What Is My Culture

Cultural identity formation and national belonging in the contemporary age is complex.

Most Chinese who are born overseas no longer look to China as their homeland, and the ethnically Chinese who now live in Malaysia are no different. Malaysian Chinese who have visited southern China — wherefrom their forefathers originated — have reaffirmed that they are indeed different from the people there. Many have problems communicating; the Hokkien, Cantonese or Hakka dialects spoken in China differ greatly in enunciation. They might even complain that the food there is too bland, and lacks the spices found in Malaysian cuisine.

Nevertheless, the expression and maintenance of Chinese culture and identity among those in diaspora remain important. Certain traditions are selected for revival, transmitted and become emblems of identity. Contrary to popular notions of identity as something essentialist, the Chinese identity — like all cultures in dissemination — is not fixed, and is constantly being transformed and localised.

The visions of the Malaysian Chinese identity also varies internally: the Malaysian Chinese community is not homogeneous, and is differentiated in terms of educational background, religion and the degree of acculturation.

The musical arts is one space where Chinese of all backgrounds articulate and rework their identities. Music has always been an important medium for the younger generation to forge new cultural expressions — and, while the majority of ethnically Chinese musicians in Malaysia continue to be inspired by sounds from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, some are aware of the need for local relevance, so as to reach out to bigger, multiethnic audiences.


You Can Laugh At Me But I Don’t Care

Ah Gu or Ah Niu (‘bull’, in Hokkien and Mandarin, respectively) is the nickname for pop singer-composer Tan Kheng Seong, after his hit song ‘Ah Niu and Ah Hua’. Born in Kampung Benggali, Province Wellesley, 31-year-old Ah Gu is known for his country-folk songs — sung in Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese — which nostalgically takes listeners back to nature and the village community. His music has achieved widespread popularity, and in 2001 Ah Gu starred in Aaron Kwok’s dance flick Para Para Sakura.

Hit song ‘Speak My Language’, from the album Chang Ge Gei Ni Ting (Sing a Song for You, 1998), exemplifies the ongoing dialogue among Chinese musicians in Malaysia regarding their identity and culture. Ah Gu uses multilingual techniques to explore issues of language and identity. In Speak My Language, he asks ‘What is my culture? What should it be?’:

Why do I have to speak other language[s]

While I am talking to my people

Tell me please what is my culture

Tell me please what should it be

Tell me please where is my future

North, South, West or East

Tell me please how can it be.

You can laugh at me

But I don’t care.

I [am] just looking for my ID

So don’t blame me

For my broken Rojak Market English …

Educated in Chinese-language-medium schools with Mandarin as his first language, Ah Gu asks why he needs to ‘speak other languages’ when talking to his people.’ In order to communicate with fellow Chinese who were educated in national schools, and who don’t speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects, he has to resort to ‘broken rojak Malaysian English’.

We Are Family

The BM Boys (Vincent Ng Boon Seng, Ho Ying Khee, Bonnie Ang Swie Chien, Tan Ming Yih, Tan Chin Teik, Cheng Kai Yong and Goh Pin Aun) have adapted the ‘world beat’ style to create music that sounds both Chinese and Malaysian. Coming from Jit Sin High School in Bukit Mertajam (hence ‘BM’), Province Wellesley, they have been able to shift their sounds away from the standard sentimental hits and local imitations of Hong Kong and Taiwanese trans-national singers, which dominate the local Chinese-language airwaves.

To forge their own Malaysian Chinese identity, the BM Boys use drums from China, India and Malaysia in their compositions. They employ Chinese instruments such as the dizi (flute) and erhu (2-string spiked fiddle). They sing in Mandarin, and often use the Teochew, Hokkien and Hakka dialects. They consciously adapt Malay words, folk songs and social music in their songs.

