Friday, 26 December 2008

Feeling Down At The Koi Pond House

Compared to last year, the mood at KY's Xmas eve party was subdued. Some of the usual suspects were missing, but that wasn't all.

Wildguy recalled that the previous ones were bigger. They weren't just parties - they were all-out bashes. With real food. More babes. This year though... . Sure, we're entering the biggest economic recession in living memory, but is that why the atmosphere was relatively down? And no police car stopped by - at least not before I left.

There were chocolates - those you can only buy at an airport. Half the items in the Secret Santa event were lingerie, which livened things up a bit. And the SixthSeal guy dropped his pants (I so did not need to see that). And Wildguy provided entertainment with his take on current affairs.

Suertes summed it up nicely. "We're getting old."

I guess we are. 2005 wasn't that long ago, was it?

Friday, 12 December 2008

Adieu, Suzhou

I didn't know when the Suzhou Noodle House first opened, but it seemed like a long time ago. Then it packed up and disappeared, and in its place was the increasingly kitschy and still inexplicably open Star Village Restaurant (formerly Honey Star). Then a few years later, I found it at OUG's Citrus Park, and after a square meal, returned on occasion for the noodles, rice, tea and pumpkin cakes.

If the manager can be believed, all the dishes come from the Chinese province of Suzhou, reputed abode for China's fairest maidens (something similar has been said about Ipoh). Some of the dishes served up at Suzhou Noodle House are quite oily, but mostly good. The noodles deserve particular mention. Square-ish rather than cylindrical, firm and made without jian shui (an alkali solution, probably sodium carbonate), it went surprisingly well with the stock, which was just Goldilocks right. Eaten plain, the noodles were great for convalescing foodies.

The noodle "varieties" are created by pairing the noodles with sides: braised duck, sweet and sour pork ribs, and spicy chicken. I wouldn't recommend it with the fried pork or chicken cutlets, those roof-of-the-mouth slashing horrors. For a while, they had smoked fish and fatty cured pork belly, but they had to drop it from the menu because the supplier didn't do smoked fish any more.

The teas were unique. The Biluochao broad-leaf green tea had a strong tannic overlay which made it a powerful palate cleanser, and a pleasant groundnutty aroma. It takes a while to steep, and supposedly gets stronger with each refill, but the taste declines noticeably at the fourth refill - or maybe I just wasn't patient enough to wait. They also had the more expensive Biluochun variant, which I never tried.

Given the oilyness of some dishes and desserts, the tea was a welcome relief. I specifically remember the fried, red-bean-filled pumpkin cakes. At three or four pieces per serving, you'd want to have a light meal beforehand. Other dishes I fondly recall are the xiaolongbao soup dumplings, the gulaorou (sweet and sour stir-fried pork) rice and their fried noodles.

After all that it may be surprising to hear I'm not giving out any numbers or addresses for this place. Not that it would have made a difference - the place closed its doors more than three months ago, probably for good.

The last time I went there was in July, and I took some pictures. The place looked rundown and I could hear the scurrying of some animal from the water-stained ceiling boards. I hated to think it, but I could see it coming. Like the restaurant-heavy Taman Tun Dr Ismail, competition is stiff, and their place was tucked so deeply into the complex, with a hard-to-find entrance. When I returned in October, a day spa was being set up in its place. The labourer said Suzhou Noodles packed up around two months earlier.

I was sorry to hear the news, and sorrier for not rushing to push it into the limelight. I loved (some of) the food, the tea, and the quiet cosyness, which probably wasn't a desirable attribute for a restaurant. The manager, a Ms Phang, was good to me, especially when I was recovering from some bug or other illness. I don't normally grieve over a restaurant's packing up, but this felt like the loss of a relative.

But if I had, could I make a difference?

If only I had tried to find the answer; now it may remain a mystery.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Serama Breeder

Vox Pop: "Serama Breeder & Operations
Director", Off The Edge, December 2008
A regular feature of Off The Edge is something called the "Vox Pop" - profiles of people who generally don't make it to the news, but whom we see often. It could be anybody.

The interviews are quite enlightening. The lives of people that are usually referred to as "normal folks" can have extraordinary chapters. Their backgrounds, lifestyles, experiences and work... I've learned a lot more from these than I could ever glean from online research.

One such interview was a great example. The serama breeder and operations director of Serama Corp is an expert in his field who has won competitions and met the King of Thailand. Many folks I know haven't had that opportunity.

Look how proud he is of his birds. He has several reasons to be.

I still remember the shrill crowing of the tiny roosters, and I still get gaping jaws and saucer-sized eyes when I recount the tale of the RM2,000 pint-sized chicken - edible, and reputedly possesses medicinal properties. An adult serama is about half the size of an average chicken, and its survival rate is lower. The animal does take some dedication to raise - how many would want that kind of life?

This was also one of the few pieces that used my photos, taken with my Canon Powershot A580. The crowing serama rooster is one of my best to date.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Spare Some Change, Please

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm looking forward to the US Elections' results.

None of us in Malaysia expected the Opposition besides PAS to take a state. Now they have... three? Four? So I am interested in whether America has realised it's not about skin or faith anymore in an increasingly shrinking, flattening Earth.

Political party, race and religion are no longer the talismans they used to be against the tides of change. Even so, only idiots expect change to take effect in at least 48 hours. Or 48 months. The world has changed lots, and will continue to change - with or without us. We're all in it for the long haul and it's up to us whether to sink or swim.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Khadijah's Kitchen

I'd heard about this singer from the 80s, but if you told me that I'll be interviewing her some day, I'd have said you're freaking nuts.

"Khadijah's kitchen", Off The Edge, November 2009

Mmm. Aren't my words yummy.

It was raining heavily the first time I was there. She was telling us about her Pearl Anniversary Concerts at the Malaysian Philharmonic at KLCC. With her at the press conference were Ramli Sarip and Dato' Ahmad Nawab.

I was more blown away by how down-to-earth she was, rather than her status or her cooking, which is rather good. I've had several other serendipitous encounters at the place - a tale for another time.

And the concert was great; I wrote a review-of-sorts that was never published - another tale for another time.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Surviving Malaysia

My first book review in ages. I felt this one was tame by my old standards. The book apparently caused a flap-of-sorts, with regards to its content and tone. And some of my words were said to have been twisted in some Bangkok Post article to pan the book, publisher and author. It was a rhetorical question...!

I didn't manage to save the print version, either. On the bright side, I made a new friend.

Different and unique

first published in The Star, 26 October 2008

Do we really need another book on Malaysiana that comes with the all-too-familiar hastily-scrawled cartoons?

With so many books on this subject already available in bookstores, I didn’t think the Malaysians-On-Malaysia collection could get any bigger. But I forget that this is the land of "We Can Make It Even Bigger!" so it’s no surprise that there is another addition to speak of.

Dos & Don’ts in Malaysia is written by a Malaysian jack-of-all-trades and it talks about our history, the three major ethnic groups, festivals and the like with an emphasis on the dos and don’ts (thoughtfully rendered in bold) that should be observed while one is in the country.

The axiom "don’t judge a book by its cover" applies to Dos & Don’ts - even if the cover does need work. First-time visitors and long-time residents could benefit from the gems in this book, buried among the comics.

Like this country of ours, the book (and I presume, the author) is quirky in the best of ways. Example: the chapter on the early history of Malacca during the spice trade ends with the admonition, "Don’t colonise Malaysia because you want your food to taste better" - something we neglected to tell the Portuguese back then.

This, along with the many documented faux pas by visiting foreigners was why the author felt it was time for such a manual.

Interesting tidbits in this book lead me to believe that most of us don’t really know our own country - or our customs for that matter. The sections on speech and greeting conventions, weddings, marriages and funerals were particularly enlightening and I didn’t know that nasi lemak differs from state to state, nor was I aware of something called sup terbang (flying soup, but in this case it’s the drinker that flies!) in Penang. What have I been missing?

What could be disconcerting is how the author has stereotyped certain groups, like the self-centered urban Chinese, "territorial" Indian males and our notorious cabbies.

Not very attractive topics of conversation, but a survival guide on Malaysia wouldn’t be complete without these, would it?

If you overlook the uncomfortable bits, Dos & Don’ts can be an asset to local and foreigners alike. Definitely something I would refer to before attending wedding dinners and open houses, and buying gifts.

Its release is also timely, given the current strain in the country’s inter-racial relations. Isn’t it time to learn and respect the customs of others as well as our own?

Perhaps we do need another tome on Malaysiana after all - if only to remind us of how our differences make us unique.

Dos & Don’ts in Malaysia
Thirunavukkarasu Jr. Karasu
iGroup Press Co. Ltd
172 pages
ISBN: 978-974-652-039-3

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

What Do You Mean, "We"?

I find this post a bit disturbing in the wake of the latest Chinese food scare. Sounds like some one had a bad day.

This "it's not them, it's us" mentality can't really be applied to some of the victims. Xinhua highlighted a mother from a family with an annual income of around 6,000 yuan (US$882) who could not afford foreign-made baby formula that's three to four times more expensive.

