by Gan Pei Ling / 14 May 2009 © The Nut Graph
RAPPER Wee Meng Chee, aka Namewee, was wrapped in controversy in July 2007 because of his national anthem parody Negarakuku. The six-minute video clip, which has been accessed by half a million viewers, touched on several “sensitive” issues such as police abuse, racial discrimination, and indolent civil servants.
At that time certain quarters, including government leaders, accused him of mocking the national anthem and insulting Islam. Then Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said even called for his arrest under the Internal Security Act.
The 26-year-old returned to Malaysia last year after completing his studies in Taiwan.
He spoke exclusively to The Nut Graph recently about being connected to Malay Malaysians, and his experiences selling pirated VCDs. The interview is translated from Mandarin.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born in Muar, Johor on 6 May 1983. I’m the eldest in the family; I have a younger sister who is 22, and another younger brother who is 18.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Muar and studied in SJK (C) Chung Hwa 1B. After that, I went on to study in an independent Chinese school, Muar Chung Hwa High School, and later flew to Taiwan to study mass communications in Ming Chuan University.
Can you trace your ancestry?
I’m third-generation Malaysian. My paternal grandparents came from Hainan, China. My grandfather arrived first. After he had settled down and became financially stable [in Muar], he returned to China to my grandmother and brought her here.
My maternal grandparents also came from Hainan. My [maternal] grandpa came here to try to make a living because China was very poor then, but my [maternal] grandma is of Baba Nyonya descent. Her ancestors may have arrived in Southeast Asia a few hundred years ago.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
When I was 16, I sold pirated VCD at shopping malls — that was when I came into contact with a lot of music, because there is a lot of foreign music [that cannot be found on genuine CDs] and can only be found in [stalls that sell pirated ones].
In addition, I saw the ugly side of many police and customs officers when they came to raid the stalls. That was a very crucial period in my life, because my ears and eyes started to open and widen then, and that was when I slowly formed my own mindset.
What do you mean by the ugly side of the officers? What kind of mindset did you form?
Those people who buy, sell, and confiscate pirated goods actually form an “iron”, or “golden triangle” that keeps the trade alive and prosperous. Everyone plays their own role; none can live without the other.
Nevertheless, I do not really hate the piracy trade because I got to know lots of foreign music through this channel. I developed more open ideas and concepts about music, and had my own thoughts and principles when it comes to music. These are all part of an important process that help to form an independent mind.
What are the stories that you hold onto the most from your grandparents?
After the Chinese civil war, China was poverty-stricken, so my [paternal] grandfather followed his uncle down to Southeast Asia when he was only 13 years old. He started everything from scratch and later opened a Malay restaurant in Muar. My family’s present financial stability can be attributed to Malay [Malaysians].
My grandfather didn’t know how to cook Malay dishes, he set up the restaurant and sold drinks only. But [due to the location], there were quite a lot of Malay [Malaysians] around town, so he decided to rent the stalls to them without collecting any rental fees at first. He let them do business there for free to make the restaurant more well known. He worked together with every one of them — if want to prosper, must prosper together ma. After the business was stable, then only they talked about the rental fees.
That’s why my grandfather was successful in the end. Those who sold satay and other Malay delicacies in his restaurant, all [eventually] became classic Malay stalls in Muar. He was even interviewed and filmed by a local TV station about his mee bandung.
My grandfather and the Malay [Malaysian] stall owners in his restaurant had a revolutionary kind of feeling in common. Their friendship continued long after their retirement.
The restaurant has been sold but the Malay stalls remain. The third generation of the original stall owners — the grandchildren of the uncle who sold satay, and the grandchildren of those who sold other Malay dishes — are running the stalls now.
Besides that, my [maternal] grandma was born in Indonesia but is of Malacca Baba Nyonya descent. She lived like a Malacca Nyonya till she married my grandpa; then only her lifestyle changed. However, her Nyonya dishes and desserts remained as delicious as ever. Although she has passed away now, her homemade delicacies remain in our hearts, leaving an everlasting impression.
Her bahasa was also more fluent than some Malay [Malaysians]. She could use the bahasa local slang to joke with the Malay [Malaysians] and make them laugh out loud. And because her ancestors arrived here much earlier, her Hainanese was also quite different from the usual Malaysian Hainanese, the largest distinction was that hers was mixed with a lot of bahasa terms. The everyday Malaysian Hainanese wouldn’t understand her, so in a stricter sense, her Hainanese should be renamed “Nyonya Hainanese”.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
I heard all these stories from my family members. When I listen to these stories, I feel like I’ve entered a time tunnel.
How the Chinese culture in Malaysia evolved into its current state — these stories are key [to understanding this], and the process. We can find several clues from these stories. We (Mandarin-speaking Chinese Malaysians) will find out eventually that our Mandarin is very different from that of China and Taiwan. And we need to learn to accept, to respect [this], instead of feeling inferior because of the differences, and worship foreign cultures blindly.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian? Is it your gender, age, work, race, or religion, or anything else?
I don’t face any of the problems you mentioned. I live very well as a Malaysian. Our ability to adapt in foreign countries is superb, as we already have various races at home, and we learn how to live together when we’re growing up. If there is any, I would say as an artist, the freedom of artistic or creative expression in Malaysia still has lots of room for improvement.
Currently, it’s not only the laws that are limiting the development of art and creative work; the people’s own mindsets also pose a great obstacle. Because they’re not open-minded, even if the laws allowed, the public might not be able to or dare to accept [certain works]. Fortunately there’s the internet now. The net can broaden one’s vision and horizon, so I’m quite optimistic about it.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
Malaysia is a multiracial, multireligious, and multicultural country. This could be an advantage, but also a disadvantage. I hope Malaysia will make full use of this advantage to develop more of its strengths, such as open up schools that use different languages as their teaching medium, various markets, and allow diverse cultures to flourish.
If this special characteristic becomes a weakness, then it will result in bumiputera policies, oppression of other languages and religions, and other tragedies. That’s why I hope Malaysia will become a more open, diverse, and free country, making the most of its own strengths.