Thursday, September 18, 2014

Launch of Made in Malaysia

The Malaysia-Day launch of Alexandra Wong's Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems took place at MPH's Nu Sentral flagship bookstore.

The store put up about thirty-plus chairs in the beginning. We were told (or promised, rather) that more people will be coming, so the staff took out all the chairs they had (which would STILL not be enough).

Noelle Lim, Queen of the Breakfast Grille programme on BFM89.9 and the author's long-time friend was picked as the emcee for the launch.

The author, Alexandra Wong, started signing books early, almost an hour before the launch began. Her book is a compilation of selected articles from her "Navel Gazer" column in English-language daily The Star.

She got the idea of getting launch attendees to write their names on these stones from somewhere online. She plans to put these stones in a big glass bowl that will take place of pride in her new digs - another element that's in line with her community project of a book.

Every now and then, Alexandra takes time out from signing books to greet her guests and their friends and relatives. Her articles feature the whole gamut of Malaysians, from everyday people to luminaries, and she cherishes every encounter.

It got a bit hard for her to personally thank everyone who attended the launch as the day wore on. Among many of the attendees are Alex's parents and her friends/acquaintances and their relatives or friends.

Showtime was just after 3pm.

As expected, we had no problem filling seats - just getting them. Around the middle of the launch, the bookstore people brought out wooden stools from somewhere inside the store, but it remained standing room only until the end.

Noelle did a fine job as an emcee, even though she claimed this was her first time. Alex thought she'd exceeded expectations.

Singer-songwriter Ray Cheong volunteered his time and talents to open the launch. When he and Alex met, she'd begun her freelance writing career and he was selling cameras. Now, she's an author and columnist and he's got an album (sold at indie talent venue Merdekarya) and, among other things, opened for Pixie Lott's 2012 Kuala Lumpur tour.

Like I said, no problems filling seats.

Young Visaghan delivered a dramatised reading of a story in the book, "My superwoman BFF". Said superwoman is Shivanee Selvaratnam, one of Alex's childhood friends, who couldn't make it and pledged her husband, sons, mother-in-law and several relatives to stand in her stead.

Seems she coached the kid to memorise the lines by heart and, after getting Alex to eat out of his hand during his first encounter, had the audience in the palm of the same hand as well. He's like, what, only ten?

An unscheduled and surprising bit of entertainment was provided by Semai craftsman Raman bah Tuin, who took about two minutes to introduce himself and play the nose flute for the audience.

Alex went all the way to Raman's home to interview him for an article in MAS's in-flight magazine, Going Places (which is pretty much her ambition). If the audience thought his nose-flute playing was enchanting, they should hear it at his backyard, closer to nature.

The author herself finally took the stage to speak about the book and invite some "guests of honour" to share the spotlight with her.

Of course, Alex's parents were first. Their presence at the launch was significant, as she fought for years to earn their (especially her mom's) approval of her freelancing writer's career.

To Alex's surprise, Mrs Wong took the mic. The author's gung-ho, always-seize-the-moment attitude definitely came from her mother. "She never told me about this book until the last minute," Mrs Wong told the audience, to their amusement.

Quiet, dignified Mr Wong, meanwhile, isn't used to being in the limelight.

One thing she forgot to mention: that fellow sitting in the barber's chair on the cover of the book? That's her dad, Mr Wong, getting a haircut at Ipoh's Star Barber.

More and more of the guests of honour - some of the "hometown heroes" and "hidden gems" Alex encountered so far in her career - are invited up the stage and would later sign the mock book towards the end of the event.

This is, after all, their book and their stories.

I'd been sick (sinuses and itchy throat) for the past several days; I only felt a bit of it during the launch, but it got even worse later that night. And it's the first launch I actively participated in since becoming an editor....

This is a truncated version of my Facebook photo album of the event, which for some reason is still "unavailable" despite its "Public" status (Facebook can be so dysfunctional).

Made in Malaysia should be available now at bookstores in the Klang Valley, including Borders, Kinokuniya, Cziplee and, of course, MPH. Some details about the book can be found here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Marks: Excellent Sheep, Book Tour, Banned Words

Here's Salon's Q&A with former Yale lecturer William Deresiewicz where he talks about millennials, meritocracy, student loans and the Ivy League. He also suggests these elite schools are churning out "excellent sheep", which is also the title of his book.

