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Chaos and Cacophony at Chow Kit

For better or worse, the Chow Kit Fest resembles the glorious mess of the lawless district

by Pang Khee Teik, 14-05-2002

Art lecturer Tan Sei Hon's wall of gaudy dreamscapes transforms the Chinese Dramatic Arts Society into a hippie factory

The Chow Kit Fest, originally scheduled for December, then March, then April, finally hauled itself off on Labour Day, with half its purported participants, but twice the vigour from the remnants. The five-day event featured every artistic genre but synchronised swimming. The main shows were staged at the Chinese Dramatic Arts Society (CDAS), strangely located within the Malay-nucleus of Kampung Baru, while the street performances were held in an alley off Chow Kit Road itself. One had to traipse gingerly amidst the bright bazaars, unlit alleys and bullying roads to get from one site to the other.

No chicken was harmed at this cult meeting

The best attended event was the underground bands showcase over the weekend afternoons. Organised by Joe Kidd of Carburetor Dung, the featured bands have names like Mass Separation, Killed by Accident and Global Deficiency. Their grindcore / punkcore / punkmetal / trashmetal music blended into one another after awhile, but the well-behaved crowd seemed to appreciate the subtle differences. At about 5pm on Sunday, however, someone ran into the building screaming, “Polis! Polis!” Three police trucks had indeed begun to circle the area. The hallway, which was packed with former victims of official harassment during the black metal raids, was cleared in seconds. They didn’t know of course that the cops were here on a regular roundup of illegal immigrants. Joe Kidd, who is himself too familiar with official harrassments, grabbed the mike and appealed: “Hey, revolutionaries, come back, come back!” Most did. And when they finally convinced the band who had been playing to go on again, they realised the lead guitarist had fled home for good.

Yes! Yes! Oh yes!! Poet Aziz comes in messy noisy flashy spurts

While the rock gigs gave the much misunderstood audience a warm fuzzy feeling, the presentation called Sakuragi Is A Genius, a brainchild of poet Aziz, did just the opposite and scared everyone away. The musicians miked a vacuum cleaner, sampled sounds from their computers, and banged, sawed and grinded a steel drum. Besides cathartic cacophony, they also produced a life-threatening amount of fire-works and fumes. While it received morbid fascination for awhile, the spectacle eventually cleared the premise as effectively as the false police raid alarm.

Yoong Chia: I sew dead people

The small performance space of the CDAS was obviously not designed for art exhibitions. But that didn’t stop the organisers from haphazardly arranging artworks of varying standards around the walls. Tan Sei Hon’s panels, consisting of 84 sheets filled intensely detailed patterns (like a Persian carpet on LSD), stood out on sheer magnitude. The most poignant and unlikely exhibit came in the form of an artist sewing portraits of faces he had cut out from obituary pages as he sat in the same corner every day. Calling his work a performance art (the process of creating itself becomes a performance), Malaysian Institute of Art graduate Yoong Chia explained to everyone who came near enough, “This is my tribute to people I have never met before and will never meet again.”

Juliana Yasin makes slipper prints where angels fear to tread

The short film and documentary screenings drew a small audience and was lucky to maintain their interest all the way. On Thursday night, a chap who walked in out of curiosity came in time for Kakoos by Shunmugam. Wincing continuously throughout the candid depiction of a day in the life of a public toilet, the poor chap ran out halfway grabbing his knapsack and his mouth. On Sunday afternoon, however, Amir Muhammad arrived toward the end of his movie Lips to Lips and was pleased to find 15 suckers staring at the end credits.

Jaywalkers Anonymous doing a group hug in the middle of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman

Singaporean artist Juliana Yasin made better use of her suckers. Having dragged us out to the other site at Chow Kit Road, she then got us to make slipper prints in the middle of the lane, as well as cross Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman as a large unit bundled up with threads. Most of this audience, who gleefully endangered their life for art, consisted of college students and other friends of the organisers and performers.

Restoran Hinowo: We sell everything but the girl. (Murals by the organisers of the Chow Kit Fest.)

Within this alley off Chow Kit Road, an art installation piece had been set in the backyard of an electronic store. It was put up by members of the architect collective Space Spirit Studio. Their work featured a concatenation of square frames with plastic sheets, each depicting a deconstructed tourist map of Chow Kit. There were also TV screens showing a documentary they made very recently about drug addicts in the area. On the last day, the artists, with funereal deliberations, took down the frames and the sheets of photostated papers stuck to the walls, as well as removed the videotape from the VCR. Then they lit the pile as a bonfire and recited a poem: “Do we still just hang paintings to understand its silent pain and bitterness?… Do we still just sing a tune to say ‘I know how your hurt feels’?… Do we still just choose to perpetuate these cycles of indulgence for ourselves to exist?” (sic). Oh dear, I thought, do we still just make points about the pointlessness of art by making our art seemingly pointless?

Caecar Chong of Space Spirit Studio self-destructs his deconstructed artwork in slow motion

I suppose the intended audience was precisely those of us familiar enough to be jaded by such artsy stuff. Which meant it probably left the real inhabitants of Chow Kit cold. Didn’t the members of the artist collective Spacekraft, the main organisers, say they wanted to make arts “easily accessible and enjoyable by the general public”? After talking to some passersby who are not friends of the performers, I found that most of them hardly understood English. A Chinese businessman, while witnessing the above act, said in Cantonese, “Lots of them in this area. Outside on the main road, there is this guy trying to convince people he can turn newspaper into money. They are all just cons.”

