Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dick Lee's "Forbidden City", History and Identity

Forbidden City Collage

Inside, there were the rows and rows of red plush chairs and red velvet hangings and there was an exciting subterranean orchestral pit from which the conductor's head and baton protruded and there were box seats where you could lean your elbows on varnished wood and survey the onstage proceedings coolly through your little set of opera glasses. Outside, there were crewcut girls from the Singapore Repertory Theatre singing out,"Get your Forbidden City souvenirs right here!" and "Programmes for S$2!" and "CDs for S$20! Cheaper than HMV!" and then cunningly teasing,"Get a CD, I know you wanna, you know you wanna!". After which NotAFanofKit not only got a CD, but also scored Kit Chan's autograph while FanofKit stayed behind the stage door and giggled.
Forbidden City - Kit's Autographs
The musical covered about 50 years of Chinese history through the Hundred Days of Reform of 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. There were bits about the love of the young concubine Yehenara for the fickle Emperor, the parallel mistaken love/trust of American painter Kate Carl (Leigh McDonald) for/in the conniving British journalist George "Trust me, I'm a journalist" Harrison (Hal Fowler). There was the suggestion that our understanding of current affairs, which later passes off as history, could, in fact, be nothing more than fictitious tales concocted by whoever has control of the mass media. The possible paucity of the storyline and the lack of character development've already been much discussed during the last two runs of Steven Clark/Dick Lee's "Forbidden City: Potrait of an Empress" in Singapore.

On the penultimate night during this third run, the voice of Kit Chan, reprising her role as the younger Empress Dowager Cixi/Yehenara, was beautiful and clear but not quite muscular enough for the stage. Filipino veteran Sheila Francisco's mature Empress Dowager alto was more nicely velvety than Blossom Lam's upsized vibrato on the CD (interestingly enough, Francisco was Lam's understudy for the last run). But the chorus, alas, was muffled and weak. Lack of volume compounded by poor enunciation meant that at times, they were lost to the orchestra and the audience had to rely on the Chinese subtitles to keep them in the loop. Not cool for a work that is through-sung, or mostly anyway. Later, when we saw the ensemble fagging away outside the stage door and then buying packets of fried kway teow from Gluttons Bay around midnight, we knew why.

Dick Lee's chord progressions, apparently, were pleasant and ordinary. But the same leitmotifs were repeated more often than necessary (yes, we know it's meant to be a leitmotif, let's move on!) and some melodic bits sounded like they got themselves recycled from popular Broadway musicals or Dick's older songs. The orchestration with Western and Chinese (erhu, Chinese flute, Chinese gong) instruments was just on the right side of the kitsch line although he appeared to delight in crossing the line for the cheeky Record Keepers (Hossan Leong and Sebestian Tan). The use of minor chords, played loudly, as musical exclamation marks, was unfortunate and clumsy.

The minimalist set, however, was brill: the suggestion of the interior of a train in the opening scene; the use of simple white Chinese screens to great effect to create the impression, variously, of a cold imposing palace hall, a summer palace courtyard of children flying kites and catching butterflies, a burnt brutalised ruin, boxing in, keeping out, delineating the boundaries of the environment. Yay, Francis O'Connor! In addition to the usual use of spotlights, the central character of a scene was made to stand out from his surroundings by the contrast of colours, a vivid imperial yellowness or a rich redness of against a monochromatic background. Nice.
From Francis O' Connor's website
There has been some debate if "Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress" is a true and accurate account of the life of the much-feared Dragon Lady. I must admit that I first heard of her, belatedly, in the musical. Chinese language teachers in Singapore government schools would have inculcated their students with a sense of shame to accompany this sort of confession. An ethnic Chinese unable to speak Chinese?! A yellow-skinned person woolly-minded about the history of the country of his/her forefathers?! The disgrace! Without knowledge of this history, a Chinese person is surely without identity.

So if we order food in Chinese restaurants by pointing at pictures or trying to figure out dodgy English translations or if we rely on people like Peter Hessler (who wrote "River Town" and "Oracle Bones". Sample his work here, here and here) to tell us about contemporary China, or if Chinese hiphop sounds to us as foreign as Franco-pop or Ibiza dance, should the colour of our skin make us apologetic?
Chinese history has no bearing on my life: neither emperors nor eunuchs nor innumerable court intrigues nor effeminate scholars of generations past. To the mainland Chinese, it is obvious I am not one of them. Unlike Cassia, 中国不是我的母国. I do not look back to China as my homeland. Singapore is my *ahem* home, truly, where I grew up and whose accent I bear.

But yet again, my identity is less Singaporean than it is Christian, and my home is less Singapore than it is heaven. And if I should be apologetic, I should be apologetic about this: neither knowing the history of my Father working in human history nor knowing the history of my forefathers, the generations of men and women, regardless of citizenship, race or culture, who've gone before us in faith and obedience, and with whom we will one day share a home for all eternity.

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At October 03, 2006 11:10 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

so sad i din catch it. can lend me cd pls? i get fr u aft svc?


At October 03, 2006 12:22 pm , Anonymous Marcus said...

My friends and I found your web site on art and Christians very encouraging. Kudos to your hard work.

God bless,

~A light on a hill can not be hidden~

At October 03, 2006 12:48 pm , Anonymous fanofkit said...

i believe notafanofkit has crossed over to become a fanofkit. While fanofkit remains a slightly closeted fanofkit... :-)

At October 03, 2006 2:43 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a review of Forbidden City here too.

At October 04, 2006 11:18 am , Blogger shadow said...

anonymous at 11.10am: sure! But Fanofkit has first rights. :-) And also there's that little problem of not knowing who you are. ;-)

Marcus: cool. There're many bits of our lives that need to come under the kingship of God, aren't there?

fanofkit: notafanofkit is still notafanofkit but could possibly be a dontreallymindadicklee. fanofkit must come out of the closet and become like realboyfanofkit! fanofkit must also find a way of getting the CD from me.

anonymous at 2.43pm: cheers.

At October 11, 2006 4:55 pm , Blogger Carpe Diem - Phil 3:7-16 said...

Can't believe you caught the show the night after I did. =P

Agree with you on the chorus' enunciation and the simple yet effective set pieces. Another delight is Leigh and Hal's voices in their roles as the painter and journalist respectively, don't you think?

Next stop for me is March/April's Phantom of the Opera. Not having seen it, I'm really looking forward to it!


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