Golden Blood 黄金血液: Culturising Dysfunction

Written by Jennifer Fernandez

Image by Brett Boardman

The intimate setting of the Griffin Theatre is just the right fit for Merlynn Tong’s Golden Blood, holding the attention of the audience seated shoulder to shoulder (and appropriately masked for Covid). The square stage provides adequate space for the cast of two, Girl (Merlynn Tong) and Boy (Charles Wu), which are also terms of endearment sometimes used in Singaporean Chinese families. Tong’s cultural depiction of a dysfunctional family declares that the human condition does not discriminate, and it is not always happy families in Singapore apartment living.

Undoubtedly, there are two challenges that a play like this faces. The first one is the likelihood that non-Asian Australians will miss some of the cultural cues and contexts, and the other is in the ability to keep it relevant to the Asian-Australian audience. To her credit, Tong has achieved a performance that is mindful of both concerns.

Staging for Golden Blood is deliberately minimal, and the focus is on the interaction between the two actors. It begins with Girl at the age of fourteen just after her mother’s suicide and funeral. Enter a long-lost brother, 21-year-old ‘parang’ wielding gangster Boy, who proposes to assume guardianship of his sister with ulterior motives. The audience is given agency to accept Tong’s portrayal of a 14-year-old who matures as the play progresses; there are cues from dialogue, performance, and the neon sign above the stage that makes the age progression quite clear.

The play covers a timespan of seven years, and Boy explains the cultural significance of the recurring number. It is also performed in ‘Singlish’ which is given clarity through the characters’ commentary which leaves very little room for misunderstanding. The only instances of occasional dialogue in Chinese are dramatized with emotional gestures which make the words easily understood through the body language of the adept actors. Of note is Charles Wu’s performance as he delivers his lines in sync with Merlynn Tong’s accent – Wu’s natural accent is Australian. The collaboration on stage between Tong and Wu is full of energy and carries the narrative along masterfully, holding the audience’s attention for the ninety minutes of the play.

Centring the focus of the play on the characters, the props are intentionally significant regarding the cultural nuances of the narrative – the single mattress of spartan domesticity, a koala plush toy to emphasise Girl’s ambitions, and the red plastic stools associated with Singaporean hawker centres. Lighting indicates scene changes and the raised upstage area functions as a funeral pyre, stage, and other implied locations outside the apartment. I am initially struck by the sparsity of the stage, but as the play progresses, I realise that any more would have been a distraction. I am also aware that because of my Malaysian background, there is a level of associations I can draw from objects and references that are not apparent to the majority of the audience who are not of Asian descent.

Is this an Australian play or is it Singaporean? Perhaps it is both. The story of Girl and Boy is a familiar one that crosses cultures and borders. The accent may be Singaporean, but it is in English, and the Australian audience responds appropriately to the humour and drama that unfolds on stage. While it is set in Singapore, Tong also expresses the desire for the idealised version of Australian shores that reflects a foreign perspective back to the audience. As the play concludes, with Girl at thirty-five in the final scene, the suggestion is that she has arrived and fulfilled her dream. Golden Blood is commendable and Tong has made a significant contribution to the Asian-Australian voice in the arts.

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