Three Children in China, comprised six performers, two trained at the Yale School of Drama, three trained at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and another based in New York, performing the play in Hong Kong and Shanghai. In embodying Three Children - a tale of Two Sisters and A Brother who make a metaphorical journey to their childhood home in Kappan Road, Malacca, Malaysia; they bring to life, Ms Leow Puay Tin's much loved and oft-travelled characters; who re-live and re-enact those childhood experiences and stories that they had lived through and heard of, when they were growing up.
The performers take to the stage in English and Chinese, respectively; in a highly theatrical story-telling style that creates those places and faces that exist in the fragments of the Children's memories.
The dramaturgical form this play takes after is the Hokkien (Fujian) folk opera. However, the textual tradition it hews most strictly to is the non-linear fragmented Western literary form.
Three Children was written by Ms Leow Puay Tin, one of Malaysia's foremost playwrights, in 1984. By then she had obtained a Masterate in Fine Arts in Drama and Theatre at the University of Hawaii on an East-West Centre Scholarship. She went on to graduate from the Central Academy of Speech and Drama, London, on a British High Commissioner's Scholarship.
My association with Three Children began in 2003, when as a final year Directing student at the Yale School of Drama, I proposed the staging of a work written by this Chinese playwright, who had been born and bred in Malaysia, as part of my course work. This play, a story about the three youngest siblings of a spreading Chinese diaspora; when unleashed on its unsuspecting American audience, took the school by storm. Students streamed into our dressing rooms telling the creative team that it was the most moving theatrical event that they had seen in a while. Two wrote glowing testimonials of what they saw and felt. (Camille's Letter and Steve's Letter)
Two years later in 2005, I received a note saying that a new performing platform in New York, calling itself the "Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret", was inviting submissions for exciting and cutting edge theatrical projects. I sent them those 'glowing testimonials' and the play was slected for its Inaugural Season. Three Children was staged for the first time in New York in November that year and again, it took the audience and critics by surprise.
Last year, I was invited to submit a proposal for the Inaugural Shanghai Fringe Festival to be staged in November this year, and of course, I recommended Three Children. It was accepted. In addition, I invited the prestigious Shanghai Theatre Academy to collaborate with me on a Chinese-language production of the play. They agreed.
So, in November 2006, two groups of young talented actors, performed the same play about the Chinese diaspora, in two languages, Mandarin and English, on consecutive weekends, in two different cities in China - Hong Kong and Shanghai. This was something quite, quite exciting.
Those six actors who hailed from two different Acting Schools of Thought, with vastly differing Performance Technique Foundations (The Shanghai actors were trained in Chinese Opera while the American actors were grounded in the Western Stanislasvskian Technique.) had been rehearsing with one director (I am bilingual.) and eventually performed in those two cities, apart but joined. Audiences there were captivated. I was excited by what this might have said and meant - creative co-existence while keeping individual linguistic and cultural characteristics intact, in a collaborative environment , perhaps?
We were excited that our efforts had lead us to new encounters with new audiences, in yet another part of the world!
Now, we take a well deserved rest.
But, should someone out there request the materialisation of the Three Children, we will pick up from where we left off and re-tell their tales again.
For now, the curtain falls.
Director, Three Children.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEC TOK
22nd July 2004
A group of Singaporean students - Goh Ming Jin, Khor Shang Jin, Lek Sze Min,
David Lim Yu Rui and Tang Sue Ling; did a school project entitled, ďThe Impact Of
The Esplanade On The Arts Scene In SingaporeĒ. As part of their preparation, they interviewed Alec Tok.
The interview was conducted by Khor Shang Jin and David Lim on 22nd July 2004 at Holland Village, Singapore.
Shang Jin: How do you think the Esplanade has impacted the arts scene in Singapore?
Alec: You want me to answer that entire question! Like what?
SJ: Maybe pertaining to theatre, drama, for you.
A: Theatre? For me?
SJ: How do you think the Esplanade has impacted the theatre scene?
A: Has? How do I think? You want me to write the whole essay for you?
David: Does it open up more opportunities or give you betterÖ
SJ: Performing opportunities?
A: How would you describe a facility as having given an artist more opportunities? How
would you think of that?
D: Maybe you can look at it like in the past where without the Esplanade, you have Victoria
Concert Hall and other places, and now with the Esplanade, has anything changed?
A: Has anything changed? I think that what hasnít changed is that the artist still has to pay
the rental of the theatre. Whether itís the VCH, the Victoria Theatre, the Drama Centre or
the Esplanade, the artist by and large still has to pay for the rental of the theatre or the
facility. So if your question is; has it presented us more opportunities, yes, itís given us one
more space to rent.
SJ: Do you think that by holding your performances at the Esplanade, more people would
know about it, because for example if you hold it at the Alliance Francaise, less people would
know about such a play?
A: I think whether people know or do not know about an event or a theatre event is directly
related to the amount of advertising dollars that you can garner through way of sponsorship,
or through your own investment in money. It is directly related to that. It is related to
marketing. I donít think it is much related to the facility itself. If I say I spend a lot more
money publicizing an event that is at the Alliance Francaise, I would say that I could fill the
house there too!
SJ: Do you think that the prestige of the place affects the popularity of a performance?
A: Is it the prestige of the place?
SJ and D: ErÖ
A: Yes! Why so?
SJ: The publicity of the place?
A: The publicity of the place. Well, I tell you what, I think that Iíve noticed a couple of
things pre-Esplanade and post-Esplanade. Just to pick up from what you just said, about the
publicity that the Esplanade itself has garnered, and I would say yes, I think that the
Esplanade has given the arts a certain awareness, a certain higher level of awareness in the
eyes of more Singaporeans than any facility has ever done in the history of Singapore art.
That I would say. And therefore because of that more and more people know that there is
such a thing as a theatre-making facility, there is such a thing as Singaporean theatre, there
are these people called theatre practitioners and theatre artists, and there are these people
who act on stage and who write for the stage, and who direct! So yes, awareness has gone up
and I would say that that is a wonderful thing. Prior to that I remember when I started to
act, about 15 years ago maybe in 1987, my parents didnít even know that there was such a
thing as English language theatre in Singapore! I mean right now; even my far-away or far-
flung relatives know that there is this thing called art in the making in Singapore. So yes, the
Esplanade has raised a certain awareness about the presence of art, or the presence of the
desire to have art in Singapore. I donít know whether it directly would attract people to an
event just because the event is held there, or just because an event is staged there. I mean if I
compare an event where I could stage it at the Victoria Theatre, or at the new upcoming
National Library Theatre, and I compare it with the Esplanade, I would still believe, and I
would still insist that itís still directly related to the amount of advertising dollars, the
advertising sponsorship deals that you garner. Rather than the Esplanade and its prestige
imbuing it with a successful hue. But having said that, the Esplanade, because of the fact that
it is well built, well furbished with good equipment, good facilities, I would say itís probably
setting the standard, the benchmark for theatre-making spaces in Singapore. So if you have a
production that is at the Esplanade, and you can carry it off well at the Esplanade, I think
there is reason for the audience to believe that this particular production is of a certain
D: Because the Esplanade has raised more awareness, do you think that before the Esplanade
was built, and you have a production at the Victoria Theatre, if you compare the amount of
people coming for the performance and post-Esplanade, but even at the same place, at
Victoria Theatre, do you think more people would come?
A: From what I know, I think that it is something that is completely wrong. When I acted
in my first professional play with Theatreworks in 1989, it was a play by Michael Chiang, a
play called Mixed Signals, it was my real professional induction into the Singapore theatre,
and we played at the World Trade Centre, which prior to that was a fairly unknown theatre
facility in Keppel Road. But that production garnered 24000 theatre-going people. It
created a 24000 audience out of nothing! How do you explain that? There was no Esplanade,
but 24000 people came! If you take a look at Beauty World when it first came out in 1986, it
premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival and later on when it had an extended run, it had
21000 people coming to the Theatre. And when Fried Rice Paradise was done at the Victoria
Theatre, it got 27000 people to come to the theatre. How do you explain that? Now that
occurs in the void of the Esplanade. I donít think necessarily that a facility can encourage
audience numbers. I think itís theatre itself. Itís the confluence of many factors that
occurred in the mid to the late 80s because English theatre burst on the scene! It was not
normal, it was something new, and playwrights like Michael Chiang were writing, for the
first time characters who spoke like ourselves. It was the first time that characters sounded
like we sounded like on a daily basis, rather than in the past, prior to Michael Chiang, where
the characters were possibly of a different hue and skin and predisposition. Now that
accounted for the explosion in theatre activities, and I strongly believe that it is still there,
because itís going to be bringing people to the theatre, and Iím confident that a good theatre
practitioner or theatre artist, if he does great art or good art thatís successful, people will go
anywhere. And if you look at what has been happening in the last 15 years of theatre, I have
reason to believe that I could be right! Look at a very seasoned and respected theatre
practitioner like Ong Keng Sen, he stages his plays everywhere! He stages his plays in
warehouses, in quarries, in fountains, in obscure places and people go! He stages his play at
Fort Canning Hill and people go! I think itís what the artist is able to generate and create.
