed like a painter would use colour or shadow. In coloured shirts, the cast are named characters. In all-black, they are background shading adding verisimilitude to the locations of the story - brothels, a highway through a jungle, the art studio where the play begins.

Like Hotel, created by Wild Rice for the 2015 festival, Art Studio is an epic depiction of Singaporean and regional history. The story moves from 1979 to 2010, including new arts movements, the rise of the English language to the detriment of vernacular or mother-tongue narratives and even the gentrification of Singapore.

It is also an intensely personal story. Yeng wrote his novel while battling cancer and the illness shapes or truncates the lives of several characters.

Another character's pursuit of Carnatic music could have been inspired by Yeng's own wife, a student of the same. It does not really matter. As the play and novel show, art need not be considered along with its creator.

The play begins and ends like the novel does, with a sketch, a moment of time captured on a piece of paper.

In the 30 years following the making of that sketch in a shared studio, the artists present then have changed. They have lost loves, found friends, entered or freed themselves from prisons of steel or habit. Yet the art remains unchanged. Good or bad, it captures a moment that was and will never be again. Just as this play does, framing a slice of time memorably, with passion and honesty.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline Capturing history with passion. Subscribe