Let me introduce Thor Kah Hoong. He is my dad's friend, the owner of 'Skoob Books' bookshop, a writer, an actor, director, and playwright. He may have many other talents that I am not aware of. I've always known him as Uncle Thor (I suppose we'll call him Thor in this blogpost, otherwise it'd be weird).
When I was little I was always dragged by my dad almost every week to Thor's bookshop which looks like a unique library overpacked with books, like the ones you see in movies. Remember that this was before the existence of mega-book shops like Kinokuniya. The shop sold rare books which was not available at conventional bookshops and I only found out much later that the books were shipped from Skoob books UK. That was why my dad loved to go to his shop. I followed my dad when the shop was at Bangsar, and later when it relocated to Brickfields. So every week I had to tag along with my dad as he bought lots and lots of books at Thor's bookshop. I recall that while waiting for dad to finish his stuffs, I'd just grab a book and either read or look at those with pictures or just walk around and get lost while browsing the titles of the thousands of books on the bespoked shelves.
So when my dad informed me at the last minute that there was a play at the Actors Studio last Sunday directed and performed by Thor I dropped all other plans I had in mind to spend my Sunday to go watch it (almost) straight after I finished a book discussion at Kinokuniya. The mention of his name brought back my childhood memories and my recollection of spending time in his big, cozy bookshop. I was so excited to watch his play.
When I arrived at the roof-top of Lot 10, I was so excited to see Aunty Cindy, Thor's wife. We reminisced about the old times (you know the drill, the whole: you were only this tall, I knew you since you were a little girl, etc etc) But I was very happy to see her. I think it must have been over 10 years ago since we last met, and even though she attended my wedding last July I didn't get a chance to see Thor and Cindy =(
I also met Ike Ong, the owner of Skoob books UK who is also a film-maker, together his wife. He also knew me since I was small and he actually made an interesting remark that I was always interested in movies and film-making. Now I really can't remember why he would say that. Maybe because he saw that I was interested in films when I was younger and I still am now.
Thor's play was called Brickfields Now & Then. I didn't read any synopsis or googled about it online before i watched it. So I didn't know what to expect or what it was about. But then I found out that the play at night was part II of the show; Part I was done at 3 p.m. I felt disappointed to miss part I, even though I did not know about it. If I had known earlier, I would've tried to go the day before. Outside the theatre hall, there were plenty of reviews mostly on part I which made me even more disappointed to miss it.
When I sat down, all that was on stage was a single chair.
And then Thor came on stage.
Now its hard for me to describe this play. It was something like a monologue of Thor's recollection and stories of Brickfields, the place where he grew up, and the changes he has seen throughout the years. How the area changed when Sentral was built nearby, the many proposals to transform Brickfields and how things remain the same even if they change. He starts of lamenting that Brickfields is now being 'pushed' as Little India, when according to his account it is a place where all races have made their home. [Little India]
But his play was not a dry recollection of just Brickfields, but also the state of our country as well. He injected the happenings of important events in our country's developments with his own personal experiences of growing up at the time which was told to the audience in a hilarious manner. Thor was brilliant in making everyone laugh yet at the same time just as the laughter dies down, our brains starts to grasp at the subtle seriousness of the issues, then and some very much relevant now.
Thor was very funny, not to mention very informative, sharing anecdotes from his personal perspective. It was a very well polished and powerful performance and he had a very witty script. There is also something which gave his play and performance the edge, because it had a ring of sincerity and lots of doses of his personal touch when he was recollecting the events and happenings of things very dear to his heart. He kept the audience engaged and entertained throughout the whole 2 hours and 45 minutes-ish set.
For example, can you imagine that every time he took his exams when he was growing up, a major national event happened, from his UPSR (can't remember what it was called) up to his masters? It coincided with the period of Konfrontasi with Indonesia, the May 13 events, Singapore 'divorce' with Malaysia, amongst others [My Education Nearly Destroyed the Country].
He also told us how the first play he directed won the national competition and how his play was banned and made him a security threat in Singapore! (Don't worry, he says Singapore has forgiven him already). He was in the front page of Singaporean papers for his play for containing a single F word. This was a funny poke at Singapore's regulations and he was convinced that the authorities were out to get him. He was supposed to present Stalag VI: Crime & Punishment II, but changed his piece because some people in the audience asked him whether it was true that he was a security threat in Singapore.
He also shared his biggest problem when moving his business to Brickfields: RATS [in, yes, Rats]. Thousands of them!! His very detailed stories of the rodents and especially the big-mama rat made my skin crawl okay!! He was very explicit in sharing how he got rid of the problem, and he apologized in advanced for the animal lovers in the audience. Yucks, but this was the one I laughed the most. He also described Brickfields very vividly, making me wanting to go there and see it out for myself.
