Kuo Pao Kun

Singapore Infopedia


Kuo Pao Kun (b. 1939, Xiaoguo village, Hebei, China–d. 10 September 2002, Singapore) was a playwright who produced plays in both English and Chinese. He is considered one of the most significant dramatists in Singapore and a pioneer of Singapore theatre. Many of his works, created over four decades, have been translated into Malay, Tamil, German, Japanese and Arabic. Many, too, have been produced and performed by theatre companies in Singapore and abroad. He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1989.

Early life
Kuo was born to a poor rural family in Hebei province in China. In 1947, the family moved to Beijing and then to Hong Kong in 1949. Kuo’s father had been away in Singapore for work and they had only first met when Kuo was living in Beijing. When he was 10, Kuo and his mother came to Singapore to live with his father. In Singapore, Kuo attended a number of schools and received both English and Mandarin education. In 1955, he attended Chung Cheng High School (Kim Yam Road branch), which was a hotbed for leftist-inspired student demonstrations from 1954 to 1956. To keep him away from the student movement, Kuo’s father transferred him to a safe government school, Kallang West Government Chinese Middle School. In 1957, his father sent him to Hong Kong. But he came back shortly after and started to live on his own.1 He did not have a close relationship with his father until the latter’s last few years.2   

Kuo’s first involvement in drama started around this time, when he was still schooling. When he was about 15, he began to work for local radio stations as a part-time broadcaster and actor. At Rediffusion, he joined its Mandarin Drama Group and began performing and writing radio dramas.

In 1958, Kuo enjoyed a short-lived stint as a stage actor. He acted in a stage production of The Circus, a Chinese adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, for the Cathay-Keris film company. In 1959, he went to Australia to work as a translator and announcer for Radio Australia. He left the radio station in 1963 to pursue his interest in art at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

The playwright
Kuo returned to Singapore in 1965 and married Goh Lay Kuan, a dancer-choreographer. Together they set up the Performing Arts School in the same year, which was later re-named Practice Performing Arts School. The school offered music, dance and drama training. Kuo also translated Western plays into Chinese, which he staged and directed. In 1968, he wrote and directed his first full-length Chinese play, Hey, Wake Up!. This was followed by The Struggle in 1969.5 The play, which was about a group of workers being exploited by their employer, was banned from performance.In March 1976, Kuo was detained under the Internal Security Act for alleged communist activities and had his citizenship taken away in 1977. He was detained for four and a half years and was released with conditions in October 1980. The restrictions were withdrawn in 1983 and his citizenship re-instated in 1992.7

After his release from detention, Kuo resumed teaching drama at the Performing Arts School as well as writing and directing plays in Chinese. His creative life took a turn in 1984 when he wrote his first English play, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole.8 In 1986, he co-founded The Practice Theatre Ensemble, a bilingual theatre, later renamed The Theatre Practice.9 In 1988, he wrote another of his landmark plays, Mama Looking For Her Cat, which broke the language barrier in the theatre scene here. Mama Looking For Her Cat is a multi-lingual play which incorporates several different Singaporean languages and dialects, such as TeochewHokkien and Cantonese.10

In 1990, to help nurture local artists, Kuo founded The Substation, a multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual arts centre which was converted from a disused Public Utilities Board power substation.11

In his lifetime, Kuo made a monumental contribution to Singapore’s literature and theatre. He wrote 25 plays, some of which have become classics. These include The Coffin Is Too Big For The HoleNo Parking On Odd DaysThe Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old TreeMama Looking For Her CatLao Jiu, and Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral.12 He also translated a number of plays into Chinese, including Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, and directed numerous plays.13 His plays have been translated into all of Singapore’s official languages as well as Hindi, Japanese and German. They have been performed in Asian countries as well as in Australia, USA, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.14 

A master of bilingual theatre, Kuo helped bridge the gap between English-language theatre and Chinese-language theatre through his works. He also helped bridge the gap among the different cultures in Singapore, through efforts such as The Theatre Practice and The Substation which he founded to nurture artists from different language and cultural groups. In 2001, he took in the first cohort of students for the Theatre Training and Research Programme, a three-year programme for multi-cultural theatre training.15 Kuo also initiated creative exchanges with the new theatres of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.16 

In 2000, the Tokyo Asian Art Festival paid a tribute to Kuo by staging three of his plays. As a reflection of Kuo’s influence throughout Asia, the plays were performed in three different languages and directed and performed by artists from three different nationalities. The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole was directed by Putu Wijaya and performed by Teater Mandiri of Indonesia; Lao Jiu was directed by Anuradha Kapur and performed by Dishantar of India; and The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree was directed by Makoyo Sato and performed by the Black Tent Theatre of Japan.17

Kuo is widely regarded as a pioneer in Singapore theatre, “a major driving force in Singapore’s theatre development”. His performing arts school and theatre company have nurtured and produced many performing arts practitioners over the years.18 Kuo himself taught a whole generation of directors, including Action Theatre director, Ekachai Uekrongtham, Ong Keng Sen of Theatreworks and The Necessary Stage’s Alvin Tan. When he converted The Substation into an arts centre in 1990, it provided an avenue for local arts practitioners and audience alike, transcending language and discipline.19 The three institutions which he founded – the Practice Performing Arts School, The Theatre Practice and The Substation – became major arts institutions in Singapore.20 Through his role in these institutions, he inspired a whole generation of Singapore artists and “greatly raised the standards of the performing arts here”.21 

 Cultural Medallion.22

1993: ASEAN Award for Performing Arts.23
1997: Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knighthood of arts and letters), France.
2002: Excellence for Singapore Award.24

Best-known works
 The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole

1987: The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree
1988: Mama Looking For Her Cat
1990: Lao Jiu
1995: Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral
1998: The Spirits Play

Kuo succumbed to cancer and passed away on 10 September 2002 at the age of 63. He was survived by his wife and two daughters – Jian Hong, a filmmaker, and Jing Hong, a dancer-choreographer. His departure was greatly mourned in the local art community and by foreign artists who had worked with him.26 

Kuo’s plays and their various adaptations continued to be staged after his passing and there were also performances put up as a tribute to him.27 In 2012, the Theatre Practice organise a year-long programme, the “Kuo Pao Kun Festival,” to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Kuo’s passing. Instead of curating the festival, the Theatre Practice sent an open call for local and overseas groups to contribute and participate in this festival.28 The Festival involved more than 200 local and overseas artists including famous theatre practitioners such as Makoto Sato, Danny Yung, Ong Keng Sen, Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma.29 Besides plays, there were also an international conference, exhibition and dance performance organised as part of the festival.30

Marsita Omar 

1. Kuo Pao Kun, Images at the Margins: A Collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s Plays (Singapore: Times Book International, 2000), 386–88. (Call no. RSING S822 KUO)
2. Kuo Pao Kun, The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole – and Other Plays (Singapore: Times Book International, 1990), 11. (Call no. RSING S822 KUO)
3. “Kuo Pao Kun,” Tribute.SG, accessed 18 November 2016.
4. Kuo, Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole, 13.
5. Kuo, Images at the Margins, 390.
6. Helmi Yusof, “When the Past Can’t Be Shaken Off,” Straits Times, 24 July 2015, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Kuo, Images at the Margins, 393–94, 399.
8. Kuo, Images at the Margins, 393–94.
9. Clarissa Oon, “Goodbye, Teacher,” Straits Times, 11 September 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Clarissa Oon, “Mama Brought Back Dialects: Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar,” Straits Times, 7 October 1998, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Oon, “Goodbye, Teacher.”
12. Kwok Kian Woon and Teo Han Wue, eds., Kuo Pao Kun: And Love the Wind and Rain (Singapore: Crucible Pte Ltd, 2002), 44. (Call no. RSING S822 KUO)
13. Tribute.SG, “Kuo Pao Kun.”
14. “Kuo Pao Kun,” Intercultural Theatre Institute Ltd, accessed 18 November 2016. 15. Kwok and Teo, Love the Wind and Rain, 31, 36, 41, 73.
16. Kuo, Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole, 9.
17. Clarissa Oon, “Japanese Honour for Kuo,” Straits Times, 9 October 2000, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “PM Pays Tribute to Theatre Doyen,” Straits Times, 12 September 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Oon, “Goodbye, Teacher.”
20. Kuo, Images at the Margins, 390; Kwok and Teo, Love the Wind and Rain, 31, 36.
21. “PM Pays Tribute to Theatre Doyen.”
22. “Cultural Medallion,” National Arts Council, accessed 18 November 2016.
23. “Singapore Playwright and SBC Journalist among Winners of Asean Awards,” Straits Times, 5 October 1993, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Tribute.SG, “Kuo Pao Kun.”
25. Kwok and Teo, Love the Wind and Rain, 44.
26. Ong Sor Fern, “Theatre Pioneer Kuo Pao Kun Dies after Long Illness,” Straits Times, 11 September 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Helmi Yusof, “When the Past Can’t Be Shaken Off,” Business Times, 24 July 2015, 25; Helmi Yusof, “The Struggle: Years Later,” Business Times, 17 July 2015, 31; Mayo Martin, “Land Ahoy,” Today, 7 September 2001, 44; Helmi Yusof,  “Actors’ Tribute to the Late Kuo Pao Kun,” Business Times, 22 May 2015, 35. (From NewspaerSG)
28. Corrie Tan, “Potluck Theatre,” Straits Times, 14 February 2012, 10; Clarissa Oon, “Asia Remembers Kuo Pao Kun,” Straits Times, 26 June 2012, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Oon, “Asia Remembers Kuo Pao Kun.”
30. Mayo Martin, “An Artist for Everyone,” Today, 10 September 2012, 34. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources 
J. Devan, “Pao Kun: In Memoriam,” Focas: Forum on Contemporary Arts & Society, 5 (2004), 353–56. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 F)

K. G. Chew, “A Tribute to Pao Kun. Remarks of December 18, 2002,” Focas: Forum on Contemporary Arts & Society  5 (2004), 357–60. (Call no. RSING 700.95957 F)

K. Kwok, “Remembering Kuo Pao Kun (1939–2002),” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4, no. 2 (August 2003), 193–01. (Call no. R 306.095 IACS)

M. Tran and K. W. Kwok, “Educators, Friends and Shining Lights: Remembering Their Magic,” Esplanade: The Arts Magazine (November–December 2002), 64–67. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 E)

The information in this article is valid as at October 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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