Tell Me Huayi

Published on 26 January 2017

With a diverse line-up of artists from various backgrounds, the Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts is unafraid to question what ‘Chinese’ means.

By Jo Tan

NEW ROLES Hong Kong movie stars Anthony Wong and Candice Yu play the glam-rock Fairy King and Queen in Dionysus Contemporary Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. PHOTO Benny Luey

In today’s global melting pot, our identities are increasingly difficult to sum up with race alone. That word on your NRIC might not fully describe your family’s mixed ethnic history, much less the language you speak or the way you live.

Delvin Lee, producer at The Esplanade Co Ltd, has been highly aware of this while curating the 15th edition of the annual Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts. He says, “With globalisation, we are especially sensitive to how our programming for cultural festivals continues to engage and remain relevant.”

The 2017 line-up features up-to-date fusions of Chinese traditional culture with influences from all over the world. Modern jazz meets an ancient storytelling art form in China Music House’s Pingtan x Jazz; a sexy Cantonese adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stars Hong Kong movie veterans Anthony Wong and Candice Yu, while a new Mandarin play by Liu Xiaoyi is really an audacious piece of anti-theatre adapted from an Austrian work called Offending the Audience.

Explaining the range of offerings, Lee says, “Instead of cracking our heads and trying to define ‘Chinese arts’, we work instead towards identifying outstanding Chinese artists of any genre, whose work can excite our audiences, and which has come to be definitive, or breaks new artistic ground.”

Interestingly, it’s the Huayi festival itself that’s constantly breaking new ground, or at least old boundaries. One of 2017’s Huayi highlights is the monologue Actor, Forty. While performed in Mandarin by Golden Horse Award-winner Yeo Yann Yann, the work is specially written for the festival by Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage (TNS) — usually considered an English-language theatre company, as opposed to ‘Chinese’ troupes such as Nine Years Theatre or The Theatre Practice.

LIFE BEGINS AT FORTY Award-winning actress Yeo Yann Yann plays an actress who finds herself pregnant in the monologue Actor, Forty. PHOTO The Pond Photography

“TNS has created characters from all ethnic groups speaking their own brand of English and these works continue to be translated into different languages, but this is the first Haresh-Alvin collaboration premiering in Mandarin,” says Alvin Tan (Actor, Forty’s director and artistic director of TNS). It tells of a 40-year-old actress who discovers that she is pregnant at possibly the peak of her career, and is created with the support of translator Quah Sy Ren and dramaturg Melissa Lim. While the creative team affirms that the issues covered are global rather than race-specific, and that the team itself is not rigorously ‘Chinese’ (even Tan himself is Peranakan), they believe this to be of little importance.

“Stubborn adherence to a CMIO [Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others] template is becoming less relevant as our reality changes, with increasing international or culturally mixed unions, plus Peranakans and Eurasians already in our midst. Singapore’s intercultural potential should be realised by bridging our own cultural differences, rather than being insulated in our own cultural enclaves, totally alienated from one another. Working across cultures as we’ve been doing is one way the arts help bridge the gap between the cultures co-existing in our small island,” says Tan.

Lee chimes in, “Good art is good art, regardless of language or ethnicity. Artists are constantly challenging boundaries, and as programmers, we’re also not bound by narrow definitions when considering works or artists.”

This exploratory spirit is evident in several brand-new Huayi initiatives, such as the first edition of the Huayi Livehouse! series. Held at the new Esplanade Annexe Studio, it is inspired by the growing trend of Livehouses (where local talents play material in front of a live audience) in Hong Kong and China. This instalment sees Singapore singer Alfred Sim offering post-theatre/dance/concert entertainment from 10.45pm, complete with a drink included in the price of each ticket. There’s also Child’s Play, a programme of experiential storytelling, above and beyond the now-standard buzzword of ‘interactive’ in children’s entertainment.

FANS OF TRADITION Parents and kids can work together to create classic handmade Chinese fans at a workshop.

Says director Danny Yeo, “I wanted to explore other possibilities — can the children be in the scenes too? What if they were able to walk onto the set? Other than being the audience, can they be the players, the performers involved in the production? Can they change the story along the way, or make decisions about the ending and offer alternatives? The programme will also feature hands-on activities like mask-making, block-printing and set-decorating.”

To up the immersiveness of the experience for young audience members, parents will not be admitted into the production. Says Lee, “As a parent myself, I do know that some parents will find it difficult to leave their kids with us for about two hours! But we want to see if the children are engaged by the programme, and after this, whether parents buy the idea and concept as well. We continually need to find new ways to engage audiences and show them that nothing, I repeat, nothing beats seeing a good live performance — it’s more enriching and vastly different from watching the latest movie, Korean drama or Netflix blockbuster.”

More traditional performances will also feature in the festival, including Migration — A World Music Concert by multi-award-winning band Haya, highlighting Mongolian traditional instruments and musical techniques such as throat singing, the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, and shaman drums. There’s also a free Chinese fan-making workshop for parents and kids. One thing all the events have in common, however, is that they’re indeed meant for all audiences.

VOICES OF CHINA Haya (above) presents a concert fusing contemporary music with Mongolian musical traditions, while China Music House (right) combines the ancient storytelling art form of pingtan with modern jazz elements.

Says Lee, “We make sure that productions have English surtitles, and that there are accessible non-ticketed performances, workshops and talks for all to enjoy. In multi-racial Singapore, our cultural festivals are even more meaningful as platforms for audiences of different cultural backgrounds to come together and encounter other arts and cultural traditions.”

Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts runs from 3-12 Feb at the Esplanade.

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