By Ng Yi-Sheng
What’s there be to say about W!ld Rice’s Hotel that hasn’t been said already? Critics and audiences have praised it to the skies, both at last year’s premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts and at this year’s Singapore Theatre Festival revival. I’ve even done a literary and thematic analysis of it on the arts fest blog—check it out here: https://sifa.sg/sifa/blog/Hotel/.
But since that TOC is a political news site, I guess I’ll have to give this show a political spin. So here’s an idea I want to talk about:
Hotel isn’t just theatre. It’s an act of healing.
Confused? Well, maybe I’d better break down the play for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.
Hotel is an epic historical drama, covering a hundred years of Singaporean history. The eleven scenes—one per decade—are set in the same suite of an unnamed luxury hotel. The scope’s pretty incredible: we go from the world of the colonial Brits in 1915 to one of Japanese soldiers in 1945 to a drug-fuelled romp with Bugis Street queens in 1975 to the bedside of a dying Singaporean patriarch in 2015.
(By the way, this means the play is hella long. It lasts four and a half hours, so audiences have to watch it over two nights or a 3pm matinee/8pm evening performance. Yet it isn’t difficult to sit through—as one fellow audience member said, it’s rather like binge-watching a TV series. Though we do feel the passage of time, our appetites keep on being stoked for the next scene, and the next.)
It’s extremely entertaining: we’re treated to comedy, tragedy, romance, even a touch of musical theatre. It’s also virtuosic: the acting is superb, with actors changing accents and languages at the drop of a hat (there’s nine languages: Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, Japanese, Filipino and Urdu!). And it’s splendorous: there’s period-specific furniture and fashion enough to indulge all your costume drama appetites.
But all that’s dressing—the sugar that helps the pill go down. The actual purpose of the play is, in fact, to cure amnesia.
You see, Hotel was specifically created by directors Ivan Heng and Glen Goei and playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten as a rebuttal to all the SG50 propaganda we recently endured—a counter-argument to the myth that today’s Singapore is wholly a creation of the PAP. “SG100”, if you will.
Even beyond SG50, our history textbooks are pretty whitewashed: we’re taught that the British were benevolent colonists, that our ancestors were hardworking immigrants, that the races were segregated to their own separate kampungs until the PAP brought them together in harmony, and that the principal heroes of our narratives are Chinese men. Even the National Heritage Board doesn’t dare to admit that Bugis Street was a transgender red-light district. (See this link: National heritage board criticised for whitewashing history of Bugis Street)
This isn’t just censorship. Effectively, it’s brain damage: a calculated attempt to rewrite our minds. But Hotel is therapy. It brings back the past—not in a teacherly way, but in the fashion of a loved one coming to us with a photo album and filling in our forgotten names and faces, joining up the dots of our family trees. We’re overwhelmed by a sense of recognition: remembering what we once knew.
And it’s painful sometimes. The 1915 scene confronts us with the public execution of the leaders of the Sepoy Rebellion: we realise that cruelty of the British colonists is eerily similar to our government’s reactions to the Little India Riots. The 1925 scene reveals how Cantonese girls were sold as slaves and abused: not unlike the way some of us treat our domestic workers today. As for the 1945 scene, it shows a Japanese officer controlling the press as propaganda.
We often speak of heritage as if it’s that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that old hawker centres are still in our midst. But this is heritage too: the way we inherit the cruelties of the past, which echo through the ages to reappear in our own era.
It’s a point that’s acknowledged in the play, in the figure of Sharifah, a comfort woman in 1945 who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease in 1985. A Japanese man seeks her out, she realises he is her son, and the Japanese language comes flooding back into her brain. “These words taste like blood in my throat,” she tells him.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Hotel shines its light on the utopian side of Singapore as well, revealing that many times, through the ages, men and women of different races have come together as equals. Upper-class Peranakans, royal Malays and colonial Brits rub shoulders in 1935; idealistic Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian artistes collaborate to create the Golden Age of Malay Film in 1955. And all this takes place before we see a post-PAP interracial wedding ceremony in 1995: a time when it truly feels like a coherent multiethnic Singaporean identity just might come into fruition.
Nonetheless, over and over, such hopes are shattered by politics and tyranny: that of the British in 1915, the Japanese in 1945, perhaps the Malaysians in 1965, and—heartbreakingly—Singaporean forces in 2005, as they abuse innocent Muslim hotel guests, based solely on paranoid suspicions of terrorism.
Hotel reminds us, however, that all empires fall. We watch each of these regimes collapse to be replaced by a new administration with its own agendas. And while we don’t actually view Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral in 2015, we instead meet the dying Henry Yao, a similarly grumpy old man, who finds that the hotel’s now almost completely staffed by immigrants, while his own children and grandchildren are scattered across the globe. His nation may not have fallen, but it’s lost much of its essence due to globalisation. Will some new phoenix rise from these cold ashes?
There are tons of ideas and resonances like this in the play, and it scares me to think that after this run, it too may be forgotten. The script’s difficult to stage in full (though individual scenes could be performed by amateur groups) and certain bits make it too raunchy to be in a literature syllabus.
That’s why I’m urging people to watch this play now, for their own good. Instead of brainwashing, it brainfertilises us. It reminds us of the richness and diversity of this island’s past, and comforts us with the reassuring thought that our government, too, is subject to the merciless passage of time.
Yes, it’s a four and a half hour commitment. But you’ll be getting a hundred years of memories. I’d say that’s more than a fair exchange.
Hotel runs from Thursday 30 June to Sunday 24 July at the Singapore Airlines Theatre, LASALLE College of the Arts. Bookings may be made via Sistic: http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/stf2016d
It is part of W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival. Check out the other events in the Festival here: http://singaporetheatrefestival.com/