RSS Feed

Category Archives: Malaysian arts & culture

“MUM… DAD… I WANNA JOIN THE MACC!”

Posted on

MACC-stub

This ticket stub carries some pleasurable memories for me. That’s why I have immortalized it here. I first stumbled on the intriguing poster below on Patrick Teoh’s Niamah blog…

MACC-poster

What phenomenal inspiration, I thought, to present three stand-up comedians – all Chinese, of course – as the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians. I was determined to catch the show, even visited TicketCharge to try and book online… but was put off by the fact that TicketCharge charges an additional RM12 as a “service fee.” That’s way too much, I thought. I mean, if I were booking a RM375 ticket to see Beyonce, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a RM12 service fee. Nobody minds paying up to RM5 extra for the convenience of booking a theater ticket online – but RM12? That’s 33% of the ticket price! What if I were buying TWO tickets? RM24 could easily buy a very fine dinner for two…

Jaya-OneFast-forward to 24 October 2007. I get to Jaya One around 8:20PM and, after asking a couple of people, manage to locate PJ Live Arts. As I stand in line at the ticket office, I notice a poster for MACC 1st EGM that has “Sold Out” scrawled over it in black marker. True enough, it was a full house – not even one seat left! But a girl named Lulu was really helpful. She told me to hang around till just before 9PM – in case somebody canceled out. Just then I bumped into Patrick Teoh and his lovely wife Min Chan with heartthrob actor/director/playwright Gavin Yap in tow. They were downing some beers and awaiting the arrival of more friends. We had a quick chat and then I headed back to the ticket office where more friends were assembled – including a few prominent bloggers I had never met in person. They were waiting around for cancellations too. But as it turned out there was only ONE cancellation… and since I was alone I got it! I wasn’t going to miss MACC 1st EGM after all 🙂

DouglasLim

Douglas Lim (pic courtesy of Grant Corban)

The President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary and Supreme Advisor of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians is a mutant Malaysian Chinese multi-tasker named Douglas Lim. I first heard of him when my daughter was assistant director on a successful sitcom called Kopitiam. She told me supporting actor Douglas Lim was incredibly talented but I must admit I was more keen to be introduced to Joanna Bessey, the star of the series. Back then at only 18, Douglas Lim looked rather nerdy – but it was undeniable that he was a natural-born actor, singer and comedian with tremendous promise.

Well, that promise has been totally fulfilled. Douglas Lim at 32 is a world-class act. I never would have believed a Chinaman could do stand-up comedy the way Douglas does it. Back in the mid-1980s my friend Thor Kah Hoong gave it a shot and he did pretty okay – but I still preferred Chris Rush, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, even Robin Williams. Thor was simply too cerebral, too cynical, too dry (and too skinny) and for my taste.

douglas-limAlong came the irresistible Jit Murad and the inimitable Harith Iskandar, followed by the untoppable Alan Pereira and Indi Nadarajah (of Comedy Court fame). Amazing talents – but not Chinese mah, that’s why so funny. Before long, Patrick Teoh and Nell Ng joined the luminous cast of The Instant Cafe Theatre and both proved to be extreme hoots on stage and always entertaining – but while Patrick and Nell are fantastic comedians, they don’t actually do stand-up stuff. Riveting pub entertainer Rafique Rashid acquired a loyal following as a singing stand-up comedian whose specialty was “Weird Al” Yankovic-style spoof songs – but his only claim to Chineseness was his predilection for Chinese girls with nice legs. And then, of course, there’s the supercool Afdlin Shauki – but also not Chinese, so not counted.

Well, I tell you, this fella Douglas Lim can hold his own on the same stage with all the great names in stand-up comedy – including, possibly, the late great George Carlin. You know why? Because if you can do stand-up comedy with a typical Chinaman accent and not make everybody cringe… you’ve got to be absolutely fantastic!

Stand-up comedy is perhaps the most challenging form of performance. Apart from your voice, your brain, and your own body – all you’ve got is a microphone. No fake mustache, no funny hat. The ones who make it in this incredibly challenging medium must also be equipped with brains that can process data at a million times average speed. In short, unless you qualify as a Grade A mutant genius, don’t even bother auditioning as a stand-up comedian. I wish I could upload a few more clips of Douglas doing his thang. But they don’t exist on YouTube yet [Now they do! ~ Ed.] The kind of rapid-fire multi-layered humor he trades in can’t really be transcribed as text because one has to see his face and watch his moves. Suffice to say, Douglas Lim found a new fan in me that night.

jenhan

Kuah Jenhan

The MACC 1st EGM poster featured two other board members of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians: Phoon Chi Ho (listed as an “intern”) and Kuah Jenhan (“sacked – pending appeal”). Phoon had to cancel out at the last minute because he was down with chicken pox. That put the onus on 22-year-old Jenhan (left) to work doubly hard since it was now a two-man rather than a three-man show. I’m happy to report that Jenhan’s performance was truly outstanding, no doubt because he picked the best sifu (guru) in the business – Douglas Lim, whose masterful tutelage Jenhan acknowledged more than once during his routine.

What impressed me most was the sheer sophistication of the material presented at MACC 1st EGM. Douglas and Jenhan effortlessly negotiated the squiggly boundary between heavyweight cutting-edge political satire and lighthearted pop trivia and kept the audience rolling in the aisles without a moment’s letup. The audience, about 75% Chinese I’d venture, left the theater feeling it’s actually quite okay to be born yellow instead of black or white. That’s really no mean feat – to make being Chinese look funky, funny, sexy and lovable all at once. Douglas and Jenham fully earned the standing ovation they received that memorable Saturday night.

Watch Douglas Lim in action, expressing the frustration some of us must feel because we happen to be born yellow instead of black…

 

5 November 2009

SO… HOW DID THE CAST RATE?

Posted on

Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

KuoPaoKun

Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)

I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.

With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological.  The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal.  The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.

zheng-he

Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)

Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province.  When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth.  Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”

Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent.  Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees.  According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs.  The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.

fleet

Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century

The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed.  Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English.  If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.

Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.

descendants-of-the-eunuch-admiral-2015

Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral  in 2015

Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility?  A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of?  Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring.  Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet.  Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…

Eunich-JeffChen

Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)

The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)

nooseAs a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race.  The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?

Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!

Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater).  Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time.  For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.

Ida_Mariana

Ida Mariana

The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.

Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.

11 November 2000

Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause

Posted on

Destiny-PF

Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook

Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.

Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.

shantona-dancer

Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.

shantona-dancer3

Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.

shantona-dancer2We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.

shantonaFB2As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.

Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.

shantonaFBAnother outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.

An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.

When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.

14 August 2007

[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]

%d bloggers like this: