by Corrie Tan
For decades, the works of eminent Chinese historian Fang Xiu were the go-to reference texts for those studying Chinese language theatre and history in Singapore.
The late scholar's writings were a labour of love; his book A Comprehensive Anthology Of Modern Malayan Chinese Literature was carefully put together over a span of 20 years, examining various forms of literature and drama between 1919 and 1976.
But playwright and academic Dr Quah Sy Ren could not quite dismiss the germ of a thought that Chinese language spoken drama had existed in Singapore prior to 1919.
Dr Quah, 49, tells Life!: "Fang Xiu had mentioned that there had already been theatrical activity in Singapore prior to 1919. But no one had really documented it. So I wanted to go look.
"Another perspective is, if you look at China and its modern spoken drama, it started in 1907. So there must have been something happening between 1907 and 1919. That was how I started."
The result of this inkling of a thought is Dr Quah's new book on Chinese language theatre in Singapore, titled Scenes: A Hundred Years Of Singapore Chinese Language Theatre 1913-2013. It was launched last Saturday. The 251-page hardcover book, a three-year undertaking, is co-published by home-grown theatre group Drama Box and the National Museum of Singapore.
Dr Quah is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and specialises in literary and cultural studies, as well as theatre and performance.
He notes that this book serves as an outline of theatre history, and hopes that more research and discussion can be built on its foundation. There are also plans to eventually translate the book, which is written in Chinese, into English.
Scenes was also inspired by a mini-festival of the same name curated by Dr Quah and Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun in 2010 at the Esplanade. It included talks, workshops, play readings, as well as a showcase of milestones in Singapore's Chinese language theatre.
Dr Quah says: "Heng Leun and I went through the whole process of getting in touch with theatre veterans and they were so generous that they let us have a look at their personal collections of photos, programmes and memorabilia - I hadn't seen many of those items in my life.
"After a theatre production is over, most of these vanish and you never see them again. So that was really an inspiring and enriching experience."
The festival was a catalyst to unearth more of Singapore's theatre history. Dr Quah and his research team pored through thousands of microfiches and newspaper sources from the 19th and 20th century, including the Singapore variant of Sin Chew Jit Poh, Nanyang Siang Pay and Chin Nam Poh, all of which are now defunct.
The earliest record they found dated back to 1913 of a spoken drama production performed at the popular Lai Chun Yuen opera house in Chinatown. These early works were mostly philanthropic in nature, and were often used for fund-raising to aid disaster relief in China, or perhaps to build schools in Singapore or support various clans.
But gradually a specific Singaporean identity emerged from these theatre productions, especially after World War II.
Dr Quah says: "Regardless of era, whether in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, these works were directed at Singapore not just as a nation, but were also created for Singaporean society, the underclass, the man in the street - and all this was expressed through the theatre."
A strong sense of the intercultural also pervaded Singapore theatre in the early days: Chinese language productions sometimes contained detailed synopses in English and Malay, and Malay theatre groups such as Sriwana tackled Chinese classics in translation, such as Chinese dramatist Cao Yu's Thunderstorm (1933).
The book contains about 160 photographs and images of performances, including scans of theatre programmes from the 1950s that were designed and painted by hand.
Many of these images and memorabilia were sourced from veteran theatre practitioners in Singapore, including Feng Nai-yao, in his 80s, who was from the former Singapore Amateur Players.
Kok, 47, helped to conceptualise the book and Drama Box supported its research and writing.
He says: "I think we have come to a generation of Singapore artists who are speaking clearer with their particular style and voice. And all this doesn't come out of nowhere, it comes from a rich history. And it's time that we do documentation so that we can document the process of this cultural history. I think that's very important."
Scenes: A Hundred Years Of Singapore Chinese Language Theatre 1913-2013 is available from Select Books for $28.