Yang Shi Bin is both a veteran actor and teacher, and he is close to 70 years old. As he is taking part in the play, The Struggle: Years Later, he sits before me solemnly in an interview session, and I feel both trepidation and anticipation. Before the interview commences, I see history itself etched upon the face of this elderly man, a person who can speak six different dialects.
Theatre Cultivation Through Singing and Dancing
Yang Shi Bin was born in postwar-Singapore in 1948.
In his own words, his cultivation in the performing arts started by way of “singing and dancing”. When he was in Sum Sun Primary School, he learned singing and dancing from his teacher, and after finishing primary school, he continued to be involved in all kinds of alumni activities such as the dance team, vocal team, and he learned the lute as well.
Reminiscing about his childhood years, he recounts a memory: From his primary school atop Mount Emily, there was a revolving steel door that led to the Government House (the current Istana), where students could enter as they pleased, and he would often pass by it.
After graduation, Yang Shi Bin entered The Chinese High School (the current Hwa Chong Institution), which was on the verge of breaking out into the anti-colonial student movement. In the school’s drama society, Yang Shi Bin did not act, as he was more interested in the areas of lighting and makeup, and he took part in backstage production. In the annual farewell show, however, he would participate in the singing and dancing. In secondary two, as the political situation worsened, drama society activities were suspended and alumni meetings were shut down. Later on, there was even an incident involving violence towards the school principal. Parents started to panic, and Yang Shi Bin was transferred to Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School when he was in secondary four.
In 1965, Lee Kuan Yew announced the declaration of independence, and led to the birth of a nation with an uncertain future.
Also in 1965, 17-year-old Yang Shi Bin took notice of the newly-set up “Singapore Performing Arts School” – it was co-founded by Kuo Pao Kun and Goh Lay Kuan, who had both just returned from Australia. In 1966, the School held a public performance, The One Day of the Year, which appealed to Yang Shi Bin. He describes this performance as such: “A novel format, outstanding actors and impressive language. For those who like to watch plays in Singapore, it was a refreshing experience.” However, both the play and the new theatre school received plenty of sharp criticism as well, as they were suspected of dabbling in “Formalist Theatre” – a style in which the structure of the play takes importance over the content. As analysed by Yang Shi Bin, the set design, lighting and sound effects for the production were very different from other plays that had previously been performed in Singapore. It was very original and exquisite. In comparison, the scripts by other theatre groups mainly came from China, and were not so suited to the local context. As for the “Formalist Theatre” comment, he is still perplexed as to how it came about. Thereafter, the School rolled out yet another original local script, The Overflow of Life, which depicted the story of an unwed mother, and this ignited another spate of debate. Yang Shi Bin recalls that this play had the set design of a three-room flat, and was half-realistic and half-stylised. The sound effects were professional, and even the flushing of toilet seemed authentic. Comparing these two plays, Yang Shi Bin liked the latter even more for its local context. However, a question remained: Was the play really one of “Formalist Theatre”? He thus decided to hunt down the answer, and went forth to audition at the School.
At that time, the School had moved from Newton to a single-storey house at Sommerville Road. At the audition, Yang Shi Bin was asked to recite the Song of Righteousness by Wen Tianxiang – “There is integrity that is embodied in various forms. On the earth it is mountains and rivers, in the sky it is the sun and stars. In man it is the noble spirit that fills up the whole world.” He already liked these lines a lot from his secondary school days, so it was an easy task for him. Perhaps his recital was outstanding, as he was recruited by Kuo Pao Kun to join the School, and was even given the opportunity to study without having to pay fees.
Therefore, Yang Shi Bin commenced his “studies” without knowing what to expect. It was the first time that he undertook classes such as body movement, performing and speech. In performing class, he learned how to concentrate his ability to focus, train his senses in listening, watching, smelling and observing. In body movement class, he was taught by dance teacher Goh Lay Kuan. He felt that the curriculum was very refreshing, and he looked forward to his lessons every weekend.
Yang Shi Bin recalls that due to his studies in the School, he started to grasp the notion of “standard Chinese” at the age of 19. Many of the teachers were members of the Rediffusion drama group together with Kuo Pao Kun, and through their professional guidance, Yang Shi Bin transformed himself from a teenager with poor enunciation, to become an actor with precise articulation.
As such, Yang Shi Bin learned step by step, and practised along the way as well, moving forward in his journey in theatre. He describes how Kuo Pao Kun would laugh and say that Yang was “tricked onboard” just like that. That was in December 1966.
The Struggle in an Unusual Era
During his studies, Yang Shi Bin had the opportunity to put his skills into practice with the 1967 production of A Raisin in the Sun, a South African script translated by Kuo Pao Kun. As he had lighting experience during his Chinese High school days, Yang Shi Bin was assigned to the lighting team. In the same year, Kuo also brought in The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Brecht, which he had previously produced in Australia, and this play shook the local theatre scene once again. Yang Shi Bin performed his very first role in this play. During rehearsals, due to the political inclinations of Brecht, Kuo Pao Kun reduced the number of showings. Yang Shi Bin feels that Kuo’s objective was to introduce the works of Brecht – which differed from the general realism style and China-originated plays of that era. Yet, Kuo did not want to be misunderstood as promoting communism. The Caucasian Chalk Circle greatly boosted the size of the theatre group. With more members, mass activities also increased. These included philosophy class, debate class and more, thus enabling everyone to be more aware of social issues. In 1968, the whole group worked together to create the production, Hey, Wake Up! – which was the prelude to the creation of The Struggle. Hey, Wake Up! ignited widespread discussion, including 20 over reviews in the newspaper. The success of this production was very inspiring for Yang Shi Bin and his fellow group of young creators.
