I went to visit Lit Books in Petaling Jaya, and spent a nice morning chatting with the owners Min Hun and Elaine, both former journalists with The Edge. They are now living the dream, running their beautiful bookshop together.
The selection’s really cool and I was green with envy at the Folio Society boxed sets they had brought in. Gorgeous!
Elaine can often be found behind the counter of the little in-store cafe, and she’s fun to chat with about all things literary. She estimates that, between the two of them, the couple have read 60% of the titles they stock. A section on mythology takes centrestage once you come in the door.
There’s a kids’ book section, but you won’t find any Harry Potter titles, as Elaine explains that they would rather use the precious shelf space for titles that cannot be easily found elsewhere.
In the end, I left with a second-hand hardcover copy of The Odyssey (RM40), from the library of Min Hun’s late uncle Michael. I loved that there was a personal connection to these well-kept books. I also bought a card game about Malaysian elections, called Politico. And a couple of fabric book covers.
There’s a gourmet supermarket nearby, so in Auntie fashion, I stocked up on groceried before taking a Grab back to RD.
Happy New Year’s eve! I haven’t been doing a good job of posting stuff, but am now at the airport furiously using up the last 300mb of my mobile data before I fly home. It’s been a productive residency, and I’ve figured out a lot about myself, and my relationship with the world, sitting alone in Rumah Balai.
We did an event on Dec 29, where I invited people to come read my joss paper poems and then burn them. The idea was to see if this can form a special contract between writer and reader – the readers become a kind of community, bearing witness to the writing, which disappears once rendered into ashes. Some lessons:
I wasn’t as sad as I thought I’d be, watching the joss paper poems being incinerated. It was actually quite liberating to let them go – now I can write more! I don’t have to worry about shepherding them through the world like I do the published works. I didn’t even much care what the readers thought of them. The words existed, then they were gone, and that was enough.
Some of the readers felt sad while burning the poems. It was one of the intentions of the project to examine these sorts of emotions: that immense guilt of destroying someone’s words and idea – but tempered by the knowledge that this is the writer’s wish. Do we do tribute to the living this way? Do we honour the dead and the spirits? My son, nine, wadded his up in his palm and refused to burn the slip of joss paper, until I said I would do it with him. I held the lighter while he touched the paper with the flame. He was the last “burner” and it felt fitting we were doing it as mother and child. Although *I* felt guilty for letting him play with fire and singe his fingers.
Burning a book is harder than it looks/sounds. The weather was so humid that the paper was really damp and wouldn’t catch fire easily. It took a lot of effort and patience just to burn a few pages. Proof that it isn’t so easy to destroy a writer’s work or mind. And proof also that the readers who attended the event were really nice people who helped to see the project through, despite mozzies attacking us in the dark.
I’m going home with at least two short stories, a poem (not burnt), some leftoverd from the joss paper project (message me if you’d like to read and burn one, I will send it to you), pages from a memoir about my late aunt, and lots and lots of memories. I used to think I wanted to be a hermit and move to the mountains on my own. But I have also realised that I do appreciate people and the inspiration they spark. I scattered the ashes of the joss paper around Rumah Balai. So, hopefully, if you ever visit Rimbun Dahan, you can feel ever so slight a trace there – maybe in the way the trees grow a little taller from the extra fertiliser.
So, this is happening in a week! Please spread the word and join us if you are in KL:
The Taboo/Art of Book-Burning: Clara Chow’s joss-paper writing + a reading of “Make Sure”
From the blaze of the Library at Alexandria started by Julius Caesar’s troops, to Nazi Germany’s bonfires, to the Red Guard torching ‘feudalist’ literature in the streets during the Cultural Revolution: What is it about book-burning that strikes us as morally repugnant? Yet, what happens if a book is meant to be burnt after reading?
Join Singaporean writer Clara Chow as she invites you to burn a month’s worth of her writing done at Rimbun Dahan. Her joss-paper poems/prose are written by hand on traditional Chinese hell-money meant to be sacrificed to gods, ghosts and ancestors. Through the work, she seeks to redefine the contract between author and reader.
A reading of her play “Make Sure” will follow. First presented as a dramatised reading at TheatreWorks Singapore’s 72-13, in July 2018, “Make Sure” is about the tussle between a museum guard and a volunteer docent. A conflict between two women becomes a rumination on art, the politics of looking, and the complicated relationship between freedom and control. Featuring Xeem Noor.
When: Dec 29, 2018 (Saturday) – 7pm – 9pm
Where: Rumah Uda Manap, Rimbun Dahan, Kilometre 27 Jalan Kuang, Kuang, Selangor, 48050, Malaysia
Admission is free. Please arrive on time to avoid getting lost in the datk.
Am almost at the end of my third week at Rimbun Dahan. The house and its neighbours have had time to get used to me, as I them. Have spotted some interesting creatures:
Wild pig – Was making my dandy way back from the warung when I noticed something rooting in the trees ahead. The bushes trembled and out stumbled a wild pig. It was black and half as tall as me, almost twice as wide. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I remembered from the Rimbun Dahan guide for artists in residence that if we come face to face with wild boar on the grounds, we should back slowly away. So I take a step back. At this, the pig makes a dash for it across the path and into a thicket of trees. It watches me there for a few more moments, trying to figure out what on earth I am up to. When I continue up the path towards my house, it crashes away deeper into the forest. Turns out there’s a bunch of ripe jackfruit that it was getting its nose into. It probably explains all the weird crashing and banging I hear around the house at night. I look it up later on the internet and find out that wild pigs are nocturnal, are the fourth most intelligent animals on the planet (sorry, I didn’t check what the top three were), and have been described the most dangerous creatures to hunt because of their intelligence, violence and unpredictability.
