On a cultural mission

Wild Rice’s artistic director Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in Emily Of Emerald Hill.

SINGAPORE - Three veteran artists who received the Cultural Medallion yesterday take stock of their artistic careers and look forward.

IVAN HENG, 50, actor-director, Wild Rice artistic director

Unknown to many, the seeds of Wild Rice - the popular and often controversial Singapore theatre company - were actually planted two decades ago in Scotland.

Actor-director Ivan Heng, the force behind the 13-year-old company, was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in the early 1990s. He describes the experience as "pivotal".

Not only did it give the National University of Singapore law graduate an understanding of "what it meant to have a professional career in the theatre" at a time when such professionalism was almost non-existent here, he was also excited by how the Scots celebrated their identity, performing Shakespeare in Scottish dialects.

"My teachers encouraged me to perform classical texts and poetry in Singlish and a range of Singaporean dialects.

"In a foreign country, I came to understand what it meant to be a Singaporean. I found my voice as an artist," says Heng, 50.

He studied at the academy, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, on a three-year British American Tobacco scholarship.

One of three artists to receive the Cultural Medallion last night, he has made his mark for his high-energy, thought-provoking stagings of original scripts and adaptations.

As an actor, his memorable performances include his gender-bending take on Stella Kon's feisty Peranakan matriarch in Emily Of Emerald Hill (right). It was with that production in 2000, directed by the late Krishen Jit, that he launched Wild Rice.

Since then, other productions that scored include Eleanor Wong's The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ (2006) and Animal Farm (2002), a remake of the Orwell barnyard allegory which also travelled to Hong Kong, Wellington and Tasmania.

More recently, Wild Rice's three-week festival in July of plays by Alfian Sa'at, the company's virtuosic resident playwright, drew more than 15,000 people and played to full houses.

Its annual year-end, family-friendly pantomime, replete with local jokes and song-and-dance routines, also draws about that number of audiences.

Heng is currently directing this year's pantomime, Jack And The Bean-Sprout, which runs from Nov 21 to Dec 14 at the Drama Centre Theatre.

The artistic director, who shares his life with his partner of 17 years, has courted controversy with Wild Rice's numerous gay and politically themed plays, even as he did his "national service" as creative director for the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies.

In 2009, the National Arts Council reduced Wild Rice's annual grant funding for a few years - from a high of $260,000 in 2008 to a low of $110,000 in 2011 and last year - but the amount was restored earlier this year, when the company received $280,000. The arts community had earlier protested against the funding cuts saying that they amounted to censorship.

Both Heng and the council declined to comment on the significance of him receiving the Cultural Medallion, which recognises artistic excellence and leadership, after a few years of funding cuts for Wild Rice.

The award gives him access to the Cultural Medallion Fund, which is valued at up to $80,000 and supports arts projects proposed by recipients. The director has not thought about how he will use it.

However, he is clear about one thing: "I would like to continue to create a safe and free platform where the most challenging and urgent issues of the day can be debated and discussed without fear or favour."

In London in the 1990s, he started Tripitaka Theatre Company to do touring productions with an Asian point of view, like his autobiographical solo Journey West (1995).

He shut down Tripitaka in 1998 after moving back to Singapore.

With the experience of two theatre companies behind him, he believes that "everything and anything is possible with belief, passion and hard work".

He hopes to bring Wild Rice's works to a wider audience here and overseas. "I want to be able to see a bigger piece of sky," he says with a grin.

clare@sph.com.sg

YEH TSUNG, 63, conductor, music director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Maestro Yeh Tsung has his mother to thank for making him take piano lessons at the age of five.

"Music was not my choice to start with, but became my choice because I loved it," says the 63-year-old China- born music director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

His mother, Madam Zhang Renqing, now 88, was a vocal professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where she still teaches today.

His passion for music led him to graduate from the conservatory at college level in 1972, amid the chaos of the Cultural Revolution which saw European music banned and large chunks of the conservatory's library destroyed.

It led him to study conducting in the United States in the early 1980s, winning full scholarships to the Mannes College of Music in New York and then Yale University, where he received his master's degree in music.

Yesterday, he reached yet another milestone in his music career, receiving the Cultural Medallion in recognition of his 11 years at the helm of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. He is credited with giving the country's only professional Chinese orchestra international heft and a more contemporary direction through pop, jazz and South-east Asian influences.

Yeh's late father was a businessman who later became a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. He acknowledges that his father "taught me the skills of organisation. I didn't like it at first, but I realised it was important for me as a music director and conductor".

The maestro, who speaks fluent American-accented English, became a Singapore permanent resident in 2004 and now shuttles between here and the US. His family lives in South Bend, Indiana. He has been music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years, making him one of the rare conductors to helm both a Western symphony orchestra and a traditional Chinese one.

The Cultural Medallion is given to Singapore citizens or permanent residents who have excelled artistically and contributed distinctively to the cultural scene. Past permanent residents who have received the award include contemporary dance choreographer Angela Liong, artistic director of the Arts Fission Company, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's music director Shui Lan.

Yeh describes receiving the award as "a great honour" and plans to tap the $80,000 Cultural Medallion Fund to "invest in innovative research and to enhance creativity to produce better productions".

