Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Memoirs Of A Monster

When I started out reviewing books, my aim wasn't to become a literary critic - though there was no harm in aspiring towards being one. A danger of this is that, at some point, I will encounter a book I detest, or run out of steam.

Or I'd discover a book that's so well written and fun, my writer's ego would shrivel into a raisin.

Hence, the title of my blog - which is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as the days drag on.

I have ditched books before. A recent one was the much-hyped The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. Upon finishing it, I knew it would be a long time before I checked out the rest of his bibliography. Does that make me less of a critic, or a reader?

But, so far, no other book has caused me as much pain to read as Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

Originally titled Les Bienveillantes and written in French, this piece of historical fiction is what I'd call the memoirs of a monster. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer during World War Two and director of a lace factory in the "present", speaks to the reader about his life during those troubled times where he either participated in or bore witness to many wartime horrors and atrocities.

I found this over-900-page novel a long, bleak tableau of human misery, evil, hubris and hypocrisy. Nor have I felt a more intense dislike of a fictional character than the one I had of Aue. His attempts to justify his behaviour ("those were the times, I did what I had to" and all that) is offset greatly by the nature of his deeds.

One unsavoury aspect of him is his sexuality, which I felt was played up to make him even less likeable. Aue has a twin sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship. Though he has had numerous homosexual affairs throughout his life, he still has fantasies about his sibling.

The depiction of one of these, located at the last third of this long novel, comes off sounding like a scene from Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version). Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this scene won The Kindly Ones Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for 2009.

At times, he sounds smug, and the long-winded eloquence in his narration feels as though he's smacking the reader down with his above-average intelligence. Yet, he states that "I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!"

Sure.

And it was hard to keep up with Aue as he trudges through the war-torn landscape, from massacre sites to concentration camp, with stopover in idyllic towns in between. The prose was laborious, the scenes so cheerless and colourless, I started putting the book down every thirty, twenty-five, twenty and a dozen pages.

I no longer wanted to know what happened next. I didn't care who else he screwed and screwed over, who he offended, whether or not he killed his mother and stepfather when his crazy took over his body.

Well, he might be a gentle soul with a brilliant mind, warped by circumstances in life into what he is, but I couldn't - wouldn't - empathise. I just wanted the book to end.

And, when it finally does, I breathed deep and "Oh thank goodness!" ... then it hit me: "Merde, ce connard survived - and he is still alive!"

Thus, one completes the joyless experience in reading the winner of the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in 2006.

If this non-review seems too general, ranty and uninsightful, it's because I relied on Wikipedia to fill in the factual gaps because I can't bring myself to revisit the advanced reading copy I'd been given.

All I now remember of the experience was the pain, which is still palpable every time I see the title.

At some point, not long after this experience, I've resigned myself to the fact that authors are not here solely to entertain or cheer up readers. History is replete with stellar testimonies of human stupidity and cruelty; the Nazi era is but a piece on a big old dirtied and bloodstained tapestry that's still being woven today.

Every now and then, a lone voice from the wilderness reminds us of this.

Littell's research for The Kindly Ones was probably as enervating as the prose, and I can't imagine why he'd go through all that trouble to step into the jackboots of a man like Aue. This undertaking can't be merely an academic exercise.

Perhaps this bit from Wikipedia might shed some light on his motives:

Littell said he wanted to focus on the thinking of an executioner and of origins of state murder, showing how we can take decisions that lead, or not, to a genocide. Littell claims he set out creating the character Max Aue by imagining what he would have done and how he would have behaved if he had been born into Nazi Germany. One childhood event that kept Littell interested in the question of being a killer was the Vietnam War. According to him, his childhood terror was that he would be drafted, sent to Vietnam "and made to kill women and children who hadn't done anything to me."

Whereas the influence of Greek tragedies is clear from the choice of title, the absent father, and the roles of incest and parricide, Littell makes it clear that he was influenced by more than the structure of The Oresteia. He found that the idea of morality in Ancient Greece is more relevant for making judgments about responsibility for the Holocaust than the Judeo-Christian approach, wherein the idea of sin can be blurred by the concepts such as intentional sin, unintentional sin, sinning by thought, or sinning by deed. For the Greeks it was the commission of the act itself upon which one is judged: Oedipus is guilty of patricide, even if he did not know that he was killing his father.

