Categorised | Found in Malaysia

Different from other Chinese

(All pics and footage courtesy of Tan Sooi Beng)

TAN Sooi Beng, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, is an educator, composer, musician, author, music activist and ambassador. She joined USM as a lecturer in the Department of Performing Arts in the School of Humanities in 1980. In 1994, she developed the faculty’s Bachelor of Arts (Music) programme in Western and Asian music. She has been involved in the development of the music curriculum for secondary schools, and has pushed for the inclusion of local Malaysian music in the syllabus.

Tan’s compositions include gamelan music such as Perubahan, featured on the CD Rhythm in Bronze (Five Arts Centre, 2002). It also includes Saling Berpelukan, performed by gamelan troupe Rhythm in Bronze at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in 2004.

Tan also works with multicultural communities and young people in Georgetown, through collaborations with Anak-Anak Kota, an arts education programme for young people, and performing arts collective Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio. Together they have recreated Penang’s history through musical theatre productions such as Kisah Pulau Pinang (2006), Ronggeng Merdeka (2007), Opera Pasar (2008) and Ko-Tai Penang (2009 and 2010). Based on her extensive research on the region’s multicultural traditions, Tan seeks to create new forms of music and theatre that cut across race and class.

In an 18 Feb 2010 e-mail interview with The Nut Graph, Tan talks about her growing-up and formative years.

Sooi Beng and her parents

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

My mother was a midwife who worked in a government clinic in Air Itam, Penang. She used to cycle to the remote kampung and vegetable farms of Air Itam to deliver babies. Mum was provided a one-bedroom flat in the clinic’s compound. It was at this clinic that I was born and grew up.

It was a great place — the children of the staff nurses and midwives used to run around the big field, play masak-masak, and hide and seek among the trees. 

Dad worked as a school clerk at St Xavier’s Institution (SXI) in Georgetown, run by the La Salle brothers. Not surprisingly, he sent his two daughters to Convent Light Street, the all-girls’ school opposite SXI.

Once I started primary school, I spent most of my time at the convent and my dad’s school, where I waited in the afternoons until he finished work so we could go home. I was there so often that one of the brothers, whom the boys nicknamed Lau Hor  — meaning “tiger” in Hokkien as he was a strict disciplinarian — decided to teach me the violin and invited me to play in the school orchestra. I was one of a handful of girls in the orchestra.

So I was introduced to the world of classical music by the brothers. My cousin gave me free piano lessons. The composer Jimmy Boyle, who used to teach in the school, helped my dad choose a second-hand piano for me to practise on. That was how my passion for music was nurtured.

Sooi Beng’s mother on her wedding day
Can you trace your ancestry? What generation Malaysian are you?

My maternal grandparents were both from China. Grandfather used to take care of a rubber estate in Kedah after he arrived in Malaya. My grandmother stayed there with him when her seven children were young, but came to Penang to look for work before the Japanese Occupation so that the children could go to school. 

My paternal grandparents came from Sumatera. Grandfather was a lieutenant under the Dutch colonial government there. He was in charge of the Chinese community in the small town of Lhok Seumawe, in North Sumatera. However, my aunties tell me that he did not accumulate wealth as he was not corrupt!

He sent his sons, my dad and [my dad’s] brother, to Penang to study at SXI prior to the Occupation. The two brothers stayed with a rich relative in Penang, but had to sleep in the stables with the horses and ate with the servants. My paternal grandfather moved to Penang with the family after he retired when Indonesia gained independence.

What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?

Air Itam was my first home. The market is one of the places I loved to visit, wet and smelly no doubt. It had the best kuey teow th’ng and laksa one could find in Penang, I thought at the time. 

At night, I was drawn to the Chinese opera, which was often performed in the open space near the market. As a child, I was struck by the sheer magic of the visuals and music. The sparkling costumes and brilliant makeup made us children think that it must be immortals behind the painted faces. And [I remember the] tok tok cheng percussion that accented every movement.

Sooi Beng (right) playing with her friends, with Penang Hill in the background

What are the stories you hold onto the most from your family? How have these stories shaped who you are as a Malaysian?

My grandmother, aunty and mother are two generations of strong women who struggled to earn a living to support their families prior to the Japanese Occupation. They were midwives who were on call day and night. We children could hear “My wife is giving birth, tolong tolong!” even when we were asleep. While most women were kept indoors during that era, these three women would cycle to different houses by themselves even at night to deliver babies.

