Lighting the Parade

Mac Chan, the Malaysian-Singaporean lighting designer of the National Day Parade.

9 Aug 2011
Lighting the Parade

High above the bleachers, in a tiny room filled with racks of servers, snaking wires, and blinking light boards, Mac Chan observes the parade. Together with his team, Chan oversees the illumination of tonight’s National Day Parade (NDP). Turn back and you might see him – shrouded in the darkness of the lighting room, where with the double track, sound echoes, but light is always precise.

This is Chan’s third year running as NDP's lighting designer. The unassuming 41-year-old is renowned in Singapore and Malaysia’s theatre worlds for his bold lighting design, which more than merely supporting the story, actively interprets it, and in so doing, carves out a place on stage.

From 2002-2006, he clinched four Best Lighting Design awards at the BOH Cameroonian Arts Awards, organised by Malaysian arts portal Kakiseni. The only year Chan didn’t win was 2005, when he was nominated against himself for five different productions. He decided to pass on the award to another lighting designer. 

Chan is not the only one at NDP with an illustrious artistic record. This year’s iteration, themed “Majulah! The Singapore Spirit”, gathers together distinctive creative minds from both sides of the border.

As creative director, Beatrice Chia-Richmond helms the show. Brian Gothong Tan designed the multimedia, Frederick Lee the costumes, and Haresh Sharma wrote the script – including, of course, the nixed fun pack song. Performers include actors Sharon Au, Timothy Nga, Adrian Pang’s son Zachary, and also a giant dugong.

Whatever you feel about NDP, it is as a piece of political theatre second to none. With its noble tradition of engaging arts practitioners – and paying them significantly – NDP delivers to the masses a production that is both entertaining and not without artistic merit. It is always, eventually, unavoidably moving.

Lighting plays a large part in this. When NDP was at the National Stadium, audiences, without being cued, cheered in the last moments of dusk, when stadium lights were dimmed, and stage lights took over – they could already smell fireworks in the air.

This year’s parade at the Marina Bay float capitalises on the new cityscape. With Gardens by the Bay soon to be completed, and Marina Bay Sands already there, the hulking nature of our transformed skyline is highlighted by Chan’s lighting design. The stage is fully used as a canvas, with lights and video projected on a wide screen, a 7-storey tall cube, and even the floor.

Beyond the stage, green lasers at the finale trace the outline of the Central Business District (CBD) as fireworks burst. Upon the smoke bank wafting past, a hologram of the city is then projected.

It is a radiant triumph: of money, yes, but also of creativity, technology, and with the two cities created – one of smoke, the other of steel – a grand flashback, on National Day, of our not inconsiderable achievements.

At one technical rehearsal, here are the small stories of Singapore, and Mac Chan that emerged.

1800h: Prologue.

When they first approached me to design NDP in 2009, I thought, “How can a Malaysian do that?” From the organiser’s point of view, it’s a political presentation, but from the creative director’s point of view, it’s his or her idea of what patriotism is – what they love of Singapore. So it becomes an artistic statement instead of propaganda, and when it comes to artistic ideals, there’s no boundary of nationality.

1834h: Parade and Ceremony.             

In 1998, I was the lighting designer for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, and it was quite a disastrous experience for me. I don’t think I delivered a good show. It was my first major event, and as a theatre designer, it was a totally different way of working.

So I was a bit afraid that with NDP I was going back to the same situation. I even suggested other lighting designers. But eventually I agreed: I had faith in myself because others believed in me. With a lot of help from the team, NDP 2009 was very successful show, and I started to regain confidence in doing big shows like this.

1923h: Act One – The Beginning.

I first came to Singapore when I was eleven – we came to eat McDonald’s. Changi Airport had just opened, and that day I ate my first French fry.

In high school, I used to come to Singapore alone after school to buy blank cassette tapes. I would bring them back to Malaysia, and sell them to my classmates – I ran a little business. It was the fashion then to record mixtapes, and I provided services to record them too. I remember one girl asked me for a mixtape with only Paul McCartney’s 'No More Lonely Nights', repeated over and over.

1935h: Act Three – The Kampong.

When I was ten, we moved to Kampong Baru [in Masai, Johor]. It was a lot of fun, growing up catching fish and smashing bicycles in longkangs.

I’m Chinese-educated, and until I was 26, I didn’t speak English at all. I couldn’t even say ‘registration’ properly, and I didn’t even understand ‘Malcolm’ was a person, not a thing. It was not until I was on the job at Astro [the Malaysian TV channel] that I had to learn to communicate with the BBC trainer they engaged.

Not much has changed in Kampong Baru, except that out of my three brothers and one sister, only my sister and parents are still living in Masai.

1946h: Act Four – The Progress.

Getting awards is a good and bad thing. A lot of recognition came to me, but the bad and actually sad thing is that theatre’s such a small industry that there’s no competition. It says that they’re not enough people doing it. Singapore’s almost facing the same situation: we always use the term ‘surviving’, but it should really be flourishing, booming, which is not the case.

But I do admire Singapore’s arts development infrastructure. Because of that I feel more effective and efficient when I work here. The design effort can get through. In Malaysia, you always need to compromise.

If I stay in Singapore for five or six more years, I’ll start losing touch with what’s happening in Malaysia – what makes me happy and angry – the ingredients of my design and creativity.

1959h: Act Five – The Future.            

The laser show is part of the skyline package. We developed it from the start, in September 2010. We went through many different ideas on how to present the CBD: place one thousand floodlights to flood the buildings; use big Christmas lights to outline the building; project images onto the building. But it all crunched down to technicality, how do you make it happen? 70% of effort goes into technical management, 30% is creativity.

2008h: Pledge & Anthem            

At NDP 2009, I was literally crying. I come from a country, not financially broken, but … I believe Malaysia’s a wonderful country, one of the most beautiful countries, but the politics are just so messed up.

It’s a complex emotion, lighting the NDP. When the flag comes out, to see people stand up and sing out loud their national anthem, you really see in their faces how proud they are of their country.

I’m so proud of Singapore, so proud that Singapore’s done so well. Singaporeans have really found the answer of a nation. They call themselves Singaporeans.

When you’re here as a Malaysian, you see a flashback: I’ve done this for Singapore, I admire the emotion that Singaporeans have, that people are really singing from the heart for the country, and then you suddenly think of yourself. You see projections of what we could have been, all the expectations that didn’t come true. This is what I miss as a Malaysian.

We’ve been wanting for this to happen for so long in our country, and we don’t know when it would happen. The Malaysian struggle is heartache.

This year, I’m more emotionally prepared.

Words Dan Koh

Images Philipp Aldrup

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