Lastly, his story on the state of our hospitals was funny, but yet at the same time was heartbreaking and touched the audience too [Amaran: Tempat Bahaya: Hospital]. He recollects the competence of our hospitals then and how he has suffered personally finding out the hard way he was allergic to penicillin, having a hose shoved up his.. uhmm, you know where, and how he lost his father because an un-named hospital said there was nothing wrong with him. We were all laughing before he told this story, and suddenly, just like that, everyone in the audience were silenced. It was heart-breaking.
I really regret not being able to attend the first part, and the saddest thing is that last Sunday was his last performance for this run (he performed previously back in 1998 and 2004). I would have loved to see Part I, especially as Thor himself said it's even funnier than Part II!!! To console me, Thor did tell me that he is trying to publish his work by the end of this year. So I am looking forward to the book.
The fact that a 60-ish year old can accurately go back and act out his world through the eyes of a ten year old, convincingly too, shows what a talented person Thor is at telling his stories and engaging his audience. This is definitely not to be missed if there is another run and I can't wait for this to show again.
Still Great – Brickfields Now & Then Review
It is certainly not easy to entertain a crowd by just sitting there and talking to yourself. But Thor Kah Hoong made it look so simple as he recounted his childhood memories to the audience on the opening night of his performance, Brickfields Now & Then. This latest edition is presented in two separate plays, 4 acts each with an introduction at the beginning of each part.
The play, which is a monologue, went splendidly as Thor Kah Hoong, perfectly at ease on stage, masterfully entertained the audience with stories of his childhood. The words that rolled off his tongue so glibly conjured up images of his antics as his words transported us back to a time where children fought imaginary wars and went on treasure hunts having been inspired by the onscreen adventures of Hollywood icons of yesteryear. Although it was a bit disconcerting seeing him dressed as a primary schoolboy, he manages to portray the cheekiness that is a common trait among young boys. The audience could not help but smile and sympathised with him as the young boy pleaded his case against his higher authorities, and were pained when the inevitable punishment was meted out. And all laughed, of course, when the young boy continued in his own ways, undeterred by the adversity he had endured.
Some of the gems that Thor shared in this play include “OooooOO! Tarzan chou lou poh!” – a Cantonese childhood rhyme that he and his motley crew of adventurers sang lustily after learning it from a wealthy man from the Brickfields neighbourhood; “It’s not fair!” – the young boy’s defiant battle cry against the all powerful figures of authority; and the eraser retrieval technique, used by schoolboys to spy up their teachers’ skirts.
It would be foolish, however, to dismiss Thor’s monologue as mere rants or an elaborate telling of oral history. Each of the acts in this Part 1 is well crafted and allows the audience to contemplate on aspects of life that many seem to take for granted.
In Brickfields, the Movie, the Sequel, Thor shows us how Lido Theatre, a smelly and dirty local cinema, became a gateway to worlds filled with untold adventures that he and his friends re-lived every evening along the streets of their neighbourhood. He contrasts his own childhood filled with social, fun-filled, boisterous children with the current highly individualistic generation hooked to mobile phones and the Internet, leaving the audience to ponder on the merits of the change that has come about through the years.
In Crime and Punishment, we see a young Thor engaged in a conversation with the ‘Voice of Authority’. The unseen booming voice, often all knowing, is a perfect foil to Thor’s youthful primary schoolboy. The conversation is more of a debate, as Thor riles against the irrationality of what is supposed to be the logical ways of the scholastic world. He excels in this role, as he shows the audience that a young primary schoolboy is often no simple creature, but filled with curiosity, intellect, spirit and possesses an uncanny knack of always landing himself into trouble, no matter how much he tries to avoid it. The glee in which he devises and implements his small schemes is infectious as is his pleas and meek protestations whenever his endeavours are thwarted at every turn by his unseen yet omnipresent teacher.
The schoolboy continues his journey in Like That Shock Meh?, where he embarks on an incidental exploration of the ever taboo subject of sex. He fails at first to understand what the fuss is all about, and returns to his boyish world of comic books and games after his innocent inquiries led him to be punished for ‘nothing’. The topic, however, does not leave the boy alone, and Thor discovers that the price of knowledge can sometimes be a permanent one.
Part 1 ends with I Sent Him to Boot Hill, a personal account of a private childhood rivalry that Thor did not even know he was part of. Set in the gardens and toy filled bungalows of a pre-independent Malaya, Thor weaves a dramatic tale of petty prejudices, childish greed and naïve innocence. Little did Thor, the native child, realise that his private stand against an insolent young English boy in the waning days of British glory would actually serve as a fitting analogy to the historic event that would take place on 31 August 1957.
What happened to the boy after that? Find out in Brickfields Now & Then II. We seriously recommend it.