My grandmother and aunt went for training for six months each at the general hospital in Penang, even though they could not read or write and spoke no English. They communicated with the British nurses using hand signs. Despite being scolded all the time, both managed to pass the hands-on training. They were so proud of their certificates, which they hung in their house in Air Itam. This gave them the passport to deliver babies for the community around them. Up till now, people of all races come up to my mum to say, “Hey your mother delivered me, you know!”

Collaboration with Anne James and Marion D’Cruz in Maria Zaitun, USM, 1990s

How have these stories shaped me? The three women were strong, independent and served their community. They always told me I was fortunate compared with other kids, so I must be grateful and give back to society. This was later reinforced by the nuns at the convent where I studied for 11 years. They emphasised that our lives should reflect the convent motto: “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty.”

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?

As I grew up in Penang, I communicated with fellow Penangites in Hokkien, English and Malay; excelled in piano playing; studied hard; and did some voluntary work at old folks’ homes. I was quite content, but things changed when I was offered a scholarship to study music at Cornell University in the US.

When I stepped on American soil in the mid-1970s, the campuses were abuzz. The students were protesting the American involvement in the Vietnam War and engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. I was forced to think about war, racism, rights of blacks and women, poverty, the political situation in Malaysia, and how I could contribute to society. I was politicised.

As a musician, I began to listen to protest songs by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul and Mary, instead of the Osmond Brothers or Cliff Richard. I realised the meaning of the song Blowing in the Wind, which I used to sing in Malaysia: How many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free?

Learning shakuhachi at Wesleyan University, 1980s

I joined the gamelan ensemble at Cornell University, which provided a sense of community and played music with students from different parts of the world. I began to research the multiethnic cultures of Malaysia and of other parts of the world. I became an ethnomusicologist, one who specialised in the study of non-western music, and made a resolution to apply my knowledge for change in society.

At the same time, students from China and Hong Kong found it strange that I spoke English or Malay to fellow Malaysians. No one else spoke Hokkien, except those from Penang or Johor. I began to learn Mandarin and took courses about China. I tried to look for my Chinese roots, but discovered that I was indeed different from the other Chinese students in terms of tastes in food, performing and visual cultures, and dressing. After all, I was Malaysian!  

Excerpts from the DVD Music of Sound: Building Bridges Through the Performing Arts,
highlighting Sooi Beng’s work with Anak-Anak Kota

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

The Malaysia in my imagination is a place where there is space to be creative, to express and articulate new diverse cultural identities, take part in democratic society, and make decisions about our own lives.

It is a place where we can enjoy being Malaysians who care for one another, where our thinking and creative works transcend race, and where all have the opportunity to engage in the arts. Culture will be alive when different groups are able to bounce off one another!

Read other Found in Malaysia interviews

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21 Responses to “Different from other Chinese”

  1. danny leebob says:

    Relationship with fellow human beings is what [humans] really need but seldom know. Therefore [humans] pursue their identity in order to find that perfect relationship.

  2. U-Jean says:

    I love Dr Tan <3

  3. frags says:

    Wow from Cornell University huh. That’s some place to go to in the 70s. Great university with great minds.

  4. siew eng says:

    I second U-Jean!

    Dr Tan was one of the lecturers in USM who made it so dynamic for me. I still remember her production “The Music of Sound” and how ‘music’ was produced from everyday objects. Close your eyes and the rattle of the lidi and a few shakes of a plastic bag become the sounds of a forest.

  5. siva says:

    She made me improvise using rubbish and boy she had her demands:) But that’s Prof Tan for you, a strong lady who knows what she wants…Loved working with you though didn’t show it sometimes…We’re lucky to have people like you in Penang to teach us younger generations about our heritage. Thank you.

  6. Tan Seok H'ng says:

    Must go to the public. It can be mini shows. If always perform inside USM, I think just a few of you and your members can attend.

    I liked AAK & Ko Tai show last year. Very successful.

  7. U-Jean says:

    We had to use tin cans and clogs and all kind of stuff to make music. Even had to walk the streets and listen to the sounds and try to replicate them.

