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Han Lao Da

A Singapore xiangsheng (crosstalk) pioneer, Chinese-language theatre playwright, director and educator.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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We should be grateful that we have the arts to enrich our lives. We also hope that the art we create can enrich people […] It may be a pleasure for the audience to experience, but it is the result of very hard work.

Han Lao Da is a Singapore xiangsheng (crosstalk) pioneer, Chinese-language theatre playwright, director and educator who has contributed greatly to the Singapore Chinese arts scene for over four decades. The founder of Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society, Han brought the Chinese comedic performing art of xiangsheng to Singapore in the '70s, and has also written many Chinese-language theatre plays. He received Hou Bao Lin awards for his contributions to the development of xiangsheng in Southeast Asia. In 1990, Han received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Born Han Yongyuan in 1947 in Singapore to Hainanese immigrant parents, Han adopted a few pen names as a young playwright, including Hai Shu and Tan Tian, but it was the name Han Lao Da that would become most popularly associated with him.

The seeds of Han’s love for playwriting and theatre were planted in his school days at Chung Cheng High School in the early ’60s when he frequently performed with his school drama group at Victoria Theatre. He would begin his theatre activities in earnest later on when he attended the Teachers’ Training College, forming the college’s Chinese Drama Club. He then took theatre classes at the Practice Performing Arts School (now known as Theatre Practice) under respected Singapore theatre practitioner Kuo Pao Kun and his dancer-choreographer wife Goh Lay Kuan, and also participated in the school’s theatre productions.

Practice Performing Arts School’s art ensemble went independent and formed the Southern Arts Society in 1972, and Han joined the society the following year. He was a playwright for the society and occasionally performed in its plays, including one of their most memorable plays Walking Out of the Prison – The Story of Ah Seng where Han, acting as a gangster, acted alongside his mentor Kuo Pao Kun, who was the titular character. The Southern Arts Society gained a reputation for its popular plays which enjoyed long runs.

In the same year Han joined the Southern Arts Society, he also became acquainted with his other great passion—xiangsheng—which was then a relatively new art form in Southeast Asia. Han discovered a book by Chinese xiangsheng master Ma Ji, and began his fascination with the comedic art form.

The next year, in 1973, he wrote his first xiangsheng play The Gift Ticket, which was performed in Singapore and Malaysia. Typical of xiangsheng plays, it had a cast of only two, one of whom was Kuo. Kuo’s superb performance paired with the play’s sparkling script (which Kuo had also helped to edit) made The Gift Ticket a great success, and it was hailed as an exciting, new style of xiangsheng. The play blended old and new elements, with writing that had Singapore working-class man in mind. From there, encouraged by his mentor Kuo, Han began writing xiangsheng plays diligently.

A particularly productive period followed in the ’80s. Han wrote several short plays for theatre and also wrote many xiangsheng plays for xiangsheng events co-organised by the Southern Arts Society and the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation held at community centres around Singapore. Jointly promoted by the corporation and Kuo, the community centre presentations raised Han’s profile as a xiangsheng writer.

When Han became acquainted with renowned Chinese xiangsheng masters Ma Ji, in 1984, and Jiang Jun and Tang Jie Zhong, in 1986, he learnt as much as he could from them. In 1986, Han founded the Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society to develop the art form in Singapore. At the same time, he wrote and directed the improvised play Five Libras to acclaim at the Drama Festival.

Since then, Han has written and published around 50 xiangsheng plays, nine full-length dramas, numerous short plays, four xiangsheng collections, a book about Chinese theatre in the ’80s, a prize-winning children’s book under the pen names Han Lao Da, Hai Shu and Tan Tian, and numerous articles about Chinese theatre and xiangsheng. He has also directed and produced many of his theatre and xiangsheng plays for the Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society and popular performance series such as 1992’s Tan Tian Xiangsheng Performance, often inviting xiangsheng performers from overseas to perform in Singapore. He has also restaged plays by Kuo in recent years, such as a triple bill production featuring two of Kuo’s plays presented in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2005.

Over the decades, Han also became a prominent arts leader. He served as vice-chairman of the Southern Arts Society, head of the Southern Arts Troupe, and secretary/chairman of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Drama Association.

He has also received several awards recognising his artistic contributions. He received the National Book Award from National Book Development Council of Singapore for his children’s book The Story of the Merlion Parts I–V, a Broadcast Award from the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles in 1995, and two Hou Bou Lin Awards in 1995 and 2000 in China for his contributions to the development of xiangsheng in Southeast Asia. In 1990, Han received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Today, Han serves as the principal of Han Language Centre, which he founded in 1993. He oversees a successful education centre—with branches around Singapore—that uses colourful idioms, proverbs and witty banter in its Chinese language classes. Han also continues to write, direct and produce theatre and xiangsheng plays with the Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society.

Timeline

22 Oct 1947

Born in Singapore.

1955 to 1961

Attended Catholic High School (Primary).

1962 to 1965

Attended Chung Cheng High School (Secondary 4).

1966 to 1967

Attended The Chinese High School (Pre-university 2).

1970

Attended Teachers’ Training College.

Formed Chinese Drama Club, Teachers’ Training College.

1970 to 1971

Attended theatre classes, Practice Performing Arts School (now Theatre Practice).

1971

Performed in graduation performance, Practice Performing Arts School.

1971 to 1984

Teacher, Various primary schools.

1972

Writer and director, play 《走出牢房的人》Walking Out of the Prison – The Story of Ah Seng, Southern Arts Ensemble.

1972 to 1976

Playwright and performer, Southern Arts Ensemble.

1973

Writer, xiangsheng play 《送票》 The Gift Ticket, Southern Arts Ensemble. Featuring performers Kuo Pao Kun and He Jing Guang.

1976 to 1990

Vice-chairman/Chairman, Southern Arts Society.

1984

Writer and director, play 《门》 Door, Southern Arts Society.

Producer, play 《乌拉世界》 (Wu La World ), presented at Singapore Arts Festival.

Published《谭天相声集》Tan Tian Xiangsheng Collection.

1985 to 1989

Specialist writer, Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, Ministry of Education.

1986

Founder, Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society.

Published 《劳达剧作》The Drama of Lao Da.

Writer and director, 《五个天平座》 5 Libras, Southern Arts Society.

1986 to Present

Chairman, Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society.

1988

Published 《谭天相声二集》Tan Tian Xiangsheng Collection II.

1989 to 1995

Secretary/Chairman, Singapore Federation of Chinese Drama Association.

1990

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to theatre in Singapore.

1990 to 1992

Teacher, Hwa Chong Institution.

1991

Published 《陈嘉庚 : 八场话剧》(Chen Jia Geng: Ba Chang Hua Ju).

Published 《信步走过 - 80年代新加坡华语剧坛》Strolling Through – the Singapore Chinese Drama Scene in the 1980s.

1992

Writer, play 《飞天赋格》 (Fei Tian Fu Ge), presented at Singapore Arts Festival.

1993

Founder, Han Language Centre.

1993 to Present

Principal, Han Language Centre.

1994

Received National Book Award for 《鱼尾狮的故事 -第一到五集》The Story of the Merlion – Part I–V, National Book Development Council of Singapore.

1995

Received Broadcast Award, China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

Received Promotion Award, Chinese Ballad Singers Association.

Producer, play 《浮尔舒1001》 (Fu Er Shou 1001), presented at Asian Performing Arts Festival.

1996

Performer, Tan Tian Crosstalk, Chinese Development Assistance Council fundraising event.

1997

Received Honorary Diploma, Chinese Ballad Singers Association.

Producer and performer, 《椰林学校》 (Yue Lin Xue Xiao).

1998

Producer, play 《潮州袋鼠》(Chao Zhou Dai Shu), Theatre Practice, Chinese Culture Festival.

2000

Published《劳达相声集(三)》 Lao Da Xiangsheng Collection III.

2002

Published 《华文趣谈话用》Interesting Conversation in Chinese.

2004

Published 《劳达校园相声集》 Lao Da School Xiangsheng Collection.

2005

Director, Triple Bill, featuring plays Singapore Impromptu by Ng Sin Yue, and The Mother’s Chest and The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole by Kuo Pao Kun. Presented at Pestra Drama, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

2010

Graduated with Masters in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, Xiamen University, China.

Published 《劳达剧作集 1972-2004》 Drama Collection by Han Lao Da 1972 – 2004.

Presented China Cross Talk Superstars Show 2010, Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society.

2011

Producer, 《百年笑沧桑》- 情景系列相声 Hundred Years of Crosstalk, presented with China Beijing Xing Ye Crosstalk Troupe and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Esplanade Theatre.

2012

Writer and performer, solo xiangsheng play 《笑与”笑”》(Xiao Yu Xiao).

Works 《劳达相声作品专场》Crosstalk by Lao Da, presented by Young People’s Performing Arts Ensemble.

Producer, 《月圆笑满滨海》 - 相声名家汇演》 Together We Laugh – A Crosstalk Performance, presented by Sinfeng Xiangsheng Society and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Esplanade Theatre.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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