WHILE many people either take the common dialects for granted or ignore them, Ai FM deejay Chong Keat Aun has great appreciation for them and considers them an amazing and beautiful heritage to be enjoyed and preserved.
According to Chong, folk songs, opera shows, folk doggerel, ballads, adages, and music for celebrations or funerals performed in the Chinese dialects, especially when accompanied by the traditional Chinese musical instruments, are fascinating.
The 31-year-old said his interest in culture had stimulated his passion to gather and preserve the fading dialect heritage in the performing arts.
“As far as I know, nobody is actually preserving the vocal heritage now, but someone must do it to protect these voices from disappearing,” he said.
Chong’s weekly radio programme Xiang Yin Kao Gu: Si Xiang Qi (loosely translated as “Exploration studies on native tongues: let the rumination begin”) is aired every Thursday at 10pm, centres on the folk artistes rendering traditional music.
“I didn’t want an ordinary radio show; I aspired to kick-start a campaign that raises the community’s awareness on preserving our dialects and culture,” said Chong, who speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien.
The charm of these enchanting folk songs – whether in Hakka, Hainanese, Cantonese, or other dialects – is in their historical values.
“They recorded an era’s history, the people’s general behaviour and thinking, and also the political scenarios,” Chong said.
The Kedah-born deejay, whose ancestral home is in Kaiping in the Guangdong province, said he concentrated on the hunt for the local voices, instead of those from China or Taiwan as suggested by some.
Chong’s mission is not an easy one as there are few people who can be said to be truly experts in the dialects, and there is also resistance from some people due to various reasons.
“One night, I drove past a house having a funeral ceremony and I suddenly had an idea. So I stopped my car and dropped by the house, asking the family members for permission to record the funeral music but, to my dismay, they declined on the grounds that the deceased’s soul might get trapped inside my recorder,” he said.
Chong said he had even witnessed an elderly woman reprimanding her grandchild for watching a traditional opera show, claiming that it was meant for the enjoyment of supernatural beings and not humans.
He said such superstitious beliefs, coupled with the people’s lack of interest, saddened him.
“At a clan association in Malacca, I discovered that the traditional musical instruments were left rotting in the storeroom ever since the musicians passed on,” he said.
“One floor up, the association members were either singing karaoke or practising ballroom dancing,” Chong said.
When he proposed reviving the traditional orchestra, the feedback he received was that nobody was interested in traditional music now.
However, there is a bright side to the gloom, as some of Chong’s radio listeners have entrusted him with priceless recordings of the previous generations, and shared heartening stories with him.
“When I first started the programme, some listeners felt that the slot has robbed them of the chance to listen to pop songs. Fast forward a few months later, a listener, who used to be critical of my programme, told me about his grandmother’s funeral when, adhering to her wish, her descendants sang folk rhymes during the funeral ceremony,” Chong said.
“The incident made him realise how he had not valued the traditional voices previously. Episodes like this motivate me to strive on,” Chong said.
In his mission to spread the heritage preservation message, Chong has also helped to organise free live performances at the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca, the United Hokkien Cemeteries at Bukit Gantung in Penang, the Chan She Shu Yuen Clan Association in Kuala Lumpur and the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement in Selangor.
Some examples of the programmes lined up during these events were Hakka Shan Ge (mountain song), Teochew Da Luo Gu (percussion), Hainan Qiong Ju (opera) and Hokkien Nan Yin (orchestra).
“In Malacca, a group of Italian tourists told me that they were delighted to chance upon the event, as it was exactly what they had been yearning to see – the traditional culture of Malaysians,” Chong said.
“With money, skyscrapers like the Twin Towers can be replicated. But no amount of money can redeem a lost culture,” he said.
When met at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement recently, Chong had a long red shawl hanging over his shoulder and half his face was painted in white and red hues like that of an opera performer.
“The face painting pattern tells you that having a passion for the tradition does not mean alienating oneself from the present. Both can coexist. The red shawl symbolises our blood and our traditions are within our blood and it is up to us to spread it out,” he said.
At a recent dinner organised by the Malaysia Seven Clans Association themed Xiang Yin Xiang Yao Wen Hua Wan Yan (A cultural night of Chinese dialects and cuisines), Chong made sure that each clan’s delicacy was paired with its respective cultural performance.
Guests arriving at the main hall of the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur were given a traditional welcome by a Teochew percussion group.
Each performance was staged before a dish was served to ensure undivided attention and respect to the folk artistes.
The dinner-performance menu had exotic names like Guangxi Folk Song with Stuffed Tofu, Cantonese Opera with Braised Chinese Cabbage and Dried Scallop, Hakka Mountain Song with Baked Salted Chicken, Hokkien Orchestra with Knuckles and Sea Cucumber, Hainan Opera with Stewed Mutton, Teochew Xian Shi Yue (string orchestra) with Steamed Pomfret and an introduction of Kunqu (a form of Chinese opera listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco) with Sanjiang Eight Treasures Rice.
The feast ended with a compilation of lullabies in different dialects, followed by the sweet and smooth Teochew Yam Paste.
“Our culture comes in a whole package. It encompasses a variety of things and forms our soul,” Chong said.
He feels that the government should spearhead the campaign to promote and preserve such heritage.
Citing Taiwan as an example, he said the Taiwanese effort started 30 years ago, beginning with the collecting of an assortment of folk music, inclusive even of foul language rhymes.
“It’s not to encourage the people to pick up the bad words, but a way to study the humanities,” he said.
Chong has travelled to Penang, Kedah, Perak and Malacca with his trusty recorder to visit the folk artistses to record their voices.
He also welcomes contributions from the public to be shared with the listeners.
“Everyone can take a proactive role to be a collector. We cannot wait anymore. How many would still remember these voices 10 years down the road?” he said.
Chong can be reached at email@example.com or http://jiankaogudidai.blogspot.com/.