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Introduction

"Tramps Like Us" was written in 1989 by Kelvin Tan Yew Leong, it was apparently awarded the joint second prize at the National University of Singapore Drama Competition, the first prize was awarded to a forgetable effort by a mediocore local playwright. It was also staged at the Leture Theatre 13 (where most performances were staged before the horrible new Uinversity Cultural Center was bulit). The remarkable thing about Tramps was that it identified a lost period that most of us have forgotten about, or have never even heard of. This was the period when many were trying to make music and art in the eighties in Singapore. The general attitude towards the arts and music was very different at that time and is reflected in the play.

Yet the remarkable thing about this work is that what it said about Singapore society, art, music is still true. We still to a large extent do not accept or embrace works by Singaporean artists, musicians, unless it's packaged with a "made it overseas" label. I think this has always been due to biasness of Singaporeans against their own sons and daughters and the general atmosphere where anything remotely individual is regularly discouraged.

Tramps is the story of a young musician and his writer friend who try to make their way in the cultural dessert that was Singapore and still continues to be. In this particular production, I had improvised elements and expanded the dialogue between the two protagonists as well as adding in the character of the musician's mother and a annoynmous Chinese man who recited the Chinese classic the "Three Character Classic" backwards at various moments in the play. This person represented the cultural mix of Singaporeans, very much torn between the east and the west.

Clelland Farleigh's dileema, is that he is a Chinese person, educated in English trying to write and perform in English. The defacto language of Singapore. He is facing that problem which artists often find in Singapore, the fact that no one really cares. His friend Brinsley is a writer, he faces the same problem, except he faces it in a different way from Clelland. One can say that these two characters are two faces of Kelvin Tan, who in his early struggles as a writer had to face. They too represent what any artist has to face in creating art in Singapore, or perhaps anywhere in the world. The strength of the work comes from Tan's personal experience as a writer, and his gift of characterization, which departs in lightyears from the cardboard characters so typically found in Singapore dramatic writing.

The names of the protagonists are clues in fact to the cultural confusion or mixed that is felt but not articulated by the characters. These names are clearly codes for what these characters really are: they are Chinese and yet not Chinese, east and yet not east, west and yet not west. Doomed to live in a limbo, what do they do? The answer at the end of play is as much symbolic as literal, as regards to what really happens in real life.

Production

We staged the play as the first project of Aporia Society in November 1997. We did a total of 7 performances from Monday through to Sunday. The actors involved in the project included my university friend Vadivalagan, a famous theatre and television personality in the Singapore Tamil circles, an actress I would work with much more, Maryanne Ng, and an ex-colleague from the Chinese Opera Institute, Shao Jie. The play was performed on the second level of the Chinese Opera Institute at Queen Street, and was basically an old rundown studio. We put in a couple of portable ground halogen lamps and simply performed. The choice of the studio was simply because we did not really have the money to rent a theatre, and I wanted the feeling of a space that is different from a theatre for the performance. The set itself was basically piles and piles of old newspapers. Surprisingly we had quite a number of audiences for the weekend performances, perhaps this was at that time due to our notoriety, we had written a long critique of Eric Khoo's Twelve Storeys which had just premiered and the editor at that time, of Life! published the entire critique, which caused quite a furor.

Aporia Society itself had just been established at that time, and consisted mainly of some of my friends and some of Kelvin's partners in art or friends who were interested in art. In time, that would be whittled down to the two of us.

The rehearsal period was about 3-5 months, made more difficult that we had to improvise and add scenes to the play. Vadi while being a very good friend, proved to be somewhat unreliable as an actor that can make it on time to rehearsals, due to his numerous commitments. I remember one rehearsal when he was two hours late and I shouted at him. More or less, some variations of this scene would repeat itself throughout the rehearsal period. However, true to form, he delivered on the performance day.

 

  Theatre review
 

This is a review of the play by the erstwhile Straits Times Life! theatre critic at that time. Her review is a very good example of incomprehension and confusion that I would regularly encounter with Straits Times reviewers. In this particular case the reviewer has adopted the typical superior tone of a expatriate that anyone living in Singapore would be familiar with. The typical 'I know more about this shit than you' kind of thing that we encounter from supermarkets to the workplace. Almost every expatriate in Singapore likes to tell you how to run the country or do whatever it is you are doing when they stay in Singapore for about 2 minutes. She is no different. The play is about doing art and music in Singapore and Singapore's cultural identity. Things she has no idea about and which she dismisses with the words "diatribes" and "long winded". Life! reviews are typically shallow, Kaiden tries a little to engage here and does notices some elements in the play. The whole feeling of the review is extremely grudging and somewhat bitchy, but I thought its good to inlude it here for records purposes.

We've also included my entire reply to Kaiden here, which was edited when published in Life!.

On another interesting historical note, this reviewer did not stay long at Life!, we on the other hands are still engaged in the artistic entreprise. Reviewers don't last, works of art do. To paraphrase from Ibsen, if I were to have listened to reviewers, I would be lying drunk in a ditch somewhere. Amen.

  Elizabeth A. Kaiden, 20 Nov 1997
  On Monday evening, a new theatre group - Aporia Society opened its first production, Tramps Like Us, at the Chinese Opera Institute. It is a play with a difference. The production comes with a manifesto distributed to the audience as the programme.
In it, Aporia states a desire to break through accepted convention and consensus, and directs much of its criticism at the local English-speaking press for "manufacturing consent".
If this sounds more like a political agenda than an artistic one, Aporia's programme makes it clear that such distinctions can be misleading. It seeks theatre based on narrative storytelling, truth in character and plot development, and does not subscribe to issue based writing like EriC Khoo's in the movie 12 Storeys.
Director and star Wong Kwang Han, 27, writes: "I am interested in putting the blood and guts of individuals that make up that hazy idea of society on stage and watch it bleed and sweat."
Based on a script by singer-songwriter-playwright Kelvin Tan, "Tramps Like Us" revolves around the friendship between Clelland (Wong), a struggling young musician, and his best friend Brinsley Bivouac (Vadivalagan), who writes lyrics for him. The two sit in Clelland's room not doing much apart from occasionally entertaining interruptions from Clelland's mother (mary Anne Ng Gwek Heong) and girlfriend Jessica (Rebecca Lim).
Their interest in music and writing provides ample excuse and opportunity to discuss the plight of developing artists in Singapore, in "real dialogue" filled with the kind of interruptions, pauses, distractions and even thoughtfulness typical of everyday life.
Wong and Vadivalagan offer the audience a convincingly sensitive and honest portrait of a true friendship. But interspersed with the dialogue are lengthy, emotional monologues delivered by Clelland's mother and the two central men.
These diatribes prove longwinded and draining, and dissipate the driving anger of the two main characters. They also betray Wong's stated agenda.
In the programme, Wong criticises movie-maker Khoo for generating myths by crediting people in "the so-called lower income bracket" with "all these funny things happening in their lives". Yet, he does the same thing: His mother suffers terrible poverty as a girl and almost cliched rejection by her in-laws as a young woman.
Similarly destructive and distracting are the symbolic physica1 actions, including the distinctly American Lindy Hop and background Chinese chanting. The inclusion of such surrealistic elements, once again, marks an attempt to provide a contrasting perspective to realism.
The foundation of any drama is conflict; its power is determined by the specificity of that conflict. The attempt to broaden the world of the two men, rather than narrow the focus of their struggle. Ultimately, Clelland comes across as yet another Angry Young Man. What’s he angry about? Everything. Is it valid? Of course. Does it make for an interesting drama? Harder to say.
Tramps Like Us is at Chinese Opera Institute, 111 Middle Road, and runs until Nov 23 97. Tickets at $8 and $5 (for students) are available at The Substation and at the door.
 
Director's Reply
  Leave It to Audience To Judge Tramps
By Wong Kwang Han
I refer to An Angry, Valid Drama, But Is It Interesting? (Life!, Nov 20) by Elizabeth A. Kaiden.
I would like to thank her for an interesting review. Tramps Like Us is Aporia Society's maiden project and we appreciate her effort in reviewing the play.
The article also brought up certain issues about the play which I would like to comment on.
Firstly I would like to clarify that the Aporia Society is an art group and not a theatre group as stated in the above article and in Does 12 Storeys Deserve The Hype? (Life!, Nov 21 97).
The society is engaged not only in theatre but in other areas too, such as music and the visual arts.
Secondly, the article mentioned that I criticised film-maker Eric Khoo for generating myths by crediting people in the so-called lower income bracket with all these- funny things happening in their lives, in the programme of the play.
The article went on to criticise the play Tramps in that it was doing exactly the same thing which I criticised Khoo of doing in the portrayal of abject poverty and rejection by her in-laws of Clelland's mother.
I would like to point out that the quote which the reviewer used was taken out of context. In the same paragraph in the programme from which the quote was taken, I also said that the problem was not so much with what Khoo did but how he did it.
The problem then was that the situations in 12th Storeys could have been dealt with deeper rather than existing at the level of sketches.
Thirdly, the article mentioned that the "foundation of any drama is conflict", and that its power is determined by the "specificity of that conflict".
It went on to state that the problem with Tramps was that the monologues and the physical actions of the play widened rather than narrowed the scope of the conflict, hence dissipating its strength.
This is a relevant point of view to the extent when drama is evaluated on the basis of its adherence to the Aristotelian unity of a single line of action and it is built up to an ultimate point of conflict and resolution.
Conflict, however, can be much more, it can be situational and hence lacking in build-up or resolution, as in Beckett's Godot.
It can be multilineal as in many of Shakespeare's plays like A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Conflict can also be multi-tiered whereby a similar theme takes place in the separate private worlds of individuals as in Tennessee Williams' later plays like Night Of The Iguana and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.
The nature of conflict in Tramps is multi-tiered, existing in different forms in the different characters, in just as important manners, yet revolving around a similar theme which is the struggle for happiness. Hence in Tramps, there are no "stars" and there was also never any intention for build-up and resolution.
Conflict is internal, polyphonic and discontinuous. To look for focus on a single line of conflict in Tramps would be to miss the point. To a certain extent, these internal struggles of the characters are extremely topical and "Singaporean". Due to the topical nature of the struggles, a certain cultural/psychological affinity is perhaps needed to understand them.
Of course, all drama should ideally be universal and hence a possible fault of the production lies perhaps, in its topicality.
Having outlined my intentions for Tramps, I leave the aesthetic judgements and ultimately whether what was intended worked or not to those who have watched the play.
Yet, one cannot help but think of the proverbial falcon which had its talons, beak and wings clipped by a man who had never seen one but who wanted it to fit into his conception of what a bird should look like.
This letter was published in the Mailbag section of Straits Times, Life! on 28 Nov 97.