But Pang, who as the arts programme director at the Annexe Gallery at Central Market has revitalised cultural events and activities in Central Market, is more than that. He is also an outspoken gay rights advocate. Which was how his quote was picked up by Time in February this year.
Pang was angered that Astro censored the words “gay” and “lesbian” from two Oscar acceptance speeches that it broadcast on 23 February for the movie Milk. The movie, starring Sean Penn, is about American gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
Instead of just letting Astro get away with the censorship, Pang, who is himself gay, wrote a lengthy protest letter to the media in which he questioned the prejudices against homosexuals.
“As a gay man, I am truly offended…. What is Astro trying to achieve with the censoring of the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’?” he demanded. Pang argued that if Astro was afraid that the words would promote homosexuality, how come it wasn’t afraid that the uncensored words “terrorist”, “rapist” and “murderer” would promote terrorism, rape and murder.
In an interview with The Nut Graph on 16 April 2009, the 35-year-old former editor of Kakiseni.com talks about history, struggle and identity.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born at the General Hospital in Malacca on 10 Oct 1974 on Taiwan’s national day. Ya, people just tell you these things.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Malacca until I was 12 when my father conspired with my school teachers to send me to Raffles Institution under the Asean Scholarship.
So, I was in Singapore, studying at Raffles between the age of 12 and 18.
Did being in Singapore change your sense of belonging?
The moment I was in Singapore, I didn’t want to come back! On the first day of school, I got lost in Orchard Road. I was traumatised but the sense of being able to find my school in a strange place made me feel that I did not need my parents.
Of course, I got lost in Orchard Road again and again because I played truant a lot (chuckles).
It was also in Singapore that I discovered I was gay once my hormones kicked in. I started being attracted to guys but that made me vulnerable to being bullied. It wasn’t until my 18th birthday that I realised that despite having made lots of friends over my six years in Singapore, I was actually quite alone.
It was also in Singapore that I became a Christian at 14. And in my last year in Singapore, I joined a Christian ministry for the “sexually broken” because I was made to feel abnormal because of my gay tendencies. I met other Christian men there who were also “suffering” and finally I could talk about how I felt. There was a sense of catharsis. I felt like I belonged. That was my family.
But I had to return to Malaysia anyway. Partly because my sexuality created a crisis in me and as a result I neglected my studies. I became a burden on my dad’s wallet since I no longer qualified for scholarships.
Also, when I told my dad I had become Christian, he didn’t approve. My family was Buddhist, and my dad saw the Christians as being responsible for the destruction of China because of the Opium War. He was a staunch anti-Westerner. He was also afraid I wouldn’t pay respects to my ancestors.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?
I’m third generation Malaysian. Both my parent are Hainanese. My grandparents are from Hainan Island.
On my father’s side, one of my forefathers was a general in a feudal lord’s army. He was rewarded with land on Hainan Island. The family moved to the island where they were assimilated. Before that they were Hokkien.
I understand Hainanese. I can also appreciate Hainanese chicken rice. Do you know that Hainanese chicken rice was invented in Malaysia for the British? It wasn’t created in China. Or so I’ve been told.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
I remember Malacca vividly because you have these houses, now on the backside of Malacca when you’re travelling from Ayer Keroh to Malacca town. They’re right under Bukit Sebukor, on top of which is the governor’s palace. The hill was a Chinese cemetery.
My house was a corner house with a huge garden lot and in the garden, we had one ciku tree, one coconut tree, two bunches of sugar cane, rambutan, jambu, soursop. We were never short of fruits. We even had a cempedak-nangka hybrid — it was amazing!
These fruits came in handy because at the end of my first year in primary school, because I didn’t understand the concept of school and thought it was just a large playground, I failed my Standard 1 exams. My mother cut some sugar cane and mangoes and gave it to my teacher. She said, “Give my son a second chance.” After some negotiation, we took the test papers into the car and answered the questions together. And I got into the top class in year two! Yes, bribery! [Laughs] That’s Malaysia. But they were good fruits, I tell you! [Chuckles]
Another memory I have is finding shortcuts behind my school and emerging in Bukit Cina where Hang Li Po’s well is, and more cemeteries.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents/grandparents/uncles?
This is how my family ended up in Malaya from Hainan Island. My grandfather’s elder brother was the first to come to Malaya. He did odd jobs and made money. He went back to Hainan Island, all happy and proud.
At that time in the early 1900s, there was a crackdown on the communists in China and many of them ran to Hainan Island. So, when my granduncle went back, the Kuomintang was on the lookout for communists.
One day he went to the market and because his wife was pregnant and he was feeling prosperous, he bought a lot of food. When he was asked why he was buying so much, he jokingly said, “To feed the army.” He was arrested the next day. He was taken to a provincial jail and then moved to a town jail awaiting execution.
My grandmother — his sister-in-law — decided to save him because she had single-handedly raised her younger sister who was eventually executed at 15 for joining the communists. So, my grandmother travelled to these jails to negotiate for my granduncle’s release … and then travelled all the way back to try and raise money to bribe the officials. She travelled back and forth and got more desperate and decided to sell the family farm and finally got him released.
Three generations of Pangs (pic courtesy of Pang)
My granduncle left the very next day for Malaya and he never saw his wife or daughter. My grandfather and grandmother subsequently joined him. My granduncle’s wife made my grandmother promise to prevent him from ever marrying again until she could join him.
But she never did and my granduncle did fall in love again, but my grandmother prevented the marriage. They never spoke to each other again after that. One day, some 10 or 15 years ago, they found his body in the Malacca river, next to the clan house where he used to gamble.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
My father is very serious about keeping these stories. We have the clan book with our precise ancestry spelling out our names from the second to the 30th generation.
These stories reveal to me [pauses] not so much the tenacity of the people or the Pangs or whatever other limiting marker we like to put on our stories, but the tenacity of human beings I have inherited. They also reveal to me the ability for an individual to sometimes uproot and find identity. New beginnings are always possible.
It is ironic to me that the traditionalists think we are losing our culture and roots when they were the ones who left China. The point is your roots should be wherever you want it to be. Where you find love, find your family.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
It would seem obvious that it would be about my sexuality but since coming out, nobody has given me [grief]. I think there are enough people who will accept you for being different. So, my homosexuality is not a problem.
As an atheist now, I am disturbed by how the country uses language which excludes atheists as well as other non-believers of the dominant religion. The Rukunegara, for example. It is offensive that people equate godlessness with immorality. I think it’s safe to say that many questionable conducts in this country — detention without trial, death under police detention, torture, extortion, intolerance, separating mothers from children— are the works of so-called religious people.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
Being involved in the arts, I sometimes get caught up in the fight against attempts at silencing voices, and end up protesting against censorship…[But], I have to remind myself that the arts are more than just about fighting censorship. They offer us insights and perspectives we may never have considered before. And in doing so, the arts allow us to have bigger, bolder dreams for a different kind of future.
There are also other people and their dreams. A place must be found for all their dreams and people who can appreciate other people’s dreams. Obviously, some people’s dreams are mutually exclusive. Hence, it is hard for sexual minorities to live openly in Malaysia without harassment because some people still perceive sexual minorities as a threat to their culture.
My hope is that all of us can come together to enlighten each other. After the 12th general election for example, a question was posted on an online group I belong to that said, “Siapa yang nak bela nasib orang Melayu sekarang?” But why can’t we all bela each other’s nasib but at the same time not be dependent on others?