Cynthia Wee-Hoefer reminisces on her personal encounters with an artistic genius
I met the late Mr Gwee Peng Kwee during the twilight of his life. He was 81 years old, trapped with weakened limbs and dimming eyesight but his mind was brilliant with memories of his youth, his passion for music and dance, and most of all, his superlative gift of composing dondang sayang verses.
It started with an interview I had with a notable Baba on Peranakan Chinese New Year customs for the then Straits Times Section Two. Mr Gwee challenged one point on the nasi kunyit tradition which was mentioned in the feature by writing me a letter. This led me to question him further on subjects of Peranakan interest as he was already renowned among the Babas and Nyonyas as the doyen of dondang sayang singers.
I would, over a period of three years and armed with a tape recorder, attend to his summons as I focussed on the early carefree days of minstrel groups, Peranakan drama groups, and his wit and mastery of the Malay language that epitomised a great dondang sayang bard.
Not many of my generation would have had the opportunity of witnessing a dondang sayang session. Musicians and singers are normally assembled in a circle while the non-participants follow every pantun or verse along the perimeter. The set-up is casual with audiences moving in and out with food and drinks and children scrambling at the adults’ feet.
First, there is the unmistakeable lead-to strain of the violin, a pause, and the opening couplet by a singer, male or female, followed by the musical accompaniment of a gong and a couple of rebanas (side drums).
This refrain offers the singer a moment to refine the composition of the remaining two lines which hold the substance of the verse. There is clapping and exclamation of appreciation or mock disdain all round as the words are fully comprehended.
Then someone takes up the challenge of the verse and signals to the others his readiness to banter verse with verse, always in keeping with the theme offered. Sometimes a pantun is directed to an individual to test his mettle. Compliments or sarcasm are given in metaphors that the young or ininitiated might not catch.
This poetic banter can go on for hours, the tension and laughter made all the more merry with stengahs of whisky or mugs of beer to clear the throat and loosen the tongue. Sometimes the subject matter can be ribald when not in mixed company. At other times, as Gwee recounted, there were tears and singing as when he brought a group together for his brother’s funeral in 1972.
The subject of the pantun can be on love, budi (virtue) and death. Silver and gold, the sun and moon, trees, fruits, birds, animals and food are metaphors used in the pantun.
Gwee’s early entry into the esteemable group of pantun singers was memorable. In fact it was a downright humiliation. The taunt came like a slingshot.
Mabok daun, buah nya tak ’da,
Buak ka-semak, di ramai-nya indah.
(Full of leaves but no fruits,
You are an encumbrance to the beautiful garden.)
Quick on the mark, young Gwee thought up his repartee.
Ini tahun tak berbuah,
Lain tahun berbuah lagi.
(If I don’t bear fruit this year, I’ll flower next year,
And when I flower, then there will be fruits.)
His biggest move into the world of dondang sayang came when Gwee moved to Carpmael Road in Katong, heartland of the Peranakans. The Gunong Sayang Association was just a few doors away from his house which he had not realised. Standing by a telephone post, he heard the familiar voices of his uncle and cousin who spotted him and promptly invited him to a party.
‘The next day, there was a satay party. I enjoyed the satay and after that we sat around and listened. I had heard dondang sayang before but I had never sung a pantun. Sure, I knew a few pantuns, every Baba has a few in his repertoire. My uncle gave me a few verses which I memorised a few minutes later. After a while I beat them hollow. I learned quick.’
At the age of 40 Gwee joined the Gunong Sayang Association. He was the youngest pantun-singing member out of a handful of old-timers.
‘You must have a good command of the Malay language — its proverbs, idioms and expressions. I ate, slept and dreamt dondang sayang. I learned my Malay through the unabridged dictionary by R.O. Winstedt. From there I formed my pantuns,’ Gwee recalled.
Chempedak di-luar pagar,
Ambil galar tolong jolok-kan;
Saya budak baru belajar,
kalau salah, tolong tunjuk-kan.
(The chempedak fruit is outside the fence,
Bring me the bamboo pole, help pull down the fruit;
I am a boy who is still learning,
If I am wrong please show me the way.)
Budak-budak di-luar pagar,
Ambil galah, jolok kelapa,
Budak-budak baru belajar,
Kalau salah, tak ’ kenapa.
(Children outside the fence,
Take the bamboo pole and pluck the coconut;
Newcomers are just learning,
Nevermind if they falter.)
Challenges soon came his way.
‘I was at a wedding party with the dondang sayang players and I was invited to sing. A Malay gentleman agreed to start the singing and another from the party must reply. He directed himself at me: “Encik nyanyi dulu. Saya jawab.”
‘I was struck, I blushed. The music was playing and the audience urged me to reply. It was shameful. The Malay gentleman was asking:
Baba pandeh, saya tanya:
Bulan berjalan, mana kaki-nya?
(Baba is clever, so I ask of you:
The moon moves but where are its legs?)
The moon moves not a length of padi,
The clouds move, the world revolves;
The moon moves through the power of God
The snake crawls, where are his feet?’
So profound an answer was given that soon Gwee’s formidable reputation as a stylish pantun composer grew.
During the peak of pantun singing, competition was rife with contests held in Malacca and Singapore. Gwee was equally proud to say that he had coached some Malay singers with his original work. Occasionally, he sent a few verses to the local radio station for broadcasting. Later, he viewed with disdain the decline of dondang sayang as he watched prepared pantuns sung by singers for the televised dondang sayang programmes.
Mr Gwee passed away in 1986 leaving behind about 7,000 handwritten pantuns, most of which were his own compositions, in specially bound volumes. The majority of the verses have not been published.