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November 30, 2012

Event: “Roots” by The Finger Players
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Run: 29th Nov – 2nd Dec 2012


The story goes that the small village is by the sea, and that everyone who lives in it bears the surname “Chong”, and that there is an ancestral hall there.

These are all the clues to go by, really.

And hence begins the arduous quest to trace his ancestral roots in a hitherto unknown part of the Guangdong region of China, armed with nothing more than these three measly clues and an inconvenient lack of the ability to speak the indigenous Siyi dialect.

Such was the uphill task facing The Finger Players’ other Chong – not Tze Chien but Oliver – in a tale which, though fraught with numerous obstacles, made for such a compelling and engaging journey throughout.

The impetus for “Roots” came after Oliver, who is also a Resident Director at The Finger Players, returned from attending a directors’ workshop at La MaMa in 2010, and the 75-minute play is conceived, written, directed and performed entirely by him.

Talk about a one-man show.

The set resembles a giant sandbox, although upon closer inspection one realises that it is in fact rice grains and not sand which fills the entire box.

And this is the canvas on which Oliver deftly paints his story, scene by scene, with nothing more than a pair of rakes and an incredible knack for storytelling.

His 89-year-old grandmother starts out by giving him some rather vague but vital clues regarding his great-grandfather Chong Kun Hup and how he had supposedly uprooted from his hometown many decades ago with his children to come to Singapore, and from there Oliver embarks on a journey of discovery – from searching for the niches at Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Columbarium in Bishan, to doing his research on his ancestral village on online forums, to booking a flight to Guangzhou, to finding his way to Taishan, to lucking into one serendipitous meeting after another with kind strangers along the way who would aid him in his quest to get to the elusive village.

Oliver recounts his adventure with a keen sense of earnest that is immediately endearing, and one cannot help but root for him right from the start.

The desire to know more about one’s ancestral roots could perhaps be a universal one, and coupled with Oliver’s candour and chameleon-like ability to juggle between multiple roles and languages with ease, it’s hard for the viewer not to want to hop along for the ride as well.

The tale is, however, not without its share of curveballs, and though finding his way to the village was fortuitous enough, Oliver realises that piecing together the full backstory of his family tree proves to be far more difficult than he had imagined, thanks to the strangely conflicting accounts between those of his distant relatives from the village and his own grandmother’s.

Ultimately, the quest yields no easy answers, and although Oliver manages to postulate a highly plausible theory as to the actual sequence of events concerning his family history, it is by no means conclusive nor satisfactory.

But as with many things in life, it is not the destination but the journey that truly matters, and the lessons learnt through his journey are perhaps more valuable than anything else.

It doesn’t really matter in the end how many sons Chong Kun Hup had, or if he had a daughter, or who the daughter was raised by, or how the village chief is related to him.

Some stories are left in the past and perhaps will and should remain there forever.

What matters is the meaningful insights he has gained through his expedition, and how he now views his ancestors and ancestral worship in a fresh light.

“Roots” is a fascinating piece of theatre which is held together by an exceptionally strong and well-crafted script, and deftly executed by an undoubtedly gifted actor in Oliver Chong.

It is one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theatre all year, and I would highly encourage everyone to go watch it before it ends its run.

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