A Hokkien Play? No Big Problem!


The stage at Sinkeh Studio is dimly lit; the vibe is electric, the performers pregnant with emotion. Nancy, Beh Hu Beng (or “Fishmonger Beng” in Hokkien) and Ah Boy have a huge problem: “How frustrating it is to be alive!” they sing in chorus… in Hokkien!

I get very excited every time I hear about a Hokkien play – even more so if it is performed in Penang Hokkien – simply because there aren’t that many of them. After all, most producers would wonder why they should limit their audience to a dwindling Hokkien-speaking crowd, subtitles or no? So when I heard about Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow (“Big Problem” in Hokkien) – produced by ZXC Theatre Troupe and directed by Chee Sek Thim, theatre practitioner and owner of Sinkeh, a guesthouse and arts space – I was psyched.

So I went, and I wasn’t disappointed. While it is labelled a drama, in essence I felt that Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow was more of a musical – the performers broke into song every now and then, with a catchy rap ditty in between.

The story revolves around three characters: Nancy, a hostess who dreams of owning her own wine bar; Beh Hu Beng, a down-on-his-luck fishmonger who believes he is cursed by his own father; and Ah Boy, a lonely student craving for a connection. They constantly bump into each other at a nondescript back-lane in their neighbourhood, and form a friendship of sorts. One day, they find a hand (“A woman’s or a man’s?” Nancy wonders), and their lives are changed forever (this is arguable for Beh Hu Beng, but I like to believe that at the end of the play, he does change).

Exposition done, Nancy wants to report the hand to the police but is advised against it by Beh Hu Beng, who fears repercussions (Beh Hu Beng is afraid of a lot of things), while Ah Boy has visions of a zombie apocalypse. The plot then delves a bit into the backstories of the trio, and why they reacted the way they did.

Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow nails it in exploring the dreams of each character and switches from whimsical to dramatic with good effect. Nancy’s monologue is powerful (“Good fortune – what is that? It can only be a dream”) while Beh Hu Beng’s chronic pessimism is relatable. Ah Boy’s neglected childhood and perennial teenage angst gains sympathy, and his character is wilfully performed by Loe Jia Xiang.

Solid story, solid performances. Never a dull moment. My only complaint is that it is still a comedy-drama about the working class – a point I will address later.

Now, on to the medium of language.

(Left to right) Beh Hu Beng, Nancy and Ah Boy played by Chen Fook Meng, Ho Sheau Fung and Loe Jia Xiang, respectively.

Penang Hokkien is not traditionally viewed as a language of the arts, despite its singsong intonation and generous embrace of non-Hokkien words. “The Hokkien that we use lacks vocabulary for more complex thoughts; it’s a bit difficult to translate certain (words) or use it for more subtle or sophisticated forms of literary expressions because it is essentially a utilitarian language,” says Sek Thim.

It’s up to us to excavate and identify the rhythms of the language and to see its expressive potential – to see how far it can go besides using it to curse at each other, or to fight.

Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow was developed in a workshop in 2017 under Five Arts Centre with a grant from Yayasan Sime Darby. According to Sek Thim, the use of Hokkien developed out of necessity: “Producer Tan Hock Kheng and I had actually talked about wanting to do a project together for a while now, and I said to him that we can only do it if we decide to work in Hokkien because it’s the only language that can bridge the language differences – the aim was to essentially find a medium of communication that works with whoever you’re working with.

Chee Sek Thim.

“A group of us came together in this workshop and we did exercises, played games and talked. The participants came up with these stories and I scripted it in English. It was then translated into Hokkien; the original English script was modified a little bit because you can’t really translate certain things that are written in English given the limitations of the vocabulary that we have with this particular kind of Hokkien,” Sek Thim says.

Hokkien is seen by many to be a working-class language though, and Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow is ultimately a story about working-class characters. I would love to see the language breaking out of this mould and perhaps hear it spoken on stage more often by characters across the social spectrum. “I suppose it depends on how much effort or how many people who desire to use the language are willing to experiment and to see what the possibilities are, given the restrictions of its colloquial nature,” Sek Thim muses.

“It’s up to us to excavate and identify the rhythms of the language and to see its expressive potential – to see how far it can go besides using it to curse at each other, or to fight. It has its limitations, for sure, and the way we use Hokkien, it’s not the Hokkien of Fujian Province. It is Hokkien that is very particular and very special to the northern region of Malaysia – it’s got Malay and English words, and these days, when people use Hokkien, they mix it with sentences that are wholly in Mandarin or English.

Catchy Hokkien songs feature in the play.

“Hokkien then may not be just Hokkien in that sense; it essentially means a language that is used for communicating by people whose ancestors came from Fujian Province and have worked in this particular area and absorbed and used other kinds of resources, other languages, recognising the diversity of the place that they have come to inhabit.”

Being a native Hokkien speaker, the language is very close to my heart. It possesses a great sense of intimacy and humility, and while do I agree that certain words and expressions in English are near-impossible to translate into Hokkien, the effect, when done seamlessly – just like in Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow – speaks volumes.

Tai-Ji-Tua-Teow was performed from August 2-3 and was produced by ZXC Theatre Troupe, starring Ho Sheau Fung, Chen Fook Meng and Loe Jia Xiang. Find out more about upcoming performances at Sinkeh on FB: Sinkeh, or email info@sinkeh.com.

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