The French version of the can-can, which became popular in the early 1800s in the working class ballrooms of Paris, is a lively music hall dance.
It's performed by a chorus line of women, usually dressed in long skirts and petticoats, which are lifted, kicked and swirled suggestively to reveal the dancers’ black-stocking-ed legs, and sometimes more!
The Malaysian can-can is something entirely different – it’s an answer, an attitude, and an outlook, all rolled into one.
“Can-can” is more than just the affirmative replacement for “yes,” although that’s how the expression is used most frequently by many Malaysians. It also reflects an underlying positive orientation to life itself.
Thirty-six-year-old Malaysian training coordinator and entrepreneur Shaimlee is the epitome of can-can. She believes she can do just about anything. And she’s doing it. Against the odds.
An ethnic Indian born in Malaysia to Indian-Malaysian parents, Shaimlee (left), led a sheltered life as a young girl, and her strict mother treated her harshly.
So it was “puppy love,” and what Shaimlee then saw as an avenue of escape from a restrictive family life, that she says led her to marry at the age of 19.
She became pregnant almost immediately, and produced a baby daughter. But instead of the love for which she longed, her husband dished out physical abuse, so Shaimlee left the marriage when her daughter was a year old, and she herself was only 21.
Forced to return to live with her parents, she lost hope and tried to commit suicide. But she pulled herself out of depression after the failed attempt and struck out on her own, often working two jobs to make a decent living and create a good life for herself and her daughter.
Today, Shaimlee works full-time (four 12-hour days per week) as a training coordinator for a Malaysian semi-conductor manufacturer. She recently opened her own tailoring shop (that was being painted the day we visited), from which she serves a growing clientele on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
In her spare time, Shaimlee performs with a traditional Indian dance troupe. She dances as much for enjoyment as to earn extra money to help pay the mortgage on the two-bedroom flat she bought a couple of years ago.
She raised money for the flat down payment by pawning a gold necklace, and the monthly mortgage and expense payments consume virtually her entire salary from the factory.
Had she been born in Paris in the early 1800s, Shaimlee might have been another kind of dancer, perhaps performing the can-can in a chorus line: she’s got the spirit, energy and cheekiness embodied in the old-time dance.
But she wasn’t born in the France of yore. Instead she’s living her version of the can-can, today, in Malaysia, an inspiration to those around her, and now to others around the world.
Not only does Shaimlee rock, she can-cans!
Shaimlee and her colleague and friend Shida (left), together took me on a day trip to Kuala Kangsar, Shida’s hometown.
On the way, we talked about many things, among them Shaimlee’s story and her belief that she, and everyone else, can-can.