In 1988 when the Johor Bahru Chinese Association organised the 9th Chinese Dance Festival held at Foon Yew High School, Tan Chai Puan and Tan Hooi Song were tasked to create its theme song, “Begin to Dance.”
A poem was composed and Chai Puan also created the artistic vision of “Drumming up Nine Drums” as the base for the theme song.
The success of the drumming performance at the opening ceremony of the Dance Festival inspired Chai Puan to create a new form of percussion art but he could not decide on how many drums to feature until he read the work of a Taiwanese poet.
The beauty of the four seasons was described in 24 poems, each representing one of the 24 Solar Terms, a practice in ancient China which was developed through observing the sun’s annual motion, traditionally used as a time frame to direct agricultural production and annual festivals.
As Chai Puan was then a council member of the JB Chinese Association, he proposed the setting up of a 24 Festive Drum troop and sought financial help from the association.
In May 1988, the association agreed that the five dialect clans in Johor – Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, Cantonese and Teochew – would contribute funds for the purchase of the first set of the 24 drums from China.
It was a proud event for the inauguration ceremony of the 24 Festive Drums held at the Johor Ancient Temple on 12 June 1988, with a performance by a student troop from Foon Yew High School, coached by Hooi Song.
Famous calligraphic masters from Malaysia and Singapore graced this event to write in beautiful calligraphy the 24 Solar Terms, the inspiration which named the 24 Festive Drums.
This significant event marked the birth of the 24 Festive Drums, an art of drumming proudly created in Johor Bahru through Chai Puan’s cultural ideas and Hooi Song’s musical composition.
I am familiar with the history of the 24 Festive Drums because I featured cultural activist, Chai Puan, in an exclusive story under Portraits in my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage in 2017.
When he shared with me the chronology of events that led to the creation of this unique art of drumming, Chai Puan admitted that he never imagined the far-reaching impact of this proudly Johor-born tradition which has been exported back to China!
From a single drum troop that started in Foon Yew High School, drum troops have now been established in schools and universities, not just nationwide but also worldwide
In July 2008, Hooi Song became the first Malaysian Chinese to be declared a Living Cultural Heritage of Malaysia, an honour bestowed by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
Not long after that, he lost the battle to cancer and passed away peacefully at age 61.
Since 2008, Year Six students in Chinese schools have been learning about the founding of the 24 Festive Drums from their textbooks and the reputation of Chai Puan was elevated to that of a living legend.
At the official opening of the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum by the Johor Chief Minister in 2009, he declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee to be a Heritage Walk.
Then weekend cultural activities were organised by the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee to create more interest in the city’s heritage quarter.
Meanwhile Chai Puan kept me updated (in English) about Chinese cultural events happening here as well as the development of the 24 Festive Drums, locally and abroad.
I was privileged to attend the 30th anniversary of the founding of the 24 Festive Drums at the Johor Ancient Temple in June 2018, where the original drum troop from Foon Yew High School was present in a meaningful reunion.
It was a double celebration for Chai Puan when he was also declared a Living Cultural Heritage of Malaysia by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, in October that same year.
Registered as an association in 2015, the 24 Festive Drums Association organised their national level 30th anniversary grand celebration in Kuala Lumpur.
Looking back, I was involved in countless Drums’ events including their bi-annual International Drums Festivals and National Competitions, which started since 2010.
Last year, I was among the first to learn about the setting up of the Museum of the 24 Festive Drums and recently, Chai Puan invited me over for a preview.
Located near the JB Chinese Heritage Museum, this museum aims to complement the visitors’ experience in the heritage quarter.
Likewise, the Museum of the 24 Festive Drums also has dual entrances – from Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee – while the museum is situated upstairs.
While Chai Puan dearly wished to share with Hooi Song, the crowning moments when the 24 Festive Drums was recognised as a Malaysian National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009, he is pleased to honour Hooi Song’s memory and his contributions to this art of drumming, in the museum.
Chai Puan declared that it was uncanny that the eye-catching calligraphy displayed in the lobby was in fact, done by the same calligraphic masters who participated in the inauguration ceremony at the Johor Ancient Temple back in June 1988!
On the wall, the development of this art of drumming is recorded in chronological order on a series of charts, mounted on the tops of old drums.
Among the highlights in the museum are a cycle of the 24 Solar Terms, a world map that marks where 24 Festive Drum troops are established and a four-seasons tree. Upstairs, visitors may have a hands-on drumming experience.
I enjoyed Chai Puan’s detailed commentary while learning about his continued efforts to develop this art of drumming in the region. I know that his desire is for the birthplace of the 24 Festive Drums to eventually be acknowledged as the Drumming Capital of the world.
The Museum of the 24 Festive Drums is located upstairs at No. 31 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, 80000 Johor Bahru, Johor. Open daily, 8.30am to 5pm. Closed on Tuesday.