By Kam Raslan
As the elderly leader of the now defunct Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) points out in his book, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History – History (with a capital H) is written by the victors. Chin Peng writes, “History is the written testimony – or interpretations – of events by those who live it or inherit its spoils. When it comes to the matters of military conflict, history is inevitably portrayed from the point of view of victors whose utterances end up in libraries and archives. Dominant and mightier forces have a way of keeping from prying eyes documents that may depict them in anything but the noble roles for which they would want to be remembered… at least for the duration of their lifetimes.” The Emergency ended 50 years ago and the lifetimes of those involved are steadily ending. Now some of the grandchildren of the victors, those who have truly inherited the “spoils,” are revisiting the conflict, searching for new meanings and interpretations to a period that was fundamental to our history but that has been cloaked in an interpretation of monolithic simplicity.
Although the nature of the struggle was downplayed in its name, the Emergency (so-called to deter insurance companies from walking away from a war-zone) was essentially a civil war and one of sometimes epic proportions. Chin Peng puts his side’s losses at “between four and five thousand” while British/Malayan casualties were 2000 men. On top of the casualties were the dislocations of suspicions, trials, hangings, derailments, detentions and expulsions as well as the relocation of a staggering half a million people into New Villages, virtually overnight. For a few years an entire country was essentially militarised and all this at the very moment of the birth pangs of a new nation so that it’s influence permeates our laws and the structure and nature of our police and government. And yet despite the enormous effects of the Emergency on our country, the received interpretation seems to have boiled down to: Communists bad, We beat them, That’s why we need to keep the ISA. The complexities, ironies and contradictions of the war are wilfully ignored because, like almost everything else in Malayan/Malaysian history, to dare to look at them will lead to another May 13th. That’s why we need to keep the ISA.
But it’s about time those times are reinvestigated which is why the Five Arts Centre’s fifth Directors Workshop (DW5) is one of the most exciting and important theatre events of… I’m not quite sure, but it’s been a very long time. For the four directors (Fahmi Fadzil, Hariati Azizan, Gabrielle Low and Mark Teh) and many of their mostly first-time actors, the journey to a reinterpretation of the life and times of the CPM is part of a two-year quest that has taken them through books and archives as well as trips to Baling and southern Thailand, conversations with ex-Communists and trawls through family memories. Most importantly, and when their final plays were at their best, it has been an attempt to understand their own personal reactions to those distant events and (sometimes) the political/historical ramifications on their country and themselves.
Personally, I’m tired of the mealy-mouthed way plays are sometimes presented as “works-in-progress” or “workshops.” If it’s on, it’s on. If it’s not ready then it shouldn’t be on. Having said that, none of the four plays offered by DW5 were poorly thought through or crudely crafted as if they were only recently spewed out by a ramshackle theatre workshop in Sungai Besi. The four plays took very different stylistic approaches to very different aspects of the age of CPM. None were simple history lessons, some took considerable licence in their interpretations of the Emergency’s protagonists (which seemed to disappoint at least one member of the audience), none had an orthodox realistic narrative structure but all took very seriously the need to create a theatrical experience (although some were more successful than others). When four plays are grouped together as one theatrical presentation it is difficult not to compare and judge the pieces against each other. But it’s unfair to do so and I’ll attempt to critique them as the individual plays that they are.
A Chicken, A Communist and A C-Cup Bra
In A Chicken, A Communist and A C-Cup Bra, Fahmi Fadzil gave his actor, Chung Wei, the difficult task of cooking and acting at the same time. Considering that I’ve seen many actors have trouble walking and talking at the same time, he did very well. Whilst showing us how to cook the perfect chicken rice, he told us about his relationship with his mother. Then there was a sudden revelation that he was adopted and that his birth mother was a communist. As Fahmi says, “Chung Wei and I wanted to deal with issues of personal histories that should not be neglected and overshadowed by official narratives, so it’s about what happens when you can’t even be sure of your own life… so how to deal with ‘collective’ and ‘official’ histories? It’s also about a life that’s been impacted by that time in our shared history.”
But why cook chicken rice? “On a symbolic level, I was keen to explore how we remember things through the food we eat. I think that on that level I did succeed, or at least half succeed, because the devising process saw Chung Wei bringing out images and recollections drawn from Chicken Rice (i.e. the Singapore chicken rice thing was his own mother).”
It was a highly conceptual play which suffered some of the failings of conceptual art – meanings were often difficult to fathom under the abstruse layers of symbolism while emotion and character (the true motors of theatre language) were neglected at the expense of the conceptual drive. But as Fahmi says, “I was curious, and I think I failed in this instance, of ways to make suggestions that are not completely overt yet people can spot and ‘digest’ (which sos cili did you take? Why? What did each sos cili represent?)” For me the piece felt like limbs searching for a body: Conceptual ideas, stories about mothers, props and communists all appearing disconnected – interesting in themselves but not emotionally connected to each other.
