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Sasitharan: Cultural Orphan as a Provocation

Words / Tung Ka Wai (Interview)Translate / Tung Ka WaiPhotography / Baby Hee

- An Interview with T. Sasitharan 

 “Everyone’s a parent to the orphan …”

Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral by Kuo Pao Kun 

The Cultural Orphan

The idea of cultural orphan was articulated by Kuo Pao Kun in the 1990s. This was a very important period because it came immediately after the decade which was, in my opinion, the most productive period in the formation of Singapore theatre identity. One of the most important factors was Pao Kun’s return to the theatre after his release from prison. He came back with some new ideas on what theatre should be.  The notion of the cultural orphan came 10 years after his return. This was a time when works in theatre began to have an impact on our ideas about identity: personal identity, national identity and communal identity. People usually see cultural orphan as a striking metaphor referring to isolation, loss and abandonment; of lacking parentage, not having parents. So, there is a tendency to think of ourselves as only being rootless – disconnected from our origins. This is what it means to be an orphan. We do not belong. It also has a sense of being helpless, of needing support, of having to find your way, of being lost.

All of these are true, metaphorically speaking. But I think the idea of cultural orphan also has a historical meaning. If we were to view cultural orphan, as a term taken from a historical context, it is actually a provocation, to make you think about what your past is, and what it should be. If you do not have a parent, then you are free to invent anyone as your parent. It is more important to focus on this freedom – to be able to write your past, to be able to connect yourself to any past - rather than wallow in loss and rootlessness.  Of course, to some extent, this past will be imagined or fictional but I do not think this is a problem at all. The problem is whether it is true for you.

The problematic of cultural orphanage is, partly, the issue of immigrant, the stranger in a foreign land. But it is not entirely so. In Singapore, the only non-immigrants are the Malays but even they have to imagine and decide their own true past. Do they see themselves as part of larger Malay world which is confined to the Malay Peninsula? Or do they see themselves as part of an even vaster Malay culture, which is part of Nusantara and the Indonesian archipelago? They too must choose their parentage. Even our native brethren must write the pathways of their parentage and choose how to connect to a plural past. To that extent we are all orphans, native and migrant.     

The Relevance of Cultural Orphan Today

Is the notion of the cultural orphan irrelevant today? The orphan appears to have found a home and has therefore secured a sense of belonging; an identity. As a Singaporean, Singapore is my home. I have a sense of belonging here and I don’t need to be anxious about being a cultural orphan. The notion of cultural orphan is no longer relevant.

However, this is a very narrow way of looking at the notion of cultural orphanage. As mentioned earlier, Pao Kun used the term cultural orphan in 1990s in a much broader historical context. It was a challenge, a provocation. And the challenge and provocation is still relevant today. In fact, in some sense, it is much more relevant today as Singapore has become a more globalised city now as compared to the 1990s. We did not have the problem of a new wave of immigration and “foreign talents” in the 1990s. Today, we do.

For example, if I were to say “Oh, I’m Singaporean and I’m Indian”. How should I look at the Indian workers in Singapore today? Are they part of me because we share the same origin space? Or are they part of me because we share a same present? What is my connection to them? If I see myself as Singaporean, in a closed, hermetically sealed  sense, then I have no connection to them at all. But if I see myself as dispersed and distributed in and through time; a specific history  – the worker happens to come from the same village as my great grandfather - different people but we share the same language and heritage. This sets up a different kind of relationship, a much more interesting relationship. In fact, the workers are not here just as workers. They are part of our history, a shared history. We have a responsibility as citizens of Singapore, as people, to treat them fairly – the way we would expect a Singaporean to be treated. The way we would expect brethren of history to be treated. We get angry when we see Singaporeans collecting cardboard boxes for a living. Why does she have to collect cardboard? Why isn’t somebody taking care of her? But why isn’t there as much outrage when we see foreign workers packed in the back of a truck drenched in rain? Or as much concern when they work outdoors in the haze without a mask? They may come from a distant country but they are not foreigners. We have a connection to these people, regardless of our race or religion. This is the provocation of the term cultural orphan – it challenges you to interrogate your connection to history and people.  

The Notion of Identity

I think, before we talk about the notions of identity, we have to give up the idea that there is a kind of essential Chinese nature or an essential Indian nature, or an essential Malay nature. There is nothing essential or unchanging about being Chinese, Indian or Malay.

One very good recent example is Tan Bee Keow, an Indian singer who is fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien because she was adopted by a Chinese family when she was eight months old. She is no doubt “Indian” in a sense, but she sees herself as a Chinese. When we think of the word cultural orphan, we may automatically trace our connection back to India or China but it doesn’t have to be so. Genes define you biologically but it is culture, society and history that shape you as a person.

If we acknowledge this, how do we form our notions of identity? We form our identities along two axes: History and Experience – your history and experience. What you know. What you understand. And what you see around you. These are the poles of your identity. As you can imagine, your identity is sort of a Venn diagram with various overlapping zones of history and experience and history-experience. It is up to the individual to map his very own Venn diagram. And of course, the diagram for each person could be slightly or very different from your neighbour’s. I think our notions of identity, of national identity and personal identity - should be broad and malleable enough to include extreme difference. The idea of being Singaporean has to embrace this order of difference, the full diversity and the plurality of these elements. The broader the spectrum, the better it will be for Singapore. Everyone will have their very own diagrams of their selves. The project of nationhood is not about stressing how different we are, rather it is about finding common space and time in this place we are all prepared to call Singapore to embrace differences.  

The National Theatre

We used to think our national theatre had to be English Theatre. Not so anymore because our national identity is not only constituted by the English language. It is an important element but many other languages are as important in this formation too. I think if we take the aggregate of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and English theatre/s – their productions, published works and translations – we will get an idea of what the National theatre of Singapore may be. We don’t have an institution of national theatre but we have a practice of national theatre practice that is based on diversity, plurality and difference. Sometimes, these differences connect through a playwright, like Pao Kun, who connected the Chinese and English worlds; sometimes they connect through a director, who may draw from two different cultures to make theatre. There are many different ways in which such connections can be made.

This is what having a “national theatre” is really about. It should be inclusive and open to allow different elements to cohere on stage even if they do not coexist. We have to accept the fact that there can be disharmony, discord that is beautiful. An example is the Chinese theatre. Today, when we talk about Chinese theatre in Singapore, we inevitably mean Chinese theatre in Mandarin. This is not our reality. Chinese theatre in Singapore should not just be Mandarin theatre. There is Chinese theatre in other dialects and some are very highly regarded. Cantonese opera is an obvious case in point. Can we deny this as part of our theatre heritage?  

Art and Translation

Translation helps us to understand performances in other languages, especially in a multilingual society. However, translation has its limits too. How do you translate Puccini’s opera into another language? You can’t. You watch the opera in its original language. Of course, it’ll be helpful to bring along a translation to aid in our understanding but the essence lies in its original language. There is no doubting that. We learn to appreciate what we don’t immediately know. There may be aspects or elements of a work which we can never fully appreciate, but our appreciation can always grow and become deeper. So long as we are open, active and curious, we always retain the possibility of discovery and wonderment. This is what it means to live with art.

If this is the attitude of the “cultivated” and “educated” towards Western or European art, why can’t we retain this generosity of spirit and openness of mind in taking in our own art, in our own languages? Why can’t we do so for Chinese, Malay or Tamil theatre?

Surtitling performances or subtitling a film is delicate and complex work. It is an art in itself. It is difficult to be done well and it rarely is. Sometimes I watch a play or film without surtitles or subtitles. Of course you may need a little preparation and understanding before diving into this kind of viewing experience. But you can get a lot out of it – you watch the performance and are amazed not by the meanings of word but by their sounds and breaks, the manner of speaking, the voice and cadences. You are transfixed by what the actor is doing before you, amazed by movement and stillness, sound and silences, pauses and dynamism; all of which have no necessary connection with verbal language.

Most of the time, people think that when they watch a performance, see a painting or listen to a piece of music, there is a particular, specific take away – a message or a map which tells you exactly how to reach a goal, step by step. Many think there must be some single way to navigate the terrain. Art is not like that. Art is something you discover how to read. The discovery is not about the work of art. It is, often, about yourself. What you like, what do you dislike, what excites you, what repels you, why you feel so? It is a gradual unfolding. You may love it when everyone else hates it or you hate it while everyone else loves it. Living with the process of discovering is more interesting than living with knowing.   

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Kuo Pao Kun and T.Sasitharan 

T. Sasitharan is Co-Founder and Director of ITI, formerly the Theatre Training & Research Programme (TTRP). In 2012, he received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for artists, from the President.

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 8 / December 2015:The Courage To Go Against The Current