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Theatre

Kuo Pao Kun

A pioneer of multidisciplinary, multilingual and multicultural contemporary theatre in Singapore.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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The world does not treat us unkindly or forget us /
in the midst of solitude /
even the maize teaches me generously each day: /
let the shoots rise up high /
take in all the sunlight /
and embrace the love of the wind and rain /
let the roots reach down deep /
suck in all the nutrients /
and keep the body firm /
only wishing that in the rich harvest /
transforming all that it has /
into a few fruits and offers them to mankind.


in a Chinese New Year card to his wife in 1977 while in prison (translated from Chinese by Teo Han Wue and Kwok Kian Woon)

Kuo Pao Kun is perhaps Singapore’s most influential dramatist and arts activist. He was a bilingual English and Mandarin playwright who was a pioneer of multidisciplinary, multilingual and multicultural contemporary theatre in Singapore. He was also an influential educator and enabler who established The Theatre Practice, The Substation and the Theatre Training & Research Programme (now the Intercultural Theatre Institute), and brought artists from different cultures and disciplines together. Despite being detained without trial for over four years in the late ’70s, he became the strength of Singapore theatre in the ’80s and ’90s and forged a body of work built on humanistic ideals. Although he passed away in 2002, his institutions continue to nurture generations and his theatre work, which has at its heart a true sense of self and a wider humanity, still invites audiences to think, feel and question.

Kuo Pao Kun was born in 1939 in Hebei, China, to a poor rural family. As his father had come to Singapore to set up a business, his mother relocated with an 8-year-old Kuo to Beijing and then to Hong Kong. When Kuo turned 10, they joined his father in Singapore. Here, he attended six different Chinese and English schools, as his father transferred him from one school to the next.

At the age of 15, while still studying, he began working at Rediffusion radio’s Mandarin Drama Group as a broadcaster, writer and performer of radio dramas and xiangsheng, and he became sought after for his Beijing-accented Mandarin. When he graduated in 1959, he moved to Melbourne to work as a Chinese translator-announcer for Radio Australia. In 1963, he enrolled in Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts where he would be trained in Western theatre while working at the Old Tote Theatre Company (now the Sydney Theatre Company). During this period of time, he also became engaged to Melbourne-based Singaporean ballerina, Goh Lay Kuan.

Upon his graduation in 1965, the pair returned to Singapore and on 1 July 1965, co-founded the Singapore Performing Arts School (now known as The Theatre Practice) on the day they were married. Goh headed the dance wing while Kuo took charge of drama, teaching theatre and writing, producing, directing and the staging of theatre productions. After initial struggles, Kuo built a strong base of students from all walks of life, many of whom became involved in his productions.

From the ’20s to the ’70s, contemporary Chinese theatre in Singapore was highly political and viewed by left-leaning Chinese dramatists as a tool for social change. During that time—with a few exceptions such as his 1966 staging of Singapore’s first Brecht play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle which he translated into Mandarin—Kuo created plays that reflected his leftist ideology and concerns about post-independence Singapore. Then, in a time of rapid urbanisation, an influx of multinational investments, the demolition of villages to make way for industrialisation and the rise of the English-educated elite, he wrote about the displacement and marginalisation of certain communities, the struggles of the working class and a rising social inequality.

In 1976, Kuo and his wife were arrested and detained without trial. Although Goh was subsequently released a few months later, Kuo was stripped of his citizenship and suffered more than four years of imprisonment while his wife looked after their two young daughters and ran their school alone.

When Kuo was released in 1980, he resumed working immediately. By then, the spirit of contemporary Chinese theatre in Singapore had been broken and its playwrights had been silenced. Amidst the ashes, a largely English-language and individualistic theatre scene had sprung up, fuelled by the government’s establishment of English as the first language in the ’70s.

