By Pang Khee Teik
The Restroom Association of Singapore organised the inaugural World Toilet Summit last year. One of their aims was to remove the taboo: “People must feel free to talk about it in much the same way they may speak about other things like food or health.” Wild Rice’s staging of Malaysian Leow Puay Tin’s Ang Tau Mui (at Waterloo Street, Singapore, last month), a play about a female janitor who frankly discusses perfume shopping, pork eating and Hong Kong stars, and who prides herself on having the cleanest toilet, should meet those objectives. It is a fitting tribute to the army of janitors that must keep Singapore running.
Ang Tau Mui is the story of a ‘Modern Woman’ who used to be a red bean soup seller as a young girl, and then a Chinese opera singer at some point, and now a janitor. The one-woman whirlwind Selena Tan, who was a crow, a swan and a goat in Animal Farm, managed to capture the child-likeness of the titular character in all her philosophical restlessness. Tan’s great comic skills and onstage energy kept parts the play engaging. Some of her actorly decisions, such as her emotional responses, however, were a little obvious and lacks the complexity that the role demands. One of her best moments was her candour about the character’s death, drawing a white line around her body as she laid down on the stage floor. The strange smile hovering on her face as she calls out, “Oi, Ang Tau Mui, Ang Tau Mui” just before curtains was also very moving.
Heng’s version of Ang Tau Mui seems to bring out the Everywoman aspect of the play. So much so, the protagonist’s occupation as well as her history seemed merely incidental to the larger metaphysical concerns of the writer. Ang Tau Mui questions everything: the meaning of identity, the meaning behind the lure of branded goods, the meaning behind the longing for a home, the meaning of happiness. Her conclusions are singularly naive. And though we are sympathetic to the profound wisdom behind her innocence, we know that they will render her socially inept. That much we feel for her.
Set against the super-clean black and white toilet tiles which cover floor and wall, the character of Ang Tau Mui also seemed too cleaned up. The cleanness has a very Singaporean effect: it made things bland. Unlike Wild Rice’s Animal Farm, the Singaporeanising of the text here was not as convincing. Part of the problem is that the play is set in Kuala Lumpur of past decades, while the staging implied a present Singapore. This disparity could have accounted for the vagueness in the recreation of the character’s reality. The uneven pacing that resulted from too many unscripted actions (swinging the electric candles, taking a shower) also made it difficult to maintain the audience’s attention through this colossal monologue in four parts. At least the brilliant Erhu playing by Jason Ang mended these gaps somewhat.
Wild Rice’s version of Ang Tau Mui is unique in that it made me see the protagonist as an imagined character – imagined by people who would usually ignore such characters. The beautifully rendered karaoke projections of suicidal 60s diva Lin Dai singing, “People say life is like a dream/ I say a dream is like life/ You feel happy/ You celebrate a moment/ A moment later/ You’re grieving, you’re all alone…” adds to this reverse fantasy. It made me wonder if janitors do have such a thought life at all, or are we just imagining it on their behalf, not so much to redeem them with a larger purpose to their existence, but to redeem ourselves, for assuming and pretending that we have that larger purpose. Whose existential anxiety is whose?
Leow’s script is an intriguing, rich work that lends itself to many interpretations. Having been performed at least nine times since it was written in 1993, and in places like Melbourne and Cairo too, Ang Tau Mui may be on its way to achieving the international cult status enjoyed by Emily of Emerald Hill, which incidentally premiered with Leow in the role. It is significant that our cult play has been appropriated by a Singapore theatre icon.
But as Jit Murad’s latest play, Spilt Gravy on Rice, implied, the best plays never end. They only end when we are driving home. Which was literally what happened to us.
After the final performance of Ang Tau Mui, director Ivan Heng, producer Tony, my friend Ed and me, got into my car and headed for supper. At the first intersection outside the theatre, we came to a stop. The lights turned green and the taxi in front of us moved ahead. My car was barely in first gear when we saw a Bas Kilang, travelling at 80km an hour, appeared from the right, ran the red lights and smashed into the taxi. It made such a crushing sound we knew there was no hope on earth for the driver. After sitting in our car, muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God,” for a while, we pulled up a little further on and got out of our car. A Caucasian guy was lying on the road; someone must have helped him there. Except for a few drops of blood on the forehead, he was conscious and fine. Someone else was helping the taxi driver out of the car. When the driver got out, he was limping a little on his right leg, but otherwise he was okay as well. The passenger on the driver’s side, however, remained strapped in by the belt and was covered in blood. As if in an existentialist play, he kept asking, “Where am I? What happened?” You are in a taxi, someone said, it was hit by a bus. “I don’t remember getting into a taxi.” In the end, we got him out, the ambulance came, Tony gave his name as an eye-witness and we were all relieved the accident wasn’t as fatal as it appeared – my little Kelisa would certainly not have survived such an impact. It is not often that you go down to Singapore to be nearly killed by a Malaysian bus.
Then Ivan mentioned that there was a premonition of this in the play. Ang Tau Mui refuses to carry her identity card with her because she insists that the girl in the picture is no longer her. So, she muses, “One of these days I will never get home. The bus drivers drive as if they want to die. If they die, I will die also. Yes, the bus will crash and I will die, just like that. The end of Ang Tau Mui. Finish. End of show.” They can look in her shopping bag to see what she likes, and if they cut her up all they will find is a lot of pork in her, because that’s her favourite food. We shuddered. Then the four of us went and had ourselves some really excellent bah kut teh.
First Published: 28.08.2002 on Kakiseni