Updated 12.30pm on 11 July 2011
(All pics below courtesy of Elaine Pedley) DANCER/choreographer/actor Elaine Pedley has been performing professionally since she was 15.
A performing arts graduate from Universiti Malaya, Pedley has since appeared in award-winning theatre and dance productions, including Curfew!, Spilt Gravy on Rice, Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya, and Cuckoo Birds. She was also a performance coach on television shows Malaysian Idol and the Malaysian version of So You Think You Can Dance.
In this 7 May 2010 interview in Kuala Lumpur, Elaine tells The Nut Graph what it was like to grow up with no racial hang-ups in Penang, only to discover racial politics in Kuala Lumpur.
TNG: Where and when were you born?
Elaine Pedley: I was born at Penang General Hospital on 31 July 1974.
Where did you grow up?
For the first seven years, I grew up in Butterworth, then Penang island after that. I’ve been based in Kuala Lumpur ever since I came to study at Universiti Malaya.
Can you trace your ancestry?
I can, actually, especially now with websites like Serani Sembang. I had actually started building up my family tree, but stopped halfway. I can continue, though, because I do have copies of my grandparents’ birth certificates, marriage certificates and so on.
Where were your parents or grandparents from?
On my mum’s side, my great grandfather came from Fukien province in China. He came to Penang and married my great grandmother, who was from Penang. She was an opium smoker. They had 10 children, but one passed away at a young age. So my grandfather was the eldest of the remaining nine children.
My great grandfather was a landowner who had set up in Alor Star after coming from Fukien. My grandfather worked with the Kedah land office. They lived in my great grandfather’s mansion in a Malay village in Alor Star, in which they were the only Chinese family.
Elaine with her mother My maternal grandmother grew up on a rubber estate in Selama, Perak. She met my grandfather in Alor Star.
My mother, Annie Ooi Siew Lan, says she had a “Malay grandmother” when she was growing up. The village was by a riverbank, so the children would go sit and fish. My mother was very noisy and so her grandmother used to tell a Malay woman there, “Just take her and adopt her.” So she had a Malay “adopted grandmother”. Every Raya, she’d have to dress up nicely and visit her Malay “grandmother” and bring kuih for her.
My father is James Ronald Pedley, and his grandparents were from Lancaster, England. Their eldest child, my grandfather, was born in Penang. They had two other children, whom the mother took back to England. So my grandfather was left in Penang with his dad, and didn’t meet his mother again. He only met his two younger siblings when they were much older. My grandmother was also born in Penang.
My paternal grandfather, John Arthur Edward Pedley, is listed as “Inggeris” on his birth certificate, but my grandmother, Violet Victoria McCulloch is listed as “Eurasian”. They had 11 children, and my dad is the second child.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
Just running outside and climbing trees, really. In Penang, we lived in the teachers’ quarters near Francis Light School, which were almost entirely Malay [Malaysian]. There was a field in front of our house, and all the children would play and play until some mothers would come out and scream, “Maghrib!” Then, this one girl would just lie down on the road in protest and we would all laugh.
I loved going back to Alor Star for school holidays. My cousins from my mother’s side would be there, so we would play in the paddy fields near my grandfather’s house and catch water snakes.
Teenage Elaine with her cousins during a trip back to Alor Star
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents or grandparents?
Because my maternal grandfather worked with the Kedah land office, he moved around the state a lot, from Alor Star, to Kulim, to Baling. He’d have to walk into jungles and padi fields and so on. One of his work excursions was around 13 May 1969.
So he was just going out on his business, and was suddenly accosted by some Malay [Malaysian] villagers who didn’t know him and they beat him up. The village penghulu later apologised to him and attended to him. He didn’t need to be taken to hospital or anything.
My mum says she found out about this only much later, because her mother was just too afraid to tell this story.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
You see, as a child, I had Malay [Malaysian] schoolmates who would always ask me, “You Christian?” It wasn’t even, “You Serani?” They seemed to equate being Christian with being English. I would simply answer, “Ya, saya Christian.” (Laughs) But I didn’t really know what it meant. I also used to get, “You Bengali?”
Once, in Standard One, one of my aunts was the catechism teacher, and she entered my class. She asked all the Christian pupils to follow her out. I just smiled at her and continued doing my work. She said, “Elaine, you have to come also.” I asked, “But why?” She said, “Because you’re Christian.” I said, “I’m Christian?”
These things didn’t make sense to me. They’re just classifications. So when I found out I’m Christian, I was like, “Okaylah.”
Elaine, on her mum’s lap, with her familyThese things just didn’t strike me as I was growing up. For example, in Form One, one of the teachers was teaching us to fill up some forms, and said, “If you are bumiputera, tick here.” I was like, “What’s bumiputera?”
But are you bumiputera?
I am now! Well, not exactly. You see, I never bothered to back then, but you do know that Serani [Malaysians] can apply for partial bumi status (for example, to buy Amanah Saham Bumiputera shares)? All my cousins were busy applying back then. I applied only a couple of years ago and got it.
But ya, in Penang, I just never noticed these things. I played with Malay [Malaysian] kids all the time, and it was nothing. But in UM, I got culture shock. Everyone was in racial cliques! It was just very racial. And it was so strong and in your face. You just had to conform.
For example, the Malay [Malaysian] students would come to your room if you were a Malay [Malaysian] girl and didn’t wear the tudung. They’d come to give you a pep talk, and so on.
But where did I belong? When I mixed with them, it was like, “You must sit like this. Women must clap their hands like this.” I mean look at me — do I look like I conform? They’d ask me, “Banjirkah hari ni?” And I’d wonder what they were talking about, and they’d say, “Pakai skirt pendek sangat sebab banjir ke?” I was actually wearing a baju kurung that wasn’t dragging enough dirt off the floor.
In Penang, there were no boundaries like this. So in KL, this supposedly “modern” capital city, there’s so much segregation. It’s shocking. We are trained to segregate in university — what kind of thinking are we programming into future generations?
I’m wondering if it’s because I’m of mixed parentage, but I don’t like all these cliques. I’ll be your friend as long as you’re nice to me and not mean to me.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I struggle with my husband’s permanent resident status. He’s a British national who has spent 13 years here, and still can’t get PR status.
With her husband, Philip Craig, and daughter, Keeva Shanyi
It all started when we went to the Immigration Department office at Damansara Heights to take the forms. The officers took one look at me and my husband and said, “You tau you tak layak kan? This is only for Malaysian men who marry non-citizen women.” So I thought it was useless to apply. Then they said, “Takpe, just submit it so that you can get a rejection letter.” I was thinking, “Why would I need to do that just to get a rejection letter?” They said then I could try appealing against the rejection. It was such a weird conversation.
So we applied and got the rejection letter. So then we appealed to the Home Ministry. They gave us this huge form in hard copy to type in our answers. So then I thought, “I have to go through all this and type in my answers? With a typewriter?” It was so difficult, and I was trying to figure it out, and then I got pregnant and gave birth. Just when I wanted to attempt filling out the form, we got an official letter telling us not to bother applying — jawapan muktamad, we are tak layak, so we have to start reapplying from scratch.
[Editor’s note: Since then, there have been positive developments, according to Pedley who wrote in on 28 May 2011 to say the following:]
Updated: We resubmitted my husband Philip’s application for Malaysian PR in April 2011 and the process was amazingly pleasant and fast. We were given an interview date on the spot for 30 November 2011. I called them two weeks after submission to ask for an earlier date and they gave us 19 May 2011! We have since gone for the really well carried out interview and everything is in process for Philip’s PR. The next step is waiting for the police to call us for an interview, after which, the Immigration Department will process the PR. We have to wait a while for the police to contact us and that may take up to a year, we don’t know.
The same day we went for the interview, we applied for my second daughter’s passport and renewed mine. We were extremely impressed with the Immigration officers’ efficiency, pleasantness and willingness to help especially when the air-con was not working well and they were facing technical problems that day. It is a right 180 degree change from the previous experiences we have ever had with Immigration. I have to commend their excellent work.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you’d like for yourself and your daughter?
Security is number one on my list. I don’t know why the crime rate is so bad. You can’t even walk outside feeling safe. There are snatch thieves, people waiting to take your kid, people driving like maniacs. So where is that system? What is the government doing about that? I pay my taxes, but I don’t feel safe.
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