Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan: A Review

The Popspoken Team

By Simone Lim 

Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan attempts to excavate alternative histories and subjective truths that are integral parts of our national narrative. Held at NAFA Studio Theatre, this play is part of the M1 Fringe Festival 2020 with the theme of ‘My Country and My People’ and questions what truly unites a country and her people.

I enjoyed the kampong stories and the build up of each character through different narratives. One of the narratives is about a boy who left home and for better career prospects, leaves home for Canada. His grandfather is heartbroken as the family’s kopitiam is now left without an heir. I especially liked how, throughout the scenes, there were leaves (or they can be interpreted as money) being littered on the ground.

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The grandfather is portrayed by different actors throughout the play, emphasising his feelings and what they stood for.
He was adamant on keeping the kopitiam as it meant more than a kopitiam to him. The flashback scene also carefully painted how the grandfather roasted his beans with passion and ensured that each kopi was not diluted to maximise profits. This contrasts to what his grandson thought of: migrating to Canada for better career prospects and with that, money. However, I liked the voices that echoed that reasoning—that our forefathers came to Singapore for a better life, so if leaving Singapore meant better prospects, is that not the same logic?

The play alluded to the Chinese saying 落叶归根. It means that people, wherever they go, still belong and will eventually come home. Alas, the boy left home.

In between the kampong narratives was what I would call a modern-day panel sharing. The transition between these was abrupt and used a phone ringing to cut the panelists off and transition. I could feel the audience was not too comfortable with this as well. I felt that the panelists was all between the ages of 20s and 30s and when discussing nationalistic issues or issues of belonging, it was different voices speaking but I would have wanted more variety in ages. Given it is a play about a kampong and the older days of Singapore, having an older voice in the modern day panelists part of the play would add a depth of authenticity.

I enjoyed the ending with the head of the kampong chicken resting on the old man whose kopitiam will now not reach his grandson. The chicken is symbolic and it had narrated a good part of the kampong portion of the play. The head of the chicken resting is akin to the end of the kampong era.

Overall, the play provokes some thought into the first owners of the kopitiams we have come to love. However, some issues such as race and homophobia could be better portrayed. I felt uncomfortable at some of the slap stick humour, it could have more delicate. A Chinese actor that perfected the Malay and Indian accent played an Indian arguing with a Chinese hawker. The argument was peppered with racial comments (well, it is an argument!). It left me wondering if I was uncomfortable because I am under-exposed to this side of Singapore or whether they took it too far to say ‘theres’s a reason why parents tell their kids stories of the black man coming to take them if they do not behave’.

How about your thoughts?

Photography credit: Memphis West Pictures / Joe Nair

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