Arts Review Singapore

Review: I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron by Njo Kong Kie (Presented by Creative Links and Music Picnic, in association with Point View Art)

Poetic, melancholic lament on the crushing reality of invisible factory workers.

Life is hard. But some lives are harder than others. Take for instance life as an industrial factory worker, manufacturing electronic parts. Early starts and late ends for pittance, floor managers who constantly remind you of your replaceability, and the sheer monotony and exhaustion of the labour, it’s enough to drive anyone to death. And that’s exactly what happened to 24 year old Chinese factory worker Xu Lizhi, who committed suicide in 2014.

But what makes Xu different from the countless other cogs in the machine, whether still toiling away or already lost? Xu maintained a secret double life as a poet, writing for the 3 and a half years he was working for electronics manufacturer Foxconn in Shenzhen, and capturing the brutality and mundane nature of factory life in beautiful, profound and tragic detail, all while suicide rates around him skyrocketed, and the unbearable weight of being pressed down on him.

While details of Xu’s life and work has remained in circulation through the internet, a published book, and a documentary, depressing factory work remains a grim reality even today. In addressing this, Canadian composer and performer Njo Kong Kie transforms Xu’s poetry with the power of song in I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron, transforming his work into a melancholic anthem and cry of protest for the invisible thousands who remain exploited, their voices silenced.

Taking its title from one of Xu’s poems, one isn’t entirely sure what to expect from Njo’s performance. The set-up seems simple enough – all we see is a piano, a large metal cube on the floor, and a screen that displays Xu’s poetry. When the lights darken, Njo comes onstage, pondering the cube on the ground. He considers the audience before him, hunkers down for a moment, as if deep in thought, before seating himself at the piano. He is far older than Xu was, and in his visage, his pared down, simple attire, he seems tired, feels defeated.

Njo is reminiscent of artists like Thom Yorke or Bon Iver, the piano producing slow, haunting tunes that seem to fill and echo through the entire space. Xu’s poetry speaks of hopelessness and being treated as disposable, he writes of a life consumed by rust, of bleak, hell-like factory floors where workers move in a daze. Xu’s own words are sparse and direct, striking in their vivid imagery, and bring to the fore a mind-numbing, living nightmare. Njo’s interpretation of these words varies from poem to poem: at times he repeats words, trance-like, while at others he speeds through them, as if gripped by a terrifying need to push past it. Always, his voice sounds full of pain, aching with the burden of existence, so much that you hear it in every word, a person who’s at the end of his rope praying and hoping that someone helps him, even after already becoming resigned to his fate.

The projections on the screen vary, from the poems themselves (with English translations), to stark images of a fallen screw, when Njo sings of each worker reduced to a single, unimportant component, or various seemingly innocuous paraphernalia, a cellphone or a watch, before we realise these personal effects are precisely what lend each worker his individual identity and humanity. There are times Njo gets up from the piano and picks up the metal cube to rearrange it. It seems heavy, again a metaphor for the weight of life. Powerful light shines down, sometimes bathed in the red of blood shed, and towards the end, a heavenly glow that seems to suggest his arduous journey is finally at an end, while we see images of water play across the screen, drifting down the river of life.

The Arts House Chamber always feels like a notoriously difficult venue to programme for, a space that was never intended for performances. But with I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron, it seems to be a perfect location to bring out the piece’s inherent themes, of calls for change in a space where Parliament used to debate policies over the future of the nation. There is an intimacy afforded to the closeness between audience members and Njo, almost no distance at all given the small audience numbers, and how we can see his face perfectly, and it is hard not to feel emotional over how effectively all these elements come together to produce such a powerful reaction, in sympathising and feeling Xu’s pain so viscerally channeled through Njo’s performance.

It is especially tragic how easily we can stare at our screens and use our electronic devices, all using parts manufactured by companies like Foxconn, and not even be aware of the human cost it takes to make them. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for us when we’re confronted face to face with such harsh truths, the loss of such a brilliant life so young and so full of suffering. As Njo sings the final words, his voice echoing through the mic as he exits the Chamber, there is a momentary silence while we consider Xu’s words and his dying legacy – how many more lives have to be lost before the sweatshops finally close once and for all.

Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron played on 14th March 2023, 730pm and 930pm at the Chamber @ The Arts House. More information available here

0 comments on “Review: I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron by Njo Kong Kie (Presented by Creative Links and Music Picnic, in association with Point View Art)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: