ART: An Interview with Cheo Chai Hiang by Yvonne Low

Yvonne Low

Don’t Sit On Me, Cheo Chai-Hiang’s latest project, was held at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre (National University of Singapore) in the historic city, Melaka, from 10 March to 24 April 2012. Developed since August 2011, this two storey site-specific installation comprises 65 ‘makeshift’ chairs from participants across the world, and presents a creative and insightful reading of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral by the late Singaporean playwright, Kuo Pao Kun. Through textual associations and idiomatic wordplay, Cheo’s work explores the issue of cultural displacement as a result of social engineering. By drawing upon the dominant theme and metaphor of castration from Kuo’s play, Cheo further dramatizes this loss vis-à-vis the processes of play using visual and textual cues.

Don’t Sit On Me has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and sponsored by the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore. The following is an electronic interview between Yvonne Low and Cheo Chai-Hiang shortly after the opening of Don’t Sit On Me.

YL: The title of your project, ‘Don’t sit on me’, is interesting. There can be numerous ways of reading it; in this case, it has captured a sense of playfulness that is also apparent as one encounters the many components of your work. Would you like to share more on how this title came about, and how it has come to be the linchpin for the conceptual framing of this project?

CCH: It was about 5 years ago one early afternoon, I boarded an off-peak MRT train from the city. The train wasn’t crowded, not like what one would experience nowadays. There were plenty of seats available. I found myself sitting next to a seat on which some graffiti of a penis was scrawled, with ‘don’t sit on me’ written above the image. I realized that no one wanted to sit near it, let alone ‘on it’. A little girl was rather excited by the fact that she could read the text. She said repeatedly and loudly to her grandma in Mandarin, “Grandma, it says don’t sit on me.” Her grandma appeared to be embarrassed. She led the girl to the far end of the compartment. The girl repeated what she said even louder. When I saw the graffiti, I began to speculate. Who could this brave vandal be? Was it by a new PR or a foreigner who had never heard of the Michael Fay case? Or was it a sign that angry young Singaporeans no longer wanted to be ‘sat on’? ….. My attention quickly shifted. The little girl, who was excited she could read the text, probably didn’t know the image represented the male sexual organ. The grandma, on the other hand, would have ‘read’ the image, but not the English text. The whole episode had further complicated my fascination with how meanings could be subtly ‘created’ and ‘transmitted’ through the teaching and learning of multi-literacy.

YL: You mentioned that Don’t Sit On Me has also been informed by your readings of the play Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral [郑和的后代] in both the English and written by the late Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun. Would you like to provide some examples of how your work processes, thoughts and even the outcome have in various ways alluded to the text or to the characters within?

CCH: I started by reading the English version of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. I sensed that there must be bits and pieces that were missing. I also had a strong feeling that certain English expressions in the writing must have been rigidly translated from Chinese, and therefore appeared to me to be awkwardly-simplified. When I finally got hold of a Chinese version, I found that a passage at the beginning of the Chinese version was not in the English version. I have translated it as follows and it reads:

The author’s note:

The original idea of Descendants of Zheng He is a play within a play. It is to be a Chinese language version to be directed by the author himself and to be performed for the first time on the night before the release of the detainees at either a prison or a drug rehabilitation centre. The occasion was meant to be a ‘creative celebratory night’ in which the whole performance took place. There would be over ten segments, and different groups of actors would perform in different segments. These actors were neither scholar artistes nor literature historians. They would not be concerned with either the historical accuracy or artistic merit of their performance. The tension between the casual demeanour of this creative celebratory night and the oppressive nature of prison environment is an important element of the play. After experiencing this premiere performance, the author decided that he would not include in this written version of the play the actual characters, or elaborate the actual background circumstances. Instead, he chose to simply spell out his ideas, and hope that the future directors and actors would create their own external structures and intentions of the play according to their own individual circumstances. (Taken from The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun. Volume 3. Plays in Chinese 3. The 1990s. Page 103.)

Yes, this project – Don’t Sit On Me – is informed and influenced by Kuo Pao Kun’s play.

In Kuo Pao Kun’s Chinese version, baobei is a euphemism for prick. He never used the expression ‘network of pricks’. He did not even mention the phrase ‘network of baobei’. I introduced “bao bei wang luo”, (宝贝网络 [network of baobei]) written in Chinese and engaged a sign maker to craft a gilded gold on the glossy black signage. Traditional signboards like the ones used in the show can be found on many shop fronts or shop houses in Melaka. Also in the Chinese version, after commenting on the room with hanging penises, Kuo simply wrote, “I will say no more. You just have to ju yi fan san.” (举一反三 [to draw inferences about other cases from one instance]). “Ju yi fan san” is another phrase I used in the show. These two signboards that I introduced – bao bei wang luo and ju yi fan san – will kickstart the exhibition as ‘segment one’ and ‘segment two’ respectively.

YL: Like the expedition of Zheng He, whose journeys were filled with unexpected events and surprising encounters, this project too had similarly brought you and the people involved in the project not only to ‘places’ but also adventures of sorts. What were some of the surprising or unanticipated situations you’ve encountered in the course of developing this work that had significantly impacted the outcome of the project? How have you incorporated into the work your responses of those interesting incidents that cropped up suddenly?

CCH: This project was originally conceived to form part of a ‘survey show’ to be shown initially at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore (ICAS) where I was invited to show. I had a problem with the curatorial style of its current director, especially the way he communicates with artists. I wasted a fair amount of time trying to accommodate it. At the end, I decided not to continue working with ICAS. That was not a decision that I made lightly, but I am very pleased I did. I was not prepared to forego my integrity or self-respect as a practicing artist. Working collaboratively is never an easy task, whether it is collaboration between artist and curator, or amongst artists. I think the participants and I enjoyed the process of working together in this project. We all had lots of fun. We made good use of all the occasional “mistakes” we made, and channeled our energy towards sharing and learning. The goodwill and friendship demonstrated throughout different stages of this project are the most important part of this work. The title of the project “Don’t Sit On Me” suggests the desire to be free from being ‘sat on’. We all remember that.

YL: Like all expeditions, there is an element of risk and adventure; we never know who we will meet. For this project in particular you decided to approach your friends. How has this project given you the opportunity to make some new friends, or to get to know some of your friends better?

CCH: Yes. Risk and adventure, especially for me! Sometimes you might have taken risk without even knowing you actually did. Without risk, there would be no adventure. The only risk I am not prepared to take is loosing a friend in a situation where you might have inadvertently taken a risk on your friend’s behalf and the result could be totally undesirable. I am always mindful about that. I hope I haven’t lost any friendships through doing this project. To answer one of your questions, I got to know many participants a lot better as a result of doing this project – not only the friends I invited but also those who wanted to become involved in the project after hearing about it from other friends. I cherish our newly established connectedness!

YL: Could you share with us briefly about the background of your participants; where are they from and how you reached out to them?

CCH: As I mentioned before, all of these participants are people I like. Not all of them are artists. Some of them are in the arts related profession. Some are students. For example, the students of my friend – Siti Salihah – decided they wanted to be part of the project even though they knew that the time spent after school hours working on this would not be considered as school work. Salihal told me they all had fun. I like that. Among the participants are curators, art administrators, art historians, writers, teachers, and of course, artists from different generations. Most of these participants are mainly from Singapore and Malaysia; however there are also artists based in Manila, Sydney, Chengdu, New York, Istanbul, Frankfurt etc.

YL: You mentioned that in the course of the project, you have also set up a blogsite ( as a means to communicate with the participants and interested parties. The instructions – by way of ‘rules – were also clearly stated there. Could you tell us a bit more about some of their ‘chairs’, including examples of how your responses to those ‘chairs’ had been significant to either the process or the outcome of the project?

CCH: I must admit that I am not very good in keeping the DSOM site up to date. I am equally bad with keeping up with the ‘chat room’ conversations, for example, via facebook. The site was set up with the help from my friend Liao Jiekai. He is always busy with his film projects and his teaching. It would not be fair to keep asking him for help. While I appreciate the power and efficiency of the new social media, I somehow prefer to communicate with individual friends in one-to-one conversation whenever possible. That’s why I avoid sending mass emails. I only do it when I am pressed for time.

On the subject of my initial ‘instruction’, or ‘rules’ for making the chair, I found that many participants, knowingly or otherwise, ignored the word ‘makeshift’ in my original ‘instruction’ and spent hours fashioning their chairs. My intention right from the beginning was to accept anything I would receive from everyone who took time to be part of this project, and with minimal or no intervention. I realize that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to do so since I was the one who would eventually put all the chairs and stools together. I got rid of the idea of placing a bronze ‘baobei’ on each chair as originally planned. Mind you, some chairs are executed in such a way that it is impossible for anything to ‘sit on’. Yeo Siak Goon’s 2-D chair is a good example. Perhaps I foresaw the problems the baobeis would bring.

Tan Yen Peng’s contribution isn’t even a chair. It is a wooden box, a little coffin, alluding to the Chinese idiomatic expression ‘san chang liang duan’, referring to death. I would speculate that many chair makers (not all, of course) in this project are more concerned about ‘how would the chair stand’, ‘how would the chair look’, rather than what possible ‘meanings’ the chair might be capable of generating.

Level 1 Front room: Installation view (2012)
Level 1 Back room: Installation view (2012)
Level 1 Back room (detail) (2012)
Level 2 Installation view (2012)


YL: Engaging the audience through ‘play’ has been a significant component of many of your works; one example is Gentlemen in Suit and Tie (1989). For this particular piece, play and being able to play have added significance especially in light of your reading of the graffiti “Don’t sit on me” in Singapore. On an earlier occasion, you mentioned that it was possible to read the graffiti as an expression of the oppressed. Could you explain briefly how this particular reading also relates to your readings of Kuo Pao Kun’s play, and with the objects “Baobei” (the phallus) that were cast in bronze and shown together with the participants’ chairs?

CCH: In ‘scene 3’, or shall I say ‘segment 3’, of Kuo Pao Kun’s play, there is a description of one room in the Imperial Palace in Beijing, in which it is said that there is “this very special chamber in the Palace where, in the olden days, all the cut and dried penises of the eunuchs were kept …. Yes, penises, all cut, fried and dried.” I drew upon this image for ‘segment 3’ of this show. 101 penises cast in bronze, each resembling a golden nugget, is suspended from the beams in the front room upstairs of this old shop house that is in the process of being restored.

You’ve probably noticed, the only baobeis I placed are not on participants’ chairs. They were on 5 chairs I found in a secondhand junk store, 3 taller and 2 shorter red plastic chairs. These chairs, with their legs cut short, are often used on the cargo tray found on those trucks for the foreign workers to sit on. I couldn’t resist placing 5 baobeis on my chairs. These pricks are left exposed in the open air under the sky well. I had promised the sponsor to remove the boabeis after the opening of the show. They insisted that I put these ‘sensitive’ items out of sight.

Installation view (detail) (2012)

YL: It seemed that there was intervention from the sponsor, the Department of Architecture (NUS), with regard to the use of the phallic symbol (“Baobei”) throughout the installation. The irony is not missed. Could you tell us what happened, and how has this “event” has added yet another twist to your project?

CCH: As I said during the opening ceremony, that Professor Wong Yunn Chii, the staff and students at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore – especially the Minus group – all of whom gave me so much support. Without their assistance this project would not have materialised. Likewise, the staff at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architectural and Urban Heritage who have provided me with answers to all kinds of unusual requests. I thank them sincerely. However, at their request, this exhibition has now been changed into a ‘for invited guests only’ event. I felt disappointed initially. But I am sanguine and philosophical about the whole episode now. TK Sabapathy, in his capacity as Guest of Honor in absentia, wrote a letter introducing the exhibition to the guests at the opening ceremony. I will quote one sentence which seems appropriate. He writes: “Well, I hope that this sliver of enlightenment that the Department has displayed does not dissolve and dissipate after this exposition; but that it will periodically illuminate this space so that the Malacca Studio is a site that is hospitable for furthering creative practices, critically and expansively!”

With your permission, I would like to quote one of Kuo Pao Kun’s poems in Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral:

Take a needle
A silver needle
Poke the balls with the needle
With loving care
Again and again, again and again
You poke the balls, until they’re destroyed
Take a spoon
A silver spoon
Nurse the man with the spoon
With loving care
Year after year, stage by stage
You nurse the man, until he is usable
It doesn’t matter the results are still visible
Because this thing the loyal creature
Has always been, and still is, highly marketable

(Segment 12 from Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral by Kuo Pao Kun.)

Level 2: Front room – Installation view (2012)


Yvonne Low is a PhD candidate with University of Sydney, Department of Art History and Theory. She completed an MA (by research) on Singapore’s Modern Art in 2009 and tutored courses in Asian Art History at Nanyang Technological University in 2010. Her present PhD project focuses on aspects of women’s art in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.