Jokes with more bite would make this at times introspective cross-talk work memorable
IT COULD HAVE BEEN ____!
Sin Feng Xiang Sheng Society (Singapore)
Esplanade Theatre/Last Friday
This cross-talk theatre production in Mandarin 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 recipient Han Lao Da, founder of the Sin 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 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 an “ah gong kung gor” (Hokkien for 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, he 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 bantered on about whether Sang Nila Utama really saw a lion or why some older Chinese Singaporeans had names such as Lao Cha 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 with the birth pangs of a mother was rather cliched, as was the joke about how Singaporeans’ response in a crisis was to wait for the People’s Action Party to take action.
While fireworks went off on a screen in 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 have loud voices – are actually afraid to speak out. For their poor English offends 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 sting.