Chinese wakes in Singapore are one of the best ways to show ‘filial piety’. Held at HDB void decks, wakes are an intimate event on public display, some might say to “put on a show”. Checkpoint Theatre’s Eat Duck cleverly addresses this: Jerry (Hang Qian Chou) calls for a seven-day wake after their 72-year-old mother passes away but his siblings quarrel over the high cost. Jerry insists that this is to pay respect to their mother, so a seven-day wake begins. The sound of Chinese cymbals boom and a backdrop of Chinese idioms on paper scrolls appear. The show, Eat Duck, is well…being put on.
Like Chinese New Year and weddings, funerals are a meeting ground for family gatherings. In Eat Duck, the clashes and relationships between two generations are at the centrefold of Grandma’s wake. “Stop behaving like children,” Karen exclaims to her three squabbling siblings. The adult children are sandwiched between dealing with a mother’s death, their own children and each other. Their frustration is rife with seething familial tension that is familiar to most. The arguments over “showing respect” is a arguably common refrain in contemporary Singaporean households.
In fact, the characters and their disagreements in Eat Duck are so familiar, they could almost be construed as a cliche. Surely you have heard of a disappointed mother (Jean Ng) or an uncle who never stops complaining (Hang Qian Chou).
Yet, these characters strike close to home simply because of how playwright Zenda Tan deftly positions their intentions as genuine and true. Daniel (Pavan J Singh) wants to be there for his wife (Karen), who is grieving over the loss of her mother, but he does not know how. Eight-year-old Rene (Shann Sim) just wants to sing “Jesus Loves Me” to her departed grandmother. These moments form a tender family portrait full of love, longing and pain.
The ensemble cast of 11 members can, at times, make for a crowded stage. It takes a while to identify who’s who in the first half of the play, but strong performances from Karen Tan and Qian Chou makes it easier to recognise the various characters.
When the three sisters (Karen Tan, Jean and Wiggie) pray at Grandma’s altar, it is a rare quiet moment among the grievances. The death of a parent provides for the integration of the family. We practice these rituals to bring us closer together. After all, funerals are meant for the living, not the dead.
This review is based on the performance on 6 September 2019. Eat Duck ran from 24 August to 9 September 2019 at SOTA Studio Theatre.
Photos courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan.