10 things about: Wan Dee Aroonratana, Thai Menora performer and shaman

Retired Thai Menora performer Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aroonratana is still as sprightly and strong as he was a few decades ago. — Picture by K.E. Ooi
Retired Thai Menora performer Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aroonratana is still as sprightly and strong as he was a few decades ago. — Picture by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Jan 4 — He may be 91 years old but Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aroonratana is still as sprightly and strong as he was a few decades ago, easily contorting his body for a Thai Menora performance.

The retired Thai Menora performer and shaman has been practising storytelling through his craft since he was 14 years old, a skill not easily acquired and practised.

Noo Wan was given the recognition he deserved when Penang Heritage Trust awarded him the Penang Living Heritage Treasures Award in 2007.

He is one of the eight Penang craftsmen, artists and performers to be named as recipients of the award where they received public acknowledgement, a plaque, a certificate and an annual RM2,000 grant each.

Noo Wan is still living in the Siamese village in Pulau Tikus, where he has lived all his life and where his father had lived as well.

His father, Pa’wan Dee, was also a Thai Menora performer and shaman from the 1920s to 1940s; his Thai Menora troupe was well-known and they were often invited to perform at temple events all over Penang.

Though he speaks Thai fluently — all his performances are conducted in Thai — Noo Wan also speaks the local Hokkien dialect and Bahasa Malaysia, a testament to growing up in a multi-cultural society.

Here, Noo Wan reminisces about growing up learning a skill that requires more than just practice but dedication, a strong faith and persistence.

In his own words:

My father was a well-known Thai Menora performer and shaman. When he first came here during the British era, the locals would often invite his troupe to perform the Menora and also cleansing and blessing rituals at temples. The Menora is a cultural tradition inherited from thousands of years ago and it is not just a dance or performance. It is a religious ceremony, a dance of the deities. It is not like going into trance but more like a spiritual dance to seek blessings from the deities. When I was young, there was no television, no gadgets, no cinemas. The Menora performances are a type of entertainment so my father’s Thai Menora troupe was very high in demand. You can ask… everyone knows about Pa’wan Dee’s Thai Menora.

I started learning Menora when I was 14 years old. In our time, our elders expected us to continue with the tradition and of course, we listened. I started training with a Menora teacher and followed my father’s troupe to perform as I trained. I also had to memorise hundreds of stories as a Menora performance is about spiritual storytelling. Every dance we perform tells a story and every story has a meaning, a lesson, to it. Many of them are spiritual stories.

It is not easy to be a shaman and Menora performer. The first thing I do in the morning when I wake up is to stretch all my limbs, my body. I have to remain agile and flexible in order to perform. I also have to practise the spiritual part, to pray and chant to the deities for blessings. In the old days, our performance takes up to three days. Each day, we perform from 1pm to 4pm and then from 8pm to midnight. Each Menora troupe consists of about five performers, one “king” (the lead) and other supporting performers. When I first started, I had to be the supporting performer, the one who tells jokes and makes funny antics to keep the crowd interested while the king, wearing his elaborate crown, will be the serious one to tell the story fully in Thai. It was after many years of training and when my father retired and I took over the troupe that I became the lead, the king.

When performing the Menora, we can take on many characters. Sometimes we use masks, as a jester, and sometimes, we don the crown as the king to tell a spiritual story. The stories we tell are often about the deities and royalty. Sometimes it is about people and their lives.

Each Menora troupe has about 10 people, five are performers and there can only be one king, one lead. I have to learn how to be the lead but it is not just about being the king character in the show. It means I have to be the director, the troupe leader, the performer and sometimes, the teacher to new performers. Maybe this is why the younger generation is no longer interested in continuing with this tradition.

Before we can even think of becoming the king, one of the main requirements is to be a monk first. I have to be a monk for a few years first before I can be a shaman and the lead and troupe leader. This is because it is a very spiritual tradition. We need to learn everything in stages.

I took over from my father in 1949 and I retired in 1985 but continued to mentor the new troupe leader who took over from me. My children are not interested in taking over the Menora troupe because they studied and got good jobs. They have no interest in it at all. One thing about Menora, you have to want to do it. Because of its spiritual nature, you have to have faith, be pure of heart and really want to practise it.

My former teacher’s descendants living in Bagan Ajam took over the troupe when I retired and I handed over the troupe to them when I was 62 years old. I had practised the Menora for over 40 years. Even after retiring, I sometimes join them and I continue to teach and train the young ones. Now I am too old, I’m not as agile as before and I tire easily. In 2002, when I was almost 80, I did my final Menora performance at the Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram Temple here as a tribute to the deities. It is my tribute to the deities for their blessings, so I did it alone, dressed in my full costume of beaded top and the elaborate crown. Now, my costume is placed on an altar at my son’s house in Kedah as a sign of respect to the deities that had blessed my many performances in the past. I have an ancient crown used by my ancestors that my father said could be over 200 years old and we don’t use it... we also put it on an altar and we pay respect to it. My father’s beaded costumes and masks too are on the altar.

 It is sad that the Thai Menora is slowly being forgotten here. Fortunately, it is still being practised and taught in Thailand but in Penang, it is a culture that is slowly dying and very few people know about it. Here, it is practised slightly differently because in some acts, the side performers will speak in local dialects and sometimes in Bahasa Malaysia to reach out to the local crowd. Now, people don’t want to see Thai Menora performances any more. They prefer the modern concerts.

I live to this age because I lead a peaceful, spiritual and grateful life. In life, we must be grateful for what we have. We must be able to look ahead, to step back from our problems and not to waste too much energy and time worrying and getting stressed about problems in our life. Everyone has problems. Everyone has issues. We just need to step back and away from it instead of letting it ruin our lives. As I grow older, I realised all these problems that I thought were huge problems when young are actually nothing in the grand scale of things. We should just live and let live. No point worrying and stressing over it unnecessarily. As long as we eat at the right time, sleep at the right time, perform our prayers to give thanks to the deities, accept our life and be at peace with ourselves and our lives, we can all lead a long and peaceful life.  

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