“So regular were stagings of Shakespeare put up, that the school was dubbed the Stratford-upon-Kinta,” says theatre personality Chin San Sooi of his alma mater.
For many, the knowledge or love for literature is nurtured at school, and in Malaysia, Ipoh Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) has the distinction of being one of the institutions that raised many a thespian and staged a high volume of plays and musicals from as early as the 1950s and 60s.
In 1984, local theatre critique Utih called Ipoh, specifically ACS, the theatre nursery for luminaries in the industry. ACS, he said, had a long and enviable tradition of staging dramas, and continues to be a major patron of theatre.
The Drama and Music Society of the school encouraged students to participate on stage and off stage in the staging of Shakespeare’s plays and West-end musicals annually – Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo And Juliet, West Side Story, Camelot, Fiddler On The Roof and more recently The Phantom Of The Opera, are just some of the productions from the school.
This helped to enhance the students’ interest in the study of literature.
According to the Ipoh ACS Alumni Association (acsipohalumni.com.my), the Drama Society was formed in 1959 under the directorship of Physics teacher P. Subra-maniam. The first play under its banner was Henry V with Leong Seow Ting in the lead role. Sally Tye was the French-speaking princess Catherine and Judith Teoh played Alice, her lady-in-waiting. Subra-maniam directed.
Chin, 75, who studied in Ipoh ACS in the 1960s, remembers Subra-maniam fondly.
“He was an Ipoh gentleman, who drove home the point that in a play, the emotions are paramount,” says the director whose Chinese-opera-style Macbeth is now playing at DPac in Petaling Jaya.
“In the days of yore in ACS Ipoh, three teachers planted a seed of interest in Literature and drama in me,” says Chin.
“Apart from Mr Subramaniam, the late Mrs Teerath Ram and Mrs Devadason also left a huge impression. One was able to rattle chunks of poems not in the syllabus, and the other was particular in the enunciation of the English language.”
Chin later returned to ACS as a teacher, and taught English and English Literature. He was also in charge of the Drama Society.
“The central focus I believe I brought to the classroom was to imagine being a great actor in reading the Shakespeare text, which every Form 5 student had to take. The school made English Literature a compulsory subject,” he shares.
Chin says he revelled in being Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Leontes, Shylock, The Prince of Morocco in a fashion he thought best, during these classroom sessions.
“I got the students to emote their reading as well. Quite often I would have said teasingly when they read a scene that the audience would have left the theatre after the first scene of the play! Everyone would laugh heartily. It was this cajoling to read in character, I believe, that got them interested in the subject,” he says adding that they studied many other playwrights, novels and poems, beyond Shakespeare.
Alice Edwin, now 83, was one of Chin’s teachers back in the day.
“San Sooi was in my very first A-Level Literature class. And I was straight out of the U!” says Edwin, who graduated from the University of Malaya in Singapore, and today lives in Dunedin, New Zeland. Dunedin, a centre of literature where many writers live in New Zealand, will mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with its first ever production of the Comedy Of Errors at its local Globe theatre.
Over the years, Edwin (students may remember her better as Alice Chacko) has taught all over the world – in Brunei, Jamaica, Zambia, Kodaikanal in India – but still remembers her time teaching English in ACS fondly.
“The school would put up a play every year, and both staff and students would take part. This was good for the students. I remember San Sooi’s class, they were a good group of students, interested, interactive and very sweet. I’m sure they taught me more than I them! San Sooi was my best student and later whenever I returned to Malaysia I would read or hear of his theatrical activities.”
Edwin says that Shakespeare has to be taught orally; and not with a “bookish approach”.
She says: “The play’s the thing. People alive and interacting with each other.”
Because they had hardly any teaching aids then (no computers, no video players), it was important to bring the characters alive in the classroom.
“While we read through the plays in class, homework was to collect information about Shakespeare’s life, the historical, social and economic background at the time, as well as influences on the playwright and his contemporaries.
For Edwin, the language was the best part of it all. “Just to read or quote the lines, the sound and poetry of it all, how suitable it is for all occasions and how the words would linger in our minds.”
Edwin’s favourite Shakespeare play to teach in the classroom is Twelfth Night.
“There’s so much for young people to enjoy; and has both light hearted moments and enough seriousness to grasp as well.”
Born and raised in Klang, Selangor, Edwin affectionately remembers her own teachers who had a positive influence, including Miss Louisa Lazarus at Methodist Girls School (MGS), and her favourite Mr Wong Ah Fatt who taught her in Form 5 at Klang High School.
Mano Maniam, 70, a veteran local actor who hails from Ipoh ACS, began acting at the age of 15 (when he was in Form 4) as the sea captain in The Merchant Of Venice.
According to Mano, one of the school’s early principals, Dr L. Proebstel, first introduced the idea for the annual school play. Ipoh World (db.ipohworld.org) records that Julius Caesar, helmed by Proebstel, was staged in 1915.
With ACS, Mano says, it didn’t seem to matter who the principal or drama teacher was, tradition compelled the staging of a play year after year.
While he was still in high school and college, Mano played many Shakespearean roles including Anthony (Julius Caesar), one of the suitors from The Merchant Of Venice, Othello and King Lear.
“I started out with Shakespeare, so I owe The Bard big time!” he laughs. “Nobody told me it would be so difficult.
“I played Macbeth three times in ACS; the first time I was just 17, and my Lady Macbeth was a 33-year-old Norwegian lady!” he laughs, amused by the trepidatious memory of being paired up with an older woman. As it was more like a community theatre run by the school, there were many expats and wives of expats who would actively take part as well, he explains.
While age is not important, Mano does feel that the nuances of Shakespeare come with time, and his portrayal of Macbeth grew stronger each time he took on the role.
“There are ways of doing Shakespeare well, and there are many ways of killing it. The iambic pentameter doesn’t come naturally for Asians, after all. The patois is so varied here.”
Mano remembers Mr P. Subramaniam from ACS Ipoh. “When I was in Form 4, he had faith in me. He treated me nicely.” He also remembers being directed by his theatre contemporary and fellow alumnus Chin San Sooi.
“San Sooi has directed me in more plays than everyone else combined!” he offers, relating that they were both neighbours in Ipoh!
Mano credits principal Mr Teerath Ram, whom he remembers having acted, directed and actively developed the dramatic arts in school. “He even converted a classroom into a theatre room.”
Among his students, Mano speaks fondly of Chin Yoong Fee, and reminisces about how in those days (he taught Geography and General Paper from 1968 to 1972 but was always involved in theatre), the idea of staging plays was to give an opportunity to non-English speaking boys to discover the art form, language and stories.
What made Ipoh ACS so special when it came to churning out plays so consistently?
“We didn’t have an exceptional talent pool or anything like that,” he muses. “It was just tradition and we had the support and leadership.”