In September of the following year, the School organised a Lu Xun memorial night. Yang Shi Bin was greatly influenced by several philosophies by Lu Xun, with phrases such as “To burst out of the silence, or be consumed by it”. In addition, he also learned a lot through memorial nights for writers such as Chekhov and Gorky, and these set the foundation for his participation and creativity. In December, everyone took part in another mass creative piece called The Struggle, but two weeks before its opening, they received news that it had been prohibited from performing. This was hard for the group to accept, however, they held onto their nerves, and presented a last-minute short-play performance that received support from the audience. The School announced that they would allow the refund of tickets, but no one came forward to do so. Yang Shi Bin says that the School had garnered a loyal following, including several notable intellectuals who were within the governing system themselves, and they all continued to attend subsequent activities held by the School.
A couple of months after the controversy of The Struggle, it was the Chinese New Year, and everyone participated in the lunar celebrations as usual, where students would go visiting each other’s homes to convey their holiday greetings. Filled with an immense group bonding, the group put their efforts into preparations for the next production, The Flame of Youth. To their shock, this play was prohibited from performing as well. Thereafter, a few other productions were also prohibited, leading them to suspect that the School had come under “intense scrutiny” by the government. The fighting spirit by the couple Kuo Pao Kun and Goh Lay Kuan, especially that of the frequent visits made by Goh Lay Kuan to the Cultural Department in protest of the prohibitions, foreshadowed the subsequent arrests that occurred.
What Kuo Pao Kun Meant To Him
During my conversation with Yang Shi Bin, he spent half of the time talking about one person – Kuo Pao Kun – as Kuo was both mentor and friend to him. The long period of collaboration had led both to develop a strong relationship.
In 1973, the School renamed itself as “Practice Theatre School”.
In 1976, Kuo Pao Kun was arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act due to political reasons, and his citizenship was revoked in the following year. This was a huge blow to Yang Shi Bin and the entire theatre group. Yang Shi Bin remembers that Kuo was arrested on March 17, and he had just held the one-month celebration for his baby the day before. That very night, both Kuo and Goh Lay Kuan were arrested. Simultaneously, about 50 other heads of various cultural arts groups were also arrested. Four months later, Goh Lay Kuan was released so that she could take care of their children, but Kuo was only released four and a half years later in 1980.
Without Kuo Pao Kun’s leadership, although the classes and activities under Practice Theatre School and Southern Arts Society continued, but they did not flourish as before. Yang Shi Bin says that a sentence kept revolving in his head – “The flame will never be extinguished as long as we persist.” Although Kuo was imprisoned, his spirit still kept the “practice” going for everyone. Regardless that some parents forbid their children from attending lessons, the School’s activities commenced as usual. The only change was the presentation of Annual Student Productions instead of public performances.
With the release of Kuo Pao Kun, Singapore’s society had also undergone dramatic changes, as the country became to be driven by political stability and financial prosperity. From this moment on, Kuo’s works become even more sober and independent. In 1982, Kuo adapted South African’s playwright Athol Fugard’s classic work, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, and Yang Shi Bin was casted in the lead role as a photographer. He mentions that this role was the inspiration for Kuo to pen his notable work, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole. And this play also became one of Yang Shi Bin’s most favorite works.
In 1999, Yang Shi Bin took part in Red Hawk, and this marked his last performance with the School. A few years later – impacted greatly with the passing of Kuo Pao Kun, and as his focus gradually shifted from theatre to education – he temporarily left theatre (however, he continued crosstalk performances, hence he never truly left the stage). He now embarks on a new journey as he joins the cast for The Struggle: Years Later.
Optimism and Pessimism
When asked about how he feels of the rehearsals over the last week or so, Yang Shi Bin says it was very good. He finds that the presentations by other actors were very exciting, and he enjoys the process of mass creation. Comparing his previous experience in mass creation for The Struggle many years ago, he says that Kuo Pao Kun would always record everyone’s presentations, whereas Xiaoyi would handwrite his own notes. He is not worried about the result of the performance, as he is very optimistic about it. He is equally optimistic about the development of Chinese theatre.
However, he frankly admits that he is pessimistic about the future of Chinese language education. Having been a Chinese teacher for decades, he feels that the Chinese language standards of students are deteriorating in each generation. Furthermore, our youths also have little understanding of our own history. Several of those who were branded as leftists and forcibly imprisoned have never talked about it to their own children. Up to now, they still carry the leftist title. He feels that while history is complicated – some parts of it can be understood and some cannot – it does not mean that we should avoid the topic altogether.
Our conversation ended upon this note, as we envisage the future. With experiences spanning half a century, based in a multicultural country, Yang Shi Bin’s national identity has evolved many times over, and numerous dialects have taken root within him. He has fretted over this country and its people, and he has also been befuddled many times too. Yang Shi Bin uses his own language as a theatre maker and an educator as he tells me of past events. This leads me to feel that no matter how much the environment may change, even as generations are succeeded, every preceding generation would leave its mark upon the next, and the connection would remain intact.
Refers to the anti-colonial and anti-National Service student movement that broke out in May 13, 1954. Students previously held mass silent protests at Chung Cheng High School (Main) and The Chinese High School.
In 1972, as there were too many members, a number of them left the School to form the Southern Arts Society.
Continue reading on Issue 7 / July 2015:From Finite To Infinity