Ronggeng girls of the Merdeka era

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ronggeng girlsShakila Abdul Manan describes a praiseworthy effort at uncovering the untold story of the much-maligned Ronggeng girls while evoking the true spirit of Muhibbah.

The tradition of street performances widely enjoyed by various multi-ethnic communities some decades ago was recreated by Ombak-Ombak ArtStudio through its successful staging of the much-talked-about musical drama, Ronggeng Merdeka.

The drama, staged at five open-air community spaces in Penang and on the mainland in June 2007, was part of the Anak-Anak Kota or “Children of the City” heritage education programme for young people,

It was a sequel to the highly acclaimed 2006 performance entitled ‘Kisah Pulau Pinang’, which was staged at the Heritage Heboh Street Festival on 15 July 2006.

Ronggeng Merdeka was organised by Arts-Ed, an arts education initiative of the Penang Educational Consultative Council in cooperation with School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia and the Penang Heritage Trust.

Featuring Penang’s bitter-sweet journey from the 1930s through the Japanese Occupation up to the period of Merdeka, Ronggeng Merdeka recaptured the multiculturalism of Penang – a pluralism that is often not sufficiently highlighted in our country’s history textbooks and the dominant discourse of nation.

Fond memories

During the staging of the musical drama, the community spaces became the site for all kinds of border crossings and cross-cultural exchange: a multi-ethnic cast and an audience of all age groups. The conversations and lyrics of songs were peppered with Malay, Hokkien and English words. The mixed musical and ronggeng ensemble comprised Malay gamelan and wayang kulit instruments along with the Chinese erhu and shigu, and Western violin and flute. Dances integrated the cha-cha-cha, rumba, inang and zapin.

The 30-minute musical drama received an overwhelming response. At some of the locations, about 400 people thronged the open-air performance. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, the 30-odd talented young performers, aged 10-20, performed two shows consecutively in Seberang Jaya (on the mainland), Air Itam and Armenian Street.    

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Visibly impressed with the children’s energy, discipline and skills in music, dance and drama, the audience at these locations participated by singing and swaying their bodies to the music and dance numbers. Recalling the songs as they were sung in the 1940s and 50s, the senior citizens especially sang along with great enthusiasm. They were also captivated by the instrumental music played by the traditional gamelan, wayang kulit, shigu drum, erhu and ronggeng ensemble.

It was interesting to watch the senior citizens, some of whom were seated on four-legged stools, reminiscing about the good old days, nodding in agreement with statements made, clapping, raising their hands and whispering to their friends. The community theatre must have reminded them of their experiences at the tua se kai or entertainment outlets such as Penang’s Wembley and Great World Park during their younger days. Some were choked with emotion during certain scenes – in particular the Sook Ching scene (the massacre of the Chinese by the Japanese) – and tears rolled down their cheeks.

Unheard voices

Importantly, this musical drama also granted the Ronggeng girls agency and voice, to some extent, to counter views and perspectives that legitimised and perpetuated their marginal status over time.

Ronggeng girls, especially the Malay girls, were frowned upon by the religious authorities as they paraded on stage in tight kebaya and invited men to dance with them. At that time, Malay newspapers and magazines such as Al-Ikhwan* (16 April 1931) expressed their concern as they believed that it could lead to moral decay and deterioration.

This, however, did not deter the Ronggeng girls as they had to eke out a living.  Ronggeng was also a profession for these girls as they were accomplished singers and dancers. During the day, they attended to household chores and, by night, they turned into Ronggeng girls. This work provided them a steady source of income and this is clearly revealed in the second verse of their theme song:

    Kami Penghuni Malaya
    Melayu, India dan Cina,
    Waktu siang kerja rumah
    Waktu malam keluar berniaga
    Menghibur semua di taman
    Beronggeng-ronggeng ka tua se kai

Interestingly, these Ronggeng girls were like any other woman, then and now. They had several identities: they were not just someone’s wife, mother or daughter but they were also working women who contributed significantly to the family’s household income and the State. Like other women, they were also used, controlled, oppressed and subjugated by patriarchy and men as conveyed in the lyrics below which the Ronggeng girls parodied on stage:

Lelaki balik rumah, ceduk nasi, macam tak ada tangan.
Kasut pun kena kami pakai untuk dia
Even the cloth we have to choose for them.
Lengkuk badan, abang.
Tiap-tiap hari tunggu kat rumah
This trousers will do, abang
Abang nak kasut inikah?
Dia pun kerja, kita pun kerja.  

The musical drama also foregrounded the pain and suffering that they had to endure during the Japanese Occupation and in the struggle towards Merdeka. The war  changed their lives: they had to bury their kebaya and smear their faces with charcoal to make themselves ugly. Whilst the men fought the Japanese in the jungle, the women,  including the Ronggeng girls, had to look after their homes and families.

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In this musical drama, the Ronggeng girls were also given the opportunity to provide a critique about politics and ethnic division. They challenged racial politics by asking why there were so many political parties after achieving Independence when they and the community, as showcased by them, provided ample evidence of cultural mixing, racial integration and harmonious living.

Although the musical drama attempted to centre-stage the Ronggeng girls, it did not sufficiently capture their tensions and conflicts. These were overshadowed by the larger issue of Independence, racial politics and the performance itself. In that sense, it was ironic that in trying to liberate themselves through this performance, the Ronggeng girls remained shackled.

On the whole, the talented young cast, including performing arts students from Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the creative crew deserve commendation. The creative juices came from Tan Sooi Beng, a professor of Ethno-musicology at Universiti Sains Malaysia; Janet Pillai, the artistic director and pioneer in the field of children’s theatre; Ho Sheau Fung, the drama director and experienced actress in the Mandarin theatre scene; and choreographer Aida Redza.

In this musical drama, they had worked not only at recreating the tradition of street performances so emblematic of Penang’s cultural scene some decades back but also at reclaiming Penang’s multicul-tural history through song, dance and drama.

It was a praiseworthy effort at uncovering the untold story of the much-maligned Ronggeng girls while evoking the true spirit of Muhibbah or goodwill amongst the races at the various community spaces.

* The writer thanks Assoc. Prof. Mahani Musa, a historian, for information regarding the magazine, Al-Ikhwan.

Shakila Abdul Manan is a senior lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. 

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