I buy milk products from big names: Nestlé, Magnolia, and Marigold because I trust them. San Lu is not some two-bit bootleg operation; the majority state-owned joint venture with New Zealand's Fonterra was exempted from inspections since December 2005 because it was believed to be a standard bearer. Yili, another affected company, was a partner of the recent Beijing Olympics. People trusted them - and were betrayed.

Some of the suppliers knew what they were doing - and couldn't care less. China Daily quoted one of two brothers who sold doctored milk to recoup losses after earlier shipments were rejected. "I've never asked and never thought about it. I only know it's bad for health."

We buy (often) crappy broadband because we don't have better. My buddy buys parts for his Fiat Coupé from Europe because they can't be found here. There are times when we want cheap (economy rice, anyone?), and times when we want the best, but can we get it all the time? What can we really do when big names associated with quality, through their fault or the fault of their partners, turn rogue?

Friday, 12 September 2008

On-line Speed Upgrade, By Maxis

I signed up for Maxis's Broadband. I didn't ask for one of the animal print versions, though.

In fact, I'm using it right now. it's slower than wi-fi, but much faster than dial-up. Registration took less than half an hour; half a day later, I'm online. I'm about six to seven floors up and connection's still good. So I did the ultimate test: Load Jolene Lai's blog. That should be the national benchmark for all local broadband providers.

But I had to return to the service centre after lunch because the dude who did my registration gave me the wrong SIM card, and my day wasn't really good already. And sometimes, the pages don't load. So building height is somewhat of an issue. Maxis also placed a cap of 3GB for amount of data transferred; any more and they'll pull the plug.

Don't think I'll be saying goodbye to wi-fi enabled cafés anytime soon.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Not The India Of Your Lonely Planet Dreams

Have I ever felt divided about a book as this? I had nothing against the writing. In most aspects it's a pretty good story: detailed (often, too detailed for my taste), visceral and well thought out. A good debut effort. But it's the things that the author made some of the characters do that really got to me. I think I'll leave the last verdict to readers.

And they left the "curry powder" reference in! Am I in trouble?

Stark vision of India

first published in The Star, 22 August 2008

What's with the explosion of novels from Indian writers? Could it have something to do with Kiran Desai's Man Booker Prize? Or the buzz surrounding Monica Ali's Brick Lane?

Names I would normally associate with silks, embroidery and curry powder are showing up in bookstore shelves and best-seller lists. Now, waves of hopefuls from the subcontinent are on the horizon. And many of these Indian-sounding authors don't even live in India.

One of them happens to be Sujit Saraf, who made his debut with The Peacock Throne, an impressive novel that celebrates India's turbulent socio-political climate in the dying throes of the last millennium.

We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the period between 1984 and 1998, seen through the eyes of some colourful characters. The author weaves his settings and characters into actual events, going so far as to providing a map for key areas of the story and a glossary of terms. No effort is spared in his quest to make it "real".

The curtain rises from the calm of daily life in Chandni Chowk, the neighbourhood that much of the novel revolves around. Tea seller Gopal Pandey is minding his own business when all hell breaks loose after Indira Gandhi's assassination. He hides a Sikh trader from rioting Hindus, and is later sent by the trader on a rescue mission. Our humble tea seller will eventually be lifted from the ruins of his demolished tea stall and plunged into a storm in a political teacup, but that comes much later.

Meanwhile, the story continues through the vantage point of the other characters: Ibrahim, Gopal's Muslim buddy; the Sikh trader Kartar Singh; Gopal's ne'er-do-well son; old-fashioned shopkeeper Sohan Lal; the fawning, ambitious and scheming clerk Ramvilas; prostitute-turned-activist Gita Didi; corrupt cop Inderlal Jha; Western-educated female journalist Chitra Ghosh; and a thieving Bangladeshi scamp called Gauhar.

The overly romanticised India of yesteryears is pulverised and replaced by the stark, in-your-face grimness of Saraf's vision, which exposes the underbelly of life in contemporary India, complete with lurid tales of murder, politics, sex and other bodily functions. Readers are unceremoniously ushered into various venues where all the action takes place in such gritty, blood-curdling detail, the word "explicit" barely scratches the surface. Welcome to 21st century Indian drama.

This corner of Saraf's India has no heroes - or heroines. All the key players are disappointingly human. In the novel's troubled times their virtues are downplayed and we often see them in their selfish, arrogant, cynical and megalomaniacal worst. Even the goofy, affable Gopal has weaknesses and bad habits that make me want to throttle him.

The cast's purpose, it seems, is just to move the story along, like the cogs of some huge clockwork machinery. It's not about the people as much as it is about this slice of India's history, the one we always knew existed, but wouldn't dare bring up.

By keeping our emotions at arm's length, Saraf manages to enforce the psychological barrier that allows him to do nasty things with some cast members. There are a couple of bombs. Desecration of a national monument. Forced immolation. And of course, plenty of swearing, racist epithets, political double-speak and the usual "us versus them" rhetoric.

I am in two minds about The Peacock Throne. Like its namesake, it looks pretty, but behind it lies a tumultuous, bloody history. On one hand, it's well-written and the narrative flows naturally. The backdrops and scenes are rich in detail, though not necessarily pleasing.

The human drama it showcases, however, is like a dark, bottomless pit. There are a few parts that I found repulsive, particularly chapters featuring Gauhar. Delving too deeply into the pages will erode your faith in humanity - and maybe scupper your plans to backpack around India.

In the end, Saraf does the right thing by not making the characters too likeable. Given the heavy subject matter it's amazing how he managed to complete this book. How did he manage to keep himself going?

Someone once wrote that India will either capture your heart, or repel you. It certainly is true in the case of The Peacock Throne, a heady, eye-opening adventure for those who can stomach the repulsive bits. It's not a perfect novel, but really, how many adventurers expect things to go their way from start to finish?

Peacock Throne
Sujit Saraf
754 pages
ISBN: 978-0-340-89972-4

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Palestine In A Nutshell

The structure. The added content. And the ending, too. More than half of this was changed. This was one of my worst fears come true. Has writing full-time blunted my ...edge?

Primer on a political mess

first published in The Star, 17 August 2008

The history of the modern Middle-Eastern conflict is a babble of dissenting voices, each claiming veracity over the other. Many have tried in vain to seek the heart of the problem, and come up with its solution.

Among those seeking this Holy Grail is former US President Jimmy Carter, author of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a memoir-slash-analysis of the Middle East conflict and his involvement in it throughout his political career. First published in 2006, another edition was released recently with a new afterword from the author.

Carter might have been an unglamorous peanut farmer before being elected president in 1977 but he was among the more intellectual of American presidents, many – including critics – agree. However, a host of hot button issues that cropped up in untimely fashion, especially the Iranian hostage crisis, cost him a second term.

(Almost 70 people were kidnapped from the US embassy in Teheran in 1979; the last 53 remained captive for 444 days – and, in fact, were released just after Carter had lost the re-election to Ronald Reagan.)

Carter is now the head of the Carter Center, a think-tank dedicated to peace, freedom, and human rights, and he's apparently giving the Middle East another go.

Before I get into the book, here's a quick (very quick, not to mention necessarily simplified) brief on the area's recent history culled from various widely available sources.

Modern Israel's story began with the British-engineered Balfour Declaration that promised Jews they could carve up a chunk of Arab land for their own state, which was born after World War II.

Hostilities between Jews and Arabs soon followed, of course; it got too hot for the British troops overseeing the new nation so they packed up and left.

Over the years, mediation (or should that be “meddling”?) by external political factions only complicated matters, resulting in the roiling cauldron of Tom Yam Goong that is today's Chez Middle East, a kitchen with two executive chefs – two colossal egos, each unwilling to yield to the other.

Today, the region is the fulcrum for a restless ideological see-saw that has the world on tenterhooks.

Throughout this book, Carter tries his best not to lean towards either side, stressing that ending the conflict requires both sides to pull together. He notes two major obstacles to peace: the extremist factions within both countries.

Palestine supplies a lot of information to help the reader understand the complex issues. Maps of the region showing shifts in territorial control over the years are scattered liberally throughout the book, along with key extracts of diplomatic agreements. The text of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, and details of the Camp David Accords have been included in the appendices.

Okay, so Palestine is not light reading, obviously. The language is serious – dead serious at times – because the issues are serious. Carter may not be an official diplomat, but he still writes like one.

If all UN speeches sound this serious and dry, small wonder many delegates look like they'd rather be somewhere else every time sessions are televised.

It is kind of him, however, to provide so much information (all seemingly meticulously researched) and so objectively, too. By not taking sides, he demonstrates Palestine's integrity, which makes it a good primer on the Great Middle East Mess.

This has earned Carter the ire of some Americans, while earning the respect of many people around the world.

And it should earn the general reader's gratitude, because we – yes, you too – need to keep an eye on this Mess. It's bound to boil over and involve the whole world one day if it hasn't already done so indirectly....

