A LESSER-KNOWN fact about Malaysian film director and television series creator Bernard Chauly is that he spends much of the year outside Malaysia. “Not many people realise that I’m not here the whole time,” Chauly says. “Thank God for the internet!”
While his work — including the futsal-and-romance Gol & Gincu, coming-of-age Goodbye Boys, and soon-to-be-released Pisau Cukur — is rooted in the local here-and-now, Chauly’s emotional home is a place in Norfolk, UK, where he currently lives.
“That doesn’t mean I am British,” he says. “I’m also a pendatang there.”
TNG: We are all pendatang. Where are you from?
I was born in Taiping. It was the spot my parents chose, halfway between Penang, where he was from, and Ipoh, where she was from. My father passed away while my mother was pregnant with me, so everything I know about my father is through hearsay.
My mother was born in Jelapang, near Ipoh, in 1940, just at the start of World War II. Her family owned a pork wholesale business on Leech Street. My grandfather had interesting ideas about education: all his nine children were sprinkled into different schools, from Chinese-medium schools to national and mission schools.
Mother went to the Perak Chinese Girl’s and Penang Chinese Girl’s schools, and she did well. Grandfather sent her to Camberwell High School in Melbourne — which is where Kylie Minogue went, later on. I like to say that that’s my claim to fame.
How did your parents meet?
My parents met in ballroom-dancing class, when they were both in the then Malayan Teachers’ Training College. This was in 1960s Penang. I imagine it was very weird: one was a very tall Punjabi, in a turban, and the other was a very petite Chinese woman.
It was not a union that either of their families were happy with. It wasn’t only the inter-race thing — it was also religious. My father’s family was a very traditional Sikh family, and my mother’s family was Confucian, Buddhist. But for some bizarre reason my parents were drawn to the Catholic church. They were baptised and married by a French priest in Kota Baru.
There was a progressive sense of reinvention in my parents. My father, Surinder Singh, became Bernard Chauly — Chauly is based on a Punjabi clan name which my dad Anglicised. It was an own-self-modify sort of name. My mother, Loh Siew Yoke, was known from then on as Jane Chauly.
What was growing up like? Any identity crises?
I had an Anglo-Cantonese, Christian upbringing in Ipoh. Quite well-rounded: altar boy until Form Two, sports and leisure at the Royal Perak Golf Club, full-on activities in St Michael’s Institution. School for me was a pleasant experience, without needing to call it muhibbah.
It was not until Form Four and Five that I realised educational opportunities depended on race; that was when all my close Malay [Malaysian] friends started leaving for asrama. Even then, race and identity wasn’t a huge issue. I felt unique and exotic. In a Christian Brothers’ school, to be Eurasian is to be exotic — even though, technically, I wasn’t Eurasian.
I didn’t know what to put as my “keturunan”, in forms, until after Form Five. This was after I was unsuccessful at getting a scholarship after SPM, being non-bumiputera. To enter local universities after STPM, there are racial quotas. Someone said, “You follow keturunan bapa.”
My father was Punjabi. So I realised I was Indian! I know some Punjabis who’d take exception to that, though.
So you got into university? How did you become a filmmaker?
I got into Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), majoring in communications, minoring in sociology and anthropology. I also had a keen interest in performing arts. In my third year at USM I became a film major.
That was when I made my first film, Saying Goodbye, which was about how my parents met. At the time I was not talking to my mom, and the film was a way to say that we were both making difficult choices — her, in her marriage; me, with my sexuality. The film won Best Experimental Video at the Malaysian Video Awards (MVA) 1998.
Then I got a scholarship to go to Goldsmiths College, in London, to do my masters. I made my first short film, Adam & Steve, there. That would later win a Best Short Film award at the MVA. So when I came back in 2000, it was: “I think I can call myself a director now.”
Did you have any life-changing revelations in university?
It was USM that really gave me the identity of being Malaysian, that anchored me in this context. Mainly it was the critical cultural studies, and being stretched and punched — not literally! — by lecturers like Janet Pillai on what identity meant to me.
I don’t think I graduated with all the answers to my questions, but it gave me a perspective, a point of view, set in Malaysia. It was where I started to see things with the paradigm of rojak, of conflict theory. The idea that society is always in constant conflict and flux — that made a lot of sense to me.
Basically, it’s the idea that ideals like harmony, equality and egalitarianism are myths. If you view the natural state of societies being these things, then anything that goes wrong means that there is a problem.
But if you look at things being in constant conflict — geseran — and that as you move along ruptures and problems are an inevitability, then when upheavals occur, it’s not a catastrophic letupan. Things like that happen naturally, like in plate tectonics.
So upheavals can be a destructive, but also a creative force?
Seeing things like that was quite liberating: that conflict between races, religion or classes are not taboos, but natural things. What keeps this society together are our manufactured systems, choices and decisions. So things become more about re-finding and refining balance.
When I was in Goldsmiths I did a lot of further reading. I came across a simple mantra by Homi Bhabha: “Identity is your route, not your roots.” That’s knowing that every person’s journey is different. That also means you are not born with an identity, and your identity continues — until your “perjalanan” stops. It was knowing that — rather than looking back and digging for it — my identity was forward, into the future.
“If I hang on to this,” I thought, “then everything makes sense!”
Being a Malaysian who works here but lives abroad — just who are you, now?
I’m not going to be so clichéd and say I’m a citizen of the world. But I feel a sense of liberation when my space — the tangible land I’m in — doesn’t define me. I can define my spaces, myself. My idea of home and country will continue to change as I do. But my tanahair will always be Malaysia.
After the death of my mother, and after we sold the old Ipoh house, I have no hometown now. But every time I take a flight that lands here, and the MAS announcer says, “Selamat pulang ke tanahair”, I have this feeling. You can’t take that away from anyone.