Hariati says “I began by wanting to do a realistic bio-play of Chin Peng and Malay nationalist leader Shamsiah Fakeh, albeit with a little twist – having them meet and fall in love.” Unfortunately when she and her actors, Ruza Jajuli and Zedeck Siew (playing Shamsiah and Chin Peng respectively), did their research they found the evidence dry and impersonal. Oh, and that it never happened.
So, “We started fabricating events, moments, thoughts and emotions to fill in the gaps. And that is how we came to the absurd ‘flight of fancy’ play as described by someone.” What transpired was SOS Times, a play that imagined not only the personal lives of key CPM figures but juxtaposed them with contemporary youths – all young, dumb and full of youthful enthusiasm.
Despite Hariati’s protestations that “I had no mission of changing people’s understanding of that part of history,” she and her actors stumbled onto an elemental element that is always ignored in history books – sexuality. The best way to truly understand a bygone age is to re-imagine it in terms that we can understand in our own lives. The fine young communists who headed for the jungles were all very young and although communism always eschewed sexuality from its iconography (unlike Nazism) there was a dark sexuality in the dictatorship of the proletariat that always devolved to the dictatorship of one man.
As one member of the audience quite rightly pointed out, “Just because it happened like that somewhere else, it doesn’t mean that happened here.” Perfectly true but Hariati’s artistic investigation of sexuality is a very valid comment on all political forms. Sexuality is fundamentally important to us all and the question needs to be asked – where does that energy go when it enters politics?
Three Uncertain Histories
Gabrielle Law’s piece, Three Uncertain Histories, promised much, and in my mind it still promises much and although it left me unmoved, I don’t know quite why. I respect where she says was coming from: “It was about three people encountering the dilemmas of conflict and the way they chose to respond to those dilemmas. I wanted to explore the grey areas, the ambiguity, the ethical questions faced by individuals in times of conflict, the internal conflict within the external conflict that was the Emergency.” Her actor Kiew Suet Kim was fine and yet I was unconvinced by the portrayal of a Chinese opera performer, a communist guerrilla and a police inspector.
I truly respect the stylistic decisions: “I wanted each character to inhabit a different world with its own physics, based on the character’s place within the Emergency, e.g. the communist woman crouches because her freedom of movement was the most limited, the interrogator is elevated because he occupies a position of power, and the opera actor sits because neutrality is often the most comfortable position, physically at least.”
And yet there was something pedestrian, static and untheatrical about the experience. When you want to be really nasty about somebody’s film script you tell them that it would make a really good radio play because a film script must deserve to be a film and not presented in a different medium. This play perhaps failed to deserve to be theatre – it lacked physicality and events unfolded as exposition. Also it (and far too much Malaysian art) was too in thrall of its own Asian exotica of a Chinese opera singer, guerrilla, policeman. It didn’t quite get through the exotica and into the real people.
Mark Teh’s Baling (Membaling) was, I’m afraid to say, brilliant bravura theatre. From the instant it began, here was a piece that deserved to be theatre and nothing else. Two actors (lmri Nasution and Fahmi Reza) played Tunku at the Baling talks, throwing a chair over the head of Chin Peng (Chang Yoong Chia), sprawled on the floor, trying desperately to reach what would always remain out of his reach.
Here was a reinterpretation of history as physical theatre – gripping, visually exciting and inventive and with intelligence. As Mark says of why he chose to have two Tunku’s: “It’s too simplistic to say Tunku was double faced, but I do think he was very conscious that he had to deal with Chin Peng in a certain way, and at the same time exhibit to the British (who were recording the proceedings) that he was in control.” And that is exactly what came across – concept and meaning coming through loud and clear through energetic drama.
The piece was a brilliant rapid re-imagined journey through political and always personal histories (with a small h) of the Emergency. For me it had three faults though. There was a personal story monologue that returned to us to the land of dreary, earnest, emotionally monotonal exposition, there was a Smartshop style arms-selling scene that although highly pertinent for Iraq doesn’t hold true (historically) for the Emergency, and that traditional Five Arts sin of bloody silat/kung fu briefly raising its cringe-worthy head (again, why must we be in thrall to our own Asian exotica?). Otherwise, Baling (Membaling) was superb.
DW5 is to be congratulated and encouraged in its continuing journey through the CPM years. Without making the attempt to discover and understand our history we will always either be made to live in eternal fear of our past or we will allow our past to be owned by our elders and betters who will keep it under lock and key – for our own good, you understand. As Mark Teh says, “I personally am interested in the issues of the authorship and ownership of history. I suppose many Malaysians do not feel ownership of Malaysian history – it is dismissed as boring, or history is seen as facts, that are cast in stone. So I suppose there is an interest in re-presenting and reorganising, not just recording history. I am interested in exhausting the facts of history, and using these facts of history as a starting point for dialogue. Because very often, the facts of history are used as full stops in dialogues.”
It is gratifying that in looking back at the times and peoples of the past we have found several exciting talents for our futures.
Kam Raslan is a writer and director, who contributes a column for The Edge.
First Published: 12.07.2005 on Kakiseni