Peace Not Apartheid

Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
270 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7432-8503-2

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Do They Still Draw Cartoons?

"Legends tell of a legendary warrior, whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend...!"

So goes the opening narrative for Dreamworks' latest offering, Kung Fu Panda. If I could raise an eyebrow, I would. However, it took several viewings before I got it; I secured a bootleg copy because I couldn't wait for the original. And this was after watching it at a cinema. Despite a few iCringe moments, it's just brimming with Fun™. What the hell was Zhao Bandi complaining about? The panda isn't even copyrighted by China.

And I swear, they're getting more and more quotable. A far cry from Yogi Bear's word-mangling and bad grammar, "zoiks", "jinkies" and "Heavens to Murgatroid!" Chalk it up to the scriptwriters. "Cartoons" ain't just for kids any more.

"He was so deadly, in fact, that his enemies would go blind from overexposure to pure awesomeness!"

Animated features have come a long way. I grew up watching the 2-D ones, admiring the artwork and the lengths they went to in making them. Then came the digital age, and the advent of not-so-cartoonish cartoons. However, the day when 2-D went 3-D was probably when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released. Since then, PC processors got faster, hardware more sophisticated. Have you seen today's graphic cards? They look like miniature motherboards - complete with their own processors and cooling fans. Some cards run so hot they need their equivalent of a radiator.

But I wouldn't pack cel animation to the nearest retirement home just yet. The Japs are still at it, even though more and more of cel-CGI marriages are happening (Ghost In The Shell, Appleseed, Vandread, Vexille, etc). With so much history behind cel, it should be preserved as a heritage in case it is eclipsed by newer animation techniques. Hell, it might even be taught as an esoteric skill one day, like the erhu or didgeridoo.

"One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."

But I'm also thinking: With Moore's Law running rampant like a flock of rabid Road Runners, it won't be long before anybody could make their own animated features on devices as small as a cellphone. Will we be networking using our own custom-made CGI avatars someday? To the point where we won't have to leave our chairs? The producers of WALL-E think so.

Great. Not only are they packing cinemas and driving CPU evolution, but predicting the future as well.

"There's no charge for awesomeness - or attractiveness."

I still think they put that into Jack Black's mouth just to rub it into our noses.

"There are no accidents."

Brought To You By Canon®

Sometimes I wonder why I started this in the first place.

With the exception of a few bad Photoshopped graphics, Bites has been mainly text. But I just can't be assed to update nowadays - at least, if I don't have anything substantial to write about.

I've sneered at blogs that are mostly pictures because, well, their photographs usually sucked. And they don't bother to shrink them to the proper dimensions and file size. But with so many now incorporating videos I feel like a Johnny-come-lately in the media explosion craze.

Pretty soon, they say, video will be the norm.

These photos (borked now due to file hosting hiccups) were taken during the last Readings at Seksan, but I could write little about it that hasn't been written before. Sharon Bakar does a good job of chronicling each session she attends. I didn't take any pictures of the Wayang Buku performance because there was too much movement - from the act and my shaky hands.

Dr Shih the historian talked about how the town of Sitiawan in Perak got its name, and shared some tidbits about Sitiawan-born persona non grata Chin Peng. Why is it often the spoiled rich kids who find their life's purpose by sponsoring anarchy?

He had approached me first and introduced himself. He's never attended a reading before. But once he started, it was smooth sailing. Reading is a lot like storytelling, after all.

The wine bottle-uncorking antics of Shahril and I were applauded by an appreciative audience which included Robert Raymer, an American expat who's living in Sarawak and author of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Turns out he lectured Funnybunny when she was studying English. Much has been said about his writing and generosity.

Nic Wong's first foray into the big big world was to grow big big hair - and lots of it. We are grateful he decided to lop it all off for us before reading here. His art is growing (no pun intended - maybe) from strength to strength; let's just hope it doesn't come with (too many) eccentricities. Poets. You know how they are.

Speaking of which...

Was Sheena Baharudin on the readers' list? I think so (too lazy to check). She apparently came with a few comrades from Poetry Underground to cheer Nic and Kat. She only read one poem about racial discrimination. Has she been mistaken for an Indian before?

She obligingly posed when Sharon whipped out the digicam. It happened so quickly I couldn't catch it.

Soon-to-Be-Dr Jason Leong, author of the funny and honest Twisted Stethoscope, who almost couldn't make it. He had another reading to do at the Mid Valley Megamall. Looking closely, he sort of resembles my former managing director (also abbreviated, interestingly enough, as MD).

Don't you just want to pinch those cheeks?

When I first met Kathleen Choo, I had little idea of just how feisty she was, or how well she carries of her "slams". A suggested second career and a rap lyricist was politely brushed off. Are "all the great poets are male, white and dead"?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Bond Lives... Again

"Bond lives... again",
Off The Edge, August 2008
Besides the usual press kits, invites and all, there were books, books and more books. This was my first book review piece for the magazine - that much-hyped post-Fleming Bond novel, Devil May Care.

I thought it would be easy, until I got stumped by the additional requirements. Number of Bond books sold, or annual total sales; value of the Bond franchise, and all that. I was swamped with whatever I had found - how was I going to work it all in?

Then one midnight, nearly all of the pieces just fell into place. Two hours later, a serviceable piece that didn't need a lot of edits. I was beginning to feel that book reviews will always be the brightest feather in my cap - next to restaurant reviews.

Apologies for the poor image quality. I'm still struggling with balancing (image) beauty, bytes and bandwidth.

Inkvestment, Ping Pong

Every now and then, we would get press kits and e-mails from various advertisers about their products. It's nothing new, but one wonders just how fast some of these items would go, with or without our help.

Consumer Price Index: "Inkvestment" (left), and "Ping Pong",
Off The Edge, August 2008

My eyes bulged at the figures for the above items. RM18,000 for a ping-pong table and accessories? A RM36,000 fountain pen? I would later learn that not only are the prices justified (in most cases), but there are people who can more than afford these things, and that it's more than just the brand.

But the nature of the magazine is such that it's not just item, price, and where-to-find, but the whats and whys as well: why is it so expensive, what goes into the product, sales pitch and packaging, etc. I haven't seen a lot of publications that do that. I've never looked at "luxury items" the same way again.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Artistic Bodacity

Typing this on my new laptop. Feels strangely liberating, even if the keyboard's layout feels awkward. Can't wait to take it on tour, doing the rolling meditation stuff. Moleskines are so last millennium.

This month's Readings is a bit of a departure, even though it feels like the ship already left the port last month. We had an American expat, a historian, three poets and a medical student, plus a musician and stage actor for after-reading entertainment.

It started with a bit of deja vu involving liquor bottles. Unaware the corkscrews had extensions for leverage, Shahril Nizam and I tugged and tugged and tugged till our faces turned red (not just from the exertion). Sharon had to call in an expert, otherwise we couldn't proceed. And MPH's Tan May Lee (may have) photographed the sideshow.

Oh well, at least it was entertaining.

I'll admit that one main reason why I dropped by was to touch base with Kathleen Choo, whom I last saw at a mutual friend's book launch in 2006. Besides being floored by her poetry slammin', I got a chance to see her smaller-than-notebook notebook PC. Does the speed of technological evolution bring to mind malevolent biological agents from a sci-fi horror script?

Nicholas Wong returns! This was the young poet whose presence at a previous Readings was the condition for a veteran's participation - such is his reputation. Nic channeled Pixar by titling one of his pieces "Oogway" [sic], on top of reading a poem he composed (four pages long!) just two hours before.

With some history by Dr Shih, performances by Kathleen, Sheena Baharudin, Nic and the Wayang Buku (Book Theatre) guys, a bit of comedy writing by a doctor-in-waiting, the July Readings just reverberates with sheer awesomeness.

Another deviation in the usual proceedings is an announcement by some Arab dude (by his own admission) about a reading project. Zain also suggested spreading word about the project via the Internet because "Malaysia has a huge blogging community". Don't believe him? Believe Blogger then; it just announced the availability of the Malay interface because, "...Blogger has a large base of users in Malaysia".

Large number of bloggers, yes. Large number of good bloggers? Well... heh.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Secret Of The Secret Lies In The Secret - Not

From "stealing secrets" to "no secret". Honestly... .

Anyway, my point is that the secret to The Secret is really no secret at all. The Secret rebrands and emphasises the power of positive thinking, and says that's all anyone needs. What kind of secret is that? And then these guys come in and say The Secret is not the secret everyone's looking for, but there is a secret, and that's the secret they've got and knew all along. They also claim that The Secret secretly subverts its adherents into going against their secret, while promoting laziness and wishful thinking. So the only way out is to embrace their secret, a beautiful mystery that's not really secretive at all - just mysterious.

In Kung Fu Panda, the secret is not really a secret at all, either.

No secret here

first published in The Star, 18 July 2008

Blissfully drowning in my sorrows for the past year or so, I was unaware of the phenomenon that is The Secret. At one glimpse of the cover, my tired mind registered, "Not another novel..." It wasn't until I got my hands on another book that I found out I was totally wrong.

Through The Secret (originally a film, which was then developed into a book), Aussie TV writer and producer Rhonda Byrne explores the New Age concept called the Law of Attraction, which says that people can control their lives by the power of their own thoughts and emotions - in short: think (hard), and you will receive.

Wow, and all this time I called it "wishful thinking". What The Secret claims, however, is that it works. It's no wonder then that certain quarters are behaving like hungry lions watching a zebra herd. Just as with The DaVinci Code, numerous detractors published works countering The Secret. One of these is The Secret Revealed.

Had I taken a much closer look at the cover, I probably would have given it a miss and spared myself some pain. Why, you ask? Previously, James L. Garlow (who's also a pastor) had written another book, Cracking Da Vinci's Code. I remember the firestorm surrounding that one - the Jesus/Mary Magdalene hoo-ha that so terrified the Vatican and devout Christians everywhere that some form of rebuttal had to be made or the religion would collapse (The DaVinci Code is still listed under "Fiction", by the way).

Fearing a similar crisis of faith following the release of The Secret, the pastor once again whipped out his crusading pen. Predictably, the authors hit the ground running, underlining the fact that Bible passages are used to sell The Secret's glaringly un-Christian concepts. The preaching slowly intensifies from there until the end of the book, where it is implied that there is no secret at all - it's about "beautiful mysteries", and its source is God.

While they admit that there may have been good intentions involved, the authors of The Secret Revealed make no secret of their scorn for Byrne and others who aggressively promote The Secret. They say the Law of Attraction blames the victims for all their woes, while at the same time, appealing to the get-what-you-want-now mindset of the selfish, greedy and lazy.

They also pan the "deliberate" omissions of concepts like God and sin, and the notion that anybody can "will" whatever they want into being is practically blasphemous. They stress the futility of "transmitting your thoughts towards the Universe", when you could direct them to God instead (personally, I don't see the difference).

Sometimes the authors come off as snide, condescending even, when presenting scenarios where the Law of Attraction fails, as well as in the accompanying arguments.

Of course, they do point out that it's not all bad. They applaud Byrne's exhortations to do good and bring joy to others. They just don't like how she's telling people to go about it.

The Secret Revealed puts forth valid points against swallowing any hype in its entirety, but the Christian-leaning slant in the arguments were a big put-off, as is the assumption that without any help, devout followers of The Secret are like lemmings who will eventually march off a cliff towards certain doom (they don't say you're going to Hell if you follow The Secret, just that you might be headed for "trouble").

While flipping the pages I have to remind myself a few times that history is full of stories about weirdo farms and their shepherds, like Jim Jones of the People's Temple, and David Koresh's gun-toting Branch Davidians, so I guess some of the authors' fears are justified. Still, being inadvertently accused of wilful stupidity not only gets my goat, but the whole farm as well.

I won't doubt that The Secret Revealed does in fact fill in the blanks, but not all of them, and certainly not in the way that I would find comfortable. A more secular point of view would have been more convincing, and less cringe-worthy to my psyche.

Yes, my aversion to religious preaching did taint this review. No, I will offer no apologies for that. I will give some praise to the good pastor and his buddy for their efforts, with a gentle reminder that back then, as now, too much honesty is not always a good thing.

The Secret Revealed
Exposing the Truth About the Law of Attraction

James L. Garlow and Rick Marschall
282 pages
ISBN: 978-0-446-19796-0

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

I Has Mobile Computing - Kind Of

OK, I'm the owner of a Dell Vostro 1310 laptop. Sister #2, who's now with Dell, helped me get one. And because the folks thought it'd be a great birthday present, they footed the bill - and the sister piled on the bells and whistles. I'm embarrassed by the attention, and more than a bit ashamed.

And why don't I feel like a laptop owner?

I'll admit, I wanted this piece of technology so I can do stuff on the road. Demands of the new job and all that. But it's a constant struggle keeping the thing safe; I get apprehensive during lunch breaks. Preventing it from getting wet. Keeping an eye on it when it follows me to restaurants. And because I have two bags to carry now, I feel like Houdini when I lock and unlock the doors.

I tell you - it's like having a wife. But at least a wife can take care of herself when I'm not around, and open the doors when my arms are full of shopping bags.

Adjustments are painful.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Windows Patch Zones Out Firewall Users

Earlier this week, Microsoft released patches that prevent some kind of domain-spoofing bug. The patch, however, prevents Internet access on machines running Windows 2000 and XP with a ZoneAlarm firewall. Vista machines are unaffected.

In addition to providing the latest versions of their ZoneAlarm firewall, Check Point (who bought over Zone Labs) has issued a workaround for the problem:

  • Go to the ZoneAlarm Firewall panel.
  • Click the Firewall tab.
  • Move the Internet Zone slider to Medium.

This workaround may reduce the effectiveness of the firewall, but it's better than being locked out of the net entirely. Eventually, affected users will have to install the latest version of ZoneAlarm.

A certain tech-geek subculture is to blame for this. All the talk about creating script-writing kits, bugs and malware for "purposes of education only" is pure bull-crap. If they're smart enough to come up with such tools, they should be smart enough to know what they're unleashing. They do know - they just don't care.

Virus-coding is no longer confined to a shadowy group of elites. Now, anybody - from bullied ten-year-olds to forty-something washouts - who wants to overcompensate for real-life deficiencies are so well-educated, they can create digital equivalent of the bird-flu virus with a few keystrokes and a couple of mouse-clicks.

Just because nobody's getting killed doesn't make these script kiddies and those who enable them less of a terrorist. I think they're even worse.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

An Exceptional Exception

As I went over to the counter to settle my bill, the Indian/Bangladeshi manning the cash register stopped me. "Sir, we have dessert waiting for you, sir, on the house," he said. "Please take your seat."

Confused, I returned to my place at the table. What gives, I thought. It couldn't have been the digicam. I'd ordered a starter-portion oxtail soup and a smoky ranch steak, which I snapped photos of before tucking in. Normally I don't mind dessert, but it was late and I was full.

G*d, I hope he doesn't think I'm a member of the press or something.

My dessert arrived: half a poached peach in syrup topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, crowned with a single mint leaf. Not a bad dish, really. It's been months since I ate there and the food is still okay.

The air cleared when I finally settled my tab. "Are you with GZK?" the Indian/Bangladeshi asked. I'm really sorry, but I don't know exactly who he was. And it's probably rude to ask.

"No," I said, feeling bad. I told him who I was working for now; no point having a free dessert I didn't deserve. I used to work with them - sort of - but not anymore.

The man at the counter shrugged. "Ah well, we don't have any arrangements with them, maybe soon." What he said next surprised me. "Didn't I give you one of these cards before?"

He, in fact, did. That was months ago, too. Get one stamp for each order of soup; drink X orders of soup and get one free. Too bad the card disappeared yonks ago. But his memory wasn't the only surprise he had in store.

"Never mind, I give you one more card," he said, and made two stamps on it. "One for the last time," he added.

Now, who was the whackjob who said Indians/Bangladeshis were nothing but trouble? When you meet an exceptional exception to the "rule", you just have to wonder.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nobody Expects The Spanish Kama Sutra

Can the story of a fictional Casanova be used as a love manual? When the author's repertoire includes such books you have to wonder. There should be a disclaimer on each copy, something to the effect of, "Not a substitute for Valentine Day cards or bouquets"). Cards are much cheaper.

The title is a play on Monty Python's "Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition"; no, I didn't expect to read a Spanish Kama Sutra. Did anybody expect the Spanish to win Euro 2008?

Stealing secrets

first published in The Star, 04 July 2008

Gone are the days when personal diaries were kept under lock and key. The delicious thrill of having your inner thoughts read by the masses are driving many towards blogging these days. Even Don Juan is getting into the act.

OK, so it's just Douglas Carlton Abrams, doing something akin to blogging. After co-authoring a few books on spirituality, love and sexuality, he tries his hand at narrative fiction, writing as Don Juan under the rather pedestrian title, The Lost Diary of Don Juan.

Kudos to Abrams for sneaking the handbook, How to Really, Really Love a Woman into this novel. Unfortunately, the package also includes How to Infuriate Said Woman's Parents, How to Tick Off Your Boss and How to Offend Fanatical, Uptight Clergymen – which I'm sure we all could do without.

Spain in the 16th century wasn't a very nice place. Plunder from the newly discovered American continent made the nation rich, but it brought about an increasingly venal, corrupt and "liberal" society. One of the results was Juan Tenorio.

Abandoned as an infant, Juan was raised in a monastery but ends up being a pickpocket and burglar in Sevilla. His "talents" soon catch the eye of the Marquis de la Mota, who trains him to steal secrets, and the hearts and virtues of women, especially those from his political rivals' households.

A slight deviation: Abrams' Don Juan goes on his rounds in a Zorro-like get-up, complete with a getaway vehicle, a carriage chauffeured by his loyal servant Cristóbal. I was half-expecting it to arrive at the Bat Cave on the next page, if not the next chapter. Fortunately, the campiness stops there.

At the height of his dubious career, Juan's patron nags him about writing a tell-all, intending to use it as blackmail material. Juan struggles with the request, knowing that he's expendable once it is completed – but he gets down to keeping one anyway. Even rogues need a hobby.

In Juan's point of view, he's no womaniser; he considers himself the balm of the lonely hearts of Sevilla's womenfolk. Of course, there is a very long queue of people who beg to differ, and pushing his way to the front is the Inquisitor Fray Ignacio de Estrada, who has pledged to rid the city of Juan at any cost.

In the face of these hazards is de la Mota's challenge: to steal the virtue of a chaste young noblewoman called Doña Ana. Juan accepts, and soon gets into the bad books of the woman's father. She proves to be a challenge for the suave, sweet-talking libertine, and eventually gets under his skin. Then, his boss shakes things up with his intention to marry Doña Ana.

Oh, the drama. What should Sevilla's notorious metrosexual do?

However, Abram's Don Juan is more than the stereotypical shallow, metrosexual narcissist. Juan is a loyal friend and faithful lover – the main reason for his (initial) reluctance to name names in his diary. He is also a good employer; in one chapter he even offers Cristóbal some advice on courtship. Towards the end, he reveals why he never laid one finger on the prostitutes in his best buddy's tavern.

You can see Abrams' application of his field of expertise everywhere – and that's the trouble with it. Hair-raising phrases like, "I sipped the moist nectar of her mouth as she opened her petals to me" abound, as well as his professions of "woe-is-me" and self-righteousness. There is also a totally unnecessary master-disciple scene, where terms like "Ultimate Skill" and "Supreme Pleasure" are bandied about (I am so glad kung fu was developed in the East).

To girlfriends and wives who think that The Lost Diary of Don Juan will help re-ignite that dying flame, do bear in mind that it's just a lit-fic novel. It's not a bad read, if you can stomach the cheesy parts so integral in such stories. Strange things happen when fiction is taken too seriously – remember The Da Vinci Code?

The Lost Diary of Don Juan
Douglas Carlton Abrams
Atria Books
307 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4701-3

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Bits From The Beebs

I opened up the BBC News web site and see this headline: Colombian rebels FARCed!

Gosh, it's been a while since the last-shock-to-the-system: Steve Irwin's untimely demise - but that was from Yahoo! News. Anyway, it's a great start to a crummy day. The rebels were nothing more than thugs, no better than the people they sought to overthrow. If the Colombian government is smart, they'd capitalise on the political goodwill generated by this rescue - while continuing to keep the now-free Betancourt safe.

Another tasty bit is about China's latest embarrassment: algae off the shores of Qingdao. Thanks to possible factors like pollution, the seaside has never been more "qing".

But chalk it up to Chinese politburo PR to deliver this gem of a whitewash.

...China, embarrassed by the most vivid proof yet of its environmental problems, says the algae is a natural occurrence, and blames the sea for being too salty, the sun for being too hot.

At a news conference earlier in the day one official suggested that algae could be good for you.

"The Japanese eat it," she said.

— Unnamed Chinese official kills two birds
with one stone (emphases mine)

Even if they do eat algae, I'm sure the Japanese have better sense in selecting which ones are safe, despite their fetish for neurotoxic seafood.

Why don't you, Madam Chinese Government Mouthpiece, pick up a strand of good green Qingdao algae with a pair of chopsticks, swirl it around a dish of soy sauce and sesame oil and take a deep hearty slurp, and let us know how it goes?

If you're still alive after a week, you just found a solution to your tangled verdant mess. The Beijing Olympics, if you didn't know already, kicks off next month. The bogged-down volunteers can just eat the mess away. You don't need the Japs for that, do you?

Blowing In The Wind

My first piece for Off The Edge, in the July 2008 issue. Though not one of my best ones, I felt that "firsts" should have a place in any portfolio.

"Blowing in the wind", Off The Edge, July 2008

It was potentially hackle-raising, because it had to be a "balanced" piece on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, with some focus on HSBC. Needless to say, I found a whole lot more about the subject than was needed for the piece. It was never our intention to question the motives in any firm's adoption of CSR.

Sincere apologies for any offence caused by this article.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Unseasoned Joy

I didn't write anymore for Fried Chillies after this, because my new job began to take its toll, stress-wise. The warnings I got, including one from the Fried Chillies editor, were completely ignored.

Joy Cafe
This unassuming cafe tries to keep everything healthy. And guess what? It takes nothing away from the taste, proving that you need not sacrifice taste for the sake of health.

first published in Fried Chillies, 30 June 2008

"No salt?!"

My jaw hit the table with a thud.

"Not a grain," says Mr. Dennis Ng, of Joy Café, a place he runs with his wife, Joyce. "People from far away as Subang, Damansara, KL, Shah Alam all travel here for the food." The passion isn't just in their cooking; it's also in its preparation and serving. Their big bowls aren't for the portions, or for show - it's to prevent the waiters' thumbs from dipping into the food. Nor do the cooks grab noodles with their bare hands - each serving-sized portion is wrapped in plastic, to be used only when needed. And they're organic noodles.

This was only my second time in Joy Café. During the first time I had their toast bread and chicken curry. They also have it served with kaya and butter which you have to spread it on yourself. I also had the orange white coffee; it was my first encounter with the fruity variant of my favourite brew. The taste had me begging for more. Another interesting flavour is the blackcurrant white coffee - a full-bodied concoction with a blackcurrant taste.

The menu of the months-old café is packed with the usual fare kopitiam fare: nasi lemak, "special fried rice, laksa with the addition of their braised dishes and a few other items. They also have brewed Chinese tea, and at least one dessert for each day of the week: double-boiled lotus root, red bean, etc - all served in a green-painted environment that instills a Zen-like calm while you wait. You wouldn't need to go anywhere else for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and supper.

I took another look at my half-eaten bowl of lamb brisket. Nice, tender chunks of lamb brisket (what else?), swimming in delicious brown gravy with a bevy of ginger and water chestnut slices. The gamey smell that gave it character was subtle enough not to offend. Such a flavourful dish - and no salt was involved? That's like hearing "no, there's no MSG in our kway teow soup".

Lamb brisket isn’t the only dish in this category – there’s also beef brisket, which can either be served with rice or noodles. I opted for the rice version. My brisket came in a separate bowl; on the plate, the mound of rice is dotted with black sesame seeds at the top, accompanied by a single fried egg (sunny side up) and some stir-fried lettuce.

My makan buddy for the day meanwhile, found her fried rice intriguing. It looked absolutely packed with goodness: finely sliced spring onions, long beans, fried egg, bits of minced pork and preserved radish which brightened up an otherwise mundane dish. And not a single ear of corn, green pea or diced carrot anywhere.

Again, Mr Ng satisfied our curiosity. "The fried rice is made from freshly-cooked rice," he explained. "Overnight rice is not fragrant enough. The pork is braised for three hours in a stock made from over a dozen different herbs and spices, before it's minced and added to the rice during cooking." And yes, no additional salt is used in their braised dishes.

We looked at each other and shrugged. Isn't it the nature of proprietors to sing praises of their own food? Still, I'd rather let my food do the talking. I took a bite of a lamb brisket. It talked, alright - like Barack Obama. With the water-chestnut pieces, the meat and gravy was a hearty dish that went great with rice or noodles.

My friend’s fried rice was also telling her things as well, something to the tune of "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" She gave me some. Not only was it flavourful, there was also texture. A welcome departure from the boring old frozen peas-carrots-corn variety.

"So how was it?" I asked her, actually doubting my tastebuds. Hailing from Ipoh, another great food capital, she would know better.

"Very good," she said, emphasising each word for effect.

Our vote was unanimous. Joy Café is a shoo-in - and we barely even scratched the surface.

Joy Café
540, Jalan Riang 11,
Happy Garden,
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Sunday, 29 June 2008

Flying High With Elmo, et al

After an absence of a few months, I returned to Seksan for a Readings session. There was my resignation, red tape at the old workplace, a two-week pseudo-sabbatical and the adjustment period after my job switch.

Yes. I'd been busy. I needed a break - and an excuse to take my digital camera out for a spin. It couldn't have happened at a better time. The June session featured a star-studded line-up which included ex-airliner captain Elmo Jayawardena (picture, right), Lydia Teh, Jacqueline-Ann Surin and Kam Raslan. Other surprises included the presence of Farish Noor, Eric Forbes of MPH Publishing and Shahril Nizam... .

I've read quite a few of Farish Noor's articles; his Egyptian travelogues were particularly intriguing. He had emerged from a heated exchange of words with a bunch of UMNO people, and he'll be on his way to Indonesia. What? The Indons will be voting soon?