As for his mother in Shanghai and family in the US, they are "proud and happy" for him. His wife of 30 years, Saulan, a housewife, was at the Istana last night to witness him receiving the award from President Tony Tan Keng Yam. They have three children. Mona, 29, works at a youth media non-profit company in Washington D.C., while Melina, 20, is a Northwestern University undergraduate. Their son, Joseph, 16, is in high school.

Yeh spends 18 to 20 weeks a year in Singapore with the Chinese orchestra. "It's work every day, even on weekends, but it's definitely an enjoyment to make music," he quips.

His tenure as music director has seen the 78-member orchestra chalk up several firsts. One was its world premiere of Shanghai-based composer Liu Yuan's East-meets-West, genre-busting symphonic epic Marco Polo And Princess Blue, commissioned by the Esplanade to raise the curtain on its concert hall in 2002.

In 2007, Yeh became music director for the National Day parade, the first time a classical conductor was appointed to the position. He brought together, under his baton, all the national orchestras - including the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Singapore Symphony Orchestra - as well as local classical vocalists.

Then in 2009, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra under him created history by being the first Chinese orchestra in the world to perform in the main programme of the prestigious Edinburgh Festival.

He and the orchestra are currently rehearsing for Tunes Of Teochew, a concert of Teochew opera classics next month.

They are also gearing up for a major tour of China in May, followed a month later by the orchestra's largest-ever concert at the newly built National Stadium in the Singapore Sports Hub. For the local concert, Yeh will be conducting 4,000 musicians and choral singers, drawn from his orchestra as well as amateur Chinese music groups all over Singapore.

He says he is "willing to stay for as long as the orchestra needs me".

His wishlist for it? "To soar new heights and go international, be innovative in our programmes and engage and serve the community."

MOHAMED LATIFF MOHAMED, 63, poet and novelist

A challenge thrown by a teacher to 16- year-old Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and his classmates would set the tone for the rest of his life.

"He told us that if we don't do anything meaningful and contribute to society, no one would ever remember us after our passing," recalls the Malay-language novelist and poet, now 63. He was then studying in a Malay stream school, Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School.

"That got me thinking about how I can give back to society. I wanted to do something that can last even after my passing and I realised that I can do so by writing," he says in Malay through an interpreter.

Inspired by the turbulent 1960s sociopolitical climate, as well as the literary classics he was then reading such as Di Bawah Lindungan Ka'bah (Under The Protection Of Ka'bah) by the Indonesian writer Hamka, the young Latiff picked up the pen and has not stopped writing since.

Five volumes of poetry, two short story collections and 11 novels later, he received the Cultural Medallion yesterday.

The retired Malay-language teacher's works often depict the life and struggles of the Malay community here postIndependence and are viewed across the region as bold, honest and distinctively Singaporean.

A few months ago, one of his novels was translated into English for the first time and published by Singapore's Epigram Books. In the page-turner Confrontation, the cruelties of a hardscrabble life in a 1960s kampung are never far from the moments of levity and relief, displaying Latiff's skill at balancing a finely drawn cast of characters against a larger political drama. The novel was first published in Malay as Batas Langit by Malaysian publisher Pustaka Nasional in 1997.

Latiff has won the Malay category of the Singapore Literature Prize three times between 2004 and 2008. The winning works were the two poetry collections Bagiju Sepilah Sudah (For Me, Loneliness) and Bila Rama-Rama Patah Sayapnya (When The Butterfly Cracks Its Wings) and the short story collection Nostalgia Yang Hilang (The End Of Nostalgia). He is also the 2002 recipient of the South East Asian Write Award, an annual regional literary prize and his poetry has been anthologised and translated into Chinese, German and Korean.

"Of course, I'm happy to have my work read by people all over the world," he says with a smile.

He plans to produce English translations of another two of his novels, Dalam Keasingan (Isolation) and Ziarah Rindu (Visits Of Reminiscence), with the help of the $80,000 Cultural Medallion Fund. He is also getting several of his prizewinning poems and short stories translated into English, while working on a sequel to Confrontation in Malay.

The father of two and grandfather of one has devoted himself to writing since retiring from teaching in 1999. His wife Jamaliah, 60, works in a bakery. His two sons, Khairil, 40, and Haikel, 27, live overseas - the older one is a science teacher in Melbourne and the younger, a New York-based executive for an American car company.

Latiff says with a laugh that his younger son has written Malay poetry and "once wanted to be a famous poet like me, but didn't have the chance to pursue it due to his busy work schedule".

In the 1970s and 1980s, he had a reputation as an angry young poet. Today, he tells you his anger has not disappeared and continues to fuel his writing. "My sources of inspiration are society, my surroundings and the tragedies of human beings all over the world. How can we be happy in this world with the current situation? If I'm ever happy with how things are, I'll stop writing," he says flatly.

Book it

CULTURAL MEDALLION SPEAKER SERIES

What: Featuring Ivan Heng, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and Yeh Tsung. Moderated by Venka Purushothaman, vice-president (academic) and provost of Lasalle College of the Arts

Where: National Library, The Pod

When: Nov 23, 2 to 4pm

Admission: Free, by registration at www.cmspeakers.eventbrite.com

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