By Chris Fui
Dive bars, Alley Girls, brothels, and the soldiers that frequent them. China has had its dragon’s share of debauchery and lecherism, and there is no better city that exemplified such gritty exuberance then Shanghai in the 30’s. A growling city that made even Sodom and Gomorrah look like a heavy-petting zoo.
But amidst the unabashed hedonism, there stands a saviour. Prim and proper, demure and sublime, a finely manicured woman stands on stage dressed in a cheongsam stained of bright red poppies, all held together by a single spotlight, and a 10 piece band of tuxedo-clad men. It is for this fantastically dramatic period that I sit in Sutera Harbour Resort’s ballroom and wait, as Dama Orchestra presents their latest performance, A Whole New World (22 Jul 2005), in my hometown of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Once again, the chanteuse soprano, Tan Soo Suan, and her side-kick, baritone Liau Siau Suan, step to the front of the stage to belt out the classical and modern stylings laid out by Music Director Khor Seng Chew. The evening is programmed with a series of classical instrumental works of the period, highlighted by a range of Chinese and colonialist’s instruments, which is further layered with a mixed bag of Canto-pop and American musicals. The classical instrumental hardware consisted of samplings indicative of the era which included the Gao Hu / Er Hu (two-stringed bowed instrument) and the Di-Zi (flute), combined with the more European wooden music box of the double bass, and, of course, what Chinese orchestra is complete without the timeless electronic keyboard.
Tan plays the role of a Shanghai starlit to a tee, well-heeled with her refined movements, and her oh-so porceline skin, all packaged beautifully for a glitzy yet seductive cabaret. Even though the evening crawls to a start with the orchestral work of “Good Bye Sha Sha” with scarcely a heartbeat, it is Tan’s voice that jumpstarted the mood, set the tone, and vocally turned back the clock to the glamour years we are all waiting for. From her Canto-pop melodramatic songs early on in the evening – the sexy and playful “Ja Jambo” and “You Are Really Pretty” – she establishes herself as a well-worn diva, appropriately fashioned in a blood-red swing coat hiding a silver sequined knee-length cocktail dress.
It is after Tan’s series of traditional love songs that the orchestra steps in with an interlude. This allows the orchestra’s voice to stand pronounced, as is the case with the instrumental work of “Autumn Night”. Tan’s performance, however, is much too strong to stand side by side with that of the orchestra’s. But with the right mix, the theatrical aspects of this performance could actually take shape and create an ebb and flow that is sorely lacking in the evening.
The 2nd act sees a whispy, friskier Tan Soo Suan, spouting more energetic cabaret tunes such as “Rose Rose I love You”, well accompanied by the Zheng (Chinese Zither). Then suddenly, like the way lightning strikes an innocent bystander sucking on a lollypop, Shanghai is raped by Englishmen, once again. Without a segue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Any Dream Will Do” (Musical: Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) jumps in and Liau Siau Suan takes the evening in a wayward direction. Perhaps it’s just a programming mis-calculation. A one-off glitch. An innocent slip. I anxiously wait for an explanation for the abrupt transition from my tragic cabaret love affair. But alas, after Joseph comes Pocahontas‘s “Colours Of The Wind”, then Alladin‘s “A Whole New World”, followed by Beauty And The Beast. Luckily, we are spared “Wipe Out” from Finding Nemo. This jumble might have just worked. Perhaps acceptance is the key, and Disney is the Messiah. I could have gotten it all wrong.
Nonetheless, like all musical events, the evening must always end on the falsetto. Tan and Liau stalk eerily around the stage for their climatic performance of the evening with a pseudo dramatic rendition of The Phantom Of The Opera. Always a challenging finale, this particular performance is made equally challenging by the use of traditional Chinese instruments such as the Er Hu and the Pipa (lute) in prominent melody lines. It’s a challenge for both performers and audience alike.
All in all, the strength of Tan and the Dama Orchestra is their potent combination – it does not require the antics of popular culture programming and fancy Technicolor dream lights. A recital format would have been much better suited. The cabaret is an illusion of Alley Girls and gangster boys, but it is that chanteuse’s voice that pulls them all together. Just let that diva sing!
A side note of acknowledgement: the Music Director must be thanked for being kind enough to pander to Sabahan audiences with a popular Kadazan song, even though it is rather lost on the predominantly Chinese audience. Kota Kinabalu may be pleasantly multi-colored and multi-lingual due to its 32 tribes that proudly sow and seed the lands that feeds us, but it is also this kind of multi-culturalised sensibility that has kept some people insular and lazy to look outside their door. The Sabahan Chinese audiences ranging from young to old are seemingly rooted to their seats, perhaps historically put in their place a little too long. Would it have been so difficult to stand and flap their arms and soar like the eagle in traditional Kadazan style?
As a Malaysian state that accommodates such a large populace of Chinese folk with multi-general roots, the popularity of the Dama Orchestra rekindles a nostalgic period of glamour and sophistication, placing Asian artists in a prestigious light. It is this dream, and more importantly, this desire for the glitz and the glam that continually draws the orchestra and the likes of Tan Soo Suan to Kota Kinabalu. “Kotohuadan & tumodop ko no.” Thank you and good night to you. A healthy serving of vermouth and olives now awaits the lady with the microphone.
Chris Fui is a filmmaker recently returned from the other predominantly Chinese place, Canada.
First Published: 11.08.2005 on Kakiseni