'Angel Island’ Stuns the Senses at the Launch of the Singapore International Festival of Arts | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Angel Island Singapore
‘Scene VII, The Last Chinaman from the Titanic’ tells the story of how only out of six Chinese men survived, but because of the Chinese Exclusion act, were expelled from the US. Photos credit Moonrise Studio.

While a night at the theater was unthinkable last year, Singapore now plays to a full house.



It is the opening night of “Angel Island.” The newly-built Singtel theater is buzzing with people of all ages and nationalities. In attendance are the nation’s Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Mr. Edwin Tong, as well as the Chairman of Arts House Limited, Mr. Wilson Tan. A cool breeze wafts from the river by the Esplanade, overlooking the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer.

The art scene in Singapore is thriving, and it’s clear the genre of performance is no exception. While visual art can be decorative or art for art’s sake, it’s rare for performance art not to carry social meanings. The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) shines a spotlight on performance art, suggesting the nation is opening up, and growing even more as an international arts hub.

In its second year of “The Anatomy of Performance,” the festival zeroes in on the sub-theme “Some People,” focusing on mid-career artists from Singapore and around the world. In a conversation with SIFA Director Natalie Hennedige, she explains how we all exist on a spectrum:


“When we gather for the communal experience of watching a performance, we open up our heart and mind to another’s perspective, expanding our worldview… to come back to what it means to be human.” 


While we all exist in the world, we each have our own trials, challenges, and tribulations. These tribulations are shown in “Angel Island”, the SIFA opening show, in the contemporary re-telling of Chinese immigrants in the US through a moving spectacle of movement, sight, and sound.

Angel Island Singapore
The stage filled with water combines dance and staggering visuals

A Lesser-Known History Told Through Performance Art

While most people know about immigrants from Europe who entered the US through Ellis Island, the hub on the West Coast that received migrants from Asia is perhaps lesser known. Majority hailed from rural parts of the Chinese continent, but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, both young and old men and women endured humiliating medical tests and grueling, often derogatory interrogation. Many were shipped back, or made to stay in the island’s crowded living quarters for years. Trapped in the prison-like immigration center, the migrants were filled with anger, sadness, frustration, and boredom, causing many detained Chinese to carve poetry on the walls. For “Angel Island,” these poems were turned into songs, composed by conductor Huang Ruo.

Angel Island Singapore
The Del Sol Quartet from San Francisco initially conceptualized the performance of “Angel Island”
Angel Island Singapore
Dancer Yanling crouches as the Taipei Chamber Singers encircle her

As the stage lights fade out at the Singel theater, a ceiling-high, mesh curtain slowly illuminates to show the figures of the Taipei Chamber Singers at attention behind. The curtain transforms into a screen, live-streaming the singers’ faces onto the stage curtain. A faceless voice role-calls each choir member as they assume the identity of a former immigrant, listing their names and occupations such as, “physician, cook, cook, cigar-maker.” On a raised platform plays the San Francisco-based chamber ensemble, the Del Sol Quartet, who called for the show’s initial conceptualization. Around the string players, the singers enter the stage filled with water. They slosh across the stage, dressed in black like mourning angels or a Greek choir. 

The choir moves through the stage-pool in variations of song, exhibiting their strength of vocal range with sudden jumps in octaves. Throughout, historical readings punctuate their intentionally discordant voices and the sound of violins with recordings of historical documents that berate Chinese migrants and warn against the “Heathen Chinese.” My seatmate David Cusworth, a journalist for 40 years and a specialist in music and theater, describes the musical quality as “top-notch” with “very tight coordination,” directed by the conductor with “professional accuracy” and “dynamic timing.”

Angel Island Singapore
Performers Jason Carter and Yanling deliver an impactful performance

While the soundscapes are telling of the history wrought with sexism and xenophobia, the movements of dance add to the complexity of the show. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described performance art, “It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” Performers Jason Carter and Ma Yanling embody these examples of well-thought movements that powerfully communicate the themes of “Angel Island.” There is a distinct physical difference between their appearance, clearly representative of a White immigration officer and an Asian immigrant. The dominant body language of Carter demonstrates his position of power as he stands high on table props, or shoves Yanling in a dramatic push. Yanling excellently communicates deep pain, as she flails in undignified positions and tattered costumes. Her youth and beauty offer just some consolation from the disturbing motions, which transmit a visceral experience of the Chinese migrant’s suffering. 

Angel Island Singapore

Behind the Taipei Chamber Singers, the Del Sol Quartet and Huang Ruo is an oversaturated visual of the Angel Island immigration and detention center

The Discursive ‘Angel Island’ Raises Questions —  Is the Era of Static Over?

Apart from water on stage and unconventional dance and music, the movements were complemented by digital visuals, led by Singaporean performance director and multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan. The inaugural performance piece of the Singapore art festival was a good distance removed from traditional theater. The reign of tech was apparent in the ceiling-high screen, which live-streamed the choir’s faces or presented historical text. There was a seascape of churning waves on a loop, as well as long shots of the depressing interiors of the detention center. At the beginning of the show, a charming, small boat chugged on a string from one side of the stage to the other, emitting plumes of smoke. 

With layers of multimedia, the show raises questions about art and the human experience. “Angel Island” successfully marks a meaningful, culturally collaborative performance as both audience and artist embark on the Singapore International Festival of Arts. If it’s any indication, the stunning first show at the new Singtel theater proves Singapore is emerging to be at the forefront of art, and that SIFA is propelling it forward.