Chaos and Cacophony at Chow Kit

The Chow Kit Fest, originally scheduled for December, then March, then April, finally hauled itself off on Labour Day, with half its purported participants, but twice the vigour from the remnants. The five-day event featured every artistic genre but synchronised swimming. The main shows were staged at the Chinese Dramatic Arts Society (CDAS), strangely located within the Malay-nucleus of Kampung Baru, while the street performances were held in an alley off Chow Kit Road itself. One had to traipse gingerly amidst the bright bazaars, unlit alleys and bullying roads to get from one site to the other.

The best attended event was the underground bands showcase over the weekend afternoons. Organised by Joe Kidd of Carburetor Dung, the featured bands have names like Mass Separation, Killed by Accident and Global Deficiency. Their grindcore / punkcore / punkmetal / trashmetal music blended into one another after a while, but the well-behaved crowd seemed to appreciate the subtle differences. At about 5pm on Sunday, however, someone ran into the building screaming, “Polis! Polis!” Three police trucks had indeed begun to circle the area. The hallway, which was packed with former victims of official harassment during the black metal raids, was cleared in seconds. They didn’t know of course that the cops were here on a regular roundup of illegal immigrants. Joe Kidd, who is himself too familiar with official harassments, grabbed the mike and appealed: “Hey, revolutionaries, come back, come back!” Most did. And when they finally convinced the band who had been playing to go on again, they realised the lead guitarist had fled home for good.

While the rock gigs gave the much-misunderstood audience a warm fuzzy feeling, the presentation called Sakuragi Is A Genius, a brainchild of poet Aziz, did just the opposite and scared everyone away. The musicians miked a vacuum cleaner, sampled sounds from their computers, and banged, sawed and grinded a steel drum. Besides cathartic cacophony, they also produced a life-threatening amount of fire-works and fumes. While it received morbid fascination for a while, the spectacle eventually cleared the premise as effectively as the false police raid alarm.

The small performance space of the CDAS was obviously not designed for art exhibitions. But that didn’t stop the organisers from haphazardly arranging artworks of varying standards around the walls. Tan Sei Hon’s panels, consisting of 84 sheets filled intensely detailed patterns (like a Persian carpet on LSD), stood out on sheer magnitude. The most poignant and unlikely exhibit came in the form of an artist sewing portraits of faces he had cut out from obituary pages as he sat in the same corner every day. Calling his work a performance art (the process of creating itself becomes a performance), Malaysian Institute of Art graduate Yoong Chia explained to everyone who came near enough, “This is my tribute to people I have never met before and will never meet again.”

The short film and documentary screenings drew a small audience and was lucky to maintain their interest all the way. On Thursday night, a chap who walked in out of curiosity came in time for Kakoos by Shunmugam. Wincing continuously throughout the candid depiction of a day in the life of a public toilet, the poor chap ran out halfway grabbing his knapsack and his mouth. On Sunday afternoon, however, Amir Muhammad arrived toward the end of his movie Lips to Lips and was pleased to find 15 suckers staring at the end credits.

Singaporean artist Juliana Yasin made better use of her suckers. Having dragged us out to the other site at Chow Kit Road, she then got us to make slipper prints in the middle of the lane, as well as cross Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman as a large unit bundled up with threads. Most of this audience, who gleefully endangered their life for art, consisted of college students and other friends of the organisers and performers.

Within this alley off Chow Kit Road, an art installation piece had been set in the backyard of an electronic store. It was put up by members of the architect collective Space Spirit Studio. Their work featured a concatenation of square frames with plastic sheets, each depicting a deconstructed tourist map of Chow Kit. There were also TV screens showing a documentary they made very recently about drug addicts in the area. On the last day, the artists, with funereal deliberations, took down the frames and the sheets of photostated papers stuck to the walls, as well as removed the videotape from the VCR. Then they lit the pile as a bonfire and recited a poem: “Do we still just hang paintings to understand its silent pain and bitterness?… Do we still just sing a tune to say ‘I know how your hurt feels’?… Do we still just choose to perpetuate these cycles of indulgence for ourselves to exist?” (sic). Oh dear, I thought, do we still just make points about the pointlessness of art by making our art seemingly pointless?

I suppose the intended audience was precisely those of us familiar enough to be jaded by such artsy stuff. Which meant it probably left the real inhabitants of Chow Kit cold. Didn’t the members of the artist collective Spacekraft, the main organisers, say they wanted to make arts “easily accessible and enjoyable by the general public”? After talking to some passersby who are not friends of the performers, I found that most of them hardly understood English. A Chinese businessman, while witnessing the above act, said in Cantonese, “Lots of them in this area. Outside on the main road, there is this guy trying to convince people he can turn newspaper into money. They are all just cons.”

Not all was lost. By an accident of fate, our artists tapped into that dark surreal quality of Chow Kit one humid night. We were watching the drug documentary at the electronic store backyard and feeling great waves of compassion for those individuals telling their stories onscreen. Just outside the gates, a lady with a large mole on her nose had stopped to watch as well. A young woman in red sari was being interviewed in the documentary. At which point the lady with the mole informed us matter-of-factly, “Oh that one, she just died two weeks ago. In one of the lanes at the back. She was trying to poke here,” and she pointed at the left side of her neck. There wasn’t much you could say to that. And it was out of this awkward silence that I wished our artists had crafted their works.

Though they were understandably self-indulgent and insular this round, the idea and the intention behind the festival had been remarkable. And the two guys, Tan Sei Hon and Gan Siong King, on whom the responsibility ultimately fell when people started shirking their roles should be applauded for seeing the festival to the bitter end. The greatest success of the Chow Kit Fest had, in fact, been in drawing people who otherwise will not come to this god-forsaken terrain to witness the startling humanity of the place for themselves. So I hope they do it again next year. A little more organisation, a little more publicity and perhaps a little more attempt at speaking the vernacular will take it a long way. Maybe they ought to take the implicit suggestion of the Chinese businessman and put up their shows next to Chow Kit’s roadside peddlers. You want to bring art to Chow Kit? You have to match the skills of her veteran artists first.

Chow Kit Fest website:


Photos by Pang


First published: 14.05.2002 on Kakiseni

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