JOANNA Bessey first stepped into the Malaysian limelight when she joined the hit comedy series Kopitiam, which ran for seven seasons from 1997. She has since become one of Malaysia’s most recognised entertainment personalities, having been in more than 200 television episodes as well as TV movies, feature films, commercials and plays. Recently, she hosted the BBC World News travel documentary Exploring Malaysia.
Bessey is also an accomplished voice actor who has added directing and teaching to her credentials. Her directorial debut in Ibsen‘s An Enemy of the People earned her a nomination for Best Director in the 2008 Boh Cameronian Arts Awards. More recently, she directed the play Wacky Bar at PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya, which ran from 2 to 11 Oct 2009.
Apart from theatre, Bessey is active in advocating environmental sustainability and human rights. She volunteers as a Celebrity Partner to the United Nations Development Program, and as Celebrity Ambassador to the Malaysian Nature Society.
In this 12 Nov 2009 interview with The Nut Graph in Petaling Jaya, Bessey, 33, shares about her formative years in the UK and Asia. With a British father and a Malay Malaysian mother, she talks about what it was like to grow up embracing two different cultures.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Joanna Bessey: My mum was the first in the family to get a Mara scholarship to go to London, which is where she met my father. So I was born in West Sussex, about 30 miles south of London.
We moved around a lot. When I was four, my family moved to Malaysia, where we lived in Kajang for about six months. Then we lived in Singapore for a couple of years before coming back to Malaysia when I was six. I spent four years in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur, and then when I was 11, I went back to England to study at Greenfields, a boarding school in East Sussex. But I’d come back to visit Malaysia during holidays and such — there was a lot of flying!
When I was 18, I studied acting at the Beverly Hills Playhouse in Los Angeles. Finally, I came back to Malaysia to work when I was about 20, which is when I started Kopitiam.
What are some of the strongest memories of your childhood?
In Malaysia, memories of food (laughs). Steamboat near the Subang airport. Visiting my mum’s family for weddings and such in the kampung, which was really fun. Playing with my cousins, which is how I learnt to speak Malay.
In Singapore, we lived in an apartment block called Pandan Valley, and there was a swimming pool. I would swim every day without fail. The condo had its own park and shops, so I could be independent even though I was only four or five. I could take the lift, go downstairs, buy prawn crackers (laughs).
I remember playing with the neighbouring children. There were Japanese girls next door, and I had a French “boyfriend” a few floors down. We used to hold hands walking onto the school bus.
In England, I remember the cold, rainy weather, but there were beautiful summers as well. The majority of my education was there, and it was a fantastic experience. I have two younger sisters who didn’t go to boarding school because they didn’t want to, but I actually wanted to go. I delved into school and I was part of everything, the tennis team, swimming, pottery, drama class, singing lessons … all sorts of activities that you could do as a child. I did ballet, up until I was 18.
I vividly remember spending a week with my grandfather during my half-term holiday in the UK. He loved poetry, and would be invited to various old folks homes to recite poetry. I remember him reciting poetry for me at his kitchen table, and I couldn’t understand the words, but the passion in the delivery really stuck with me.
How significant was your heritage as you grew up in England?
I was quite aware of race at a pretty young age. When I was in England, I was very brown, quite dark actually, compared to all the Caucasians. When I first went to school, nobody really knew where Malaysia was. I did encounter a little bit of racism, but nothing major.
Most of the kids in the school I went to were very cool, as there were people from all over the world.
Can you trace your ancestry?
I have a lot of family in Malaysia — my maternal, Malay side are mostly Minangkabau, and they go beyond seven generations! Some of my earliest memories are of my mum’s huge family, with lots of cousins and many people to play with. My grandfather married three times (not simultaneously though!), and so my mother had 16 brothers and sisters.
I’m not sure how far back we go, but both my mother’s maternal and paternal sides originally came from Sumatera. My mother’s paternal great-grandfather was known as the Datuk Muda Lerah, and he settled in Selayang, where he was the imam of the masjid.
My mum’s maternal side was from Negeri Sembilan, where my great-great-grandparents had a house in Sri Menanti; but many generations before that, they came from Pagar Ruyong, Sumatera. I was shooting a movie in Seri Menanti once, and I started talking to the locals. An old man remembered the house of my great-great-grandparents, and I learnt there is a road named after my suku, or tribe: Batu Hampar Di Kaki.
My mother’s maternal grandmother lived in Beranang, but she married extremely young, when she was 13, and widowed by 50. Her husband, my great-grandfather, was a school teacher. They managed to procure about 80 acres of land, mostly rubber trees. After he passed away, I believe she got cheated a lot. My great-grandmother was illiterate and then a widow, so managing the land must have been difficult. But she and her family would farm on their land, so they always had enough to eat.
My great-grandmother also told my mother a lot of stories, including that my great-grandfather was once a tutor to the children of Sultan Sulaiman of Selangor (reign 1898 to 1938) at the Istana in Klang. My cousin has a photo of him looking very suave, in a British-looking white suit.
My dad’s side is British, but the name Bessey is French. My dad’s ancestry goes back to the Normans — they probably came over with William the Conqueror or something — and their name indicates that: all the first sons would have their first name followed by Norman Bessey. There’s also a region called Normandie-Basse, which is where our name comes from.
What stories do you hold on to the most from your family?
My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter, and my dad remembers hiding under the dining room table while they were being bombed in London during World War II. We still have that dining room table somewhere in my family. My paternal grandparents did a lot of theatre, and they also played tennis, which, interestingly enough, was my favourite sport! We still have theatre programmes for shows that my grandparents were in, and their tennis trophies.
My grandaunt and -uncle have a farm, Walnut Tree Farm, which is about 400 years old. The house used to be crooked, and my grandparents would play pool, but they had to do things to level the table, otherwise it would tilt!
I have met Malaysians who have relatives in the UK, and they’d go “Oh I know that farm! I’ve walked past Walnut Tree Farm!” — all these random connections to countries even though they’re on the other side of the world. The earth is so small!
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most?
I feel very lucky to have grown up in two completely diverse cultures. I started off being very English, and when I visited mum’s side of the family here, I was comparatively very “white”. I completely stuck out. Maybe that’s why I’m an actress, used to being the centre of attention. And people are fascinating to me, which is why I think I love playing roles.
Growing up and coming to understand two complete different cultures and mores gave me a fascination with being human — the human condition. Even though we’re of completely different cultures and histories, when you get down to the essence of what it is to be a human being, you see how similar we are. Life vividly forced that upon me from young.
My parents were very good in ensuring that neither culture was right or wrong, they both just were. So I learnt not to judge so quickly. When you’re younger, a person might have prejudices, but I think my childhood forced me to get rid of those preconceived ideas very quickly, and helped me to be more open.
What do you hope for the future of Malaysia?
Life in Malaysia is pretty comfortable, but we do have a lot of room for improvement. We should always be striving to be better. In recent years it has been quite exciting politically; people have begun to speak up and have more of a voice. I think we need to strive for more human rights. Freedom of religion is a big one, and I think Malaysians are mature enough to be given the freedom of thought.
That’s our next step: Malaysia as a nation won’t be able to grow, intellectually, spiritually and so forth, without people being given the power of choice.
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Interesting family history.