Prose, poetry and prattle: some published, and some ... well, not yet.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Not armies, but artists

There are days I wake up wishing it were all a dream. It has never been easy, but hopefully, the pain can turn into joy. Like childbirth. No, this is not from personal experience. I am biologically male. Well, OK, anatomically, then. Genitally?

But the truth is, a job in my chosen line – of being a writer such as those who churn out articles like this – is like living on the edge. From deadline, to deadline. Clever people like you will proclaim, “Life’s like that, what?”

The wiser ones would chip in, “School is meant to prepare you for the dreaded deadline. And deadlines are good because targets must be met.” And to that I would add, “a wholly adult construct”. No wonder then that the wise are usually old. Deadlines can age you. Fast.

Homework, projects, examinations. I am sure you have noticed how they have a tendency to turn days, weeks, and months into semesters, diplomas and degrees. One academic hurdle after another, and before you know it, you are flipping a motar board into the air, even as you yourself are propelled into the rat race. Fast.

I graduated with a degree in the arts. A generalist of sorts, armed to do most things except build something out of sand or metal; cut, stitch and heal body or soul; or even argue in a court of law. And so it came to pass that I would find first employment as an advertising copywriter. This was in the last millennium. The truth is it was a decade and a half before the end of the last, when Lim Kok Wing was still a Mr., not yet institutionalized, and most people weren’t sure exactly what such a job entailed.

For the uninitiated, I choose to repeat or, more aptly, plagiarise, from someone more articulate than I. He was, if memory serves me well, an advertising legend who said, “Copywriters spend ten percent of their time writing, and ninety percent of their time convincing their clients they really can write.”

So, there you go. When I heard it, an epiphany happened. The uninitiated would need to be told that an epiphany is that light-bulb thing you see in comics. Except that this one was in neon tubes that spelt out the following: “Being creative isn’t just about, being creative. You need to be convincing.”

Following that, another thing happened. (Dare I call it a pro-phani-ty?) Coupled like a wonderfully familiar cliché of a metaphor the phrase fell into my cerebral lap: creativity and conviction – they need each other, like, yes, the chicken and the egg. Of course, the second of the couplings we know as the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum of metaphors.

“But which is which?” did I hear you ask? It doesn’t matter if you get the point.

If it is meant to go anywhere, do anything, or be of any worth, creativity requires conviction. And conviction with creativity rocks. It is as simple as that. Seriously simple. That it takes conviction to motivate, and encourage creativity.

So what really is creativity? Those ideas turned into action that moves things forward. Some are simple, others more complex, each requiring the conviction of time, effort and support.

Creativity usually begins with curiosity. And curiosity often begins with questions. So when two or three or more are gathered in the name of curiosity, asking questions and looking for answers, whether factual or artistic, we should not be afraid. Because, it simply means that creativity is a foot, and that the germination of more ideas is about to occur, and move us forward, as one happy kelompok.

Imagine if Newton had ignored the apple, or Magellan had not bothered what lay beyond the horizon, where might mankind be right now? Not very far from where he first started, right?

Let go further back. If prehistoric man had been cast into a hypnotic spell by the flickering tongues of a flame, and sat rigid not wondering if by its heat he could make his Brontasaurus steak a little more appetizing, could Chef Wan be a celebrity cook today?

Ask? Answer.

Creativity needs conviction. It needs our courage and support, not a tempurung, to flourish fearlessly and constructively.

Imagine? When that happens, everywhere, nations could very well be represented not by armies, but by artists, and rather than fight with each other, we will simply show off our best, creative minds, moving mankind forward in mind, body and soul.

Yes, when that happens – and it can, please: BE CONVINCED – the world will be one great big arts festival.

Yes! Much more enjoyable than what’s going down here on earth and in our land just right now.

So please, someone – set a deadline. Fast.

- THE SHRIMP WARRIOR~ fighting for the ‘lil flings

(Published in WEEKEND MAIL - 28th September 2006)

Friday, 1 September 2006

Text Appeal

(Published in the November 2006 edition of THE HILT.)

Lessons lurk in two kinds of history: those collected and endorsed by official historians; or that shared by a communal imagination. For instance, just how different is Malaysia from its nextdoor neighbour, Singapore? Expect this question to strike up fascinating chitchat among its citizens. Honestly. Providing, of course, neither of either ilk are in earshot of each other. So what better way to really tell it like it is than a cross-Causeway collaboration where written texts, not just scripts, are interpreted by theatre practitioners from the other country?

Flashback: It is July 2004 at a popular nightclub called Zouk, but it is 5pm in the evening. Too early for the fashionable clubbing set of Kuala Lumpur yet people are streaming into one of its cavernous dancehalls. It will shock the regular Zouk visitor to know that this is a gathering of bespectacled bookworms and stuffy literary types. Billed as RIDE THE NICE BUS, the event is part of the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Literary Fest. Five of among KL's finest actors will give dramatic release to poems and extracts of plays. The material is Singaporean, the actors Malaysian, and the bus referred to as “Nice” is a popular executive coach service, which to this day plies dutifully between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Conceived by Madeleine Lee, Alvin Pang and Eleanor Wong (two Singaporean poets and a playwright), curated by Pang and Wong, and given over to Krishen Jit (Malaysian theatre director) to mould into a performative experience, the one-off performance of RIDE THE NICE BUS concludes to thunderous applause.

The RIDE, from its opening poem, where the iconic Singaporean fountain is given a theatrical brushing down in Edwin Thumboo’s poem “Ulysses By The Merlion”, to the final piece, a lyrical extract from Kuo Pao Kun’s script “Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral”, is breathtaking. Jit deftly weaves Singapore’s diverse literary excavations for affirmation and identity into an exquisite tapestry, and the Malaysian actors deliver with honesty and vigour. The mainly Malaysian audience sees the nation nextdoor grappling with the many psychoses of fast-track development, walking the East-West tightrope of social and moral values, and empathizes. The next fuse is kindled when Lee, Wong, Jit and his wife, dancer-choreographer, Marion D’Cruz, share a post-show chitchat in a taxi-ride through KL.

Fast-forward to a year later: September 2005, Singapore. The Singapore Writers Festival is coming to an end. Theatre company, W!LD RICE has been commissioned to present a stage production to close the festival. A re-enactment of the taxi chitchat by Wong and Lee, who has secured official support and funding) has inspired the company’s founder and artistic director, Ivan Heng, to revive Jit’s original Malaysian vision together with a Singaporean rejoinder. W!LD RICE buses in the Malaysian actors, perhaps 'Nice-ly' too, and Heng appends to Jit’s anthology his own response: Malaysian material curated by Leow Puay Tin (Malaysian playwright/actor), and a cast of five of among Singapore’s best. The back-to-back versions – like two nations in a theatrical pas de deux - would be billed by Heng as SECOND LINK – a reference to the newer, more modern bridge at Tuas that connects the two countries.

As Heng builds on the original concept of “performed literature”, he is aided by a retrospective advantage, and a more wily Leow, who plumbs the depth of Malaysia's writing heritage, trawling up not just poetry and scripts, but also folklore, historical and government policy documents, press interviews, even a recipe for Steamed Chicken Rice. Enlarging the aperture of writings beyond just poetry and plays aptly echoes the polygenous social fabric in a more geographically and socially expansive Malaysia. Leow then titles it TIKAM-TIKAM: A MALAYSIAN ROULETTE and instructs that it lives up to its namesake, the tikam-tikam: a local lucky dip game that Malaysians and Singaporeans would have experienced as children. In similar ‘luck of the draw’ fashion (hence, the roulette reference) audience members would determine this chapter’s running sequence of Malaysian texts. Only the opening piece and the end piece would remain pre-determined and anchored.

