Re-appropriating Film History: An Interview with The Cast and Creatives of Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger of Malaya
This week will see the premiere of Teater Ekamatra’s latest production – Tiger of Malaya. A brand new play written by Alfian Sa’at and Shawn Chua, Tiger of Malaya takes inspiration from the 1943 Japanese film ‘The Tiger of Malaya’, following a group of actors in the present day who attempt to be more accurate in their re-enaction of the film, comically ‘correcting’ history with their portrayal. We spoke to playwright Alfian Sa’at, director Mohd Fared Jainal, and cast members Yuya Tanaka, Rei Kitagawa and Rei Poh to pick their brains on the myriad of issues that the play brings up, ranging from representation to historical truth:
Bakchormeeboy: How did you first come across the original Tiger of Malaya, and what about it inspired you to write the resulting play?
Alfian: I think it was when I was just browsing through Youtube, trying to find some Malay folk songs. Someone had uploaded a clip from the movie, where a group of Japanese, many of them in brownface and wearing the songkok, were singing the melody to the song ‘Rasa Sayang’. I was really intrigued and discovered that it came from a 1943 Japanese film called ‘Marai no Tora’ or ‘Tiger of Malaya’. Then I watched the film and was so intrigued by the fact that there were Japanese actors playing Malays and Chinese characters, all speaking Japanese. Even some of the white actors were speaking Japanese. But why should this strike me as strange, when Hollywood does this all the time? They were speaking English in movies like ‘The Last Emperor’ and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. It made me think a lot about language and power, about creating a world in your own image, and how ethnocentricism informs imperial adventures, military conquests, as well as the global circulation of pop culture.
Bakchormeeboy: Tiger of Malaya (the play) seems to concern itself with issues of authenticity in portrayal. In ‘re-casting’ the original with a diverse, more racially ‘accurate’ cast, what did you hope to achieve or bring across?
Alfian: On one level, I wanted to see what it would mean if those who did not get an opportunity to represent themselves were given the chance to. But is it possible to make these ‘corrections’ without completely overhauling the whole structure? Because maybe the problem in the film is not just about the way the characters were represented but how a certain history was written. For the characters in our play ‘Tiger of Malaya’, their entry point into the film was through the racial misrepresentation. But they are then confronted with an additional aspect: historical misrepresentation. How much history do they know to be able to correct this? And is there such a thing as historical misrepresentation, or just different versions of history?
Bakchormeeboy: In the years to come, how do you hope to see the arts landscape change in terms of privilege, opportunity and/or representation?
Alfian: I certainly hope that there’s greater cultural diversity in the arts, which is part of thinking of the arts as a space for cultural democracy. So I hope, for starters, that there will be more women in the design fields in theatre (especially sound and set design), more ethnic minorities as actors, more people from working class backgrounds as actors and directors, more people with disabilities telling their stories.
Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa
Bakchormeeboy: How did you come to know of and why did you join this project?
Rei K: I got to know about the project during the preliminary workshop held last year. We all watched the film then, and we improvised scenes that were not in the film. We were using English, Mandarin, Malay, Japanese in a scene even though we couldn’t understand each other. The vicarious experience of playing people during the Occupation was very stimulating for me, and spurred me to engage with the topic more deeply.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the characters you play and how you’ve been preparing for them.
Yuya: I will play a Japanese actor named Yudai. Yudai takes on the character of Tani Yutaka in this play. What does Yudai expect from this re-enactment of “Tiger of Malaya”, what will he discover in the course of the work, and how does he change? I hope to express his viewpoints and impressions with great care.
Rei K: I play Japanese actor based in Japan. This character speaks from a rather different viewpoint from the others. I don’t think about what I would do if I was the character. Instead, I am conscious about what I usually wouldn’t do. Also, since I am not proficient in English, I spent a lot of time processing the script.
Bakchormeeboy: Japan has a tumultuous war history with Singapore and Malaysia. How much did you think about this while in the rehearsal process, and was it difficult to separate your own feelings from the potential guilt of national history, especially when dealing with a play that deals directly with such an issue?
Yuya: Before coming into rehearsals, I was reading up about the history of the war. I think that this is necessary for the collaboration. However, that is just one way to better understand each other. What is important is how we, in present, face each other.
Rei K: Although I did some research initially, I was reading various articles about the history while going through the script. But my personal thoughts and impressions are just my own. During rehearsals, I would prioritise how this character written in the play thinks and how she feels. On that basis, I’d consciously discover and emphasise the points where I empathise and don’t empathise with this character.
Bakchormeeboy: In working on this project, what do you think is one of the biggest lessons you’ve taken away?
Yuya: The history that we learn within our respective countries only tell one side of the story, and there are diverse perspectives, as well as all kinds of emotions that are carried within us. Although we are unable to change each other’s histories, I felt that we shared a similar distance from those histories.
Rei K: Although there are many differences, whether in histories, education, living environment, language, I could sense that we had shared feelings towards that history. Above all, the biggest accomplishment was that in spite of being unable to understand each other’s language, we could still collaborate in the common language of “theatre”. While there is a history in curriculum in Japan, the background about this period is not well known. It was a valuable experience being able to touch upon this history through this work. I hope more people would get to know about this work.
Rei P: I’ve always known of Ekamatra and their works. And working with them is something I’ve always wanted to do, like a bucket list. When I do work, it is important I work alongside people who do it from the heart and the team is exactly that.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the character you play and how you’ve been preparing for the role.
Rei P: I play Ong Lai Teck, a Chinese theatre actor who portrays the Chinese characters in the play. The process is more self-reflective than research heavy, and most of the research is already done by Shawn and Alfian. I do need to speak a little Japanese though, so I’ve been taking some lessons for it.
Bakchormeeboy: As a Chinese actor, do you think there is a certain amount of privilege and increased opportunity afforded to you in getting roles in theatre?
Rei P: Yes and no. I always find being a male actor one of the factors for the increased opportunities. Having said that, it is still very competitive. There will still be more Chinese actors filling up the positions of too few roles. At the end of the day though, people still want to work with those whom they can and trust would deliver and investigate.
Bakchormeeboy: As a theatremaker, what do you see as your role in the local theatre scene in terms of propagating ‘authenticity’ and representation?
Rei P: I have little care for authenticity. Theatre is fictional. Most of the time, we utilise this fiction to provoke rather than represent. But to have proper provocations, proper considerations of representations is required. I see my role as a provocateur in my works. Why use a Chinese male when we can use a female, or a Malay actor? What kind of body represents the Singaporean? What kind of the body has not been seen? What provokes the question in play than picking a safest body?
Bakchormeeboy: In taking the form of an ‘authentic’ correction of film history, what kind of unique theatre elements can we expect to see onstage?
Fared: As a stage interpretation of the film, we take full reign and liberty on how we create it on the floor while still staying true to the narrative of the film. We use various strategies of storytelling, which you’ll have to come and watch for yourself in order to experience it.
Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences be concerned with the issues Tiger of Malaya brings up?
Fared: There are many layers to the entire project. The actors are playing actors who are staging a work based on a real story. And it happened during an actual event (World War II). There are many layers to it. It is rich in content as well as aesthetics. There will always be something that audience can relate or take interest in. On a macro level, it’s about how history is being captured and recorded, and truth can be revealed or hidden based on the part of history that we are exposed to.
Bakchormeeboy: What was the biggest challenge you faced during the rehearsal process?
Fared: We needed to dive into so many realms and realities to make sense of what we are doing, since it is a meta piece of work. We spent a lot of time with the actors, Alfian, Shawn as well as the entire design and production team to put every single piece of the puzzle together and make sure it is a perfect fit. There is high production design value, especially multimedia and sound. The designers and production team spent many tedious hours sorting things out, right down to the details.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you see as Ekamatra’s role in the local theatre scene, and how do you see Tiger of Malaya as fitting into that ethos?
Fared: Ekamatra has always been a very inclusive theatre company, and we celebrate many forms of collaboration work. Looking at the entire team on board Tiger of Malaya, it is a true testament to that.
Photo Credit: Monospectrum Photography
Tiger of Malaya plays from 12th – 23rd September 2018 at the Drama Centre Black Box, performed in English, Malay, Japanese, and Mandarin, with English surtitles. Tickets available from SISTIC