First multilingual play in Singapore



Staged on 10 August 1988, Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat was Singapore’s first multilingual play. Performed by the Practice Theatre Ensemble, the play focuses on the theme of Singapore’s multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society, brought out by English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew dialogue.

Description
Kuo’s Mama Looking for Her Cat was Singapore’s first multilingual play. Staged by the Practice Theatre Ensemble on 10 August 1988 at the Singapore Conference Hall,it was the first play to reflect Singapore’s reality as a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society.2


Mama Looking for Her Cat is about the breakdown in communication and estranged relationship between a Hokkien-speaking mother and her bilingual-speaking children, who could only express themselves in English and Mandarin. It was the first multilingual play on the language barriers facing the different generations of Singaporeans. The play was created through Kuo’s workshops with a multiracial ensemble of 11, including T. Sasitharan, William Teo, Verena Tay and Neo Swee Lin – familiar names in today’s theatre scene as actors, directors and critics.3

Thematically, Kuo was articulating the marginalisation of older generations of Singaporeans as a result of the country’s bilingual policy that began in 1959.4 The pragmatic decision by the authorities then was based on the perception that people could communicate more effectively using only one or two main languages. As a result, the aged who spoke mostly in dialect became marginalised as the country phased out dialects in favour of English and Mandarin.5 Grandparents and even parents now have trouble communicating with the younger generation because of these changes in language trends.6

Mama Looking for Her Cat is a symbolic social commentary on the language and cultural issues experienced by Singaporeans arising from the bilingual policy. As language is seen as a vehicle of a whole system of culture, there is concern that the official phasing out of dialects would eventually erode the entire personal and collective history of the older generations.7

The achievement of Kuo’s play lies in its integration of form and content.8 He used Brechtian and Eastern ideas such as songs and cross talk, as well as performance techniques pioneered by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, to demonstrate Mama’s alienation from her children.9

Conceptually, Mama Looking for Her Cat was deemed the first truly Singaporean play as Kuo used several local languages and Chinese dialects – Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil – to reflect Singapore’s multicultural and multilingual environment.10 This was a significant departure from the general perception of theatre being a monoculture and monolingual enterprise.11 Through his play, Kuo questioned the typically accepted notion that a genuine post-independence Singaporean theatre had to be an English-language one.12

Impact
Mama Looking for Her Cat paved the way for the use and acceptance of Chinese dialects within the arts and entertainment scene. No playwright before Kuo had presented this undeniable and fundamental nature of a multicultural and multilingual society that Singaporeans were adapting to. Since this seminal play, more multilingual plays and films have been produced to better reflect contemporary Singapore society.13 The play was also reported to have partially inspired Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue (2016), a play based on Lim’s struggles in communicating with his Teochew speaking grandmother.14



Author

Nureza Ahmad



References
1. Loh, P. (1988, July 26). Has the cat got your tongue? The New Paper, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. A leader in the theatre scene here. (1995, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Oon, C. (1998, October 7). Many voices make the Lion City roarThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Oon, C. (1998, October 7). Many voices make the Lion City roarThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, K. Y. (2012). Lee Kuan Yew, my lifelong challenge: Singapore’s bilingual journey. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 50–51. (Call no.: RSING 306.4495957 LEE); Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. S. (2002). Singapore politics under the People’s Action Party. London; New York: Routledge, p. 103. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 MAU)
5. Oon, C. (1998, October 7). Many voices make the Lion City roarThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. PTE has wide influence through. (1996, December 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Oon, C. (1998, October 7). Many voices make the Lion City roarThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Oon, C. (2000, January 7). Take risks, go for a rock band insteadThe Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, July 30). Toy winds up for playThe Straits Times, p. 5; A leader in the theatre scene here. (1995, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. A leader in the theatre scene here. (1995, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Wee, W-L. C. J. (1998, December 20). Has S’pore drama gone parochial? The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Lum, S. (1997, August 19). Glimpse of cultural roots in GeylangThe Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Oon, C. (1998, October 7). Many voices make the Lion City roarThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lee, J. X. (2016, April 16). Singapore Theatre Festival showcases three new plays. The Straits Times; Tan, D. (2016, April 15). Celebrating Singapore theatre in style. The Business Times Singapore. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg



The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to 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.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists
Ethnic Communities
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production
Dramatist--Singapore
Theater--Singapore
Theatre
Artists
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Theatre
People and communities>>Social groups and communities