But as I stumble out of bed in pitch blackness, silencing the alarm on my mobile phone with my thumb, I am in two minds about going. The PSI is 78 (I check haze.gov.sg blearily), my eyes are bloodshot from a dust allergy, and the huddled shape of my husband in bed looks warm and comfortable.
Besides, a part of my brain whispers, what if you go alone to Bukit Brown and there are only a handful of other people there, and you get lost?
In the end, the heart wins: if I don’t go, I’ll never know what I missed, in the cemetery that won’t be there for too long.
It Won’t Be Too Long is the kind of epic, multi-part project that Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun habitually dreams up. It comprises two parts, commissioned by and mounted during the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015.
The first, The Lesson, was a free forum theatre event held from Sept 9 to 12, 2015, under the Singapore theatre company’s white-and-green inflatable tent, affectionately dubbed Goli (as marbles are known in Singapore), in Toa Payoh. Given the scenario of a new MRT station coming up in the housing estate, participants role-played as policy-makers, power-brokers and property agents, to discuss and decide what must go in the neighbourhood to make way for the station, while others observed.
The second, The Cemetery, moves from the hypothetical to the specific. Further divided into two parts – Dawn and Dusk – the ticketed production takes as found site, launch pad and inspiration Bukit Brown Cemetery, off Sime Road, almost at the centre of the island.
Background-y bit: In 2011, a dual four-lane road cutting through the cemetery, which houses an estimated 100,000 Chinese tombs dating back to the mid-19th century, was announced by the Land Transport Authority. Separately, the 233-hectare site – the world’s largest Chinese cemetery outside of China – has also been earmarked by the government for future residential use. Controversy erupted, as heritage groups and concerned citizens attempted to save the site in its entirety and questioned the authorities’ efforts at genuine public engagement. Nevertheless, in 2013, the tender to construct the new road was awarded. Works are currently underway and will last until 2017.
Dawn takes place in the wee hours in Bukit Brown itself, on Sept 18 and 19, while Dusk is staged at the School of the Arts’ studio theatre at 8pm, on the same days. The idea, obviously, is for audience members to attend the Dawn experience, before moving onto the Dusk show – although it is possible to see one without the other.
I am now driving down a lamp-less access road to the old cemetery gates. An usher’s flashing torch guides me to the makeshift carpark.
On the way to the gathering point for the show, I fall into step next to a female form. It turns out to be my friend Jennifer Teo, curator and activist, whom I grasp by the elbow in delight (and relief that I don’t have to wander down dark paths on my own).
“Go ahead,” she tells me, pointing me in the right direction, “I’m just going to light a joss stick.” And she is gone, ducking behind the white pillars and rusted wrought iron bars of the old Lorong Halwa gates.
I find a sizeable crowd at the gathering point – at least fifty, maybe a hundred people. After a briefing (dump your food and drinks, or else monkeys, blah blah), we follow the ushers down a path, filing quietly, not disturbing the stillness under the silhouettes of trees. We sit on two rows of wooden benches. When those fill up, we stand.
In the middle distance, on a path that slopes up from left to right, six dancers begin to move. Ghostly, white-clad in candlelight. They tap their forearms rhythmically; dash up and down; raise their arms to the sky, like students willing a great teacher in the sky to call upon them or supplicants. Mostly, this occurs in silence, broken occasionally by the humming of an ominous Jaws-esque tune from the dancers (or “Movement Performers”, according to the programme booklet) themselves and, later, accidentally, by the weird, insistent note of a bird’s call.
At times, they get into the formation of a rough arrow-head: taking turns to support the dancer at the tip, who falls backwards again and again. Each time he falls, more and more of his compatriots rush forward to prop him back up. The effect is that of some Sisyphean effort. I am reminded – rightly or wrongly – of the famous WWII image of soldiers labouring to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima.
We sit and watch for more than an hour, oscillating the air around our faces with paper fans. The day lightens gradually, and my eyes finally figure out that the black lumps a few metres away from our feet are faded tombstones, sunk into grassy mounds. Grey clouds threaten to drizzle on our heads. To my surprise, another black lump near the dancers turns out to be an upright piano, on which one performer proceeds to play a haunting tune.
A woman rides a bicycle onto the scene, stares curiously and snaps a photo of the performers. This may be, or may not be, part of the act. Then, stripping down to black underthings, the dancers run out of view. It is an ending that borders on whimsy, and we clap as the candles go out with wisps of smoke.
