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Singapore Dramatist Award. Young Artist Award. Three Life! Theatre Awards. The first decade or so of playwright Chong Tze Chien’s career is marked by works like Pan-Island Expressway (1998), Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2005) and Charged (2010), all of which earned him significant critical acclaim and an impressive string of accolades. Most of his plays were set in contemporary Singapore—in HDB flats and army camps, on an MRT or at an MP’s Meet-The-People session—and explored issues with specific resonance for local audiences: academic competitiveness, the complexities of meritocracy, a paternalistic government, race issues in a multi-cultural society. The last decade, however, has seen the playwright venture into new territory—and quite literally, including taking on the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata for a new Esplanade production at the end of 2022.
In recent years, his work has expanded in both setting and theme: Turn by Turn We Turn (2011) brings us to China in the early 1900s, The Book of Living and Dying (2012) to New York and Tibet, and the Hitler plays (Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde, 2016 and Framed, as Adolf, 2017) to World War II Nazi Germany. More diverse issues are also being examined, notably concerns which can be said to be less local, more universal. His Hitler plays, for example, wrestle with the value of art, truth versus perception, and xenophobia.
The shift, Chong tells me in a recent interview, is part of a conscious decision to create more breathing space in his creative process. When starting out, he felt the pressure to keep writing and staging new works. This meant limited time to just “flirt with ideas, let them percolate in [his] head”, and go very deep into exploration and research. Over the last decade, he has been trying to work at a less punishing pace, without the constant threat of deadlines looming over him. The idea behind Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya, for example, actually came to him seven years earlier when he was first introduced to Japan’s most famous ghost story during a work trip to Tokyo, and required four years of development before its presentation as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Similarly, an extensive project like Rant & Rave (2012) which involved detailed analysis of archival material—media articles, interviews, government statements—to trace the history of Singapore theatre from the 1980s to 2010s was not something he could have committed to in an earlier phase of his career.
His later works feel fundamentally different as a result: the plays possess greater weight, more substance and heft. When the show is over, I am motivated to do additional reading on what I have just seen, to hunt down the sources of inspiration, try to separate fact from fiction. Siting his plays in a variety of time periods and cultural contexts also creates more story-telling possibilities, and the opportunity to adopt a wider range of artistic vocabularies. Turn, for example, is inspired by the life of renowned fourth generation Chinese glove puppet master, Li Bofen who lived through the Cultural Revolution, while Drums (2016), like Oiwa, draws from a traditional Japanese tale. In this case, it is an adaptation of the 15th century Noh classic, The Damask Drum by Yukio Mishima, about unrequited love.
In fact, if there is a culture that has been a particular source of inspiration for Chong, it is certainly Japan’s, as evidenced by his repeated collaborations with the country’s artists. These productions showcase different aspects of Japanese arts and culture, whether it be the meditative tone and predominantly chalk-white palette of Seed (2014), the hyper-designed comic book costumes of Drums, or the ningyoburi performance technique in Oiwa where actors perform onstage as life-sized puppets while other actors, clad in black, pretend to be controlling their movements.
Chong says he has always been drawn to “minimalism and clean lines in both design and approach”, and “Japanese aesthetics and culture appeal to [him] in a visceral and cognitive way.” He also grew up on Japanese pop culture and anime, “resulting in an affinity with everything and anything Japanese.”
Interestingly, for a creator of work with such strong visual impact, Chong—who also sometimes serves as set designer—explains to me that he draws a distinction between his roles as playwright and director. He writes first as a playwright, leaving the director (even if it is himself) to realise the script’s full potential later. Nonetheless, his growing ambition on both fronts is evident. The imaginative use of puppetry, object theatre as well as sound and lighting design has been a component of Chong’s work since he joined The Finger Players as Company Director back in 2004, but later productions have demanded an increasing level of complexity and scale as they moved out of studio and black box spaces. We see this in two of Chong’s recent Victoria Theatre shows: ITSY (2017), his first musical, and a lavish spectacle of Broadway-style pageantry, choreography and construction, and Oiwa which, beyond elaborate sets and sumptuous production values, involved the cast undergoing months of intense ningyoburi training.
If there is one constant element in Chong’s work, it appears to be his continuing interest in death as a motif. A Centre 42 feature on Chong in 2015 tracks how the passing of a character is often a key piece of the plot in his plays, be it as catalyst or conclusion: Pan-Island Expressway, SPOILT (2001), Between the Devil and Charged. Chong himself has acknowledged that death is a “pet theme” (2009, Business Times), and we find this even in later works such as ITSY (a dying grandson) and Oiwa (a murdered wife).
Notably, however, some of his later works have actually used the concept of death as a thematic subject. Both Poop! (2009) and Seed, for example, present death as an unavoidable part of our lives, no different from our biological functions or how we consume food. In Poop!, a young girl, Emily, thinks her father’s soul lives in her body and will be flushed out if she goes to the toilet, while in Seed, a collection of interweaving stories, a wife follows the spirit of her dead husband back home for a final meal with his family, and, before she faces certain death, a mother talks her daughter through the preparation of dinner over the phone. In Living and Dying, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist tome of the same name, a doctor tells his cancer-stricken patient, Martina, the play’s protagonist, that “it’s unnatural, pointless and wrong for a tired man to fight sleep, as it is for a dying man to resist death.”
Chong says that “[this] attitude towards death-as-a-fact-of-life has always been one that gives [him] peace of mind” (2010, Today). In Seed, he reminds us that yes, “when someone dies, there’s absence—a hole to fill like how when you are hungry, you have to eat”—but that’s just “common sense”. There is nothing wrong in missing a loved one. We should measure a life, however, by its quality not quantity: “which is better—living out our days healthy but miserable, or … only for a short time but in total bliss? … Eat well, live well! Isn’t that what life is all about?” Instead of seeing death as something to fear or rail against, as something that “steals time from us,” Living and Dying advises us to think of death as giving meaning to our existence by providing a “deadline to fulfil a purpose in life.” The alternative is a restless death. Oiwa, for example, returns as a ghost so that she can exact revenge on her murderous husband. Indeed, the worlds of the dead and the living often blur in Chong’s writing. Resurrection and reincarnation occur when a journey is incomplete, when there is something more to say or do, as also in both Poop! and Seed.
Sometimes, however, death is, indeed, an end, a release into the larger circle of life. In Living and Dying, Martina says: “When the planets were created, indelible creatures were born. When they died, they returned to the earth; the soil fed the plants animals, and our life cycle was created.” Similarly, in Poop!, Emily’s grandmother tells the girl to look for the spirit of her father all around her (“Emily, your Daddy has long evaporated into the air. He has become the clouds up there … [he will come down] when it rains. And then the soil will absorb him, and the plants will grow.”). At one point, Emily says to her father’s ghost that he must “go back to where [he] came from! No new life can be created if you don’t die!”
Death can also be the basis of entertainment, murder being at the heart of Murder at Mandai Camp (2020) and Murder at Old Changi Hospital (2021), both produced with Sight Lines Entertainment / The Future Stage. Chong says that one thing he has taken from his formative days with The Necessary Stage as Company Playwright is the belief in theatre as a means for advocacy. This can take on many forms like provocation for social change. but also simply trying to engage with audiences in different ways to help them develop familiarity with theatre. And, especially in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, if audiences are online, then that is where Chong says he will go. Thus the creation and presentation of these two murder-mysteries on interactive digital platforms, incorporating everything from live Zoom streams and Telegram chats in an earlier version of Mandai, to fully realised online game modules where audiences determine their own narratives by choosing which characters and situations they interact with, as well as identifying clues and solving puzzles along the way. 360-degree views and immersive surround sound amplify the experience—and offer additional creative challenges and opportunities to the playwright-director.
Not that these works are meant to replace live theatre. They are their own art form, Chong contends. If done well, however, these productions, which also involve professional theatre actors in filmed segments, offer a different option for the public to interact with artists and artistic output. In a 2020 interview with Bakchormeeboy, he says, that “this [is] an opportunity to develop a new genre, with the intent to create jobs via this new platform, and for us to send the message to audiences that we can’t keep churning out repeats of old videos and archival videos and [for] it to be free. It [is] really about rejuvenating the industry.”
Chong, who has also done film and television writing as well as produced scripts for schools shows, Chingay and the National Day Parade, does not consider entertainment a dirty word: “Most of the population doesn’t see theatre as separate from entertainment like circuses or Sentosa, and we want to tap into the masses with productions like these. To get audiences into theatre, the most important part is to expose them to it, and rely on familiar elements like haunted houses and escape rooms, or even a popular artist like Benjamin Kheng that makes them want to come, and hopefully, be converted.”
Coming up for Chong is more teaching (Artist-in-Residence at Katong Convent Secondary School, Adjunct Lecturer at the National Institute of Education), with his next major work being Kingdoms Apart, an adaptation of Mahābhārata for Esplanade in the last quarter of 2022. Unsurprisingly, it is another project that sees the theatre-maker stepping out of his comfort zone and continuing his evolution as an artist. The ancient Sanskrit text is the world’s longest epic poem, and one of the most famous and influential. The production also involves artists from a range of countries: Singapore, India, Japan and Malaysia.
Chong, who first studied Mahābhārata as an inter-cultural performance and text when he was an undergraduate in NUS Theatre Studies, is not only undaunted, but actively excited to be staging his own adaptation this year: “Mahābhārata has always been one of the top three works that I’ve wanted to work on precisely because of its scale and complexity.
“I guess it is when a work or project is most difficult, that I am most drawn to it!”
Berak, an adaptation of Chong Tze Chien's Poop, is on at Esplanade Theatre Studio from 1−4 Sep 2022, as part of The Studios.
Kingdoms Apart is on at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre at Esplanade from 23−27 Nov 2022.
Kenneth Kwok is an arts administrator, educator and writer, and has been covering the Singapore theatre and dance scene since 1999.