Former radio deejay Chong Keat Aun, 40, is in rapt attention when he interviews elders for their life stories. And his listeners focus intently when he engages them on the airwaves.
More than a decade ago, Chong went all out to trace seniors to document their oral history.
Some of these elders have passed away but the oral history of their past and of a bygone era lives on – thanks to Chong, who was convinced their stories were a cultural heritage which would be of importance to future generations.
He has started sharing the oral history of 100 people whom he interviewed, on his Facebook The Classic Accents page which he started in 2005. He mooted this idea as a campaign to preserve one’s mother tongue.
When he first set out on the project, he spent his own money and time to travel to villages around Malaysia to locate elderly people for this project.
“I was searching for old people from different dialect groups to record, and collect their stories, poems and opera folk songs. These groups included the Teochew, Fuzhounese, Hokkien, Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese, Guangxi and Shan Jiang,” said Chong, who is intent on preserving Chinese dialects.
He felt that if he had not done so, those colourful life stories would be lost forever.
Chong said: “My job as a radio deejay did not require me to do that.” But he was passionate about preserving a blast from the past and sharing it with the larger community.
As a deejay, Chong was duly recognised for his work when he won the Anugerah Seri Angkasa award for Best Radio DJ 2011 (Male). He was the first Chinese radio deejay to win this award.
(Anugerah Seri Angkasa is a national media award given by the Information Ministry. Award ceremonies have been held every five years since the 1970s. Nowadays, this award ceremony is jointly organised by Radio Televisyen Malaysia, Astro and other broadcast stations.)
Chong holds a diploma in journalism from Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) College in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, and a degree in film and broadcasting from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Cyberjaya, Selangor.
After graduating, he worked with Music Valley Malaysia, then the biggest retail and recording company, which produced Malay records. Following that, he joined Sin Chew Jit Poh as a crime reporter, then worked with TVB8, a Hong Kong TV production company based in Malaysia, which produced entertainment shows for broadcast in Hong Kong.
In mid 2005, he joined RTM, where he worked on contract for about 12 years until mid last year, when his contract expired.
After RTM, Chong joined a production house in Kota Damansara, Selangor, which produces advertisements and short films.
The film Cemetery Of Courtesy, which was directed by him, was nominated for the Asian Short Film Competition (in the Wide Angle category) at the 22nd Busan International Film Festival last year.
The film, he said, is not controversial although it is based on the May 13, 1969, incident (or the Sino-Malay sectarian violence) in this nation. The plot centres on the themes of remembrance and forgiveness.
In 2016, this Alor Setar native was the festival director of the Kedah Padi Heritage (Warisan Padi Kedah) Festival in Jitra, Kedah.
The festival was to recognise and raise greater awareness of the tradition of growing padi by incorporating community art, cultural performances, education and dissemination of information on padi culture and history to the public.
With his performance arts background, Chong went into the padi field with make-up on, and did a contemporary dance there. Although it was a messy, muddy affair, he felt invigorated – and he kept spectators entertained with the innovative dance!
An ex-student of SMJK Keat Hwa in Alor Setar, he reminisced about his childhood in Kedah, a padi-producing state with verdant green rice fields, and how children would play in the mud and even catch fish in the padi fields!
“My paternal grandmother liked Cantonese opera while my maternal grandmother was a Teochew opera singer. When I was young, I lived in a temple. My father, a medium, would stage Chinese operas on deities’ birthdays,” said Chong, who has been interested in Chinese opera since young.
Some radio listeners dislike Chinese opera songs, he said, adding that he got brickbats from them in his early days as a radio deejay.
“They wrongly perceived that tok tok cheang music (Cantonese phrase referring to Chinese opera) was entertainment for dead people, ghosts and deities. They questioned why we promoted it to the living, instead of accepting Chinese opera as part of Chinese cultural heritage,” he said.
Chong is also the founder of the Petaling Street Heritage House in Chinatown (196, Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, KL). The upper floor of this two-storey shophouse is used as a place to store the cultural treasures of Petaling Street. On the ground floor is a restaurant which serves the cuisines of several Chinese dialect groups. There are also interesting posters on the walls, including a photo of a young Elizabeth Choy Him Heong in her heyday. (Choy, now 85, is the grand dame of Chinese opera in Malaysia.)
Chong said the heritage house underwent renovation for six months last November, with financial assistance of RM400,000 from the Asean Arts And Cultural Foundation.
Back in 2009, Chong and an ad hoc group of people, keen on saving Petaling Street, organised the Petaling Street Community Art Project to help Chinatown residents affected by the proposed MRT project.
“When some Chinatown residents affected by the MRT project moved out, some discarded many unwanted belongings in the backlanes of their premises. We salvaged some of those items,” said Chong, who felt like “a new guardian” of those old treasures that are now exhibited at the heritage house. Other items were donated by former residents.
The exhibits include Chinese opera paraphernalia, Chinese opera scripts and magazines, old suitcases, a Rediffusion set, furniture and old photos.
Some old Chinese LP records belonging to Chong are also exhibited in this building.
“There are also 2,100 different dialect records from the 1950s to 1960s, from Yan Kee Records & Recording, Chinese opera records donated by former residents of Petaling Street and by radio listeners when I was a deejay,” he said.
According to Chong, Petaling Street used to be the hub of Kuala Lumpur, long before there was Kuala Lumpur City Centre. These days, it is in a sorry state in a fast-developing city. Over time, there has been an influx of foreign immigrants taking over from Chinese traders, and people don’t seem to care anymore.
“But Chinatown still has much to offer, especially its rich historical value, and it should be preserved. One person’s energy cannot do much for this cause, so I hope more people will come forth to support and preserve our heritage!”