Lim Mei Fen is one of very few ethnic Chinese actresses active in the Malay movie scene.
Having local classics such as Prebet Sapu, Tanah Akhirku and Takhta 3 Ratu in her expanding stable of local film and stage appearances, Lim is currently assuming a leading role in a new Malay drama.
Prebet Sapu, first screened in local cinemas late last year, was Malaysia’s representative in the Academy Awards and is now on Netflix.
A maiden project by a local director, the film reveals the real face of the lowest segment of the Malaysian society with the crude remark of Cina balik Tiong San in portraying the cross-community love affair between a Malay man and a Chinese woman.
But how on earth could such a sensitive topic escape the censorship board’s scissors and be promoted by Finas as the country’s representative in the Academy Awards? Even the production team found it unbelievable!
Such bewilderment has rightly reflected the stereotyped impressions many of us would have of this country!
Isn’t that so? The more we stress cultural amalgamation, the more our intrinsic disharmony is protruded. And the more we try to highlight the beauty of our similarities, the more our attempt is perceived as an awkward act of glossing things over.
That’s why to Lim Mei Fen, the unpretentiousness of Prebet Sapu makes it all the more impossible for her to resist the role which she swore she would play to her best ability.
Even as a bumiputra, the Malay lead role in the film finds himself leading a life not any better than a migrant worker, a visually impaired man, or just any middle-class individual.
Hard pressed by the cruel reality of life, he finds tremendous understanding, support and great companionship from a compatriot, an ethnic Chinese lass who is also struggling to make a respectable living in the city.
Like most Chinese Malaysians, Lim attended a Chinese primary school when she was young, but later proceeded to an English-stream convent school. She did not have too many non-Chinese friends when she first started her working life.
She started as a model at the age of 19, and later went into the showbiz industry for a couple of years before she landed a relatively stable marketing job.
Joining the Malay show business was something quite unanticipated.
Her good friend Soo Wincci, unable to take up the role of Princess Hang Li Po in Takhta 3 Ratu due to her full schedule, invited her to try that role out.
“Nama saya Lim Mei Fen, umur……” was all she could utter during the audition, much to the disbelief of the director.
“Tak boleh cakap Bahasa Melayu-kah?” was his response.
She shook her head. Well, that’s almost a universal problem among her fellow Chinese Malaysians, anyway.
She couldn’t even pronounce laksamana (general) correctly!
You might wonder where she mustered her courage to go for the audition with such a lame command of the Malay language.
Given her adventurous nature and the belief she would have nothing to lose now that she had decided to switch career, she took up the offer.
She was later told by the director that she got the job because of her height which made a traditional costume fit perfectly well with her stature.
It only took her a couple of days to commit all her lines to memory.
It was because of that drama that Lim came to know for the first time about Istana Budaya, Malaysia’s national performing theater, as well as Aswara (the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy) from which many of her fellow performers had graduated.
Because of the role of Hang Li Po, the dream of stage performance was reignited in her.
She joined Aswara at the age of 28.
Indeed, Lim has been accorded differential treatment like many of us, but she claimed that in the Malay drama circle, she received far more kasih sayang (love) than the negative things.
Be it to write a script or to memorize her lines, Malay language has always been Lim’s weakness, but she has somehow managed to overcome this deficiency with a little help from her fellow performers.
Padang Merbok just outside Aswara was one of the sites of the 2015 “Red Shirts” protests.
For their personal safety, most of the Chinese students left the school for home, but Lim was determined to rehearse until late, and was among the very few Chinese students who stayed at the hostel.
Early in the morning, shrieking shouts of “Cina babi, balik balik” reverberated in her ears, and her embarrassed room-mate had to advise her to just ignore such things and not to get offended.
When most other students went out for lunch, Lim decided to stay back and cook instant noodle instead.
Well aware that she was worried about her safety, her hostel mates reassured her: “Kak Mei, tak payah takut! Kita protect!” (Don’t be afraid, Kak Mei! We’ll protect you!)
“I never had such a powerful sense of belonging!”
Lim swore that she would spread such kasih sayang to more people around her!
Cultural assimilation is a two-way process that requires a recipient of someone else’s love to also give back. For instance, during the Muslim fasting month when her room-mate had to wake up at four in the morning to prepare food and offer prayers, Lim found it necessary to also modify her daily routine, sleeping and rising much earlier than usual.
To her, such a little change in her way of living was not a big deal at all.
As a matter of fact, involving oneself in the circle of a different community constitutes a posture to seek some common ground in the midst of our differences.
There’s no need to deliberately highlight our similarities but rather for us to candidly acknowledge our differences and work together to embrace them.
Lim said Aswara was like a microcosm of the country’s cultural diversity in which the students were assigned different tasks based on their individual strengths and abilities.
After debuting in Takhta 3 Ratu, then Istana Budaya director-general Datuk Mohamed Juhari Shaarani (affectionately known as Abang Joe) asked her what she planned to do after this, and she told him frankly that many Chinese actors played the roles of villains in Malay dramas and that such a phenomenon had entrenched the Malay community’s stereotyped perception of the Chinese.
What Abang Joe said next struck her as a wake-up call: “So, you need to tell the story from your own perspective!”
In 2018, she scripted the story of Chinese and Indian immigrants to be adapted into a play Tanah Akhirku as part of her graduation assignment. The play not only got to be performed at Istana Budaya but was also selected as the year’s National Day drama with then prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and his wife as guests of honor.
In this industry, Lim said she could feel that performing art is a common language that binds everyone together.
Many of Aswara’s students subsequently continued their studies in Indonesia while her teachers and seniors had encouraged her to further her studies in China and bring home what she would learn there.
So, she registered for a film marketing course at Beijing Film Academy. Unfortunately, she later had to abort the plan due to the pandemic.
Over the past two years of pandemic, she helped some friends apply for Finas’ creative fund to create a short video on Aswara.
As a matter of fact, she believed that chances were always there although they were not often seen or had been ignored by people. And she was willing to help guide the way.
The Malay drama circle is not really like what most Chinese Malaysians have anticipated. For example, Lim Mei Fen does not speak Malay too well, but at least she can just act herself, and this is exactly how most Chinese Malaysians are like. Isn’t that more down-to-earth and real?