Recreating Identities: The Chinese in Penang Adapt to the Environment through the Performing Arts

I am about to leave my country and family
To go oversea[s] to study
I speak Hokkien and Mandarin and
I like eating Wantan Mee, Instant Mee
Why do I have to speak other language[s]
While I am talking to my people
Why do I have to speak other language[s]

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…

Speak My Language by Ah Gu (Album: Chang Ge Gei Ni Ting [Sing a Song for You], 1998)

Ah Gu or Ah Niu (bull in Hokkien and Mandarin respectively) is the nickname for singer-composer Tan Kheng Seong after his hit song Ah Niu and Ah Hua. Born in rustic Kampung Benggali, Province Wellesley, Ah Gu is known for his country-folk songs which take listeners back to nature and the village community which seems to be breaking up as a consequence of modernity. Like other musicians, Ah Gu also questions his own identity and culture in his songs. In Speak My Language, he implies that the Chinese in Malaysia (and Penang) are not homogeneous. They speak so many different dialects and languages that some have to resort to “broken Rojak Market English” to communicate with one another. They are also differentiated in terms of educational background, religion and the degree of acculturation. Likewise, the variety in the Chinese performing arts illustrates the multiplicity in Chinese identities.

This paper looks at the changes in the forms, content and functions of the Chinese performing arts in Penang from the pre-World War II period till the turn of the millennium. By relating the changes in the performing arts to the socio-cultural transformations in society, this paper shows that since Independence, Chinese artistes like Ah Gu have been searching for their Malaysian identities. Contrary to popular notions of culture as something traditional and essentialist, people like Ah Gu are constantly creating and recreating their culture as they interact and respond to the changes in the environment. However, due to their internal differences, the visions of a Malaysian Chinese identity are varied.

In this paper, I have focused on mainstream Chinese genres only. The paper does not discuss non-Chinese forms, such as the western drama, marching band, symphony orchestra or choir which the Chinese also participate and excel in or Baba genres such as dondang sayang.

Performing Arts Prior to World War II
In the mid-nineteenth century when large numbers of Chinese migrated to Malaya in search of employment and economic opportunities, various Chinese social and cultural institutions appeared on the Malayan scene. These Chinese immigrants (sinkeh) brought with them their own music, dance, theatre and martial arts. They adhered closely to and were influenced by cultural developments in China. Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese and Hokkien operas, the Hokkien glove puppet (po-te-hi) and the Teochew rod puppet (kah-lay) theatre were staged. These troupes were initially brought from China but many of the proprietors and performers never went back. The troupes were professional, as the performers received income solely from the opera, were paid professional fees by the proprietor and lived and traveled together.

Even though they used different dialects, the various types of Chinese opera and puppet theatre shared many similar characteristics and functions. They used the same character types which were identified by their facial features, colour, material and decorations of costume and headware. Stories focused on the life and deeds of emperors, generals and the aristocracy of China, romantic love between the scholar and the heroine, fairies and demons and the conquests of barbaric tribes. Some of the popular Chinese opera stories were drawn from the classics San Kuo Yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Shuihu Zhuan (The Water Margin) or folk tales such as Sam Pek Eng Tai and Madam White Snake. Both opera and puppet theatre performed on make-shift stages set up in open spaces or in temple grounds (Newell 1961, Ly Singko 1965-66). In the early twentieth century, the Chinese opera was also performed at the Drury Lane Theatre known as Sin Hi Tai (New Theatre) in Penang Hokkien.

Besides entertaining the immigrants, the Chinese opera and puppet theatre were also performed as offerings to celebrate the birthdays of Chinese temple deities as well as during festivals such as the seventh month Phor Tor (Hungry Ghost) festival. It was reported in the Penang newspaper, Straits Echo (30 August 1933), that “for three days and nights, the Chief of the Spirits [was] entertained with wayangs opposite the Chinese Temple called Kuan Im Teng …Beach Street and Cambell Street were two other streets that observed this festival”. At such festivals, the staging of an opera was always a community affair. It was as much an occasion for social gathering as it was an offering. During the performance, people moved about freely, chatted with their friends, or even ate at side stalls.

