Every afternoon, three people meet in the same alley. They come from different backgrounds and cultures. One is a man who wants to be a millionaire. Another is a woman longing to get married. And the third is a boy craving motherly love.
Their meetings are pretty routine … until one day, something unusual happens. The three find a severed hand!
This is the Penang-originated story of Tai Ji Tua Teow, an original musical drama written in Hokkien, that will be staged at the Five Arts Centre venue in Kuala Lumpur, starting Feb 22.
“The full title in English is The Big Murder Mystery … or Not. In the play, the characters imply that there is a murder involved because they discover a severed hand in a back lane. But whether there actually was a murder or not is not known. The imaginings of the characters take over and the play goes somewhere else,” says Chee Sek Thim, the show’s Penang-based director and playwright.
Tai Ji Tua Teow stars Ho Sheau Fung (Nancy), Chen Fook Meng (Beh Hu Beng) and Loe Jia Xiang (Ah Boy).
The musical drama was developed with a grant from Yayasan Sime Darby (for new works) over the course of a year. It received a workshop debut in 2017 at the Five Arts Centre.
The project is led by Chee in collaboration with Tan Hock Kheng of the ZKC Theatre Troupe in Penang.
A staged reading of the script was also shown to the public at Sinkeh Studio, George Town in December 2017, followed by a full production by ZKC Theatre Troupe also at Sinkeh for the George Town Literary Festival last year.
Chee says the play is a compact performance using a combination of physical theatre and story-telling techniques.
“It brings to mind classic radio plays,” he says.
The upcoming Tai Ji Tua Teow production will feature a minor change in one of the songs. Otherwise, it is settled as a script.
“We will be adapting the play to a fit a different space in KL, of course. But by and large, its pretty much the same as the version that we staged in George Town last year.”
One of the hardest things about the production was translating the play, which was scripted in English.
“The biggest challenge was to translate it into Penang Hokkien … to use Penang Hokkien to express ideas. When we got down to it, we found that it was actually quite difficult to do because our vocabulary was limited on account of the fact that in Penang many of us use Hokkien for non-literary purposes. We simply were not used to using Hokkien to express complicated things. We use the language to buy things and to argue, but hardly to express deeper thoughts and ideas,” elaborates Chee.
For versatile actress Ho, this play will be her second performance in Hokkien. The first time was in Hai Ki Sin Lor, a theatre drama directed by Saw Teong Hin in 2014, which was the basis for the film You Mean The World To Me (Malaysia’s first film in Penang Hokkien).
“Penang Hokkien is a dialect that Penangites use every day, and it is worth to do this as part of the effort to preserve the language. Most of the young people are no longer familiar with this local dialect … the dialect may be lost one day,” she adds.
Ho also directs and produces for the theatre. She is a member of Penang-based Ombak-Ombak Art Studio.
In Tai Ji Tua Teow, she plays Nancy, a woman from a working class family who works in a bar.
“The role of a ‘bar girl’ is very stereotypical in society. People have strong stereotypes about the way they look and how they should behave. The challenge for me is to maintain some of the stereotypes and at the same time break them by going deeper into the internal conflict and trauma Nancy had during her childhood that shaped her into who she is,” says Ho.
“Her dream is to be able to open a wine bar and to marry a man who is going to love her and take good care of her.”
The play will feature original songs to showcase the musicality of Penang Hokkien. Sets and props will be used minimally with the performance focusing primarily on the actor’s bodies and voices.
Chen has been active in the Chinese language theatre scene in Penang since 1997. As member of ZXC Theatre Troupe, he has represented it in numerous international festivals. Loe is the youngest member of the cast. Two years ago, he performed in Journey to George Town in the George Town Festival, produced by ZXC Theatre Troupe.
“I do encourage you to come and watch if you are curious to find out what kind of theatre people from Penang are doing. Do come if you’re interested to see how a dying Northern vernacular can be used to tell a story in contemporary performance. Find out how stories told by people who speak minority languages are relevant and to see if these stories have a place in Malaysian culture-making,” says Chee.
Tai Ji Tua Teow will be presented in Hokkien with Malay and Mandarin surtitles.