Editorial Director Ben Liew waxes nostalgia about being a Chinese ‘skinhead’ – with the added benefit of hindsight, which naturally comes with a heavy dose of romanticism.
That’s me, age 15, pissing down an overhead bridge at USJ, Subang Jaya on unsuspecting cars below. A lot has changed… I pee in toilets now and I’m not as mad or as bored with society anymore. Still, we are who we are, and were. And out of all my teenage misadventures in suburbia, it was my high school skinhead friends that left an impact and completely altered my otherwise typical middle-class-Chinese-kid-in-high-school life.
It was a time when bands like Green Day and The Offspring were riding the charts. Much like the cool kids today (I think they’ve stopped calling themselves hipster), the kids who dug this kind of music searched for more stuff – anything apart from the crap on the radio. Keep in mind, even though a band like Green Day had broken into the mainstream internationally, in Malaysia, the people who controlled the airwaves were still old wankers. This is why the ‘90s sucked. Despite the wealth of culture that was being exchanged at the time with the birth of the Internet giving us Newsgroups, mIRC, Mosaic/Netscape, and email, most of the kids in my school were still into Westlife, Boyzone, Spice Girls, and Hanson (yes, I understand the last two are cool to some hipsters now, but if you were a guy wearing a Hanson tee in my school, you would’ve been murdered).
Digging through various genres of punk, past and present, I personally could not understand why so many of my Malay friends were into Skinhead music. I’m not sure if they could differentiate the non-racist bands (the SHARP – Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice – faction) from the racist neo-Nazi bands, but they were friendly to me and didn’t care that I was into snotty SoCal punk bands like NOFX who were lyrically the Charlie Hebbo of the time. Maybe because there weren’t many of us around that we stuck together like punks of a leather, hanging out around SS15, smoking student-pack (seven sticks) cigarettes, after and during school hours.
Skinheads are quite literally characterised by their shaved heads, but this is a bullshit stereotype. It was a popular trend among boys to shave their heads way before Walter White or bald-Beckham. Likewise, some skinheads have hair, though they dress in similar style(s).
Guys in their 30s like to claim that they came from gangster schools to impress their wives-to-be, but SMSU was shit. I had a friend who burnt the classroom on the first day of Form 1 with a pair of batteries and a makeshift conductor, we had an abusive, wife-beating Disciplinary Teacher, and there was a kid who strangled his mom to death (check the records for yourself).
School days might be the best days of your life, but it was kind of scary for me, especially since I was the target of Chinese gangs from my school who were really just a bunch of lame-ass Young & Dangerous-wannabes. I couldn’t speak Chinese, so naturally some Indian kid who did speak it had to pick a fight with me outside of a church one day – we had 1Malaysia back then too. This was just one of those weird instances where race didn’t matter as a kid. I had the skinheads who looked out for me. And that Indian kid had his Neanderthal Chinese gang. I don’t remember who won that fight, but the white tee I wore that night was red.
I’m sure there are real gangsters of the Chinese triad sort at schools in Balakong who demand flesh and blood, but not in Subang Jaya. It was shit, but it was middle-class suburban shit, so it wasn’t as hardcore. We were all (including the Chinese gangsters) racist for fun, if you get what I mean.
There was pretty much fuck all to do. We just lepak-ed at 15 and ate, drank, smoked, spotted Joe Flizzow or other ‘90s pseudo-celebrities at the mamak. Snooker and the itik gambling-machine were entertainment if we had money.
Then there was the music.
We jammed almost every week. Someone would find some spare cash and we’d rent a studio for RM10 to RM15 an hour and trash the place. Way before Ben’s Bitches, I had a band called Mahathir’s Mohawk (in response to a former-PM’s criticism of Western punk culture). But apart from my own band that consisted of two other guys who were quite apprehensive of the skinhead scene, I would get invited to jam with a revolving lineup of whoever was there in the studio and could strum three chords, sometimes two.
Magoo was our regular skinhead drummer. A tall chap with goofy glasses, he could lay a complex beat partly due to him being left-handed and playing the drums differently. Faiz was our singer as he sounded like a toyol (demon child). Edosh played bass and I whacked the guitar. And we all used to skate though I was terrible at it.
Long before the cybercafes and Asia Cafe, more and more jamming studios began sprouting up. Most are gone now, but not before the skinheads left their mark. They were notorious for destroying equipment (to be fair, so were most of the other bands) and packing the studio with as many friends as possible until it looked like a massive gay gangbang was happening from the outside. Every jamming session had an audience complete with song requests and the occasional Skinhead grrrl.
It became apparent to me that my skinhead friends didn’t care about the lyrics of the songs they listened to – when at Mahathir’s Mohawk’s first gig at Sunway’s now-defunct Citadel where 70% of the bands were skinheads, each band covered ‘England Belongs To Me’. And each time they sang that song, all the skinheads sang along like it was their anthem. The sight of a sea of baldheads and raised fists to the resounding catchy three-chord chorus made me join in. You could really feel the bro-hood from these guys. Nevermind that some had swastika patches on their jackets; I’m sure they didn’t know what it meant – I gave no fucks and scrounged off cigarettes from them.
In fact, the only time I was injured was during some hardcore band’s set. I think it was early-Mass Separation (when Yap was the vocalist), though I can’t confirm it because all I remember was their cover of Sepultura’s ‘Roots Bloody Roots’. Also, there was a black metal band whose lead singer’s spiked-wristband impaled my ass at one point – now that’s an exaggeration, but I’m keeping to the teen spirit here.
There is nothing inherently racist about ‘England Belongs to Me’. Cock Sparrer is a great punk band (especially if you hate Green Day) credited with popularising the Oi! subgenre. I’m sure you’ve read other articles before this explaining where original skinhead culture comes from, but if you haven’t… skinhead is a lifestyle that is closely related to working class youths and is defined by its openness to all races or anyone willing to have a good time – usually involving optional drinking and mandatory dancing to ska music. The history of the movement goes back to the ‘60s, even predating punk rock. There were many skinheads of different races in England then (and even now you’ll find non-Caucasian skinheads). However, the movement got ‘hijacked’ in the ‘70s by the racist National Front (think Perkasa) who showed up at punk and skinhead gigs, recruited white youths and indoctrinated them with Neo-Nazi racism. Movies like Romper Stomper and American History X didn’t do any favours to change the image either. Then there are skinhead football-hooligans, who are a whole different ballgame.
Everyone has heard of stories of “budak skinhead gaduh ngan dak hip hop” (skinheads fighting with hip hop kids), or “skinhead lawan ngan dak Mohawk” (skinheads fighting with mohawk-hair styled ‘chaos punks’ – which was really a clash of ideologies; Nationalism Vs. Nihilism). Spitting was a regular occurrence at chaos punk shows. But there was also a crossover of sorts – even though they hated each other, chaos punks and racist skinheads were usually hooligans who hung out (and fought) together.
You might be wondering how the Nazi element crept into local Skinhead culture, but really, who cares? Here are a bunch of guys who, again, don’t know how to apply local context. They might as well be wearing white robes and a hood. If you’re around my age and heard of a story where “dak skinhead lawan ngan dak skinhead” (skinheads fighting against skinheads), that was us! And we fought the neo-Nazi skinheads not because they were racist, but because they were assholes causing trouble at our gigs. Come to think of it, some of them might have not even realised they were racists as their brown-power doctrine (loosely adapted Nazism) was backed by our country’s own racial biasness.
Misplaced swastikas aside, ‘England Belongs To Me’ is probably more relevant to a Malay youth now than ‘Havoc’ (sorry, Mr President). Maybe some could see the relation between what happened in England that inspired the lyrics to the song. But at that time, no one really added any local context to it. We were pretty content with playing covers and loitering around SS15.
After that gig at Citadel, it seemed like the skinheads were galvanised. They had members from other schools coming to SS15 for meetings and the scene was getting bigger with bands like A.C.A.B, Roots N Boots, and The Official carrying the flag. At one point, a local English daily ran an interview with skinheads from Subang Jaya defending their kin – both local punk and skinhead scenes had already been tainted by accusations of hooliganism by the media and authorities. It was the first time local SHARP Skins spoke out about this demonisation, directing the blame back to the media. Even iconic Oi!-punk band The Business (‘England 5 – Germany 1’) made a tour stop in KL.
Incidentally, The Business guitarist Steve Kent once described the early punk rock scene as “trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic… and losing touch.” That quote serves as a great indicator to what skinhead is NOT. Skinhead is not about riding a shiny Vespa. It’s not about approximating England’s nationalism. It’s not about football or politics, though that can be like religion to certain skinheads, it doesn’t define the whole movement.
Skinhead culture is about the empowerment of the working class – through music, mutual respect, non-conformist style and partying. It’s about having solidarity with others who have the same struggle in life. For a no-nonsense subculture with such a simple philosophy, it is uncanny how much influence the Neo-Nazi as well as SHARP factions have contributed. If the National Front had never interfered with the subculture, I probably wouldn’t be writing this long-ass piece now.
It is apolitical. There are no real rules attached to the lifestyle. Just about anyone can be a skinhead or might already be one without knowing it or don the fashion. And that was the best thing about my skinhead friends, they really didn’t care how you looked like. I mean, I had a full head of hair all the way! They only wanted to have a gang of their own. And that gang just so happened to rule over and accept anyone within the vicinity of SS15, just as long as you had cigarettes to spare.
Skinheads have been gone from the underground scene for a while now, or rather they are still around but their numbers aren’t as strong as they used to be. I think the kids these days have moved on, at least from the jamming studios and snooker centres we used to lounge in (thank God), replaced by Starbucks and hipster eateries (hail Satan).
It’s only when VICE publishes a heavily-manipulated article about some brown-power nutjob in some crappy punk band that you see them in your news feeds as well as the opposition to that, SHARP, come out to defend their scene. By the way, said interviewee, Slay from local Neo-Nazi punk band (not to be confused with a skinhead band) Boot Axe posted an explanation about VICE misquoting them. But did anyone read that? Nope, ‘cause we’re not bothered with explanations. We just want to single out the racist Malay guys and go, “Look! Look at how stupid these people are…” And of course, we’ll believe anything a white man writes about the taboos of our own culture… because VICE is like National Geographic for hipsters, right?
To advise you to practise precaution if you come across a group of skinheads would be to discriminate the whole culture. Look for Swastika-patches or other Nazi paraphernalia-accessories as that’s usually a give-away for the boneheads. The SHARPs and original ‘no-faction’ Skinheads are usually more colourfully dressed and you can tell they’re not racist just by their demeanour.
Expect to see more of them with local movies like Ophilia and pulp novels like Nazi Goreng becoming popular. Which side the new Skinheads will join, however, is up to the individual kid.
A couple of years after that Citadel gig, some of my skinhead friends started embracing racism. I’m sure it’s not connected – the scene getting bigger with more kids getting fucked up on damaging ideology. I think it has more to do with growing up and picking sides. Maybe some of it was because of the influence the older kids had. SS15 became an ideal place to hangout for male youths since there were lots of snooker parlours, mamaks, cybercafes, places to skate illegally, and college girls. This brought more outsiders over to 15 as well as many skinheads from other towns who I can’t say were all likeminded.
In time, the skinheads in 15 became more like those Chinese gangster-wannabes. But not all of them… after all, they came from various backgrounds, some middleclass, and some from broken homes, some poor, some happy. They couldn’t all have gone the same way.
So after almost two years as an honorary skinhead, most of the skinheads I knew had already outgrown the phase and grown back their hair. A lot of them joined the hardcore scene. The international charts were now dominated by heavier acts like Rage Against The Machine and the buzzbands for the cool kids were now Biohazard, Limp Bizkit, and Korn. I didn’t really like that heavy macho shit, so it was around this time that I (thought I) became an anarcho-punk and a vegan. But that’s another scene altogether…
Ben Liew is now a slave to the corporation, like the rest of us.
He’s in a punk band too. Be friends with them at www.facebook.com/BensBiatches.