It's said that the town of Taiping, Perak gets its name from two Chinese characters: "tai" (great) and "ping" (peace).
But in theatre director Tarrant Kwok’s latest production, Opium By Any Other Name, there’s anything but "great peace" to be had.
The show will be play at the Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya from July 27-30 and Aug 2-6.
Set against the backdrop of the conflict-riddled opium trade in 1890s Taiping, Kwok’s tale is inspired by the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy Romeo And Juliet, but turns it into a darker tale altogether.
Opium by Any Other Name zooms into the political unrest of colonial Malaya at the time and the heated power struggles between two secret Chinese societies, the Hokkien Ghee Hin and the Hakka Hai San.
In a recent interview, Kwok says that while Opium by Any Other Name is the second installment in his Opium series, following the 2022 production Opium At Closing Time, the plays are only linked thematically, in that they explore “the moments in between the recorded history, using personal tragedy to explore politics and mindsets of the time.”
“If Opium At Closing Time is a disjointed play about Malaya coming of age into Malaysia through the eyes of a Chinese woman, Opium By Any Other Name is a different look slightly further back in time, in a ‘what if?’ kind of way,” says Kwok.
Are such theatre shows focusing on almost forgotten eras of Malaysian history gaining an audience?
It is a niche that Kwok is willing to explore through his theatre works, combining history and the stage.
“I feel we don’t have enough work exploring our multicultural legacy. Exploring dialect, status and family allows us to create a unique and varied diasporan snapshot of our take on life back then," he says.
“The instigating event in the story, an opium supply crisis in 1893 in Kulim, was in a book about Malayan Chinese entrepreneurship, which I found while researching for Opium At Closing Time."
According to Kwok, the opium trade was certainly not the big money-maker for the businessmen of the era, but it had far different ramifications in the welfare of Chinese coolies.
“So I thought, why not create something with this little nugget of research, and why not make it a tragedy? Why not explore a hybrid English-Chinese play that uses everything from literature to physical theatre to explore a reconstruction of Malaya? And so we have this play.”
In the play, Rui Jien (played by Shi Hoong) grapples with the pressures of being his family’s heir and trying to prove himself. His family, the Wongs, are affiliated with the Hai San kongsi.
On the opposing side is the Koh family, linked with the Ghee Hin kongsi. Ju En (played by Celeste Low) must deal with her uncle’s machinations, as he is hell bent on revenge for the wars and murders between the two families. Caught in the middle is Officer Singh (played by Charles Roberts), who is charged with keeping the fragile peace intact.
Kwok says that some themes, such as generational hate and love across social boundaries, mirror those found in Romeo And Juliet.
“But for each layer in the Bard's story I take out, I add even more layers back in. There's a very strong feminist undercurrent that runs through the play as well. In that time period, women had to work differently to assert their agency, or not even be able to at all,” he points out.
At its core, says Kwok, the story centres on what it means to be in a family – how you treat your family, as well as how you view the world and your relationship with each other.
“What we did back then is no different than today, just with a different coat of paint. The kind of hate you see fomenting today has its parallels in the past. There is a lesson in every tragedy and we must be aware enough to learn them. Interrogate our Malaysian narrative – it's not so homogeneous or clear-cut as our history books want it to be.”
Opium By Any Other Name will be staged at Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC), Petaling Jaya from July 27-30 and Aug 2-6. It is presented by Amberjade Arts and supported by the Tiger Uncage Fund. More info: here.