A Teochew kangchu

Shamsul Akmal Md Ilias aka Suratman [wearing silver shirt]
in the role of Tan Hiok Nee,
performing a song and dance sequence
In the role of a Teochew kangchu

I was born in Kampong Perigi, Yan, Kedah and moved to live in Johor Baru for the past eleven years.  I’m the eldest son in our family, with a sister and younger brother.  Since young, I was aware that our father, a teacher by profession, is gifted in various arts. 

Father could act, play musical instruments and draw beautiful portraits.  I remember how father could draw portraits just by referring to photos.  On National Day and other special celebrations, my father who’s now a pensioner, is still often invited to recite poetry.

I guess I inherited some of these gifts from him because I also enjoy reciting poetry and acting.  In the past two years, I took part in a poetry reciting competition organized by the Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka and another on the 50th year anniversary of the National Language Campaign and clinched the top prizes. 

Acting comes quite naturally to me so over the years, I was involved in several local productions and had the honour of being named, Best Actor, several times.  In the 7th Johor Baru Arts Festival last year, the Johor Society for the Performing Arts worked in collaboration with Alpha Consult and Lee Wushu Arts Theatre to present a musical drama, Bumi Berlantai Permata, or the Bejewelled Land.  This musical theatre production tells the story of the beginning of modern Johor in music, dance and drama by cast of actors, dancers and musicians.  

I played the role of one of Johor Baru’s founding fathers, Wong Ah Fook.  To prepare for this role, some Chinese friends from Lee Wushu Arts Workshop coached me in the art of speaking Bahasa Melayu with an exaggerated heavy Chinese accent.  It was very challenging but I think I gave a credible portrayal of a Chinese immigrant. 

Suratman, in the role of Tan Hiok Nee, sang a song
with one verse in Teochew dialect
In the revised version, Bumi Berlantai Permata II, staged in the 8th Johor Baru Arts Festival, director Dean Manas initially cast me in the role of Fredrick Weld.  I know he wanted to give me a fresh experience in a new role but when we started reading the script, I ended up speaking with a Chinese accent instead of an English one.  After several attempts, Dean Manas decided that I should revert to the role of the lead Chinese character.

Rehearsals were tough because the cast, made up mostly of amateurs, had day jobs and we could only get together at night.  Through sheer passion and commitment to the art, we rehearsed our various parts, first separately and then together, usually into the wee hours of the morning.  I suffered seriously from sleep deprivation but the love for the art just drove me on, especially as we would also be presenting a gala performance to HRH the Sultan of Johor.

The play, written by Rahimah Muda and directed by Dean Manas with co-direction by Lee Swee Seng and Fairuz Embun, had some interesting revisions that included a change in the lead Chinese character to Tan Hiok Nee, the leader of the Teochew clan.  I happily accepted this role and thought it was going to be easy since I already had experience playing the part of a Chinese immigrant.  On the other hand, I also wondered if there was no longer any challenge because I had nothing new to learn.

Incidentally, this year’s arts fest was organized in collaboration with the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee with a series of supporting events held on Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street.  When I realised that my character’s name was the same as this road, I was curious and started to research my role.  It was an emotional journey for me as I went on a guided tour of the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum and discovered for myself, who my character really is. 

Suratman [Right] next to Dean Manas, drama director,
in the finale of Bumi Berlantai Permata II at
the 8th Johor Baru Arts Festival
Finally I understood that part of Johor history where prominent kangchus developed Johor’s economy through planting pepper and gambier.  In 1844 Tan Kee Soon, leader of the Ngee Heng kongsi or society established the Tan chu kang in Kangkar Tebrau with a large group of workers.  He was succeeded by Tan Hiok Nee in circa 1864.  This society played a significant role in settling the unrest in Muar which helped Temenggong Ibrahim become the ruler of Johor. 

I was filled with awe for Tan Hiok Nee who was probably the only Chinese appointed to the office of Major China in Malaya and was a State Council member with a role in government.  When the director told me that my character should speak and sing in Teochew dialect, I was plagued by the worse fears but challenged to learn something new.  In three days, I picked up this dialect with strange inflections under the patient tutelage of Tan Chai Puan, Director of the Teochew Eight Districts Association and perfected the art of singing Teochew lyrics with the help from my colleague, Lim Kee Yee, Senior Assistant Superintendent of Customs based at Johor Customs Tower. 

Shamsul Akmal Md Ilias, better known as Suratman
at Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street
I never knew I was capable of it but as the audience applauded and responded positively to my performance, I attributed my achievement to these friends including Lee Swee Seng, Wushu instructor and artistic director of Lee Wushu Arts Theatre, who taught me the right posture and gait, and Miss Chow Pei Foon, stage manager of Lee Wushu Arts Theatre, who helped me hone my Chinese theatrical skills.  

I’m just humbled by the privilege to portray such a great man in Johor’s history and glad that I have helped the younger generation to be more aware of their proud heritage.

Note:   Shamsul Akmal Md Ilias, better known as Suratman, 37, an award-wining artiste with a passion for the arts, has a day job as an officer attached to the Passenger Section of the Customs & Excise Department in Johor Baru.

A version of this interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 20 July 2011

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