Wong Kit Yaw has built a strong reputation as a Chinese dance master, yet, he has never forgotten to add a Malaysian twist to his choreography.
2021 marked more than 30 years of Kit Yaw’s experience in Chinese folk dance, an indication of the Kampar-born’s dedication and love for this traditional art.
He has also actively taught Chinese folk dance and choreography across schools and universities in Malaysia.
Apart from being the director of his own company – The Performing Arts of Todern, he is also a familiar face in Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA) and Universiti Malaya (UM).
During my online interview with him on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Kit Yaw appeared fresh and jovial as excitedly shared his journey as a dancer and choreographer in Chinese dance.
As a young child in kindergarten, Kit Yaw was given the chance to play a minor role in a Chinese opera performance.
He was fascinated by the colourful costumes and staging of the show, casting the first imprints of his interest in Chinese dance.
Later, in primary school, he again took part in a dance drama show called entitled “The Little White Rabbit”.
Kit Yaw landed the part of the monkey, a character that assists the protagonist to fight against a pack of wolves.
As a teenager in secondary school, a senior classmate taught him a simple choreography of the Chinese Stick Dance.
These seemingly ordinary moments were his first brushes with Chinese dance that were memorable instances that likely shaped his interest.
“I remember, once I became a senior in school, I began teaching my own dance movements to my peers and juniors. I did this even though I had no specific knowledge about dance!,” Kit Yaw said as he laughed at the seeming mischief he had pulled over his fellow school mates.
Ironically, when Kit Yaw began to feel inspired to pursue dance seriously, he was not learning a dance of Chinese origin but Indian.
At the time in the late 1970s, he had moved from Teluk Intan to Kuala Lumpur, and joined the Cultural Club of the Hokkien Association.
That is where he learned several Indian dances from his teacher during that time – Shun Sian Zhao.
He began to spend almost every weekend at dance class and was spurred to learn more as he was also influenced by the Chinese dance depicted in Hong Kong films that he used to watch.
He made the monumental decision to move to Singapore in 1980 to develop his skill in Chinese dance under the tutelage of the renowned, Lee Shu Fen – a Taiwan-born dance doyenne
“At the time in Malaysia, there had not been a good syllabus for Chinese dance yet.
“When I arrived in Singapore, I took a job as a site advisor and joined dance classes on the weekends. Lee Shu Fen was traveling between Singapore and Malaysia at the time and was keen to share her knowledge in Chinese dance.”
This led Kit Yaw to have opportunities to travel and perform multiple dance shows overseas.
He could have gone on to lead the rather glamorous life of a traveling dance troupe but chose to obtain a Diploma in Dance from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore.
“That was in 1985, I felt I needed to learn more and develop my skills further,” said Kit Yaw.
His decision to enrol in NAFA turned out to be a life-changing experience.
“I learned Chinese dance in a more systematic way from teachers who came from mainland China. This was a rare opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced dancers from China itself.
“Yet it was daunting as well, I asked myself, how am I to remember so many dances?,” Kit Yaw shared.
Through perseverance and guidance from dedicated mentors, he managed to grasp the basic foundations in Chinese dance.
This involves the fundamental movement of making a circle and the correct breathing technique.
By 1988, Kit Yaw completes his studies and returns to Kuala Lumpur, eager to share his knowledge and develop the Chinese dance scene in Malaysia further.
Kit Yaw’s first teaching gig was in Hulu Langat Hokkien Association, which had a dedicated dance club.
“The salary was only RM250 a month for teaching a class every Saturday,” he said as he laughed.
He would go on to choreograph his first dance show, which was also his attempt to create a Chinese dance with a Malaysian identity.
“Although I love Chinese dance which is culturally originated from China, I believe the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia should have their own representation of Chinese dance. Something that reflects our daily lives instead of the community in China.
This is why Kit Yaw’s “Budding Lotus”, incorporates elements of movement from Malay, Indian and Chinese dances.
Unwittingly, the premiere of “Budding Lotus” 1989 during a cultural event organized by Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, was not well-received by audiences.
His debut choreography for Chinese dance that embraced movements from Malaysian cultural dances was deemed “not Chinese enough”.
Despite this initial setback, Kit Yaw was determined to push the limit and over the years, tried his best to create dance pieces with a slice of Malaysian context. He considered this to be personally, meaningful.
One of the more challenging and Kit Yaw’s favourite piece of choreography is called “Looking Back”, a solo performance that required the dancer to be on their knees throughout the performance.
There are four distint parts to “Looking Back”, starting with a young character praying for good health and fortune, followed by a phase of marriage until death and finally, transforming into an eternal butterfly.
“The dancer would have suffered quite a bit for the whole duration of 10 minutes on their knees. This concept was inspired by “三跪九叩 (San Gui Jiu Kou)”, which loosely translates to “to kneel 3 times and bow your head 9 times”.”
This challenging solo piece was considered groundbreaking choreography of its time and was performed by Chan Souk Lin, a dancer under the Selangor Kwangsi Dance Toupe, at a temple in Petaling Street in 1992.
In reflecting on his teaching methods back in the 1990s until now, Kit Yaw says he has embraced changes along the way.
Although his foundational dance methods from NAFA still prevails, the Chinese dance master has had to tweak his ways to adapt to an increasingly digital world.
During the pandemic season of 2019 and 2020, Kit Yaw was able to pivot his usually physical classes, to online.
“The most obvious change is how teachers now have to be more verbally descriptive in teaching dance.
“Back in the day, teachers used to show the movement and students simply had to imitate as closely as possible.
“These days, it would be unskillful teaching to expect the same,” noted Kit Yaw.
When asked what he considered to be the most important quality for a Chinese dance teacher, Kit Yaw simply answered, “passion”.
“When something is done with passion, everything else will line up accordingly and find its way to a beautiful ending.
For newbies interested to pursue Chinese dance as more than a hobby, he advised them to read up more on the history of China and not to overlook how the Chinese diaspora came to flourish in Malaysia.
“Apart from learning Chinese dance choreography, one must also have a deep interest in the Chinese culture and its philosophies.
“They will then have more understanding of the Chinese dance and allow it to transcend over the surface level of mere movements,” he said.
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Cover image for How dance Master Wong Kit Yaw adds a Malaysian flair to Chinese dance supplied by Wong Kit Yaw.