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Life is unruly, unkempt, energetic; straight lines are not. In I came at last to the seas, The Theatre Practice’s latest offering commissioned by Esplanade for Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, six characters in various stages of migration cross paths. They transgress time and space, navigating life while offering perspectives on cultural identity, displacement and belonging. Based on the six root senses of Buddhist belief, their stories—or “parables”, as director Kuo Jian Hong calls them—are not linear and discrete.
The understanding that a journey of cultural identity is necessarily a journey into humanity is what makes the play’s stories about the Chinese diaspora relatable to a wider audience. They delve and ruminate on what makes us human.
For the multidisciplinary production, Kuo has assembled a sparkling team of creatives from Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The involvement of talents from China and countries of the Chinese diaspora seems fitting; one of the play’s central questions is what does it mean to be Chinese.
Migration and the predicament of migrants and their descendants is something that Kuo wants to address, “In Singapore, we are the products of mass human movement. We are uprooted from our source cultures.”
The question of what it means to be Chinese entails understanding the diaspora’s relationships with its source culture—Chinese language, Chinese culture, Chinese history. But Kuo takes it to an existential level. For her, cultural identity raises the questions: Who am I? and Do I, in particular, matter in this world?
To her team of performers, designers, writers and choreographers, she posed the same questions. The concept was developed through intensive devising workshops with everyone in the creative team and continued to evolve during rehearsals.
Ahead of the performance, we look at the key ideas explored in the work:
The word comes from the Greek word diaspeirein (“to disperse”), which is derived from the words dia meaning “across” and speirein meaning “to scatter”.
The Chinese diaspora refers to the waves of mass emigration from China that took place starting from the 19th century. The causes for emigration were war or famine, and the migrants found new homes for themselves and their descendants in the Americas, Australia, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
The question of identity in the context of the Chinese diaspora was Kuo’s starting point, “I wanted to explore what it means to be Chinese within the Chinese diaspora.”
Spanning 300 years from 1878 to 2078, the characters in the parables come from Chinese diaspora contexts, presenting situations and conundrums that are ironic and philosophical.
“We discovered that despite the common thread of Chinese-ness, there were many differences between us, because we come from different places with different cultural backgrounds, and we’ve had different experiences. And yet, beyond the Chinese-ness and the separate histories which make us different, we share similar instincts, needs. Our quests are similar,” says Kuo.
Ideas from the director’s workshops with her designers, choreographers and performers, were distilled by writer Wu Xi into six parables, loosely linked to the Buddhist concept of 六根 (six roots of sensations).
Buddhists believe that the origin of suffering is craving or desire. And desire arises from stirrings at the roots of sensations or the six sense bases of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the mind.
In each of the parables, "human-ness" is dramatised. Each narrative presents a situation of desire, grief, loneliness, ambition and joy, while a Buddhist root of sensation acts as the central metaphor.
The literal translation of the play’s Chinese title 《六根不宁》 is the unsettling or the disturbance of the six roots of sensations. This is an inversion of the Buddhist saying in Chinese, 六根清净，which can be translated as the peace of mind that comes from leading a life that’s free of desire and longing.
Through workshops with all the artists in the team, the ensemble-generated work will display new modes of vocabulary that were discovered through the collision of different art forms.
Life is made up of connections, and the play demonstrates this through interwoven narrative threads with meeting points and co-dependencies.
The sea metaphor in the English title conveys movement and fluidity. Qualities of the sea are at the heart of this production, and journeys by sea, aptly for stories about migration, feature prominently.
The play departs from traditional Chinese theatre’s emphasis on language to engage the audience through what Kuo calls a “more democratic process where text becomes visual, sound is made verbal, and the visual tableau becomes movement.” It is “multi-track storytelling”, a mode which she attributes to cinema.
The storytelling in the play is visually driven and multi-layered. Kuo cites film directors Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam and Hayao Miyazaki as important influences on her work.
For the production, she has incorporated historic and futuristic settings, the fantastical re-telling of Chinese opera and literary classics, and magic realist elements. The characters come from a broad chronological spectrum spanning 300 years, and would certainly not look out of place in magic realist or sci-fi literature.
I came at last to the seas is an Esplanade commission directed by Kuo Jian Hong, written by Wu Xi, featuring a star-studded cast which includes Joanna Dong and Sugie Phua from Singapore, Rosa Maria Velasco from Hong Kong and Ethan Wei from Taiwan, Fung Wai Hang and Wang Wei (both with the support of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre), as well as Kun Opera actor Zhao Yu Tao (with the support of Jiangsu Performing Arts Group, Kun Opera Theatre) and drummer Huang Yu-Ting (with the support of U-Theatre).
Huayi has always been a platform for Singapore arts companies to produce and create interesting new works. For the first time this year, Esplanade has commissioned four works for the festival, including I came at last to the seas. It is also Huayi’s first-ever commissioned work to be staged at the 2,000-seat Esplanade Theatre.I came at last to the seas was performed at the Esplanade Theatre on 23 & 24 Feb 2018.
Dr Yeo Wei Wei is a writer and translator. Her publications include essays on Singapore theatre, poetry, and the visual arts.