Finding History

I came across this great article which reflects my own experiences back in England many years ago before I started What’s On Penang” . I was introduced to local history through my interest in architecture and through various societies delved into the history of these buildings and the people that lived there over the past 250 years. It was the connection to real people and my imagination wondering how they lived and their real life situations they faced that piquéd my interest. This article from U-Jean is well worth the read- enjoy.

What Arts Ed and MyBalikPulau is all about

By – U-Jean – Feb 13, 2011


If you and I are of the same generation (born year 1988), plus minus a few years, you would probably agree that our History education sucks.

Mindless memorisation of useless facts, overemphasis on naming the correct years and characters, uncreative and dreadful learning experience, and the oh-so-clearly disproportionate reading of “world” history, all for the sake of getting an A for the SPM History paper.

Coming from top school in Penang where we were groomed for As by practicing on revision books, trial papers, forecast papers, and past-year papers, I got my very well-deserved A.

This A, however, represents nothing but a failure in our History education.

In the Form 1 textbook that we used, it tells you why you should learn history. One of them is to “mengenal jati diri”.

Till today, I still have no idea what that means. We all learned ‘history’ because it is a compulsory subject in SPM.

In 2006, I got myself involved in a heritage project sponsored by Digi. Digi conferred the title of ‘Amazing Malaysians’ to a heritage champions in this country and these heritage champions had to carry out a heritage project with young people.

I was a participant under Amazing Malaysia Janet Pillai (of Arts-Ed), and that year was the turning point of my life.

At the age of 18 years young, I was one of the oldest participants in the project. At the end of the project, we were to stage a musical drama on the history of George Town.

For three months, we spent our weekends discovering for ourselves what heritage is.

We had the privilege of being brought on historical walks around George Town, we scoured the streets to document the sight and sounds of George Town, we spoke to and interviewed people about old George Town, and we learned about performing, making music out of random objects, boria, gamelan, wayang kulit, and composing.

I came out from that project a transformed person. I found history amazing, I found Penang amazing, I learned different ways of learning history, I learned to be inclusive of people, I learned that I very much enjoy performing, I learned humility, I learned to work with people of different ages and ethnic groups, and most of all, I had fallen in love with Penang.

People around me see me as “the Penang girl”. Some would claim that I’m the unofficial Penang tourism rep for always being so gung-ho about Penang. I am the unpaid tour guide for my non-Penang friends because I am almost always so willing to show them around.

I am so Penang that one can take me out of Penang but they can’t take the Penang out of me. Oh do ask my friends…

Now, we have the learning of our national history in place but what I find missing is the learning of our local history. If you are from Banting, what do you know about Banting’s history? If you are from Ipoh, what do you know about Ipoh’s history? If you are from Kulim, what do you know about Kulim’s history?

This is basically what Arts-Ed, the NGO trapped in the recent Balik Pulau controversy, does. Or at least what they have done for me. Through them, I learned the value of local history.

For people unfamiliar with the “Arts-Ed” style of executing a project, Arts-Ed works with young people in creative ways. Things one does not get do do in school.

We use cameras to take pictures, produce photo exhibitions, shoot and edit videos, compose lyrics from interviews, create dance moves through observation of people’s movements, perform history of the common people, produce booklets and newsletter, carry out visits and tours.

I learned that history is not limited to textbooks and history experts but what the average layperson experiences and remembers are also part of history.

There are stories and legends about the place we live that we can never read from books.

Things like coolies running to the port with their handcarts to carry sacks of spices, that they were paid 50 sen for each bag they carried, the system of loading and unloading goods from the ship to the boat, the ‘stairway’ arrangements of the sacks, and that the head of the coolies were called ‘tandaal’, and the division of profit between the coolies and the ‘tandaal’.

History books do not tell me this. Laypeople do.

Arts Ed encourages young people to leave their books and collect stories. These are called oral histories. Stories that are transmitted verbally, that some of us youngsters classify as ‘grandmother stories’, and will be lost when its bearer dies.

And when you learn how cute, distinct, and special the place you live is, that’s when you learn to love the place you live.

This is what Arts-Ed is doing in Balik Pulau. Documenting and presenting oral history of the people of Balik Pulau, preserving them so that the younger generation would know, understand, and carry them on.

As a proud graduate of Arts Ed’s projects, it saddens me that the only NGO who gives a voice to young people, who works in creative ways, who educate for free (almost), who believe that everyone has a right to tell their story, and runs on fewer women-power than the number of fingers on your one hand, is now accused of spreading fallacy, a scapegoat and victim of a political agenda.

How irresponsible for people ignorant about the learning of history nor care about them to put Arts Ed in a bad limelight when they themselves are not clear about Arts Ed methodology of education.

Muhammad Farid Saad, here’s a lesson on history. History does not belong to experts. History does not belong to the state.

History belongs to everyone and we all have a say in history (yes, that includes you). Your recollection of history matters just as much as the laksa uncle’s and the aunty jus buah pala’s.

As have been clarified, ‘MyBalikPulau’ is not a textbook and is was not intended to be so, it is but a compilation of oral history. Stories from uncles and aunties.

People whose opinions and memories will never ever appear in the history books just because they are not history experts. Will you deny them a chance to share their history of Balik Pulau?

Though you may never have the chance to be in Arts-Ed’s programs (as they usually only for young people) I hope you will make the effort to learn about Arts-Ed and their ways because they have changed my life.

They have played a major role in shaping who I am today and I hope other children will have the chance to experience what I have experienced.

Someday, should I become the chief minister of Penang, I know that Arts-Ed has started this path for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *