Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Courtesy of The Theatre Practice

“Four Horse Road”: buried histories and blind spots

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By Corrie Tan

(2,400 words, 13-minute read)

Four Horse Road is The Theatre Practice’s show pony of the year. It’s got a lot of performance buzzwords going for it – site-specific, interactive, multi-generational, multilingual – and promises an epic odyssey into both the history of the company and of the country it shares a birth year with. The sprawling production also marks the official opening of The Theatre Practice’s brand new space on Waterloo Street, where the smell of fresh paint still lingers in the halls. Directed by the company’s artistic director Kuo Jian Hong and written by Jonathan Lim, Four Horse Road presents various historical vignettes that are set in the Waterloo Street vicinity across the span of about 170 years, including the 1915 Sepoy mutiny, the Japanese Occupation of the 1940s and the present day. The effort is obvious, and the company is upfront about the logistical balancing act it takes to keep the show in the air: 20 actors speaking (or attempting to speak) at least seven different languages and dialects across 10 locations in three heritage buildings, with another 30 artists involved in the production and creative teams. It’s a feat of precision scheduling, and there’s no questioning the work’s determined artistic ambition. Where the questions do come in, however, is almost everywhere else.

 

Actor Al-Matin Yatim in a scene at the Nantina Home for the Aged and Destitute.
Photograph by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of The Theatre Practice

 

Equal-opportunity multilingualism?

The Theatre Practice is, by its history and heritage, largely a Chinese-language theatre company, and the audience it caters to and is comfortable with is Mandarin-speaking. The company has churned out blockbuster hits with its incredibly popular Mandarin musicals, including If There’re Seasons and Lao Jiu: The Musical, and it’s proved that it can corner the market on the well-made play as well as the experimental, and has regularly taken risks on fringe work in its M1 Chinese Theatre Festival. So I’m excited by the fact that it is embracing the multilingual and multicultural as part of its identity, and I’d like to think that the problems of language and constructions of race in Four Horse Road are part of a process of grappling with a different and steep set of challenges.

Four Horse Road has been marketed as a multilingual piece with no surtitles as a sort of symbolic representation of the language encounters that take place in Singapore; their ticketing and production website describes the language used as “multilingual” without specifying the weight given each language used, and the marketing emphasis is on the weft of cultural histories of the area. Where Four Horse Road stumbles is that its script seems to favour anyone who understands Mandarin Chinese and its variants, and excludes those who don’t. I attended the production with a friend who doesn’t speak or understand Mandarin Chinese, but was intrigued by what felt like the show’s promise of equal-opportunity multilingualism. I had to translate large chunks of the show for her and a couple of consecutive scenes. She later told me that she’d considered leaving halfway through: “As a non-Chinese person who doesn’t speak Mandarin it was interesting to me that my train of thought after the show was like, yeah, it’s disappointing, I thought it’d be multilingual but it’s mostly Mandarin, but I’m used to this type of exclusion that happens despite good intentions of inclusiveness and multiculturalism.”

This may have been a result of the path our group took (each group gets to see eight scenes out of the 11 prepared) which, by my count, included two scenes that were about 90% to 100% in Mandarin Chinese (with other languages almost inconsequential to plot development), and two in which the extensive use of Mandarin Chinese by certain characters is neither contextualised nor explained. I think it’s unfair to expect non-Mandarin-users to cope with a baffling experience when Mandarin users like myself did not. At no point in the production did I feel linguistically challenged or out of my depth the way my friend did.

 

A scene introducing Waterloo's former red light district.
Photograph by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of The Theatre Practice

 

The “magical” minority and other tropes

The reason I’m emphasising the use of language is that there is a peril to assuming that the model of multicultural Singapore from the 1980s still works today, both in real life and in the theatre. We’ve been spoonfed the notion that having a single featured member of a minority language or ethnicity (in a GRC, in a TV show, in advertising, etc) counts as checking the boxes of inclusion. It does not. These individuals are often expected to behave as complete reflections and explanations of their entire community, when Chinese performers and characters – and in the case of Four Horse Road, its white cast as well – are often allowed a spectrum of personalities and circumstances. And with the tiny opportunity to present a minority character, they’re often flattened into stereotypes, and shortcuts are taken in the way they’re costumed and the stories they tell.

Let’s look at a few scenes from Four Horse Road.

1915: The Sepoy mutiny. The ongoing mutiny is re-enacted by a gaggle of prostitutes of different nationalities/language groups – Japanese, Hokkien and Russian – in exaggerated slapstick comedy. The production makes overtures to some of the historical sites and events in the Waterloo area, including its history as a red light district. But I couldn’t explain to you why prostitutes, played up to the hilt as tittering stereotypes, might be re-enacting, for comic relief, a bloody mutiny that had massive decolonial implications and ramifications for the treatment of Indian residents in Singapore (none of whom made an appearance in this scene). As a side note, I speak Russian, and the token use of Russian in this scene was unintelligible.

2018: An Indian temple worker gives advice to a concierge from China. This scene’s historical significance is tied to the Sri Krishnan Temple and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, neighbouring places of worship that are seen as symbolic of religious and racial harmony in Singapore because of the syncretic elements that have developed among their religious emblems and among their devotees; there’s an altar inside the Hindu temple for the Goddess of Mercy. In this scene, a textbook version of the “Magical Negro” trope unfolds. This trope, especially popular in American cinema, is a throwback to the idea of the noble savage – that a kindly, saintly, and almost supernatural minority character is present as a device for the sole purpose of aiding and advising its majority main character.[1] Guang (Sugie Phua) is about to lose his job, and here comes Pathma (Shafie) to the rescue with gentle advice – Guang is in smart professional office wear, and Pathma is in a dhoti, barefoot. Guang asks the very question that many Indian Singaporeans are loath to hear – if Pathma is Singaporean. Pathma dutifully and patiently explains his heritage to Guang, but it cements the expectation that he must explain himself as Singaporean, born and bred. (Award-winning writer Balli Kaur Jaswal has an excellent response to the “Singaporean” question here.)

 

Photograph by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of The Theatre Practice

 

1952: Nantina Home for the Aged and Destitute. Here we were allowed to pick a character to interact with. I listened to the story of Irwan (played by a very engaging Al-Matin Yatim), who discusses a traumatic encounter with an orang minyak, one of the canonical hantu, that eventually ends in family tragedy. Once again we have a minority character who’s touched by magic and the supernatural, and that becomes the overwhelming part of his identity. Which sets the stage for the subsequent scene:

1958: Reported sighting of orang minyak in convent school at Middle Road. Two Mandarin-speaking Chinese convent schoolgirls (played in alternating pairs by Ethel Yap, Ng Mun Poh, Jodi Chan and Sharon Sum) take refuge in a classroom because they believe the “oily man” is hunting them down. The production consistently presents minority characters as proxies for Chinese characters to connect to an exotic spiritual dimension – or in this case, evil spectres to be feared. They go into a discussion of another ghost, one that has haunted the area for years, and one of the girls makes the passing comment: “These Indian ghosts are so hardworking.”

It’s these offhand references, collapsing dimensions of community, history and identity into a single sentence, that nag at me. There are a couple of scenes that we missed because of the structure of the route we were taken on by our guides. The language used in the programme booklet’s summaries of these scenes isn’t promising: “Indian convict and schoolboy form an unusual friendship” and “Malay teenager hijacks SBS bus and resists bus driver” (apparently spirits told him to do so) – but I won’t comment on them because they weren’t part of my theatrical experience. The finale scene involving a tense, well-choreographed standoff between a Japanese major and local resistance fighters is buoyed by the fact that its minority characters are no longer shoehorned into playing felons or spiritual gurus and they get to shoulder some of the exciting action; then again, their non-Mandarin discussions aren’t especially crucial to plot development. I’m generally disappointed that ideas of representation don’t seem to have evolved here over the course of several decades, and that the production leans heavily on crutches of archetype/caricature and oblivious good intentions.

 

Photograph by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of The Theatre Practice

 

The strategies of the 1980s cannot be the structures of the 2010s

I think it might be helpful to revisit a part of theatre history that is crucial to the ethos of multilingual writing and performing in Singapore – as well as to the identity of The Theatre Practice. In 1988, exactly 30 years ago, the late dramatist Kuo Pao Kun staged what is often referred to as Singapore’s first multilingual theatre production, Mama Looking for Her Cat. The work was devised in collaboration with its cast, and mourned the loss of marginal dialects and languages that were being eroded as a result of the country’s bilingual policy. Mama’s most iconic scene, and one oft cited with the pleasure of two Singaporean languages meeting, is the scene in which the Hokkien-speaking Mama of the title, who has lost her cat, encounters a Tamil-speaking man who has also lost his cat. Kuo presented this scene without surtitles; the two characters do not understand each other’s languages but find ways to bridge this linguistic divide through charades that often incorporate broad physical comedy.

