Kuo Pao Kun


Kuo Pao Kun (b.1939 Xiaoguo village, Hebei, China - d. 10 Sep 2002, Singapore), was a playwright, producing plays in both English and Chinese. He is considered one of the most significant dramatists in Singapore and a pioneer of Singapore theatre.  Many of his works, produced over four decades of creative work, have been translated into Malay, Tamil, German, Japanese, Arabic. And many, too, have been produced and performed by theatre companies in Singapore and abroad.

Early Life
Kuo Pao Kun was born to a poor rural family in Hebei province in China and later moved on to live in Beijing and then Hong Kong.  Kuo's father had been away to Singapore for work and they only first met when Kuo was living in Beijing.  At the age of 10, Kuo and his mother came to Singapore to live with his father. In Singapore, he attended a number of schools and received both English and Mandarin education.  In 1955, he attended a branch of Chung Cheng High School, which was a hotbed for leftist-inspired student demonstrations during 1954-56.  To keep him away from the student movement, his father transferred him to a safe government school.  In 1957, his father sent him overseas to Hong Kong.  But he came back shortly after and started to live on his own.   He did not have a close relation to his father until his father's last few years.  

Kuo's first involvement in drama started around this time when he was still schooling.  At about 15 years old, he began to work for the local radio stations as a part-time broadcaster and actor.  At Rediffusion, he joined the station's Mandarin Drama Group and began performing and writing radio dramas.

In 1958, Kuo enjoyed a short-lived stint as a stage actor.  He acted in a stage production of
The Circus, a Chinese adaptation of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, for the Cathay-Keris film company.  In 1959, he went to Australia to work as a translator and announcer for Radio Australia.  In 1963, he left the radio station to pursue his interest in art at the National Institute for Dramatic Art in Sydney, where he graduated with a diploma in production.

The Playwright
Kuo returned to Singapore in 1965 and married Goh Lay Kuan, a dancer-choreographer. Together they set up the Performing Arts School in the same year, which was later re-named Practice Performing Arts School.  The school offered music, dance and drama training.  He also translated Western plays into Chinese, which he staged and directed.  In 1968, he wrote and directed his first full-length Chinese play,
Hey, Wake Up!.  This was followed by The Struggle in 1969.  The play, which is about a Singapore family which loses its plot of farm land to a greedy property developer and as a result has to work in a factory and face up against scheming capitalist bosses, was banned from performance.  In March 1976, Kuo was detained under the Internal Security Act for alleged communist activities and had his citizenship taken away in 1977.  He was detained for four and a half years and was released with conditions in October 1980.  The restrictions were withdrawn in 1983 and his citizenship reinstated in 1992.

After his release from detention, Kuo resumed teaching drama at the Performing Arts School as well as writing and directing plays in Chinese.  His creative life took a turn in 1984 when he wrote his first English play,
The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole In 1986, he co-founded The Practice Theatre Ensemble, a bilingual theatre, later renamed The Theatre Practice.  In 1988, he wrote another of his landmark plays, Mama Looking For Her Cat, which  broke the language barrier in the theatre scene here.  Mama Looking For Her Cat is a multi-lingual play which incorporate several different Singaporean languages and dialects, such as Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese.  

In 1990, to help nurture local artists, Kuo founded The Substation, a multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual arts centre which was converted from a disused Public Utilities Board power substation.

In his lifetime, Kuo made a monumental contribution to Singapore's literature and theatre.  He wrote 24 plays, some of which, such as The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, No Parking on Odd Days, The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree, Mama Looking for Her Cat, Lao Jiu, and Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, have become classics.  He also translated a number of plays into Chinese, including Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, and directed numerous plays.  His plays have been translated into all of Singapore's official languages as well as Hindi, Japanese and German. They have been performed in Asian countries as well as in Australia, the USA, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. 

A master of bilingual theatre, Kuo helped bridge the gap between English-language theatre and Chinese-language theatre through his works.  He also helped bridge the gap between the different cultures in Singapore through efforts such as The Substation which he founded to nurture artists from different language and cultural groups in Singapore, and
the Theatre Training and Research Programme, a three-year programme for multi-cultural theatre training which he launched in 2000.   Kuo also initiated creative exchanges with the new theatres of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.  In 2000, the Tokyo Asian Art Festival paid a tribute to Kuo Pao Kun by staging three of his plays, and as a reflection of his influence throughout Asia, the plays were performed in three different languages and directed and performed by artists from three different nationalities -The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole was directed by Putu Wijaya and performed by Teater Mandiri of Indonesia; Lao Jiu was directed by Anuradha Kapur and performed by Dishantar of India; and The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree was directed by Makoyo Sato and performed by the Black Tent Theatre of Japan.

Kuo is widely regarded as pioneer in Singapore theatre - 'a major driving force in Singapore's theatre development'.  His performing arts school and theatre company have nurtured and produced many performing arts practitioners over the years.  Kuo himself taught a whole generation of directors, including Action Theatre director, Ekachai Uekrongtham, Theatreworks' Ong Keng Sen and The Necessary Stage's Alvin Tan.  When he converted The Substation into an arts centre in 1990, it provided an avenue for local arts practitioners and audience alike which transcended language and discipline.  The three arts institutions which he founded - the Practice Performing Arts School, The Theatre Practice and The Substation - became major arts institutions in Singapore.  Through his role in these institutions. He inspired a whole generation of Singapore artists and "greatly raised the standards of the performing arts here".

: Cultural Medallion
: ASEAN Award for Performing Arts
: Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (knighthood of arts and letters), France
: Excellence for Singapore Award.

Best-known works
: The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole
: The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree
: Mama Looking for Her Cat
: Lao Jiu
1995 : Descendents of the Eunuch Admiral
1998The Spirits Play

Kuo succumbed to cancer and passed away on 10 Sept 2002 at the aged of 63. He was survived by his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, a dancer-choreographer, and two daughters, Kuo Jian Hong, a filmmaker, and Kuo Jing Hong, a dancer-choreographer. His departure was greatly mourned in the local art community and by foreign artists who had worked with him.

Marsita Omar


Kuo, P. K. (2000).  Images at the margins: A collection of Kuo Pao Kun's Plays  (pp. 386-404).  Singapore : Times Book International
(Call no : R SING S822 KUO)

Kuo, P. K. (1990). 
The coffin is too big for the hole -- and other plays (pp. 7-28).  Singapore : Times Book International.
(Call no : R SING S822 KUO)

Kuo, P. K. (2002). 
And love the wind and rain. Singapore : Crucible Pte Ltd.
(Call no : R SING S822 KUO)

Japanese honour for Kuo
.  (2000, October 9).  The Straits Times.  Retrieved February 14, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Ong, S.F. (2002, September 11).
Theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun dies after long illness. The Straits Times, p. 3

Oon, C. (2002, September 11).
Goodbye, teacher. The Straits Times, p.H4

Ong, S.F. (2002, September 12).
Father of Singapore theatreThe Straits Times, Life!, p.L5-L7.

PM pays tribute to theatre doyen
. (2002, September 2002).  The Straits Times. Retrieved February 14, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

About Us/History
(n.d.).  Retrieved November 11, 2007, from http://substation.org (then click on About Us > History).

National Book Development Council of Singapore. (n.d.). Kuo Pao Kun. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from http://www.bookcouncil.sg (then click on Writers > Kuo Pao Kun).

Founding artistic director - Kuo Pao Kun (1939 - 2002)
. (n.d.).  Retrieved November 11, 2007, from http://www.ttp.org.sg (then click on about practice > staff list > Founding artistic director - Kuo Pao Kun (1939 - 2002)).

Further Readings

Chew, K. G.  (2004).  A tribute to Pao Kun.  Remarks of December 18, 2002.  Focas: Forum on contemporary arts & society, 5, 357-360.
(Call no.: RSING 700.95957 F)

Devan, J.  (2004).  Pao Kun: In memoriam. 
Focas: Forum on contemporary arts & society, 5, 353-356.
(Call no.: RSING 700.95957 F)

Kwok, K. (2003, August).  Remembering Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002).
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 4 (2), 193-201.
Call No.: R 306.095 IACS

Tran, M., & Kwok, K. W.  (2002, November/December).  Educators, friends and shining lights: Remembering their magic. 
Esplanade: The arts magazine, 64-67.
Call no.: RSING 791.095957 E)

The information in this article is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Arts>>Literature>>Chinese Literature>>Drama
Kuo, Pao Kun, 1939-2002--Biography
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Literature)
Award winners
Dramatists, Chinese--Singapore--Biography
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Drama
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors>>Cultural Medallion Recipients

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