“KopiO or AmericanO”

Reviewer: Lee Min Jie
Performance: 26 May 2016

The clash between a man and his grandfather is at the heart of Kopitiam.

This performance is adapted from Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun’s 1986 play. It is the graduation production of ARTivate, the youth wing of bilingual theatre company Drama Box.

Specifically targeted at secondary school students, the programme booklet comes in the form an activity sheet – although I am not sure if the answers are can be found from the play.

A girl (Melody Chan) decked in futuristic white garb and hair opens the play, anxiously looking for her grandfather’s red notebook. As she sits and silently reads his writings, the stage conveniently presents the enactment of the chapter.

Jiacai (Toh Wee Peng) is the girl’s grandfather. He returns from Canada to see to his father’s funeral as well as deliver the news of his decision to immigrate. He attempts to convince his grandfather (Julius Foo) to sell the coffee shop and retire comfortably.

Differences in perceptions is the main cause of the riff between grandfather and grandson. What Jiacai sees as working to the bone is merely a daily routine that brings comfort to his grandfather. The way the coffee shop conducts business is considered backward and inefficient by Jiacai, but it is traditional and personable to his grandfather.

Toh fails to deliver the frustrations of a man sandwiched between the opportunities modernisation has to offer and the traditions of the past. His actions are almost perfunctory and he literally speaks to the wall while he is delivering his lines.

Foo is occasionally convincing in fleshing out the desperation of an old man struggling to grapple with change. Perhaps in his attempt to engage Toh, who faces the wall, he too presents his back view to the audience for an extended period of time, compromising the clarity of his lines. There is little chemistry between the two of them.

The erratic interjection of the audiovisuals is distracting and disconcerting. The presence of four other actors clad in white zentai suits prancing about is superfluous too. Instead, their final positions in the closing scene were so badly marked that they actually blocked the running Chinese calligraphy words in the backdrop.

The only saving grace is the set of table and chairs oft-found in older kopitiams occupying centre stage. It is completed by a boombox and traditional coffee cups. It cleverly transformed into a well preserved artefact within a museum towards the end. That moment made me realise that the power to keep these kopitiams around.

Do you have an opinion or comment about this post? Email us at info@centre42.sg.


26 May 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio


Lee Min Jie is a third-year Theatre Studies major at the National University of Singapore who is drawn to Theatre’s ability to immerse one in a world carefully conjured up by artists.