Friday, 31 December 2010

Year-End Travails Of 2010

So long, 2010. Where have you been all this time?

Though this year seemed a little slower, it still feels like it just whizzed past. I thought I'd end the year with an update before it disappears completely. I'd returned from a tiring hot springs weekend retreat at Sg Klah, Perak, feeling not the least rested or relaxed. It still smarts here and there.

I quit my job this year with Off The Edge, which was shut down six weeks afterwards. My dalliance with freelancing came to nought, and towards the end of the year, I was keen to return to full-time employment. I'm now an editor at a publishing house, a job I intend to keep for a long, long while.

In my previous job, my writing suffered somewhat, a persistent word drought. To have words flowing freely again after so long is a joy. I think it's the close proximity with volumes and volumes of written work. I was never bored. Book-related work - hell, book-related anything - seems to be good for me.

Readings @ Seksan's, December 2010

Which is probably why I found the return of Readings @ Seksan's in December just as refreshing after a one-month hiatus. I arrived uncharacteristically early.

Characteristically, the guests and readers for the month arrived late. Since there was no session in November, I wondered if the turnout would be bigger this time.

Not quite.

This Readings session had a more artsy, poetic crowd. A young doctor called Fadz, performance poet kG Krishnan and Youtube sensation Azwan Ismail were among the readers. Eeleen Lee was absent because of a family tragedy. Dr Fadz's story about a doctor (naturally) who was treating his dying brother and kG at his melancholic best complimented the cloudy weather - a casual observation. Both write beautifully.

Left to right: Maizura Abas, Jeremy Chin, Azwan Ismail

Azwan's excerpt from a gay-themed short story from the compilation Orang Macam Kita or "People Like Us" provided some laughs. The reaction to his Youtube video, however, was so not funny. Said video, a message of hope for abused and persecuted members of the LGBT community, was taken offline after death threats were made against him. The authorities, as far as I know, have been very vocal about his sexuality but silent on the death threats.

A surprise appearance by Imran Ahmad was an opportunity to ask for his contact and an autographed copy of a limited edition of his book, Unimagined. Turns out Imran is looking for a local distributor for Unimagined, and maybe someone to translate it to Malay for the local market.

Left to right: Fadz, Imran Ahmad, kG Krishnan

I promised I would try and help. Our bookshelves are in need of something funny and uplifting, and Unimagined fits the bill. Scott Pack, formerly Head Buyer of bookstore chain Waterstone's in the UK, correctly predicted it would be a hit. Why wouldn't it sell here? Shying away from this book because of the subtitle "Muhammad, Jesus and James Bond" would be a shame.

Since I already attended his talk, it wasn't as funny third time around. It was still the same excerpts: second place at the Karachi's Bonniest Baby contest, spam, pork sausages, fish and chips, and why he can't be an actor. For those who were listening to him the first time, I can say it's most likely his flu. What is he doing here? The man should be in bed. Otherwise, he should be in show business. I don't think talk-show hosts or stand-up comedians need to snog anyone.

What was on sale

I also gave my contact details to Maizura Abas, a young new mother who took Sharon Bakar's writing course and started churning out lots of stuff, mostly on being a new mom. One of her pieces ended up in a Chicken Soup compilation for young moms, which was due next March. Her candid accounts of the travails of motherhood are fun and honest. I think Imran approved.

New author Jeremy Chin was there with the missus. He was reading too, and it was his birthday. Sharon got everybody to sing him the birthday song. After his turn at the mic, she encouraged him with the words of David Davida, formerly of Penguin India, something about good authors having an abandoned first novel in the drawer. I picked up a copy of his book, Fuel, a story about how passion drives a man.

I remember this book. Bald, cheerful, self-effacing Chin appeared at a previous Readings and mentioned a self-published first novel. He was there at Imran's Annexe gig as well, sharing a booth with Amir Muhammad and selling copies of said novel. I bought their books with some degree of trepidation. The girlfriend kept reminding me we were saving up for a house.

Several days later, she had gobbled up both books before I could even finish half of either. Unimagined charmed her with its honest hilarity. The language in Fuel held her spellbound, and its ending made her weep. It's the kind of writing - deep, introspective, well-crafted and polished - that I used to want to do, but couldn't.

No, I haven't read it yet, but I had little reason to doubt the girl. She's never been wrong about food, and she isn't wrong about the books she's read so far.

It didn't help that Chin, who worked at an ad agency before he quit to write the book, is also a creative wiz. Look at his business card. Look at the web sites he's worked on. Look at the cover of Fuel. Minimalist designs with maximum impact. Especially the book cover, which gives little idea of the power in its pages.

There's a Malay proverb about still waters and crocodiles. In this case, what jumped out was that 40-foot dinosaur-eating terror some fossil hunter found in the Sahara.

Man, I was so taken in.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Power Of The Outraged, Helpless Masses

Now at the CSR Digest web site: one of the few book reviews not for the newspapers.

This was one kind of hard-to-review book, and it kind of shows in my writing. But it was a nice change from the usual stuff I look at.

Thanks to Daniel Chandranayagam for the opportunity to review this book and contribute to CSR Digest, and apologies for holding on to the book for so long. I hope he found it more enjoyable than I did.

The World That Changes The World

first published in the CSR Digest, 24 November 2010

Thanks to modern technology, bad news are delivered with great speed and in huge amounts. We are barraged by "Have you heard?", "OMG!", and of course, "Look at this!", which is often followed by "Spread the word!" or, if you're on Facebook, "Please 'Like' This." So far, over 200,000 Malaysian Facebook users have stated their objection to the latest addition to the KL skyline, and possible white elephant: a 100-storey steel, glass and concrete masterpiece.

As attested by the popularity of such campaigns, the sense of outrage and helplessness engendered by bad news can be a tremendous force. Imagine the things it can help achieve if harnessed.

Media, technology, and social responsibility are just several of the cogs in an even bigger system. The social ecosystem, touted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation as "The World That Changes The World". It is also the title of the book, which the Centre hopes will explain the environment where corporate social responsibility (CSR), perhaps the most visible aspect of social responsibility, is but a drop in a huge ocean.

The social ecosystem, as the Centre puts it, is "a pulsing, thriving community of very diverse, at times divisive players, all driven by a common mission: to change the world for the better." This ecosystem is populated by those who need help (beneficiaries); those who help (social purpose organisations); and those who help the helpers (capacity builders). The last two include "more than 20,000 international groups", who spend more than the current US debt (US$1.9 trillion) annually, and provide "more than 4.8 million full-time jobs", with the help of the wider community (helpless, outraged people), the media (Facebook), and governments.

In this book, twenty-one thinkers, captains of industry and leaders in their fields from around the world provide their perspectives and insights into the complex social ecosystem, two of whom are also the book's editors: chairman Willie Cheng, and manager Sharifah Mohamed, both from the Centre.

Other contributing authors include Chris Cusano, ASEAN Change Leader for Ashoka: Innovators for the Public; Jonathan S Huggett, Visiting Fellow at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford University; Dr Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation in London; Dr Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International; Dr Thomas Menkhoff from Singapore Management University; and Laurence Lien, CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre in Singapore, and chairman of the Lien Foundation.

In the first two chapters, the editors introduce us to the concept of the social ecosystem: the components, the forces behind it, and the changes to it that are happening now, or might happen in thefuture. Essays from the other authors describe and discuss aspects of the ecosystem: beneficiaries, social purpose entities, capacity builders, community, government, change enablers and macro-trends. The end result is a collection of essays most likely targeted at the very same players described within. Given the scope of the book and the logistics involved, there's little doubt that it's a serious, exhaustive undertaking.

While the mission to create a holistic, complete, detailed view of the social ecosystem has more or less been achieved, there appears to be no inclination on the authors' part to put all that knowledge and insight in more... accessible terms. The writing is staid, very textbook, perhaps in keeping with the need for a uniform voice across the pages, and to emphasise the gravity of the issues, problems and solutions being discussed.

The numerous endnotes suggest further reading is required. Just as well, since the various topics presented in this book would, perhaps, already have entire treatises of their own, written by others eager to get to the bottom of things. Gastroenterology & Medicine International's Tan Chi Chiu's essay is noteworthy for his inclusion of Abe Maslow's pyramid of needs and a famous John Lennon song to brighten up his extensively researched, and somewhat depressing essay of just how many people out there need help.

There is also a lot of cross-referencing as well. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton mentioned his organisation in the foreword. At one point, Willie Cheng notes that "...Organizations such as the Young Foundation and the Lien Centre for Social Innovation are dedicated to fostering the cause of social innovation."

Bill Drayton is mentioned in IJ Partners' Maximillian Martin's writing on "transformative leaders", as an example of leaders who possess "engineering leadership", together with Bill Gates. These people and organisations may be the closest, credible examples within reach of a stressed, time-starved author, but at first glance, such referencing can be perceived as self-promotion or mutual apple-polishing.

The World That Changes The World is a notable effort by the Centre to piece together a credible primer to the overall social landscape, a world that the rest of us only see in glimpses. However, one wonders what the average layperson would make of it all, if this book was meant for the average layperson to begin with.

The World That Changes The World
How Philanthropy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship are Transforming the Social Ecosystem

edited by Willie Cheng, Sharifah Mohamed
Jossey-Bass (2010)
388 pages
ISBN: 978-0-470-82715-4

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Cool Brew

My first solo assignment for Going Places was quite an adventure.

I've only had a passing interest for herbal tea. Late nights and a love of hot, spicy foods have given me lots of heat-related problems. It wasn't until this assignment came along that I began to learn more.

Pages 54 and 55 of "A Cool Brew", Going Places, October 2010

Compressing over 2,000 words of notes into a 1,200-word piece was hard, almost as hard as figuring out the names, attributes and properties of the common Chinese herbs used in the more common herbal teas. The ubiquitous bei zhi cao or puk ji chou, for instance, is either made of the Chinese cinquefoil, or some other herb with similar properties. And the baihua sheshecao apparently has two Latin aliases.

Pages 56 and 57 of "A Cool Brew", Going Places, October 2010

Last page of "A Cool Brew",
Going Places, October 2010
My adventures into the lives of these herbal tea vendors unearthed more than what the allotted space could hold. I must've drunk more herbal brews in the weeks of leg work than what I would usually take in a year.

The life of a herbal tea vendor is hard. Virtually everyone I spoke to agreed that they are most likely the last generation to man their stalls, which have decades of history behind them. While some vendors have gone big (such as Hor Yan Hor, now Hovid Berhad), many others will eventually disappear. I've patronised stalls such as Hu Zhong Tian near Petaling Street, which I still remember from my Informatics College days. I can't imagine stalls like that disappearing entirely.

But they will, eventually. Bottled, canned and packet herbal teas are finding their way to shelves at supermarkets, hypermarkets and your neighbourhood 7-Eleven or Chinese medicine hall. For slightly more traditional households, pre-packaged herbs for some common herbal teas are available at many Chinese medicine halls.

The editing and photography are, as usual, excellent. Thanks also to Hovid Berhad, and the herbal tea vendors who helped make this article possible.

Future Of Book Reviews

Ellen Whyte called me up out of the blue for input for this article, published in the current issue of MPH's Quill (October - December 2010). I said quite a few things during the phone interview, but I can't remember exactly what.

I think it's the first time I've been interviewed for an article. My bit is right near the end.

"Making Web 2.0 Work for You", MPH Quill, October - December 2010

Turns out it's more about social media on the Web than just about book reviews, which Whyte also (more or less) covers in the same issue. That article was more interesting, as it talks about one thing I do for a living.

I am not, by any means, the only book reviewer out there. Anybody can set up a blog and post reviews of books they've read. What probably helps a reviewer stand out is how he/she can make the book sound interesting, metaphorically taking it apart and pointing out the gems hidden within, and telling readers why they should care about them.

However, with sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing, whither book reviewing? All one needs, perhaps, is a look at the allocated number of stars or positive reviews for a book to make a decision on whether or not to read. Given their prices, many paper tomes are more like investments, in terms of money and time spent.

I want to keep reviewing books for as long as I can, as long as I'm allowed to. But with technology helping us kill the things we used to love and have time for (such as reading books), do I really want to go hi-tech all the way?

Monday, 4 October 2010

Readings With A Runny Nose

Just my luck to be at a Readings when my nose is running like a leaky tap. Of course, I also couldn't remember if I had my dose of Telfast-D that day. Accidental double dose? Probably not with thing containing pseudoephedrine.

One thing I noticed when I walked into the exhibition area.

Truth be told, Readings was never quite the same without the piggies. So glad they were back. And just in time. They had a great line-up this time, half of whom did some form of poetry, or were poets themselves.

Quite a few books on sale this time, mostly from Matahari Books and ZI Publications. By now, I'm more forgiving of participants plugging their books during these sessions, even more so of first-time authors or publishers. Sometimes, they don't even have a platform for plugging.

I had no pictures of the first half of the session. To my dismay, my rechargeable batteries emptied themselves, less than two weeks after I last charged them. I went out for plain old alkaline batteries during the intermission. I'll be switching to Sony CycleEnergy.

A notable presence was Australian hip-hop artiste and poet Omar Musa, winner of the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam. Omar was, like Oz's new finance minister Penny Wong and some of the people I met in Melbourne last year, from here (he was born in Sabah).

After some poems that aren't really poems (there was one about Nike Air Force Ones and his grandma back in Sabah), he wrapped up his turn with a rap piece about... warning the audience about the dangers of forgetfulness? I forget. All I remembered was that it was good, and it mentioned food.

What I won't forget after that evening was to take my goddamn runny-nose meds at least three hours before leaving the house.

Another poet, Shivani Siva, recited several pieces, including one about an evening at the National Mosque under a yam-coloured sky, a python on the road, and a love poem with blood. I didn't see her after the intermission.

Jacqueline-Ann Surin needed no introduction. After launching Found in Malaysia on 16 September, she came with one of Those Effing Guys, Ezra Zaid, to sell a few copies of the book.

She read a few extracts from it, where interviewees for their "Found in Malaysia" segment spoke about May 13. The next edition will be interesting, because one of their recent interviewees was Ibrahim Ali. No, really. Not talkin' $#!+.

Thato Ntshabele, winner of Poetry Underground's Poetry Cup for August, came with his friend Andrew. Both are Batswana, and currently studying at Limkokwing. Their pieces were written for Botswana's Independence Day, and it was their turn after the intermission.

Andrew's piece, a moving tribute to his country and its youth, was so similar in context to a dignitary's speech he heard, Andrew was curious about "what he was smoking."

Thato's paean to home was titled, "Pula". Pula is Botswana's motto, and the name of its currency. The word means "rain", and since much of the country is also part of the Kalahari desert, "rain" also means "blessing".

By the time they were done, some of us may have wondered what they were smoking, and if it works for us, too.

Amir Muhammad's turn was a bit democratic. "Politics, religion, or sex?" he asked the audience, before reading the corresponding topic picks out of his two books: Rojak (politics, or more precisely, the satirical "subversive sign language" short story) and 120 Malay Movies (sex).

Food and sex were dished out by Hisham Rais, the last reader for the afternoon. He read excerpts from Tapai, a collection of his articles written for Off The Edge. The "wandering bon vivant" and prison food connoisseur at one point went on about satay, wine pairings, the chemistry in the smell of tripe and other things.

The other piece was a review of Pavilion KL's Carat Club, which sold food and diamond jewelry. I still remember the piece; Bluetoffee Press editor and Off The Edge reader See Tshiung Han wrote in about it, noting that the chef's name had three different spellings - "pretty unfortunate mistakes" that I missed. I never lived it down, and I told him so. I think I also promised him a drink for doing my work for me that time.

Dessert was a letter - a "book review" - from a concerned, well-meaning reader. He translated each sentence of the Bahasa Melayu (or "Bahasa Orang Asli"/native language, as he put it) letter into English.

As I suspected then, as is often the case with Rais, it had to do with his "drinking and wenching problems". Towards the end, the writer hoped that nobody from JAKIM (our Department of Islamic Development) would read this book, and that he would "find his way again". An English re-reading of each sentence was unnecessary - in either language, the letter was hilarious.

We were all so wrapped up in Rais' witty, boisterous and bawdy delivery, we forgot about the two children in the audience. It was perhaps the best education they - and the rest of us - received this year.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

(Not Quite) A Tribute to Dr Mahathir

When I first got word about this assignment, I was quite... nervous. At first I thought they were sending Andrew Sia for this one. At the time, I felt I didn't command the vocabulary or the experience to do it justice.

Now that it's out, I'm so relieved, and I don't want to continue with this preamble.

A tribute to Dr Mahathir
Muzikal Tun Mahathir marks the milestones in the former premier's life.

first published in The Star, 29 September 2010

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the only Prime Minister my generation knew when we were growing up. We don't really need reminders of just how important he is. The tributes to him, since he left office in 2003, have been almost ceaseless. So we should have seen this coming.

The staging of Muzikal Tun Mahathir was said to coincide with the Merdeka month and Malaysia Day celebrations. The story starts from Tun's birth and highlights include life during the Japanese Occupation, his medical school days, meeting and marrying Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, running Klinik Maha, writing The Malay Dilemma, his time as Prime Minister, and his "departure" from politics. The production ends with an ageing Tun lamenting the Malays' need for crutches, and his vow to continue the struggle.

The production is, if I read correctly, a tribute to the man; the producers wanted to stage a theatre piece about a national figure who's still alive. Tun's letter is reproduced in the programme as a stamp of approval. "I have no objections to plans for a musical about me," said Tun in the letter. "My only hope is that it's based on fact."

And they just had to have a Mahathir family member in the cast: Tun's youngest son, Mazhar, who plays two minor roles.

