Reading Kuo Pao Kun’s Early Leftist Plays

Clarissa Oon

In the half-century from the 1920s to the mid-1970s, Chinese-language drama was a major cultural force and part of the lifeblood of the Chinese community in Singapore. Numerous amateur theatre and cultural groups were formed; their members came from all walks of life, including teachers, shopkeepers, businessmen, hawkers, artists, musicians and writers. Many of these drama enthusiasts already had exposure to theatre through drama groups in nearly all of the Chinese-medium high schools and their alumni associations. Plays were read and performed on Rediffusion and radio, and faithfully publicised and reviewed in the Chinese newspapers. From the outset, it was not just the scripts from China that were prized; equally important, if not more so, was the creation of original scripts reflecting Nanyang, Malayan and later Singaporean realities.

During this period, there was no consciousness of a theatre apart from politics. Chinese drama was tied, by an umbilical cord, to various socio-political movements in China, beginning with the May Fourth movement in 1919 which planted the idea in intellectuals and artists that the purpose of art was for the betterment of the people and the nation. There were other movements which galvanised Singapore’s Chinese language theatre at different points in its history – the anti-Japanese resistance during the Second World War, when dramas were put up to rally people and raise funds to help China fight the Japanese; and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when art and politics were so closely intertwined in China that artists who did not reflect the “correct” leftist values and ideology were seen as a threat to society’s moral fibre. As Singapore lurched from a tense merger with Malaysia to finding itself unexpectedly on its own as a new nation, the birth pangs of development added to the concerns of Chinese-language theatre. The economy’s strategic dependence on foreign multi-national corporations, the resettlement of villagers to make way for factories and the struggles of the working poor were seen by some as new signs of social inequality, barely a decade after being freed from the yoke of colonialism. The left-leaning views of many Chinese language theatre practitioners were not dissimilar to those expressed by the opposition Barisan Sosialis political party, student activists and more radical trade unionists. Many of them were Chinese-educated, as opposed to the minority English-educated elite. It was in this political and intellectual ferment that Chinese-language drama found its voice and its audience.

As a sign of how politically influential Chinese drama was as a medium during the early years of independence, the ruling People’s Action Party’s Central Cultural Bureau formed its own drama group in 1965 to produce Chinese plays. This was presumably to counter the largely leftist output of the Chinese theatre scene. There were frequent bans on performances by the authorities, and not a few theatre groups were ordered to shut down.

In 1976, several Chinese-language theatre practitioners, including Kuo Pao Kun and his dancer-choreographer wife Goh Lay Kuan, were detained in a major security sweep against 50 alleged members of Malayan Communist Party splinter and front organisations. Kuo spent four years behind bars under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. In those four years, a seismic change took place, quietly but with wide-ranging implications. The thriving Chinese-language theatre was nipped in the bud, and when it recovered in the 1980s, was a pale shadow of its former vitality. Suddenly, the English language theatre which had previously languished was now on the ascendant, as a major shift in education policy in the late 1970s established English as the first language and main language of instruction in all schools. The Chinese language, like the other mother tongues, was reduced to a second language. Vernacular schools, which taught in the mother tongue, had been facing declining enrolment for many years now due to the growing economic importance of the English language, and by 1987, were either shut down, or converted to English-medium schools. The young writers and drama enthusiasts were now expressing themselves in English, and this theatre scene that took off in the 1980s was a very different animal from the Chinese theatre of the past. Influenced primarily by the individualism of theatre-making in the contemporary Western tradition, theatre practitioners were now speaking for themselves and did not seek to reflect a larger collective consciousness. They were a vital part of independent civil society, but no longer as anti-government as before. Indeed, funded by state monies, they became part of the global capitalist circuit of art production and consumption. In comparison to the Chinese-language drama a decade before, this new theatre did not have the baggage of ideology and history, but conversely, its roots in the wider society were not as deep.

Kuo bridged those two worlds, as a playwright, director, educator and thinker who would also start writing in English from 1983. In a playwriting forum held at The Substation in 1996, he described his work from the 1980s onwards as “reflecting (on) and criticising life through drama and theatre, rather than using theatre as part of a socio-political movement” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70). Reoriented towards Singapore’s changing society and his own rethinking of his art, his rich body of work and his pioneering role in theatre training have established him as the most influential figure in Singapore theatre, a position which still stands despite his untimely death in September 2002.

And yet, remarkably little is known today about his early leftist plays. They have never been translated into English and have not been restaged in the last 35 years. The original Chinese scripts, written and staged between 1968 and 1975, were collected and published a few years ago for the first time. In one sense, they are products of their time that read somewhat anachronistically today. At the same time, they are integral to understanding Kuo as a person, activist and artist. If we take the earlier quote from Kuo, what he added after that is significant: “But I don’t think I could ever sort of cut politics away from my work – it just works in a different way.” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70)

The history of the forgotten Chinese theatre of the last century has been the subject of two recent exhibitions, one at the National Library in 2009, and another from February 2 to 28 in 2010 at the Esplanade, produced by Drama Box and curated by theatre academic Quah Sy Ren. Lately, the leftists’ role in Singapore history has also moved from the margins towards the mainstream of public discourse, beginning with Singapore Press Holdings’ publishing of the “untold” history of the PAP in Men In White (leaders of the left were among the PAP’s founding members, and later broke away to form the Barisan). Subsequently, a group of former leftists and political detainees told their side of the story in The Fajar Generation, a book of essays on the University Socialist Club and politics in postwar Malaya and Singapore. Kuo’s early plays help to flesh out the cultural and not just political history of the left. Through the medium of theatre, they shed light on what the Chinese-educated leftists stood for and believed in during that shadowy period in Singapore’s history, which for subsequent generations, has been filled out largely by the official narrative.

The leftist movement and the Singapore Performing Arts School

It was an uneasy dawn after Singapore was forced to split from Malaysia in 1965. While the PAP pushed for integration with global markets, injection of foreign capital into the economy and rapid industrialisation to spur growth and create jobs, the leftists hit out against what they saw as exploitation of the working classes. There were sharp rifts in politics and economics, and over other issues like education, language policy and the fate of the Chinese-language Nanyang University in a multi-racial society. As Quah noted in his introduction to Volume One of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, “Singapore’s formation was like that of many newly-independent, developing nations at that time; each individual, organisation, community had constructed different versions of the imagined homeland”. (2005, p. xv) The leftist movement in Singapore was a multi-racial one, but the Chinese-educated Chinese made up the biggest group.

By the 1960s, socialist and even pro-communist ideas were ingrained in the Chinese-language theatre here. This can be traced back to the influence of left-leaning China writers and intellectuals, who sought refuge in this part of the world at critical junctures during the civil war with the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, before the Communists finally seized power in 1949. Chairman Mao Zedong’s dictum that art must be close to the common people (the workers, peasants and soldiers) participate in their struggles, and serve political ends, caught on here, though not without some debate over the extent to which art should be politicised (Zhan 2001, p. 39-41).

The start of Cultural Revolution in 1966 gave further impetus to the notion of theatre as agitprop, to rally the working masses in a class struggle. Kuo’s contribution, according to Malaysian drama doyen Krishen Jit in a 1989 essay, was to “inject strong doses of professionalism and artistic responsibility to the doctrinaire of revolutionary theatre”.

The modern Chinese-language theatre was a naturalistic one, with realistic dialogue, well-defined characters and scenography that represented local settings as faithfully as resources allowed. China had embraced Stanislavskian realism via the Soviet Union and the Moscow Arts Theatre. As an example of how this tradition had filtered over to Singapore, the founders of one of the most established and active groups at the time, the Singapore Amateur Players (inaugurated in 1955), had received drama training from visiting China instructors while they were in school and members of the Chung Cheng High School Drama Research Society. Kuo was born in Hebei, China, and his early background was in Chinese theatre. However, he was also proficient in the English language, having received formal training at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in his early 20s. Among his first works in the theatre were translations and adaptations of English-language plays. However he stuck to the naturalistic Chinese tradition for his original Chinese dramas, though he would sometimes throw in a Brechtian chorus during intervals; they recited their commentary in the Chinese oratorical style, instead of singing it as the German playwright and pioneer of “alienation” techniques in the theatre envisioned.

Kuo came to Singapore at the age of 10. He had a turbulent education, going through five different schools. One of them was Chinese High School, where he participated in the 1956 student strikes against the ban on pro-left organisations connected with the Chinese schools. After a brief stint as a reporter at Radio Singapore, he left for further studies in Australia with his wife-to-be, Goh Lay Kuan.

Upon their return to Singapore in 1965, Kuo and Goh wanted to do full-time theatre and dance, but there were no professional theatre and dance companies they could join, as the groups were all amateur. They decided to start a performing arts school, to train students who could eventually perform and produce works with them. (Hu and Lin 2000) That was how the Singapore Performing Arts School (renamed Practice Performing Arts School in the 1980s) was founded.

The school began by performing modern Western dramas translated by Kuo into Chinese, such as Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, but later devoted its energies entirely to creating original plays and dance performances. As was typical of other Chinese drama groups of the time, most of the plays were created collectively and Kuo was credited simply as “the one who does the actual writing” (执笔者; zhibi zhe), rather than as “playwright”. The creative process is documented by Quah as follows: the group members would first gather to brainstorm ideas for a script; Kuo then wrote a first draft; members would break into small groups to discuss the draft and present their ideas, consulting seniors outside the group; Kuo produced a second draft with the input; another round of discussion followed; then a third draft was produced. This was the version of the script that was used in rehearsals. (2005, p. xviii-xix)

The plays by the SPAS had a strong following, particularly among blue-collar workers. From the late 1960s, Kuo and Goh started “Going Into Life” campaigns where they and their group members went to live and work alongside farmers, rubber tappers, construction workers and fishermen. This was so that their dramas and dance performances could be closer to the lives of the working masses. Kuo recalled the symbiotic relationship with the workers:

I remember at the time when we had new plays performed, written by us – sometimes collectively, sometimes individually – you would have busloads of students and workers coming to see the play. And sometimes they came from as far as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh or even Penang. At the time, it was still very much a peninsular kind of Singapore and Malaysia. The bridge was still very fluid in traffic. And people from my school, other groups and theatre companies fanned out into the working masses – the factories, the construction sites, even fishing villages, padi fields and plantations on the Peninsula to, so to speak, experience life and bring their experiences from what they found back for creative production. And very often workers and students come to the first rehearsals, or previews, to chip in comments about what they liked, what they didn’t like. (9 Lives, p. 68-69)

The “worker friend” (工友; gongyou) was their audience, inspiration and foremost critic. By the early 1970s, a Singaporean technocratic elite as well as mid-level bureaucrats and executives had emerged alongside the foreign bosses, with a mass of workers at the bottom employed as cheap labour. Costs were rising as the economy picked up, but the wages of these workers remained low. Not only was their employment in flux amidst the ups and downs of the business cycle, they were also very vulnerable to industrial accidents, as sociologist Noeleen Heyzer noted in a 1983 essay. From the 1970s, the once-militant trade union movement was largely tamed by the Singapore government, but dissent and strikes among workers still broke out occasionally. Kuo’s leftist plays did not attack the government directly, but targeted industrialists, technocrats and supervisors, portraying them as emblems of an oppressive capitalist class.

From “Hey, Wake Up!” to “Growing Up”

From 1968 to 1975, Kuo wrote three full-length plays. The first two, “Hey, Wake Up!” 《喂,醒醒!》and “The Struggle” 《挣扎》were produced by his own group, Singapore Performing Arts School (SPAS). The third play, “Growing Up” 《成长》, was produced by a younger group, Selatan Arts Ensemble, whose members had been trained by Kuo and Goh at the SPAS. It was Kuo’s revised version of an earlier play he had done with SPAS that was banned and never saw the light of day, titled “The Sparks of Youth” 《青春的火花》. “Hey, Wake Up!”, “The Struggle” and “Growing Up” are published in volume one of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun.

“Hey, Wake Up!”, which premiered on December 27, 1968 at Victoria Theatre, centers around a headstrong high-school graduate, Xiao Mei, who answers a job advertisement for a “ladies tour agency” despite the reservations of her working-class neighbours and washerwoman mother. The play follows Xiao Mei as she tries to safeguard her integrity in her new job. She rationalises that she is simply making a living and trying to make enough money so her mother does not have to wash clothes anymore. It ends, somewhat inevitably, with a rape scene, but her neighbours in her crowded tenement block rally around her and she finally “wakes up”, so to speak, to the reality of her exploitation.

The play received extremely good reviews in the Chinese press. One critic, Zhong Shi, writing in the Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau on January 5, 1969, hailed it as “an utterly though-provoking play. It did not resort to sloganeering or lectures, and there was not a scene out of place… It is the most successful locally-written play we have experienced”. To a contemporary reader, the script would seem a tad melodramatic, but Singapore had a flourishing sex trade in the 1960s and 1970s. Upscale escort agencies took off along with the economy, catering to foreign and local businessmen and recruiting young women looking for a way out of poverty. In Zhong Shi’s view, the story told by “Hey, Wake Up!” is “one we are familiar with” and the play would have “definite educational and instructional value for our young audiences”.

The next full-length play by SPAS, “The Struggle”, was scheduled for production in December 1969, but was banned two weeks before it could go on stage. In that short two weeks, the SPAS members managed to rustle up a series of poetry recitals and one-act playlets to take the place of the banned play. “The Struggle” opens with the forced eviction of villagers from their land by an unscrupulous landowner who wants to build factories. Some of the younger villagers go on to work in the factories, where they face the dilemma of whether to cooperate with factory bosses, take on longer hours and be compensated for it, or band together with other workers to fight for better terms and conditions of work.

As an ideological statement, “The Struggle” is more hard-hitting than “Hey, Wake Up!”, one of its key messages being that unity among workers is more important than the filial piety so valued in traditional Chinese culture. This is clearly seen in its confrontation between an elderly and ailing mother and her daughter, a factory supervisor. The mother is aggrieved that her daughter, Ya Long, has not aligned herself with the other workers. As she says accusingly: “Everyone is saying that my child is standing together with the bosses and opposing the workers (工友)!” When a hurt Ya Long says that all her actions stem from putting her mother first, so that they can pay her medical bills and put food on the table, her mother counters: “Before you stopped school to work and we had debts to pay, who helped us through that time? Friends! Now, just for the sake of earning a few more dollars, you are not acknowledging your friends? How are you ever going to become a person of dignity?” (The Complete Works p. 97-98)

Kuo’s third original full-length production, “Growing Up”, was staged in January 1975 and is perhaps the fullest expression of his leftist ideals. It traces the journey of three young women who become labour activists. There is Li Mei, who has slogged to earn enough money to help her boyfriend finance his studies overseas, only to be betrayed when he returns and marries someone else. There is Gui Yu, who comes from a wealthy but estranged family; her father is a philanderer and her mother, a second wife. And then there is Zhou Xia, their friend who helps them find a spiritual calling in looking out for the disenfranchised and educating workers about their rights. The play portrays their inner conflicts in casting aside the bondage of romantic love and empty family ties. As they take up jobs on the factory floor to serve other workers, they learn how to do so not just in words but in action, and to pay willingly the price for taking a stand against injustice.

Kuo and SPAS also created several short plays, dramatic poems and xiangsheng (相声; cross-talk) skits in a similar pro-labour, anti-capitalist vein. For example, “Sister Luo’s New Year Eve” tells of a woman who has no choice but to work on Chinese New Year’s Eve, even though her daughter is seriously ill at home. If she does not work, she will not get the bonus that she needs in order to send her daughter to hospital, and her unfeeling boss refuses to cut her some slack by releasing her earlier, despite her plaintive explanations of her daughter’s plight. By the time she gets home with the money, it is too late; her daughter has already died.

There are several common themes in all these works. One is the distinction between the “yellow culture” of sexual debauchery and “healthy culture”. The “anti-yellow movement” had begun in the Chinese-medium schools from the early 1950s, when the British colonial government was perceived to be turning a blind eye to the growing number of brothels, hostess bars and girlie shows as well as the influx of pornographic magazines (Zhan 2001 p. 28-30). Pop music tunes which sang of freewheeling love, parties and gambling were also seen as unhealthy. The campaign to stop “yellow culture” from corrupting youths and society at large took the form of school talks, public rallies, dramas and newspaper articles. In this, activists were influenced by May Fourth intellectuals who regarded women as equal to men, breaking with a feudal Chinese tradition of seeing them as sex objects and having only a secondary role in a patriarchal society.

Another trope running through Kuo’s early plays is the leftist revisioning of the classic coming-of-age plot, redefining the notion of what youths should aspire to have and to be. One unnamed Nanyang Siang Pau writer, reviewing “Growing Up” on January 6, 1975, concurred with the play’s perspective: “In this age, what kind of ideals should young people have? What kind of lives should they live? Born into different families and different life experiences, the three young ladies in the (play) grapple with these questions in different ways; however, they finally uphold the interests of the masses in a righteous resistance, continuing a resolute struggle on behalf of the majority.”

Clearly, the most distinguishing feature of the plays is their binary treatment of issues and black-and-white dichotomies of good and evil. Those who are capitalists, or align themselves with the forces of capital, will invariably set out to exploit the working class, regardless of the background or initial intentions of these businessmen and industrialists. This is because the system is inherently unjust. In turn, workers must lock arms, seek power in numbers and not compromise their integrity by falling in line with what bosses demand of them, in exchange for limited material gain.

The 1980s and the utopian imagination

In the second half of the 1970s, Kuo and other left-leaning intellectuals were put to sleep.

In subsequent interviews and writings on his four years in detention, Kuo would regard it as a constructive period of reflection, during which he began to see the limitations of the kind of theatre he had been pursuing. By this point, leftists across Asia had become aware of the ruthless extremes of the Cultural Revolution in China, including its persecution of many artists, writers and intellectuals. Many became disillusioned with the ideals of socialism, as Kuo’s compatriot, veteran Chinese newspaper journalist Han Tan Juan revealed in a 2003 interview with the Tangent journal. Kuo speaks of his own break with ideology in an interview with Alvin Tan and Sanjay Krishnan:

It is a good thing that Chinese theatre in the 80s cut itself off from active party politics because only then could it begin to exist on its own as an art form… The great Chinese writer, Lu Xun, wrote an article in the ’30s entitled, “The Diverging Path of Politics and Art”. I read it before I went to prison but it never really registered until I read it again under detention… Suddenly, it sort of jumped off the pages. Lu Xun said that progressive politics and progressive art very often seem to be fellow travellers, partners in struggle, but once that political movement assumes power, their paths begin to part because it is the nature of every political movement or party to hold on and perpetuate its rules; and it is in the nature of art to always pursue truth, even to the extent of incurring the hostility of the ruling powers. (9 Lives 1997, p. 132)

Some have argued that from the 1980s onwards, like many others who had been against the PAP, Kuo was co-opted by the government. But anyone who has watched or studied his plays after 1980 would know that he did not lose his critical voice. Nonetheless it was a different voice. These plays questioned policies such as relentless urbanisation (The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree), the utilitarian abandonment of Chinese dialects (Mama Looking For Her Cat) and the pervasive, humourless and soul-destroying rigidity of the bureaucracy (The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days), but were not really issue-based plays as such. While various elements were clearly rooted in the contemporary Singaporean reality, their mix of realism and allegory also made them less socially-specific than his earlier plays. The later plays were an attempt to cultivate an “independent cultural space”, as he himself put it (9 Lives 1997, p. 133), a space for the imagination, story-telling, art and philosophising that could not be ascribed to any particular brand of politics. They were more about the human condition than anything else, striving for a deeper understanding of life and society, without offering easy answers.

