Categorised | Found in Malaysia

The tattooed Bidayuh

(Pic courtesy of Aquila Emas Sdn Bhd)

THE Malay-language entertainment industry knows Tony Eusoff, 32, as a rising television and film actor. Tony’s talent, however, extends beyond acting. At the 2006 Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, he was nominated for Best Solo Performance (Voice) for his vocal chops in Five Arts Centre’s musical production, Encore.

What is less known about Tony, though, is that he was born Anthony Joseph anak Hermas Rajiman. His name change was to facilitate his career in the Malay-language entertainment industry, parallelling the tradition of Hollywood greats like Martin Sheen and Doris Day. Tony was born and remains Catholic.

That said, he is finishing a slew of Aidilfitri telemovies right now, including tv9’s Satu Hari di Hari Raya. He will appear on the big screen next year in Pierre Andre‘s and Dharmavathi’s horror flick Suaka.

On 17 Aug 2009, Tony sat down with The Nut Graph in Petaling Jaya to tell us a little bit about the Malaysia he grew up in, and the Malaysia he wants for himself and other Malaysians.

TNG: Where were you born?

Tony Eusoff: I was born in Kuching, Sarawak, on 3 April 1977, which was Easter Sunday morning.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Kuching. I left Kuching for the very first time when I was 18, to come to Kuala Lumpur. This marked my freedom from the nest — I was just dying to get out of the house. I had this strange envy towards friends who went to boarding school, and I felt left out. But I realised later that there is nothing that great about boarding school.

Graduation photo (Pics courtesy of Tony Eusoff unless otherwise stated)

Can you trace your ancestry? Vernon Adrian Emuang told us that he’s Viking, you know.

(Laughs) I just know as far back as Bidayuh. You see, it’s pretty hazy trying to differentiate the ethnic groups in Sarawak, and there’s no concrete theory out there. Historians claim that we and [the] Polynesians are one people. We have uncanny similarities with Polynesians — tattoos, totem poles, longhouses (which some Polynesians have), our general appearance, skin tone, and so on. Even our languages as well.

What is your strongest memory of the place you grew up in?

My old house. Mum used to work for a Scottish missionary, as a cook and caretaker. [The Scot] was the parish priest and his house was on a nice hill. It was very quaint and a good place to be brought up in. Next door to it was a Chinese school, Chung Hwa Batu 10 Primary School, which I went to.

The priest was transferred to another parish eventually, and his replacement didn’t need my mother’s services anymore. So we moved back to my kampung, which is called Sinjok, in Siburan district. There I went to Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Siburan.

My kampung is not an original Bidayuh kampung, though. Bidayuh are land Dayaks, and originally inhabited the hills and mountains and built fortresses against the Iban, or sea Dayaks. My kampung was a new village, meaning it was a fenced-up anti-Communist camp.

What are the stories you hold onto the most from the people who raised you?

I’ve received a lot of wise words from the most unassuming people. For example, I never thought of becoming an actor. But I was in the middle of job-hopping and on a break in Sarawak [one day]. I was sitting in a coffee shop. A few tables away, this renowned drunkard in the Bidayuh community, whom I knew from childhood, asked me what I was doing. I told him I was in KL, and I had been working in an office. He said, “You should be an actor!” Of all people, he said that.

Of course, I’ve received a lot of wisdom from my mum. “Don’t joke about marriage,” she’ll say. “It’s like death — you never know the day or the hour.” In very morbid ways, she makes good sense.

I’ve got very traditional, old-fashioned values, [like my mum]. Mum is ridiculous when it comes to not wasting, and saving things. She’s passed [this] down to me. For example, I hate wearing new stuff. I like wearing my old stuff. And I eat well. I don’t discriminate with food, except maybe with bittergourd. This is from mum: “Finish your food and don’t be picky.”

And tell us a little bit about your tattoos!

I got both tattoos in 2001. Tattooing is very addictive. I can take the pain, and it’s the least painful in your arms because there’s lots of flesh there.

Tattoo on display

I grew up with people who had tattoos. But I don’t know if it’s from Christianisation or what, but starting from my mum’s generation, folks started deeming tattoos inappropriate. I don’t think Christianity forbids tattoos, though. And all my ancestors have been doing it. I mean, it’s not like they converted to Islam (which forbids tattoos). My mum did nag me after she found out, but that’s what she had to do lah.

I did it more for body art than anything else.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle most with as a Malaysian?

I’ve developed a very good way of accepting myself, having been brought up under very alternative circumstances. I grew up without a dad. For me, the parish priest was my father figure, and I never needed to look for an answer [to explain his presence]. It’s only after mum stopped working for him, and people started asking me about my dad. I can’t ask mum now, after all these years, because maybe it’s history she wants to forget.

But I had a great childhood, and I’m happy with who and what I am. I love and celebrate differences. From my own circumstances, I had to adapt a lot. I went to a Chinese-[medium] school, so I was a minority there. When I came to KL, I was a minority, too. So I’ve constantly had to adapt from a very young age. That rounded me up well, and helped me accept my identity. It didn’t confuse me, but made me have a stronger sense of identity. It made me prouder of how different I am.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like to leave for future generations.

We seem to be great with political gimmicks in this country. There was Wawasan 2020, and then Islam Hadhari, and then now 1Malaysia.

But if we take 1Malaysia seriously, it could mean something. We should be celebrating differences. One of the best ways to achieve 1Malaysia is through the arts and sports. This is the best way to unite people.

Playing the aide of Tunku Abdul Rahman in Tunku: The Musical (2007)

I would love to leave behind a sophisticated Malaysia in this sense. We have been sophisticated all along, living with different cultures. But I want to make this stronger. For example, I think meritocracy should have been here a long time ago. I would like Malaysians to be thinking people, who value dignity and honour.

What does Merdeka mean to you?

To me, Merdeka is a reminder to everyone that there’s no country like your own. There are people without countries, so we have to cherish [the fact that we have citizenship]. Every country has its own share of crap. But we need to learn to tolerate and give and take.

Merdeka is a constant reminder that we should appreciate the good things in our country. Despite all the political shenanigans right now, we actually have it quite good.

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2 Responses to “The tattooed Bidayuh”

  1. cass says:

    Awesome article, Shanon! I love Tony!!

  2. mrsfish says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed Tony’s performance in Tunku. Incredible vocals – but Tony is so often OFF the mainstream radar.

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