“Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan” review: the nostalgia-ridden youth

Aptly falling under this year’s M1 Fringe theme of “My Country My People”, Oliver Chong’s Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan explores what forms a Singapore heritage – its places. From kopitiams to the last kampong in Singapore, the play tackles the changing landscapes of Singapore: a convergence of familiarity, temporality, and nostalgia.

Excerpts from two plays – Kuo Pao Kun’s Kopitiam and Alfian Sa’at’s Anak Bulan Di Kampung Wa’ Hasan – are interwoven with confessionals from BA (Hons) Theatre Arts students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan presents a strong case on why we return to past texts – to imagine a past when the present is wanting, to gain answers for the future. Idealistic and hopeful, the play successfully captures the young cast’s endearingly earnest nature.

Rows of chairs, like a classroom or an assembly hall, line the stage. Piles of brown leaves are discarded on the stage, the rustling sounds echoes a callback to nature, our “roots”. These form a distinct backdrop for the ensemble cast to perform a myriad of characters: a coffee shop uncle, a rooster, grandmothers, young children, and lastly, as themselves in the confessional scenes. With a cast of nine and a runtime of roughly an hour, Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan lacks the advantage of having the time to soak into and linger with these various characters. The short, succinct performances comes of more as disparate monologues, rather than a cohesive portrait of a national identity.   

It is curious and perhaps somewhat ‘on trend’ to have a group of young millennials candidly muse about the past. For instance, a male cast member recalls that while growing up in old HDB flats, the lifts were not available on every floor. There was still a sense of a ‘kampung spirit’ as friendly neighbours would walk past each other homes more frequently and greet each other kindly, but is now gone when the newer lifts were installed. Regardless, HDBs are purposely constructed to rouse this ‘kampung spirit’ – it has allegedly never left. HDBs, like many state vehicles, gains its strength by drawing from the past.

This is the missing piece in Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan. Singapore undoubtedly romanticises certain aspects of its past, and the state deftly transforms this into policy reforms or for capitalistic gains. We can see this in the HDB Ethnic Integration Policy or bidding for hawker centres to be recognised as a UNESCO Heritage Site. (Or the store Naiise.)  The play mentions the old Bidadari Cemetery, but does not mention that it is now a soon-to-be-launched HDB estate. The cast’s sincerity in tackling ideas of national identity is captivating, deeply rooted in the past and the personal. But the production falls short of including a core, unromantic component of our nation’s identity; the root of Singapore’s present success – the political i.e. economic pragmatism.

This review is based on the performance on 9 January 2020. Part of the M1 Fringe Festival, Contemplating Kopitiam and Kampong Wa’ Hassan ran from 9-12 January 2020 at NAFA Studio Theatre.

Photo credit: Memphis West Pictures/ Joe Nair