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Making a Scene: Pathways for Chinese Language Theatre in Singapore

Reflections and hopes from three Artistic Directors


Published: 12 Jan 2024

Time taken : >15mins

Pathways for Chinese language theatre in Singapore

How do we understand and situate Chinese culture as well as Chinese language theatre in a multicultural society like Singapore? What is the baggage around education – of actors, of (young) audiences – if one is committed to creating Chinese language theatre? And are we in fact at a point of crisis in this field, or is there hope to be found in the various intertwining pathways that local practitioners are pursuing, or dreaming to undertake?

In this episode of Making A Scene, three artistic directors of prominent theatre companies in Singapore reflect on both their companies’ and their own relationship with Chinese language theatre, with reference to their upcoming works at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2024. Oliver Chong of The Finger Players (TFP), Koh Hui Ling of Drama Box (DB) and Nelson Chia of Nine Years Theatre (NYT) also sketch out the contours of future theatre pathways they are working on or hope for, in this wide-ranging podcast hosted by Chong Gua Khee, a Singapore director and dramaturg.

Briefly, the artistic directors’ works at Huayi 2024 are:

  • Transplant by TFP, which draws inspiration from various tales in the classic anthology Liaozhai (also known as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio), and is notably a new collaboration with famed Singaporean metal band RUDRA, pioneer of the genre ‘Vedic metal’ as a tapestry of Indian traditional music, Sanskrit chants and mantras as well as death and black metal music;
  • Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) piece The Dog Who Wasn’t Useful by DB alongside Isabella Chiam, which is adapted from a podcast of the same title by Canadian writer Daniel Hinds;
  • and Everything for You by NYT, an original work that is a sequel of sorts to Between You and Me, a family drama by NYT that was commissioned by Esplanade and premiered at Huayi 2022.

In starting the conversation, the three highlight the importance of differentiating between the company’s positioning as a Chinese language theatre company (or not), and their own individual inclinations and desires as theatre practitioners. For instance, even as TFP works similarly to a collective (and in fact restructured in 2018 to become “closer to a collective for the long haul”), Oliver shared in the conversation that ultimately “the language that each creator [at TFP] chooses to use is up to the creators”. That is, what language is used in TFP's works comes down to the question of “which language is most comfortable for each individual”, rather than there being a specific company directive.

All three also spoke of some of the unique tensions and struggles around working with/in Mandarin in making performances in Singapore, including the vast range of different registers of Mandarin in Singapore. Nelson and Hui Ling highlighted as well how many people in Singapore, especially the younger generation, are less able to process Mandarin as a language – a consequence, perhaps, of being a multicultural society that uses English as the common language in schools and at workplaces.

Against this backdrop, Nelson noted the uniquely important role that surtitles take on for Chinese language theatre in Singapore, while Hui Ling shared her experience of feeling a certain “baggage” around Chinese TYA, where she could not help but ask herself and the team how the work can support Mandarin language learning in some way for the audience. In response, Gua Khee observed that these challenges are also shared by other practitioners who work with non-English languages in Singapore, and that there are valuable learnings to be gleaned from observing each other’s ideas and initiatives.

Looking towards the future, Hui Ling, Nelson and Oliver highlighted their intertwined hopes for performances that can bring together the different generations of theatremakers and performers in Chinese language theatre, as well as for more people to appreciate the unique place of Chinese and each mother tongue and culture within Singapore’s multicultural society.

In grappling with the complexity of such “worlds within worlds” while still actively dreaming about possible pathways for Chinese language theatre in Singapore, questions become “bigger and bigger and more and more interesting”, as Nelson noted, but also – while “we are still very young in the exploration, we have a lot to offer”. Indeed, in this past decade since Drama Box published SCENES: A Hundred Years of Singapore Chinese Language Theatre 1913 – 2013 in 2013, much has already developed, and much more is surely to come.

Clockwise from left: Nelson Chia, Koh Hui Ling, Oliver Chong, and Chong Gua Khee in conversation.

This episode is commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in conjunction with Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts. Available on Esplanade Offstage, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Artists' bios


Nelson Chia is a director, performer, playwright, acting teacher and theatre lecturer. He has won Best Director four times and Best Actor twice at the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards. In 2012, Chia was the first Singapore artist to be commissioned for three consecutive years by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay to present a major theatre work at the annual Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts.  
In 2017, he transcreated Cultural Medallion writer Yeng Pway Ngon’s seminal novel Art Studio for the stage, which was commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) as the opening programme for the festival that year. In 2021, he collaborated with the renowned SITI Company from New York to present a hybrid version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at SIFA 2020/21. Other commissioning and artistic partners he has worked with include Macau Arts Festival, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Singapore Writers’ Festival, The Substation, The Arts House, World Shakespeare Congress, T.H.E. Dance Company, and Contemporary Legend Theatre (Taiwan), to name a few. 
Chia’s directorial works are marked by detailed and dynamic ensemble work. His original scripts and transcreations are known to be culturally layered, possessing sensibilities that speak to audiences from all backgrounds. In 2012, Nelson, with his wife Mia Chee, co-founded Nine Years Theatre (NYT) – currently the only company under NAC’s “Major Company Scheme” that positions itself as a Singapore Mandarin theatre company. NYT sees Chinese culture as the foundation of its work but not the centre of its practice. The company believes in the uniqueness of local Chinese culture and aspires to recognise and celebrate the multicultural identity of the Singaporean Chinese through theatre. 



Oliver Chong is a multi-award-winning and published playwright, director, actor, puppeteer; and set and puppet designer. Some of his memorable works include Every Brilliant Thing, A Fiend’s Diary, Roots, I’m Just a Piano Teacher, Cat, Lost & Found, The Book of Living and Dying, Citizen Pig and Citizen Dog. His numerous wins and nominations at The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards include Production of the Year, Best Director, Best Script, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Ensemble, and Best Set Design.

To date, Oliver’s works have been presented at international arts festivals in Paris, Myanmar, Barcelona, Budapest, Ankara, Bangkok, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and Malaysia. He has conducted playwriting, directing and acting Masterclasses in Hong Kong and Singapore, and has been committed to helping practitioners fine-tune their crafts since 2014.

Oliver was the Resident Director of The Finger Players (2004 – 2018) and is currently the Artistic Director of the company. He is also the founding member of A Group of People (2008 – 2012) and the founder of ODDCROP Productions (2019 – present). His published works include Roots, The Book of Living and Dying, I’m Just a Piano Teacher and Cat, Lost & Found. Roots was also read and staged in New Zealand by Proudly Asian Theatre in 2018.



Koh Hui Ling is a theatre practitioner who finds meaning in the process of community engagement and the participation of non-artists in art-making.

She is currently co-artistic director of socially engaged theatre company Drama Box, where she has moved from overseeing the development of the youth engagement work to her current focus in community based practices.

Recognised for her contribution to community, youth and culture, Hui Ling was given in 2013 the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council of Singapore, and the Singapore Youth Award by the National Youth Council, and in 2015, Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award (Singapore) by the Junior Chamber International.

Hui Ling completed her Masters of Arts in Applied Drama (Distinction) from the University of Exeter (UK), with her research on sustainability of community based theatre companies. 



Chong Gua Khee is a director, performance-maker, dramaturg and facilitator. At its core, her work is about creating spaces where people can explore and embody gentler ways of being with themselves and other human/object bodies. Recent projects include: co-directing Tactility Studies: A Sense of Body (2023) as part of the Resonates With Residency by the National Gallery of Singapore; facilitating and directing Recipes for Living: The Flavours of Life (2023), a devised piece with seniors; creating HOT POT TALK: Cooking Up Recipes (2023), a collaborative zine-making project with migrant workers; directing dance theatre piece Before You Go (2022); and co-leading and writing for Library of Care (2022) as part of CITRUS practices, a loose working group that aims to expand conversations around care practices in artmaking. guakhee.com

Credit for theme music

Song: Angels

Artist: hauste (FB/IG: @haustesound)

Publisher: Maker Records (FB/IG: @MakerRecordsGrp)

Soar fearlessly into a new year with Huayi!

Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2024

An unforgettable experience in the arts that you can share with your loved ones, young or old.

16 – 25 Feb 2024
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