Saturday, 26 December 2015

Wade Into Wilbur Smith's Ancient Egypt

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 December 2015

Majestic scenery, rich history, epic battles, heroic feats and interesting characters. Plus betrayal, murder, politics and a bit of comedy — all told by a snooty eunuch slave. Welcome to Wilbur Smith's ancient Egypt.

“River God”, 1994 edition by Pan Macmillan
I stumbled upon River God while browsing in a comic rental shop in the neighbourhood, which has since closed. It was so long ago, I can't remember if I'd put the book down or when I decided to get my own copy, which I had to ditch because it got so old and brown and the pages were warped.

But that world stayed with me, not just because of my interest in that bygone realm.

The novel's titular river god, Hapi, is said not to be the god of the Nile itself, but of the Nile's annual flooding, which ran like clockwork except for a few times in Egypt's long history. So he was a big deal, even if he isn't as culturally popular as Ra, Horus, Anubis or Isis.

From the details within, Smith's historic epic takes place somewhere in the Middle Kingdom period between 2000 and 1700 BC, but this has been contested. Salitis, one of the antagonists, appears about halfway through. He is believed to be the first Hyksos ruler of the kingdom, reigning during the Fifteenth Dynasty (around 1650 to 1550 BC).

So, yes, the timeline's off about several decades. However, this and other factual discrepancies (if you can find them) doesn't affect the flow and charm of the novel.

Many other characters appear to be fictional, such as Mamose VIII, the reigning pharaoh in the beginning of the novel. Gaps in Egypt's past, which are still being filled today, have become blank canvasses or pages for authors and artists, making for a richer, more fantastical historical account.

“River God”, 2007 edition by Pan Books
Smith's ancient Egypt unfurled like a miles-long mural, imaginary hieroglyphics and all, of a kingdom in decline, a foreign invasion, our heroes' exile and their triumphant return. Wedged in between are chapters on how our heroes: the eunuch slave Taita and his wards — the handsome young soldier Tanus and his mistress Lostris — played their part in it all.

Lyrical, immersive and vivid, with just the right amount of detail, Smith's writing puts us where the action is. In the harems, the rustle of fine linen and the fragrance of perfume. On the banks of the Nile, the splash of oars and burbling of water as boats skim across the surface of the great river. In the midst of battle, the cries of men and beasts rise above the rumble of war chariots and the clashing of weapons.

We are treated to sweeping vistas of endless desert, African savannah and mountain ranges in what could now be northern Ethiopia. We venture into the workshops of artisans as they labour on the pharaoh's tomb and, much later, follow a royal funeral procession to its destination. Our hearts tighten as we witness an elephant hunt go wrong.

And, oh, to watch an assassin's cobra being prepared and cooked by our somewhat unreliable narrator...

Taita's a treat. From time to time, the bombastic, vainglorious slave reminds us that the households and people he serves would be in even bigger trouble without him. Actor, strategist, spy, street magician, negotiator, painter, scribe, poet, playwright, inventor... he's done it all. To call him an ancient Egyptian da Vinci would probably not suffice.

Thankfully, this Marty Stu doesn't hog the papyrus. I've also come to admire the roguish, daredevil Kratas, an officer in Tanus's regiment and the young hero's wingman. Huy, a former bandit turned army officer and groom, steals the scene from Taita as he schools the self-proclaimed genius on the art of handling horses, a "new" animal in Smith's Egypt. Even the weak, vacillating Mamose VIII has his moments, including one where he looms like a thundercloud over a bunch of criminals before sentencing them.

I'm not surprised even our Tun M likes Smith's work.

Not long after I'd finished River God, I returned to the shop and borrowed the sequel. The Seventh Scroll takes place centuries later and details the search for the tomb of Mamose VIII by a more modern set of characters. This one was more of an action-adventure potboiler, like Those in Peril, so it didn't appeal as much to me.

Smith returned to Taita's Egypt years later, churning out more sequels where our slave turned hero becomes a real magician (Warlock and The Quest) and what appears to be an interquel between River God and Warlock. But I think the first novel will always rank among his best works.

Still, I didn't replace my own aged copy of River God when the chance came (sorry, Big Bad Wolf Books). Perhaps it wasn't time to revisit that world again and the painful chapters in it. Maybe it's the fear of being sucked back in there, just as I'm finding new things to read.

Or maybe it's just that these days I'm taking longer to muster the will to plough through anything longer than 500 pages.

But I urge you to. This is one adventure everyone needs to experience.

28/12/2015   One thing: There were times in Egypt's history when the banks of the Nile were not sufficiently inundated and fertilised by the silt-bearing waters. For the most part, the annual flooding ran like clockwork, until the Aswan Dam was built.

River God
Wilbur Smith
Pan Books (2007)
672 pages
ISBN: 9780330449939

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Back To The Wolf's Den

Last week, I told a friend I was skipping this year's Big Bad Wolf book sale - and went there twice and bought the most books so far during such a sale.

And the only books I read from last year's sale were by the late Terry Pratchett.

The Big Bad Wolf Books sale - and this is just half the hall

Last year, I also found a couple of titles by the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri. This year, there were more than a few.

When another friend (hi, Em!) mentioned liking the series, I went back a second time and picked up a few more. I initially hesitated because I'm not much of a series-muncher. I did, and came back with a few more other titles. I think they have almost the entire series so far - I think the latest is only available in hardback, so I left it there.

This year's was a bit of an adventure. I've always followed the Sungai Besi Highway from Bukit Jalil to reach the Mines Exhibition Centre, which doesn't take long. But the journey home was different, prompting me to wonder if I could retrace my way home, the same way I came.

There was, but the route back home can be gridlocked. I think I must've spent half an hour in the traffic jam before reaching the jam-free Pesiaran Serdang Perdana, lying between the Sungai Besi Highway and the North-South Highway, to return to the Bukit Jalil area.

This year's haul - perhaps the biggest to date

Parking was not a major issue for me at the venue, though maybe I was just lucky. After a couple of visits, I noted that the piles of books change often, almost guaranteeing that some patrons will return, at least once, to see what they missed - or what the BBW team hid - the previous day.

Categorisation of the book piles need refinement. Some piles were arranged "in alphabetical order", but it's not apparent. Better book-pile organisation would also help fellow book hunters return copies they decide to abandon to their respective places.

So I left Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant stay buried; couldn't find it on the second visit. Maybe I'll leave that "Constipated Man" novel alone too, when it eventually shows up.

And dammit, Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw is a memoir-slash-article compilation, not a cookbook. Probably why I couldn't and might never find Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter there and would have to get it from a bookstore.

Also, the Hong Leong credit card people were aggressive. A few would prowl the hall and accost patrons to get them to sign up in exchange for discounts or whatever. Have they always been like this, or does it have to do with the hard times and the recent lay-offs in some banks?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Book Marks: Still Feels Like Banned Books Week, Etc.

During the launch of her book, Dancing on Thin Ice, Marina Mahathir stated that as a writer, censorship is the biggest hurdle, according to The Malaysian Insider.

She also mentioned the threat of censorship that loomed over writers Faisal Tehrani and Farouk Peru, and considered the rape threat made to G25 spokesperson Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin as another form of censorship, particularly against women writers.

Funny that she brought up the C-word, because some related news items that caught my eye revolves around that.

A high-profile book publisher (more of a rabble-rouser, judging from what's being said about the stuff he publishes) whose work annoyed China's government disappeared in Thailand, and it's said that Beijing might be responsible. Some note that the MO is so North Korea.

Considering the impenetrability of China's bureaucracy, it's easy to accuse a government that does things like jailing dissenters and "disappearing" annoying people of such cloak-and-dagger shenanigans. On a possibly related note, a lawyer in Prague who wrote a political book has gone missing.

Egypt's state security, meanwhile, forced Egyptian novelist (and critic of the Egyptian government) Alaa al-Aswany to cancel his public seminar, "Conspiracy Theory: Between Reality and Illusion".

And more Mein Kampf woes: Marianne Taylor makes the case for publishing Hitler's notorious manifesto in Germany for first time in over seven decades. But it still seems to be problematic in the US, as the copyright is set to end.

Also in the US, Jessica Herthel, the author of I Am Jazz, a children's book based on a real-life transgendered girl, confronts the bigotry that forced a school to cancel a reading of her book, possibly due to pressure from a conservative group calling itself Liberty Counsel (yes). And schools in America are still grappling with Huckleberry Finn.

The Malaysian Education Ministry ordered a publisher to reprint a Year Six History textbook that placed the state of Melaka somewhere in Kelantan on a map. Some people are befuddled at this error, since this publisher, which I assume is local, is neither CNN nor Fox News.

Then someone pointed out that a local news portal incorrectly said that Bintulu is a city in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, adding, "Sarawak is almost as big as the peninsula, and Sabah is this huge state with a distinctive map-shape & STILL U CANNOT GEOGRAPHY?!"

I'm so saving "U CANNOT GEOGRAPHY" for future use.

Are rude rejection letters from publishers holding back the next JK Rowling? "Codswallop", goes one commentator. "Could publishers be nicer? Probably. So too could literary agents. But they're ploughing through hundreds of thousands of words looking for the good ones. Often the only word they don't want to use, despite them being pretty snooty, is 'no'."

I'm inclined to agree. The worst are probably those who want an explanation of why their 'scripts were rejected - and dismiss it anyway because "Do you know what I went through to write this?" and other reasons.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

"Publish More Books"? Can We?

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 10 December 2015

What should I make of the Deputy Prime Minister's call to publish more books to make Malaysia a quality publishing powerhouse by 2057?

Has he had a long, hard look at the situation with the local publishing industry before making this exhortation? Is he aware of certain issues that might impede this drive to meet what I feel is just another in a long list of key performance indexes (KPIs)?

Will meeting this KPI of 1,000 titles per million population in developed countries, as defined by Unesco, really bring Malaysia closer to developed-nation status? Or will this index just be used as window-dressing at the next meeting, event, or the tabling of some report on development goals?

And if book production by local publishers does ramp up in the coming years, how much of the output will be read by locals? Will the increase change our reading habits in any way?

Has anyone researched what's behind the average publication to population ratio in developed countries? How did Unesco come up with that ratio? Has anyone ever thought about why the publishing industry in developed countries appear to be better or more productive than ours at the moment?

Could the education system in developed countries have something to do with the quality of what's being read, written or published there? Is anyone willing to get the relevant authorities to look into steps to revamp certain education policies to match those in developed countries?

Do the titles for meeting this KPI also include hagiographies, article compilations, "romance" novels, academic journals, coffee-table books, books with religious themes and tomes that peddle Arab-centric conspiracy theories?

If the above is insufficient, what about engaging the independent book publishers? Are certain parties in government averse to this option? Why? Is it because some of those involved in indie book publishing tend to be young, daring, socially savvy and forward-thinking individuals who are most likely to balk at the boneheadedness displayed by some of our officials?

Shouldn't these independent operators receive some form of support or encouragement, instead of being branded as "anti-establishment", subversive and whatnot? Is this how we see the next generation of leaders, publishers and writers - and, perhaps, our future hopes for international recognition?

Also: are writers in developed countries as restricted in what they say or write as many of us are over here? Do they have censorship laws that seem to be based on checklists that work more like Internet filters? Do they even filter the Internet over there?

How efficient are censors in developed countries in screening books and banning those deemed detrimental to national security and harmony? Are there cases where books are banned after, say, a year or so after publication and after hundreds of copies have been sold? Hell, do they even ban books over there, like, say, the way we do?

Is our DPM, who's also the Home Minister, willing to advocate for a loosening of these restrictions if it would help Malaysians write and publish even more? If he does, will we put aside our apathy and cynicism and rally behind him?

(Out of curiosity, what do citizens of developed countries think about some of our output, which includes so-called "romance novels" that feature firemen, students, religious preachers and security guards? Why don't we have such works translated and marketed overseas so that internationals can sample and critique them?)

If affordability and quality are also issues, why are they? And if publishers can't blame the "soft market" for low output, who should they blame, then? Why does it seem so hard for Malaysian publishers and writers to break into the international market?

Or do Malaysian publishers and other book-related agencies have their priorities a little skewed of late, like this article (in Malay) suggests? A "Tastes of Malaysia" theme? At the Frankfurt Book Fair?

And has anyone delved deeply into the reading habits of Malaysians? What comes to mind first when selecting reading materials? Am I wrong to say that Malaysians - including myself — prioritise price above all else, judging from the reception we give to warehouse sales and the like?

Am I also rude to suggest that Malaysians in general are neither adventurous nor courageous when it comes to reading materials, since we seem to prefer following the herd (like how we "investigate" food places), reading what entertains us and justifies our prejudices and world views, rather than the challenging and discomfiting stuff?

Given all this, are we as a nation ready for the shift from in publishing developing to developed status? Should we wait for the government to lay everything down in place before we take the leap, or do we find the courage to take the plunge ourselves?

Okay, ran away with this so fast I'd forgotten about the textbook flap that was reported some time ago.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A Dream Undone

I found Golda Mowe's Iban Dream enjoyable - re-readable, even - and the story ended nicely. So I was surprised to learn of its sequel because I'm not sure if it needs one.

Though the storytelling still manages to breathe life into the verdant world of the Iban as we follow in the characters on their journey, I felt that the magic has waned. One does not expect novels in a series to sound exactly the same throughout, but the differences between the two are jarring.

Was it the apparent increase in the chunks of exposition, which now feel tediously encyclopaedic, albeit informative, in an academic way?

The meandering pace of the lulls in the storyline? The stilted dialogue, as if recited in front of a classroom, which was less of a problem in the prequel?

Or might it just be the protagonist?

