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.