As part of our project spotlighting different societies and events for Asian Heritage Month, we followed members of Queen Mary Malaysian Society as they prepared for their massive end-of-year showcase celebrating Malaysian identity and culture; MNight.
We spoke with members of the cast and crew throughout the process of creating the show – from the dress rehearsals to the backstage preparations and finally the eventual performance on Saturday 18 March.
Zack and Ata
For those who are unfamiliar with the event, the show’s Scriptwriter, Ata explained; “Malaysian Night (or MNight for short) is the crown jewel event under QM Malaysian Society (QMMS). Held annually for one night in early spring, it is widely participated in by QMMS members to foster the spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. The event draws audiences from all around the UK, from Malaysian societies of other UK universities to even non-Malaysians looking to sample some Malaysian culture on stage.”
Ata described his aims for the show; “My goal was to defamiliarise. Basically, see Malaysia in new and interesting ways. As well highlighting our best features yet at the same time, acknowledging our flaws...For us in QM Malaysian Society, MNight offers the chance to manifest that homesickness into a performance to share with the audience.”
A Behind the Scenes Look
The entire team had a jam-packed schedule – with performers and crew all working in the same rehearsal space to prepare for the show. A small but mighty crew worked on set design and props – for many, this was their first time working on a project like this.
Props Team: Nathaniel, Jasminder, Hannah and Kezia
Jasminder, a member of the props team explained; “The props connected all 5 scenes and allowed for both the comedic and more serious elements of the play such as the car which was used to display the story of a heroic rescuer who saved multiple flood victims and to also provide comedic relief during the opening scene.”
A Peak Behind the Curtain
The night of the performance, everyone was buzzing with excitement and nerves – weeks of preparation were coming to fruition.
Kathrina and Hafiz
Hafiz, who worked in lighting described his joy working on the show; “...it was easy to handle with help from Johnny (the technician who stayed with us the whole day) and I was really pleased that everything went smoothly! it’s just nice to work together with people with different, amazing talents with the same goal of putting out a good performance — the experiences, moments from rehearsals to the night of the show are the things that I cherished a lot.”
Kathrina, shared similar thoughts on her work in Music and Sound; “Being part of the sound team was incredibly fascinating and a great learning experience that I was honoured to have. It was a different form of cultural connection that was felt when I saw my MNight team sing the songs I got to choose to represent the play and my culture. Truly, children of Malaysia.”
Aina, Dayanaa and Alya
"As I have no prior experience in theatre makeup, I felt a bit scared to partake in this position. Nevertheless, it turned out okay and everyone looked great for the play,” said Alya, the set’s Makeup Artist. She explained that she joined QMMS to connect with her heritage and home; “Being away from my homeland, I feel grateful to join the Queen Mary Malaysian Society, QMMS as I can meet others who share the same culture and language as me. Being a part of this society gives me a sense of belonging and reduces my homesickness.”
The show spanned over five distinct performances; exploring the natural environment, traditional foods, folklore, politics and the people of Malaysia. These five short stories beautifully depicted Malaysia’s vibrant identity by taking the audience on a journey highlighting Malaysian culture and life.
Part I – Natural Environment
The play opens with a tour of the beautiful natural environment of Malaysia. The narrators, Dahlia and David guide the audience through the lush rainforests and beaches of Malaysia’s tropical landscape. Malaysia boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Masturina, a Crew Member, shared her favourite natural destination in Malaysia, Pulau Perhentian; “This group of islands boasts stunning beaches with crystal-clear waters that showcase vibrant marine life. Snorkeling is one of the best activities to do there, as the coral reefs surrounding the islands provide the perfect opportunity to spot various marine species, including sea turtles, reef sharks, and a rainbow of colorful fish. With its tranquil atmosphere, Pulau Perhentian is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life and offers peace of mind to me.”
Part II – Night Market Foods
The audience is then led to the Pasar Malam, or “Night Market” to experience the wonderful cuisine of Malaysia. One of the protagonists, Maya is taught about the various traditional foods found at these markets.
This scene was a favourite for many, including one of the narrators, Dahlia; “The Pasar Malam scene was undoubtedly the highlight of the performance for me, for it transported me back in time to the cherished memories of my childhood. The vivid depiction of the bustling marketplace, complete with its bright lights and colorful decorations, was a sight to behold, making me miss the food back home and the nostalgic memories.”
Within this scene, the audience was treated to a traditional dance performance, “Tarian Inang” which brought to life the traditional foods discussed. Nadiah, head choreographer and dancer described the process of arranging the dance number to Malay dishes; “...I certainly had concerns about the audiences not being able to envision what we were trying to convey in our dance. It was very difficult to demonstrate three of our national dishes—Roti Canai, Nasi Ayam, and Nasi Lemak—through dancing routines. It presented me with an entirely new creative challenge. I did, however, enjoy coming up with dance formations and motions that relate to the food preparation show. Even though it was an uphill climb, it was definitely rewarding and uplifting to see how much the audiences enjoyed and engaged with our dance. It was a wonderful reminder that we all came from the same background that adore Malaysian culture.”
Not only was the food and dance on display in this scene, but also the bright and colourful wardrobe. Ain, who oversaw wardrobe spent time meticulously curating each character’s clothing, to bring their personalities to life. She noted; “Each of our outfits was designed to represent Malaysian culture and values. We chose a scarlet Nyonya kebaya, a traditional blouse-dress, and batik as the bottom garment for Maya’s character specifically to showcase a cultural icon of our multiracial and multicultural country that has a long history of being tied to Southeastern traditions. Using characters like Danny, Din, Maria, and Gopal, we attempted to depict the genuine contemporary dress of Malaysians.”
Part III – Traditional Folklore
In the third part, the audience is told traditional Malaysian folklore and tales. The protagonist, Maya, played by Dayanaa turns into a mythological creature known as the “Pontiak”. Dayanaa, explained; “...I played Maya, a Pontianak (vampire) that has not been outside or socialising with people for so long, that she doesn’t even know the famous dishes of Malaysia, such as Nasi Lemak, Chicken Rice and Roti Canai. But, because I lack acting skills and had to act as a character with an entirely different personality than I did, I found it pretty challenging to act enthusiastically about the food I have eaten my whole life.”
The wardrobe for this scene was a cast favourite; “We love crafting costumes for the Pontianak, who is thought to be the most terrifying spirit in Malaysian folklore. It was challenging at first because we had to be creative working with unconventional materials to create the costume from scratch, but it was fun. The experience was entertaining and memorable at the same time as we witnessed the characters come to life in the costumes we deliberately selected,” said Ain.
Additionally, the props were crucial as Jasminder explained; “In order to make the Penanggalan scene come to life, we created a fake body-like feature using just a broom and some yarn which was showcased behind the projector. The Penanggalan is a female vampire-like creature who has a detached head. Her story is embedded in Malaysian folklore and recognised by many Malaysians...”
Part IV – Malaysian Politics
In the fourth part, the audience is joined by two rival politicians who are trying to win the hearts of Malay voters. As the show’s producer, Marsya explains, the political landscape in Malaysia is a significant and timely aspect of Malaysian identity; “In 2022, Malaysia held its 15th general election, and we aimed to reflect that in our production. Though a non-partisan society, we still believe it’s important to educate students on the political landscape of the country. With that, the political scene in the play faced the most adversity as we were trying to convey it in a lighthearted manner to the audience, which wouldn’t have happened without the cast members involved.”
“My favourite makeup look was for the politician actors as I have to make them look older than their current age,” said Alya. However, this scene didn't come without its challenges, as the show’s Director Alina noted; “I think the most interesting to direct was the political scene due to the acting required by the cast is really intentional. All the small switches of intonation and movement were critical to tell a story.”
Ultimately, the political scene offered a poignant and highly comedic insight into the political system of Malaysia – conveying the drama, strategy and bargaining involved in the complex political system. The skit gained lots of laughs and even inspired some audience participation!
Part V – The Malay People
The final skit offered a glimpse into the Malaysians heroes who helped victims during the 2021 floods. The performers movingly acted out the heroic efforts and actions of everyday Malaysians. Nathaniel recounted; “Yeah, those are true stories...Where Abang Viva went to a flood scene with his rubber boat to rescue stranded victims of the flood and one of them being a woman and her baby. And the other is when the couple cancelled their wedding and redirected their catering to the flood victims instead. Those are just some prime examples of the unity of Malaysians at times of need. But there are more unsung heroes in cases like these and it is never short of helping hands. When I come across these hero stories, I always think that this is who Malaysians fundamentally are and make me proud to be one.”
A Night of Celebrations
The show ended with a lively cast and crew singalong of the very popular Malaysian song, “Saya Anak Malaysia” which loosely translates to “I am a Malaysian”. Many young Malaysians recall singing this song throughout their childhood. “It’s one of the songs we sing every year during Merdeka (Malaysian Independence Day) and our school days...Everyone knows the lyrics and sings it with all our heart. In my opinion, it expresses our patriotism and pride to be a born and bred Malaysian,” recalled Nathaniel.
When asked about what they thought of the event, cast and crew were thrilled with the turnout and hype around the night. The pride and excitement reverberated through to the audience which was made up of friends and families as well as people from varying backgrounds who came to learn more about Malaysian culture. The shared joy was infectious, and everyone was excited to celebrate the night’s success.
Normala, the show’s Stage Manager, was especially excited with the outcome of the show; “The event was a resounding success in my opinion, as the number of tickets sold increased rapidly in recent weeks, and the audience was engaged and supportive. When someone told me after watching the game that they missed Malaysia, it was like a dream come true. This accomplishment would not have been possible without the help of a lot of cast members and the functioning committee. Our TikTok video went viral as well, highlighting how QMUL has an iconic graveyard, which may have contributed to our MNight’s success.”
Dahlia and Normala
Hannah, who was part of the crew, remarked the lack of manpower posed a challenge for the team; “...QMMS compared to other UoL MSoc’s is much smaller, but MNight is a flagship event that QM has been taking part in for years so there was a lot of pressure to put on a show as grand as our other London counterparts — even though many of us were not sure if that was possible. But we pulled through. Members from every department contributed on stage, makeup and wardrobe as extras, props handling stage management, even the production team ended up on stage with a song! So we were all spread quite thin, which was rather tiring but super worth it in the end.”
Despite numerous challenges and countless tiring hours spent on creating this production, the excellent work and incredible turnout proved worth it for all involved.
Aina, one of the show’s performers reflected; “Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to buy tickets for our MNight...I was really nervous taking a part in it, as it was my first experience being in a play. By the end of the day, I was happy that our unique Malaysian culture was presented in an extraordinary manner. I'm glad I decided to be a part of MNight, an experience to be fond of.”
Alina added, “Malaysia’s rich cultural diversity is something I'm very proud of and being able to showcase it to others has been a highlight of MNight for me. I personally, hope that more people can learn about Malaysian culture and those Malaysians living abroad can have a place that reminds them of home wherever they are.”