Joanna Funk

music, gardening and my dog

4AG – Chinese heavy metal

For Aggressive Gentlemen (4AG) is a Chinese heavy metal band. Actually it’s the only one in Kota Kinabalu. I was in Razz Ma Tazz nightclub with my husband Mike. 4AG were playing. I knew nothing about metal and it all sounded like feedback and noise to me.

“Don’t be like that,” Mike (a metal fan) said .

“Open your ears and listen to what they are playing.”

I did. They were playing that middle bit in Highway Star – I later learned it’s an organ part – so the two 4AG guitarists had doubled up to play it, and it’s fast! They were so perfectly in sync.

Then they did the most amazing song I’d ever heard: One Night in Beijing, which they explained was an old Chinese opera-style song, only their version was metal.

Metal and Chinese opera – two firsts in a night. I knew I wanted to talk to these guys.

4AG KK’s Chinese Metal Band!

There is NOTHING ordinary about 4AG. For Aggressive Gentlemen stands alone as the only full-on Chinese heavy metal band in Kota Kinabalu. When they play, it’s like Hell woke up and set their instruments on fire.

For Aggressive Gentlemen – 4AG – Battle Of The Band 2009 winners

So. Just who are 4AG?
Lim Sheng Haw – Guitars and second vocal
Alvin Chin Chong Chuang – Lead guitar
Kurt Chin Chong Lim – Drums
Alex Kwok Yung Fui – Bass
Tien Wah Keng Hyen – Vocals

On the one hand, they’re just ordinary guys: local Chinese guys from KK who went to Kian Kok Secondary school.

They have a variety of jobs: selling cars, mobile phones, fixing photocopier machines, there’s a sound engineer and a graphic artist. None of them took music lessons from a young age in any serious way, and they started playing their instruments around 16.

So how come they became an incredibly professional band? That’s not ordinary.

Wait. They’re a Chinese band, right? So they must play soft pop music with easy chords, and sing these sad, romantic songs about broken hearts and stuff like that? Wrong.

It’s very unusual! People think that Chinese bands can only play songs which are lame: simple and zero-skills kind of songs. We don’t want to play that kind of thing. It’s boring. I can put it this way: those soft pop bands play to be popular and famous, they aim for the cash. We do it for fun, not for cash.

Tien Wah Keng – vocals

4AG plays functions too.

Guitarist Haw said, “It was not really our plan. Then five years ago, someone asked whether we could play for a function. We just gave it a try. We got good feedback. So, we learned some mainstream rock, which is more acceptable for functions – like Bon Jovi, Pop Shuvit, FireHouse, Roxette.”

But when they play for themselves, it’s always metal.

“Always! We like it a lot! Now, we have been offered lots of things. Last Chinese New Year, Maxis asked us to play Chinese New Year Eve, and DBKK asked us to play at City Hall.”

We are not that famous in the Chinese community. But we play Chinese songs which are famous, and we change the arrangement of the songs. We make it heavy. We try and make all the Chinese songs sound heavy. This way we like it (because it’s heavy) and you like it (because you recognise the song).

Tien Wah Keng

They’ve been playing together on and off since school.

“In the beginning, we just admired the other kids, we admired guys that played in bands. After we picked up our instruments, it was like: This is really cool! We realized that it’s fun. Pure fun!”

Haw learnt guitar when he was about 17, a bit from his father and lessons from friends. The band’s lead guitarist Alvin had a few lessons on piano in Primary 1. He took up the guitar at 14, completely self-taught.

Singer Tien said, “Actually when we started this, I was the drummer, he (Kurt) was the bassist , and Haw was the guitarist.”

Pointing at Alex, their current bass player, Tien said, “This guy is a real late bloomer! He only picked up the guitar five years ago! He never listened to heavy metal, he never listened to rock. He never played an instrument before. We totally corrupted him.”

Haw said Alex’s wife and parents are a bit worried about him.

“It’s the very clichéd thing about rock music, because they associate it with bad people.” But I looked at this baby-faced kid, and thought: Nah!

Kota Kinabalu night markets, Chinese New Year 2009

4AG played at Halo Café a few months ago, in Jonathan Tse’s My Story #3. Halo Café is a small, intimate venue.

“Actually, that day I was a bit nervous,” admitted Tien.

“All of us were nervous!” added Haw. “The audience was so close, and the stage area was ground level. Not a raised stage.”

I asked them if they could hear the surprise and appreciation when the band struck up.

“Yeah, it was great. I guess it’s unusual. You don’t normally see a Chinese band playing Highway Star.”

My husband Mike and I first saw 4AG play at Razz Ma Tazz in September 2009.

“4AG had entered Battle of the Bands 2009 organized by AADK (Agensi Antidadah Kebangsaan, the national anti-drug Agency),” Tien said. “We got second place, out of I think 16 or 17 bands. But I want to clarify this, out of these 17 bands, we were the only Chinese band. All of them are Kadazans and Malays. We were the only pure Chinese band in there.”

We are a minority. We play to a mixed crowd and mostly it’s non-Chinese audience. In this heavy metal band area, the Malays are much more supportive of the music than the Chinese. We do have lot of Chinese come out and support us, because they are our friends. But actually, they don’t like our music.

Lim Sheng Haw, guitarist and vocalist

4AG likes doing covers.

“We like to do cover songs because people know them. It’s familiar to them, gets them going better.”

Haw thinks the band knows more American music than UK music, because American media is everywhere here, like MTV.

“The only British bands we know are Beatles, Deep Purple, and Iron Maiden,” he said.

The guys in 4AG don’t aim to be musicians full-time. They have jobs and families. But they take their musicianship seriously.

“When we learn a new song, we agree the chord (key),” said Haw.

“Everybody goes home and listens to the song, and learns their part. After that, we come back together and jam. Sometimes we go to Kurt’s place, because he has a basic set up at his house. If we need a full practice with mics and everything, we go to a studio. We practice once a week, every Sunday. Sometimes we call each other the day before, and decide: You play the high voice and I’ll play the low one. Things like that.”

So even if you don’t become a full-time musician, it’s still important to have music in your life?

Yes! Haw said: “Unless they’re paying us crazy amounts of money, then it might be a different case, but for us, this is only for leisure. But music is good to have in life. You don’t just stay home after work, at least you have something you can do. Play music!”

Drummer Kurt and bassist Alex are parents now. I asked them how important it was to them whether their children learn music?

Tien translated for Alex.

He said there’s an old Chinese saying like: If a child knows music, he doesn’t go evil, he doesn’t become a bad person.

Haw translated for Kurt.

Kurt says music means there is something else to do, besides work. Of course music will also build up his son’s confidence, because to perform is also to train oneself to have confidence. So, that is what he wants his kid to learn: to have confidence, and also to have something else in life apart from a proper job; to have a hobby.

Haw said Kurt likes the idea of his son learning piano.

Kurt wiggled his outstretched fingers and Tien added, “He says it’s like high class!”

Alex said he will introduce music to his kid, but leave it up to him whether he wants to learn or not. A liberal parent!

Haw summarised 4AG’s goals:
To keep having fun
To break down barriers – that is, what Chinese bands are perceived to be
To perform.

We’re always looking for a place to perform. If you stay at home, people don’t know who you are. It’s a good feeling to perform for people. It’s a whole different feeling. We like that.

Thank you, 4AG. It’s a wrap!

[Excerpt from: Funk, Joanna. SabahSongs: Contemporary Music in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2013. 17-19. Print.] The story was first published in SabahSongs before the blog became a book.

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About Joanna

Joanna is British Australian. She worked mainly in financial news in London. In her forties she moved to her parents’ birthplace, Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where she became a pianist in a hotel and wrote a blog about musicians. The blog became a book before Joanna came to Australia in 2012. In this blog she writes mostly about music, gardening, and trips to Sabah. Oh, and Wookie the Havanese.

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