The artist generates excitement. Facilities are mere vessels. Itís what goes into the
SJ: So you donít think that a successful practitioner would choose to hold his performance at
A: No I didnít say that at all. I say that a successful practitioner would choose to do his art
anywhere he pleases, including the Esplanade. I think there is no reason not to use the
Esplanade, I mean, itís got wonderful facilities, and if it suits the purposes of a particular
play, I will use it. I will pay money to rent it, like I would any other space. But Iím not using
it just because I think itís going to make my play look better in the eyes of the public.
SJ: Do you think it was worth $600 million to build the Esplanade?
A: Do I think it was worth 600 million dollars? Itís a really difficult question to answer. First
of all, how do you measure its worth? Like 600 million, are you talking about measuring its
worth in terms of return on investment meaning that okay, weíve put in 600 million, when
are we going to get the 600 million back? Or how much profit? Are we going to take 10, 15,
25, 40 years? Is that one gauge of worth? Or are we looking at it from the point of view of
many other people who say that itís giving us an architectural icon of sorts that we can
brandish our tourism marketing so that the people who are not living in Singapore can have a
D: Maybe we can judge the worth by thinking if the money could be used better elsewhere.
Letís say the sole purpose of building the Esplanade, of the 600 million was used to improve
the arts, do you think the 600 million could be used better.
A: If you phrase it that way, if the sole purpose of the building of the Esplanade and the
expenditure of the 600 million dollars was solely to improve the arts scene, is there a better
way of spending the money? I speak from the point of view as an artist, and I think my
responsibility and my job is to say yes. I think that in our stage of development, our fledgling
industry, I think that there are many people who are not trained enough to handle a facility
like the Esplanade. Itís like we build a Porsche or a Ferrari, and there are very many of us
who donít really know how to drive a Ferrari or are afraid, because we are now in our Toyota
stage, we are just graduating to a family sedan so we havenít been trained to drive a Ferrari
and the money was spent building a Ferrari. Iím a little afraid of crashing the Ferrari. If the
question were phrased in that way, my answer would be, yes.
SJ and D: That it was worth it?
A: No, your question was, is there a better way of spending the money? Because if the idea of
spending 600 million dollars on the Esplanade was solely to improve the arts scene, is there a
better way, my answer is, yes, there are plenty of better ways. But, having said that, was the
expenditure of 600 million dollars on the Esplanade solely to improve the arts? Then we
have to ask ourselves the other question, rather than confine ourselves to this particular one.
SJ: Because of the high costs needed to maintain the Esplanade, do you think the other arts
facilities will suffer? Like more income is channeled to the Esplanade instead of Victoria
A: Income? What do you mean income?
SJ: The amount of money the government allocates.
A: This is such an astute question. I suppose itís predicated on the fact that money is never
enough. It is a finite thing and the allocation of money is always a choice and I guess what
you are alluding to is the fact that if money is allocated to the administration of a facility, is
it being diverted from other activities? Thatís your question right? Of course it is diverted
from other activities. So is it worth it or is it not worth it? I think itís a question that will be
answered over the next few years. I think itís a question that will be answered when everyone
who has contributed to that money, the people who are controlling the usage of the money,
and the people who finally decide to allocate the money and the people who are the
beneficiaries of the money sit down and talk. Everyone of us has to decide if it has been well
spent and whether it could have been spent better in other ways. So itís not an answer that
we can get right now. But I think central to finding an answer to that question is to really ask
ourselves the question & on one hand there is the administration of an arts facility, and on
the other hand we are looking at artists who are making art, learning how to make art,
learning how to make accessible art, improving in their art, teaching people art, sharing with
people their appreciation of art. All those things are on the other hand right? Administration
and art-making, in a very simplistic way, right? All of us will have to evaluate this balance.
Artists, administrators, tax-payers, the government, civil servants, arts council; all of us will
have to evaluate in the next few years. Have we spent too much on brick and mortar? Or
administration costs? Or have we spent enough on education costs? Education of artists. At
some point we also have to ask ourselves why do we want to have artists in our midst? Why?
Is it only because we are a cultural capital? What is that? What is cultural capital? How do
we evaluate the return of investment of cultural capital? I donít know. Itís a question Iíve
been asking myself daily. Iíve invested my entire life to learning about theatre, and acting,
and directing, and filming. Iíve been involved in television and video and Iím still asking
myself. Have I gotten a justifiable return on my investments? I donít know. How do I
measure this? Am I measuring this in terms of my soul thatís still alive? Or am I measuring it
looking at my wallet, which is not very full. How am I measuring this? My own investment of
my life in the arts, how do I measure the return on my own investment? Itís a question which
I ask myself. I think that this question will have to be addressed by more than just me and
the two if you. All of us involved in art-making in Singapore will have to sit down at some
point and ask ourselves some very very hard questions.
D: What do you think the future of the Esplanade will be?
A: I donít know. I canít really predict, but I can let you know what I hope that the
Esplanade will be and can be, and I think that it has begun on the journey. I am very
gratified by the plethora of programmes that the programming department of the Esplanade
has put in place. The art is very accessible to all kinds, all starters, all stripes, all hues of
Singaporean society and beyond. I like that. I like the fact that many different people can
come to the Esplanade. There is opera, there is Malay Bangsawan, there is dance out just by
the sea, in open air spaces. There are plays by wonderful poets going on in the studio. There
are of course also foreign productions, Chinese, English and Malay. There are performers
coming from all over the world. I think that I like that diversity. I really like the diversity.
And I like an awareness that the role of the Esplanade is to make art reachable and
accessible to everyone. I really like the ambit. I would like it to spread its programming
dollars to more different types of artists who are creating different kinds of work. If that
happens, I think that the Esplanade can be a place where artists feel comfortable to create
from their hearts, and the Esplanade can be a place where the artists dare to try new,
innovative and exciting things and the Esplanade can be a place where a kind of sharing can
happen. Just to give you an example, I think that for me in my beginning years as an artist
and theatre practitioner, I felt that the Substation performed this role. I was the former
drama director of the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company from 1990 to
1994, and during those 4 years the Substation opened, and I actually got the Singapore
Armed Forces Music and Drama Company to stage a play there! And in so doing I got to
know that facility and their set of programmes and the artists that congregated around that
place and the Substation became the kind of place where artists dared to experiment. And it
is very accessible to the artists. I think that the Esplanade can be even better than that
because itís got the attention of many people now, including a growing audience. And I wish
that it would perform this role to enlarge the space for art-loving audiences and of course
D: If you compare the arts scene of Singapore and London or an ideal arts nation, what do
you think we are?
A: Weíre an infant! An infant and we are still growing. We just need nurturing, we just need
a bit of tender loving care. We just need a little bit of patience.
D: But do you think that we are given the nurturing or nourishment?
A: I think itís happening. I think it starts with awareness that there are these people around
called the artists and weíve already decided that thatís happened to a small extent, right? It
raised awareness, it begins with awareness. And then it evolves into an awareness of the
needs of the artists. This the artist must articulate. The artist must speak up and let people
know. You know what; Iím still an infant. What I really need is a little bit of milk, a little bit
of rest, a bit of carrying. I think that I believe that our society is kind and gentle enough to
respond in a positive and nurturing way. I believe that our society is entirely capable of that!
D: So with more time, the Singapore arts scene will definitely improve?
A: If I can help it, of course. But I think its going to require a lot of understanding, and a lot
of patience. Babies need time to grow up. We are very young. Our English theatre scene is
20, 25 years old? Letís compare ourselves with South Korea for instance; their theatre scene
started in the 1920s! South Korea also was a newly industrializing economy like us. Hong
Kong has been doing art and theatre since the 1950s; so weíve just begun. Itís the
expectations that have outrun our abilities. Thatís not a bad thing, but I think that if more
people are aware of that, they may help to address the shortage of training programmes and
facilities in Singapore; teachers who are qualified to train, set design and construction
courses, writing courses.
D: What do you think is lacking?
A: What do I think is lacking?
D: Like teachers or courses?
A: Well, two things I would like to say. I would say that there is a lack of awareness of the
good that art can do for society. Because we have been a society that has been absent of art.
So if people are aware of how art can leaven a place, how art can make a place different from
a place that is completely based on engineering and science, I think more people would go
for the arts. I think thatís whatís lacking. An awareness that the power of art transforms
people, and in turn, society and country. I think there is a lack of awareness of the needs of
artists. There are not enough avenues for artists and administrators and audiences to come
together to converse. I wish more of such conversations took place. And I believe that if
more such conversations could take place, or did take place, I think the awareness will go up.
I think the awareness will increase. I see, thatís what he is at the moment. Heís an infant, he
needs nurturing and care, and sometimes, just a pat on the back. And to a certain extent, Iíve
seen such efforts in the last two, three years. Like, for instance, the Theatre Awards as an
example, to recognize the effort put in by artists. I think there should be more of that. I
think the Theatre Awards should involve more people, more audiences, such that it is more
inclusive. Itís the effort that we make to slowly increase awareness.
SJ: So do you think the Esplanade helps to increase this awareness?
A: Well, like we said earlier on, the Esplanade has helped people to become more aware that
there are these people making art in Singapore, and they have become more aware that there
are certain activities going on, and that I can buy a ticket and partake in that. But whether
the Esplanade itself can raise awareness or the audienceís awareness of my problems as an
artist, I think it depends on me, and I feel that it is my responsibility to let the people know
how easy it has been, how difficult it has been, who I am, how I think, why I do what I do. I
think the responsibility is on the artist sometimes, because they are all very aware that they
are in the fledging stage in our development, and this sharing with you is my contribution.
D: Do you think that it is right for me to say that the only difference between our arts scene
and the arts scene of an arts-savvy country is that they have had more time to develop.
A: Absolutely! Give me another 20 years.
D: Do you think that in 10 yearsí time, the arts sceneÖ
A: I canít predict, I think something significant has already taken place. I think the artists
are still trying to create art in Singapore and the explosion of art and art-making in Singapore
is in itself a miracle. The fact that the bunch of people who gave up careers, in law and all
that, and chose to devote their time to being better in their chosen field of art. In a situation
where other values were being championed, the existence of a fairly vibrant fledgling arts
scene is in itself a miracle. Something significant has already happened. I think you can see
for yourself, I think many people can see for themselves what has happened in the past 15
D: But talking about practical things, do you think there could have been more funding,
more work done in education, maybe even busking.
A: I am a very optimistic person, and my choice is: look forward. And looking forward, I
have tremendous optimism that if we do certain things, I think we can reach a certain level
where art has a very serious impact on society.
D: What are the impacts?
A: More conversation between artists, audiences and administrators. More patience. A little
bit of kindness to everybody, a little bit of kindness on the part of sponsors, critics, the
media, grant-giving organizations, just a little bit more kindness. Weíre still building, weíre
still developing, we havenít finished yet. We just keep going. Weíve begun already. That in
itself is a miracle. Keep going! Keep being positive, keep talking, keep sharing, keep
articulating, keep debating, keep struggling, keep believing, keep creating, you can just keep
D: If I were to say that for Singaporeís arts scene to develop, itís for people to be more
active, participating in arts or using artsÖ
A: In every way! I think that what I can say is that it is worth it for everyone to be more
involved in the arts & parents, students, teachers, principals, bosses, CEOs, secretaries,
engineers, technicians, mechanics, taxi-drivers, store-keepers, I think itís worth it if more
people got to know more about art, more about artists, more about what we are doing, more
engagement, itís worth it! Thatís all I can say!
D: Do you think the government is helping to encourageÖ
A: I think everybody is doing their part, everybody has been doing their part, I think it
requires a bit of time. We need a bit of time out to consider these big questions that you
have wonderfully, in your own ways, articulated. And to understand that, and even before we
ask ourselves how to get there, we must ask ourselves why we want to get there. And if the
reason to get there is not satisfying, cultural capital to me is not satisfying enough, if we can
find a reason why we want art to improve, then I think we are in a better place to ask
ourselves how to improve, and really, what is improve? Is that a notion that in itself should
be examined? Maybe, with all this effort, we may not improve in the way that we conceive
the meaning of the word improve, but does that mean that we donít do something? No, do
more, converse more, share more.
D: Do you think the government is restrictive of the arts, because for people to busk, they
need a license.
A: I think the government is doing what it can at a pace that it is comfortable with and that
is fair. Iím not one to attribute blame to people; I think itís a real waste of time. I always ask
myself what I can do to help the situation. I donít really care whether anybody else is doing
anything or not, I only ask myself what Iím doing today to help improve the situation.
Thatís what I care about. I do it because I care. I do it because I have been involved in this
scene and it has been a wonderful and positive experience for me, itís something that we
have created, an independent space I trust. If I could help it, I would nurture it. And if I
could help it, I would try to bring in other people to help me nurture it. Iím not about to
blame anyone. Itís a waste of time.