Text and photos by Joelle Cecilia Quek
The Substation’s 2021 SeptFest made a full comeback in March after 6 years, marking the 30th anniversary of Singapore’s first independent home of the arts. Titled In The Margins, the month-long festival focuses on stories of the marginalised, displaced, and forgotten – communities who often go unseen and unheard. The festival also features works that highlight the delicacy and impermanence of spaces, or even our relationships with ourselves and the people we cross paths with
SeptFest 2021 kicked off with Tea Leaves Glowing in the Wind, a performance by Tang Da Wu and Zai Tang. With the facade of The Substation as backdrop, the artists created a fluid work, changing minute by minute, drawing you in with the endless possibilities of its evolution. The atmosphere was still, almost reverent, as attendees sat apart, the configuration giving the scene a certain formality, a stark contrast to the staging. Blocks of wood ranging in size occupied the performance space, utilised in various movements of body and action. The tableau painted a picture of Da Wu surrounded by the wood pieces, existing in a space filled with wildlife sounds, distorted and reinterpreted by his son Zai.
Performances in the first week included Waltz of the Flower, artists Caroline Chin and Marvin Acero Ablao stirring the mind with a minimalist performance that spoke to the rich inner world of womanhood. Chin begins the performance with her heels raised, as if wearing heels, and remains that way for the remainder of the performance. She spins her tales, pacing the same singular path across the stage, her arms wound tight behind her back, her face betraying nary a hint of emotion. She stops and starts, herself an unreliable narrator. Her only companion on stage is a withered tree in a pot, the ground littered with its dried-up leaves. The emotion builds and builds as she tells her story, until it’s broken – by Ablao, who enters wordlessly, sweeps the dried leaves clean, performs a little dance, and departs. The work ends, leaving me somber and melancholy.
Waltz of the Flower is part of a double-bill with OEOS, performed by Lina Yu. It is set in 2030, when the post-coronavirus pandemic world has had its world order shuffled. We follow the story of a robot, research assistant to a professor, a naïve figure who is perfectly content carrying out her programmed duties and struggles with the professor’s desires for her to experience the world for herself. We watch her daily routine until she comes under scrutiny when said professor is found dead, and she discovers flaws in her own programming.
The show takes inspiration from No Exit, the 1944 existentialist French play by Jean-Paul Sartre. Yu shares how the character of the cleaning bot came up as part of an improvisation exercise. She found this intriguing, partly because of the increasing prevalence of cleaning robots in our daily lives as an effect of the coronavirus pandemic, and how they’re programmed to be personable.
One of the highlights of SeptFest 2021 was the Migrant Workers Community Museum. This temporary museum, housed in The Substation Gallery in the final two weeks of the festival, was the result of the efforts of a group of migrant workers, artists and activists who weaved together stories, artefacts, and keepsakes into a compelling exhibition that attracted long lines in its final days. The museum was curated by six migrant workers hailing from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and China.
I was given a tour on opening day by one of the curators, Nina Rotelo, who goes by the name Cute, and she shared the journeys of the curators, from their hometowns to their training and the hoops they had to jump through to come to Singapore. Particularly poignant were the segments featuring photos of their family and friends back home as well as the luggage that the curators arrived in Singapore with. The curators were excited to see their work finally displayed, and it showed in their exuberance, surrounded by friends they had invited to witness the opening. The process of curating was a first-time experience for them.
“It’s all ideas from brother Alfian, just trying to show how we were, how we came to Singapore, what things we miss… how we spend time, what type of games we play… They just want to show everything, so we just collected all the stuff,” says curator Yulia Endang, referring to playwright Alfian Sa’at, one of the facilitators alongside anthropologist Vithya Subramaniam and visual artist Zulkhairi Zulkiflee.
The facilitators planned weekly workshops in the process of putting together the museum. For example, the curators were asked to bring snacks from their home countries and participated in mapping exercises.
“We printed out the map of Singapore and asked them, what spaces speak to you?” says anthropologist Vithya. “And so for a lot of the domestic workers they mapped the houses that they’ve worked in, but for our two bus drivers from China, they went everywhere! And they were listing all these places that they’ve gone to, all these touristy places. It’s also interesting to see their relationship to the spaces and geography of Singapore.”
Through this process, Alfian shares that he realised “how draconian our laws are”. “I can’t help but feel outraged at some of the enforced segregations that’s been in place that’s made them really politically and socially very marginalised and really an underclass in Singaporean society. Certain things like you can’t get pregnant in Singapore, that’s very specific to Singapore. If you go to Hong Kong, for example, you’re allowed to have children there.”
Curator Yulia Endang harbours hopes for change. “There’s a few things that some people might still not know – like how to get to Singapore, our working conditions, our food. I think a lot of people still don’t know what we do actually, or how are the conditions of some of our friends who might not have been as lucky as us. There are some who still don’t have a proper day off… I hope that when people see this, they will know what is actually happening, rather than just watching the news which sometimes does not show what is actually the truth.”
I also managed to catch a performance by the Migrants Band Singapore on 21 March, a lively programme full of music, dance, and camaraderie, facilitated by Singaporean musician Subhas Nair. The show has a broad repertoire, covering folk songs, classics, pop, and rock hits. Its leader, 31-year-old Nil Sagar Shahin, tells me more about the band over a phone call.
“We actually have 65 members since the beginning. Because of the number of members, we know around a thousand songs now,” he notes with pride. “We chose the songs… Because we miss our homes. We miss our family, our friends. So we chose some songs that… remind us of them. Some songs are from our hometown, some songs are traditional and classical, some songs are songs we love, like pop or rock songs,” he says.
NADA x ScRach MarcS in Week 3 brought together mythical maestros NADA (comprising Safuan Johari and Rizman Putra) and dynamic dance duo ScRach MarcS (comprising Rachel Lee and Marcus Tan) in a first-time collaboration that reimagines the club culture of Singapore’s past, with the artists responding to each other in an exploration of movement and sound.
It felt like I was watching dance scenes from every ‘80’s movie ever, from heart-thumping dance moves to the end-of-the-night slow dancing. In his trademark improv style, Rizman leaps from spot to spot onstage, literally bending over backwards at moments, overflowing with high spirits, no small feat in a dark theatre half-filled with socially distanced attendees covered in masks.
This was the first time that NADA was performing their experimental sounds combined with their older repertoire. “If you notice, our music involved a lot of sampling of old songs, and then necessity being the mother of invention – because of all our online shows last year – we had to write a lot of new songs so that we wouldn’t get into a lot of copyright problems. That’s how, musically, we kind of evolved, for NADA,” Safuan says.
As for ScRach MarcS, the initial idea was to have the audience and performers interspersed, and for the end of the show to segue into a full-on dance party. With the coronavirus restrictions, they realised that they would not be able to connect with audiences in the same way.
“I feel like a lot of the audience were having an internal battle, like, ‘Should I move? Can I move? Can I cheer?’” Tan says.
“Feels like they forgot that they can cheer,” Lee agrees.
“But it’s nice to see some of them, like when they finally cannot take it, and move. I’m like ‘okay! If it moves you so strongly, then great!’” Tan adds, smiling.
The Substation’s SeptFest 2021 wrapped up with The Last Chapter, a homage and a final act of unity before the curtains go down. Led by dance artist Lim Chin Huat, a cast of eight artists from different generations return to share their stories of their memories of The Substation. This last segment began outside The Substation, with the area laid out with red and white umbrellas, compelling the audience to stand amongst them. The show opened with Eve Tan making her way into the theatre dressed in an outfit made from recyclable materials.
In The Substation Theatre, veteran theatre practitioner Johnny Ng regales the audience with a Mandarin recitation of a work by French writer Jean Giorno, The Man Who Planted Trees, about a man who plants and nurtures a forest by hand through two world wars. “I hope to pay tribute to my teacher, and the founder of The Substation Mr Kuo Pao Kun, and Mr Ren Bao Xian, who used to tell stories under the banyan tree in the garden,” he says.
