Introduction: art, culture, capitalist development and Kuo Pao Kun
The bilingual playwright, theatre director and public intellectual Kuo Pao Kun, who was born in 1939 in Xiaoguo village, Hebei, China, passed away on 10 September 2002, having been ill since the previous year. In one of a number of tribute articles that appeared in the major English-language paper, the Straits Times, one socio-cultural commentator acutely contends that Kuo is “the most important cultural figure in Singapore’s history” (Janadas 2002, 55). When detained in 1976 under security laws spawned by the Cold War, he “work[ed] on himself, and emerged from it refined and spare, stripped of superfluities, but he did not, in the process, abandon his ideals. He did not, to use a word from those times, break” (Janadas 2002, 56). Proceeding from and continuous with Chinese letters from the early twentieth century, Kuo’s work is prompted by the question, “What is Chinese modernity?” — and that enquiry latterly extended into an examination of “the Asian present” (Janadas 2002, 58).
The assessment captures Kuo Pao Kun’s distinctive place in Singapore’s cultural history: culture (in both senses of “ways of life” and “artistic achievement”), politics and economic development are not easily separated in his art, and this remains so before and after his detention: the cultural self and the political self remain tightly intertwined. The morphing of modernisation theory from the Cold War (with its commitment to industrialisation and social progress) into discourses on globalisation (with its emphases on finance, information technology and the service sector) can be traced in his art, for these changes carry implications for culture and the formation of a contemporary art. Indeed, he placed his artistic-intellectual capacities in the service of a long-term engagement with the historical and contemporary upheavals, both positive and negative, that the attempt to become modern entailed, broadly taken, in Singapore and the larger region. From Singapore’s postcolonial nation-building process during and after the years of the Cold War, to the fate of cultural and linguistic diversity as a result of the city-state’s socio-engineering of its citizens in accordance with the standards linked with the “decade of development” in the 1960s thought necessary to “support the growth of infrastructure and industrialization” (UNICEF 1996), to the dangers of Asian nationalism in the age of transnational capital, Kuo’s art concerns itself with peoples and cultures unhoused or displaced. There is a persistent interest in the multiplicity of things, and with the scarcity of shared ideals on culture and society. And yet, despite the difficulty of thinking new versions of wholeness — itself potentially oppressing, Kuo was aware — his art and thought implies that being unhoused and displaced can force us to look for new places to stand and to live.
While this special issue on Kuo Pao Kun cannot engage with his entire oeuvre, the four articles in it do cover the pre- and post-detention phases of his theatre art. It also features a translated excerpt from a longer interview with Kuo by Quah Sy Ren on his thoughts on theatre in the 1960s and 1970s (“What makes theatre modern?: an interview with Kuo Pao Kun by Quah Sy Ren”), including his view of traditional Chinese theatre forms and what he learnt in his practical theatre course in Australia. The interview reveals how self-conscious he was in his early enquiries as to what a contemporary theatre practice might be which did not ignore traditional theatre forms, though an outworking of those concerns did not occur until after his release from incarceration. The issue also features a 1997 report written by Kuo after a fellowship in Japan awarded by the Japan Foundation Asia Center (“Challenges to Asian public intellectuals”). This report reveals how his reflections on art, culture and development from the 1960s to the 1980s were extended into a larger “Asian present” by the 1990s. Both editors of this issue feel that it is vital Kuo’s own voice be represented directly, hence the inclusion of the interview and his 1997 report.
Notes on contributor
C. J. W.-L. Wee is Professor of English at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and has held visiting fellowships at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, India, the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, and the National Humanities Center, USA. He is the author of The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), a co-editor of Contesting Performance: Global Genealogies of Research (2010) and the editor of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume 4: Plays in English (2012).