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Crossing over – A New Milestone in Malaysia-Chinese Theatre

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The 14th ADA (Malaysian Chinese Theatre) Awards were a watershed moment for Malaysian Chinese drama. Among its highlights, The highly coveted ‘best female actor’ was awarded to a Malay actor in the production Enemy of the People. At the Moment

Held on 18 February 2017. The night’s theme was ‘Beyond’ [sic](跨·越, literally ‘Crossing. Over’) and ADA president Soon Choon Mee[1] revealed a new direction and commitment for the awards to transcend race, language and cultures in future collaborations.

Many experienced theatre practitioners in Malaysia might take this aspiration as a given. However, for such an influential institution to openly commit to this cause is a significant step in the right direction. After all, ADA’s basic objective is to represent the Chinese community in recognising and validating Chinese drama practitioners.

At the awards ceremony held in KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) yesterday evening, there were constant references to the need to promote multilingual and multicultural theatre collaborations in Malaysia. This direction will broaden the definition of Malaysian drama in the Chinese drama community in the country. I hope this discussion will bring about new developments in Malaysian-Chinese drama/theatre.

A bit of history

The first award ceremony was held in 2002 honoring Chinese drama productions produced by Malaysians in Chinese Language in 2001. For 14 years, they have been acknowledging the efforts of local Chinese drama practitioners.

As Soon Choon Mee says, the ADA award is a rather unique award in Malaysia. It has a pure intent: Regardless of the complete lack of support in any form from the government or financial support for the arts in this country, Chinese theatre practitioners can support and encourage one another[2].

Theatre practitioners in Taiwan might raise eyebrows at the phrase 家家酒 (‘theatre produced for its own gratification) because of its negative connotations. My intention in highlighting this is not to belittle the ADA award nor the Chinese drama community in Malaysia. Far from it. I want to encourage Malaysian-Chinese drama to open itself up to drama from different cultures and in other languages, not just an activity exclusively by and for the Chinese in Malaysia.

My point is that there are two elements in the DNA of Chinese drama that might be an impetus to relooking Malaysia-Chinese drama in a different light bringing about innovation.

Common threads

From the history of the development of Chinese theatre in Malaysia, two recurring tropes are clear: Nostalgia and Subversion. These qualities are a form of resilience against odds.

The ADA Awards has exhibited traits of the former but they lack the audacity of the latter. At this year’s ADA Awards, Soon Choon Mee’s reinforced my observation, especially the acknowledgement given to politicians, businessmen and members in the Chinese community for their support in making the awards ceremony possible in terms of prize monies for the winners.

She further invoked the metaphor of a reunion dinner for all Chinese drama practitioners to describe the ADA Awards an attempt to “keep the family together”, encouraging group-think and cliquing.

Subversion (coupled with rejection of anything that is oppressive) was also a constant motif in the development of various Chinese drama productions in Singapore and Malaysia (or more accurately “Malaya”). The subversive nature of these productions gave rise to new drama practitioners armed with their own unique theatre aesthetics.

This not new to Malaysia-Chinese drama. Students returning from studying overseas to present new works has been a constant trend since the beginning of the millennium. They have been attempting to subvert the existing conventional aesthetics of Malaysia-Chinese drama. They brought about innovation in the Malaysia-Chinese drama scene, albeit in a smaller scale.

Rejecting oppressive norms

The ADA Awards’ commitment towards building more collaborations and crossing boundaries of race and language in recognizing good drama productions is a form subversion to the existing status-quo of Malaysia-Chinese drama, within which fatigue has taken root. Director Seng Soo Ming’s multilingual play Enemy of the People. At the Moment might be considered a milestone in this respect. It is not just about a Malay actor winning a coveted award in a Chinese drama award, but the possibility that a multilingual play directed by a Malaysian-Chinese director with multicultural elements could sit well with audiences and reviewers in the Chinese theatre community that matters.

[1] ASLI (2017) ADA Awards. Malaysia: ADA Organizing Committee.

[2] Ibid

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