Picture by Toy Factory.
A Review of 251: Welcome to the Intimate Life of Annabel Chong
By Richard Chua
Date: 8 April 2007
Time: 8 pm
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
251 could have been a deep simple story about the life of Grace Quek, or better known to the world as the Singapore porn star Annabel Chong. But it wasn’t. In fact, two stories waited to be told; one of Grace Quek, as the person in flesh, and the other, the constructed persona – Annabel Chong. Each of them brings along different histories, personal or otherwise, ready to be excavated and explored. Instead, playwright Ng Yisheng and director Loretta Chen chose to talk about Singapore art through Annabel’s “performance art event” – the world largest gangbang, and taking snipes at Singapore society and politics whenever possible.
The performance seemed to be in conflict with what’s been written in the programme booklet. According to the programme notes, 251 strives to “re-enact, construct and re-construct seminal moments in Grace/Annabel’s life with regards to her family, friends and society at large.” It will also allow the audience to gain an insight into her unknown life as a daughter, friend and lover. Most importantly, it will shed light on “crucial epochs of her life that were to shape her daring exploits – namely her fascination with performance art, her relationship with her family and friends and her gang rape.”
There were brief scenes that depicted Grace Quek’s adolescence. Clearly, they weren’t enough for the audiences to “gain insights” into Grace Quek’s life as a daughter and friend. Instead, many scenes were devoted to her “daring exploits” – being a porn star. In trying so, Ng Yisheng and Loretta Chen wanted to use Annabel Chong’s act to courage self-reflexivity in Singapore performance art.
A tall order it is, to want to accomplish all of the above in a 90-minute production. Just by dissecting the histories behind every element alone will take more than 90 minutes for sure, let alone tackling issues in Singapore performance art.
As with things in a hurry, the play breezed along, speaking as if there weren’t any histories behind the characters, After the first 30 minutes, I couldn’t help but to wonder what context was the play framed in, or to be more specific; the main narrative thread of the play. It seemed the plane flight was the one. There could have been actions on the plane that triggered situations in Annabel Chong’s life, as so I imagined.
But it wasn’t so. Instead it went on a whirlwind tour, pouring everything, which happened in Annabel Chong’s life on stage, coupled with references to characters in ancient Rome, China, Sicily etc.
To me, the scenes were mass confusions on stage.
Mother’s line (played by Amy Cheng) came as a holler in this instance, “ Do not do art that people don’t understand!”
Don’t get me wrong. It is fine to do incomprehensible art. For the job of an artist is not to create works for easy understanding. However, his/her art should strive to engage the audience, to inspire their interest in them. There is only one element in 251 which inspired me to think more deeply for Grace Quek. It was a line from one of the chorus members – Cheryl Miles – “You can take the girl out of Singapore, but you can’t take the Singapore out of the girl.”
This is an important point. Grace Quek could be presently in United States working successfully as a web designer, but she brings with her the cultural burden levied upon her by this country. I believe it applies to Josef Ng – former Singapore performance artist in Thailand – as well. This area of analysis is definitely more interesting than just plain re-stating of what has happened in the past, both Annabel Chong’s gangbang and Josef Ng’s Brother Cane performance. Furthermore, as much as Josef Ng’s Brother Cane performance was an important milestone in Singapore performance art history, it should not be regarded as the “only” event that describes Singapore Performance Art. Obviously, 251 made it so, with that example.
Lastly, I would like to seek readers’ understanding to allow me make a reference to Arts Writer Ray Langenbach’s paper “Looking Back at Brother Cane: Performance Art and State Performance.”; published in 1995 The Substation Conference catalogue – Space, Spaces and Spacing. The reference will put Josef Ng’s performance in context against Cynthia Lee’s final “tofu striking performance” in 251, where her breasts were exposed to the audience.
In his paper, Ray Langenbach included his observations on Josef Ng’s performance which had been part of a court affidavit.
“My recollection of the performance “Brother Cane” is as follows (the time indicates the approximate duration of the activity):
15 minutes: Ng, dressed in a long black robe and black briefs, carefully laid out tiles on the floor in a semi-circle. He placed the news cutting, “12 men nabbed in anti-gay operation at Tanjong Rhu” from The Straits Times on each tile. He then carefully placed a block of tofu on each tile, along with a small plastic bag of red dye.
1 minute: Ng crouched behind one tile and read random words from the news cutting.
5 minutes: Ng picked up a child’s rotan and striking the floor with it rhythmically, performed a dance, swaying and leaping from side to side, and finally ending in a low crouching posture.
3 minutes: Ng approached the tofu blocks, tapping the rotan rhythmically on the floor, and tapped twice next to each block, striking the bags of red dye and tofu on the third swing.
1 minute: Ng said, “ I have heard that clipping hair can also be a form of silent protest” (not verbatim quote), and walked to the far end of the gallery space. Facing the wall with his back to the audience, he then lowered his briefs just below the top of his buttocks and carried out an action I could not see. He returned to the performance space and placed a small amount of hair on the centre tile.
1 minute: Ng asked for a cigarette from the audience, and then had it lit. He smoked a few puffs, then saying, “sometimes silent protest is not enough,” stubbed out the cigarette on his arm. He said, “thank you”, and put his robe back on. He received enthusiastic applause from the audience. He requested help in cleaning up the tofu. A few members of the audience assisted in this process.
At no time, did Josef Ng expose his genitals to the audience. He carefully faced the back wall of the performance space, about 10-15 meters from the main audience group. No members of the audience were between Ng and the wall he faced. No one actually observed him cut his pubic hair. The audience only became aware of what appeared to be cut hair when Ng placed it on a plate before us.”
Ray Langenbach, in his professional opinion, thought Josef Ng’s performance was a work of art, was not vulgar, and did not include any vulgar act.
I have not seen Josef Ng’s performance so I am not qualified to provide any comments. But I saw actor Cynthia Lee baring her breasts while hurling a walking stick above her, ready to strike the tofu laid before her on the floor. Josef Ng and Cynthia Lee’s performances seemed similar, but vastly different in execution.
If Loretta Chen and Ng Yisheng had the intention to re-enact part of Josef Ng’s Brother Cane performance on stage, it would be a dangerous move. Cynthia Lee’s performance could be seen as vulgar as there was no reference to any context in her actions. Moreover, compared to what Josef Ng did in 1994, Cynthia Lee’s performance in the last scene did not, in any way, resemble Josef Ng’s Brother Cane performance, nor it attempted to “remember” or “restore” social trauma Grace Quek has suffered.
There are simply too many elements in 251. Each of them has not been fully explored, not to mention deepened. Most seriously, each and everyone of them is problematic. They require more explanations and more thorough thought processes. I would like to end by reiterating my opening remarks – 251 could have been deep simple stories on Grace Quek and Annabel Chong.
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