One month ago, the wheels of a Cathay Pacific plane touched ground at the Singapore Changi Airport. It was early afternoon and the sky was white and bright, like a blank canvas, full of expectations. As I walked out of the cabin and inhaled my first gulp of tropical air, a rush of emotions sped through my mind. Did I make the right decision by moving here? What happens if I don’t find a flat or a job by the time my hotel room and tourist visa expires? Goddamn it’s hot.
One month on, it’s still too early to tell where this adventure is going to take me, and I’m yet to find a proper job, but at least I’m starting to find my feet around this little red dot. I’ve settled into a nice little room that’s right beside the river, and I’ve just about cracked the code of bus numbers and untangled the colourful MRT lines.
Some of the rumours I’ve heard about Singapore are absolutely true. Chewing gum is illegal. As is graffiti. As is taking durians onto public transport. As is protesting. Drug use will get you spanked and imprisoned, and drug trafficking will cost you your life.
Sometimes it does feel a bit like a jungle of red tape here, especially when they ask for your passport number for everything, from booking theatre tickets to renting a Segway. Sometimes I feel like the government is stricter than my own mother (although to be fair, I am fortunate enough to have a very easy-going mum so perhaps I’ve just been spoilt).
And I guess I can see why some people call this place ‘Singabore’, amongst many other nicknames. In many ways the people here live extremely sheltered lives: the weather remains warm all year round; the food is cheap; the crime rate is low; the economy is relatively stable. But as I put on my explorer’s hat and start to discover the Real Singapore, I’m finding that there is much more going on here than people are initially led to believe.
Here are a bunch of things that I’ve managed to achieve in my first month here, and I look forward to digging even deeper into what this place has to offer. Enjoy!
1. Found a home.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the road to finding a roof over our heads was unnecessarily long and twisted. Rent is extremely high in Singapore. As my boyfriend and I are living on a tight budget, we can thus only afford to rent a room. After an arduous search, however, our efforts paid off in the form of a nice big ensuite master room in a maisonette at the Potong Pasir HUDC (Housing and Urban Development Company, i.e. semi-public) estate. It’s not the most luxurious place, but it’s clean and safe and spacious – and most importantly, it’s home.
2. Sniffed out cheap shopping places.
Toa Payoh, one of the larger residential districts in Singapore, is only a 15-minute bus ride away and is home to one of my favourite stores for home appliances. Courts is essentially the local version of IKEA, selling everything from sofas to vacuum cleaners to wall deco to TVs. For cheap clothes and accessories I go to Bugis Street (which earned bonus points for having an awesome website). Yes it’s touristy and yes it’s always crowded, but if you don’t mind spending hours digging through piles and piles of fabrics in search of those one or two hidden gems, your efforts will usually be rewarded with a great bargain. As for toiletries and kitchen things, there are a couple of cosmetic shops at Chinatown’s People Park Complex (I especially like one called Ocean) which on average sell them at a lower price than the big supermarkets.
3. Experienced the midnight shopping phenomenon that is Mustafa.
As a city girl, I’m no stranger to late night shopping. In fact, the only thing that I never quite got used to in England is how early shops there close – 6pm and every single store is locked and shuttered. Are they mad? Singapore, on the other hand, has shown me the opposite end of the spectrum. Mustafa (no, not Simba’s dad, that’s Mufasa, though I still get them mixed up far more often than I would care to admit) is an Indian department store that is open 24 hours. We decided to go at midnight in order to beat the weekend crowd, but it was still close to pandemonium in there. Who knew that so many kids would be toy-shopping at that time of night? Still, there is no doubt about the greatness of the place in both size and variety. It stocks pretty much everything you can think of – clothes, electronics, beddings, kitchen utensils, groceries, every type of spice under the sun. And buying them at 1am just somehow makes everything that little bit more exciting.
4. Became acquainted with local food.
I was given a crash course on Singaporean hawker food when I first arrived, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. The cuisine, like their bewildering Singlish names, is a mixture of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, Western and influenced by many others. Char kway teow, chai tow kuay, popiah, rojak, otak otak – you might as well just throw me a bunch of made-up sounds. Even the more English-sounding ones are confusing – what the hell is economy rice? And then there are the drinks, teh tarik, ee bee chui, bandung. Don’t get me started on desserts. To become well-versed in the local menu is to learn a new language, but as food sits right at the centre of Singaporean culture, it’s a compulsory life skill to acquire.
For those of you who are interested, here is a fun little video of a Hokkien song about a range of of Singaporean food. Don’t worry if you don’t understand a word – I don’t either – just marvel at the images and drool.
