Homesick: On Longing and Belonging

By Sophia He (20S03H) and Valerie Tan (20A01E)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society

The Oxford dictionary defines being homesick as “experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it”. Raffles Players, in their year-end production of 2019, defines homesick as “a dysfunctional family stuck under one roof for 10 days due to a SARS quarantine”. In this adaptation of Alfian Sa’at’s 2006 play Homesick, Raffles Players brought together the complex weave of family and ancestry, kinship and brotherhood, identity and belonging, to deliver their audience two nights of contagious fun in our very own Theatre Studies and Drama Room (TSD).

As the familiar melody of the 2001 National Day Parade (NDP) song “Where I Belong” faded away before the start of play, the audience was plunged abruptly into pitch darkness, and introduced to a scenario at once familiar and unfamiliar: the 2003 SARS outbreak. The family patriarch’s illness reunites the Koh siblings, Heather, Marianne, Arthur, Daphne and Alex, in their Peranakan home in Singapore, and with their mother Patricia (Eu Shae-anne, 20S03L). Filled with more biting witticisms than thematic advancements of character, the first few scenes are an exploration of the tensions apparent in the Koh family, with each character representing a different trope that often conflict with the others.

“Send my regards to the red guards.”
— Heather, on Arthur’s arrival

From the start, Heather (Beth Lim, 20S03I), the eldest and earliest to arrive home, is strangely reminiscent of the emerging class of “educated” Singaporeans: bitter about her circumstances, yet feeling as though she is powerless to enact any change. For all her witty comebacks and biting denunciations of her family members—perhaps a bit overblown at times, but at least entertaining—Heather feels helpless: helpless to extract herself from her unsavoury situation, and also powerless against Arthur’s knowledge of her life, that the rich Englishman she married and eventually divorced was in fact a janitor, and not the personification of all her Anglophilic dreams. This helplessness translates into a wider recurring theme later on in the play, when characters feel compelled by their circumstances to make choices that do not seem entirely their own. Beth conveyed all of this with a British accent that helped to further demonstrate her character’s attempts to take on a new life in England.

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Heather just seems to be in a constant state of frustration.

Marianne (Michele Pek, 20A01A), on the other hand, feels powerless for a different reason. Unlike Heather, she seems more inclined to diffuse familial tensions than to instigate them. Despite this, she is, like Heather, deeply unhappy, devoting so much time and effort to ensuring the happiness of those around her that she overlooks what she herself wants out of her relations and her life. Michele, with her mild floral dress and propensity for leaving rooms, portrayed Marianne with care and an understanding of her mild nature. Her quiet restraint and short, aborted actions spoke for this unobtrusive character where dialogue fails, trails off, or aborts itself in favour of a facade of harmony. 

Having been introduced to Heather and Marianne, Daphne (Zhang Ziru, 20A01E), the headstrong, feminist activist, feels like a breath of fresh air, especially in a family—or country—where some may appear too concerned with personal bread-and-butter issues to consider calling attention to other social issues. She is painted as the only one in the family who sees the injustices around her and empowers herself to create a better world. Yet as the play unfolds, her bold front seems increasingly fragile as the convictions that back up her actions fail to stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps Daphne’s role was to serve as a representation of Singapore’s activism field back in 2006, when the play was first written; while activism certainly existed in Singapore, there may have been doubts about how much concrete change it was able to effect, given Singapore’s conservative nature. This may not be a fair comment now, given the growing youth advocacy of today, but such critique could have been warranted a decade before. In the end, it was disappointing but not entirely surprising that out of all the weary souls that make up the Koh family, it was Daphne that escapes from the escalating chaos to seek her own peace, violating the quarantine and earning herself an electronic tracker issued by the state. All of this is brought to life expertly by Ziru, who infused every sentence with palpable annoyance, complete with eye rolls and sighs.

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Here’s one of those eye rolls in action in a conversation with her youngest sibling.

Arthur (Jerell Toh, 20S06R), or Wei Yang as he prefers to be addressed, immediately establishes his presence as the “fundamentalist born-again Chinese”, in the words of a dismissive Heather. Arguably the least likeable character, Arthur’s demand for traditional terms of address and astonishment that Marianne would not give her children Chinese names feel like actions that would earn him an “ok boomer” from the play’s young audience. Admittedly the one who ends up giving voice to many of the tensions that underlie the family’s interactions, as well as their individual struggles with identity. In the end, however, he is too uptight for sympathy. While his motivations for alienating himself from his own family are clear, the audience receives very little insight into what actually goes on in the mind of this man that has so desperately chosen to trace back to his ancestral roots in China, rather than any other place he could call home (such as the Western countries where his siblings now reside). This leaves a one-dimensional characterisation of arguably the only conservative in the play, a move that ironically provokes the audience into wondering about what motivations might lie beneath such bitter pragmatism. 

