To celebrate the seventh issue of LONTAR, we have an exclusive short interview by editor Jason Erik Lundberg with Zen Cho, whose “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” is the lead-off story. Cho is the award-winning author of Sorcerer to the Crown and Spirits Abroad, and editor of Cyberpunk: Malaysia.
Jason Erik Lundberg: Your story “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” is a companion piece to “起狮，行礼 (Rising Lion–The Lion Bows)”, which was published by Strange Horizons and also features lion dancers who bust ghosts. What is the cultural importance of lion dancers in Malaysia and other parts of Asia?
Zen Cho: The kind of lion dance that’s most common in Malaysia is the Chinese Southern Lion style. You see it most at Chinese New Year, but also when a new Chinese business opens. It’s meant to bring good luck, and I think maybe the lion chases away bad spirits as well. I might be mixing that up with fireworks, though. I never thought too much about the cultural importance of lion dance when I was growing up; I just liked watching it. There’s something really exciting and special about seeing a lion dance—I tried to capture some of that feeling in these two stories.
Q. You’ve mentioned that you were a member of the Cambridge University Lion Dance Troupe from 2006 to 2008. How did your experiences there inform the conceit of this story? And what role did you have in the troupe?
We performed at a hotel once for a company Christmas party they were hosting, and because it was quite a new hotel the owners, who were Chinese, had us bless some of the rooms while we were at it. There weren’t any ghosts, but that was the experience that inspired “起狮，行礼(Rising Lion–The Lion Bows)”. I wrote “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” while I was chewing over that story, to explain how the ghost-busting lion dance troupe had been founded.
When I was in CULDT I was mostly on the cymbals, which are a really easy job you can give a rank beginner. I think I only played the drum in a public performance once, and I never did the lion—you have to hold that kungfu horse stance the whole time, which is really tiring! I was also the secretary of the troupe, which meant I managed the emails.
Q. Before Boris encounters lion dancers as a child, he is terrified of the spiritual world, which he can sense because of the “extra membrane around his brain that filtered in things other people didn’t see”. How integral is the everyday relationship with the supernatural to ordinary Malaysians?
I can’t answer questions on behalf of ordinary Malaysians! I can only speak for myself. I do have a friend who has an extra membrane around their brain which gives them supernatural powers. I stole their membrane for the story.
Q. Are there any plans to write more stories about these characters or within this premise?
No. I wrote the stories mainly because I thought it would be a shame not to use all this useful jargon I’d learnt from being in a lion dance troupe. Now I feel I’ve made good use of that life experience.
Q. Which authors either from Southeast Asia or writing about Southeast Asia do you enjoy reading? Could you give examples of particular works?
I like Farish Noor’s essays on Malaysian and Southeast Asian history—they’re academic but really accessible—and I’m really excited about Komik Maple’s comics. I’ve only read Mimi Mashud’s Kuala Terengganu in Seven Days and Amir Hafizi’s Scenes of the Father so far, but I’m looking forward to picking up the collection they’ve done of the webcomic Komik Ronyok, as well as Stephanie Soejono’s Tale of the Bidadari. When it comes to novels, I’m looking forward to reading Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, a historical novel about the life of a Peranakan woman in Malaya, and I admire Preeta Samarasan’s work—she’s got such a mastery of language. I’m really interested to see how she’ll follow Evening is the Whole Day.
Q. Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Zen Cho?
I’m working on my next novel! I can’t talk about it too much as it’s still at a fairly protean stage. I’m hoping it’ll be a worthy follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown!