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May 30, 2011

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Singapore looks back in time

THE Singapore Arts Festival is trying to create its own identity by giving more oppor-tunities to less well-known artists rather than just inviting big-name acts, writes Zha Minjie.

One of the highlights of this year's Singapore Arts Festival is a mobile karaoke bar on a truck that roams on the city-state's streets. Don't be surprised if you're there and see a woman on the truck, holding a microphone and singing "The Moon Represents My Heart" in pure Chinese.

Anyone can be invited onto the truck to belt out their favorite songs of past decades.

"That's what may be shared or connected in Asia," said Low Kee Hong, the festival's general manager.

With the theme "I Want to Remember," the festival is in a sense trying to help foster a stronger Singapore identity.

"The theme examines our own capacity and desire to remember what has been lost, left behind or forgotten in the name of progress and civilization," the former dancer and director said.

"It's hard to move on if there is no reference point."

In the Festival Village, which has a stage made of wood and bamboo, at Esplanade Park, tourists and locals can gather around a small box and listen to the Chinese classic story "Journey to the West." This version is narrated by Lei Dai Sor, the late legendary Cantonese storyteller, and is back after a 10 year hiatus.

A tour guide named Yusoff, said he fondly remembers listening to "Journey to the West" on the radio back in the 1950s-1960s.

"It's like young people who watch 'Gossip Girls' nowadays," Yusoff said.

As a tribute to Lei, some young radio DJs were sharing a slice of the past by telling ghastly ghost stories at the village.

Over at the stage, Nitin Sawhney's drum and bass performance seemed to cheer up the crowd as the Indian-British musician's music wafted in the warm, night air.

Many festival attendees come to remember events from their past, Low said.

"You do not have to like it," said Low, "but you have to know it.

"Still, it's not just about nostalgia," he added.

The ambitious general manager said he wants to change the landscape of the festival, which is in its 33rd year, and with a bit of luck, the cultural industry in Singapore.

Instead of inviting world famous bands or artists to the festival, the organizer is giving plenty of chances to less well-known art groups.

About half of the performances of the festival are "new stuff" or brand new art groups or companies, Low said.

The figure will rise to 70 percent next year.

"Not all of the shows will make sense," the general manager said. "We just put the puzzle on the table and let the audience think about history and memory."

That may explain the booming art industry in Singapore as arts societies and companies increased from 647 in 2005 to 1,004 in 2009.

And the percent of the population, a mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians, who has attended at least one arts event in the past year has increased from 33 percent in 2005 to 40 percent.

Meanwhile, "Life and Times" by the New York City-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma presented a wildly experimental and surprisingly delightful play based on the life story of one of their own members created from a single phone conversation. The group presented Episode 1, they plan a series of 10 that will eventually stretch 24 hours, and afterwards audience members could be forgiven if they felt as though they had just relived the first eight years of their life all over again.

Meanwhile, members of the theater company The Necessary Stage were rehearsing for "Singapore," the latest play by the company's founder and artistic director Alvin Tan.

Tan, who has written more than 40 plays including "Lanterns Never Go Out" and "Fundamentally Happy," said he wants to help people remember what it means to be Singaporean.

"We will not know how to remember if we don't know what to remember," Tan said.

With its mix of cultures, Singapore does not have one "strong mother culture" and has been referred to as a "cultural desert."

But truthfully, there's plenty of culture in Singapore. It's just a matter of knowing where to find it.

"Instead of multiculturalism we are looking for inter-culturalism," said Kee Hong.

Performances Aplenty

The Singapore Arts Festival 2011 lasts from May 13 to June 5. The festival features 62 premier productions by 81 artists and arts companies from more than 20 countries based on the theme "I Want to Remember."

The performances are shown or staged at six main venues around the famous Singapore Marina Bay area and the busy business hub of Orchard Road.

Tourists can get a taste of the festival at the Festival Village where they can engage in conversations with artists and enjoy drinks and snacks.

There is also a children's village in the Festival Village.


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