Director Ong Keng Sen talks to us about his production, Diaspora, one of the highlights of Festival 09.
Tell us a little about your life and your career?
I studied law at the University of Singapore. After graduating, completing my pupillage and 10 days as a professional lawyer, I decided to become a theatre director instead. I have made a career in theatre, beginning first with new plays, on site-specific issues, creating the foundations of an independent Singapore theatre.
When I was about to turn 30, I left to pursue post-graduate studies in performance at New York University. This changed my life forever. My work in the theatre began to focus on dialogue between cultures, producing many works which have been described as 'intercultural' journeys.
How do you feel about having your work performed at the Edinburgh International Festival?
As a post-colony Singaporean artist, the Edinburgh International Festival is a major landmark of theatre in the world. I began to study theatre first through Shakespeare and later the Royal Court, the Traverse: these were all important landmarks for a young Singaporean theatre director. However through the decades, I have moved very far from British theatre.
From another angle, though, it means a lot to come here to finally perform this work as I have spent the last two years negotiating the Scottish terrain. It’s a little bit like a home to me, so you could say that it is my homecoming to the city as an artist with a work onstage.
What is ‘Diaspora’ about?
"Diaspora" is storytelling within a global panorama. The stories are narratives of migration reinterpreted by the distance of media. In a sense, this is how the average person perceives migration today, either they are inside the total experience of migration or they are watching it on TV.
I have chosen an approach which is more stream of consciousness rather than diving into a single story. In the ocean of migration, sometimes we encounter a personal moment, a fragile meeting, often we are taken along with the tide.
What inspired you to create it?
As a child of diaspora (my parents came to Singapore from China), I found it an inevitable narrative. I must say, however, that I never started to create such a work. In fact, it was only when I started working on it, that I saw myself in the mirror.
I had researched Asian performances and cultures for a decade. Initially I started with 'the classical traditions', even though I was always questioning the notion of authenticity. In the end, I started to become interested in my translators who were often young people who were outside of the 'pure' traditions. They were individuals like me, educated abroad, returning home, making sense of their traditions.
I became interested in the hybrid, the 'bastard' of many influences. The 'impure' began to fascinate me and this can be said to be the beginning of diaspora. I mean who is the authentic Chinese? The China Chinese, the Singaporean Chinese, the Taiwanese Chinese, the British Chinese? Of course, they are authentic, all different from one another.
The stories of diaspora made me reflect on my own, my parents' destinies to be in the South Seas (Nanyang or Singapore). It came to pass that I became a translator myself (for the theatre audiences) as I was so absorbed by my own translators, often fixated by their stories 'in between' as we travelled from traditional performance to a master artist's gallery. Along the way, I also grew into a cultural nomad in a floating world.
Regardless of nationality and background, what traits do you think migrants share?
They tend to be hungry for change, willing to take huge risks and often are also extremely conservative. What perspectives do you think migrants share on ‘home’ and ‘belonging’? I think this is very personal and I wouldn’t like to begin to generalise (although I have already done so above!) Perhaps I can only say that every migrant wants to be seen in his or her own special context and not to be lumped into a migrant group or simply perceived as a generic 'culturally diverse problem'.
How has Scotland had an impact on your work?
I spent a couple of months here reflecting on a new version of "Diaspora" for the Edinburgh International Festival. I began with the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities in the University of Edinburgh, meeting many professors in the different cultural studies department.
I began looking at the waves of migrations into Scotland as well as the parallel discourse of the Scots who left. I felt both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the potential navel gazing that I could end up with.
After an interview with a Polish researcher who is studying Polish integration into Scotland, I began to feel that I had to narrow the field. I was at risk of sounding too academic and too removed from the material.
I decided to return to the basis of the original production of "Diaspora" which is the panoramic story of migration by Asians within and without of Asia. Why shouldn’t I just focus on migration by Asians into Scotland. It was fun to astound people by asking them for the Asian Scot!Fortunately it did not turn into an archaeological expedition. The Asian Scot is truly well and alive!
Diaspora plays at the Edinburgh Playhouse on the 15 & 16 August. For more info and to book tickets click here.