Boon (Renchun Ho) as he tries to convince his mother (Yenxing Ooi) to move on from their old house and all its old memoriesEdgar Lee

“Tell them about those ‘good’ schools within two kilometres, and their imagination will fill in the gaps, with obedient children who win scholarships to Cambridge, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

This line is uttered in the very first scene of Boom, when two seasoned property agents are coaching the newcomer, Boon, on how to best sell an apartment flat to the average Singaporean. Singapore is a country that can’t seem to get over our postcolonial hangover, which manifests in our fantasies about Cambridge, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Staging Boom in Cambridge then, is a reckoning of this postcolonial condition at the very site of one of Singapore’s greatest postcolonial fantasies.

Director Natalie Khoo refers to Michelle K’s essay on decolonial aesthesis when trying to describe the unique position of Boom in the Cambridge theatre scene. Boom is about the sense of dislocation and loss felt in the unrelenting march of development. We follow Boon, a reformed-gangster-turned-property-agent, as he dreams of a better life while his ageing mother clings onto their family home as it is slated for redevelopment. We see how even the dead can’t rest easy as sprawling cemeteries make way for shiny skyscrapers in a country that believes in choosing the living over the dead every single time when confronted with the problem of land scarcity. Yet, the very act of putting Boom on in Cambridge reproduces this sense of dislocation in the production process: just as the old, dying and dead struggle to find and retain their space in Boom, how do we, as an ex-colony, find the space to fit our narrative in the heart of a town that has stood, for centuries, as a bastion of colonial progress and elitism?

“The very attempt to do so despite its futility forces us to confront the uneasy realities of dislocation”

This is the central mission of Boom: to “assert our own space” and thus achieve “representation on our own terms”, by “platforming our own experiences” of “what it means to be modern Singaporeans”. To achieve this vision, the production team has gone to great lengths to bring over a slice of the Singapore they understand as home. Over the Michaelmas break, the team shot all the flashback sequences in the play at sites in Singapore which are under the imminent threat of redevelopment (Laguna Park, Chancery Court, Mount Vernon Cemetery), so that the audience can visually experience the physical locality of the play. The soundscape will include recordings of sounds from reservoirs in Singapore. Props, including the ubiquitous Milo tins and Khong Guan biscuit tins, have also been brought all the way from Singapore into the space of the Corpus Playroom.

All this is done with the intention of making a quintessentially Singaporean story accessible to an audience that may not be familiar with the country. Yet, Khoo, along with Assistant Director Rebecca Tan and Producer Alyssa P’ng, all acknowledge the inherent futility of such a task – how can you ever successfully transport and translate context in its entirety? But Khoo argues that this is the exact point – the very attempt to do so despite its futility forces us to confront, and therefore come to terms with, the uneasy realities of dislocation, just like how the theme of nostalgia which plays so strongly in Boom is about an inherently futile attempt to remember and recreate what you believe to be forgotten – without being quite sure what exactly you’re remembering or forgetting. This is reflected in the creative choice to juxtapose the set with the actors: while the set is designed to look like a gallery defined by clean white spaces showcasing different items from Singapore, the actors dress and act in naturalistic ways, thus emphasising the disconnect between modernity and nostalgia.

“The characters in Boom mainly converse in ‘Singlish’, English mixed in with Chinese, Malay, Tamil and dialects such as Hokkien, that most Singaporeans speak on a day-to-day basis”Edgar Lee

But perhaps the more fundamental question is: why we feel compelled to translate and explain our context the first place? Who are we achieving representation for – a foreign audience, or ourselves? The directors emphasise how Boom is, crucially, also an exercise in being “unashamed of presenting our script”, our story, our language, our culture. For that matter, while efforts have been made to make the play as accessible as possible to a Cambridge audience, some aspects of the play are intentionally left untranslated, unfamiliar and foreign to do justice to what it means to be Singaporean.

This is best reflected in the vernacular and accents used in Boom. English is officially the lingua franca of Singapore (“because”, as Khoo puts it, “the English colonised us!”), but the characters in Boom mainly converse in Singlish, English mixed in with Chinese, Malay, Tamil and dialects such as Hokkien, the language which most Singaporeans speak on a day-to-day basis. Khoo explains that the team considered providing subtitles for the benefit of a non-Singaporean audience, but eventually decided against it. Part of resisting the postcolonial condition is choosing to be “unabashed and unapologetic” about who you are, and the directors want Boom to stay true to that spirit. Khoo and Tan reveal that in the early stages of rehearsal, they often had to consciously remind the cast not to “codeswitch” but to stay true to a quintessentially Singaporean accent, even if they are afraid that it might not be comprehensible to a Cambridge audience. 

“A casual, everyday protest – a way of saying, I don’t have to sound like you to be worthy of being heard”

While working on the show, P’ng tells me that there are too many moments when Boom feels almost “too real”. While trying to film the flashback scenes, P’ng tells me the team realised that some locations they had in mind had already been torn down and replaced by construction sites. As a Singaporean student living in Cambridge, I cross the Bridge of Sighs, and think of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s love for this bridge, and all the contradictions of his legacy in Singapore. We grew up as Singaporeans with an almost mythical image of Cambridge in our minds, but as Khoo points out, part of the postcolonial reflection is coming to Cambridge and realising that it’s “not really what your parents made it out to be”.

Boom is our reaction to this postcolonial condition: our humble attempt at bringing an image of Singapore to Cambridge, as a response to the image of Cambridge that we have been brought up with. Boom is trying to challenge our own notions of all that we have been conditioned to believe to be beautiful, good and true: questioning our conscious and unconscious faith in modernity, coloniality. Boom, to quote Michelle K, is our way of hearing in our own accents, “not failure to communicate, but a casual, everyday protest – a way of saying, I don’t have to sound like you to be worthy of being heard”.

Boom is on at the Corpus Playroom from 13 - 17 March

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