According to Kuo, another reason for the change in direction of his works was his move into bilingual theatre practice. In 1984, he wrote his first English-language play, the monodrama The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and translated it into Chinese himself the following year. Subsequently, he would create both Chinese and English versions of many of his plays. From 1985, he began conducting some of his drama workshops in English; these workshops would be attended by many of the future leaders of the English-language theatre scene, including TheatreWorks’ Ong Keng Sen and The Necessary Stage’s Alvin Tan. He was moved to start working in the English-language theatre because he knew the ground had shifted, and with it, the outlook and values of a whole new generation. Chinese-language education was no more. In 1980, Nanyang University (Nantah) was merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, putting an end to Chinese-medium university education. Serious discourse in Chinese was severely weakened. In 1983, citing declining circulation of the two Chinese broadsheets Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, the government merged them into one newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao.

From 1984 onwards, Kuo’s plays would still be broadly rooted in the socially-conscious Chinese intellectual and dramatic tradition, driven by the May Fourth ideal of art-making as something for the greater good of society. Yet influences from other theatre traditions were much more palpable than in his pre-detention Chinese plays. These included Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of the “poor theatre”, emphasising an actor’s physical and spiritual development above other elements such as text or scenography. Kuo introduced Grotowski’s techniques to a new generation of young actors when he wrote The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree in 1987 and invited the Grotowski-trained Taiwanese director Liu Jing-min to co-direct the production. The European theatre of the absurd was another influence that could be felt in Kuo’s plays such as The Coffin, perhaps his most enduring work which has been frequently restaged and reinterpreted by younger theatre practitioners. In the monodrama, a man vividly narrates how his late grandfather’s huge and ornate coffin could not fit into the standard-sized plot at the cemetery, resulting in the protagonist’s tragicomic clash with bureaucrats who have trouble bending the rules for him. Reading The Coffin as an expression of the dilemma of modern man – caught between the living and the dead, family and society – the renowned contemporary Chinese playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian noted that Kuo had transcended the social specificities of Chinese culture by borrowing from the Western absurdist tradition and making it his own (Gao 2000 p. 73-74).

What is the relevance today of his forgotten leftist plays? Why is it worth understanding them and the context in which they were created, even if their moment in the sun has passed?

One, Kuo is acknowledged to have pioneered the technique here of devising plays with a group of actors, known as “workshopping”. Many younger practitioners became exposed to this method of creating theatre through The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree and 1988’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, a ground-breaking multi-lingual play. Like theatre groups elsewhere, Singapore theatre companies now routinely create productions through workshops, in which the kernel of a script is improvised by actors in rehearsals to create new performance riffs, fragments of dialogue, and subsequently entire scenes. A study of Kuo’s earlier works reveals why this method of creating theatre came so naturally to Kuo – because of its antecedents, for him, in the collective mode of script-writing in the left-leaning Chinese-language theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.

The difference between the two forms of collaboration, I would argue, is that earlier process was more intellectual and literary, centering on analysis and discussion of the script and how it could be improved. The later process of workshopping, however, was and is more theatrical and performative in nature. The director and actors improvise and play around with ideas while “in the moment” of a particular scene, and the work evolves more organically as a result. This methodology was instrumental in the creation of Mama, involving a multi-racial cast of actors. The story of a dialect-speaking old lady, who grows increasingly alienated from her brood of adult children but finds a connection with a cat and a Tamil-speaking old man, resonated with the all the linguistic complexity of everyday Singaporean reality, yet also turned it on its head as social commentary, in a way that was quite instinctive and unforced.

Two, throughout his life, Kuo remained passionately concerned about justice. His later plays were, at heart, about little people and the larger forces they are enmeshed in, as much as those that he wrote as a card-carrying socialist. The difference was that, this time, he knew that the enemy could not be so easily defined, and that the seeds of impotency and betrayal lay in one’s own heart. He learned how to inject humour – and black humour – into his plays.

Finally, the early works put one indelible trait of Kuo’s in sharp relief – his utopian imagination. His leftist plays reflect an idealistic hunger for a world where the disenfranchised are no longer oppressed. Post-1984, his hopes for humanity increasingly found expression in the ideal of multiculturalism. Again, such leanings were not new and harked back to the Malayan consciousness of his works with the SPAS from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s – not so much the plays, which were written in Chinese for Chinese-speaking audiences, but the dance-dramas he created with his partner Goh, which incorporated Malay and Indian dance as well as Western classical ballet (Quah 2004).

From the 1980s onwards, however, multiculturalism would form a greater part of what he stood for as an artist and intellectual. This trajectory began with the multilingualism of Mama. With later plays like 1995’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – an allegory of the castrated condition of contemporary Chinese and Singaporean life – a deeper understanding of the ancestral cultures of Singapore and their respective connections became for him a way out of the mind-numbing corporatisation, a form of salvation for the decultured urban nomad.

This belief found its ultimate fruition in his setting up of an intensive programme to train actors in Asian and Western performance cultures, known as the Theatre Training and Research Programme. As he said in his interview with Tan and Krishnan, he likened the cultures of the world to trees in a densely-packed forest. In his words, “the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated” (9 Lives 1997, p. 134).

In his journey from socialist to multiculturalist, the one constant was his desire to make the world a better place, and his belief in the transformative powers of theatre to do so. And we are richer for it.


Gao Xingjian. 2000. “The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole: Dilemma of the Modern Man.” trans. Kong Kam Yoke. Images at the Margins: A Collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s Plays. Singapore: Times Books International.

Heyzer, Noeleen. 1983. “International Production and Social Change: An Analysis of the State, Employment and Trade Unions in Singapore”. Understanding Singapore Society, eds. Ong Jin Hui, Tong Chee Kiong and Tan Ern Ser. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

Hu Wen Yan and Lin Ren Yu. 2000. “郭宝崑谈实践新课程‘剧场训练与研究’60岁让梦想成真”(“Kuo Pao Kun discusses Practice’s new course, Theatre Training and Research Programme – at 60 his dream has become reality”) Lianhe Zaobao, 1 March 2000. Singapore.

The Necessary Stage. 1997. “Playwright’s Voice: A Forum on Playwriting” and “Between Two Worlds: A Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun”. 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre, 1987-1997. Singapore: The Necessary Stage

Quah Sy Ren. 2004. “Form as Ideology: Representing the Multicultural in Singapore Theatre”. Ask Not: The Necessary Stage in Singapore Theatre, eds. Tan Chong Kee and Tisa Ng. Singapore: Times Editions.

Quah Sy Ren. 2005. “导论: 另一种理想家园的图像” (“Introduction: Another Representation of the Imagined Homeland”) in The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s.

Quah Sy Ren and Pan Cheng Lui, eds. 2005. The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s. Singapore: Practice Performing Arts School and Global Publishing.

Rowland, Kathy, ed. 2003. Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position. Selected Writings. Singapore: Contemporary Asian Arts Centre.

Tangent. 2003. “Riding the Tide of Idealism: An Interview with Han Tan Juan.” Tangent: Special Bilingual Issue: Voices of History. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Zhan Dao Yu. 2001. 《战后初期的新加坡华文戏剧 1945-1959》 (Singapore Chinese-language Drama in the Early Post-war Years, 1945-1959). Singapore: Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore and Global Publishing.

Clarissa Oon is a former Beijing-based correspondent and the author of a book on the history of English-language theatre in Singapore. She has written about theatre, politics and Chinese culture for The Straits Times.