The highly popular ‘Tong Nian Xiong’ (‘Song for Childhood’, from the 1995 album Tong Nian Xiong) is sung in Mandarin, using the Malay inang dance rhythm, incorporating the Malay folk song ‘Lenggang Lenggang Kangkong’. The folk song helps the singers remember the good times they had together when they were young. With lyrical parts are accompanied by the erhu, this song is now often used to accompany muhibbah dances in today’s national schools.

The BM Boys are also known for their lyrics, which deal with social concerns and the environment. ‘Nang Si Chit Keh Nang’ (‘We are Family, from the album Fang Yen Chuang Zhuo, or Dialect Song Composition) stresses that all Malaysians — whatever their ethnicity, rich or poor — should live together in harmony, communicate with one another, and work hard together as a family. The song is sung in the Teochew dialect:

You play the Malay drum I carry the Chinese lantern

Lighting this earth

The boats in the sea resemble a family

It does not matter where you come from

With toleration with communication

Holding hands with one heart

We are family.

Cafes and Song-writing Competitions

The pioneers of the Malaysian Chinese popular music movement can be traced to a society called Kita, set up in 1986. Two of the members of Kita, guitar instructor Chow Kam Leong and art student Teoh Seng Tack, formed Alternative Music House and Halo Productions in the 1990s to bring together talented young singer-songwriters working in the Chinese-language medium. They started Halo Cafe to provide a space for Chinese-educated youth to perform and listen to unplugged folk sounds. Ah Gu, the BM Boys and other Chinese singers — many of whom have not only become popular in Malaysia and Singapore, but made it in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well — sang at Halo Cafe in the early days of their careers.

Consequently, music cafes have sprouted throughout the country, catering to those who wish to jam in front of a live audience. These cafes are mainly frequented by college students and teenagers, and are important venues for creative brainstorming. Today Halo runs cafes in Malacca, Ipoh, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Subang Jaya.

Song-writing competitions also provide breeding grounds for local Chinese pop music. The Halo National Song-writing Competition, organised by the Alternative Music House in the 1990s, helped to promote and popularise Chinese pop music with a Malaysian identity. Follow Me Records signed the BM Boys after they won the first Halo National Song-writing Competition.

Radio Five, a radio station that features Chinese-language programming, has done its share in promoting local Chinese music. Together with Follow Me Records, the station organises the National Mandarin Song-writing Contest. It provides airtime for local music to be played, and invites winners of the contest to share their views on music composition.


New Music for the Lion Drum

In an effort to revitalize and bring new identities to traditional Chinese music, some Malaysian composers have fused the sounds and rhythms of Chinese instruments with those of other musical traditions practiced in this country. These contemporary works form new concertised music, is performed in concert halls to mixed audiences.

The Bernard Goh-led Hands Percussion Team has been responsible for the ‘creation of new directions to theatrical drumming and contemporary percussion music’ using the shigu, or lion drum (the 2004 Dialogue in Skin programme notes). Starting off with the 24 Season Drums repertoire, based on the sounds and movements of agricultural work, this group of Chinese drummers has since experimented with Malaysia’s other diverse musical rhythms. Besides working with Five Arts Centre’s Rhythm in Bronze gamelan performers, Hands has collaborated with local and foreign percussionists, such as Lewis Pragasam, Steve Thornton and Billy Cobham.

The group engages in different forms of multicultural crossover: instruments, playing techniques, aesthetics, even the musicians themselves. ‘Armour and Skin’ is a creative dialogue between the shigu and other Chinese drums, with the bronze knobbed gongs of the gamelan and other metallic Chinese cymbals. In ‘The Time Jungle’, five women drummers portray their experiences and conflicts as they cross boundaries and break from what is expected of Chinese women in Malaysia — they do this by performing different drum strokes and rhythms at different tempos on five suspended drums. The Indian sitar which plays a melody above the beats of the five suspended drums, lures the performers ‘back into memory, and deeper into this time jungle’ (Dialogue in Skin programme notes; 2004).

