VERNON Adrian Emuang has been a steady supporter of and practitioner in the Malaysian arts scene since the mid-1980s, notably in television and theatre. Together with former Malaysian Olympic swimmer Jeffrey Ong, Emuang hosted the weekly IT program Cyberwave on TV3 in the late 1990s.
Emuang has since balanced careers as a marketing communications consultant, writer, and performer in theatre and television. His latest television stint is a regular supporting role on Astro Prima’s Kasut Tumit Tinggi.
Besides his involvement in the arts, Emuang is also a bit of a Serani cultural activist, having founded the online community Serani Sembang. The site is supposed to be “where Eurasians or Seranis of all surnames, whether related or not, can come, poke around and become familiar with the incredible Eurasian diaspora, and when ready and big enough in membership, can start off their own surname-specific sites.”
Emuang continues: “I envision this site to help connect Eurasians/Seranis wherever they may be, establish family ties, and become the kick-off point to other family sites.”
Being Serani also means that Emuang may possibly be a distant relative of Abba or Bjork, as this exclusive interview with The Nut Graph reveals.
TNG: Where were you born?
Vernon Adrian Emuang: In Petaling Jaya (PJ), Assunta Hospital to be exact, when it used to be run by missionaries and there were shrines in every nook and cranny. It was like little Italy.
Where did you grow up?
In Section 14, PJ. The house still exists, on Jalan 14/1. It hasn’t been renovated. My parents were renting it at the time we lived there. Once in a while, I still pass through, and it brings back wonderful childhood memories. I lived in that house until I was six years old. And then we moved to various other houses around the Jaya Supermarket area. It was all empty land then. I used to fly kites there — it was my turf. I remember one of my family’s dogs being shot to death by the dog catchers because we didn’t have a licence for it.
I went to La Salle primary and secondary school in PJ. My mother then wanted me to have a university education. I can’t remember if I wanted it myself. She had a brother in Perth, Australia, and back then education for foreign students was free. I couldn’t get into Form Six in Malaysia because my grades weren’t strong enough for a non-Malay Malaysian. I went to Tunku Abdul Rahman College for one year while waiting for my Australian application to be processed.
Meanwhile, my parents landed a PKNS (Selangor Economic Development Corporation) house in SS3, Kelana Jaya because they were government servants. Then I did my last year of high school in Perth. I had a good dose of life in the Australian suburbs.
Did you ever speak with an Australian accent?
Yes. They called me “refo”, which is Aussie for refugee (laughs). This was the era of the boat people, slightly after 1980. I used to get picked on by the skinheads, but my surfer friends would protect me.
Can you trace your ancestry?
In a way, yes. How far back do I have to go? I’ve got Viking blood, you know. I’m Serani. My great grandfather was a Boudeville, and Boudeville is a town in the south of France founded by Viking invaders who were originally from Scandinavia. So I have Viking blood. Can’t you tell? (Laughs) It’s in the way I eat my meat (laughs).
Where were your parents or grandparents from?
Both my parents are from Penang, but they met and got married in Kuala Lumpur. My siblings were all KL-born. But as Seranis we have strong roots in Penang. My dad became the KL outpost for the Serani influx into KL. The Serani insurgency into the Klang Valley (laughs).
What generation Malaysian are you?
If I attempted to really identify, I’d say I am sixth-generation Malaysian. My ancestors returned to Penang from Phuket in the late 1700s. Their ancestors had fled to Phuket from Melaka when the Dutch invaded.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
Well, recent events (Emuang’s father passed away in December 2008) have brought back a flood of memories.
As a child, you know how as you come out of a fever you feel very hungry? You wake up at 3am feeling hungry. I remember when I was around four years old, I woke my dad up at 3am and then he made me Milo and cream crackers.
Tea time was also very important. At 4.30pm my parents would come home from work. We had a kerosene stove, and my siblings and I would start boiling water at 3.30pm. All the siblings, brothers all, had chores to do, including making tea for our parents. My parents would bring back goreng pisang and kuih. Most families sit and talk during dinner time. We did this during tea time.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents, grandparents, uncles or aunties?
My grandmother, from Penang, was Chinese, with Thai blood I presume. At six years old, she decided to move in with one of the Serani matriarchs, and she became the matriarch’s daughter by default.
It wasn’t that my grandmother’s own parents disowned her. Her parents said, “If you love the Serani woman, why don’t you become her daughter?” It wasn’t a malicious question. This was how my grandmother related this story to me. It felt so natural.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
Well, the fact that my grandmother did this is pretty amazing. That she could tell me this without any veneer of moral judgment. No regret or resentment. It was just the way it was and life turned out the way it did.
When I was listening to her tell this story, it struck me that it must have been a close-knit, multiracial community. For a Chinese girl to adore a Eurasian matriarch so much that she took her bantal and moved in, and the Chinese girl’s mother was okay with this.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I struggle with not being able to speak Malay as fluently as I would like. I really wish I could speak Malay better. Otherwise then a lot of these stories of multicultural Malaysia will not be presented to those who need to come to terms with it the most. The ones who have electoral power. The ones who need to preserve the uniqueness of this Malaysian story.
In December 2008, I started playing a supporting lead (the husband of the lead actress Norish Karman’s character) in the series Kasut Tumit Tinggi. Now, I’ve been acting for a long time. After hosting Cyberwave, I was asked to host a Malay-language programme, but I said no because I thought my Malay wasn’t good. But when I got the call to do Kasut Tumit Tinggi, I said yes because it was directed by Low Ngai Yuen, and we’ve worked together before.
But I had no idea the show was in Malay! When I found out, I freaked out. Jefri Osman (one of the actors) said to me, “If I was offered a Hungarian, Indian, or Chinese role, I would accept it because I’m an actor. And it’s not that you don’t speak Malay well. You speak it differently, and that’s what makes you special.”
And I had a complete paradigm shift after that.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
One in which we all celebrate each other, the way Jefri celebrated that I am different. Where racial grandstanding would be outlawed (chuckles). Where people are forced, now and then, to walk in someone else’s shoes, someone who’s different from them. Cross-cultural work has always been my pet thing. It’s the answer to our strife.