For the closing night of Something To Write Home About, a Singapore arts festival in New York, professional storyteller Verena Tay will bring you four tales about a piece of land in Singapore that was cursed and remains cursed to this day. Expect tales of black magic and supernatural beings. Based on Verena’s published short story, “The Land,” Cursed Earth comprises four parts, each covering a different era of Singapore’s history and incorporating different supernatural motifs and urban legends prevalent in Southeast Asia. A storytelling performance for adults not to be missed.
Tickets ($24) are available on-line. Performance advisory: 16 years old and above. The Festival Closing event will feature a Chinese food reception by chef Larry Reutens after the performance.
Verena Tay kindly agreed to talk about her ghostly experiences to SP.
SP. What do you think, are stories a blessing or a curse?
VT. It depends, especially on your definition of stories.
Since time immemorial, human beings have told stories to share key information and create a sense of community with others. Even today, without storytelling, we would be bored out of our skull, unable to retain information easily or connect with others. Especially in the modern world when things change so fast and material objects are destroyed easily, stories often are the only way for us to maintain a link with what went on in the past.
In contrast, stories can be a curse if certain parties insist that there is only one true version and they also limit the manner of telling that story. Explosive consequences can result when other points of view are excluded and others question and confront the validity of such mono-vision.
As a means of conveying culture and/or expressing certain aspects of the human psyche, stories are essential. People have long been attracted to supernatural stories that explain the unexplainable and encapsulate dark and evil experiences. People also tell and listen to supernatural stories just for the thrill of it; now, if you ask me, this latter phenomenon is a curse.
SP. You were in New York City last year as a featured author of the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival. Did you walk by any place that has been cursed?
VT. When I was in New York City in October last year, I did not do much sightseeing, given the shortness of time. I stayed in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn and spent much of my waking hours at the various festival venues and commuting between places. Sadly, I am also not gifted with the ability to see things of the supernatural nature.
From what little I know of American urban legends through books and mass media, I am sure I must have walked past ‘cursed places’. The dark tunnels and old deco of the subway system seemed foreboding. I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in an old brownstone: from the kitchen window, I looked out onto a wasted common garden that looked kind of spooky…. And oh yes, the Halloween decorations were being displayed then and some of the stuff being hung out definitely added ‘atmosphere’ to my experience of New York City.
SP. What can the audience at Cursed Earth expect from the evening?
VT. When most foreigners think about Singapore, they have in mind the shiny, forward-looking metropolis of today with its booming economy. Yes, that is one aspect of Singapore. Yet scratch the surface of the average Singaporean, you will discover that he/she will have a healthy respect for, or a morbid fascination with, the supernatural folklore originating from Southeast Asia.
Cursed Earth is based on my short story, ‘The Land’, which draws upon elements of this ancient mysticism. I will tell a tale about how a certain piece of land in Singapore became cursed and how that curse prevails over the centuries. Audiences will not only hear about creatures such as ‘toyols’ and ‘orang minyak’, but also discover why these beings haunt and even terrify the Singaporean imagination.
I did a preview of Cursed Earth on 14 Aug to gain feedback from a select audience. 14 Aug was the start of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar, the month when ghosts from the underworld are able to roam freely on earth. After listening to only the first half of Cursed Earth that I performed during this preview, an audience member was too scared to travel home alone that evening…
Verena Tay on cursed ground