'Broken Birds': Singapore's Avant-Garde Theatre - New Ways of Viewing the History of Japanese Women in Southeast Asia

Jim Warren, Southeast Asian Studies, Murdoch University

Pub Talk

Thursdays at the Fremantle Hotel, corner Cliff & High Streets
Presentations start 6.30pm sharp.

21 March 2002


A two hour play about young Japanese prostitutes broken by the harsh lives they were forced to lead overseas. "Broken Birds", an outdoor production first staged between 1-18 March 1995, Fort Canning Park, Singapore was inspired by "Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore 1870-1940" by James Francis Warren.

Conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen
Music composed by John Sharpley
Text Written by Robin Loon and Ong Keng Sen
Movement/Choreography by Lim Fei Shen

A century ago, Japan had only two major exports - coal and women. According to James Francis Warren's book, "Ah Ku and Karayuki -San", young women were either abducted or lured from the villages of Japan to Singapore with promises of abundant wealth. Despite the traumatic lives many of them led, the karayuki-san (women who went south) were extraordinary patriots who remitted several billion yen to Japan to pump up its economy. The brothel owners used the idea of national good to enslave the girls. They were told that their bodies belonged to the state and that they constituted a form of female army.

A visual spectacle. The outdoor opera-type production with a cast of 24 is in seven parts, played out in dance, drama and music. The action unfolds through evocative one-line statements obtained from actual oral accounts and coroner's reports because many of the girls died violent deaths from misadventure, homicide or suicide. There is no attempt to build up proper characters. Ong Keng Sen's hope is to have audiences understand intuitively and emotionally what these lives signified. The play is not about characters, it is about voices.

"I don't think it's wrong to sell our daughters, who we raised ourselves. Other people use the money they get to go on excursions to famous sites. Some even go to hot springs to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, we sold her to pay our debts, so we feel we need not be ashamed."

"People like us are never written up in history."

"We were only thirteen, and that debt of two thousand yen weighed heavily on us. We were to use our bodies to pay it back".

Three of the seven parts will be screened: Part 1 (The Auction); Part 6 (Mothers and Daughters) and Part 7 (Death).

Pub Talk | 2002

New: 4 March, 2002 | Now: 6 May, 2015