Imagining National Culture: Lessons From Bangsawan

By Tan Sooi Beng

March 2023 FEATURE
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Eng Tai goes into the tomb to be with Sam Pek in a Chinese love story. Sam Pek Eng Tai, directed by Cikgu Baha, State Chinese Peranakan Association, 2000. Photo by: Tan Sooi Beng.

IN THE FIRST half of the 20th century, Bangsawan, or Malay opera, started incorporating the latest Anglo-American dances and music into its already cosmopolitan repertoire, inspired by touring commercial theatre troupes and new media technologies such as the gramophone, cinema and radio broadcasting. It engendered the first Orkes Melayu (Malay orchestra), an adaptation of the European dance band, using Western instruments such as the violin, piano, double bass, drum, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, maracas and claves. For a local touch, it added instruments such as the Malay frame drum (rebana), Indian drum (tabla), Chinese gongs as well as wind and stringed instruments.

Bangsawan performers recorded a potpourri of songs rendered in Malay. His Master’s Voice (HMV), Columbia and Chap Kuching gramophone companies advertised Lagu Melayu, or Malay songs, that fused Malay, Chinese and Western elements such as Asli, Inang, Joget and Dondang Sayang. They were also interwoven with the modern tango, march, waltz and foxtrot rhythms. At the same time, Lagu Arab (Arab songs), Nasihat Agama (Religious Advice), Kronchong/stambul (music from the Javanese theatre) and Lagu Hawaiian (Hawaiian songs) were published.

Performed live by travelling troupes, Bangsawan also saw the emergence of satirical Malay songs that exposed the problems of the ordinary folk – a common theme was the harassment of small businessmen by the police[1] – inspiring contemporary pop singers such as the renowned P. Ramlee. These were sung in the colloquial Malay spoken by the working class multi-ethnic population and described the hardships faced by the ordinary Malay nerve oil merchant, the Chinese trishaw puller, the Malay medicine man and the Indian hawker. Easing anxieties about modernity and change with humour, these songs were extremely popular among people of all social backgrounds.

International Circulation

Bangsawan music was disseminated and circulated not only in the Malay Archipelago but also in other parts of the world. "Terang Bulan" "Bright Moonlight", the Perak state anthem and later, the national anthem of Malaysia, was said to have been brought to Perak by returning Malay nobility who were exiled to the Seychelles by the British.[2]

Terang Bulan was popular in Javanese stambul theatre, Malayan Bangsawan and film and dance halls; it was recorded by musicians in Hawaii, Sydney, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The lyrics were usually adapted but the melody was maintained. In 1928, the Krontjong Orchest Eurasia, comprising students from the Dutch East Indies living in the Netherlands, recorded Terang Boelan with Edison Bell in London.[3]

Record label of Terang Boelan, published by Edison Bell in 1928.

Other recordings of "Terang Bulan" included "Mamula Moon", a Hawaiian version sung in English by Felix Mendelsson and His Serenaders,[4] and "Moonlight over the Southern Seas" in Mandarin and Malay by Shanghai singer, Yao Li, in the 1950s[5]. The tune was also featured in the Japanese propaganda film The Tiger of Malaya (1943).

Lagu Melayu for National Purposes in the 1950s

Taking advantage of its popularity, Lagu Melayu was given a national purpose in the late 1950s. As independence approached, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, commissioned the composition of a set of national songs with lyrics about building a nation.

To portray unity, a multi-ethnic team of songwriters, singers and conductors was put together and composers of different ethnicities, such as Alfonso Soliano, Dol Baharim, Jimmy Boyle, Johar Bahar and Zubir Said, were called upon to create the national songs; a special multi-ethnic Merdeka Choir was formed to sing them. Ahmad Merican, the Music Supervisor of Radio Malaya, and Tony Fonseka, a music teacher and conductor of the Radio Malaya studio choir, supervised the performances and recordings of the songs (Saidah Rastam 2017). Some of these that remain evergreen include Tanah Pusaka ("Inherited Land"), Putera Puteri ("Prince and Princess") and Malaysia Oh Tanah Airku ("Malaysia My Homeland").

The national anthem – after an international search – was decided by Tunku Abdul Rahman and his team to be sung to the tune of "Terang Bulan" and named Negaraku ("My Country"). Cherished and sung by so many different people, the song is emblematic of the shared musical heritage of the multi-ethnic citizens of the new nation.

