Corrected at 1:45am, 21 Aug 2009
JEROME Kugan was born and raised in Sabah, but has lived in Kuala Lumpur since 2000. Over the years, he has made a mark for himself in the arts, entertainment and media industries. He is currently the media manager for the Annexe at Central Market. Before this, he was the managing editor for KLue and copy editor for Junk magazines.
Apart from having a degree in Professional Writing from the University of Canberra, Australia, Kugan is a published poet and self-taught musician. (Corrected) His debut solo album Songs for a Shadow was released in 2008, earning him a Best Pop Vocalist nomination in the Voize Independent Music Awards (Vima) 2009. He is now working on a second album, tentatively titled City of Mud.
The Nut Graph interviewed Kugan via e-mail on 13 Feb 2009, on what he thinks it means to be Malaysian, especially for one who is from our often marginalised east.
TNG: Where were you born?
Jerome Kugan: I was born [in 1975] at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu. According to my mum, I was two months premature. I spent a few days in an incubator. I was about the size of a small cat — and I made a mewling sound when I cried. They had to use a cotton bud dipped in milk to feed me. Frankly, I don’t know how I survived.
Where did you grow up?
Until I was nine, my family lived in a two-bedroom low-cost high-rise flat in Tanjung Aru, near the famous beach. The high-rise was a relocation project for families who had lived in the Tanjung Aru water village; my family had lived there before I was born. It was a tight squeeze for a family of six kids plus my parents.
Can you trace your ancestry?
Only as far back as my grandparents. My paternal grandfather was James Tan, a localised Chinese man who was considered rich at the time. He had a herd of buffaloes and I’m sure he owned a bit of land. My eldest brother, who has travelled around Sabah a fair bit, described to me how other people described to him an image of my grandfather riding a buffalo down to the weekend market in Tuaran. Apparently, he was a rather rotund and swarthy man.
[My grandfather] had 11 wives, one of whom was my paternal grandmother Tahil Kugan, from whom I got my surname. Since she was a younger wife, my father didn’t get much of an inheritance. All the property went to the Tans, and that side of the family I don’t really know much about; we’re kind of estranged from them.
Because of my grandfather’s many wives, I have distant relatives all over Sabah. On my mum’s side, my grandfather John Lee came from Guangxi and my grandmother from Guangdong. Both were Hakka.
At about 13 or 15, my (maternal) grandfather joined a tiger hunt. Apparently his dad was so enraged about this that my grandfather decided to jump on a ship bound for Sabah instead of heading home and facing his father’s wrath.
My (maternal) grandmother, on the other hand, was sort of “tricked” by an uncle into going to Sabah when she was about nine, circa the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
I have only ever met my maternal grandmother, and I have very fond memories of her. I’m mixed: three-quarters Chinese [Malaysian], the rest Dusun Lotud from Kampung Sawah, Tuaran.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
In 1984, we moved to a new low-cost housing scheme in Kepayan, near the police headquarters. I grew up in what you would call a relocation experiment for low-income families, under the Datuk Harris Salleh Parti Berjaya Barisan Nasional state government. The Kepayan Low Cost Housing Scheme — or, more blatantly, Rumah Murah Kepayan.
My strongest memory was having this early knowledge that we weren’t privileged. There were money worries all the time; but my mum kept things together. Although she dropped out halfway through high school, she knew how to put food on the table. She was an excellent cook and she cooked everything, from beef ball noodles to satay, sotong bakar to nasi lemak, keropok udang to those glutinous rice dumplings.
I remember getting up at four in the morning to help her pack nasi lemak and dropping them off at the wet market in town. Her night vision was poor, so I had to accompany her as she drove. My dad was the archetypal absent father, but he was a charming and cultured man in his prime. He died penniless in 1999.
Things are different now. My family is middle class. Most of my siblings have moved to Penampang. And the city has changed a lot in the last decade during which I’ve lived in KL. It’s an interesting experience every time I go back. Kind of bittersweet.
Which stories from your family do you hold on to the most?
My mum, who was born in 1940, has a lot of stories about the post-war years, how people basically got by on almost nothing. She told me once about how when she was a kid, she and her siblings would trick stray dogs and little chicks back home to be cooked as dinner. Otherwise it was ubi kayu. Rice was a luxury. Chicken and pork they could only afford to have during Chinese New Year.
My mum recounts the stories with humour, but they sound quite harrowing to me. I just can’t imagine it. The story about one of my uncles who was very much loved but died young in a freak accident still moves my mum to tears. And it’s these family drama stories, the ones that kill dinner table banter, which I love. Because they reveal so much about the family’s hopes and dreams.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
Growing up, I never thought of my family’s stories as being particularly Malaysian. I consider them almost of their own. Maybe because as a Sabahan, I never really identified as being Malaysian while growing up. The Semenanjung experience, with its emphasis on nationalism and race, is a very alien concept to me.
When I think about what Malaysia means to me, I think of the mountains in Sabah, the amazing landscape, the weird and yummy food, or the old Dusun ladies who sell their stock of stinky salted fish at the tamu. I’m a Sabahan first, Malaysian second.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
For one, I’m gay. I knew that from early on. And although I’m not particularly gung ho about it, it took some time to personally reconcile it as a Catholic in a secular Muslim country. But it hasn’t really been too much of an issue. In the end, I just gave up going to church and planned my elaborate escape from the hetero world.
My time spent studying in Australia gave me a chance to explore that part of my personality. In hindsight, my sexuality has been a major influence in my outlook on life and creative work, and in my life decisions, for better or for worse.
One of those decisions was my move to KL, where I met lots of people who encouraged me to really just be myself. As someone who is basically a non-conformist, I love that. Cities, especially if it’s not your hometown, have a liberating energy about them. You can’t find that in a small town.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
Hopefully, an interesting one. Make it anything but bland. I know that’s a rather dangerous request, because the spectre of 13 May 1969 still haunts us. And as it stands, Malaysia could potentially turn into Iran Part II. There are people out there who want that; if it happens, then that’s it for Malaysia.
This country is still young and malleable. In a way, it’s a neat example of Baudrillard’s definition of the simulacra — an artificial construct looking for something real. But let’s look for it with respect for one another and an open mind.
Malaysia has a deep legacy and heritage that stretches back millennia into the past, and all this is worth looking into as inspiration for the multipolycultural nation we have the potential to be. In a way, we’re kind of lucky to have so much to draw upon. All these stories we have as a people, it’s a gold mine. I just hope that religious fervour, neo-feudalist intrigues and economic barbarism don’t tear it apart before it has a chance.
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