Friday, 12 September 2014

Searching For Malaysia

A compilation of Alexandra Wong's popular Navel Gazer columns in the Malaysian English-language daily The Star and other stories, Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems is about one woman's journey of discovery across a historically and culturally rich and diverse land.

When Wong left her corporate job in 2005 to pursue her dream of being a writer, she didn't expect to open a treasure chest of experiences.

She soon made a name for the heartwarming tales of ordinary Joes and Janes in Malaysian society, all of which she'd serendipitously encountered during her travels. Each gem she uncovers inspires her to seek out more.

Culture shock and curtains of mosquitoes give way to familial warmth at an Iban longhouse. A French former nuclear scientist who embraced Malaysia as his second home makes a weekend in Gua Musang even more memorable.

Pointers on how to be a serious and caring teacher emerge from one of her school's naughtiest girls. And stirring displays of chivalry shine a different light upon titled and supposedly aloof public figures.

"For me, it was important that the book could make a difference and touch the hearts of my readers, no matter who the stories reminded them of: a taxi driver, a makcik in a warung or a kind stranger who left a fleeting yet unforgettable impression," she says.

"That's why my early articles invariably revolved around the interesting characters I chatted up on buses and trains; the cosy mom-and-pop eateries I found along the way; obscure but charming small towns that make up the real Malaysia – they were based entirely on my own life experiences."

In the search for herself, Wong gets reacquainted with her homeland through the stories she's told: stories of lives that can only be made in Malaysia.

But why now, and not earlier?

"Although I was discovering a whole new world as a writer, two years seemed too short a time to amass enough real-life experiences for the book I had in mind," Wong explains.

Well, I guess she has plenty of those by now.

From the generosity of food vendors and selflessness of bus and taxi drivers to innumerable life lessons learnt from friends both old and new, she knew from the start she was chasing something far more precious than her dream.

"I wrote those stories because I knew no better way of acknowledging these good Samaritans, and secretly hoped that, in the process, they might inspire someone else to do the same," she says of this book, which she finally began working on for the past year and a half.

Pieces were selected, enhanced with some backstory and arranged in a way that chronicles her writing journey, from brief stints at an NGO and a newspaper to full-time freelancing.

The process wasn't easy; there were so many people she wanted to include, as the Acknowledgements pages (yes, pages) attest. Some of these figures are also given faces, with the inclusion of photos somewhere in the middle.

The cover featured a photo of Star Barber, a part of the Sekeping Kong Heng guesthouse, taken by an acquaintance. A sibling of a friend conceived the concept for the cover.

It ended up being sort of a community project, a reflection of the country she experienced as a writer and traveller - and the perfect gift she envisioned for the people who has enriched her life.

"This book is a heartfelt thanks to the angels I met on my writing journey," Wong says. "Their stories have moved and reinvigorated me, made me laugh and cry, and taught me what it means to be Malaysian."

Made in Malaysia will be launched at MPH Nu Sentral on 16 September 2014 (Malaysia Day), at 2:30pm. Several people featured in the book are scheduled to appear - nobody you might know, however.

23/09/2014  Catch the podcast of the BFM89.9 interview with the author of Made In Malaysia.

Made in Malaysia
Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems

Alexandra Wong
MPH Group Publishing
279 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-209-3

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