Promoting unity through stage production

|    Soon Li Wei    |


KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – When Lim Mei Fen had to re-enact the role of a girl from mainland China, who migrated to British-controlled Malaya in the 19th Century, for a theatre production, she felt the character was tailor-made for her.

“I’ve never stopped believing that all the races in this Nanyang land (as Malaya and other Southeast Asian countries were referred to by the Chinese immigrants) can live together in harmony… here is my homeland, your homeland…,” her character Yue Feng, dressed in a traditional Chinese opera costume, said on stage, mouthing her dialogue with much feeling and fervour.

Titled, ‘Tanah Akhirku’ (My Ultimate Land), the play was performed last month at the experimental theatre at the National Academy of Culture and Heritage’s (ASWARA) campus, here, as part of the students’ year-end assessment performance.

Lim, who is in her final year of a bachelor of arts programme in theatre performing arts, said she managed to get into the skin of Yeu Feng’s character in ‘Tanah Akhirku’ as her (Yue Feng’s) life somewhat resembled her own after she joined ASWARA.

“I’ve been mingling with people of different races ever since I came to ASWARA to study performing arts. The campus’ multiracial environment taught me the meaning of unity. The students here are from different racial backgrounds but they are able to stay and work together in harmony.

Director Ashraf Zainul in a group photo with casts of ‘Tanah Airku’ stage production
Lim Mei Fen re-enacting the role of a girl from mainland China, who migrated to British-controlled Malaya in the 19th Century. – PHOTOS: BERNAMA

“My role in ‘Tanah Akhirku’ gave me a chance to share how I felt about living in Malaysia,” Lim, 31, told Bernama.

Historical perspective

‘Tanah Akhirku’ tells the story of Yue Feng who migrates to Malaya in the 1880s with her younger brother Da Hai to start a new life. They work in a tin mine controlled by an underworld gang which later gets embroiled in trouble with the palace officials, the British and the mine operators.

Malaya, was not all that peaceful then but, still, Yue Feng fell in love with it and was determined to adopt it as her homeland. In the course of settling down in Malaya, the lass falls in love with a Malay chieftain, Tengku Purnama.

Lim said ‘Tanah Akhirku’ was an adaptation of the original story that was set during the era when the early Chinese immigrants set foot in Malaya, a British colony then.

She said it was challenging to do an adaptation of the story for the theatre production as she and her team had to do a fair amount of historical research to get an accurate picture of the language and costumes used by the people of that era, as well as their gestures.

“We also had to get the correct backdrop for the stage (to transport the audience to the 1880s),” she said, adding that it was the era when Chinese and Indian immigrants came to Malaya in huge numbers to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations.

Although ‘Tanah Akhirku’ was set in the 1880s, its theme of unity and harmony remained relevant in current times, she added.

“The message we are trying to send across (through the play) is that Malaysians from different racial backgrounds can live together in harmony, without any discrimination.”

Brush up on Malay Language

Lim’s first theatre experience took place four years ago when she appeared as Princess Hang Li Po in the production, ‘Takhta 3 Ratu’, that was directed by Erma Fatima and staged at Istana Budaya.

Lim was not the first choice for the role; local model and actress Soo Wincci was supposed to have enacted the part but when she backed out, it was offered to Lim.

Lim, who had previously done modelling and helped out her father with his business, enjoyed her first stage experience immensely, prompting her to pursue a course in performing arts at ASWARA in 2015.

Having been educated in Chinese schools and brought up in a Chinese environment in Pulau Tikus, Penang, Lim’s command of Malay Language was quite weak. Hence, she had to brush up on her language before playing Hang Li Po in ‘Takhta 3 Ratu’.

“I worked hard on my Malay Language and pronunciation and I got a lot of help from my co-actors and production crew,” she said.

The road to Istana Budaya

Meanwhile, Lim’s ‘Tanah Akhirku’ has received the green light to be staged at Istana Budaya, which is Malaysia’s main venue for theatre performances.

Lim said although the play was conceived as a year-end assessment performance at ASWARA, Istana Budaya Director-General Datuk Mohamed Juhari Shaarani was so impressed with it that he offered to have it staged there.

“I feel so overwhelmed as I didn’t expect Abang Jo (Datuk Mohamed Juhari) himself to want to have it performed at Istana Budaya. The recognition means a lot to me and the production team,” she said, adding that ‘Tanah Akhirku’ is expected to be staged at Istana Budaya in September in conjunction with Merdeka and Malaysia Day.

“Tanah Akhirku” director Ashraf Zainul, 32, said it was his first attempt directing a bilingual and multiracial theatre production.

“I found it quite challenging as in some of the parts the actors had to speak in Mandarin, which I didn’t understand at first. However, Lim and the other Chinese actors helped me out and I ended up learning some Mandarin,” he said.

Ashraf, who is also a part-time theatre actor, said productions such as ‘Tanah Akhirku’ help audiences to understand the meaning of unity and harmony.

“Its story is about our journey as a community and how differences are set aside. Racial issues are often misunderstood and they become sources of conflict because the people don’t understand one another’s cultures.”