The Studios 2019: An Interview with Playwrights Neo Kim Seng, Gary Tang and Tan Cher Kian of My Grandfather’s Road (RHDS)
Neo Kim Seng’s My Grandfather’s Road has had a wild journey since it was first created in 2015 for Cake Theatrical Productions’ Running with Strippers. The biographical work was based on the history of his actual grandfather Neo Pee Teck, which had a side road in Pasir Panjang named after him, and has gone on not only to become published as a book, but also a Cantonese version developed and presented as part of Centre 42’s The Vault, another restaging in 2018, and even an immersive, multi-disciplinary version held as part of The Arts House’s 2019 edition of Textures.
Now, watch as the work reaches another level with this new version, retitled My Grandfather’s Road (RHDS), bringing new stories that were unearthed, new speculations and reflections, and forgotten histories. After our 2018 interview, we catch up with original playwright Neo Kim Seng, as well as Cantonese playwrights Tan Cher Kian and Gary Tang, who will also be reprising their roles in the Cantonese version of the play. Read the interviews in full below:
Neo Kim Seng
Bakchormeeboy: How different is this version of MGR from the last time we saw it at Centre 42?
Kim Seng: For the English version, there is more focus on my personal journey in the project. Last year, there were a lot of details and information because that was how I dealt with loss, erosion and disappearance then. But with more emotional investment in this new version, they are not that important now.
The Cantonese version is also different now because both actors will be on stage together this time. We have kept some of the old script and also written new script. The Cantonese version takes the form of a journey to different places and events in one’s life. My personal journey is in the Cantonese version as well.
The two versions are now very different from each other but still share some similar stories. The biggest difference will be that the last scene of the English version is the opening scene of the Cantonese version – both are the same scene delivered in English and Cantonese. So, is the beginning the end or is the end the beginning?
Bakchormeeboy: Could you explain the new title behind the piece, Rabbit Heart Dragon Soul?
Kim Seng: It will be very boring to just put (2019) in brackets after the title for the new version. It’s sexier to put (RHDS) after the title. “Rabbit Heart, Dragon Soul” refers to my personal journey, which is the focus of this version. I was born on 26 January 1964 in the Year of the Rabbit. I was just 19 days short of becoming a Dragon because I was born in the tail end of the Year of the Rabbit. For the Chinese, a Dragon is more desirable and luckier than a Rabbit. So growing up, I pretended to be a Dragon.
Bakchormeeboy: A multi-disciplinary version of the piece was staged at The Arts House’s Textures earlier this year. Are there any plans to recreate that immersive atmosphere at the Esplanade, especially for those who are experiencing MGR for the very first time?
Kim Seng: It will be difficult to recreate the Textures exhibition because that was designed with the Chamber of the Arts House in mind. Some of the exhibits will be on display at the Esplanade’s Theatre Studio foyer. The experience for the Esplanade version starts when you arrive at the 4th floor by the lift or escalator. You may not immediately notice them but they are referred to in the 2 versions of the play and hopefully you can understand the design/experience better when you leave the Theatre Studio.
Bakchormeeboy: In researching and understanding your grandfather and the people around him, how do you feel you have in turn learnt to better understand yourself or certain aspects of your own life?
Kim Seng: The research was fascinating for me as I found new stories. But it was during the rehearsals process that I understood myself better. The actors ask me questions about the stories in the script to better understand the character, i.e. Kim Seng, that they are playing. Their probing questions made me think more about myself. I have to tell them the truth and cannot give them veiled answers for them to understand the character and my thought process. Some information was forthcoming only when I was comfortable enough to tell them. Through them, I learnt to open up to people and trust people even more. But of course, most of our conversation will only remain in the rehearsal rooms.
Bakchormeeboy: Why is your story, or in fact, your grandfather’s story, an important one that demands to be told to Singaporeans time and time again through all these stagings?
Kim Seng: This project is not only about my grandfather’s or my story. The project is not about an important man, events or something that will change the world. They are ordinary stories and can happen to anyone. Working on this project, I realised more and more that there are always stories waiting for us to uncover and discover, only if we make the effort to seek them out. I’m interested in the stories of the ordinary people, not the rich and famous. I hope to encourage people to look at their own stories and then share them with us.
Bakchormeeboy: What is your personal take on what it means to feel ‘The weight of a stone in a pocket’ (i.e. the theme for The Studios 2019)?
Kim Seng: The most precious treasures are in our own backyard, waiting for us to (re-) discover them.
Tan Cher Kian (CK) and Gary Tang
Bakchormeeboy: How does the Cantonese version of the play differ from the version we saw at Centre 42 last year?
Gary: It’s a duologue, to begin with, and that’s where the differences begin.
CK: It’s great to have someone together on stage.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you feel the Cantonese version of the play captures that the English version does not, and vice versa? What then, would determine which version an audience member should watch?
Gary: There are certain sensitivities best captured by the uniqueness of a language, in this case, Cantonese. Audience should watch both versions if time & money are no issue.
CK: It’s the language which the tone itself is a story already.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you personally feel is the best way to save a language from being completely eradicated?
Gary: Languages are for communication so must be used.
CK: Use it, consume it, listen to it.
Bakchormeeboy: Whose responsibility is it to preserve a language?
Gary: Humans. (‘cos animals can’t talk.)
CK: Ourselves. Parents especially the baby-boomers since they are the bridge between the grandparents & kids, generation-wise.
Bakchormeeboy: What is your personal take on what it means to feel ‘the weight of a stone in a pocket’?
Gary: A stone in one’s pocket, left there, is just dead weight. A stone taken out to be used is then a stone. It’s similar to language. Unused, it’ll disappear. Only when it is used can it serve its real purpose.
CK: The weight is consciousness. Let’s take the stone and do something about it.
My Grandfather’s Road (RHDS) plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 18th to 21st April 2019. Tickets available from the Esplanade
The Studios 2019: The Weight Of A Stone In A Pocket plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio and Esplanade Annexe Studio from 28th March to 27th April 2019. Tickets and full lineup available from the Esplanade. For updates on the works, follow The Studios on Facebook