100 years of Chinese theatre

100 years of Chinese theatre
A performance by the Arts Theatre of Singapore (above), formerly the Singapore Amateur Players, at the Victoria Theatre in 1959, and a hand-painted programme (right) for a show by the Chung Cheng High School Drama Club in the late 1950s.

SINGAPORE - For decades, the works of eminent Chinese historian Fang Xiu were the go-to reference texts for those studying Chinese language theatre and history in Singapore.

The late scholar's writings were a labour of love; his book A Comprehensive Anthology Of Modern Malayan Chinese Literature was carefully put together over a span of 20 years, examining various forms of literature and drama between 1919 and 1976.

But playwright and academic Quah Sy Ren could not quite dismiss the germ of a thought that Chinese language spoken drama had existed in Singapore prior to 1919.

Dr Quah, 49, tells Life!: "Fang Xiu had mentioned that there had already been theatrical activity in Singapore prior to 1919. But no one had really documented it. So I wanted to go look.

"Another perspective is, if you look at China and its modern spoken drama, it started in 1907. So there must have been something happening between 1907 and 1919. So that was how I started."

The result of this inkling of a thought is Dr Quah's new book on Chinese language theatre in Singapore, titled Scenes: A Hundred Years Of Singapore Chinese Language Theatre 1913-2013. It was launched last Saturday. The 251-page hardcover book, a three-year undertaking, is co-published by home-grown theatre group Drama Box and the National Museum of Singapore.

Dr Quah is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and specialises in literary and cultural studies, as well as theatre and performance.

He notes that this book serves as an outline of theatre history, and hopes that more research and discussion can be built on its foundation. There are also plans to eventually translate the book, which is written in Chinese, into English.

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