Whenever I visit Penang, I can’t help but be drawn towards the stately colonial mansions along what used to be called Northam Road, now known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. Those mansions have long driveways and I can only imagine the dramas and events that must have unfolded within their walls. I’ve never been to any of them and even today, some are not open to tbe public unless one obtains special permission. They are such lovely settings for parties and photo shoots. Last week (between 28th to 31st August), Soonstead was the venue for a very unique play called “2 Houses”, a drama about two of Penang’s elite families set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Emergency years. The drama follows the loves, lives and losses of those that witnessed the birth of Penang’s identity. What makes this drama so unique is that the audience follows the cast fro room to room and literally experience a taste of what it must have been like in those tumultuous years.
2 Houses is a George Town Festival-commissioned, site-specific drama, performed by a cast of some of Malaysia and Singapore’s finest actors. Soonstead Mansion was built in 1919 by one of Penang’s earliest millionaires, Heah Swee Lee who owned a vast plantation in Seberang Perai with sugar cane, coconut and rubber. Originally known as Northam Lodge, the mansion became known as Soonstead when it was sold to the Soon family. In 1973, it was purchased by the late Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew and has been restored by the Bayview Group into a remarkably beautiful mansion.
The Blue Flamingo visited Soonstead on Merdeka Day to watch “2 Houses” and reports on her experience.
On Merdeka Day, 31st August, I was fortunate enough to be invited by MAC Cosmetics Malaysia to a play, 2 Houses, which is a production which is part of SIN-PEN Colony in conjunction with the Georgetown Festival 2014. The play was written and directed by Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua (of Phua Chu Kang fame) and Joe Sidek Productions. MAC Cosmetics Malaysia is the Official Makeup Sponsor for the play.
The play premiered on the 28th of August, 2014 and the invitation extended to me was to attend the final performance of the play which happened to be on Merdeka Day itself. Amongst its fine ensemble cast are some famous local names like Kee Thuan Chye.
The play was located at Soonstead Mansion, at 42B, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, one of several historical grand mansions on that long stretch of road which was formerly known as Northam Road. To Penangites, this road is called “Millionaires’ Row”. Now, as a Penang resident, I drive along this long stretch of road and pass by this mansion on a daily basis on my way to the ferry but I have never ever had the opportunity, until now, to set foot on its grounds, as it is privately owned by the Bayview Hotels Group.
Now, this play, 2 Houses was rather unusual in that it was staged not on a theatre stage as one would expect from a play like this, but instead, the play was held at the mansion itself, and the mansion itself and its gardens being a living historical backdrop and prop for the play and its cast, with the entire audience, moving around than mansion from room to room, as well as the grounds and gardens of the mansion, together with the cast as the events in the play rapidly unfolded.
View from one of the verandahs
The Part 1 of the play itself, in a nutshell, was set in December, 1941 during the early days of what was now known the Japanese Occupation, which began in Malaya when the Japanese troops landed in Kota Baru. We are introduced to a very wealthy family known as the Heahs who lived in the mansion. We are then told of the anguish and panic amongst faced by the different family members when they discover that only the wealthy and the British (ang mohs) could secure safe passage off Penang Island, which was about to be bombed and overrun by the invading Japanese army, in spite of the efforts of the British, to quell fears amongst the locals at a lavish party held at the mansion to demonstrate the commitment of the British to Penang by their presence. Part one ends in darkness and the sound of the air raid siren blaring and bombs dropping all over Georgetown. During the intermission, the audience was treated to boiled sweet potato and Chinese tea served in enamel tiffin cups and metal plates to signify to the audience and remind them of the all the hardship suffered by the local population during the Japanese Occupation period, as opposed to the cocktails and canapés which was served at the beginning of the play.
After the interval, we then fast forward to Part 2 of the play which takes place in December, 1948, six months after the declaration of Emergency. In contrast to Part 1 of the play, we are told what happened to the various Heah family members and the other characters after the war. The Heah family was no longer as wealthy as before the war and they now lived in fear. The audience is also told of the Batang Kali massacre by the British during the Emergency. Amid these harsh and violent times, there were those who embraced Communism. And then there were those who rose from poverty to greater things in life and also those who began to harbour the idea of seeking Independence from the British. The play then ends in a violent struggle, with gunshots going off in the dark. But who survived and who died? When the lights switched on once again, the audience is not kept in intrigue for long, they are quickly given the answers as to who shot whom, who survived, and who are amongst the dead. Thus, the audience is reminded (very aptly on Merdeka Day itself) that the road to Independence was not an easy one, and we are told that through the lives and the losses suffered by the various characters in the play.
Tan Kheng Hua (in red) with the MAC Cosmetics team
Before the play began, I had the opportunity to have a quick interview with Tan Kheng Hua, the Producer of the play, who shared with me her passion for the play and her love for Penang and working in Malaysia in general. From what I was found out from her, it took her one year to plan the play. According to her, Soonstead was chosen as it was always part of the concept that the play would be held in an old mansion, and it was through various negotiations that doors began to open and she was able to secure Soonstead ultimately as the venue for the play.
During the interview, she also told me that she was also very impressed by the diligence, capabilities and professionalism of the MAC Artistic Team, who understood right from the beginning what the play was all about and rose to the occasion through their creativity and passion as artists and brought the various characters of the play to life through the beautiful artistry of MAC Cosmetics. Photography was not allowed during the entire play but I do have some backstage photos of the MAC Artist in action, photos of the beautiful grounds and the exterior and interior photos of the Soonstead mansion as well as and the finale cast photo to share.
Cast of 2 Houses with Tan Kheng Hua
In conclusion, I thank the Producers, the entire cast and the organisers for putting on such a great and unusual play in Penang as part of the month long Georgetown Festival 2014. It is not very often that we get to enjoy plays like this in Penang. The play was a great historical showcase and a snapshot of what happened during that turbulent period, namely the Japanese Occupation and the Emergency, and indeed it was an eye opener, especially for those who were born after 1957. I also thank MAC Cosmetics Malaysia for giving me the opportunity to go backstage to interview and observe their Event Artists, Ash and Reyo in action.
The Blue Flamingo
All photos are courtesy of The Blue Flamingo.