Journey to One’s “Roots”

The Finger Players is one of the most exciting Singaporean theater companies to emerge in the new century, known for its visually innovative and emotionally charged productions. The company has taken its shows to Africa, Austria, Australia, China, France, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Macau, Myanmar, Thailand, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey, making it one of Singapore’s most prolific international touring companies.

As part of their fifteenth anniversary, they are re-staging two of their best-received productions, Turn by Turn We Turn and Roots. Both won “Best Production of the Year” at The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards in the years that they were performed. They will run at Drama Center Black Box from October 16 to 26. Tickets can be purchased at Sistic.

Roots, written, directed and acted by Oliver Chong, is about a man’s search for his ancestral hometown in China, with only the scantiest of clues to go on. It is a true story based on personal experience. Oliver Chong is kind enough to speak to SP about his journey back to his roots.


Q: This is your first play that is based entirely on your real life story. What are the challenges in bringing to life something so deeply personal? Did you spice things up for dramatic effect? Or did you leave certain things out? If you did, what were those bits that you could share with us?

OC: I believe that an artist should not shy away from unearthing personal histories and confronting his past. I didn’t think too much about presenting my personal life publicly when I embarked on my journey. It was only after I’d written the play that I had second thoughts: would my grandmother, late great-grandfather or grandfather mind that I share this long-kept family secret with the general public? Especially when they had in fact kept it a secret for almost a century. Am I being unfilial? Would they or my audience think that I am exploiting my forefathers for my benefit? But of course, the play is not about washing my family’s dirty linen in public. I would think that “Roots” is about relationships: the bond between myself and my father, and my forefathers; it is about who and why we are who we are, conveyed via a man’s journey in search of his roots. For the play, I went to the columbarium to ‘speak’ to my late great grandfather and grandfather, and asked for their blessings to present “Roots”. For this reason, at every show, 2 seats in the theatre are reserved for them, so that they could watch me perform my story of them.

Q: According to the press release, you found your hometown in a miraculous fashion. Could you share just one of these events/persons that had helped you find your hometown. Do you still think about that event/person till this day? Would you consider going back to thank that person?

OC: I had very few clues to the exact location of my hometown. Many kind souls literally “appeared” out from nowhere to guide me on my journey! Every person and turn of events were critical in bringing me closer to locating my hometown. It was as though there were ‘signposts’ planted by my late great grandfather and grandfather that guided me along the way: there were helpful “souls” (uncanny coincidences) at the columbarium who helped me track down my late great-grandfather and grandfather’s urns; a chairman of a internet forum gave me a useful tip of where to begin my search; a front desk manager at a hotel I stayed in gave me directions to a place no one else knew  of; an affable stranger whom I met on the bus, chaperoned me to my hometown, and acted as my translator for the whole day, without whom, I wouldn’t be able to converse with the villagers at the hometown. Yes, I do still think about the front desk manager and Uncle Lee. I hope I could one day visit and thank them.

Q: The play had its international premiere in Hong Kong earlier this year. How did the Hong Kongers receive the play? Were their responses different from Singaporeans’? If so, how? Why do you think that is so?

OC: I am thankful that “Roots” was as warmly received in Hong Kong as it was in Singapore. The Hong Kong audiences were intrigued and touched by the play. They were especially fascinated by the multiplicity of languages used in the play, and the speed at which they were used interchangeably within a sentence, a norm which we, as Singaporeans, have long taken for granted. “Roots” was deliberately written in the way I, a Singaporean, would speak when I tell the story to my friends.

Another difference with many Hong Kong audiences was that they were surprisingly reserved and composed during the show: I was all nerves when I was performing for them; I thought the play didn’t get to them! It was only after the show, when so many of them came up to me, teary-eyed, and thanking me profusely for the show, that I realized my initial worries had been unfounded.

Q: Why do you think the play has been so warmly received by audiences local and abroad? Were you surprised by their response? If so, Why?

OC: I think it is largely because “Roots” is accessible and honest, moving and funny at the same time. The subject matter is universal too! Despite our differences in culture, colour, language and religion, we are constantly questioning the meaning of our existence, and by extension of that notion, our relationships with our families and society. The search for our ancestral roots thus provide a conduit to answers that are strangely and viscerally liberating.

End of Interview

Watch a trailer for Roots on YouTube by clicking on the image below.



Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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