Tag Archives: Malaysia

Of Hot Cross Buns and Croissants

An email arrived recently in my mailbox screaming “JAKIM bans hot cross buns in its bakeries”. In case you hadn’t guessed, JAKIM stands for JAbatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia – the Department of Ismalic Development in Malaysia. The headline I saw was therefore entirely plausible.

Digging a little, I found out that the article was old news. The story had done the rounds a few years previously, when it was said that in JAKIM bakeries, the crosses on hot cross buns had been turned into mere ropes. In other words, one of the lines on the cross (see photograph) had been removed, purportedly to avoid “offending” Muslims.

A Hot Cross Bun on a Plate

There was just a small problem: a hot cross bun with no cross is no longer a hot cross bun. This observation prompted an imaginative local blogger to christen the new bun with the name “tali-bun”, “tali” being the word for rope in Malay. Talibun is also deliciously close to Taliban, and we all know what that connotes.

If JAKIM has indeed banned hot cross buns, it will not have been the first time that this innocuous pastry has sailed into controversy. Which is mind-boggling if you think about it – how could a sweet, spiced ball of dough possibly cause such fuss? Yes a cross sits astride its top and yes, the bun is traditionally eaten at Easter, but the bread holds barely any religious connotation today.

And yet, the sign of the cross still has the power to terrify.

As early as 2003, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a story saying that a handful of local councils in Britain had banned the traditional hot cross buns at schools to avoid causing “offence” to “non-Christians”. When it emerged that the councils named by the Telegraph did not in fact have policies on hot cross buns, the paper had to apologise.

However, the debate over hot cross buns just wouldn’t go away. A few years later, it was the turn of a British hospital to cause a furore by not serving hot cross buns at Easter. This decision upset so many people that the hot cross buns were soon reinstated.

The Brits who spent time worrying about how the sight of crosses could “upset”, “offend” or otherwise imperil Muslims had obviously not heard the story of the croissant. The croissant is today associated with France but it did not originate there: the bread actually came from Austria, from Vienna to be precise. Anyone familiar with the extraordinary variety and quality of Austrian pastries will not find this revelation surprising.

Among the most memorable characteristics of the croissant is its shape: the bread looks like a crescent. Croissants in a WindowIndeed, the croissant may well have first been baked after the siege of Vienna in 1683, when bakers working in their cellars throughout the night heard burrowing underground – the sound of Ottoman soldiers invading – and alerted the authorities, thus saving Austria. As a reward, legend has it that the Viennese bakers were given the right to make a pastry in the shape of the Ottoman crescent.

I first read the above account in Stephen Clarke’s wonderfully entertaining book 1000 Years of Annoying the French. The author makes plain that there are other theories regarding the origin of the croissant, one of which is that it derives from an Austrian pastry known as the kipfel. There are records of the kipfel going back to the middle ages. In contrast, croissants do not appear in French literature until 1853, when a chemist named Anselme Payen wrote a book called Des Substances Alimentaires (Dietary Substances) – a title almost designed to put you off your food. In his book, Monsieur Payen discusses croissants under the section “fantasy or luxury bread”.

Regardless of who is right about the origins of the croissant, what is clear is that it was introduced from Austria into France. In its adopted country, the croissant soon became a breakfast favourite. Since then, millions of people – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and otherwise – have been gulping down crescents – the sign of Islam (and of the moon) – without even being aware of the fact. Ingesting a crescent every morning, with and without butter and almonds and chocolate, has not upset anyone, irrespective of religion, nor has it dented faith itself.

The benign nature of the croissant did not stop a group of rebels in Syria from issuing a fatwa, a Muslim religious edict, against the bread because its “crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims”. Evidently, there are Muslims who need protection from both the cross and the crescent. That is the absurd situation we could end up living in, if ideologically-driven political correctness is allowed to become the norm.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. It was the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who came up with this perceptive saying. The people who are so busy pronouncing fatwas and other rules obviously cannot just allow a cigar to remain a cigar; otherwise, they would be out of work. Our only hope is for common sense to eventually triumph over ideology.

4 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

I’m Back, with Two More Books in the Making

I’ve taken a break from this blog for several months, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but because the journey of getting a first novel published has been more complex and frustrating than I expected. I wasn’t naïve about the process either; having talked to many people beforehand, I understood what it involved.

Alas, one has to grow a thick skin. I thought I had one (in comparison to many artists). Coming from business and finance, I was already used to knocks and bumps, critical feedback and tough conversations. This was different. When you’ve put your heart and soul into an endeavour, rejection feels totally different.

In March, when I was signed up by Thomas Colchie (see By Serendipity, I Have an Agent!), a literary agent who specialises in representing international writers, I had high hopes. Thomas approached a dozen publishers on my behalf, but unlike theoretical physics, everyone has a view, and this view is subjective. Publishers turned us down. The funny thing is, their feedback – to the extent that they gave any – was not consistent. For some, the book was not literary enough, for others, not commercial enough; a couple of publishers complained about the Malaysian-language dialogue, others about the pace being too meandering. My partner, bless her, was outraged by this last comment, because its meandering nature, like a winding river, was precisely what she loved most.

There is a Russian fable about an elephant who painted a landscape. Before sending it off to an exhibition, the elephant invited friends over to inspect his painting. The elephant was very excited: would his friends praise him or criticise him? What would they suggest as improvements? Each animal friend came, inspected, and pronounced. Their criticism was all valid, but by the time the elephant had incorporated their suggestions, his painting had turned into a fantasy savannah featuring snow, ice and the River Nile side-by-side – a far cry from what he had wanted to depict.

Should I re-write my novel, or should I stand firm? That was the decision I had to make.

My agent didn’t think I should re-write my work. He believed that the pace and richness suited the story and its setting – South-East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, Thomas advised me to start writing the second book in my trilogy. This may sound strange – if you can’t find a publisher for one book, why write another? But Thomas, who is a highly experienced agent, believes that the second part of the story, being less complex, would be easier to sell. For the moment, I’m taking this advice. I will commence research in Malaysia next month.

Meanwhile, I’ve completed the non-fiction book I had already started – a short work about my experiences in France. Anyone who has read the blog-post about my battles with a skip (yes that’s right, a skip) will have gleaned that there is little love lost between France and me. France may be a superb holiday destination, but once I began spending more time there, I found the place a huge disappointment.

I did not want to write a French-bashing book though, as there are already plenty of those, nor did I want my manuscript to sound like a litany of complaints. Instead, I’ve tried to achieve a style of loving, albeit sceptical, humour – along the lines of the vastly popular A Year in Provence or the more recent 1,000 Years of Annoying the French. The latter may sound like a piece of French-bashing but isn’t. Really. Having said that, any French person reading it would need a sense of humour.

My own book will centre on some of the things my partner and I had to confront when she bought a house near Paris and I set about managing its renovation. This is not an account of builders and DIY but is about things you would not imagine finding in Western Europe in the twenty first century. Phenomena such as cash desks (I can already hear it, what?), gardeners whose quotes depend on what they think you can afford (not on the size of your job), a taxi driver who barks at three passengers to squeeze into the back because he’s charging his iPod and can’t be bothered to move the device. If you think we were just unfortunate, we weren’t – others have recounted similar experiences. In his book 1,000 Years of Annoying the French, Stephen Clarke even describes Parisian taxi drivers as being “allergic” to having passengers on the front seat. And I thought I knew France. Non, pas du tout!

To be clear, I’m not trying to change anyone: the French have every right to be as they are. In fact, it would be great for us all if the country stayed more or less as it is (and even better if it regressed by 50 years, as some politicians are unwittingly proposing). I could never live there though. But I hope that my account of how to deal with certain French peculiarities, or not (as the case may be), would be entertaining to anyone with an interest in France. It might even be thought-provoking for those planning to move to the land of foie-gras.

Now nearing the end of its third edit, my non-fiction manuscript is almost ready. I’ll be sending it soon to my agent for initial feedback and he’s already expecting it. Fingers crossed.

6 Comments

Filed under Writing

One Small Step, A Giant Leap

In the course of writing my novel, I had many opportunities to compare the Malaysia I knew with the Malaysia of today. I have already shared my sadness, disappointment and worry elsewhere (The Malaysia We’ve Lost; Where is Home?; Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year).

This past week has been markedly different. On May 17, 2014, my country finally took a step in the right direction, and raised my spirits in the process.

On that day, a brave young woman of Malay ethnicity became the Opposition candidate in a predominantly Chinese town. If this sounds trivial, it is not. In Malaysia, race and religion are used as political weapons, and Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud’s story marks a water-shed.

As it happens, I had already been thinking about Teluk Intan, the town where Dyana is standing for election. My agent Thomas Colchie (see previous blog post), had asked to see the synopses of my entire trilogy of books, and I had been pondering Teluk Intan because the town will be mentioned in my second novel (where it will be called by its colonial name of Telok Anson). I am still at the planning stage for this second work: jotting down ideas, looking at maps, dreaming… But I digress; my purpose here is to share why Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud has given me such hope.

She is a lawyer from a family of active government supporters. In Malaysia, this means that Dyana could enjoy a good life by not rocking any boats. Instead, she joined an Opposition political party. Not only that, but she chose a party that is widely regarded as “Chinese”.

Why did she do this? Here is a quote from her: “Malaysia needs a new form of politics and to drop the old race based politics. I choose to forge a path towards a better Malaysia.” Bravo, absolutely spot on.

In truth, the party which Dyana joined – the Democratic Action Party or DAP – welcomes all races and religions, but because it has historically appealed more to Malaysian-Chinese voters, the incumbent government likes to stick it with a “race” label. The fact that Dyana chose this party was a courageous step, demonstrating an independence of mind and a willingness to go beyond her comfort zone to further her ideals. How many of us can say we have done that?

Almost at once, the backlash against Dyana began. She was wolf-whistled at her own nomination. Photographs of an actress who looked like her but was dressed in a bikini floated around the Internet. There were whispers about her age: too young at twenty seven, apparently. Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister was only twenty three when he was handed his seat on a plate. Did anyone complain about his youth? I doubt it. One rule for men, another for women. Same old, same old.

The great and the good of Malaysian politics have come out in force to denounce Dyana as a traitor (to her race), to bait her on religion, even to scold her mother for not sufficiently indoctrinating her! This, unsurprisingly, came from our former Prime Minister, an expert in the gutter politics of tribe. All kudos to Dyana’s mother for standing up so publicly for her daughter: “As a mother, I will support my daughter. I will campaign with her because she is my daughter.” Quite. But when so many have so little to say about so few, you know that something momentous is happening.

And what is happening is that the old politics of tribe are being challenged in highly public fashion. A young Malay, Malaysian-born and bred, has stood up and said NO to the race-based politics that have held sway since the 1970s. She is too young to know the Malaysia which I knew, and I have always worried about what would happen to Malaysia when those of us who remember what it used to be like, pass on from this Earth. Now I have glimpsed the answer: just because you have not experienced what Malaysia once was, it does not mean that you will be blind to injustice when you see it.

Dyana is a tangible challenge not just to Malaysia’s old politics but also to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, and strong forces are lined up against her. They do not want her to succeed. They do not want her to win, and if she wins, they do not want her to do a great jobs, and if she does a great job, they do not want her to remain with the DAP. Because if she succeeds, she will be living proof of exactly the sort of progressive, modern, inclusive Malaysia which many in my country are terrified of. If she succeeds, more may follow her. If more follow, what would become 0f vested interests? What would be the raison d’être of single-race and single-religion political parties? Heaven forbid, we may actually move forward and build the truly embracing society we are capable of building together, the real One Malaysia, not the slogan-bound 1Malaysia the government likes to trot out for tourists.

For all these reasons, I wish Dyana and the DAP the very best on 31 May 2014 and beyond. (For the record, I am not a DAP supporter).

3 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel

Blame the Chinese!

I enjoy hearing from readers. Even when they express views I find disturbing.

Just before the last Malaysian general election, I wrote a blog-post about the corrupting influence of unfettered power (see Malaysia’s Election Eve). The article focused on corruption in Malaysia, not race. But as with most things Malaysian, race is never far behind.

In recent days, a reader picked up on this blog-post and delivered a simple message: you Chinese in Malaysia are the cause of our corruption. We Malays were innocents until the British ‘let’ you in to the country (my emphasis). Stop complaining, since it is your corrupting influence that is coming back to bite you. (To see the comment for yourself, scroll down along the comments section  below Malaysia’s Election Eve.)

Leaving aside the historical point that there were Chinese in Malaysia long before the British arrived, forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious: corruption in any country affects all its citizens. Corruption in Malaysia (which the reader appears to accept) affects Malay, Chinese, Indian and Orang Asli (the indigenous peoples of Malaysia) equally.

Blaming minority races in Malaysia is not new. The day after the recent general elections, when the ruling party lost the popular vote but nonetheless kept the majority of seats, the incumbent Prime Minister explained his performance in terms of a ‘Chinese tsunami’. Utusan Malaysia, a leading Malay-language newspaper, regularly publishes incendiary material which deliberately stokes racial feeling and attributes all kinds of evil to the Chinese. An infamous article with the heading Orang Cina Malaysia – apa lagi yang anda mahu? (Chinese of Malaysia – what more do you want?) listed Malaysia’s 10 wealthiest people, 8 of whom were Chinese. The message? You’re already rich, what more could you possibly want? Equality? This provocative title was repeated after the recent general election results, in yet another twisted article.

But let us put all this aside. Let us assume for a minute that what the reader contends is true – that palm-greasing is a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon. How does this explain Singapore, a country within spitting distance of Malaysia?

Singapore has a Chinese majority in power, yet it is consistently ranked amongst the least corrupt countries in the world. On the Tranparency International Index, where a lower number is better, Singapore is ranked 5th while Malaysia shares 54th place with the Czech Republic, Latvia and Turkey. Why the difference? What does Singapore have which Malaysia lacks?

The answer seems pretty clear to me: good governance.

I suggest that it is the absence of good governance – the absence of sufficient checks and balances to the wielding of power – which has put China, Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Russia in the top 5 in terms of illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010. Power corrupts, and in Malaysia, fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. There is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese, Mexicans, Malays, Arabs and Russians are intrinsically more corrupt than anyone else on the planet, despite the staggering numbers in this report.

It is easier of course, to find a scapegoat than to face up to the real issues at hand. Why bother, when all you need do is point your finger at the successful minority groups in your midst? Malaysia today is nowhere near where it should be in this world, given the extent of its natural resources. Its tiny neighbour to the south, an island so small you need a magnifying glass to see it on the map, has left Malaysia far behind. How could a former mosquito-infested swamp which has to import everything, even drinking water, have raced ahead of a land as bountiful as Malaysia?

That is the question Malaysia’s ruling party and its acolytes should be asking. With the rise of China and India, Malaysia could benefit handsomely from home-grown ties, but instead of embracing its Chinese and Indian minorities, Malaysia treats its minorities as second-class citizens, forever fearing that the Malays will not be able to make it in this world unless they receive special help.

In blaming minority races for a host of travails, the ruling party and its acolytes are following a well-trodden path. When propaganda triumphs over reason, the consequences are stark, and the examples in other countries do not bear thinking about.

Malaysia is still far from such extremes, and I truly hope it remains that way. But I fear more and more for my country. It is already no longer as tolerant as the home I once knew, and I worry Malaysia will lose its way even more. Instead of the different races coming together, we may be pulled further apart. If we are to build the country we all want, we must…

I don’t have the answers, but one of them must surely be: stop blaming the Chinese.

8 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

Malaysia’s Election Eve

Power corrupts. Fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. That is how long the ruling elite has held the reins of power in Malaysia.

What new ideas could it possibly offer which it had not thought of during its half century of uninterrupted rule?

In a country thousands of miles away, I remember the Thatcher years. I became an adult in Britain then, and watched an initially energetic government run out of steam by 1992, a mere thirteen years later. The Conservatives limped on for another five years, but change was inevitable.

Imagine if the Conservative Party had carried on for three times longer than their run of eighteen years. The governmental coalition in Malaysia, known as Barisan Nasional (National Front in Malay), has done exactly that. Is it plausible that any regime which has held authority for so long could remain uncorrupted? (This is something neighbouring Singapore has achieved, but Singapore is an exceptional country; see for example Transparency International’s 2012 League Table.)

Tomorrow, Malaysians will go to the polls. Some of us overseas have already handed in our postal votes (a right which incidentally, we were denied until a few months ago. Before then, the only Malaysians living overseas who were given postal votes were students, public servants and members of the military).

I, like many of my fellow-Malaysians, will be following the election results closely. I have no illusion over whether this 13th General Election will be free and fair. It has so far been a dirty election, and is likely to be up to the last minute. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Opposition Coalition, has complained of dubious voters being flown in from neighbouring countries. The Malaysian ‘Electoral Commission’, a purportedly impartial organisation, has admitted that voters have been flown in from abroad by ‘friends of the ruling regime’, but the Commission has actually defended this practice! (Such is the state of Malaysia today).

These are the desperate actions of a morally bankrupt regime. Despite all this, I am filled with anticipation, a little excitement, and plenty of apprehension too, for I know I could yet be disappointed.

The possibility of change is frightening. I have no idea what form any change in Malaysia would actually take, should it happen.

Do I trust Anwar Ibrahim? No. But he’s the best hope we have.

His Opposition Coalition includes an Islamist party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, commonly known as PAS. Does PAS worry me? Yes, but the incumbents, who have abused religion and race through the years as tools with which to divide Malaysians – solely to keep themselves in power – worry me even more.

Malaysians do not take easily to the streets. We are often afraid of expressing our true opinions. But the political scandals have become too numerous to list, or ignore. Let me quote just one statistic: under the current government, Malaysia became the third most corrupt country in the world as measured by illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 (third after China and Mexico, both far larger and more populous countries).

For Malaysia, change must come, if not tomorrow, then on another day. I know that no maggot-filled regime has ever survived indefinitely in history. At some point the maggots will run out of flesh and will have to feed on themselves, or be overthrown. Unfortunately this could take decades, even centuries.

Tomorrow, whatever happens, I will take heart from the words of American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

Malaysia, Ubah!

11 Comments

Filed under Malaysia

Celebrating the Year of the Water Snake

It began, as all Chinese New Year celebrations must, with food. Paper plates loaded with steaming hot rice and stir-fried vegetables were spread onto tables. “Eat! Eat!” the women running around both floors of the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) exhorted, in a way which brooked no dissent. Disobedience would not have been an option.

A crowd numbering hundreds had gathered on a discreet street in north London where the ICA is located, to ring in the Year of the Water Snake. In addition to fan dances, calligraphy, demonstrations from a kung fu master and of course, the Lion Dance, there was to be literature: poetry from a British-born Chinese writer, and a reading by me of extracts from my novel. We’ve never done this before, Dr. Stephen Ng, ICA’s Coordinator, and Lady Katy Blair, its co-Founder and CEO, had confided; you will be an experiment.

Amidst whispering and much howling (from the younger guests), it seemed to me a brave experiment, especially since part of the audience spoke only halting English. As I watched people run hither and thither, I wondered how the afternoon would go.

Those worries didn’t last long. We were soon distracted by an insistent beat and the clanging of cymbals. On a pavement outside, a round Chinese drum, its black lacquer gilded with golden characters, had been set up. Lion is approaching. boom-boom-boom The drum was extraordinarily loud, inducing a shiver in the pit of my stomach – a frisson I always feel when I know that the epic Lion Dance will follow. Neighbours peeked out of their windows as the Lion approached, bearing its multi-coloured head. This was a friendly beast, so friendly that at least one little boy was tempted to peer solemnly into its ravenous mouth. The Lion wagged cheeky pink tongue and tail in every corner, which I hope was enough to chase away any evil spirits lurking.

What's in there

By the time I returned inside, the upper floor of the ICA had been transformed. In its place was a concert hall decked with rows of chairs. From the stage at the front came the dulcet tones of a Chinese flute, so lulling that even the children stopped squirming. When Anna Chen, poet and activist, took to the stage, she invigorated the crowd by half-reading and most astonishingly, half-singing, her poignant poems. The lyrical Anna May Wong must die was especially powerful – ‘a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend’, it says on Anna’s website. (I hope everyone reading this will have the opportunity to watch Anna perform). I could see that people listened, but you had to be able to hold their attention.Anna Chen reads her poetry

All too soon, it was my turn. I had been told I would go onstage after the fan dance. I waited in the wings, tense because I knew it would be the first novel reading at the ICA, afraid also that my story might not be regarded as ‘Chinese enough’ for a community event of this sort.

Indeed, the family in my novel is mixed, the woman who leads it being a Nyonya – part of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia which dates back centuries. Many people today have never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas, even in Malaysia. This is a great shame, because the Nyonyas and Babas successfully created a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay culture long before globalisation existed. In their way of life, they have something to teach us, especially in present-day Malaysia where race drives your rights, or the lack of them (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost).

The first passage I read told the ancestral story of the Nyonyas and Babas. Selina introduces the Nyonya themeTo make my reading come alive, I had watched videos of actors and politicians speaking. I also enlisted the help of two Malaysian students, Wahidah and Aufa Dahlia, who gallantly came on stage modelling Nyonya costumes. Wahidah, her hair tied up in the famous Nyonya chignon, looked resplendent in a tailored vintage sarong kebaya.Demonstrating sarong kebaya Her blouse and sarong came from Aufa’s private collection, while her feet were adorned by a pair of hand-made Nyonya beaded slippers which had been purchased from a shop, Colour Beads, in Malacca. This beautiful town is arguably Malaysia’s most historic, and a large Nyonya-Baba community once lived there.

Wahidah was subsequently joined on stage by Aufa Dahlia, who showed off her modern Nyonya attire with great aplomb. The audience sat enraptured, so graceful were the kebaya ladies. Later, many went up to Aufa’s table, where she had placed a sample of the kebaya blouses she sells on her website as a hobby. If the kebaya ladies and I were to form an act, we would surely be hits on a reading circuit!

Modern NyonyaOther artistes followed, including the kung fu master whose rhythmic movements mesmerised everyone. Look at the picture below and you will see why he was a tough act to follow, especially by a writer reading her second passage late in the day. Kung-Fu masterFortunately, I was aided by the dramatic second scene I had chosen to read and by the prop I brought along: the Nyonya kueh (cakes) which feature in my novel. I had only two varieties with me – both from the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – but they disappeared in seconds after being shared out!

Afterwards, people came up to say how much they had enjoyed my reading. One woman thanked me for opening her eyes to the diversity of the Chinese diaspora, a few even asked where they could buy my book. Alas, I had to say it was not yet published but I gave them my card nonetheless, as it has the address of this blog on the back.

The grand finale of the afternoon was a Ching (Qing) Dynasty costume parade which starred a Mandarin, a Court Official, a Eunuch, the Empress and of course, the Emperor, all in borrowed robes which had never before been worn in the UK. Truly a fitting way with which to end such an uplifting day.

The EmperorAs we headed off, I thought of those who had come before us. It was not just Emperors and Empresses who made history but the coolies leaving in desperate circumstances, and before them, during the Ming Dynasty, the adventurer traders who left to settle elsewhere. These ancestors, all of them, have left their mark in the sands of history. And we their descendants are immensely fortunate, in having such a rich heritage to celebrate.

3 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

I’ve Finished!

Six days ago, I finished my novel. Yes! It has taken four drafts and almost two years to hone the 150,000 or so words of my historical epic family drama.

Given that I completed the first draft in just twelve months of furious writing, I find it amazing that I then spent another eleven months editing my work, word by precious word. In the early months, when I sat before my personal computer in full narrative flow, I naively wondered why some books took their authors seven to ten years to write. Now I know.

Looking back, I can see that the first draft contained mainly bare bones. It was as if I had to pour the words out onto a page, so that I could tell the story to myself. Many writers say they don’t share their first drafts with anyone else, but perhaps I’m more thick-skinned. Besides, I find I need feedback to get those creative juices flowing. I therefore showed my first draft to my partner, and also to a professional developmental editor. If I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. I was fortunate in having Dr. Nathalie Teitler, formerly a tutor at Spread the Word, among other organisations, as my editor. The drama I’ve written takes place in Ipoh, Malaya (see map), within a complex multicultural setting, and I needed an editor who would be sympathetic to such material. Right from the start, I became used to criticism, to having chunks decimated, even a whole chapter rejected. I write to be read, and I needed such input. ipoh

In that period, I also sent my early draft to two literary consultancies. Both are reputable and advertise themselves as ‘leading’ consultancies, yet they gave opposing feedback: one very encouraging, the other much less so (I had not told either that this was a first draft). The experience confirmed what I had already suspected – that whether your writing is deemed ‘good’ is highly subjective. Much in the writing industry seems a matter of taste.

When I started the second draft, Nathalie worried I would lose momentum. It happens to many, she said. With me, the opposite was true: ideas came quickly and not always in tangible form, often at night in half-dreams from which I awoke, unsure of the words that had been churning in my head. I was in Malaysia at the time. Something about the heat, the food, family and the way people speak there  (Wahh! Like that also can ah?) stirred my imagination. Thanks to a prolific subconscious, large chunks were added to and taken away in the second draft. A major edit, I thought, until I began the third draft.

That was when I really did sharpen every word in every sentence. It is now quite a different book to what I had at the beginning, or even after the second draft. By that, I don’t mean that the underlying story has changed, rather, that I’ve told it using many more motifs and metaphors.

Editing, I was to learn, is an art. An art which I resisted, until I started to enjoy it. Editing is hugely time-consuming, and anyone who has put together a presentation in the corporate world will understand one of its frustrations. Changing a phrase in the third paragraph of the second chapter could impact the flow of what came before, as well as what comes after. Often, you have to re-read a lot more than just the short paragraph you are changing.

Late in the editing process, I discovered a critical tool: reading aloud. I found that if I could not get my tongue around a sentence, it was usually because there was a problem with that sentence. When I re-wrote it in a way that made it easier on the tongue, the prose invariably became clearer. But reading aloud an entire epic drama of 150,000 words twice from start to finish takes a lot of time. It has a cost on family life too, if your partner happens to be your first reader, which is the case with me. Every time I re-wrote a piece, she was asked to read it. This was especially true of the beginning and end, which I re-wrote, re-read and re-wrote many more times than five, in fact, so many times that I fear I may have lost my first reader in the process. I worry she won’t bother to read the published book! Be that as it may, I can finally say I have completed my first novel. Hallelujah!

