(All pics and footage courtesy of Tan Sooi Beng)
TAN Sooi Beng, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, is an educator, composer, musician, author, music activist and ambassador. She joined USM as a lecturer in the Department of Performing Arts in the School of Humanities in 1980. In 1994, she developed the faculty’s Bachelor of Arts (Music) programme in Western and Asian music. She has been involved in the development of the music curriculum for secondary schools, and has pushed for the inclusion of local Malaysian music in the syllabus.
Tan’s compositions include gamelan music such as Perubahan, featured on the CD Rhythm in Bronze (Five Arts Centre, 2002). It also includes Saling Berpelukan, performed by gamelan troupe Rhythm in Bronze at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in 2004.
Tan also works with multicultural communities and young people in Georgetown, through collaborations with Anak-Anak Kota, an arts education programme for young people, and performing arts collective Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio. Together they have recreated Penang’s history through musical theatre productions such as Kisah Pulau Pinang (2006), Ronggeng Merdeka (2007), Opera Pasar (2008) and Ko-Tai Penang (2009 and 2010). Based on her extensive research on the region’s multicultural traditions, Tan seeks to create new forms of music and theatre that cut across race and class.
In an 18 Feb 2010 e-mail interview with The Nut Graph, Tan talks about her growing-up and formative years.
Sooi Beng and her parents
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
My mother was a midwife who worked in a government clinic in Air Itam, Penang. She used to cycle to the remote kampung and vegetable farms of Air Itam to deliver babies. Mum was provided a one-bedroom flat in the clinic’s compound. It was at this clinic that I was born and grew up.
It was a great place — the children of the staff nurses and midwives used to run around the big field, play masak-masak, and hide and seek among the trees.
Dad worked as a school clerk at St Xavier’s Institution (SXI) in Georgetown, run by the La Salle brothers. Not surprisingly, he sent his two daughters to Convent Light Street, the all-girls’ school opposite SXI.
Once I started primary school, I spent most of my time at the convent and my dad’s school, where I waited in the afternoons until he finished work so we could go home. I was there so often that one of the brothers, whom the boys nicknamed Lau Hor — meaning “tiger” in Hokkien as he was a strict disciplinarian — decided to teach me the violin and invited me to play in the school orchestra. I was one of a handful of girls in the orchestra.
So I was introduced to the world of classical music by the brothers. My cousin gave me free piano lessons. The composer Jimmy Boyle, who used to teach in the school, helped my dad choose a second-hand piano for me to practise on. That was how my passion for music was nurtured.
Sooi Beng’s mother on her wedding dayCan you trace your ancestry? What generation Malaysian are you?
My maternal grandparents were both from China. Grandfather used to take care of a rubber estate in Kedah after he arrived in Malaya. My grandmother stayed there with him when her seven children were young, but came to Penang to look for work before the Japanese Occupation so that the children could go to school.
My paternal grandparents came from Sumatera. Grandfather was a lieutenant under the Dutch colonial government there. He was in charge of the Chinese community in the small town of Lhok Seumawe, in North Sumatera. However, my aunties tell me that he did not accumulate wealth as he was not corrupt!
He sent his sons, my dad and [my dad’s] brother, to Penang to study at SXI prior to the Occupation. The two brothers stayed with a rich relative in Penang, but had to sleep in the stables with the horses and ate with the servants. My paternal grandfather moved to Penang with the family after he retired when Indonesia gained independence.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
Air Itam was my first home. The market is one of the places I loved to visit, wet and smelly no doubt. It had the best kuey teow th’ng and laksa one could find in Penang, I thought at the time.
At night, I was drawn to the Chinese opera, which was often performed in the open space near the market. As a child, I was struck by the sheer magic of the visuals and music. The sparkling costumes and brilliant makeup made us children think that it must be immortals behind the painted faces. And [I remember the] tok tok cheng percussion that accented every movement.
Sooi Beng (right) playing with her friends, with Penang Hill in the background
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your family? How have these stories shaped who you are as a Malaysian?
My grandmother, aunty and mother are two generations of strong women who struggled to earn a living to support their families prior to the Japanese Occupation. They were midwives who were on call day and night. We children could hear “My wife is giving birth, tolong tolong!” even when we were asleep. While most women were kept indoors during that era, these three women would cycle to different houses by themselves even at night to deliver babies.
My grandmother and aunt went for training for six months each at the general hospital in Penang, even though they could not read or write and spoke no English. They communicated with the British nurses using hand signs. Despite being scolded all the time, both managed to pass the hands-on training. They were so proud of their certificates, which they hung in their house in Air Itam. This gave them the passport to deliver babies for the community around them. Up till now, people of all races come up to my mum to say, “Hey your mother delivered me, you know!”
How have these stories shaped me? The three women were strong, independent and served their community. They always told me I was fortunate compared with other kids, so I must be grateful and give back to society. This was later reinforced by the nuns at the convent where I studied for 11 years. They emphasised that our lives should reflect the convent motto: “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty.”
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
As I grew up in Penang, I communicated with fellow Penangites in Hokkien, English and Malay; excelled in piano playing; studied hard; and did some voluntary work at old folks’ homes. I was quite content, but things changed when I was offered a scholarship to study music at Cornell University in the US.
When I stepped on American soil in the mid-1970s, the campuses were abuzz. The students were protesting the American involvement in the Vietnam War and engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. I was forced to think about war, racism, rights of blacks and women, poverty, the political situation in Malaysia, and how I could contribute to society. I was politicised.
As a musician, I began to listen to protest songs by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul and Mary, instead of the Osmond Brothers or Cliff Richard. I realised the meaning of the song Blowing in the Wind, which I used to sing in Malaysia: How many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free?
Learning shakuhachi at Wesleyan University, 1980s
I joined the gamelan ensemble at Cornell University, which provided a sense of community and played music with students from different parts of the world. I began to research the multiethnic cultures of Malaysia and of other parts of the world. I became an ethnomusicologist, one who specialised in the study of non-western music, and made a resolution to apply my knowledge for change in society.
At the same time, students from China and Hong Kong found it strange that I spoke English or Malay to fellow Malaysians. No one else spoke Hokkien, except those from Penang or Johor. I began to learn Mandarin and took courses about China. I tried to look for my Chinese roots, but discovered that I was indeed different from the other Chinese students in terms of tastes in food, performing and visual cultures, and dressing. After all, I was Malaysian!
Excerpts from the DVD Music of Sound: Building Bridges Through the Performing Arts,
highlighting Sooi Beng’s work with Anak-Anak Kota
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
The Malaysia in my imagination is a place where there is space to be creative, to express and articulate new diverse cultural identities, take part in democratic society, and make decisions about our own lives.
It is a place where we can enjoy being Malaysians who care for one another, where our thinking and creative works transcend race, and where all have the opportunity to engage in the arts. Culture will be alive when different groups are able to bounce off one another!
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews
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