Not a Peranakan Play?: Rehearsing Identity in 'Mari Kita Main Wayang'

Masthead Image

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Masthead Image

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Mari Kita Main Wayang (Let’s Stage a Play) is the kind of production that can only emerge from this specific part of the world. It is a riot of textures, tongues, and traditions that represents what it means to be part of the former Straits Settlements, and all the negotiations and tensions that come with this heritage in the modern era. What audience members saw at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre over the course of a brief three-day run, however, was only the tip of the iceberg. Mari Kita Main Wayang, a 1994 Felix Chia play directed by Alvin Tan and adapted by Zulfadli Rashid for the Esplanade 2023 season, had a gestation period of one and a half years. It was a rich process of transcreation, renovation, and negotiation that not only embodies the unique complexities of producing a Peranakan play, but also sheds light on the universal concerns surrounding cultural preservation, generational shifts, and intercultural collaboration. This essay outlines this process and what it could tell us about these issues, focussing especially on the final phase of rehearsal and Alvin Tan’s development of ‘rehearsal semiotics’ in the play.

About the play

A male-presenting person standing on a stage holding a notebook. Behind him are five people sitting on a sofa, watching him.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Mari Kita Main Wayang (2023) tells the story of an amateur Peranakan theatre troupe coming together to stage a comedic royal court drama about a Raja and his multiple wives (Empat Bini or Four Wives), thanks to the support of a new sponsor. In this ‘play-within-a-play’, scenes of Empat Bini in rehearsal and performance unfold, interspersed by fragments of conversations between the troupe members and the tensions which arise from certain production decisions. For instance, as part of the sponsorship conditions, the troupe is obliged to cast the sponsor’s daughter, Suzy (Kimberly Chan), and her friends Lily and Mary (Munah Bagharib and Masturah Oli). Unfortunately, none of them speak the patois needed for an authentic Wayang Peranakan, and Lily and Mary are not Peranakan (but they are, as Suzy blithely put it, “mixed marriage kids”, which she thinks should count for something!). What’s more, Kechoot, an older member of the troupe played by Wayang Peranakan doyen G. T. Lye, is sidelined from an acting role in Empat Bini, instead relegated to backstage work such as costume prep. The following snippet of a scene between Kechoot and Teck Chye (played by Loong Seng Onn), the playwright of Empat Bini who also acts the role of the Raja, illustrates the awkward result of this:

Teck Chye and Kechoot are in Molly’s living room, the troupe’s makeshift rehearsal space. Teck Chye struggles to remove his costume vest, and Kechoot crosses the room to help him. When Teck Chye tries to take the vest to keep it himself, Kechoot brushes him off and proceeds to fold the costume in preparation for the next rehearsal. 

“Tachi [Big Sister], thanks for helping with the costume and all.” Teck Chye blurts out. “Gua moh cakap sikit sama Tachi…[I want to speak with you, big sister…]”

Kechoot sits on the armchair, fussing with the costume. She anticipates Teck Chye’s desire to explain why she did not get an acting role in Empat Bini. “Toksa sebot-sebot lagi lah. Gua sikit pun tak amek ati. [You don’t have to say anything. I did not take it to heart.]”

Teck Chye persists, bumbling through his reasoning in English. “I thought this is a good chance to let more people experience what we love to do. You know…the new generation…… Anyway! There are too many characters already. Also Molly said…”

Kechoot pauses mid-fold and interrupts Teck Chye. “Molly cakap apa? Tak apa. Gua tau, gua tau…” [What did Molly say? Never mind. I know, I know…]

“She said you declined her offer to direct the show with me. I mean, I’m not really the director, more of a facilitator… but thank you for agreeing to do this. I mean, who is better at fact-checking the things we want to put on stage? I need help… I really…!” 

Kechoot quickly finishes her business with the vest and leaves before Teck Chye can continue.

Two persons in jackets standing side by side in a room with a wood floor.

Loong Seng Onn and G. T. Lye rehearsing their scene at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Photo Credit: Alvin Tan

When I first saw this scene in rehearsal, I was struck by how it encapsulated the dynamics and concerns of the actual production process of Mari Kita Main Wayang (2023). I later learned that Zulfadli Rashid (also known as Big) had written this new scene into the play, which does not exist in Felix Chia’s 1994 script. In the Felix Chia script, Kechoot plays Nonya Chinkadok (the Queen) in Teck Chye’s play Enam Bini (the 1994 version of the play-within-the-play, Six Wives). However, in the 2023 version it is Molly (Karen Tan) – the younger Peranakan producer who is not overly concerned with maintaining the ‘purity’ of the Peranakan theatre tradition – who plays Chinkadok. The troupe’s lax attitudes towards the use of Baba Malay, the inclusion of non-Peranakans into the show, the casting of Molly: all of these things disturb Kechoot in the play’s outset, as she embodies the older generation set in her ways. As such, in Big’s 2023 version of the script, the tensions between the traditional and contemporary are thrown into much sharper relief compared to Chia’s. This is unsurprising considering that many of the discussions behind the scenes during the transcreation process revolved around these very same concerns. What does it mean to preserve one’s cultural heritage? What does authenticity entail? Who gets a say in determining the answers to these questions? The hybrid origins of Peranakan-ness – as well as the context of its marginalisation and commodification in post-colonial Singapore – make these questions particularly salient to the Peranakan community (c.f. Hardwick 2008; Rocha and Yeoh 2022). 

The transcreation process

Before getting into these debates, some context is necessary. The 2023 version of Mari Kita Main Wayang was Esplanade’s first time mounting a homage to Wayang Peranakan, making it a significant milestone in the history of Singapore’s national performing arts centre. The genre of Wayang Peranakan itself has had its own illustrious history as a form of community theatre emerging in the 1920s, prior to Singapore’s independence. A key characteristic of these Wayangs is their use of Baba Malay, the Peranakan patois that is a Malay-based creole mixed with the Hokkien dialect (for Chinese Peranakans), with its own unique flair and cadence distinct from Bahasa Melayu. In the 1960s, the form went dormant, until Felix Chia’s 1984 play Pileh Menantu – a classic domestic drama characteristic of many Wayang Peranakan productions – revived the genre. Esplanade originally wanted to commission Alvin to re-stage Pileh Menantu, but Alvin chose the lesser known Mari Kita Main Wayang instead, for reasons that will become clear in this essay. 

A more in-depth historical examination of Wayang Peranakan and Baba Malay is beyond the scope of this essay, but is addressed in the companion podcast to the show, recorded by Centre 42 before the show’s opening. In the podcast, Associate Professor Charlene Rajendran interviews Alvin and Big to talk about the play’s transcreation process, which happened largely before the final phases of rehearsal. In essence, over the course of more than a year, Alvin, Big and Assistant Director Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit worked with Baba Malay experts and members of the Peranakan community to transcreate the play for a contemporary audience beyond the Peranakan community. They staged several readings of each draft of the play for this invite-only audience, who gave their feedback. These sessions sometimes became heated debates about minute details on the language or wider philosophical discussions about authenticity. 

It was important that members from the Gunong Sayang Association (GSA) were both involved in the production and present at these readings, considering the cultural capital they held within the field of Wayang Peranakan. Indeed, one of the first questions during the audience talkback of the show I saw was whether the team had worked with GSA. According to its founder Gwee Peng Kwee in his 1982 oral history interview for the National Archives of Singapore, the GSA was formed in 1910 as a cultural organisation promoting social interaction and the singing of dondang sayang (Malay musical poetry) among its Peranakan members (Lim 2011, 21-22). They began exploring the theatre genre in the 1980s. The GSA has since cultivated a sterling reputation for presenting authentic Wayang Peranakan, to the extent whereby the community has a strong “identification with, and possessiveness over, the GSA wayangs in a way that other Peranakan-themed performances are unable to evoke” (15). In Mari Kita Main Wayang (2023), the GSA members in the cast included Cynthia Lee and Frederick Soh, and other GSA members were involved in many of these reading and feedback sessions. This lent credence to the process and product of transcreation. That said, it is also necessary to acknowledge the contributions of the wider Peranakan community beyond GSA, who were likewise present in these readings. The work of Rapheal Koh and Melanie Wee, who translated the Baba Malay portions of Big’s script and worked closely with the team throughout the transcreation process, was especially fundamental.

The reading sessions resulted in one major structural departure from Felix Chia’s original playscript in this new transcreated version. Both versions of Mari Kita Main Wayang consist of the aforementioned play-within-a-play, wherein a group of amateur theatre-makers come together to put up a Peranakan court drama (Empat Bini, or Enam Bini in Chia’s version). Chia’s 1994 script had a two-act structure wherein the first act consisted of the amateur theatre-maker characters acting as ‘themselves’ while the second act was the play-within-the-play in its entirety, as a fully-produced show. Big’s transcreated version, however, had six acts – the characters would come in and out of their Empat Bini characters and the scenes would weave between the palace and rehearsal space. Dramaturgically speaking, this new version leaned much more heavily into the existing ‘meta’ aspects of Chia’s Mari Kita Main Wayang, which was what attracted Alvin to the play as opposed to the more straightforward Pileh Menantu for the Esplanade commission. How is this more complex dramaturgy achieved on stage, and to what ends?

Rehearsal semiotics

A key concern for Alvin and his team while rehearsing for the play was that the audience needed to understand this dramaturgical vocabulary of jumping between character personae and dramatic framings – in essence, staging the different stages of rehearsal itself, from conception to production. For instance, when are we seeing Molly being ‘herself’, and when are we seeing Molly playing Nonya Chinkadok in Empat Bini? More importantly, how can audience members detect traces of Molly within Chinkadok, or traces of Molly’s house underneath the throne room of Empat Bini? In other words, when does the line between framings – between rehearsal and production – become blurred? How can this be communicated without confusing the audience? The answer, as Alvin put it, is deploying ‘rehearsal semiotics’.

‘Rehearsal semiotics’ was a term introduced by Alvin a few weeks before opening to the production and creative team. Semiotics, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the science of signs and symbols. In the theatrical context, semioticians study how the sign-systems on stage – lighting, costume, set design, sound, movement, and the use of space to name just a few – come together to produce meaning for the audience. Of course, this meaning-making process is not a straightforward one, and audience members are not passive ‘decoders’ of signs. That being said, theatre-makers do have specific dramaturgical intentions when making creative decisions related to sign-systems. In the case of Mari Kita Main Wayang (2023), ‘rehearsal semiotics’ refers to creating signs on stage that communicate to the audience that what they are seeing is part of a rehearsal process of Empat Bini. Though this sounds simple, in reality this needed to be done with a subtle touch that would not distract the audience from the storytelling of the play. Additionally, this semiotics needed to have a temporal dimension, communicating not a static snapshot of one rehearsal session but an evolving process. As each scene progresses in Mari Kita Main Wayang, the audience sees the development of the mise-en-scène of Empat Bini to become closer to ‘opening’ production quality. For instance, the set of the Peranakan court becomes more elaborate and complete, and the actors of Empat Bini begin to stop relying on scripts to say their lines.

Three persons in elaborate colourful costumes standing and speaking to one another.

From left: Kechoot (G. T. Lye), Jane (Cynthia Lee) and Molly (Karen Tan) in a rehearsal scene where they have an honest conversation about Kechoot being passed over for the role of Chinkadok. Note the incomplete costumes Jane and Molly are wearing, the costume rack behind Kechoot, as well as the indications of a set being built in the background – all signifiers of rehearsal. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

As one can imagine, rehearsing rehearsal semiotics can get confusing! During a meeting about the set, the directors, set designer (Wong Chee Wai) and stage manager (Carolene Liew) had a discussion about “substitute props'' that the actors, as their characters, could use in the rehearsal scenes in Molly’s house – an everyday household object as the slingshot that a character holds in Empat Bini, for instance. Since the set design was not yet complete, the actors had to use “substitute substitute props”. Costuming could also get messy. The costuming journey as conceptualised by the directors and designer Max Tan involved the characters gradually shedding their domestic everyday garb and donning their glamorous court costumes. At times, however, it was not clear even to Alvin which parts of their costumes were the everyday and which were the court ones. This is also because the court costumes were also not based on any actual traditional clothing, but fictional constructs of an imagined Peranakan court heritage – the genre of the Peranakan court drama was a Felix Chia invention. All this meant that the creative team and actors needed to be extra clear on what belonged to which layer of framing: the actual rehearsal, the performed rehearsal, or the court drama. To achieve this, the team had to create their own vocabulary (or their own semiotics): the ‘fake offstage’ space, for instance, where the actors would perform their rehearsal selves, had to have a separate name (‘left/right truss’) from the actual offstage space not visible to the audience.

The play-within-a-play concept is one example of what theatre scholars call ‘metatheatre’. Alvin is no stranger to ‘meta’ storytelling, a fact that many of his long-time collaborators in this show can attest to. Derived from the Greek prefix meaning ‘a level beyond’, ‘meta’ is a word thrown around often in the rehearsal room of the 2023 Mari Kita Main Wayang (“Aiyoh, this is too meta for me already”; “It’s meta lah”). Alvin’s approach to directing the meta and playing with different theatrical frames can be characterised by ‘clarity’ and ‘economy’. His philosophy is that complex dramaturgy can only be achieved through clarity: audiences should only be challenged by the themes and questions brought out by this dramaturgy, not by any messy execution of it. Developing rehearsal semiotics is also an economical process. Many moments that happened in the actual rehearsal (forgetting of lines, holding the script, actors moving the set) are recycled and reused for the actual show sparingly and with intention. The simplest ‘low-tech’ solutions are often the most effective, and achieves several outcomes at once. One example of this is the sound of a baby’s cry in one of the court scenes: instead of playing a realistic recording of the cry (which was what happened initially in rehearsal), there was an idea to get Julian Wong, the music director, to imitate the baby’s cry in full view of the audience. This simple idea is not only comic relief but breaks yet another traditional frame between the band and the theatrical space, creating a sense of openness, intimacy and play – as if the audience were bearing witness to a particularly fun rehearsal session.

A female-presenting person gesturing widely at two persons sitting on chairs watching her.

The cast at the Esplanade Rehearsal Studio. Photo Credit: Alvin Tan

Identity in rehearsal

It is here where we come to the crux of why Alvin chose Mari Kita Main Wayang for Esplanade’s first Peranakan play, and why metatheatricality is such an important allegorical device for a play that represents a bridge between the traditional and the contemporary. Unlike Pileh Menantu and indeed many Wayang Peranakan, Mari Kita Main Wayang does not present a complete and seamless story, catchy opening and closing songs notwithstanding. Alvin did not want to stage nostalgia or present an uncontroversial piece of history for consumption. Instead, he is staging a rehearsal of Peranakan cultural identity itself, as something very much contested, dynamic, and in a constant state of becoming. In the final phase of rehearsal, rehearsal semiotics takes this allegory to the level of felt experience for the audience, creating a forgiving atmosphere of openness. In rehearsal, it is okay to fail and make mistakes, to try new things and have fun in the process. This spirit of openness could help to mollify ‘true blue’ Peranakans who insist on the old ways, and at the same time include Peranakans and non-Peranakans who feel distant or alienated from the culture. 

It is, however, important not to downplay the concerns and anxieties that custodians of Peranakan heritage have when it comes to their vanishing culture. Their anxiety is especially acute when it comes to the loss of Baba Malay, which is classified as critically endangered (Lee 2019). When I interviewed G. T. Lye (or Uncle G. T., as the team called him) in the first rehearsal session I attended, he made his opinion of Mari Kita Main Wayang clear.

This play… I hope you will know how to word it in your documentary…but I am very straightforward. I am very transparent. This play is not a Peranakan play at all. To me. Because I am an authentic old-era Peranakan myself. They are all younger generation. Not a single one are of the old era here. They are doing every effort to promote. And they know that presently, if we are going to do an authentic Peranakan play of old, the crowd is minimum, because the older generation have all passed on. [...] This younger generation cannot portray or give the genuine Peranakan patois, because they don’t speak Peranakan at all.

