Performing in Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya; Five Arts Centre, 2007
(Pic by Phillip Craig; all pics courtesy of Mark Teh)
INTRODUCING Mark Teh with a short sentence is not easy. The director–educator–producer–performer–researcher says he tries not to place his various pursuits in a hierarchy. “I suppose I function more like a historian, more than anything else,” he tells The Nut Graph during an interview in Kuala Lumpur on 11 March 2010. “For me, the [historical] work is expressed in theatre and teaching, rather than writing. So theatre is just another kind of container for me, for this way of working and thinking.”
Teh has become a familiar name in Malaysian theatre, creating and directing historical productions such as Baling (Membaling), which explored the 1955 Baling negotiations; and Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari, on wayang kulit. He is a member of artists’ collective Five Arts Centre, and is also involved with The Fairly Current Show on new media website PopTeeVee.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Chinese Maternity Hospital, Pudu in 1981. I grew up close to there as well. I first lived on Jalan Sahabat, parallel to Changkat Bukit Bintang, where there are lots of clubs now. The place is still there.
With mother Dolly Tan, at paternal grandfather’s birthday, 1983I had quite a nomadic experience growing up. We lived in Kepong before my parents divorced when I was about nine or 10. On weekdays, I would also stay with my aunty who’s married to a police sergeant, and lived at the police flats on Jalan Semarak.
When my mum remarried, we lived in Sentul and also in the Lorong Gurney area. I experienced a kind of social mobility moving from inner-city Kuala Lumpur, to more well-off neighbourhoods, to Sentul, where we stayed in a shophouse.
Because my mum remarried an English [national], I was sent to Garden International School in case we migrated, which never materialised.
What are your strongest memories growing up?
In the late 80s, coming from a divorced family was quite a big deal. Kids could be super-curious and ask, “Where’s your father ah?” I became sensitive to difference. My living situation was different — weekends with father, weekdays with mother.
School events would have to be choreographed so that my parents didn’t have to see each other. Nowadays, it’s much more common. A lot of my students come from interesting, un-nuclear families.
My strongest experiences were probably in my late teens when I met like-minded friends and [literature lecturer] Mohan Ambikaipaker in college, and watched theatre for the first time. I moved out to live on my own at 17, and started this strange process of not going home and staying at a different friend’s house every night. It was interesting experiencing the city this way. As you move into different people’s houses, you move into different cultures and have different encounters with people.
Where are your ancestors from?
Maternal grandparentsMum was from Bukit Mertajam. Her father came here from Guangdong in China in the 1920s as a labourer. He later became a driver, then a land broker. My maternal grandmother was from Saigon, Vietnam. She and her father moved to Guangdong when her mother died when she was about 12. She married my grandfather in an arranged marriage. They’re both Teochew. They had 12 kids — six sons and six daughters. My mum was the 11th.
I have a lot of cousins and we keep discovering long-lost relatives. Or people given away at birth who are now very successful, and comments are made like, “Aiya, why we give that one away? Maybe should have given a different one?” (laughs)
My father is either third- or fourth-generation [Hokkien] Malaysian, he’s not sure. His grandfather ran sundry shops in Kuala Selangor that apparently introduced Guinness Stout and cigarettes to Selangor. My paternal grandparents’ marriage was also arranged.
Are there any stories that you hold on to from your family?
There’s a story my father told me that fascinates me.
He came to KL to work in March 1969, two months before 13 May. On 13 May, he was at his office in the Pudu area, near Kota Raya. His brother called and said, “They’re killing Chinese people so don’t leave, lock yourselves in, I’ll call you later.” So he stayed overnight with his colleagues; they barred up the office.
He says that night, from his fourth-floor office, he could see Rex cinema and saw Chinese people waiting outside. As people came out after the show, they separated them [by race] and started killing people who looked Malay or didn’t look Chinese.
It’s a powerful story because I imagine people watching a Hollywood or P Ramlee movie, and they come out and the whole world has changed.
Teh’s father Bobby, visiting Tugu Negara in 1970
The fascinating thing is, my father could well be wrong. Research and historical documents generally show there was no such incident at Rex cinema. But historians agree that an incident as my father described did happen at Federal cinema, at the intersection between Chow Kit and Kampung Baru. My dad could not have seen this cinema from his office. He is, however, convinced of what he saw.
This story has stayed with me because of the fluidity of memory. Maybe he didn’t make it up. But it would also be interesting if he did. If he created this trauma to have a kind of fake ownership of 13 May. It’s fascinating that he might have fictionalised it …
For me, that’s how I approach history in my work. I’m not so much after the truth; how people remember certain things is what interests me. Or how they choose to forget certain things. How they make sense of something through their memories.
How do you connect to these stories?
We’ve made sense of some of these stories by performing them.
I told my father’s story in a play [with theatre group Akshen]. I actually don’t have a problem that the story may or may not be true. I like the fact that we fictionalise, that we imagine and appropriate certain things to become part of our legend. We come from a trajectory of oral storytelling and myth-making. We’re not a particularly written kind of culture. So to me, it’s okay, it can make sense.
[With Baling (Membaling)], we performed a text on Chin Peng, David Marshall and Tunku Abdul Rahman debating the merits of nationhood, surrender and loyalty in 1955. But I felt it was not enough. I asked my performers to interview their parents, which is a strategy I use all the time. To me, that’s important. There’s the grand narrative of history, but there are also these micro experiences of which history is made up.
Any aspects of your identity that you struggle with?
I used to, because coming from an international school, you can really be in a bubble. But [my lecturer] Mohan challenged us that we didn’t really know much about our own country. Very quickly, I had to deconstruct and abandon my whole international school mindset. I think that’s why I didn’t go to university. I felt I had to stay and find things out. So I had a complex at that time which I’ve worked out now. Now, I feel I want to leave and do a Masters degree.
So no lah, no struggle for identity. I mean, no one can take it away from you lah. You’re Malaysian, it’s as simple as that. So the Ibrahim Alis and the Zul Noordins can say whatever, but it’s rhetoric. It’s powerful rhetoric that resonates with a lot of people; but ultimately, there is no turning back the clock. You can regress as a society. You can de-civilise, but there’s no turning back.
Tell us about the future Malaysia that you would like to see.
I don’t have anything very different to say from previous Found in Malaysia interviewees. We all want a place where we feel we belong and we don’t want to leave. Although looking at it philosophically and historically, especially in our part of the world, we are a migratory people.
On a larger level, maybe we shouldn’t worry about the future. Maybe we don’t need to worry if the future is fair or has space for everyone under the sun. Because isn’t that what everyone aspires to anywhere in the world?
“Boyband” of brothers. From left: Norman Teh, Sean
Stubbings, Ben Stubbings, Mark
Maybe the whole discourse about the multi, the other and the multiple is actually a small elite discussion that’s going round in circles. I’ve been having this discussion recently, and I’ve been thinking, maybe no need lah to talk about history anymore, and how we were multiple and inter. Maybe it would be more interesting to adopt the science-fiction perspective and talk about the future. And create dystopian, apocalyptic futures.
Like what would happen if all the Chinese and Indians [Malaysians] are no longer here. We’re always talking about a better Malaysia, but maybe we should imagine worse Malaysias and create them. That might be useful for us to see, to experience, to think about, to fight over.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews
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