30 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Writing

My First Book Reading

It is a wonderful time to be in the New Forest (the brown blob at the bottom of the map). The New Forest lies in Hampshire, and is now one of England’s national parks. In early October the trees are still green, but the oranges and gold of autumn have crept in.

Ponies meander in open fields; along the streets of Beaulieu village, famous for its National Motor Museum, wild donkeys poke their curious nozzles into the doorways of shops.

It was in this pastoral setting that I gave a book reading on the evening of October 3. I had been invited by Monty’s Book Club, whose members meet once a month in the Montagu Arms, a pub and hotel located in the heart of Beaulieu. The club reads the whole range of literary fiction, from contemporary works through to classics. This book club has existed for three years and is thriving; it even has a waiting list. Membership is restricted to ten at any time, because the club borrows books from the local library and ten was felt to be a manageable number. A member told me the size is just right, as it allows for varied discussion without being intimidating.

I was only the second writer to read to Monty’s, the first being Natasha Solomons. To publicise her debut novel Mr Rosenblum’s List, Ms. Solomons went on a quest to visit as many British book clubs as she could. She duly arrived in Beaulieu. There, she paved the way for others, because her reading was such a success that Monty’s members welcomed me too.

My own invitation came about through personal links. During the six years I spent at SouthamptonUniversity as a theoretical physicist, I often sought refuge in the New Forest. I loved its peace, its trees and the colour of its skies. I still visit, to see a long-standing friend whenever I can. On one such visit in the summer, I heard about Monty’s Book Club, and wondered aloud whether the club would be interested in a reading of my novel.

The club said yes. Like Ms. Solomons’ reading, mine was also to be a special event, held not in the Montagu Arms but in a member’s house. I arrived with some trepidation. I had never given a book reading before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew the atmosphere would be genteel and its members polite, but I didn’t want people to say nice things just because they felt obliged to. If anyone became bored during the half hour or so while I read, it would have been obvious to me – and the rest of the audience.

So I practised, many times. I recorded my voice on a sleek, silver Olympus recording machine my partner had given me as a present. It’s a fabulous gadget: pocket-sized yet powerful. On it, you can hear everything, even the rustle of paper. I listened to my enunciation, making sure there was enough nuance in my voice to keep everyone’s attention. I learnt to pull my stomach muscles in when my voice fell, so that I could better project sound across a room. I imagine that this is what singers have to do.

I read from a Kindle reader with a special leather cover that has its own discreet lamp at the top. The light flicks in and out; it can be fully tucked in unless needed, a highly ergonomic design. Much as I love holding a physical book, I also love my Kindle and its cover. Its leather feels wonderful in my hands, and the fact that its light shines directly onto the page is a huge bonus. The Kindle proved incredibly useful during my reading. 

In the end, I read two sections, one short, the second longer. The first was the ancestral story of the Nyonyas, the people from whom my main protagonist, Chye Hoon, is descended. I looked at my audience as I read, watching for any sign of a yawn or of eyes glazing over. None came. I could see that the members of Monty’s Book Club were imagining the scene in their own minds, seeing the character in my story who is herself telling a story.

When I began the second, longer section, the eyes of my audience were still on me. The scene takes place on the island of Penang, which a few in the room had been to. But my Penang is the Penang of 1898, and I invoke a place covered in virgin jungle, where elephants are still a form of transport. In this scene, Chye Hoon is about to get married. It is a huge celebration, because Chye Hoon is an independent-minded girl with a fearsome temper and no one believes she will ever find a suitor. But get married she does, in the colourful Nyonya-Baba tradition of the day which left my modern British audience wide-eyed.

Afterwards, the members of Monty’s asked many questions. We talked about the Nyonyas and Babas, whom none had heard of previously. We talked also of Malaysia, the real Malaysia, not the one touted on Tourism Malaysia billboards. I was impressed that this group – educated women, some with careers, many who stayed at home, some now pursuing post-graduate studies, and all juggling a host of family commitments – remained late into the night to engage in a culture they had never heard of, in a country some had yet to visit. I took it as a good sign that there would be interest from a Western audience in my multi-cultural novel. Its themes are topical today: the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition, and the invisible cost of the cultural assimilation which some of us must face.

In my novel, the characters speak like real-life Malaysians. I mentioned this in a previous blog-post What Does it Cost to Write a Novel?, in which I had said I was unsure about this point of style. A member of Monty’s, a speech therapist, said she loved my dialogue. She especially liked the way I had changed the order of words. She put it very aptly: “Language isn’t just about communication; it also conveys a sense of place.” In a number of novels she had read, the characters had spoken in ordinary English even though the stories were set in foreign lands, and she had felt this sense of place to be missing. Others in the group agreed. I breathed a sigh of relief, because my audience had validated an intuition which I, as a Malaysian writer, have long had.

My grateful thanks to Monty’s Book Club; they made the evening what it was, and also helped clarify an ambiguity in my own mind. A few members asked when my novel would be published. Some worried it might not. But it will – because I write to be read, not so that my script remains as bits on a motherboard. When and in what form my novel will be published, I cannot say. But I will work to get it there, even if it means having to start a publishing company.

