I went to watch Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! with a close friend. We both more or less belong to the urban elite English-speaking Klang Valley demographic, and we were both a little worn out by the end. The play had gone on too long, we said, a common problem of local musicals, and why was the tech so poorly run that we couldn’t understand a lot of the text, and what were they actually trying to say, we said. The rest of the audience in the stalls, however, had come out in force to support the artistes, and had laughed often and applauded warmly. As we filed out, I thought about the difference between my reaction and the rest of the audience’s. Apt, as the musical is about the perceived differences between groups of people.

Chow Kit Road!

Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! (All pics in this post © Huneid Tyeb)

This show definitely seemed like a very well-run production. Masakini Theatre had it together enough to obtain sufficient sponsors and hire highly-trained professionals, which cannot be taken for granted. Their publicity team was very competent so their media presence was strong, and despite having to cut down on sets, they pulled off the show despite the abhorrent withdrawal of many of said sponsors. This cannot have been easy, and producer Sabera Shaik and her team have much to be proud of.

In an interview with Shanthini Venugopal and cowriter/director Saw Teong Hin on Sparkle With Nell, host Nell Ng pointed out that everyone in the show could sing, and how important that was. The show’s main strength was that it had very good personnel, on and off-stage. Each of the main cast were strong singers and funny, committed actors. They could really belt out those Sudirman songs. The ensemble displayed a strong, warm camaraderie. This is slightly severe. It really, really should not be quite so big a shock to see that the entire company are strong performers, but there have just been too many musicals where that is simply not the case.

Each of the main cast were strong singers and funny, committed actors. They could really belt out those Sudirman songs.”

Unlike other jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and All Shook Up, the plot was not merely an inconvenient vehicle to uncomfortably cram hits into. The story was thoughtfully conceived, and tried to be about interesting and relevant things such as identity, class, family values and generally the differences that we perceive between ourselves and others. In execution, it was like a mix between the My Fair Lady story and a cerekarama.

A synopsis may help here. The people at Chow Kit Road lambast a clique of hypocritical Datins who try to photo-opportunistically ‘help’ them with some old clothes or cash. Datin Jamilah (Adibah Noor) feels guilty then engages in a bet – if she successfully coaches uncouth dreamer Ilham (Anding Indrawani) supaya Menjadi Orang, thereby somehow proving that the people are worth helping, her frenemies will pay for a community centre. The finishing line for Ilham is to change so convincingly that a society girl falls for him. She succeeds, but her daughter Maya (Nadia Aqilah Bajuri) is the romantic casualty, so Datin Jamilah’s prejudice emerges and she kicks him out after he wows society and wins her bet.


The world of entitled socialites — infiltrated by Ilham

In the meantime, he has forgotten his roots and alienated his old friends and his mother, a sex worker with traditional values named Jelita (Junji Delfino). Datin Jamilah and Maya come to terms after Datin explains that as an ex-dangdut dancer and a second wife she fears for Maya’s security, but Maya wants to make her own decisions. So they go back to Chow Kit to throw money at the people who then run around searching for Ilham, who they still love because “Chow Kit Tak Menghukum”. They find him in a ramshackle lean-to feeling very remorseful and bring him back, and he apologises to his mother who then reveals that his father is the local drug-addict Tokoo (Tony Eusoff). His parents reconcile when it becomes clear that he left her because of addiction, not because he didn’t love her, and then Ilham tears up the cheque the Datin gave him and everyone builds the community center on their own steam.

(© Huneid Tyeb)

Shanthini Venugopal (second from right) played Dimple, a transsexual woman.

“Every thought needed more fleshed-out context.”

It got pretty confusing. There were too many side elements that were not anchored by a strong basic story, so they couldn’t really delve into the issues they were touching since every thought needed more fleshed-out context.

There were many character inconsistencies — Datin Jamilah is first excited and encouraging when she detects Maya’s feelings for Ilham, saying she remembers when she went through this herself, but then she throws him out violently. Was she manipulating her daughter so she would win the bet? As a second wife, wouldn’t she have been aware of the ‘danger’ right from the start? Later on, when she relents, would she really let Maya marry out of the lifestyle she fought for? Changes in characters are what stories are about, but if they’re so extreme they have to be really intricately constructed to convince.

So the characters not too well-defined, and the conflicts in the story started coming out of nowhere. The structure of the story was weakened and there were unnecessary parts. The Jelita and Tokoo storyline emerged after the musical felt like it was going to naturally conclude, tacking on twenty extra minutes. The script was ambitious in many positive ways but needed a lot of revisions and dramaturgy. Of course, the industry is such that local companies probably never have the resources needed to really draft scripts, workshop them and take them to out-of-town trial locations before opening the big production.


Tokoo drunkenly relies on Dimple for support

“The practices that were employed by Masakini for the production should certainly be considered a very strong example to be followed.”

A tighter, more finely crafted script would have boosted everything else that the production succeeded in. There were many things that were admirable – the fact that it opens by criticising the rich’s use of the ‘noble poor’ as playthings is remarkable. They put drug addicts, transsexuals and sex workers on stage as real people. The entire script was in Malay where more than half of the cast and crew are normally associated with English-language theatre, which is apt for a play about perceived divisions. There were no traces of the West is Best mentality, and it touched on some quite difficult topics. Hopefully, the writers will have the opportunity to revisit this in the future, but even though the story of Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! still needs a lot of work, the practices that were employed by Masakini for the production should certainly be considered a very strong example to be followed.

Disclaimer: This production of Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! is a recipient of the Grant to Reduce Production Costs, facilitated by Kakiseni.