TO hear Yudi Yap sing is to be transported with nostalgia to another era.
The former vocalist of local Chinese-language band Alternative Music House started singing Chinese oldies in 1999. But even before then, she had already made her mark. Yap won the Best Voice Award when Alternative Music House represented Malaysia in the Sumitomo One World Pop Festival in Tokyo in 1992.
Yap is also a songwriter, composing music and lyrics for other local singers. She has also helped local pop singer Ah Niu produce his music albums, and has performed in Five Arts Centre’s theatre productions.
In an exclusive interview with The Nut Graph on 9 June 2010 in Petaling Jaya, Yap shares her experience of growing up in a Chinese new village.
TNG: Where and when were you born?
Yudi Yap: I was born in a Chinese new village called Kampung Benggali, Ketari in Bentong, Pahang in the 60s. Although it was a Chinese new village, there were also a lot of Serani and some Malay [Malaysians] in the village.
Tell us more about your ancestry.
My parents are blue-collar workers and of Hakka lineage. My father was a driver, while my mother used to work as a rubber tapper. They are kind, thrifty, law-abiding citizens, the sort that people sometimes take advantage of due to their kindness. They would be anxious to return money they borrowed, but they themselves wouldn’t take it to heart if they were the lenders.
My paternal great-grandfather was from China. He bought land when he came to Malaya and became a shareholder of a bus company in Bentong. The family even had a car back then. This was before the world wars started. After that, my great-grandfather died and two to three years later, my grandfather died, too. My grandmother remarried and my great-grandmother had to sell the land to keep the family going.
My maternal grandfather was a gold miner in Raub. He passed away around his thirties, so my grandmother had to take care of her six children on her own. She only studied until Standard Three and couldn’t really speak Malay. My mother started working when she was young. She met my father when she went to Bentong to look for jobs.
Curiously, my maternal grandmother looked like a Westerner. A lot of my relatives from my mother’s side, including my younger brother, have Western features, too. But we couldn’t trace it back to [find out] which Western country our ancestors possibly [came] from.
How was growing up in Bentong like?
I’ve really fond memories of my childhood in Bentong; it was really carefree then. The kids could run all over the place, swim in rivers, climb hills, and steal fruits.
My family moved to Bahau in Negeri Sembilan because of my father’s work when I was nine, and I studied there until Standard Six.
We moved back to Bentong later, and I studied in a Catholic high school. That was when I joined the Catholic Youth Association and started singing and performing during Christmas celebrations in school. I was in a choir, then our teacher asked us to sing in smaller groups, and then in pairs, and finally I sang solo.
What songs did you sing back then?
Any song, especially campus folk songs from Taiwan. They were popular back in the 80s.
What happened after school?
While I was waiting for my Form Six results, I taught in a primary school in Jerantut. After that, I entered the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) to study fine arts. Our lecturers were really energetic and enthusiastic; most of them had just returned from studying overseas and had lots of fresh ideas to share with us. We were given a lot of freedom in campus. The lecturers opened up my mind and taught me to look at stuff from different perspectives.
I can still remember the story about a stone. If you put a stone on a beach, people will probably ignore it, thinking it’s an ordinary stone. But if you put it in a museum, shine spotlights on it, highlight its history and beauty, then people’s perception about it will probably change.
My course mates and I started a band called Colour Pallete when I was studying in MIA. We composed our own songs, went around performing in schools and colleges. Our lecturers knew of our “outside activities”, but allowed us to do whatever we wanted so long as we continued to [hand in] our assignments on time. I felt that was when my life truly began.
After graduating from MIA, Colour Palette evolved into Alternative Music House and we released albums. I have been in the music industry since.
When did you become aware of race? Is there any aspect of your identity that you struggle with?
I’ve had the chance to work with people from different races and ethnicities when I was involved in theatre. I also had good Malay and Serani Malaysian friends during my childhood. Even though I wasn’t fluent in Malay then and had to use sign language to communicate with my Malay friends, we had a lot of fun playing with each other.
My environment and music career may have been very “Chinese-ish”, but we work in the environment we’re familiar in, seemingly independent of each other yet connected in some ways. It’s natural. So I don’t think language and skin colour are problems at all. What matters is how we see and treat each other.
In my industry, I notice that the English- and Malay-language media rarely cover happenings in the local Chinese music industry, and vice versa. What kind of music is the most representative of Malaysia? I have been trying to look for it, but I think the spiritual element [in music] is the most important.
What hopes do you have for Malaysia?
I hope Malaysia will grow up wisely even though we are lagging, not merely economically but also in terms of freedom and being wholesome human beings. This land doesn’t belong to anyone. We make it meaningful. It takes everyone’s effort to work on it, and our ancestors have proven it in history.
I hope the politicians will return voice to the people, and [give us] the chance to think independently, to think for ourselves, instead of continuously confusing the people, particularly on racial and political issues.
Don’t erase or change history. The stories of Chinese Malaysians are part of the Malaysian narrative, too. I grew up here. I worked seriously to get to where I am today. The people I love are here. I have feelings for this land, too.
I hope there will be more focus on liberal arts in the education system so that our children can grow up with an open mind, and are able to think independently and critically, to appreciate nature, and be spiritually wealthy. And also be able to appreciate different cultures, [and be] a true global citizen.
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