I chose to present his thoughts verbatim above, instead of wording it differently, to show the very real tensions and differences of opinion between the collaborators. Uncle G. T.’s thoughts and feelings do not equate to straightforward disapproval or a negation of the efforts of Alvin and his team. It is instead the self-aware stance of someone who understands the complexity of the situation despite his personal opinion. This difficult dynamic comes to life in the Kechoot and Teck Chye scene outlined in the beginning of this essay, with Kechoot helping out in the production despite her feeling slighted. It is an awkward, stilted encounter between representatives of the older and newer generations – they literally speak in different languages in the scene – but it is still a scene about them trying to work something out in their own way in spite of this gap. Teck Chye doesn’t cast Kechoot, but still deeply desires her approval, involvement, and aid. At the same time, while Kechoot seems to be very unhappy about being left out of the cast, at the end of the day she demonstrates her care, without words, by helping him with his costume. 

Perspectives such as that of G. T. Lye’s, which posit the existence of a “genuine Peranakan culture, are not invalidated in this production. Here is where the ‘extra turns’ of the play come in, another metatheatrical element. The extra turn is a Bangsawan device, which – like the court drama Empat Bini staged in Mari Kita Main Wayang – is a nod to Wayang Peranakan’s origins as a genre influenced by traditional Malay theatrical forms. The main purpose of extra turns is to entertain audiences during elaborate set changes, but the practice died out in the modern era as set changes became much more efficient. In Mari Kita Main Wayang (2023), Kechoot appears periodically between scenes, breaks the fourth wall, and regales stories and songs to the audience. This was not present in the original 1994 Felix Chia script. In essence, the transcreated play appropriates this Bangsawan device to become a means of “information delivery” (in assistant director Alin’s words) for the audience about Peranakan culture.

A person in elaborate pink costume, hands out and smiling. To their right is a mannequin wearing a colourful outfit.

G. T. Lye performs the ‘extra turn’. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

My interview with Uncle G. T., however, reveals another layer to the extra turns, at the same time demonstrating the agency that he possessed in his involvement in the play. To G. T. Lye, what was most important about these moments is less about the jokes, stories, or songs, but the way he performs them. “When I deliver my extra turns, it is going to be entirely different from the main show. [...] The way, the delivery of the language, so people when they watch the extra turn, they can see the difference. And it’s good.” In other words, the extra turns are how the audience will be able to access the textures of authentic old-era Peranakan-ness, a marked disjunct from the other parts of the show. So despite Uncle G. T.’s repeated insistence, according to Alvin, that his involvement was not needed as this play represented new-era Peranakan culture, he recognised that he had a valuable part to play for his audience that nobody else could bring. 

Again, it is the metatheatrical nature of Mari Kita Main Wayang which allows for these competing ideas, schools of thought, and ways of being to co-exist at the same time, in the same space. The use of a Bangsawan device already evokes a sense of cross-pollination or ‘impurity’ even as it is used to communicate authentic Peranakan stories and experiences that clearly resonated with the Peranakan audience. I had seen Uncle G. T. rehearse the extra turns a few times; while technically unscripted, each extra turn has to follow certain beats and be finished within a specific timeframe, which was what rehearsals were for. But these rehearsals paled in comparison to the live version, where G. T. Lye was able to fully play to the audience. Although I could not understand much of the Peranakan patois beyond bits of Malay and Hokkien vernacular during the extra turn segments, I could feel the delight amongst the Peranakan audience members who could. The sense of what anthropologist Victor Turner would call communitas – the acute sense of community belonging – was palpable. That alone was a special experience, a part of the performance: no linguistic ability needed.

“Because it’s rehearsal, it’s possible”

To this end, I would argue that the use of rehearsal semiotics and metatheatricality affected the different frames of performance to a degree that the performers and creative team perhaps did not anticipate. In the spirit of clarity, during rehearsal, the team had been very careful to maintain the integrity of the performance frames unless it was absolutely intentional not to do so. For instance, there was an issue when Uncle G. T. had come in at the wrong cue during a ‘living room’ scene, when they were meant to be their ‘real’ actor personas. While making such errors can be possible within the royal court scene framework as they were technically performing rehearsal, and thus could be ‘saved’ by their fellow actors, there was (in their mind) no room for such error outside of this frame. It is for this reason that a special assistant to G. T. Lye, Md Muazzam (Zam) was hired to guide him in and out of stage.

My experience watching the show, however, gave me the impression that its metatheatricality broke immersion to the extent where it did not actually matter if Uncle G. T. made mistakes or forgot lines. As the many questions directed to G. T. Lye in the talkback showed, the audience knew they were watching a living legend in his eighties – even I, with full access to the script, had forgotten that it was supposed to be Kechoot delivering the extra turns, not G. T. Lye. If the audience was watching Peranakan culture itself being rehearsed on stage, and not merely wayang –  as was my experience – the ontological difference between ‘acting’ and ‘not acting’ did not really matter. In fact, any ‘mistakes’ made, or even Zam’s presence to help Uncle G. T. through the process, added to the experience, reminding us of how rare and precious it was to witness what we were witnessing. It made the scenes between Kechoot and Teck Chye, or between Kechoot and Molly, even more poignant:

KECHOOT: Molly, gua sedair siapa diri gua. Gua sendiri tau sekarang susah gua moh main wayang ateih panggong. Kejap sakit ni, kejap sakit sana. Diri kalu lama, tempurong lutut ni macham moh tercabot! Tapi gua rindu, Molly. [Molly, I know myself. I know that it is becoming harder for me to be a stage actor. I get sick a lot. I cannot stand for too long without feeling my kneecaps will give way. But I miss this, Molly.]

In his Masters thesis on Wayang Peranakan and the Gunong Sayang Association, Brandon Lim argues that Peranakan performances are not static reflections of Peranakan identity, but “instruments that have an artistic influence to mediate the Peranakan community’s own understanding of its ethnic identity” (2011, 9). By re-staging and transcreating Mari Kita Main Wayang, Alvin Tan and his team have put this mediation itself on display for the Peranakan community (and beyond) in order to keep the discussion of its relevance alive for the present and future. Tradition and heritage are always in the making, always being rehearsed, and thus nothing is set in stone. One statement made by Alvin during my observation of their scenework encapsulates this idea – and the spirit of the show – perfectly: Karen Tan was joking that perhaps her character Molly could read the surtitles from the stage in order to decipher another character’s thick Chinese Peranakan accent. Alvin’s response? “It’s possible. Because it is rehearsal, it’s possible.”

C42 Documents

Not a Peranakan Play?: Rehearsing Identity in 'Mari Kita Main Wayang' is part of a series of documentation efforts in support of the production of Mari Kita Main Wayang, which ran from 17 – 19 November at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre at Esplanade. Centre 42’s documentation partnership with Esplanade aims to delve into the process of creating and adapting the work, and put a spotlight on its rich representations of Peranakan culture and history, especially through the language of the play.

View more documentation of the production below:

Related productions


Hardwick, Patricia A. 2008. “‘Neither fish nor fowl’: constructing Peranakan identity in Colonial and post-colonial Singapore.” Folklore Forum 38 (1): 36-55.
Lee, Nala H. 2019. “Peranakans in Singapore: responses to language endangerment and documentation.” In Documentation and Maintenance of Contact Languages from South Asia to East Asia, edited by Mário Pinharanda-Nunes and Hugo C. Cardoso, 123-140. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 
Lim, Brandon A. 2011. “Staging ‘Peranakan-ness’: a cultural history of the Gunong Sayang Association’s Wayang Peranakan, 1985-95.” MA diss., National University of Singapore. 
Rocha, Zarine L. and Brenda S. A. Yeoh. 2022. “‘True blue’ or part Peranakan? Peranakan Chinese identity, mixedness and authenticity in Singapore.” Asian Ethnicity 23 (4): 803-827.