Monday, 21 April, 2014

Published July 19, 2013
Unearthing forgotten Singapore histories
In The Curve Of The Wanton Sea explores the history of the Malays in Singapore before Raffles set foot here, writes HELMI YUSOF
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'We look for our belongings within a geographical location, but the truth is we are not tied within our locations or the present time.'
- playwright Zizi Azah

ACCLAIMED artist Choy Ka Fai has always been fascinated with the submerged or suppressed histories of Singapore that don't appear in school textbooks. In 2008, his theatrical piece Reservoir investigated the Syonan Jinja Shinto Shrine here that was built by the Japanese during WWII. It stands in ruins today in the heart of MacRitchie Reservoir and has attracted little attention from conservation groups.

In 2010, his much-praised Lan Fang Chronicles looked at the 18th century Lan Fang Republic founded by Hakka Chinese in West Borneo which, according to the artist, lasted 107 years before it disintegrated. His claims are, however, disputed.

And now the artist is on his third historical investigation journey with In The Curve Of The Wanton Sea, which explores the history of the Malays in Singapore before Sir Stamford Raffles set foot on the island in 1819.

Between the 16th and early 19th century, Singapore was part of the Johor Sultanate and had a population of about 1,000 Malays. But Choy feels that Singapore's history books seem only interested in telling the story of modern Singapore when Raffles landed, neglecting its earlier and equally important past.

Says Choy: "Our history is constructed in a way to have us believe in a certain ideology and mythology. It doesn't really allow us to question more deeply about our past. We get the same information being trotted out in the National Day Parade every year - it never goes further than that."

"So my interest is always to look at what falls outside of our history textbooks."

Zizi Azah, an acclaimed playwright, is one of six artists Choy invited to collaborate with him on his journey, which also includes award-winning actor Najib Soiman and dancer Norisham Osman.

Zizi says: "Singapore is often referred to as an immigrant society. But the Malays are not immigrants... They were made up of a diverse mix of dialect groups and heritages. But a lot of it has been lost now. And what counts as 'Malay-ness' now is a socially constructed idea that has no links to the past whatsoever."

In The Curve Of The Wanton Sea tells the story of two voyagers at sea who rescue a drifter. But the mute drifter turns out to possess mystical powers and upsets the balance of power between the two voyagers.

The theme of power continues throughout the play, which segues into other subplots. One involves Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar debating how best to rule Singapore, while another involves Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman discussing Singapore the night before its separation from Malaysia.

Tipping into the comical, there's also a song-and-dance segment called Para Para-Miswara - which mashes the Japanese dance form para para with lyrics about Parameswara, a Palembang king who ruled Singapore in the 14th century.

In The Curve of the Wanton Sea was titled thus to reflect "the havoc of the tides of the times, where most of us don't really know what our roots are, or if it matters", says Zizi.

"We look for our belongings within a geographical location, but the truth is we are not tied within our locations or the present time - our identity is very globalised and we're hovering in between rootlessness and the sense that we have forged forward."

In The Curve Of The Wanton Sea, a collaboration of the Seven-headed Dragon, plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studios from July 25 to 27 at 8pm, with a 3pm show on July 27. Tickets at $25 from Sistic.