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Examining the modern and traditional in “One Table, Two Chairs”

Words / Huang Suhuai Translate / Wang Liansheng

Interviewees:  Kuo Jian Hong\Liu Xiaoyi\Lim Chin Huat

Editor: Chinese Theatre Festival 2013 welcomed directors of vastly different styles to helm Threshold (1 Table Chairs Experimental Series). Based on this theme, I invited the directors to share their thoughts on the concept of “1 Table 2 Chairs”, and of the relationship between traditional and modern arts. On the day of the interview, the three pieces in Threshold had yet to be finalised.

Editor: Have you ever seen a traditional opera  performance?

XY:       I am a Teochew, so I have been watching Teochew opera since I was young. My grandparents would watch it, my mother as well, but those in my generation seldom do. When I watched operas as a young child, I thought it was very slow. When I entered the university, I liked Kun opera a lot. Even though I seldom had the chance of seeing it live, I still thought it was meaningful and beautiful to listen to.

CH:      I grew up in a small town in Malaysia. As a young child, whenever the temple had an event, I would go there and watch the street performances. At that time, I was still very short, and could not see much, so I would sit on my father’s bicycle to watch, squeezed next to my brothers in the backseat. My father would hold on to the bicycle and we would watch the performances just like that. I enjoyed watching these shows, because of their extravagant costumes, and some of their stunts impressed me. I never could quite figure out what they were singing about, but those that I knew were primarily Hokkien operas. At that time, different temples would invite different opera troupes, and there were also those that came from Singapore. I would negotiate with my father - I promised to go for my tooth extraction, or cut my hair, and he would bring me to these shows. As the shows often started in the evening and I had to be home by 9pm, no matter how hard I begged my father, I could never finish watching the show. As I grew older, I  became busy, so I stopped watching these shows. Moreover, street performances started to be outdated, and were gradually replaced by Getais or outdoor movies.

JH:      I am not a Teochew, but I grew up watching Teochew shows. This is because I lived in “Teochew Hill”, Hougang’s “Teochew Hill”. There is a temple amongst the graves on the hill, and there will always be performances on days of celebration. I wasn’t focused on watching the shows then; I was more interested in the “tikam” game, or having the chance to eat malt candies. Then, each of us had 10 cents each, and if we went to play “tikam”, it would either by nothing or 10 cents more for us. And if we won, we would be able to buy more candies. Actually, what left a deeper impression for me was what happened backstage. And at that time, my parents would bring me to watch Beijing Opera at the National Theatre. Beijing Opera from China was a rarity. The operas at the theatre had surtitles. Then I realized, there was a difference between watching operas in a theatre and at outdoor venues. People watching operas outdoors were never really interested in watching. In theatres, there would be people talking at times – it was noisy, but there were people who cheered as well. I remembered there was a time I went to watch “The Drunken Beauty”. After a lengthy singing portion, I was wondering why the surtitles had not moved and my mother just said she was still on the same word. Hahaha! So it was actually this slow! Thus, I preferred action-shows, like “Divergence”, “Madame White Snake” , “Sun Wukong”… Nowadays, there are fewer street performances in Singapore. Where I live, in Bishan, there are still such performances. Usually, it would be about 8, 9 or 10 elderly watching it, and there would also be an “ang mo” and a mixed-blood - My husband and daughter.

CH:      Really, there are fewer and fewer audience members, so the performances are meant for the deities essentially. Sometimes when I walked past one, I would stop and take a look, and reminisce for a while. There is an important purpose for me as I watch these street performances – They helped me in my drawing of character portraits. When I was learning art drawings in primary school, there were three or four years where I kept drawing characters inspired by the operas. I would observe their attire and the colours. Sometimes I would also go backstage to have a quick look, just to see how they are putting on their make up.

XY: Our stage is usually constructed on the spot, hence it is quite shallow and small. The performers are also hired by the temples usually.

JH: Previously, there used to be just one light bulb on stage. Now, we have more and more. There used to be only one hanging microphone too. Then it became two; then the floor also had microphones. There used to be only a trumpet in the past, but now, there are sound equipment.


(Photos provided by Liu Xiaoyi)

CH:  The stage we had was permanent, and many temples had it at the front of the building. You could enter the stage from both sides, and not merely from the back only.

Editor: Have you all seen a modern theatre performance of “One Table, Two Chairs”? What were your impressions of it?

XY:       The first time I came across such a performance was in 2002’s Legend Alive, where directors from different territories in Asia were invited to direct a “One Table, Two Chairs” each. I think it is very interesting to see how one can be creative and deliver one’s intention under such a form where the game rules have been fixed. These few performances permutated within the same fixed configuration, and you can witness not only similarities but each performance’s individuality as well. The configuration is very simple, but from its simplicity you find creativity. Of course, when I started working with Danny Yung, I had more encounters with “One Table, Two Chairs”, and acted in one such production as well. Honestly, because of its simplicity, it gives the creator much freedom to play and create. At the same time, because of its simplicity, it can also be a huge challenge for the creator.

