After this show, TheatreWorks had a little satay-and-biryani party for the cast (plus the folks from Six Characters In Search of an Author). And I got talking with a cast member in my awful, awful Mandarin.
(Me: Did you know there was another play in this Arts Festival called “Hotel”? Only it was by Singaporeans.)
(Me: It’s also about our country being like a, um…)
(Me: Yeah, Hotel. And it was also a really long show. It was also about a hundred years of our country’s history. And it also had lots of different actors playing lots of different characters, speaking lots of different languages. It’s just that it wasn’t quite as crazy…)
Yeah, Dream Hotel is epic, and it’s nuts. The original show – premiering last year – was six hours long, with fourteen different actors. And even that was reduced down from a novel of half a million words: Luo Yi-chun’s “Xixia Hotel”. (The programme booklet says “45,000 words”, but that’s a mistranslation of “四百五万字” – 450,000.)
After Keng Sen saw the piece in its entirety, he told director/playwright Wei Ying-Chuan, “It’s amazing, I love it, cut it down.” So we’re getting a three-hour version – and even that’s a marathon for us Anglophones.
You see, one of the odd things about this show is that it is very very Chinese – to the point of annoyance, even! Our main character, Tu Nick, appears as a prototypical wide-eyed, uncomplicated young man on a search for his past: in this case represented by his father who vanished when he was five years old. Along the way, he keeps on encountering women of a very specific sort: air-headed pixie dream girls with chirpy voices who whine at the slightest discomfort. The script’s also kind of heavy with exposition – and no wonder, since they’re unpacking about a thousand years of imperial and family history.
A color-glazed ceramic cornerpiece in the shape of a horned dragon, part of the roof-lining of a Xixia (Tangut) Royal Temple
But that’s balanced by the fact that, as I said, the story is nuts. The setting is the Xixia Hotel, which was built to commemorate the memory of the fallen Xi Xia Empire (aka the Western Xia, or the Tangut Empire, fl. 1038-1227). We’re therefore being bombarded with the legends of the founder of Xi Xia, Li Yuanhao, and transformation of his matriarchal tribe into a violent patriarchal regime, with massacres of neighbouring communities and suspicious deaths of wives and mothers and sons…
Yet there’s also a legend that the ancestors of the Xi Xia people were goats, so we have folks dressed up in white woolen goat costumes; also an old woman who’s resident in the hotel – a master forger, played by a moustachioed man in a cheongsam – who keeps a band of 13 singing goats each named after a man or a regime who conquered or abused Taiwan (“Mao Zedong! Chiang Kai-Shek! Stop fighting!”).
As for Tu Nick – the descendant of the Xi Xia Empire on his father’s side and of Aboriginal Taiwanese on his mother’s – he’s wrestling some private demons of his own, since we’re shown in a prologue that he’s just decapitated his wife and placed her head in a golden hatbox.
Or did he? There are dream sequences between dream sequences: we’re shown a multimedia projection of him in a duel with himself, firing cameras instead of guns (one Tu Nick is played by a man with black hair; the other is an androgynous woman with blond hair). A talking badger gives his wife a present of a two-volume novel – also called Xixia Hotel – from a talking badger: the second volume, the yin half, is blank and only appears once someone reads the first volume, the yang half. It’s the blond female Tu Nick who confronts her and drags her offstage after claiming the book is prophesying her murder; it’s the black-haired male Tu Nick who awakes and beholds the hatbox and is summoned to the hotel.
And halfway through his quest, while led by a Japanese goat through the labyrinth of the hotel, he’s told not to look back or else the entire hotel will disappear, and sure enough he passes his doppelganger, and he looks back…
And the whole hotel vanishes, and we break for an interval, because the yang half of the show is over. In the yin half, we will be shown both the current plot and its obverse: another Tu Nick wandering another hotel, the Butterfly Hotel, on a search for his mother.
It’s really kind of awesome. Mind you, it’s also physically tiring. My experience of this may be partially due to my need to constantly refer to the surtitles. But the plot’s so picaresque you’re not sure at first what’s going on, what we’re building up to. I only actually decided I liked it (rather than simply appreciating it) in the second half.
The way this show throws so much multimedia and history at you; the way it actually draws parallels between a modern state and a semi-legendary state, wiped from the face of the earth – well, it brings new dimensions to what one considers epic.
Before I wrap up this sort-of-review, I guess I want to share just three more major points:
1) This play is really violent. While watching the first act, I was thinking there should be ALL THE TRIGGER WARNINGS in the programme booklet. Specifically, the violence is consistently targeted towards women – an illustration of the destructive force of the patriarchy, I suppose, but as Mad Max: Fury Road showed us, there are ways to depict gender-based violence without actually having it right on screen. Things were gratuitous enough that I was honestly surprised to discover the director/playwright was a woman.
But then the show does have on a feminist note – by devoting a large chunk of the second act to the life of Tu Nick’s mother, we do see the insidious forces of female oppression at work: her silencing (I’m not actually sure if she was mute, but she had a speech impediment that grew better), her near rapes by boys she was betrothed to, the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband.
And the final monologue of the play is delivered by Blue Sea (Binhai), Tu Nick’s wife, who might not be dead after all. In her reading of the novel (there are multiple endings), she doesn’t die at all, nor does she return to her husband. She stays on, opening an organic store, finding another partner, becoming a revolutionary leader in the Food Crisis of 2056. But that’s another story, isn’t it?
Tangut two-faced Buddha
2) This play is hungry for diversity. To us Singaporeans, Taiwan feels pretty monocultural – almost everyone’s Chinese, right? But this play complicates that, what with its multilingualism (Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, maybe a bit of Hakka and Hoklo? Also Mandarin that has Japanese and/or English thrown in at random, reflecting various layers of cultural invasion) as well as its fragmentation of what it means to be Chinese – what if you’re from the Qiang ethnic minority of Western China, as Tu Nick’s father is? What if you flee as a refugee to India, of all places? And what if you trace your roots back to an empire that was once part of China but is no longer?
Even Blue Sea, according to Tu Nick, has grey eyes and a straight nose: evidence that she’s descended from West Asian traders who interbred with Chinese. He explains his own strange name at one point: his father wants to celebrate the fact that his son is a barbarian – Qiang/Aboriginal Taiwanese – by giving him a Western name, “Nick”. Which is kind of treating all non-Chineseness as homogenous, perhaps? Reifying the cultures of oppressed minorities with cosmopolitan Western hegemony?
Whatever the case, I do think Wei Ying-chuan is positing diversity as a strength rather than a weakness – something to be embraced rather than ignored, to be excavated rather than to be smoothed over. My actor friend even noted they’d recognised Singapore’s multilingualism by having the host greet us with a “Good evening, 晚上好， selamat malam,” at the beginning.
Methinks they might envy our jiapalangness. In a way, the messiness of cultural identity prepares one for the messiness of the present.
3) This play isn’t actually all that nationalistic. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a strain of Taiwanese nationalism here, where younger generations see the island as a home, not a hotel or a labyrinth wherein one is inexorably trapped for eternity. But there’s a distrust toward state power, towards an idea of a fatherland – a suspicion that patriotism goes hand in hand with murderous patriarchy.
There’s a number of leitmotifs in the play – goats, butterflies, two-headed Buddhas – but one of the most tantalising is the Cyclops. After being tortured by the Kuomintang, Tu Nick’s father begins hallucinating that one of his scars is a one-eyed face, and it is his friend, and his greatest pleasure is driving a needle into its eye to blind it. He befriends the landlord’s daughter, and they end up in a turbulent love triangle (expressed through furious physical theatre), concluding with him stabbing her in the eye.
And where does this focus on single eyes come from? Not from the Odyssey, but from the Chinese character min, meaning people or citizen. It used to mean slave, the play claims, and it depicts a man with one eye blinded: a punishment for attempting to run away.
And that’s what we are, us citizens. Aeons may pass and regimes may change, but there will always be the government and the governed, and the governed are by necessity slaves.
Happy Polling Day Weekend, guys. Work starts again tomorrow.