Yep, the SIFA Blog is finally doing a proper review of the festival’s opening show! Don’t laugh: I got asked to do this only after watching, whereupon I decided to educate myself by reading the 585-page English translation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s original 2011 novel…
But first, a recap of what the work is about. It begins in 1979, with an embarrassed 14 year old boy named Ji Zong (Neo Hai Bin) posing nude for an art class in a rented bungalow, led by the overlooked senior artist Yan Pei (Tay Kong Hui). The story then follows the lives of each of the characters in the room, as well as their significant others, harking back to the 1950s, when Yan Pei joins leftist groups in his school simply because he enjoys singing the songs, and up till 2010, when a middle-aged Ji Zong, now a university professor, decides to try studying art and finds a sketch of his 14 year-old self hanging in the art teacher’s home…
Several critics have talked about the epic scale of the book and the production, and it certainly does recall Tolstoy’s War and Peace in its use of multiple protagonists, all trying to make the most of themselves in an era of change. Yet it’s also a thoroughly domestic work: the focus isn’t the grand political events of the period but the characters’ personal lives, which are more often ruined by bad decisions than by government policies.
The exceptions would be Yan Pei, who’s investigated for being a leftist, resulting in his being unable to keep his teaching job, thus rendering him dirt poor for life and eventually moving his wife to leave him. Also Jian Xiong, who flees Singapore once the police find out he’s holding on to some Communist books for a friend, but gets stranded in the jungle on the way to join the Communist army, ending up spending the rest of his life in the wilderness. Neither one is actually an ideologue: they’re portrayed as sympathetic losers who’re trapped by their peculiar circumstances rather than by consistent oppression. An anti-government screed, this isn’t.
What do these characters have in common, then? Almost all are striving for self-fulfilment: Yan Pei with his art, Ning Fang (Ellison Tan Yuyang) with her Hindu devotional singing and Si Xian (Timothy Wan) with his unspoken love for Ning Fang, Mei Feng (Jodi Chan) with a search for purpose after discovering she has a brain tumour, Wan Zhen (Mia Chee) with her self-flagellation after cheating on her husband Yan Pei…
And then of course Ye Chao Qun (played by no actor; his story is narrated in chorus), the buffoon of the piece: a poet-turned-artist who desires fame and fortune so much that he’ll game the system in any way possible to do it: sucking up to MPs and bribing reporters and marrying into money. He’s the only character in the story who gets what he wants early on, but a whole lot of pages are devoted to him losing his health and his dignity and the respect of others.
So this is a story about self-actualisation, not through the nationally endorsed, family-approved method of getting a good job and bringing honour to your clan, but by forging your own path in life, finding meaning in it. It’s notable that while Si Xian becomes a successful artist in Taiwan, his arc isn’t resolved until he (maybe) wins the heart of Ning Fang.
Does that sound shallow? I’ve a feeling that if the story were about English-speaking yuppies, we might find it kind of more bourgeois. But many of these characters are working class (e.g. Jian Xiong, Mei Feng and the gangster kid Ah Gui) and/or marginalised for being Chinese educated (e.g. Yan Pei). And the ones who’re emigrating aren’t following the footsteps of the globalised Anglophone elite: they’re transplanting themselves into Sinophone cultural networks in Hong Kong and Taiwan; or else they’re going it practically alone in India or France.
And here’s another thing: these folks aren’t going for week-long transformative retreats in Koh Samui or Bali. They’re searching for themselves over the course of decades: we see them get older, frailer, fall prey to cancer and constipation and near bankruptcy. That’s what’s moving about their tales: they’re one-way progressions through entire lives, beginning with hope and ending with senescence and death.
I realise that up till now I’ve been speaking about the novel and the stage production as if they’re one unit. And truth be told, it’s easy to conflate the two: director-adaptor Nelson Chia’s stuck closely to the novel, hence the unwieldy-to-some third person narration, hence the three-hour runtime of the show (which really did scare off some of my more Anglophobe friends).
And I can see why he’s decided to keep most of the stories in: partly because he wants to capture the sheer scope of the novel and because he already had the chance to dramatise a single plot thread. Back in 2012, he depicted Jian Xiong’s life in the jungle with Big Beard in Shadows in the Jungle . Separated from the other characters, their narrative was reduced to a tropical Waiting for Godot—hardly a just characterisation of such a rich and humanist text.
Nelson’s left very little out of this version: a thread in which the art student Su Lan bears with her unfaithful husband; the gang initiation rites and battles of Ah Gui; extended travelogues of Beijing, Paris, Barcelona and Lyon. (Oh, and some intimate descriptions of Yan Pei’s rectal exams. Too bad. I’m sure plenty of fans would’ve liked to see Tay Kong Hui’s butthole.)
What he’s given us instead is actually a remarkably audience-friendly version of the novel. Most of the extraneous flashbacks are spliced so that timelines are relatively linear; characters are clothed in stripped down but distinctive costumes so that it’s easy to recognise who’s who (one loses track in the novel); set designs change to reflect shifts of geography and time (the stories of Yan Pei and Si Xian’s artistic progress, so prolonged in the book, are collapsed into an exchange of letters between them: each one stands beneath an archway, and the archways move with them as the years go by).
Thus—dare I say it?—I prefer the theatre version to the novel. Not only because it’s more compact and user-friendly, with very little of value lost. Also because it’s performative: it gathers us all into a room as it parcels out its moments of pathos.
This is a national novel of sorts, after all: a Singapore story. It deserves an audience greater than the niche customer base of Grassroots Book Room and City Book Room. It’s only right that it be told on a national stage to a community of Singaporean and non-Singaporean theatregoers. Not just at this national festival, either—this is a work that I’d like to see return as part of our theatre repertoire.
In fact, why stop with theatre? A film or TV serial version of Art Studio wouldn’t be amiss. Imagine audiences across the nation huddling around a Channel 8 version of the novel, with sequences filmed on location in Paris and Chennai.
SIFA 2017 began with a theatre adaptation of one Singaporean novel and it ends with a film adaptation of another: Lizard on the Wall , inspired by Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Inheritance. I suppose Ong Keng Sen would say that’s an example of enchantment: retellings of our stories, the transformation of the contemporary into the classic and the canonical.
And perhaps it’s the pro-diversity activist in me, but I like the fact that neither work conforms to the dominant linguistic and ethnic tropes of Singapore fiction. One’s told in Mandarin, not English; the other’s about a Punjabi family, not Chinese.
Even on our tiny island, there are so many tales to tell. So many tales left untold.
P.S. If you want to buy a copy of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio, copies in English and Mandarin are available from City Book Room at North Bridge Centre, just opposite the National Library!