Tag Archives: Tourism Malaysia

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.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

Snapshots – 4. Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets

Imagine a global survey of public toilets in every country. Think of a survey which ranks all toilets in a cross-section of venues, based on predefined criteria. Criteria such as: general cleanliness, appearance, odour, relative dryness/wetness, does the flush work, are all ancillary facilities (toilet paper, water in taps, soap, hand dryer or hand-roll) available?  

I’ve imagined such a poll, and asked myself where Malaysian public toilets would rank.

Why is this important? For the simple reason that a country’s public toilets provide a telling comment on attitudes and habits. They say a lot about its citizens. They’re a gauge of where a country really is in its development, and tell you more than tourist board advertisements, which generally deceive. Toilets can’t lie: they’re great, indifferent or terrible.

On this simple measure, Malaysia fails. Its toilets are not what you would expect for a relatively wealthy country. This, after all, is the home of the Petronas Twin Towers , at one time the tallest building on the planet. The country isn’t poor: according to the 2012 CIA Worldbook, the Malaysian per capita gross domestic product (i.e. the country’s economic output per head of population), adjusted, was US$15,000 in 2010, which placed us in the upper bracket of middle-income countries.

Yet, every time I come here, I find myself dreading our public toilets. I do my utmost to avoid them. To paraphrase from a well-known Malaysian campaign: “Malaysia Tidak Boleh.” (Malaysia Cannot)

Admittedly, it’s hard to find attractive public toilets anywhere in the world. But there’s a huge difference between toilets which aren’t great, and toilets which are dreadful.    

The average toilet here smells, is wet (a point I’ll come back to), and doesn’t have paper. And I’m referring to the toilets in major shopping centres. I wouldn’t dream of going into the back of coffee shops or hawker stalls, so I’ll have to leave those to your imagination.

Of course, there are places in Malaysia with excellent public facilities, more than equal to those in other countries. The toilets at the Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur are better than any I’ve seen in the US, Japan or the UK.

It’s also true that public toilets here are getting better. For example, facilities along the motorways have improved dramatically since the late seventies when I left. Actually, in those days, there weren’t motorways, only single carriageway trunk roads which passed little one-street towns along the way. There would be a row of shop-houses lining the road on either side, which housed coffee shops at which you could stop for refreshment and ‘facilities’. These usually comprised some fetid dark room at the back, with a wet and thoroughly unwholesome floor, cleaned once a week, if at all. As a result, I never drank much before travelling. Unfortunately, there were times when I had to visit such places, so it’s no surprise that I became an expert at holding my breath. This is a skill which has never left me – I can still hold my breath for a very long time if need be.

Today, there are motorways in Malaysia, dotted with ‘rest’ places along the way where refreshment and public facilities can be found. The facilities are certainly not fetid. Many are even quite clean, with a choice of squat and Western toilets. While there’s not always soap, there is always running water. Large rolls of toilet paper are usually found outside but this is not always available, so it’s best to carry tissue with you.

Now, we come to the toilets themselves. Here’s my problem with them: they are nearly always wet. I loathe wet public toilets – they remind me of my worst childhood nightmares. Also, if a toilet is never dry (as in some Malaysian toilets), the dankness accumulates and before long, the whole cubicle smells like a wet fish market. If I wanted to buy fish, I would put up with the smell. But when all you’re trying to do is relieve yourself, the last thing you need is to be reminded of uncooked fish.

It appears that I’m not the only person who hates wet public toilets. With my own eyes, I’ve seen tourists wait rather than enter a toilet with a wet floor. If Tourism Malaysia were to carry out a survey asking visitors whether they preferred their toilets dry or wet, I’ll bet they would find a resounding vote in favour of dry toilets.

If they don’t believe me, they should run a google search. There are plenty of complaints, an oft-recurring one being the wet state of Malaysian toilets. In fact, there’s even a link with the question ‘Why are public toilets in Malaysia always wet?

Here’s a quote from AlisonR on www.virtualtourist.com: “If you are a Westerner and used to clean, dry, sitting down toilets, you will not like Malay loos very much…even the ones that are in the major shopping centres have water all over the floor.”

There are also Malaysians complaining about this same issue. Just one example:  “One of my top pet peeves about the Malaysian public toilets would be their extremely wet environment.”

Now, for the interesting part: why Malaysian public toilets are so wet. The reason is usually mentioned only in passing, because this is deemed a ‘sensitive’ issue. (Many things here are sensitive; if we adhered to the list, we would never talk.) Since there’s no way to write this without being explicit, I might as well be blunt: our toilets are wet because Muslims here wish to wash themselves with water after using the toilet. Therefore, public toilets in Malaysia are provided with a tap to which a hose is attached.

Result: wet toilets. If you’re lucky, it’s only the floor which is wet; often, everything in it is wet: seat, floor, paper (if there’s any).

Let me say that I have nothing against anyone wishing to hose themselves down. What I object to are wet toilets.

I don’t understand why every toilet in the country has to be of the ‘wet’ variety, when only a fraction (roughly half) of the 27 million people who live here wish to wash themselves after using the loo. We have consumer choice in most other areas, why not toilets? I know there are other issues on the public toilet front, but if we could achieve some dry toilets, that would make a good start.

How about the following simple solution: wherever there are public toilets, designate half as dry toilets? These should be western-style sitting toilets which are not equipped with that blasted tap and hose, and which are completely separated from the wet toilets i.e. there are proper walls between them, so that they remain dry. That way, anyone who wants to use a dry toilet can do so. Is that too much to ask?

There are other possibilities, such as installing French-style bidets. But they would probably cost more, with no guarantee that toilets with bidets would remain dry. On the other hand, if Malaysia started to lead the world in toilet technology, this could be worth trying.

Unless people stopped visiting the country because of our toilets, I doubt whether anything would change. But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to make one thing clear: not all Malaysians hose themselves down after using the toilet. In fact, many of us are appalled by the wet state of our toilets. We want toilets which are odourless, clean and dry.

Having written this post, I’m now curious to know what you think, so I’ve embedded a poll here. All you need do is answer the question below. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Malaysian or otherwise, whether you’ve been to Malaysia or not. 

Thank you.


Filed under Malaysia