Struggled With Your Mother Tongue? Watch This Play!


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Ok, I have to admit, the subject matter of this original work hits home. Hard.
Yes, I’ve been at the receiving end of “why you Chinese dunno how to speak Chinese”-type taunts, and had Chinese tuition from Primary 1 all the way to JC. Look, I come from a Peranakan household, and my parents and senior members of my extended family all don’t speak or write a word of Chinese, and communicate in English or Malay, OKAY. The struggle was/is real.
As such, I’m more than looking forward to what 25-year-old playwright and actress Miriam Cheong (who has a very similar background) has to say in her show, “晚安你好 (Wan An Ni Hao): The Late Night Show with Xiao Ming”, a spinoff of her autobiographical piece, “The Chronicles of Xiao Ming”, from last year.
We talk to the Lasalle College of the Arts alumna (who started independent theatre collective Impromptu Meetings this year with two other theatre artists, Cheryl Tan and Adeeb Fazah) about the woes of learning a mother tongue, and, gasp, her favourite cheng yu (Chinese idiom).
This piece is a spinoff from your autobiographical solo piece “The Chronicles of Xiao Ming”, which you performed last year. For those who missed that, who is Xiao Ming and whom does he represent?
Xiao Ming is symbolic of the people who are bad at Chinese! It’s a reference to the joke that like, if you’re not good at Chinese, your compositions’ characters are all called Xiao Ming since you don’t know how to write any other names!
What inspired you to create this new show, “晚安你好 (Wan An Ni Hao): The Late Night Show with Xiao Ming”, about the struggles of learning one’s mother tongue? Did it come from a place of trauma lol? Was it a cathartic process?
Coming from a family of teachers and with siblings who all took very different academic paths, I think the workings and politics of the local education system has always been in the back of my mind. I was relaying some of the absurd stories I’d had experienced in school with my weakest subject, Chinese, and thought, oh, this might be the gateway for me to talk about education in Singapore.
How have your struggles with your mother tongue shaped you?
This is hard to map, in that I used to think that it wasn’t a source of shame until quite late – coming from a Peranakan family, we joked that being bad at Chinese was in the blood, ’twas Cheong family tradition.
But now that I think about how the other girls in school laughed at my inability to communicate even the simplest of thoughts, or how my teachers called me up to shout at me over beginner’s mistakes made me shrink into myself from a young age. I’ve ended up very debilitated in trying to communicate with other people in a different language.
My heart skips a beat when people call me by my Chinese name. After teaching myself Japanese, I can read and translate it fine, but ask me to converse with you in the language and I clam up. But I went for my first-ever Chinese audition this year, so things are getting better!
What were your best and worst memories of learning mother tongue?
Crying at the tuition teacher’s table at my grandmother’s house was one of the worst, not just because I was breaking down, but also because everyone around me didn’t understand why (it’s a little bit hard to articulate thoughts when you’re trying to suck in snot.) I’ve always brain-farted a lot during tuition and forgotten how to write “在” (Chinese for “in” or “at”).
My best memory would be talking about “Kung Fu Panda 2” for CLB A-level Oral! It was nice sitting back and just talking about something I liked for a few minutes. Also, we got to memorise scripts beforehand, so it was like doing a show.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as an arts practitioner this year?
I think that everything that has been said has been said – loss of income, delay in projects that were holding you together in anticipation, being deemed non-essential…Even going back to theatre is a little bittersweet when you see the empty seats around you and realise that that’s the new-normal full house.
Did I perhaps use “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” as a band-aid for these feelings. Maybe…
This piece is an interactive monologue, yet there is no physical audience as it’s conducted on Zoom. How does that help or hinder the play?
I think, fortunately, digital communication is something that was established before this year. As someone who used MSN, had a lot of online friends in the late 2000’s, done some online streaming, and is addicted to Telegram stickers, I personally feel that just because the exchange of words is digital, that does not make it less visceral and real and tangible. Sometimes a well-placed ;__; or >:O speaks everything that needs to be said.
We’re playing with the idea of keeping the Zoom chat open during the show, so that we can have that sort of digital interaction!
What’s the most interesting thing about having someone else direct a piece that you wrote and are going to perform?
When I first thought of doing the show, I knew from the get-go that I wanted a director to keep me in check. If I’m both writing and performing, I can’t see myself from the audience’s perspective. The work also runs so much risk of becoming very insular.
So when working with Cheryl (Tan, pictured above with Miriam), you really hear all these ideas and visions that make you go “huh, never would’ve thought about it that way”. And then it all clicks into place and you feel like she’s Kewpie Mayo and you’re Hard-Boiled Eggs and mashed together you’ve just made a really good egg salad sandwich!
If I don’t speak Mandarin, will I get all your jokes and asides?
I’ve done my best to add captions on the language-specific things to make it understandable – after all, creating a show about language barriers that comes with language barriers itself is an irony so sad even Alanis Morisette would shake her head.
There might be some classroom jokes that are specific to the student’s experience in a Singapore Chinese Mother Tongue class, but I hope I’ve made them relatable enough even for those who didn’t take Chinese!
Which is your favourite cheng yu (Chinese idiom) and why does it resonate with you?
Bold of you to assume I know enough cheng yu to have a favourite…do I even have a favourite English idiom? I guess Sword of Damocles sounds quite grand and cool but back to the cheng yu…I guess it’s 画蛇添足, which literally means “to add legs to the snake” and metaphorically means “ruining something by adding unnecessary details”. I just like it because I like picturing a snake with legs and Doc Martens.
What’s the most important message you want to convey with this show?
It’s not always easy to separate our identity and idea of success from our time in school, but it’s important that we try.
“晚安你好 (Wan An Ni Hao): The Late Night Show with Xiao Ming” presented by Impromptu Meetings will be performed by Miriam Cheong on:
The 45-min show is free and will be broadcast live on Zoom. Register here. The deadline for registration is 10 minutes prior to each show.
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