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George Town Festival 2019: Kampong Chempedak by The Glowers Drama Group (Review)

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Change is the only constant.

PENANG, MALAYSIA – While most modern city-dwellers have long gotten used to the constant march of progress as our cityscape moves forth, there remain those that find it difficult to impossible to adapt to the way the world has changed. Performed by Singapore senior theatre group The Glowers, our story then focuses on the villagers of Kampong Chempedak, once a thriving and busy village in the ’60s that has since grown quiet as families move away to new housing estates. With only senior citizens left, there comes a day when they are all forced to move out and live in flats, as we watch how they learn to cope with these newfound circumstances.

Written by Peggy Ferroa and directed by Ace Chew Keng Long, with sound conceived by Glowers founder Catherine Sng,  from the moment we enter the space, the feeling of nostalgia already hits us, allowing us to easily imagine being at the site of the kampong, sitting down with a rattan fan and listening to songs on the jukebox, from old Chinese hits to the quintessentially local “Singapura, Sunny Island”. Set designers, sound designer and lighting designer Alvyn Chai have evidently put a lot of effort into transforming the Komtar auditorium, with black cloth used to create the back of the kampong, and easily evoking the vintage mood, situation and life the play intends to depict.

As the play begins, we watch as all the villagers come out (performed by director Ace, Glowers founder Catherine Sng, Cheong Wui Seng, George Chew, Estella Kwok, Shirley Lai, Lim Chiong Ngian, Susan Liew, Nancy Tay and Daisy Yeo), as we’re introduced to them as an ensemble. Despite never having lived in a kampong, this scene immediately puts a smile on our face, as we imagine how this close-knit community must have been like in the ‘good old days’. Each character is easily distinguished by their actions and their jobs, from a villager intent on striking the lottery, to paying off loans in the form of produce they get from their farms. Now privy to their squabbles and relationships, one immediately feels a sense of closeness to this kampong, a perfect portrayal of the way of life in the past.

Hearing that one of the villagers’ sons has obtained a cushy government job, it’s natural that everyone would celebrate his success. But in a cruel twist of fate, his first task involved resettling the villagers in his own kampong. We see a mix of reactions in the villagers – some happy to move out, others deeply concerned about what their next move might be, while other others were completely adamant about not falling prey to the government’s agendas. As part of the resettlement efforts, the villagers are informed that the land is to be taken back by the government and they will be repatriated for their losses. As they sign the forms, it is evident that the resettlement officer’s own mother is visibly upset by this, clearly displaying her disgust and taking it as a personal affront to her.

At this point, we learn more about the villagers’ relationship with each other, and the history of the village itself – the name itself comes from how the chempedak trees around the kampong to protect the villagers from the outside world. We listen to the villagers as they tell of their struggles and different situations they were currently in, the lighting helping to clearly demarcate each set of villagers as they twittered amongst themselves nervously. They speak of festivals where the entire kampong comes together to celebrate, but as times change, their own offspring move away to the city, and choose not to return, leaving their parents crestfallen.

Learning about each individual character, we meet fascinating figures such as the nightsoil collector, who has his very own rap number he sings while collecting waste, to the reptile master, maker of soups from frogs she finds or the snakes she catches around the kampong. Each of these villagers have their own dreams and aspirations, less about the things they did so much as their own wants and desires.

Yet, as much as they sing praises of the village, it’s not long before the cons are also revealed. Security issues are a main concern, with the villagers having to bathe in the open while snakes roam the kampong constantly. At one point, a fire from the neighbouring village even spreads to Chempedak, staged with a smoke machine and lights that helped to really capture the atmosphere of fear and disorientation.

As the show moves towards the ending, we see the villagers all packing up their belongings and getting ready to leave, coupled with a song to accompany them. This felt almost like a farewell song, each villager going through their own gauntlet of emotions. Certainly, while some were happy to finally leave, others were filled with deep uncertainty, and some vehemently against leaving at all. And as for the resettlement officer’s mother? Well, like a kampong, after receiving some words of comfort from the other villagers, she is finally convinced to leave the kampong along with the others.

We then watch as the set transforms from the kampong of old into modern Singapore, a clear shift in mood and form that changes the entire mood of the show. The pig farmer, for example, has reinvented her life, newly christened as Judy and enjoying new clothes and new freedom in this brave new world. Others find new jobs and adjust well to their new lives. But what’s truly beautiful about all this beyond seeing how well they’ve adapted, is how the kampong remains united in its own way, no longer having a physical space, yet still together, as they hold on tight to the kampong spirit as they gather again.

Sitting on chairs with their backs facing us, there is a great sense of relaxation and surety that the once villagers have finally settled down, having moved forward and determined not to look back. But the resettlement officer’s mother suddenly stands, alone, and explains the reality behind it all. It’s no longer the same kampong, and she no longer feels quite as close to her friends, finding it hard to adjust.

Kampong Chempedak is a seamlessly staged production that succinctly and emotionally describes the often difficult process of uprooting one’s life and adjusting to a new reality by letting go of the past. With each villager having their own story to tell, one imagines that every audience member has encountered these characters in some form or another before, making it incredibly relatable. And as the ending reiterates – there are all kinds of people leading all kinds of lives whether in the kampong, and just like the Chempedak, the fruits are together side by side, closely knit. It fills us with a pang of sadness then that even as we move and accept the inevitable march of progress, there remains something quintessentially powerful that is lost in the process, and no longer do we see the Chempedaks of before.

Performance attended 18/7/19 

Kampong Chempedak played on 18th and 19th July 2019 at Auditorium A, Komtar, as part of the 2019 George Town Festival.

George Town Festival 2019 runs from 13th to 28th July 2019. For tickets and full programme details, visit their website here

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