Diaspora with TheatreWorks and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra
This article is from 2009.
With Diaspora, Ong Keng Sen has created a multimedia ode to migration. The Singaporean director tells Mark Fisher how the camera lens has informed our understanding of some epic journeys
Anyone living in Scotland understands what is meant by diaspora. The story of the Highland Clearances and the waves of emigration that followed is an accepted part of the nation’s identity. Indeed, the assumption behind the Scottish Government’s current Homecoming campaign is that ex-pats and their descendants in Australia, Canada and the USA will make the journey back here to the land of their ancestors. It is typical of the questioning approach of Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills, however, that his response to the Homecoming theme should be to turn the idea on its head.
As well as extrapolating the concept of emigration into the epic journeys of Ulysses in The Return of Ulysses by the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria by Handspring Puppet Company, he is bringing us a flavour of Singapore to see what diaspora might mean in terms not of departure but with arrival. ‘Singapore is somewhere and nowhere,’ says Mills. ‘It is a great multicultural society of people who stay there temporarily or who have come from elsewhere. It is in constant flux and subject to these extraordinary cross-currents of influence. It has always been that way because of where it is. For us, it is the 180-degree opposite of what we think of as diaspora. In Scotland, we think of ourselves as the originators of diaspora without any thought of where that diaspora is going. Singapore is the result of diaspora.’
The work of director Ong Keng Sen, Diaspora is a show that defies easy categorisation. A collaboration between Ong’s TheatreWorks and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, the production is as much video installation as it is concert, and as much concert as it is docu-drama. As well as a fast-forward trot through 2000 years of traditional music, it features the work of five video artists framed by the kind of multimedia technology more familiar to fans of reality TV. On stage, the stories of the artists and their families are performed by four actors, presented as if they were in a TV studio playing to the camera. Rather than project their lines directly into the audience, they face into the wings where the cameras are positioned. They play the cameras, says Ong, like a cellist plays a cello.
‘It’s not a direct rendition, like a song, but a rendition through an instrument,’ says the 45-year-old director whose hallmark is a collision of eastern and western cultures. ‘They are rendering stories through a camera. One of the strongest things for me about diaspora today is that we hear the stories of diaspora translated through media. It is very seldom we hear directly from an Afghanistan refugee or an individual who has survived a war. We hear them through CNN or the BBC. So I use the cameras as a distancing element. You see an emotional portrayal of these stories, but they are very self-consciously performed for the camera.’
What gives coherence to the panoramic extravaganza is the participants’ shared experience. Whether it is the story of a Vietnamese American, an Orang Laut sea nomad, an Indian in south east Asia or a Scottish Muslim (a contribution from Edinburgh’s Rabiya Chaudry), the linking theme is one of migration, displacement and reinvention. Inspired by the Chinese saying ‘to seek a better life by crossing the Four Seas,’ Diaspora celebrates the human capacity for adaptability and survival.
‘I am a child of the diaspora,’ says Ong whose parents moved from China to Singapore. ‘Children of the diaspora are free to invent for ourselves the future and the histories from which we come.’ Regarding himself as much as a curator as a director, he approached five visual artists who considered themselves, like him, to be children of the diaspora. He interviewed them and their families in the countries where they now lived, and asked each to produce a five-minute video on the theme of migration. ‘It allowed me to have multiple perspectives about this same word. Some stories were about the mythic loss, some were about present reality, others were related to imagined histories and imagined futures.’
It’s not the first time Ong has worked in documentary theatre – he did a piece involving survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, for example – but Diaspora is different because of his own relationship to the material. As he interviewed the artists, he found his personal story reflected in theirs, feeling a particular connection to the experience of the Balinese-Chinese in Indonesia. ‘It’s a central story about persecution and being the other,’ he says. ‘In the regime of Suharto [1967 to 1998], the Chinese became a scapegoat for a lot of the mishaps that happened in Indonesia. When I went through this story, I was constantly confronting my own Chineseness. It made me delve into some of my own stories and, in the production, it makes me reflect on my own position as a narrator. I’m drawn into the piece as the observer, the narrator who starts to consider his own subjectivity.’
A common thread was the narrative of belonging or not belonging. It’s a question given an intriguing perspective in the case of the artist who chose to tell not his own story but that of the sea nomads who live in their boats in the Riau Islands of Indonesia. ‘Their existence is a process of moving rather than of arriving or of departure,’ says Ong. ‘It’s about movement not destination. It’s an important counterweight story in that you become very aware that it is about being in constant flux. The nomadic existence is worth embracing.’
If you’re up to speed on the history of Chinese music, you will get a sense of how the show’s score winds its way through the last two millennia, one short piece at a time. ‘There’s no record of the composer of our oldest piece of music, which is BC, not AD,’ says Ong. ‘It’s been passed through time and belongs to the community rather than one individual. We go from there to compositions of the new millennium that have been used in Hollywood movies and in contemporary symphony orchestras. In a sense, you hear fragments of time. You hear how adaptable these instruments are and how composers have dealt with these culturally rooted instruments by crossing borders.’
Although Diaspora is not polemical in the way you would expect a piece about, say, the Khmer Rouge to be, Ong believes it is has strong political resonance. ‘It talks about how cultures treat each other and is about how your dignity is shaken through migration and how cultures stabilise and destabilise through migration. It’s political in a conceptual way; it’s not about what is happening in Gaza, for example, but it’s a consideration of the human dimension. Through this human dimension you see the tapestry of politics. You feel the restlessness of globalisation; you land for a short while on a soundbite or a story and you are again sucked up by the waves.’
Diaspora, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, 15&16 Aug, 8pm, £8–£30.