Everyone's thinking it, so I might as well just come out and say it: Emily of frickin' Emerald Hill. If you stage an English-language monodrama about Peranakan culture in Singapore, there's no way in hell you can avoid being compared to Stella Kon's classic work of 1973 about an indomitable Nonya woman whose matriarchal schemes collapse before her eyes. This shouldn't be seen as a stumbling block: it's a gift to know that you're working with a heritage behind you, an extra push to come up with something more complex and nuanced. Plus, there's always something new to say about one's own culture, isn't there?
But Desmond Sim, author of Postcards from Rosa, doesn't care too much about newness. His play's written as a private, unambitious homage to his late grandmother, designed to warm the hearts of nostagliaphiles with its reminiscences of tradition and family life. Hopefully, this means he won't care too much that I found his work deeply problematic: unoriginal, milquetoast and preachy, it stifles Peranakan tradition in the past, refusing to let it breathe and spread its wings in the present.
In fact, Rosa opens promisingly enough. The eponymous Grandma Rosa (Neo Swee Lin) wanders into the audience announcing that she's embarking on her first ever aeroplane flight to visit her air-steward grandson Benny in Sydney, generously sharing a Tupperware of homemade pineapple tarts with us, her fellow passengers in the departure lounge. Then it's off to Australia, where she unpacks her suitcase in a hotel she's always dreamed of visiting, trading her pink running shoes for beaded slippers. This is a woman we can't help but like: a hip old granny, representing an optimistic (if unrealistic) vision of how tradition can adapt to modernity.
But then Rosa starts giving us some background on her life and her relationship with her émigré grandson. And eventually, as she gets into her stride, we realise that the play's basically a biography: a story based almost entirely in the past, dislocated from the present. We never get to see any of her feisty adventures in Sydney - just like in Emily, we're being given the grand old historical tour, trapped in a museum of frozen time.
In fact, there's such a host of parallels between Rosa and Emily that Kon could practically sue for damages. Besides the fact that they're both one-woman shows narrated by old Nonya bibiks, the two describe very similar trajectories of life, from childhood to wifehood to compromised motherhood to senescence. Both feature similar stock moments of anguish: being matchmade, the death of a favourite son. Mind you, I'm not calling Sim a copycat - the limited scope of a traditional Peranakan woman's life offers a limited number of obvious tropes to play with. But I'm rather turned off at how easily ACTION Theatre embraces this sense of duplication, hyping up the fact that Neo's played Emily at least twice before. There's a sense that the company wants Rosa simply to be another Emily, riding on its popularity and commanding similarly formidable crowds at performances.
But sadly, Rosa doesn't compare well with Emily: it's a much less complex and nuanced script, much more linear in its chronology, lacking grace and richness in description and transition. Details of Peranakan culture are expounded on almost lecture-style, complete with lofty aphorisms for the sake of the ignorant: Rosa explains to us all how all Peranakans are pantang (superstitious) in the midst of an unlikely recollection of how Benny once flew home bringing every single possible taboo gift for the family. I've also got a beef with all those sudden re-enactments of the past - though once again patterned after Emily, here they appear rather jarring in the midst of this direct-address narrative. How could this talkative grandmother suddenly lose her own voice, channelling her father, her evil stepmother and her daughter Juliana? And why does 30-year-old Benny have the voice of a bratty five-year-old?
More problematically, Rosa lacks that overarching sense of passion and charisma that made us fall in love with Emily - in comparison, she's a much meeker figure, ruled first by her father, then by her husband, then by her children and grandchild, never quite daring to take the reins of her life herself. Neo might thus have portrayed Rosa as a browbeaten sparrow of a woman who rises to occasional moments of triumphant dignity. But no such luck: infected by Emily's echoes, she plays the character as strong, gregarious, and feisty; an interpretation completely at odds with the story of the script. I don't blame Neo for this - I blame director Loretta Chen, who should have realised what made this character vitally distinct and run with it. Given her misguided direction and a problematic script, Neo seems to have done the best she could, hitting comedic and emotionally poignant notes with aplomb and gusto. I will say, however, that her accent seemed a tad too sophisticated for a character who'd only gone to school till the age of 12.