From this, one can say a person can be made to kill people who hadn't truly wronged him. We have many examples of this in recent memory. All that trouble in the Middle East, for starters.

Then and now, my inability to dissect this book like a critic wasn't just hampered by my inexperience but largely by what I felt about the book. To even mention the Bad Sex thing was a low blow. Still, if it was an exploration of how a human behaves during war and how propaganda and circumstance leads one to certain questionable actions, etc., couldn't it have been done with fewer words?

And I think it was this ... wilful refusal to acknowledge this effort - as well as my inability to comprehend the premise behind the novel and the history it portrays - that still haunts me.

I'm still light years away from the badge of "critic", and I've always felt that my harsh and superficial judgement of books like The Kindly Ones casts a deep dark shadow across my efforts to reach that badge.

A shadow I'm still struggling to banish.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Fifth Palate in Kota Damansara: A Love Story

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 22 September 2015


Once upon a time, a couple, Dennis and Joyce, opened an eatery somewhere in Happy Garden. They sold familiar stuff: nasi lemak, fried rice, Nyonya curries and rendang, and a whole lot more.


It's not just what's sold at Fifth Palate, but also the people behind it.


Dennis, who dabbles with home-made stuff like yoghurt, rojak sauce, sesame sauce and the like, sometimes sold the results of his experiments at the eatery, Joy Café.

Though I can’t remember when the café first opened its doors, makan kaki Melody and I have known this place for years. It didn’t take long for Joy to become an institution among residents nearby.

Then, the inevitable: Joy closed its doors towards the end of April 2015. I think the staff turnover was a major factor, apart from age. Imagine having to train new employees from scratch every year or so.


The uncomplicated yet tasty "Everybody Loves Ramen" is certain to be
among Fifth Palate’s signature dishes.


No more home-made yoghurt. No more orange-flavoured white coffee. No more simple heartwarming fare from a couple we’ve known for years.

While I was still digesting this, Melody WhatsApped me a photo of a noodle dish. Of course, she managed to do so while I was hungry and bored at work.

I think my reply was along the lines of “What is it called never mind I know what it is it is lovely it looks good it has egg it has pork IT HAS PORK OMG GIMME OM NOM NOM NOM NOM.”

Even better: this came from a place run by Dennis and Joyce’s kids.


Family affair: Dennis’s home experiments now have a label and
are on sale at Fifth Palate.


That was how I ended up driving all the way from Old Klang Road to Kota effing Damansara to Encorp Strand Office Garden, where Fifth Palate is located.

Inside and out, it looked no different from the dozens of hipster coffee joints out there. But I suppose few millennials would want to open and run a Joy Café-like place, all formica tops and wooden stools, serving kopitiam fare.


♪ What shall we do with this Drunken Frenchman, what shall
we do with this Drunken Frenchman, eat it in the morning~ ♫


The menu was limited in terms of mains: the prerequisite big breakfast was there, along with baked eggs and my quarry: the French toast and the ramen dish Melody told me about.

The components of "Everybody Loves Ramen" is guaranteed to make everybody love ramen. Several thick chunks of pork belly brought back memories of Mom’s steamed pork belly and yam dish; slices of apricot mushroom were a joy to chew; and next to a pile of noodles was a poached egg. All of this was immersed in a flavourful shoyu broth.

I managed to eat my way around the dish until the egg and a bit of broth remained. The intact egg was finally in my mouth and I bit down, flooding every corner with liquid yolk.

A plainclothes waiter came to pick up my empty bowl. “Was it really that good?”

Yes, and I didn’t have breakfast.


Dennis's wheatgrass yoghurt with a touch of pandan: a little jar
of happiness from a once-soulful little corner of Happy Garden.


A little earlier, a waitress asked if I’d like my French toast after my ramen. I said yes, and she told the kitchen to hold it. She returned as I was finishing up, and after checking with me, duly informed the kitchen to start prepping the item.

What service!

The French toast arrived.

Now, a French toast at Joy Café was a French toast. Fifth Palate’s version, the "Drunken Frenchman", was a chthonic-looking pile of fried bacon strips and caramelised bananas stacked on top of the actual French toast, made with Dennis’s home-made chunky peanut butter.

Fifth Palate
Block D-G-1, Encorp Strand Garden Office
Jalan PJU 5/1
47810 Petaling Jaya
Selangor

NON-HALAL

Thu-Tue: 10am - 6pm

Closed on Wednesdays

+60 3-6144 0055

Facebook page
(If your hands feel the urge to make signs to repel sin at this point, don’t stop them.)

The "Frenchman" was crowned with a single scoop of Forty Licks vanilla ice-cream garnished with a mint leaf and surrounded by lashings of what might be a Guinness-based reduction.

OM NOM NOM.

And how could I wrap up this meal without a taste of Dennis’s wheatgrass yoghurt?

Instead of a tiny tub of recyclable plastic, the yoghurt now comes in a covered glass jar (and a higher price tag) that’s served on a small wooden tray.

Nevertheless, one slurp of that creamy, rich pandan-tinged wheatgrass-y sweetness brought me back to a corner of Happy Garden, surrounded by green walls and listening to LiteFM on an old radio, shooting the breeze with Dennis and Joyce and getting ribbed by Melody over eating too much.

It brought me back home.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Book Marks: Value of Books, More Book Bans, And Blogging

Has the book become "a devalued symbol of human imagination"?

An article on the cost of "free time" in modern working life got academic and writer Fiona O'Connor thinking about how the "time is money" mindset affects writing and the value of books in general.

In the contemporary market economy, invisibly-handed, brand-allied and celebrity-underpinned, how is the great novel, short story or poetry collection to be nurtured? What is the compound interest on genius for the literary canon when sales are the only justification of value?



So Into the River was banned and Penguin Random House New Zealand was disappointed by it.

"Into the River was chosen as the 2013 New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year by a respected panel of judges," it said. "The book deals with difficult issues such as bullying and racism, which are topics adolescents should be able to read about as they may well experience these issues in their own lives."

And, of course, sex. The adults supporting the ban because it's "in the public interest" that adolescents don't learn about sex and sexuality until they're 25 are deluding themselves. There are consequences in sex, regardless of how old people are when have it. Not that I'm saying "better sooner than later".

Meanwhile, a parent in Tennessee apparently confused "gynaecology with pornography" and tried to get The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned, according to the author, Rebecca Skloot. Among the offending passages included a bit on how Ms Lacks discovered her cervical cancer via a self-exam.

Now, one purpose of pornography is to titillate or downright excite, and how can any description of someone discovering a cancer that way do that?

On a related note: Dav Pilkey, author of the bestselling (and most challenged) Captain Underpants series, has quietly revealed that one of his two main protagonists, Harold, grows up to marry a man.

Pilkey wrote in The Guardian:

People often ask me how I'd want to respond to those critics who would rather see my books pulled from shelves than handed to young readers. I do have an answer, and it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. Some grownups are not amused by the kinds of things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp those things out.

I understand that people are entitled to their own opinions about books, but it should be just that: a difference of opinion. All that's required is a simple change. Instead of saying "I don't think children should read this book," just add a single word: "I don't think my children should read this book."

When it comes to books, we may not all agree on what makes for a good read – but I hope we can agree that letting children choose their own books is crucial to helping them learn to love reading.

Word.




Writer Faisal Tehrani gets the nod to fight the Home Ministry's ban on four of his novels: Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang published by PTS Litera Utama Sdn Bhd; Karbala, published by Abeerden Books World; and Tiga Kali Seminggu and Ingin Jadi Nasrallah, both published by Al-Ameen Serve Holdings Sdn Bhd.



Meet Seymour Britchky, the critic who time forgot:

...When food obsessives cite their heroes, they tend to invoke a particular canon: MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl for their heady, evocative prose; Gael Greene for her saucy wit; R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin for their bonhomous wanderings; Anthony Bourdain for his honed and hungry swagger; Jonathan Gold, because he is Jonathan freaking Gold. Britchky's people are in it for his acid tongue and gimlet eye—the way he etched a menu, a moment, a space, a feeling, an era in dining when not every plate was Instagram-ready, every interaction Yelp-able to the world. For him, every meal was personal, every review a master class in the art of food writing.



A recent book of comics started out when a young man from Kuching, Sarawak got conned.

And being a young man of his time, Goh naturally wanted to blog about this interesting life-lesson. But there was a problem: Goh couldn't possibly narrate this entire incident to his blog's readers.

"It would have been too wordy and less interesting," he recalls thinking.

That is when an ingenious idea lit up in his head: draw a four-frame comic strip about it.

Years later, Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia, is published. It's a pretty fine book.



Jenny "The Bloggess" Lawson has been on a roll lately. This time, on the question of whether blogging is dead:

The only thing that's dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place. If you're blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like ... I dunno ... making a sex tape.

...But here's the great thing about realizing that making a mint in blogging isn't really feasible or worthwhile ... now you're free to write whatever the shit you want to write without having to worry about brands and advertisers and alienating angry, easily-offended people who are actually really fun to alienate.

...And that's fine because every single writer writes for their own specific reason. Some of us write for a living. Some of us write for fun. Some of us write because we have no other choice because writers write always ... That is what writing is about, and blogging is just one iteration of writing. Writing never dies.

"Writing never dies." Amen.



Pynchon-style writing gives an unknown author's book a boost, thanks to speculation that said author could be Thomas Pynchon himself. As if the catchy cover and title won't. And I suppose it's been established that e-publishing is not the magic bullet some say it is.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Shelter And Sweet, Spicy Succour at Shokudō

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 14 September 2015


I stared at the "Closed" sign hanging on the door. Behind me was the hammering rain and the occasional rumble of thunder.

Panic began tugging at my gut.

As I checked my watch, somebody inside noticed me outside and hurried to remove the sign. Gratefully, I padded inside, leaving the bad weather behind me.


Shokudō, at Taman Paramount — your friendly neighbourhood
kare raisu place.


I am fond of curries; Japanese curry, in particular, but despaired at finding a place that has decent examples of this dish. Yes, there's that huge franchised outlet in 1 Utama and it makes good albeit expensive stuff, but that's like two kilometres of rush-hour gridlock to go through on weekdays and you are oh so tired...

So when I heard of Shokudō's existence, I checked it out. It seemed so long ago since my first time there, I can't believe that it only opened early 2015.


The interior of Shokudō: Reminiscent of the kind of eatery in
your food-related manga dreams.


Nor can I remember when my first experience with Japanese curry was. As a teenager, what I knew of it and Japanese cuisine in general came from the works of such manga artists as Daisuke Terasawa. I've since learnt that one acquires the taste for certain flavours in cuisines, apart from their history and the trivia surrounding them.

According to Japanese food company S&B, the first Japanese to eat curry (abroad) was Kenjiro Yamakawa, a scion of a samurai family who went on to become a physicist, teacher and historian.

And in 1912, the recipe for Japanese curry — with its familiar carrots and potatoes — came about and was later adopted by the Japanese army to feed its troops. Japan eventually came up with its own curry powder, and the dish is so widely eaten today, it's about as iconic as sushi.

Acquiring the taste of Japanese curry should be easy. If you can't, we can't be friends.


Tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork loin cutlet) curry rice
is plain comfort after a long day.


Shokudō literally means "dining hall" or "canteen" in Nihongo, though I prefer "mess hall" — in honour of the first adopters of the curry in Japan. It's reminiscent of the kind of eatery run by Yōichi Ajiyoshi, the young protagonist of Terasawa's Mr Ajikko manga: long tables, spacious walkways, simple yet unmistakably Japanese décor. This local mess hall in Taman Paramount is also clean and neat.

Choose from over a dozen varieties of kare raisu, all made with the same fundamentals: curry sauce and short-grain rice garnished with a cherry tomato and a few slices of pickled ginger. The prerequisite carrots and potatoes are there, blended finely into the sauce to make the plate look less cluttered — a little twist by Shokudō's boss and his mentor from another establishment.


Kani cream korokke: Cream croquettes with a bit of crab
inside, plus a side salad.


Pick your favourite protein: tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork loin cutlet), hirekatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork fillet cutlet, which has less fat), torikatsu (breaded and — yes, just with chicken fillet), buta or tori yakiniku (stir-fried pork or chicken), or even vegetables and korokke (cream croquettes). You can even make each dish a set with a soup, salad and green tea.

And this is only half the menu, which also features a variety of "specials" (including unagi don — banzai!), appetisers, snacks and a few desserts.

Fiery local curries are always a treat but, as one ages, the stomach yearns for mellower fare. Japanese kare fills that niche nicely. All the piquancy, minus the tongue-scouring heat, made for the end of a lousy day, especially stormy evenings.


On some days, a tori yakiniku curry rice (part of a set meal here, with
soup and a salad) will also work wonders on a weary soul.


