My friend Yap Keng Vui translated all the conversations with Teo Seng Chong, and I have so much to thank him for.
Teo Seng Chong arrived in Sabah in 1986 at the invitation of Tshung Tsin Secondary School (TTSS), to bring Chinese orchestral music into Sabah. He is now Head of Music at TTSS, and today there are ten schools in Sabah with Chinese orchestras; seven independent schools and three primary schools.
Why the Chinese orchestra was formed in Sabah
In 1979 a cultural event took place at the ISTANA palace, in Kota Kinabalu. Dignitaries representing all cultural groups were present. In the Malay performance, dancers were accompanied by musicians playing traditional gongs. In the Kadazan performance, local musicians played sompotons and bamboo flutes. In the Chinese performance, somebody put on a cassette tape which played Chinese music for the dancers.
A Malay minister turned to minister Datuk Chau Tet On (who is Chinese), and asked him, ‘Why are there no live instruments? The Chinese culture is thousands of years old, where is this culture now, in Sabah?’
The Datuk took this to heart. He contacted the Principal of Tshung Tsin school who was, at that time, Datuk Chang Yu On. Both men agreed that this was an important matter. The school must have an orchestra. This was in 1979.
Six years later, TTSS found Teo Seng Chong in Johor, where he was teaching five Chinese school orchestras. Teo was 32 years old when he came to Sabah.
“I loved Chinese music from a very young age. I did not have musical parents, but I listened to the radio, watched all the visiting Chinese opera troupes, and studied the old folk who used to play traditional Chinese instruments.”
As a youth, Teo learnt to play Chinese traditional instruments by himself. He now teaches all the instruments in the Chinese orchestra, since he is Sabah’s only teacher of this music. In Tshung Tsin school, over a hundred children play instruments. He trains the secondary students, so that they can teach the primary ones on Saturdays.
All the first traditional instruments at TTSS came from China. As the only person in Sabah who knows anything about these instruments, Teo has had to learn how to repair them when when they break down, and eventually how to make new ones.
“I have flown to China on a few occasions, to see how the masters of the craft do their work. But it’s difficult to learn. I can only learn by watching, peeking even, because no-one will teach you. This is traditional craftsmanship which is handed down to the children, not to outsiders.
“Because of this, I have had to do a lot of experimenting: it is one thing to learn about the shape and mechanical function of an instrument, it is another thing to learn how to control the sound coming from it.”
Teo approached the heads of the different Chinese Associations, and urged them to form orchestras. They did, and he teaches them all in Mandarin (rather than the local dialects such as Hakka, Hokkien and Foo Chow.)
“In the beginning, it was the old folk who wanted to play in the orchestra. Later, when the young children saw them playing, they started to join in,” Teo said.
A little bit about Chinese orchestral music
Generally, a collection of over 20 musicians can be considered a small orchestra; 100+ would be a large orchestra, Teo said.
One of the main instruments in the orchestra is the Guzheng, or Chinese Harp. It has 21 strings forming notes on the pentatonic scale. The strings are now made of steel with silk or plastic binding. In the days before steel, all strings were made of silk.
A Chinese orchestra has four types of instruments:
Wind instruments. Eg. Chinese flute, Suona, Sheng
Bowed instruments. Eg. Erhu, Gaohu, Zhonghu. Tshung Tsin uses Western Cello and Double Bass for the low range bowing sounds.
Plucked instruments. Eg. Guzheng, Pipa
Percussion. Eg. Gongs, Tympani
I saw music scores where Chinese notation was being transcribed into a Western orchestral score, where 1 = Do, 2 = Re, 3 = Me.
But Teo said this is not genuine Chinese notation. The Western missionaries who went to China wanted to teach the Chinese how to read Western music, to get them to sing hymns. They created musical notation which both cultures could understand: fusion notation!
In 2000, TTSS recorded the first CD of Chinese orchestral music in Sabah, Sentiments of Mount Kinabalu. Among the tracks were orchestral interpretations of Kadazan songs from Sabah, and Rasa Sayang.
Teo Seng Chong’s ongoing quest has been to fuse Sabah’s local music elements into Chinese orchestral works. “Keindahan Kampung”, is just one of his many compositions where characteristics of Sabah’s local music are brought into a Chinese orchestra score.
Teo said cultural exchange is important, and TTSS Chinese orchestra has been to Hong Kong for two consecutive years. It has also been to Taiwan, Shanghai and KL. TTSS has also hosted orchestras from overseas.
Yap Kv actually brought me to the school because Shanghai Sun-Wen-Yan Guzheng Art Studio was performing in the school annual orchestral concert.
In 2005, Teo received the 5th Malaysia Performance Art Heritage Award, an individual achievement award, for his work preserving and perpetuating traditional culture. The event was sponsored by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, and organised by the Hainanese Association of Selangor and Federal Territories.
In the Chinese Orchestra Studio, there is a Chinese painting of a pond, where lots of little tadpoles are swimming, growing into happy frogs. They are making music among the bright flowers blooming everywhere. The biggest frog on the biggest lily pad is of course, The Conductor. The painting was done by a friend inspired to paint about all this musical work.
The picture does say it all: that one man can be the catalyst for so much beautiful music. And The Conductor, what does he say?
I do this, because I love the music. Not because of anything else.Teo Seng Chong