Between its set beginning and end, TIKAM-TIKAM’s unpredictable sequence of Malaysian texts each night would challenge the Singaporean performers – not unlike the way a Malaysian’s casual nature might push the wrong buttons of the more punctual, fastidious Singaporean. Its ‘one day this way, the next day that way’ line-up – perhaps cheeky acknowledgement of the peninisula’s more fragmented, organic, and edgy demeanour – would throw up new juxtapositions and contextual semantics with every showing. In fact, Leow’s curatorial decisions reflect a predilection to issues of race and religion, though always artistically veiled and stopping short of being overt and offensive. The opening piece, “In 1969” a short story by Beth Yahp about her mother in the year of Malaysia’s worst racial upheaval is a chilling yet heartfelt curtain-raiser.

With SECOND LINK, the similiarities and differences of Malaysia and Singapore seem to loom like an apparition through a frosted windowpane – evident but not conclusive. The Singaporean audience connects, just as the Malaysians did to their writers one year before. It seems that cross-border empathy is an emotion leveraged best by imaginative artists. The last piece of TIKAM-TIKAM, and also the piece which closes SECOND LINK, is a poem called “Dance” by Fadzilah Amin. Malaysian actors return to the stage to partner each Singaporean for a poem about the Malay traditional dance known as Ronggeng. It is a masterly choice and brilliant dramaturgy: “If only at one point our hands could clasp / What rich variety of movement and gesture could be ours.”

SECOND LINK is a runaway success. W!LD RICE is compelled to open the higher stalls at the spanking new National Library’s Drama Centre, to accommodate unanticipated ticket sales, audiences are delighted with the pumped-up version of what began as BUS, and a Singapore daily runs two lauding reviews of the production on the very same day. The new and improved formula of a text-exchange between theatre representatives of each country is ‘seconded’ enthusiastically by both critics and box-office.
Its success soon attracts the attention of the Hong Kong City Festival of Arts. Five months after, in January this year, W!LD RICE tailors a downsized version to fit a smaller venue, taking the project in a new form to a new audience. The bilateral cross-cultural endeavour generates waves of goodwill probably more lasting than any political entourage.

In early August 2006, W!LD RICE launches the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival. Living up to its name, it is the daring theatre company’s initiative to celebrate Singaporean writing. Five new scripts would premiere at this three-week celebration of new Singaporean plays. Without a major corporate sponsor, it is a massive gamble that pays off at the box-office, and Heng and his team are vindicated. Most of the total of nine productions are a sell-out. To close the festival, SECOND LINK is offered to Singaporean audiences for the second time, and given a second chance to be honed and polished, it is no surprise that Singaporeans lap it up ecstatically. At a festival meant to help springboard new Singaporean plays, a diverse selection of Malaysian writing, together with the talents of our actors, enjoyed their moment in the limelight. How can Malaysians not be pleased?

On the eve of Malaysia’s 49th Hari Kebangsaan (National Day) W!LD RICE unleashed the 5th staging of this fascinating project for a Malaysian season to more acclaim. We can learn from history, yes, we all know that. Yet so often we forget to document the development of landmark creative and communal endeavours. I believe the BUS that became the LINK to be one such landmark, and we are reminded once again that artists truly build bridges. In this case especially, it is one bridge where no natural terrain, no flora nor fauna (not even a politician’s ego) had been compromised to build it.

(1,299 words – 1 September 2006)


The Kuala Lumpur season of “SECOND LINK – The Singapore- Malaysia Text Exchange” was performed at The Actors Studio, Bangsar from 30th August to 3rd September 2006. It was directed by Ivan Heng and presented by Wild Rice in collaboration with Five Arts Centre and The Actors Studio. More information at

Vernon Adrian Emuang performed in the Singapore season of SECOND LINK in 2004. He is also an arts activist, highly supportive of intercultural, experimental and multigeneric projects.