Articulating Alternative Cultural Identities: Kuo Pao Kun’s Multilingual Theatre Praxis in Singapore

Dr Wah Guan Lim1

1University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

After a series of educational reforms, personnel arrests and suppression of artistic and social groups by the Singaporean state, the tradition of open critique and debate inherited from the Chinese May Fourth intellectualism basically vanished by the mid-1970s.  An avid theatre practitioner originally only active among the Chinese community, Kuo Pao Kun (1939–2002), widely regarded as Singapore’s most important dramatist, was to emerge from this low point to conduct workshops and write plays in the English language, as well as develop a multilingual theatre praxis that henceforth became the definitive model of Singaporean theatre.  In crossing the linguistic divide that governed Singaporean ethnic groups prior to the 1980s, Kuo was not only responding to the government’s suppression of Chinese-language education, he was simultaneously lending a voice to the Chinese-educated who had been disenfranchised by the language policy.  Subsequently his magisterial play, Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988), having actors of different ethnicities perform in their native tongues –– English, Tamil, Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese –– encapsulated a holistic experience that revolutionized the hitherto monolingual dramatic tradition in the city-state.  Transcending linguistic and ethnic borders, his work drew audiences from across the spectrum of the country’s multicultural population, positing dramatically new possibilities for rethinking Singaporean Chineseness.


Biography

Wah Guan Lim (B.A. Hons 1 UNSW, M.St. Oxon, M.A. Princeton, Ph.D. Cornell) is a Lecturer in Chinese at UNSW. He works across the interstices of literature, performance and film, on the Chinese communities in East and Southeast Asia. He is currently completing his book manuscript tentatively titled Denationalizing Identities: The Politics of Performance in the Chinese Diaspora.

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