Arts and culture was one of the hardest-hit industries during the cataclysmic Covid-19 pandemic, and also the last to reopen. Everything came to a screeching halt — along with the dreams, plans and life as we knew it.
When we meet at Precious Old China in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, artistic director Pun Kai Loon and producer/music director Khor Seng Chew of the Dama Asia Productions outfit are in high spirits, with a strong sense of camaraderie as they are joined by associate partner/set designer Melissa Teoh and cast members Liow Jun Yi and Yon Lynn.
It belies the pain and struggle they went through in recent times. “We thought we would sail through, but when months turned into years, it became unbearable. So much of our resources have been drained,” says Pun. If only he had known from the beginning that it would cost them three years, he would have considered closing shop or at least halting operations that were incurring costs. But with the thought of the company turning 30 in 2024, they soldiered on.
Having seen the coffers deplete during the pandemic and after much reflection as they entered 2023, the team channelled their energy into planning two fundraising shows this year — All That Glitz & Glamour (On The Silver Screen) in April and In Perfect Harmony Too in August.
The going is not easy. “Many of the Malaysian theatre and musical talents have chosen to leave the performing arts industry and moved on to explore other career and personal pursuits,” Pun notes, before adding that supporters are also hard to come by, given that many companies are struggling to get back on their feet.
“This fundraising exercise is a lifeline for us, to subsist and make a comeback on the performing arts scene, as well as to join in the efforts to revive Malaysian theatre and provide work opportunities again for talents.”
All That Glitz & Glamour
All That Glitz & Glamour charts the growth of the Mandarin Golden Oldies — otherwise known as shidaiqu, or the “songs of the era” that were infused with Chinese folk music and American jazz in a rather odd coupling. It will be a sumptuous visual feast of signature songs and dance tunes — popularised by Zhou Xuan, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, Yao Lee, Lin Dai, Ge Lan and more — from the days of black-and-white films to contemporary ones in Technicolor.
“Our song-and-dance showcase provides an insight into the Chinese musical travelogue enjoyed by the community over four decades, from the 1930s to 1960s. It is also interesting to note that during the glorious years of the 1960s, signature songs of P Ramlee such as Getaran Jiwa and one of the best-loved shidaiqu songs, Love Without End, share a similar musical style,” offers Pun.
The show will be seen from the movie-making perspective, peppered with songs and dance, with a narrator who will take the audience on a journey of how the Chinese movieland evolved over the years. Like the transition from Shanghai to Hong Kong and further on to countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaya — and, later, Malaysia. The audience will experience strong jazz, big band, Broadway and pop flavours.
Khor, who is responsible for building the entire musical score, says the music during that era was so fantastic because they were all beautifully crafted scores. “Besides the composition, the music for records or broadcast was performed by classically trained Russian musicians who had flocked to China’s major cities during the Soviet revolution. The songs were also incorporated into films and that guaranteed box-office success.”
The music in the first half of the show will be heavily influenced by the 1930s and 1940s. For the second half, the audience will be served with Broadway and 1970s Canto pop music. All the songs are major hits, selected from popular movies. The orchestration will be new to Dama’s audience, with a seven-piece band comprising the saxophone, trumpet, keyboard, drums, percussion, bass and erhu (played by Dama Asia’s musical director Gan Boon We).
While the songs from those Chinese hit movies may appeal more to the community, the non-Chinese-speakers will still find the show engaging. Khor says: “As for music lovers, this [docutainment] is definitely an illuminating musical journey of discovery, revisiting the evolution of Chinese golden oldies.”
The August concert, In Perfect Harmony Too, is a continuation of their first in 2011. It is a Malaysian musical journey of popular songs as seen through a podcaster’s show called “How Much You Know About Malaysia?” Stay tuned for this one! It will tug at your heartstrings like never before.
Dama Asia’s genesis stemmed from a passion to “produce and present multilingual theatre works of the highest quality” and it immediately found a niche audience in the older Chinese generation. They were the first to introduce the whole genre of Chinese golden oldies as a piece of performing arts showcase.
“These songs were only sung in nightclubs. In 1997, we thought it would be a good time to present this body of work on stage. But with the Asian financial crisis looming, it became pivotal to make the life-changing direction for Dama Orchestra, which was established in 1994. We had to go lean and started approaching work from a musical theatre point of view,” Khor ruminates.
Dama Asia’s illustrious journey started with Spring Kisses Lover’s Tears, a tribute to signature songs by celebrated songstresses during the Chinese golden oldies era of bygone years. It found success as a long-running show, clocking in about 100 performances over the years.
Awareness and support grew, alongside the income. Dama Asia seemed to have struck gold. “We continued with this genre because the treasure chest of these songs was huge. They were nostalgic and relevant to the older folks. A modernised presentation culminated in the first version of Glitz & Glamour in 2010, which we approached from a Broadway format with the help of a British choreographer,” Pun recalls.
It was a colourful musical covering the period from the Old Shanghai era to the silver screen of Shaw Brothers and Cathay cinemas. From one cabaret act to another, it was an amazing spectacle of showmanship. Glitz & Glamour — The Song & Dance Musical had a sold-out three-week run.
“We enjoyed unprecedented success with so many of our productions. One of them was Empress Wu, an original three-hour epic. It took us three years to do the research, including a trip to China to visit her burial place and museum,” says Khor. With 28 performances — and tickets all sold out one month before the show — it was their biggest show in terms of performers and success. “I remember buying about 120 [meal] packets every night for the entire cast and crew,” he chuckles.
The company’s last show was in 2019. The Rocking Broadway played to a roaring crowd that included 10 producers from China on a special invitation. “Seng Chew invited the producers and, after the show ended, there was a proposal for us to tour China. When Covid hit, our dream and excitement fell flat and disappeared into thin air,” Pun remembers.
“We’re extremely thankful that The Edge is in a position to lend support to these projects. I can’t describe that feeling … It was like rising from the dead. It felt like we were given a second life. The rest just fell into place. Publisher and group CEO Datuk Ho Kay Tat has been very supportive and helped us open doors in terms of corporate support,” says Pun.
“The performing arts sector has been badly affected by the pandemic and it gets very little, if any, support from the government. We decided to support Dama Asia in their fundraising efforts to help them get back on their feet again and also enable musical talents to get back on stage,” says Ho, who expresses his heartfelt thanks to companies that have come in as supporting sponsors or extended cash donations.
“We hope the public will come forward to purchase tickets to the two musicals in April and August.”
Dama Asia has survived almost three decades in the industry by depending mainly on ticket sales. “We are lucky because we struck the right chord in making it a sustainable journey in performing arts,” says Pun.
“We’re thankful for the donations, but our attitude has always been not to depend on external sources of income to survive, but to really make Dama sustainable. We hope with this resuscitation, we can continue and sustain our operations as it’s not always wise to keep asking for support.”
This article first appeared on Mar 13, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.