The development of amusement parks such as the Fun and Frolic, Wembley and New World in Penang in the 1930s helped to stimulate the development of the Chinese performing arts. The amusement park was a place where different types of entertainment such as bangsawan performances, movies, ronggeng parties, joy ride cars, dance halls, food and gambling stalls could be found. For the Chinese community in towns, local opera troupes and troupes from China such as the Ritz Cantonese Opera, Sit Kok Sin Cantonese Opera, Foong Sen Nin Cantonese Opera, Eng Siew Choon Teochew Opera, Sua Gaik Hiang Teochew Opera, Keong Hoe Shanghai Opera, Sin Sai Thean Yean Hockchew Opera and Nam Sin Kiot Sia Hylam Opera performed regularly at the amusement parks (Straits Echo, 10 Feb. 1932, Times of Malaya, 21 Sept. 1932). To see the shows, one had to pay 15, 25 or 35 cents for a seat. If one could not afford that, one could watch standing from the side.

Modern stage shows or ko-tai were also staged at the amusement parks. Catering to the urban Chinese in the 1930s, the ko-tai consisted of performances of popular song. To provide variety, sometimes excerpts of more serious Chinese plays such as Jia adapted from Ba Qin’s novel Family , and Lei Yu, adapted from Cao Yu’s novel The Thunderstorm were interspersed with popular songs. Some of the troupes included Keat’s Magical and Vaudeville Show (which featured “hula-hula dancing and magical arts”) and the Cherry Blossom Music and Operatic Show. The latter attracted “capacity houses” with its “excellent performance and beautiful girls”, “modern orchestra, singing and dancing” at the Fun and Frolic Park in Penang (Straits Echo , 20 Nov. 1933, 5 Feb. 1934).

Since its inception, the ko-tai had always been part of modern entertainment. According to Lau Ping, the owner of the Lau Ping Singing troupe which was famous in the 1980s, the ko-tai appealed to the younger set during the pre-War period and was an alternative to traditional entertainment like the Chinese opera. Popular songs by famous Chinese stars based in Shanghai (such as Zhou Xuan, Bai Guang, Li Xiang Lan, Yao Li and Wu Ying Yin) were sung. Performers were clad in the fashionable cheong sam, samfoo or even Western attire. The ko-tai was not associated with religious festivals then (Tan 1984b).

While professional opera and ko-tai troupes toured the towns of Malaya, amateur cultural organizations, martial arts and lion dance associations were set up in individual towns. These organizations were first organized as part of Chinese voluntary associations such as dialect and kinship organizations which took care of the needs of the Chinese immigrants. Later, other amateur cultural clubs attached to Chinese schools, old pupils’ (alumni) associations, political parties and religious groups were formed. Compared to the Chinese opera and ko-tai, these amateur clubs depended on annual dues from members as well as donations from rich patrons and the public whenever performances were organized. Participants took part in these cultural activities as hobbies and were not full-time performers.

In Penang, the Chinese cultural organizations provided places for immigrants to socialize, to entertain one another, to learn new cultural skills and to take part in healthy physical training. For instance, Chinese immigrants used to get together after work on an ad hoc basis to improvise opera tunes as well as Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Khek folk tunes from the provinces where they originated. It was reported that regular musical practices were held at the Penang Chinese Ladies Chin Woo Association, the Toi Sun Union and other clubs (Straits Echo, 16 Mar. 1935). Over time, the standard of performances must have improved. Consequently, in the 1930s, some of the groups such as the Hu Yew Seah Orchestra were even invited to play live concerts for private radio stations (Straits Echo, 13 Nov. 1936).

Another popular club activity was martial arts. The immigrants got together to learn and practice taiji or gongfu. Included among the activities of martial arts associations was the lion dance which was performed to bring good luck during Chinese festivities and at ceremonies marking the launch of new businesses. Members of lion dance clubs had to build up their body stamina to carry the lion head and to perform intricate tricks.

Amateur associations which promoted Chinese opera were also popular. In these associations, members learnt to perform short excerpts of opera stories and to sing and play opera tunes from professional opera actors and actresses. Amateur clubs allowed respectable members of society to sing opera tunes without the stigma usually attached to professional actors and actresses. Other activities of Chinese amateur cultural associations included dancing particularly the various folk and classical dances of China and acting in modern scripted plays.

Besides promoting friendship and entertainment, these amateur clubs also played important roles in fund raising for specific purposes. The Penang Mutual Improvement Association or Kwong Hock Khu staged Chinese dramas in aid of the Raffles College Fund, the Red Cross and the China Flood Relief Fund (Straits Echo, 16 Mar. 1935).

Decline of the Opera and Ko-tai after the War; Chinese Associations Search for New Directions
With the onset of the Japanese Occupation in 1942, most performance activities came to a stand still. The Chinese opera and ko-tai continued to decline in the 1950s and 1960s. Compared to the pre-War days, audiences at amusement park theatre halls were smaller and consisted of housewives who brought their children, grandmothers, domestic servants and a handful of businessmen and their wives who came to watch their favourite actors and actresses. Due to financial difficulties, many troupes had to close down.

Moreover, Chinese opera and ko-tai had to compete with new forms of entertainment such as the movie, radio, nightclubs and later television. The Chinese opera became an anachronism for the younger generation who could no longer understand or appreciate the stylized language, symbolism and feudal stories used by the opera troupes. With the closure of the amusement parks themselves in the late 1960s due to poor business, the professional opera troupes were reduced to performances for temple celebrations and festivals to appease and honour the deities. Ko-tai singers who used to perform at the parks were retrenched and had to turn to other ways of earning a living.

Although professional Chinese opera and ko-tai had declined, the Chinese cultural associations consolidated during the 1950s and 1960s. This was because Chinese cultural associations play important social functions providing opportunities for Chinese youths especially lower class youths to socialize, meet others with similar interests, learn to play musical instruments, dance and act without having to pay exorbitant fees and gain experience in organizing musical and social activities. Dialect groups such as the Teochew Association continued to conduct amateur Teochew Opera practices while the Nanyang Thong Hong Siang Tong Penang Chapter promoted Teochew opera singing among its members. The Soon Tuck Hooi Koan ran weekly Cantonese opera singing practices. Beijing opera was promoted by the Peng Siah Association which collected money for the building of Nanyang University in Singapore in 1956.

With the severing of ties with China and as the Chinese became Malaysian citizens, more local compositions particularly in music and dance were created. However, the Chinese were still inspired and influenced by the arts of China and more directly those of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Just as in these places, culture was influenced by political orientations after the communist takeover of China in 1949. Many cultural associations in Malaysia were split into groups characterized as advocating “art for art’s sake” or “art for the people”.

In general, those groups which advocated “art for the people” promoted art which portrayed social reality with the aim of inculcating political and social values among the performers as well as among the audiences. Music, dance and drama depicting the lives of plantation workers, fishermen and the working class were composed and presented by these groups to raise the social consciousness of the audience. These groups promoted group effort and collective conceptualization and production of theater-dance and music works. These works were often based on fieldwork where dancers spent time in pineapple plantations or fishing villages to obtain a first-hand account of everyday life. For most “art for the people” groups, the process of creation was more important than the aesthetic product (Tan 1992).

On the other hand, those who advocated “art for art’s sake” viewed art essentially as a form of artistic and aesthetic activity. The “art for art’s sake” groups were dominated by teachers and choreographers who conceptualized and choreographed the creative pieces. These groups wanted to promote interest in the arts among the public and to raise the quality of the Chinese performing arts. Many of the groups were led by musicians and dancers who were trained in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Britain. Music groups such as the Penang Philharmonic Society (formed in 1961 by Khaw Guan Liang, a returnee from Hong Kong) and the Penang Arts Chorus (formed in 1965 by a group of cultural enthusiasts) featured soloists and choirs singing art and folk songs from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia with themes about romance and patriotism (Star, 10 April 1986; NST 15 April 1985).

Despite the differences between the “art for art’s sake” and “art for the people” groups, nevertheless both sides promoted “healthy culture” (jiankang wenhua) as opposed to “yellow culture” (huangse wenhua) and started composing their own creative compositions. The search for a Malaysian Chinese cultural identity stimulated debates between both groups about the direction of the Chinese performing arts.