CH:      Basically, I have no direct knowledge of “One Table, Two Chairs”. I’ve heard of this concept. When I first started acting, I have always felt that we complicate theatre too much. Many years ago, I had a discussion with my friends about the basics of making theatre. For example, in a traditional opera setting, there has only been these three things – One table and two chairs. I think returning to the basics and then be inspired from there is a fun process. As such, I have a feeling that I want to go back to the basics of creating a work, and that would serve as a limitation for me. I have no idea how everyone else is delving into their first creation process. I remember, for the last two years, I have always set limitations for myself before proceeding, for example, that I would only do this for this performance. Therefore, Threshold reminds me of the time my initial starting point.

JH:       Actually, I also first encountered this form at Legends Alive. Then recently, it was used again in Salute to  Pao Kun. I think it can be very exciting to watch, but it can also be very unbearable to watch. However, that experimental spirit that comes with it makes it even more worth the try. Actually, the mentality we hold is, really, screw it, we would just forge ahead and do it. Such a form gives it already a very good structure, and it already makes you feel that it would be easy to do it, but actually, it can be quite an illusion… Haha…

CH:      In 2005, when I was in Beijing, I remembered that there were 9 theatres at the Chaoyang District Cultural Centre, and one of them, called Xiao Li Yuan, had an extremely small stage. And on that stage was precisely one table and two chairs. I was thinking, it would be interesting if I ever get the chance to do something non-traditional on such a stage, while the audience members are sipping tea offstage.

Editor: Besides having one table and two chairs as props, what other significance is there to such an arrangement?

XY:   As the format of “One Table, Two Chairs” originated from a traditional form of theatre, we can consider what theatre should be like while we are going ahead with our performances. Nowadays, we are becoming more and more experienced, and if there’s a need, we can rely on technology to showcase tricks and gimmicks. When we return to the basics, to what the original is, we can use this to discuss what theatre should be. This would provide us a good opportunity to examine issues relating to theatre.

Editor: Then, why are we not also discussing the content of theses traditional performances, instead of just preserving the form?

XY:       To use a different form in the performance of the same content is not as superior as using the same form to discuss different contents.

JH:       Actually, having such a format would allow us more freedom? Look at what our theatre company has the most – Tables and chairs. Heheheh. It tells us something, that the usage of tables and chairs is very high. The functionality, utility, and aesthetics from the furniture’s lines – they provide us a gamut of possibilities to play with. Of course, if you really want to back to the origins of theatre, you can simply do it with a fire torch. The element of fire has always been present in the elements of lighting and luminance itself. The tables and chair provide a framework – it is not compulsory, but just as you mention how we are using traditional opera as a starting point, the concept of tables and chairs provide us this connection to traditional opera, be it from its simplicity, accumulation or sublimation.  

CH:      Traditional opera often have a set script which the performers would perform. When such texts fall into our hands, it would not be the same. Nowadays, creation often does not require a script. Now, when you present me such a format, I would then start to play from these basic things provided, due to my playful nature.

JH:    “One table, Two chairs” subconsciously, due to our identity as Chinese, would hold a different meaning to us, as compared to the other races. Its influence on us is subliminal, and rather hard to describe in words.

CH:      It would definitely be different. When you start from the simplest of things, you would naturally ask some questions. And the work we are creating would more or less be in that direction.

Editor: Will you be discussing any cultural or ethnic traditions?

XY:       Culture and ethnicity are very big concepts – Discussions of any topic may have connections to these conceptions, but they may also have no such connections.

JH:       When you talk about ethnicity – All three of us are Chinese, but do we hold a common definition of ethnicity amongst us? I am a Singapore Chinese. Chin Huat is a Malaysian Chinese and Xiaoyi is a China Chinese. For example, our impressions of street theatre may sound rather similar at first, however, they may be totally different from one another. We are living in different circumstances – For example, Malaysian Chinese are considered a minority there, and would have different experiences from the Singaporean Chinese or the Teochew Chinese. This is rather interesting, actually.

CH:   This time, during rehearsals, many images of my childhood would resurface. For example, there is a table in my house, which we were prohibited from climbing on. Or the largest table in my house – it would always remain in the same position. No one was allowed to shift it. Only Grandpa would sit next to it, and only my mother could work on it. We were never allowed to touch it, and it was quite strange to us.

XY:       More accurately put, it should be that our own history of culture and tradition would inform our theatre making process. It is the same for our actors as well; their own history of culture and tradition would affect how they create as well. Maybe the three of us have some things in common, but we also have things which are different. Even if there were similarities in form or symbol, because of our culture and experience, there would always be some slight differences.

Editor: How should we be looking at the “traditional values system” which the government is advocating? How should the people react to such a value system?

JH:       Speaking of the Chinese tradition, I cannot speak for other races, but the one who is protecting the so-called “traditional values system” is not the government, it’s the CDAC. As for whether they are doing it out of their own initiative, we have no idea. However, now we still often hear of the concept of “Chinese Culture” – For example, there is a “Filial Piety Camp”, where participants would sing songs and watch movies about filial piety, and have a ”feet cleansing ritual” where they would clean the feet of their mothers…

CH:      I have heard of the “feet cleansing ritual”, but that has evolved into a form which carries little or no feeling or meaning now.

