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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Citizen X marks the spot for a family treasure none of us can find

By Corrie Tan
(2,050 words, 10-minute read)

Over the course of Citizen X, my father nudges me in the arm several times, whispering loudly and theatrically: “It’s so similar leh!” All throughout the 75 minutes, he wiggles around in his seat, emitting sighs, laughter, tsk-tsks, and the occasional “wow”. My father – a stoic and reserved ex-engineer in his mid-60s whom I’ve had to beg to go with me to the theatre for the handful of times that he has – lights up the moment we step into the Esplanade Theatre Studio. “That’s Teochew!” he declares, grinning and gesturing in the direction of the music being piped in through the speakers. “It’s Teochew!”

Citizen X is, in some senses, my father’s story. It is my story. It is also the story of many, many second- and third-generation Chinese Singaporeans whose parents and grandparents filtered over from southern China in the 1920s and 1930s – of the small nuclear dramas that play out in everyday life, of attempts at family histories that quickly become family mythologies. Performance-maker Liu Xiaoyi, playing himself, attempts to unravel the mystery of his late grandfather Liu Shuo Tian’s brief journey to Singapore between 1928-1930, seven decades before Xiaoyi would make his own journey to Singapore as a secondary school student. While his grandfather chose to return to Jieyang, Xiaoyi stayed on in Nanyang. Citizen X is a solo show, paralleling these lone voyages, and most of the performance takes place in a 3m-by-3m bedroom looking much more like a desperate Tetris game of battered second-hand furniture. As Xiaoyi frames the broad strokes of his family story, giving voice to a whole host of characters through his own body, he rearranges and picks his way over and through the detritus of the bedroom, a set put together by director Oliver Chong and lit by Gabriel Chan: a creaky bedframe on its side, a discoloured mattress against the wall, a standing fan that refuses to work, a lightbulb strung from the ceiling that refuses to turn on.

 

Courtesy of The Finger Players

 

Memory works hard against Xiaoyi here. Citizen X does initially feel like a sister play to the hit monodrama Roots (2012) by Oliver Chong, who went on a similar journey back to his ancestral hometown in Taishan (about 500km away from Jieyang; a 6-hour drive). Incidentally, Oliver and Xiaoyi are long-time friends and collaborators, and Oliver is also Citizen X’s director. There are more than just a few shared themes: gaps in the archives and annals that leave little to no trace of historical documentation; mystery romances and whispers of ‘another woman’; and older extended family members who don’t remember the past, either from the ravages of dementia – or from sheer force of will. “We should let go of the past!” becomes a common refrain, papering over the trauma of dislocation and forcibly severed family ties. 

When responding to Roots, I dwelt mostly with these familial and cultural severances, the gift and curse of what Singaporean dramatist Kuo Pao Kun conceptualised as the ‘cultural orphan’, to signify the (mainly Chinese) Singaporean uprooted from their ancestral homeland. Over the course of Oliver’s search, he encounters a dismissive Hong Kong netizen on an internet forum who writes: “My surname is also Chong. But my ‘Chong’ (鍾, in traditional Chinese script) is different from yours (钟, in simplified Chinese). Yours has been castrated. So why bother to find any roots? You don’t have roots any more.” (“我是姓钟的。可是我的‘鍾’和你的‘钟’不一样。因为你的‘钟’是被阉割过的。既然被阉割了,还寻什么根?你根本就已经没有根了。”) Oliver wanders further and further along the treasure hunt for home, hopping from one scrap of a clue to the next, but ultimately leaves Taishan empty handed. One of the most profound images from Roots that has continued to linger with me is Oliver, dressed completely in white, lying face down on a stage covered in rice grains, stifling a guttural cry of frustration and despair. Xiaoyi’s frustration in Citizen X never quite bubbles over in the same way, but it’s there nonetheless, simmering and roiling beneath his genial exterior.

 

Courtesy of The Finger Players

 

But Citizen X is also a spiritual successor to the “Citizen” trilogy helmed by Xiaoyi and Oliver – preceded by Citizen Pig (2013) and the exquisite Citizen Dog (2018). Over the past eight years, Citizen Pig, Citizen Dog and Citizen X have each considered the different dimensions of physical displacement on “the citizen”, where personal wounds mingle with and are inextricable from political hurts. In Pig, Xiaoyi’s character has no claims to a physical home, and is discriminated against in the Singapore rental market based on his status as a more recent immigrant from the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”, sometimes a Sinophobic shorthand for certain diasporic Chinese communities). In Dog, set against the looming inevitability of housing lease expiry, Oliver maps the 18th-century Liao Zhai supernatural folk tales and their critique of Qing Dynasty feudalism, imperial examinations and social class onto contemporary issues of bureaucracy, displacement and land ownership in Singapore. Here, even the “land-owning” Singaporean citizen has no claim to the land they own, and their residential desires are secondary to the spatial designs of the state, who can set a timer on ownership and recall the land when that time is up. And finally, in X, the land-owning class is Xiaoyi’s extended family in China, who are promptly dispossessed during the clash between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party (CCP), whose histories and memories (embedded in letters, photographs, furniture) are seized by the powers that be and never returned. 

But the idea of citizenship in this trilogy goes beyond notions of residing on or owning “land”, be it several familial houses in Guangdong or a shoebox HDB flat in Singapore. I have been thinking a lot about “affective citizenship”: paying attention to how people feel about each other and the geographical boundaries of what constitutes their ‘nation’, or towards in-groups and out-groups (whether this is love, disgust, hate, pain or fear) – and how these emotions are connected to practices of state governance and may be reflected and even regulated or reproduced when it comes to government policy, discourse and practices (Bilgin Ayata: 2019; Sara Ahmed: 2000, 2004/2014). Xiaoyi’s family history is sticky with emotion around political and national traumas: his grandfather is a casualty of KMT-CCP infighting, and his family members go through tortuous and arbitrary cycles of self-criticism and re-education, closing off educational and vocational opportunities and other forms of socioeconomic mobility. This collective guilt may have since faded out of immediate memory, diluted with each generation, but it lingers on as a personal guilt: as a childless artist, Xiaoyi is neither “the good citizen” nor “the good son” because he is unproductive on two fronts, both in terms of his profession and his lack of offspring. He has forsaken China and his ancestors (his family chides him, repeatedly, to pay respects to those who have gone before), but he’s also not a “good citizen” of Singapore, where in the hierarchy of citizens–permanent residents–visit passes–work permits he will never truly belong. He remains an unhappy subject of both states. I’m reminded of Sara Ahmed’s Cultural Politics of Emotion: “If certain bodies come first, then their happiness comes first. We can thus re-describe citizenship as a technology for deciding whose happiness comes first.” (Ahmed, 2004/2014: 225) 

This has led other scholars and theorists to imagine better ways in which we can describe our belonging to multiple sites and spaces that don’t necessarily adhere to our conventional understandings of citizenship. Political sociologist Bilgin Ayata problematises citizenship in this way: “… while two individuals may be equal citizens from a legal point of view, their perceived difference in terms of religion, race, sex, gender, or class may result in identifying one individual as the proper, true citizen who is naturally entitled to the privileges and status of citizenship, whereas the other may be identified as a ‘quasi’ or ‘technical’ citizen, whose belonging to the political community remains in question despite holding citizenship.” (Ayata, 2019: 330) What has prevented so many people – Xiaoyi, his grandfather, the characters from the entire Citizen trilogy, the immigrants who came before and the immigrants who came after, those for whom Singapore is indigenous territory and those who arrived because of indentured and convict labour – from claiming equal access to citizenship? Why is it that a second-generation Chinese Singaporean may typify the physical archetype of the “Singaporean”, while a fifth-generation minority Singaporean is constantly quizzed about their physical appearance as a marker of national belonging? Why are immigrant workers who build our houses and do care work in our homes accorded fewer protections and rights? Sociologist Anne-Marie Fortier wonders if “a more critical and transformative conception of affective citizenship would accept that citizens’ autonomy ‘is formed not through one set of affective bonds, but rather through their commitments to multiple, intersecting communities’” (Monica Mookherjee cited in Fortier, 2010: 27). 

 

Courtesy of The Finger Players

 

Xiaoyi is already one of the lucky ones. His story is glued together by wistful Cantopop and Mandopop karaoke interludes that convey the grief and longing that spoken language cannot articulate. His verbatim interviews leap (sometimes haphazardly and briefly) between ideas of belonging, loss, guilt and regret. He strokes old photographs, balances precariously on a wobbly table, replays grainy voice messages from his father. Around him, the quiet bedroom objects listen and lean in, with what poet Pat Schneider calls “the patience of ordinary things”. Sound designer Lee Yew Jin is Xiaoyi’s other quiet witness and companion on stage. As we wander with some meandering interviews where Xiaoyi’s distant uncles seem almost determined to avoid the subject of history, I think about the non-linear repetition and circularity of trauma that makes it so hard to forget. There’s a similar stubbornness to these witnessing objects so I am deeply moved when, as the stage lights go down, the ceiling bulb flickers to life, and the fan turns its head.

Jieyang is 42km from my own ancestral village. I have never been there. Teochew sits uncomfortably in my throat and tongue, and I can only eke out butchered versions of the terms for “Happy New Year” and “I am Teochew”. I trace the blue vein of the route Google Maps spits up on my computer screen. Everything I know of my grandfather, who died before I was born, I have pieced together from misremembered, half-mythologised stories told by uncles, aunts and my parents. I wish I could ask him what his two journeys here were like, crossing the South China Sea by boat. What did the Singapore shoreline look like then, in the 1930s and then the 1950s? What about this island drew him to this archipelago? I think about my grandmother, who followed my grandfather here and ran a modest sundry shop, who raised four children and knew every single debt the neighbours owed even though she had never been to school. 

I listened to a podcast about human reproduction recently, and it knocked the breath out of me to realise that my grandmother carried within herself the instructions of every cell needed to make the next generation, but also the ability of that generation to make another generation. Which means to say: if you are pregnant with a child, you carry within you the cells that will make your grandchild. And I thought – I was on that boat. I was a cell within that body, travelling from the south of China, floating over an ocean, to an island on the equator. I was a tiny seed of hope. My grandparents left the banks of the Han River in Swatow and settled in a tiny cramped shophouse shared with other families on the grimy banks of another river: the Singapore River. My knowledge of my personal history ends with my grandparents, and I often feel this loss, this terrible absence. My ancestors were illiterate and poor, so we never did have family annals, the way I know some of my friends’ families do. But somewhere within me is a blueprint with the instructions for more copies of myself, and the endless generations that I contain. And like Xiaoyi, I often wonder what I will do with it – if I might create more Citizen XXs and XYs (or other marvellous combinations of these Xs and Ys); or if this map might remain a secret, buried with me.

 

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to dance artist Lee Ren Xin (Malaysia), whose durational and site-specific work Where Are You: A Walking Study (17 – 26 January 2021) prompted the writing that would eventually become the conclusion to this review. Where Are You was part of Di Situ: An Exhibition at KongsiKL, curated by Low Pey Sien and organised by The Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur.

 

Selected bibliography and further reading:

Anne-Marie Fortier (2010) “Proximity by design? Affective citizenship and the management of unease”, Citizenship Studies, 14:1, pp. 17-30.

Bilgin Ayata (2019) “Affective Citizenship”, Affective Societies: Key Concepts, edited by Jan Slaby and Christian von Scheve. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 330-339.

Donald Low (2020) “Parti v party: Inequalities and the justice system”, AcademiaSG. https://www.academia.sg/academic-views/parti-v-party-inequalities-and-the-justice-system/ 

Kirsten Han (2021) “What have we learnt from Singapore’s largest humanitarian crisis?”, We, The Citizens. https://wethecitizens.substack.com/p/what-have-we-learnt-from-singapores 

Oliver Chong (2012/2014) Roots 根, The Finger Players 15th Anniversary Box Set, Singapore: The Finger Players. 

Sara Ahmed (2004/2014) The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Terri-Anne Teo and Yasmine Wong (2020) “Two faces of ontological (in)security: Xenophobia and cooperation in Singapore”, AcademiaSG. https://www.academia.sg/academic-views/two-faces-of-ontological-insecurity-xenophobia-and-cooperation-in-singapore/ 


Citizen X by The Finger Players ran from 19 to 22 February at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts. This review is based on the performance on 22 February, 8pm.

Corrie Tan is a practitioner-researcher from Singapore. She is currently a PhD candidate in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore and King’s College London, where she is researching performance criticism in Southeast Asia.

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