5. Checked out the arts scene.
This is still very much a work in progress for me, as I arrived with practically no previous knowledge of the arts scene here. There’s still a lot left to be explored, but so far I’ve been to the Singapore Art Museum and the Chan Hampe Gallery, as well as The Substation for my first taste of local theatre. Many outsiders think that the arts landscape here is ‘sterile’ and while I agree that it is still in its infancy stage, I am definitely seeing lots of sounds and colours with a distinctively Singaporean flavour bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a really exciting time to be in the country and I look forward to seeing much more of what it has to offer.
6. Started hunting out quirky places.
Again, I am far from being fluent in terms of knowing the coolest, quirkiest places in town, but I’ve made a start. So far the most amazing one that I’ve came across is BooksActually, an independent book and gift shop that opened in Tiong Bahru seven years ago. Since then they have established the Math Paper Press, which publishes the works of emerging local talents. I have ongoing plans to check out various districts and the hot hang-out spots associated with them – stay tuned!
7. Acquired sandal-shaped tan lines on my feet and sunburn on my shoulders.
A week of wearing the same patterned sandals on this mostly sunny island turned my feet into a two-toned painting of circles and lines. My mother bluntly described it as ‘ugly’ when she saw it, but I maintain that it’s artistic – if Miró gets away with it on a canvas, I should get away with it on my feet. Still, I made the effort to even them out by spending an entire afternoon sprawled across the sandy shores of East Coast Park beach doing absolutely nothing but listening to the waves. I got results and the tan lines vanished, but my shoulders suffered the consequences as they got severely burnt to the point where I couldn’t even have a strand of hair near them. You just can’t win with some things.
8. Acted as tour guide when my parents visited.
We had barely moved here for three weeks when my parents happily announced that they would be paying us a visit. As overjoyed as I was to see them, it’s hard to strike a balance in the itinerary-planning as my mum was perfectly happy to take things easy, while my dad made it loud and clear that he wanted to sightsee as much as he could. Plus they were only here for three days. (Certain people I know would insist that that’s all the time you need to see Singapore, but I beg to differ.) In the end we ended up going to Singapore’s newest tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, Orchard Road, Chinatown, Sentosa, a kopitiam (a smaller, indoor version of a hawker centre) and Swee Kee Chicken Rice. Everyone seems happy afterwards so I’m going to proclaim the whole shebang a success.
9. Partook in a local festival.
Last week the local community celebrated the 3,000-year-old tradition known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, which originated in China and is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar. Unfortunately I missed the Mass Lantern Walk in Chinatown, but still had plenty of fun with my paper lantern as I thronged through the crowds at the carnival, Buddhist temple and various light displays. Find out more about it on my last post.
10. Made it to Malaysia and back.
A more detailed post about my journey from Singapore to Johor Bahru will be coming shortly, but in short, it’s not as complicated as I had initially feared. It only takes about half an hour and a few bucks, and you’re there. Most expats go to JB in order to have their visas renewed, and luckily everything is fairly straightforward on that front.
The only problem I had was the fact that JB is a very depressing city. It has none of the ‘raffish charm’ that Tennessee Williams describes New Orleans as possessing in A Streetcar Named Desire, but instead just feels rundown and unloved. We initially planned on exploring the place seeing as we made it there anyway, but after a short wander we came to the conclusion that there really is nothing to do there. There is as much wasted potential as there is wasted retail space, as shopping malls are built but mostly remain empty and decrepit. The only place that one can properly wander round for an hour or so is City Square, apart from the Chinese and Hindu temples and Indian mosque, which are worth a quick glance.
To say that I was glad and relieved when we arrived back in Singapore is a big understatement. The country may be years away from becoming the next London or New York, but at least it’s definitely on the right track.
WHERE: The Substation (map)
WHEN: 27th-29th Sept, 12
WHO: The Blue Statesmen
PRICE: S$20 (S$15 concession)
MY THOUGHTS: As a foreigner who arrived in Singapore less than a month ago, I must confess that I have just began to learn about the local theatre culture. It was only last night that I heard about Kuo Pao Kun – a playwright, director, arts activist, and founder of The Substation who is hailed as the father of Singaporean theatre – to whom BluePrince pays tribute.
And perhaps it is because I have yet to come across any of Kuo’s plays that I came out of Bryan Tan’s BluePrince not having understood a thing about what just took place for the past hour.
I was at first intrigued by the set that greeted me. With spiral incense covering the ceiling and a mysterious, echoey narrative swirling around the room, it was as though we were transported to some sort of monastery. Oliver Chong, the only actor in the play, sat on a wooden chair engrossed in a book. Behind him, an assemblage of seemingly random white papier mache objects were lined up against the wall.
