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24 May 2007

dreaming of kuanyin, meeting madonna

Three goddesses come to life as Mark Chan returns to the Singapore Arts Festival after a two-year hiatus next month with the multi-disciplinary Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna. Fridae talks to the Singaporean composer and gay celebrity about the ideas and influences behind his magical communion of music, dance and video.

As soon as you start writing about Mark Chan's new Arts Festival project Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna", you realise that it's going to be difficult to pin down. It's been classified as "dance" in the ArtsFest brochures, but the seven dancers onstage from co-collaborator Angela Liong's Arts Fission Company are just one part of the overall sensory experience. There is new original pre-recorded music by Chan that features everything from traditional Hokkien "nan-yin" singing to church plainsong and dance club electronica. Chan is singing live accompanied by three musicians - including an erhu player and a percussionist. There is original poetry that is both spoken and sung, and to top it off, the whole thing is set to dramatic video images created by Brian Gothong Tan - the current "it boy" of the local arts scene.

Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna by Mark Chan and the The ARTS FISSION Company is playing at the Victoria Theatre on 1 June and 2 June at 8pm. He will be releasing the soundtrack of the performance on CD. Be one of the first 5 people to email and receive the soundtrack of the performance.
The piece is both East and West, traditional and modern, movement and stasis, pop and high Art - but "it will all hang together," Chan tells Fridae in a late night interview at his Taman Serasi home.

"I don't see the absolute divisions between pop and fine art - between what is serious and light," he says. "Or I see the divisions but I don't see why they shouldn't be broken down, or why we shouldn't enjoy breaking them down. As long as we make a good show."

The idea for the project came to Chan in 2004 when he started to think about a piece that would describe a personal life journey that started about 10 years ago. Then, in a friend's house in Amsterdam, the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kuanyin appeared to him in a vision. Chan says he was not sure whether if he was asleep or awake at the time, but he recalls the deity coming to him in a "darker," dramatically different form.

"She put her thumb on my throat and said: enough of this constant asking for a sign! I'm giving you a vision - the vision is your life," he says. "She was carrying a knife and she cuts me open because she says that if you want to know me, your heart has to be bleeding and open for the world. For this is what Kuanyin is about, she is full of compassion but how can you be compassionate if your heart is like a stone? At the start of the process, I wrote five very powerful poems about the encounter and they come through in two interview sections that are quite tongue-in-cheek and unusual."

Okay, but how does a road that starts off with the spiritual goddess Kuanyin lead to the pop goddess Madonna? Chan says that the answer to this has partly to do with the very personal way that his thinking on the subject evolved through time.

"It's all unexpected. The image of Kuanyin doesn't lead me to peace and calm but more insomnia, panic attacks and a breakdown," he says. "And the prayer and chanting leads to me to look at the Lotus Sutra in a pop way. It's the nature of my mind." But it's also a reflection of the way that modern day spirituality co-exists with the fast, flashy world that we live in. "People need to be shown that your zen practice and your rosary sessions take place in the midst of all of this clamouring for fame, popularity, and truth."

The iconic Virgin Mary completes a triangle of deities that will feature in Chan's performance. "The Virgin Mary is one of my secret worships," he says. "I have a favourite church in Paris - the Church of Saint Gervais and Saint Protais. I always go there to listen to the stupendous singing of the nuns and the monks. In fact, I only discovered it was famous for its singing later - most of my religious experiences are by chance."

Putting all three together doesn't mean that he's equating them, stresses Chan. "But in my mind they may have fused in meaning at points. I have a Kuanyin in my room and I've read books and books on the Virgin Mary," he says. "And I have every single Madonna album and every Madonna single and remix given to me by (Fridae CEO) Stuart Koe on my hard disk. Madonna has come to mean something to me. She's quite close to me in age and she's also trying to find something. If her whole life is public, plastic and on show, then she has chosen that path."

He adds: "I want this piece to go on from here and develop in new ways because it talks about trying to find spirituality in our modern lives. I don't know about people out there, but I'm a spiritual person and I need to find and arrive at some sort of truth. Secondly, I feel the three female figures are very inclusive. One of the reasons why they are easy to approach is that their worshippers or fans don't feel that they get pushed away so quickly. Kuanyin's nature is that whoever comes can ask whatever you want. The Virgin Mary is ever merciful and you go to her instead of directly to Christ because somehow she's more forgiving. And Madonna - she's been embracing of gay bisexual people and others that don't fit in. This inclusive spirituality is very necessary these days, especially when people are defining themselves by exclusion - you don't belong to my church, your church is too liberal etc. I'm not so nave as to think that it's ever been very good, but the last 20 years has certainly seen a growth of this."