It’s a simple set-up, but the delivery took me back to my childhood days of listening to adults reading stories aloud. Ng shares that the show was initially supposed to be staged “under the banyan tree in the garden. Unfortunately, we couldn’t obtain [the] permit from [the] authorities. We had to move it here.” His voice is enthralling, and the audience is spellbound. When he concludes, I feel more at peace, somehow.
In a pitch-black room divided by a wall and a doorway, empty save for a guzheng and a semicircle formation of seats, the audience takes their seats, and waits with their eyes closed. The anticipation proves too much for one person and they dart to their friend’s seat, staying there till the end of the segment. I later learn that they’ve heard stories of the supernatural in The Substation.
Before long, a voice creaks out in the dark, and I see Regina Toon walking silently to the guzheng. She begins her performance, telling the story of a ghost who inhabits the premises, a silent witness to the beginnings and growth of The Substation.
“They knocked down some walls and painted the others, they brought tables and chairs and books and so many other things. The Substation was charged with a new kind of power, with a voltage that did not scare but rather, enraptured me.” Her voice wavers from that of an elderly lady to one of a young woman.
Later we head back down to The Substation Theatre, where we see Lim Chin Huat cleaning the floor. He wipes from one end of the stage to the other, rinsing the cloth out in a bucket of water before draping it over the back of a white bench. Finally, he addresses the audience, recounting his journey and relationship with The Substation, recalling his experiences with Kuo Pao Kun. He reminiscences on his relationship with the late Tan How Choon, his fellow co-founder of dance company Ecnad, concluding his segment by performing a piece set to music by Tan as a tribute to him and The Substation.
Following Lim’s piece, Kok Heng Leun addresses the audience, the former Nominated Member of Parliament of the Arts speaking frankly about the state of the arts scene in Singapore and its relationship with the government and various boards. He then starts a segment called Change My Mind, aiming to encourage discussions within the audience through provocative statements displayed on the screen, such as “Arts community is self-entitled”. The prompts elicited strong reactions and fervent conversations amongst the audience, with many sharing the outcomes of their exchanges with the rest of the audience. The segment ends with the arrival of Mrs Chua, The Substation’s longtime caretaker, calling time on the show as staff put up barricade tape in the theatre and open its back doors.
Outside, a red curtain has been ceremonially lowered over the exterior of The Substation. The cast of The Last Chapter and staff of The Substation gather in front of the curtain, taking one last bow, hands clasped tightly. In this moment, the finale of the last SeptFest before The Substation closes, the atmosphere feels bittersweet, like a farewell and a celebration all rolled into one.
I speak to some of the attendees, after all the photos have been taken and the crowd starts to disperse. Arts producer Mok Cui Yin was glad she came for The Last Chapter. She had also tried to visit the Migrant Workers Community Museum earlier in the day but had been deterred by the snaking queue.
“I don’t have as much history here as many other people do. It would be a pity for it to not be able to continue, but I think that there are many ways that it can continue without it being preserved in its current form necessarily, so to speak.”
Theatre artist Sabrina Sng felt that The Last Chapter recontextualised the history of The Substation for her. “It made me reimagine what it would have been like for all the experiences that the artists were sharing… My hope and my wish is that there are a lot of emerging artists who are seeing what’s going on, and care enough about it to want to continue that spirit and keep learning from people who came before us.”
SeptFest 2021: In The Margins by The Substation ran from 4 – 28 March.
This article is sponsored by The Substation.
Joelle Cecilia Quek is a freelance writer and photographer born and based in Singapore. Her work is fuelled by her pursuit of capturing nostalgia-tinged memory-like imagery. She likes cats and dogs equally and enjoys a good cup of Thai Iced Milk Tea. For more information, visit joellecq.co.