A frustratingly fallible hero
The hero of the prequel, Bujang Maias, became a father and chief of his own longhouse. But a pirate attack on his homestead left many dead, and his wife was made pregnant by one of the raiders.

Against local taboos and his people's wishes, Bujang raised the child, Nuing, as his own. But father and son would learn that the curses of men are just as potent as those of gods.

Ostracised by almost everyone from Bujang's longhouse, Nuing eventually leaves with a friend, Gunggu, and establishes his own community with a group of "cursed" individuals like himself.

But in the process he incurs the wrath of some antu gerasi, a race of giant demon huntsmen. Certain of his victory, the leader of the demons gives Nuing and his people a few years' respite before he wipes them out.

Though a fairly competent warrior, Nuing's hunger for acceptance and validation drives him to take shortcuts in establishing his house and prepping himself and his brethren for the impending battle with the demons.

When things don't work out, the first thing he tends to do is either flee or beg the gods for help. His mortal failings, worsened by his low morale, grate on the gods and spirits who are striving to help him while toeing their own lines.

One or two gods - including Pulang Gana, the god of rice, who was a notably kind grandfatherly figure to Bujang - note just how anti-Bujang Nuing is, which doesn't help because it reminds the poor lad that he's not really his father's son.

More factbook than fable
Iban Journey, according to the author, "is a work of fantasy fiction based on the folklore and existing superstitions of the Ibans of Sarawak ... a journey into the customs and taboos of rainforest culture", much like its prequel.

In that vein, it is through folklore and superstitions that the Iban accumulate and store all they know of this culture. So there is a palpable fear of the loss of this culture as the old ways die out.

But I'm at a loss to explain how and why this work of fantasy fiction feels more factbook than fable, other than a pressing need to publish as soon as possible - perhaps before the last of those familiar with the old ways fade away.

Or is the author trying to inject more contemporary realism into this sequel by making the protagonist less of a "Disney prince" and more of a flesh-and-blood human being?

An element of haste pervades the text. It could have been more stringently edited, and its aspects - storytelling, exposition and dialogue - better stitched together. The threads holding the three are all-too visible, heightening one's focus on the other flaws and deepening the rift between the aspects.

I was also baffled by how the climactic battle was wrapped up - too neat and inexplicably convenient. Overall, the result looks like something cobbled together by someone too time-starved to polish the seams in the joinery.

A dream falls apart
Frustrated by all these, one can easily miss the noteworthy aspects of the novel.

From both books, it's implied that a mortal can overcome the curse of a deity, which is sometimes part of a test, and that the outcome of an endeavour might not be influenced solely by luck or the divine, but also by one's own efforts and the support from one's people - or a lack thereof. Ultimately, it is mortals who make their own luck.

Nuing's lack of self-confidence and backbone, plus the condemnation of mortal men, blind him to the aforementioned - as well as his own potential and that of his people. Watching him miss the cues he's been given is painful, but thankfully he gets better towards the end.

Sadly, I can't say the same about the novel. After the delight that was Iban Dream, Iban Journey came as a shock.

Iban Journey
Golda Mowe
Monsoon Books (2015)
263 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4625-21-0

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Sometimes The Yolk Is On Us

Interesting as the salted egg-yolk saga was, it hit close to home.

Because I did the same thing to another establishment years ago (the original article in The Star appears to have vanished since the online portal was revamped and restructured).

The restaurant tended to be empty every time I went. I'd eaten there several times. I'd taken pictures. And I was sort of charmed by the ambience - and the picture of Anthony Bourdain with the chef.

So I wrote the review and submitted it to the paper.

Back then, it was about the writing, the minor sense of accomplishment in seeing my name in print. It was different from the day job, so I had fun with it. The few bucks I got in payment covered the total tab over the past visits, and if I had a bit left over, neat.

The now-infamous molten salted egg-yolk croissant from Petaling Jaya
bakery Le Bread Days, source of Le Attention et Colère of many
since Le Crème runneth over

Of course there was some worry over whether the place could cope with the increase in patrons following each review. But I was not prepared for what I saw when I returned, about a week after publication.

The place was so packed, people had to share tables. And I did - with two other now-former colleagues. "Oh we read about this place from somewhere," one of them said.

I kept quiet.

The manager claimed that people had been lining up outside the place before opening - until the end of the block, which I'm almost certain was an exaggeration. Those who could not eat were upset. Expletives were slung, along with "I came from out of town to get here!" or "I came from outstation for this!"

Plus, the review was published around the school holiday season.

I couldn't control that, but still ... I felt bad. I don't remember apologising, but I could have. I should have.

This was not what I'd call "helping".

When I left, people were waiting outside. I think I took a picture - not sure if it's still around.

The buzz did not last. About three weeks after that, the place was "empty" again. Watching the once-busy waiters idle around the dining room raised another kind of pang.

Since I learnt to make my own pastas, I never returned. It's been, what, four or five years?

These days, it's still about the writing. But it's a bit more about the money (economy is bad, 'k?) and less for the privilege of being in print. And it still feels nice, being able to contribute stuff: to restaurants, publications and people.

It's fine if it's not viral. I'd much prefer it that way.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Chicken, Curry And Cheesecake At Charlie's

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 04 December 2015

My makan kaki got off the phone, relieved. It was raining that evening and we were stuck in traffic, en route to a new favourite stopover.

Would you believe that she'd called the place to get them to save her an order of chicken chop?

I would learn that the practice is not uncommon.

The homespun Charlie's Café serves some modest yet mouth-watering fare

In a rare instance of role reversal, I had introduced this place to Melody. My first visit to Charlie's Café at Taman Bukit Desa wasn't particularly memorable. The place looked like a canteen with its thin-legged, mostly plastic furniture, staffed with helpers in thin caps and, recently, even mouth guards.

But I had a good bowl of rich and spicy curry noodles with fishballs that broke up and bounced in a good way inside your mouth as you chewed.

The Sarawak laksa, with the painstakingly prepared #seafoodstock
that's good to the last drop. Unfortunately painstaking means it's
only available from Thursdays (last I heard) to Saturdays.

I sneaked back weeks later to find Sarawak laksa added to the menu. "Four hours of preparation #seafoodstock", a sign proclaimed.

Hashtags. Hashtags everywhere.

But the laksa was damn good. Shredded omelette, shredded chicken, more of those fishballs and prawns with a slightly translucent sheen, piled on thin rice noodles swimming in that fragrant, tasty deep-brown #seafoodstock. To ensure I emptied the bowl, I dropped by hungry.

That evening, we learnt the chicken chop was worth the phone call. The moment we showed more interest in the dish, the guy in charge (Sonny, not Charlie) began extolling the beauty of his chops and explained how he brines the chicken with herbs to make the meat tender, flavourful and juicy, and puts a lot of effort into the batter that coats it.

The chicken chop is apparently a crowd favourite

We were also regaled with the exquisiteness of the limited-edition "Harum Manis" mango cheesecake (made with Indonesian Harum Manis mangoes, apparently) and Musang King durian cheesecake.

The flavours of the fruits in both were subtle (maybe too subtle); as with the durian cheesecake, you don't see loads of mango within the cheese layer.

I've since learnt that Sonny was formerly a salesman—boy, did he pitch like a pro. As I understand it, no Charlies were involved in the setting-up of the café, though there might be one in the payroll.

The tom yam noodles also deserve special mention with its spicy and fragrant soup, as does the "ultimate" dry chicken noodle, which I reflexively called kolok mee (it isn't).

It's not kolok mee, but the Ultimate Dry Chicken Noodles will do in a pinch

We also liked their nasi lemak serai wangi, which I feel was best paired with the ayam goreng berempah. I think we sampled about half of what's on the menu by now.

What intrigued me the most was the claim that Charlie's is a social enterprise. Sonny told me he's making efforts to buy produce from Orang Asli communities in Malaysia for his dishes. No middlemen involved, he added; he will deal directly with the leaders of the indigenous people.

For now, he's getting several types of veggies and herbs like bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) from a place in Hulu Langat. Plus, something about flying in ikan bilis from Sabah. Logistics is a major problem, and Charlie's is still new, so this social enterprise thing is moving slowly.

Nasi lemak with ayam rempah goreng, a quintessential
Malaysian favourite done right

Another social aspect of the business is the Pay It Forward initiative. For RM5, patrons get a receipt they can stick on a corner of the café; each receipt is a voucher for a free meal the homeless and the poor can claim. But wouldn't it be a lot of work to climb up to Taman Bukit Desa for it?

In spite of its soup-kitchen vibe, Charlie's already has a following. This was Melody's third attempt at getting the chicken chop, as the dish had run out the first two times she's been there. The boss even classified his clientèle based on what they usually order.

He points out two Indian men sitting near the counter. "This fellow, he came here first," the boss said, adding that this patron orders clear soup stock, often without noodles. "Then he brought his friends, and one day some of his family members came with him."

As if we needed more proof that this unassuming café has some #awesome stuff.

Melody and I have been here so often we're starting to get bored, but we do keep Charlie's at the back of our minds. There's always something that snags our interest, like a cookie-shaped brownie that caught Melody's attention that evening and was sold out; all six remaining pieces were bought by one patron.

Charlie's Café
29, Jalan Bukit Desa 5
Taman Bukit Desa
58100 Kuala Lumpur


Mon-Sat: 11am-10pm

Closed on Sundays

+6012-816 0003

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Thursday, 3 December 2015

Life, Larceny And Love Commandos: Vish Puri's Next Case

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 03 December 2015

My pursuit of the latest adventures of a certain fictional Punjabi private eye took a back seat to work, despite having bought the book almost two years ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And I wasn't disappointed.

Since encountering, enjoying and evaluating the first two Vish Puri novels by Tarquin Hall in 2011, I've been chomping at the bit for more. The fun continues with the fourth instalment, The Case of the Love Commandos.

(Oh look, recipes at the back, “from Vish Puri's family kitchen.” Mmm, Lucknow Mutton Biryani...)

In a blog post, Hall describes a meeting with “a middle-aged, part time journalist” and the head of the actual Love Commandos, a bunch of people in India who help star-crossed couples in love elope and start new lives. The encounter inspired the main plot for Love Commandos.

“It would be set, I decided, in rural India and the plot would centre around a couple of absconding lovers: she from a high caste family, he from an untouchable, or Dalit, one,” Hall blogged. “How, though, was I going to get Vish Puri involved?”

The solution: A phone call from Facecream, the Nepali femme fatale who's one of Puri's undercover operatives. The portly private investigator is surprised to learn his mysterious employee moonlights for the Love Commandos — specifically, as a getaway motorcycle rider — during her spare time.

In this case, Facecream helps Tulsi, a girl from a Thakur family, escape her father's watch and run off with her beau, a Dalit boy named Ram. But when they arrive at the place where the lovebirds' marriage ceremony is to take place, the boy is missing.

Her call comes at a bad time for Puri. An apparently perfect burglary has him so stumped, he ignores his masala chai and favourite coconut biscuits.

Then, when he excuses himself from a family pilgrimage to a famous shrine to attend to Facecream's case, he gets soaked by rain and is pickpocketed. The latter incident fixes Puri's mother on the trail of a suspect whom she believes is about to rob said shrine. Will she succeed in nabbing him?

Puri's case, meanwhile, is complicated further by the presence of arch-rival Hari Kumar, who was mentioned in the first novel. Amoral, suave and arguably better-looking than Hall's protagonist (good enough for the Indian edition of GQ, yaar), the former spy is also searching for Ram at an unknown client's behest.

And there's even a Dalit politician, who reminded me of a real-life female counterpart. Plus, some possible shenanigans involving a foreign genetics research company.

We also get to see more of Facecream. We are reminded that she once joined the Maoists in Nepal but became disillusioned with the movement and, after a bunch of other adventures, ended up working for Puri. At one point, she was even married.

So it's perhaps not surprising to see a feminist and maternal streak in the steely woman, during her undercover stint as a schoolteacher in a poor village under the thumb of another high-caste landowner. She even takes a village kid under her wing — a future operative for Puri's Most Private Investigators?

The lively tone that defined the first two books had begun to fade by the third, though the clever and charming storytelling retains that cartoonish feel of the series (so far) — and makes it easy for film adaptation.

(Though some might struggle to suspend disbelief, I am convinced that Facecream can forge credible-looking documents at an Internet café and create an ID with “half a potato, her trusty switchblade, a red ink pad and a laminating machine.”)

The social commentary, though, is ramped up here, what with “millennia-old caste prejudices,” the tyranny of some higher-caste landowners, and even the exploitative practices of Western firms coming under the spotlight.

In the course of his investigations, Puri must also contend with how the rapidly changing times are challenging his stand on certain things, such as caste and the traditional family values. The ex-army man's pride in his kshatriya (warrior) caste appears threatened by what he learns about genetic research and DNA: “It seemed simply incredible that from a single drop of blood scientists could tell you more about yourself than you had ever known.”

Also, just like in the real and imperfect world, not every baddie in the case gets his just desserts. At least one unsavoury character escapes justice, leaving some loose ends untied — teasing a remotely possible resolution in the future. Well, one can dream...

Still, this novel still retains some of the bounces and bumps that made the previous three such a joy. Mummy-ji's antics are a delight as she endears herself further to the readers, to the point of stealing her son's thunder, and deservedly so. Such an awesome family can't possibly have just one hero.

And such a stupendous series can't possibly end here.

The Case of the Love Commandos
Tarquin Hall
Arrow Books (2013)
310 pages
ISBN: 978-0-091-93742-3

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Mellowing Out at Merchant's Lane

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 November 2015

Several weeks ago, makan kaki Melody was back in town.

However, it also meant having to chauffeur her as she caught up with the local restaurant scene.

C'mon, Mel, it's not like two hundred restaurants have opened since you went away.

We (finally) ended up at Fifth Palate, where she dug into her ramen. The next stop was another place that's opened and run by another mutual acquaintance.

Look for the teal doors next to 150 Jalan Petaling and
take a break from the city.

Merchant's Lane, located along Petaling Street, is the brainchild of the guys who opened Butter+Beans OUG. Much has been said about it, particularly its Instagrammability. From the décor to the food, every aspect was crafted to compel one to frame it within a viewfinder.

Ken Ho, one of the founders, admitted to this. "It's about creating the buzz," he said, "We want to get people to come here and share the experience."

As I sat in the tastefully hipsterised main dining area, I don't see why anyone would have anything negative to say about– oh look, a fly. Shoo, shoo.

Getting there was easy enough, especially on a Friday morning when school's out. I parked the car at a lot across a street, next to a police station. Finding the entrance, however...

(Psst, look for the entrance next to a stationery shop; Merchant's Lane is on the first floor.)

Up the wooden stairs was the kind of place that's been mushrooming in the old Chinese parts of KL, George Town and Ipoh. Pre-war chic, I call it, with rough unpainted walls, rattan chairs, stainless steel tabletops and wooden floors.

Beyond the salubrious environs of the main dining hall (left) is the
airy al fresco seating area (right). The steel-grill floors are not
for the faint-hearted.

More seats and a rattan swing-chair dangling from the ceiling, plus the kitchen and washroom, were at the back of the building, which is connected to the main dining area by an al fresco seating area that– GAAAH, why are parts of the floor made of steel grills?

Walking to and from the wash basins felt like a test of courage. Not that it deterred a couple of hijabsters, who were selfie-ing for all its worth, seated in chairs that seemed to float in the air. One of them was even wearing high heels.

"Tak gayat ke?" I asked. Apparently, no.

...Food, yes. Food calms the nerves. But I'll never understand why I also ordered coffee. Curiosity, perhaps. Thank goodness they make a good brew here.

My makan kaki's "Hongkie Beef Stew" - so good, I forgot
it wasn't mine. Same goes for the coffee.

Even the menu items are buzz-worthy. Melody chided me when I wanted the "Eat Die Me" big breakfast (no longer available). "You can put one together," she said. "One that can eat die you, your neighbours and their pets if you wanted to."

Chastened, I picked another item. She went for the plain-sounding "Hongkie Beef Stew", a bed of creamy mash potatoes covered by a thick beef stew with meat so fork-tender, it's part of the gravy. I vaguely recall Ken pooh-poohing the idea of serving the stew with rice because "I wanted mash with this."

I had to agree with Ken, and before I knew it I was taking more than my share. My skull throbbed with the familiar sensation of my makan kaki's "save me some, you glutton" glare.

Like its namesake, Merchant's Lane's "South China Sea" was the focus of much contention. Ken said opinions were divided over this dish of pan-seared salmon, eggs poached sous vide and rösti-like hash with a palate-cleansing salsa that didn't taste like any ocean I've ever swum in.

Like its namesake, the "South China Sea" appears to be a bone of
contention among patrons. I like it, however.

"Some people don't get this dish," he said. "They said they can't taste much. It's about clean, fresh flavours - that's the point."

Several even complained about the "small" amount of salmon. At over RM20, what did these people expect? As if there aren't enough reminders of how our currency is doing.

After the beef stew, a little "South China Sea" was what the doctor ordered. The fish wasn't heavily salted and still pink in the middle, while the salsa provided all the other flavours the dish needed.

With a relatively clean palate, came the hankering for a dessert. Two new menu items were introduced, and one of them caught my eye.

The people of Merchant's Lane says this dessert is "Better Than Sex".
I leave the verdict to those who know.

We didn't have to wait too long for it. "Here you go, sir, 'Better Than Sex'," said the waitress as she brought the order to our table.

I couldn't resist asking, "Hard to even pronounce the name, isn't it?"

The waitress chuckled and left. Aiyoh, Ken, can change the name, ah? One of these days?

So, according to the good folk at Merchant's Lane, a combo featuring pandan-infused roti jala tucked under a blanket of mozzarella cheese and several scoops of Forty Licks' custom kaya toast ice cream (with real toast, from the look of it), drizzled with melted gula melaka, is "better than sex".

"Yes? No?" you ask?

I'd say "debatable".

But it is a delectable after-lunch or after-dinner item. Do watch out for the frozen cranberries which are– DAMN, THEY'RE SOUR! But at least they work with the richness and sweetness of the other components, prepping your palate for the next mouthful.

We didn't feel like going anywhere else after such a heavy but satisfying meal.

Meanwhile, more people showed up at this refreshing oasis of calm, with its multicultural staff and clientele. And like this country, Merchant's Lane is still a work-in-progress.

"We've got ... maybe forty-plus things lined up for the menu in the future," Ken said, adding that he's keeping the "South China Sea" (please do!) along with a few other staples. He also has plans to make Merchant's Lane a happening events venue - if he had the time and manpower.

Give it time, Ken. After almost six decades Malaysia is becoming a happening place. I'm sure Merchant's Lane will become the same – if not better.

Merchant's Lane
No, 150 Jalan Petaling
59000 Kuala Lumpur


Daily, 10:30am-8pm

+603-2022 1736

Facebook page

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Book Marks: A Little Overpraised, Struggling Over Mein Kampf, Etc.

I read this with incredulity. An exhibit featuring food in a bookfest? The Frankfurt Book Festival, no less. You need a subscription to read the English version (boo).

I feel for "Lucius Maximus". The guy who chronicled the decades-long slide of Malaysian football might now have another depressing subject to write.


  • Is A Little Life 2015's "most infuriating, overpraised" novel? Someone at Salon seems to think so.
  • A gay-romance novelist is accused of plagiarising straight plots. A good time to save this helpful infographic over the types and severity of plagiarism violations.
  • More agony over Mein Kampf; one critic's arguments smell like her surname. Now I'm even more determined to pickup a copy (yes, we sell it here).
  • Extremely loud and incredibly gross? Jonathan Safran Foer's novel reportedly pulled from a school over "vulgar" passages. Several free speech groups in the US are up in arms over the decision.
  • A bunch of business-minded Cambodian kids published a primer on key business sectors in their country.
  • Denied a visa for the Kumaon literary festival in Uttarakhand in northern India, Pakistani author Kanza Javed released her book, Ashes, Wine and Dust, over Skype. No reason was cited over the denial.
  • Junot Díaz's support for the rights on undocumented migrants was called "unpatriotic" by the Dominican Republic, who then stripped him of an order of merit award. Not to worry, he still has his Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
  • The worst ways to begin your novel, with advice from literary agents.
  • This "untold history of African American cookbooks" is brief and has a lot of URLs, but one has to start somewhere.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Feelin' Down? Get Stuffed at Fork D World

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 07 November 2015

I recently returned to Damansara Perdana, where I spent almost two years writing for a now-defunct publication, following an online lead that hinted at a near-mythical object: pork biryani.

But what kind of place would prepare and serve such a cryptid of a dish?

An ordinary one, from the looks of it.

Fork D World promises comfort food in a homey setting

Just months old, Fork D World promised porcine-punctuated comfort food within its somewhat threadbare confines. A staircase at a corner led to the washrooms.

I perused the menu after taking my seat. To my dismay, I was informed that the pork biryani and other weekday specials were only available for lunch. Other notable delights included rice dishes with a stew of braised pork belly or minced pork patties, reminiscent of my mother's own (but probably not as divine); and something called yao mei fan, which can be interpreted as "this rice got flavour wan!"

Fork D World's menu features copywriting for the Internet generation

Parts of the menu was in millennial-speak. Copy for the Bacon Fried Rice goes: "picture a pig running thru (sic) a rice field in slow motion... weird but strangely satisfying, much like d generous sprinkling of bacon bits u find in our oriental fried rice. served wif a sunny-side up + a dollop of our homemade sambal."

"Slow motion", eh, Mr Pig? Dats Y U on de plate, mon.

While waiting for my order to arrive, I chatted up the lady boss. Jo Ann Tan had been in event management for over a decade before she went "Fork D World" and opened up this place. She wanted it non-halal so she can "cook without restrictions"; the yao mei fan is apparently her grandmother's recipe.

We were still talking when the appetiser, something called "Bacon Bombs", hit my table. But I only returned to my seat when the main dish -- a minced pork Bolognese fettucine — arrived a few minutes later.

Bacon Bombs, guaranteed to nuke your diet plans to kingdom come

I found the Bacon Bombs — eight bacon-wrapped pillows of pastry with a mozzarella centre, each skewered to a whole cherry tomato with a toothpick — visually appealing. The shine on the bacon fat, the creaminess of the cheese that pops in your mouth when you bite down, and the smell of salty, smoked and cured pork, followed by the cleansing freshness of the cherry tomato, flushing your palate for the next one...

...Fine, I was hungry. Hunger makes me wax lyrical.

Minced-pork Bolognese, meaty mouthfuls of OM NOM NOM — with
a piece of toast for mopping up left-over sauce

But perhaps I shouldn't have ordered the pork Bolognese, which was just fine; maybe I shouldn't pick dishes I can make myself. I barely tasted the bacon and button mushrooms in FDW's version because, well, so much flavour — and the aroma of various dried herbs. Still this is comfort food, and I recommend getting comfortable (like, loosening your belt) after a helping of this.

As a new kid on the block, FDW was having a slew of promos. On that evening, it included the option of a 50 per cent discount on a beverage or a complimentary dessert with a main dish or pasta. I settled for the latter and picked a plain crème brûlée, which I wouldn't mind being less sweet.

A version with coffee called the Espresso Honey Pot was off-limits; no caffeine for me after 5pm. Another dessert, a cheese tart dotted with butterscotch chips (two for RM5) was not part of the offer.

If the food hasn't killed your diet yet, the crème brûlée
will deliver the coup de grace

Later, I came down from the washroom upstairs to a dining hall perfumed with the scent of baking. Brownies, the lady boss told me. Well, I was told some of the desserts available were made on the premises.

So I didn't get to taste the pork biryani, which Jo Ann says used to be available in Damansara Uptown. (The lunchtime specials menu has since been changed — it seems they do it every month — so I probably won't see it again for a long while.)

Nor did my gut have any room left (bacon "bombs", indeed) for their fried mee hoon: a reminder of my childhood, made fresh with bacon and a sunny side up — now that's "East meets West." Made me wish I was still working nearby.

And those damn butterscotch cheese tarts were still singing at me...

What really guaranteed my return, however, was the complimentary glass of warm honey lemon. Noting my coughs as we spoke earlier, the attentive lady boss felt I needed it. Like everything else I had in this place, the drink hit the spot.

Fork D World Bistro
D2-G-3A, Ritze Perdana 1 Commercial Lot
Jalan PJU 8/2, Damansara Perdana
47820 Petaling Jaya


Thursday, 5 November 2015

Teaching Is Tough

A playground quarrel between two kids puts a teacher on a quest to set Malaysian youths straight, one student at a time

For a short while, the hashtag "Mak Kau Hijau" (Malay for "Yo momma's green" - I know, right?) was trending in the Malaysian Twittersphere. Other than how catchy it was, I had no idea what it was or how it came about.

Then, while browsing the shelves at a bookstore, this jumped out at me...

"Mak Kau Hijau!" by local publisher Kopi Press, on the
shelves at MPH Bookstore in Mid Valley Megamall

Note the brilliantly designed green-tinged cover and loudly screaming title. Who WOULDN'T be captivated?

Sadly, very little of the comedic writing seemingly advertised by the cover design and back cover copy can be had in the pages but I got over that quickly. It did explain the origin of the hashtag.

Apparently, someone recorded a video of a playground row between two kids where one of them, while exchanging insults, yelled "Mak kau hijau!" at the other. This video was posted to YouTube and went viral.

"Yo momma's green!" isn't exactly an artful or incisive insult, even for kids. But what irked author and teacher Emir Abu Khalil (his pen name) the most about this incident seemed to be the crass language and lack of manners.

"Stupid!" he writes. What are our youth learning, he asks. What are they being taught at home, at school? Where did they pick all this up?

Being a teacher, this affects him plenty. In his job, he sees a lot of what the YouTube video encapsulates. But his beef is also - if not mostly - for the person who recorded the video rather than break up the fight, whom he compares with those who slow down and gawk when driving by accident sites. The author seems to tremble at the thought of the young graduating into such a society.

This collection of chapters in Cikgu Emir's life as he sets his students straight through teaching and setting an example for his students to follow. Its format is what I'd describe as blookish (i.e., blog in print).

A Kopi Press book at a kedai kopi moden: at Artisan Roast, TTDI
(by the way, that's not coffee)

Each chapter is no different from a blog post: relatively short, colloquially phrased and not thoroughly spell-checked. (Maaf ye, terkeluar taring penyunting tadi. Tanda work-life balance terganggu kot.) Episodes of his schoolteacher days are spliced with musings and opinions on how to cultivate the right kind of values in students.

I found the religious bits uncomfortable; at times, reading this, I felt like an intruder, an unwelcome fly on the wall. So all that religious stuff naturally flew over my head - as did his lamentations of how young people are these days: no manners, why do they talk like this, why don't they pray ... and so on.

But there are moments of levity, made lively by the use of contemporary Malay patois, which includes local slang and English. That helped move things along tremendously. One also feels he's not quite the traditional white-skullcap fire-and-brimstone kind of person. Did he really use Miley Cyrus's "The Climb" as a teaching aid?

Some might find the shifts in the mood and tone of the book jarring as he swings between preacher and hipster. But one gets a sense of what he's trying to convey: kids are hard to educate.

These recollections and musings remind me of those of another teacher's, and it seems to me that everyone in this profession share a common goal and certain ways to reach it. Like that other teacher, Cikgu Emir goes beyond what's customary. He buys needy students lunch, maybe loans them money. He leads prayer sessions, holds extra classes. In one chapter, he even helps a student said to be under a black magic spell.

Most of the time, though, he grapples with excruciatingly mortal problems: bureaucracies, students he can't get through to, whether what he's doing is worth it, keeping in touch with his wards via WeChat...

Yet he's determined to prove to his students and the world at large that he's not a cikgu dua lima, the type who only teaches for the salary that usually comes in on the 25th of each month.

Quotable, genuine and devoted to the ideals of his faith and profession, Cikgu Emir (and those like him) is worth cheering for. And this book packs more takeaways than a day's worth that's sold at a mixed rice stall.

But I risk spoiling too much of that by copy-pasting, so I'll just end with this translated bit from the back cover:

"I'm not a perfect teacher, but that doesn't mean I can do nothing to change my students. If you can't do everything, don't ditch everything. If you understand this basic[sic], teaching and nurturing will be what you love best, because this will be your treasure in the afterlife."

Semoga berjaya, cikgu.

Sebenarnya saya tidak pasti sama ada saya perlu mengulas buku ini dalam Bahasa Melayu sebab ia ditulis dalam BM. Agaknya saya lebih cenderung dan biasa menulis dan menyuarakan pendapat dalam Bahasa Inggeris, tetapi entah apa pendapat Cikgu Emir mengenai perkara ni.

Mungkin ulasan ni patut dibuat dalam bahasa yang digunakan dalam buku ini agar maksud isinya, termasuk buah fikiran penulisnya, dapat dipelihara dan disampaikan dengan sepenuhnya, tanpa sebarang kehilangan akibat kekurangan atau kelemahan dalam kaedah terjemahan saya.

Jadi tujuan saya menulis nota kaki ni mungkin hanya untuk membuktikan bahawa tahap penguasaan Bahasa Melayu saya cukup untuk menghayati isi kandungan buku ini. Tapi, perlukah saya berbuat demikian?

Sekadar menulis dua perenggan pun saya dah penat. Nada kaku, struktur ayat pun kekok. Ada perkataan yang perlu bantuan Google Translate. Kemungkinan besar ini sebabnya saya jarang membaca - lebih-lebih lagi mengulas - karya dalam Bahasa Melayu.

"Mak Kau Hijau!"
Realiti Budak Melayu

Emir Abu Khalil
Kopi Press (September 2015)
166 pages
ISBN: 978-967-13523-1-1

Monday, 2 November 2015

If Walls Could Talk: Poets in Gaslight

Poetry isn't my thing. I never quite learnt how to say something in ten words instead of a hundred or so. And I've always been long-winded.

But poetry readings aren't just about words or the process of emoting them. It has a long history, back in the day when thumbdrives and cloud computing were as mythical (and probably impossible) as the spiritual beings and lands that were part of what was orally passed around - sometimes accompanied by music - and stored in heads.

Part of the crowd at the Gaslight Café that night

So a poetry reading at Gaslight Café in Bukit Damansara was a nice change of pace, especially on a rainy evening after work and the passing (hopefully) of a horrendous haze season.

This event, the tenth "If Walls Could Talk" session, was part of a month-long celebration of the first anniversary of the Malaysian Writers Facebook Group. And a good excuse to drop by the café for the first time. Gaslight's a nice spot, but I don't drink, and I didn't feel like anything other than water; what'd I'd been feeling that night was the onset of a sinus infection.

We were told Melizarani T. Selva was away on a journalistic assignment, so spoken word artist Sheena Baharudin was roped in for emcee duty. Sheena's also an educator, writer of Rhymes for Mending Hearts and founder of the local multidisciplinary performing arts gig Numinous.

"Pay attention or I burn you with my 'third eye'..." Sheena Baharudin
took the mic as emcee and poet

She tried to ramp up the atmosphere with a reading of "Moles" which I think I'd heard before, but I guess she wasn't feeling it. Or did she forget some of the words?

Anyway, she managed to pull it off at half-time and I think she should keep her moles.

The first poet to take the stage was Dhiyanah Hassan, "an artist/writer ... whose works orbit around memories and desires, tracing myths in personal narratives, symbolisms that become vital in navigating internal and external landscapes."

(I'm relying mostly on the profiles supplied by the MYWriters people because I hardly know most of the performers. And thanks to my nose, the gaps in my memory of that night were embarrassingly large and frequent. I'm also ticked off with the quality of the camera's low-light photos so I haven't been very precise with the photo compositions.)

Dhiyanah Hassan

I've known Kathleen Choo for a bit longer. She "co-founded the Poetry Underground writer's collective with the Poets of the Underground one fateful year" and, from time to time, surfaces from her currently hectic life to do gigs like this.

Nice boots, Kath

I don't think the crowd that night was prepared for Kath. She did look like she just got out of bed, threw a few things together and rushed to this event. When her set ended, however, BOOM. Where did she come from? the assembled seemed to wonder. Yes, you can believe she did co-found a poets' collective.

(Okay, she fumbled a bit, too. Some days it happens even to the best.)

And yes, she does have a spot (two, in fact) at Publika's so-called "Poetry Walk". This one has a part that succinctly, beautifully describes the pulse of a city.

YOUR poem will never be good enough for Publika's walkway floor

Oh, and she also had a brief news-reading stint at BFM89.9 a few years ago. The first few times she came on I couldn't believe my ears until I asked around for confirmation.

Next was Uthaya Sankar SB, who I consider one of the eminent writers of the Malay language. His fluency in Malay is still something you have to see and hear for yourself.

Uthaya Sankar SB

Of course, his Tamil's pretty hot, too. He opened his set with a short Tamil poem and said, "One thing about poetry readings is that even though you don't know the language, you can still appreciate the poem."

Nari! Nari!, his much-publicised book of Indian folk tales, was one of the many on sale. I bought a copy and- wa lau, they have serial numbers?

Lara Hassan "has been writing from when she was little, although Across Dreamlands (2015) is her first published collection of prose and poetry. She released limited copies of her unpublished chapbook, Small Talk with the Moon in 2009."

Lara Hassan ... any relation to Dhinayah Hassan?

Wani Ardy and The Guitar Polygamy "embodies the spirit of self-discovery and wonderment." Described as a senikatawati (nice), hers was perhaps the most unforgettable performance of the evening. She performed several pieces from her books, published by Sang Freud Press.

Wani Ardy and The Guitar Polygamy: seriously awesome.

Vocalising her poems to the tunes of the band, it was almost like she was singing, yet not quite. What I can get was that something ancient and spine-tinglingly spiritual was going on, even if the instruments were electronic. About thirty seconds into each piece, I imagined many of the patrons were internally moaning F—.

One of the poems, Gula Melaka (page 73 in her book, Langit Vanila, I believe), was particularly memorable: a chaste taste of the kind of intimacy a woman feels in her lover's embrace - with a local flavour.

After the half-time break, the event resumed with readings by Khor Hui Min. A book editor in educational publishing, "her most recent publications include three poems published by Eastlit, and two short short stories published in 'As Life Found Me' from the Taylor's University 'Stories From...' series."

Khor Hui Min

Michelle Leong "is a banker by qualification ... yet a passionate writer". I'd heard about her book The Black Cheongsam and even flipped through a few pages. But I don't know much else.

Michelle Leong

I was equally sheepish to know nothing of Dr Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman, who "earned her Doctorate Degree in Malay Literature from Academy of Malay Studies, University Malaya. She has a collection of poem and 30 anthologies(!) published by leading publications in Malaysia.

"Recipient of the National Literary Award(!!), her poems have been translated into English, German and in the process of translation in Thai language(!!!). Her book, Mekar Bunga ("Blooming Flower"), is a compilation of 50 poems on various themes such as nature, humanity, patriotism and love for peace."

Dr Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman

Dr Raja's delivery of her poems was strident and stirringly patriotic. I don't know if the others felt the urge to place a hand on their chests as she read.

When Dr Jayati Roy showed up, I wondered why she looked so familiar.

MYWriters billed her as having "a varied cache of experiences as an educationist, having spent many years as a lawyer, banker, management consultant and professor. Her earlier publications mainly focused on school text books and non-fiction. She is currently completing an anthology of Malaysian short stories and poems."

Dr Jayati Roy

Her book, In the Shadow of My Pen, translated from the Bengali (Amar Kolomer Chaya), "recollects her early life and shares many of her varied experiences growing up in Malaysia."

Then I remembered. She appeared in another book, albeit under an alias. The author of that book had sampled her bright, delightful wit and spoke to me about it, but it was only on that night that we had a taste of it - and clamoured for more.

Angelina Bong was the last official poet for the night's line-up. The Sarawak-born poet and visual artist "with a background in Fashion Design ... represented Malaysia in the lingual arts-poetry category at the 3rd Delphic Games 2009 at Jeju Island. Since then, her poetic performances have travelled to South Korea, South Africa, Botswana, Australia and the UK." (Damn, what's with everybody's impressive CVs?)

Angelina Bong

Her set brought another kind of unearthly feel to the space at Gaslight, one that's more like a forest setting. Apt, considering her background.

Overall, a wonderful evening. And I'll be sure to keep an eye on some of these performers' future appearances.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Jian Goh's Book Talk At MPH Mid Valley Megamall

Goh Kheng Swee, a.k.a. Jian Goh, a.k.a. Miao, recently joined a growing list of Malaysian comic bloggers and artists who have published their own books. Goh's book, Once Upon a Miao, is a selection of episodes from Goh's growing up years in Kuching, Sarawak.

He conducted a book talk and book-signing session at the MPH bookstore in Mid Valley Megamall on 17 October 2015.

It was clear Goh hasn't had much practice with public speaking. But he'll improve with time; there will be more talks and public appearances. Nor can he fully hide behind his online avatar, Miao the orange tabby cat.

Goh started by talking a bit about how he started comic blogging. The former electronics engineer has always been fond of drawing, but his dad had other plans for him, apparently.

The need for this book and Goh's stories became clear when he related tales of his first time in the Malaysian peninsula, where Sarawak and the rest of East Malaysia was some mysterious land.

Goh gives the audience a primer on Sarawakian culture. Here,
he's talking about food - one thing all Malaysians love.

"Do you live in trees?" he was asked. Perhaps as a way of making himself sound cool, he replied, "Yes, but we use lifts to go up the trees." (Author and academic Prof. Lee Su Kim was asked the same question - about all of Malaysia - in Texas, only she said we used escalators.)

Goh also claimed, to the audience's amusement, that Sarawakians also rode wild boars and surfed on crocodiles, complete with illustrations. The boar was cute.

Other cultural differences included the food. In Sarawak there is only one type of laksa, but several types of kolok mee. The first few weeks he was here, Goh despaired at not having Sarawakian food. We were also introduced to several phrases used in Sarawak, and the fact that no, you can't tell what race some people are over there.

Goh demonstrates his skill with a mouse and on-screen art tools.

After a brief reading session - or was it before? - Goh demonstrated his drawing skills with a mouse. You know, those art tools that requires knowledge of how you stretch that curve or break it to form your desired shape?

Goh drew his feline avatar on a laptop; the process was projected onto a white screen. It took him about five minutes to produce a full-colour image and he made it look effortless.

I don't know many artists who do digital art well with a mouse, but since many of his characters are basically composites of numerous shapes, I guess it works for him.

The audience seemed awed by the dexterity in which he drew with a mouse
(at left). "Yeah, some days I can do it with my eyes closed." Show-off.

One thing about my camera was that it was too "auto". It was hard to get a clear shot of the artist and the image on the screen, so I had to settle on one or the other.

...Ah, the book signing. Always the best part.

One lady, known as "Singing Coconut" (on Instagram, I think - don't ask me) bought about 13 copies and Goh signed them all. Those who bought the book on that day - and on subsequent book signings - also got a custom bookmark free.

At left: I'd say Ms "Singing Coconut" was happy with that. In her heart,
she's probably singing right now. At right: NOT Ms Coconut.

Goh claimed that cameras hate him, which is why so few of his posts feature his real face. Do you believe that?

Goh, hard at work at the book-signing table.

Still, I couldn't get fantastic author-signs-this shots of him; this was the best I could do without shoving the camera right up his nose.

More signings. By the fourth buyer or so he started getting requests, and these got more complicated as time wore on. "Me eating something (ended up being kolok mee)!" "Can I have Narutomiao?" (Yes, with kolok mee logo, too.) "Kakashimiao, please." (How do you even?)

Goh seems to be wondering, "Urh, what Kakashi look like again, ah?"
(Okay, so I forgot what his request was.)

Goh was game for anything. It helped that some of the fans brought along visual aids so he could get an idea of what to draw. Take one lady, for instance...

"Can put a ring on this?" No-lah, this lady wanted Goh to duplicate
the nail art in the doodle. Didn't see what it was.

But for others, he had to rely on given descriptions.

Drama Auta: Goh: "Maiku, really want me to draw THAT ah?" Lady in
Red: "You can or not? I challenge you." Lady with Shopping Bag: "..."

This bunch I called "Miao's Angels" because, from the questions and banter, I think some of these people have corresponded with him before. One of them even drew him a balloon with a Miao and some assorted doodles on it.

Goh, a.k.a. Miao and his "Angels". I think the lady sitting down
wanted a Miao doodle with her avatar, a pink fox.

One more, ladies! Because someone asked, "Why aren't you
posing with your books?"

Well, a good session overall. His books are really hot right now, from what I heard. Guess it's true that many people like cats. Especially one that speaks the local lingo and can tell you where to find the best kolok mee.

Goh's Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia is now available at all major bookstores. A review of his book is here, and here's the podcast of his appearance on "That Time of Night" at BFM89.9.