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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Bridge to art from Malaysia

History and race are some of the issues explored in Malaysian arts fest Causeway Exchange
The Straits Times - August 21, 2012
By: Adeline Chia
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Bridge to art from Malaysia Written by playwright Kannan Menon, At A Plank Bridge (above) explores the conflict between a Chinese Malaysian and an Indian Malaysian. -- PHOTO: THE ACTORS STUDIO

Politics takes centre stage at Causeway Exchange, a Malaysian arts festival staged in Singapore, with works exploring racial stereotypes, Singapore- Malaysia relations and Malayan history.

Held at The Arts House from Thursday to Sunday, the festival is in its third year and features a compact, multi- disciplinary programme.

The line-up includes a historical play about an explosive encounter in post-war Malaya, a comedy about Indian stereotypes and a stand-up comedy about Singapore-Malaysia ties.

Other programmes include a production by one of Malaysia's leading dance companies, Dua Space Dance Theatre, film screenings - with a segment dedicated to the late Malaysian film-maker Yasmin Ahmad - and an art exhibition.

The festival is organised by The Arts House and local entertainment group DMR Productions, which usually presents foreign comedy acts in Singapore.

The political slant of a few productions in the festival was not deliberate but rather to give audiences here a taste of the range of Malaysian art practice from veteran artists to emerging ones, says DMR's director Shawn Lourdusamy.

At A Plank Bridge is penned by established Kuala Lumpur-based playwright Kannan Menon, 61, and harks back to an important historical period - Malaysia, 1945, after the surrender of the Japanese during World War II.

It starts out as an encounter between a Chinese Malaysian and an Indian Malaysian at a plank bridge in rural Malaysia.

Fook Leong, a Chinese middle-school teacher, discovers a large handcart next to a bench on the road. When he examines the cart, he is attacked by Chandran, who thinks that Fook Leong is a bandit.

Their initial confrontation is easily resolved but as they speak, they discover that they have a far deeper conflict. Without giving too much away, the play weaves in the fraught historical backdrop of wartime Malaya, including the anti- Japanese resistance and the communist rebellion.

Menon, a full-time lawyer based in New York, tells Life! over the telephone that the play is a "political thriller", where there is a gradual revelation of the characters' sympathies.

Although the play is set in a very specific time and place, he says the ultimate test of the play's universality was when it was performed in New York before its Kuala Lumpur showing earlier this year.

"The audiences knew nothing about Malayan history but I think they understood the broad strokes, if not the nuances, of where the characters came from, what they stood for and where they wanted to go."

Menon is known for his plays with political themes, such as A Fireside Story (1970), Malaysia's first musical and centring on the aftermath of the May 13 race riots of 1969; and Haze Fever (1997), a series of comedic sketches about the haze caused by the Indonesian forest fires.

At A Plank Bridge will star prominent Malaysian television and stage actor Mano Maniam as Chandran and New York-based singer-actor Chan Ming Lye.

Racial politics will also be explored in a more light-hearted way in the comedy Indian Lawyers, written by Malaysian copywriter-turn-playwright Santhira Morgan, 53.

The script plays on the stereotype that Indians are the ultimate smooth-talkers. In the play, a Chinese gangster is accused of murder and refuses to consider a Chinese or Malay lawyer - he wants an Indian because he believes that only such lawyers can "speak Indian" - have the ability to make black look white and vice versa.

Morgan, who has a law degree, says he wants to explore "if there is any truth to the stereotype that Indians are manipulative and glib". He prefers to leave the question open: "If the gangster goes scot-free, is that due to the skill of the lawyer or the fault of the law?"

He is the producer and director of Serious Comedy Studio, a theatre company he set up five years ago. It specialises in "discussing serious or sensitive issues via comedy", he says.

The company's productions include Islamophobia, a comedy about the prejudice against Muslims, and My Name, Virgin Nia, a satire about Chinese- educated Chinese who secretly hate being Chinese.

More laughs will be generated in the stand-up comedy 1 Malaysia, performed by three up-and-coming comedians Rizal Van Geyzel, Jason Leong and Kavin Jay. They will each come on stage as politicians giving their maiden speeches on how to take Malaysia to new heights.

Leong, 27, who is a doctor at the Accident & Emergency department in Hospital Selayang Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, says he will be poking fun at the "love-hate relationship between Singaporeans and Malaysians".

He says: "The stereotype is that Singapore is a much more 'civilised' nation compared to Malaysia. Malaysians also view Singaporeans as aloof and superior."

He hosts a monthly show called Comedy Kao Kao at a cafe-lounge called The Bee in Kuala Lumpur, and hopes to be a full-time comedian one day.

The late film-maker Yasmin Ahmad will be given a tribute by her employer, the advertising agency Leo Burnett Group, where she had worked 16 years before she died of a stroke in 2009.

The award-winning director was well- known for her warm-hearted and humorous advertisements for Petronas, the oil and gas company, and her films exploring inter-racial relationships.

The book, Yasmin How You Know?, commemorates the third anniversary of her death by compiling anecdotes ranging from her time as a student to the many phases of her life to her untimely passing. Interviews with more than 200 of her friends, family and colleagues were conducted.

Also included are her writings and snapshots as well as the last two television commercial scripts by her.

All proceeds from book sales will be donated to humanitarian group Mercy Malaysia. The book, priced at $26.20, is also available at Books Kinokuniya.

The book launch on Saturday will be followed by a screening of her first telemovie, Rabun (2003), about the adventures of an elderly couple who quit city life for the calm of the country.

Mr Tan Kien Eng, chief executive of Leo Burnett Group Malaysia, says: "It was our effort to remember and honour Yasmin, a long-time Burnetter, to remember the special person she was, how she has moved people through her work and words, and to continue to pass on her legacy to others."

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