Post-show, we are offered the option of going on a guided tour of the cemetery with the Brownies, a group of Bukit Brown volunteers. Not quite sure what to make of what I’ve just seen, sleepy and pensive, I opt, instead, to go home to bed.
Walking back to my car, I find myself studying the tombs along the way – some with Peranakan tiles, others with their own stone benches for visiting descendants to rest their weary legs. I pick out the Chinese characters chiselled into the headstones: 草娘 (Grass Maiden), 快娘 (Fast Maiden), 月娘 (Moon Maiden), 金泉 (Golden Spring). Such quaint, old-fashioned names.
Next to the path, a bougainvillea has ended up grafted on top of a clump of bamboo, its magenta flowers sprouting like beads of blood on top of the strangled stems. It is a strange new plant, struggling for dominance within itself, each part unable to live without the other now.
Out of the jungle, I walk beside foreign construction workers, starting their work day. A work day which involves digging up and replacing bits of Bukit Brown, similar to what I just witnessed, with asphalt and concrete.
In a black box theatre, dominated by a chalk drawing of the sprawling Bukit Brown topography on the ground, three “Verbatim Actors” speak the lines of various players in the Bukit Brown ‘saga’.
Thespians Timothy Nga, Karen Tan and Josphine Tan switch seamlessly through a dramatis personae including Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin, Brownie Claire Leow, SOS Bukit Brown’s Jennifer Teo and then-Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, as well as amateur historians and Hokkien-spouting tomb-keepers.
Playwright Jean Tay’s script draws from interviews as well as material on public record, such as Minister Tan’s Facebook post (“A Personal Reflection: Bukit Brown and what it means for all our pasts and our futures”, Nov 6, 2011). The resulting panoply of voices is entertaining, thought-provoking and moving. By presenting the issue from the angles of different stake-holders, Dusk manages to convey that such situations are rarely clear-cut – that practical considerations of land use must jostle against the impulse to preserve one’s history and national heritage.
As a 1918 report from the Government Commission on Singapore Housing, quoted by Kok in his programme notes, put it, “the claims of the living must prevail over those of the dead”. Or must they?
Director Kok’s project is both elegy and after-the-fact documentation of the beating heart that the cemetery has ironically revealed itself to be. The characters argue back and forth, across space and time, their monologues stitched together into a patchwork of debate. Behind-the-news stories of personal conviction are told.
When the ever-watchable Karen Tan, speaking as Dr Chua, articulates the deep disappointment she felt as the volunteers’ efforts to save Bukit Brown from urban redevelopment hit a road block, one’s heart goes out to her. When Teo, translated through art and actor, reveals how she stopped conducting tours at the cemetery, because it became too hard watching all the features she once knew and loved disappear, you recognise the signs of emotional trauma.
The action is broken up by screen projections of real news releases and press reports, which help contextualise, move the action forward, as well as rein in the emotional tenor of the piece – Brechtian breaks, if you like. And yet, it is also a subtle mood piece, which leaves one in little doubt as to where the creative team’s sympathies lie.
Drama Box’s forte has always been in articulating the sense of nostalgia and urban loss that has become a condition of Singapore living. In 2006, the company staged A Stranger At Home, a Singapore Arts Festival commission, at the Drama Centre, which combined film produced by Royston Tan, known for his chronicling of fabulously off-beat and disappearing things from getai to parking summons attendants.
Like A Stranger At Home, It Won’t Be Too Long: Dusk also features music by Singapore band par excellence The Observatory. The difference is, this time, the band plays live, a searing rock track at the close of the production. “August is the cruellest… wrap me up in straw,” croons frontman Leslie Low, as the rest of the band rages musically behind him. “Are we wrong, or are we right?” It is raw and loud, melancholic and frustrated, and ends with high-pitched feedback. One cannot help but think of feedback, too, in the sense of civil society’s dialogue.
As the Verbatim Actors cycle through their repertoire of talking heads, the Movement Performers are present – in fact, have been present from the start, pre-speech – in the space, executing the same actions as they did in Dawn.
In the intimate theatre space, they are no longer shadowy figures glimpsed from afar, but too, too solid flesh, their feet picking up white dust from the outlines chalked on the floor, leaving a trail of prints all over the map as the show unfolds, a slow-burn visualisation of the way humans leave their imprint on the land they inhabit.
With a shock, I recognise the Dawn performance for what it is for me: the ghost of this very show – an after-image seared upon the retina. Leached of meaning and context, Dawn had been enacted in the very place that had become a foregone conclusion in Dusk. To me, Dawn was/is the future; a future in which talking had/has become moot. Only mourning, morning, mourning.