(From Arts Equator. Link to the complete article given below)
The Sight/Unseen Asian Drama Conference was a two-day event on 26 – 27 April 2018 at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Tara Arts. Billed as an event to “tackle challenging issues facing playwrights in the UK and in Southeast Asia,” participants came all geared up to discuss issues ranging from minority representation to taboo subjects in the region. The conference was helmed by Cheryl Robson from Aurora Metro Books who, in her opening address, emphasised that the project was a labour of love that took her almost a year to complete. The first-of-its-kind conference also doubled up as a platform for Aurora Metro Books to launch its new collection, British East Asian Plays, which featured works from established playwrights such as Stephen Hoo, Lucy Chai Lai-Tuen, and Daniel York Loh who also served as panellists and participants of the conference.
Before the start of the Southeast Asian Plays and Touring panel discussion, participants noticed that something was amiss: there were supposed to be five panellists instead of four. Panel moderator Aubrey Mellor, Senior Fellow at LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore), quickly addressed the issue: playwright Chhon Sina (Cambodia) was denied a visa from her home country to leave. You could almost see the thought bubbles emerging from everyone’s head.
The remaining panellists included Asa Palomera (Korea/USA), Joned Suryatmoko (Indonesia), Alfian Sa’at (Singapore) and Ann Lee (Malaysia): all leading playwrights in their respective countries and within Southeast Asia. Right from the get-go, Mellor pointed out that it is important to remember that the context of touring is vastly different in Asia than in western countries. It is important for us to remember that culture holds a greater standing in western countries like the United Kingdom as opposed to Asian countries (essentially Southeast Asia), whose main priorities are generally economy-inclined. Apart from Singapore, most Southeast Asian countries are generally struggling with different sets of issues, such as the political instability and corruption in Malaysia, which was later cited by Ann Lee. These factors ultimately lead to cut in funding towards the cultural sector, therefore making touring a non-feasible option for most artistic organisations. Secondly, there has been an issue of generalising Asia and Asian culture around the world. For example, Mellor explained that comparing the culture of Thailand and Japan and putting them under the classification of “Asian culture” is simply out of the question because of their stark differences. It is also important to point out that most western countries are still unable to identify the individual cultures in Southeast Asian countries today. Most of my friends, for instance, are unable to differentiate a Singaporean from a Cambodian, and regard “Asian culture” as ultimately a shared one across all the countries. Lastly, Mellor pointed out that there seems to be a lack of collaboration between Southeast Asian countries, with most of the collaborative efforts taking place between Malaysia and Singapore—mostly due to the geographical proximity and shared history. It is also important to note that Mellor’s preface was necessary since there is a persisting misconception that ‘Asian’ usually just refers to ‘South Asians’.