FRANCISSCA PETER has been a mainstay in the local music scene for more than a quarter of a century, having released more than 20 albums, including compilations.
Initially part of the twosome, Roy & Fran, the Ipoh gal went solo in 1984 with Komputer Muzik. But it was 1986’s Sekadar Di Pinggiran, with its Juara Lagu-winning title track, that truly made her a household name. She also scored a first by performing the patriotic anthem, Setia, from the rooftop of the Dayabumi building in 1989. Her other hits include Aku Hanya Pendatang and Kerna Terpaksa.
Despite moving overseas (first to the US, then UK, Guangzhou and Hong Kong) in the 1990s after her marriage, Fran continued to produce hit singles and albums. She even performed in the musical The King and I in Hong Kong in 2000, before relocating back here a year later.
The 47 year-old is also World Vision Ambassador for the 4th year running, and it is a role she cherishes. She released two compilation albums and two new singles in 2008, including the theme song, Tomorrow, for the 30 Hour Famine project at www.worldvision.com.my.
Fran’s father, who had drinking and gambling problems, abandoned the family in 1978. Her mother was forced to wash clothes for others to support the family. Fran admits that without the help from relatives and The Sisters of the Poor, her mother would have been unable to support all four children.
The future singer left school after Form Three, took up a typing course, and started working as a salesgirl in a batik factory to help support her family. A year later, with money being tight, Fran took the decision to go into singing. She has not looked back since.
In an interview with The Nut Graph, Fran talks frankly about her life and the importance of preserving our history — pendatangs and all.
TNG: Where were you born? Where’s your family from?
[I’ve] always considered Ipoh my hometown, but funnily enough I am a Klang Hospital child. My childhood was in Ipoh. We used to live near the Menteri Besar’s house, near where the fountain used to be on Jalan Gopeng.
My parents were Perak people. I think we go back three or four generations here. My dad’s side was originally from Sri Lanka, and my mom’s from Hainan. One of my aunts, Sharmini Tiruchelvam — (the Mona Lisa of the East) [once] painted by Picasso — who is now living in Ipoh, has been tracing the family tree. [She] says we are somewhere down the line related to Charles Brooke — the White Rajah.
I hope that in future [we] do not erase the history of all the people who came and settled here. I think all Malaysians are pendatang, basically, and the only true people here are the Orang Asli.
So, you come from a mixed race background.
Yes. My parents married in 1957. My mom, Alice, who was 20 when she got married, was discriminated against for marrying an Indian. My (now estranged) father, Lucian Peter, was the youngest of four sons. He was a brilliant journalist who was one of the pioneers at Straits Echo. He wrote the most romantic letters to my mom, who was the youngest of four girls in her family. After my dad left, my mom was very broken but kept us all together. It was very hard, but my paternal grandma was very supportive. She sayang my mother very much and stayed with us until she left for the UK. She died in the late 70s or early 80s.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
My father’s family were from Sri Lanka. Both my great grandfather and grandfather came to Malaya before the war. They mostly worked in the courts, [the] clerical (side) and as surgeons. My uncle was one of the first surgeons in Malaya. My mom’s side were from Hainan, where they owned a pepper farm. But when the communists took over, they fled here.
But it is hard to trace back…I hope [the Malaysian authorities] do not erase records as I find it a little upsetting that they are erasing history here slowly in our education system. How can you do such a thing? These are people’s lives, you know. We have a history you know; we are not aliens … we have lived here for many years (said with some frustration).
What was your childhood like?
I was the second of four siblings — I have an older brother, and after me came another brother and sister, Bibiana, who is my manager. I attended Main Convent Ipoh and then Tarcisian Convent Ipoh, where all the teachers adored me (laughs). I am one of those people who have to focus all the time, otherwise I will end up dreaming.
My family moved around a lot, but when we finally moved to Petaling Jaya permanently in 1982, I was enrolled at a co-ed school in Selayang. I didn’t like it; I’m a convent girl at heart.
Convent schools are great. And it is very sad that you don’t have this anymore. I think they had the best discipline, the education was richer. [I feel] our [present] education system has failed us dramatically. You have segregation in schools, and you have some teachers who prod little minds to not associate with children of other races. I’m sorry. In the old days, in the convent schools, we were not like that. We were never forced to attend Bible classes, for instance.
And it is so horrifying listening to the young people now who cannot speak English [or even] Malay well. But then again, such is life because we are a blended community. It’s like a party, celebrating [our diversity]. I myself speak English and Cantonese (fluently), Bahasa Malaysia, also some Mandarin. And German, badly. I am also learning a bit of Tamil now.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
You know what’s the hardest thing I find, about my identity? When doing corporate shows, it is much harder being mixed race. You are not white enough to do Chinese shows — they won’t call. And I am not dark enough to be in one of those Indian shows either. And so far I have survived thanks to those who are English-educated, and also due to the Malay shows. My Malay fan base has been absolutely wonderful, as have my fans of other races. They have been very supportive.
What is your hope for the future?
My hope for the future, for the country, is for integration. Preferably that we don’t have Tamil and Chinese schools in the future, because this has divided us as a nation without any strong integration whatsoever. Preferably, we should [go] back to what it was before, when all the subjects were taught in English, and BM was a subject on its own. You can have extra classes in Tamil or Mandarin.
Being an ambassador with the international aid organisation World Vision in Malaysia has opened many doors, because a lot of people see me as a great fundraiser. So I get a lot of calls to do shows now. And through me, I hope World Vision has had a bit more recognition and awareness here in Malaysia. So I think I am doing something good and will continue to do so for as long as I am able to.