Let me clarify: I'm no fan of Tun's, but that's not why I didn't like the musical very much. It looked like Istana Budaya had huge aspirations for the play, judging from the casting, the grand set pieces, and flashy computer graphics projected against a big white backdrop. To the average Joe, it's just another lavish, star-studded piece of populist theatre.

Many of the 27 chapters (says the programme) of the over-two-hour musical representing the milestones in Tun's eventful life were so short, they could have probably done without them. For instance, did they need to have the actor playing Tun Razak giving a speech on why the New Economic Policy was needed back then? All that's probably in our bones.

Then we have scenes like the one that featured megaprojects such as the Sepang F1 Circuit, KLCC and Putrajaya, and Tun's devastated supporters at a nasi kandar restaurant who tuned in to his teary 2002 announcement.

Got a copy of the programme? Just look at the lyrics to some of the songs. Imagine "The Tun is great!" being tattooed onto each little grey cell in one's brain.

The main cast members didn't look like they were being challenged by their stage roles. Erra Fazira played Dr Siti Hasmah quite well, never mind my suspicions she was also a popular choice.

I felt a bit sorry for Datuk Jalaluddin Hassan; the man has a huge presence, but was cast as Tun's father, who didn't get a lot of lines or stage time.

The actors playing Tun from childhood to adulthood seemed quite convincing. Esma Daniel in particular was very much the Dr M I grew up watching on TV – right down to the drawl and mannerisms – during a "live telecast interview" with Misha Omar as a journalist.

The dialogue and jokes, with a mix of rather contemporary English and Bahasa Malaysia, certainly made the production more enjoyable. Tapi, pada tahun 60an dan 70an ada orang pakai ke, "U" and "I" (But in the 70s and 60s, do people say "U" and "I")? Ada Poslaju ke (have Pos Laju) in the late 1960s? Thanks to the strong background music and the speakers' powerful reverbs, it was hard to make out the dialogue, lyrics or punchlines, which was a real shame.

The programme book does highlight the featured parts of Tun's life but does not describe the lesser-known characters. Mohd Qhauhd Abd Rashid, for instance, plays this "Aziz" character, but there is no further mention of who "Aziz" is.

Not all the chapters were properly explained, either. The only clues to what Chapter 26: "Peak Dance Drama" supposedly depicts, with its arm band-tearing and keris-waving, came later from Wikipedia. The on-screen dates seemed to coincide with the terms of Tun's three deputies: Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim.

Nor was the night trouble-free. In a chapter about a covert, late-night anti-Malayan Union poster plastering, a piece of one of the fake columns broke off and fell onto the stage as it was being lowered. Nobody was injured, but I was sure plenty of nervous glances were directed at the ceiling thereafter.

When Misha took the stage to deliver one last song, the amplified vocals spluttered, and died about halfway through. But Misha didn't quit. She rose to the occasion by singing anyway, her unamplified voice barely audible from my seat. The audience applauded.

Misha boleh!

Finally, one of the stagehands gallantly offered her a microphone so she could finish the song.

When the cast took their bow, the applause for Misha was among the loudest.

I guess, in the end, the musical is not really about Tun Mahathir, but about a bunch of artistes and stars, and Istana Budaya giving their all for a good night's entertainment.

There were technical errors and onstage glitches, but everyone did their best to keep the show going until the curtains fell. That spirit, at least, is worthy of support, regardless of how one feels about the man.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Found in Malaysia

It was perhaps fitting that something titled "Found in Malaysia" would be launched on Malaysia Day. 16 September 1963 was when Persekutuan Tanah Melayu became Malaysia, after Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined (the latter seceded a few years later). Some forty years later, it seems the idea of a "Malaysia" is still kind of hazy.

This country appears fond of pigeon-holing us into firmly defined circles to satisfy some strange sense of security: The Other easier to spot if it is marked as different. Really? What about China, where everyone looks the same? For a more contemporary reference, read some of the recent headlines. We are, it seems, our worst enemies.

Found in Malaysia is also the title of a series of interviews by online editorial "The Nut Graph". When some Umno man called non-Malays "pendatang" or squatters, it was the reporter who reported it that got (briefly) detained as a security threat. The book is a compilation of some fifty "Found in Malaysia" interviews that have been published online. One aim, is perhaps to show that even though there may be a little pendatang in all of us, we're Malaysians first, thank you very much.

The launch of the book at Leonardo's Dining Room & Wine Loft, along Jalan Bangkung, was officiated by The Nut Graph's editor, Jacqueline-Ann Surin. A panel discussion about politics and Malaysian literature followed. Journalist and lit-critic Umapagan Ampikaipakan moderated the panel, made up of author Chuah Guat Eng, scholar and poet Eddin Khoo, lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra, and politician Zaid Ibrahim, who arrived a bit late.

Chuah Guat Eng tentatively laid some blame on the education system for the current state of literature in the country. I remember fondly the English literature classes during my school days - who knew that the Education Ministry pulled the subject out of the curriculum, when Anwar Ibrahim was in charge?

Chuah also said the general Malaysian population don't seem to "get" fiction as much as they do non-fiction - something to do with the lack of imagination, I think. "When I wrote in the first person, it was assumed to be 'autobiographical'," she recalled, speaking of her book, Days of Change. "When I wrote as a Malay male, they assumed that I once had an affair with one."

Did I hear that right? I had a voice recorder with me that day, but the battery went flat. I could have sworn I recharged it less than a month ago...

Cecil Rajendra was even more blunt where our lack of a reading culture was concerned. "About ten percent of Malaysians read", he thundered, "and out of that ten percent, about 0.01 percent read poetry." He recalled people reading in airports at Dublin and Abu Dhabi, but when he returned to KL, "nobody was reading" - "culture shock," he called it.

With regards to imagination, Eddin Khoo noted that the need to dream or imagine is stronger in oppressed countries. "Works out of post-communist Russia came nowhere near what was produced during, say, Stalin's time," he said. During the Suharto regime, one could be jailed for 25 years just for having a copy of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Bumi Manusia ("This Earth of Mankind"). Malaysians, he remarked, are more fortunate. "We're not oppressed enough." I hope nobody from the Special Branch were taking notes.

Khoo also touched on the tendency of some Asian writers to overly romanticise their past, "trotting out their grandmothers," as he said. "Rice mothers, Japanese lovers, mangoes falling from my grandma's tree... ." I empathised with that sentiment. After flipping through a few pages of Rice Mother some time back, I didn't feel like reading the rest.

Earlier, Khoo also said that the home is where the habit can be nurtured. This probably explains why my reading preferences have always leaned towards non-fiction. I grew up reading encyclopaedias, issues of Reader's Digest, and later, stuff such as TIME and National Geographic. Why do we need other worlds, anyway? Looking glasses, magic wardrobes and intergalactic vessels, as I understand, are hard to come by. As a Discovery Channel slogan goes, "The world is just awesome." Despite its flaws, it still is.

Chuah was almost livid when the others were done painting a depressing picture of Malaysian literature. So what if there are stumbling blocks, political consciousness, and the like, she asked exasperatedly. "Can't we use our imagination to write around them?"

She gave one example: Lloyd Fernando's 1976 novel Scorpion Orchid, which was extensively written about. On the surface, it seems to be about racial conflict, but Chuah contended that it was about nationhood, a discourse on social integration in the 1970s. To see things like that, she said, one has to be trained to look at how writers write.

Even though he's a politician, I found a lot of Zaid Ibrahim's responses and replies disappointingly "safe" and politically correct.

So who can save Malaysian literature? How do we create readers and writers? "Institutions can play a role, but we cannot completely depend on them," was Khoo's reply to an audience member's question. "The autodidact, the person who educates himself, is the most important educator."

It was an interesting discussion, and Khoo made what I thought was a pertinent point. With our so-called leaders playing power games and our institutions seemingly sliding further down international rankings, perhaps it falls upon each and every one of us who can to learn, not just to read and write, but to better ourselves as well.

But I also wonder: Do we really have what it takes?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Writing Again

I got a laptop PC to make my writing life easier. and it would have, if it wasn't connected to the Internet. That's when I decided to unplug.

I've started taking my writing off the machine, and going back to paper and pens of several colours. After years of typing, editing and mouse-clicking, there's a certain kind of gratification in watching ink flow and paper being filled up - free from the distractions coming from cyberspace.

I've never felt so productive. When the time comes to type it all in, though, I will remember to disconnect first - just in case.

In the long list of advice and tips for writers out there, one rule keeps echoing: "Just do it." Which is what I'm doing now.

I'm writing again, and I'll keep writing.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Old-School Writing

This review, my suggestion for a pre-Merdeka thing, was a bit hard to write because I had quite a bit to say about each book, and I was mentally doing the trimming, before getting it on paper. It was also the first time I've done anything like this. I'm glad it all worked out.

I bought a copy for archiving, of course. So, who wants a cut-out coupon?

Old-school writing
These three books set before Merdeka are still relevant to today's Malaysia

first published in The Star, 29 August 2010

AS the 53rd anniversary of our independence approaches, I wonder, given how technological advances have forced drastic changes in our reading and writing habits, if Malaysia will see the death of books by Aug 31, 2020.

What brought this question to mind was the rather serendipitous discovery of several books written by foreigners, set in the Malay Peninsula before Merdeka, all re-issued or published by Singapore's Monsoon Books.

Monsoon's Merdeka reads:The Golden Chersonese, And The Rain
My Drink
and The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney

The first one to catch my eye was The Golden Chersonese: A 19th-Century Englishwoman's Travels in Singapore and The Malay Peninsula by Isabella Bird, the renowned British travel writer.

The name "Golden Chersonese", or Aurea Chersonesus, was bequeathed by Roman-Egyptian mathematician and scientist Ptolemy and alluded to the wealth in gold thought to be found on the Malay Peninsula in ancient times. (Either Ptolemy was just being dramatic or some rapacious pirate back then took all that gold away, leaving us to depend on Petronas' dwindling annual profits.)

The book records Bird's travels in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tanah Melayu (an early version of 1Malaysia) in 1879, and like most of her works, was written as a bunch of letters to her sister back in Britain.

Unusually for a woman of her time and place, her case of wanderlust was said to be so severe that she would get sick if she stayed home. Her travel writing made her famous, and in 1892, she became the first female member of Britain's venerable Royal Geographical Society.

Her very scholarly, emotionally distant writing is accompanied by her own finely-detailed sketches. Of course, she's not without her conceits. She abhors, for instance the use of "pidjun English" by the Chinese she encounters in Hong Kong. Most of the time, though, she tells it like it is, as she attests in the preface.

One can feel the cockles of one's heart warm with familiarity at her mention of local delicacies, landmarks and people, even though she describes the Peninsula as "very hot, and much infested by things that bite and sting".

Eighty years after Ms Bird's departure from the Not-So-Golden-Anymore Chersonese – now called Malaya – the Emergency (the Communist insurgency that lasted from 1948 to 1960) descends on a more developed and cosmopolitan Peninsula.

Author Han Suyin was a Chinese doctor from Henan who practised in Malaya during the Emergency. The title of her book, And the Rain My Drink, comes from an old Chinese ballad and refers to what the Communists were willing to endure do create their idea of a just country.

This book features a large cast (all conveniently listed at the beginning of the book). Among the Malays, Indians and gwailos are many Chinese: tycoons and their scions, Communist insurgents and sympathisers, and innocent bystanders who get caught up in the mess.

The focus of the story shifts among the various dramas being played out among these people, though one common thread is a girl, a Communist-turned-informer, who survives through betrayal.

The prose is vivid, almost poetic, and meanders like the long strokes by a Chinese calligrapher's brush, but that feeling tapers off towards the end of the tale. Except for one chapter, taken out of a hardened, jungle-dwelling insurgent's diary, the whole thing has the feel of a classic Chinese painting, which takes time and a poetic soul to appreciate. Tweeting, iPad-carrying Gen-Y-ers might not get this one.

One character who could very well have appeared in Han's timeline would be Frederick Lees' protagonist in The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney. Known as Ferdie to his friends, the protagonist is a young Anglo-Irish fellow who, like the author, left Britain to serve in the British Colonial Service in Malaya in 1950.

Even before the boat leaves Britain, we get the idea that O'Haney is a flawed character. Opinionated, self-righteous, over-analytical though honest to a fault, he nevertheless tries his best at whatever he's given – when he's not, among other things, banging other people's wives and sisters-in-law, rolling in the hay with young local men (yes, you read right), getting mixed up with Communists and spies, and telling us how well-read he is. He also becomes the "postman" for peace talks between Communist insurgents and British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney, with terrible results.

After Bird's genteel jottings and Han's lyrical pen-strokes, Lees' journalistic, in-your-face style jars the senses like an air-raid alarm. Though realistic and colourful, the narrative is a little long in some places.

The author's attempt, I think, to blend autobiography with fiction has resulted in a collision: the soliloquies tend to get in the way of an entertaining story. But fans of cranky, opinionated, grizzled veterans of their profession will find reason to like it, quite apart from the juicy bits and conspiracy theories.

These books are clearly products of their authors' lives and times, to be read and enjoyed the way books were back then. Though I must say that the social commentary in the two Emergency-era novels, parroted by the authors' alter-egos, is still relevant today, and still being echoed by ... virtually everyone.

Narratives that don't walk on eggshells make refreshing reads, but I also worry: For instance, will Bird's use of the word "kling" (in reference to Indians, now considered derogatory), and the stereotypes in these books, kick these books off the shelves? Will people talk about them instead of sitting down to enjoy three good stories?

Ah, well, I'll leave the debates to others. Myself, I'm curling up with this lovely set of reads for a long Merdeka weekend. Better hurry before paper books and old-school writing go out of fashion.

The Golden Chersonese
A 19th-century Englishwoman's Travels in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula

Isabella Bird
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
352 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-4484-4

And The Rain My Drink
Han Suyin
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
260 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-4485-1

The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney
Frederick Lees
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
572 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-2382-5

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Not A Game

It came from beyond the extreme reaches of our reality
It came to laugh at our naive existences

At home: A child's murder. A "fleeing teenage criminal" shot to death by police. Another unwanted baby, left at a doorstep or trash can. Elsewhere: Civil war. Terrorism. Failed states. Slavery. The drug and human trade. Suicide.

Despite the prevalence of international broadcasting, the horrors faced by and involving children don't appear to even pluck at our heartstrings, stretched taut by the weight of our own problems and (oft-misplaced) priorities. Whatever impression made eventually fades, and after a night's sleep - or as soon as the buck hits the bottom of the collection bin, it's as if it never happened.

I am puzzled by the truth that slips through my hands even as I cover my ears

When researching UNICEF for an interview, I came across the frightening statistic that every year, half a million mothers die of various reasons. Many of whom were from the African continent, and many of those die during childbirth.

I remember typing out some questions in a muted rage after that. Half a million? Each year? I can't remember exactly why. As a maternity ward nurse, Mom sometimes relates stories from work (she never mentions names). On occasion, there would be tragedies. Because I can't comprehend what Mom sees at work everyday, let alone fathom how she manages to do double-shifts on most days (she's already in her sixties), I could only imagine.

Which is why when I hear the glib, asinine, or sanctimonious statements made by politicians about baby dumping, child rape, deaths at a National Service camp, hazing or ragging, or the shooting and death-in-custody of a teenager, etc (let's not even start on the pro-lifers in the US, or the Vatican), the red mist descends, and I hear, once again, the words of a former editor: "We don't know how to treat our children right."

Similar emotions were roused recently with the opening theme to the Japanese anime series Bokurano. It opens with a rousing, haunting church hall chanting, followed by the powerful, crystal clear, church hall vocals of Chiaki Ishikawa.

The whole track is rousing, lively, powerful. Then you dig a little deeper and uncover what the series is about, what the Japanese words mean, and the song takes on a new significance. It is a sad, angry composition.

Bokurano is a sci-fi tale of about fifteen children in their early teens, who encounter a strange man in a cave who claims to be a videogame developer, and invites the kids to test the game for him, involving a giant robot and invaders from other dimensions. Eventually the children realise they have been drafted into real duels between giant robots from alternate versions of this world, and they are the pilots of the home team's machine.

Defeat means the utter devastation of the loser's world, so it's do or die. Actually, do and die - since the robot runs on human life force, the pilot expires, regardless of the outcome. Did I mention that the chosen ones are children? And that there's apparently no way they can opt out of the "game"?

Where in this thin body do I find the strength to stand?

As their numbers dwindle, the chosen are forced to grow up real quick, and search for the meaning of their lives. Time however, is short, and there's no way of telling how long they have before another of their number is summoned to battle, indicated by the markings that appear on the face and body. The fact that they end their lives as mass murderers on a galactic scale doesn't make things better.

I am devoid of any feelings
Except an impulse to destroy everything and anything
Since I can't even choose the season of my passing...

I have not watched the series, nor do I plan to - the shock would be too much. At first one is inclined to railroad the producers for coming up with something so disturbing, but how is it any different from the drama we're witnessing on the news channels?

I was told that I am but one of the countless specks of dust on this planet
But that is something I cannot yet comprehend

Like the chosen children, not all are born into nice families, environments, or completely protected from harm. There's parental abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, and after their identities as pilots are leaked, one of them is even assassinated by a paranoid government.

I have no choice but to pretend that I am a warrior who knows no fear

At times, I think I'm angry because whatever it is behind the bad news - bureaucracies, theocracies, or ideologues - seems to be laughing at our naive existences, before setting in motion the plans that reap such heavy tolls: war against terror, war against drugs, war against tyranny, war against poverty, and so on. When these "leaders" try to justify their means, that sinister, mocking laughter seems to echo from behind.

It makes me want to end everything with these hands
It's not a bad thing to uninstall

This reality is no videogame. There are no save points. No character files to back up. No extra lives, no pauses, no restarts. At times when the metaphor fits, the players go their merry way, regardless of the collateral damage incurred. Ruined livelihoods, broken families, ruined environments, failed states. Orphans, widows, widowers. Dead children. How long can such outcomes be accepted as "part of the game"?


"Uninstall" by Chiaki Ishikawa
僕はまだ何も知らない | I Still Know Nothing (2007)
Victor Entertainment
Lyrics translated by DarkMirage

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Japanese Kitchen Tales

After a fruitless search for the latest issue of MPH Quill, MPH called to tell me that they saved two complimentary copies for me.

A Cook's Journey to Japan, reviewed in MPH Quill July - Sep 2010

Though I'd hoped the author would demonstrate more of her knowledge and experience in her field for the e-mail interview, it all turned out okay. The editorial team did a great job with the piece and the magazine in general, which looks more lifestylish now. A few good articles, particularly one from Ellen Whyte.

Do pick up a copy, but don't rush. As of now it seems they haven't gotten the issue to all their stores yet.

I'm still in the middle of getting snapshots of nearly every print article, write-up or mildly interesting listings I've worked on. Each item will be categorised and backdated to the day or month it was published.

Japanese kitchen tales
KW Wong reviews A Cook's Journey to Japan by Sarah Marx Feldner and interviews the cook about her long, heart-warming homecoming

original text; edited version published in MPH Quill, Jul-Sep 2010

Since he left the kitchen, trash-talking celeb chef Tony Bourdain has been hoisting his saucepan about a number of things: the US foie gras ban, radical vegans, factory farming and the fast food industry. Now, it’s people who can’t even fry an egg.

In one episode of No Reservations, he got some big name chefs to demonstrate how to roast chicken, make omelettes and prepare spaghetti in red sauce; Tony B himself showed us how to cut onions and make beef stew. Why? Because Bourdain claimed that Americans (and perhaps people in general) can’t seem to cook a thing right nowadays.

However, not all of us can ring up the likes of Thomas Keller or Jacques Pépin to arrange cooking lessons. And if I’m right, you might be tired of the usual Western-style classics of steak, pasta and English breakfasts.

May I suggest an alternative, such as, say, Sarah Marx Feldner’s cookbook, A Cook’s Journey to Japan: Fish Tales and Rice Paddies - 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens?

“A cookbook?” you would probably scream. “How cheap! And is she even a cook?” you might ask. Well, she spent some time as a pastry chef, has a master’s degree in the art of collecting recipes and food research, and from what I’ve read, also tried her hand at many of the book’s dishes. Also, her mentor for the project and cookbook writer Elizabeth Andoh gushed at Feldner’s “passion of purpose” and “commitment to ‘doing it right’ (no haphazard shortcuts)”, so I suppose readers will be in pretty good hands.

More than just a repository of food terminology or recipes, A Cook’s Journey is as advertised: a record of Feldner’s personal culinary journey throughout Japan, the continuation of a love affair with the country that began when she first arrived to teach English. It’s like peeking into the kitchens of everyday Japanese, and by extension, their personalities, lives and culture, but without the screaming and flying utensils – always a good thing in anyone’s book.

Feldner calls the book “an act of desperation’, but it’s hardly a harried jumble of text and pictures. The author sticks with people from the smaller towns and rural areas, whom she finds more open, and willing to talk and share. The language speaks of her love for her adopted country – or did it adopt her? The characters she encountered seem to suggest the latter. The aunt of a friend, a friend of said aunt, generous café owners and chefs, a gallant director of an information centre and his fisherman friend, and so on. She also braves such dangers as an old man with “questionable” motives and getting stranded in paddy fields in the middle of nowhere. It is undoubtedly a labour of love.

The inclusive vibe of this culinary journal is somewhat upset by her goal of writing it for other Westerners like herself, scared stiff by more “foreign or difficult” ingredients and presentations found in other Japanese cookbooks. Even the recipes are organised according to how gwailos eat and cook. Curious Asian epicures might feel a bit left out, but that’s a minor hiccup. Already an old hand at Japanese cooking? This book might not be for you.

Home cooking may be less intimidating, but without knives, open flames and hot oil, you won’t accomplish much. Labelled pictures help a lot in introducing the tools and ingredients in Japanese home cooking. Learn how to slice and dice veggies (down to the millimetre in one instance), make real wasabi (grind the root in a slow circular motion with a sharkskin grater for best results), and how to make stock (dashi) and perfect sushi-style rice. The steps also serve as warm-ups for the recipes that follow, from snacks and salads to drinks and desserts.

Each recipe is well-documented; for the more complicated ones, Sarah-san takes you gently by the hand and shows you how to do it, slipping a few tips and trivia about the ingredients, the dishes, and the terrible, terrible things that can happen if you screw up. Of course, the author and publisher won’t be responsible if you happened to use a bad fish, lop off a finger or burn your house down while giving this book a go.

There are other useful appendices as well. Got a party? Can’t think of a menu for a surprise dinner a la Take Home Chef? Some menu suggestions are available. Where’s this Iwaki she stayed in? Nonplussed about Nagano’s location? Lo, at the end of the book, a map of Japan; Iwaki, is somewhere north of Tokyo.

Narrowing down the scope of cuisines and places to cover helps keep the book focused, so there really isn’t much room for improvement. The omission of unagi (eel) may have been deliberate, as none of the ingredients mentioned require special handling; eel blood is toxic.

All in all, a nicely done visual feast and window into the lunchboxes of everyday Japanese, and a gift to anyone who wants to cook different. Like most good cookbooks this is not one to read on an empty stomach. Even pictures of a simple rice-and-peas dish will send you rushing towards the nearest eatery, Japanese or otherwise.

A Cook's Journey to Japan
Fish Tales and Rice Paddies: 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens

Sarah Marx-Feldner
Tuttle Publishing (2010)
160 pages
ISBN: 978-4805310113

Saturday, 3 July 2010

More Than Just A Burger King

Some "Motormouth from Ipoh" pointed this place to a friend. After a dinner there, she decided it would be a good idea if I wrote about this place. Which I did. We stopped by after a weekend assignment/getaway - the same day the article was published.

Despite the warnings of "parking hell" and "motorcyclists from hell" people were still flocking to the place; several groups, including families of four to seven, had to be turned away because there were no more seats.

Response to the food was good. My eating buddy even heard a mom with several kids go, "So cheap!"

Hooked at first bite
The parking is terrible and the double-parking even worse, but the burgers and other offerings at Nambawan Restaurant are just too darn hard to resist

first published in The Star, 03 July 2010

One — OK, two — things about Kuala Lumpur that bug determined gourmands: an apparent scarcity of really good places to eat and the need to travel ungodly distances to reach any such treasures unearthed by those who have gone there before.

While reminiscing our visits to a recently-reviewed restaurant, some Motormouth from Ipoh (at told Alex about another place that served great pork dishes.

"Do you know where this Nambawan Restaurant is?"

Of course I didn't know.

Ergo, Google Maps — a useful tool. However, we took a few wrong turns along the way to what would be a good meal because I didn't take down the directions. At least I remembered, while researching the place, that the Masak-Masak Lady (at had noted that Old Town White Coffee was near the premises.

Driving at night didn't help either. There were several hazards, notably the motorcyclists, who tend to ride without lights or helmets on.

Parking at Sri Manja Square was bad — as was the double-parking — the night we were at Nambawan Restaurant and Café for the first time. A family of three and one other patron were the only customers there when we arrived. The whole dining area was open-ended — the 99 Speedmart opposite can be seen at one end.

From where we sat, we could see the blown-up photos of choice menu picks painted on the wall, both featuring bacon, along with some bad copywriting encouraging patrons to "Taste your sense to infinity".

The air-conditioning failed to keep the warm and humid weather outdoors at bay. If some of the menu items look unsettlingly foreign, take a deep breath, calm down, call the waitress or manageress and ask for clarification. They'd be happy to assist.

I settled for the Stone-charbroiled Pork Belly with roasted potatoes and garden salad (RM13.90), and the proudly touted "100% Home Made Pork Burger" (RM6.90).

"Small-town prices," commented Alex but her eyes were city-sized when she realised that I had ordered two dishes.

It appeared that the place has only one chef, who is said to have earned his cooking chops from New Zealand. Nambawan has been around for two years; it turns three next month. No clue as to why they opened shop at a neighbourhood that, at first sight, won't move those pork dishes quickly enough.

The place has its regulars — people who were hooked at first bite, it seems, and braved parking hell for return visits. Can they handle a full house?

By the time the pork belly reached our table we were probably hungry enough to tackle the rest of the pig. Memories of pork bellies past melted like the chunk I'd cut and put inside my mouth.