The blase denizens of Chow Kit waiting for Caecar Chong to magically transform his artwork into money. One of them shrugs and says to me, "Cari makan sampai ini macam?"

Not all was lost. By an accident of fate, our artists tapped into that dark surreal quality of Chow Kit one humid night. We were watching the drug documentary at the electronic store backyard and feeling great waves of compassion for those individuals telling their stories onscreen. Just outside the gates, a lady with a large mole on her nose had stopped to watch as well. A young woman in red sari was being interviewed in the documentary. At which point the lady with the mole informed us matter-of-factly, “Oh that one, she just died two weeks ago. In one of the lanes at the back. She was trying to poke here,” and she pointed at the left side of her neck. There wasn’t much you could say to that. And it was out of this awkward silence that I wished our artists had crafted their works.

Theatre folks feeling moved as they watch the interviews with drug addicts

Though they were understandably self-indulgent and insular this round, the idea and the intention behind the festival had been remarkable. And the two guys, Tan Sei Hon and Gan Siong King, on whom the responsibility ultimately fell when people started shirking their roles should be applauded for seeing the festival to the bitter end. The greatest success of the Chow Kit Fest had, in fact, been in drawing people who otherwise will not come to this god-forsaken terrain to witness the startling humanity of the place for themselves. So I hope they do it again next year. A little more organisation, a little more publicity and perhaps a little more attempt at speaking the vernacular will take it a long way. Maybe they ought to take the implicit suggestion of the Chinese businessman and put up their shows next to Chow Kit’s roadside peddlers. You want to bring art to Chow Kit? You have to match the skills of her veteran artists first.

Chow Kit Fest website:


Photos by Pang

User Comments

Punky Captions, Captain Pang! (Wed, May 15 2002 13:23:57)

Hey, your captions have become a veritable artform, Pangkhee! A hearty slap on the back to Sei Hon and Sing Kiong for believing in themselves - and the residents of Chow Kit.

posted by Antares

Oh, man (Wed, May 15 2002 14:15:17)

Shucks, wish I could've been there

posted by Hubris

Sounds better than Nuovo on Saturdays! (Wed, May 15 2002 16:37:09)

Your column made me want to be there. Definitely looking forward to next year's fest - provided they actually let people know about it!
BTW, the high-Chinese population wary of conmen...are you sure you were not talking about Nuovo?

posted by Takpayahnama

Huuyoh! In Chow Kit some more! (Wed, May 15 2002 19:48:32)

Good shots and spunky write-up - will belanja you tea and masala thosai. Who would have thought that this could be pulled off. Can't wait for next year so I hope Sei Hon and Sing Kiong aren't too sick of all the shenanigans that went on and those that flaked out on them!

posted by Toni

thank u..... (Fri, May 17 2002 18:57:25)

thanks for sending me this mail... :)
later i and alvin were do some more graffiti art at there, hope still got place for us.... ^_^

posted by joe

just 4 d record.. (Fri, May 17 2002 23:16:51)

yo!! really good write up u did for the 'fest'. and really sorrylah if the fest was not so properly organized. will definitely do better next time. For the record, me and gan were not the only ones who work our butts off to get the fest going..alot of people who came and contributed freely deserves the credit. plus, it's not really correct to state that Spacekraft is THE main organizer. We only suggested the idea and tried to get interested parties to participate and contribute as equals on a pro-bono basis. Those who did, really got the fest going. We deeply appreciate A.P.A'(artis/pro/ativ)'s generous sponsorship to help get the fest started, and KLUE magazine for the sponsorship of media space.And kaki-seni too for reviewing the 'aftermath' of the fest.(it's not glamorous enoughla for the mainstream media i guess). Btw, to those who missed the 'fest', why not start one yourself!! Get participants and co-organize!! Maybe a Brickfields fest/ PetalingStreet fest or what not. Lets do stuff and have some fun!!!!!!!

posted by seihon

Responsibility Smchesponsibility (Sat, May 18 2002 14:20:59)

Hey Sei Hon
Thanks for the note. I understand that you believe this project was organised in tandem with others. But as I spoke to other supposed co-organisers, most of them seem to refer to Spacekraft as sort of the main organ among the organisers. This was inevitable -- though nobody said it such -- it seemed implied by the others that the responsibility lies with the people who first came up with the idea. In other words, people were looking for, maybe not a leader, but at least a wire on which all things hang. But then, Spacekraft, being obstinate about this being a co-organised thing, kept moving to the side. In the end though, and this was why I mentioned you and Gan, you were both forced to shoulder most of the crap anyway, either because you realised somebody's got to do the dirty job, or you just felt protective of your baby. But you did it.
I think part of the reason why Chow Kit fest is a mess is that nobody wanted to take charge until too late. I suppose it doesn't even have to be Spacekraft. But I seriously suggest that you all have a group who for a few months will do nothing but eat and shit Chow Kit Fest. Of course, they will need to be filthy rich or heavily sponsored.
In any case, as always, I am in awe of your sheer chutzpah and fuc' 'em attitude. A great start. I foresee the future of Chow Kit Fest as a Lollapalooza meet Mardi Gras.
By the way, thanks for letting me have my fifteen minutes (maybe more!) on stage.

posted by pang

choket (Thu, May 23 2002 16:13:24)

dude s its nice to see that the young ambitious artists have taken to their heel at organising this, but the whole point of this sherade seems nothing more than a way of avertising your spacekraft.
the true chilling reality is that things will always be the same so make your name while you can maybe with tremendous help from our cocky veteran artists make lots of money while doing it .art sold out a long time ago.publicity is never going to help those poor souls by the streets

posted by std