The Sungei Road Market was closed for good in July 2017. Where have its vendors gone? What have they – and we – lost in the process? How will their stories come to life in the Singapore Theatre Festival?
All images courtesy of AikBeng Chia
What is One Metre Square: Voices From Sungei Road about?
One Metre Square: Voices From Sungei Road is a verbatim play that examines and explores the closure of the Sungei Road Market. The script weaves together the voices, stories and experiences of a host of people whose lives and fates are closely bound up with the Market – including the vendors who made a living there from day to day, and the activists who tried desperately to preserve this piece of Singapore’s heritage.
What was the inspiration behind One Metre Square?
“I commissioned the play because I felt we needed to document that space and, more crucially, the lives it contained,” says Alfian Sa’at, Co-Artistic Director of the 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival. “When we talk about the ‘development’ of a site, we don’t pay enough attention to whether the people who used that site will undergo ‘development’ as well. In other words, are the fruits of development equally distributed among the people?”
“Specifically, we chose to approach Sungei Road in the form of documentary theatre because we wanted to hear from the vendors themselves. We wanted them to tell their own stories, beyond the official narrative.”
How were these stories collected?
The creative team conducted interviews with close to 20 individuals, including vendors and activists. A great deal of effort was made to build a genuine rapport and relationship with these vendors.
“At first, it was like making cold calls, except face to face,” explains Alfian, who also served as the dramaturg in shaping the piece. “The team made an effort to visit the Market every weekend for over a month, until the vendors we first spoke to started introducing us to other vendors.”
In the end, almost 30 hours of interviews were amassed – these were conducted in myriad languages, from English to Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese. Some interviews took place ‘on the fly’, so to speak, with the vendors responding to questions even as they continued to peddle their wares.
Who are the people behind the voices of Sungei Road?
The creative team met plenty of interesting, insightful people in the course of conducting research on the ground. In another world, under different circumstances, it would be entirely possible to imagine these people leading very different lives.
One of the interviewees was a former towkay – a businessman who used to drive a Mercedes, but had lost everything during the 1998 Financial Crisis.
Another was a top student, who had broken his master hand and had to learn to write with his left hand. It was almost impossible for him to do so and, as a result, he failed in his final examinations.
Later on, the government introduced the bilingual education policy, which emphasised English as a first language and medium of instruction. This affected many, including the aforementioned top student, who had been educated in Chinese vernacular schools, with Mandarin as his first language.
An entire generation had to struggle with English, even as the top student struggled to turn his left hand into his master hand.
Can the tensions at the heart of One Metre Square change minds?
Working on the play has proven to be an enlightening experience for everyone involved. It deepened their understanding of what it means and what it can cost when real life fades into history.
Younger members of the creative team have confessed that they were largely “indifferent” to the loss of other historical landmarks in Singapore – such as the demolition of the old National Library Building at Stamford Road, as well as Bukit Brown Cemetery.
“I was aware of these issues, but did not think I was affected by them,” says research assistant Kwan Chun Long.
But the human element to the Sungei Road Market closure really struck a chord with him.
“There was a real human dimension to the closure,” Chun Long, who helped to transcribe all the interviews, points out.
One of the things he realised was that the Market was a source of life and livelihood for lower-income Singaporeans. It was not, as many had initially assumed, a place for tourists and middle-class Singaporeans who were looking to “buy memories” and indulge in nostalgia.
Instead, the Market provided essential spaces for people to eke out a living, re-selling items that were still usable. In terms of clientele, the Market was frequented by foreign workers, many of whom found the used clothes and electronics on sale to be more affordable than anything they could buy elsewhere.
Of all the vendors interviewed, only one has gone on to a life that can be described as better. (He met someone who was able to rent him shop space at a much lower rate.)
Many of the other vendors are still plying their trade at alternative venues in Woodlands or Tanjong Pagar, or holding out hope that they can return to Sungei Road.
What does it mean to bring the Market into the theatre?
“Documentary theatre is a special form of documentary, which involves embodied performance re-presenting the documentary material,” notes Alfian, who has had plenty of experience of his own when it comes to writing verbatim plays such as Cook A Pot of Curry and Cooling Off Day.
“It’s very different from ‘preserving’ Sungei Road in the form of digitisation – photographs, videos, sound recordings – and then placing everything in an archive. Because the people you have captured continue to live outside that archive. They are not frozen in time. In One Metre Square, we want to show that the real archives of Sungei Road are housed in the bodies of the vendors. And when their stories are embodied by our actors, they become these archives as well.”
“The documentary nature of this piece is hugely important,” explains Ivan Heng, also the Co-Artistic Director of the Singapore Theatre Festival.
“Theatre isn’t just about entertaining audiences – it’s also a record of our history. It’s where we can come together to think and talk about our politics and our history, the decisions we have made and the kind of future we want. In a sense, this play isn’t just about Sungei Road – it’s about the next Sungei Road, the next big change that we need to think about and be aware of.”
One Metre Square: Voices From Sungei Road plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 19 to 22 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!