A little bit salty, but the flavours — oh, how they gushed forth as the molars crushed the firm, glistening fat and the bits of tender, juicy flesh. Every bite was pleasure, with or without the apple sauce, so astringent and tangy it was almost citrus-like.

When the pork burger arrived I took the top half of the bun and wiped the sauce from what was once a plate of grilled pork belly. The patty wasn't really big, but it held a nice surprise. It was tender, juicy and had a nice texture, and most of all, virtually none of that gamey pork smell. A hint of fragrant herb might be responsible, and seemed familiar.


"No, it's parsley," said the manageress.

Yes, I had two dishes, from which Alex stole the occasional bite; she already had dinner prior. Small-town prices mean small-town portions, after all. But every bite was so darn good.

"Dish number three!" I thumped the table, with my sights set on the Pan-fried Chicken and Bacon Roll.

But then Alex spoiled it all by announcing that she was tired and had to go home.

I sneaked back when Alex was out of town over a week later. The manageress did say their "100% Home-made Beef Burger" was also worth a try.

The pan-fried chicken and bacon wasn't really rolled. The centrepiece was one slab of chicken that was butterfly-cut with a slice of bacon folded in. Resting on pieces of roasted potato and garnished with a similar salad, it was a tasty, healthier version of the KFC Double Down "sandwich".

The 100% home-made beef burger?

Upon dissection, I found that like the pork burger, it was rather loosely packed, allowing for a burger that was juicier and easier to chew. Besides flecks of parsley, there were also what looked like black peppercorns.

It's not just charbroiled pork belly, burgers, steaks or pastas — weekend specials may include Lamb Shank in Red Wine Sauce, Barbecued Spare Ribs and Roasted Pork Belly, which is different from the charbroiled version. From what I've eaten so far, they're all worth a try.

Days later, I came back for a third visit and a second go at the charbroiled pork belly. Am I becoming addicted?

Nambawan Restaurant and Café
10, Jalan PJS3/48
Sri Manja Square One
Taman Sri Manja
6½ Miles, Off Old Klang Road
46000 Petaling Jaya


Lunch: 12pm-3pm
Dinner: 6pm-10pm

Closed every other Monday

+6016-224 1533 (Yap)
+6013-263 2772 (Gilbert)

Facebook page

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Change. It's In The...

G*d, Blogger keeps rolling out all these bells and whistles, and I unwisely switched to the templates editable with the "new" Template Designer. Now my Dark, Dreary Corner of Cyberspace™ looks like someone dumped Clorox bleach on it.

My old template had so many style sheet customisations the CSS code is half the length of the actual template code. Feels like I'm starting all over again.

Maybe that's what I need. What this place needs. Perhaps a less-is-more style scheme would be better for the future. ...Maybe not for now.

Has it really been about four months since this declaration? Better late than never. Only thing is, I'll also be tweaking the layout as well.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Knuckle Up For Pasta

When I called the restaurant yesterday afternoon, the lady expressed surprise. Apparently they've been looking for someone to write up the place in The Star in the two years since they opened. What concerned me was that the kitchen is also short-handed. Can they keep up?

Apparently not.

Many irate customers waiting for their food. The kitchen was cooking by table, which was probably not a good idea when the dining room is packed with people who may be ordering three or more plates of of the same, time-consuming and hard-to-prepare dish (the pork knuckle). At least two tables cancelled.

Somehow, I ended up sharing a table with two ex-colleagues. "We came here because someone wrote about it in The Star," one of them said. "The writer wrote so nicely about the pork knuckle, we just had to try it." At least they felt I was spot-on about the "dry" meat and the lovely skin.

But I knew now that restaurant reviews aren't just about the food, business hours, or kosher status. A bit more curiosity would also have revealed the situation in the kitchen. Lesson learnt.

Vary good food
A small nondescript outlet, an unusual name, not many people about — first impressions can be deceiving.

first published in The Star, 05 June 2010

The drive to The Atria that day was uneventful. As I pulled over to the side of the road, my friend Alex suggested KFC. Then she remembered a pasta joint nearby.

Mass-market multinationals? No. Private mom-and-pop enterprises? Yes.

After a "Shop Closed" false alarm, we found the place. Vary Pasta, eh? Very unusual, very dodgy-looking. But many mom-and-pops are like that, and not a few managed to shut me up with their food, so we stepped in.

The décor at Vary Pasta had some semblance of a Tuscan establishment. Dominating the rather small dining area was a huge round table placed near a section of wall painted with a banquet scene. However, the place was empty. Not very good.

No matter. We were thirsty and ordered drinks. Then we saw the whimsical-sounding items on the menu. Reuban Bread Set?

"Made by Reu-Ban, son of Ray-Ban?" I snarked to Alex. Again, very strange. Then again, not quite. Reuban, if that's the chef's name, ranks right up there with such names as Oxide, Hacken and Fish. We ended up picking some itty-bitty bites to pass the time: a fettuccine carbonara with ham and some deep-fried pork ribs.

The carbonara was beyond expectation — not salty, not overly creamy and the pasta was not drowned in sauce. The bits of ham, fried but not stiff as tree bark, added more flavour and depth to the dish. The ribs? Deep-fried, certainly, but still juicy inside, and not salty, either. The prices? Quite competitive, given the neighbourhood.

Oohs, aahs and mmms were liberally thrown about as we exchanged notes. Words flowed freely between us. Like Hunter S Thompson, in Kingdom of Fear — or Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, I volunteered, or Anthony Bourdain. In a restaurant, no less. It seemed appropriate.

After all that talking, I was hungry again. This time, we were more adventurous and went for the Reuban.

What arrived was a pile of chicken ham, bacon, gherkin, tomato, lettuce, cheese and sauerkraut placed between two slices of de-crusted toasted bread, with a scoop of potato salad cradled in lettuce leaves. I didn't know where the spicy bite came from, but the flavour combination was tops.

OK, so I'll bite what Reuban has to offer. But perhaps Oxide can benefit from a stint in cooking school after the debacle known as The Storm Warriors.

When we returned to the place for more, we were surprised to find all the tables taken, except for a two-seater close to the kitchen. Now why did we think this place was in trouble?

At RM46++, the roasted pork knuckle dish was among Vary's most expensive offerings. The over-20 minute wait for the dish was excruciating; neither of us had a proper lunch prior. The procession of dishes emerging from the kitchen didn't help much.

Plate after plate drifted towards eagerly waiting tables like teasing mirages: piles of spaghetti covered in red sauce; chicken chops wearing coats of black pepper-speckled brown gravy; spaghetti tossed in olive oil and herbs; a monstrous mixed sausage platter with an obscene-looking centrepiece; and a mouth-watering pile of butter sauce-covered "Dijon mushrooms".

Finally, a huge pile of pork, lightly garnished with greens materialised at our table. The knuckle came all carved and cut up for us. We dug in.

The roasted skin — bits of blistered, charred, caramelised goodness — had the crispness and flavour expected of it. The meat was largely devoid of extra fat, unlike braised pork knuckles, and a bit dry (we did take five minutes to photograph that plate beforehand). There were more oohs, aahs and mmms as we dipped skin and meat into the brown sauce and ate.

Beneath the pile of porcine goodness were two bones with almost nothing clinging to them, and a sparse bed of sauerkraut with a few bits of potato — an attempt at making the dish more German, perhaps? I took the much larger bone and peeled off the remaining bit of flesh, fat and connecting tissue with my teeth.

The pork knuckle was wonderful. It had flavour. It had texture. It had us at "Hello".

It also made us want dessert, in the form of a tiramisu. Alex has her standards, though: "If it's not real coffee liqueur, I don't want it."

She need not have worried. It tasted nothing like a thawed out dessert, not overpoweringly sweet or rich, and the sponge was absolutely drenched in coffee liqueur. While I went over the bill, Alex called me over. "You've got to see this...!"

She was riveted to a bunch of photos on the wall, closest to the door. She pointed to one and my eyes widened. In a framed photograph posing with an arm draped on (presumably) the chef's shoulder was St Anthony himself, the profane but profound Hunter S Thompson of Discovery Travel And Living.

Weren't we talking about both of them the last time we were here?

We asked about the photo. Vary Pasta's chef worked at a hotel, explained the woman behind the counter. It seems the chef was at the right place at the right time when Tony B dropped by.

"Is this your first time here?" she asked.

"Second," I said. "And we'll be back for a third, fourth, fifth..."

Vary Pasta
21 Jalan SS22/23
Damanasara Jaya
47400 Petaling Jaya


+603-7710 6100

Lunch: 11am-3pm
Dinner: 5pm-10pm

Closed on 2nd and 4th Thursdays of the month

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Wading Through Time

The request came out of the blue. I'd sent samples of my writing to The Star, including something about time and an old clock. The editor of Starmag felt it was good enough for publication in the Heart & Soul section.

The 'immortal' clock
And so it was published - on Teacher's Day, no less. I can tell you that I owe my current mastery of the English language to my folks and not a few teachers. I suppose this can count as a kind-of thank-you to them.

I'd been feeling down after reading about some writers who'd become authors (one of whom had her first book pulped due to plagiarism), and that piece was the result. Making writing a viable career feels like a long hard slog, but like a shovel that keeps working, maybe I'll reach China someday if I keep at it long enough.

Time takes no sides
first published in The Star, 16 May 2010

There's a clock that sits on my multi-shelved, self-assembled computer table. It came with me when I migrated to Kuala Lumpur. Mum bought it for me, along with other things, at Gama Supermarket in Penang.

It's an alarm clock but it has been mute for a very long time. The shop assistant who looked at it thought it could have been the continued use of full alkaline batteries.

For telling the time, however, it's still very useful. I have another alarm clock now, but its presence is calming, reassuring. It's been with me through a lot. College, mostly. But I think, sadly, that it became silent before I started working for a living.

The day I first started college should have been the day a boy became a man. Layers of dust and numerous batteries came and went, but the clock kept ticking. The boy, however, never really grew up. He probably spent too much time enjoying being a boy, or lamenting the passing of time – a strange irony – and not enough of it finding his way in life and preparing for it.

Mum's a lot older now, and in light of this the clock she bought me has taken on another kind of significance. Our time will be up someday, like the clock. The springs and whatnot will wear out eventually, even if they outlast us both, mother and son. And as I stare into the wake of those who have gone far ahead of me, is it too late?

"Time is on our side," goes an old song. Like those who sang it, that axiom is old, perhaps a romantic notion used to sell songs. Time takes no sides. It goes along its merry way regardless of who we are and what we strive for and accomplish.

So why should I be bothered about other people's accomplishments? Time to make tracks of my own.

In the infinite realm of possibilities, even time itself may end one day. Like the old clock in my room, that thought is strangely comforting.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Thunkin New

I did not supply the heading to this article, perhaps one of the best pieces I've done prior to my departure from The Edge.

"Thunkin New", Off The Edge, May 2010

I still consider Ms Clare Wigfall one of my best interviewees, and the replies she supplied here to be among the most interesting I've ever read. As a writer, I have some vested interest things such as the advent of the short story genre, Internet-driven changes in language and shrinking reader attention spans.

It took two days to research and craft the questions. Though some bits were trimmed, the final results are still good food for thought. I regret not having the time to read her short story collection yet, but I'm sure it'll be just as interesting.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Long Black Or Flat White?

It was at first a tiring, action-packed media hunt by Tourism Australia. I still couldn't believe that we emerged the winners of the grand prize. I will maintain that it was thanks to my ex-colleague's go-karting skills.

"Long Black Or Flat White?", Off The Edge, April 2010

The five days and four nights in Melbourne, 2009 were a vivid dream for one who has never left South East Asia all his life. I don't think I made the very, very best of the opportunity, but I'm glad of the attempts I made.

I'm proud of the photo of the wedding entourage; it was, like many things I encountered, unexpected, quaint and beautiful.

I walked almost everywhere within the Central Business District. Everywhere. Despite fears of swine flu I never felt so healthy and so refreshed. It was spring, and it was lovely.

I managed to save the notes I made when I was there. Someday soon I'll finally blog about this trip.

Flat white for me. Always.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Great Unfinished War Tale

A long overdue piece on an unconventional novel from a Bosnian playwright - whose name gave the editor some trouble when she tried to spell it - darn Cyrillic characters.

Out of the box

first published in The Star, 02 April 2010

The limited time I’ve spent with novels and storybooks convinced me that, for my tastes at least, plain narrative is the only way to go. Then came this tale of growing up amidst war from a Bosnian author and playwright that’s very unconventional and that stretched my literary muscles nicely.

How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone is about young Aleksandar Krsmanovic of Višegrad who is given a “magic wand” by his grandfather, along with these words of wisdom: “The most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth.” Then the old man dies.

Although “the best magician in the non-aligned states” – and future painter of all unfinished things – is unable to bring his grandfather back, young Aleks tries to weave some semblance of magic into his daily life, and the events about to unfold.

His homeland, Yugoslavia, will be riven by war, and he and his family will escape it by fleeing to Germany. He will encounter a girl, Asija, whom he tries to rescue and, later when he grows up, tries to find when he returns to his hometown.

Caveat emptor, dear reader. This novel is work. All dialogue is free from quotation marks, something Aleks more or less explains in one chapter. The story of his life after grandpa features a cast of thousands, from family members to neighbours and soldiers and victims of war. Some have nicknames such as Walrus and Mickey Mouse. At times, it seems as though somebody else other than Aleks is narrating the tale.

It gets stranger towards the middle, as narratives give way to letters, poems, lists and transcripts of messages left on answering machines. Pretty much a huge, messy jumble of text – not something that one can flip through and “get” without effort, like the more conventional, linear novels elsewhere.

As far as I can tell there are no cues such as, “Aleks and family leave Yugoslavia”, or “Aleks returns home”, and many chapter titles are as long as those in Lim Kit Siang’s blog. You can’t tell whether something is happening in the present, past, or even in a dream. Perils for the inattentive reader – or reviewer – trying to connect the dots.

Despite the novel’s shambolic structure, though, one can find a kind of poignant, folksy touch in the way Aleks interprets or makes sense of everything that’s going on around him, even as he witnesses history in the making.

A couple of tucked-away gems – to me, at least – is the observation of how similar war-torn Bosnia and Somalia are in the 1990s, except for the “short-haired, black children” with guns; and, in response, an uncle provides some brutal honesty: “We don’t have any oil either. That’s why the Americans aren’t helping.”

If you don’t skip the author introduction, you will notice that, like Aleks, the author was also born in Višegrad. Which explains the vividness in the descriptions of town life and the River Drina that’s so prominent in the story. Could “Aleksandar Krsmanovic” be the author’s alter-ego?

Yes, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to expand their literary horizons – a peek over the wall or the top of the box where the grass may be greener, or just a different colour. While I did get how the soldier (kind of) repaired the gramophone, I never quite found out if Aleks was finally reunited with the girl he tried to save. Perhaps Aleks and the author are one and the same: a creator of unfinished things, as this novel seems to suggest.

How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone
Saša Stanišić
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
277 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2473-3

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Going Places For The First Time

Even though I was sharing a byline, this only looked easy to do. The hardest part was the research.

"Spring blossoms": Top ten places for cherry blossom viewing
in Going Places, March 2010

But I learned that hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, is not just a Japanese pastime. Pretty much any cluster of cherry blossom trees is a good spot to unfurl the tarp, empty the picnic basket and shock-and-ow the neighbours with that portable karaoke box...

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Caffeine Getaway

The Ipoh duck restaurant was great. Coffee Ritual was less so, mainly because to much time passed between my last visit and the day I finally wrote about it, so the ardour for the place had cooled down somewhat. Poor Alex was pulling more than her weight when editing this piece...

I've gone back there once or twice, but there are fewer reasons nowadays for quiet coffee rituals.

An intimate Coffee Ritual
by KW and Alexandra Wong

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 13 February 2010

Alex practically shoved the address down my throat. "Here." She had discovered it while waiting for her notebook to be reformatted at Digital Mall. Not wanting the usual fast foods, she had looked around and spotted the corner shop at the end of the road.

She did a pretty good sales pitch, oohing and aahing over voluptuous latte, scrumptious sweet crepe, refined gourmet coffees at "proletariat prices." But she didn't have to mention the pricing.

She had me at "gourmet coffee."

My name is KW Wong, and I am a certified coffee-holic. Which was why I made a beeline for Coffee Ritual as soon as Saturday rolled around.

It didn't take long to spot the café, though finding a space for my car took considerably longer. There is a reason Section 14 is also known as Parking Hell.

On the outside, it looked pretty modest. At the shop-front, a standee tried its best to tease potential patrons with pictures of some of the delights to be found within.

As I entered through the nondescript front door, I noted a fleet of coffee paraphernalia lined the racks by the front door. A porcelain-bodied coffee machine was mounted on one side of the magazine cabinet, while coffee-themed paintings hang on the walls. After flipping through the menu, I decided to go with Alex's recommendation — café latte, and the sweet crepe, which purportedly featured premium Haagen-Dazs and Berkeley's ice-cream.

My latte arrived in a tall glass with a crown of creamy foam above a thick layer the colour of chocolate malt. I took a sip. The milk had been expertly steamed, its natural sweetness cushioning the palate from the coffee's more aggressive, bitter aspects. If I were a cat, I would purr with approval.

I took a bite of the sweet crepe. The still-warm parcel enfolded a stream of sweet custard, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and generous lashings of chocolate sauce. Crispy at the edges, the texture turned chewier as my teeth edged towards the swollen centre.

I quickly reported to base. "Verdict: coffee tastes like your tongue is in a bed of silken sheets, in a room that smells of the finest Arabica brew."

Her reply: "I gather you approve?" My coffee craving was temporarily sated, replaced by a new curiosity. I walked over to speak to a gangly bespectacled gentleman who was fiddling with a grinder — the boss I presumed — to find out more.