JH:       There shouldn’t be any feeling right? If you want to feel, then buy a massage chair instead. Hahaha.

XY:       Traditions are meant to be passed down the generations. However, in the process of doing so, the tradition must still remain “proper”, and retain the same regal status so that others would follow accordingly. However, once it becomes outdated, it would not be passed down, and that would cease its status as being a tradition. And once time has officially rendered it outdated, then it really ceases as a tradition. Whatever has been passed down would naturally be passed down. This is a rule that exists within our society.

Editor: Sometimes, we are able to pass on traditions because it has become a tool for the governing class. 

XY: That is only one possibility.

JH:       Now, it is not only tool of the governing class, it is one of the consumer class as well. For example, every time it is the Mid Autumn Festival, the Taiwanese would hold a barbecue. I question the purpose behind it. They say it’s because in one year, there was a barbecue sauce advertisement during the Mid Autumn Festival period that was very successful in its campaign, therefore it ended up making holding a barbecue a tradition during the festival.

Editor: Then this becomes not a process where it is the survival of the fittest, but one which is dependent on who possesses the authority to steer the direction of the dialogue.

XY:     That is only one of the many possibilities. It has both political and social aspects to it; it also encompasses the factor of awareness – and all these are linked to tradition. If we are dealing with the political element, then in this case, when the political climate changes, then tradition may change as well. If we are talking about market forces, then the change is even quicker. The phenomenon of consumers deciding when to eat what, then becomes our tradition. 

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Editor: Do you think those traditions which have been eliminated should be eliminated? Is there no need to protect them? Are the ones which are eliminated the least progressive in nature?

XY:       Not that it is not progressive, but it’s more about the people. If someone wants to keep it, then it would be kept. If not, when no one wants to keep it, it would be discarded.

JH:       Looking at it objectively, I have similar sentiments as well. Sometimes, people talk about what should or should not be passed down to our future generations. My opinion is, whether things should be passed down or not, it’s not the decision of one to make. We should have a critical manner in which we decide whether something should be retained. For example, if someone chooses to wash his hands clean off something he initially did, then we should look at the spirit and form in which he had carried out his activities – Is there anyone who sees value in continuing his work or should we then do it in another manner? Whether it’s the government or the consumption habits of the public, it affects the speed at which we pass down our traditions. However, if there was something which someone wishes to retain, he would then try his best to do so. Sometimes however, the damage done can be so great such that some things cannot be retained, for example, our dialects. In China, putonghua  is also causing the demise of dialects in China, so much so that it would reach a point where dialects would be a thing of the past, extinct. From an objective point of view, it would be like the dinosaurs, doomed to be extinct. From a subjective point of view, one’s value system may disagree with such a phenomenon and feel that it is unfortunate in light of these circumstances.

Editor: So we don’t need any measures to protect our culture, and it should all be left to the principles of evolution?

CH:      I think what’s important is whether one cares for something and wants it to be passed down. There is nothing absolute about it, and nothing about it is always right. Regardless of how meaningful the tradition was, if the people of today do not care about it, it would eventually disappear.

JH:       Every decision a group of humans make – And how do we define this group depends on the circumstances ; for example, a country – should be accountable to themselves. If ever there was a decision which led a destructive outcome, then this group has to bear responsibility for it.

XY:       When a culture is on the brink of demise and someone claims he wants to protect it – this is only natural. It is a form of development, not necessarily one of progression. Time would tell whether this culture would be eliminated. Our discussion right now will merely remain as discussion. I think we can only live in the present, whether it’s of the past or for the future, we can only look to the relationship between the present and us. For example, if we feel that a tradition ought to be kept, then we have to think about what its relationship is with us at present. We may feel that it is a part of our culture at this juncture, and feel that we should keep it – the next moment, however, we may not feel so. What this generation deems as unimportant, the next may feel that it’s important. We may be destroying something, we don’t really know. We do not have the skills to know at hand what should be preserved and what should not be. We only have our relationship with the present as our guiding light.

JH:       Sometimes, you may feel that there is a need to keep something but the rest may disagree with you. However, if you are able to find one or two to have a dialogue with you, there might be the sliver of chance that it may be kept. However, sometimes, in the process of trying to keep something, we may inevitably destroy something else. For example, in some places in America, the hibernation periods of bears are messy and because they are also having a good life, they may end up having two offspring instead of one. And this may lead to a surge in bear sightings, and humans may then want to kill these bears. Whether it will be deemed as interference to the environment or not, we cannot tell at all.

CH:      Or it may be seen as a balance.

XY:       We are talking about culture, a product of our society. To interfere has always been an integral part of a society’s evolution. We can only discuss whether we are interfering or protecting something when we have the same big picture view the Creator has. 

Editor: Thank you all for the discussion today.

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 3 / July 2013:Tradition and Modernity