Sunday, 30 December 2007

Cracking The French Code

I had such low expectations for the book, the laughs that followed page after page after page became even more satisfying.

And it was a big surprise to see it in print while I was in Malacca. One of the great things that ended an annus horribilis on a good note.



French comprehension
Those who don't understand French also do not understand the French. Now, with this book, you can

first published in The Star, 30 December 2007

I admit I know almost nothing about France or the French, other than Napoleon Bonaparte, the Eiffel Tower, Asterix, the guillotine, the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the French penchant for scapegoating. I also know about the French stereotypes perpetrated by the British in sitcoms like 'Allo, 'Allo and Mind Your Language.

Just when I thought I didn't need to know any more, comes this little volume called Talk To The Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French.

"Don't go to France without reading this book", the back cover warns. I'm not sure I would want to go to France, even after reading this book. There are so many ways you could offend the French, and they have just as many ways of returning the favour (Americans and their "freedom fries" - hah! "Amateurish" would be an overstatement).

Verbal faux pas are all too easy to commit, and French etiquette holds many pitfalls for both the uninitiated novice and well-seasoned expatriate.

But have no fear. If you've gotten a copy, you're in good hands – almost.

Talk to the Snail is the brainchild of British (who else?) journalist and author Stephen Clarke. He had honed his edge through writing comedy skits for radio and stand-up comedy, which explains why he is that good.

The Brits are masters of the sardonic wit. You know who they are: Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson, Hugh Laurie, etc. By the end of the second chapter, I added Clarke to the list.

Before this book there were three others, which he wrote under three different names, and published under his own label to give away to friends and other interested parties.

One of them, A Year in the Merde, a quasi-fictional account of the author's experiences in France, went on to become a runaway best-seller.

Other titles in that vein, Merde, Actually and Merde Happens hold equal promise, and reinforce the author's fixation with the French word for ... "excrement". What's next, Merde, He Wrote?

On the first page, the author offers his "sincerest apologies" to the French, a disclaimer that grows evermore fraudulent as the book progresses. A couple of pages after that another lie is exposed – there are actually 11 commandments!

I like him already.

I've learned more French in this book than I would care to. There are words or phrases I already knew, plus some I've only heard of once or twice.

And, of course: "There's a French word/phrase for that?" – a reaction that keeps recurring as the pages flipped.

Phonetic pronunciation guides are provided, though I doubt they would be of much help.

With regards to the usual Anglo-Saxon stereotype of France and its citizens, Clarke does not hold back. The wit is razor-sharp, the language acerbic, and political correctness is unceremoniously defenestrated. The fnotes, which were reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, added to the fun factor.

Then the fun had to stop about halfway through when I needed my inhaler.

Revelations in the aforementioned pages may sound over-the-top, but France is a country where you wouldn't last a week if: (a) you don't speak French; and (b) you are not well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the French.

Clarke has lived there for over a decade, so he does - or should - know what he's talking about.

Of course, it's not all about lazy workers who are constantly on strike, dodgy real estate agents, bad drivers, surly restaurant help and insufferable service counter staff. There are praises for their culinary tastes, easygoing attitude, aptitude for romance and pride in their culture.


On the contrary, some "common mistakes" in French are
not entirely meaningless


Clarke sounds like a cynical Francophobe most of the time, but it all hints at his covert admiration of the French and their lifestyle - pitfalls and all.

Would I recommend this book? I don't know. I loved it, however. But make no mistake - this is no Lonely Planet guidebook, but it is a good read for anyone who wants to go to France, and a tantalising peek into what Clarke's other Merde-themed novels might have to offer.



Talk to the Snail
Ten Commandments for Understanding the French


Stephen Clarke
Transworld Publishers
262 pages (Hardcover)
Non-Fiction
ISBN: 9780593057223

Friday, 28 December 2007

All Paris, No Hilton

Why don't you read it?" she challenged me. She was not getting away with it.

I kind of regretted it.

Are all chick-lit pieces like this? "Yes, they're all like that," a friend replies, to my horror. It'll be a while before I could gather the courage to pick up another one.



Lightweight chick-lit

first published in The Star, 28 December 2007


To me, the word "chick-lit" is synonymous with Japanese, Korean and Thai horror movie titles. However, somebody found my Achilles Heel by practically shoving a chick-lit title up my nose and challenging me to read it.

Sweetheart From Hell is May-Zhee Lim's sophomore effort, after the chick-lit version of Harry Potter, Vanitee Bee. The first book must have been successful enough to encourage her to write another one. While both the lead characters have the same last name, it’s unclear if Sweetheart is the sequel to her first book.

Think Paris Hilton – but with 10 times the Paris and no Hilton – and you have Vicky Vanitee, the titular "sweetheart" who divorced her husband over a runaway lipstick; lied to her friends about a glam job in the tropics and a mega-celebrity husband; flew halfway around the world (to Kuala Lumpur, no less) to take up a position that is about to be terminated; and tormented her current beau – along with his friends, associates and ex-girlfriends – with random acts of deception, sabotage, fits of jealous rage and profligate spending. All told in her own words.

Reading this felt like riding the nightmarish theme-park attraction, "In the Wake of the Darling from Hades". The narration has the aesthetics of a burning 20-car pile-up. The over-the-top hi-jinks evoke a mixture of disbelief, consternation and amusement. Her chronic, self-centred, bombastic neuroticism makes you weep in pain – from all the cringing and wincing. The plot is fairly straightforward; the adventure lies in surviving the experience with your mind and intelligence intact.

It's easy to sympathise with every single character – except Vicky. She craves attention, thirsts for affection, hungers for recognition and begs to be taken seriously, but everything she does leads to the contrary. Instead, you feel more for the victims of her schemes. It was satisfying to see her finally get her just desserts (quite literally, in one instance).

Just when you're about to reach the end of your rope, begging, "Please, no more, oh God please, please, please put me out of my misery", you spy one of the creative cliff-hangers among the pages – a journal entry, conversation snippet, or blueprint of her next scheme – and once again, morbid curiosity overpowers everything else and you're back into her chaotic slipstream.

Overall, Sweetheart is the literary version of comfort food: it's not healthy, but it is fun – totally mindless fun at that. Its release seems well-timed, given the number of voyeuristic reality shows that are mushrooming all over the airwaves lately. Though it's clear Lim is putting her beloved lead character through the wringer for our enjoyment, one wonders – is she eulogising or parodying aspects of American and regional pop culture?

Fixations for brand names, multi-talented megastars (Jay Chou in particular) and their devotee-like fans, and the paparazzi's hungry gullibility – it's all there, and more.

In spite of the language and drama, there were times when I couldn't help but laugh. The cliffhangers were the funniest parts. From the atrocious narration, in-jokes, and cameos by her friends (and possibly an enemy or two), it's obvious May-Zhee had fun writing the story, which I suspect is that of her alter ego, the pompous, overbearing prima donna hidden behind the fa├žade of the straight-A student.

However, her novel yarn-spinning method may not have a wide appeal. The pink cover is a loud and clear KEEP OUT to sheltered bookworms and stiff-upper-lipped literati. To those who dare, beware of its vampiric vacuousness.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for my Discovery Channel fix. It's been two weeks and I'm still salvaging my IQ.



Sweetheart from Hell
Written and published by May-Zhee Lim
382 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-983-43144-1-5

Monday, 17 December 2007

Piltdown Rakshasa

This looked too good to pass up.

National Geographic recently published news of an old Internet hoax to put to rest the notion that giants used to exist. A local Indian paper actually reported the "find", which allegedly came from north India and confirms the existence of giants from the Mahabharata epic (the paper later retracted the report).

Did somebody appeal to that country for help against oppression? Do they believe in apsaras1 as well?

The society is no stranger to scams. The biggest one in recent history was the discovery of a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The find, called the Archaeoraptor, was eventually exposed as a fake (one version suggests that the fossil was actually assembled in haste and sold to black marketeers by the villager who found it, sullying the "Made in China" tag even further).

Although National Geographic issued a public apology over the Archaeoraptor flap (pun so very much intended), some publications were not so forgiving, cheekily dubbing the scandal, "The Case of the Piltdown Chicken". Creationists and Bible-thumpers also had a field day. Since then, other fossils of bird-like dinos have been found, but scientists are more careful with these finds.

I suspect however, that in India, hope springs eternal.


1 Celestial handmaidens in Hindu myth, similar to the Persian houris.

2 Rakshasas are considered demons, and not all of them are gigantic in size.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Zuup's On, People

"It has great food," FunnyBunny said. "You've never noticed?"

"Oh, I noticed," I replied, a bit defensive. "I just didn't bother."

She rolled her eyes. "It's just a restaurant," she sighed, "not a concentration camp. Give it a shot! What have you got to lose, aside from a few bucks? They have great food. The butterfish is nice. You should try it."

I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Part of her job involves eating, which meshes well with one of her passions, which is, um... eating.

I wasn't disappointed.

I've since made the place a sort-of regular destination for fine food, one of a select few (thanks largely to FunnyBunny). They made changes to the menu after my second visit, so some familiar items had gone missing or were re-packaged as something else. The vichyssoise, for instance, was tinkered with and reincarnated as the Chicken Confetti Soup - probably because customers couldn't pronounce the word.

Zuup is a soup bar by name, so it's natural that soups loom large in their menu (among other meal-time offerings) - about a dozen by my last count. Forget the watery bases so prevalent in Asian kitchens. Each Zuup creation is hearty and flavourful, more stew than soup. Paired with some bread or salad, a regular portion is a meal in itself. Heartier appetites will be pleased with the bread bowl portion - no need to lick the bowl, just eat it!

My favourite soups include the Chicken Confetti, Lamb Goulash (previously known as the Hungarian Lamb Stew), the Irish Beef Hotpot and - despite my shellfish allergy - a tomato-based seafood soup. It's still a while before I go through the entire menu, but chances are good that every Zuup soup is a winner in its own right.

OK, they don't have all kinds of soup. There's no gazpacho, for example, or borscht - which was kind of disappointing. And they "dropped" the vichyssoise (it's vee-shee-suah, you Philistines!) And it was... warm! Some chefs would freaking spit.

A dinner-time favourite of mine is their sirloin steak, drizzled with a smoky barbecue sauce and rested on top of a bed of scrubbed but unpeeled potato wedges. While it's available daily, the steak is one of the dinner-time set meal items. There's an option to add on a starter portion soup of your choice for RM6 (there's even a soup du jour flavour, which is not in the menu).

I also tried the butterfish, and it is good, especially the potato salad. I could have done with a little less butter in the sauce, though. I also had a lamb mix combo, which boasts lamb chops and a lamb sausage, with potatoes and a sublimely sweet and fragrant onion relish.

With the exception of their pasta dish (not very exceptional) I've encountered nothing but winners at the deceptively-named soup bar, tucked so neatly away in the corner of a busy shopping mall corridor. There's a separate dining room for those who want a bit more privacy, and an old PS2 for rent (I think). Free wi-fi? They have that, too.

But I'm not interested in furnishings.

Like I said, I haven't gone through all the soups from Zuup. Who's joining me for my next visit?



Zuup Soup Bar
LG 223, 1 Utama Shopping Centre
Bandar Utama
47800 Petaling Jaya

Opening Hours:
Fri and Sat: 10am - 11:30pm
Sun - Thu: 10am - 11pm
(pork-free)

CLOSED FOR GOOD

Friday, 7 December 2007

Nyonya Goes West

My first published book review! Writing this was fun, and a portent of things to come. I could have started off with an even better book, but sometimes, you don't get what you want. It would, I'm sure, be a recurring theme in this new endeavour.



Honest, homespun tale

first published in The Star, 07 December 2007


Because of their boundless potential to horrify, amuse and tug at the heartstrings, works replete with anecdotes of cross-border culture shock are abundant in the media. Consider An Englishman in New York, A Yankee in King Arthur's Court and An American Werewolf in London.

So it's perfectly understandable that something titled A Nyonya in Texas should hold similar promise. The nyonya (Straits Chinese lady) in question here is Lee Su Kim, who also happens to be an accomplished writer and an Associate Professor of Language and Culture at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in Bangi, Selangor. A picture of her in a white kebaya beside her summarised CV is on the back cover to dispel any scepticism.

This rather short volume chronicles the author's sojourn in Texas, the quintessential cowboy capital of the world.

A close inspection of Lee's CV had me wondering what happened during the frenetic years after she had left Texas for good, and why this book was not published sooner. By now, many of us are all too aware of strange and outlandish American customs and laws, thanks to their soap operas, late-night talk shows, and those weird and wacky reality TV series.

Around the time Baywatch was still popular, the United States was a place of mystery, even to its own denizens. It's a place as big as any Texan's tall tale, and – depending on who you speak to, each state is practically a foreign country.

One unifying factor is the pride Americans have for their roots, never mind that a majority of them are European, Asian and African transplants from a long time ago.

By subjecting herself to their tender mercies, Lee valiantly takes one for the team. Her frustrations, triumphs and defeats in dealing with cultural and lingual hurdles are rendered in heartfelt, if somewhat localised outpourings (relax, each word is thoughtfully explained, and there’s a glossary somewhere).

While the ignorance and idiosyncrasies of Texans – and Americans, in general – are well-documented, some anecdotes here will make you want to whack their heads with a rolled-up newspaper. Then there are lessons on the futility of packing your own culture (like durians) with your luggage. Her farewell to Texas is made all the more poignant by her personal tragedies.

Before I knew it, I'd reached the end of the book. Like a fireworks display, it's colourful, flashy and loud, but ends too soon. There is great potential in this book, but it is let down by choppy, uneven storytelling. Aspects of her heritage felt over-explained, especially at the beginning. If you're a local, it gets very tedious.

Almost half the book tells stories outside of Texas, with plenty of flashbacks to the author's younger days at home, leaving me with the impression that her life in the Lone Star State wasn't as action-packed or eventful as was hinted on the book cover and the blurbs. I also suspected that there were other chapters in the story that were left out or never told, or perhaps the words weren't there for those stories yet.

The illustrations could have been done better. The artist made the author's character look waaay too good. For beginners untouched by Discovery Channel, this book may be a big eye-opener. In fact, I do fear that they'll be as big as saucers before the uninitiated reader reaches the last chapter – and be hard to shut long after he's done. Those well-acquainted with Western culture, however, won't find anything new.

Being a bona fide "banana", I wouldn't find A Nyonya in Texas a necessity in my bookshelf. I am, however, glad this book was written for it is an honest, homespun tale about how travel broadens one’s horizons and how everyone has pride in their heritage.



A Nyonya in Texas
Insights of a Straits Chinese Woman in the Lone Star State


Lee Su Kim
Marshall Cavendish Editions
186 pages
Non-Fiction
ISBN: 9789833346103

Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Hugo Chavez, Mr Freeze

His Majesty, King Hugo I has frozen ties with Colombia because its President chafed at King Hugo's disregard for the Colombian government's guidelines in dealing with the rebel group FARC, and hurt • his • feelings by suspending his involvement in efforts to free some rebel hostages. Mr Freeze also put relations with Spain on ice because its king (a real one, by the way) hurt • his • feelings by cutting short Chavez's rude and unstatesmanlike interruptions towards a speaker at the Ibero-American summit.

Such is the Icemeister's self-righteous indignation. He must've forgotten that only in Venezuela can his oil-funded security and military institutions save him from spontaneous human combustion by shutting up all who opine that His Majesty is in fact a belligerent, self-aggrandising boor. Outside his country, however, he's fair game - and he makes it so easy for anyone who wants to push his buttons.

Oh no, climate change isn't because of burning fossil fuels, illegal forest fires or cattle fart - it's the heat from those voices of dissent, calling for freedom, justice and rationality! If they criticise him and not hero-worship him, his heart will stop and he'll drop dead! And then, he'll melt and eventually raise sea levels by half a kilometre, and drown us all!

So, is Chavez going to start carrying his indignation home after every meeting abroad like an infuriated child, and freeze • all • ties with the offending nation every single time he gets his feelings hurt by locals annoyed at his grandstanding and ceaseless diatribes?

Monday, 26 November 2007

Snarksmith, Meet Wordsmiths

Last month's Readings wasn't particularly noteworthy, but Midnite Lily was there - finally! So glad we could meet up before you went off to Sydney.

This month's, however, started off with a bit of drama. I woke up with a very numb left arm, and became alarmed when it drooped lifelessly as I stood up. Fortunately, it wasn't far gone yet (no shades of blue or green), and a quick rub with some finger-flexing finally returned the arm to full use.

Another bit of drama came along during lunch time. Irene was coming to her first session, and she was bringing Erna Mahyuni along. She called me up asking for directions while I was savouring iced coffee at Yang Kee's Beef Noodle restaurant. Pumped up and goofy with caffeine, I was absolutely no help at all. I made up for it by standing outside the venue, making sure to wave when her car whizzed by.

All the usual suspects were there: Sharon (as the emcee her presence is mandatory), Eugene, and Leon, plus a couple of surprises: Amir Muhammad and Man Booker Prize Nominee Tan Twan Eng. Or someone that looked like him... I think.

There was much fuss over Erna's newly-acquired curves and new hairdo. Irene, who has since ventured into freelance writing, passed around her new business card, a sexy number in sleek, chic black with a gigantic Q embossed on one side. At one corner, went, "IreneQ - Wordsmith".

Hello, Wordsmith, meet Snarksmith. Who is perpetually useless with directions.

Snarksmith then announced his decision to resign and bemoaned the shrinking pie for freelance writing, a claim Erna (aka Senior Snarksmith/Wordsmith) dismissed. Wordsmith offers some words of encouragement: "Go on! Take the jump! Live dangerously!"

While the lineup was impressive, the star of the show was definitely Shahril Nizam, poet, illustrator and poster boy for a particular Diana King single. With a bit more practice, he could add lyricist to his list of talents. A surprise reading of a letter by a tax person capped off the event.

Since my first session, I've found that Readings provides a great way to relax. So much so that I had, as I told Leon Wing, withdrawal symptoms when it had to take a break for some festival in Bali.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

New Digs, New Plans

It's only been a week and three days, but I'm feeling rather settled in my fourth floor apartment. Being a hand-me-down unit from relatives, it's far from perfect, but the issues are fixable.

I'm also reconnected to the Web, and a working gas stove means I can boil drinking water. I am a bit apprehensive over using a three-way adaptor plug for the fridge and hot water pot, though.

It's been a week without TV, and I'm still alive. Not even a whiff of a withdrawal symptom. Wish I could say the same about a week without Internet access. At least I won't have to search and apply for new jobs from the office.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Uprooted Once More

Most people would expect somebody in his early thirties to have a degree of worldliness and concern for his country. So it's rather embarrassing to have an 18-year-old speaking on behalf of my tired, apathetic self.

The cupboards, shelves and drawers in my room have been emptied, and all the contents are packed in cardboard cartons and plastic storage boxes, ready to be shipped out.

Three-plus years. This is the longest time I've ever spent at a place in all my years in KL.

The new neighbourhood will be much busier and noisier, and a lot less secure. Parking will be harder to find, and taking out the trash will be even harder. My next room will be smaller than this, and I may have to live without an ASTRO feed. There'll be no washing machine, either. On the bright side, I have much of the place to myself and I'll be alone for most of the time.

I know, because that's where I lived for nearly three years before moving to the house I'm staying in now.

I didn't have a lot of good memories of the place.

I feel the usual pang that comes from being uprooted (again), but it's not as strong as it once was - a return to familiar surroundings, perhaps? If only I could feel the same for all the changes happening in my life - whenever they come.

I will be totally cut off from cyberspace for days until the technicians come fix my phone line (not sure if the old digs have wi-fi coverage, which, truthfully, is not really worth the money).

So I don't think I'll miss this place too much: the spacious kitchen, sprawling living room, ready parking space, quiet surroundings, and all that living space in what I will soon call "my old room". I'd like to think I've learned not to get too attached to a home that's not my own. But damn, I'm also going back to hand-washing my laundry after three years of automated wash, rinse and spin.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Tea And Chocolate

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Months before this, Alexandra Wong wasn't really a name that stuck in my mind - but her writing did. It was refreshing to see passages that bounce and spin like one of those funky, out-of-this-world space-age tops with those flashing lights, especially in a dour production like The Star newspaper. Her name would remain fuzzy until the day we first met. She was as chirpy as her writings, not to mention good-looking.

And here I was, helping her move house.

There was only one box, but it was heavy, and awkwardly shaped.

But joy!

Anyway, it's not about the move. Alex announced her decision to publish a book, and she needed expert advice. And the only expert big enough within reach is Eric Forbes of MPH Publishing. So after we dropped the box at her new digs, it was off to the Local Authors' Hi-Tea Event at MPH, 1 Utama.

The panel of speakers were getting into gear when we arrived. There weren't any more seats left, so we just stood at the doorway. As expected, Eric was there. An MPH staff member was kind enough to direct him to Alex. While she and Eric talked business, I turned my attention to the issues raised by the panel.

As it turns out, this lovely country, which rarely bats an eyelid when rearing white elephants, installing fake flora to beautify roundabouts and imposing outlandish laws to curb immorality and atheism, drags its feet when it comes to setting up checks and controls that allow local books to be marketed effectively overseas. There are also grouses about protectionism in the West, kind of like an AFTA for literature.

And I found out why it was so expensive to order my How to Draw Manga volume, instead of buying it off the shelf. An author who directed a question to the panel said it most eloquently, quoting a friend from overseas who wanted to buy her book: "Are you kidding me?"

Later, Alex sauntered over.

"Were the discussions fruitful?" I asked.

"Very," she replied. Her smiling face shone.

I was glad to hear it.

Of all the speakers who were there, Rehman Rashid stood out. The author of The Malaysian Journey took the time to pitch his book, talk about the good old days and rub the success of his publication into the faces of his erstwhile tormentors. It would've been a poignant tale had he been less of a prima donna. He speaks well, for a crusty old journalist - which means he probably writes well too.

I am, however, not ready to forget or forgive what he said about bloggers in general, even though I suspect he was targeting certain individuals with his opinion/rectum screed.

I wasn't looking forward to the food, but the curry puffs were okay, and the bite-sized chicken mayo sandwiches were surprisingly yummy. Earlier I greeted Sharon Bakar ("my favourite squid", she called me - ha ha, nice to see you again, too), and there was Lydia Teh, who still remembered me from last year ("oh, you're Giant Sotong!" - excellent memory, by the way).

Alex and I left MPH for a bite to eat at Del•icious Café. I had an early dinner, while she was content with a drink and dessert. As usual, the folks at Del•icious fail to disappoint when it comes to food and desserts, but I feel that they tend to overdo it sometimes. The Classic Chocolate Cake, topped with a huge scoop of vanilla ice-cream and surrounded by a moat of chocolate sauce, was luxuriously sinful.

Last Rites, Death, Funeral Procession and Burial by Chocolate.

Sure, it doesn't sound good on the menu, but it takes care of everything at one go, so there's no need to call the good people from the Nirvana Memorial Park.

After a little shopping spree, we spent the rest of the evening chatting with the landlord, who proudly showed me his old ice hockey stick and a real Louisville Slugger(!)

You don't get endings like that for a great day, you know.

However, to my utter shame and chagrin, my biceps were beginning to hurt. I would be so feeling them the next day, and the day after that.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

A Frog In Their Throats

You probably have never heard of the common coqui. It's a small Puerto Rican frog that is considered an invasive species in places like Hawaii. At night, the males make such a din, nobody can get a good night's sleep.

A similar kind of noise being made by a 50 Cent-wannabe is also keeping government officials up at night.

Namewee is the handle for a university student from home who was smart enough to be in Taiwan when he recorded the six-minute diatribe about police corruption, lazy civil servants and racial tension in the country - far from the reach of those over-zealous Constitution-thumping government officials.

But he was not smart enough to leave the national flag and anthem out of it, and instead, carelessly marketed the ditty as a "gift to the country" and an "expression of his patriotism".

No matter how insignificant or redundant you think it is, or how much disdain you feel for them, you simply do not "pimp up" your nation's symbols or use them as props.

Only the government can do that.

Well, of course they can! Not long ago they messed around with the tempo of the national anthem. And how many times was the "national language" renamed and tinkered with? I was - and still am - quite happy with the Johor-Riau dialect, thank you so very much. And the old Negaraku has a much more soothing effect, especially when played during Monday mornings.

And the flags - oh, the flags! Come National Day, they're everywhere, stretched across buildings and lamp-posts, flown from rooftops of all kinds, exposed to the elements and pollution until they're nothing more than rags. The end effect is more garish, rather than festive or "tastefully patriotic".

I also remember a spot of kris-waving and a blood-curdling call to arms to "defend the sanctity of religion, ethnicity and country" during some political party's annual general assembly. But that's their symbol, and they can do whatever they want with it.

Way too many people have defended his actions; I think he screwed up. He became a godsend for politicians desperate for red herrings and easy prey, while others out there - the muggers, snatch thieves and assorted hoodlums, not to mention loons like Nordin Top - who could do (and have done) much worse, are still free to do as they please.

Snakes, rats, weasels and foxes are raiding the chicken coops while the farmers go after singing frogs, which are nothing more than a mere annoyance.

Time for the public to act smart, so the authorities will have no choice but to pick on someone their own size.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Slice Of Nirvana

The working title for this post was (seriously), "I Can Has Duck ConFEE?" And the answer? "Yes I can!" And I did.

Friday, July 06, 2007

She practically shoved the address up my nose. "Here." I had obviously made her upset. How or why, I couldn't remember. An amazing feat, since we were on Yahoo! Messenger.

I had never even heard of this place until last night. Somebody had done a pretty good salespitch, ooing and aahing over luxuriously rich duck confit and pasta, creatively scrumptious apple tart dessert and lemon meringue pie, all at "proletariat prices". But she didn't have to mention the pricing.

She had me at "confit".

Which was why I walked all the way from my office to The Bodhi Tree.

It didn't take long to find the restaurant, tucked away so neatly off one of the main roads in the heart of KL. On the outside, it looked pretty run-down. A bodhi tree stood stoically at one side of the gate. In the small front yard a light-box menu tried its tired best to tease potential patrons with pictures of some of the delights to be found within. I walked under a trellised arch thick with vines and entered through the nondescript front door.

The interior was much cooler. Looking around, it seemed like somebody decided on a whim to set up an eatery at his home. The uneven floors, old wood and metal furniture, bamboo-splint blinds, roughly textured paint on the walls that were peeling in places, all this lent the place an old-world, bucolic charm.

There was one disconcerting detail: the indentations in the chair-seats that would fit a pair of butt-cheeks. Please, please tell me those were made by the carpenter - with his tools.

Soon after I ordered the confit set lunch, the soup du jour arrived at my table. I had a look. Looks like pumpkin soup. A moment later, a sniff. Smells like pumpkin soup. After a few shakes of pepper and some stirring, a taste. Tastes like pumpkin soup.

When a waiter came to collect my empty bowl, I asked him. "Pumpkin soup," he replied.

Actually, I could have saved myself all the drama by taking a careful look at the huge chalkboard hanging behind the counter, but that's me. And it was damned good pumpkin soup, by the way.

My duck confit pasta arrived in - and nearly covered - a plate roughly nine inches across. Now this was a main course portion. I was happy.

One thing I couldn't forgive was the tomato sauce. While the dish was good overall, I questioned the wisdom of nearly smothering the duck confit in tomato puree. Gamey meats like venison, duck, reindeer, lamb and impala should be allowed to take centerstage, even if some people are put off by the smell.

Still, it was good duck. Lip-smackingly dehydrating (that tomato sauce again), but good.

But wait, there's the bread pudding.

By the time I had polished off the main course the lunchtime crowd began pouring in. Tranquility was soon overtaken by chaos. While it was irksome, it provided some sense of relief. I am not dining in a dying restaurant. Even before dessert arrived I had already scheduled my return.

I got scalded by my first bite of pudding, thoughtfully heated up by the floor staff.

First-degree burns aside, dessert did not disappoint. Like a teasing lover, the pudding initially resisted my spoon, and finally yielded as I applied more pressure. Most important of all, it tasted like bread pudding should. The caramel sauce that draped the dessert was OK; samplings of other caramels evoked memories of bad cough syrup. The scoop of vanilla ice cream provided the buzz of the post-coital cigarette, contrasting and complementing the warmth and sweetness of the pudding.

Like Buddha all those ages ago, I attained enlightenment in the shade of a bodhi tree. If this unassuming place - hidden away like a hermit's retreat deep in the heart of an asphalt jungle - could offer so much, what other wonders would reveal themselves if we cared enough to venture where others wouldn't deign a second look?

That heady feeling of discovery was still there when I picked up the tab. I was so far gone, I paid for RM31 with two notes: one blue and one red. The lady behind the counter tactfully prompted me with the right amount. Somehow, it felt like a great way to end a wonderful meal.

True nirvana may be beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, but I came away happy, feeling as if I had a glimpse of it.



The Bodhi Tree
1 Jalan Kamunting
Off Jalan Dang Wangi
50300 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-26922011

CLOSED FOR GOOD

Monday, 9 July 2007

Don't Ask Them About Ohana

There's one scene in Lilo & Stitch where Experiment 626 (a.k.a Stitch) hitched a bike ride with his new mistress, Lilo. He was anticipating a trip to a big city, where there's plenty of things he can destroy: buildings, vehicles, etc. What greets him, however, as they reached the top of a hill, was a sparsely populated stretch of real estate that gave way to the vast open sea.

"It sure is nice to live on an island without any big cities, isn't it?" Lilo asked her new pet. In reply, the poor creature fell off his seat and rolled around on the ground, whining pitifully.

It's a very funny scene, despite the enormity of what might happen if Stitch had discovered a whole city full of potential playthings.

That was the parallel I drew with the scenes of destruction and havoc wreaked by the Pakistani student-militants. What can I say? I'm a twisted individual.

Stitch was created and fine-tuned by his creator to be a machine of destruction. That is all these pitiful, misguided individuals are in my eyes: life-sized representations of Stitch. Their idea of regime change, after all, is the dismantling of the existing governments and their infrastructure. Once everything in their path has been subjugated or annihilated, what is left for them to destroy?

When the Taliban drove the Russians out of Afghanistan, they set about doing the only thing they were trained for: they destroyed tapes, kites, non-religious books, anything "unIslamic". With the cities all levelled and all the citizens cowed with threats of death and imprisonment, they turned their guns on the statues at Bamiyan. If the US didn't interfere, chances are good they'll be knocking on their neighbours' doors. "Hey, open up! You have unIslamic elements in there, and we're going to clean it up!"

Considering the level of expertise with which they "cleaned up" Afghanistan, I can understand anyone's reluctance in accepting the Taliban's generous offer.

Murder is a grave crime in every single civilised country; vandalism less so. The laws concerning those, secular or otherwise, are loud and clear. If everybody is allowed to vent their anger in any way they choose, all hell would break loose.

That's why Dr M's latest statement vexes me. Whether he realises it or not, he's actually condoning terrorism - and in the case of Pakistan, treason - as a justified response against perceived grievances and injustices - making him (nearly) as irresponsible as the clerics who brainwashed the students.

It will not end if the "root causes" of Muslim anger are addressed. Today it's Western attitudes; it could be something else tomorrow.

Because anger is blind to what it burns - and what it needs to burn.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Too Much Information

Saturday, 30 June 2007

MidniteLily's decision to (maybe) attend the latest round of Readings spiced up what was becoming a monthly routine - depending on the circumstances. There were certainly a few new faces among the attendees, but she was nowhere to be seen.

It was still a memorable affair, though. For reasons good and bad.

Good, because of two celebrity writers: David Byck, and Andre Vltchek. There seems to be at least one luminary among the readers for each session, which contributes a great deal to the main goal of Readings: encouraging writing talent.

Byck stood out because of how my attention was drawn to his book a few weeks back at MPH MidValley for some reason I could not fathom. It's A Long Way to The Floor brings to mind the recollections of a CEO who has gone back to his roots, not a story of someone's path to discovering yoga. Yogis, as far as I can tell, stay real close to the ground.

Good, because Sharon, the emcee and a major driving force behind the organisation of the event, took her turn at the mike and did not disappoint. It is, in addition, a great boost to her credentials as a teacher of creative writing.

So, why the bad? Well, "bad" wasn't exactly the word I wanted to use...

"...the nose, that organ located halfway between your eyes and mouth... that very useful organ, good for smelling and most of all, digging..."

What - the - hell?

"...yes, nose digging is such a relaxing activity, does not harm the environment or endangered species, a great way to pass the time, unsurpassed by anything else, except maybe..."

The revelation that followed drew mixed reactions from the crowd. I knew at that point I shouldn't be in the room. But it only got weirder from there. The mental overload that started with the recitation on the benefits of nose-digging kept me rooted to the spot like a stroke - without the debilitating side effects. It didn't help that my own nose was itching towards the end.

I wanted to sink into the floor. Get struck by lightning. Be attended to by Dr Kervorkian. Meld into one of the abstract paintings on the walls. Anything. Just get me out of here!

It was later revealed that the author had written all that himself (in Malay) and passed it off as the fevered mumblings of a man dying of some obscure cancer. I'm still conflicted over whether it was "bad", extremely funny, or both.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Milestones

I've settled my first car loan. All the documents need now is the stamp from the Road Transport Department.

Just last month, I lowered my credit card balance to more manageable levels (meaning, can be cleared with just one payment).

When one thinks about it, the passing of time is more tangible when money's involved.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

They Wanted Blood For This?

Everyone should be familiar with the food warning label, "May contain traces of nuts". When you're Hannibal Lecter, that takes on a whole new meaning.

Salman Rushdie got knighted.

The author of novels like Midnight's Children and Shalimar the Clown is, unfortunately, more known for that book with the inflammatory title, The Satanic Verses. Entire nations wanted him dead because of the perceived insults to Islam the book represents.

That clarion call has been repeated when word spread that Rushdie would soon join the ranks of other luminaries like Cliff Richard and Elton John. A price was put on his head (again). British ambassadors were called up (like children sent to the principal's) to "explain". There were brief episodes of effigy-burning and rage-filled calls for blood.

One of these firebrands is the Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister, who attacked the decision, adding that acts like these justified suicide bombings (a slip of the tongue he later retracted). What caught my attention, however, was what Iran's First Deputy Speaker had to say.

"The British monarch lives under this illusion that Britain is still a 19th Century superpower and that bestowing titles is something still deemed important."

It's mind-boggling that such wisdom can't pre-empt the anger over what he says is an illusion.

And the Muslim world's reaction gives Rushdie's knighthood the significance (and enormity) it does not deserve.

Monday, 11 June 2007

When Museums Make You Stupid

I rarely go to museums, generally because they are just so inaccessible, even during weekends. But when I do, I expect an education. So it's funny (at first) to have museums dedicated to wilful stupidity.

John Scalzi, the sci-fi writer who has a reputation for "taunting the tauntable", has been mercilessly egged on by his readers and colleagues to visit and write about the shrine to the Darwin-bashing ideology that emerged from the soul-searching that came about when Americans realised that not everybody loves them.

Among the revelations put forth by the institution are the fact that the earth is actually 6,000 years old, as opposed to the 4.5 billion I read about when I was a kid; there were no such things as "predators"; and that all animals were vegetarians until Adam and Eve were chased out of Eden.

And the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex once ate coconuts.

I'm staring to pity the once-fabled king of dinosaurs. First were the theories that it wasn't the super predator of the Cretaceous, but a plodding, over-sized reptilian vulture. Then they discovered that its descendant might be the lowly chicken. Now this. Talk about libelling the dead.

While I did have a good laugh over the Photoshopping done by Scalzi's readers, amusement soon gave way to rage. It's one thing to lobotomise yourself and replace that grey matter with the Scriptures. When you try to do that to other people (ostensibly, to "save" them from eternal damnation), it's another matter entirely.

Like it or hate it, the US has contributed a lot to our understanding of science and the world around us. When a community rejected the inclusion of Creationism in their schools (to Pat Robertson's chagrin), I cheered. Loudly. So it's quite a wrench for me to watch these self-righteous tripe-peddling loons take advantage of the freedom of speech to tell the world just how weird they are, and that their weirdness is truth.

Religion and politics is a dangerous mix, as we can see in the news. Religion and knowledge is only slightly less so. A line must be drawn in the sand between the two, and right now.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Don't Ever Count On Tomorrow

Tomorrow.

An oft-used invocation that would hopefully stay the hands of time and fate, and ensure that everything for the said appointment or deadline will be there the next day - or the day after - when you could be bothered to attend to it.

But as I realised, tomorrow is often unreliable, especially when you want it to be.

"You read my blog?!" ChiQ gasped. That was June 2005, after I had asked about the "rough patch" I'd read about in her BlogSpot blog. She looked shocked, even - happy, to learn that a reader, a total stranger, had cared enough to ask. Her round, cheerful face betrayed nothing.

That was the first and last time we met.

Because she walked out on Tomorrow - and on all of us.

Hey, guys. Take care, will you? Don't do anything stupid. I'd rather lose all of you to old age.

Monday, 28 May 2007

When Wordsmiths Gather

The latest Readings session was well-attended, and had the atmosphere of a gathering of martial arts experts. Both the founding mothers of Readings, Sharon Bakar and Bernice Chauly were present, and even a crouching tiger and hidden dragon had come out to play.



"Hello, I'm Kenny."

I rummaged through my memory. "Kenny Mah," I blurted out in recognition.

The poor fellow nearly jumped out of his skin. Apparently this happens to him a lot.

He should have expected it, though.

Virtually everyone at the gathering shared a connection with Sharon. They were either commentors on Bibliobibuli, or in some way involved in the local literature/poetry scene. So it wasn't too hard to deduce that this fellow "A" is actually "A" of "B" from the "C" blog, and so on. This was a closely-knit group that would give a Freemasons' lodge a run for its money.



Never judge a person by how he opens a wine bottle.

When I first met him Nicholas Wong was not doing very good job. My opinion of him was fairly neutral, but he didn't impress me. So when Sharon rattled off his achievements as an introduction to his turn at the microphone I was stunned. There were awards, prizes, and published works and interviews. The boy was as decorated as a knight of the Round Table.

And if that wasn't enough, Sharon told us that the veteran poet Wong Phui Nam, whom she had trouble inviting to Readings, agreed to come only if Nicholas was coming to read.

Me? I fared a lot worse. I had nearly ruined a bottle of wine. His cork extraction skills, however, has since improved.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Don't Count On Tomorrow

The cheery atmosphere of an Internet chat was shaken by news of a murder. It brought home the realisation that such tragedies don't just "happen to other people".

Gloomy thoughts on mortality dragged me out of my shell and into the real world, which laughed, shook its head and sometimes cheered my attempts in seizing those swiftly-moving days. Even before the latest round of bad news, the passing of several personalities had already given "Project Get-A-Life" an added sense of urgency.

I hated the fact that one day, I won't be able to see, hear, smell or taste all the things that I've come - and will come - to love and enjoy so much: blue skies, turquoise oceans, colourful works of art and pretty faces; flowers, spices, and the scent from the nape of my partner's neck; new and old favourite songs and familiar voices.

There are other new things that I'm sure I'll miss someday.

Yvonne waving at me with a smile on her face after picking me out of a crowd (with only one good eye).

Irene's throaty laugh when she hears a good joke, or when the joke's on me.

FunnyBunny getting all animated as she recounts her latest (mis)adventures.

Wildguy's sardonic observations of things around him and the wild, wild ideas that sprout like weeds from his criminal mind.

Mom's cooking and Dad's dry curry.

All of that, and more, will come to an end. And I'm taking in as much as I can before my time comes. We don't need to wait till we're down with a terminal illness, or when someone's put a contract out on us.

If you see me a little too often at a particular event, a food joint or venue, or find me gatecrashing one party too many, hold your snide remarks about me being some fixture or unwelcome guest. I'm there for the experience, and for you guys as well. Because our lifetimes are much shorter - and more precious - than we think they are.

Yet some people still hang on to the past, flog dead horses or obsess over race or religion. Do they think they'll live forever? Or have they merely lost their way?

Monday, 21 May 2007

If Only All Weekends Were Like This

Lately I've been lucky enough to find a few escape routes from the mundane existence that is my (lack of a) life. If only I could say the same about my (lack of a) career.

The talk about writing believable characters at MPH, 1 Utama last Saturday was brief, and poorly attended. But the panellists managed to squeeze in some infotainment into the one-and-a-half hour slot. While the Professor and Nik Azmi felt somewhat at home, Kam Raslan looked like he'd rather be somewhere else.

The question of race was inevitably brought up during the discussions. The argument was that the deeply-rooted compartmentalisation of our society has made it difficult to sell works that pitch the "harmonious multi-racial utopia" because we ourselves can't relate to such literature.

And I bought a book. Kam Raslan signed my copy of Confessions of an Old Boy, the novel he flogged during that Central Market reading session, where he teased the audience with humorous snippets from one of the chapters. The "hero" of his story reminds me of Taita, the brilliant eunuch slave from Wilbur Smith's River God. They share the same level of cowardice and snobbishness, plus the talent for words and ability to mingle with saints and scoundrels.

I checked the signed page last night. It was strange that the date was the 20th of May (Sunday), when the talk was held on Saturday.

Sharon Bakar's invitation to lunch at Ms Read's Del•icious Café derailed my plans to invade Italiannies and find out what the fuss was about; some people loved it, but my sisters didn't. That didn't stop me from joining in. The food is great, as are the desserts.

So that was my weekend done - or so I thought.

On Sunday, ten to midnight, the FunnyBunny threw me an invitation for a drink, which landed right between my eyes like a well-aimed javelin. She'd just come back from an overseas jaunt, and missed some of the local flavours. I accepted, and footed the bill - my way of thanking the higher powers for keeping her flights trouble and terrorist-free.

I had work the next day, but she is a friend.

There were photos, of course. Food, cute furry animals, impressive architecture and... works of modern art. Since she has her own blog, I won't go into detail here, lest she peels me like some edible fruit of choice.

And after that, I opened Kam Raslan's book and it swallowed me whole. Half the night was gone.

No, I wasn't terribly late for work.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

How To Dish Out Your Thoughts

It wasn't as big a deal as Yvonne's book launches, but I attended the book-talk anyway. She and Her Majesty Boadicea held court at MPH 1Utama last Sunday. Although it was about that collaboration called Write Out Loud, the maestro of the project, Karen-Ann Theseira, was nowhere to be seen.

OK, so I arrived late and probably missed her.

The so-called book-talk-slash-how-to-write session quickly morphed into a cross between A Tribute to John "The Next Tom Clancy" Ling and "What You Don't Want to Know About Writers" (the latter part owes much to Boadicea, Part Time Queen of Darkness). Revelations about writers as brooding, tortured beings who tap into wellsprings of raw negative emotions almost made a young aspiring writer in the microscopic audience swear off the art forever. In the end, though, all was well.

But back to the Young Aspiring Writing Newbie.

This was what happened: young aspiring char koay teow seller wants to be the next big thing, so he seeks guidance from one of the Famous Macalister Road Sisters from Penang. Being the guileless, not-so-surefooted fledgling that just realised that those flappy things are meant for flight, he puts forth queries he thinks will bring him closer to his goal. "Should I slice the spring onions diagonally or straight horizontal?" "What brand of koay teow is best?" "Aluminium or non-stick (wok)?" "Wild or farmed (prawns)?"

To her credit, Her Majesty (who has a reputation for not suffering fools) was very patient with the budding acolyte, satisfying his burning curiosity as best she could.

I felt like whacking him with one of the chairs.

Writing is a bit like cooking. You need ingredients, proper utensils, preparation techniques and - the most important thing - that personal touch. It's the last bit that sets you apart from the rest, because it is, well, you. It will take you years - or never - to develop and hone your magic touch to a katana-edge. You think it's easy to put bits of yourself into your writing? Some find it easy, so much so that they're not doing it consciously. Then we have our fledgling, whose fuss over tools and technique kept him from getting off the ground.

Speaking of technique: Let me spin you a yarn.

When I was in Form 5, we had to produce rice paper prints from a carved linoleum board for our final Art exam. Half of my class were students of this one art tutor, and the teacher who graded the paper immediately noticed the applied techniques of his colleague in the masterpieces they turned in (they all even had the same theme: nesting birds). Mine sucked, but the design and colours were my very own.

Too bad you don't get points for being yourself in exams. With writing, it's a different story.

O budding writer, do not be afraid. Bad writing is everywhere, so your first attempts won't be the catastrophe you thought they were. Practise whenever you can. Read, and read lots. Even the bad pieces. Do have a dictionary in hand, because spelling is always important. Learn to convey your thoughts and ideas in a manner so concise your readers will get you the first time. Forget about that thesaurus sitting on the bookstore shelf. Even as a professional writer, you will never use up to eighty-percent of the contents in your lifetime. Research your chosen genre thoroughly so that you look like you know what you're talking about. Use words like "kewl", "sux" and "kthxbai" to incur my everlasting wrath.

The rest? You pick it up as you go along. You, your life and your journeys are source of the ingredients for your writing. Once you have an idea of how to "cook" and present them, it should be smooth sailing from there.

Getting published is another matter entirely.

The one thing you can't control is the reader. Don't bother trying. Since readers are also people, there will be those who will either love you or hate you after they've sampled your prose. Not everybody likes char koay teow, you know.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

One of The Better Days

I found a bean sprout growing out a kitchen sink's drainage outlet on Friday night. Either the sister has developed a sense of humour, or it's the long-neglected grease-trap, crying out for some care and attention. The creepiness factor only added to the sense of foreboding that hovers above those who have to work weekends.

Later, after divulging my plans for the next day during an on-line chat, the FunnyBunny pointed out a glaring inconsistency in my declaration of misanthropy. The plan was to work half a day before speeding off to a sort-of social event at Ikano's Popular Bookstore, the scene of a previous engagement involving literature.

But when I arrived at the office, my colleagues were a no-show. I should be happy, but I wasn't (because nobody told me of any postponements). After waiting for an hour, I choked down an inferior pasta dish at a food court and left for the venue. I arrived early, so I killed some time by window shopping. A pre-event surprise was bumping into Ruhayat X on the escalator.

It was raining mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers when it was almost time for the launch.

Unlike her previous launch, they made it official by roping in sponsors and a real Member of Parliament. There were door gifts for early birds, courtesy of the sponsors and (gasp) gifts for some (choke) pop-quiz. One notable presence was Advertlets, which was recently embroiled in a minor controversy. And there was the author herself.

I've never seen Yvonne look prettier.

The speeches, while honest and heartfelt, were mostly unscripted. I found myself wincing at certain points due to the loudspeaker. The launch was officiated when the MP and Yvonne signed the poster that commemorated the event.

Among the gifts was a voucher for a free Starbucks beverage. With that in hand, we followed Yvonne down to the Starbucks outlet to pick a drink of our choice after the event was over.

The local representative for Starbucks for the launch was pretty too. We talked briefly about coffee, Yvonne, blogs - and nothing else.

Chats with Yvonne still involved paper and pen; she couldn't equip the implant that allowed her to partially hear sounds. I also had to adjust my font size when she found my awful handwriting too small to read. There was talk about blogs, naturally, and her work. She also expressed admiration for Lillian Chan, saying that she could never find the courage to be so forthright in her own blog.

In reply I wryly scrawled, "Second childhood, maybe?"

It was good to see her again.

I stayed around longer than I should have, and I wondered why until I was asked to help carry stuff from the Popular Bookstore office down to the parking lots - across the street at The Curve (I previously played porter after the end of her charity concert. Coincidence?) With my trembling arms manoeuvring my inhaler after the task was done, I began wondering about other things, like which deity did I unintentionally offend this time; who the heck drinks strawberry-flavoured milk nowadays; and why is Marigold still selling it?

On the other hand, I finally got to see what's behind one of those "For Staff Only" doors, so I'm not complaining. Thank you, Yvonne and Cordelia. You've made my day.

I rounded up the day by going over to the Curve and got a newer, sturdier backpack, plus a nice dinner at Café 1920. The pasta was much better, although their idea of a "main course" portion was my idea of a starter portion. I think I may have spoiled it a bit by adding too much parmesan.

There was some grocery shopping before returning home. Upon entering the house, I spotted the sister and her boyfriend in the midst of wrapping something - a picture frame perhaps? - until I got a closer look.

"Oh no," I said as it dawned on me. "Tell me that's not a-"

"Yes it is," they answered almost in unison.

They were, in the living room, wrapping layers of newspaper around the manhole cover to their new house. Someone suggested they take care of it until they finally moved in.

I suddenly remembered why. "Oh yes," I said, "they used to steal those to sell as scrap."

The sister looked up. "What do you mean, 'used to'?"

"They'd even brave electrocution to steal live copper wires," her boyfriend added. "Lots of them have died."

"Well, if they're so brave maybe they should have a go at Fear Factor," I suggested, placing my shopping on the table.

"Ooh, I see you bought a new bag from TearProof," the sister noted. I should note that all it took was one glance. "Oh look, it's also a High Sierra brand," she told her boyfriend. "XYZ has a bag like this."

The casualness of her observation blindsided me. "How the..."

"Trust me; I recognise all the shopping bags that come out of every shop in MidValley." Yes, there is a TearProof outlet there too, but that's not the point.

"I recognise all the shopping bags that come out of every shop in MidValley."

I found that deeply unsettling. Her boyfriend, however, looked rather amused.

I'll see better days, someone once comforted me. This was definitely one of those.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Swordfish At Our Shores

Thailand is in trouble. Its king is apparently so ill he can't even defend his own royal dignity from infantile YouTube pranksters. That sacred duty is left to the junta, who have firewalled the site out of the Kingdom of Smiles until every last offensive clip is removed.

It is a desperate and futile gesture, but don't laugh just yet.

A similar phenomenon is already brewing here.

The perverse penetrative power of the Web has been rattling the nerves of our political masters, to the point where they start rambling incoherently. Just how would camwhores, cat lovers, avid readers and foodie adventurers threaten the fragile social fabric of ours? Putting high school and college students through red tape hell because of their virtual soapboxes? Muzzle the voices of concerned citizens who are now finding new ways to air their heartfelt, genuine grievances?

(OK, there is at least one blog, the One-That-Shouldn't-Be-Named, who is unaware that his holier-than-thou attitude makes him an even bigger jackass than he already is. I'm exercising mercy by not giving him any more publicity; his head might swell and explode, and I'm sure nothing good comes from that.)

Now, soldiers are not required to be intelligent, so we could excuse the Thai military for thinking that theirs is a brilliant idea. The same can't really be said about our government.

Fogeys of my generation remember an old fable about Singapore (or Temasek) and the Storm of Swordfish that swept the island. Bereft of sound ideas, court officials suggested lining the shores with men to stem the scaly tide, which of course, led to even more casualties. Then a boy came up with a more sensible solution: banana trunks. The storm soon passed, and lives were saved.

Alas, there would be no happy ending. The court officials, fearing for their positions, petitioned the king to kill the boy for what was nothing more than a suggestion borne out of common sense. Lots of flowery words were used, like the one from an English exercise book I read, which goes, "...it is said, that a child should be a pupil, and not a teacher to kings..." - an allusion that a child that is smarter than his elders violates all sense of propriety. Being an idiot himself, the king succumbed to the machinations of his court, and had the boy killed.

(Just when I thought I was the only one, here's another who managed to connect the dots.)

The Internet isn't just one big grapevine; it's also a massive storage vat. Any dirt that finds its way around the Web will be available for all to see, and will remain so for a very long time. When you're a ranking official on the take, it's a real cause for concern. And there seem to be a lot of those popping up lately, since this country got wired.

So, could we be faulted for receiving the vibes we're getting from the current quivering of our politicians' nerves?



Here's another politician who thinks he's got it all figured out. It's not related to the current issue, but I can't help but see some parallels. He obviously hasn't seen the Gen-Y wave yet. They could teach some kings a thing or two.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Coffee With WildGuy at KLCC

I couldn't sneak off early for a lunch date with WildGuy, but I made it anyway. I sought the healing provided by more social contact with friends. That need grows as you get older. And it's fun talking with him. He sets everything straight with his warped philosophies and wry observations.

(So McDonalds has a mini-outlet at the food court now - and it's not even a year since my last visit)

There were musings on death, mercenary work in the Middle East (and the beauty of RPGs, AK47s and M16s), abuse of the suffix "-cino" by Malaysians, and an acquaintance of ours with an eerily reptilian nature.

"Have you heard from him lately?" WildGuy asked while we were having McDs.

"Nope," I replied. "Not a peep."

"Same here. Haven't heard from him for a long time now."

"Maybe business has been bad lately, so he hasn't had much activity." I sipped my Ribena (who cares about that vitamin C thing? It still tastes good). "So he's probably hibernating. You know how reptiles are."

WildGuy cracked up. "Yeah well, it's the rainy season. The weather is cold, after all, so it's understandable." As usual, he had the last word. There was also something about bloggers, but I forgot what.

KY had a prior arrangement, so he couldn't join us for coffee right after lunch. By the time he was ready, the coffee was gone and I had to leave.

The coffee? Tastes like anything ending with "-cino" should taste - in Malaysia, at least.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Imagine If They Were 300 Years Old

"Why is it so bad lately?" a female colleague asked about the traffic situation in KL this week. Another female colleague said some roads were closed, but didn't know why.

"The Royal Malaysian Police are celebrating their 200th anniversary," I supplied. "They've closed the roads to Dataran Merdeka for the festivities." Where they prance around in shiny uniform and showing off at the motorists' expense, I mentally added.

Female Colleague #1 rolled her eyes.

"What? The police are so old already?" asked Female Colleague #2.

"Of course," I said. "The British formed it first."

The modern police force was in fact founded by our former colonial masters. Clinging stubbornly to ancient roots, the Malaysian Police's web site insists that they went back as far as the Malaccan Sultanate, when the Police Chief was known as the Temenggung. True in a sense, but it doesn't justify shutting down part of the city's busiest traffic grid for a self-promoting celebration.

Weren't there any vacant National Service camps they could've used for rehearsals? And after that, I'd suggest they do all their well-practised marching, chanting and human pyramid building in a deserted stadium on a weekend, make a high quality DVD recording of it all and have it on sale at every police station. It'll reach a wider audience, be available for viewing all year-round, and would take care of any Police Day "celebrations" - and all related road closures - for the next two centuries.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

How to Avoid Helping Terrorists

The Information Minister says mainstream journalists and papers are selling themselves short by quoting blogs and web sites, sources of "news" that he says have no credibility.

May I quote him on that? Oh, right. I just did.


Terrorists - and those who help them - now face the mandatory death penalty if their actions kill people. Malaysian airlines will soon be warning foreign visitors about the dangers of drugs and terrorism.

Just when we're trying to woo more tourists this year.

To counter the additional cynicism the ruling would engender, I'm offering tips on how you can keep from being an unwitting tool of mass destruction.

  • Beware of people who ask for directions - and help in carrying luggage.
  • Be careful when donating to charity. You know what they say about good intentions and the road to Hell.
  • Drivers of buses and cabs would have to watch who they're ferrying.
  • Hotels, resorts, budget inns and the YMCA should conduct stringent checks to prevent their establishments from becoming fly-by-night operation centres for al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.
  • Sales clerks of places like Ace Hardware, IKEA, 7-Eleven and all retail stores should keep an eye on strangers who loiter around too long at the electrical goods and cellphone departments.
  • And you cellphone peddlers too should beware. You know how they set off those remote controlled bombs in Madrid?
  • Homeowners! Beware of who you sell or rent your property to. That also goes for you car owners.
  • Pizza Hut! McDonald's! Shakey's! Domino's! Do you know who your riders are delivering to?

Follow my advice and you won't go wrong.

Really.

And Happy Visit Malaysia Year 2007.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Live Here At Your Own Risk

"At your own risk" is a phrase habitually used by operators of parking lots, amusement parks, hotels, gyms and every other conceivable establishment as a talisman against the wrath of irate customers.

Because it often works.

Welcome to Malaysia, where living is as perilous and exciting as a reality TV show. In a country where civil disobedience means speaking your mind, there are other hazards.

  • Two students, one of whom lost his hard-won academic certificates along with his luggage, had their bags stolen when the bus they were travelling on spilled cargo onto the road after the doors of the luggage compartment failed.
  • A boy drowned in a swimming pool, a venue even the Guinness Book of World Records wouldn't consider as a candidate for World's Deadliest Place. And this isn't the first time.
  • There's an underground parking lot in the city that invites you in, but politely tells you that your car may be submerged when it floods.
  • A colleague left her car at a parking lot at Bukit Jalil to commute to work via the Light Rail Transit. She came back after sunset and found scratches in the paintwork.
  • People have died at our theme parks - and National Service camps.
  • Did I mention snatch thieves?

We make frequent calls for accountability and transparency from our politicians, civil service and law enforcement authorities, yet turn a (seemingly) blind eye at the surly parking lot gateman who just sticks his hand out for money (and be really really surly when you refuse to pay). Being a small-time operator should no longer be an excuse for shoddy service.

People take risks in casinos and stock markets. When overclocking CPUs, climbing Mount Everest or bungee jumping. Selling the Iraq War. Buying books by first-time authors. Having pet cats.

Something is seriously wrong when the risk of losing your life is associated with things like getting your car from the parking lot, riding the bus or just walking down a quiet street.

Now there's a slogan for Visit Malaysia Year 2007.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Because There's Nothing Else Blog-worthy Today

In a bid to crawl out of the woodwork, the Tourism Minister paraphrases Epimenides, with predictably catastrophic results. The gaffe, picked up by Chinese dailies in the country, soon had the female half of the local blogosphere fuming. Plus, the timing could not have been worse.

Now, I don't read the Chinese papers (because it would take too long, and I don't know most of the characters), particularly because, like their Hongkie counterparts, they have a tendency to sensationalise. But we are talking about some one who suggested that he was a conspiracy victim when the regional news media harped on the big bad haze that happened last year.

It's also true that most bloggers jump on such gaffes like pumas pounce on sheep. Most sheep, however, don't make themselves stand out from the crowd. And we don't go out of our way looking for something to tear apart. At least, not here in Malaysia.

We just sit back and wait.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Life Imitates Fiction

Some things are so surreal they belong in Hollywood. Or manga-dom.

"Guess who are the people who will be working under me," Sister #2 chirped. She's been promoted to Assistant Manager, but the post means going back to Penang - and when Sister #1 moves out before this year's end, I'm without enough people to rent the house I'm living in - a more private crypt with our own ASTRO feed.

Then she points to the framed acrylic black-and-white portrait of a wedding couple she painstakingly painted last year as a gift, and delivers the punchline. "Sales manager," she booms, pointing at the bride, and, "sales director!" with a finger trained on the groom. Cue evil laughter.

Now who wouldn't like a boss like that?

Sunday, 25 February 2007

What, Over Already?

I'm back - and still feeling jet-lagged.

Saturday, 17 February - Chinese New Year's Eve
In an effort to beat the last-minute Chinese New Year traffic, Sister #1 decided to leave at 4am. For a while, things went smoothly. Then we reached the stretch near Rawang, where the number of tail-lights more than compensated for the missing street lamps. An accident involving two express buses also complicated things.

"Say, where's your Samy Vellu voodoo doll?" I asked Sister #1. She keeps quiet.

Oh, it's as if you don't have one.

It was pretty much the same as we approached Ipoh, too. And there was another accident. Earlier on, there had been ads on the radio from the Transport Minister, a police chief and the Deputy Prime Minister pleading the public to drive safely. Personally, I think they might have had better results if they'd used celebrities.

Thursday, 22 February
While checking the parts of my scalp affected by neurodermatitis, Mom found white hairs (note the plural).

If not for this DefCon II-level alert, I wouldn't have believed I had a biological clock.

So that pretty much sums up my holidays. How was yours?

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Night Text Came Alive

The Information Ministry is cutting back on TV ads that feature Pan-Asian actors and models for some obscure reason. Some of those Pan-Asians cried discrimination; supporters hailed equality. WildGuy, a friend and a typical Pan-Asian Adonis, might be interested in stirring that pot.

It was a disappointing day at work. Then I was out late because of an event. During the intermission, when I just, just had to go, all the public washrooms were closed. There was an encounter with a flooded washroom with an overflowing drainage outlet. When I came back there were even more mosquitoes at the venue.

It was really late when it ended. To get home, I allowed myself to be fleeced by one of the local cabbies, who, I swear, grow fangs, sprout leathery wings and develop an unhealthy fetish for velvet-lined capes after sunset.

But it was worth it.

At first I didn't really want to attend the international readings event (artfully dubbed Night of The Living Text) because of the ungodly starting time of 8:30pm, which is - coincidentally - around the same time I get off work nowadays. In the end however, curiosity triumphed, as it often does in my life.

It turned out to be quite an adventure.

Finding the venue wasn't as difficult as climbing the stairs. The elevator, disguised as a bar entrance, was as temperamental as its camouflage was deceptive. I found myself looking at a white-washed and spaciously empty art gallery, vaguely partitioned into three areas.

On the left, a Malay man (whom I later learned was Hishammuddin Rais) whose appearance I normally associated with intellectual rebels was giving an audience of a similar bent a lecture on philosophy. The gallery in the centre was empty, save the framed black-and-white photos lining the walls. I veered off to the right.

The emcee, Sharon Bakar, was already there. Later, Jordan MacVay and the missus arrived. I noticed right away that there weren't enough chairs. Since there was still time before the event, I took a trip downstairs for a potty break. Someone was smoking there and had completely corrupted the air with his toxic effluents. I resisted the urge to drown him in one of the commodes (he was going to die early, anyway).

But enough about me. Here are the highlights of the event.

  • Roger Robinson, a native of Trinidad who resides in London, gave a masterful performance as he narrated the story about a kung-fu-obsessed Trinidad boy, gambling with numbers (has anybody told him that we have something similar?), and Sharon, a girl who was nicknamed "Virgin Island" because of her hard-to-get attitude. Two rounds of laughter from the audience and Roger's apology couldn't even clue me in on the joke. Not right away, at least.
  • An atypical English language professor introduced the second reader, a fellow Penangite called Tan Twan Eng, to the audience. He also - predictably, as it is at such events - flogged his first book, The Gift of Rain. He read an excerpt of the opening chapter from the book as a teaser.
  • Kam Raslan, who looked like Harry Potter gone Kerouac on that night, read some tasty bits from a chapter in his new novel that might raise some hackles among the Malay gentry. By now I knew enough to conclude that book-flogging is a recurring theme at readings.
  • The Filipino playwright Isagani Cruz was very much the stage actress he was portraying through a monologue. Amid subtle messages about the good old days and encroaching modernity, he found time to poke fun at himself. I liked that.
  • Ke Hua Chen, the eye doctor-slash-poet from Taipei dispensed some good advice before he read his piece. A temporary technical glitch prevented us from listening to a recorded track of the same poem, with a musical accompaniment, which made a moving piece even more so.
  • Our favourite bookaholic had a new nickname.

Not that the others were boring. Everyone was great that night, and I'm sure there are others who will write about it. Work has been awful and I'm practically worn out every night for the past two weeks. But I'll get my bite back, someday.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Name Dropping at Bangsar

My second Readings event could be one of the better ones, despite the homoerotic slant of some of the pieces that were read (and the constant flogging of Silverfish New Writing 6, which had contributions by some of the readers). It also exposed the conservative, antiquated mindset I was trying to evict from my tormented skull.

I was glad to see Sharon, Sharanya, Burhanuddin and Ted Mahsun again. Jordan MacVay and Lainie were a sight for sore eyes too. I finally met Amir Muhammad, producer of the senselessly-banned film The Last Communist, in person. Ruhayat X showed up with copies of his pop magazine Elarti, and I managed to snag a copy. Also met the Madcap Machinist, and thanked him for his kind comments on my contribution at a poetry blog.

And I was, like the last time, overwhelmed by the vibes given out by all the creative minds there.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

One Big Fish

I hate it when my throat is sore, because it deprives me of a host of delights and sensations. Like the "new" KFC Alaska Fish Burger, the centrepiece of which is claimed to have thirty-percent more content than McD's Filet-o-Fish patty. Against conventional wisdom, I paid the nearest KFC outlet a visit to have a go at this new offering (before the doctor's visit yesterday, and the ensuing days of pseudo-sadhu hell I'll be going through). I had no high hopes.

Yes, it only looks big on paper.

There was a bit of information on the fish I was eating on the tray liner. No exaggerated comparisons to shark and whale size (like that other KFC fish burger), or testimonials made by fake Mexicans. They actually researched the Latin name for the Alaskan pollack, and provided a list of seafood along with their Omega-3 content, which combined, effectively spelled, "Alaskan pollack from the Bering Sea, the same place where suicidal fishermen hunt crab, is rich in essential oils that are good for you. Healthy munchies for the discerning diner!"

Only sounds good on paper? Bingo.

Pollack (or pollock) is a widely-caught fish, along with the half-dozen kinds of fish listed (including cod, salmon, sea bass and Alaskan king crab), making it vulnerable to over-fishing. Everybody likes it, and is the choice fish of every fast food joint. Now you know there's nothing distinctive about that "100% Alaskan pollock" shtick.

What made the pollock stick in my memory was a snippet that I read (but forgot exactly where) that mentioned a "war" between Canadian fishermen and seals over fish - a great source of motivation during the annual Canadian seal cull.

It's not a bad idea for businesses like KFC to branch out, but if the pollock is going the way of the cod (European authorities have recently raised alarms about rapidly-declining stocks), we won't be seeing any Alaskan fish burgers by 2020.

But by golly, I hope they don't go extinct before my throat heals.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Soggy Friday Bites

1:16pm   Things are not so good at home, you see. It's showing here.

If you've read the news, you'd know that half the country is looking like New Orleans after nature's bitches, Katrina and Rita, threw their hissy-fits. And like those awful days, many of the politicians (even from the affected home states) seemed to have other concerns - no surprise there. The media isn't helping, I think, by suggesting things like minimum donation amounts and adopt-a-village schemes. I've already sent a cheque, thank you.

While my feet are still high and dry here, I feel emotionally swamped as the first few weeks of new things at work overwhelm me. I can't find anyone else to depend on. The weekend brings no relief - I've also been working Saturdays.

The Mongols are not happy with how we are dragging our feet over the murder and body disposal of one of their own. Some of us are glad that Genghis Khan is long dead; others worry about a similar fate, as is the wont of citizens in Third World countries.

There's also this post service blues-thingy, which is really old news made fresh.

Can things get worse? Sure they can - and I'm optimistic about that.


8:20pm   Can you get a plate of rice at a mamak restaurant for RM1.50? I just did. Of course, it was just a small plate, and I'm a regular. The uncertainty caused my CynicSense™ to go haywire, making me count my change twice.


10:25pm   The Templer roundabout and the stretch of Old Klang Road under the NPE were unusually congested. Turns out there was a police roadblock; the men in blue were also calling it a day. Driving past, the side of my car bumped onto some police equipment. I panicked, stopped and wound down my car window. My first brush with the law turned out to be an anti-climax as an officer waved me off, while the drivers behind me reached their boiling point. I gratefully sped of - within the speed limit, of course.


10:40pm   It's drizzling, and I'm standing under the canopy of the local burger stall. The fantastic smell sharpened my hunger pangs. I told you the plate of rice was small.

"...and to you all out there on this Friday night," the radio DJ chirped in Malay, "yes, you the late night workers, those of you driving home late, and the brother at the burger stand..."

Whoa.

"...ah yes, the brother at the burger stand, grillin' them patties for the hungry. Coming up, we have Gwen Stefani and her hot little number, 'Wind It Up', just for you, right here on Hot FM."

I turned to the brother at the burger stand and asked, "Someone you know?"

"No way, man," he replies. He looks just as bewildered as I am by the happy coincidence.

As always, the burger tasted great.

But don't you just hate the way life tries to prove you wrong?

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Me, Anonymous Author?

Some career choices are like sand-traps; once you get in, there's next to no chance in getting out. This holds true for most of us who don't have the willpower to just drop everything and chase dreams. I've only met one such person in this country so far. For me, that spoke volumes.

The IT industry as a whole had begun sliding into stagnation oblivion when I picked up my scroll. By the time I recognised the signs it was already too late. Seven years later, my outlook on IT dimmed completely. I was considering other options.

Like writing, for instance.

This other career choice looks just as precarious. Anybody can be a writer, but good writers are exceptionally hard to find. Or maybe I'm just not into literature. When I was much younger, I scorned artists, looking down at a profession that's usually associated with unstable incomes, eccentric behaviour and incestuous cliqués, not realising (again, until it was too late) that such a stereotypical Hyde was lurking within my own developing psyche.

By the time I discovered my budding and barb-covered muse, it looks as if all the good stories have already been written. I've tried my hand in writing fiction before, and it's hard. All the great ideas have been taken and written to death. What's left for those waiting in the wings?

I'd be perfectly happy writing - whenever the inspiration's around: sitting at a PC, hammering away at the keyboard, my nostrils teased by the aroma from the half-empty cup of white coffee lying on my other table (there will be no other weird smells, because I endeavour to keep my den relatively clean). Being misanthropic, I'll probably need an agent to handle the entangling social and financial issues regarding publishing and marketing.

What? I may have to attend public events like book-signings, launches and writers' circles?

Darn, I knew there was a catch.

Artists are bad enough, I should think. What are even worse are celebrity artists. Once they reach a certain amount of fame, something in them dies. That also happens when their mindset changes. I've noticed that my muse visits me when there's this pall over my head (maybe she's been visiting other similar people, the flirt). Whatever friends I have told me I'm too dark, neurotic and cautious. Go out there and live a little, they said. Take a few chances.

Hey, I am toying around with the idea of becoming a writer (and here I am, writing under an alias I won't be using in the future). That's pretty dangerous, don't you think?

I see myself doing nothing but writing for the foreseeable future, even after I leave my current company. But local publishers aren't keen on writers who prize anonymity. Given my opinions about my government and society, I'm not comfortable having my articles tagged with my real name. I'm quite certain that if I toned my act down, the most potent force behind my muse shall dwindle, driving her to seek shelter elsewhere.

But, why not? Does anybody know B. Traven? Me neither. Nor have I read any of his books (sorry, I only read English). But he pulled it off, writing a best-seller under an alias and ultimately, took all clues to his his real identity to the grave.

That has a certain appeal; I don't like being famous, I don't want the kind of attention JK Rowling gets (from housewife to best-selling multimillionaire author - great fairy tale, but not for me), and I certainly don't want to get up on stage in front of thousands of strangers to receive some prize. That sounds paradoxical because writers depend on the reading public for their livelihood.

Then again, that's just like me.