Cosmopolitan Performers

Bangsawan performers not only created syncretic music but also experienced hybridity in their lives (see Penang Monthly October 2022 issue). They travelled by boat and sojourned in the trans-border spaces of the Malay Archipelago for their performances; interacted and married people of different races and cultures including Filipino, Eurasian, Chinese, Indian and Javanese; were open to and learned music and acting from the other communities; and did not adhere to fixed boundaries in their identities, performances and interactions with other communities. Their mixed identities, openness and trans-border experiences were instrumental in the creation of the syncretic Malay opera.

The late Mak Minah or Aminah Nani B (born in 1921) from Penang was of mixed parentage. Her father, Nani bin Omar, was a Javanese who started Genani Opera. Her mother, a European lady named Catherine de Brish, was from Melaka; she had joined Nani’s troupe after watching his shows and falling in love with him. When Aminah was eleven, her parents left Genani Opera to join the Dean’s opera that travelled to Sarawak, Pulau Bangka, Bali and Java. Aminah stayed in Java for 10 years to study Balinese and Javanese dance, music and acting and performed internationally with the famous Miss Riboet, who led the Miss Riboet Orient Opera.

Aminah Nani (Mak Minah) in the 1930s. Photo by: Mak Minah.

When she returned to Malaya, Aminah became the principal actress in several operas – Kiah, Grand Jubilee and Grand Nooran – to name a few. She emphasised that Malay and Chinese opera troupes shared musicians and instruments as they performed side by side in amusement parks. She also studied kuntau (Chinese art of self-defence) from a Chinese opera actress and in return, taught silat (Malay art of self-defence) to the latter.

Cikgu Bahroodin (Cikgu Baha, born in 1944) hailed from Singapore but moved to Penang where he became a schoolteacher. Cikgu Baha was given the title of an Honorary Baba as he taught and choreographed dances for the Chinese Peranakan in Penang. He was also known for cross-dressing as he played the role of the matriarch, Bibik Hitam (Dark Elderly Nyonya), in many Peranakan plays. Before he passed away, Cikgu Baha created and performed in several Bangsawan plays including Sam Pek Eng Tai.

 Pak Mat Hashim (born in 1930) was a musician who managed the last ronggeng dance troupe in Penang. He played the accordion for Bangsawan shows with multi-ethnic musicians such as Pak Wan Pekak (an Indian-Muslim violinist who was deaf), Pak Ahmad (a Malay who played the rebana, Ah Seng (a Chinese gong player) and June Loh (a Chinese singer and dancer). These musicians would play at Chinese festivities such as Peranakan weddings and birthday celebrations, street Dondang Sayang performances during Chap Goh Meh (the 15th night of Chinese New Year) and Datuk Gong (local guardian spirits worshipped by the Chinese) birthday festivities in small rural villages in the 1980s.

Pak Mat Hashim’s ronggeng musicians performing for Datuk Ali in Tanjung Bungah, Penang. Photo by: Tan Sooi Beng.

Learning From the Past

With the formation of the nation-state, fixed notions of national culture, language and identity were instituted, resulting in the suppression of the fluid identities and languages of the earlier colonial era. The National Culture Policy that was created in the 1970s reinforced the essentialisation of the performing arts into separate Malay, Chinese, Indian and Other streams. Following this, state cultural offices in the country began to standardise and Malay-ise theatrical and musical forms that were deemed too westernised or did not project enough Malay elements. The revised Bangsawan saw the removal of Chinese, Indian and Arabic stories, music and costumes; Malay legends that glorified the Malay past were foregrounded instead.

In the implementation of the reformulated National Cultural Policy 2021, there is much to learn from the Bangsawan performers who were inclusive in their cultural approaches and lives. They refrained from essentialist definitions of “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” or “Others”, and from ethnic stereotypes. As the late Pak Rahman B, the owner of Rahman Star Opera, once said, “We need to learn from others and conduct research before we start changing forms or creating policies.” Then and only then will truly Malaysian identities and cultures emerge.


[1] Uncle Murtabak (Pan-Fried Bread Uncle, Mohd. Yatim, HMV, P 22945, 1950s).

[2] See Saidah Rastam 2017: Chapter 2 for discussion.


[4] Columbia F.B. 3295 (


Tan Sooi Beng

(Ph.D) is the Professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of the Arts, USM. Inspired by her Bangsawan teachers, she actively crosses borders in her research.