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CausewayEXchange: Lit Up KL, Plays, Film, Poetry Slam

Singapore and Malaysia got together for a unique cultural programme, CausewayEXchange 2011, where Mallika Naguran joined fellow Singapore travellers to enjoy the weekend's literary affair in Kuala Lumpur.

15 August 2011, Kuala Lumpur. Singapore invaded the arts scene in Kuala Lumpur city in August 2011 for a brief period, bringing an artistic fabric sewn with a cultural thread that reflected the island nation's identity. Singapore and Malaysia share a common history and were in fact one country before 1965. They also saw the horrors of World War II, the Japanese occupation, and rode out many regional crises together.

A Singaporean and Malaysian playwright collaborated in theatreworks at CausewayEXchange

Plays, films, poetry slam (Malaysian wit put to test against Singaporean erudition), talks and photo exhibition – what a treat it was for art lovers and for city fugitives. The CausewayEXchange was organised by the Asian Culture Enterprise Singapore and DMR Productions from 4-7 August 2011. It reprised the 2010 event where 30 Malaysian artists performed to an audience of 3,000 at The Singapore Arts House.

On Friday 1 August 2011, two coaches hit the road from Singapore to the Malaysian capital city, taking some 60 people from the art, music and media industries, plus tourists who signed up for this unique programme.

The Singapore participants took in a tour of Johor on the way to Kuala Lumpur.  First stop was to sample superlicious nasi lemak at Danga Bay, then learn about mushroom cultivation at Kampong Tewaka in Kempas, about an hour’s drive from the Causeway.

Kampong Tewaka mushroom farm in Kempas, Malaysia grows oyster mushrooms using organic methods

Back on the road the tour stopped again to sink its teeth into Anthony Fish Ball in Yong Peng, apparently the favourite of Colin Goh, CEO of The Arts House. Well, trust Singaporeans to spot the good eating-places, even in Malaysia.

Singapore - An Accidental Nation

Once at the destination of Kuala Lumpur, the main venue was the heritage grounds of Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre @ Sentul Park (KLPAC).

The two plays staged here reflected themes that both Singaporeans and Malaysians could identify with. Singapore playwright Desmond Sim collaborated with Malaysian writer Nandang Abdul Rahman to produce a series of short plays collectively dubbed Food, Sex and Death.

Nandang Abdul Rahman's 'The Five Stages of Grief' playlet as part of Food, Sex & Death theatre show

I caught up with Desmond Sim before the start of the play and discussed how special it was for Singapore to share its culture with Malaysia when Singapore – being connected to Malaysia by a couple of bridges - is not all that different.

Sim agreed. “Both countries were one before. If you think about it, Singapore is an accidental nation because of what transpired in Malaysian politics,” he says, referring to the split in party lines back in the sixties.

KLPAC's Theatre for Young People featured five actors who switch roles to enact different characters in a set of five plays written by Desmond Sim and Nandang Abdul Rahman, and directed by Christopher Lim. In four of the plays, humour laced the lines that also depict universal emotions of human relationships. In the fifth play titled 'The Five Stages of Grief', the theme of death was dealt with, demonstrating progressively disbelief, anger, blame and remorse that happen with the demise of a loved one. Poignant indeed.

Kuala Lumpur premiered On TheEmerald Hill, a dramatic monologue by Singaporean actor, director and playwright Jonathan Lim. Directed by Christina Sergeant, the play thrilled the audience from the second the curtain opened to reveal a believable cemetery (actually transformed theatre seats with stenciled gravestones). A reversed theatre it was, with the small room of audience sitting on the stage area, looking on to scenes of Emily of Emerald Hill at Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery.

Jonathon Lim stars in the monologue 'On This Emerald Hill', which he also scripted

In the play, a gregarious Peranakan woman - Emily of Emerald Hill - meets an ordinary Chinese Singaporean man who is overwhelmed with having to bury his dead father in a hole that isn’t big enough. The re-enactment of Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole is brilliant as Jonathan Lim combines both iconic Singapore plays with amazing wit, humour and nostalgia.

Other programmes that entertained Malaysians were CausewayEXchangefilms, exhibitions, literary talks and poetry slamming.  There was the screening of filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s highly acclaimed Singapore Gaga. And anyone could walk in to appreciate the exhibition of cartoonist Heng Kim Song’s works and JFlash Studio’s photographs of Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Lit Up KL featured writer Ken Mizusawa, an award-winning Japanese educator and playwright who lives in Singapore. 

Malaysian Versus Singaporean Poets

Heng Kim Song's telling cartoons featured

Later that night, the poetry slam was great fun as youths from Singapore and Malaysia pitted their literary strengths against each other. While the Malaysians raged about political and education systems in their country, Singaporean poets took on a more artistic stance to display literary art forms in verses – rhymed or blank.

Special mention has to go to Marc Daniel Nair from Singapore for his amazing talent in writing and delivering good poetry, with good use of allusions, imagery and metaphors.  His poem on Hector and Mbuyisa Makhubo titled How Secrets Are Made was particularly touching. Ben Chua was also a favourite, as he recited his highly imaginary and funny poems, each about three minutes long, all from memory.

Poetry slam winners (from right): Marc Nair (2nd, Singapore), Michelle Lee (3rd, Malaysia) and Thato Ntshobele (tops, Malaysia). Watch the videos on Gaia Discovery YouTube station.

The judges’ top favourite was the animated Thato Ntshobele who roused chuckles within the audience as they snapped their fingers and stamped the floor in appreciation of his rap beat and rhythm in poetry reading.

If you want to get a closer look at the poetry slam, why not watch the short videos I took?

The overall winner - Thato Ntshobele - was not strictly speaking a Malaysian, but an African studying in Malaysia, so the Singaporean supporters were left confused as how he could represent Malaysia in the next big challenge - the Asia Pacific poetry slam. But you know what Singaporeans are like - they play by the rules, almost robot like.

Maybe it takes an exchange programme like this with Malaysia to appreciate that sometimes, rules can be bent, just a little, just because they can. As we tucked into Portuguese delights in the famous historical Malacca town on the bus ride home, we were still struggling with the answer.

Nonetheless, we all thoroughly enjoyed the three-day cultural encounter with our best neighbour, and look forward to the next CausewayEXchange.

Photos by Mallika Naguran

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Contact Danny Chan

Producer| Asian Culture Enterprise (S) Ltd

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DMR Productions