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