In celebration of my trip to Singapore with my mama, I reckon this is the perfect time to post about Singaporean writer Kuo Pao Kun’s play Mama Looking for Her Lost Cat + the ideas that stood out to me as I read Between Tongues: Translation and/of/in Performance in Asia, edited by Jennifer Lindsay.
Pretty much all of my “self-guided research” has been reading plays, seeing live performance + reading about Chinese performance theory. Since I anticipate that my play about Taiwan will be bilingual, translation is something that has been on my mind quite a bit. When I spotted Between Tongues on a shelf of my school’s library, checking it out was a no-brainer. + here I discovered Kuo Pao Kun.
Once I got past all of the jargon of Between Tongues’ introduction, I realized I was most interested in the sections about performance in Singapore because of its large Chinese population.
In Singapore, English is the official language, but Mandarin is taught to children of Chinese descent, Tamil taught to children of Indian descent, + Malay taught to children of Malay descent. In the not-too-distant past, this created interesting problems within these defined ethnic groups, in that those who spoke different dialects were sometimes isolated from the larger group as a whole, + often on a family level. I am not sure if this is true now, but in the 1970’s + 80’s, it was not uncommon for Chinese children in Singapore to grow up speaking English + Mandarin, while their parents + Grandparents spoke only Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese. This is exactly what Mama Looking for Her Cat focuses on.
My school’s library never ceases to amaze me, + I was able to take out a collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s plays that included Mama Looking for Her Cat + The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, two of Kun’s most influential plays.
Mama Looking for Her Cat is about a Hokkien speaking woman who has lost her cat. The Mandarin, Cantonese + English speaking children around her love her for her stories but also grow easily tired of her inability to communicate with them in their preferred languages. They think it is weird that she has a cat that she dotes on. But the cat is the only thing in the world that Mama has to relate to–who will always listen, + always show love in return.
At one point Mama meets an Indian man who is also looking for a lost cat. Neither can speak the others’ language, but through a series of pantomimed gestures, they are able to communicate that they have both lost cats that they love very much, + describe the way that they look. They do this successfully.
The play is quite short, but extremely powerful. I read the play over dumplings in the school cafeteria + it was all I could do not to weep for Mama at the end of the play. Even being able to understand every word (reading the play entirely in English), I could feel Mama’s isolation + the deep isolation of others similarly affected.
The section of Between Tongues that most relates to this play is Quah Sy Ren‘s “Performing Multilingualism in Singapore,” in which he addresses the use of multiple languages on stage by Kuo Pao Kun + Stella Kon. Here are the sections that stood out to me:
“…By questioning the neat division of language along racial lines, I propose that multilingualism in theatre also aims to shatter such compartmentalization whilst attempting to construct a new kinds of pluralism and multiculturalism.” (p90)
“…I would argue that those productions less concerned about the audience’s ability to understand the languages employed, were in fact the most successful in their representation of Singaporean multilingualism…Kon and Kun’s representation of characters that are not confined to the usual educated middle class enabled them to explore the possibilities of searching for a uniquely local language closer to reality…[T]he experience of being unable to understand all the dialogues fully during the performance paradoxically evoked a sense of empathy amongst the audience, whether they were mainly Mandarin-speaking or English-speaking.” (p95-96)
I will definitely have language on the mind while I am in Singapore. I can’t wait to share about my Singapore adventures with my mama!
Here’s a spectacular cover by Rufus Wainwright that comes to mind when I think of traveling with my mom.