Kuo, Pao Kun 1939-

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KUO, Pao Kun 1939-


Born June 27, 1939, in Hebei Province, China; immigrated to Singapore, 1949; married Goh Lay Kuan (a dancer and choreographer). Education: Graduated from National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney, Australia, 1964; advanced coursework, 1971.


Office—31 International Business Park, No. 01-05 Creative Resource, Singapore 609921.


Playwright and artistic director. Worked at radio stations in Singapore and Australia; Practice Performing Arts School, Singapore, cofounder and artistic director, 1965—, codirector of theatre training and research program, 2001—; The Theatre Practice, Singapore, founding artistic director, 1986—; The Substation (arts center), founding artistic director, 1990-95. National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, lecturer in drama and performance, beginning 1994.


Singapore National Cultural Medallion, 1989; Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry culture award, 1992, ASEAN performing arts award, 1993; Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, French government, 1997; Asian Leadership fellow, 1997.



(Adapter) Bertolt Brecht, Caucasian Chalk Circle, produced, 1967.

(Adapter) Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, produced, 1968.

Hey, Wake Up! produced, 1968.

The Struggle, produced, 1969.

The Spark of Youth, produced, 1970.

Growth, produced, 1974.

(Adapter) Kala Dewata, Atop Roof, Tile Roof, produced 1981.

The Little White Sailing Boat, produced 1982.

(Adapter) Athol Fugard, The Island, produced, 1985.

(Adapter) Arfin C. Noer, Kapai Kapai, produced, 1986.

The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole (produced in Hong Kong, 1986), published in The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Book International (Singapore, China), 1990.

No Parking on Odd Days (produced in Hong Kong, 1986), published in The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Books International (Singapore, China), 1990.

Kopitiam, produced, 1986.

(Adapter) Max Frisch, The Fire Teasers, produced, 1987.

The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree (produced in Hong Kong, 1987), published in The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Books International (Singapore, China), 1990.

Day I Met the Prince (produced, 1988), published in The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Books International (Singapore, China), 1990.

Mama Looking for Her Cat (produced, 1988), published in The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Books International (Singapore, China), 1990.

The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, and Other Plays, Times Books International (Singapore, China), 1990.

The Eagle and the Cat, produced, 1990.

Lao Jiu, produced, 1990.

OZeroO1, produced, 1991.

The Evening Climb, produced, 1992.

Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, produced, 1997.

(And director) Grandpa's Meat-Bone Tea (television play), produced by Television Corporation of Singapore, 1997.

The Spirits Play, produced, 1998.

Images at the Margins (collection of plays written in Chinese), Times Books International (Singapore), 2000.

Contributor to journals, including TDR.

Author's plays have been translated into Tamil, German, Malay, Arabic, and Japanese.


Kuo Pau Kun is a Singaporean playwright whose body of work "reflects the profound political, economic, and social shifts that have taken place in [his country] …during the postindependence era," according to essayist William Peterson in Contemporary Dramatists. His role in the Singapore arts community has been a pivotal one; in founding The Substation in 1990 he created one of the region's leading arts organizations, and his work as an educator and artistic director has influenced several generations of Singaporean actors. In October of 2000 Kuo saw three of his major plays performed in trilingual editions at Tokyo's Asian Arts Festival. The Chinese-born playwright and director was praised by AsiaWeek.com contributors Jim Erickson and Santha Oorjitham as "the kind of man who likes to bridge divides—between generations, cultures and attitudes."

Kuo began his career by founding, together with his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, the Practice Performance Arts School in 1965, and saw his first play, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle produced two years later. His first original work, the overtly political Hey, Wake Up!, made it to the Singapore stage two years later, According to Peterson, Kuo's early work was altered due to the playwright's incarceration during the government's crackdown on subversive leftist activists. Arrested and imprisoned without trial in 1976 under Singapore's Internal Security Act, he was released in 1980. After this point he viewed his responsibilities as playwright differently: as Kuo noted in an essay published in TDR, "Forced by circumstances and the innate need to take stock of two decades of artistic pursuit, I turned the imprisonment years into a fertile period of reflection." Rather than as a forum for political criticism, Kuo advocated for creative diversity. He also began drawing on native rather than Western influences, and while writing in English or Mandarin began to include local dialects, Malay, and Tamil in his texts. As Peterson explained: "the political and social criticism imbedded in Kuo's work since the early 1980s [became] …metaphoric, indirect and laced with humor and Singaporean colloquialisms." Kuo's most notable play, The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole, first produced in 1985, comes out of this period, while 1988's Mama Looking for Her Cat was cited by Peterson as "one of Singapore's most aggressively multilingual plays" with its interweaving of Malay, Mandarin and English.

During the 1990s, according to Peterson, Kuo "directly or indirectly dealt with aspects of Singaporean identity …lost as the country join[ed] …the race to make it to the top of the economic heap in an age dominated by Western culture and mediated by the values of global capitalism." Working under government censorship, the playwright couched his social and political commentary within multicultural plots. Kuo's 1995 play, Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, which touches upon the interplay between sex and power, reads on one level as a historical drama set within the fifteenth century; yet, according to Peterson, the play "provides piquant social criticism …in a manner that is artfully indirect." Into 2000 the playwright responded to continued shifts in Singapore's social demography. As he noted in TDR, "I have been trying to make plays comprised of characters of different ethnicities, each using their own language/dialect." Influences from India and Indonesia, as well as the aesthetic of the increasingly affluent, Chinese-educated populace that makes up much of his audience, has also prompted a change in directoral style to what Kuo calls "more creative theatre." As he explained: "Rooting its expressive power almost entirely in the performers acting in an empty space, gestures alone create the entire universe.… this influence from Chinese traditional theatre [taking] …me further and further away from …stage realism." Continuing his role as innovator, Kuo also became increasingly active in the medium of television, telling AsiaWeek.com contributors Erickson and Oorjitham "My chief interest is in the expansion of television drama. I want to open it to theater and film, to a healthy flow of people, ideas and ways of work."

Discussing the role of art in a society increasingly focused on material things, Kuo explained to Business Times—Asia interviewer Jaime Ee: "Art is work like any other profession. Like any other profession, it involves discipline, training and frustrations. Art is the most personal of occupations. It requires the individual to be responsible for conceptualising, planning and executing a piece of art. He controls the concept and process, and is solely responsible for its result. What better way to nurture confidence, independence, imagination, intellectual and creative power."



Contemporary Dramatists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 375-377.


Australasian Drama Studies, October, 1993, Jacqueline Lo, "Theatre in Singapore" (interview), pp. 135-146.

Business Times—Asia, February 27, 1993, Jaime Ee, "The State of the Arts" (interview).

New Straits Times, May 19, 2000, Janadas Devan, interview with Kuo; March 5, 2001, "Delightful Dig at Big Brother."

TDR, summer, 1994, Kuo Pao Kun, "Time/Space with a Simple Gesture," p. 59.


AsiaWeek.com,http://www.asiaweek.com/ (2001), Jim Erickson and Santha Oorjitham, "Call It a Soap Substitute."

Chinese High School,http://www.chs.sg/ (June 26, 2002), "Kuo Pao Kun: The Man and His Works."*