Nanyang: The Musical

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 10, 2015

Now that Nanyang has finished its run, it’s probably safe to post a completely honest review of the show.

Chen Chong Swee
Balinese Girls (1952)

Now don't get me wrong - this wasn't a bad musical. It was well acted, well sung and well danced, with catchy tunes (with really strong xinyao overtones) and some pretty interesting forays into the cultural politics of being part of the Chinese diaspora in the middle of the 20th century...

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But here's the thing I can't stand: this show was not about the Nanyang Artists. 

None of the  Nanyang artists (the big five are Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee) are explicitly named in the show. Instead we've got characters and events  inspired by their stories.

Moreover, the plot centres not on art, but on  a Liu Kang analogue falling in love with a  Georgette Chen analogue,  which never f***ing happened.

Georgette Chen
Portrait of Eugene Chen (1961)

This is like staging a work called Renaissance: The Musical, about Leonardo da Vinci falling in love with Raphael.  This is like staging a work called  The Artists Village: The Musical, about Zai Kuning falling in love with Amanda Heng.  (Although come to think of it, I would watch the hell out of either of those.)

Anyway, since there wasn't a single genuine artwork by a Nanyang artist featured in the show, I'm gonna pepper my review with their paintings, so you'll maybe actually get to know something about the Nanyang Style.

Liu Kang
Artist and Model (1954)

So the musical starts off in Shanghai in the autumn. Which makes sense, because the principal Nanyang artists were all from China, and Shanghai was the capital of the Chinese art world at the time. They're all working on oil paintings, gathered around a female model in a wraparound (no nudity please, we're Singaporeans), when a brick gets thrown into the art school, because it's the late '30s or early '40s and the Japanese are invading, and the Communists are fighting the Republicans, and therefore social turmoil, etc.

We meet our protagonist, Chen Kang (Roy Huang). I called him a Liu Kang analogue, but you can also see he's got bits of Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi in his name. He's a young Chinese ink painter, and he's trying to learn Western oil painting since he regards it as the little brother of ink painting, and there's a cute little cultural clash when he starts grinding his inkstone in front of everyone else, teehee.

But that cultural clash isn't explored much further. You see, he's somehow fallen slap-bang in love with Li Ying (Seong Hui Xuan), an upper-class older woman who lends him her oil paints and speaks French and English and exuuuudes cosmopolitanism. She's very much inspired by Georgette Chen herself, whose Chinese name really was Li Ying, and who really was classy as all-get-out.

Georgette Chen
Self-Portrait (1946)

Anyhow, Chen Kang gets to stay overnight with his friend Ren Hao (Dennis Heng) and his girlfriend Yue Ping (Andrea Xing XiYu), who are not clearly identified with any Nanyang artists I know of. (There were rather few women Nanyang artists, anyhow. Is she supposed to be Lai Foong Moi? Really, if you know more about these folks, please leave a comment.)

Meanwhile, their teacher, Zhang Wen (Trev Neo), who walks around in a changshan and a moustache looking like Lu Xun, sings a soliloquy-song about how terrible the riots are, because the sky's turning red, and we just don't understand how bad things are.

Lim Hak Tai
Riot (1955)

I did find this song a little overly preachy and earnest, but Mandarin musicals can be like that, no? (Was wondering at first if Zhang Wen, as Mr Art Teacher, was supposed to be Lim Hak Tai, who founded Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, but I met Trev after the show and he told me no.)

Also, this is the first song of the evening. It took a little too long for the musical to actually get musical, IMHO.

Next scene: Chen Kang tries to accost Li Ying the next day, but she's headed to America suddenly, so he gets left in the wake of her rickshaw, looking heartbroken. Ren Hao and Yue Ping console him.

Then Zhang Wen wanders in, and announces that decided that China's in trouble, so he's headed for Paris. And of course all of them immediately decide to go together, because this is the 1940s, and starving artists can make big decisions about intercontinental travel instantly.

Also, friendship, I suppose.

Liu Kang
Outdoor Painting (In Johore) (1954)

And now we're in Paris in the winter! Which has already been taken over by the Nazis, so maybe the trip wasn't such a great idea.

Surprisingly, Li Ying is also there, because her ship to America got stopped. And they all go to the house of some grand Chinese lady who runs a salon for Chinese artists named Cheng Yu, and she auctions off a painting by Zhang Wen showing the atrocities of the Japanese, because war is baaad, you guys.

Interestingly, among the wine-tasters and art aficionados in the scene, there are a few women who're dancing with women. I'll venture to say that this is evidence that Cheng Yu is based on one of the great lesbian salonneuses of Paris, like  Gertrude Stein or Natalie Barney.

Lai Foong Moi
Indian Curry (1959)

But there's a lot of heterosexuality going on too! We actually see Ren Hao and Yue Ping having sex in an armchair (in one of the less practical variations of the Reverse Cowgirl) before he proposes to her, which means that it's all morally sound, etc.

And of course, Chen Kang is lusting after Li Ying. And surprisingly, Li Ying is having reciprocal feelings, being lonely and all, despite the fact that the real-life Georgette Chen was in fact married to, I dunno, only the bloody Foreign Minister of China at this time.

I know, I know. It's fiction! But it is really clichéd having this strong confident woman reveal that she's lonely and empty inside because she's focussed too much on her career. And her solo has this refrain going, "快,给我爱", which is translated as "Quick, give me love," but which sounds absurdly sexual to my ears.

Georgette Chen
Self-Portrait (1946)

(I'm taking this all rather personally, since I myself wrote a musical about Georgette, even starring the same actress. So I cannot help but make comparisons. Sorry.)

Anyhow, Li Ying's running away again to America! And the posse move off again - this time, to Bali in the spring!

As you probably know, the real Nanyang Artists spent a lot of time in Bali in the 1950s, where they combined their aesthetics of Chinese ink brush painting and Western oil painting with Southeast Asian subjects and mediums. 

And they drew naked women. A lot of naked women.  This is super culturally problematic, once you think about it long enough.

(Notably, Georgette Chen wasn't interested in coming.)

Cheong Soo Pieng
Balinese Girl (1952)

And the script kind of embraces this by making Zhang Wen reveal that he's married a Balinese Girl, Nini (Aisyah Aziz)! And they have a son! And he was in his 30s and she was 18 when he first noticed her in the street, which is almost half your age plus seven (or not), and he paid her dad for her even though they didn't speak the same language, which is totally not creepy at all!

He's no deadbeat, either - he provides for the family! He's just sad that he has to live in China and sell paintings to make money, 'cos he'd love to live in this tropical paradise forever. And they all dance Balinese dances, and Nini sings a duet with Yue Ping about love (one singing in Mandarin, the other in English, because Balinese totally speak English in the 1940s), and then all of the Balinese come in and do a chapalang ethnic song and dance, while singing in Mandarin...

Yes, this is a Nanyang Musical and no-one speaks Malay.

Liu Kang
Offerings (1957)

Trev and Aisyah actually explained the situation to me: Alec had striven for authenticity, even getting folks to learn Shanghainese for the opening scenes. But for the Balinese scenes, he insisted on them learning Balinese, since no-one spoke Bahasa Indonesia on the island in those days.

And it was too damn difficult.  So they switched to English instead.

Good intentions, but the result sure feels like whitewashing and yellow-washing. :(

But Chen Kang misses Li Ying (he has a dream about her getting, um, raped? in wartime. It was done through dance, so it was hard to figure out). So he says he needs to move on to his ultimate destination, Singapore. 

And the whole gang leaves the paradise of Bali and goes with him! Even though it is World War Two, guys.

Cheong Soo Pieng
Landscape (1963)

So we're in Singapore in the tropical summer! This is where we get patriotic, right? Nope!

The Japanese guards are looking for Zhang Wen, since he did that political painting of them. And though Chen Kang tries to step in, claiming he's Zhang Wen, ultimately Zhang Wen sacrifices himself and gets murderdeathkilled on the spot.

Chen Wen Hsi
In the Museum (1956)

And the moral of the story is:  If you make  political art, don't come to Singapore.

But I jest, I jest. The truth is, Alec Tok was honestly trying to make a political statement with this musical. He wanted to talk about the importance of daring to make political art in times of turmoil. This is the great epiphany that Chen Kang experiences at the end of the show: that the tumultous times he lives in should stimulate, not stifle his art.

The problem is, that's not what the Nanyang Artists were about at all. They were pretty apolitical: they didn't take on major political issues, as did Social Realists among the woodcut artists and the Equator Art Society in the 1950s.

Koeh Sia Yong
Scene of Bukit Ho Swee Fire (1961)

And I'm told that when Alec Tok tried to make the first draft of the musical all about that politics, he was told that audiences wouldn't stand for that. They wanted lerrrrrve, guys, which is why we got these romances shoehorned into the plot.

As it was, the show was sensitive enough that SIFA was only able to get its licence two days before the entire show. Methinks that in an ideal world, he would've made a musical about the activism of the openly socialist members of the Equator Art Society instead.

Chua Mia Tee
Epic Poem of Malaya (1955)

I also think I get why Alec felt he couldn’t portray the Nanyang artists by name. None of them had a clear trajectory of heroic adventure in their lives, least of all when they were established art teachers in Singapore in the 1950s – that was the era when they were the old fogeys already, not headstrong youths. 

And sure, it was the decade when they had their great adventures in Bali, but how could one deal with all the sexualized exoticism around that trip without getting angry complaints from the folks who actually knew the artists?

Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction that he should’ve included the artists’ names. I mean, who's willing to turn up for a show like this?  Not the patriotic folks – they're at the countless Jubilee Weekend events. Not the non-patriotic folks - they've left town for the four-day weekend.

Instead, you've got the people who really, desperately care about Singapore art history - including myself. And the artists' names matter for us. We want them to remembered. We want people to know these men and women were more than simply fictions.

The Nanyang artists in Bali: Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, an unidentified man, Ni Pollok, Jean Le Mayeur, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee (1952)

Ah, but what do I know. These guys liked the show. So did this critic.  And it was rather nice, seeing a bunch of artists tour from city to city, singing and falling in love all the way.

I wouldn't be surprised if this show has a revival. And as for the versions of the show the rest of us want to see? I dare say we'll have to write them ourselves. 

To remind people, if nothing else,that  our culture began more than 50 years ago.

Georgette Chen
Singapore Waterfront (1958)

UPDATE: Malay artists such as Aman Ahmad and M. Sawoot A. Rahman were also active all the way back in the 1950s.  Check out  APAD's Our Pioneer Artists for more info.

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  • 2015