Freeing Asian women

Freeing Asian women
From far left) Andrea Singco, Kimberly Chan and Nadia Abdul Rahman fight stereotypes in Women Of Asia.

The women of Asia are an incredibly complex tapestry. There is hardly one definitive group of women that represents Asia, but simply saying the phrase "women of Asia" elicits certain long-interred expectations as to what these women should be.

Korean-American playwright Asa Gim Palomera knows this and her good intentions are clear - to lift Asian women out of victimhood and peel away the stereotypes from the struggles they face.

Whether Palomera succeeds, however, is another matter altogether.

Women Of Asia was written and first staged in the 1990s, an era of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues and Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and, on several occasions, it does feel like Palomera has borrowed heavily from both. She has provocative monologues aplenty, as well as the flavours of domestic life and that connection between mothers and daughters.

On a spartan stage, an ensemble cast performs a series of seven vignettes bookended by a prologue and epilogue.

A Japanese woman (Charis Ng) trapped in a loveless marriage attempts to take matters into her own hands, with fatal results; an opera singer (Koh Chieng Mun) rips into the Orientalism of Madame Butterfly; an Indian woman (Nora Samosir) learns from her mother-in-law to be an oppressive figure in the same household. There are also lighter moments, revolving around two couples and their culinary disagreements.

Unfortunately, the big reveal of what it is like to be an Asian woman falls headlong into the trap of perpetuating the same stereotypes Palomera so earnestly and poetically sets out to eradicate. The women chafe against the system, but are hardly given an added dimension beyond wailing, petulant figures who often only find freedom in death.

In the segment on Madame Butterfly, an opera singer deftly deconstructs and dismisses the superficiality of the "beautiful death" that the fetishised heroine is made to die.

But ironically enough, in a subsequent vignette, an Asian sex worker dies a similar "beautiful death". She escapes from a brutal pimp only to die outside the embassy of her own country, her body unspooled in a beautifully arranged puddle. Only in death, once again, can her spirit be free.

Even if Asian women (and there are so many of us, not necessarily pigeonholed into this set of problems) are experiencing the very same discrimination and persecution presented in this set of playlets, the discourse around these issues on the stage has continued to evolve to engage a contemporary audience, arming itself with lessons learnt. But Women Of Asia has not.

Stylistically and cerebrally, it remains symbolic of the aggressive 1990s; it seems so preoccupied with preaching the story of us back at ourselves that it forgets to allow its characters to be real people, not narrative devices.

When every character is only a conduit to hammer home a specific set of points, it becomes difficult to empathise with their plight. Take, for instance, a group of Indian women who declare: "Tradition is pure bondage!"

Palomera chooses to spell out the short sermons and moral dicta of each piece, meaning that every character runs the danger of veering into melodramatic, didactic territory.

We simply dip our toes in their tragic experiences, pared down for bite-sized benefit, never fully feeling the complexity or weight of their circumstances.

If these vignettes had been the stories of specific, named women, with deeply personal experiences, that would have been another matter.

Here, the unnamed protagonists seem to stand for the entire swathe of their nationality or race, bound by sweeping generalisations of how women of their colour would react to a certain situation.

As such, Women Of Asia walks a thin line between celebrating cultural richness and sheer cultural appropriation.

Because Palomera, who also directed this Singapore production, so ambitiously attempts to paint her play with every colour of the racial rainbow, this invariably results in the mimicking of accents or the copying of gestures (a bobble of the head here, a rolling of the "r" there) in a way that would seem shockingly cursory had the show as a whole not been so earnest.

The cast, however, pull their weight and they manage to flesh out some of the weaker pieces. It was also good to see a fresh slate of strong young actors occupying the spotlight, many of whom are recent graduates and current students of the Lasalle College of the Arts' musical theatre and acting programmes.

And, thankfully, not all is doom and gloom, and Palomera's strongest works are those laced with humour and witty banter, and those that do not take themselves too seriously.

I have no doubt that Women Of Asia must have been a powerful voice in its earlier incarnations. But I think it might also be time to lay it to rest.

This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
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