At the time, this scene was a revelation – now, it’s more of a relic of ideas of multiculturalism and multilingualism from the 1980s that ultimately still favoured Chinese audiences. Consider, for instance, how most of Mama’s seven languages and dialects (English, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and Tamil) favour audiences with a background in Chinese. This may have been the fantasy of the encounter between Singaporean languages, and the charm of gentle multicultural interactions, but replace Hokkien and Tamil with any other language(s) and any heterolingual audience would likely still get the gist of this conversation:

MAMA [in Hokkien]: I have a cat.
OLD MAN [in Tamil]: I also have a cat.
MAMA: My cat is this big.
OLD MAN: My cat is this small.
MAMA: Ah, we all have cat.
OLD MAN: Your cat ‘meow, meow’. My cat ‘miu, miu’. [2]

It’s hard not to connect the un-surtitled Four Horse Road with the same decision Kuo made 30 years ago. But in this case, and despite Four Horse Road‘s linguistic homage to Mama, there was no sense that this discomfort with not understanding a language was felt across all audience members, not only non-Mandarin users. This production does make a profound effort at excavating the histories of the neighbourhood it occupies, and has combined that sweep of storytelling with the polyglot nature of Singapore’s development. In doing so it has also become symptomatic of more endemic issues and attitudes towards race and ethnicity in Singapore, where the country is often celebrated as having triumphantly navigated a choppy history of interracial interactions and one that has been completely successful in doing so, rather than a work in progress. One might argue that Four Horse Road presents race relations as they were in the past – why penalise a production for conveying past sentiment? But I think that way this production frames these histories and stories can either perpetuate their problematic nature, or question them and reflect on how and/or whether or not they have changed.

 

Where does this road take us?

I can’t fault the overall production quality of Four Horse Road, which in any other sense could be considered an accessible, feel-good work. The production plays it very safe: it steers clear of critiques of Singapore’s colonial history, and none of the scenes I saw venture anywhere close to political territory. Its focus is on digestible slices of social and communal histories shed of their worrisome sensitivities. That said, its vignettes from the past are often competently and engagingly performed, even if they occasionally feel like a well-made public service broadcast for the Singapore Tourism Board. Veteran Chinese theatre actor Johnny Ng is consistently outstanding, particularly as a menacing Japanese major, and the ensemble as a whole have a strong chemistry and camaraderie, quick with ad libs and quips for audience interaction – Petrina Kow and Jo Tan were hilarious at breaking the ice with, uh, their ice-balls as part of the first scene I saw on my journey. Audience flow is smooth and remarkably well-timed for a production with so many interlocking parts – and it’s lovely to sneak a peek at The Theatre Practice’s new premises as the storied company moves in and makes it their home.

It’s clear that some amount of research been invested in framing the historical arc of this production, and how each very brief vignette engages with the larger socio-political and geographical terrain it inhabits beyond the novelty of unexpected outdoor settings. The production makes good use of its environment, including converting the space in front of Centre 42 into an outdoor dinner banquet, and taking audience members through narrow back alleys and corridors and introducing them to hidden pockets of quiet. But this could have been so, so much more. How can a show like Four Horse Road interrogate contemporary structures of race, ethnicity and language – and not perpetuate those of the past? How can it do what it does best in making history and dense storytelling accessible to a wide-ranging audience, the way it has with its other work? And how can it take a good, hard look at its blind spots? Moving into a new home is as good a place as any to start.

 

[1] Comic duo Key & Peele have satirised the “Magical Negro” trope here.

[2] Kuo, Pao Kun. ‘Mama Looking For Her Cat’ in The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun Volume Four: Plays in English, eds. Quah Sy Ren and C.J.W.-L. Wee (Singapore: The Theatre Practice and Global Publishing, 2012), p. 90


Four Horse Road runs from 4 to 28 April 2018 at 54 Waterloo Street.

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