A number of audience members I questioned objected severely to the set design - a colossal flipbook upstage centre serves as an album, which Rosa leafs through to exhibit high-res wedding photographs or the Sydney skyline. Definitely unwieldy, and an overhead projection would probably have been more evocative, but I couldn't help but feel that the awkward, hyperreal heaviness of the prop was entirely suited to the flavour of this troubled play.
There is one area, however, in which Rosa trumps Emily. Where Emily merely hints, Rosa directly articulates the sense that the entire culture of being Peranakan is disappearing: Juliana and her sisters are spared the ordeal of matchmaking, while the beloved Benny is so drawn by the tales of foreign lands his grandmother's never been to that he migrates for good. Neither learns more than a fraction of Rosa's famed culinary recipes. Hence, Rosa's presented as the Last of the Peranakans, an exotic and endangered creature - which leads us to a very disturbing ending.
When Rosa develops a stroke that paralyses half her body, Benny immediately flies all the way back home from Australia, urging her to recover and visit him as she's always promised. Then in a twist, Rosa reveals to the audience that she died of the stroke: she never recovered enough to finally move her ass out of the house, lacing up those pink plimsolls and riding over to Sydney. The entire first scene never happened.
Consider the implications of this: we're being told that the subaltern class of the elderly Peranakans will never gain international mobility; they are doomed to rot and die in the shacks they married into. Shouldn't Rosa get a little mad at this? But no, she's a sweet old biddy; where Emily would rage and fulminate and be defeated only by the hand of destiny, Rosa chuckles and glories in her postcard memories, while we, the audience, are expected to be content with this saga of the last of the Nonyas.
Perhaps it's wrong for a critic to want a play to have a different message, to attack it on the basis of ideology rather than of structure and finesse. But I realise I'm just fed up by the way Peranakan heritage is being fetishised today. Look at the National Heritage Board and the NUS Museum, both preparing to open Peranakan Museums in the near future; look at how Violet Oon's stuffing the craws of IMF delegates with heavenly Nonya cuisine that you can't find in any hawker centre. It's all precious because it's dying: everyone's mourning the loss of a uniquely syncretic culture, and yet I haven't seen a single play that points a finger at the appropriate authorities and says, "You killed Peranakan culture. With your four neat racial categories, your Speak Mandarin Campaigns, your education systems that wouldn't allow our children to study Baba Malay in school. The blood is on your hands."
Is it too much to ask for a genuinely angry Peranakan play? Or at least one that tries to understand the situation of a culture in transit? A play on the boring daughter Juliana or the deracinated grandson Benny, maybe - though they wouldn't be caught dead in a baju, they too are part of the tribe and they've got their own stories to tell, caught between the past, the present and the future.
At the close of Rosa, in a sweet swell of sentimentality, the grandmother compares the process of caring to the long process of dicing, slicing and stuffing spices to prepare a traditional meal. "Being Peranakan is leceh," she says, using the Malay word for troublesome, tiresome, boring. "Love is leceh."
Very, very beautiful, but no. If you love a culture, you must fight against boredom: you must fight to make it move, develop; you must ride aeroplanes to Sydney. You must invent texts, truly new texts for its canon. For if it resigns itself to pure nostalgia, it will surely perish.
Emily is dead. Another Nonya must follow.
The charismatic Neo Swee Lin is consistently able to hold the audience's attention in this one-woman show, hitting comedic and emotionally poignant notes alike in her portrayal of a Nonya grandmother. However, viewers searching for real quality in theatre might want to look elsewhere - this is a script that painstakingly and deliberately narrates what it means to be Peranakan rather than simply showing it, at times coming across annoyingly redundant or forced. Just as problematically, there's a visible rift between the character of Rosa and Neo's portrayal of her - the actress's sophistication and energy contradict the image of a tender old woman educated only up to Primary 5 and forced to submit to her parents, husband, children and grandchildren. Neo actually comes across more strongly when she plays minor roles such as Rosa's Australian emigre grandson Benny - who, to me, is a much more interesting figure, encapsulating the cultural problems of Peranakan heritage in diaspora. Why does a play about Peranakan culture have to focus on nostalgia? Why can't it - like the title of Postcards from Rosa suggests - be a document of a people in transition?
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /