Bilqis Hijjas (all pics below courtesy of Bilqis Hijjas)
BILQIS Hijjas has come a long way since her first dance lessons. “My mum sent me for ballet lessons with a girl up the road, who ended up as Linda Jasmine [Hashim] from Akademi Fantasia,” she says. “[Linda] was 14, I was six, and our lessons were on her living room carpet, holding on to the cupboard for support.”
Bilqis now directs, choreographs, produces and performs in various dance productions in Malaysia. The Harvard University alumna runs the dance programme at arts centre Rimbun Dahan and is the director of dance company Balletbase. Bilqis, who is named after the Queen of Sheba, has also recently started teaching dance at Universiti Malaya and blogs regularly to help audiences understand and appreciate dance better.
Bilqis tells The Nut Graph during her 24 Feb 2010 interview in Kuala Lumpur how she feels she can contribute in Malaysia, and her experiences of being told she’s not Malaysian.
Her next dance performance Dancebox at Actors Studio, Lot 10 will feature seven short works by local choreographers. The show is at 8.30pm, 2 April 2010, and entry is by donation of RM10.
TNG: Where were you born?
Bilqis Hijjas: I was born at Pantai Hospital in 1979.
Paternal grandmother Puteh with uncle
Where did your parents come from? What’s your ancestry?
My paternal grandmother was born into a Chinese family in Pekalongan, Java. She was given away to a Malay family to bring up. She had a Malay name but everyone called her Puteh. Pekalongan’s main industry is batik and [as part of her family's business], she came to Singapore with some halus batik and met my grandfather. I’m not sure about his ancestry — I know he has some Javanese and some [ancestors from Kuantan]. He was apparently a charming but not so reliable man. He had various jobs that he never really stuck with including at one point, looking after elephants at a circus.
Even though my grandfather was very poor and my grandmother from a wealthy merchant family, she decided she would marry him. My father (architect Hijjas Kasturi) grew up in Singapore and he got a scholarship to study architecture in Australia. When he came back, he was invited to start the architecture faculty at Mara Institute of Technology so he moved to Kuala Lumpur and settled here.
My mother (Angela Hijjas) is from Melbourne and her parents’ families were migrants to Australia, most from England but some from Ireland. She came here in the 1970s on an Australian Volunteer International project which sent graduates to developing countries to work and contribute for a few years. She worked in the town planning department here and at some point, met my father, who proposed to her and they got married.
Bilqis (right) with maternal grandparents Richard and Ilona Longworth on her father’s first
yacht, Sri Naga
My maternal grandmother was initially very disapproving of the match. From her perspective, my father was 12 years older than my mother, divorced, Muslim and in another country! But over the years, it has worked out well and now she’s come to the conclusion he’s actually too good for my mother! [Laughs]
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ukay Heights (Ampang) until I was 12, when we moved to Rimbun Dahan, where I lived until I went to study in [the US] when I was 18. After [the US], I went to Australia for four years because my mum’s from Australia and she has family there and I wanted the experience of having lived there. I spent two years studying [choreography and anthropology] and two years working in Australia.
Bilqis (left) and sister Mulaika at Rimbun Dahan during
Hari Raya Haji
What are your strongest memories of the place where you grew up?
I used to spend a lot of time walking around Ukay Heights. My sister and friends would walk everywhere in the area. We’d explore empty houses, look around, scare ourselves and run out screaming. We found some really interesting and weird things in empty houses. Once, I found a stereo and a pair of men’s ballet shoes that were obviously [still] being used. Someone was clearly coming to the house and using it as a studio to practise his ballet.
We moved to Rimbun Dahan when I was 12. It’s in a Malay kampung area past Sungai Buloh. When we first moved, the fantastic thing was going out in the morning and seeing the grass where the dew had fallen. There’d be little pockets of silver all over where the spiders had made a horizontal nest. And then we’d go to the durian tree and if we found a durian we [would be] so happy. I did take my bike out at first to explore the area and people would look at me and wonder who I was and what I was doing there. It made me uncomfortable enough not to want to do it anymore so Rimbun Dahan’s 14 acres became my small world.
What do you like best about living in Malaysia?
I did feel for the first time [when I lived] in Australia, that I belonged, because people wouldn’t wonder where I was from, which I get all the time here. However, at the end of the day, I felt that I couldn’t make a contribution there…I looked around and there were all these people with degrees and experience and I felt there was really no point in me being there. Everything was so saturated — every niche was filled, every job taken, every idea already being executed.
On the whole, I feel that I can make much more of a difference in Malaysia than I ever could anywhere else. A lot can be attributed to the fact that the dance community is so small. No matter what small thing you are doing, proportionately, you are still making a substantial contribution to the development of dance. I’m also here partly because of Rimbun Dahan and eventually I will be responsible for it. It’s an enormous asset if used properly.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with as a Malaysian?
Bilqis (middle) with mother Angela Hijjas and sister Mulaika in Langkawi
[Personally], not really. But I do have difficulties when other people don’t acknowledge that I’m Malaysian. It’s a common experience for people who don’t fit neatly into the boxes which people think are Malaysian.
Growing up, I’d get in a taxi and they’d always ask where I was from. I used to lie sometimes because it was just easier to say I was Australian [to avoid having to explain why I'm Malaysian]. But recently, it’s been better. When I say I’m Malaysian, they say, “Oh, kacukan”. Sometimes, migrant workers also ask where I’m from and when I say Malaysia, they tell me I’m not Malaysian!
I remember once in Boston, I was sitting by the sea and I heard some students nearby talking and they were obviously Singaporean or Malaysian. I was feeling so homesick and my boyfriend, who was with me, urged me to go and talk to them. So I went over and introduced myself and said I was from KL and they were like, “Err…you’re not from KL!” That experience was so painful. To be homesick and to have people in a foreign country tell me I’m not Malaysian.
Bilqis’s parents, Hijjas Kasturi and Angela Hijjas, at their wedding with Hijjas’s sons from his first marriage
I think I’m Malaysian and it doesn’t necessarily depend on what other people think …The idea that Malaysians look [a certain way] and fit into [certain] boxes, is not one that I accept. My Malaysian friend who’s half-Malay and half-Chinese and a very good Muslim told me she doesn’t tick “Malay” [in forms], she ticks “Other”. I was surprised because technically, she’s Malay [Malaysian], I always tick “Malay”… She told me, “I don’t want to tick ‘Malay’. I don’t want to feel like I have to be restricted to that definition.”
I remember growing up, we had an Amah and she would tell my sister and I, “Kamu ni bukan Melayu betul.” So I fully admit that I bukan Melayu betul and I don’t want to be Melayu betul and to pretend that I am would be disingenuous. I want to feel that I can be Malaysian without having to be Malay, which is of course technically impossible but practically negotiable.
What kind of Malaysia would you like for yourself and for the future?
Bilqis (seated, middle) with (from left): half-siblings Suyani
and Serina and sister Mulaika
I don’t really need Malaysia to change for me in particular because I know I have a privileged lifestyle.
I do wish the education system were better…I teach kids now in Universiti Malaya and they’re really adorable — eager and interested, sweet and charming. They do whatever you tell them to do because they’re Malaysians, not like in [the US] where they don’t show up half the time and the other half, they’re bored of you.
I think it’s such a shame that the education system has short-changed them. That they’ve been cheated of what they could learn. I think at the very least we should pay our teachers more. Without going into issues of whether we should teach in English or Malay, if we just paid our teachers more and teaching were considered a good profession, it would make a difference.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews