fear not history
Fiction on this island has never quite flourished. Perhaps because we've never quite made peace with our histories.
But two genres of fiction hold special place in Singapore as a result. Ghost stories - the art of unresolved pasts. And that even stranger fruit of fact-as-fiction/fiction-as-history. Part speculative history. Part documentary fiction. A romance of obscurity.
The Lan Fang Chronicles, Choy Ka Fai's work supported by the Arts Council's Arts Creation Fund and commissioned for this year's Arts Festival, is maybe of this latter genre.
Choy Ka Fai chances upon the Lan Fang Republic, supposedly the first democratic republic in SEAsia, set up by the Hakka Chinese in West Borneo. His research in West Borneo, China and Holland takes him through archival material, abandoned sites, photocopied photographs, a supposed descendent of Luo Fang Bo (founder of Lan Fang) and accounts of Dutch missionaries and colonists. These materials allow him to re-construct a skeletal history of the Hakka mining settlement and its relationship with the Malays, Dayaks and Dutch in Borneo. These materials also allow him to construct a fiction of imagined characters, objects and - history.
What results is described in the Festival programme as a "site-specific installation performance". (It may better to ignore this phrase. I think it has the unfortunate effect of discouraging further interest)
Using the Shuang Long Shan ancestral hall site at Commonwealth as a backdrop, you will be guided through 5 locations where several solo performances take place. These players each offer a perspective of the Lan Fang republic. Each performance is "aided" by different media - photographs, video, ritual, objects...
I don't want to say more and spoil it for you. Tickets for the Lan Fang Chronicles this Thursday to Sunday (7pm + weekend 3pm matinees) are available still. Get them via sistic.
For me, most aspects of this work works. It invites curiosity, and provides just enough for the audience's imagination to wander, sometimes drawing links with the issues of present-day Singapore. The material and production demonstrates admirable rigour and restraint. The performers, especially Jajib Soiman with his eerily evocative segment before the cemetery, handled their seemingly academic material well.
And if nothing else, the location itself is reason enough. Go slightly earlier and walk around a Hakka Clan's 100 year-old ancestral hall hidden behind a 2nd-hand car showroom, and its domino style cemetery of mosaic-tiled tombstones surrounded by HDB flats.