HANDS Percussion drumming group co-founder Eric Ch’ng, 33, has loved the sound of drums even as a young boy. “During Chinese New Year, once my brother and I hear the lion dance drums, we would run and run to follow the troupe and watch the show. My dad even bought us a lion head and we would perform and greet our relatives from house to house. I just fell in love with performing percussion.”
Ch’ng’s passion for drumming and the performing arts was evident during his 23 Nov 2009 interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur.
“We’re going to Sekinchan on 20 Dec, near the paddy fields. We’ll train 120 students on the Chinese drums in the morning, and in the afternoon we’ll get all the papas and mamas with their pots and pans to learn a simple rhythm. In the evening, we’ll close the streets and have a parade.”
Hands Percussion has won international acclaim, having performed in over 10 countries and opened the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation chief executive officers’ summit on 13 Nov in Singapore. They completed a seven-week French festival tour earlier this year, and received a special jury award for their exceptional performance in Dijon.
“After our recent show (Dreams in November at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre [KLPac]), people asked me, ‘Who funds you?’” said Ch’ng. “I told them, ‘We are self-funded.’ They said, ‘You should get government support, this is a Malaysian brand!’ It is really quite hard sometimes … But we really want to push this, to do it properly, that’s why we do it full-time.”
Where were you born?
I was born in 1976 in Sentosa Hospital. The old building is now Tune Hotel opposite Maju Junction.
Where did you grow up?
We lived in flats near the Pekeliling area, where my father worked as a fish wholesaler at the pasar borong. It was famous for the floods. My mama always told me she had to hold me up high when the water came in, sometimes up to her waist!
When I was two years old, the pasar borong shifted to Selayang, where it still is now. We also shifted and I stayed there until I got married at 28 years old.
Near the area were rubber estates and the Botak mountain — “Botak san”. We used to play a lot there as children. We would pick rubber seeds, cycle in the rubber estates, cut leaves and cook them on a fire for masak-masak.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My tai-kung (great grandfather) on my father’s side [was a Teochew from] China. He settled at a fishing village — Sungai Burung, near Sabak Bernam. People still go there to watch birds. My grandfather was born in that village.
I used to ask my parents about our nenek moyang, but they always said, “We have lost contact, we don’t know.” But three years ago, my uncle went to China and he actually traced our ancestors. There’s a record of all the Ch’ng ancestors. My parents then went to pay their respects.
My mother’s side is also Teochew, so I’m a typical Teochew. They also settled in Sungai Burung, which is where my parents met. Some members of my mother’s family are still there.
What are some of your strongest memories from growing up?
My playmates were all the children living in the neighbourhood. At that time, going for tuition was not popular. So, when school ended at 1pm, we would go “lepak”, go cycling everywhere. We would cycle in the rubber estate, play at the roundabout, play hide and seek in the mountain, things like that. We would catch spiders and put them in little matchboxes and they could fight with other spiders.
My neighbourhood was very multiracial. I remember I had a Malay [Malaysian] neighbour and he drove a sports car. Every Raya, they would give us a big hamper. My Indian [Malaysian] neighbours would give us murukku. I really miss eating home-made murukku!
What are some stories you hold onto from your family?
A lot of my family are involved in performing arts. In the 1960s or ’70s, my dad and uncles used to volunteer in a music band with the Labour Party. One uncle played the harmonica and another was an expert in blowing a leaf. He could take any leaf and make a song for you. Last year, I gave my dad an erhu (Chinese string instrument) for a gift, he really liked it.
My aunties like to say that it was because of my great-grandfather that many of my family members are in performing arts. My great-grandfather was actually a Chinese opera singer before becoming a fisher[person] when he arrived here. They say he always performed as a king, which can apparently spoil your feng shui.
How did you get involved with Hands Percussion?
I have loved percussion since young. At 16, I joined the 24-drum festival. I studied accounting because I thought I should get a degree and worked as an accountant for one year. Aiyo, cannot tahan! The only time I felt alive was after 5pm. All my drum members would be waiting downstairs and we would rush to practise and perform.
My drum teacher, Bernard, who is Hands’s artistic director, got me involved with Hands Percussion. We formed the group in 1997. I’m in charge of strategy and planning, and Bernard focuses on the performances. We really want to do this properly, that’s why I’ve been doing this full-time since 2005.
People always ask us when we perform overseas where we’re from and we always say loudly and proudly, “We are Malaysian.”
When we perform overseas at festivals, our Malaysian flag will be hanging in all the cities where we perform. When I [criticise certain policies], I’ve been told, “You don’t like our country, you share bad things about our country with people.”
But you know, sometimes I think the complaint is because you love the country too much, not because you hate the country.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with as a Malaysian?
Actually, not really. I think as Malaysians, we grow up with a lot of similar experiences. For example, P Ramlee’s Do Re Mi, that’s one of my favourites. My cousins all like Indian movies, I also like Indian movies, I love the rhythm in the music. I think there’s no need to purposely separate — “oh, this is Indian culture” or “this is Chinese culture”.
I totally agree with the suggestion to leave out race in [official] forms. What is the intention of this column?
What do you hope for the future of performing arts in Malaysia?
When we are overseas, after the show, even the small kids will ask us, “What kind of culture do you have? Why do you use drums to represent your culture?” [But] you can see that the education here is a bit lacking. Here they ask me, “Koh-koh (big brother), why you so fat one?” or things like that. So, I think we must do something.
We train 20 drum troupes now. We have one special group, Deafbeat, where the drummers are deaf. I brought them to the Paralympics in Hong Kong to perform last year, it was absolutely amazing. They also performed last year in a concert at KLPac. It turned out very well.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself.
Just leave out skin. There’s no difference.
Why don’t we share with each other and pick the best from each race? For example, the sarong — in my house, I use a sarong to bounce my baby. My wife, after giving birth, she wore sarong. I went to the hospital after the birth, every woman there was also wearing sarong.
Why do we need to say this is a Malay sarong? Let’s just make use of our rich culture here. Just share with each other the best of each culture. This is a must; we have so much to share. This is a good foundation for society, then only the country will be strong.
Food, no need to talk lah. Morning I eat roti canai, afternoon nasi kandar, night I eat bak kut teh. It’s marvellous, I tell you.
When we were playing in France, we ate cheese and bread for six weeks! Oh my goodness! You know, we all are Cina apek. We took the French baguette and we dipped it inside the coffee like kopi-o. I also taught the French people to eat like that. They tried it and said it’s nice!
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