By Richard Lord
It is often been said that to produce a great body of literature, a great theatre, a people needs a great national trauma. Such a trauma helps define that people’s shared history and forge a national character. From this, the nation’s artists can later mine a rich lode of material for their works.
For Singapore, the event which stands unchallenged as the great national trauma is the Japanese Occupation from 1942-45. This dark period, filled with countless horrific episodes, has spurred local artists to produce paintings, poems, prose fiction, and a clutch of TV dramas. The brunt of these works turn their attention, not surprisingly, to the crimes of the occupying forces and the sufferings inflicted upon the local population. Now, in a play commissioned for the Singapore Arts Festival, the Malaysian Indian dramatist Huzir Sulaiman has provided us a chronicle of the Japanese Occupation which largely sidesteps the daily deprivations and routine horrors to look at the Occupation through a different set of lens. Indeed, Sulaiman has testified in one interview that the impetus behind this project was the modest “personal desire to tell a family story.” And while the lens Sulaiman employs is by no means rose-colored, it allows for some interesting fresh perspectives on what it meant for some Singaporeans to live under the yoke of Japan’s “Co-Prosperity scheme”.
Much of the text for this play, simply entitled Occupation, is taken from an oral history of the period recorded by Huzir Sulaiman’s grandparents. Strands of his grandfather’s actual recording are even included in the show, though the main focus throughout is his grandmother’s vivid memories of the pre-war and occupation periods. These memories are largely shorn of the horror stories which usually fill Occupation narratives. Sulaiman’s grandmother, Mrs Mohamed Siraj, was the daughter of a fabulously wealthy Indian businessman, and hence her wartime experiences were relatively benign. While there were indeed many hitherto unknown hardships imposed on the family, these were all relative, deep pinches more than the life-threatening privations that many Singaporeans faced. (At her wartime wedding celebration, the family was somehow able to provide ample meat for 500 invited guests. Mrs Siraj points out where the pinch came in: standard pre-war weddings within her class would graciously accommodate up to 2,000 guests.) Moreover, being Indians, the family was spared vicious attacks, gratuitous beatings and shootings that the local Chinese population was subjected to by Japanese forces.
For much of the Occupation, her mother kept the future Mrs Siraj and her sisters cloistered in their Serangoon Road mansion. However, the young ladies were more like prisoners in a somewhat golden cage, or as the elderly Mrs Siraj recalls a neighbor dubbing her, “a princess in a tower.” The centrepiece of Mrs Siraj’s memoirs is how she in fact became Mrs Siraj: how she met her future husband; how she often followed him with her gaze as he went to and fro; the magic of the first time they touched, in a simple doorstep exchange of betel and betel leaves at her home. This tale of innocent love not just taking root, but flourishing in a time when innocence was being systematically eradicated by a sadistic military force forms the central focus here. The accounts of how the rich and privileged were jostled and shaken by the Occupation only serve as leitmotifs to this main theme. As a well-placed observer in the show puts it, “Her Occupation is this: loving and being loved.”
Playwright Sulaiman steers us through this narrative with a sure hand, though he credits his actress and co-director Claire Wong with helping shape and prune the text. Whatever, Mrs Siraj’s narrative is well-cut and well paced, giving enough to engage us but not so much that we lose interest through a piling on of details. Moreover, the language is strong, deftly moving from the mundane to the lyrical, frequently transforming the former into the latter. Mrs Siraj’s account is rendered in what one might call High Singlish, generously dipping into the local vernacular, but keeping it polished enough to make it accessible to just about all English-speakers. While there are whiffs of overwriting here and there, these are minimal distractions from a generally strong display of writing prowess.
The framing device for Mrs Siraj’s story is a government-employed oral historian who has been making the rounds collecting wartime accounts from Singaporean survivors of the period. The Siraj interview is just one of these accounts. This narrator is well-wrapped in self-irony (he points out how her “chosen image for the day is that of ‘the caring bureaucrat’ ”, while also making it clear that her real stock-in-trade is salaried solicitousness.) But she is nonetheless sufficiently concerned about her subjects and their stories that she delivers this particular chronicle without doing any damage to its touching contents.
In terms of structure, the play cuts back and forth between Mrs Siraj and the bustling bureaucrat, giving us occasional slits of insight into the younger woman whose job is gleaning insights from others. If the script has one overall weakness, it’s that the oral historian is not presented quite sharply enough. For instance, she affords us some views of her relationship with her boyfriend, which could have served as a contrast to the relationship of Mr and Mrs Siraj. But it’s not nearly enough: she tells us that she sort of loves her boyfriend “for all the wrong reasons”, but fails to provide a single one of those reasons. Had the historian’s own experiences come through to serve as a clear counterpoint to that of her subject, they could have provided a core of dramatic tension to the whole. And if this otherwise quite engaging piece lacks one element, it is the strong grip that comes with real drama.
But let’s not concern ourselves too much about what Occupation does not achieve, since it does so many things beautifully. This show can be seen as a kind of ensemble acting piece, though in this case it’s a one-person ensemble, with the very talented Claire Wong handling all the roles, including the somewhat pedestrian boyfriend and a contemporary Japanese who provides a postwar Japanese gloss on wartime events in a telling if all too predictable manner. (As mentioned, Wong also co-directed the show.)
Wong is generally superb in her performance. Her Mrs Siraj is particularly impressive. In her movements and gestures, Wong suggests rather than fully renders an elderly Indian woman, while still managing to capture the character’s essence in a compelling manner. Wong’s strategy here is absolutely correct: we follow the subject’s story and find ourselves charmed by her personality without getting distracted by the actor’s technique. Wong’s historian-narrator also comes across quite well, with the only deficits here being what the script fails to provide us in creating this character. The boyfriend and the present-day Japanese resident are both handled competently, though neither stands out much. But in the text itself, the two appear only to add some texture and shading to the main narratives.
Huzir Sulaiman readily concedes that Occupation is a uniquely collaborative venture, and he shares credit with such talents as set designer Wong Hoy Cheong, composures-sound designer Saidah Rastam, lighting designer Bernard Chauly and digital-imagery designer Casey Lim. Indeed, this quartet as well as the other members of the technical staff have crafted a rich visual and aural texture which makes this production an overall impressive theatrical event, and not just an engaging narrative delivered by a fine actress. (Though some of the period music that plays over the early speeches might be softened to allow Wong’s words to come through more clearly.) Especially charming is the way letter-carriers’ hands poke through walls and even the floor to underscore the account of how the Siraj’s relationship proceeded through an early surreptitious exchange of letters.
In short, everyone involved in this production has contributed significantly to the play’s achieving its primary aim: to raise the merely biographical to a level where it imparts small, but universal truths.
Occupation plays at the DBS Arts Centre on 4-7 Jun 2002 (8pm). Tickets are available from SISTIC.