Friday, June 20, 2014

Women of Asia

Launched by Empower Foundation in Bangkok last April, this art exhibition themed 'Yet, still we dance! - Sex Workers of ASEAN' came to Singapore's Substation 4 - 6 June. Art pieces are created by sex workers in the region, expressing their thoughts and feelings.

The Singapore counterpart to Empower is Project X, and also contributed to the art pieces. It was apt that I managed to catch this exhibition before watching the Singapore production of 'Women of Asia' staged by GenerAsia. (Till 28 June, tickets via TicketMash. 1.5 hours, no intermission. Go!)

Written almost 26 years ago by Madame Asa Gim Palomera when she was artist-in-residence at Chulalongkorn University, the themes and story lines in 'Women of Asia' are unsurprisingly relevant today. She is also director for this Singapore production. She's a playwright I respect immensely. The play has been performed in New York, Melbourne and Bangkok. Am glad it has come to Singapore. Whether the play is still relevant today, it's all a matter of perception.

The seven separate stories, (nine in total if you include the opening and closing scenes) tell of the fate and destiny of different women in the region. Loads of stereotypes that have sadly been true for many women, some 'slaves' to tradition, some of circumstance, and many also drew the shorter end of the stick. Scenes are titled 'Milking Madame Butterfly', 'Virgin Sale', 'Prisoner of Soy Sauce', 'The Indian Dowry', 'You Don't Love Me', 'Japanese Housewife in San Francisco' and 'Woman on Top'. The friends and I were talking about the differences between this Singapore June 2014 version and the one in Bangkok staged in August 2013. I wouldn't say that a scene has been left out. One scene has been replaced. It's perhaps a conscious selection of the scenes to be staged in Singapore. I would have liked to watch the audience reaction to that original scene though. :D

There're too many themes to be explored and dissected in 'Women of Asia'. The stories, while adapted from newspaper reports, unfortunately, remain along cultural and ethnic lines of which I find hard to imagine for many Asian women now. For example, I don't get 'Japanese Housewife in San Francisco'. It's fantastic food for thought though, because many of these stories ring familiar in the news, daily. You've got to watch it to have a think about how privileged many women in Singapore are, in contrast to many women in Asia, and how far we've come since the crappy 70s and 80s of having the government be the main architect for family planning decisions and supposed allocated gender roles. I strongly believe a large part of it has to do with the unfettered access to education. We still have a lot of work to be done in this area, but we'll get there. I'll not venture into discussions of social values, feminism or politics.

There weren't fancy stage backdrops. Aided by spot lighting, there were six tall white screens effectively shifted and positioned to signify a scene change, along with the different sets of actors and costumes. The monologues were well helmed by Nora Samosir and Koh Chieng Mun. It was very good to see them on stage again. The rest of the cast, many relative newcomers to the stage, held up their scenes superbly, some providing laughs to diffuse other serious topics of marriages and relationships, and two scenes were intentionally provocative in the small LASALLE black box space to make audiences feel something.

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