Breaded, deep-fried stuff hates me, the way they scratch the roof of my mouth. Soaking it for a bit in curry sauce helps and it goes down easier. The tonkatsu is chewy, and what's not to like about that glistening fat? Some days I prefer the stir-fried chicken, which is just as nice.

Not up to curry? FINE. Shokudō has several non-curry udon and other dishes you can also assemble a set with, plus salads (including one with salmon), salmon sashimi, slices of marinated duck breast and other Japanese titbits to chew on while waiting for your main course.

(We still can't be friends.)


While you wait for the main course, how about some chewy, lip-smacking
and appetite-whetting marinated duck breast (aigamo rousuni)?


This rainy evening, I settled down to a set meal of a kare rice with stir-fried chicken, plus an appetiser of marinated duck breast. The duck is medium rare, sliced finely and served with sliced...

Shokudō Japanese Curry Rice
No.9, Jalan 20/13
Taman Paramount
46300 Petaling Jaya

NON-HALAL

Tue-Sun:
Lunch - Noon to 3pm
Dinner - 6pm to 10pm

Closed on Mondays

+60 3-7863 0922

Facebook page
"It's onion," said the boss, who wouldn't look out of place at a fitness centre. "Can't tell, can you?"

Okay, not daikon, then.

The temptation to shovel mouthfuls of curry rice with abandon was hard to resist. This is comfort food, and I can understand its wide appeal. After a hard day's work, a nice plate of kare raisu can be as comforting as a warm bed.

Though the rain cleared long after I cleaned my plate, I was in no hurry to leave. Some Japanese tunes eased into the hall, replacing the acoustic version of some Western pop song. A lovely, familiar aroma wafted from the kitchen. As I filled my cup with hot green tea for the third time, the urge to order seconds grew.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Book Marks: Nazi Goreng, Going Slow

Nazi Goreng (the English edition, Monsoon Books) by Marco Ferrarese and Psiko (Lejen Press) by Ehsan El Bakri are among the latest publications to be banned, apparently. Along with To Love Ru Darkness, news of which I'm surprised that none of the otakus on my timeline have picked up. Maybe they don't care. Maybe it's passé.

Meanwhile, the YA novel Into the River by New Zealand author Ted Dawe has been banned over what I'd define as "objectionable content". Seems it's the "first book to be banned in New Zealand for at least 22 years", according to the New Zealand Herald.

Still, it's a little bit drama to ask "Will I be burned next?"



Why do smart publishers build bad websites? Digital Book World says "That's because the typical publisher's site is covered with dozens of images showing frontlist releases, current bestsellers, author listings and some lame ads to join a boring mailing list.

"In other words, a publisher's site feels like an inferior online store."

Of course, the article has some suggested solutions.



Literary technologist Hugh McGuire trained himself to read books again to escape the relentless, fast-flowing stream of digital information and go slow.

"In the same way that snake venom can be used to produce curative antivenom, I wondered whether that old, slower form of information delivery — books — could act as a kind of antidote to the stress caused by the constant flow of new digital information," he writes in the Harvard Business Review. "Whether my inability to sustain my focus—at work, home, and on reading books—could be cured by finding ways to once again sustain my focus ... on a book."


Also:

  • From Charlie Hebdo to Virginia Woolf, the webchat with Joyce Carol Oates, as it happened. It's a pretty long piece, and kind of insightful.
  • The Vietnamese Ministry of Education asks a publisher to pull a "living skills" book that teaches kids to, among other things, walk on glass to build - or as a show of - courage. Yeah.
  • "Toxic shock": Seems Ms Agatha Christie an expert on poisons, which sort of explains why many of her villains used lethal substances. I wonder if reviewers had a hard time being honest with her novels back then.
  • Huzir Sulaiman has completed the film adaptation of The Garden of Evening Mists. Unfortunately, no further details were given, like whether it'll be out on DVD.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Bookstores Don't Ban Books

So Silverfish Books has stopped selling a book by a certain fugitive blogger.

Some people have been jumping up and down over the indie bookstore's "hypocrisy" and violation of it's supposed creed to uphold free speech and all that jazz.

Words or actions themselves have no power of their own. However, certain words or actions derive their power from how people react to them. And every society has certain hot buttons that should be left alone. Mess around long enough and one will hit that big red button.

When one starts an enterprise like Silverfish, some lofty goals are aspired towards. Then, the reality - a bookstore, indie or otherwise, is still a business venture, and the aim of a business is to make money and survive.

And when you do business in a country, you have to toe some lines, including the ones etched by society and government, lofty aspirations notwithstanding.

To stubbornly wave the "defender of freedom of expression" banner in the face of this will, at some point, prove foolhardy. A bookstore manager was persecuted by religious authorities for several years over her company's decision to sell a book - one she had no say over.

And if the "thugs" do come for Silverfish, will these social justice warriors get out of their basements and help it out?

That some people hold this Fugitive Blogger up as an icon of freedom of expression saddens me.

Before he went on the lam, he posted a picture of himself eating something that's not kosher to a certain demographic, on what was its sacred month. I believe it was deliberate. For reasons only he can articulate, he went and pushed that big red button.

Though what the Fugitive Blogger says and does might not be universally agreeable, Silverfish might have taken a chance on his book because, behind the crude language and sexist, misogynistic façade, this frank and articulate young fellow might have some redeeming qualities.

But it seems all he's doing is plumbing new lows - and hit Silverfish's big red button on the way down.

The bookstore would have anticipated the backlash from this move, including the noise over their "hypocrisy" and whatnot, and might have felt this was bearable than whatever the authorities have in store. Some die-hard supporters of Silverfish will probably be relieved by this.

I don't think it was a hard decision to make.

Run free, Fugitive Blogger. Go out there and push the limits of your freedom in the land of the brave. Keep spouting those uncomfortable truths (as you see them).

But tread lightly. No society I know of is free of big red buttons. May you never find the one in your new neighbourhood.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Once Upon a Miao: Jian Goh's "Cat City" Childhood

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 03 September 2015


In the middle of August I was given a preview of a new graphic novel (some days, I love my job), one in the vein of that now best-selling series of childhood stories, by a local illustrator.

I LOLed every few pages.

Kuching-born Goh Kheng Swee, who goes by the monikers Jian Goh and Akiraceo (or is it AkiraCEO?) and the creator of the whimsically named Miao & WafuPafu comic blog, wanted to be the first Malaysian English-language comic blogger to publish a book. But someone else apparently beat him to it.

Undaunted, he kept working on his own book and got published anyway.

Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia sheds some light on the childhood of East Malaysians through selected episodes in Jian's (let's call him that) formative years.

The former "RnD opto-electronic engineer" – who is now a freelance designer and sells Miao&WafuPafu merchandise – has put together an impressive all-colour compilation of all-new stories of growing up in Kuching, Sarawak. None of the entries I know of are from his comic blog, on which he has been doodling for about eight years and counting.

From hijinks at home to classroom capers and a seaside holiday, the bumpy, knee-scraping roller-blade ride that is Jian's youthful adventures is made funnier by the inclusion of manga-style facefaults and local vernacular in his art.

And did I mention that all the main characters are depicted as anthropomorphised animals?

Jian draws himself as an orange tabby because (a) Kuching, (b) he's a cat lover, and (c) cameras don't like him (I'm told). His dad is a dog because he's a dog lover; his mom's a bunny because she's as quiet as a rabbit; and his elder sisters are a horse and monkey respectively, to match their Chinese zodiac signs.

Okay, but I'm more inclined to believe that it's because humans are hard to draw; most of the homo sapiens in his book are all featureless humanoids.

One can be forgiven for assuming the main draw of this comic is the comedy. It is, and that makes the few poignant parts more moving. The chapter "My Lakia Friend" reminds us of the racism some of our fellow Malaysians face, and the author's plea to stop using the term, considered a pejorative, tugs at the heart. As did his wistful longing to reunite with his group of secondary school friends to do something crazy again.

But of course, you want to know about the comedy.

The precocious Miao (the author's feline alter ego) provides most of the laughs, but it is his hopelessly degenerate friend "Bokiu" (appropriately portrayed as a buaya), who upstages him in later parts of the book.

I also developed a soft spot for Lingling, the tomboyish "tigress" and lone rose among Miao's group, which also comprises the gangster-like chicken nicknamed "Rippy", a football-loving monkey called "Haw", and a smooth-talking... whatever called "Mus".

Once Upon a Miao
Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia

written, illustrated and
published by Jian Goh
189 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-967-13465-0-1

RM34.90 | Buy from:
•   Kinokuniya
•   MPHOnline
Plus, I got to learn some phrases (the Chinese vernacular is different over there, too). Maiku (can be loosely translated as "dammit") features a lot, and feels satisfying to use.

I imagine the editor mumbling as he or she went through the pages: "Maiku Miao, boh spellchecker, ah?" And the phrase ngai ti ("oh my god") conveys incredibly heartfelt frustration when stretched.

With the rise in comics and graphic novels by local artists telling local or localised stories, Jian's publishing debut is a welcome addition to a growing body of work we'd all love to explore. And it's nice to imagine that he's also doing it as an ambassador of "the other side of Malaysia."

His window into life as a kid in a little corner of East Malaysia also stokes enough curiosity for one to want to fly over (maiku, so many types of kolok mee, lao chui nua liao...).



Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia is now available at all major bookstores. Follow Jian's further adventures on his blog and Facebook page.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Crouching Café, Hidden Sar Yung

Over a year ago...

If only you could see my face as I stared down the long line of cars in front of me...

Some days, an experience at a far-flung cafe isn't worth it. Even if I wasn't paying.

But Melody just had to, had to, go. Because an acquaintance had waxed poetic over several things there, and some food bloggers gave it rave reviews.


A recent photo (August 2015) of where Amaze K Café is. Believe me,
without the red food truck and sign, you wouldn't know it's there.


Most importantly, because she'd bought the Groupon promo for both of us.

But it wasn't just the traffic.

Snuggled deep within the industrial zone in Kota Damansara, the new Amaze K Cafe became a hit. I think part of the thrill for the patrons was finding it among the factories, garages and shuttered shoplots and, after eating and lots of photographing, rushing back to regale eagerly waiting audiences about the hidden gem they "unearthed", like treasure hunters that emerged from the jungle after being lost for months.

We found it with a phone call. "Opposite the shop with the Espressolab banner," we were told. I'd passed that banner once.

When we finally arrived at the doorstep of Amaze K, I could see why we missed it the first time. It blends right in.

So what allegedy made the food at Amaze K good was the management; the owner is an acquaintance of Melody's acquaintance, whose palate was more discerning than ours. The Groupon promo, however, limited the choices we could make.

We ended up ordering two set lunches: mine was the Salmon Steak Pasta, while she inexplicably picked the chicken chop with butter sauce and fried rice.

There was nothing spectacular about the experience, even though my pasta was fine. It had some kind of sauce at the bottom of the plate, possibly from the salmon, that made me wish I had a slice of bread to wipe it all off.

Melody didn't like her dish much. I thought the fried rice and the butter sauce lacked flavour - did they skimp on the salt? But the aroma of the sauce was just right, laced with the herbal and citrusy hints of curry leaf.

Halfway through, a whiff of something baked made me look up, just in time to see a pile of what looked like cream puffs on a plate landing atop the table behind us.

"That's the sar yung," Melody piped up. "She (the acquaintance) talked about it too."


Makan kaki Melody's photo of the carb-rich, liver- and diet-nuking
"sand codgers" from over a year ago.


As I understand it, this pastry (called 沙翁 or, literally translated, "sand codgers") is sold in Hong Kong and some parts of China. These balls of deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar outside contain lots of air in a sparse honeycomb of dough. Some say that it's similar to the Okinawan sata andagi or the Dutch oliebol.

At Amaze K, the sar yung is sold by the half-dozen, which costs RM12, and it's not on the menu - at least, not yet. We just had to try it. That became the only paid item on the bill.

Amaze K Café
23, Jalan PJU 3/44
Sunway Damansara
47810 Petaling Jaya
Selangor

Pork-free

Mon-Sat: 9:30am - 9pm

Closed on Sundays

+603-7733 7657

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My experience with churros told me that anything deep-fried and saturated in oil and sprinkled with sugar is bound to be a treat. Once you bite down and start chewing, oh g*d. It's. So. Good. The soft dough inside collapses and just melts, and when the sugar and fried crispy dough shell melds into a forming melange in your mouth...

Fatty liver? Who cares?

But by the time I was sated I'd devoured four; Melody shot me that familiar "you unrepentant glutton" look after I'd reach for the last piece that was supposed to be hers.

On the way home, my stomach (and liver, I suspect) eventually got round to protest all that extra goodness I'd downed in a cloud of carb-induced intoxication. Call it my version of jungle fever.

Fatty liver? I CARE.

Thing is, I'm still thinking of diving back into that wilderness.