There is no audience in the hall. Just a small cast and crew. The production stage is a basic one... well, more accurately, the cold hard floor of the KongsiKL warehouse along Old Klang Road in Kuala Lumpur.
But the actors in the Sung Fong Meng Cantonese Opera group from Kuala Lumpur were fully committed, with thick make-up on and plenty of smiles to get the job done. This was the DIY scene late last month of a recording session of HeriStage, an independent initiative to lift the spirits of beleaguered cultural performers and keep them active during this pandemic era.
HeriStage is a 12-part online cultural video series by film director and arts activist Chong Keat Aun, which premiered on July 4. The series aims to gauge the viability of digital streaming when it comes to Malaysia's traditional performances.
HeriStage, presented by Classic Accents Studio in collaboration with KongsiKL, is streaming for free every Saturday (at 8pm) via Chong’s "The Classic Accents" Facebook page, which he started in 2005. Donations for these shows are encouraged.
Each video, which was shot at KongsiKL, runs between 15 and 50 minutes, with English subtitles. Recordings began on June 21 and so far, eight videos have been completed.
The videos featuring the Sung Fong Meng Cantonese Opera (July 4) and the MaiEng Hainanese Opera Troupe (July 11) have been released.
The Kedah-born Chong says he set up HeriStage, a wordplay of heritage and stage, as a means to help various traditional performing arts troupes severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement control order.
“In May, two Chinese opera troupes told me that they had no choice but to disband their groups and sell off all of their costumes and instruments to earn some money," says Chong, 42, in a recent interview.
“Another opera actor also asked me how to operate Facebook Live so that he could run a donation drive for himself, ” he adds.
Chong, a founder of the Petaling Street Heritage House in Chinatown, KL, decided to he needed to do something to help.
“This made me realise how badly their lives had been affected since no one else was helping them. That’s when I got the idea to set up HeriStage to help them earn a living in this difficult time, ” adds the former radio deejay.
HeriStage features 10 Chinese troupes, including MaiEng Hainanese Opera Troupe and traditional Hokkien puppet theatre group Ombak Potehi to name a few, a Kelantanese wayang kulit troupe called Kumpulan Penggiat Seni Wayang Kulit Kelantan and Asbari Dance Theatre Group, a Sabah-based multi-ethnic dance troupe.
Chong says Malaysians should not miss out this chance of watching traditional performances on this virtual stage, something they would not normally get in their daily entertainment diet.
With live traditional and cultural events yet to get back on stage, it's smaller projects such as HeriStage that are working hard to document arts during the pandemic and assist cultural performers – most of them not tech-savvy – in finding a new audience.
“I believe a programme like HeriStage is also important because it gives awareness to the general public about the sad state of our traditional art practitioners who rarely get help, either from the government or the private sector, even though their practice is considered an important treasure and legacy for Malaysia, ” says Chong.