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Why did the Chicken stay in the Middle of the Road?

  • August 25, 2005

By Caroline Marshall

“Is it a hen?? Or is it a rooster??”

What would YOU do if you find a strange looking chicken amongst your own brood? Especially one that looks like a hen AND a rooster?

Well, two children did, and they decided to take the problem to the learned, bijak-pandai members in their kampung community to get their advice. First were papa and mama. But they couldn’t tell. Then they approached the kampung seer, the tukang tilik, and he couldn’t tell either. Last of all, they went to a butcher…

Interestingly, the children never thought about consulting anyone in the education hierarchy…

Kay Kang/Kay Boh? Ayam Jantan/Ayam Betina? HEN OR ROOSTER?

… is the complete title of Penang’s current children’s theatre offering, a collaboration of the artistic efforts of some of Penang’s most renowned theatre kaki, namely director Janet Pillai and composer Tan Sooi Seng, young choreographer Eng Hee Ling and well-known visual artist Liew Kung Yu (KL). The play produced by Zao Xin Chang Theatre Troupe and Young Theatre Penang features 9 young adult actors and 5 child musicians.

The story is loosely based on a Filipino short story, and cleverly given a Malaysian interpretation in the use of three languages in the dialogue – Hokkien, Bahasa pasar and Malaysian English – as well as in the multi-ethnic nature of the characters in the performance. The music, which plays a key part in creating the atmosphere of a Malaysian kampung is never obstrusive or invasive. The set and costumes are a riot of wonderful, colourful cotton patchwork (made from floor mats!) which enhances the common nature of the setting, although I personally, would have liked to have seen more batik fabric in the patchwork display.

This excitingly, hilarious, interactive hour-long play opens with a prologue, where the performers interact with their child-audience to establish a rapport. This was one of the strengths of the performance. The children in the audience were encouraged to take sides, and their energy and enthusiasm helped to add momentum to the search for a solution to the dilemma. At one point, the children were even encouraged to help the chicken escape, something obviously very close to the children’s hearts.

The play was conceived as a touring performance and was designed to be completely mobile. The idea is that if the people could not come to the theatre, then theatre would go to the people. This a key strength of this production, and so far it has played to audiences in the Armenian Street area of Georgetown as well as to students of SRK Teluk Bahang.

Sitting the audience right in the performance space allows all the senses to be bombarded and from all directions. This meant that the action could take place anywhere and at anytime, so you had to be alert to catch it all. Playing the performance in the round, around and about the audience also enhanced the interactive element of the play. The chicken-actors were completely in character, moving about with superb chicken rhythms and communicating in chicken talk. Their coming into the audience space allowed the audience to stroke and touch them like many children would do to pets.

Although in many respects this was a children’s performance, there was as well, an underlying, more sophisticated theme to the play, specifically dealing with the question of transgender issues.

Asian traditional societies generally have little problem with gender roles. Men and women work equally hard to provide for the family. Agrarian cultures seldom discriminate between men and women roles because both have to work to bring up the family. In many societies in the world, however, fathers and mothers seem to have highly defined roles in the family. Men go out to work, women stay and mind the home.

In the modern context, more and more men and women are challenging the notion that there are pre-determined gender roles for each. Why can’t fathers stay at home and mothers go out to work? Why can’t mothers have a high-powered career? The play questions this notion: Does it really matter if it is a man or woman? The switch in the roles of father as cook and mother as a Big Bike Kutu was a subtle reinforcement of the theme of the play.

What about the androgynous man/woman? What about a chicken who fights as a rooster and then lays an egg? What is our response to people like that? Ostracise them? Or accept them?

All told, Hen or Rooster? is a simple yet sophisticated piece of artistry: a seemingly straightforward story which provokes thought; music which captures the best of western composition with the eastern percussive sounds of the wayang kulit, gamelan, cymbals and wood blocks; a superb artistic concept and a visual feast of the common patchwork; cleverly choreographed chicken movements born of Chinese and Malay dance moves and a hard­ working, talented cast, musicians and crew.


In Kuala Lumpur, the play will be staged at Flat DBKL Sri Kelantan, Sentul (Fri 26 Aug, 5 pm); Flat DBKL Sri Perak, Bandar Baru Sentul (Sat 27 Aug, 11 am); and Malaysian Tourism Centre, MTC, Gelanggang Gasing (Sun 28 Aug, 11am) in conjunction with the Children’s Theatre Festival.

In Penang, shows will be held at the Public Library, Balik Pulau (Sat 3 Sep, 11 am and 3 pm); and R Ramlee Auditorium (Sun 4 Sep, 5 pm).


Caroline Marshall teaches Theatre and English at the Uplands International School in Penang.

First Published: 25.08.2005 on Kakiseni