As I've said, one of the most remarkable shows of this year's SIFA was the five-day durational performance-cum-installation Time Between Us, conceptualised by Fernando Rubio and performed by Oliver Chong.
Given that Chong told me in our last interview that he was unsure if he'd survive the experience—and that it sounded like he was pretty exhausted during this show—I felt it would be appropriate to check in on him to find out if he was OK.
I caught up with him on Saturday afternoon at The Finger Players office.
NYS: You look better than I thought you would!
Oliver: In what way?
NYS: It sounded like it took a lot out of you.
Oliver: It did. Before it even began, right, I was afraid that I wasn’t able to come back sane. And at the back of my head I was telling myself, “I think I can if I want to.”
And then it was [not] until the very last night when it was over that really… That night was really painful lah. On the way back in the car, images were racing in my head, I kept seeing people outside the house looking in, ghostly figures, ugly faces… and I kept hearing knocks on my walls, on my doors, on my windows—and my windows are like very thin acrylic. And the crazy people outside, the number of people outside.
But I kept telling myself I have to come back, I have to be strong and sane and this project cannot be my last one. If it’s not for my work, I have to come back for those who love me, my wife, my parents, my friends and all those beautiful people who came to my house—you included!—and then when I reached home I just felt very relieved, very peaceful, very grateful that I have a quiet home to go back to in Toa Payoh, which is away from the maddening crowd.
And my wife was very worried. And I just told her, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine, I’m just very very tired. Have faith that I will be normal again. Just let me sleep.” And then I went to sleep.
I only woke up the following afternoon. I had nightmares of people outside my house, knocking, the incessant knocks…
NYS: People were knocking on your windows?
Oliver: Yeah. I just met up with KS yesterday. He asked me out to have lunch to talk about my whole experience, and I was telling him, “If I got anything from this production, it was the meaninglessness of existence.”
And it is so easy to just lock up the doors and put up the blinds and just play loud music and just ignore whoever knocks on the door. That’s so easy to do. But I guess I have to open up and let people in. And I was disappointed many many times, opening doors to people who came in. But there were of course many beautiful people too who came in, and those people were the ones who gave me the strength. I kept telling myself there are beautiful people out there. There are beautiful people out there. Open the doors, let them experience the scene, Let them take whatever things they can from this experience.
And thank you for dancing for me! That made my day.
[Note: When I was doing the first day’s stakeout and Oliver started playing the Beatles, I began dancing, partly because of boredom, partly because of the beat.]
Photo by Bryan Tan
I was telling Keng Sen yesterday, “I guess people just didn’t know what this production was about.” And even looking at the program booklet, I felt it could be articulated more, because just reading the writeup I myself wasn’t sure what this production was about. And when people came in, they’re weren’t prepared for it.
And I was telling Fernando’s wife on the last night that I see so many ugly Singaporeans, ugly people. Also maybe ugly tourists. But I can’t blame them, because they don’t know what this house is all about. And if there were more writeups and they were put up around the house, those who see the writeups would come in prepared and then they wouldn’t behave the way they behave. I was telling Laura the people in my country are not like that. There are more beautiful people in my country, if they had known better.
NYS: What do you mean by ugly people?
Oliver: OK, to begin with they came in not wanting to look at the house, but wanting the air-con, the shade in the house, so they could sit down and catch their Pokemons.
And I have seen people come in walk around the house, not knowing the Man was a resident, just saying, “Very smelly this house, very smelly.” The person was referring to the smell of the wood. And that was plain rude. And then knocking on the door, and I opened up, and the person insists that they should be granted entry, just like that. I mean, they are going to someone’s house. And then taking a chalk and writing on the wall without asking. And taking my Polaroid camera, and when I asked them to put it down they looked offended and left the house. This is someone’s house! If they had known… And when I invited people out when they were catching Pokemon, despite the notice I posted on the wall, they tried to argue. “What what, why can’t I catch Pokemon here?” I think because they thought it was a public space.
NYS: But it was kind of public.
Oliver: Conceptually it is actually a private space. And people came in and just sat on the bed without asking. If they had known if this was someone’s house, the fiction of it… It was very hard for the Man, because in the Man’s world, this is really his house.
NYS: I thought it would be isolation that wore you down, but in the end it was the intrusion. Did you expect this?
Oliver: I guess I expected it, but not so bad lah. Not this bad.
NYS: What about the beautiful people?
Oliver: They came in respecting the space. Actually that’s already enough for me. And of course there were friends who came. But the Man didn’t acknowledge them, because he wasn’t supposed to even recognise them. And then they were standing around outside the house for a very long time, and there was so much love that I felt from friends who really cared about me—Oliver Chong—but of course they knew I was the Man then.
And a simple smile, a simple hug… When I was doing the storytelling Elvira Holmberg was there, and when I was going around telling the audience members they were an archaeologist, an astronomer, when I passed her she just gave me a simple wink. And that just melted my heart.
And of course some strangers did that too. That was nice. Very nice. There were a few people who stayed in the house almost the whole day they just left for their meals, lunchtime, dinner time, just to keep me company, without saying anything. That was very nice. Yeah.
So those were the people who kept me going actually. And I guess on hindsight it’s a bit unfair—or maybe unfair is a bit strong a word—unfair to the Man, because to the Man’s psyche it’s his home, but the rest of people don’t know and they just came into the house to intrude… to hurt him, I think. But the Man kept opening up. So it was a horrible experience.
Photo by Evelyn Chia
NYS: Could you talk about the strange things you did? For instance, I saw a photo of you tying strings all over the house. And also the things you were supposed to do: you were scheduled to dive into the water, but I didn’t see you do that.
Oliver: That was an instruction that was given by Fernando. So of course I can interpret it in whatever way: what is water, what is dive, and do whatever I deem fit.
And that string activity was actually suggested by myself. Fernando was asking me why I had that idea. Because that came from a childhood game I always played w my younger sister. We would always get whatever strings in the house and just tie them from one point to another point. And it gets more and more interesting because you need to maneuver yourself in all these strings. That activity was very therapeutic and meditative, because you just focus on point and line, point and line, nothing else. So that helped me to shut myself out from the world, from people, and just be in the moment.
NYS: What about the livestreaming sessions? It’s ironic that people say the Internet brings people together, but very few people were actually tuning in.
Oliver: I knew that nobody was actually watching. But there were a few people who were listening in. There were two livestreaming [mediums]: there was one which was video and the other was audio. The audio, I had six visitors. That was the max for the very last day. The video I had zero. But I did it anyhow, and that became a portal for me to the outside world, I guess.
And what you were saying the outside world and isolation: yes, I got a lot of intrusions, yes, but nonetheless I still felt very cut off and isolated.
NYS: Could you talk about the conversations you had with guests? I only got to sit in on the one with Chua Beng Huat.
Oliver: That one was another thing. There were five guests and I think the instructions to come from Fernando weren’t clear enough, because they were supposed to come in and interact with the man, not Oliver. But Chua Beng Huat, the first thing he said was, “Hi Oliver, how are you today?” And immediately the Oliver in me was, “Oh, now what, what do you want me to do now?”
And that was the same for all the other guests except one, Jason Wee. He was the only one who interacted with the man himself. All of them came in and interacted with the person Oliver. Which was… destructive, because I’ve been spending five days to be in the Man, to be the Man, and there was this session that people come in, the guests, and wanted Oliver to come out instead of helping.
NYS: What did you do with them?
Oliver: Different guests did different things. Like Natalie Hennedige came in and she wanted to interact with the Man as an actor. But the Man is not an actor.
Her argument was that whatever characters an actor plays, the character is still very much the actor. I mean, I can agree with that, but at the same time, when a character is born, there is this separation. Of course this character is created by the actor, but the actor is just lending his experience, his emotions, his history, his memories to this character. So when the character is created, is born, the character is an independent body, I feel, although there are a lot of things borrowed from the actors.
So when Natalie wanted to interact with the Man as an actor, she made the Man put on costumes and she made the Man improvise. Of course, the Oliver in me refused to cooperate because I’m not supposed to be Oliver. And therefore the Man was just going through the motions, and in the end Natalie couldn’t get a lot out of the Man.
NYS: In our last interview you said you might do group therapy with the other actors who’ve portrayed the Man. Have you reached out to them?
Oliver: I don’t know. I’ll have to wait for Fernando to initiate it if he wants it. I don’t need it.
NYS: Are you still getting nightmares?
Oliver: No more. But I think something in me has changed. But I’m not very sure yet. I can’t put a finger to it yet.
I guess all along I’ve actually hated humankind. (Laughs) I guess when I say I hate humankind, I guess it’s coming from love for them, and the hate comes out because of disappointment. I’m not saying this from a higher point—“I’m above them.” I’m also human, and I don’t think I’m a good person too. It’s just that… what else can be done, and why are we like that?
I just get more and more disheartened with humans. Like just yesterday me and my wife, we went out we were on a train to Plaza Singapura and then Dhoby Ghaut Station. So crowded, and then I just look at people they have this blank empty look in their eyes, and they just go about selfishly, I think because you just look within the space that they think they own. And just move along, blindly.
And then this man came along. He was just walking so fast—my wife was in front of me and this man just bumped into her shoulder and then just walked off without looking back or saying sorry. And I was thinking, how can you do that? Why are people already like that?
And before this project even, I was always joking with friends that I actually wish for doomsday to come. Because I feel there’s no way out. There’s no way we can reverse this. And just last night before bedtime I was just telling my wife I’m really feeling very tired and disheartened.
And it’s only those beautiful people who kept me going. Artists are really very privileged to stand out from the crowd and look at what’s going on and do works. Yeah, I just felt very very privileged. So much love. The five days in the house. So many people were around me protecting me, buying me food, drinks.
Photo by Jeffrey Tan