As we celebrate National Day, August Man Malaysia speaks to various talented individuals who cross cultural lines and embrace the art forms that are typically performed by different races, in true Malaysian spirit.

The lost art of Gu zheng: WAN MOHAMED SYAMIL
Wan Syamil Gu Zheng
Wan Syamil in his element, performing on the Gu Zheng

Born and raised in Perak, Wan Mohamed Syamil moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2006 to pursue his studies in music at the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy (ASWARA). Prior to entering the school, Syamil had already taught himself how to play the piano and had already took formal guitar lessons – being a grade-8 student. The strings of fate however would intervene and Syamil then got on to learning and performing with the gu zheng.

Tell us how you got into playing the gu zheng?

While I first intended to further my guitar skills, I was approached by the dean of the academy to instead try something different. A lot of people can play the guitar, so I figured, ‘why not pick up something else?’ I already have the basics of guitar and piano, so maybe I should add to my repertoire. At first I thought of learning the sape, a traditional lute of the Kayan and Kenyah community in Sarawak. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there wasn’t a lecturer around at the time which could train him in that specific instrument. I then stumbled upon the gu zheng – a traditional Chinese instrument.

Initially I didn’t know head or tail about it, then I came across the movie Kung Fu Hustle which featured the use of the instrument, and I was intrigued further. From there I was taken in with the music it produces, which is calming and melodious, most of the songs composed for the gu zheng is about nature; it tells the story of plants and animals for the most part.

How long did you take to learn the gu zheng, and how popular is the instrument?
It took me a total of six years to learn all there is about the gu zheng and I completed my degree in it. I could have gone on to take the professional qualifications, but at the time, you could only sit for the exam in China. Such is the popularity of the instrument that so few locals are even taking it up, hence it also made me a niche product, so to speak. In fact, from my batch of eight students studying the instrument, only two persevered throughout the entire course and completed it. The funny thing is, I bumped into my old course mate just a few months back, on the way back from a work trip in Sarawak, and he was my pilot! The sad fact is that the art of playing the gu zheng is almost lost. Not many people want to pick it up, and while I’m highly sought after, especially during the Chinese New Year period, things are rather slow at other times. When it comes to CNY, I can’t cope with the demand sometimes. There can be back-to-back bookings for shows, occasionally I’d get a wedding gig, but most of them would want me to play more contemporary music using the gu zheng, or maybe I get to play some classical tunes as filler music while waiting for guests to arrive.

What other Chinese cultural aspects have you come to appreciate as a result?
Another thing that drew me to learning the gu zheng is the cultural aspects that are tied to it. For example, each gu zheng has a saying or quote inscribed onto its tail, but you would need to know how to read classical Chinese script to decode it. Plus, I also fancy the Chinese outfits that I get to wear during performances, it’s style and colours, the designs are simply amazing, and I own a few myself in different colours and motifs. And I truly think it’s a great and wonderful instrument to learn.
Can you sustain yourself just by plying the gu zheng?

I can’t solely depend on an income from playing the gu zheng, so I’m also a lecturer at my alma mater, ASWARA. After I was done with my masters, I returned home to Ipoh and helped my mother with her business, but a couple of years after, the dean called me and said that there’s an opening to become a lecturer under the events management department, so I took the offer up.
What type of songs do you get asked to play?

And though I’ve been featured in various local television talk shows like Selamat Pagi Malaysia and Nasi Lemak Kopi O which you can catch on YouTube, I would almost always be asked to play more current hits. What most people don’t know is that the more contemporary music are actually easier to play than the classical scores that the gu zheng is intended for.
When was the last you performed live, and who was the most famous person you played for?
I still occasionally do live performances and shows, and often lend my talent alongside other band members from ASWARA itself. Among some of the notable guests and corporations I have played for was former prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and Hong Leong Bank, during their Chinese New Year event, and I have also performed for local band Azlan and The Typewriter.

Behind the lion’s mask: MARIAM ABDUL NAZAR & B. RISHIVIGKNESH
Lion Dance
Mariam and Rishivigknesh, members of the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association

Members of the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association, Mariam Abdul Nazar and B. Rishivigknesh have a combined 16 years of experience between them thus far. The 24-year-old Mariam fulfils her time managing work whilst earning her degree as well as having lion dance training with a positive outlook and determination. On the other hand, 17-year-old Rishivigknesh who is in his fifth year with the team balances training and finishing up his final year in secondary school, with his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysian (SPM) as priority number one.

How did you find out about lion dance and what got you to join?
Rishivigknesh: I had first seen the club on Facebook. I was interested in lion dance since I was a kid, so I was trying to find the best place for me to learn it. In my search, I found Khuan Loke and approached them. On the first day, I came and watched the classes, by the second day I started to learn. It was already quite diverse as there were a number of Malay students, and I made friends here as I am the only one from my school and area. My parents were very supportive since day one when I told them I wanted to join lion dance when I was 13.

Mariam: Initially my older brother was introduced by his friend who was already on the team. They rode the same van to school together. So he joined first and since we stayed nearby, just a walking distance away, and there was nothing to do at home, whenever my brother came to training at night we as a family would come along to sit outside and watch.

After about two weeks of watching him and my kakak senior, my brother ajak me to join in and not be shy since they were both in it as well, and just like that I joined in. Being a year older, he was practising for around 6-7 months when I joined.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and what has been the best and worst experience you’ve had thus far?

Rishivigknesh: It has been a smooth five years actually. In my first performance it was hard to synchronise together, as I had to memorise all of the steps and the way to play the musical instruments and be in harmony with the lion. The more I practised the better it got. For my first competition I was very nervous I just forgot whatever I had learned in that moment I just took a deep breath and went along with it. The best memory I have was during our CNY performances where we would need to perform for 15 days straight sometimes we go up to eight shows a day, so that’s tiring but fun.

Mariam: The first challenge I faced was when I initially joined, I was afraid, wondering if I could adapt since most of them were Chinese. It took some time to make friends, but since I speak Chinese it was easy to communicate. Plus I got to learn about Chinese culture, how they do lion dance, what is their pantang larang or taboos as well as follow their formalities as I’m not only learning about lion dance itself but of the culture and tradition too. For example when we go and perform at someone’s house we need to pay respect first, the “singa” (referring to the lion) is not just doing simply anything. There’s a reason behind every movement from bowing in respect to tasting the food before accepting it and so on. The best part is that I like the environment here in the team because we are a mix of cultures and races; I think this is the best platform to get to know each other and make friends. I consider myself pretty friendly and everyone here is open and very welcoming. They also take care of us, like for example the sifu and the coaches know to adapt and cater to us being Muslim. Muslims will not partake in the religious moves such as paying respects, so it will either be a Chinese or Indian performing that part as they need to face the Chinese alter. So I really admire how they handle these specifics.

What has it meant to you being a part of the team and the journey you’ve had?

Rishivigknesh: I love most of the Chinese culture, especially lion dance. I have watched lion dances since I was a kid so I dreamed about being part of a team, the troupe and participating in competitions, both local and international. So by joining this club, learning and competing in championships it does really mean a lot to me. I plan to continue this lion dance even after I finish my SPM.

Mariam: Firstly, I’ve gained knowledge about the Chinese culture and of the lion dance. Secondly, I made a lot of new friends and I feel proud, as a Muslim to be able to join and be accepted by everyone else. I get to come in and enjoy myself. There’s no bangsa or anything that separates us. We’re practically like siblings, I always say that this is my second family. That is the true Malaysian spirit.

Fusing the old with the new: Tin Toy Chuo
wayang kulit
Tin Toy Chuo, the founder of Fusion Wayang Kulit

Living in the digital age of both unprecedented possibility and sometimes soul-crushing uncertainty, we just can’t seem to stop moving forward, as the digital world continues to evolve rather quickly, Malaysian traditional art, be it visual or performance art is on the verge of dying. However, reviving a dying art is not as easy as it sounds especially if it belongs to another culture other than your own. While race can be and has been a barrier in our society, it doesn’t seem to stop some people from trying their hand on it. Tin Toy Chuo, a Chinese man from Penang and founder of Fusion Wayang Kulit did not only find a way to revive the dying art – Wayang Kulit Kelantan but also broke down racial barriers between Malaysians by merging the craft’s classic motifs with modern pop icons. With his expertise in designing and his team at Fusion Wayang Kulit, he was inspired to depict an all time favourite sci-fi movie, Star Wars in terms of wayang kulit.

What inspired you to pick up wayang kulit?

It started as a fun project for an art exhibition back in 2012 for an exhibition called Designer’s Weekend in Publika which was organised by a good friend of mine. He asked us to do something new, so I took it as the perfect opportunity to revisit an idea I had back in 2006, which was to merge wayang kulit with pop culture. With that, I decided to reenact my favourite sci-fi movie, Star Wars using wayang kulit.
What are some of the challenges you faced being in this industry?
As it was my first time doing this, one of the challenges I’ve faced was the technical issues we’ve had while recreating the iconic film. We had to brainstorm on how we’re going to make the puppets, the visual and sound effects that will produce the same vibes as the movie except we’re using wayang kulit. Apart from that, we were also worried about how people will react to this – will they accept this or not?

What does your art represent?

Since I’m combining something so traditional with something that is modern as the movie itself relies on a lot of computer graphics, I would say the best word to describe it will be ‘fusion’.

Why did you choose wayang kulit out of all the other arts?
Being a character designer myself, I find
it easier for me to relate to wayang kulit since they are puppets compared to batik and ukiran kayu which leans more towards flowers. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of cross culture, thus why I did not want to choose a Chinese art like Chinese opera or calligraphy.

What was the most memorable experience in your journey of doing wayang kulit?
I would say it was that time when we were invited to Germany and Austria to perform, because half of the team from Fusion Wayang Kulit has never once sat on a plane neither have they been to a place that cold before.

One of the projects you did was named ‘A New Hope’ in hopes that it will inspire people to pick up a dying art. What advice would you give to those who wants to pursue a traditional art like wayang kulit?

It is called ‘A New Hope’ because I think the project is like taking a step towards a new hope for wayang kulit as a whole. I believe that there are many arts other than wayang kulit that needs to be taken care of. However, my advice for those who want to take up a traditional art is to do the proper research needed and look for a real master to learn from because what you think you know about that particular culture may only be on the surface. Take the time to talk to them and get authentic feedback from them and most importantly, do it respectfully. I do not do wayang kulit for the fun of it. Everything I do – from the puppets to the screenplay needs approval from the master puppeteer and I think that’s the right way to do it.

Dancing to a different time: Tan Mei Mei
sutra dance tan mei mei
Tan Mei Mei, a dancer at Sutra

While doing her matriculation in Murdoch University, Western Australia for a degree in Mass Communication, Mei Mei, who was previously trained in ballet and piano, discovered a passion that has since led her to embrace a very different culture than her own when she was introduced by a fellow Malaysian student-turned-mentor to Odissi, an eminent Indian classical dance form that originated in ancient Odisha and rose to world renown in modern times as the signature style of Malaysia’s prestigious Sutra Dance Theatre, led by founder, esteemed cultural icon and champion of performing arts Datuk Ramli Ibrahim.

Upon graduation, driven by passion, with encouragement from her then mentor and Sutra senior dancer Sooraj Subramaniam, Mei Mei returned to Malaysia and began to formally pursue her love of Odissi with Sutra, setting out on a very different professional journey than those of her university contemporaries. Mei Mei established her position in the industry following an impressive debut in 2005 and has since flourished into a consummate artiste and a prima dancer at Sutra, noted for her mastery of technique. In addition to starring in all major Sutra productions, Mei Mei has advanced to the international circuit and performed with the company on tours in the US, Europe and India. Today, she joins her principal and guru Datuk Ramli and his select group of staff teachers at Sutra Academy in nurturing the next generation of talent.

Talking about her appreciation for the age-old art of Odissi, Mei Mei has illustrated to us a life enriched with diverse values and heritage, the power that art holds to bridge differences, the virtue of respect and the spirit of multiculturalism in true Malaysian spirit and style.

When did you realise that you have a passion for Indian classical dance?
I’ve loved Indian classical dance since I was little. I didn’t know what the different styles were called, whether Bharatanatyam or Odissi, but I loved their facial expressions, stamping and costumes just by watching movies. Growing up, I would always try to catch an Arangetram performance, the graduation performance by a student, whenever I could. It’s usually open to the public. When I first saw Sooraj at Murdoch, I immediately approached him and begged him to teach me the basics, and that’s how it started.

Seeing that Indian classical dance comes with such a long and rich history, did you have to do a lot of research to brush up on your knowledge?

So much of Indian classical dance is based on Indian mythology, so we are encouraged to read more about it. Master Ramli, himself, will also share with us his thoughts and give us guidance. It’s very useful for our better understanding of the role and story, especially because it’s so hard for us to imagine these gods and goddesses and portray them using just gestures, facial expressions and body language. Master Ramli has always asked us to add layers to our expressions because we play many roles; we can be an animal, baby Krishna, Rama in Ramayana, or the demon king Ravana. And you can’t just play them based on modern experience; you need to do your research and portray your character in context.

What do you like most about Indian classical dance?
I enjoy the whole process of getting into character, from learning the intricate dance steps to the Abhinaya, the art of expression, which I find particularly interesting and challenging because it needs to come from the heart. There’s also the whole process of getting fully dressed in costume and makeup, which puts you in a very Zen state of mind where you’re completely focused and present in the moment. At Sutra, we don’t wear pre-stitched dhoti pants. Instead, we use a full-length saree and tie it into dhoti pants.

Is there a growing community of non-Indian dancers?

You’d be surprised to know that there are actually many students of different racial backgrounds here. There are so many foreigners learning and performing Indian classical dance in India, including some famous ones from Japan and
Italy, to the extent of adopting their culture and practices. I think dance is universal and transcends racial and cultural barriers.
Did you get the support of your family when you started?

In Bharatanatyam, there’s a graduation ceremony called Salangai Pooja during which gurus wear these bells around the ankles of their students and give them their blessings before the students proceed to perform their debut. I went through that when I graduated in Bharatanatyam at another school where my parents watched me perform for the very first time. In their mind, Indian classical dance was like dancing around trees in the movies, so they were shocked to see me dance in my full costume and makeup. I was very lucky to have my parents’ support right there and then, when they realised that I wasn’t just doing this as a hobby.
Have you ever experienced any conflict between your art and your Chinese background, and how do you think Indian classical dance has enriched your life?

As a Buddhist and a Chinese, I don’t feel any conflict at all. I believe that, first and foremost, you need to have a good sense of respect for culture. When you have that, you’ll be able to see the beauty and values in any culture. In the Indian culture, for instance, when you touch a guru’s feet, it is equivalent to touching Mother Earth, or a mother figure. So I don’t find it a problem at all for me to touch my guru’s feet, because that’s simply a gesture of respect, a basic virtue rather than something religious. When I used to wear my saree to practise, mum would always asked, “Why can’t you wear your normal t-shirt and pants?” I would reply saying if you want to participate in someone’s culture, you need to fully embrace it

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