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Pillage the Village

  • September 27, 2006

By Amir Hafizi

The programme leaflet for Anak Bulan Di Kampong Wa’ Hassan, staged recently at KLPac, has a sort of disclaimer. Roughly translated, it says: ‘Far from a romantic lament about a nostalgic Malay kampung, the play is an exploration of the true value of a kampung filled with original characters; and the true loss in its extinction.”

Understandably, writer Alfian Sa’at and director-performer Gene Sha Rudyn, who collaborated on the play, might have wanted to distance it from the trap of predictable stereotypes. When dealing with the issue of Malay lifestyle and traditions facing the onslaught of progress, it is perhaps quite easy for a production to escalate, or degenerate, into the equivalent of a middle-aged woman — in baju kurung, full make-up and 10kg of costume jewellery — wailing on the ground crying: “Ooo my kampung, my kampung, uwaaa!’

Anak Bulan has no need for the disclaimer, really, and there are at least two good reasons why.

Firstly, the play has more depth than to fall into excessive nostalgia. The story of Kampong Wa’ Hasssan — the last Malay kampung in Singapore to fall to modernisation — is told in quite a neutral voice. There are no overly romanticized speeches from old people, reminiscing about the good old days and preaching on why we should value our traditions. In fact, one old character in the play, Tok Tempang, thinks the story of his busted knee is more interesting than the whole history of Wa’ Hassan. Another character even comments, in passing, on the impact the loss of the kampung will cause: “Absolutely nothing.”

Not one character is obviously sad about the slow death and disappearance of Kampung Wa’ Hassan. They are more preoccupied with their own lives: the small kid, Hassan, who may or may not have been the spirit of the village; a mother who has shaved her mentally disturbed daughter’s hair; a masjid caretaker and a once-beautiful nenek; a drug dealer and addict. And, in some cases, are preoccupied with their deaths: at least three characters are ghosts or spirits.

The play simply showcases facets of these unique characters (all of whom live in the kampung — except one: a Malaysian contractor whose job it is to demolish the houses) and allows them to tell their own stories. Their tales make up the kampung, and since none of the characters are written as good or evil, the audience is given the freedom of deciding what to think of the kampung.

Discovery Channel Art

The second reason why the programme’s disclaimer was unnecessary is that the play is nostalgic and romanticized.

No matter how hard you try to run away from it, the kampung is an object of nostalgia and reminiscence. It was — and still is — home to a lot of people, but in this age ‘kampungs’, all over the world, are dying. We are living at a milestone in human history (well, according to a Discovery Channel promo, anyway) where, for the first time ever, more people are living in cities rather than rural areas.

Thousands of years ago, when our cave-dwelling ancestors began to move out of caves to establish larger settlements, some of them might have, perhaps, lamented about the loss of their cave-dwelling traditions. Of course, they did not have KLPac, Istana Budaya or the Esplanade to stage the art they made on this theme. Just cave drawings to fuel more Discovery Channel hours.

Anyway, there is no escape from nostalgia about the past — Anak Bulan realises this, and sometimes even uses it effectively: riding emotion to forward an idea. How else does one explain the surreal figure of the kampung’s last rooster singing Hari Raya songs — those very pieces of pop culture engineered to induce feelings of nostalgia and romance –­ throughout the entire play?

As for the issue of demolition itself, there are very few allusions to the political significance of Kampung Wa’ Hassan’s loss to rabid Singaporean development in Anak Bulan. However, a ‘riddle’ told by Tok Tempang to the young Hassan, in the form of a pantun, sums up one view of the whole issue nicely:

Melayu Cina sama

Melayu tutup mata

Melayu Cina mana

Melayu putih mata

Sounds like Orwell’s ‘Every one is equal, but some are more equal than others’, doesn’t it? Now have a Malaysian read it out loud, in a Malaysian context. Or in any multicultural society, for that matter.

Spreading Tentacles

Gene Sha Rudyn, who performed all the characters single-handedly, was brilliant. He commanded KLPac’s Pentas 2 well, and managed to distinguish each character’s unique mannerisms and speech accents. Sometimes fluidly transitioning from an old lady to a mute ghost to a small child within the minute, Gene is clearly an experienced performer, and well prepared for his role(s).

There were several times in the play when Gene would break from the story and play himself, to read out a fact concerning Kampong Wa’ Hassan and the individuals Anak Bulan‘s characters are based on. These were done in a declamatory Belia 4B manner, which was very different from Gene’s very emotional performance as any of the characters. He even broke out of the stage altogether: once, handing out a questionnaire for audiences to fill up, reading the humorous gag questions aloud; asking for certain lights to be turned up in-between characters, at other times.

Though a bit jarring at first, it soon became quite acceptable. Retrospectively, one realizes the entire play could be experienced as snippets, or parts of a jigsaw puzzle –­ which the audience could later piece together at their own leisure.

Alfian Sa’at’s writing is tight and delicious. Nothing less is expected from a playwright who, amongst other things, wrote an evocative and moving story on that most well-endowed of our cultural legends, the Hantu Tetek.

Alfian wrote Anak Bulan in such delightfully chosen angles: slices of the ordinary lives –­ and deaths — of believable people, living or dead. The loss of Kampong Wa’ Hassan means the loss of these characters whom the play causes us to care for: their lives would undoubtedly be changed forever

Even though the story is clearly set in Singapore, almost anyone who has seen progress march through their rural countryside could easily relate to it. Rural kampungs or reclaimed urban plots.

The scary thing is that one of these days, Malaysia will have a Kampong Wa’ Hassan of our own: one last outpost of idyllic rural living. Our cities grow as more and more people disappear into their swelling bellies, and they spread their tentacles, consuming farmland and numerous kampungs. The most affecting thing about the play is that it may be prophetic: one day — maybe sooner than we think — the cities will rise and swallow Malaysia’s last kampung.

Anak Bulan‘s very last scene has Gene portraying a character in a red and black outfit, in the play’s first costume change — perhaps depicting a switch of characters, or a change of setting. He recites the azan. This character, the drug addict, calls for prayers, struggling to have his voice heard as another Hari Raya song blasts over the speakers. The music rises to a crescendo and almost drowns out his voice.

There are, perhaps, few other scenes in theatre that so clearly illustrates the battle between the spiritual human voice and the increasingly dominant consumerism of our culture and traditions.


First Published: 27.09.2006 on Kakiseni