Intentionally Concerned, Accidentally Titoudao

Titoudao: A Nostalgic Play on Singapore WayangTitoudao: A Nostalgic Play on Singapore Wayang

Seven-thirty saw me stopping by the National Library for a quiet dinner at Hans. As I sat outside in the warmth of the Singapore night, I browsed the web through my little computer. While sifting through emails of students submitting their blog assignments, I stared at my grilled fish dinner once again pondering on whether I’m truly happy with where I am in life. By the end of April, my role as a teacher would be over, and I’ll revert back to being a student given the charge of writing insurmountable amounts of papers to earn that seemingly impossible doctoral degree. I worry a lot, but then again, stress is good, since it keeps me on my toes.

Just then I noticed how my favorite library (second being Library@Esplanade) had a trove of people (and students) going up to the third floor. I recalled how the drama center was located there, though I had never been inside. Finishing the slice of melon in my dinner set, I packed my little computer and headed upstairs to investigate. Everyone was dressed for the occasion and it seemed more than just a regular night at the theater. Checking in with the show posters and brochures, I realized that tonight was the last showing of Titoudao, an interesting local production by the acclaimed Toy Factory.

Just my luck, there was a table of volunteers selling the remaining tickets. I went forth to ask what seats were available and for how much. Pointing to the seating chart, the girl said it would be $54, to which I felt was a decent price to pay if it were a good experience. As I opened my wallet, my heart sank… I only had $25 in cash. A senior lady came in (supposedly the manager) and said it’s ok, that I could pay part of it first and the rest during the intermission from the ATM downstairs (actually at the next building at Bras Basah). Thanking her, I grabbed the tickets just as the show was about to start.

My seat couldn’t have been better, as being on the second level circle meant that I had a vantage of all the action. A few kids started flashing their cameras on each other, to which the ushers went over to give them a lecture. Note that the ushers walked past me while I took the pictures above. While I could have taught those kids how to take photos covertly, I did it on my own because I wanted to share my experience in a respectful way. I feel that my words alone can’t give the authenticity of life as much as pictures do. Still, I know my limits and didn’t take any photos once the show really started.

I couldn’t possibly share every detail of the production, but there wasn’t a moment that I rested on my seat. The actors were constantly phasing in and out of their wayang performance, historical and modern day personas, using presentism ideas as a point of humor. With a history so colorful, the street wayang days are now numbered. This non-traditional traditional media known as the wayang (literally means “fake performance”) has now been overrun by modern media forms, fragmented over DVDs, cinemas, the Internet and what have you.

Here’s the gist of what the performance was about:

Titoudao is an English music drama about the life of a Hokkien street opera actress, Madam Oon Ah Chiam. During her early twenties, Madam Oon performed the role of this incorrigible but likeable character – Titoudao, to such perfection that the public fondly called her by this stage name. This is a play inspired by Madam Oon’s memories and experiences.

Set in the 1940s to the present day, Titoudao begins from her childhood in the poor rural area near Upper Bukit Timah Road. It traces her struggles against all odds to become a renowned wayang (Street Opera) star in Singapore and Malaysia. Through her painstaking story, we see the societal and economical changes in Singapore. It is a moving account of the struggles of a petite Chinese woman set against the progression of an ever developing island city. A heartwarming play that is poignant yet hilarious, it will make you burst into peals of laughter at one moment and weep the next. You will leave the theatre inspired by this extraordinary life experience of Madam Oon.

I really loved this performance not just because it was entertaining, but did excellent in its pedagogical approach to sharing a dying part of Singapore’s history. It reinforced some of the memories I had of childhood, and revealed once again the meaning of passion when one has to suffer through hardship. This is something very few Singaporean kids will understand.. to live with the fear of no tomorrow, yet being strong enough to dream in times of despair. Since I felt that it a socially important performance, I’ve donated some money to Toy Factory and signed up to be a volunteer. As the Dalai Lama once said to us students in UB, helping soothe the pain of others helps you forget the pains of your own.

The entire cast rocked, but it was Pam Oei how showed the most prowess being the lead actress. I’m sure that at some point, most of us have wondered about taking this acting route. The closest I’ve come to acting was by being an extra on an episode of a local Chinese TV series on Civil Defense, and I was actually given lines. Perhaps we’re all acting but we don’t know it. Even as a teacher today, I do feel that I am performing constantly with 75 pairs of eyes watching over me every week.

Being the last performance, the finishing treat came when Mdm Oon Ah Chiam showed up in the flesh (she looked young!), alongside director Goh Boon Teck as well as the incredible actors and actresses. Though the show is now over, you can still read about Titoudao here…

10 thoughts on “Intentionally Concerned, Accidentally Titoudao

  1. OMG! I can’t believe how lucky you are to accidentally stumble upon titoudao but got treated with a glimpse of Mdm Oon and son! wow wow wow! originally i wanted to book the last show then I realise I heard the wrong date and then they extended the show. Sigh. Still I watched it with my bf on our anniversary who wasn’t local and it was really a cultural exchange moment. couldn’t have asked for a better play to watch to learn more about singapore in those days… i did spend a lot of time translating hokkien to english lol but the subtitle boards were a great help though limited

  2. Monkey: It is an amazing play with an equally amazing backstory. Isn’t it neat how the son wrote about his mom… looks like something good came out of all the hardship 🙂

  3. hey Kevin,

    what do you mean that your teaching role will be over by april? you are going back to buffalo to finish your degree?

    sigh, if you really go back, it would be truly sad


  4. Yes Razzle, I’ll be going back to finish what I started. I’ll stick around until July, try to write and work on some community projects, then fly back.

  5. You know Kevin, what you have experienced is what some would call a serendipitous experience. One where you acted on the spur of a moment just because you felt like it, and I am glad that it certainly worked for you. I can sense that there is a certain tinge of loneliness and reluctance in going back to Buffalo to do your PhD (or maybe I am reading too much into it). Well, with the web, there is no distance between the media socialists and we can always have mingle and mashup online!

  6. Walter: The sense of longing humbles me. It serves as a reminder to make every moment precious. Yet I partake in the journey because I have to… some strange unconscious ambition perhaps. Maybe it’s a good thing since being on my own, I am forced to decide my every move, instead of being too comfortable with a partner.

  7. I’m Liyana’s sister and I was one of the Innovians (a term for Innova JC students) there watching Titoudao. I love Pam Oei as Madam Oon, especially the play within a play aspect of it. And Enlai is endearing as a woman. 🙂

  8. Our local drama scene is definitely alive and well. I don’t watch a lot of plays, but I have traveled to different countries and seen enough to know that Titoutau was really special.

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