In this new environment, Kuo—still deeply attached to Singapore—created plays that still contained astute observations and criticisms of society and the nation’s development, but which were reflective of life and society in a gentler, more metaphorical way. Post-1980 plays such as The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole—about a man trying to get permission from unyielding authorities to bury his deceased father in a coffin too big for the standard-sized grave—and Lao Jiu—about an intelligent boy who turns down a high-paying job to become a traditional puppeteer—showed a new mitigation of criticism with humour.

Where before he had written only in Mandarin, Kuo—from 1983 onwards—wrote plays in English and Mandarin and peppered them with other languages used in Singapore—Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. He became a pioneer of multidisciplinary and multicultural contemporary theatre in Singapore. His plays, often featuring a multicultural cast, celebrated everyday cross-cultural exchanges, and embraced diversity in culture, language, beliefs and ways of life. By the ’90s, he had become an artistic powerhouse. His plays were acclaimed not only in Singapore but overseas, lauded for their pluralism, social-consciousness and humanistic ideals.

He also taught and influenced artists across disciplines, cultures and generations, and paved the way for arts education with his institutions, workshops and collaborations. Practice Performing Arts School birthed three important Singapore arts institutions—The Theatre Practice, The Substation and the Theatre Training & Research Programme, which sought to establish an Asian theatre methodology and nurture Singapore talent.

He became known for his gift of bringing people together and getting artists from different cultures and disciplines to collaborate. He was also a selfless mentor who supported fellow practitioners and friends without reservations. Ex-student and playwright Han Lao Da attests, “Kuo Pao Kun greatly influenced and nurtured me. He helped revise my first xiangsheng play The Gift Ticket, and also performed in it. When he knew of my interest in xiangsheng, he gave me great encouragement.”

In 1989, Kuo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre. He also received the 2002 Excellence for Singapore Award, 1990 ASEAN Cultural Award and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1996. In 1992, his Singapore citizenship was reinstated.

Kuo died of cancer in September 2002. He was mourned around the world. Today, his plays have been translated into many languages and performed internationally. His institutions continue to nurture generations. And his voice, quiet yet strong in its idealism, continues to speak out to audiences through his body of work.

In 2012 and 2013, celebrated Singapore theatre director Ong Keng Sen presented Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun, a portrait of the pioneering Singapore arts couple.

Timeline

27 Jun 1939

Born in Hebei, China. Later moved to Beijing.

1948

Moved to Hong Kong.

1949

Moved to Singapore.

1950 to 1954

Enrolled in Catholic High School.

1954 to 1955

Moved to Hong Kong to enrol in Ba Cui Secondary School.

1955

Returned to Singapore to enrol in Chung Cheng High School.

Writer, broadcaster and performer, Mandarin Drama Group, Rediffusion.

1956

Transferred to enrol in Chinese High School.

Transferred to enrol in Kallang West Government Chinese Middle School (later renamed Dunman High School).

1957

Transferred to enrol in Pasir Panjang Secondary School.

Joined Cathay Organisation’s Acting for Screen Training and acted in the graduation play The Big Circus.

1959 to 1962

Moved to Melbourne, Australia. Worked as Mandarin translator-announcer, Radio Australia.

1963 to 1965

Enrolled in National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney, Australia. Graduated with Diploma in Production.

Worked at Old Tote Theatre Company.

Got engaged to Singaporean ballet dancer Goh Lay Kuan.

1965

Returned to Singapore with Goh Lay Kuan.

Translator and director, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year.

1 Jul 1965

Married Goh Lay Kuan.

Founded Singapore Performing Arts School (later known as Practice Performing Arts School, and then The Theatre Practice) with Goh Lay Kuan.

1966

Translator and director, Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.

1967

Translator and director, Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun.

1968

Writer and director, Hey, Wake Up!.

Published Hey, Wake Up!.

1969

Writer and director, The Struggle.

1971

Writer, The Spark of Youth.

1972

Co-founder, Selatan Arts Ensemble.

Launched the Go Into Life movement with his ex-students. The movement explored first-hand life experiences of grassroots members in Singapore and the surrounding region, resulting in the creation of original works such as The Fishing Village.

1973

Writer and director, Growing Up.

Published dramatic poem Sister Luo’s New Year Eve.

1974

Published comic strip edition of Growing Up.

1976 to 1980

Detained by the Singapore government under the Internal Security Act.

1977

Singapore citizenship revoked.

1980

Released from detention. Resumed work at Singapore Performing Arts School.

1981

Translator, Fugard’s The Island.

Director, Sorry, Wrong Number.

1982

Writer and director, The Little White Sailing Boat.

Writer and director, Ping.

Director, Tile Roof Atap Roof.

Translator and director, Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

1983

Published The Little White Sailing Boat.

1984

Singapore Performing Arts Centre renamed Practice Performing Arts School.

Writer and director, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole.

1985

Director, Athol Fugard’s The Island.

1986

Founder, Practice Theatre Ensemble(later renamed The Theatre Practice), Singapore’s first bilingual theatre ensemble.

Writer and director, Kopi Tiam.

Writer and director, No Parking On Odd Days.

Published The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole.

1986 to 2002

Artistic director, Practice Theatre Ensemble.

1987

Writer, The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree.

Producer, Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm.

Translator and director, Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers.

1988

Writer and director, Mama Looking For Her Cat. (Singapore’s first multilingual play)

Writer, Day I Met the Prince (in English and Chinese).

1989

Received Fulbright Professional Exchange Fellowship, USA.

Director, The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree.

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to theatre.

1990

Founder, The Substation.

Writer and director, Lao Jiu (The Ninth Born).

Writer, The Eagle and the Cat.

Published The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole.

1990 to 1995

Artistic director, The Substation.

1991

Writer and director, 0Zero01.

1991 to 2002

Advisor, National Arts Council.

1992

Singapore citizenship reinstated.

Received Culture Award, JCCI, Singapore.

Writer and director, The Evening Climb.

Director, My Mother’s Chest.

1993

Received ASEAN Cultural Award (Performing Arts).

Writer, Lao Jiu (The Ninth Born).

Director, Next Generations.

1994

Director, Fishing Eagles

Adjunct Associate Professor, Division of Literature and Drama, National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University.

1995

Writer and director, Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral.

Writer, The Evening Climb.

Writer, The Eagle and the Cat.

Published Images at the Margins.

1995 to 2002

Advisor, Chinese Newspaper Group, Singapore Press Holdings.

1996

Received Chevalier de ‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

1997

Director, Cao Yu’s The Savage Land.

Named fellow in Asian Leadership Fellowship Program, Japan.

Writer, Geyland People in the Net (multilingual)

Writer, Grandpa’s Meat Bone Tea (Chinese telemovie)

1997 to 2002

Advisor, Drama Project, Chinese University, Hong Kong.

1998

Writer and director, The Spirits Play.

1999

Writer and director, Sunset Rise.

Director, Red Hawk.

2000

Published Images at the Margins.

Published Petals Falling Like Snow.

2001

Writer, One Hundred Years in Waiting. Co-written by Haresh Sharma and Chong Tze Chien.

Co-founder and advisor, Theatre Training & Research Programme (now known as Intercultural Theatre Institute).

2002

Received Excellence for Singapore Award, Singapore Totalisator Board.

10 Sep 2002

Passed away at age 63.

Dec 2002

Works For Pao Kun – Legend Alive, presented by The Theatre Practice and The Esplanade Co. Ltd at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

2005

Two-volume Chinese book The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun published.

2007

Kuo Pao Kun Foundation established with the support of ex-student and founder of Creative Technology, Sim Wong Hoo.

2012

Kao Pao Kun Festival, a yearlong celebration of Kuo’s life and legacy to commemorate the tenth year of his passing organised by The Theatre Practice.

Sep 2012 to Feb 2013

Together with Goh Lay Kuan, was subject of Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun, a stage portrait of the couple by Ong Keng Sen. Presented at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore.


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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