12 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

August 31 is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. On this day fifty five years ago, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new country was born.

Malaysia (then called Malaya). 

She was to be a powerful narrative for multiculturalism. A place where many races – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Orang Asli (native indigenous people) – would live together, work together, as one, to move the country beyond the shadow of colonisation.

Malaysia remains a powerful idea. It’s one I believe in. But it has gone badly wrong. That’s why today, I’m writing this open letter to my Malay family and friends. I believe Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad; where it goes next will be determined by you, my dear Malay friends. And where Malaysia goes is important to the world – because it remains one of the more tolerant Muslim countries.

First though, I want to say a big thank you. On this Merdeka day, I want to thank you, my Malay family and friends, and all fellow-Malaysians of Malay descent, for your historic generosity. Your ancestors welcomed mine when they arrived. You have shared the land with us, and this in turn, gave us opportunities we wouldn’t have had on mainland China. You provided us safe refuge from the turmoil of China. When I learn what happened there in the past century, I am so grateful my ancestors left. And that they found shelter in the beautiful land now called Malaysia.

My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from other places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country. They treated my ancestors with that gracious hospitality which I myself have experienced countless times. All this I acknowledge, and thank you for.

But now I need to move on to something else: why I left Malaysia, and why I won’t be returning any time soon.

You may already know that 2 out of 10 Malaysian graduates live outside Malaysia. This is an astonishing fact for a middle-income country like Malaysia. It was revealed in a detailed study on Malaysia’s brain drain, carried out by the World Bank.

My Malay family and friends, do you not care about this exodus of talent? This isn’t just an abstract number: in our family, half those of my generation live abroad. We are the graduates this World Bank report identifies. We compete happily in the world economy and have no need to return.

Perhaps, my Malay friends, you think the brain drain irrelevant, since most of the people who have left are of Chinese and Indian descent? Certainly, this is what many Malays think, as Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, has alluded to. (If you haven’t heard her speak, I recommend you watch this youtube clip. The opening is in Malay; the rest in English). 

“For me,” she says, “one Malaysian regardless of race, who has left the country…is a loss to us. They should be here celebrating, to improve the economy. I detest many people trying to singularly find out whether they are Malays, Chinese or Indians.”

My sentiments entirely. This fixation on race, race, race, in Malaysia is strangling the country. Yes, 88% of the one million Malaysians estimated to be living abroad are of Chinese and Indian descent. So what? My Malay friends, I ask you: does our race matter more than the fact that we have taken our talents elsewhere?

Yet, should I expect anything else? How could any Malaysian not be fixated on race, when you, my Malay family and friends, are accorded ‘special’ rights solely because of your race and religion?

Imagine if the United States had given ‘special’ privileges to the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers and their descendants. Special rights to land, schools, gold mines and everything else – all because they sailed first; yes, just imagine! This is exactly what your special rights equate to. If the US had adopted such a policy, do you think it would have turned into a magnet for talent and skills?

Tell anyone about a Malaysian university reserved for people with ‘special’ privileges based on race, and you will see the reaction. What? People stare in disbelief. You must be kidding!

I’m not. And there have been demonstrations against opening the institute up to other Malaysians. Yet, Malaysians are so used to these oddities that we don’t bat an eyelid. We no longer notice the strange ideas plaguing our country.

Your ‘special’ rights, my Malay family and friends, alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome, unwanted and second-class. They are why I left. They are also why I won’t be back. Rights are a zero-sum game: for you to have more rights, others must necessarily have fewer. TalentCorp (the agency set up to attract Malaysians back) completely misses the point.

And when I see the culture of entitlement your ‘special’ privileges have led to, and the increasingly racist rhetoric this culture generates, I fear for Malaysia. Outrageous remarks are now commonplace, as former US ambassador John R. Malott outlined in his Feb 8 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Malaysia has once again been called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malay Land was given airtime by none other than Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister and rabble-rouser extraordinaire, who is himself from a family with Indian immigrants. Malay Land is more than just a name. His is a supremacist concept: a land for Malays, where Malays will be Lords, everyone else their subjects.

Some people say Mahathir no longer matters, but actually he does. I feel less welcome now in Malaysia than at any time in the past. The attitudes of Malay Land are creeping in, and Malay Land is completely the opposite of Malaysia. Malay Land excludes, while Malaysia embraces and includes – a country for all races.

My Malay family and friends, which is it you want: Malay Land, or Malaysia? You cannot have both; you must choose.

On this Merdeka Day, I urge you to think about that choice. Because you, my dear Malay friends, are the only people who can truly change the direction Malaysia takes. Know that we, your fellow-Malaysians who have voted with our feet, are rooting for Malaysia. We are no traitors. 68% of the Malaysians abroad who were surveyed by the World Bank expressed a strong sense of patriotism/attachment to Malaysia. I am among this 68%. I may have been away for thirty three years, but Malaysia continues to be in my dreams. I left with regret, and I stay away with sadness. I hope Malaysia will prevail. Assalamualaikum.

The above blog-post was published in its entirety, but without video or links, on Malaysia Kini on August 31 2012 (http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/207623).

33 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia

Tan Twan Eng, the Garden of Evening Mists and Memories of War

I’m always on the lookout for writers and artists from Malaysia. I get a particular thrill when a piece of literary or artistic work reflects Malaysians as we are, in the places we know and love. It is rare to come across such work outside Malaysia. So when it happens, and the work then goes on to achieve international recognition, I’m doubly excited!

This is what has happened with Malaysia-born Tan Twan Eng. (Surname: Tan, name: Twan Eng. See my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). His two novels have both been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – a remarkable feat. I first heard of him in 2007 when his début novel The Gift of Rain was published in the UK. A former banking colleague had recommended I read it. “It’s beautiful,” he told me. He was right. The Gift of Rain is set on the magical island of Penang, home of sandy beaches and swaying palms. The story in it unfolds in lyrical prose as light as stardust.

Yet, Tan Twan Eng is not especially known in Malaysia. This is a shame – because his work ripples with themes Malaysians would find interesting.

To begin with, both novels are about the War and its aftermath. For Malaysians, there is but one War: the Second World War – when Malaya was occupied by Japanese forces. This occurred between 1941 and 1945. Roughly seventy years may have passed, but we continue to be affected by the events which took place then. They changed Malaya irrevocably, in ways we are only beginning to explore and understand.

I know I was obsessed with stories from the War era as a child. Whenever my now-dead maternal Grandmother visited, I would beg her to tell me what the War was like. She would sit, as calm as a lake on a still night, and in her deep voice, would tell me things I simply could not imagine. Soldiers rapping on doors and windows, looking for girls and women; men being rounded up, forced to stand in 30+ degree Celsius heat with no water; the screams that could be heard from one of the hospitals in Ipoh, where the Japanese had set up a torture chamber; heads on spikes, on full display at the front gates of Ipoh’s Central Market as a warning to the headstrong.

I thought I knew much about the War. Yet, both The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, taught me new things.

For example, I grew up believing that the British Colonial administration had done its very best to defend our country. Not so, according to The Gift of Rain, and my own research confirmed this. Much has been made of the Malayan Campaign. But if we cut through it all, here is the bald fact: Britain largely abandoned us to the Japanese. Japanese forces attacked the north-eastern coast of Malaya first, before swiftly marching across the country: westwards and southwards, over mountains and across jungle our Colonial rulers had said was impenetrable. Yes there were battles – mainly in support of retreat – unlike in Europe, where the British army fought for every inch of ground, to the death. In Malaya, the Colonial troops retreated…and retreated…until they reached the island of Singapore and there was nowhere else to go. At that point, some hopped onto ships bound for Australia, following their women and children. Those who didn’t leave on time were captured when Singapore fell.

I was sorely disappointed by what I learnt. It still rankles today. The only thing I can do with my feelings is to write about what happened.

I imagine Tan Twan Eng must have been similarly affected, though he has worked wonders to weave history into his stories easily. His writing doesn’t feel dense, nor is there any rancour. Amazingly, each novel incorporates a Japanese central character. In Garden of Evening Mists, this happens to be the Emperor’s gardener; in The Gift of Rain, it is an aikido master. Tan himself has first-dan ranking in aikido, and has obviously studied Japanese thinking. He manages to convey some of its Zen-like mystery and beauty through slow, deliberately measured prose, so that even the positioning of stones within a garden becomes pure poetry.

Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a young Malaysian-Chinese woman, Yun Ling, who goes on to become a lawyer, but who cannot forget the War. After graduating from Cambridge, she takes leave to learn the art of creating a Japanese garden from a man who was the Emperor’s gardener. This fictional garden is located high up in the Malaysian hills, in Cameron Highlands, a dreamy place once shrouded in jungle and mist. It was developed because it reminded British Colonialists of their home. Yun Ling hopes the creation of a garden will be cathartic; instead, it adds layers of intrigue and pain she only comprehends years later. 

Japanese themes also echo in The Gift of Rain. A Eurasian boy, Philip (Note: By Eurasian, I don’t mean someone from that piece of land known as Eurasia, but a person with one European parent and one Asian parent), who lives in Penang, is befriended by a Japanese man, Endo, before the War. Philip is taught aikido by Endo. Perhaps I read too much into it, but what develops within Philip is a depth of feeling which struck me as homo-erotic. (Though I stress this isn’t a ‘gay’ novel.) Philip learns not only aikido, but also the Japanese language. Then, the Japanese arrive, en masse. You will have to read the book to find out what happens to him, his family and Penang.

Incidentally, there is an explicitly gay character in Garden of Evening Mists. I mention this because it shows me that Tan Twan Eng isn’t afraid of tackling a subject we in Asia prefer to avoid.

Like a good story-teller, Tan Twan Eng folds his own experiences seamlessly into his writing. Having lived in Cape Town for the past few years, he inserted an Afrikaner into his latest book. There are therefore plenty of lekker braais (delicious barbecues) alongside descriptions of Cape Dutch houses and flora. And these are all made to fit into Cameron Highlands!

Reading Tan Twan Eng has inevitably made me reflect on my own work. My current novel deals with an equally dramatic period for Malaya – the years after colonisation but before the War. It was a time of great change: cars and airplanes came to Malaya then, Malayans started to learn English and many families became westernised. There was also a Japanese community in Malaya, whom we later learnt were spies. Many were photographers; one of them features in my novel towards the end, just before the eve of the Japanese invasion, when the matriarch in my story dies.

I had always intended my novel to be the first in a trilogy, with the second in the series focusing on the impact of the War years on a particular family in Ipoh. Reading Garden of Evening Mists has made me realise how much is left to explore…What an incredible life this is.

2 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing