Dream Merchants

Inter-ethnic understanding is a high priority for many groups, and National Service doesn’t really seem to be working. The Jumping Jellybeans, however, have begun a project with much younger children, which contains the potential to help cultural sharing between children of different language groups in Kuala Kubu Bharu. And National Service doesn’t have yellow hoods, little-flame-children or rhythm.

Kuala Kubu Bharu, or KKB, is a small-ish town nestled in the foothills of the Titiwangsa range. Administrative centre for the Ulu Selangor district, it was one of the last places in the Peninsula declared free of Communists. In the late ’90s, the town was embroiled in an environmental controversy over the now-completed Selangor dam which involved the forced relocation of two Orang Asli villages, Kampungs Pertak and Gerachi. And, on a more personal note, it was my haven from KL’s claustrophobia, at least until the dam was completed.

The town’s history is inevitably present not just in the architecture and the broad teak-lined streets, but in the people, affected by the Chinese new town, the army barracks and the administrative buildings overlooking the small town centre. Modern developments include the shopping mall and the National Service centre on the town’s outskirts.

Jumping Jellybeans wanted to work with children from various backgrounds, and engage in a trade with them. For 10 weeks, the Jellybeans, led by Shanthini Venugopal and Cinzia Ciaramicoli, would exchange stories with the children for their stories. They’d teach and learn. A fundamentally egalitarian process which reminds participants and audience that the well-educated KL elite don’t have a monopoly on skill, dreams or stories. So in the day’s exchange, Malay, Indian, Chinese and Brazilian (!) dancers exchanged, with Orang Asli and Chinese music and song, a dramatisation of “Little Red Riding Hood” and Nasi goreng yang belum siap, a fire safety skit. It was, after all, held in the Akademi Bomba.

Shanthini is a formidable woman. Determined to make The Barter of Dreams a bilingual event, she spent precious minutes before the event began trying to find a suitable Malay translation for ‘barter’. Mentega (butter) was dismissed, dagang (trade) was discussed and rejected. Eventually the word was uncovered. ‘Barta’.

The performances themselves were variable, but seemed in part to reflect the cultural confidence of the communities involved. The Orang Asli children did not showcase Orang Asli culture, this was left to the adults. The Chinese and Indian performances were the most resoundingly self-confident (next to the professional performers), while the Malay dance fell in-between.

The morning began with a video that reviewed the project, showing its beginnings and how the various groups were engaged. The first performance was by four girls from the Akademi Bomba, performing a Malay dance, followed by a performance of an Indian village dance by boys from the Divine Life Society. It wasn’t as polished as the Akademi Bomba performance, but it made up for this by exuberance (which seemed inversely proportional to the size of the dancer). This in turn was followed by a performance by children from the Khing Ming Chinese primary school, overseen by a slightly harried teacher.

Next came the performance of the Maculele by both the Divine Life Society and the Orang Asli children, with dancers from Bantus Capoeira. The Maculele isn’t the innocuous dance it first seems. It originated as a disguise for martial arts lessons for slaves on Brazilian plantations. The moves are martial arts moves, slowed down and set loosely to a drum rhythm. The ‘dancers’ parry each other’s moves within a capoeira circle.

Mei Thing performed a solo karaoke performance, followed by the Orang Asli women from Kampung Pertak, performing traditional songs followed by some joget. They had to be forcibly chased from the stage, having a tendency to want to play, and play, and play.

Possibly one of the best outcomes of this programme so far was embodied in the Hui Ciu Association’s lion dance troupe, which had stopped practicing six months previously. The coach had left the troupe, and, disheartened, they had stopped practicing. The Barter gave them the focus they needed to come back together. The coach came back down for a couple of days, and the kids were so enthusiastic that they continued performing outside the hall after the show was over. They were still going when I left.

The show ended with two skits, one by children from the Akademi Bomba, part PR for the fire-fighters, part public education on fire safety. Personally, my vote goes to the little flames, the smaller children dressed with red and yellow ribbons, who were gradually doused by the firefighters. Vote for performers who seemed to have the most fun, at any rate. And perhaps most innovative use of costume.

The final act was the Jellybeans’ rendition of “Little Red Riding Hood”. All the children (and some adults) gathered near the front of the stage for this interactive version of the classic fairy tale.

The Barter was a first step by the Jellybeans, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, to helping to inculcate a practical love of the arts, and to encourage creative dialogue between otherwise separate groups. The presentations tended to be mono-ethnic. One of the obvious challenges for the next round is encouraging more sharing and interaction between the groups.            ·


Sonia Randhawa is the director of Centre for Independent Journalism

First Published: 11.08.2006 on Kakiseni

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