The Janet Pillai Interview
Janet Pillai (Photo credit: AQ Koh)
With her trademark mop of salt-and-pepper hair, Janet Pillai sits at a table in Hillside’s Café Gusto, scribbling away into a journal. She doesn’t look up until I place a box of Chinese New Year crackers in front of her. Breaking into an impish grin (another Janet trademark), she greets me for our impromptu interview-slash-breakfast.
As a theatre lecturer and heritage activist in Penang, Janet established Arts-ED, an arts and heritage education centre for children which runs various community outreach projects. Janet’s work has won her various accolades, from being named one of DiGi’s ‘Amazing Malaysians’ to a BOH Cameronian Arts Award, and most recently, being featured by Penang Monthly as one of 16 exceptional women in the state.
Janet gracing the cover of Penang Monthly in April 2012 (Photo credit: Penang Monthly)
I first met Janet in 2009, when she roped me in for a cultural mapping project for Arts-ED. It was an invaluable experience, and I learnt more about my hometown than I’d ever done before. It also introduced me to a community of people passionate about heritage education and youth engagement, not least Janet herself. I both admired and feared (just a tiny leetle bit!) her blunt and outspoken nature, which was tempered by a dry sense of humour and her genuine concern for everyone around her.
One of Arts-ED’s community performances (Photo credit: Arts-ED)
Unfortunately for Penangites, Janet has now retired and moved to Kuala Lumpur. Given that Janet’s always encouraged us young ones to record the oral histories of our elders, I decided it was time to turn the tables on her instead. We met up last week during her brief trip back to Penang, where I peppered her with questions on her childhood, the inspiration behind Arts-ED, Malaysian bureaucracy and the silent advantages of a hotel room: