BETHNAL Green in east London is not a place I would normally visit in the evening, especially alone. It was, after all, the neighbourhood in which Jack the Ripper operated and the playground of the infamous gangsters, the Kray brothers, in the 60s. But that was where I was headed one warm autumn evening.
The promise of meeting new friends and the prospect of renewing old acquaintances made me trudge the distance, well away from my comfort zone in the west.
The east end district, which received much aerial battering during the Second World War, has undergone a lot of changes and is now home to mostly Bangladeshis. The short walk from the station to Costa Cafe revealed the changing face of Bethnal Green: It is more Asian in character, dotted as it is with halal groceries and eateries.
Unku in Thoroughly Modern Milly with Maureen Lipman
At the cafe, I met Unku Majid and his friends. I had known Unku from the late 1980s when he was waiting on tables at Satay Ria in Bayswater. He was also then acting in the West End. An accomplished stage actor, Unku, from Johor, had acted in many plays including Miss Saigon and The King And I where he played Uncle Tom alongside Elaine Paige. He also appeared with Maureen Lipman in Thoroughly Modern Milly.
It was Unku’s suggestion that I meet some of his friends, and then proceed to see the play, The Death Of Tintagel, by playwright Peter Morris — a dark satire set in a Cornish castle, where a boy is summoned back by his grandmother, to his death. It is directed by Vik Sivalingam, a fellow Malaysian.
Among those waiting to meet me was Vik, Michelle Lee, another West End actor whom I had the pleasure to do some voice-over work with and newcomer to the group, Shanon Shah. I had quickly googled Shanon Shah and discovered that this young and talented writer/songwriter and singer had just released his second album! This chemical engineer by training is now in London to do his Masters. I made a mental note to get his album or at least to listen to it on youtube.
I had met Michelle before when she was acting in Miss Saigon. Plays like that and The King And I, of course, had opportunities for talents from Southeast Asia. Michelle, a ballet dancer, had also worked with Instant Cafe Theatre in Malaysia before venturing to England to study music, drama and dance at the University of Birmingham. She had just finished filming The Diana Clone, a fantasy thriller about a scientist who tries to clone Princess Diana. The lead actor was half Malaysian — Anna Leong Brophy.
Michelle herself had done many things, from soap ads to voice-over work. We did similar work for The Sleeping Dictionary and a few years ago, Krakatoa, a BBC production.
I must be the only one in this country who had not seen The Bridget Jones Diary, where Michelle played the immigration officer who found drugs in Jones’ bag!
Vik and Vera
Sitting in the small cafe with this group of talents, my thoughts went back to the days of the pak cik sailors in the 60s and 70s — Malay sailors who came to work for the merchant navy were very much in demand for roles that required Oriental faces in war films such as A Town Like Alice. I imagined them meeting in cold and dingy cafes not far from Bethnal Green, in between sailing assignments, to look for parts as Japanese soldiers. People like Pak Man Tokyo had worked in A Town Like Alice as a Japanese soldier. And then, years later, I myself was roped in to play Fatimah in a radio drama of the same title by the BBC.
The play we were about to see at The People Show Studios is Vik’s latest work. He has a string of directing credits which include Uncle Vanya, Daisy Pulls It Off, Human Rights and Day Trippers. He is currently resident assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Vera Chok with Freddie Machin in The Death of Tintagel - pix by Lucy Pawlak
Vik’s current play has as its lead Vera Chok, who brilliantly plays Ygraine, Tintagel’s protective and caring sister. Vera, who read archaeology and anthropology at Oxford University and who trained as an actress at The Poor School in London, is also artistic director of Saltpeter Production.
The producer is Anna Sulan Masing from Sarawak, who is also working on her PhD, looking at identity through performance practices of indigenous women of Borneo.
Meeting them was like a breathe of fresh air. Since then, I have been in touch with Rani Moorthy, another Malaysian-born playwright and actress as well as artistic director of Rasa Productions based in Manchester. Her Handful Of Henna recently toured the country. She has done radio plays such as Who’s Sari Now? for the BBC.
And last night I found myself on the phone with Pik Sen Lim who made her name as Su-lee, the Chinese Communist student in the British sitcom Mind Your Language. She was in London doing some filming.
Shanon Shah, Michelle Lee, Unku, Vera and Vik
As we walked out of the studio to Bethnal Green tube station late that night, the temperature had dipped further but we were oblivious to that. We had that typical long lingering Malaysian goodbye all along the way. So many Malaysian talents abroad and so little time to cover them all, I muttered to myself as I walked home in the cold night air,