02 Aug 2018
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10 September 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of Kuo Pao Kun’s passing. The renowned Singaporean playwright and director was one of the most important dramatists, arts activists and public intellectuals of contemporary Singapore.

One of Singapore's most important dramatists, arts activists and public intellectuals, Kuo Pao Kun's life spanned all of local theatre's own burgeoning developments.
It is easy to fall into elegy when examining Kuo's contribution, but ultimately, re-membering entails bringing together the various aspects of his work and life to understand his value in our society. Alvin Tan, founder director of The Necessary Stage, Kuo Pao Kun International Conference, September 2012

10 September 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of Kuo Pao Kun’s passing. The renowned Singaporean playwright and director was one of the most important dramatists, arts activists and public intellectuals of contemporary Singapore. His plays have been translated into Malay, Tamil, Hindi, German, Japanese, and performed around the world from Africa to Australia.

This year also marks a decade since the opening of Esplanade—Theatres by the Bay. Officially declared open on 10 October 2002, the performance arts complex was considered a crucial pinnacle in a grand plan to remake Singapore as a renaissance city. Still, Singapore barely had the credentials for such ambition, and the timing, around the time of the SARS pandemic, would affect travel and the attendance of artists to support the cause.

Fast forward a decade later, a series of commemorations has taken place to reflect on the man many consider to be the founding father of Singapore theatre, and his contributions to the development of Singapore theatre. Kuo Pao Kun’s plays have paralleled the trajectory of Singapore theatre, not only in its socialcultural changes, but also its socio-political concerns.

Born in Hebei, China in 1939, he grew up in Beijing, and was sent for by his father in Singapore when he was ten—after spending nine months in transition in Hong Kong. Kuo arrived speaking none of the local dialects other than his native-style Cantonese, and knew none of the 26 English alphabets. However, his fluent Beijing-accented Mandarin gave him a social advantage, especially during his stint as a broadcaster at radio station Rediffusion’s Mandarin play section. (Rediffusion, a staple for over thirty years, finally closed this year on 30 April due to commercial reasons. Its demise reflects the loss of another heritage icon in our changing society.) Nonetheless, his background positioned him well to be a voice of a generation, and a polyglot voice to boot.

During the student unrest in the early 1950s, he was pulled out from his studies by his father, and later further removed when he was shipped off to Hong Kong; The Chinese High School (now known as Hwa Chong Institution) was one of the Chinese political strongholds. He returned to Singapore after the unrest, this time directly to an English-medium school called Pasir Panjang Secondary School. After graduating in 1959, he left for Melbourne and worked as a translator/ announcer at Radio Australia for three and a half years, before taking up an intensive two-year drama programme with the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney. When he returned to Singapore, it was 1965, and the party that had just gained power when he left was now to lead the charge in the newly independent nation-state.

Early turbulence

When asked why he returned when Sydney represented more artistic opportunities, not least, the glamour of a rare opportunity overseas, Kuo said he was drawn back by the nationalist movement of the 1960s. Indeed the turbulence provided ripe material for his work.

Kuo’s early plays focused on politicised social issues, reflecting its turbulent times both in Singapore, as well as an increasingly fractional revolutionary environment internationally. His first full-length Mandarin play was Hey, Wake Up! (1968). Next, The Struggle (1969) is about a family who lose their plot of land to a property developer. The play was banned by the authorities, which was actively acquiring land on the cheap to found a modern city-state.

In 1965, the year of Singapore’s independence, he founded the Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS) with his wife, dancer and choreographer Goh Lay Kuan. He imagined the pioneer independent performing arts institution to be a symbiosis of school and professional company linked together to lay the ground for a vibrant theatre scene. One problem was the lack of interest in actually practicing drama professionally. To boot, “to teach by charging a fee was rejected even by many in the theatre world, because Chinese theatre had always been part of cultural movements since the May 4th Movement of 1919.” Kuo, however, believes this was not simply a ‘Chinese model’ but reflection of the times.

Chinese drama was then the most active, and between 1965 and 1975, commanded an audience with as many as 20,000 people per production. Kuo has said, “Some of our original plays could sell out a season of 15 or even 20 performances two weeks before opening at the Singapore Victoria Theatre, which seats 900. The market was not really the problem when you have mass movements, and if the drama is entrenched in those movements.”

