DATUK Zahim Albakri, 47, has had a brilliant end to 2009. He co-directed Cuci the Musical, which played from 23 Oct to 8 Nov at Istana Budaya, to much critical and commercial acclaim. Zahim also executive produced Jit Murad’s successful One Load of Bull Jit show at PJ Live Arts Theatre from 24 to 29 Nov.
In fact, Zahim has won five Cameronian Arts Awards — Best Director for Spilt Gravy on Rice, Separation 40, Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical, and P Ramlee the Musical, and Best Solo Performer for The Smell of Language. Just before whisking away on his year-end break, Zahim sat down with The Nut Graph on 30 Nov in Kuala Lumpur to tell us about his Malaysia and where he wants it to be.
TNG: Where were you born?
Datuk Zahim Albakri: I was born at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Their maternity ward was opened on 1 Jan 1963, and I was one of the first babies to be born there.
My mother had gone to the maternity ward in Bangsar initially, but then she was put in a taxi with other women in labour to go to the new maternity ward in KL instead. I was actually two weeks late — I was due to be born on 31 Dec, but was born on 12 Jan instead.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in KL. When I was born, my parents were living in Federal Hill, somewhere near where Istana Negara is now. Dad was an architect with the Public Works Department. Mum was a trained speech and drama teacher. I’m not sure if she was still teaching at the time I was born. She was also a television host. I think the programmes she hosted were called Family Corner and Panorama.
The television studio has since been demolished. It was located between what is now Zouk nightclub and the Malaysia Tourism Centre (on Jalan Ampang). It’s also where the original Akademi Seni Kebangsaan was. I think it was still called Radio & TV Malaya at that time.
Mum did live television, you know. But then she eventually fell victim to “Malay-nisation”, because she was English, kan?
So people like her had to be replaced with brown faces?
Yes, then (Datuk) Faridah (Merican) took over her job. (Laughs.) Or rather, the Faridah Mericans of the time.
Can you trace your ancestry? Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz is related to you, isn’t he?
Yes, Tengku Zafrul’s mother is my cousin. Well, on my mum’s side, someone has traced our ancestry. My grandfather, Harold Dearing, came from a family of merchants in south Yorkshire, in an industrial town called Rotherham. I think they were initially potato farmers. But granddad was a [supervisor] with steelworks in Rotherham. My grandmother was Edna McVann — she had some Irish stock in her. But McVann was an unusual Irish name. But those days pun orang putih pun tak pandai eja sangat. Her name could’ve been “McVane”. “Dearing” is probably German.
My memories of my maternal grandparents are from when granddad had already retired in Rotherham. He had a large family — 13 brothers and sisters in all. On grandma’s side there were five siblings. I’ve actually met both my maternal great-grandmothers. Hannah Dearing was about 90 when I met her. My great-grandmothers on my mum’s side both lived to their 90s.
Anyway, Hannah was a very large woman and she was living with an uncle of mine. I remember her telling me about this man who would visit and talk with her every day, and it was actually television. (Laughs.)
My other great-grandmother, Beatrice McVann, we used to visit more often. Her mother owned a hotel, and she didn’t have a husband. So I’d like to think that she was this really mysterious woman.
On my dad’s side, my grandfather was Datuk Seri Mustafa Albakri from Kampung Pisang in Ipoh. His father, I think, had Yemeni roots via Aceh. At first I thought he was just Acehnese, but then I wondered where “Albakri” came from.
There are two different stories about my paternal great-grandfather. One is that he was just a gardener, but in another version, he was a religious teacher in Kampung Pisang.
Apparently, he taught a Datuk’s son who wanted to go to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). In gratitude, the Datuk paid for my grandfather to also study at MCKK. My grandfather was obviously clever and ended up becoming head boy there. He was a boxer there, and interestingly enough I have a Yorkshire relative who’s a prize fighter.
And you ended up directing musical theatre.
Yes! (Laughs.) My Malay grandmother is the one whose origins are very traceable. She was from Batu Gajah and her father was Datuk Sulaiman Toh Amar Diraja, one of the Orang Besar Enam Belas. His house is still there, and his family is still deciding what to do with it.
My dad was born in Batu Gajah. He left there in the 1950s — his graduation had been interrupted by the Japanese Occupation. Although he was an athlete, he decided to study architecture after reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It’s also one of the first novels I ever read.
Granddad got into the civil service after MCKK. He was actually in Parti Negara — there’s a photo of him in a book about Datuk Onn Jaafar. He passed away when he was 71. I have quite vivid memories of him in his big leather chair, and six grandchildren perched on his shoulders watching black and white TV.
At some point, he was the Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, and he installed the first Yang DiPertuan Agong. And at some point, he also represented one of the rulers in one of the Merdeka talks in London.
Did any of them tell you any stories that you hold onto to this day?
My granddad was very proud of being orang Perak. I remember I was nine when he died. We all adored him. We called him Ti — I don’t know where that came from. I know he was quite a snappy dresser. I think for one of the Merdeka talks, he designed a sort of cekak musang jacket to wear in London.
One story I remember is when he was District Officer in Sitiawan or something, he found out a trader was cheating in the market on his weighing scales, or dacing. So my granddad had all the dacings in the entire market tested to ensure that nobody was cheating.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
You know, people have called me “celup” and “Melayu murtad”, but then on my grandmother’s side, we’re all very Melayu. I probably even have Orang Asli blood. So when people say I’m not really Melayu, I’ll say, “Hello, I’m very Melayu, ok?” (Laughs.)
Growing up, the very concept of racism never computed with me. My mother was white, my father was Malay, and that was that. The awareness of race came after 1969. I remember when 13 May happened, I was in kindergarten. There was a big panic, and I was put into a taxi driven by a Chinese woman who was obviously panicking. She made several stops, just to, you know, “Aaaaaargh!” I remember finally getting home and all of us moving into my parents’ bedroom. It was only after that incident, in Standard One, that I became aware of the different races, like, “Oh, you are Chinese [Malaysian], I am Malay [Malaysian].”
So, what aspects of your identity do you struggle most with, as a Malaysian?
I don’t know. I think we don’t struggle lah. (Laughs.) When I was in London, studying, I used to watch South African theatre and wonder how we would ever make theatre that was that strong. I mean, they had to struggle, and we never had to struggle.
But maybe we should embrace that we never had to struggle for Independence, really. That we are good negotiators. So if you are a good negotiator, what for brandish your keris and all?
But do I personally struggle? Yes, I do have my personal struggles. For example, should I read more Malay books or novels? But then I don’t actually read much anyway. (Laughs.)
Here I am, considered a “celup”, but then in the UK, where I went to drama school, the other students would call me “Gandhi”! Kononnya to tease me lah. I was like, “Kenapalah budak-budak ni bodoh sangat? Tak tau geography, tak tau history.” But it was kind of flattering, in a way, that they thought I resembled Ben Kingsley (who played Gandhi).
What kind of Malaysia would you like for future generations?
I do feel the government underestimates the populace. I do believe we are peace-loving, in general. Of course there are troublemakers, but when the trouble happens you can’t help but suspect that it’s manufactured.
I feel the frustration; it’s like that guy Anas Zubedy who put that ad in the newspaper once (asking the rival political factions to stop politicking). I feel that the Barisan Nasional was never grateful for the electorate they had. I don’t think they even knew their electorate. But then I have problems with Pakatan Rakyat as well. I mean, there are great people in it, but what is Pakatan, really? Is anybody really effective in Pakatan?
But ultimately, I believe we have talent. We have so much untapped talent and we are slow in recognising this. We must have more spaces for people to express themselves and be creative. That’s how change will come.
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