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Back in time: Kopisusu Re-cham

A new restaging of the Nanyang-inspired musical, ‘Kopisusu Re-cham’ brings us back to a glorious past

Long before there was 1Malaysia, before buzz words like ‘tolerance’ were waved about like flags, Malaysia was a great cultural melting pot. Most of us know this from our parents’ old photos – romantic, sepia-tinted vignettes that proved that muhibah was more than just a word.

This month, performer and singer Yudi Yap brings back the old charm of Malaya in the ’50s and ’60s in ‘Kopisusu Re-cham’, a restaging of the popular multi-award-winning concert play from 2013. As well as recalling some of the best-loved songs of the Nanyang period, this new version also sees the addition of guest artist Li Qiang and saxophonist Julian Chan.

Under the directorship of film and theatre director James Lee, and the guidance of drama coach Pearlly Chua, this production is expected to build on the previous rendition by showcasing much deeper, more textured performances. Originally, ‘Kopisusu’ was staged as a concert with theatrical elements to link the songs. This year, James is focusing on crafting the characters with renewed subtext to heighten the audience’s connection with them, while the music serves as an extension of the characters’ emotions. ‘This time,’ he tells us, ‘we hope it can be seen much more as a compact musical.’

He draws attention to the fact that none of the characters actually come from Malaysia; they’re foreigners from Shanghai or Hong Kong who travel to ‘Nanyang’ (the Malay archipelago) in search of a new life, without any real idea of the region’s future. ‘It’s this strange combination and setting which interest me – how these characters have become part of the nation,’ says James. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be Malaysian – a constant ‘becoming’ built on a confluence of religions, ethnicities, cultures, languages and traditions.

The real stars of the show are the songs – after all, it’s through the democratic medium of music that pre- and post-Merdeka Malaysia sought its freest, most joyful multi-cultural expression, at a time when Southeast Asians were at their most experimental and fun. The songs in the concert pay tribute to the creative ways they fused Mandarin pop music with English lyrics, gave Malay folk songs new interpretations in English and Chinese, and merged the glamorous vibe of Shanghai’s cabaret with local Nanyang cultures. It brought every sub-culture together, demonstrating how easily one converged into another. Yudi herself grew up with these songs; she credits her love for this genre of music to the comforting familiarity it evokes in listeners, harking back to a brave, hopeful, creative time. ‘Malaya before and after independence seemed like a sponge or like an ambitious man, fearlessly absorbing influences directly in what seemed like a future full of possibilities and new creativity. Alongside the development of the entertainment world, the Nanyang [culture] came about, which was a combination and assimilation of different cultures. This is the background of our play.’

It seems right on form that ‘Kopisusu’ heralds as its musical director award-winning pianist Tay Cher Siang, widely known in KL as one of the founding members of jazz band WVC Trio +1, which also performs in ‘Kopisusu’. With a diverse repertoire spanning traditional jazz, old Shanghainese jazz, indie tunes and Asian pop, WVC Trio +1 seems especially suited for bringing the multi-cultural music of ‘Kopisusu’ alive. ‘Musically, WVC Trio +1 and I have been performing, promoting and advocating this type of music for a long time and we always look back to our collective culture for inspiration,’ says Cher Siang.

Today, both the music and theatre of ‘Kopisusu’ take on further transformations. ‘The oldies in “Kopisusu” are part of our culture, our collective memories, but we incorporated elements of jazz into [these songs],’ adds Cher Siang, who welcomed this play’s challenge to ‘breathe new life into old materials’.

The play is itself the product of a transformation – the restaging of an original story. The heart of ‘Kopisusu’ is really about creation and reinvention, over and over again. For a lot of us, being Malaysian might mean perpetually looking forward, taking our cues from other countries and people. ‘Kopisusu’ takes us in the other direction, nudging us backwards and showing us that the past is as much a part of Malaysia’s narrative as its present and future. Perhaps as we ‘recham’ our histories and identities, looking backwards and remembering who we were is just as important in be(com)ing Malaysian.