60s: Then and now

Nona Asiah: Pioneer singer and actress

In her heyday as a singer (above), Madam Nona Asiah was the singing voice of many leading actresses in the movies of director P. Ramlee. -- PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF NONA ASIAH
In her heyday as a singer (above), Madam Nona Asiah was the singing voice of many leading actresses in the movies of director P. Ramlee. -- PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF NONA ASIAH
In her heyday as a singer, Madam Nona Asiah (above) was the singing voice of many leading actresses in the movies of director P. Ramlee. -- PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF NONA ASIAH
In her heyday as a singer, Madam Nona Asiah (above) was the singing voice of many leading actresses in the movies of director P. Ramlee. -- PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF NONA ASIAH

Nona Asiah, a pioneering Malay singer, deejay and actress, was a feminist before her time. She started singing in the 1940s and acting in the 1950s, during a period when most women were seen but not heard.

She was a working mother long before women's rights were protected by the law and learnt to drive at a time when men were in the driver's seat.

She made her singing debut at 16 on Radio Malaya and retired in 1975 at 45. At the peak of her career in the 1950s and early 1960s, she was often behind the singing voices of the leading ladies in the movies of legendary director P. Ramlee.

Now 85, Madam Asiah, or Mak Nona as she is affectionately known (Mak is mother in Malay and Nona means young girl), still cuts a petite figure from her days as the First Lady of Entertainment.

She lives with her 78-year-old sister in a two- storey corner terrace house in Eunos. They have no domestic helper and the sprightly octogenarian keeps house and tends to her lush garden, where bougainvillaea and periwinkle grow.

The grandmother of 10 proudly showed this reporter old photographs and memorabilia from her 30-year career. From established musicians such as bandleader and musician Gerry Soliano to Malaysian royalty and international stars such as Japanese actor Toshihiro Mifune (of Seven Samurai fame in 1954), Madam Asiah has rubbed shoulders with them all.

Born Asiah Aman to a bangsawan opera singer and an oil painter who also played the saxophone, Madam Asiah credits her mother, Madam Hajar Rahmah, for starting her in show business.

"We performed to survive. That was our environment. We used to live on the ground floor of a shophouse unit in Allanby Road and performers and football players from the nearby Jalan Besar stadium would gather at our place. Siput Sarawak, Anita Sarawak's mother, lived on the third floor. It was common to see famous people who worked in the industry come in and out," she reminisces.

Madam Hajar was a prima donna in the Dean Tijah opera troupe and often enlisted little Asiah to keep the audience entertained while the backdrop on stage was being changed.

During the Japanese Occupation, 12-year-old Asiah joined the adults from her mother's opera troupe to entertain Japanese troops at the army bases in Seletar and Tengah. They were paid in cigarettes, rice and other foodstuff, precious provisions that helped the family of 11 survive the harsh conditions of the war.

After the Japanese surrender in 1946, Madam Asiah got her first paying job, as a singer performing song requests on a popular weekly radio show at Radio Malaya. She sang Indonesian songs and Malay cover versions of Western ones, backed by a trio called Tiga Serumpun (Three Get-Together) - a pianist, a guitarist and a bassist.

It was at Radio Malaya that she met her late husband, Mr Ismail Kassim, Tiga Serumpun's male lead singer who was 16 years her senior.

From then, there was no stopping Madam Asiah's star from rising. HMV offered her a contract to record Malay songs on the Pathe label.

Her first recorded song in 1949 was a Malay cover of famous Mexican ballad Besame Mucho. It was an instant hit and more hits followed. She and her band were handsomely rewarded with royalties, on top of being paid the then princely sum of $45 a song.

She recalls with a chuckle: "The European executive from HMV taught us how to open bank accounts at the Post Office and made us deposit our earnings. He was worried we would spend all our money."

At that stage, her mentor, composer Zubir Said, suggested that she adopt Nona Asiah as her stage name.

He scored a job with Shaw Brothers as a music director for the film Chinta (1948), starring Siput Sarawak and S. Roomai Noor, two big stars of that period. He recommended Madam Asiah for the female singing parts. The late P. Ramlee sang S. Roomai Noor's parts.

Soon, she was in demand overseas and travelled with an orchestra to perform at concerts in Brunei and Sarawak. Her hits included Hasan Dan Hasnah (Hasan And Hasnah) and Zubir's original compositions, such as Gelora Chinta (Love Surge) and Cempaka Biru (Blue Cempaka).

At the peak of her career in the mid- to late 1950s, she made between $400 and $500 a month. By the time she and Mr Ismail got married in 1955, she could afford to buy an MG sports car, a racy red two-door roadster.

Mr Ismail, then a full-time draughtsman at the Singapore Improvement Trust and a part-time recording artist, bought a green one to match hers.

Throughout her film career, she kept her job at Radio Malaya, singing with the studio orchestra and hosting a regular radio show and recording for HMV. The 1960s saw her juggling career and motherhood like many women do today. She hired three maids to help look after her five children and also relied on her grandmother and mother to help out.

Two of her children became noted musicians. Iskandar, her eldest, was an award-winning composer and musician who received the Cultural Medallion. He died in November last year, aged 58. Mr Indra, 48, the youngest, is a well-known music producer and director.

Madam Asiah gave her last performance in 1975, when Radio Television Malaysia invited her to perform the songs of P. Ramlee and other renowned Malay composers at a variety show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Asked about being a pioneer role model for women today, and she looks puzzled by the question and says: "I was just doing what my family has been doing all along, making a living by performing. I don't think I was doing anything special."

Rachel Chan is a freelance writer.