IN the popular Chinese tale Journey to The West, Xuan Zang is the placid monk overshadowed by the larger-than-life character of the Monkey King. Many would describe the character as “boring and rather cowardly” — an anti-hero. That was precisely what singer and producer Yang Wei Han thought of the legendary Buddhist monk Tang San Zang (whose Buddhist name was Xuan Zang) who inspired the role of the popular monk character in all the movies and TV serials about the fable until he stumbled upon the truth.
“I watched an interview of Chinese author Sun Shuyun on television,” said the veteran recording artist and founder of theatre company Han Production. It was about her book, Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, which chronicled her journey in re-tracing the steps of master Xuan Zang.
In it, she reveals that he was in fact a far cry from the good-looking and “tasty” version immortalised in the Ming Dynasty mythological novel that was written hundreds of years later.
It was a revelation for Yang, as he recounted, “I was shocked!” It led to an obsession in discovering who this man — who was born near the end of the Sui Dynasty around 602 AD and lived through to the Tang Dynasty — truly was.
Five years on, we were seated just outside the rehearsal studio of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) in Sentul, as Han Production was gearing up for the final week before Xuan Zang: Journey to the West — The Musical opened in Istana Budaya.
Having just completed the warm-ups, Yang had a long day ahead of him as the lead actor, director and music director of the production. On top of that, Yang also takes on a head-spinning number of other responsibilities: producer, composer and arranger, set designer and even video projection mapping.
“He was determined, had an adventurous spirit and was fun-loving,” said Yang of the misunderstood monk. All these qualities he hopes to bring out in his performance as the historical figure.
They were qualities that seemed to have rubbed off in real life, as Yang’s ambitious third musical project under Han Production has seen an investment of RM 1.5 million and a daring leap towards the country’s national theatre stage.
“I made up my mind that if one day there was a chance to present a show of this scale at Istana Budaya,” explained Yang resolutely, “I would do the story of Xuan Zang.”
Whilst the company’s first two projects — Yao Lee The Legendary Rose Musical and Tribute To Yao Min: Chronicle of Splendour II — were tribute shows of famous folk singers, their latest project breathes life to the often treacherous 16-year journey that the Buddhist scholar undertook in his quest to study the original texts of Buddhism.
The over two-hour long musical, with a cast of 23 playing multiple roles, will depict the start of that journey, key incidents and people Xuan Zang met on his travels, all the way to his return to China in 645 AD, when he was then allowed by the Tang emperor to translate the 600-over Buddhist scriptures he brought back with him.
Based on two “reports” by Xuan Zang of his journey, one of which is the official Great Tang Records on the Western Regions written for the emperor, Yang said he drew some of the most important parts and also interesting bits for his script.
‘Musical-ised’ through 28 original songs and a full score composed by Yang and jazz musician Tay Cher Siang, the musical will be sung in Mandarin and English (with subtitles), the latter representing the major language changes that the revered monk had to undertake as he arrived in India. Here, the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali will be represented by English.
The story is narrated through a Scottish military engineer named Alexander Cunningham, who upon his retirement from the British Army decided to take up an archaeological expedition to retrace and rediscover the former glory of the then all but lost Buddhist identity in India.
Played by singer and theatre actor Liau Siau-Suan — who is formerly a research scientist — the historical character had used Xuan Zang’s report as a geographical guide in an Archaeological Survey of India.
“It led him to the ruins of Nalanda University, a Buddhism school that had been burnt down and buried,” said Liau. Crediting the monks’ habit of walking meditations that focus on the steps they take, Liau added that the accuracy and detail of the master’s records were astonishing, “Apparently it led the expedition to within hundreds of metres of an actual place they were looking for.”
From a floating lotus to a boat flowing along a river with dancing “water grass” and some other illusionary effects, Yang is confident that the show will be visually impressive. Merlin Award-winner magician Leow Fee Loong was roped in to design certain magical effects, in-line with some of the more dream-like visions experienced by the master.
To depict the many different countries that Xuan Zang passes through on his journey towards the West, choreographer Leng Poh Gee was tasked with bringing out the experience of the adventure and journey through dance and movement.
However, Yang gave him the freedom to be creative with the movements, incorporating a contemporary style with some classical influences. “Many of the countries cannot be traced now, so the movement quality is fun to play with,” said Leng, who is a lecturer and head of dance at the Cultural Centre, Universiti Malaya.
The added challenge, pointed out Leng, was creating the entire scene beyond just the dance on a stage as big as Istana Budaya’s. The set was like a blank canvas to be filled by whatever she could imagine.
The battle scene between Xuan Zang’s white horse and a war general’s bold steed, played respectively by Leng and stage actor Peter Ong, is an intriguing presentation to say the least.
“The horse’s role is important,” said Yang with a grin, justifying the decision for it to be embodied in human form. Both choreographer and director agree that it is a fun aspect to explore.
As Yang headed back to the rehearsal studio, he practised what he said earlier: “The most important thing is to learn how to put down each ‘hat’”. Thankful that most of his responsibilities are done with at this stage, Yang reiterated that it is important to be open to different ideas from his actors and singers, even if they interpret his songs or script differently.
It is the same calm and relaxed approach he displayed in portraying Xuan Zang. Displaying a seemingly innate sense of understanding of his character, Yang said that he would not get too caught up in the exact expressions or mannerisms. Instead, the actor would rather bring out a more intuitive performance.
Flashing an assured smile, Yang explained softly, “I have carried him with me inside for five years.”
Xuan Zang: Journey to the West — The Musical will be staged at Panggung Sari, Istana Budaya until Nov 9. Tickets are priced RM88, RM138, RM168, RM238 and RM308 with a 20% discount for students, senior citizens and the disabled. Tickets can be purchased at the Ticket Charge box office outlet, or call (03) 9222 8811. Visit www.ticketcharge.com.my for more information.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 31, 2014.