Categorised | Found in Malaysia

“Harmony is a myth”

(All pics courtesy of Bernard Chauly)

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?

Chauly's father Surinder Singh as a boy scout from Penang


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.

Bernard and 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.

Still from Saying Goodbye, an experimental short film using photographs, letters and journal entries to tell the story of how Chauly's parents met

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.

The Chauly family

So upheavals can be a destructive, but also a creative force?

Precisely.

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!”

The last family portrait. Jane passed away from cancer

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.

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9 Responses to ““Harmony is a myth””

  1. francis lai... volkswagen says:

    it is very touching to have a set of loving parents that have instilled good, honest and down to earth children. Your sharing has inspired me in many ways. Many thanks.

  2. Seng Fatt SOOHU says:

    Dear Bernard Chauly, Glad to hear you are doing well. Your dad was our St Georges Inst teacher and rugby teacher. He lead St Georges to wallop the Tigers in rugby back in 1972! His drowning death in Penang came as a shock. All of us from SGI Taiping can relate stories about your dad. Stay in touch. You have made your dad and mum extremely proud, and so are we. My warm regards to you from Melbourne

  3. Seng Fatt SOOHU says:

    Dear Bernard, in my library are the old St Georges school magazines of the 1970s with your dad’s photos taken with the rugby squad, cross country runners, First Taiping Scout movement and his class and school staff photos. Love to share all this with you plus an Obituary of him, should you be keen. Warm regards from cold freezing Melbourne.

  4. Agatha says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I hope you are keeping well. I am so glad to have read this. I am so touched and this brought back memories of your mum. Really miss her. Do keep in touch. Take care and keep well. Love to Bernice and Janice.

  5. Ong Hean Chye says:

    Hello little Chauly,

    Your cigar-chomping dad was a wonderful teacher and a great guy with a great sense of humour. Very down to earth. Was my art teacher, scout master and rugby coach. Best times were when we had to travel to Malay College and Clifford’s to play rugby – never won any of those games but it was great fun all the same!

    Sorry to hear about your mum’s passing. She was one of my wife’s teachers.

  6. dolaya says:

    Aren’t we all pendatangs in some sense of the word? All passing visitors. All trying to see, touch, taste, hear and feel as much as we can before we move on. Whether to the afterlife or the next place we shall call home.

  7. Siew Ming Cheah says:

    I heard that your dad drowned while trying to save someone else.

  8. Funn Funn says:

    This article made me feel homesick again… knowing how much I have missed out these past few years while I am in the US… Maybe I could take your case as a reference, stay in US but work in Malaysia… still at crossroads.

  9. Hey old friend,

    Reading your article, I ter-ingat our old school SMI. Really miss that school. I am also very sorry about your mum; whom I have very fond memories of. She was a very pleasant lady. And I can’t agree with you more on your comments of manufactured systems.

    regards,
    Thiam Seng


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