"Why Coffee Ritual?"I began with the obvious.

"Because the preparation of coffee to a ritual must be religiously followed for the perfect cup," he smiled. Turns out he sourced and roasted the beans himself, and tries different brewing methods on occasion. "Artisan" is not a word to be tossed around lightly, but I couldn't think of a more apt description for the owner.

Parking hell or no parking hell, I've become a regular, and developed a healthy partiality for the single origin gourmet coffees. For the uninitiated, these beverages are prepared with freshly ground beans using vacuum-powered siphon brewing, resulting in a liquid that has little to no residue.

What would interest coffee connoisseurs though, is this: the assertive Sumatra Mandheling's earthy, smoky notes are reminiscent of its source's rich, volcanic soil. The smooth, subtly aromatic and refined Colombian Special is hugely popular; after drinking one straight, even casual drinkers can feel the change in a cup of Colombian Special after adding one, and then two sugars. The bosses themselves drink single origin coffees neat and recommend that clients do the same. (Psst, rest easy, nobody will throw you out for coffee crimes.)

Sorry… I've gone on and on about the coffee, to the neglect of the packed menu that offers a decent selection of teas, as well as an extensive range of pastas, sandwiches, pies and salads as well as Asian favourites. Combine selected items to form a three-course value meal with starter, main dish and dessert. Hint: the nasi lemak is particularly popular. As for me, I am just glad that we found this unexpected oasis.

For a little peace and quiet from the madding crowd, few things beat the tranquil sanctity of a private coffee ritual.

Coffee Ritual
35, Jalan 14/20, Section 14
46100 Petaling Jaya

Now the site of Anjappar Indian Chettinad Restaurant

Premises have moved to Jin Yi Coffee Ritual at 68-M, Jalan SS21/39, Damansara Uptown, 47400 Petaling Jaya. Now sells only coffee-making equipment.

Friday, 12 February 2010


Whatever brickbats come One Republic's way, I can't deny that a number of their songs are the bomb. Lately though, there seem to be a One Republic song for any occasion, never mind if the lyrics might suggest something else.

Occasions such as our country's political turmoil, and the silencing of the masses, even those that are appealing for reason. And unless a blogger makes a career of sticking it to the government (you know who you are), it's unfair to hang him or her out to dry over several postings that "might disrupt public order".

While I'm prone to tut-tutting at the antics of our Generation Z, there's a small part of me (that will disappear when I turn 35) that still has something to say.

Hello world, hope you're listening
Forgive me if I’m young, for speaking out of turn

I don't criticise for fun, and I don't think many of us do that. If an injustice is the result of possibly questionable, less-than-transparent machinations of a corporation, political party or government, speaking out against it is perhaps the least damaging thing we can do. To criminalise responsible dissent for the sake of a few fragile egos is damn irresponsible, and the kinds of messages that sends flies in the face of all we have been taught all these years.

A generation struggling to know themselves and find their place in this world shouldn't be bogged down by these ethno-religious games these old-timers are playing. After all, how much currency does colour and creed really carry nowadays? Being more white or less black doesn't make one less of an idiot when one's stupidity is in full flower.

There’s someone I’ve been missing
I think that they could be, the better half of me...

So a high-ranking Malayan commie is still loose. So there was a race-related riot in that summer of '69. For me, it's water under the bridge. My concerns: racial and religious extremism; the economy; global pandemics; the climate; and an increasingly unstable, and perhaps violent world that's becoming less friendly, and less human.

We may be obliged to inherit certain things from our forefathers, but for myself, I would rather not inherit their emotional baggage. Not when it keeps me from living my life and fulfilling my dreams.

It speaks a lot of our civilisation when there are leaders who burnish their credentials by teaching its flock to fear and hate The Other, simply because of who they are. Worst of all, is how some of them are getting away with it - as if they have someone's tacit support.

It's no different back home, where our elders appear to be digging their heels with regards to politics, governance and administration, too obsessed with numbers to care about the rabid ideologues poisoning our straining socio-economic fabric.

What of the young, who have to inherit, grow up in, and cope with such a toxic environment? How will their dreams take root and grow?

...I get lost in the beauty of everything I see
The world ain’t as half as bad as they paint it to be

But I see some hope in the way Perak turned out. If the Opposition is serious about working with the ruling state government for the state's sake, and if the government reciprocates, perhaps old dogs can learn new tricks, as they might say. Who knows? A new brand of politics to replace the old might be born out of what many see as an unfair judgement, if it all turns out right...

...If all the sons, if all the daughters stopped to take it in
Well hopefully the hate subsides and the love can begin...

I'm also encouraged by the show of support for Daphne Ling with regards to this case. Why should charity be kept within one's communal or religious circle? And what better way to break down barriers than to disregard them and just reach out to help a fellow human being?

It might start now... Well, maybe I’m just dreaming out loud...

It must be a relief for everyone that whole communities didn't go berserk when houses of worship were attacked. However, we've been treated with the sight of the extremist fringe's collective assholery - perfect examples of the kind of leadership we don't want. The kind of leadership I don't want.

Who wants your special privileges, your sacred spaces and your tax-payer-sponsored hand-outs? If this is what you've become after 30-plus years of that, I'm not sure I would want them, either. As if they would save you from flu pandemics, recessions and climate change.

So hear this now, Come home, come home
Cause I’ve been waiting for you for so long, for so long

So stop this nonsense. This country is bigger than "us", than "The Other". It's bigger than Chin Peng, May 13, PKFZ, Anwar and Zulkifli Noordin. Definitely bigger than Dr M.

We don't need to join that squabble in the sand-box to "give a damn". There must be another way.

There's got to be.

...right now there's a war between the vanities
But all I see is you and me
The fight for you is all I’ve ever known... ever known...
So come home...


"Come Home" by One Republic
Dreaming Out Loud (2007)
Mosley Music Group, Interscope

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Changes... and Bad Drama

Change. It's in my pocket, my drawers, in cash registers, safe deposit boxes, and election campaign promises. Most of all, it's in the air. It's happened in my life, and now, it'll happen to this space.

I have a dream. Something I hope will be a life-long pursuit.

In shedding an old image, some things will have to go. There'll be a clean-up - many entries will be gone, but there will also be additions, transplants from a more private space. Some existing entries will be updated, changed to reflect the person who owns this place now, rather than who wrote it then. Much of the layout will remain - for now.

And perhaps, finally, the real name behind this space will see the light of day.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Readings' Fifth

I've been missing a few Readings sessions due to personal problems, but things got a little better for me to attend the latest one, and a milestone of a session at that. It's Readings' fifth anniversary.

Three cakes were brought for the occasion, including two evidently home-made Red Velvets with lovely white butter-cream.

But it was one session where I was never more ill-prepared. I left home late. I forgot my camera's tripod. I didn't make enough room in the camera's 8GB SDHC card for footage. I was afraid of not having enough batteries. And there wasn't a single thing of suitable height for my camera to stand on.

Readings' fifth had an impressive line-up with a mix of two or more of the following: poets, authors, performers and rebels. Almost everyone spent their allotted 15 minutes, some stretching into 16 or 17, including commentaries. Hearing authors read their own works is a delight, but not as much as when they talk about themselves and their work, as evidenced by Shamini Flint's monologue.

The loud and forthright Elaine Foster said she wouldn't perform, but there was still a bit of drama in her recital of a poem where "the revolution will not be brought to you by Celcom, DiGi and Maxis, nor is it Malaysia Truly Asia," and so on. She would find good company with Peter Hassan Brown, whose voice also carries a long way.

Jo Kukathas read a sombre tale of a loner who lives in a dark room and is fond of his dogs. Readings' founder Bernice Chauly gives us a hint of her roots as she reads from what will be her work of "faction".

From the Little Red Dot comes O Thiam Chin, whose collection of short stories (Never Been Better) is available for sale here. He read a passage from that book (naturally), copies of which were on sale at the venue (ditto). Too bad they weren't offering discounts.

When Kam Raslan reads, it's almost certain that he'll entertain. Especially with a sneak peek at the continuing (mis)adventures of the irrepressible MCKK old boy, Dato' Hamid. Being ambushed by fragrance salesladies is as frightening as he tells it, and hilarious too - as long as it happens to other people.

The dreadlocked and tattooed rebel poet Rahmat Harun was a sight to behold as he greets the audience, "Hi, bro!", waxes lyrical of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in two languages (with some help from Hishamuddin Rais), and shows us how to fly a kite.

The fifth anniversary event ended with a couple of announcements: NST's Umapagan Ampikaipakan trumpeted (sort of) a book club at BFM89.9, and Bernice's call for help with some charity - I think.

There has also been talk of compiling the prose that has been read on all five years of Readings and CeritaKu (a sister event of Readings at No Black Tie) into a series of books, and a shout-out for contributions has been made. The deadline is 31 March.

Here's to five more years of Readings.