There was supposed to be a book sale or something, but that never materialised. Pity. I did want an autographed copy of Shape of A Pocket (Surin wanted to talk about an MPH readings - wonder if it'll happen?). A lucky draw was held during the intermission, where books were given away. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was among the prizes, the so-called Best of Booker.

(I'd withhold judgement until I've read it, but I think it got BoB because it's Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.)

The intermission was special because we had a live band. The boys of Dewangga Sakti put on a great mid-Readings performance, and an encore when the session concluded. Their CDs were also available for sale.

But it didn't exactly get off on a good start. The roar of buzzsaws and a shower of sawdust from the KL Municipal Council's tree-trimmers' work ruined the generally calm Bangsar atmosphere. Sharon tried in vain to get them to buzz off. Although I repeated Sharon's request in a less-civilised tone, they wouldn't budge. They even had the cojones to pose when I brought out the shooter.

I was so loud I surprised myself.


  • The afternoon's Readings took off with Captain Elmo J. He'd written his novels between flights; nowadays he's training other pilots. He read an excerpt from his book, Sam's Story.
  • Lydia Teh read a piece of fiction from a soon-to-be-released work - a departure from her usual brand of non-fiction.
  • Jacqueline Ann-Surin read one of her spiked articles on the controversial topics of religion and Lina Joy from Shape of A Pocket.
  • The author Shahriza Hussein wasn't feeling well, so his friend read an excerpt from his novel, Legacy. Before starting, however, he took some time to add a disclaimer: Legacy is "fiction".
  • Clarissa Tan crossed the Causeway to be here. She took her time with her piece, while - curiously - doing some kind of shuffle. It was hard to focus for a clean shot. There's more good stuff being read this time around.
  • Unfortunately, I couldn't get a single sharp shot of Kam Raslan on the mic with optical zoom; zooming affects the photos, apparently, Only the shots I took without zooming were relatively OK. Much hilarity ensued as Kam recounted a chapter in the Datuk's tales. It does sound funnier when he reads it.

Overall results from my digicam were mixed; light was a major factor, not to mention my unsteady palsied hands. Despite all the homework and research I've done, my sharpshooting attempts were thwarted by my coffee habit. Maybe I should have waited a while more, spent a bit more to get the Powershot A570IS or Lumix FS3 instead.

Never again shall I scorn optical image stabilisation features.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Going Green By Going "E"

An offer to sign up for electronic monthly statements came with my latest Citibank snail-mailed statement. "Go Green, Go Paperless". It's secure, fast, no late delivery worries, and most of all, signing up before 30 June gets you 888 Rewards points.

Hmm. Well, with the exception of the 888 Rewards points it does sort of appeal to me. I've had mail victimised by inept postmen, or drenched by the rain. And I can look it up in any place that has a computer and an internet connection. And I'll be saving trees. Mmm, how about a hug, tree?

And that's the problem right there.

Barring old Webzilla here at home or the PC at the office, there aren't a lot of times I can get my hands on a wired computer - which also applies to a lot of people. What about computer glitches? Like power outages, they have the predatory instinct to pounce when they're least expected.

The "Go Green" exhortation is also misleading. You need electricity to get connected, and electricity burns coal or gas. How much CO2 will I be burning while checking my swanky, clean and earth-saving monthly e-statements?

Let's not forget that the PC and electronic hardware industry is a major polluter. Mercury, dioxins, plastics, you name it. The gold contacts on your RAM? You don't want to know how they pull the stuff out of the ground.

See? I can look at the bright side.

But the eternal question remains. Pollute or denude? Talk about a rock and a hard place. Maybe I should just cancel the card... .

Shiny, Shiny India

I absolutely hated this book. The polemics. The dogma. The ivory-tower arrogance. The author tries to be balanced, but I can't help feeling that the overall argument was, well, one-sided. I suppose I should offer thanks that the original copy is lost. The paper kindly provided the heading.

The next super power of the world

first published in The Star, 22 June 2008

A big budget production boasting seven- or eight-digit figures. A star-studded cast supported by legions of extras. Theme-park-sized sets and stunning panoramic backdrops. An epic-length script with the promise of a fairy-tale ending.

The latest Yash Chopra blockbuster? Hardly. It's Mira Kamdar's Planet India. A quick peek at the Web (Mira who?) made me realise that Planet India is the well-researched, painstakingly documented work of a renowned, well-published Indian-American intellectual who's affiliated with a couple of think-tanks and regularly speaks at high-powered gatherings on world affairs.

Some books inform, others entertain. Planet India is mostly information. India's successes on the international stage are well-catalogued in this volume; even the list of notes and indices are long enough to warrant their own chapters. Kamdar portrays India as an awakening juggernaut in language that calls to mind the phrase, "shock and awe". 1.2 billion Indians at home; 20 million overseas. Eight-figure investments by software giants. Growth by percentages by so-and-so year.

She enthusiastically throws facts, numbers and platitudes about her beloved India with heavy-handed determination of, say, presidential candidates from the US.

" goes India, so goes the world."

"No other country matters more to the future of our planet than India."

"...actually, we are already living on Planet India."

Thankfully the author stops short of saying "the rupee will replace the dollar as the international currency".

However, Kamdar doesn't simply wax lyrical over India's enormous potential to rock the world. About halfway through, India the gold and silicon-chip-paved utopia gave way to India of 600,000 villages, home to the detritus left behind by the leaders of the pack in the race towards wealth, progress and knowledge: the hard-core poor, the dispossessed, uneducated who are left to fend for themselves in backwaters and slums ruled by criminals, corrupt officials and tyrannical landlords. There's also a glimpse into its volatile political scene, deep religious divides and long-running feud with Pakistan. The India of Kamdar's fevered imagination seems so far away - but still within reach, she says. Apparently, they even have their own Vision 2020 (so it's a race, then? May the best country win).

Of course, this is a sales pitch for India the world power and center of enlightenment, not India the land of superstition, outdated customs and temperamental nationalism. I suppose I can't fault the author for her optimism, not when so many others feel the same way. For instance, the slogan of a budget airline reflects the light on the horizon: "Every time we take off, the whole economy looks up." It's so bright, it blinds.

Buried somewhere underneath the pile of numbers thrown so liberally into the manuscript, are morals, lessons and interesting anecdotes that help salvage the book from becoming a mere paperweight. There are wise words by Deepak Chopra, as well as uplifting ones by the students for whom things can only get better. I wouldn't have felt so annoyed had she given more prominence to the ordinary people of India, instead of blinged-up executives, socialites and crorepatis (millionaires).

Reading Planet India is like panning for gold in the Ganges. It's hard work, going through the facts, numbers, and feel-good slogans to find the little nuggets that enlighten, enrich and inspire.

Planet India
The Turbulent Rise of The World’s Largest Democracy

Mira Kamdar
Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd
320 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84737-068-6

Friday, 30 May 2008

Stop and Stare

Sitting in my room for most of the day yielded little. One book review, polished and sent - that was it. The rest was spent idling, reading blogs and waiting for the virus scanner to finish.

Not a productive day.

Yet I've been up and about so much during my sabbatical it no longer feels like one. I start my new job next week and this... torpor sets in. Plus, the status of my back-pay is in doubt. There'll be little by way of infusions for at least a month or two.

Screw it. I need a burger.

I left Webzilla running and trooped downstairs. There was a small crowd around the 7-Eleven Burger Stand. It'll take a while before I get mine.

"Two beef burgers, no chilli sauce," I told the vendor. "I'll come back for them later," I added.


I went to the petrol station for some POKKA® Lemon 1000®. While I was aware that these will be a luxury in the coming months, I get a couple, which I intend to sip like long-buried vintages - and not drain like moonshine.

An unsettling sight stops me short - a scavenger raiding the 7-Eleven trash bin. He finds a discarded chicken sausage (courtesy of the burger vendor) and breaks it into three. I turned away to avoid the possible sight of him eating the damn thing. A compare-and-contrast mental routine kicked in.

Freaking writer's block, hmm? Soon, writing is going to be the only way I get salt out of the mines. "Writer's block" is another luxury I cannot afford - that is, unless I switch to a lifestyle that involves throw-away sausages out of a trash can.

I can't afford that, either.

I may have experienced and forgotten it many times, so it's always confounding how so much could come from so little. Such is the unparalleled marvel of the wake-up call.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Fest For The Eyes

Monday, May 26, 2008

Popular Bookfest 2008 was a much better book fest - because there was more floor-space at the KL Convention Centre. There was also stationery, computer peripherals, gifts and... tea? The folks at Purple Cane were hawking all sorts of teas, including a three-figure tagged Golden Oolong. Not my cup of tea. I'm a coffee man.

Of course, there were stage events. Teen author Lim May-Zhee, in a slinky purple dress and mile-long lashes spouted inspiring lines to the young listeners about the beauty of being a young author, thus:

"Writing a book is hard work..."

"You have to do lots of editing... you edit again and again and again..."

"You need to deal with pesky editors and printing staff, who'll mess up your work and you have to do it all over..."