It is interesting to note that artistic director Bernard Goh, and some members of the Hands Percussion Team, recently went to Beijing to look at how drums were being performed in Chinese contexts. According to Bernard, the Chinese were excited — and, at the same time, “shocked at our work,” particularly at the different forms of crossover Hands’s music features. Their question: “How could you, a Chinese, create something like this?”

Bernard’s answer was that ‘his music stems from a multicultural context, and he is guided not just by a passion for the Chinese drum but also by the belief that drums can tell a story’. (The Star; 21st July 2004).

‘Change’ in Gamelan Music

My own composition, ‘Perubahan’, in the Sunetra Fernando-led gamelan troupe Rhythm in Bronze’s self-titled album, also exemplifies the new trend of redefining Chinese shigu with the assistance of gamelan music.

Written in the late 1990s, at a time of political and social change in Malaysia, this piece contrasts two musical cultures — or styles — in the first section. The Malay gamelan plays a composed melody, using the linear structure and gong cycles found in traditional gamelan and other Southeast Asian gong music. This is followed by Chinese shigu drums performing the various rhythmic patterns of the 24 Season Drum ensemble (portraying rhythms associated with agriculture: digging the soil, growing and thrashing padi, rain, and so on). The conclusion of the piece finds the two styles — or cultures — coming together through fusion: of Malay drums (gendang ibu and anak) and shigu; of the rhythms of wayang kulit and the 24 Season Drums; with the shigu drums playing with the gamelan.

‘Perubahan’ signifies change, and advocates a Bangsa Malaysia: a common and plural identity based on the component cultures of Malaysia’s various ethnic communities. In Rhythm in Bronze, instrumentalists are not bound by ethnicity. Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian gamelan performers collaborate with members of the Hands Percussion Team on shigu drums.

The Chinese Orchestra’s Burung Kakak Tua

Contemporary efforts to create a Malaysian identity is also reflected in new arrangements of Chinese and local Malay music for the Chinese orchestra (huayue tuan). Chinese conductors in Malaysia realise that, in order to be relevant, they have to be less dependent on China, Hong Kong or Taiwan for new compositions.

Malay folk songs such as ‘Burung Kakak Tua’, ‘Kenek-Kenek Udang’, ‘Chan Mali Chan’ and ‘Potong Padi’ are now standards in the huayue tuan repertoire. ‘Potong Padi’ combines the Malay kompang with Chinese instruments. Popular Malay-language songs, such as P Ramlee’s ‘Getaran Jiwa’, have also been arranged for the Chinese orchestra.

Kuala Lumpur’s Dama Orchestra and Professional Cultural Center Orchestra (PCCO), the Penang State Huayue, and the Keat Hwa Association of Kedah are just a some of the Chinese orchestras that have transcended Chinese music by experimenting with western chamber musicians, classical Indian instrumentalists and jazz-fusion musicians — and, by doing so, these ensembles have been able to attract non-Chinese audiences to their performances.


Appealing to All Malaysians

A small group of Chinese musicians have consciously incorporated Malay and Indian folk music and instruments, as well as Malaysian themes, into their respective compositions — with increased communication through mass media, and with travel overseas, some are beginning to draw inspiration from other parts of Asia, as well. These musicians also collaborate with practitioners from other disciplines — theatre, dance, the visual arts — of various ethnic backgrounds to initiate new form, content and vocabulary in performance.

Cross-cultural musical works are few in number. Usually idealist, these might not necessarily reflect Malaysian reality — but they do propose alternatives for a Malaysia that is more integrated, more inclusive. Musical cross-cultural exchange and collaboration needs to be encouraged: as is true for all ethnic music traditions, the Malaysian Chinese sounds that cross borders will not only speak to Chinese, but to all Malaysians.


Tan Sooi Beng is a professor in ethnomusicology at the Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang’s School of Arts.

First Published: 15.02.2007 on Kakiseni

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