By Zedeck Siew
I find Childhood Reminiscence a generally enjoyable pastime, being someone who was sniggering about sex not too long ago. Brickfields… Now & Then was surprising for the same reason: I saw 53-year-old Thor Kah Hoong hop about, flail his arms, stand on a chair, squat on the floor, put his head in an imaginary desk, and whisper conspiratorially to an imaginary friend: “Eh, David, what is fucking?”
My first impression of the man was of unapproachable nobility, sitting still and mandarin-like at the counter of the old Brickfields Skoob Books. I was 16, and plucked up enough courage to ask a question: H – how does one pronounce Borges?
“Bor – hes,” he answered, “Short second syllable. Yes,” and returned to his newspaper.
To justify my awe and apprehension I cite the following: Thor Kah Hoong is a legend (having directed Caught in the Middle in the 80s, the definitive precursor of local English-language stage comedy), and an obvious literary maven (an esoteric Wednesday column in The Star).
Thor’s movement notwithstanding – gangly, all limbs, but then again what would you expect from the thin preadolescent boy he’s playing – Brickfields is a predictably well-written, structurally sound series of monologues.
The chapter titled ‘Shiok Meh’, a sex odyssey accompanying a nude Marilyn Monroe calendar illustration, describes school recess (“chorus of cacophony” and more alliterations I can’t remember) and flipping through Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for the interesting parts (“nothing one, useless, and all he says is fugging – what is fugging?”). This schizophrenic voice works: a 53-year-old vocabulary looking back at his less eloquent but no less precocious childhood.
Another vignette, ‘Crime and Punishment’ reproaches the God-like teacher-voice of Faridah Merican for making him – and by extension all students – stand on chairs, and for tossing blackboard dusters. The only arcane penalty Thor misses here is standing on a chair on a desk, with the ceiling fan dangerously close – or maybe this was just me.
‘Brickfields, The Movie’ looks back at Lido Cinema and the influence of the movies on kids. This last description is from the flyer, but it is actually more ‘the influence’ then the cinema: it’s Thor being cowboy (bang bang!), vineswinger (oh-ee-oh-ee-oh!), swashbuckler slashing at lalang (swipe swipe!). And while Lido Cinema is sufficiently evoked – represented on stage by the chewing-gum-adorned chair and a slouching Thor – it is the lesser element here, like the rest of Brickfields.
It’s a waste. Aside from Jalan Rozario and remembering that Damansara and Bangsar used to be “somewhere out there, the ulus”, for the greater part of the telling, the township’s mechanics, history and evolution is ignored; you can be a pirate anywhere with lalang. Brickfields… Now & Then says as much of Brickfields as its flyer. This is also from the flyer:
“In fact, there was this one time,” Thor tells us, “where this Norwegian lady came to my show at Dewan K.R and to the one at the Lake Club as well, and she told me that while these stories I was telling were set in Malaysia, she had done the exact same things I did… in Norway. So I believe that childhood mischief strikes a common chord in us all.”
This is another thing: Brickfields was staged as Telling Tales in 1998. I wasn’t in the Klang Valley in 1998, but it would be hubris to assume this restaging was entirely for me and my kind – those who were too young to see the first time. The only connection to the nineties, anyway, is ‘Brickfields, The Movie, The Sequel’, which describes the cineplexes at KLCC and Megamall as “sitting at most a hundred people; cannot eat chewing gum, cannot spit, cannot smoke, cannot sit at the back and talk”, unlike the cavernous, faintly-urine-smelling Lido.
So cinema-going has changed, and Thor prefers the romantic, sweaty experience of gum under one’s seat and peanut shells around one’s feet. This tethers on a revelation: 21st century Malaysia (if not Brickfields) is Thor’s Now in his memory of Then; a clever moment during which all stage lights go out, prepared audience members curse in Chinese from the back of the theatre, and suddenly it’s Lido again.
The closing monologue, ‘Red Indian 1 White Man 0’, has Thor shooting a British kid between the eyes with a rubber arrow, then falling asleep two hours before midnight; Rahman’s triumphant Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!, mat sallehs meandering down the streets with whiskey bottles, the Union Jack disappearing from school.
It ends perplexed. Thor and friends were school kids, wondering a little at this turn of events, struggling to sing ‘Negaraku’ for the first time. He says: “None of us knew what independence meant.”
The true meaning of Independence, like any other public holiday, is largely lost on the school-going population of post-Merdeka generations. Thor, being six in 1957, has had decades to mull over a definition of this abstract, but decides not to tell the audience; we are left to assume the answer from his monologues. Let’s see: young boys are still catching spiders for fights; there seems to be no particular lack of Caucasian persons around the Klang Valley. So the present day is identical to 47 years ago, then, except for the way we watch movies? Malaysia is “Uncle already,” Thor says, but Thor doesn’t reveal his speculations on how the country has turned out that way.
Among other stereotypical attributes, an Uncle repeats himself superfluously; Thor is a particularly garrulous and literary Uncle. Has he written anything in the last six years? On Friday, the night I went, Thor confessed that Sunday’s Lost Luggage (the Japanese Prime Minister and Cypriot gigolos) and Stages (2 years in theatre and getting banned by the Singapore government), advertised as “Brand New Material”, was so new as to be largely unwritten. I didn’t go for Sunday.
That, perhaps, is unfair. Again from the flyer, answering the question – “‘Why DO people call it the ‘good old days’?” Thor says:
“Well I believe that entropy is the giver of life. Improvements always come at a price. There is a certain magical glow about your youth or childhood as it is a time where you have no adult responsibilities.”
A story is a story, but nostalgia for Nostalgia’s sake has doubtful worth, and stinks of the inability to move on. Maybe the country hasn’t moved on either. But it seems that Brickfields … Now & Then is more a wistful tribute to Thor’s childhood – Thor Kah Hoong… Then. Then and Now, as it were: watching him jump about, one realises these anecdotes are still relevant. To him at least. Thor Kah Hoong is a Peter Pan.
First Published: 06.09.2004 on Kakiseni