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5 things you don’t know about… the history of Chinese theatre in Malaysia

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  1. 100 years ago…

Historically, Singapore and Malaysia Chinese drama seems to have emerged between 1913 to 1919. Practiced primariy by alumni associations and Chinese school student groups the first form was called “New Drama(新戏), which led to the practice of “Spoken Drama”(话剧)[i]. New Drama productions were staged as fundraisers for hospitals and schools and events for other socially-driven causes. In a research paper on Singapore-Chinese drama, a different name was used: 白话戏 (Drama spoken using colloquial Chinese Language). [ii]

  1. in the 30’s and 40’s…

Between 1932 to 1942, during the Japanese occupation of China, many Chinese drama groups in Malaya staged productions to raise funds to help those in their ancestral country fight off the invaders. This was especially true after the escalation of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on 7 July 1937. However, when the Japanese took over Malaya in 1941, the number of Chinese drama activities fell and eventually stopped.[iii]

  1. After World War II…

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, numerous companies travelled from China to Malaya to perform, shaping how drama was taught at here Chinese-language schools, as well as performances by local Chinese drama groups.

The Communist Party of Malaya (MCP) was recognized as a legal entity by the British colonial authorities and schools were swayed by communist ideologies. Political tension between the communists and the British grew, resulting in the murder of three European planters in the state of Perak and the ‘Malayan Emergency’ in 1948. It was during this time too that many new drama companies were formed in Singapore and Malaysia. [iv]

  1. in the 60’s and 70’s

After a brief period of fighting against the culture of bad influences in the sixties, from pornography to undesired materials propagated against the moral zeitgeist of the day, Chinese drama took a new turn in the with the establishment of the Dramatic Arts Society in Malaysia. [v]

  1. In the 80’s

A scene from Lao Shen’s Teahouse. It had premiered in 1957. This performance was staged in the 1980s. [Finland-China Society’s Archives]

In the eighties, under the stewardship of Leong Chi Sin[vi], the Malaysian Institute of Art established its very first drama department. This was a monumental time for theatre as drama studies were established as a field of academic study. Seminal Chinese drama educator Soon Choon Mee[vii] became a lecturer in the same institute training new drama practitioners in the Chinese drama scene. She educated them about the emergence and possibility of the small theatre form (小剧场)from Taiwan, which was experiencing a new era in theatre development right after their release from martial law in 1987.

With education, new ideas of drama making brought about new forms of Chinese drama, which led to eventual setting up of the Committee of Theatre Teaching (剧场教学委员会) in 8 August 1993. The national drama festival – which was managed by the committee then – was taken over by a new arts education organisation named Tea Theatre, eventually took on different names as the management baton was being handed from different management team: Team Theatre.[viii]


[i] “As in most of the Asian cultures, no tradition of spoken drama existed in China either, prior to the era of the arrival of Western influence at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries. In fact, the first production of Chinese spoken drama or huaju (hua-chü) was not even created in China, but in Japan, where the interest in Western theatre bloomed slightly earlier than in China. In spring 1907 young Chinese studying in Tokyo performed the third act of La Dame Aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas fils. The positive feedback the production received in Japan encouraged the student group, called The Spring Willow Society, to further stage Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher. It was the beginning of the tradition of Chinese spoken drama, which also quickly spread to Shanghai” (Mittinen).

Mittinen, J.O. et al. Chinese Theatre and Dance in 20th Century Available here.

[ii] 柯思仁。(2013)戏聚百年。新加坡:戏剧盒与国家博物馆。

[iii] 王文真。(2001)现代马来西亚华文剧场的发展-以吉隆坡为引言。硕士论文。国立中国文化大学艺术研究所,台湾。



[vi] Leong Chi Sin was one of the founders of the seminal Chinese theatre group named Dramatic Arts Society. He was also the first head of department of the Malaysian Institute of the Arts, in which many new drama practitioners were trained and went on to become active members in the Chinese drama community today.

[vii] Before Soon Choon Mee became the president of ASLI, she has been widely regarded as the key person propelling an important turn in Malaysia-Chinese theatre, from the largely spoken drama based drama tradition to the newly imported concept of Small Theatre from Taiwan. She has been touted as the person who brought fresh breath to Malaysia-Chinese drama in the eighties and nineties.


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