Thursday, 8 March 2012

Writer's Profile: Kuo Pao Kun

Kuo Pao Kun is a well-known Singapore playwright who wrote in both English and Mandarin. He is acknowledged both locally and internationally as a pioneer of Singapore there.

Personal background:
Kuo was born in Hebei Province, China in 1939, and migrated to Singapore at the age of 10. Kuo was educated in a mixture of Chinese and English-medium schools, in Singapore and in Hong Kong. He passed away  in 2002 at the age of 63.

1953       Kuo started in radio at the age of 14, as a broadcaster in Rediffusion, writing radio plays and Chinese cross-talk.
1957       He joined Cathay Organization’s Acting for Screen Training and acted in The Big Circus.
1963       Kuo studied drama at National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney.
1965       Kuo founded Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS) with Goh Lay Kuan, providing professional drama and dance courses.
1972       Kuo and some students from PPAS launched the ‘Go into Life Campaign’ to experience life of laboring masses in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, with the guiding ideology that “art came from life”.
1976       Kuo was arrested under the Internal Security Act, together with other Chinese activists, due to the increasingly political nature of Chinese theatre.
1980       Kuo was released, and resumed directing, producing and writing plays immediately.
1984       Kuo wrote his own English play, titled ‘The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole’, scrutinizing social phenomena.
1989       Kuo was awarded the Cultural Medallion for his contribution to Singapore theatre.
1990       Kuo founded The Substation, a place for young talents to experiment and showcase their works.
2001       Kuo founded the Theatre Training & Research Programme together with T. Sasitharan, with the aim of exposing students to a broad spectrum of cultures and languages, focusing on traditional Asian theatre systems and contemporary theatre forms.

A Selection of Kuo’s Plays (out of more than 20):
1982       The Little White Sailing Boat
Performed at the Singapore Arts Festival
The story revolves around a family conflict which ensues when a young man, Li, decides to give up his family wealth to pursue his own path as a socialist. This angers his grandfather, Lin, who casts him out of the family home. This resonates with Li's father, Sun, who, as a young man, had married into Lin's family in the 1940s even though he knew that Lin had made his fortune as a Japanese spy. This leads Sun to take a chance and forge his own path as well despite his growing years. (taken from Kenneth Kwok’s review of a 2007 staging,,fullfron,kk.html)
1984       The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole
In Coffin, Kuo scrutinizes the social defect in Singapore, commenting on the ills of standardization and bureaucracy. There is a sense of absurdist humour which gives the play its power. It was written as a monologue but is often staged as an ensemble piece.
1988       Mama Looking For Her Cat
The play is about the breakdown in communication and the estranged relationship between a Hokkien-speaking mother and her bilingual-speaking children, who could only express their thoughts in English and Mandarin. It discussesthe theme of Singapore's multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society, brought out by dialogues spoken in English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew. (taken from
This is a multi-lingual play which exhibited Singapore’s distinct multi-cultural diversity.
1995       Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
Invoking the experiences of the historical figure, admiral Zheng He, this play explores the loss of culture identification among urban dwellers.
1997       The Spirits Play
In the wake of war in the Pacific, five spirits meet in limbo. Looking for a path back home, they discuss their experience with fighting and loss. The stories reveal that their choices in life have linked the group in unexpected ways. Issues of bravery, patriotism and the senselessness of war are explored in the play. The Spirits Play reflects the oppressed human condition from a humanitarian viewpoint. (taken from

The full listings can be found at

Why I like KPK:

I like KPK’s works because they offer much imagination in terms of staging. KPK does not include stage directions, and leaves it to the imagination of the director and actors to work out how the text should presented. I have watched a Coffin performed as a monologue, and another where the audience was seated a la Chinese funeral set-up, complete with peanuts. Absurd?? I feel that KPK encourages such adventures as part of “training” new talent to reinvent his works and to make them relevant to their audience. In my opinion, this is the hallmark of a powerful script that will encourage re-staging after re-staging.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I too love that KPK's plays are free in a way to interpret but manage to somehow root itself in the themes he wants to explore. I think there lies his true genius!