We like to extol the virtues of a piece that really makes us feel – be it something positive (joy, love, nostalgia) or something negative (anger, sadness, frustration). But what about something that makes us feel uncomfortable? Something that makes us look inside ourselves and address things we’re happier to avoid talking about? That’s part of the experience that faces audiences of The Malay Man and His Chinese Father, a new physical theatre work from process space ponggurl performed at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015.
According to its published synopsis, The Malay Man and His Chinese Father was conceived with a reasonably clear narrative. It sought to explore the relationship between the two titular characters as the Malay Man finally learns about his mother while caring for his decaying Chinese Father. As soon as you enter the performance area, however, it becomes clear that it will ask more questions than it answers.
On a raised catwalk stage at the centre of the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore, the Malay Man (Yazid Jalil) and his Chinese Father (Michael Tan) stand motionless. Clad only in their undergarments, they stare intensely at each other. With the audience seated in a handful of chairs scattered around the stage, on bamboo mats or simply on the floor, the two figures slowly come to life, each running their hands along the other’s bare skin.
A deathly silence hangs in the air, the kind that makes you control your breathing. Then, the quiet is shattered by the towering, gravelly vocals of Asnida Daud – her chants are gibberish (we learnt this only later in the post show dialogue), but they have a religious quality to them. What follows is a sequence of father and son taking turns to carry each other, son washing father, son dressing father, father dressing son in a kebaya and son feeding father. The sequence is repeated, and while the first run shows tenderness and affection, the second is tinted with rage. In a climactic scene, the Malay Man is seemingly torn apart by the conflict between the two worlds and cultures he lives in.
There are many layers to this deceptively sparse piece. First, there is the aforementioned discomfort we feel from seeing two men so completely different from each other sharing such intimate closeness. What does it say about us when the mere image of them writhing in an embrace flicks a switch in our heads? There are big political issues in the background, like what ponggurl’s Noor Effendy Ibrahim calls the “Chinese father complex”; something that Malay men in Singapore have to deal with, being a minority in a country essentially founded and ruled by Chinese men. But there are also smaller, more personal issues – the confusion and sense of loss in seeing the face of your beloved partner in the face of your child long after they have departed.
Finally, and quite poignantly, The Malay Man and His Chinese Father presents the journey we must all take. We will be children, we will be parents and then we will become children again, our care in the hands of children of our own.
Interestingly, the final form of The Malay Man and His Chinese Father was only settled on during the week of its premiere. The story was pared down to its skeletal elements and coloured in by the individual performers based on what they encountered during a three-hour durational performance that preceded the main event. It’s a structure that will see it continue to evolve with time. While our hopes of meeting the Malay Mother were not fulfilled, save for a spectre in the shadows, we were no less moved and affected. We can’t wait to see what ponggurl does next.
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015 continues until Jan. 25.