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Xenophobia, Necrophilia and Nostalgia

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • February 19, 2004

By Pang Khee Teik

Marriage of Inconvenience: Playing Doctor

It is always amusing when a country decides that its special brand of multi-racial harmony is only special for its own races. Malaysians, muhibbah as we are, tend to stop at the gates of globalisation and cast our collective disapproval on migrant workers. We blame them for everything from rapes to nuclear proliferation to causing our daughters to go astray.

In Singapore last weekend, I caught Marriage of Inconvenience, a new play that deals wonderfully with this form of racism. Playwright Ng Swee San gives a comic spin on Singaporeans’ relationship with their Filipino counterparts. Filipino actors were flown in to play house maid, male nurse and nosy sister. A fourth Filipino character, a book publisher, was played by Singaporean-Filipino actress Brigitte Therese. When a church janitor mistook her for a house maid and made nasty remarks, she didn’t bother to correct her. “People who are nice to professionals but not nice to maids,” she says, “are not nice.”

Malaysian actor Corrine Adrienne Tan plays a doctor who is in love with a Filipino male nurse, bringing about her parents’ disapproval.  The only thing quite unbelievable about it all is her marrow-perfect beauty.  Otherwise, she’s totally convincing (I mean, I’ll let her give me a checkup anytime…). Unlike her performance in Spinning Gasing, there is nothing contrived about her emotions here. She switches naturally from tenderly giving a massage, to storming offstage, to sobbing quietly on her mother’s shoulder. While clearly passionate, she holds herself well with a doctorly diginity. That is until the accumulated stress threatens to pop a vessel somewhere. Then when she lets go, your heart bleeds for her, you want to offer her your shoulder too.

Koh Chieng Mun, who plays the mother, however, brings the house down with her constant flights into pulp   fiction territory, dreaming up treachery and elopements. For all that dreaming, she is nevertheless the most well­ written character in the play. Her perpetual reverie comes at a cost (and must be kept in check by medication), but it is this overactive imagination that will save her family in the end. I wasn’t wholly satisfied, however, with the resolution of the father’s character (played with consummate cantankerous flair by Lee Weng Kee). In the end, we discover the reason behind his unbending hatred for Filipinos, but he doesn’t change, and seems to be nothing more than a convenient foil. Whether the playwright simply couldn’t resolve this dilemma or she wanted to offer an incongruous slice of reality by showing that some people really don’t change, I am not sure. But I am nit-picking…

The playwright has successfully taken apart a prevalent social issue, and made us laugh at ourselves. She accuses no one and wisely shows the prejudice coming from both side. Director Jeffrey Tan has brought the cast together with such spontaneity and faultless pacing that this play is engaging and charming to the end. The infectious energy this ensemble brings to the stage makes a better case for racial harmony than any propaganda I know.

Body Worlds: Playing God

All the tragedies in the world come to a standstill in the large sterile exhibition room of the Singapore Expo, which lies a short distance away from Changi Airport. In this exhibition room are many corpses, most of them without skin. Some are standing upright, some are in mid-action, catching a football or skiing, and still some are sliced finely and presented in segments.

Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies is both disturbing and fascinating; it will certainly be fodder for my dreams for the next few weeks. It looks like a bio textbook come to life (or as much life as corpses can muster). You can walk up to a body (well preserved by a process known as plastination), and see the way the sinews wrap around the bones, see a nerve begin at the spine and travel through the pelvic bone to the legs, see the cranium conveniently split open for your inspection, see where the anus turns into rectum turns into colon turns into intestines, see the testicles hanging like gunks of chewing gums, see the stoic facial expression, these eyes with no skin but with eyelashes still intact, gazing steadfastly  at the space just above your head. It’s exactly the kind of expression that might be thinking, “What does it all mean?” You wonder, who are these people? What made them say, yes, take my body and make me anonymous in death! As a matter of fact, there is now a long queue of people offering their after-selves to Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the man behind this exhibit and the founder of plastination.

Dr. Gunther differs from British artist Damien Hirst in that he doesn’t claim to be making an artistic statement.

The good doctor wants to educate. The brochure claims that “The high number of visitors, however, proves the general population’s need to learn more about the structure and functions of their bodies.” Who are they kidding? Most of these people are certainly driven by the same morbid curiosity that causes them to slow down and admire an educational highway accident.

It gets weirder in the room of the unborn. First, you see an upright female form, her belly split open to reveal a five-month old foetus. And then there are foetuses from one month to five on one side of the room, and on the other side, deformed foetuses. Here they are, one with brain coming out of his nose, another without the top hemisphere of his brain, one with three different deformities, all asleep in glass containers. I imagined all the separate tragedies that these small ones have brought to their respective families, and how these thousands of miles away in Singapore, in this exhibition room, none of it seems to matter. While it is almost always posited that an examination of the human body will convince one of the existence of divinity, the morbidly academic quality of the exhibition is enough to make you think that perhaps it is really just a cold universe and this flesh is really all you have.

Discussions of death are necessarily discussions about the limits of life, and how therefore to carpe your diem. My friend, after seeing the smoker’s ash-grey lungs and the coal miner’s caviar-black lungs, vowed to quit smoking. He also admitted to have discovered his inner necrophile. I just hope he doesn’t go the way of Jeffrey Dahmer. Me, I think I will live well enough if I stay away from him for a while.

(Pang stayed at the ANA Hotel, courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board)

Tanah Serendah Sekebun Bunga: Where have all the flowers gone?

Dance group Sewarnabumi have an ambitious project. While many traditional performances are derived from hikayats and folklores from within the ‘sanctioned’ part of our history, Sewarnabumi want to depict a pre-Malacca era of this peninsula. Particularly, the time of the Langkasuka empire that reigned from the 1st to 13th Century AD. The hour-long dance theatre will portray the woman ruler Raja Mas Chayam, her meeting with a seer and the subsequent fall of the empire. Like Atlantis, the city disappeared underwater after it was attacked. It is believed that this submerged land lies under what is presently known as Tasik Chini in Pahang. (Time to take out your diving gears, folks.)

The performance is directed by Zulkifli Mohamad, who is finishing a Phd in ‘Rediscovering Malay Aesthetics’ at UKM. He regrets the lack of research into that aspect of our history. “We have to accept that we have a past, that we have been colonised,” he says, “it shows the evolution of the country.” According to him, the title of the show (trans: Land as near to the ground as a garden of flowers) is actually the nickname of the empire then.

Sounds like a place I could get used to.

Tanah Serendah Sekebun Bunga runs from Friday Feb 20 to Saturday Feb 21 at Stor Teater, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

First Published: 19.02.2004 on Kakiseni