The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 27, 2015

You know what? Border Crossers was quite a lot of fun.

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I honestly didn’t expect to use this word for a five-hour performance, but it totally applies. It’s not arduous: you’re given every opportunity to pop out for a wee or a smoke or a bite of food. They were even selling fishballs and wine outside. And it you want to leave early? No problem. We’re going on till almost midnight; everyone understands.

Sure, it’s slow. There’s a lot of what I called “down time”, and what multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan called “meditative moments”, when there’s nothing to look at but his ghostly projections wandering across the various screens, and nothing to listen to but Kaffe Matthews’s lovely soundscape (I really dug the tropical bird calls she embedded into her opening).

Still, you’re free to wander about in the space. This ain’t Tanjong Pagar: it’s air-conditioned, and the chairs are light plastic ones which you can carry anywhere you like. There’s cushions and bean bags and even a weird little two-storey tower you can worm yourself into where you can snuggle up with a monitor and headphones of your own.

And when there is action, it’s either the performers going down the catwalk, showing off their latest couture by Reckless Ericka. (It’s deconstructed versions of their national costumes. Kind of like Miss Universe, before it got turned into Victoria’s Secret Mardi Gras fiesta.)

Or else it’s these brief song and dance numbers. Do you want to see a sexy leggong? Elly Evyana will dance you a sexy lenggong.

Do you want to hear a Laotian song about grilled snails and alcohol? Xaiyasak Dengkayapichith will sing you a Laotian song about grilled snails and alcohol.

(Damn, he’s adorbs. I’ll grill his snails anytime.)

Do you want to do the salsa with a Mexican Muslim? Felipe Cervera will dance with two of you at once!

AND YOU DEFFO WANT TO HEAR GILLES MASSOT’S MASHUP OF 月亮代表我的心 AND LA VIE EN ROSE OHMYGOD OHMYGOD. (If you’re a gay Sinophone Francophone like me, this is pretty much the Holy Grail of camp.)

So yeah, what we’ve got going on here is kind of a multi-culti-cabaret. My guess is that Keng Sen’s casting process went more or less like:

Keng Sen: Can you do speak a non-English language and do anything traditional and/or intercultural?

Auditionee: I can perform Sudanese female genital mutilations while farting in Yiddish.

Keng Sen: You’re hired!

But I jest, I jest… there is something special about all these supposed non-professional performers. They’re all kind of wonderfully graceful as they’re parading down the catwalk in one of their mass dances: a Japanese festival procession or the actions to the Xiao Pingguo music video…

And there’s even a portion of the show where they pull up chairs on the catwalk and strike poses, family album style, and you’re straight up encouraged to take selfies with them all.

That’s fun for the 21st century, y’all. Chillaxing and uploading your selfies to YouTube. If that’s not a formula for success, I don’t know what is.

***

You know, in all the publicity descriptions of Border Crossers – how it’s a show about migration, performed by non-professional migrants, set in some past-present-future of Singapore – there was one word that’s conspicuously missing.

That word is “utopia”. And it’s really the only way to process the prettiness of this extravaganza: this vision of a city-state where diversity thrives without hatred, where everyone gets to keep their own damn language and culture, where everyone gets their own awesome costume with a little amulet-sized speaker playing their own native folk music as they vogue.

After all, if we don’t view this work as utopian, then uncomfortable questions arise. Such as:

- Why does a 21st century performance about migration not talk about refugees?

- Why doesn’t it address the problems that Singapore’s recent immigration policy has caused, as Alfian Sa’at’s verbatim play Cook a Pot of Curry did?

- Why doesn’t it discuss – let alone include – blue-collar migrant workers? Like, you know, the coolies us citizens were descended from? And the ones who still live amongst us?

It’s not like Keng Sen is unfamiliar with these issues. He talked about 19thcentury Japanese sex workers in Singapore in Broken Birdsand he drew the connection between 19th century Chinese coolies and contemporary South Asian construction workers in Workhouse Afloat.

And hell, there are Bangladeshi builders in Singapore who were performing poetry they wrote themselves with local choreographers during the very same period as the arts fest.

So why did KS sweep these questions under the rug?

Why, in a chapter of the show called “WORK”, did he choose to have Maria Eugenia Gajardo from Chile talk about her experience reconciling herself to labour as a meditative practice in a three-year ashram stay, rather than the terrible abuses suffered by transient workers in Singapore?

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Border Crossers was commissioned as part of a cultural-economic delegation for Singapour en FranceYou can’t really attract European investors to the country by telling ‘em, “Bienvenue à le country with the highest income inequality in le world, where you will be called a red-haired devil and accused of disliking tau huay, hon hon hon.”

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So instead, Keng Sen chose to regale them with stories of the middle-class Singaporer – i.e. a resident of the city, like a Londoner or a New Yorker, whose sense of belonging is not contingent on citizenship. And lord knows, there are  a lot of those around – not just angmoh kwees but also folks of every creed and colour – and it’s easier for able to assimilate here better than they can into perhaps any other Asian city.

Why not just come out and call this a utopian work?

Because us activisty types would come out and yell, “Singapore isn’t a utopia!”

And then when KS says, “No, you don’t understand, I’m imagining a Singapore of the future, that doesn’t exist yet,” MFA folks would say, “Wah lau, you saying our country not good enough right now? Yau siew kia, next time I don’t give you grant money…”

So yeah. Border Crossers is about a utopian Singapore. But don’t tell anyone, or there might be consequences. For instance, Zombie Mother Theresa might come after you.

"BRAINZZZZ... I WANT FEED THE POOR WITH YOUR BRAINZZZ...."

***

At the opening of this essay, I made it sound like the performers are just singing and dancing for our entertainment. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. There is actually a bunch of monologuing in the show, both live and on screen (usually in non-English languages, of course, for the air of l’exotique) – not so much that it’s didactic, but just enough to make you wonder if there’s a network of dots to be joined.

So maaaaaybe there’s a way to decode the text of the show to get at some deeper meaning behind the work. I’ve been scratching my head over this for the past week and this is what I’ve got:

Only a handful of pieces genuinely sound like they might come out of an alternative National Day Parade video montage – a form that Brian Gothong Tan is intimately familiar with, ahem ahem. For instance, Maria Eugenia Gajardo’s pieces about falling in love with a Singaporean man at a party and her nostalgia for the old militaristic Chilean national anthem she grew up with as a schoolgirl, for instance. (She reaffirms her commitment to Majulah Singapura in a way that would make the PAP weep for joy.)

Then there’s Xiong Gang. In a video segment towards the end, he explains how he only came to Singapore to be with his girlfriend. When she decided to leave him, he returned to China and exorcised his despair through the study of ballroom dance. Yet he found he missed this country – no clear reason – and found his steps turning back here.

As for Aole Miller, he delivers what might be the only criticism of Singapore in the show. He reprises a speech from at his wedding in Sonoma, about how he never dreamed that as an African American theatre academic he’d fall in love with an Indian guy in Singapore, and how the lesbians who designed their wedding bands feel damn wistful, because they’d never get to have something like that here.

Otherwise, there really isn’t any info about why folks came to Singapore and what it’s like for them. Instead, we get theatrics (e.g. Himani Kale and Xaiyasak doing simultaneous dramatic monologues about violent, accusatory breakups; Gilles Massot performing Molière), musings (e.g. Laura Miotto on the purpose of museums or the meaning of matrimony vs. patrimony), visions (e.g. Lindsay Chung on a glorious future matriarchal Korea).

True, there’s Ho Shyn Yee’s description of the hectic, sweaty commute across the Causeway she made as a Malaysian child attending school in Singapore. But that’s lumped in with Arpita Saluja’s story about the massive, deadly migration of Hindus and Muslims across the India/Pakistan border at Partition. It’s all just thematic explorations about how bad things used to be (the Causeway situation has honestly been improved), rather than how things are now.

Perhaps there’s an agenda hidden away in the song and dance numbers? Eugene Tan’s drag/striptease rendition of My Vagina Is Eight Miles Wide is of course a manifesto of a more inclusive feminism, and Aole Miller’s Muthiriguinvokes the Kenyan anti-colonial movement. But did Toshi Suzuki know, when she was singing the Takeda Lullaby, that it’s been co-opted as a political song by the Burakumin caste of Japan? [UPDARE: She did!]

I dunno. It’s frustrating. It’s not that the whole is less than the sum of its parts: it’s that I don’t think one can even speak of a whole to begin with.

What am I supposed to think? Keng Sen’s had a history of drawing disparate multi-culti professionals together in works like Lear and Desdemona and The Global Soul; also a habit of curating verbatim interviews into mammoth works like Diaspora and 120 and National Broadway Company.

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But those had themes, dammit. Those had a focus. Is part of Keng Sen’s Post-Empires shtick Post-Meaning as well?

Let’s run with that. He’s talked about this show being Post-National. And what are nations but grand narratives? By eschewing any clear idea of what the show is about, and instead letting his actors (and audience members) wander about… maybe that’s a statement unto itself.

Let's go back to that teensy little speaker, hung around everyone's necks like an amulet, playing music specifically for the performer - it allows for discrete soundscapes, so that, say, Aole Miller can go down the catwalk playing The Hustle while Khin Khin Lay may be on the other side doing traditional Burmese chants. And in the “Anthem” segment – when everyone’s posing for selfies – their speakers are also playing their memories and confessions, and you have to put your head next to their chests to hear their voices amidst the hubbub.

So this is part of everyone keeping their own culture in a utopian Singapore. We don’t all follow the same tune. We’re atomized, in a way.

We’re not all on the same page, and that’s OK.

Apparently, if you’re the Festival Director, you can get away with that.

***

But again, that’s too simplistic. The Border Crossers do act in unison for the mass dances. And although the layout of the chapters is rather ethnographic (“School”, “Wedding”, “Spirituality”, etc), the fact that folks are coming on politely one after another is testament that this is a society based on order, not on anarchy.

Which brings us to the way the show closes – not with a “Feast”, but with a “Funeral”. Folks come on to the catwalk, one by one, their speakers now playing mourning music. Konstantin Strangas goes before the mike and propounds gory Greek Orthodox burial customs in Austrian German; Becca d’Bus goes into the tower and lip-syncs to Adele’s Someone Like You.

Who are they mourning? The intuitive answer is Lee Kuan Yew, but remember, this work was developed before the old man popped his clogs.

I can’t help but suspect that they’re saying goodbye not the founder of a nation, but the concept of nationhood itself. It’s not like it’s valueless – the performers proudly wear the garb and sing the songs of the nations that were once theirs, after all. But the idea that one should be, must be bound to a single patria – that’s gradually dissolving.

Let’s face it, though: borders still matter. This show is missing two of its cast members from Paris because of visa and travel issues (a Romanian and a New Zealander, though the Romanian remained visible in video projections). And the idea that we can be globetrotters, beautiful nomads, lonely planeteers, drifting wherever our hearts take us – well, that’s a privilege of the upper middle and upper classes.

But if one puts reservations aside, this show is – as I’ve said – fun. It’s pleasant, it’s pretty, it’s occasionally poignant, and it’s of a different format than pretty much all of the rest of the theatre you’ll be seeing out there.  Is its subject matter superficial? Perhaps it’s profoundly superficial.

One could, of course, volley the accusation that a great work of art demands much of us, and returns our investments mightily.

And this show? It asked us for five hours.

And it gave us selfie ops.

The festival also asked me for my opinion. And though it took some slogging, here it is.

Now you’re free to stick it wherever you see fit.

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  • 2015