Our Aural Heritage

The artiste, Chong Keat Aun, lifting a
cup of coffee up to his upstairs window
Weekends are for hanging out at favourite coffee-shops for a leisurely breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast with hot drinks, just as we did in olden days.  It’s no different at Kim Wah kopitiam which is doing brisk business with customers seated at extra tables that line the pavements, competing for space with a fast-gathering crowd here.  Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk is temporarily closed to vehicular traffic and the centre of the road is covered with something like a red carpet but on looking closer, I see it’s a 90m length of solid red cloth. 

The crowd swelled in a matter of minutes and suddenly all attention is riveted to two opened upstairs windows opposite the kopitiam.  The artiste’s dramatically painted face peeping out from one window sent cameras clicking.  His voice audaciously calls out an order for coffee in Teochew dialect and it is quickly served onto a rattan basket that he lowered from the window.  The cup and saucer are slowly lifted up and when it was safely received, the audience cheered!

A scene in the dramatic experimental dance along
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk for the opening of
The Classic Accents Art House in Eh He - Earth Heart
A flutist appears at the next window and as his mesmerizing music fills the air, he joins the artiste on the street for a dramatic dance performance.  The artiste – his face painted in dual male and female character – wearing batik pantaloons, a tiny top reminiscent of ancient Chinese lady’s underwear and an elaborate head-dress, puts down his leather suitcase and torn paper umbrella and removes his wooden clogs to perform an exciting experimental dance along the entire length of red cloth.  At the opposite end, he is joined by a calligraphist who writes an auspicious couplet on the cloth in bold black paint.  

To end his dance, the artist opens a wooden box to reveal an ancient gramophone’s turntable which he winds up.  And when he sets the needle to the vinyl record, we can hear classic Chinese opera music!

The design of the gallery's name is inspired by an
old window grille from a nearby fabric shop!
The Talents

The artiste is RTM Ai FM DJ & Producer, Chong Keat Aun, a gifted visual artist and street performer who is adding JB’s Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk to the many sites he has performed in Penang, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.  After Chong removed his makeup and emerged in his street clothes, I almost didn’t recognise him.  He is speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese media and even though I don’t understand all he’s saying, I’m lulled by the rich timbre in his voice and remind myself that he’s a radio personality who uses his voice to soothe and entertain listeners.

Chong learnt contemporary dance with a dance theatre group since 2000 and six years ago, he started doing street performances mostly at KL’s Petaling Street and one of his most unforgettable performances was the last dance for Pudu Jail before it was demolished.  

Calligraphist, Pang Heng Khan, writing
while the artiste performed on the street
His dance performances are choreographed to the music performed by flutist and composer, Yii Kah Hoe who hails from Sibu, Sarawak.  This morning’s powerful performance illustrates the journey through a bygone era to preserve and present aural heritage at The Classic Accents Art House.  The dance culminated in the writing of an auspicious couplet by Pang Heng Khan, a skilled calligraphist who is no stranger to Johor as he has previously collaborated in various events with the talents from Lee Wushu Arts Theatre.

Chong’s foray into visual arts includes a series of award-winning photographs taken at Petaling Street by photographer Calvin Yew Pin Shi.  This successful collaboration resulted in another series of poignant photographs taken at familiar JB heritage sites.  These are displayed in The Classic Accents Art House from now till March 31.  One of my favourite shots is Chong, dressed in his dramatic attire, photographed against a backdrop of concrete crumbles and part of the river at the reopening of Sungai Segget that was closed up as a pedestrian walk since 2005.

The audience followed the artiste as he
performed along the road
The Inspiration

Chong is Cantonese but he’s fluent in Teochew, a dialect he learnt from his grandmother and he was exposed to Teochew opera and stage makeup from an early age.  Aware that more and more Chinese dialects are being lost with the passing of elderly folks, Chong embarked on a project to collect sounds, mainly in traditional music, to curate for posterity.  

As a radio personality, Chong is inclined to research our aural landscape and has garnered a vast collection of sounds in various forms of recordings to document the genres and traditional uses in our communities.  The Chinese have music and songs for most festivals and events like sowing, harvesting, the winter solstice, sending back the kitchen god, post reunion dinner and of course, the lunar new year!

The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) in China wiped out a great deal of traditional opera, music and customs as literature and written records were destroyed and any traditions were only passed down through word-of-mouth because practice was prohibited.  As a result new generations in China are unfamiliar with what is authentic or unique about their dialects.  

A section of the display in The Classic
Accents Art House in Eh He - Earth Heart
His research revealed that dialect groups in the Malaysian Chinese community have in effect, preserved more authentic traditions here than in China.  In the past 10 years his passion for collecting sounds has taken him around the country to discover the language and music of the various dialect groups which are truly a valuable resource. 

I agree with Chong that even in Malaysia, each dialect is spoken differently by region like or it may vary in different states.  For instance, Penang Hokkien hardly resembles the Hokkien spoken in JB and the Cantonese words for money or currency in Perak are different from the same words used in Johor.  

Chong observed that Chinese dialects are often spoken with different accents in different states as most have adopted Malay words and even words from other dialects to form a rojak dialect.  As dialects are constantly evolving, Chong is keen to acquaint new generations with our aural heritage in an interesting audio showcase at The Classic Accents Art House.

Chong Keat Aun showing off an old vinyl record in his
precious collection of sounds in our aural heritage
The Art House                     

The sight of familiar transistor radios displayed in the Art House gives me a sudden flashback to childhood days when my grandma would tune in regularly to listen to popular Cantonese storyteller, Lei Tai Soh.  The Classic Accents exhibition is truly a labour of love, carefully curated by Chong to showcase a priceless aural heritage that was enjoyed by Chinese communities here before televisions became popular.  In the 1940s to the 1960s, it was common for Chinese to master more than their own dialect in order to communicate with others for business and social purposes.  A classic example of this era is preserved in a popular 1950s multi-dialect radio comedy sketch by a 4-member troupe, the precursor for the successful TV series Empat Sekawan that ran for two decades until the 1980s.

Teochew opera songs are sung acapella by
women from lyric books!
Chong’s excitement is infectious as he shows me the various audio stations where recordings of Empat Sekawan and a range of Chinese operas are available for visitors to listen to from headphones.  The wail of the chorus in typical Teochew operas transports me right back to my Ah Kong or grandfather’s house where he used to enjoy singing along to his favourite operas.  Listening to another set of headphones, I instantly recognise a familiar genre of Chinese poetry recited to the rhythm of a repetitive “tock tock” of chopsticks which I playfully call Chinese rap!

I hear a recording of female voices singing a cappella (I’m told) in Teochew and am fascinated that this may be the earliest form of karaoke.  Chong tells me how he rescued stacks of precious lyric books that were about to be burnt in Pulau Ketam.  In predominantly Teochew settlements, villagers usually buy a copy of the lyric books after watching the operas and it was customary for a few women to gather in the porch after dinner, to sing the songs a cappella!

Chong and his valuable collection of
Nanyang Radio Weekly magazines
Each station in the Art House is presented with an old radio cassette player plugged with a thumb-drive to play a loop of the recordings.  Relevant info about the recording is provided on plaques and old but colourful record sleeves as well as heritage bric-a-brac decorate each station.  

Then Chong shows me his priceless collection of Nanyang Radio Weekly magazines dated from 1950 to 1963, displayed on the shelves of an old meat-safe.  In those days, this was an essential magazine for radio buffs to follow their favourite radio series as it was filled with radio programme schedules, ads, sections to learn Malay and English languages and even featured a regular racy photo in the ilk of Page 3 girls!

Fast Facts

Exhibits in the Classic Accents Art House will be refreshed every two months.  The Art House is located within Eh He (colloquially pronounced: Uh Huh) – Earth Heart, at No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, Jalan Trus, Johor Baru.  Open daily from 11am to 10pm.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 19 February 2015

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