COLIN Kirton is a multitalented artist who, among others things, acts, directs, sings, plays the piano and provides training in theatre. He studied at Rosebud School of the Arts in Alberta, Canada from 1996 to 1998.
Since returning to Malaysia, he has worked with the likes of the Instant Café Theatre Company, Enfiniti Productions, Dama Orchestra, the Philharmonic Society of Selangor, and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. He has also served on the panel of judges for the annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, both in the music and theatre categories.
His TV credits include the role of Edmund Soo in the second season of Ghost (8TV). Most recently, he and his theatre group the Footstool Players have been travelling across the country, touring their award-winning production of Crazy Little Thing Called Love, which he also created, produced and directed.
In this e-mail interview with The Nut Graph on 13 Oct 2009, Kirton discusses his growing up years, his hopes for the future of Malaysia, and how his heritage is distantly linked to Harry Potter.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Colin Kirton: I was born in Kuantan, Pahang. I spent most of my growing up years there until secondary school, except for one-year periods when I was five and 11, when I lived in Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My father, Eric Kirton, was from Clydebank, near Glasgow. He first came to Malaya in his late teens in the Royal Air Force during the (Malayan) Emergency. My mother, Tan Cheng Kim, was born and grew up in Kuala Lumpur.
My father met my mother at a church camp and corresponded with her upon returning to Scotland after his stint with the forces. He came back to Malaysia a few years later as a Christian missionary and eventually married her. At this time, she was a teacher in her alma mater, Bukit Bintang Girls School. She joined my father in Kuantan and continued to teach for some years before becoming a full-time homemaker.
On my Scottish side, my grandfather George Kirton was a railway signal[person] from Aberdeen. His fore[bears] were either farmers or stonemasons.
He married my grandmother, Janet Waddell, who was 16 years his junior and came from a well-to-do family. Her father William was a distinguished engineer, who worked for his uncle Sir Robert McAlpine, whose construction and engineering legacy continues to this day. My great grandfather built the renowned West Highland Railway and Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland, famously featured in the Harry Potter movies.
His wife disapproved of my grandmother’s marriage because she was marrying below their status, and to a much older man. So Granny was cut off from the family fortune, and my father’s family lived working class lives.
Granny was a whiz with numbers and worked as an accounts clerk. She was a very smart woman, and I think could have gone a lot further in life had she been born some decades later. Interestingly, one of her suitors was John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television!
On my Chinese side, my grandfather Tan Teik Ooh came from Penang. His father Tan Guay Seong was a first generation immigrant from China, and his mother, Ong Geok Siew, was a Penang Nyonya with some Burmese blood.
She was a dark-skinned woman who also went by her Burmese name Bee Agu. She sold renowned fried chicken from a basket she carried around the streets of Penang, long before the days of Colonel Sanders!
Grandpa Tan moved to Ipoh to work in the mines in his teens, and after a failed first marriage to a Tartar woman, married my grandmother Yap Yoke Keng. When the mining industry slumped, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and set up his own trading business.
What are the stories you hold on to the most from your family?
When my dad was a boy, the family home in Clydebank was bombed by the Germans during the Clydebank Blitz of World War II. The family fled to safety in the bunkers, but they lost everything other than the clothes on their backs.
On another occasion, a fire broke out in the tenement flat they lived in, and again they lost everything. My parents were never well-to-do, but they lived contented lives, holding loosely everything they owned. I think the fact that dad’s family had always bounced back taught us that there was much more to life than the stuff we owned or how much money we had.
Mum came from a very musical family. She had a lovely voice and played the accordion and organ by ear. Some of my uncles sang in bands and were winners in singing competitions held in BB Park and on radio in the 1950s and 60s. One of my uncles was the popular Mandarin singer and EMI producer of the 60s, Su Yin.
My aunt told me of an old photo she’d seen of my grandparents and some of their siblings playing in a band, with my grandfather playing the violin and my grandmother playing the mandolin. These stories remind me of the roots of my own musical heritage as a musician and singer.
Another story involves my Chinese grandfather’s objections to my mum marrying a non-Chinese. It was my grandmother who finally convinced him that if he wanted his daughter to be happy, he would have to acquiesce. I found it surprising that a man whose first marriage was inter-racial would have such strong objections, but perhaps the struggles he had faced in that failed relationship coloured his views.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
Some of these stories underscore the racial and religious struggles that permeate Malaysian society. But they give me hope that there is room for a broader — and deeper — understanding of one another.
My Chinese grandparents loved keroncong music. I think the universality of music, and its potential to cross societal boundaries, even meld them together, is something today’s Malaysian musicians and singers can use to build bridges between the communities.
And arising from the stories of his own family’s losses, dad’s ethos of simple living is a challenge to our modern day Malaysian materialistic mindset.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
Being of mixed race, I’ve always seen myself as Malaysian first, and “ethnically whatever” next. I tend to see everyone else that way, too. So the struggle has been more for other people who need to compartmentalise me into one of their own little racial “boxes”. I don’t get why some people have an “us” and “them” mentality towards race.
I often answer that ubiquitous question “So what are you, ah?” with: “I’m 50% Scottish, 50% Chinese, and 100% Malaysian.”
I’ve spent some time living overseas, and there’s always this enigmatic, elusive, intrinsic, indefinable thing that I know deep down inside makes me Malaysian. But I can never put my finger precisely on it. Our “Malaysian identity” can’t be conjectured or forced by decree. It’s a flower that needs to be allowed to bloom by itself. It’s not a formula to be defined; it’s more like an aroma to be savoured.
Describe the Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
Obviously a Malaysia that is blind to race and religion, and that supports true religious freedom for all, without fear or favour — where 1Malaysia is not just some canggih political catchphrase.
I also want a Malaysia that is free of corruption, and free of the paranoia arising from a katak di bawah tempurung mentality. Our education system needs to be more rounded and needs to encourage critical thinking. And we need to truly value and respect our amazing natural environment before it’s too late. We’ve already lost too much of our unique natural heritage to ignorance, apathy and rampant corrupt practice in the name of so-called “development”.
Finally, I would like to see a mindset change among Malaysians: money isn’t everything! Why else would I be an artist? (laughs) I seriously think our lust for money is the root of many of our problems today as a nation.
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