The Pied Piper of Penang

The first question Janet Pillai asks me when she sees me is: “Have you finished your folio yet?” Even now, she is moving very fast around the music practice area of Universiti Sains Malaysia ABM-AMBRO, sternly asking the same of every young-ish looking person (and unsuspecting members of the press). “Haveyoufinishedyourfolioyet? Haveyoufinishedyourfolioyet? No, you’re doing it. Don’t do it here, do it over there! Don’t use a pencil — use pens! Use crayons! Use colours!”

Janet Pillai seems to be one heck of a busy lady. It is not for nothing that she is declared an Amazing Malaysian by DiGi and nicknamed Madamme Heritage Heboh of Penang. When she is not running around teaching theatre at USM, she is running around conducting workshops like Young Theatre Penang (for finding your child’s inner all-rounded performer) and Anak-anak Kota (for finding your child’s inner heritage conservationist). What she is doing these few days (Mar 11- 15, 2006) is a little special. She has meshed both programmes into one — teaching kids to do performances about heritage. But who on earth is paying for such meaningful projects? For Young Theatre Penang and Anak-anak Kota, Janet receives money from the State Cultural Council and the Penang Educational Consultative Council respectively. This time however, telco company DiGi is funding the workshops, the recruitment drive, the subsequent performances, and even the flying of reporters into Penang (luckily for them, I’m just across the bridge).

When I get the chance to steal some time off Janet, one of the first things I wanted to know is: whutadilly about the folios? Janet’s folios are determined not to be the average Malaysian school kid’s folios — they are to comprise of collages, photographs, drawings… basically retraining and teaching them how to think out of the box. They’re kind of like homework, to gauge how much the students have learnt day by day, but unlike mathematics, you can’t just copy somebody else’s answers.

The folios are about the Historical Walk these participants had done the day before. And in spite of the torturous heat wave that’s been plaguing Penang lately, they had done it on foot. Janet wanted the participants to “get used to the idea of working under the hot sun,” as this was a necessary part of her projects. But can they take it? Says 11-year old Teow Pei Sing: “Even though I felt tired and bored, I learnt a lot… Ms. Ho [Sheau Fung, the visual arts facilitator] and I were extremely thirsty, so she bought two packets of drinks from the coffee shop one for me and one for her. We got here at two, and went home at five. Wow, this walk is so cool!”

The Madame “Heritage Heboh” of Penang programme is now in its Discovery phase (one of three phases in all DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians projects, the other two being Implementation and Showcase). This is when the participants are made aware of the importance of the project they are about to embark on and also given the opportunity to pull out if they choose to. There are around 80 participants ranging from Standard 5 to Form 6 in the respective workshops: music – “Journey of Sound”; dance – “Gerak-gerak Borak-borak”; and visual arts – “Wayang Bayang-bayang”. The facilitators are in the process of narrowing down the numbers before proceeding with the three months of intensive workshops.

It is also nice to see that Janet has not forgotten those who aren’t talented enough to make the cut during auditions by letting them be documenters. Boring as documenting sounds, the job is actually pretty cool, as Andrea (13, from St. George’s Girls School) and Andrea (16, from SMK Permatang Rawa) can testify. Working as documenters, the youngsters pick up camera, video and other interesting skills, besides experimenting with different ways of presenting the information collected — whether in the form of posters, writing, or even puppets! “I can get first-hand experience of what journalism is like, which can help me decide my career options later!” enthused one of the Andreas.

The majority of the participants belong to the “Journey of Sound” group. The rest are spread between “Gerak-gerak Borak-borak”, with approximately 20 participants, and “Wayang Bayang-bayang”, which has the least – 15. Though ninety-nine percent of the project participants are from the arts stream, this doesn’t guarantee they know how to draw. Janet attributes this to many budding visual artists being lost to the science stream.

Eventually we arrive at the Cheah Kongsi where Penang’s budding young artists (or what is left of them) are listening to a lecture on the artistic elements of Penang architecture by David Yeo. The children seem very quiet, as if attending lessons at school. They come alive later during fieldwork as they walk down the street to the Khoo Kongsi — to admire the fine architecture, or rather, to learn to admire the fine architecture.

Visual art facilitator Ho Sheau Fung explains that the students are going to recreate one of the stories on the panels (either Yang Xiang Wrestling The Tiger To Save His Father or Wang Xiang Lying On Ice For Carp, both from The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety) in the form of wayang kulit and perform it during the Discovery Launch on Wed Mar 15. “We’re not going to do the traditional Ramayana sort of wayang kulit… that takes a lot of time and skill and it’s very hard to master. What we’re going to do is a simplified form… utilising Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European and contemporary influences,” says David. “The result at the end of these three months should be something fresh, different.”

For 14 year-old Mun Hoe from SMJK Chung Ling Penang, the Madame “Heritage Heboh” project gives him a better perspective of Penang heritage compared to the week-long Anak-anak Kota project he had participated in previously. “I didn’t get to learn the stories behind the artwork then, it was more of visiting heritage sites and drawing what we saw there, learning the technical aspects. This is more fun, and I think it will help me a lot in my sejarah homework.”

Use your imagination

I get back to Penang island the next day (Tuesday). The “Journey of Sound” children at USM had gone off the day before to “collect sounds” at Market Street and are now supposed to do a group composition by replicating the sounds, noises and snippets of conversation they had collected.

I manage to grab hold of music facilliator Dr. Tan Sooi Beng. Dr. Tan is a music lecturer in USM and like David, has been working together with Janet for close to 20 years. Watching the participants run around to the deafening shouts and screams, I can’t help but notice the infectious energy radiating about the building. Heck, I want to join in and start screaming as well. “They have a lot of energy,” agrees Dr. Tan with a smile. “Music gives them a sense of confidence.” When talking to the press later, Janet stresses that music is an alternative tool for expression, just as art can be a tool for education, to stimulate creativity and learning.

Dr. Tan prefers the phrase The Music of Sound to The Sound of Music. “Music is all around us, and we are going to teach them how to make music using the elements of music from our environment.” Instead of musical instruments, the participants are taught to make music with everyday utensils, and then to develop an ear for interesting but hardly noticeable sounds from everyday life.

A sense of rhythm is essential for the music participants. Soon, I find myself watching a young girl struggling to replicate the rhythm of monetary exchange among traders by jiggling coins in a Milo tin … and getting rather frustrated. Dr. Tan is on hand of course, coaxing the girl to “use your imagination”. No success. Keep on trying. Eventually, the coins are abandoned in favour of reproducing flour-making sounds through role play — with the children pretending to be rice, machine, as well as the flour squealing with laughter while exiting the machine. Elsewhere, little groups of young people are making music out of spoons and forks, broken senduk, Milo tins. The disorganised din had me somewhat worried — at the rate things are going, how will they be able to put together a show by tomorrow evening?

You’re just dancing?

Meanwhile, at the Actors’ Studio Greenhall with the “Gerak-gerak Borak-borak” gang, two groups of young dancers are attempting to choreograph their pieces for the launch, but I am not able to make out what they were doing. One group in particular seems to take the floor for a drum. The funky beat is very cool and contemporary, but the dance appears more MTV than a roti canai-teh tarik dance. At least that is what they are supposed to be doing. Twelve year-old Amirul, who appears to be a most natural drummer, doesn’t care: “I boleh menari seperti sotong dan saya suka menari seperti itu lagi.”

Janet is very busy with the other team: “Spin on your butts! Then Up! Bounce up! Nonono, not like this… That’s not spinning…” These young people had visited the famous Goddess of Mercy temple the day before. Now they have to convert the sights and sounds of the temple into dance. I can’t understand the spinning on butts, so I asked them. This is what they say: “You know, it’s like when you start a dance you can’t just start dancing, you need some sort of introduction.” So it doesn’t mean anything in particular? “No.” But what are you trying to do through your dance? Are you telling a story? “Nope. We’re just taking the people’s movements we saw at the temple and then we just put them together to make a dance lah!” So that’s what you’re doing? You’re just dancing? *Unanimous nodding of heads*

“At the moment we are not doing in-depth teaching just yet,” explains Janet. “They are supposed to observe the behaviour of people at the temple and put it together with the rhythm and beat. In the future, we will train them how to develop a viewpoint on the things they see and express that opinion through their dance.” Janet believes that all forms of theatre must have a function, to get people, both audience and performers, to reflect on their lives. “Take the Taoist praying at the temple for instance. They can dance that in such a way to make the audience question themselves:  ‘Who are we praying to? Why are we praying?’… All theatre must have a function.”

I am a firm believer in the power of youth. Despite having sat through just-plain­-awful inter-school drama competitions, I am lucky to have seen enough magical performances by young people to confirm my belief in them. Apparently, Janet Pillai and DiGi believe in them too, as emphasised by the PR personnel: “the DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians project is targeted at children in particular. Who will continue to fight for the arts, who will carry on the conservation work?” The purpose of the DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians project was to educate the future generation of young Malaysians about their roots and culture.