In the 1960s, both “art for art’s sake” and “art for the people” groups adopted the modern Chinese orchestra which had become the national orchestra of China, and which had been popularized in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Tan 2000). Chinese musicians from Malaysia who had studied in Hong Kong were influenced by the new sounds of the modern Chinese orchestra which combined both Western and Chinese instruments, tone colour, intonation and texture. The musicians brought the scores, tapes and recordings of new pieces back to Malaysia. The SMJK Jit Sin Chinese Musical Instrument Society in Province Wellesley was initiated in l968 while The Penang Philharmonic Society started its huayue tuan in 197l. Using scores and new improved instruments imported from China and Hong Kong, they began to play the repertoire of the modern Chinese orchestra. Newer and larger sounds stirred excitement among many Chinese youths who were attracted to join the orchestras. Since then, associations such as the Hui Yin Se and other Chinese schools such as SMJK Chung Ling and SMJK Perempuan Cina started their own huayue tuan in the 1970s and 1980s respectively.

By the late l970s, the political distinction between Chinese cultural groups became less important. Many of the “art for the people” organizations found it increasingly difficult to organize performances as police permits were required and difficult to acquire. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the cultural revolution in China itself and the new influence of video culture from Hong Kong on the younger generation, both of which led to a general decline in leftist influences, some “art for the people” groups themselves were transformed into “art for art’s sake” associations.

Ethnic Consciousness and Revival of the Performing Arts in the 1970s and 1980s
The Chinese performing arts experienced a revival in the 1970s and 1980s. This was mainly a result of the rise of ethnic consciousness and the implementation of new policies by the government following the 1969 racial riots. In particular, the New Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy (which were interpreted by many Chinese groups as an attempt by the government to curb non-Malay rights and cultures as well as to assimilate the Chinese), made the Chinese even more aware of their separate identity. Cultural groups began to consolidate and to stress their “traditional” culture as symbols of ethnicity. Traditional cultural emblems such as the Chinese opera, lion dance and other Chinese performing arts experienced a revival.

Consequently, the number of Chinese operatic performances increased considerably especially during major Chinese festivals such as the Phor Tor (The Hungry Ghost Festival). As local troupes were few in number and most of them did not live up to the expectations of the older opera audience, entire Teochew opera troupes were “imported” from Thailand, while individual Hong Kong actors and actresses were contracted to perform with local Cantonese troupes. Troupes from Singapore were also brought into Penang. They were richer and could afford new and sparkling costumes which audiences looked for. In fact, imported troupes were always of higher status and “more appropriately” offered to the deities (Tan 1980).

Contemporary devices were introduced by local opera troupes to cater to the changing tastes and interests of the young and to attract them to the opera. The Cantonese opera added western instruments such as the saxophone, violin and guitar to its Chinese ensemble. The glove puppet theatre often included the bass guitar. The Hokkien opera offered 1-2 hour renditions of Western and Chinese popular songs by Western-attired singers accompanied by electric bands before the opera proper began. Innovations introduced into the Hokkien opera included using colloquial dialect, expanding joking sequences and fighting scenes and dressing up the stars in flashy costumes.

The ko-tai was given a new lease of life by an entrepreneur and performer called Lau Ping in the 1970s. By declaring that the purpose of the ko-tai was purely one of entertaining the deities (and by extension the public), Lau Ping set about introducing the latest popular songs and comic sketches portraying urban social issues into the ko-tai. In effect, Lau Ping’s troupe linked the modern theatre form to religious festivals for the first time. Consequently, the ko-tai which was performed during religious festivals began attracting large crowds, particularly the young. In turn, the audiences for the opera which alternated with the ko-tai during these festivals (as in the case of the Phor Tor celebration) also increased in numbers (Tan 1984).

With large crowds of Chinese gathered, inevitably, Chinese politicians, educationists and cultural activists turned up at the Chinese festivals especially the Phor Tor. The celebrations became occasions for them to address the perennial issues of Chinese education and culture. Ostensibly involved in raising funds for Chinese schools (Hun Bin Primary School) and other charitable projects (such as the Lam Wah Ee Hospital), they would also highlight the plight of Chinese schools which received minimal government financial support and the predicament of Chinese culture in Malaysia which was excluded from consideration as part of official national culture. Although public rallies and meetings to discuss these issues would rarely be allowed by the government, the issues of Chinese education and culture were repeatedly and openly raised amidst the ko-tai and opera in various parts of Penang throughout the seventh month (Tan 1988).

A greater sense of Chinese identity and unity was evident. Consequently, cultural groups which were different in political orientation began to highlight common objectives: “healthy culture” as opposed to “yellow culture” (especially since Hong Kong Cantonese serials and Cantopop had become popular); Chinese culture generally; and close ties among their members. These cultural groups often shared scores and musicians and even put on joint productions. Such joint productions provided the opportunity for members of different cultural groups to interact especially during the period of preparation for the concert when practices were held almost everyday.

Aware of the need for local relevance, the Chinese cultural groups have consciously incorporated Malay and Indian folk music, dances and Malaysian dramatic themes into their performances. Although the Chinese orchestra’s repertoire reflected the contemporary trends in mainland Chinese music, local pieces also emerged. Some folk songs such as Tanah Air Ku, Air Didik and Inang Cina (arranged by Lee Soo Sheng of Alor Star) and new compositions incorporating local dance rhythms like Malay Dance based on the ronggeng rhythm (by Saw Yeong Chin of Penang) were played. Conscious efforts were made to learn Malay, Indian and Indonesian dances. Sketches with local social themes like increasing consumerism in Malaysian society were promoted. For example, in Qiong Qing’s play Lucky Draw performed in Penang in l98l, a lower income city dweller drinks fizzy bottled drinks, and eats instant noodles everyday in order to collect enough tokens to take part in the Lucky Draw of a supermarket. What did he win at the end? Gastritis!

Responses to Modernity and Globalization in the 1990s and the Turn of the Millennium
(i) Upgrading Standards
Compared to the 1970s and early 1980s, the question of national culture seems to create less controversy and has become less politicized since the 1990s. In fact, there appears to be a liberalization of government policies towards non-Malay language, education and culture. There are more Chinese language programmes on privatised television channels and the satellite network ASTRO. Cultural performances during National Day celebrations and Visit Malaysia campaigns include some Chinese items. Tourism brochures promote certain aspects of Chinese culture to attract the tourist ringgit. Particular Chinese cultural groups receive partial funding from the State Performing Arts Committee under Kee Phaik Cheen.

Chinese amateur cultural groups have emphasized that the promotion and preservation of the Chinese performing arts must go hand in hand with upgrading standards of the performances. Raising the quality of performances will also raise the status of the Chinese performing arts and attract bigger audiences in Malaysia. In order to upgrade and promote the huayue tuan in Penang, the Penang State Chinese Orchestra (PESCO) was formed in 1998. PESCO is the only Chinese orchestra in Malaysia which receives sponsorship from a state government. It comprises the best performers from fifteen Chinese orchestras in Penang (SMJK Chung Ling Butterworth, SMJK Chung Ling Pulau Pinang, SM Chung Ling Persendirian, SMJK Jit Sin Bukit Mertajam, SM Jit Sin Persendirian, SMJK Perempuan Cina, SMJK Union, SMJK Heng Ee, SMJK Phor Tay, SMJK Chung Hwa Confucian, SMJK Convent Datuk Keramat, SM Han Chiang Persendirian, SMJK Sacred Heart Balik Pulau, Pusat Muzik Chong Yee, Hui Yin She). Led by Lim Soon Oo, the Resident Conductor, PESCO’s performances are formal and attention is paid to technique and musical quality. The pieces include traditional Han repertory arranged for Chinese orchestra and new compositions using the musical elements of China’s national minorities by contemporary composers of China. The orchestra also plays other foreign and locally arranged materials. Prominent Chinese soloists such as Feng Shaoxian (yueqin), Ming Huifen (er-hu) and Yang Wei (pipa) are invited to perform with the orchestra. As audiences include Malay state dignitaries and Chinese who do not speak Mandarin, announcements and program notes are in Mandarin and Malay.

Chinese orchestras in Penang also realize that in order to be relevant and to attract bigger audiences, 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 included in the huayue tuan repertoire. Potong Padi combines the Malay kompang with Chinese instruments. Malay popular songs such as Getaran Jiwa by P. Ramlee have also been arranged for the Chinese orchestra.

Although new local compositions are staged and created, Chinese performing artists continue to be inspired by music troupes from China which have been allowed to tour Malaysia in recent times with the establishment of ties between China and Malaysia. Concerts which are of high quality have helped to raise the status of Chinese music and have stimulated interests among the Chinese community in Penang and in Malaysia. Additionally, youths have been inspired and encouraged to actively learn and master Chinese instruments as they are exposed to virtuoso performances by local musicians who have been trained at conservatoires in China. Recent returnees include Lim Soon Lay (er-hu/conductor) and Loke Bok Kun (dizi) from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Ch’ng Li Na (yangqin) from the Music Academy of China in Beijing.

Chinese-medium schools such as the thirteen schools mentioned above play increasingly important roles in promoting Chinese music particularly the huayue tuan to the younger generation in the 1990s. In fact, SMJK Jit Sin has produced some of the best Chinese instrumentalists in Penang. Credit must also be given to the handful of local conductors such as Lim Soon Oo, Lim Soon Huat, Lim Soon Lee, Lai Ah Lai, Goh Wei Sim, Huang Shi Guang and Saw Yeong Chin who travel from school to school to run practice sessions throughout the year.

(ii) Global culture
With the development of new types of communication such as satellite television, internet, video, karaoke and compact and laser discs, a type of Chinese transnational culture has spread quickly and dominated most parts of Malaysia in the 1990s including Penang. Video serial programs such as The Last Sakura and Bodyguards – Jade Dolls and video clips featuring popular songs by transnational stars such as Alan Tham and Jackie Cheung from Hong Kong mesmerize audiences. Chinese transnational culture spread at a massive rate in the 1990s mainly because of mass advertizing campaigns by distribution outlets set up throughout the world. In fact, Malaysia has become a major producer of Chinese transnational culture. Cantonese serials such as Juara – The Champion (with scenes of proton sagas in Kuala Lumpur) produced in Malaysia and recordings of pop songs by Malaysian singers such as Eric Moo, Michael and Victor and Ah Gu are popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and other parts of the world where Chinese live. Chinese Malaysians participate in a new “travelling” transnational culture which is shared by Chinese all over the world (Yang 1997).

As the younger generation are attracted to Chinese transnational culture, the ko-tai performances at temple festivals have been converted to pop song and karaoke sessions in the 1990s. Youths are drawn to the religious festivals as they can now sing the latest Chinese hits from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of the world by participating in the karaoke sessions. Sometimes, when Chinese opera and ko-tai troupes are not available, video clips of excerpts of Chinese opera stories followed by those of transnational pop stars and other movies are shown during religious festivals.

In response to global transnational culture predominating in Penang, there has occurred a renewed interest and a general revival of Chinese “tradition” especially among a growing middle class of English and Malay-educated professionals, businessmen and educators. By returning to the past and tradition, cultural enthusiasts in Penang are often looking for the roots they have lost and are asserting their identity. Parents from middle-class families who do not know Mandarin often send their children to music centres to learn Chinese musical instruments such as the guzheng, pipa, yangqin or the erhu.

At the same time, we see a growing trend at preserving selected folk “traditions” which are lifted out of their original contexts and recreated. Packaged pastiche art forms have been developed and have become the staples for the tourism industry and state related ceremonies. The Chinese New Year Open House organized by the hotels of Penang at the Khoo Kongsi in 1993 is an example of this pastiche packaging. Tourists and guests were greeted by a spectacle of sixty drummers lining the street leading to the Khoo Kongsi, followed by a cultural show featuring Chinese lion and dragon dances, music, dance and acrobatic acts. Present were also a Chinese calligrapher, clog maker, coconut carver, fortune teller and hawker stalls (Star, 12 Feb. 1993).

Additionally, certain art forms which are patronised by the elites and which receive sponsorship from the government have been recreated grandiosely and often in great contrast to their earlier forms. State groups compete to create the largest lion dance troupes consisting of a hundred over lions and the longest dragons for performances at stadiums during Chinese New Year or other functions. Big versions of the 24 Season Drums (Er Shi Si Jie Ling Gu) perform during the yearly Chingay Festival organized by the State of Penang to attract tourists to the State. (The 24 Season Drum Ensemble in its original form comprises 24 shigu drums. The ensemble was first set up by Chinese associations in Johore in the late 1980s. Each drum is named after a season in the Chinese agricultural calendar. The choreography and music particular agricultural work movements associated with each season). In order to impress tourists and locals at state functions, the 24 Season Drum ensembles have been recreated with over a hundred big drums which provide booming sounds imitating the movement of the sky and earth and are accompanied by spectacular technic and kungfu movements (Nanyang Siang Pao, 23 Dec. 1996).

