The Newscaster Wore Red

But not just any red. It was a Chinese garb that viewers—mostly—disapproved

By Mao Shan Wang

The poor guy probably didn’t know any better. Or, why he kena hantam (was hit). And I do feel sorry for him. RTM (Radio Televisyen Malaysia) decided to go non-binary when it came to outfitting their male news readers during the Chinese New Year season. While this is all fine and dandy, it appears to me a little too close to the side of cultural appropriation to make the Sabahan Malay reporter, Mohd Dhihya Sahla, of TV1’s Berita Wilayah wear traditional Chinese garb, never mind if its immediately unclear for which gender. Malaysian actor and radio personality Partick Teoh calls the questionable outfit a “cheongsam” in a now-deleted-but-gone-viral Facebook post. I also don’t blame Mr Teoh for thinking the baju Cina is akin to those worn by Maggie Cheung in the 2000 film, In the Mood for Love. Not by the silhouette, I’m sure, but by the floral trims on the top of the collar as well as those alongside the right-facing opening and on the ends of the sleeve. Little details can mislead.

RTM was clearly irritated by the online chatter, in particular what Mr Teoh’s wrote, which the irate broadcaster deemed “irresponsible”, so much so that it considered the post “a defaming comment”. In defending Mohd Dhihya Sahla, the station’s director of public relations K. Krishnamoorthy told the media that the newscaster was actually wearing a “samfu”. That, to me, sounded worse! While the Cantonese term samfu (or 衫裤, shanku in Mandarin) is a gender-neutral term that means shirt (or upper garment) and pants, it mostly refers to women’s everyday attire worn in Southern China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore (particularly in the ’60s). I have never heard of it used to describe menswear, but I wouldn’t be better informed than RTM’s stylist behind the choice of outfit, Jenny Kueh, who apparently told her employer that, according to K Krishnamoorthy, “this is trendy wear which originates from the Manchu ethnic group in China.” Ms Kueh was later quoted in The Star: “What Wong Fei Hung wears is a long samfu version that almost reaches the feet.”

As it turns out, I know nothing about a “long samfu version” or trends since I have not availed myself to the sight of hordes of men who wear such an attire to celebrate CNY or any male newscaster on Chinese TV stations appearing in anything close to this self-described “samfu”. I can understand if RTM tried to pass the particular garb as a changpao (长袍, a men’s robe), considered a hanfu (汉服 or Han Chinese dress), which, in the case of the piece the news reader wore, could be (in particular, with the front opening) described as a Manchurian robe (满族长袍, manzu changpao), worn during the Qing rule of China between the 17th to 20th century. Instead, the broadcaster said that their “mistake perhaps was giving the wrong size for (sic) our newsreader”. It got really funnier. Here was an Indian defending a Malay wearing a Chinese costume, and the small size has somehow a feminising effect on one laki-laki yang berotot (muscular man). This wasn’t a baju kebaya! Lest this is mistaken as a racial slur, it really isn’t. I should say that there’s some truth to the question of fit: the “samfu” he had on was rather body-enhancing, to the point that the wearer looked somewhat “busty”, one Malaysian expatriate here told me. Okay, that would be too haram (forbidden)—and, I fear, irresponsible—for RTM.

Screen grab: RTM

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