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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Life & times of Kuo Pao Kun

An exhibition shows the late theatre practitioner not only as a playwright, director and arts educator, but also a mentor, dutiful husband and loving father
The Straits Times - September 18, 2012
By: Corrie Tan
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Life & times of Kuo Pao Kun PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN, ASHLEIGH SIM, COURTESY OF THE THEATRE PRACTICE, THE FAMILY OF KUO PAO KUN AND T. SASITHARAN, PAPER MONKEY THEATRE

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore will put the life of a theatre artist in the spotlight for the first time - the late theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun, whose plays and education have shaped a generation of theatre-makers in Singapore.

Apart from his well-known works and artistic accomplishments, A Life Of Practice - Kuo Pao Kun will also offer the public a glimpse of his private life away from the glare of the Singapore stage.

From miniscule notations in the margins of The Complete Works Of Shakespeare to tender letters to his family while he was in detention, the exhibition paints a picture of a man who was deeply committed to his art and to the people he loved. The exhibition, which opened last Saturday, is on till Feb 24.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a documentary play titled Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun, presented by TheatreWorks, will be performed in the exhibition space. It stars seasoned actors Karen Tan and Lim Kay Tong as the pioneering arts couple and blends Madam Goh's oral interviews with text from Kuo's letters and works.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Kuo's death. He died in 2002 from liver and kidney cancer at age 63.

His eldest daughter, Jian Hong, 45, tells Life! that looking back after a decade has given the family some distance to reflect on her father's life.

"If it was any sooner, I think it probably might have been too emotionally loaded," she says.

"In a 10-year interval, there's still a lot of first- hand information coming from people who knew him, who have worked with him, who can tell you stories about him. So this process has been very personal and very comfortable.

"Because of the existence of all these people who were his friends, colleagues or students, I think it makes it a good time to do this exhibition."

Jian Hong is artistic director of The Theatre Practice, the bilingual theatre company founded by her father and known for its incisive social commentary. She has a younger sister, Jing Hong, 41, who is also an arts practitioner.

The backbone of the exhibition is a timeline of Kuo's life, running in parallel with the various developments in the Singapore arts scene.

Ms Lynn Lee, 25, the exhibition's curator, says: "We're exploring his various roles in Singapore society and the Singapore arts scene. It's not just limited to him as a dramatist because I think he's more than that. He actually created this environment that is conducive for artistic practitioners and fostered a group of aspiring artists."

There are eight rooms themed around five of Kuo's landmark plays, the development of the arts centre The Substation, as well as the Singapore Performing Arts School and the Theatre Training and Research Programme, all of which he had a hand in founding.

The highlighted plays are: The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985), The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree (1987), Mama Looking For Her Cat (1988), Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (1995) and The Spirits Play (1998). These works have been restaged constantly over the years.

The exhibition gallery houses about 200 manuscripts, books, posters, photographs and letters that will take viewers through the sweep of his life in the larger context of Singapore.

About 80 per cent of the exhibition's artefacts are on loan to the museum from Kuo's family and The Theatre Practice. The remaining material comes from a variety of other sources, including the National Library Board and Kuo's friends and colleagues.

Jian Hong says with a laugh that the materials on show are but a tiny fraction of her prolific father's possessions. For instance, he gave away stacks of books to friends and other theatre institutions, but the family still has more than 40 boxes of his books stored in their home.

She recalls how he would take notebooks on his trips abroad just to jot down his encounters and experiences, filling them up very quickly.

Many of his notebooks and letters have been left in the family home's nooks and crannies, bound up in raffia string.

She says: "His work is not just the plays he wrote. Every single piece of paper is a reflection of him. His life and his work cannot be separated."

Kuo was born in Hebei, China, in 1939 and moved to Singapore when he was 10 years old.

He met his lifelong partner, dance pioneer and educator Goh Lay Kuan, now 73, when he joined the Rediffusion Mandarin Drama Group in the 1950s.

They married in 1965 and founded the Singapore Performing Arts School (later called the Practice Performing Arts School) - the school's opening was also their wedding day.

A 40-minute interview with the feisty and straight-talking Goh will be screened, on a loop, at the exhibition, where she talks about how they built the institution together.

In 1976, Goh and Kuo were arrested, together with nearly 50 others, for alleged communist activities under the Internal Security Act. She was released after about two months and he was freed after four years and seven months. He was stripped of his citizenship, which was reinstated only in 1992.

During his incarceration, he sent copious amounts of letters to his family and took the time to consume a great deal of world literature and taught himself the Malay language.

On display among the exhibits is a letter to his wife explaining how to set up the lights in the theatre and how they worked, accompanied by carefully drawn diagrams.

And when he learnt that his daughters were going to Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, he encouraged them to pen down their thoughts and experiences of the trip and even created a little worksheet for them to familiarise them with the different Malaysian states and cities.

All his letters are lined with the same impeccable handwriting, nary a stroke out of place.

National Museum director Lee Chor Lin, 50, who knew Kuo personally, tells Life!: "You think of the four years and seven months he spent in prison. Did he wallow in his sorrows and pain? Did he feel sorry for himself? No. He studied and he was very positive about everything and he managed to turn almost every adversity into an opportunity. He's just so undeterred, so undefeatable.

"And I think you really need something like that when you're in the arts. You can't be crying every time you don't get a grant. So I suppose this exhibition is also a reminder to everyone that if you're taking up the arts as your life mission, you have to be strong and ready."

When asked if the Kuo family had any reservations about sharing his private letters in public, Jian Hong says that they were careful to read the letters and make sure the privacy of the people he was referring to was not violated.

She adds: "When he was around, we had to share him with a lot of people. And that was most obvious after he passed away, at the wake. People came and a lot of the time, I felt like I had to comfort the people that came.

"He was my father, my sister's father, my mum's husband, but he was also a father figure to a lot of people. Or a brother, a friend or a confidante. So when he was around, we were already sharing him with a lot of people. When he's gone, we're still sharing him with a lot of people. And that's fine, we just have to be mindful of other people's privacy."

On the more theatrical side of things, visitors will get to see his detailed notes in the margins of scripts such as Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's The Bear and Kuo's first full-length Chinese play, Hey, Wake Up! (1968).

There are also posters and programme notes available for each of the five highlighted plays, together with reproductions of his notes on the texts.

Excerpts from performances of the works will be screened and in the case of The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1985), visitors with a bit more time can watch the premiering English and Chinese versions of the play in their entirety.

Much of Kuo's influence can still be seen in the Singapore theatre scene today. He introduced the idea of the multilingual, intercultural play to Singapore audiences and used his works to comment on social issues that straddled every strata of Singapore society.

Ms Lee adds: "The theatre scene we see today, it's just unimaginable without Pao Kun. If he hadn't been there, all these things wouldn't have happened.

"Pao Kun did so much and prepared the ground, not just because he was pushing the envelope himself, but also because he's trained a generation of practitioners who have all come into their own now."

So, what would Kuo make of this extensive exhibition dedicated to his life?

Jian Hong quips: "I don't know. He might look at it and say, 'Maybe this part, you should adjust'."

She adds, on a more serious note, that he would probably be flattered by the fact that people still remember him: "I don't think it's so much about, 'Please come and see my dad', because he would say, 'You siao (crazy) ah?'

"I think it's more about his life. His lifetime was a period of time that was part of Singapore's history and it's not just his work but the work he did with many people and the work that these people did with many other people.

"So I think it's a reflection of a community, a reflection of time, a reflection of our development. And for us to see it today - for theatre practitioners, we see where we came from, and for Singaporeans, to see part of our history told from a different perspective."

Book it

A LIFE OF PRACTICE - KUO PAO KUN

Where: Exhibition Gallery 2, National Museum of Singapore

When: Till Feb 24, 10am to 6pm daily

Admission: $11 from the museum's visitor services counters

Info: Call 6332-3659 or go to www.nationalmuseum.sg

GOH LAY KUAN & KUO PAO KUN: A DOCUMENTARY PLAY

Where: Exhibition Gallery 2, National Museum of Singapore

When: Oct 25 and 26, Nov 22 and 23, Jan 10 and 11, Feb 21 and 22, 8pm

Admission: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

MAMA LOOKING FOR HER CAT

Where: National Museum Gallery Theatre (Basement 1)

When: Friday and Saturday, 8pm, Saturday and Sunday, 3pm

Admission: $32 from Sistic

Info: www.papermonkey.com.sg

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