While he's well aware of the thematic possibilities of combining such powerful characters, Chan says he has steered clear of doing the obvious. "That's why I didn't sample Madonna music, so don't come thinking that it's a Madonna performance or a Buddhist performance," he says.

"It's Mark Chan having a journey and having a nice show. And Angela Liong and Brian Gothong Tan finding meaning and making a nice show for you to come and watch. I don't really care that the music is too varied. There might be a composer who might come and say: What were you trying to do with that? But I think that that is my life, that is most people's lives."

Dreaming of Kuanyin, Meeting Madonna" by Mark Chan and the The ARTS FISSION Company is playing at the Victoria Theatre on 1 June and 2 June at 8pm. Tickets range from $20 to $50. Mark Chan will be releasing the soundtrack of the performance on CD. Be one of the first 5 people to email and receive the soundtrack of the performance. His music can also be heard on his MySpace page at myspace.com/markchanmusic.


In his own words:

On living in Paris and Shanghai
"Living in a different city always changes a person and changes how you look at yourself. I've been going to Paris for the last 10 years even before I met Fritz (his partner). In the past, I was Asian but very "Anglo," very English language-centred. But now I'm more Chinese and also very European. My sensitivities have become wider and I'm more open to looking at things differently. Also, I feel that I'm a citizen of the world. So when I stay in Paris or Shanghai too long, I won't be very happy. And the same for Singapore. I need the triangle to be happy."

On Singapore and its arts scene
"Singapore has the highest percentage of millionaires and as the population grows, there are going to be even more rich people here. And that will polarise society, I think, and maybe make for more interesting art. For I think art only comes when people are not so comfortable, when people have encountered some sort of pain or push. Art also comes from history, but Singapore doesn't have the length of tradition.

The pace of change has been quite bewildering, and very intelligent and capable people all know that they have to look after their own. Will it engender some kind of selfishness?"

On making music
"Music has become very interesting again and I like the fact that different people can put their stuff online. It's a bit sad that you can't make as good a living as a musician as you did before, but on the other hand, as an artiste I welcome the change. Music should be out there one way or another. Brian and I are going to make a music video and put it up for free. Because when was the last time you could do something like that and have so many people be able to watch it? I might also make a commercial record after this and give a lot of it away for free. I'm also in a strange situation where I have seven previous albums and none of them are for sale. I will have to address that but before I do that I'm going to start giving them away for free. If my Japanese record company says why are you giving it away for free then I'm going to say please find a way to sell it. Because as far as I'm concerned, I'm not gaining anything, but losing everything, by people not knowing my music. And you make music not just to make money but because you want to share it with someone else."

On being gay
I grapple with it, but not from my family's point of view. My family never gave me flak for it. The church I was with also never had a problem with it - maybe it was quite liberal. But in Singapore, because of the nature of the church, I stopped going because they told me that I don't really fit in. As for Singapore itself, I think that it's not so much shocking, but sad, that we still have Section 377A of the Penal Code. How often have we been told that we cannot upset the rest of the people, yet Singapore is specifically supposed to be a secular state? If we do want to be a First World country then we have to aim towards the UN charter of human rights, which specifically states these things. We're also living in Asia where we are one of the few remaining countries that have a law that has been existing since Victorian times - so how modern are we? There's a difference between not being persecuted and not being discriminated against. If the law is still there then we are still being discriminated against. And this has an effect on things like inheritance, healthcare and property. I have friends who have been together 15 years, but they have to specifically make a will to make things happen. Why should I have to fight for something like that?


Reader's Comments

1. 2007-05-25 02:47  
how about meeting gwen stephani or katherin mcpee
2. 2007-05-25 02:49  
maybe meeting celine dion or selena jones ?
3. 2007-05-25 09:46  
Hi Mark!!!

Glad you are still going at your craft. it is important that you continue to refine your skills. Hope you and your other half are doing well. Good luck Buddy.

4. 2007-05-25 10:11  
5. 2007-05-25 10:52  
May i, may i ...

May i be the fertile land in places of dire famine ...
May i be the gushing new wells in times of drought ...
May i thereby be the food and drinks for the impoverished ...

May i be the fuel for the lamp in the darkest places ...
May i be the rainbow after the fiercest storms ...
May i thereby be the hope in the desolate ...

May i be the bud of mercy in the hearts of stone ...
May i be the peace that binds the warring, the discord ...
May i thereby be the love that binds all ...

May i be the oceans that holds all sea creatures ...
May i be the water that sustains all life ...
May i thereby be the great earth that houses the myriad of creatures ...

May i be the inspiration in the readers of this poem ...
May i be the seed of kindness in them ...
May i thereby be the compassion all their kindness can spring forth ...

6. 2007-05-26 00:33  
He's a cute hunka meat in person.

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