THE somewhat otherworldly 42-year-old performer Lee Swee Keong is perhaps best known for his white-faced and loin-clothed interpretations of Butoh, a Japanese dance form developed in the 1960s.
Created by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in 1959, this vocabulary of movement, which typically involves mischievous or grotesque imagery, was intended to question and subvert more traditional Japanese forms and mores.
In 1995, Lee co-founded the Nyoba Kan dance company, which employs a fusion of Butoh, meditation and Zen philosophy to “gain a deeper understanding of the universe and shed light on the twin concepts of ‘existence’ and ’emptiness’.”
The Nut Graph sat down with Lee on 23 July 2009 to find out just where he came from, how he got into dance, and what, exactly, makes a Malaysian body.
TNG: We are all pendatang. Where are you from?
I am a fourth-generation Malaysian. My great-grandfather, Lee Chin Fong, arrived in Malaysia from Guangdong. His was a typical Chinese family, tai ka cho, everybody stayed together, and we owned a sundry shop on Batu 3 1/2, Cheras. Now, no more.
Lee Beng Chee, my paternal grandfather, was a schoolteacher in Pudu Ulu. That was around the 1930s. At that time, we didn’t have government schools, and the people who lived around would raise money to fund their own schools and temples. My father, Lee Loy Sang, went to Tsun Jin High School. It is still one of the top Chinese-medium schools, with [the] Confucian, Kuen Cheng, and Chung Hwa [schools].
Father is 10 years older than my mother, Yap Kim Yin. My uncle — my mother’s brother — and my father were classmates. He’d go to his classmate’s house for fun, and that’s where he met the little sister. And that’s how it started.
What was growing up like?
My father worked at a sawmill, but during the 1980s economic crisis it went bankrupt. Then he had to make a living as a hawker, selling yew char kuey. My mother and aunts would get extra scraps of fabric from the clothing factories to sew at home, for extra income.
That change happened when I was in Form 2. I was the eldest son, with two younger sisters and two young brothers. It was quite difficult, but my parents managed to put me through high school.
Childhood for me was very simple. Unlike some of your other interviewees, who would always encounter people of different ethnicities, Cheras was a very Chinese [Malaysian] community. It was very enclosed. It was only after I finished school that I slowly learnt about the rest of Malaysia — even other kinds of Chinese Malaysians.
Once I was in Japan for a performance, and I met this Chinese Malaysian dancer. She was English-language educated, and spoke Hokkien. I was a Cantonese-speaking Hakka. We could only communicate in English! Our Japanese director was quite curious about that.
How did you get into dance?
I went to KL College of Art and I studied Fine Art there. In my third year, I watched a contemporary dance performance, and I got so hyper about it.
It was so interesting because I felt the energy. You watch sports, like the Olympics, and look at how powerful the bodies are. But the way athletes train — it is intended to overcharge their bodies in a certain way. But in contemporary dance the intention is not to push the body, but understand it, and how energy flows within the body, better.
I started learning contemporary dance at the Kwang Si Chinese Association. Most Chinese associations [in Malaysia] had dance classes, but these were mostly Chinese traditional dance.
You are a pioneer of the butoh dance form in Malaysia. Why butoh?
Butoh is about the reality very deep inside us, the one that we cover up. That kind of ugliness, bodoh-ness, that is something we all have. When it was first invented in Japan it was very controversial. That is because the philosophy of butoh is to question: what is the meaning of the Japanese body? You live in a small home and have very many [limits] — that is what butoh in Japan reflects [on].
When I perform butoh, I don’t think I’m performing butoh in the Japanese style. I’m looking for the meaning of the Malaysian body. I wouldn’t say I’ve got the answer, yet; but I know I have it in me.
Why do you identify as a Malaysian dancer?
When you live in a certain culture, the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat — all these are factors that make up your physical identity. I’ve lived in a multicultural society, so my Malaysian body is different from Chinese bodies from Taiwan, Singapore, New York and Beijing. When I move or dance, I don’t need to wear a sarong to show that I’m Malaysian. It just somehow comes out automatically.
I’m quite proud of not having spent a long time overseas. In a way, I’m quite “tulen” as a Malaysian. Many of my dancer friends have spent a long time in Hong Kong and Taiwan — they spent their growing-up and study periods overseas. It’s obvious from some of their choreography that they don’t think of Malaysia as home.
What do you think about Malaysia today?
I wish we could live peacefully together loh. There are a lot of issues that make people kan cheong. I think being multicultural is still difficult for a lot of us. We still have to work hard.
I was very lucky because I was involved in theatre and the performing arts. Theatre is usually more open, and you get to meet different kinds of Malaysians. Being involved in the arts has made me, a “typical Chinese”, a better Malaysian.
I wish I could speak Malay more fluently. But, you know, my life here is a reality. After all, when people ask me where I’m from, I say that I’m from Malaysia. I’m proud of being a Malaysian.
Nyoba Kan’s Butoh Festival 2009 happens throughout August.