    It was my pleasure and honour to work with Dr Tan 😀

  8. chin eng says:

    i love u toooooooooooooo Dr Tan!! =p

  9. convent nun says:

    Thank you Dr Tan for making best use of your gifts and talents and thus creating an impact to society by your contribution in creative works of arts and music. Music gives soul to society. Above all, thank you for being your self – a very humble soul with great simplicity. The Convent nuns are proud of you! Well done!

  10. Lai Chee says:

    You have inspired me to adapt the metodology of ‘Music of Sound’ into the school’s music curriculum to create a more holistic music education for the children. It would be great if ‘Music of Sound’ could reach more music teachers and students not only in Penang but also in other states as well. Thank You.

  11. Lilian Low says:

    Sooi Beng,

    Your vision of using music to encourage unity and tolerance in one of Asia’s multiethnic melting pots is truly remarkable.Your work is commendable and I hope that the future Malaysia will be one that shines forth unity and prosperity.

  12. Chris Ng says:

    My claim to fame is I went to high school with Prof. Tan!! So proud of you! Hope to run into you soon! PS: Would love to get a DVDs or CDs of your work.

  13. sau sim says:

    Great work, Dr Tan. From the article which Lai Chee has sent me, and from the Ko Tai, that I had the privilege to watch and enjoy, I think you are one of Malaysia’s unsung [heroes]!

  14. Aitze says:

    My mum too became a midwife in very similar circumstance as your mum. She did not go to school at all but still managed to get her certificate. I think she was trained in Butterworth.

    It was probably 1964 (when I was in Form IV) when a lady called at our house and enquired [what my mum’s name was]. When [she got her answer], she cried a hallelujah for she had finally found the lady who had delivered her a boy after a string of seven girls! She had made a promise to herself that when her son got married, she would find the midwife who delivered him and award her the highest ceremonial status.

    Needless to say I was extremely proud of my mum as I was present at the wedding. However, what impressed me most was that the lady did not forget her promise, a promise that was only known to herself.

  15. Merah Silu says:

    Nice to read an article where the Malaysian Chinese feel that their Chineseness is different from Chinese of other countries. Yes, they have absorbed many values and culture from the ‘people of this country’ to make the difference. I still have a good memory of having friends of Chinese peranakan [heritage] who have similar culture and values as the Malays in my kampung. There is no differentiation of race and I regard that they are the true citizens of this country. I can’t say the same to those who promote the alien culture of people, thousands of kilometres away from Malaysia, and are trying to persuade us that this (Hai San and Ghee Hin culture) is also the culture of this country. We should then relook whether they are fit to be citizens of this country, and whether they really share the culture and aspirations of people of this country.

  16. Edward Kwan says:

    First, to qualify yourself to be a MALAYSIAN, you must understand (1) the FEDERAL LAW of the country, (2) the attitude of mutual understanding and tolerance, (3) at least 5 cultures and languages in society, (4) respect for the true history in the formation of the country, and (5) friendliness, and with love always.

  17. Poh Hoon says:

    Prof, u r the best!

  18. Annie says:

    Thanks Prof Tan for giving us a chance to know and understand our heritage better! I learned a lot from the activities and I really enjoyed working with Prof Tan! Hope to see more of these activities in the future…Love you, Prof Tan!

  19. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    @Merah Silu

    Firstly, why is it that people like you always have to tie everything to bangsa Melayu, agama Islam, dan politik Malaysia? This interview is about Malaysians.

    Secondly, I am a Peranakan, and I am telling you that you need to get out of your ‘Malaysian-ed stereotyped tank’ a lot more often than you think you need to.

    At least half of the Peranakans’/Babas&Nyonyas’ culture is more crystal pure ethnic Chinese than the ethnic Chinese (who were primarily of peasant stock) who came to Malaysia later.

    Whatever gave you the idea that we are less ethnic Chinese just because we speak baba (which is NOT similar to Malay, by the way) and adopt large parts of the traditional Malay culture (which in turn and in even larger part is India mari punya)? The older generations may appear almost like traditional Malay [Malaysians], but they constantly remind we younger generations to never be like Malay [Malaysians]. And of course, we will never tell you that.

    I don’t know which kampung you came from, but perhaps your subconscious ideals or personal distastes for Chinese Malaysians made you conjure up a sentimental image of a fictitious nostalgia for a past that never existed?

  20. Ooi says:

    Prof! ‘Jia You!’

  21. M.K. says:

    After reading this article, I must congratulate Prof. Tan on her many achievements. Malaysia is proud of you!

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