By Pang Khee Teik
Like prisoners of war, starved, feverish, I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness, beholding such strange visions I couldn’t tell which state of consciousness I was in. This was my experience watching the highly abstract and sleep-inducing Sandakan Threnody by Theatreworks, Singapore, a performance based on the events of the death marches in Sabah at the end of World War II. Directed by Ong Keng Sen, it was initiated by Australian composer Jonathan Mills, who had earlier composed a work for orchestra and chorus as a tribute to the dead POWs at Borneo (his own father had been stationed at Borneo briefly before being moved to a different camp, thereby missing certain death).
According to history, about 2500 prisoners of war (1,800 Australian and 700 British soldiers) were forced by Japanese soldiers to trek across the mountainous terrain between Sandakan and Ranau in Sabah. There were three marches: in January, in May, and finally, in June, of 1945. Practically all the POWs, who were brought to Sandakan to build an airstrip, were too ill to make it far. The journey was 260km long: a five-hour drive these days, but for them, a month-long journey on barefoot. Many died from disease and hunger. Those who fell behind were bayoneted or shot. Upon reaching Ranau, the hundred or so who survived thus far were executed. Out of 2400 over POWs, six Australians escaped – with help from local anti-Japanese guerillas, as well as one friendly Japanese guard. In the following years, based on the witness testimonies of those six, 11 Japanese generals and soldiers were tried. Eight were executed. One of the survivors took his own life 16 years later. The last of them passed away last year at the age of 87.
The play, which attempted to be a public artistic expression of grief, shied away from linear narrative as if it would lead them straight down the death march itself. As the dancers and actors emerged from the wings slowly, excerpts from journals of the POWs and reports about the march were read by Singaporean actor Lok Meng Chue. This was interspersed with video footages of prisoner hangings, interviews with various people, plus the director and actors’ own journey to Borneo, all of which were projected onto a shape which looked like the monolith in 2001 Space Odyssey.
As the delirium took over within the increasingly comfortable theatre at Victoria Theatre, the words became less coherent, less reliable, and just less. The dancers on stage were left with incredibly frantic, cathartic, and virtuosic dancing (Japanese avant-garde butoh dancer Kata Yamazaki), or very deliberate and repetitive motions, the feet struggling against their every step (Singaporean performance artist and glam rocker Rizman Putra). Ong Keng Sen compared this latter half to ‘Waiting for Godot’ in which the two characters wait for the healing that never comes. At some level, this hyper sense of surreal was beautiful – the grief reduced to a couple of twitches. It was like defining horror, an exercise defying any articulation.
Yet this inarticulation wasn’t completely silent. It resounded with the performers’ attempt at pontificating on their own inarticulation about war. This solipsism felt unnecessary in the light of the much more poignant and relevant journals they have access to, which unfortunately became secondary to the performers’ own feelings.
The reality TV intrusions earlier, in the form of the interviews, also offered self-referential moments: the research forming its own response to itself. Far from being a clever post-modern devise, this demonstrated precisely the artists’ lack of a convincing artistic response.
In one of the interviews, they asked the son of one of the Japanese generals (and I paraphrase): “What do you feel knowing that your father did these things?” What was the point of this question? Could his admission of guilt absolve us of ours? I feel this inability to release individuals from the culpability we expect them to inherit from their ancestors is one of the reasons war continues in its vicious cycle of tribal vindication. Eliciting guilt makes for good evangelistic musicals. But then, a track of Jonathan Mill’s choral score was dubbed over the Japanese man’s answer. Perhaps by substituting the man’s answer with music, they are hinting that words can’t undo the horror. Yet, later in the play, they allowed the daughter of the Australian POW to speak her feelings.
Since this was supposed to be a cross-national project, I am puzzled why the British were left out. Did their not surviving the march completely mean they were less heroic or worthy of representing? I am also equally chaffed that Malaysian artistic inputs were left out. For Sabahans, many of their ancestors had helped the POWs – at great risk to their own lives.
I learned from my Sabahan friends that there is a war memorial in Ranau – a plain little walled garden near a church; the one in Sandakan is a park that the locals use for jogging. Every year the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand, together with the state, commemorate these death marches. Many Australians, presumably children of the dead POWs, visit these sites, and their stories are always featured in the dailies, ensuring that Sabah folks hear about it every now and then. Very few Japanese come by. But there have been some.
Five out of six Sabahans I spoke with have visited these sites. They are humbled, saddened, and grateful. Sometimes they feel indifferent. All these are pertinent responses to war as it happened before us, as it happens around us.
When I began my review with a comparison with the states of consciousness of POWs, I am aware of the inadequacy of my simile. Everytime someone who hasn’t been to war tries to romanticise about what it’s like to be in a war, the result always seems naïve and self-indulgent, no matter how beautiful.
Ong Keng Sen said that the show is about ‘future responsibilities’ – how future generation take responsibility of their forefathers’ actions. Most of the POWs stationed at Borneo were soldiers who had been defending Singapore. When it fell in 1942, they became prisoners of the Japanese army. In other words, these POWs who died in Borneo, died trying to protect Singapore. What is Singapore’s response? Sandakan Threnody: an exercise in grief aestheticisation.
“Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.” – Paul Simon, ‘The Cool, Cool River’
Toy Ducks, Flying Simians and Square Dancers
The night before, I caught a dance by the Singaporean company known as Ah Hock and Peng Yu. It consisted of three diversely choreographed works. One of the pieces, by Hong Kong choreographer Yuri Ng, had three men wearing short dresses, under which they wore white singlets and briefs. Moving about in a squatting position, with their dresses almost grazing the floor, the dancers looked like toy ducks floating in a black pond. The awkward (but effortless) dancing from the boys in high heels, and later, the wielding of the stilettos as revolvers, were cute and campy. But irreverence is only as effective as the subject of reverence. And there is really nothing dangerous these days about boys in dresses anymore. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable for its whimsical lack of self-consciousness.
The last item of the evening, by Australian choreographer Zhang Xiao Xiong, attempted to be a gothic fantasy of some sort. Dressing all the boys up in nothing but thongs, with an exaggerated leather-covered bulge in front, the show looked like Planet of the Apes meets The Wizard of Oz, especially with the dancers flapping their arms about like flying simians. There was the alpha male controlling the herd, the challenger fighting for control and the fighters looking like lovers engaged in exquisite, violent sex. There was even the black gauze, shaped like some hollow insect, in which the challengers would squeeze into, reach to the light, and recharge like the Green Lantern. It was most inane.
The first work, and most ambitious, was by choreographer Ix Wong, who is a Malaysian now based in Singapore. He was recently invited back to perform a short piece. The main idea seemed to be about boxes, which he more or less mimed using his hands. In Homelands, the piece he did for the Singapore Arts Festival, he extended his cliches further. His dancers, dressed in shiny dark blue Chinese suit, marched in a single file across the stage. Individual dancers would stop, break out of the ranks, stare with that intense lost expression, and perform a simple choreography before joining the file again. The simple choreography sometimes consisted of running-in-slo-mo-in-the-same-spot and sliding-the-feet-along-the-edges-of-a-tiny-square-piece-of-light-projected-on-the-floor. Ix seemed stuck in a square of his own device. The themes of exile needed to be challenged beyond simply a longing for the motherland. What about Singapore as a China outside China, the ultimate Chinatown? The stage that the dancers performed their states of exile on has been made safe, padded, Singaporean. At the end, when the music stopped, the dancers appeared to break out of their trance and become aware they were in a theatre. Finally, they looked lost. It was a nice moment. This should have been the main thesis.
The Singapore Arts Fest continues to draw outstanding international artists from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to choreographer Akram Khan. I understand that the Arts Fest is necessarily a tourist driven event, so it must be cool to show that they can handle big themes like war crimes, exile and misplaced masculinity. Yet both the productions above succeeded in merely ‘handling’ the issues without fingering the problems and pushing sensitive buttons. The Arts Fest has the potential to provide the nation with some grand self-reflection, or maybe that is just me being naïve. In that light, I also hope they champion smaller but bolder theatre companies that might actually have something to say, and that they will programme more collaborations with their immediate neighbours. That way, we can push your buttons for you and you can push ours for us. What else are neighbours for?
Pang Khee Teik was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board at the Rendezvous Hotel.
First Published: 05.07.2004 on Kakiseni