The 60 Second Plug: Francesca Beard’s “Chinese Whispers”

Who is this ‘Beard’ that gave you your last name? Did you have a rough time as a kid with a name like that?

My dad’s family name is Beard. It’s a Cornish name. I didn’t have a hard time in Malaysia, but when I came to school in the UK, I was deeply unpopular. However, that was probably because I was mixed race and it was an English boarding school in the 1970s. Or maybe because I was a Grade A Nerd. Either way, the whole Beard name thing was mere icing on the cake of my woe. In 1996, I gave up real life to become a fictional character.

Malaysian-born successes that live abroad are constantly appropriated for national pride; do you think you qualify?

I definitely qualify to be appropriated; it’s just the national pride I’m not sure about.

You attempted ‘real jobs’ before quitting to do what you do now. What were some of these ‘real jobs’?

I worked for a commercials company making adverts. Then I was a researcher for television documentaries. Now I waft around, thinking beautiful and obscene thoughts.

Why performance poetry?

Indeed. Why? Why? WHY?

What are some of your influences?

My influences are bad day-time television, third-rate celebrities, and feelings of anger and resentment from imagined traumas in the past. Also: my family, my beloved amah Ying Chair, and my amazing friends. Not forgetting KL, the city where I was born; Penang, where I grew up; and London, where I live. Oh, and Shakespeare.

Tell us a little about how Chinese Whispers came to be.

It’s a one woman show about identity. I talk at length about my exotic past. There is an organisation in the UK, called Apples and Snakes, that supports performance poets. Geraldine Collinge, director of Apples and Snakes, produced my show. The original idea was to make it a spoof about Art — What is Art was the working title. Yes, I know. What a must-see show …

I have always had a resistance to talking about my exotic Malayan past; I didn’t want to be like the stereotypical Malaysian writer trying to make it overseas. However, the whole cultural identity thing proved to be an irresistible force — I just had to write it.

So Chinese Whispers traffics heavily on the subject of cross-cultural identity. How would you identify yourself, now?

I would identify myself as Other. Definitely.

Do you anything in particular to prepare yourself for a reading? Describe this ritual for us.

The ritual is secret and involves many tiny, invisible things, some too tiny to be expressed in words, some too secret to even think about.

You were last in Malaysia to perform for Wayang Kata — A Night of Spoken Word, in April. How often to do you come back to Malaysia? What’s different this time?

This recent visit was the second time in two decades. It was the first time I’d performed in Malaysia — I can’t remember being as nervous, before a gig!

At Wayang Kata, you asked the audience about how they preferred to die, providing them with six choices. Considering all the audiences you’ve had from all over, which option is the most popular?

The thing I love about the audience survey is that it changes so much, depending on the audience demographic. In South America, for example, everyone went for Death by Crocodile. The Nordic races tend to go for Chainsaw-ed by a Nutter. Young people and Catholics opt for Heroic Death under Torture. I found that Kuala Lumpur was similar to London in many important ways, not least because both cities show a preference for Death as an Astronaut, followed by Death by Lion.

Which would you choose, yourself?

Death as an Astronaut, followed by Death by Lion, obviously. We are all products of our environment.

You are conducting a spoken word workshop on September 30th, at KLPac. What is it like, training aspirant performance poets for stardom? Any stories?

You know, seriously, it’s the best thing about my job: what I do. I believe that performance poetry is a truly democratic art form. Any one can do it — if they have the drive to communicate with their audience, their society, and their peers about what really matters to them in the world. It’s a privilege to be part of the process where people find their individual voices.

Where do you go, after Kuala Lumpur?

To Penang for a few precious days: to see old friends and take my daughter Lola Choo to visit the monkeys in the Botanical Gardens. After that, the Cheltenham Festival, on October 9th.

Tell us a really, really bad joke.

Come see my show, in which there is an Embarrassment of really, really bad jokes.

What’s irony to you?

Spinach. Liver, of course. And also, interestingly, cherries.

A really horrible Internet personality test determines that you are a pre-20th-Century personality. Who would you be, and why?

I would be some sort of serf or peasant. But famous in my village for telling really, really bad jokes.


Chinese Whispers was commissioned and developed by Apples & Snakes and the Battersea Arts Centre. Directed by Arlette Kim George, written and performed by Francesca Beard, it comes to Pentas 2, KLPac from Thu 28 – Sat 30, Sep 2006.

An edited version of the above interview first appeared in the Weekend Mail’s Sat 23 & Sun 24, Sep 2006 edition.

First Published: 24.09.2006 on Kakiseni

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