PLAYWRIGHT and performer Leow Puay Tin has been involved in the theatre scene for more than 20 years. Working alongside the late, renowned Malaysian director Krishen Jit, she devised Tikam-Tikam: And Her Grandmother Said in 1983, and later wrote acclaimed plays, Three Children (1984), Ang Tau Mui (1993) and Family (1995). A common thread running through these works is that they were inspired by Leow’s childhood. Leow grew up in Malacca as the grandchild of immigrants who had come to Malaya from China in the early part of the 20th century.
But Leow’s writing credits aren’t limited to familial tales. She also wrote for Readings from the Constitution and the Penal Code. This was a response to the arrest in 1998 of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy and corruption. For this, she created two performance texts with material culled from the Malaysian constitution and the Penal Code.
Leow has also been involved in projects that collaboratively feature her work and that of other artists and writers. Among these is Bags of Stories, a Malay-language improvisational performance derived from popular and folk songs, actors’ personal stories, traditional sayings and verse. In 2007, she was one of the performers in Five Arts Centre’s Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya, a Merdeka-related production celebrating multicultural Malaysia.
Leow was one of the curators of Second Link (2004), a collaborative project featuring works written and performed by Malaysians and Singaporeans, in which her Ang Tau Mui featured. Ang Tau Mui was most recently translated into Chinese and restaged by TEA Theatre at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre from 23 to 25 Oct 2009.
A former journalist with the New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur, Leow is also an academician who has taught in both Malaysia and Singapore. Currently, Leow heads the Department of Performance and Media at Sunway University College.
In an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph on 21 Oct 2009, she shares more about her life in Malacca, the impact her grandmother has had on her life and her works, and the state of Malaysia’s public toilets.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Leow Puay Tin: I was born in a two-storey shop house in Malacca town near the clock tower, adjacent to the Malacca river. My father and my uncles worked together making and selling kapur (limewash). No one really took notice of the children, simply because there were too many of us.
My mother and my aunt worked round the clock, cooking and washing and caring for a combined household of 20-odd people. We lived a very basic existence: the grown-ups worked while the kids went to Chinese or English missionary schools. We had three meals a day, a place to lie down at night — kids in rows, sleeping on mats on the floor — and once in a while, a treat, such as a movie or ice-cream or fried carrot cake.
My parents really believed in education as the key to a brighter future for us all. My father was quite progressive in sending five of his eight children to English missionary schools. But I hated school and wanted to stop in my second year. It was shattering when my mother told me I had to continue studying until university; I cried, wondering how I was going to make it through all those years.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
We kids had great freedom to roam after school. I never learnt [to ride a bicycle], so my range was limited to what I could cover on foot. I went everywhere, including to people’s houses, just to look and see what was happening. People didn’t mind; I don’t remember ever being chased away since I was a good kid. I gave no trouble, just [watched] quietly. I picked up a lot of stuff that way.
When I was about 14, my father moved us out to the suburbs and into a bungalow, and that freedom disappeared virtually overnight. I then moved into the world of fiction through books.
I remember the moments when I encountered things that were out of the ordinary [but] were just beautiful. Like seeing spider orchids for the very first time — I was about 10, and I could feel my mind reeling with disbelief and delight that the flowers were real! And watching Hokkien street opera — I was so addicted that once I knew a troupe was performing somewhere, I would know no peace until I saw it, even if it meant walking in the dark alone to get there and back.
And listening to the azan at dawn coming from the mosque down the road. Even now whenever I hear the call to prayer, I feel soothed, comforted.
Can you trace your ancestry?
Both sides of my family are Hokkien, and came from the same place in southern China, Hui Hwa (or Hwei An in Mandarin). Although both sets of grandparents travelled on the same vessel — exact dates not known, but the late 1920s, probably — they didn’t know one another then.
My paternal grandparents settled in Malacca town, which is the Chinese [Malaysian] part of Malacca; while my maternal grandparents lived among the Malay [Malaysians] about five miles out of town in Kandang.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your family? How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
My ah mah, paternal grandmother, loved to talk, and I now see that she was really an oral folk historian. She was a realist and she told it like it was. My mother would have to gently remind her of the presence of children whenever my grandmother used obscene language or went into sexual matters.
Her stories of her life and times in China, which she referred to as T’ng Su-ah in Hokkien, meaning Tang Mountains, were mostly brutal and horrific. She told them from the point of view of a woman peasant, at a time when the central government in China had collapsed. She counted herself lucky because there were others who were worse off.
The stories of her early days in Malacca were also of hardship, but it was an economic and physical hardship that could be overcome by dint of hard work and frugality — and with the help of heaven. This was because the government was just, and there was law and order.
This theme or moral instruction ran as an undercurrent through several of her stories, further illustrated by the living examples of my uncles, her two youngest sons, who went to university in Singapore and Taiwan in the 1960s, while her older children had barely any formal education.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I struggle with race a lot because it has been politicised by those who use race to play on our feelings and manipulate us. I also worry about fundamentalism in general, when its advocates don’t stress personal spiritual cultivation, and don’t teach or encourage their followers to ask questions and think for themselves.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I imagine a country with clean and well-designed public toilets that work. And used by people who will know a mess when they have made one, and who will not leave until they have found a way to clean it up for the next user.
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