Watching Forgotten 遗忘, anyone can tell that Daniel York Loh (writer) and Kim Pearce (director) are on a mission. In a mere two hours, they attempt both to save the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) from complete historical marginalisation, and to paint a vivid portrayal of the common and cultured China.

I applaud the clarity in which their messages were delivered: characters often spoke in direct address to the audience, and the music and movements of traditional Chinese opera were smoothly incorporated into the storytelling style. The play is the main fixture in a series of CLC-related events, so it has got to successfully introduce ‘Lest We Forget’ – and it does. It takes a certain degree of bravery and cleverness to reenact the highly stylised Chinese Opera to an unfamiliar audience, when the style itself has regrettably long gone out of fashion in its own homeland. However, the mash-ups between versified English speeches and Chinese Opera theatre music somewhat stilted the poetic cadence – though perhaps I am bothered by the way direct translations of many common dictions like “Oh my sky” sat weirdly in my Asian-born-and-bred ear. Jokes on stereotypes in simple words were met with laughter. They kept the humour lighthearted.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the myth of Wu Song placed along the ‘pilgrimage’ of the main characters, but he was not the only myth embedded (intentionally or not) in this play. Every child of a country whose identity still clings heavily onto the pain of war (in my case, Vietnam) knows the stories of men leaving home and suffering, shedding blood and bones for foreign labour-recruiters. We hear of them from our grandparents, parents, from the war-time writers of our literature. They and their experiences were replicated perfectly on this stage, just as we had imagined them. Portraits of Old Six (Michael Phong Le), Big Dog (Camille Mallet De Chauny), Second Moon (Rebecca Boey), The Professor (Leo Wan), were all idealised and romanticised via archetypes of these tales, but it does not mean they are any less human and poignant. Their keen yet simple attempt to understand the war amongst the “pale” people and Big Dog’s innocent questioning of whether anyone likes the yellow people are heart-wrenching and accurate. Second Moon’s tragedy (of which the most tragic part is that her story is reported) was a common fear of the women who stayed back home. However, Zachary Hing’s Eunuch Lin, a comedic archaic remnant, who recklessly and triumphantly dances in the middle of a bombarded trench pulls the play back to the realm of revolutionary ‘heroic myth’.

The set, designed by Emma Baily, is both lovely and functional. Liz Chi Yen Liew’s compositions for the play certainly added to its atmosphere. Regretfully, the production managed to forget the female characters (all played by Boey), who appear and disappear in fleeting moments. Similarly, the two love subplots for Big Dog appeared as if they had been pasted in. It is a shame that a play about saving people from historical marginalisation itself occasionally leaves them lost in time. I appreciate the weight of the message, but the second act of the play spiralled into theatricised lecture, and lost much of the playfulness it had in the first act.

I did not come in to Forgotten expecting to leave feeling nostalgic of home, but I was. I wonder whether the play would have had the same resonance to an audience without that cultural heritage. Whilst it was deeply flawed theatrically, the play has an important story to tell and is worth listening to. Do give Forgotten a watch, if not to remember, then to not forget. To quote Loh, “they say history is written by the victors. But the Chinese labourers were on the side of the victors and yet still managed to get airbrushed.”

Forgotten 遗忘 runs at the Arcola Theatre until 17th November

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *