Saturday, May 30, 2009

Keeping dialects alive through the arts Deejay on mission to keep traditional performances alive

Keeping dialects alive through the arts
Deejay on mission to keep traditional performances alive


WHILE many people either take the common dialects for granted or ignore them, Ai FM deejay Chong Keat Aun has great appreciation for them and considers them an amazing and beautiful heritage to be enjoyed and preserved.

According to Chong, folk songs, opera shows, folk doggerel, ballads, adages, and music for celebrations or funerals performed in the Chinese dialects, especially when accompanied by the traditional Chinese musical instruments, are fascinating.

The 31-year-old said his interest in culture had stimulated his passion to gather and preserve the fading dialect heritage in the performing arts.

"As far as I know, nobody is actually preserving the vocal heritage now, but someone must do it to protect these voices from disappearing," he said.

Chong's weekly radio programme Xiang Yin Kao Gu: Si Xiang Qi (loosely translated as "Exploration studies on native tongues: let the rumination begin") is aired every Thursday at 10pm, centres on the folk artistes rendering traditional music.

"I didn't want an ordinary radio show; I aspired to kick-start a campaign that raises the community's awareness on preserving our dialects and culture," said Chong, who speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien.

The charm of these enchanting folk songs -whether in Hakka, Hainanese, Cantonese, or other dialects - is in their historical values.

"They recorded an era's history, the people's general behaviour and thinking, and also the political scenarios," Chong said.

The Kedah-born deejay, whose ancestral home is in Kaiping in the Guangdong province, said he concentrated on the hunt for the local voices, instead of those from China or Taiwan as suggested by some.

Chong's mission is not an easy one as there are few people who can be said to be truly experts in the dialects, and there is also resist-
ance from some people due to various reasons.

"One night, I drove past a house having a funeral ceremony and I suddenly had an idea. So I stopped my car and dropped by the house, asking the family members for permission to record the funeral music but, to my dismay, they declined on the grounds that the deceased's soul might get trapped inside my recorder," he said.

Chong said he had even witnessed an elderly woman reprimanding her grandchild for watching a traditional opera show, claiming that it was meant for the enjoyment of supernatural beings and not humans.

He said such superstitious beliefs, coupled with the people's lack of interest, saddened him.
"At a clan association in Malacca, I discovered that the traditional musical instruments were left rotting in the storeroom ever since the musicians passed on," he said.

"One floor up, the associatio members were either singing karaoke or practising ballroom dancing," Chong said.

When he proposed reviving the traditional orchestra, the feedback he received was that nobody was interested in traditional music now.

However, there is a bright side to the gloom, as some of Ch0ng's radio listeners have entrusted him with priceless recordings of the previous generations, and shared heartening stories with him.

"When I first started the programme, some listeners felt that the slot has robbed them of the chance to listen to pop songs. Fast forward a few months later, a listener, who used to be critical of my programme, told me about his grandmother's funeral when, adhering to her wish, her descendants sang folk rhymes during the funeral ceremony," Chong said

"The incident made him realise how he had not valued the traditional voices previously, Episodes like this motivate me to strive on," Chong said.

In his mission to spread the heritage preservation message, Chong has also helped to
organise free live performances at the cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca, the United Hokkien Cemeteries at Bukit Gantung in Penang, the Chan She Shu Yuen Clan Association in Kuala Lumpur and the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement in Selangor.

Some examples of the programmes lined up during these events were Hakka Shan Ge (mountain song), Teochew Da Luo Gu (Percussion), Hainan Qiong Ju (opera) and Hokkien Nan Yin (orchestra).

"In Malacca, a group of Italian tourists told me that they were delighted to chance upon the event, as it was exactly what they had been
yearning to see- the traditional culture of Malaysians," Chong said.

"With money, skyscrapers like the Twin Towers can be replicated. But no amount of money can redeem a lost culture," he said.

When met at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement recently, Chong had a long red shawl hanging over his shoulder and half his face was painted in white and red hues like that of an opera performer.

"The face painting pattern tells you that having a passion for the tradition does not mean alienating oneself from the present. Both can
coexist. The red shawl symbolises our blood and our traditions are within our blood and it is up to us to spread it out," he said.

At a recent dinner organised by the Malaysia Seven Clans Association themed Xiang Yin Xiang Yao Wen Hua Wan Yan (A cultural night of Chinese dialects and cuisines), Chong made sure that each clan's delicacy was paired with its respective cultural performance.

Guests arriving at the main hall of the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur were given a traditional welcome by a Teochow percussion group.

Each performance was staged before a dish was served to ensure undivided attention and respect to the folk artistes.