As the play began, Chong launched into a series of monologues as he brought each item to the middle of the stage in turn. He began with a speech about how his character’s lust for survival means that he is willing to eat his own family, and soon moved on to an unfinished narrative about his wife and daughter leaving him.
A 5-minute rant followed, repeating the process of how he walked to the tap, filled a glass and sipped the water. Fluorsent light tubes flickered on and off as Chong rearranged them into various shapes on the floor.
At this point I was still frantically, desperately, trying to make sense of the play, but each sketch became more bizarre and twisted than the last. When Chong stimulated an episode of self-cannibalism and told a story of how a lizard’s shrieking brought him to orgasm, however, the final shreds of my comprehension unravelled.
I have come to the conclusion that there are three ways of looking at BluePrince. The first is that it is entirely a joke. We as the audience are not meant to take this seriously, and the ‘role of artists in society’ (as the brochure claims the play will interrogate) is merely to see how far they can push the audience’s tolerance of nonsense. Chong does, after all, stick his middle finger up at the crowd at one point. If this was indeed the intention, then the play is hugely successful in achieving its purpose – to mess with our heads as severely as possible.
The second interpretation is to take BluePrince as an attempt at serious theatre, in which case it didn’t do a very good job at all. It lacks plot, continuity, and most of all, meaning. Chong’s soliloquies sounded deep and philosophical, but they might as well have been cheap, nonsensical words. I have never been as confused about the point of a production as I was last night.
Upon some research, I discovered the third explanation – the stories and papier mache objects were actually symbolic of Kuo Pao Kun’s plays. The cat was meant to relate, I’m guessing, to Mama Looking For Her Cat; the car was a nod to No Parking On Odd Days; the story about a boy called Lao Jiu was directly taken from Lao Jiu.
Fair enough. As I mentioned, I would probably have appreciated BluePrince a lot more had my knowledge of Kuo been more solid. However, a successful production is one that could be understood even by someone who has no prior information about the subject matter. I would have liked to come out of the show with at least an idea of what Kuo might have been like as a man and a playwright, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. It was just an hour of references that were perhaps too specific for the unwitting audience to catch.
That said, Chong is no doubt a fantastic actor, as he successfully drew out his character’s sometimes stoic, sometimes elated, and sometimes downright grotesque nature. To have been able to travel through such a huge range of human – and sometimes even animalistic – conditions is no easy task, but he managed to stay focussed and convincing throughout.
I would love to hear what someone who is more familiar with Kuo’s works thinks about BluePrince (please do get in touch), but I would say that it’s not a play for those who do not have any background knowledge.
One rainy weekend last December, I went to a series of events that were a part of the Compass Live Art Festival in Leeds. One of the artists I met that day was Alexander Kelly from Sheffield-based performing arts company Third Angel.
He was running a really interesting session called Inspiration Exchange, which encourages participants to swap stories with him and with each other. We would pick up a word card on our way in, and Alex would tell us the story behind it. In return, we would have to tell him a story of our own. You can read more about what Inspiration Exchange is about on Alex’s blog here, and read about my experience of it here.
Alex will be running another Inspiration Exchange as part of the PSi#18 Conference at the University of Leeds on Saturday 30th April from 10am to 6pm. This free event is open to the public, and will be held at Parkinson Building Room 18.
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Here is what Alex has to say about inspirations, stories and art…
What is Third Angel about?
We’re a group of performance makers telling stories about the stuff that intrigues us, bothers us, worries us and fascinates us from our personal lives and the world around us. For 17 years we’ve been trying to make work that will help people to stop and look again at the familiar things around them and see them afresh.
What, or who, inspired you most?
It’s a long list – as the Inspiration Exchange demonstrates – from day to day things, simple ideas, complex ideas, things we hear in conversation, the work of other people – whether theatre, performance, books, TV, comics, magazines, documentaries…
What made you first become interested in people’s stories?
That’s tricky to pin down. I’ve always been interested in what other people think about things, and their experiences – partly as a way of figuring out what I think about stuff. In magazines and newspapers I often look at the letters pages first, to see what other people are concerned about at the moment.
What was the most inspiring story you heard during your last weekend in Leeds?
That’s a really difficult one, because it’s partly about what they were swapped for, and what story that connection tells…but answering these questions quite a long time after the event (sorry), the one that has stayed with me the most is the idea of “Buildings as Time-travellers” – buildings being static points that time moves past. I like that. It articulates something about the way I feel about buildings and large structures.
Do you feel like the setting at the City Museum was appropriate? Was it cosy? Claustrophobic?
It was great actually. Cosy but not claustrophobic. The Inspiration Exchange works well in a fairly self contained space, so people don’t feel too on display when they are telling their stories, but with a door or doorway that is open or can be seen through, so the passing audience can see there’s something going on. So the back-to-back terrace room was lovely – a bit of character of its own, but not so much that it dominated the piece.
Will you translate stories into another medium – thoughts into actions – in the future?
A few of them, I have realised, are developing into another piece – fragments of a story called Cape Wrath that has now taken on a life of its own. Others will get swapped in future exchanges. I’m happy for a lot them to stay as oral culture – that’s enough for me.
How would you defend conversation as an art?
This is a great question. My flippant-sounding answer is that art is conversation. The more portentous-sounding explanation of that is that surely art is part of the conversation between human beings about what it means to be human. There’s not very much I’m certain about when it comes to art and performance, but that’s one of the things that I am certain of.
But more specifically, conversation as art. I think that, often, when we’re making work we’re looking for the right frame, or form, to best explore the ideas we’re interested in. The form that adds something, that articulates something that another form wouldn’t. I’m most interested, I think, in work that can only exist in the form it is presented in. (I’m not particularly interested in theatre you could easily make a film of, for example). And with this idea, the idea of things that have inspired us, a structured conversation felt like the right form. And it is structured, but hopefully that structure is quite light-touch – the conversation can wander off in different directions, and meander quite far, depending on how many people are waiting; but the card-swap structure is there to reset the piece when necessary.
What will your next show be about and when will it take place?
We’ve got several things on the go. A work-in-progress of Cape Wrath is going to the Latitude Festival in July, and What I Heard About The World is on in Edinburgh and Helsinki in August. A theatre production of Georges Perec’s radio play The Machine will be on in Sheffield in December…
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WHAT: Dance (Contemporary)
WHERE: Bradford Alhambra (map)
WHEN: 25th Apr, 12; check their tour schedule for other shows
WHO: Northern School of Contemporary Dance
MY STORY IN A NUTSHELL:
- Contemporary dance is tricky as its intentions are not always clear to the untrained audience.
- Dancers of Verve 2012, the postgraduate performance company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, are agile and passionate, but the choreography themselves were a bit of a hit and miss.
- Divided into four opening acts (two I liked, two not so much) and the main pièce de résistance – Akram Khan’s ‘Vertical Road,’ which is part of the Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire.
- ‘Vertical Road’ itself is a powerful piece, with brilliant use of lighting and a beautifully haunting musical score.
MY FULL STORY [first published on digyorkshire.com on 1st May, 12]: The tricky thing about contemporary dance is that their plots are usually a lot more abstract than traditional ones such as, say, The Nutcracker. It’s a lot harder to convey their concrete meaning, and so instead the focus tends to shift from content to form. Which is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but unfortunately it means that they are not always fully comprehensible to the standard, untrained mortal.
As far as the actual dancing goes, I was very impressed with Verve 2012, the postgraduate performance company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. The dancers embody a great sense of youth and maturity that make them wonderful to watch.
The actual performances themselves, though, were a bit of a hit and miss.
The show was composed of five individual parts – four opening acts, and the main pièce de résistance. The first sketch, Let Go by Milan Kozánek, basically had six dancers rolling and writhing on the bare floor, picking up stones and moving with them. Their movements were graceful, but unfortunately it was almost impossible to decipher what they were really doing.
Similarly, the third act, For Dear Life by Jordan Massarella, was meant to suggest that ‘Sometimes sadness is the key to happiness,’ according to the programme. That is an interesting motif, but again the choreography fell short of fully delivering its message.
But it’s not all bad. James Cousins’s Dark in the Afternoon, a duet between two male dancers, was much more powerful. The combination of their sometimes synchronised, sometimes disjointed movements suggests a desperate attempt of (mis)communication. Their strength and elegance was in perfect balance.
My favourite sketch, though, was without a doubt the final act of Part One. Choreographed by Lea Anderson MBE, co-founder of The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs dance companies, Dynamo was a blast.
It involves nine wide-eyed, lipsticked ladies in bright 1950s dresses twirling and running and skipping around the stage, taking turns to be puppets and puppeteers. Their mechanical movements resemble a series of stop-motion vintage posters come to life. It sounds bizarre, but it worked. It was fun and jarring at the same time, and definitely a very colourful visual treat.
But it was Part Two that most of the crowd had been waiting for. As part of the Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire, Vertical Road is a piece by acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan designed to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. It was inspired by the Sufi tradition as well as Persian poet and philosopher Rumi.
Light and shadow inter-played brilliantly in this performance. The use of fine powder to create an illusion of smoke gave it a magical effect, which worked well with the eight dancers’ flowing, neutrally coloured costumes. Despite not having a coherent narrative, it managed to remain captivating throughout. The choreography was strongly supported by Nitin Sawhney’s specially commissioned musical score, which was both haunting and compelling.
Although the show began with some uncertainty, it did gain momentum as the evening went on. I must admit that I was still rather perplexed by the whole thing at the end, but the dancers’ focused, agile and passionate energy nonetheless made it well worthwhile.
‘I’d be lying if I say I never get bored. It’s still a job,’ Greg Balla says. But then he leans forward and breaks into a sunny smile. ‘Though as far as jobs go, it really doesn’t get any better than this!’
Greg is one of those lucky people who found employment almost immediately after he graduated from New York’s Fordham University in 2008. He started off as an electrician, but now gets paid to be painted blue, drum on pipelines, and regurgitate marshmallow sculptures from the depths of his mouth onstage every night.
‘The best thing is that once the latex skull cap and blue face paint is on, I just become a Blue Man who has no ego and sees the world for what it is. This chair isn’t a chair to a Blue Man,’ he says as he strokes the seat of the bar chair next to him. ‘It’s a sheet of smooth, leathery material with bits of wood structured around it.’
‘Being a Blue Man is really liberating. It removes my identity and frees me from the constraints of being Greg Balla. When I first started doing this I was really conscious of the face paint. It’s greasy and sticky and smells like lipstick!’ he continues. ‘But now I’ve gotten used to it and don’t even notice it anymore. It’s become my second skin.’
As he spoke, I was struck by the passion with which he describes everything. His words are accompanied by a lot of hand gestures and an excited glint in his eyes. He smiles a lot, and occasionally pauses to apologise for ranting too much. There is something almost childish in the way that he bounces on his seat slightly, as though his enthusiasm just cannot be contained.
And then it hit me. Although the man sitting in front of me is not blue, bald or mute, Greg is still a Blue Man through and through. Not only has he fully come to terms with what his character is about, he has even aligned himself with it.
‘Being a Blue Man has changed the way I look at the world,’ he says with a sort of wisdom that only a child can understand. ‘I’m now hyper-aware of everything and have a better appreciation for things we don’t normally see.’
‘As kids we’re free, but as we grow up we adopt all these social masks in order to fit in. The point of the show is to encourage them to unmask themselves.’
The Blue Man Group, as I mentioned in my review, manages to create a level of interaction with the audience that is rarely seen onstage. The fourth wall is completely shattered as the actors clambered over the ponchoed crowd and peered deep into our eyes (and, in some cases, handbags).
‘We try to connect with the people, which means that we have to be very sensitive to them and figure out what kind of show they want,’ Greg says. ‘There’s a template to the show and we have the dots – A, B, C, D – but the audience has to help us join those dots. Sometimes we get a tamer lot, perhaps because it’s the Sunday morning performance, while other times the people just want to party. We try to accommodate that.’
In order for the actors to fully focus on the audience, the actual mechanics of the show itself have got to be solid. Although a magician never reveals his tricks, Greg was more than happy to share the stage secrets when he kindly offered to give me a backstage tour.
I was amazed by how cleverly it all works. From the tubs of blue face paint lined up on the wall ready to be splashed on, to the tubes used to connect bottles of paint to the drum sets, to the colour-coded pipe-drums (each colour represents a different note), everything is meticulously planned out.
I also noticed that there was a certain sense of pride and familiarity in the way that Greg showed me round the labyrinth of corridors and rooms. He talked me through each prop and process as though the place were his home, and introduced me to everyone we walked past like they were family.
And that is what sums up the true spirit behind the Blue Man Group. It is their understanding of how humans connect with each other on a primal level that makes them so enchanting to watch onstage. The Blue Men may not communicate with spoken words, but as Greg puts it, they have a very basic yet powerful language that is able to transcend social boundaries and bring everyone together.
‘We just want everyone to have fun,’ says Greg with his signature grin. ‘The best thing is when you get a Dad there with his kids, and the kids are having a great time while he’s just sitting there looking stern and being Dad. But then at the end of the show when the toilet paper starts shooting out and the giant balls come down, I’d look at him again and see that he’s completely changed. He’d be laughing and joining in and loving it!’
‘That’s what we’re trying to achieve. That’s what we’re all about.’
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The Blue Man Group is currently touring the US and showing in Boston, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, Berlin, Tokyo, and on board the Norwegian Cruise Line. Check their website for more details but this is one show you should go back to again, and again. And don’t even think about missing it!