"You have to do lots of PR, talking about your book... it's like taking care of children... so yeah, my books are like my children, so help me and buy my children..."

I cringed a lot.

Amir Muhammad's appearance wasn't too spectacular, either. He was just reading some of the quotes that will appear in Malaysian Politicians Say The Darnedest Things #2. Both authors, in fact, looked like they'd rather be somewhere else. I would've liked to hear some interesting back-stories about their works, in the vein of those "The Making of..." documentaries.

Reminds me of my old job, where the developers were excellent problem-solvers, but bad chroniclers of their work - barring their in-code comments. The schedules didn't allow them to. But then, my ex-colleagues wrote code. I didn't expect to see the same thing in authors.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Got +wondermilk?

Weeks after this came out, I was told - to my dismay - that the kids who run this shop are from rather well-to-do families, and that the service was the kind expected from such ilk. And the "two medallions" of chocolate were actually two halves of one chocolate medallion. I could say that my journalistic bent was still being developed then, but still... At least the food was good...

Somehow, credits for my Fried Chillies pieces, written under the alias "Alan W", were lost during their web site makeover.

+wondermilk shop + café
Wondermilk that dares to be different in the era of cookie cutter bakeries, serves up a welcome eclecticism and an arty vibe. They not only make kitschy cupcakes but hosts gigs and art exhibitions too.

first published in Fried Chillies, 24 May 2008

Sneer all you want at roadside burger stands. Every time I see one, my heart warms to see the usually young proprietors at good honest work instead of illegal racing, mugging and bumming out at shopping malls or Starbucks. Similarly uplifting are stories about young 'uns fresh out of college who are bucking trends in novel, out-of-the-box ways.

That was the one thing about +wondermilk that first struck me. The staff was barely-weened babes who look like they just tossed off their graduation robes and mortars - and yet are exhibiting signs of eccentric, creative and flighty genius. Nothing about the exterior gives any hint of what lays inside.

Fairy-tale whimsy abounds in what looks like a refurbished living room. Bare brickwork. Tables with water-pipe legs. In a corner stands a glass-panelled cabinet with a selection that can be classified as boho grunge. No ornate faux-baroque inspirations ala Casa Impian. These kids are channelling Gauguin and Gaudi into a high-end final year art and design project along the edges of Damansara Uptown.

"We're graduates of an art and design college," the waitress replied when asked. The café, which sells their trademark cuppacakes, is also a showcase of their talents as designers.

Ah. It explains everything, including the constant mini-themes around the place. Reindeer, sparrows, butterflies and the like. Even the cash register has personality; instead of the usual ENTER PRICE or HI, I'M JOE, it exhorts you to DRINK MORE MILK.

It's easy to dismiss the cuppacakes as little more than fluff; they were so small I didn't know there were different sizes. I picked out five, one for each flavour, and a coffee to wash it all down.

Royal Vanilla (rose)
There's nothing plain about the vanilla-based sponge, or the buttercream icing. The cream did not come out of a spraycan. You can feel the sugar grains, the taste and smell of butter among the flavours - evoking childhood memories of licking the mixing bowl. The flowers are masterpieces in themselves, lovingly piped into place by a fine nozzle and the steady hands of a patient, consummate artist.

Chocolove Orange (spiral)
Orange and chocolate are flavours Jamie Oliver would call "best mates". It's a combo that rarely goes wrong; the rich chocolate topping goes well with the orange-tinged cake sponge.

Cookie & Cream Dream (Oreo on top)
Ah, another Oreo-inspired winner. Bits of moist, cookie pieces are embedded into the cake, with a chocolate-flecked Oreo-like cream topping.

Hola! Piña Colada (white with lime rind)
It's supposed to be pineapple and cream, but my tastebuds registered "tropical ambrosia". Just enough pineapple to tease the palate with suggestions of a Hawaiian vacation.

Oh My Choc (two buttons on top)
Chocolate upon chocolate - upon chocolate. Two chocolate medallions wedged into a crown of what I suspect is Nutella, with a soft, moist chocolate sponge below. Just one bite during your chat session and you'll be typing OMCs instead of OMGs for the rest of the day.

With prices between RM3 to RM4 per cuppacake, you indulge, but indulge judiciously. New varieties are always being cooked up in the kitchen ("Elves at Work - No Entry", says the door). It also got me curious about their other offerings.

Their Sloppy Joes - a kind of carelessly-assembled burger - looks different, but not very special in terms of taste: minced chicken, button mushrooms in a mystery brown sauce between two halves of a bun. The Beef Rashers sandwich though was a warm, crispy toasted bread hugging flavourful beef ham and fresh crunchy lettuce.

Yes, "+wondermilk" is actually on the menu. A "secret" blend of fresh milk and a few other ingredients that doesn't trigger any emotional fireworks, but makes a tasty thirst-quencher. In keeping with the boho grunge vibe, ceramic and stainless steel have been replaced with custom-designed cardboard half-boxes, paper cups and plastic cutlery. Even their cupcake takeaway boxes bears their distinct hallmarks.

I am so hooked. I am so coming back. I am so going to go through the menu like a tornado across the American Midwest.

Before leaving, I made an inquiry.

"I'm sorry, sir," the proprietor/waitress replied. "The 'Trespassers' sign is not for sale."

Ah, well. You can't always have your cuppacake and eat it, too.

+wondermilk shop + café
41 Jalan SS 21/1A
Damansara Utama
47400 Petaling Jaya
Selangor Darul Ehsan


Mon-Sat: 9am-9pm
Sun: 2pm-6pm

+603-7725 8930

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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Eating For Disaster Victims

"So part of today's proceeds will go to the disaster victims in Burma and China?" I asked the waitress who gave me the change.

"Not part of," she replied. "All of it."

That caught me off-guard. "All the proceeds?"


Patrick Teoh for Prime Minister.

Then I remembered another thing. "There was a little girl going around collecting donations," I said. "Is she authorised to do that?"

The waitress laughed. "Yes, she's been approved by the management."

It started out rather poorly. I thought I memorised the map well enough, but I ended up loitering around The Atria for half an hour. By the time I reached the venue, I was sick with fatigue and hunger, and really damned thirsty.

Patrick Teoh's Damansara Village was holding a charity-drive for the disaster victims in Burmyan and China (I didn't know how it was done until I picked up the tab). Patrons can satisfy their physical, spiritual and emotional hungers in one sitting.

Amazing, the kind of info you pick up from blog aggregators. Previously, FunnyBunny's panic over a disrupted DiGi line was calmed by news of a nation-wide DiGi outage from Project Petaling Street.

I thought things were starting to look up until I saw the words "Steamboat" and "Pulau Ketam seafood".

Typically, a steamboat dinner revolves around a constantly boiling pot of stock and people throwing raw ingredients into it, preferably seafood and stuff you can quickly boil and eat. Eventually, noodles go into the now flavour-rich stock for a satisfying conclusion to a good meal. Nothing is fried, so it's also healthier.

Let me emphasise: people. Steamboat meals are rarely singleton affairs. My lone presence caught the attention of The Man himself. "You should put it all into the pot," he said, indicating the plate of veggies, quail eggs, assorted fishballs and bean curd products. "You can continue to eat as they cook."

The one thing that grabbed my attention was the single live and twitching prawn; too bad it died before I could cook the sucker. Despite my sorry skills, I didn't manage to make my seafood taste like old tennis shoes. Freshly-dead shellfish are a tad firmer and juicier than those from my old memories. Maybe I should do Pulau Ketam again - and do it right this time.

(I've never had boiled tennis shoes, but it's good to know other palatable substitutes are available if I ever get curious.)

Too bad I couldn't order the seafood. I suck at dissecting crabs, and fish heads can be challenging. And it was just little old me at the table.

However, I would suggest sprucing up the bathrooms, and mosquito repellents. And they should have let KY draw the map.

Looove the décor.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

One East-West Train Wreck

To my frustration, I could say nothing nice about this book - nor could I say anything bad about it. It's a depressing read that the Internal Security Ministry would pass; everybody depicted here more or less fits the more popular stereotypes. The British are degenerate, amoral snobs; the Communist Chinese are bloodthirsty and ruthless, their sympathisers untrustworthy and cunning; and all Opposition party members are firestarters.

When the past and present collide...

first published in The Star, 18 May 2008

One year ago, this book might not have reached the shelves. Contents include British colonialists, Communist insurgents, May 13 rioteers and the DAP. Who would've thought so much could happen in 365 days?

But is it a ghost story, or not? While "ghost" is in the title, the ambiguity of The Orientalist and the Ghost is guaranteed to titillate, or irritate.

Here, Susan Barker delivers a Lemony-Snicketish tale of a dysfunctional British-Chinese family forged in the fires of the Malayan Emergency that crumbles as time marches on.

Young Christopher Milnar is an adventurous and somewhat naïve scholar enamoured with all things Chinese who gets shipped to insurgent-era Malaya as an assistant administrator of a Chinese relocation settlement in Yong Peng, Johore. Translated, Yong Peng means "Everlasting Peace"; he would later find out that the British aren't the only ones with a sardonic sense of humour. He gets no welcome from the locals, especially the resentful Chinese who have been separated from relatives and loved ones under the Communist insurgents.

As the harsh reality whittles down his romanticism, love and hate come in the emaciated form of Evangeline Lim, an older half-Chinese woman with whom Chris has a May-December fling. Evangeline unwillingly betrays Chris' trust in her and ends up in court where she is sentenced to death, but not before leaving behind a daughter. Chris takes it upon himself to look after the child, named Frances, but the "Yong Peng Irony" continues as Frances becomes estranged from her "foreign devil" father and commits suicide years later, saddling Chris with her children, Adam and Julia. Like mother, like daughter.

However, this tale of woe begins with an ageing Chris being visited by phantoms of his past: his superior officer, colleagues and other memorable individuals from those heady Malayan days. The narration suggests that it's more hallucination than haunting. I don't blame him. He's counting his days, and his grandchildren have inherited that psychological Great Wall of China from their grandmother's side of the family. Plus, he's no Jamie Oliver.

It's not long before Chris himself crosses over, and suddenly, the grandchildren are adults. While Adam becomes a lab technician, Julia falls in with the wrong crowd and ends up a heroine junkie, too stoned to care when a letter from her mother's old school-friend arrives, asking for a meeting. As Adam sets off to meet the sender, the rest of the Milnars' sad tale unfolds.

I'm not a fan of non-linear plotlines, even though some stories read well when written this way. I didn't like the way The Orientalist leaps back and forth between the present and the tumultuous Malayan days. The aged Chris Milnar narrates the beginning, but then someone else tells us that he's dead, and Adam has the keys to his flat. A couple of chapters later, it’s good old Chris prattling on again, as if he never left. All that bouncing around gave me motion sickness.

Another gripe I had with it was the (perceived) interactivity. OK, there are plenty of clues as to why Frances became estranged from her father, but I had to dig. Surely it wasn't simply because of her conviction that her dad betrayed her mum? What really happened when she went searching for the teacher she had a crush on in the riot-racked city? Who really was the assailant that drove a rift between Chris and Evangeline? It's supposed to be literary fiction. If I wanted intellectual stimulation, I'd have done a Sudoku puzzle.

Storywise, it's pretty authentic. The sounds, emotions and atmosphere of those bygone times are captured very well. In Chris' narration, there are flashes of Shakespearean melodrama and the famous British wit; too bad his performance couldn't save this sad tale. And the only ghosts in the book are probably in Chris Milnar's head all along.

Should I feel cheated, or not?

The Orientalist and The Ghost
Susan Barker
346 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-60980-7

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Jumping My First Ship

Quote of the day: "Correct, correct, correct." It's so succinct, even he can't
comment on it.

So much is happening lately, it's hard to recall it all. The interviews, phone calls, assignments, and the island day trip.

After eight years and three months, I'm finally moving on. There are no comfort zones where I'll be going, and I'd be lying if I said I'm approaching this with little trepidation and doubt. What's unfortunate is that my schedule will be packed before my departure, which is just days from now. I just can't get a break.

Not many outside the company (or inside, for that matter) know I'm leaving. People change jobs all the time. It's not something worth dwelling over.

But it's going to be tough being the greenhorn again, after eight-plus years of seniority.

Friday, 9 May 2008

West Bashes West

After the hilariously entertaining Talk to The Snail, this was a bit of a disappointment - but I had fun reviewing it. I think the book speaks for itself.

Sardonic mirth

first published in The Star, 09 May 2008

Just how long can an Anglo-Saxon comedy writer spin humour out of cultural clashes? If you are Stephen Clarke, "as long as it pays the bills".

Following the runaway success of A Year in The Merde, Clarke produced the sequel Merde, Actually and Talk to the Snail, a comprehensive and hilarious guide to surviving France. So far, all of his books are based on his own experiences in the country. The next chapter in the comedy of errors that is British expatriate Paul West’s life is Merde (Shit) Happens.

And boy, does shit happen here. Not long after he sets up his English tea room in Paris, West is heavily fined by the local authorities – for having English words in the menu. His attempts to weasel his way out of the penalty fail, placing him in deep financial merde. On top of that, his English-speaking French girlfriend Alexa is hinting that the relationship is going nowhere – the same as West.

So he returns to London and secures a gig with a dodgy outfit to promote England as a premiere tourist destination, which he hopes will help him settle the fine and win Alexa’s admiration. The catch is – OK, make that catches are – he has to tour the United States in a Mini Cooper; organise and emcee the related promotional events at each stop; compete with representatives from other countries (including France); and do all that wearing a kilt (which is typically Scottish, but hey, since when has semantics ever stood in the way of an impetuous British venture?)

West extends Alexa an invitation to come along, and she accepts the deal with typical French grace – so she could make a documentary about the "real" (read: ugly) America. Her contempt for the US and its denizens becomes material for some of the jokes and punchlines.

Further mayhem ensues upon their arrival at the former British colony. Their transport is delayed, nobody knows they were coming and what they were coming for, and their link to London is an attendant from a call centre in India. Halfway through their journey, they are joined by West's linguistically challenged American friend and a Hispanic hottie. The "West Goes West" roadshow continues its downward spiral into oblivion while the merry band salvages what they can from it. Snafus haunt the party like monsters in pursuit, hinting at possible attempts at sabotage.

After writing two books that caricaturise his adopted homeland, Clarke broadens his horizons by sending his hero westward. New victims of his dry, scalpel-edged wit includes Americans, Canadians and Indians (not the red variety). Metaphors abound and punchlines are aplenty, making the book feel more like a comic strip than a novel. In no time the plot becomes less and less tangible as Merde Happens evolves into one long, sardonic diatribe by a Brit about the (exaggerated) strangeness of America – when his French girlfriend isn't snarking about it. After each chapter, I was like, "What... was this book about?" It's not just the plot; the author's brand of humour would be lost on less sophisticated readers. Still, that shouldn't discourage others from giving it a try.

It's hard to imagine that Merde Happens is actually part of a series. The way it is written gives no hint of a previous connection with the other books, which is both a strength and a weakness. You don't feel compelled to collect the whole set, since it's more of the same anyway (unless you are a fan, or immensely curious about how West ended up in France and acquired his tea room). On the flipside, copies would end up crawling (like a snail) – not flying – off the shelves instead. Which might spell financial trouble for a real Englishman living in France.

I wouldn't call the book a must-have but maybe we should help out by buying a copy, if only to stave off the nightmare vision of a kilt-clad Stephen Clarke, touring countries on behalf of Britain in a Mini Cooper because his books aren't selling.

Merde Happens
Stephen Clarke
Transworld Publishers
381 pages
ISBN: 978-0-593-05631-8

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Island Adventure

No time to wax lyrical over this latest misadventure. I'm tired, and my head is still in sync with the movements of the waves. I won't be walking in a straight line until I wake up tomorrow.

Pulau Ketam (a.k.a Crab Island) Labour Day adventure! In point form.

  • Boat rides were OK, but wish they'd play more uplifting music instead of Chinese oldies and karaoke discs.
  • It is not so bad when the boats move; it's even worse when they don't.
  • The island is apparently the tourist destination for Klang Valley denizens too cheap to fly AirAsia.
  • Try not to pay too much attention to the floatsam on the water.
  • Who could imagine anything on stilts and concrete pylons could be so secure?
  • Oyster and la-la omelette is made the Penang way - but still not up to par.
  • Live crabs in plastic drums on display in the market district - animal cruelty.
  • The umbrella-hats are real. Resisted the urge to buy one.
  • Kim Hoe Restaurant no longer serves the very, very best crab bee hoon. A fact totally lost upon the holidaying rubes from the asphalt jungle. At least the crabs were nice.
  • Sewage goes into sea; ocean bounty returns to land. Island-style circle of life. Yum.
  • Most locals keep their doors open.
  • On the island, Ah Sui is the Tesco of dessicated shrimp and dried seafood.
  • When in the bathroom, make judicious use of tap water.
  • Tragic to see so many people using the sea as a trash can.
  • Eat light - or not at all - before getting onto a boat.
  • What kind of maniac would spend days in a chalet that's more like a prison cell atop a floating fish farm, doing nothing but fish?
  • Walk slowly and gently on the planks and don't look too closely at the wavelets showing through the gaps and cracks in the timber. Do not run, stomp or jump. Try not to fall in, either. The barramundi (siakap) are not picky eaters.
  • Baby tiger garoupas are cute; red snappers are snappy.
  • GreenWay fish farm tour was conducted mainly in two Chinese dialects. Not very educational. Maybe because I was in an all-Chinese group.
  • Watch your head on boats.
  • Weather behaved itself. And sea breezes can be cooler than air-conditioning.
  • Next time, don't forget the motion-sickness pills. Maybe some sunscreen, too.