The dinner-performance menu had exotic names like Guangxi Folk Song With Stuffed Tofu, Cantonese Opera with Braised Chinese Cabbage and Dried Scallop, Hakka Mountain Song with Baked Salted Chicken, Hokkien Orchestra with Knuckles and Sea Cucumber, Hainan Opera with Stewed Mutton, Teochew Xian Shi Yue (string orchestra) with Steamed Pomfret and an introduction of Kunqu (a form Of Chinese opera listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco) with Sanjiang Eight Treasures Rice.

The feast ended with a compilation of lullabies in different dialects, followed by the sweet and smooth Teochew Yam Paste.

"Our culture comes in a whole package. It encompasses a variety of things and forms our soul," Chong said.

He feels that the government should spearhead the campaign to promote and preserve such heritage.

Citing Taiwan as an example, he said the Taiwanese effort started 30 years ago, beginning with the collecting of an assortment of folk music, inclusive even of .foul language rhymes.

"It's not to encourage the people to pick up the bad words, but a way to study the humanities," he said.

Chong has travelled to Penang, Kedah, Perak and Malacca with his trusty recorder to visit the folk artistses to record their voices.

He also welcomes contributions from the public to be shared with the listeners.
"Everyone can take a proactive role to be a collector. We cannot wait anymore. How many would still remember these voices 10 years down the road?" he said.

Chong can be reached at or

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ponggal festival is a time when indians offer thanks

The auspicious period for 2009 begins onWednesday(Jan 14). To mark it, Hinduswill celebrate the thanksgiving festival of Ponggal.

The event signifies the start of a period considered to be good for marriages, moving house, buying hew vehicles or property, sealing business deals and travelling.

From an astrological standpoint, this is a favourable period because it isthe time when the sun enters the Northern Hemisphere.

The sun moves from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer via the Equator on Jan
14 and this movement is termed the summer solstice.

For those who have been postponing their wedding plans or finding it difficult to decide on their life partner, this would be the time to make your choice.

The favourable planetary positions can influence these individuals to clear their doubts and allow them to make rational decisions.

The best days to get married are Thursday and Friday, followed by Monday, Wednesday
and Sunday. Tuesday and Saturday are inauspicious.

In the homes of South Indians who will usher in Ponggal - to offer thanks to the universe for its blessings of water, land, air and light)- much cheer and happiness will prevail.

In India, Ponggal is celebrated over three days as a harvest festival by farmers and livestock breeders to offer gratitude to nature for a good harvest. For farmers, this is the time they rejoice the fruits of their labour and take a break from their farming activities.

It is vital that Hindus celebrating this event prepare their home to usher in the goodness and prosperity.

The decorations should include two sugar cane branches at the main doorway of the house to symbolise sweetness. Eleven mango leaves should be hung at the main entrance to woo positive energy and ward off negative entities.

On the eve of the festival, the house should be washed clean (better to use water mixed with turmeric powder as it is said to be able to remove unseen negative energies). Broken and damaged utensils, frayed furniture and drapery should be replaced with new ones and dust and dirt should be cleared. All this prepares the home to welcome an event which is celebrated with as much joy as Deepavali.

The featival's main event is the boiling of milk in a clay pot. Family members gather round the pot to match the milk overflow and chant "Ponggale lo Ponggale" while adding rice to it. In Tamil, this "overflow" signifies goodness and wealth for the whole family.

Cooking vessels should be adorned with mango and turmeric leaves, dotted with vermilion and turmeric, and placed on the fire by the woman of the house. (Women are regarded as the wealth and beauty of the home.)

The speciality of the day will most likely be sweet brown sugar rice cooked in butter milk, mixed with raisins and cashew nuts. Once the food is ready, it should taken out in the sun as
a thanksgiving offering.

Family and guests should be treated to lunch and sweets to strengthen family ties and enhance friendship and goodwill.

Also, the ceremonial surya namaskar (worship of the Sun God) is to be performed.

The second day of the celebration is known as Mattu Ponggal and is devoted to cows, which are regarded as sacred animals for the Hindus. In villages, cows are given a bath and they then get their horns painted and decorated with garlands.

The third day of Ponggal, known as Kanni Ponggal, focuses on eligible women. They must dress in new cloths and gold ornaments and offer special prayers to get a good husband.

Vasthu talk

The columnist will give talk on Art of Happy Living for peace and prosperity on March 28 at 10am at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman at No. 13, Jalan 13/6, PetalingJaya, Selangor. Admission is free but registration is required. To register, call G. Ramalingam at 012-329 9713.

T Selva, The Star's Sunday Metro Editor, has spent years researching and writing about the
ancient Indian science of construction, better known as 'Indian feng shui'. He is the first disciple of 7th generation Vasthu Sastra Master Yuvaraj Sowma from Chennai, India.

The does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, usefulness, fitness for any particular purpose or other assurances as to the opinions and views expressed in this column.

The disclaims all responsibility for any losses suffered directly or indirectly arising from reliance on such opinions and views.