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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Alternative Lessons for Women: Sonia Kwek and Tan Weiying on sex, desire and the erotic

By Aditi Shivaramakrishnan

Adapting its title from Lessons for Women <<女诫>>, a text by the first known female Chinese historian, Ban Zhao, Alternative Lessons for Women is a double-bill of two solo works: Hymen Instinct created and performed by Sonia Kwek and What? That’s It? created and performed by Tan Weiying. 

Hymen Instinct subverts the archetypes of the virgin and whore through two characters: a maidenly Moon Goddess who grows a penis every full moon, and a Lady of the Night who is unable to orgasm. In What? That’s It?, an elderly lady tries fervently to achieve an orgasm, the only way she can feel closer to her dead lover. 

Sonia and Weiying first presented their solo pieces as their final performances when graduating from the Intercultural Theatre Institute in 2017. In 2018, Sonia’s piece was accepted into the EX-Theatre Asia Weekend Theatre Festival in Taiwan and invited Weiying to do a double-bill with her. 

ArtsEquator speaks with the artists ahead of the Singapore premiere of the show, which takes place from 18 to 20 March, presented as part of The Substation’s SeptFest 2021: In the Margins. The show is currently sold out. 

[The interview has been lightly edited.]

Where did you encounter Lessons for Women <<女诫>> by Ban Zhao, and what fascinated you about it? 

Sonia: While we’re not using the text itself in our works, it offers a context to understand the double-bill. When I was Googling for concepts of femininity in Chinese history, Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women came up. The Chinese title refers to “things not to do”. From both research and lived experience, there’s lots you have to not do as a woman. 

Ban Zhao wrote this when she was ill as a way to ensure her daughters would be able to survive. It’s a guide for future generations of women for survival in a patriarchal system. The book talks about what women should do in the roles of daughter, wife, mother, member of society…but there’s not much about (addressing) their own desires, ambitions, fears and hopes. 

Lessons for Women doesn’t talk about sex. Both of us use the experience of sex in our pieces, mine a bit more pointedly. Our pieces can be seen as responses. 

How do each of your pieces respond to such prescriptions for women?

Sonia: My piece plays with what sex means to someone, and what it means to live by the body – not just living by your physical body but also your desires, your fears, your pleasure.

I don’t have a narrative so much as scenarios of two characters that are playing on and subverting the archetypes of the virgin and the whore. For the character of the Lady of the Night, I was very inspired by a woman I saw in a toilet in Parklane Mall. The [toilet] had puke, period blood, and I heard puking sounds… When I came out of the cubicle, I saw this beautiful woman standing at the sink and wondered if I was dreaming. She was probably a hostess, wearing a long, glittering, translucent dress and had long hair down to her waist. She was standing at the sink and putting on mascara, holding a cigarette. I was very startled and taken. I [thought to myself that] I [had] found a character for my play.

2017 was the year of #MeToo and in retrospect, Hymen Instinct was probably my response at that time. Women’s naked bodies, women’s sexuality, and sex are always so policed, but in 2017 specifically, it was a lot about women having the bravery to come forward. But it’s also very important to show that women can still have all these ugly desires in them. I want to show that it’s also okay to find pleasure in sex and enjoy your body for yourself. 

Hymen Instinct by Sonia Kwek. Photo: Charmaine Poh

 

Weiying: My piece What? That’s It? questions: if a woman takes in the values and virtues of how a conventional woman in society should behave, what will become of her in her old age, and what are the things she will hold on to? It’s a gradual realisation that for [my character], living for a man and holding on to his memory and giving up part of her identity might not be so great for her own well-being.

I grew up in a very conservative environment. The women in my household are strong but a large part of their identity is also about their husbands. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re aware, if it’s a decision that you made. Someone like myself, I have great insecurity, so I very willingly give up part of myself in a relationship. After a few toxic relationships I questioned why I exhibit such behaviour. If a woman continues that cycle of virtuosity, this is just one possibility of what may happen and what I envision could happen to me should I not hold my ground.

You’ve presented your solos before in different settings. How have they evolved, and what is the relationship between them?

Sonia: This is the third version of the show. It’s also a reflection of the times — our headspace but also where the world is now. I’m quite acutely aware that mine looks at a cisgendered woman[’s experience], but I don’t want to say woman[hood] is tied to your genitalia. My framing in 2017 was still very much riding on the second wave of feminism. Moving past that, I’m not saying no but I’m saying yes, and — it’s about more than that. Whether you bleed or don’t bleed, it doesn’t mean you’re any more or less a woman. I’m not so tied to the menstruation allegory any more but maybe of body dysphoria, when sometimes something happens in your body that is not something you may like, or you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed (about it), like you need to cover up. 

Weiying: In the first iteration, when my character dies she gets approached by Death and realises from Death that her husband has moved on and there is nothing for her to hold on to any more. In the latest version, there is no Death character and she realises this herself. 

Sonia: With double-bills there’s always this question of whether there should be an intermission. In Taiwan we decided not to, we decided to have a seamless transition. Because of limitations of time this time, there will still be a bit of transition, but we want to try to carry that flow. It doesn’t feel like our characters meet. They meet in terms of the energy flowing from one and carrying onto the other. 

Weiying: Possibly the kinds of beliefs and systems they’ve been subjected to are…

Sonia: They are different results of this particular patriarchal system. 

What? That’s It? by Tan Weiying. Photo: Charmaine Poh

 

What is your collaborative relationship like and who else are you working with on this iteration?

Sonia: We wanted to bring on board others, like a director or a dramaturg, but because of time we didn’t manage to. Figuring out the direction for this round was particularly hard — the relevance of this work and the fact that it was going to be in The Substation’s last festival. We don’t take that lightly. There’s also the idea of playing it safe versus keeping on taking risks and experimenting because that’s exactly what The Substation is for. It’s their flexibility, freedom which people don’t realise… this is what we mean when we talk about wanting freedom to create. Especially for work that’s devised, [with] new work you need a lot of space to have change, to be flexible and adapt. Just because you try something doesn’t mean it’ll work, but the point is the trying. We also have a lighting designer (Daryl Norman Soh) for the festival from The Substation and as for sound artist we have Madam Data. And really the other collaborator is (the team from) The Substation, as we’re in constant dialogue with them.

When I think about this work, the erotic comes to mind. What do you associate with this word and what does it mean to you? 

Sonia: Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic was a big inspiration for me in conceptualising this work. The erotic, to me, is very hard but also very easy. It’s about being honest with yourself and being able to own your own desires, whatever that means to you. 

Weiying: A deeper form of self-awareness, especially given how, conventionally, when we talk about eroticism, some would associate it with porn or satisfying sexual desires. To know your own erotic desire is to really go deep into yourself and really face yourself and see who you are, and it’s so confronting sometimes. To really know what pleasures you without someone else is quite powerful, for yourself.

Sonia: For anyone who has been marginalised, who has had some part of them used against them, I think the erotic is a lot about taking that for yourself. I’ve become quite resistant to using the word “reclaimed”, because it implies that you have to fight to take it back, when actually it’s always been yours. The erotic has always been yours, it’s not for anyone to take away. When you realise that and come into your own power, it’s very beautiful. It’s also very pleasurable. The erotic for me is also linked to a place of pleasure, and we don’t mean hedonism or self-indulgence, but something deeper. You want the best for yourself but not how capitalism says or [in a way that’s] selfish, but more about the sense of the self being grounded, and also free. 


SeptFest 2021 takes place at the Substation from now till 28 March. Find out more about the programmes here.

This article is sponsored by The Substation.

Aditi Shivaramakrishnan works as an arts manager, editor and writer in Singapore.

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