The Boria Laughs at the Powerful, the Greedy, the Lecherous, the Losers – and at Each of Us

(Clockwise from top left) Boria Ria skit at the Botanic Gardens, 1970 – a rare scene when it was once performed in an open environment; Boria Padang Tambun, 1850; boria skit, Sungai Pinang, 1974; and Boria Highlanders, Hutton Road, 1920.

A few months ago, I chanced upon a boria performance at a gala dinner for an international delegation. Now I must admit – I did not at that point know much about boria, except that it is a Malay musical performance with pantun, umbrellas, lively dancing and colourful costumes. As I sat and watched, I noted the tone and rhythm of the songs as identifiably Malay; but to my surprise, the boria performers also sang a few verses in Hokkien.

“The Boria groups here can speak Hokkien. Most of them do because they were brought up in that era, when Hokkien was the market language,” says Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim, author of Boria: From Passion Play to Malay-Jawi Peranakan Parody. “It’s just the younger generation of Malays in the comprehensive school system who don’t speak Hokkien,” she divulges.

Wazir is an international scholar in the Social Sciences who draws attention to Muslim pluralism and multiculturalism; she has led a movement for the revival of Jawi Peranakan material culture, history and heritage.

Understandably, boria as a subject is close to her heart – so much so that research for her tome took two years, over which time she conducted interviews with various boria groups and collected photos – among other book-making tasks.

Wazir explains the beginnings of boria to me: “In their early days the Shia and the Sunni Muslims were more united, and Sunni merchants would sponsor Shia activities and vice versa. The rise of the Jawi Peranakan coincides with the rise of entrepot cities – they came from India, Persia and Armenia, and they developed this amazing acculturation with local Malay culture and language.

“Along the way, they brought along with them the ta’ziyeh, a passion play depicting the tragedy of the Karbala and the assassination of Imam Hussayn on the 10th day of the month of Muharram. The Sunnis however were less concerned with the assassination of Imam Hussayn than with the more joyous activities usually associated with Muharram. As a result, ta’ziyeh over the years became more denuded – becoming happier rather than resembling lamentations.”

Datuk Zubaidah Ariff.

In her book, she states that “… as the early Shia communities in Penang were overtaken by Sunni migrants, the ta’ziyeh simply manifested itself as a parody theatre through the boria. Emerging from the eclectic traditions of ritual theatre in India, the boria became a secular musical theatre, retaining only the structure of ta’ziyeh choral street processions.”

“The Boria, as you see, is a mock theatre, where the performers mock themselves and the kind of political culture they belong to,” reveals Wazir. “From a movement that was very pious and ritualistic, it became more or less eclectic and satirical, satirising the tensions between the different Muslim groups – the Sunnis and the Shias – and everything became lighter and funny.”

Not only that, but the performance also united the different Muslim groups against a common adversary: the colonists. “A lot of the parodies were against the power and dominance of the merchant class who came here from Europe – the dominance of the English navy and the fat bully captains. We staged it for the 2014 George Town Festival, where we even actually had a character called Captain John Bully.

“The themes have changed along the way. Under Umno’s patronage in the 1940s, it developed a very strong anti-colonial stance because they were seeking independence. Boria became a vehicle of protest.

“During the 1960s, after independence was achieved, the element of political protest died off as Umno lost interest in it. The theme evolved to contain social issues, issues of vagrancy, of the Malay underdog vis-à-vis the Chinese, the Europeans and the elite Jawi Peranakan. Even though boria performances were sponsored by the Jawi Peranakan, they were also the targets! So you had the Chinese debtor with his 555 notebook going around collecting debts; the Chettiar who ran around stealing Malay land titles and driving them away from their homes; and then you have characters like Captain John Bully.

“Eventually the themes changed – issues that were very popular in the 1970s and 1980s were issues of anti-modernity, and many of these were related to the whole process of urbanisation. These were issues of drugs, truancy from school, unemployment and the breakdown of family values.”

Boria party, Hutton Road, 1920.

Women traditionally did not perform in boria; instead, their roles were given to transvestites. That changed in the 1990s, says Wazir: “Women such as the late Datuk Zubaidah Ariff, inspired by her mother-in-law, Lady Rehman, created a lot of pantun which embodied the new modern Malay woman – she should seek higher education and come forward to work, and she shouldn’t be domesticated in the house; all these new things were brought forward in boria performances that were entirely staged by women.