"Our leaders are also excellent sheep," Deresiewicz says. "They're timid; they're risk-averse. They're self-serving. They are intellectually underpowered and very full of themselves, because they've been told their whole life how wonderful they are, and therefore, that they deserve everything they're getting."

After James Frey, Somali Mam, etc., can works of non-fiction be considered reliable media sources?

"Perhaps in a perfect world, every publishing house would have an army of fact-checkers — but what can we do until then?" Kate Newman wonders over at The Atlantic. "At the very least, it's important to read more critically, especially for journalists, who perpetuate untruths when they rely blindly on books for fact."

Authors Josh Weil and Mike Harvkey went on a road trip to "little America" and stopped by a few indie bookstores. They had a blast, but were also touched by the treatment they got from the stores:

Many booksellers thanked us for coming. Some had worked very hard to fill seats — and sometimes it worked. A few had worked harder than that, drumming up notices in local papers or arranging interviews with local radio. Very rarely we encountered a bookseller who had done nothing — no publicity, no press, no questions asked, no attempt to get to know the two authors who had driven halfway across America to spend a couple of hours in their store.

Man, I almost teared up.

The "distinguished but difficult" VS Naipaul was reportedly dropped from this year's Ubud Writers' Festival line-up because of "11th-hour requests" from his agent that included a (US?)$20,000 fee. From what I see, flying him in and hosting him in would cost half the Festival's total budget.

"Our cash sponsorship so far this year is less than $100,000, so we can't spend 50K of that on him," said the founder Janet DeNeefe. "I actually rejected some Indonesian musicians because we can't afford them."

Gosh, whatever happened to "Sure, would be happy to mingle, holiday, and spread the writing gospel"? Am I just naive or have these literary giants been around this block so many times that they've become jaded?


  • Wilbur Smith's vainglorious eunuch Taita returns in his upcoming novel Desert God. Smith's story (here in The Telegraph), however, is no less compelling. Though the descriptions of Taita and the book aren't quite flattering.

  • Kua Kia Soong's May 13: Fact & Fiction has been temporarily banned because an actor from the film Tanda Putera objected to being on the cover. But was the movie really made to rebut Kua's previous May 13 book?

  • Food writers and bloggers should probably take note of Eater's list of banned words, which includes "foofaraw", "nom", "foodie-preneur", "victuals" and several ways to say "Internet". Tony Bourdain added "unctuous" to the list, it seems.

  • How many of you heard about Oscar Pistorius's plan to write a book about "what happened on that day" and were disgusted by it?

  • An armchair detective thinks he's finally unmasked Jack the Ripper, with the help of some "cutting-edge" forensics. The dissection of this theory seems to have begun.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Searching For Malaysia

A compilation of Alexandra Wong's popular Navel Gazer columns in the Malaysian English-language daily The Star and other stories, Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems is about one woman's journey of discovery across a historically and culturally rich and diverse land.

When Wong left her corporate job in 2005 to pursue her dream of being a writer, she didn't expect to open a treasure chest of experiences.

She soon made a name for the heartwarming tales of ordinary Joes and Janes in Malaysian society, all of which she'd serendipitously encountered during her travels. Each gem she uncovers inspires her to seek out more.

Culture shock and curtains of mosquitoes give way to familial warmth at an Iban longhouse. A French former nuclear scientist who embraced Malaysia as his second home makes a weekend in Gua Musang even more memorable.

Pointers on how to be a serious and caring teacher emerge from one of her school's naughtiest girls. And stirring displays of chivalry shine a different light upon titled and supposedly aloof public figures.

"For me, it was important that the book could make a difference and touch the hearts of my readers, no matter who the stories reminded them of: a taxi driver, a makcik in a warung or a kind stranger who left a fleeting yet unforgettable impression," she says.

"That's why my early articles invariably revolved around the interesting characters I chatted up on buses and trains; the cosy mom-and-pop eateries I found along the way; obscure but charming small towns that make up the real Malaysia – they were based entirely on my own life experiences."

In the search for herself, Wong gets reacquainted with her homeland through the stories she's told: stories of lives that can only be made in Malaysia.

But why now, and not earlier?

"Although I was discovering a whole new world as a writer, two years seemed too short a time to amass enough real-life experiences for the book I had in mind," Wong explains.

Well, I guess she has plenty of those by now.

From the generosity of food vendors and selflessness of bus and taxi drivers to innumerable life lessons learnt from friends both old and new, she knew from the start she was chasing something far more precious than her dream.

"I wrote those stories because I knew no better way of acknowledging these good Samaritans, and secretly hoped that, in the process, they might inspire someone else to do the same," she says of this book, which she finally began working on for the past year and a half.

Pieces were selected, enhanced with some backstory and arranged in a way that chronicles her writing journey, from brief stints at an NGO and a newspaper to full-time freelancing.

The process wasn't easy; there were so many people she wanted to include, as the Acknowledgements pages (yes, pages) attest. Some of these figures are also given faces, with the inclusion of photos somewhere in the middle.

Made in Malaysia
Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems

Alexandra Wong
MPH Group Publishing (Sept 2014)
279 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-209-3


RM32.90 | Buy from
The cover featured a photo of Star Barber, a part of the Sekeping Kong Heng guesthouse, taken by an acquaintance. A sibling of a friend conceived the concept for the cover.

It ended up being sort of a community project, a reflection of the country she experienced as a writer and traveller - and the perfect gift she envisioned for the people who has enriched her life.

"This book is a heartfelt thanks to the angels I met on my writing journey," Wong says. "Their stories have moved and reinvigorated me, made me laugh and cry, and taught me what it means to be Malaysian."

Made in Malaysia will be launched at MPH Nu Sentral on 16 September 2014 (Malaysia Day), at 2:30pm. Several people featured in the book are scheduled to appear - nobody you might know, however.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Epicurean Editor's Basic Pork Stew

My third attempt at pork stew this afternoon (let us not speak too much of Attempts #1 and #2) turned out a bit better. My previous attempt yielded pie filling and a layer of unappetising crust at the bottom of the pot because (1) heat was too high and (2) I didn't keep an eye on it.

Pork shoulder stew in pot
Pork Stew Attempt #3 in progress; SO not a 30-minute meal

Raw pork shoulder from a grass-fed oinker from a nearby An Xin Meat Shop was marinated with salt, black pepper, a clove of garlic, dark soya sauce (actually a 'sweet sauce' from a local brand with gula melaka) and McCormick's mixed herbs for 20 to 30 minutes and then seared in a hot pot with some oil.

Chopsticks are helpful when turning the pieces, if you can stand the splattering hot oil.

Then the two cloves of chopped garlic, chopped shallots (also two) and one red onion (roughly diced) went in, along with a bit of salt and black pepper, and are sautéed until brown. I then threw in some carrot and potato (skin on) and sautéed the lot for a short while, maybe three or four minutes.

I probably should have seared the root vegetables as well, so they don't fall apart too quickly when they stew. But the gravy may not be as nice and thick.

Then the meat went in, followed by some water and a tablespoon of light soya sauce; I learnt that you only need enough liquid to cover the pieces.

The whole lot is brought to a boil, then reduced to a REALLY LOW simmer for over an hour (at some point I stopped keeping track). Then I removed the lid and let it simmer for another half-hour (this I kept track of).

I returned to the pot every ten minutes or so to stir the contents, fearful of another crusty development at the bottom. Didn't happen this time; I have a four-burner stove, and I transferred the pot to a small one after the sautéing and set it to low (which I didn't do previously).

When the stew was almost done, I stirred in another tablespoon of light soya sauce (which was not as salty as some common brands) before pouring it into a bowl and mixed in a bit of olive oil.

(The bottom of the pot was near pristine this time, so I didn't have to scrub like crazy.)

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for stew.

Pork stew, completed
The stew, it was good. Can also fill pies.

Delicious, though not as salty as some would like it. Didn't even use chicken stock cubes, as in Attempt #2 (so let us not speak of it again). Meat would've fallen off the bone if it had any; I think the searing also helped. Too bad I didn't have any rice or bread.

Will do this again. Soon.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Bookmarks: Bookselling, Self On Orwell, and Book-Triggered Violence?

Oh boy, people these days are sensitive:

A book got a reader so angry that the latter shot an alligator, and author of said book is sad. "I didn't expect my book to cause the death of an alligator, but somehow it did," said Jeff Whichello, who wrote What Happened to Ochopee?.

Meanwhile, a schoolteacher was suspended, apparently for writing a work of fiction that featured a futuristic school shooting in the year 2902. So it seems the cops saw this as a red flag (he's gonna blow!) and combed the school for bombs and guns but, of course, found nothing.

And was hip-hop artiste Suge Knight shot to keep his tell-all book on the music industry under wraps?

...Okay, now for some good news.

There's this publisher that ditched Amazon and ended up "selling more books than ever".

How? By selling to venues other than bookstores - "museum shops and toystores", for one, and a multilevel marketing model, "an army of some 7,000 sales "consultants" who sell Usborne and Kane/Miller books directly to their friends and neighbours, mostly through book fairs and Tupperware-style home parties."

But the report cautions, "Whether Hachette and other publishers can duplicate EDC's success is by no means certain. Creating their own MLM divisions would seem to be out of the question, though experiments with select imprints might be worth a try."

Will Self calls George Orwell the "Supreme Mediocrity", "slamming the 'obvious didacticism' of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and describing Orwell's acclaimed essay Politics and the English Language as 'plain wrong'."

The Pass Notes people at The Guardian wonder if it's because Self has a new book out.

Also at The Guardian: what they say is a chapter from an early draft of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Look at what Slate brought in: Pop songs reinterpreted as Shakespearean sonnets, anyone?

According to Slate, Erik Didriksen, the one behind the Pop Sonnets, "meticulously" adheres to the Shakespearean sonnet form, which "consists of three quatrains and a couplet, with the rhyming pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG."

Scroll down slowly and see if you can recognise the original hit. I could only spot several, but only because the lyrics were unique.

Oh, and check out this writer/ENT specialist's list of recommended reads. What books would she prescribe for a bad episode of allergic rhinitis?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Forever Lat

Of all Malaysian cartoonists, arguably none have left a deeper mark on readers than Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, beter known as "Lat".

Few are unfamiliar with his accounts of his formative years, travels and travails, as well as his succinct graphic commentary on local and world affairs, for which he has won much praise and accolades. Many have noted the accuracy in how he captures details of what he sees, and the sensitivity and insight in how he presents his observations and conveys nuances.

Therefore, MPH Group Publishing is proud to be issuing reprints of evergreen titles Kampung Boy, Town Boy and Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today, which were launched in conjunction with the grand opening of MPH Bookstores' Nu Sentral flagship today and the upcoming Merdeka celebrations.

Ge re-acquainted with the story of a village boy growing up in rural Perak, and his subsequent migration to a town setting during his teenage years. The protagonist's hijinks and scenes from a seemingly distant era are bound to tug a chord among other kampung boys and girls.

MPH is also publishing Forever Lat, a new compilation which features works published in local news dailies, as well as some new and unpublished ones.

Forever Lat
MPH Group Publishing (August 2014)
168 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-246-8

RM23.90 | Buy from
This will be his latest compilation, after Dr Who?!: Capturing the Life and Times of a Leader in Cartoons, released in 2004.

Smile, laugh or maybe shed a tear as you revisit past events and issues depicted within and realise that even as the years go by, some things - for better or worse - never change.

Like a lighthouse in a storm, Lat's works shine upon the things that matter, things we should never forget even as we hurtle towards the future along with the rest of a fast-changing world.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bookmarks: Twittering Turkish Publishers, Children's Books, Etc.

So, yes, I'm doing this again.

Writer Phyllis Rose's "extreme reading experiment" and the resulting "bibliomemoir".

"In their obscurity, these books might be dull, bad or even unreadable; they might, in fact, be a total waste of her time," Rachel Cooke writes in The Guardian. "But she also felt certain that, should she embark on such a scheme, she would find herself on the readerly equivalent of virgin snow, for who else would have read this precise sequence of novels?"

Seems children's books are popular at the Shanghai Book Fair. But beside the old argument that the sector is saturated, there are other challenges. For one, it's easier to create books for older children than younger ones, a chief editor of a publishing house claims.

"Here, artists often draw after the writers have finished stories, and that creates a barrier," says Zhuo Qing of one Children's Publishing House. "But in many other countries, many writers can also draw themselves. And they will consider many details of a book including how it feels when it's touched."

Never thought of that.

Also, it's not just about good writing and storytelling, but understanding what and how children think, says Zhuo. "Some young writers decided to quit after initial trials because they found it is very hard to become famous quickly in this area."