In the past, Digi’s dual mission of heritage awareness and children outreach used to merge in a one day affair. That quickly proved too little time for either. According to the press release: “When DiGi evolved its CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] programme from the one-day culture workshops it held under the DiGi Yellow Mobile banner to the three-month Amazing Malaysians project, one contributing reason was to be able to ensure the projects create lasting change in the participants and, hopefully, even in the communities they come from.” Janet, who has earned the love of children across Malaysia, some of whom have grown up and gone on to take up careers in the creative line, is certainly a no-brainer choice. The other Amazing Malaysians this year are Bishan Singh (The Champion of Pahang’s Lake Chini); Eddin Khoo (The Shadow Player of Kelantan); Rashid Esa (The Woodcraft Warrior of Selangor); and Laurence Loh (The Heritage Architect of Kedah). Each of them have to design a project in their field involving up to 100 children. Last year’s Amazing Malaysians and their protégés had so far staged an evening of Melanau dance and music in Sarawak, a lion dance and 24 drums performance in Johor, rebuilt a 100-year-old kampong house in Terengganu, and created a wetlands garden and resource centre in Perak.

What a journey!

The evening starts off on an optimistic note as screams and peals of laughter catch my ear as I arrive at SMK Convent Light Street for the Discovery Launch. The participants are gathered in one of the courtyards and cooking up a fuss over their Penang-style cooking. “I think the Char Kuey Teow and Hokkien Mee are trying their best to be Char Kuey Teow and Hokkien Mee,” comments Chee Pok Jin, the Chief Marketing Officer for DiGi. “The rest are rather bland.” Whether or not the food is edible is hardly the point, more importantly, the participants are changing… Some previously quiet, introverted youngsters are more open and confident than before, and Pei Sing from the “Wayang Bayang-bayang” group who complained that he could not understand Malay is now best friends with Hamizal. Maybe the Malaysian government should think of recruiting Janet Pillai and her crew to be national service trainers!

Showtime began when the “Wayang Bayang-bayang” group station themselves behind a white screen to present their take on Yang Xiang Wrestling The Tiger To Save His Father. The students had warned me beforehand that “our puppets are not that good” — I beg to differ. The fluidity of the presentation is slightly affected as the participants have difficulty controlling the puppets, but it is an entertaining show nonetheless. As is typical of student sketches, the dialogue is rather contrived at some parts and there is a liberal dose of slapstick (especially when the tiger grabbed Yang Xiang’s father and jiggled about the screen roaring). Yet somehow, these kids manage to engage the audience and carry them along the waves of the story with the help of an open-air stage, cardboard puppets, and a naïve but refreshing sense of humour.

Then the agile dancers charm the audience with their graceful adaptation of their sightseeing experience at the Kuan Yin temple. Their mesmerising, seductive movements — selling joss sticks, praying, fortune sticks, mediums in a trance — are all improvised upon and sewn together in a tapestry of liquid whirls and glides. (No butt-spinning, by the way.) I am amazed to see that the rattling of the fortune sticks is actually reproduced by hands clapping very fast! One dancer in particular, Ong Huey Huey from Methodist Boy’s School, catches my eye. “I combined what I saw with some Siamese influences, using my own experiences from praying in Siamese temples. They [the facilitators] told us to imagine, and add in some ideas of our own, so I did that because I’m half-Siamese.”

The roti canai-teh tarik crew is next, and soon the audience is bobbing along to the funky beats (this time on Milo tin drums). Who woulda thought tossing roti canai was so cool! Energy levels are on an all time high and this group of young performers is evidently the audience favourite. Between them, the two groups of dancers have managed to capture some vivid images of modern-day Penang, and not just touristy Cuti-cuti Malaysia stuff.

The final performance of the night is an ensemble piece by the music group, who proceeds to take the audience on a “Journey of Sound” around Penang. And what a journey! Probably worth a dozen Manglish-speaking tour guides put together. The variety of sounds replicated is astounding and I gasped and tried (but failed) to identify the “instruments” as we travelled aurally to the Kuan Yin temple, an old-fashioned kopitiam, a spice factory. To think that I was just wondering how they were going to even put up a half-decent performance the day before!

Now all there is left to do is three more months of workshopping. All these creativity and energy will climax on July 15 in a street festival called Heritage Heboh. The children (after today, only about 60 are chosen/remain) will be performing in Little India, and then inside the Teochew Association, then along Pitt Street and finally at Khoo Kongsi. Janet Pillai’s biggest concern, however, are not the youngsters. She wants audiences: “We want to get inner-city residents out of their house and out of their TV habits — to come out to the streets and watch what they are not normally used to.”


First Published: 30.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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