Home 2010: 1 Ko-Tai: Penang’s untold story

Ko-Tai: Penang’s untold story

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Photo by Tan Sooi Beng

Shakila Abdul Manan describes how a group of multi-ethnic youths brought George Town’s local history to life through an inclusive musical drama, ‘Ko-Tai’. 

It was a trip down memory lane for many residents in Reservoir Garden, Penang as they were treated to a captivating 40-minute Ko-Tai (Hokkien for stage show) community performance in the early part of the new year. A sequel to the highly acclaimed Kisah Pulau Pinang (2006) and Ronggeng Merdeka (2007), this musical drama retold the story of Penang’s colourful past since Merdeka through the eyes of a once popular Ronggeng dancer and a famous street story-teller.

It is from their perspective that we learn about the trials and tribulations of ordinary city folk as they deal with the effects of a drastically changing cityscape upon their lives over time. Songs, dances and dialogue between the characters on stage accompanied the narration.

The performers that night reminded the audience of the role played by George Town as a city that provided leadership in the initiative towards establishing local democracy. A series of street demonstrations broke out from 1957 to 1969 – protests against Vietnam, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the plight of workers-peasants and, last but not least, the peaceful Penang Hartal on 24 November 1967 over the devaluation of the Straits Dollar. George Town was also the first city in the country to elect the Socialist Front as its local government and one of the party leaders as mayor in 1957.

Multicultural performances

It was a relatively peaceful time then as the different ethnic groups lived harmoniously with one another. Traditional multi-cultural performances such as the Chinese Opera, Ko-Tai, Boria, and Dondang Sayang were celebrated together. These performances did not just provide a source of entertainment but they also helped to integrate the various races of Penang. This is reflected in the following lines of the original theme song, which has incorporated both Malay and Hokkien, a form of linguistic blending – perhaps to the chagrin of the language purist:

1957 wa lang (kami) merdeka
Di situ kami hidup berbilang bangsa
Sama-sama keong hee (tahniah)
Sama sama hua hee (gembira)
Malaya bian sin sei kai (menjadi taman hiburan)

Ramai-ramai kami gembira
Di situ persembahan berbilang bangsa
Sama-sama menyanyi, sama-sama menari
Yiao kin lai kua Ko-Tai!
(penting datang tengok Ko-tai)

Directed by Ho Sheau Fung (drama), Tan Sooi Beng (Music) and Aida Redza (Dance), the Ko-Tai community performance, presented by Ombak-Ombak Artstudio, resurrected typical multicultural scenes of bygone days. The songs (as shown above and others) that were featured were crooned in a mixture of Malay, Hokkien, English and Tamil. Dancers donned colourful ethnic costumes and swayed along to the fusion of sounds: the rhythmic beats of the Chinese drums and the Indian tabla, the lilting hypnotic sound of the Malay gamelan, and the soothing strings of the Western violin. Dance steps integrated the slow beat of the cha-cha-cha with the rhythmic Inang, the lively upbeat tempo of the ronggeng, and the ever graceful and soulful Bharatanatyam.

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Singers belted out famous Malay and Hokkien songs which were all-time Redifusion favourites in those days. It was through these songs that the untold story of Penang was chronicled. Spell-bound, the crowd interacted by singing along, clapping and swaying their bodies. Slides depicting famous personalities such as Rose Chan, the Queen of Striptease in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, who was also known for her generosity (a fact rarely highlighted), and Tan Tong Tong @ Lang Ding Dang, the famous street story-teller, who sang about the fortune of his clients using soothsaying sticks, were projected on the screen in the background. The singers and dancers re-enacted the acts of these famous personalities, drawing much applause from the audience.

Exodus and loss of community

Needless to say, the community performance rekindled people’s memories of the vibrant urban culture which characterised life in George Town’s inner city till the late 1970s. This was before rapid urbanisation and industrialisation sparked a steady exodus of people from the urban areas to the sprawling suburbs in search of newer employment opportunities in factories in Bayan Lepas and affordable home-ownership through the Penang Development Corportion’s housing projects in Bayan Baru.

Soon pre-war landed properties in the inner city area, which were once protected by the Rent Control Act in 1966, had to make way for ‘redevelopment’ following a repeal of the Act in 2000. As rentals soared after the repeal, many city dwellers such as craftsmen, coffee shop owners, petty traders, and hawkers were forced to relocate. The song ‘Jin Tian Bu Hui Jia’ (‘Tonight No One is at Home’) aptly describes the deadness of the night in George Town as a result of the move to the suburbs. Redevelopment of the inner city area enticed new developers and speculators who spruced up old buildings to procure new business tenants.

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The Komtar project and rapid urban growth led to the construction of high-rise buildings and flats. The performers lamented on stage about their isolated, anonymous lives in high-rise flats: without a common community space, people no longer had the opportunity to interact with one another and kept mostly to themselves. With the repeal of the Act, tenants were displaced as they could no longer afford to stay in the inner city area anymore. The sense of displacement and alienation felt at that time was evoked by the performers through the following statements and questions in the song ‘Blue Sky’, composed by Penang’s famous pop singer, Ah Gu:

Di sini dulu rumah saya dibinakan
Diganti bangunan baru setinggi-tingginya
Berdiri saya di tanah yang ku sayang
Berasa semakin jauh darinya
Di mana rumah dan tanah yang ku cinta?

A vibrant city becomes soulless

As the original residents were forced out, George Town’s inner city became soulless, like many other modern cities. The bright lights and consumerist culture eclipsed the once popular traditional performing arts which had flourished in the 1960s and 70s. Shopping malls and complexes, built to pander to the tourist dollar, replaced traditional creative art forms. The latter’s slow demise was illustrated symbolically on the screen with the passing away of cultural and pop icons such as P. Ramlee, Jimmy Boyle, Datuk Chua Thean Teng (father of batik painting), Cikgu Baha, Pak Alias, Mak Minah, Le Yee (a famous Chinese pop singer) and Loga (of Alleycats fame).

The sense of abandonment was further fortified through the projection of images of old buildings in Penang, empty shophouses, neglected houses, old cinemas, kampung houses and trams in the inner city to the accompaniment of P Ramlee’s evergreen ‘Di Manakah Ku Cari Ganti’ and Theresa Teng’s famous ‘Goodbye My Love’. The once lively George Town, home to many a city folk, had turned into a ghost town at night.

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Social commentary

In this regard, the Ko-Tai community performance provided a strong social commentary on the oversight of the then Barisan Nasional government, whose policies led to the destruction of traditional performing arts and professions that are irreplaceable.

According to music director Professor Tan Sooi Beng, an ethnomusicologist lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, this “untold” story of Penang was obtained by the performers themselves as they conducted their own interviews with their grandparents, uncles and aunts and former residents of the inner city area. From these interviews, they were able to discover the effects of government redevelopment policies and rent repeal on the personal lives of George Town residents.

The performance also tried “to recreate the Ko-Tai song stage of the 1970s and 1980s, which used to include short skits which were didactic,” added Tan, who has conducted extensive research on the form.  These skits advised audiences to work hard and not to get involved in social ills such as gambling, drinking or taking drugs. Sadly, today’s Ko-Tai has done away with these skits and replaced them with karaoke singing.

On the whole, it can be said that the Ko-Tai community performance was a recuperative project, an attempt to recover Penang’s untold story by fore-fronting various issues that have not been sufficiently highlighted in history textbooks. In other words, Ko-Tai Penang can be read as an initiative to rewrite local history in a form that is inclusive of the major players who deserve a mention in the pages of Penang’s history.

Shakila Abdul Manan is a senior lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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