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Theatre Dance

Staging Unseen Singapore Stories

Documenting communities and disappearing cultures through theatre


Published: 15 May 2023

Time taken : >15mins

As the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre’s auditorium lights dim, the eager audience is welcomed by the appearance of the “playwright” onstage. From a little island-like platform surrounded by an ankle-deep pool of water, the “playwright” draws the audience’s attention to the wooden planks mounted on the stage’s backwall. From this unexpected starting point, over the next two and a half hours, five actors deliver monologues from characters as varied as a food writer and sustainability strategist, to “more-than-human” voices including the Singapore Zoo’s famous chimpanzee Ah Meng, the country’s last tiger and a banyan tree. In writing Pulau Ujong / Island at the End (2022) presented by Wild Rice, playwright Alfian Sa’at interviewed numerous people and natural entities (like animals and plants), and later “edit[ed] and reshuffle[d], rearrange[d]” to form the text of the play. 

From theatre experiences leading audiences on foot through ethnic enclaves, to works based on true accounts from marginalised people, to self-directed audio tours bringing to life annual festivals, to illuminating lecture-performances on minority diasporas in Singapore, there have been a plethora of local works documenting communities and disappearing cultures through theatre. In these works, “communities” and “cultures” cover not only geographic, ethnic, linguistic or religious groups but also other identity-based affiliations such as seniors, the queer community and migrant communities.

Across the diverse subjects covered and the various forms these productions take, what unites all these works is the use of the documentary mode—each of them is grounded in real-life stories gathered through research and interviews, as opposed to entirely fictional characters and accounts.  

Joining the growing roster of such works is the forthcoming Air Da Tohor (The tide is low), developed by Asnida Daud and Firdaus Sani, two of Singapore’s orang pulau and orang laut descendants whose families lived on Pulau Sudong and Pulau Semakau, two islands in the south of Singapore which were once home to indigenous island communities. The duo are presenting this new work, commissioned by Esplanade, together with invited performers, movement artists and sound artists. 

The responsibility of accurate representation

Documenting a community or culture, especially a disappearing, minority and/or marginalised one, comes with the responsibility of accurate representation—something that Firdaus is all too familiar with. A fourth-generation orang laut/pulau descendant who frequently visited Pulau Semakau—his grandparents’ former home—while growing up, Firdaus is the founder of Orang Laut SG, an initiative dedicated to reclaiming indigenous narratives. 

In December 2022, Orang Laut SG issued a statement about a “theatrical” boat tour offered by Let’s Go Tour Singapore that claimed to feature two actors conveying “stories of the sea nomads”.  They pointed out cultural and historical inaccuracies in the theatrical tour, such as the misuse of the traditional songkok and fishing gear as props, and the use of a Chinese junk boat. It is noteworthy that Orang Laut SG did not respond to an invitation from Let’s Go Tour Singapore to collaborate. Instead, they emphasised that their mission is to “build our community’s narratives and culture, not profit”.  It was important, as they highlighted, to consider who benefits from such collaborations or research, and the long-term impact of doing so. Thus, informed consent from the community or culture featured, as well as thorough research, is vital to the sensitive and successful depiction of minority and/or marginalised communities and disappearing cultures through theatre. 

Asnida and Firdaus are both already experienced advocates for their communities. Air Da Tohor is an expansion of “prior works, both solo and collaborative”, as Asnida shared. The duo relied on academic journals, scholarly works and literature to “better understand the intersections between the unique practices of the coastal communities throughout the Nusantara from the early 1700s,” Firdaus shared. In addition, “listening, talking and understanding” are integral to their research approach. Asnida invited Air Da Tohor’s artistic director Norhaizad Adam and project manager Hasyimah Harith on a learning trip to Pulau Seraya, where they reconnected with Asnida’s distant relatives whom she had not met for almost 20 years.  

Firdaus Sani and Asnida Daud, creators and performers of <em>Air Da Tohor (The tide is low)</em>. Photo credit: STUDIO ZKNE

Asnida shared that they "engage[d] in observation and conduct[ed] interviews with elderly individuals and other members of the community, with the aim of documenting personal narratives and cultural perspectives. The recorded interviews were subjected to analysis to identify recurring themes and narratives”. For Firdaus, speaking to former islanders has enabled him to “deeply understand their plights, worries and wisdom”, while for Asnida, such interactions are a means of anchoring the work and “guaranteeing that the accounts [we convey are] both genuine and considerate of their unique perspectives”. 

Journeying through space and time

After thorough research is done, how can it be communicated to audiences in an evocative and effective manner? Local theatre practitioners have attempted various approaches, each with its own opportunities and challenges.  

