As we get closer to our special event Digital Dondang Sayang, combining traditional Peranakan music with our electronic pop and experimental electronica, we’d like to share with you the story of how this piece of previously unknown music history finally found its way into a show …
MANY YEARS AGO, when Ben was a little boy, his grandfather gave him a green plastic folder. Opening the folder, he found a collection of yellowed note book pages, with poems written on them. Some of the poems were handwritten in fountain pen ink, while others had been typed on a manual typewriter, and all of them were in Baba Malay (the Peranakan patois).
“These pantun (Malay poems) were written by my father, your great-grandfather,” explained Ben’s grandfather. “They can be sung as part of the Dondang Sayang (Peranakan song form).” Both grandfather and grandson had spent many afternoons watch Dondang Sayang shows on TV.
Years later, as Ben developed his own musical expression, as Principal Tutor of the NUS Electronic Music Lab and also producer / remixer of local synthpop duo Cosmic Armchair, the pantuns continued to sit in their folder, on a shelf in the Cosmic Armchair studio. He had a general hope of someday having the poems performed, but he had no idea how that would take place. Until Mary Loh from NUS Centre for the Arts asked Cosmic Armchair if the duo would be interested in performing at the NUS Baba House on Neil Road as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2016.
A series of referrals got him in touch with Frederick Soh of the Gunong Sayang Association, the Peranakan social club that has been performing dondang sayang regularly in Singapore. Frederick was surprised to find this collection of 580 previously unpublished poems, and that started Ben on a quest to find out more about the history of the poems and of his great-grandfather, Ang Kay Teong.
Little is known about Ang Kay Teong, who passed away long before Ben was born. Apparently he was a statistician who worked in the civil service, and not known as a poet. His family knew him primarily as a strict and short-tempered patriarch, who would physically punish his children or grandchildren if triggered. There are only a few photographs that remain of him, one of which shows him shirtless and muscular (he lifted weights) at the beach in the 1940’s.
None of these pieces pointed to his prolific output of poetry, nor did they fit with the stereotype of an early 20th century poet. According to Ding Choo Ming, writing in the article “The Malaysia Baba Pantun Database” ( Sari (2004) 159 – 165 ),
“[The poems] were recited and sung in ceremonies and festivals, often accompanied by musical instruments and some were even published in books and newspapers. … In general, all the baba authors, numbering about 60, were highly respected personalities, and are considered by many as superb examples of inspired secular poets of the highest standard.”
Whereas Ang Kay Teong was unknown, unpublished, and generally not known to have participated in ceremonies or festivals. Did he write in secret? How many other hidden poets were there from that generation, whose poems were not faithfully preserved till the current day, and are now lost to history?
Why did he keep his passion for poetry so private? From the lens of our 21st century perspective, replete with social media and multiple platforms for self-publishing and self-expression, the idea of keeping 580 poems out of sight seems alien to our culture that expresses every little thought online. But even today, there are hidden poets (and musicians) who are creating works that may never see light of day. And who knows, that unfriendly civil servant that you met today — could be one too.
In Part 2: How the pantuns became songs