By Ke Weiliang
(1,131 words, 6-minute read)
Dear 艺族 STRANGER,
After spending my Saturday afternoon with you at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, I struggled long and hard to make sense of the titular ‘knots’ that your inaugural play endeavoured to grapple with.
Over the course of an hour, you gave me a glimpse into the reincarnation process of Yuan Yuan (played by Judy Ngo), a 45-year-old teacher who finds herself in an expansive underworld (designed by Han Xuemei, Liu Yong Huay and Ng Jing) following an unexplained death while grading her students’ papers. While Yuan Yuan is being forced to rush through the reincarnation process, she experiences a life review of incidents that happened to her teenage self (played by Teo Pei Si) during junior college – all revolving around Yuan Yuan’s failed attempt to secure a much-desired internship at a prestigious Taiwanese theatre company straight after her ‘A’ levels.
You will be amused to know that the last show I remember watching involving an underworld was the cringeworthy Channel 8 drama series Zero to Hero《阴差阳错》back in 2005. Informed by this unfortunate encounter from my childhood, walking into the theatre I sheepishly assumed that KNOTS was going to straightforwardly invoke what I call the zǎo zhī jīn rì, hé bì dāng chū (早知今日, 何必当初) storyline – where pathos is didactically injected as the protagonist regrets their actions from the past and repents on the ‘wrongs’ that they have committed – that was prevalent in Zero to Hero.
Instead, I was surprised to find that KNOTS is a deceptively complex look into the cookie cutter nature of the social realities that Singapore is rigidly entrenched within. It is revealed that Yuan Yuan’s internship application was foiled by none other than her now-deceased mother (played by Goh Guat Kian), who disapproves of her decision to deviate from the go-to-university-and-get-a-degree route that many Singaporean parents have conditioned their children into blindly pursuing.
On the surface, it seems as if Yuan Yuan’s mother is the one to blame for shackling her daughter’s ambitions. But then I vividly recall the word zhì dù (制度) – a reference to the ‘establishment’ which was uttered so often during the play. I consider the literal semantics of the two Chinese characters that make up this noun: zhì (制) translates to ‘control’, whereas dù (度) means ‘the degree/extent of’. In my unsuccessful attempts to get rid of the incessant ringing of zhì dù in my head, I realise that what disturbs me is not Yuan Yuan’s mother’s behaviour, but how it is shaped by an omnipresent authority that no one can put a finger on. Assuming that the Government is sincere about de-hegemonising the paper chase that has plagued Singapore for decades, who exactly is responsible for curtailing the degree/extent of the individualities of impressionable youths like Yuan Yuan?
As someone whose family (I suspect) has yet to come to terms with my ‘risky’ decision to tread into the arts scene – Yuan Yuan’s plight is one that I relate to. However, while the plot of KNOTS was easy to follow, I left the Theatre Studio confounded by the journey that you have prodded me into embarking on. While I found the play to be a hard-hitting examination of the knots that result in the average Singaporean’s unquestioning deference to socio-cultural norms, I also feel that a more pertinent question – which the play’s marketing synopsis had primed me for – was unwittingly neglected: What exactly is the knot in Yuan Yuan’s heart that remains tangled?
I appreciate the intellectual discourse that you provoked, which made me think a lot about the nooks and crannies of the knots created by the ‘establishment’. After all, a good bulk of KNOTS involves Yuan Yuan attempting to circumvent, rather than tackle the dilemmas that she finds herself in head on. However, what I wished I understood even better was how her personal worldview has been influenced by these dilemmas.
One of the circumventive sleights of hand that Yuan Yuan commits is lying to her mother about the duration of the internship. In a bid to get her mother’s written consent, Yuan Yuan says that the internship will end in time for her to attend university. As I witness a later scene where the older Yuan Yuan attempts to interfere with the life review by stealing the signed consent form from her younger self (to no avail), I cannot help but wonder: does Yuan Yuan regret lying to her mother? How does circumventing the dilemmas that she finds herself in affect her relationships with the people around her? Unfortunately, such viscerally telling moments within the performance were few and far between. Instead, the play’s lopsided focus on interrogating the structural integrity of the social-cultural knots created by Singapore’s ‘establishment’ meant that I went home intellectually nourished, yet feeling numb towards Yuan Yuan’s plight.
While KNOTS still leaves much to be desired as a piece of theatre, this is not to say that I doubt the genuineness of the production. Intuition tells me that you have something deeper to share, which for some reason did not manifest itself onstage. Nevertheless, I applaud the incredible dedication that you have clearly put into staging KNOTS. In an industry where we tend to get overwhelmed with the immediacy of staging our own shows, I am moved by how you have managed to rally diverse segments of the Singapore theatre community behind you with such fervour – be it in terms of fundraising, mentorship received or simply getting people to come and watch the show.
Although much of my letter has been spent talking about Yuan Yuan, I have not forgotten about the other characters you have brought to life – her friend Jun Kai (played by Kwan Chun Long), her teacher Miss Zhang (played by Melody Chan), her principal (played by Angelina Teo), and Mr Xie, the ‘case manager’ who is with Yuan Yuan during her reincarnation process (played by Chng Yi Kai). All four of them took it upon themselves to help Yuan Yuan in their own little ways, despite being gatekeepers of the ‘establishment’ or existing socio-cultural norms in one way or another. It reminds me of the allies that I have found nestled within institutions whose ideologies and ways of working continue to frustrate me.
My dear 艺族 STRANGER, I really admire how you are bravely battling the practical art-making challenges that plague many independent theatre collectives like yours. If I had one hope for you, it is that you will continue to take heart whenever the going gets tough, and that you will continue to find allies within the systems that you feel entrapped by.
I wish you nothing but the best for the future, and look forward to meeting you in the theatre again soon.
This letter was written in response to the Saturday, 14 September 2019 (2pm) staging of KNOTS, presented by 艺族 STRANGER, which was staged at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the Singapore Chinese Language Theatre Alliance’s New Works Festival.
Ke Weiliang (also known as kewl, pronounced ‘k-yul’) is an independent arts and cultural worker based in Singapore. He is enthralled by practices that challenge hegemony, wade into non-binary grey areas, champion self-reflexive behaviour and transcend echo chambers. Weiliang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2019, and is presently Editor at The TENG Company. He is also the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that provides periodic updates on upcoming shows and working opportunities in the Singapore theatre scene.