The youngest sibling, Alex (Joanne Sitorus, 20S03G) seems to be a representation of the globalised individual, torn between multiple identities and responsibilities towards different nations. Having studied in Australia for most of her schooling years, she is now in a dilemma over which country to declare herself a citizen of: Australia, or Singapore? There’s no doubt that Australia is where Alex truly feels like home, yet she is inextricably bound to Singapore by the fact that she is the only child left to look after her parents, with expectations of filial piety placed on her by the very siblings who decided to send her away to Perth, and have now left for their own greener pastures. It seems that the question being asked would be that of what Singapore is doing to develop a genuine sense of loyalty in the younger generation, rather than their staying out of a mere perceived requirement to love one’s homeland. Alex articulates her reasons for leaving in eloquent, convincing tones, but her compulsion to stay seems borne of empty filial obligations, devoid of passion or any true sense of belonging, a sentiment that echoes among Singapore’s youth.

Lastly, we come to the unnamed patriarch of the family, who serves as the catalyst for the family’s unfortunate reunion but yet never once shows up, or is even mentioned by name. It is strangely apt that his absence is, in some ways, corroborated by what the audience slowly grows to learn about him. Although he is never seen in the flesh, the audience is fed bits and pieces of information about him as the play goes on, such that by the end, he is known only through the lenses of seven different characters, each with their own take on his character and motivations. 

The play progresses with the reveal of the family patriarch’s mistress, Cindy, which wrecks havoc upon the already-dysfunctional Koh family. Dramatic irony comes into full play as the characters attempt to conceal Cindy’s true identity from Patricia, who initially welcomes her warmly into the family as Arthur’s girlfriend. These culminate in a tense confrontation between the two women, and the play ends where most families begin—with a traditional family portrait, Cindy included. And herein lies the most striking character development within the play, which comes from the warm, welcoming matriarch of the family, Patricia Koh. It is her growth, from a nurturing, ever-patient mother to someone served one of life’s biggest betrayals, that strikes one as at once deeply devastating but also quietly empowering. As the one character in the Koh family who has sacrificed the most for their family, her decision to move away from the Peranakan house that no longer feels like home seems like an apt end to this tale of a broken family, driven finally to ruin by an estranging force so strong that even the power of a mother’s selfless love can no longer hold it together.

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Having discovered the truth behind Cindy, Patricia calls out every member of the family for a tense meeting.

In many ways, the Koh family serves as a microcosm of our Singaporean society. Here, we have the weary and the idealistic, the downtrodden and the hopeful, the traditionalist and the progressive. The ties of kinship that bring them together feel more obligatory than legitimate, and each member is searching for a sense of higher purpose and identity that they cannot quite find within the confines of their family unit. The struggles for identity and lack of a true sense of belonging reflect, perhaps, a larger social issue left unspoken around us, and our own struggles to connect with a fledgling nation still grappling with her own identity crisis.

In spite of all their differences, what the Koh siblings have in common is a distinct lack of a Singaporean identity, and even the deliberate rejection of it, which in turn leads to a sense of detachment from their own traditional Peranakan family. Besides everyone’s migration to other countries—almost all Western, with the exception of Arthur’s choice of China as his new home—perhaps this is most clearly seen in Heather’s attempt to escape her past by erasing her history, choosing instead to lie to her husband about being an orphan. Arthur puts this point across straightforwardly, almost comically, in his sharp, acidic rants as well, claiming that “there’s no such thing as a Singaporean; we’re all immigrants”. Indeed, also explored in the play is the idea that what makes, or does not make, a national identity, and the perceived lack thereof contributes to the characters’ sense of detachment and disillusion with the nation. Arthur, for instance, comments on Singapore’s use of national symbols such as the Vanda Miss Joaquim, an artificial hybrid, and the Merlion, a half-lion half-fish oddity, as well as how Christmas decorations have snow on them even in its equatorial climate.

Throughout the play, the audience is further presented with the study of those who choose to stay in the motherland and those who leave. Characters are sometimes shaped entirely by their relationships with their land of origin and the places they choose to settle down in, such as with Heather and her longing for the western idealisation of Englishmen and the English countryside, and Arthur’s attempt to reconnect with his Chinese ancestry in China. Yet even as these characters verbosely express their inner dilemmas, one thing is left unspoken—what exactly is it about Singapore that makes it so easy to leave for them? Whether it be to seek better opportunities, to stay with one’s family or to retrace one’s roots, the motivation to go is often clear-cut. But with the sincere and motherly Patricia in the house, the characters themselves often feel confused as to why it is that they feel so thin a compulsion to stay, in the household and motherland that nurtured them all. This actually seems to give the play more nuance: is home actually so bad, or is the dissatisfaction with it merely making a mountain out of a molehill?

In the end, the play feels rather like Heather: angry and desperate for social change, yet starkly aware of how little it can do—or even knows what to suggest doing, given the wide variety of themes brought up—to enact that change. At times, the voice of the original playwright himself seems to come through; the eloquent and frustrated voices given to some of these characters sound as though the writer himself longed to have that stage, to give light to the injustices and social abnormalities that he perceives in everyday Singaporean society. There were times when this seemed to weigh the play down in the form of clunky, occasionally out-of-character circumlocutions, which could have been explored more subtly in other ways—for instance, using the context of the SARS outbreak as a metaphor, which was otherwise left to nothing more than a plot device. The surveillance in the form of constant state-mandated check-ins was also taken completely in stride by the characters, who viewed it as nothing more than a mild inconvenience. However, in spite of these slightly disappointing areas, the points raised within the play were often still effective catalysts for extended conversation beyond the black box.

Of course, there were moments of humour scattered throughout this otherwise serious play. A scene that ended with a passionate kiss between Marianne and her husband Manoj (as the lights go out, naturally) earned cheers from the audience, while quips and witticisms from several of the characters were similarly met with hearty laughter and applause:

“Once, he was stopped by the police for having too much blood in his alcohol stream.”
— Heather, on her husband

And perhaps the most heart-warming scene of the play occurs when Heather has breakfast—bread and kaya—with Patricia. Offhandedly, Patricia mentions that she “keeps everything” about her children, from certificates to birthday cards and more, even though they have all left her. Stunned, and perhaps filled with guilt, Heather quietens for a while before suddenly getting up to leave, her bread lying half-eaten on the plate. “It’s too sweet,” she says. A pause later: “The jam.”

All of this would not have been as effective, however, without the hard work of the Year 5 Players batch. From the aesthetic of the sets to the accents of the characters and even down to the collateral created for publicity, not a single detail was overlooked, allowing the audience to fully immerse themselves in what would be the batch’s first and last production together. The nature of the black box, in which audience members are seated especially close to the stage, further heightened the importance of attention to detail; sets I/C Liyana Afiqah (20S03I) had to take extra care to preserve the Peranakan aesthetic of the set with tile stickers and specially-bought wood for the flats. A special mention must also be made about the ticket booth just outside the TSD, whose whiteboard featured the play’s title, but with the beginning H written to mimic the logo of the Health Promotion Board, harking back to the play’s context of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

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And look at how creative the tickets are!

“The play is really hard to do, because it’s not self-written,” Shae-anne admitted. “Previously, actors were typecast, but here we were put into [sic] things that we weren’t comfortable with. And it’s different because this is a black box, rather than a theatre; it’s more personal and closer to the audience.”

“It’s been a long and challenging journey,” director Fiona Xiao (20A01A) agreed. “But I am so, so, so proud of how far our actors have come, and I feel like we’ve really bonded as a batch over this journey.”

To have been able to watch Homesick was perhaps a great privilege in itself; merging a social critique, a comedy and a family drama into one is no easy feat, but this play managed to accomplish all that and more. Raffles Players’ Year 5s have impressed the audience with their batch’s numerous talents, and while their labour of love may have lasted a mere two hours, the memories of it will certainly stay with everyone for far, far longer.

Actors and Actresses
Eu Shae-anne as Patricia Koh
Beth Lim as Heather Koh
Michele Pek as Marianne Koh
Jerell Toh as Arthur Koh
Zhang Ziru as Daphne Koh
Joanne Sitorus as Alex Koh
Manish Warrier as Manoj Abraham
Crystal Lai as Cindy Leow

Management
Jannatun Tajrian (Director)
Fiona Xiao (Director)
Sonia Kaur (Stage Manager)
Naadiah Bte Mohamed Ibraham (Production Manager)
Dennis Suyanto (Production Manager)

Costumes and Makeup
Zhao Na (I/C)
Michele Pek

Props and Sets
Liyana Afiqah (I/C)
Joanne Sitorus
Manish Warrier
Zhang Ziru
Beth Lim
Jerell Toh

Publicity
Nursyarifah Bte Abdullah (I/C)
Liu Kai Zhong
Crystal Lai
Eu Shae-Anne

Lights and Sounds
Liu Kai Zhong (Sounds)
Sonia Kaur (Lights)

"Homesick: On Longing and Belonging", 5 out of 5 based on 3 ratings.

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