近几个月来有几家大书店陆续结束营业，对很多人来说都是令人泄气的消息。由得奖作家掌管的书店，并不因为有名气撑腰而逃过现实社会的冷言旁观。在 North Bridge Centre 三楼老旧和昏暗的走廊尽头，草根书室虽没有华丽的门面，却像一本新书那样整洁明亮。不过这年头整洁明亮并不会给一间书店带来可观的收入。不好意思地说，本地的消费者似乎偏好光鲜亮丽外表，看起来只是白纸黑字的文学作品要挑起消费欲望是越来越困难。我们不知道什么时候草根书室也会像那些大书店那样，承受不起沉重的开销，而消失在永远都那么光鲜亮丽的城市风景线中。
Our Writers. Our Literature. Our Stories from Home.
Utter is an utterly unique name. So is their approach to staging performances. For the price of one ticket, audience gain entrance to two vastly different shows: one staged in Chinese, the other in English. (This led me to wonder if this mode of performance is an assessment on our nation’s policy of advocating bilingualism in our society?)
Essentially, the two stories in the performances are independent of each other. The sole common point would be that both productions are adapted from local literary works. In the recent couple of years, the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), held by the National Arts Council (NAC), has been dabbling with arts in the theatrical arena. This time round, SWF collaborates with The Arts House to showcase outstanding local literary works in the form ofUtter, thereby presenting the potential to deliver context outside of words.
Presenting The Studio, an English novel and two English short stories namely, The Yellow Elephant and The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun, a Chinese playscript – Shadows in the Jungle and lastly, the English playscript – The Yellow Elephant and The Girl Who Swallowed The Sun. We await what could be installed for us in this season ofUtter – a melting pot of local works of literature.
We spoke to Mr Lee Chee Keng, the playwright who adapted an episode from The Studio into Shadows in the Jungle. In the phone interview, Lee revealed that this rare opportunity allowed him pay tribute to and further explore the works of his favourite writers from his secondary school days. He sought to infuse vibrant theatrical elements into the play, conserving the essence of its primary sources, thus creating a parallel ambience and tempo in the production. He reminded us that the true focus of Utter is ‘novels’. Peering through his looking-glass, we delve into the local literary scene and discover ourselves…
It was another sunny afternoon when we entered the Grassroots Book Room, adjacent to the National Library. The first thing that caught our eyes was The Studio. The Studio was written by the very owner of the Grassroots Book Room, Mr Yeng Pway Ngon, which also won him the Yazhou Zhoukan Top Ten Best Chinese Novels Worldwide in 2011. Apparent on the cover of the book, were two Chinese characters spelling out the title 《畫室》, in traditional Chinese font – not common for locally published books. Then it occurred to me that The Studio was published in Taiwan, not Singapore.
The Studio, spanning from the last century, illustrates the struggles, determination and ideals of an artist in the face of setbacks. Sitting in his bookstore, surrounded by volumes of Chinese literature, Yeng spoke to us earnestly about the inspirations of his novel, the Chinese culture and literary scene in Singapore, his ideals and aspirations… We could strongly feel his undying passion and enthusiasm for Chinese literature and writing for the past few decades as we spoke, but not without a hint of anguish. He admitted that the bookstore is hardly making ends meet. Looking at the each carefully chosen literature work on the shelves of his store, we realise they are really the backbone to support him in managing this challenging trade. Is this store not a manifestation of The Studio, where people come to shape their dreams?
On another occasion, we passed by Victoria Hall – once the prestige of local arts scene – now undergoing a face-lift and walked into The Arts House of The Old Parliament. We met Mr O Thiam Chin, the author of The Yellow Elephant and The Girl Who Swallowed The Sun, and Jean Tay, who took an hour off her hectic schedule to tell us more about her role in the English drama ofUtter. Being contemporary artists in the local literary and artistic field, both O and Tay were thrilled in expressing a script full of local flavours and imagination. The English drama performance, which encompasses two surreal concepts from the two short stories that it was adapted from, was dynamically articulated by Tay, animatedly.
Despite the difference in their backgrounds, these four artists: Lee Chee Keng, Yeng Pway Ngon, Jean Tay and O Thiam Chin, has affected me with their fervour for creating and their passion in conveying stories. Have we taken time to reflect upon ourselves as we continue to rant about our globalised society becoming more pragmatic and materialistic? How many of us were concerned with the various events that have taken place in the society? Have we given a thought about the memoirs that once moulded this city?
If you think that history is monotonous and boring, then novels must be the flesh and blood of memoirs, with room for your wildest imagination. Most people fancy going into theatres to catch a staged performance or films on screen. On the same note, memories and imaginations of our homeland documented in prints should also be valued and treated with care. Perhaps, we may find these stories from home in Yeng’s next novel; or embedded in O’s current novel-in-progress; or set in Tay’s playscript illustrating Singapore’s offshore islands, or even in the hands of other up-and-coming young local writers.
Lately, several major bookstores have successively wound up their business. I believe this came as a blow to many people concerned. Although Yeng, a prize-winning literature writer, helms the Grassroots Book Room, the bookstore did not escape unscathed, from the harsh reality of this materialistic society. Local consumers are increasingly fussy about the packaging of goods, and conventional black-and-white prints are losing their appeal. Sitting at the end of a dimly lit corridor, on the third floor of North Bridge Centre, Grassroots Book Room may not be decked out in opulence, but she greets you like a glistening new book. We do not know if the Grassroots Book Room could stay afloat or meet the same miserable fate due to high overhead costs, and then vanish forever amidst the dazzling city lights.
If you have been curious about the stories of our homeland or that you have never seen local literary productions, Utter will be a good start. If you think that our tiny island is merely made up of rigid HDBs or perpetually increasing costs of living, you may want to take look at local productions, that illustrates the aspirations, dreams and hopes of our past, present and future generations. One day, you may become the key to open The Studio and return the prestige of local literary works to our homeland, in the hands of a local publisher.
We bought a copy of The Studio before we left. Yeng told us it was his first sale of the day, and the time was five in the evening as we walked out the Grassroots Book Room …