Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"A Thai That Binds" : An Interview with Dew Chaiyanara

In November 2008, I made my first trip to Singapore since moving to Aotearoa New Zealand with my whanau seven years ago. I was looking forward to cultural displacement, a situation which could enliven my indigenous self as a Melayu/Malay and consequently empower me to participate in Aotearoa's bicultural forums upon my return. Along the journey, I pursued a trivial agenda: to galavant through the punk scene in hopes of discovering trinkets of diyism and stories of activism with anarchists in a city more leniently known for its chewing gum bans and littering fines.

Through reconnections with the familiar, I made a chance acquintance with Dew Chaiyanara, director, playwright and actor of Underground Theatre and Starscream Productions. I presumed she was Malay, due to the matching colours of our skin, until a fellow punk pointed out she wasn't. At an afterparty, in the midst of drunken youths, Dew struck at first aloof and reserved, stating outrightly that she doesn't drink, a straightedger I thought in this context, rather than ideologically Muslim. I had questions, but due to my own failings, left for New Zealand, not having them answered.

Thanks to Facebook, we found each other and managed this interview a year later. Here, Dew irons out some of my curiosities and shares her experiences as an artist of Thai ancestry living in predominantly middle-class, seemingly racial harmonious Singapore. I hope our dialogue revives knowledge on Asian diasporas, what happens when the indigenous and migrant figure merge, and emerge in both privileged and subaltern contexts, and shed some light on the possibility of a migrant-inclusive bicultural discourse in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Punks vs Peranakans, the former vying for peaceful patronship of Substation, a beloved museum/restaurant in Singapore. Inspired, Dew later wrote it into a play, performed by Underground Theatre.

ms.stellar: So I understand you're currently in the midst of a play.

DEW: Yes. I'm performing in a duologue, "MEOW!", directed by Elangovan (Agni Kootthu: Theatre of Fire), which is about a low-class Malay couple who have recently won the lottery. It's an interesting play which takes place entirely in their car and the story unfolds throughout their tediously long journey home, while they each tease, taunt and torment each other. The play also addresses the couple's cultural and sexual values, class, violence and urban alienation.

Before we go further, shall we start with how you'd like to identify yourself to anyone who's reading this.

DEW: "Playwright. Director. Actor.".

Tell us about Underground Theatre and Starscream Productions. How did you get started and what were some of the challenges faced in the process?

Underground Theatre was formed in 2007 as a non-profit society and we aim to produce plays which touch on real-life issues and everyday situations, featuring seemingly ordinary characters. Our shows are Minimalistic (fancy term for "working on a shoe-string budget"!) and we strive to produce good-quality productions which are acceptable for theatre-goers, yet not intimidating for non-theatre goers. It was NOT easy to get the ball rolling and there has been many speedbumps along the way... I learnt the hard way that you can't rely on anybody but yourself... But 2 years and 10 shows later, we're still here and we've also recently been generously "homed" at Blackhole Studio (212 Syed Alwi Road)!

Starscream Productions is an events management company I set up with my husband, Eaddy. We have several years' experience working as Production Assistants for a concert promoter, dealing with international Rock bands and other music acts such as: Black Sabbath (with Ronnie James Dio), Slayer, Yngwie Malmsteen & Rising Force, Motley Crue, Megadeth, Dream Theater, Muse, Incubus, As I Lay Dying, Story of the Year, Saosin, Funeral For a Friend, INXS and many more. In Starscream Productions, we've helped to organise the live entertainment for the Royal Thai Embassy of Singapore's annual Thai Exhibition Fair and are now concentrating on organising gigs to showcase local and perhaps regional bands. There's alot of healthy competition out there, but we just have to play our cards right and work hard in order to achieve our goals.

I'm fascinated by your ethnic identity, and read on your facebook notes that you're often mistaken for a "Malay". Does that affect you? And to what extent?

I'm 3/4 Thai, 1/4 Malay. It gets quite annoying sometimes though, because I am and feel more Thai than Malay. I don't blame people for making this common mistake though, because I know I look Malay at first glance - but I've been called "sombong" (arrogant) for not conversing in Malay and speaking English instead! I learnt Malay only up until the 2nd grade and from then onwards until 8th grade, I took up French as a 2nd language in school. So you can understand how poor my grasp of the language is (2nd Grader level!). Also, I was educated in international schools since kindergarten, so I have an American accent - which adds even more to the assumption that I am arrogant and have supposedly forgotten my roots (as deemed by some people).... At times it can be funny though to hear people's guesses about my ethnicity. Strangely enough, I've been mistaken as Eurasian, Filipina, Balinese, Chindian (Chinese/ Indian mix), etc - everything BUT Thai!

What are some of the stereotypes, if any, you encounter living in Singapore for the last ten years?

Everyone thinks that just because I was educated in international schools, my parents must be filthy rich and I must be a spoiled obnoxious brat. My parents come from humble beginnings and have worked very very hard to be where they are today. Growing up, I spent my summer holidays back in Thailand at my grandparents' house, where you have to fetch water from the well, bathe amidst the occasional frog swimming in the water, dine with the odd scorpion running around the kitchen floor and watch your step while walking outside to avoid the random cow-pies. Also, people in Singapore think that just because I am Thai, everytime we go out together, we should therefore eat at a Thai restaurant (because I might not know how to eat their local food, even though I have been living here for over 10years already!), or that I would know how to cook Tom Yum soup, or do Muay Thai (a form of martial arts). I wouldn't be surprised if they go on to assume I'm Tiger Woods' half sister.

You're a Muslim by faith, I understand. Do you find yourself politicised with that identity in Singapore? Do you encounter differences in how others treat you in Thailand with that identity?

Singapore sets itself to be a very "harmonious" country, where there is racial and religious tolerance. The Muslims here are mostly Moderates and we have never really been supressed from practicing our faith. There is a melting pot of different beliefs here and we are encouraged to learn more about each other so as to better understand one another and avoid any misunderstandings or "fear of the unknown". That being said, as with all countries, there are flaws in the system. But majority of Singaporeans are content with the way things are because almost everything here is provided for them and they are well taken care of. Or so they like to think.

As for Thailand, which is a predominantly Buddhist country, people there will automatically assume I am Buddhist as well, regardless of how I look. In Singapore, if you "look Malay", you must be Muslim - but in Thailand, you may be tanned and could resemble a Malay, but are in fact a Thai Buddhist. Muslims in Thailand have been and still are supressed. There are horrific true encounters regarding the situation in the restive south shared by my relatives which shows the other side of the story, as opposed to the propaganda churned by the media. But it's precisely such stories that make me grateful I am living in a safer country, away from bloodshed, chaos and massacres.

From the perspective of a migrant with quite a few interesting diasporas, what would you say is the most important question or issue in Singapore's multicultural society at the moment?

There is racial and religious tolerance in Singapore. Tolerance. Humans will be humans. Just how long can one really tolerate something before they crack?

And from the perspective of a multicultured artist? Or is my question repetitive here?

When will minority races stop being "token characters" in the mainstream local TV channels? Let's not forget the race of the true natives of this land. And when will Eurasians (Asians with Caucasian ancestry or mixed blood) stop being over-glorified? Is this a subconscious form of neo-colonialism?

Do you relate to feminism, broadly or specifically? Tell us how, in terms of how you relate to or practise that feminism(s).

DEW: I am not an active Feminist. I don't want "equal rights", per se. I want to be treated fairly. For example: Women get paid maternity leave and men don't. Although I don't agree with always playing the helpless damsel in distress - I can open my own doors, carry my own bags and open my own cans - but personally, I find it even more empowering to have the ability to make boys do it for you *wink*.

As a Muslim woman, I also have rights. Contrary to what some people may think, we do have alot of rights which cover our welfare. Personally, I prefer to exercise my rights as a Muslim woman. For example: It is my husband's duty to provide me with food, shelter, clothes and an allowance. This is my right. I may also choose not to go to work and my husband is not allowed to force me to. Should I start working, the money earned is entirely mine and my husband has no right over it. I may share my earnings with my husband, should I choose to do so, but he may not take it from me without my permission. The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also shows that women should be treated kindly and with respect.

In New Zealand, womyn of colour negotiate both bicultural and multicultural values, i.e. we have the indigenous group Maori, and so Maori womyn seek their voices in specific social, cultural and political narratives. I personally feel as a Malay-Singaporean migrant that my identity is often seen as that of privilege or nuisance, on one hand because I fall in the broader category of 'the rich Asian migrant' stereotype or the other as one of "too many Asian migrants". Sometimes I feel I have an indigenous perspective to share but am deprived of articulating that voice because of the larger bicultural struggle in momentum. Is that something you experience or can relate to in any way?

I have experienced first-hand, rather offensive remarks that my family and I, as foreigners in Singapore, are taking over the country, taking up all the jobs and unnecessarily adding on to the population. Need they be reminded that Singapore is in fact made up of migrants to begin with? Although the true natives of the land are Malays, the current majority race is now Chinese. Alot of Chinese people back then came to Singapore from China to find work. Same goes for the Indians, Javanese, Boyanese, Bugis and others. If alot of them really trace back their roots, they will find that their ancestors were not born and bred in Singapore. All these migrants were the ones who helped to build the nation in one way or the other. Migrants today are still contributing to the society. Alot of Singaporeans are migrating in the hoards elsewhere - so why are they complaining and disgruntled about others moving here?

What's the state of womyn collectives/ networks in Singapore?

I have friends in the Punk scene who are active supporters of womyn collectives, some of whom distribute their own zines as well, and they seem to have a steady following. It is admirable that they have such dedication and passion to invest their time and efforts for their beliefs. One of the more well-known not-for-profit groups here is AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), which carries out research, advocacy work and also provides direct services for women such as a crisis help line, counselling and a free legal clinic.

Thanks Dew. Do you have any last words for anyone who's reading this?

Although I am not a hardcore Feminist, there are still some relevant issues I'd like to address in my plays. For example, one of my one-act plays, FAT, deals with a girl's obsessive body image disorder, and society's expectations of how a woman should present herself (staged 4 times in Singapore and twice in Australia). The overwhelming positive feedback I received for this particular play has inspired me to consider exploring other female issues when writing future stories.


  1. Honest! Refreshing.

  2. She is funny! Pleaseure reading it! Thanks!

  3. Thanks! This is a great interview and it opened my eyes!

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