Synergy Dance Theatre’s artistic director Christopher Liew brings us on a memorable journey through the company’s historical dance drama, The Legend of Kinabalu, from its inception to its latest staging and beyond.
Christopher’s essay was originally written in Chinese.
I’ve always wondered why dance choreographers seem to get inspiration from their place of residence. I had worked on The Legend of Kinabalu for almost 4 years. Initially titled The Legend of Mount Kinabalu when it premiered in 2010, it was subsequently renamed The Legend of Kinabalu for its restaging in 2014. The dance drama is based on events that happened in Sabah during the Second World War and deals with the loss of humanity during wartime and the importance of peace.
In 2008, after noticing that East Malaysia’s cultural uniqueness was comparable to that of West Malaysia, I came to realise that it was time to raise the cultural status of Sabah. This led me to think about my contribution as an artist, and I came to the conclusion that cultural development only comes about with the development of society.
With this in mind, I started to look for material related to Borneo (the island where Sabah is located) and came across an old legend about Mount Kinabalu (a prominent mountain located in Sabah). I started collecting written documents for visual ideas and began sketching out a dance drama. One of the books I discovered was written by Chin Dong Ho about the Kinabalu guerillas, who had fought against the Japanese army in Northern Borneo. Reading it, I knew I was on to something. I started researching what the scariest things were during the War and decided to tell these stories through dance.
As an artist, it was important that I create a work that reflected the actual conditions of the War. However, since WWII happened nearly seventy years ago, related oral history, videos, and narratives were gradually vanishing. We went looking for history books but details were extremely limited.
We decided to focus on Chin’s book and resolved to meet him to find out more about his time during the War. I finally met him on 13 July 2010.
“It was the night that they surrendered. The sky was blue; you know, the kind of blue sky on an August night, with no clouds? It was very quiet, because all the chickens, dogs and farm animals had been killed. Suddenly, there was the noise of a plane; we thought the army were bombing again and we quickly ran and hid. But then the plane just flew on and when we went out, the sky was filled with white papers floating down.” (Chin, 2010)
His words gave me an insight into the War—it had happened on this same piece of land, and here we were, seven decades later, in an air-conditioned restaurant, reminiscing about the past. “…Blue sky on an August night, with no clouds”—what a beautiful description. Was I then meant to share this story with the next generation? I felt the burden of responsibility of doing so.
The white papers that Chin mentioned, floating down from the plane, were actually notices about the Imperial Japanese Army’s surrender. We even talked about the size of the papers and everything felt so real. I later learnt about the inspiration behind Chin’s desire to write the book—he had met the “Sandakan Families” while studying in Australia. The Sandakan Families comprised relatives or descendants of prisoners of war (POW) who went through the Sandakan Death Marches (a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 Allied prisoners of war). This prompted me to attend Sandakan Memorial Day.
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On 14 August, 2010, Sandakan Airport was packed with foreigners who were there for the memorial. The day before my arrival, I had been rehearsing scenes of “The Separation” and the “Double Tenth Incident” (which referred to a multi-ethnic uprising, mainly led by the Kinabalu Guerrillas, against the Japanese occupation). I thought that the choreographies were too neat— the scenes needed more intensity, plus there was a lot to tell but so little time.
At the ceremony, I spoke with Bunny Glover (a POW survivor), Chin Thet Shiong (an ex-army personnel), and Joanna Funk (daughter of a POW). I placed some flowers on the memorial, but was a little unconvinced by my gesture. The memorial park has only four significant landmarks. It struck me that perhaps it could follow the example of the Berlin Wall and be restored into a historical site for the public. I then visited other WWII memorial sites in Sandakan and discovered that there was a Japanese cemetery situated right in front of a Chinese cemetery with a monument that details a mass execution, including that of a Chinese leader, by the Japanese army. Because of this trip, I discovered a potential ending for the dance drama.
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This one other time, I helped a group of senior citizens to choreograph a piece for their dance competition and discovered that there was a 97-year-old grandmother living in KK who had survived the War. I wanted to meet her to get a better idea of the War, even with all the research that I had already done.
After the performance of The Legend of Mount Kinabalu on 19 May 2011, I met Voon Kun Ying and was surprised that she was still at her best of health. Voon only spoke in Hakka, but since I did not speak the language fluently (despite being a Hakka myself), I had one of my students help translate our conversation. This incident led me to think about the seriousness of the gradual loss of our mother tongues.
Voon told us that during the War, she hid deep inland where there had been no bombing. She said that if you had a “Good Civilian Pass”, the Japanese Army would not harm you. The shortage of food was a serious problem though—there were only potatoes to eat. When I asked about the story of Albert Kwok (a guerilla leader during the War), Voon said that she was not in KK during that time and therefore knew nothing about it. She only knew that when the Japanese Empire surrendered, all the Japanese soldiers were sent back. “As long as you have the ‘Good Civilian Pass’, the Japanese army would not harm you,” was one of the only few memories that Voon had about the War. But when we asked about people who had been captured by the Japanese army, she mentioned a few names and murmured, “Some of them went but they never came back ”. Listening to her stories, I begin to feel grateful for the things we have these days.
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2010 marked the sixth year of Synergy Dance Theatre’s (SDT) effort in dance productions, and by then, we had accumulated a good number of well-trained dancers with good technical abilities. I decided to audition dancers from schools to fulfill the large cast for The Legend of Mount Kinabalu. Most of the dancers weren’t familiar with the stories but they were honoured to be part of the production.
Music was edited or recorded at the beginning of rehearsals in order to speed things up. Since the war scene was the main part of the show, I needed grand music to go with it, and I found that video game soundtracks worked perfectly. In addition, the soundtrack from the documentary Home (Yann Arthus-Bertrand, 2009) was also suitable for some of the scenes.
The original idea of The Legend of Mount Kinabalu was to have multimedia projection on the dance floor in order to create the image of fire burning and to project terrible images of the War. In order to achieve this, I started looking for appropriate computer software. I also drove to Kudat to capture images of streams and rocks to be incorporated as part of the projection. Collaboration with a professional multimedia production company was essential for my concept to succeed. Eventually, the limitations imposed by the height of the theatre and other technicalities made the projection impossible. Even with an ultra-wide-angle projection, it would still not cover the whole stage and would have cost us RM20,000. That was just impossible. I was very thankful that the company took their time to discuss issues with us even whilst knowing that we could no longer work together. But it was disheartening that no private corporation would support us financially. However, I subsequently did some online research, and found that connecting multiple screens together, which is common in the video game industry, would solve the problem. After going through some hurdles, I finally got the only two of such screens from Taiwan.
The next challenge was to deal with the separate projections upstage and downstage—things could go wrong when merging the two. Time spent on the animation would also double, which would not be easy for the team, especially since rehearsals and multimedia production work had to happen concurrently. We tried out the projection the day before the performance and found that the ratio of the projection was not right. We made some alterations but still came up with a Plan B in case things didn’t work out. Fortunately, at 6:55 pm (35 minutes before show was about to begin!), things were sorted out and the show that night was a success. Creating art is like walking on a tightrope—with a positive and focused mindset, you can make it across safely.
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When I decided to restage The Legend of Kinabalu in 2014, I took out the multimedia projection so that the audience could focus more on the story and emotions. The story was tweaked as well, and the drama now unfolds as thus: The first twenty minutes of the dance depicts the flora and fauna of Borneo and the honest folks who lived harmoniously. What follows is the story of a little girl, the main character, who has the magical ability to hear the voices of nature. This is followed by the invasion of Sabah in 1942. The brutalities during WWII are a painful memory. True stories of babies thrown into the river in order to avoid drawing the attention of the Japanese army and the Sandakan Death Marches are very emotional for the audience. In fact, a foreigner who had been in Sabah for quite some time was surprised to find out about such hardships, because Sabah had always looked so peaceful to him.
There are many inspiring stories about the War—stories of brave men like Albert Kwok, who led the Kinabalu Guerrillas against the Japanese Imperial Army. Most of them were executed at Petagas where there is now a memorial park for people to pay their respects. The story of the “Ring Lady” similarly left an impression on the audience. It was about a native who had lent a hand to the Alliance. In return for her kindness, the army left their rings to her as a token of appreciation, thus earning her the moniker. For the latest staging, I removed the scene of Merdeka Day and ended it with Sandakan Memorial Day, depicting a Bobohizan (Kadazan-Dusun spirit medium) calming the spirits down.
Many audience members shared their thoughts after our performances. They were pleased with the show but at the same time were very emotional. For instance, in 2010, William Choo shared that he had experienced a historical journey—the dancers’ bodies were used to tell stories that had long been forgotten, and these emotions became everlasting memories. Loo Sze Khee said that she could see SDT’s mission at work, which was not merely about dance. “Keep the dignity,” was what she told us in 2014. And Moonya, from Zimbabwe, was amazed by the diversity of Synergy Dance Studio (the education arm of Synergy Dance) after having attended three different performances by the studio from April to June 2014.
After our last production, I gave myself an added task—to share this dance further. Even though The Legend of Kinabalu is performed annually, the number of audiences are limited; so I have decided to film a dance documentary of The Legend of Kinabalu by 2015. 11 June 2014 marks the date that the production team, consisting of Lonny Pang, Horace Yuan, Skyler Liew, Yun Han and myself, started working collectively. The response to the trailer for the film has been pretty good as it was widely shared on social media. I now have bigger hopes and visions for the documentary.
I am not an orthodox person; I choose to be myself. The question of “Who has the right to take away someone’s life?” will remain forever in my mind. I have read Kill the Prisoners! by Don Wall and Rehearsal for War by Ban Kah Choon and Yap Hong Kuan. There are many more books to read and I need to find my own identity in this land. Ultimately, The Legend of Kinabalu does not take sides, but looks at the loss of humanity and the values of true love and courage during war.
Christopher Liew Vui Ngee is the founder and artistic Director of Borneo Dance Theatre (BDT) and Synergy Dance Theatre (SDT). More
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Featured photo: Scene of a Bobohizan training the young girl with the magical gift. Tan Sook Kuan [left] and Chin Pei Wen in The Legend of Kinabalu, Sabah Theological Seminary Auditorium, Kota Kinabalu, 15 June 2014. Photo © Wayne Liew