In 1976, Kuo was detained under the Internal Security Act by the Singapore Government for four years and seven months on communist conspiracy charges, among hundreds of others. Of that period, he has offered, “You see, how you draw the line is difficult. It depends on who draws the line… He (Bertolt Brecht, who was one of the most important theatre makers of the 20th century) is a selfdeclared Marxist.” In 1966, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the first Brecht play presented to Singapore audiences, had been produced and translated into Mandarin by Kuo.


Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002), the playwright, theatre director, and arts activist.

Post-1980s experimentations

By the 1980s, the political landscape had evolved. It was the decade of rapid development, and to a great degree, the years that redrew the economic, social, political and psychological landscape of Singapore.

After his release from prison, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1984) marked a new direction. While much of his writing was considered social-political criticism, Kuo said, “it was no longer my interest” from the 1980s. Regardless, many tend to read his plays as political, partly because of his background, partly because they comment on the social issues that affect every strata of society.

He dropped the use of perfect Mandarin diction to employ localised, everyday language. As his first English piece, Coffin is also considered a seminal work. That it was translated to other languages such as Tamil and Hindi, and produced by Malays and Indonesians, even though the Muslims among them do not bury their dead, was testament to its powerful grasp of everyman’s struggle in a modern society run by bureaucrats, and the resonance of the message across other societies.

The 1980s marked an upswing in English theatre, led by three key theatre companies: The Necessary Stage (TNS), TheatreWorks, and The Theatre Practice (TTP), which was Singapore’s first local bilingual theatre group with Kuo as its major enabling figure. The emerging affluence of Singapore grew a bigger market for drama. English being elevated to the national first language in the late 1970s was one change that aided this shift.

Local English theatre started to express local sentiments only from the 1960s, but Kuo noted “they were spearheaded by intellectuals who were detached from the mass movements”. They were university lecturers, students and teachers; never part of the popular culture or popular movement, and the theatre reflected the myriad levels of a nation reorganising itself: political struggle over identity, displacement of people, the reorganisation of the economy, rewriting of the labour laws, suppression of dissenting political, student, and labour movements.

The polyglot and the humanist

Kuo broke the mould of single-language theatre when he began writing in two languages. He usually translated his own work at least partly to reach a larger local audience. Popular among both artists and intellectuals, his networks bridged the gulf between Chinesespeaking and the English-speaking and also that between East Asian and Southeast Asian communities. His own plays reflect the multilingual realities of Singapore life. Unlike the powers that be, he did not see it as Babel, a cacophony of voices. He heard instead an orchestra.

Mama Looking for Her Cat (1984) is now regarded as a classic of Singapore’s national theatre. Using seven languages and the regional languages commonly used in Singapore, loosely known as dialects, the play reflects the increasing marginalisation of dialects in Singapore in the 1980s, which were censured from print and media broadcasts by the 1990s. Mama speaks Hokkien, and the tale of an old woman alienated from her English and Mandarin educated children allude to the disjunctures between languages and traditions, as well as authority and people.

It pre-dates the Speak Proper English campaign in 2000, which sought to overcome a hybrid of tongues that had come to characterise the Singapore language. Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “Singaporeans should not take the attitude that…speaking Singlish makes them more ‘Singaporean’. If they speak Singlish when they can speak good English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore!” (Straits Times, 29 April 2000). This was a key part of a plan to develop Singapore into a ‘renaissance city’, which involved creating international ties, and crucially, the investment towards economy, and bench-marking with cities such as Melbourne, Hong Kong, and Glasgow, and aspirationally, New York and London. This drive outwards in building the arts’ marks an interesting contrast with Kuo’s examination of within.

Mama also marks Kuo’s essential humanism in his vision of theatre. By seeking a theatre that ‘remembers’, ‘recreates’, and ‘activates’, Kuo believes “to consolidate the unity of pluralistic people, it is necessary to explore the complexity of life in greater depth, and with greater vigour”.

Melanie Chua is editor at Global-is-Asian. Her email is decb64_bWVsYW5pZWNodWFAbnVzLmVkdS5zZw==_decb64

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