One strategy is to situate the performance in the location(s) relevant to or occupied by the communities or cultures being discussed. In 2022, local theatre company Drama Box, which is known for its socially-engaged productions, presented ubina three-hour immersive walking tour that led attendees around Pulau Ubin to uncover its stories and sites, and to contemplate the island’s future. In signing up for such an experiencewhich is also known as “promenade theatre”audiences were committing to making their way to access an offshore location and to spend considerable time in nature. Drama Box supplemented their journey with an interactive digital house programme and education kit that encouraged active participation before, during and after the performance, thereby offering multiple access points to communicate the abundance of content the research had yielded.  

While ubin is an example of a guided promenade theatre experience, self-guided ones also exist, examples being the audio tours Geylang Serai Trails (2021) by The Second Breakfast Company and Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk (2021) by The Arts House, which are respectively focused on a traditionally Malay neighbourhood and an annual Hindu festival.  

One obvious advantage of self-guided tours is that they are less resource-intensive than guided ones in terms of permits and manpower, and can hence be offered to audiences free of charge or cheaply, and can run for longer, even indefinitely. However, they do not compromise on research and quality in terms of content, delivery and production value. It is noteworthy that both Geylang Serai Trails and Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk were created at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore, when many communal experiences, including theatre, could only proceed as solitary ones if held offline. By stripping away the performative element in front of our eyes, such self-guided audio tours instead engage listeners’ senses and pique their imagination, getting them to observe even familiar sites and paths with fresh eyes and deeper knowledge. 

Whether guided or self-directed, each of these promenade theatre experiences has in common the ambulatory element. In her survey of artistic productions in pandemic-era Singapore that incorporate walking, Vithya Subramaniam notes, 

walking as method seeks to follow, not replicate; it recognises that while you may walk in someone else’s shoes, you’ll never walk in their feet.

Walking-with as a form of participation in interactive theatre experiences, documenting minority communities and their cultures, is thus a valuable reminder to audiences to engage respectfully with the narratives, beings and spaces they encounter along the journey.

In the community’s own words

Another strategy to communicate research about a minority community or disappearing culture is through verbatim theatre, in which the script is constructed from real words by real people, gathered through sources like oral histories, interviews and written accounts.  

With the use of verbatim theatre, the voices of members of minority and/or marginalised communities are put on the record. At the same time, as they are communicated to the audience through actors, the individuals’ privacy—and perhaps also their safety—is maintained without compromising aesthetics, in a way that might be the case if they were featured, and had to be obscured, in an audiovisual documentary. Where Subramaniam highlighted the responsibility of audiences engaging with such works to be mindful of their positionality in relation to the community being discussed, theatre practitioner Adib Kosnan emphasises the onus on performers as well. Speaking to ArtsEquator in 2019 as co-director of Air, a verbatim piece about the experiences of the orang seletar community now based in Johor, he stated,

Even though it’s a verbatim piece, the idea is not to become these Orang Seletar onstage, because we are not them. We don’t go through the same struggles that they go through. We found a middle ground of showing how the actor, as a Malay Singaporean performer, comes into the space and tries to access the character, before taking on these voices and sharing these stories.

Similarly, Air Da Tohor involves Malay Singaporean artists who are not of orang pulau/orang laut heritage. Conscious of their responsibility to share their ancestors’ narratives “to the best of [their] knowledge and accurately with others,” as Firdaus put it, he and Asnida took efforts to help their collaborators understand the nuances that may not be apparent to them. 

Asnida shared: “We chose our collaborators carefully so that we were able to create a poetic dance story that authentically and sensitively represents the indigenous narratives of the orang laut/pulau in Singapore.” Her husband and children are also involved in Air Da Tohor as projection designers, musicians and vocal artists and as they did not share her memories living on and visiting Pulau Sudong in the 1970s and 1980s, they organised an educational trip to Pulau Seraya in Riau to “foster a deeper understanding of the narratives, music and emotion [they are] working on”. 

Video footage, images and soundscapes from this impactful trip were shared with the Air Da Tohor team and supplemented with “frequent engagement with living islanders at West Coast” to “ensure coherence and artistic representation through [the movement artists’] body work,” Asnida explained. In discussions, they also made an effort to highlight similarities with other cultures as a form of helpful analogy, and ensured there was a mutual exchange of ideas by listening to and learning from the expertise of other collaborators, such as Madam Isiah Majid, a practitioner of silat gayong, which Asnida described as “synonymous to Pulau Sudong’s martial arts history”. 

Unconventional narrative structures in conventional performance spaces

Offerings like Tanah•Air 水•土:A Play In Two Parts (2019) by Drama Box (which the abovementioned Air was part of) and One Metre Square: Voices from Sungei Road (2018) by Wild Rice spotlight specific communities in a more typical performance setting, seeking to recreate the spirit of a place within that stage-like environment. Air Da Tohor takes this approach too, surprising though it may seem for a work so intimately tied to the sea to be performed indoors in the Esplanade Recital Studio, as opposed to a coastal environment, or even the nearest body of water, Marina Bay, which is right outdoors. 

Asnida is aware of this, pointing out in an interview with The Straits Times, “In other cultures, there might be an association [of the low tide] with regression. But for us, it is the total opposite. You are exposing shellfish, crabs and so on, and life goes on. Low tide, in a way, is also high.” The absence of the actual tides in the environment of the Esplanade Recital Studio is turned into an opportunity, a deliberate artistic choice.  

Asnida shared: “In the intimate confines of an indoor performance space, our team faced the intriguing challenge of bringing to life the orang laut’s rich maritime culture, their deep-rooted connection to nature, animistic worldview and sacred sea rituals.” They have carefully designed Air Da Tohor’s set, soundscapes, spoken-word components and movement design in order to successfully communicate this to audiences.  

For example, the minimalist set design draws inspiration from the hexagonal pattern seen in bubu, a traditional fish trap. The shape also symbolises the six cardinal directions of the wind, an essential navigational tool for the orang laut before they set sail on their sea voyages or to forage. The set also “features elements such as mealing stones, bubu, and other artefacts, and is complemented by lighting and projections that convey the fluidity of water and capture the essence of other natural phenomena”, as Asnida elaborated.  

In Tanah•Air, Tanah was set outdoors on the lawn of the Malay Heritage Centre, and Air indoors in the museum’s auditorium. While the settings were conventional in comparison to the promenade theatre works cited earlier, the production was more experimental with its two-part structure, presentation in multiple languages, and diverse source materials ranging from a novel (1819 by Isa Kamari), to 19th-century characters, to conversations. Similarly, the creators of Air Da Tohor have, instead of a conventional narrative structure, opted for a four-part programme that reveals “practices that have so far been mostly kept within the dwindling community”.  

Asnida and Firdaus, together with their performers, will adopt specific performance modes to depict the tangible and intangible elements of a disappearing community and its culture in the space of a theatre. Using the spoken-word mode, performers are empowered to convey exactly what they’d like to, how they’d like to, using the “cadence of islander’s speech”, as Asnida describes it. Meanwhile, movement complements speech as a more embodied, abstract way of communicating from instinct and emotion. A dedicated writer-in-residence, Nabilah Said, was also critical in “shaping the work’s artistic vision and ensuring cultural authenticity, through rigorous research into the orang laut community, their history and tradition” in order to craft a narrative that “form[ed] the backbone to propel the performance forward”. 

Agency and advocacy through the arts

In her 2018 report in The Straits Times about the surge in promenade performances in Singapore theatre, Akshita Nanda astutely identifies both pragmatic (fierce competition for theatre space; the need for novelty in a “market with thousands of art events”, the social media-friendly appeal of such events) and sociopolitical reasons for such a trend. On the one hand, artists create such works to mourn the rapid rate of government-sanctioned urban redevelopment in Singapore, but on the other, institutional support for heritage-themed works is strong, evidenced in the plethora of schemes that offered funding for projects to commemorate Singapore’s 50th year of independence in 2015 and the bicentennial anniversary, in 2019, of Stamford Raffles landing in Singapore (in 1819).  

Encouragingly, recent creations by minority and/or marginalised communities in the realm of theatre and beyond have ventured beyond nostalgia in their use of the arts as a platform to document and celebrate their culture. There is greater emphasis on agency in the way that they choose to represent themselves. For instance, working-class migrant workers in Singapore spotlight the professional and social precarities they face here via works like Foreign Bodies (2023) by The Birds Migrant Theatre and the short film $alary Day (2020) by Ramasamy Madhavan. There is also increasingly an element of advocacy in the specific issues such works choose to centre, as in queer theatre in Singapore not only discussing representation but legal, material and social inequalities, such as in When cloud catches colours (2023) by Drama Box, a verbatim theatre piece on aging as queer people in Singapore. 

Like Firdaus Sani’s efforts with Orang Laut SG, Nor Syazwan bin Abdul Majid, a descendant of the orang pulau of Pulau Ubin, has been advocating for the preservation and celebration of his community’s culture and heritage via his platform Wan’s Ubin Journal since 2018. Covering his work in The Mekong Review in February 2023, Nabilah Husna Binte Abdul Rahman notes that

remembrance like this is painful, and not done simply for the sake of dreamy nostalgia. To remember politically and ethically […] is to be hopeful and future-focused.

As our encounters with clear-voiced, self-determined narratives from minority and/or marginalised communities abound, our responsibility as maturing audiences is to pay close attention, and participate in the “work of repairing, healing and being accountable to one another”. 

Air Da Tohor (The tide is low) will be showing as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts on 19 & 20 May 2023 at Esplanade Recital Studio.

Contributed by:

Aditi Shivaramakrishnan

Aditi Shivaramakrishnan is an editor and writer in Singapore. Her work has been published in ArtsEquator, gal-dem, Portside Review, SEASONINGS Magazine and elsewhere.

The good vibes continue

Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2023

Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara.

18 – 21 May 2023
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