PETALING JAYA, June 24 — For the first six years of his life when Mark Beau de Silva was growing up in Kulim with his amah (grandmother), he spoke the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, ate wantan mee and thought his entire world was Chinese.
All that changed for the young de Silva, born to a Eurasian father and a Chinese mother, when his parents announced they were going to take him back.
“I grew up thinking my grandmother was everything and parents were people who just came to see me once in a while. I felt I was Chinese, my orientation was so Chinese,” de Silva said.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, de Silva was introduced to his father’s Eurasian culture which he described as a “Western upbringing”, complete with table manners and etiquette.
“I was made to feel my grandmother’s Chinese way was bad, that Chineseness was uncouth, I got that feeling that I had to learn everything again.
“Everything I learned in Kulim was not proper — that’s not how Eurasian boys are meant to behave,” he told Malay Mail.
School wasn’t any better.
Malaysians who grew up in the public-school system may recall the racial quota exercise carried out at the beginning of each term where teachers would record the number of students according to their ethnicity.
Students of Eurasian descent (known as serani in Malay) were parked under the category of lain-lain, which means others.
“All these things keep reminding you that you are different. And my grandmother never thought that — all those things didn’t matter to her,” de Silva said.
He admitted he spent many years telling people he was Chinese “because it was easier that way” but his European-descended surname would give him away.
“For a mixed-race child, it becomes doubly hard to forge an identity because there is no set standard.”
De Silva’s complex experiences growing up as lain-lain in race-conscious Malaysia is captured in his breakthrough play Stories for Amah.
“I wrote the things I never got to tell her because I would go back for Chinese New Year once a year and then all the things that happened in the year that you feel you want to tell her, I never told her.
“Until the day she died, she never knew what happened to me in KL,” he said.
First staged in 2002, the play launched de Silva into the Malaysian theatre scene and was a hit with audiences.
It returns to the stage this week, in conjunction with The Actors Studio’s 30th anniversary.
The story centres around a young serani woman named Ruth de Souza (played by Ho Lee Ching) who learns to straddle her Chinese upbringing and her Eurasian identity forced on by her father.
The play also stars Kennedy Michael, Anrie Too, Grace Ng, Nabilah Hamid, Michael Chen, Chrystal Foo, Nicole Kiew, Benedict Chin and Datuk Faridah Merican.
“Out of all the plays I have written, Stories is still the only play that I did not try to embellish because everything in the script happened,” he said.
Also returning to direct the play is Joe Hasham, who accepted de Silva’s script when it was submitted as part of the company’s call for Malaysian plays.
“Seventeen years ago, all kinds of Malaysians watched it and it resonated with each and every one of them and that I believe is the success of this play because it’s so real, so truthful.
“I would defy anyone to see the play and not be touched in one way or another.
“Mark has this knack of being able to structure something in a way that is just so truthful that you can’t help but admire the truth and the reality of it and the humour that’s in it because we are laughing at ourselves,” Hasham said.
Asked if the post-colonial identity crisis will always be a perennial problem for Malaysians, Hasham and de Silva both did not hesitate to say yes.
“Malaysians being Malaysians, we still identify ourselves by our race as much as we like to think we don’t,” de Silva said.
“Seventeen years ago until today I don’t think Malaysia has changed that much in terms of the racism that people say doesn’t exist in this country — of course it does, it’s just swept under the carpet,” Hasham added.
Catch Stories for Amah from June 27 until June 30 at Pentas 2, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac). Tickets are priced at RM25, RM40 and RM60, call 03-4047 9000 or visit here to purchase.