“It was a real turning point when women felt very confident. They were doing a lot of all-women charity shows on stage and they had their own operators, so boria just fell along very nicely with that. You had these very talented women composing all these verses which showed the vibrancy and empowerment of women.”

Late nineteenth-century boria theatre in George Town.

But boria could also get very controversial. Abdullah Darus (1921-2002), a boria veteran, was “born at a time when boria was already a ‘religious taboo’.”1 His grandfather and great-grandfather were practitioners of the art, and his own interest in boria began in the 1940s, when he was a youth.2 By 1948, he was already composing shaer for boria groups.3

(Clockwise from top left) The tukang karang takes his final bow; the Latin influence; Omara's skit on "Let's attend the boria": a "sepoy from the past" now attends the boria with his Jawi Pekan mate.

Abdullah courted danger with some of his lyrics – without indicating which country he was referring to, he presented the kingship system as flawed in its ascendency or system of succession to the throne.4 “Abdullah maintained a dialogue that was antimonarchy, anti-elitism,” says Wazir. “He talked about the Malay peasant as the tukang cangkul – the guy who digs the land and gets nothing – whereas the guy who owns the lands gets everything; the king pretends

to be king, but in actual fact he is a drunkard and a womaniser… He didn’t even mention Malay – he just mentioned ‘king’ – but when you read it, the dots connect.”

Political commentary aside, boria functions as an outlet for the community to reclaim their space on the streets of George Town. “This is one of the points of contention in my book – I said that the Malays and the Jawi Peranakan have lost out in the concept of space. The Chinese and Indians, with their celebrations such as Thaipusam and Chingay and Hungry Ghost Festival, have never lost it. Boria has lost the ability to retain space because the Malays have retreated from George Town and in the process, so did boria.”

In this light, the future of boria remains uncertain. At one point condemned as an event that promoted social ills – there were calls to even outlaw it 5– without continued interest and dedicated performers, its survival is by no means secure.

Wazir is optimistic, though: “I think it’s got a very bright future. We are going to apply for Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for Boria – Mak Yong and Dondang Sayang are already listed, now it’s time for boria.”

Education is another way to ensure the sustainability of the art. Wazir says there have been public suggestions for it to be re-promoted in schools and be part of the arts and theatre curriculum. She has also worked with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of the Arts, and would like to have more talks with them to introduce boria as part of the curriculum.

Back to the gala dinner. In an effort to entertain (and, I suspect, to be inclusive), apart from boria the organisers had also commissioned Chinese and Indian cultural performances. But at the back of my head, something nagged at me: is boria inclusive enough to represent all of Penang? I later found out that boria was also produced by the Chinese in the past!

“It is the process of enculturation – when the Chinese, especially the Baba Nyonyas or Peranakan Chinese, like something and they see that it has value not just as a cultural performance but as a status production, they would want to sponsor boria.

“I think boria has managed to reach out to an international audience, judging from the reception at George Town Festival, and is accepted favourably by the Chinese and the Indians. The characters represent all the ethnic stereotypes, and the Malays also laugh at themselves a lot in it – the village idiot, the village fool, the bankrupt lawyers are all Malays. Then you have the (Chinese debtor) Ah Pek chasing the local Malay girl, and his wife scolds him because he doesn’t come home; he tries to collect his money but fails so he’s also a loser in a way.

“Everyone’s a loser in it, but people like that because they feel there’s a bit of them there – there’s a bit of their family there, a bit of their history, their culture.”

The writer would like to thank Enzo Sim for his help with the article.

Photos reproduced with kind courtesy from Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim.

Julia “Bubba” Tan is editor of Penang Monthly and head of Penang Institute’s Publication Unit. She strongly believes that Art, in all its forms, can provoke, outrage, inspire and unite.
1Wazir Jahan Karim. Boria: From Passion Play to Malay-Jawi Peranakan Parody. Pelanduk Publications, 2018.
5Wazir Jahan Karim. Boria: From Passion Play to Malay-Jawi Peranakan Parody. Pelanduk Publications, 2018.

Related Articles