As the Penang Chinese create contemporary Malaysian culture using versions of transnational global forms which can be found in other parts of the world, they also engage in creative debates with modernity. As shown in Ah Gu’s Speak My Language, musicians express their multiple identities as Chinese, Malaysians, and members of the globalized world through their songs. Likewise, the BM Boys (comprising Vincent Ng Boon Seng, Ho Ying Khee, Bonnie Ang Swie Chien, Tan Ming Yih, Tan Chin Teik, Cheng Kai Yong and Goh Pin Aun from Bukit Mertajam) have been able to adapt the transnational ‘world beat’ style to create music that sounds both Chinese and Malaysian.

To forge a new Malaysian Chinese identity, the BM Boys combine Chinese, Indian and Malay instruments with the global pop idiom. They sing in Mandarin but often use different Chinese dialects such as Teochew, Hokkien and Hakka. They consciously adapt Malay words, folk songs and social music in their songs. Tong Nian Xiong (Song for Childhood, album: Tong Nian Xiong, 1995) is sung in Mandarin using the Malay inang dance rhythm. It incorporates the Malay folk song Lenggang Lenggang Kangkong. The folk song helps the singers to remember the good times they had together when they were young. They used to sing this song. Parts of the song are accompanied by handclaps commonly employed in dikir barat. Lyrical parts are accompanied by the erhu.

The BM Boys are also known for their lyrics which deal with social concerns and the environment. Through their songs, they draw attention to the problems faced by the younger generation such as arranged marriages and parents forcing their views on their children. Nang Si Chit Keh Nang (We are a Family, album: Fang Yen Chuang Zhuo [Dialect Song Composition], 1997) stresses that all Malaysians (whether they are Malays or Chinese, rich or poor) should live together in harmony, tolerate each other, communicate with one another and work hard together as they are a family. The song is sung in the Teochew dialect:

The stars are in the sky people are on earth
It does not matter where you come from
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 one family
It does not matter if you have money
You must work hard to earn money
Only then can one eat and be independent…


I have tried to show that the Chinese in Penang have been constantly forging new and different cultural expressions and identities through their performing arts as they adapt to the changing environment. Chinese culture is alive and ‘traditions’ are continually changing. While the performing artistes continue to be inspired by their counterparts in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, they realize that they have to create and perform their own local theatre, music and dance in order to be relevant. They engage in creative dialogue with the local and the global to create diverse Malaysian Chinese identities.

Research for this paper was conducted through interviews and personal participation from the late 1970s till the 1990s. I would like to thank the following musicians and artists for granting me interviews and for their critical comments throughout this period: Khaw Guan Liang, Lai Ah Lai, Lau Ping, Lee Soo Sheng, Lim Gaik Siang, Leow Kooi Hwa, Tung Gark Hong and Saw Yeong Chin.

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The National Archives, Singapore (1988), Wayang. A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, Singapore: Times Editions.

Newell, William H. (1961), “The Chinese Theatre in Malaya”, Orient West, Tokyo, 6 (9), pp. 67-71.

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_____ (1984a), “An Introduction to the Chinese Glove Puppet Theatre”, JMBRAS, LVII (1).

_____(1984b), Ko-tai: A New Form of Chinese Urban Street Theatre in Malaysia, Research Notes and Discussions Paper, 40, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

_____(1988), “The Phor Tor Festival in Penang: Deities, Ghosts and Chinese Ethnicity”, Working Paper, 51, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

_____(1992b), “Counterpoints in the Performing Arts of Malaysia”, in Loh Kok Wah, Francis and Joel S. Kahn (1992), Fragmented Vision: Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia, New South Wales: Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Allen and Unwin. pp. 282-306.

_____2000, “The HuayueTuan (Chinese Orchestra) in Malaysia: Adapting to Survive”, Asian Music, XXXI (2).

Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui (1997), “Mass Media and Transnational Subjectivity in Shanghai: Notes on (Re)Cosmopolitanism in a Chinese Metropolis, in Ong, Aihwa and Donald Nonini (eds), The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism, NRecreating Identities: The Chinese in Penang Adapt to the Environment through the Performing Arts
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Tan Sooi Beng, Universiti Sains Malaysia