The Jade Bird takes flight

18 05 2012

The latest addition to the portfolio of Singapore’s much celebrated and highly acclaimed composer, Mark Chan, The Flight of the Jade Bird, made its debut at a VIP Preview last evening. Described as “part concert, part opera, part story-telling”, the exclusive viewing of the special commission for the Singapore Arts Festival 2012 for which Chan received a National Arts Council – Arts Creation Fund award, was attended by guests that included His Excellency President Tony Tan Keng Yam; Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs; and Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Transport and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs.

A view of the stage during a rehearsal session.

“And the Bird said to the Boy, keep this Jade with you and if you are in trouble, rub it and call out my name. I will hear and I will return as fast as the wind can carry me.”

The story revolves around an ancient bird, the Jade Bird, who is known by the name Courage. We learn of an inner name, Despair, only because of Facebook and Twitter – trappings of the modern world that like that of the Jade Bird’s world threatens tradition. The bird, the last one of seven ancient birds still left, dwells in a sanctuary – a mythical palace which modern times has use of not as a museum but a theme park. It is in an inner chamber of the palace, that despite there not being WiFi and a fear stemming from the myths he has been told about the place, a young boy meets the Jade Bird. Struck by the innocence and the frankness of the young boy, expertly played by a 14 year old Singaporean boy soprano, Matthew Supramaniam, the Jade Bird develops a friendship with him. He sleeps – for the first time in 7000 years, having been told by the young boy that sleep was needed to be able to dream. Without dreams, the Jade Bird is told, nothing new would be able to enter one’s life.

Boy soprano, Matthew Supramaniam, a 14-year-old Singaporean who currently is based at Eton College during a rehearsal session. Matthew provides the musical voice of the Young Boy.

The tale in itself has the makings of an epic. Incredible as it is, it is a story that attempts to examine the contrast and contradiction of tradition in a modern world – a familiar theme in society today. The contrasts and contradictions do not end there – it is in the telling of the tale where this is especially evident, perhaps in keeping with its theme. The visual discord that is apparent with a musical ensemble seemingly competing for attention with the singers who give a voice to the characters, as well as with a narrator and a dancer who is the Jade Bird does serve to leave the audience confused as to what the performance is about. The music seemingly a harmonious discord of instruments of both eastern and western traditions, adds to the confusion, and for a while I struggle to come to terms with what was on stage both from visual and aural perspective.

Music Director Belinda Foo with the western and eastern string players, Leslie Tan, Tang I Shyan, Wong On Yuen and Sunny Wong at a rehearsal.

As I sat watching the spectacle of coloured lights falling on the stage, I decided to close my eyes and focus on the strains that filled the hall. It was in the light of the darkness that faded the prejudices that comes with seeing, I realised it wasn’t the discord that I had imagined, but a harmony that made use of the contradictions. That perhaps was what the work and the theme of the story was all about and what I needed to appreciate the beauty of work for what it was, described by Mark Chan as a being very much like a “Chinese Shan Shui painting where man is one small figure, existing together with other figures, trumpeting out their own self-importance again and again, loudly and in no uncertain terms”.

Cellists Leslie Tan and Tang I Shyan.

Margie Tong on Percussion.

It was then, that I began to take some pleasure in the performance, listening intently to the powerful narration provided by Kee Thuan Chye, complemented by the haunting yet beautiful strains of the instruments and voices. The music however did seem a little too unsurprising as the performance went on and made the first part, which only drew to a close after some 90 minutes of what was a 120 minute performance, seem all too long. The second part of the performance with the drama of a tussle over the Jade Bird, was certainly much easier to appreciate.

Kee Thuan Chye, the narrator.

Father and son Erhu team Wong On Yuen and Sunny Wong.

The highlight of the performance was for me the beautiful voice of the Young Boy provided by Matthew Supramaniam, a student of Eton College who has been described as the boy with a golden voice. I had the opportunity to meet an exhausted Matthew and his family at the reception after the preview and realised that behind that assured and controlled voice is a teenager that is no different from any teenager. To celebrate Mark Chan’s musical and story-telling genius – and to have a chance to hear the golden voice of Matthew in it certainly is good reason to catch the show which goes on for only two days until tomorrow (19 May 2012). This evening’s performance, includes a dialogue after the show. For more information on the show, do visit

Matthew in a more relaxed mood at the post VIP Preview reception with his proud parents Margaret and Paul, and equally talented brother Timothy.

About The Singapore Arts Festival

The Singapore Arts Festival began in 1977 as a national showcase celebrating the local arts of Singapore’s diverse communities. Over the last three decades, the Festival organised by the National Arts Council, has played a symbiotic and catalytic role in the development of the artistic and cultural life of Singapore. It has influenced the work of artists and generated a growing public demand for the arts, spawning new capital platforms, events and movements that help underpin the lively cultural scene in Singapore.

The Festival saw its turning point in 2010 as it embarked on a new phase of development under the leadership of Low Kee Hong. Key changes and initiatives include turning this international arts platform into a Creation and People’s Festival with a vital year-long participation programme, com.mune to sustain the Festival’s engagement with the public beyond individual shows staged during the Festival period. The commune events and activities are tailored for four groups: new audiences — people who may not have encountered the arts; arts lovers — people who buy tickets to performances; arts makers — artists and teachers who inspire their students through the arts; and arts volunteers — people who have the heart to make a difference.

The Singapore Arts Festival has now become an international showcase of ideas, art and discourse with a distinctive Asian flavour, known for its bold and innovative discussions between vernacular and contemporary art.

Singapore Arts Festival 2012: Our Lost Poems

The 2012 Festival will be held from 18 May – 2 June 2012. This edition of the Festival completes the trilogy of themes set out two editions ago – Between You and Me (2010), I Want to Remember (2011), Our Lost Poems (2012). Over these 16 days, the city comes alive with an infusion of performances at the Festival’s hub – the Festival Village @ Esplanade Park and other key venues. There is something for everyone this year, from ages 1 to 100.


Launch of NHB’s Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces

13 04 2012

Void decks became a common feature of blocks of flats in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates back in the 1970s. Offering shade and shelter, they quite naturally found use as common spaces for social interaction as well as for community events. Over time, the use of void decks have evolved beyond this and uses of the common spaces have extended to children’s toy libraries, bird singing corners, civil defence shelters, retail spaces, playgrounds and community art galleries.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim opening 'Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces' exhibition at Blk 2, Saint George's Road on 12 April 2012. Looking on is James Seah.

To discover more of the history and evolution of void decks and their use, do visit National Heritage Board’s (NHB) exhibition “Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces”, which was opened by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, and Advisor for Kolam Ayer, on 12 April 2012. The exhibition is the third in a series of travelling exhibitions focusing on community heritage and highlights the history and development of void decks in the Housing Development Board (HDB) heartlands, their common features and uses, and their role in providing shelter, building community, and promoting racial integration. The exhibition will also feature learning games related to the exhibition for which NHB has partnered Handson Learning, an educational consultancy specialising in museum and heritage programmes. The games will be conducted by students from schools in the proximity of the exhibition and for the preview during the opening, involved National Education Captains from Bendemeer Secondary School.

Handons Learning with which NHB has partnered is training students from neighbourhood schools to conduct learning games related to the exhibition to help raise awareness of the vital role that void decks play .

Representatives from Handons Learning together with National Education Captains from Bendemeer Secondary School were on hand to demonstrate the Snakes and Ladder game.

Besides the exhibition which is currently at Blk 2 Saint George’s Road Singapore 320002 until the end of April, there are also a group of bloggers (including myself) who have written personal stories and experiences and shared photographs to the exhibition.
The exhibition moves to Marine Parade in May 2012 and after to other void decks around Singapore.

Children from the neighbourhood having a go at the game.

Supporting blog entries for Our Void Decks, Our Shared Spaces are: