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

Facebook page

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.