Art Imitates Life in “Cook a Pot of Curry”

Posted on 15 July, 2013

Actor Nelson Chia says Alfian Sa’at’s new play “Cook a Pot of Curry” is an ensemble piece portraying the voices of different people on some of the most pressing socio-political issues of our time.

Presented by W!ld Rice, the play will be one of three from the Alfian Sa’at: In the Spotlight festival which  showcases the playwright’s work over a decade.  The other two works are Dreamplay Asian boys Volume 1 and The Optic Trilogy.


Chia confirms that the play was inspired by the 2011 episode where a Chinese migrant family got into an altercation with their Indian neighbours because they could not tolerate the smell of curry being cooked next door. More than a sketch of the incident, the play explores the tensions between locals and foreigners in a nation grappling with intense debate about immigration and overpopulation.

The synergy and collaboration that helped piece the play together is what keeps it real, in what Chia refers to as a “verbatim play”. The playwright and all six actors involved in the production conducted extensive interview with people from all walks of life in Singapore on the topic of new immigrants and foreign workers. Sa’at then carefully selected excerpts from the interview transcriptions to create his script.

The result of this is a startling reflection on the changing culture and demographics of Singapore, where, by 2030, only 55% of a projected 6.9 million population would be Singapore-born according to the Government’s Population White Paper published early this year. At its core, the play questions the larger and more pertinent question of what makes one Singaporean.

“There is actually a character in the play who talks about the Singapore identity. He questions whether Singaporeans have lost something because of the influx of foreigners, or whether if, from the very start, no one actually tried to build anything. The Singaporean identity was like a blank canvas from the very beginning when it was founded by Raffles. It was like giving someone a crayon, and allowing him to draw anything he wanted. And when the time comes, erasing what has been drawn,” says Chia.

Nelson Chia

Nelson Chia

On the specific issues referred to in the play, Chia states categorically that a variety of issues will be discussed: “The issues range from locals losing their jobs to foreigners, to coffee shop talk about stall owners who do not speak English. There are people who feel marginalised in their own country because they can’t place their orders in English in a coffee shop now. They feel confused about what’s happening,” he explains.

The play also confronts sensitive issues of race and nationality. But Chia claims that such issues are not taboo and the play would not be didactic as much as a survey of current views.

“Sometimes these kinds of issues may seem dangerous in the eyes of the authorities, because it can make people aggressive. But this play portrays really different voices from people in society, and leaves the judgment to the audience. There’s a range of views being portrayed here, for example, new citizens who support the ruling party, foreigners who don’t really like Singapore, citizens who hate foreigners. This play is like a forum for issues in society, and these issues are not taboo. They are so obvious,” Chia opines.

Chia and the other five members of the cast will play multiple roles in the production. He take on the role of a post-graduate student from China as well as a Singaporean middle-aged man who is a labour movement activist.

Cook A Pot of Curry

When asked how the production has affected him personally, Chia, who recently bagged a Life! Theatre Award for Best Actor (A Language of Their own), says: “It is quite poignant for me. I am a Singaporean but I have relatives that are PRs and friends who are foreigners. Rationally, I can understand the policies… but complexities come because a lot of us are not prepared for the changes. For example, rationally, you know if you lose a job to a foreigner, it is not their fault. But somehow, people take it personally…This play raises a number of questions for me as well.”

Chia recalls that on opening night, members of the audience were really accepting and passionate about the play. Despite that there was no curtain call, the audience kept clapping until there was one.

For a play which encourages open dialogue on hot button issues like race, identity and immigration, it is not surprising that it has been so well received by local audiences. Theatre as an art form mirrors life and it is inspiring to see one that courageously confronts a relevant and difficult subject.

“Cook a Pot of Curry” will from 3 to 20 July 2013 at The Singapore Airlines Theatre, LASALLE College of the Arts. Tickets can be purchased from SISTC.




What Others Are Saying

  1. Adel 15 July, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Only chia can do this. A genius.

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