By Patricia Tobin
(800 words, 6-minute read)
When I was 19, I left Singapore to pursue my studies in Melbourne. I foolishly thought that any city, anywhere else in the world, would be better than this tiny island. In Melbourne, I became more aware of my “otherness”. At an Irish pub in St Kilda, a white man laughed at me as he pulled the side of his eyes apart with his fingers, gesturing a slit-eyes motion. While walking along Melbourne’s Flinders Street, a stranger stopped his car, rolled down his window and shouted at me, “You f*cking Asian!” This flux between wanting to belong and never really belonging is found in Forked, Jo Tan’s multi-layered comedy exploring cultural identity.
In Forked, Jeanette Peh (Ethel Yap) heads to London to follow her dream of becoming an actress. In London, she attends famed acting teacher Baptiste Laroche’s class and encounters classmates of different nationalities. She is forced to interrogate her identity and preconceived notions of what it means to be a typical Asian, or more specifically, a typical Chinese Singaporean girl.
Jeanette possesses a childish naïveté in masking her Singaporean accent with various imitations of British and American voices so she will be deemed “acceptable”. One time, a Melbourne acquaintance interrogated me about my accent that she thought “too American”. I corrected her, “I’m from Singapore.” She replied, “Oh, but your English is so good!” Likewise, Jeanette’s accent acts as a front, a tool to present herself in a way she believes conforms to societal standards. She prides herself on her good English and even corrects British people’s grammar.
The ubiquity of English in Singapore puts us in limbo, setting us apart from our Southeast Asian neighbours, but yet no closer to any English-speaking Western nations. Our colonial past is inescapable, even infecting the way we speak. Forked briefly addresses this, but mostly, it plays with comedy – some of it quite racially insensitive and tasteless – in highlighting the racist attitudes both towards and from those who are perceived as different.
Forked is interwoven with vignettes of racist sketches that feature an alumni member from Laroche’s class who “made it big”. A Sikh exclaims, “Goodness gracious me!”, a girl in a Sailor Moon costume goes, “Oishi!”, and there is a dance breakdown to Sun Ho’s awful China Wine. With the cast’s intentional overacting, these scenes make for an entertaining, dumb pastiche. Additionally, intentionally bad jokes on race are peppered throughout. Jeanette pokes fun at her boyfriend (Jamil Schulze), who is apparently from Greece, but, like everyone else in the play, is pretending to be someone he is not. She teases him, “You have the body of a Greek god but I hope you don’t have their tiny dicks!” She jokes about using Instagram filters to look more Korean. She dons a Phua Chu Kang outfit and chides “Don’t pray pray!”. Forked’s comedy is amusing yet reductive, like a nudge and a wink to the audience on the play’s foreground of lazy stereotypes.
Forked’s humour can sometimes feel cringeworthy, but the clichés still ring true today. When I was a child, my dad used to pinch me when we saw a Sikh passerby and eagerly say “What colour?” in reference to his turban. I cheerfully exclaim “Ikatamas!’ before eating at a Japanese restaurant but roll my eyes when my grandmother asks “Have you eaten?” in Hokkien. My own cultural bias speaks volumes about how Singaporeans navigate a multicultural terrain, often done clumsily and subconsciously. This casual racism seeps through our society and in local television, such as the recent “blackface” debacle on Toggle, and YouTube vloggers deeming an Indian man as “suspicious”. Forked aims to show this ugly side of Singaporeans. In both daily interactions and in the media, we laugh at or play along with racial prejudices. We dismiss it as “It’s only a joke!” Forked’s brash sense of humour may appear heavy-handed at times, but it comes from good intentions.
I used to get annoyed whenever someone asked me where I was from, or tease me for mispronouncing a Singlish phrase. Now, I just shrug it off. Near the end of Forked, Jeanette is instructed by Laroche to begin a monologue in her native language. “My name is Jeanette,” she begins and for the first time, we see a semblance of her true self. Ultimately, her decision in how she presents herself does not come from someone else’s perception of her. Finding your identity is a deeply internalised, personal experience. Your race is just one lens through which you view yourself. I speak poor Mandarin. I only watch Western comedies. I do not know how to sing any Jay Chou songs. Does this make me a “bad Chinese Singaporean”, or technically a “bad three-quarter Chinese Singaporean”? We are multi-faceted human beings and our complexities make us who we are.
This review is based on the performance on 26 January 2018 at 8pm. Forked by Jo Tan ran from 25 to 27 January at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Patricia Tobin is an arts writer from Singapore. She tweets at @havesomepatty.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an Initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.