Jungle fowl – woke up one morning to what sounded to me like a clown parade. A lot of honking and strange gobbles. I leapt out of bed and opened a window. A grey hen walked ahead of a orange rooster. It made the weird honking-gobble – sort of like a demented chimpanzee – while its partner followed behind, producing more conventional cockerel noises. The duo perambulated around the house once and wandered off. I thought of it as a very pleasant social call.
Monkeys – they run along the tops of telephone wires and jump up and down coconut trees. Had a staring match with one this afternoon. It won, only because I didn’t want to get bitten by mosquitoes. I was carrying an umbrella in case of wild boar attacks but I put it up to pre-empt the monkey from chucking something at my head.
Squirrels – cute, harmless. Usually scampering along Rimbun Dahan’s periphery brick wall.
I think something lives in the spa tub on my back verandah. I can hear it rustling in the dried leaves sometimes. Since I’m not about to go out and investigate on my own, it’ll have to remain a mystery. I told Pak Jesmi, who lives on the estate with his family and takes us shopping at the supermarket in his car every week, about my suspicions when he came to Rumah Balai to duplicate the keys, and he said it was best not to see. Which I find hilarious and wise.
There’s a scorpion/spider that I share the shower with. It’s orange and tiny. It laid a clutch of green eggs in a hexagonal formation. I think they’ve hatched because now the hexagon has grown little feelers and changes shape a little every day. And Mama is sitting on a new clutch of green eggs. Will I have to evict these squatters? Or will I have to give up showering rights and take my chances with the open-air spa bath and its mystery guest? Stay tuned!
As with many of my excursions out of Rimbun Dahan (I spend most of my time scribbling in my little house from 12pm to 4am – okay, there’s a lot of daydreaming), my visit to the Balai (as the national gallery is affectionately known among artists) came about because I tagged along with RD’s other artist-in-residence right now, Chua Shu Rei, to a talk there.
I did like a brisk-walk and still didn’t manage to see everything. Am working on a series of monologues now called “Brisk-walking in the Balai”, based on the works I saw.
Much has been written about the administrative headquarters of Malaysia, in Putrajaya. I read an essay about the architecture of the centre of government here and had to see it. One observer had written that the Prime Minister’s office and the Putrajaya Mosque abutting it was in the style of Moroccan, Egyptian neo-Islamic grandeur which projected an image of Malaysia and then- (and now) PM Dr Mahathir as an economic and international power. (I’m trying to pick my words very carefully, as I definitely don’t want – as a guest of a Malaysian arts community in Malaysia – to be construed as spreading criticism of their country.) In any case, I find it super interesting what public architecture consciously and subconsciously says about national image and psyche (Singapore has its share of ministry monu — sorry – totally pragmatic headquarters.)
Xeem, Rimbun Dahan’s arts manager, was headed to Putrajaya to interview an architect. She very kindly agreed to drive me there and around the sights.
Here’s Xeem, a trained architect and former architecture lecturer, at the wheel of her brand-new little red Myvi (which still has the new car smell) – “You can call me Miss Information!” “Okay! And I am your very good and attentive student, Miss Understand!”:
My frantic attempts to photograph everything while in a moving car, trying not to drop my phone onto the road, while the rain came in through the window:
After the tour, we headed to IOI mall for Xeem’s appointment, and – apparently like most local people who have no business there – immediately got hopelessly lost. It takes a long time just to drive one round around the area, round its moat-like artificial lake, to get back on the right track. And thus concluded my very fun and unscientific investigation of Putrajaya.
Malaysian artist Wong Xiang Yi, a really cool painter in the Chinese ink tradition, is on a year-long residency in Rimbun Dahan until February 2018. She works out of a studio near the main house, where I would find her on top of a big table, working on a large canvas.
She needed to go to Kuala Lumpur city to buy a big container in which to transport her artworks, and kindly agreed to let me tag along. We made a fun half-day of it, cutting through KL’s Chinatown, where migrants not from China peddle fake designer handbags and other bric-a-brac. After we stopped at Wisma Selangor – an amazing building chockful of traditional Chinese calligraphy supplies like brushes and paper.
We ate fried mee tai mak at a retro (not hipster but just original) eatery.
We stumbled into a bar that looks like a toy store in front, where the decor was cute, the drinks delicious and the menu in the form of exercise books that you’d want to steal.
We went to see Paranormal String Quartet at Raw Art Space.
Then we ate fried koay teow at a mamak stall, where Malalysians were glued to the AFF finals between Malaysia and Vietnam.
It was pretty late by the time we were done. In the Grab car, the driver couldn’t quite believe I was asking him to go off-road into the Rimbun Dahan jungle to get to my house. “Are you sure there’s a house there?” he kept asking incredulously as we urged him to drive deeper into the compound, along the unlit path to my house. In the end, to convince him that we were not pontianaks, Xiang Yi had to shout: “Saya orang! Saya orang!” (I’m a person!)
Had a poke around Rimbun Dahan after lunch at the warung one day. The vibe along the main road is sort of industrial, dominated by tyre and car repair shops. There are a few satay and tomyum restaurants, as well as a smattering of provision shops and minimart. It was interesting enough for a short stroll, but there’s no pavement to speak of, so I’d retreat to the safety of the grassy aprons next to the road shoulder whenever a big truck comes barrelling down at 100km/h.
There’s a lane next to Rimbun Dahan that runs its length and I can sometimes hear vehicles going by on the other side of the compound wall, so I decide to investigate. Mostly vegetation until you get to the end, where there’s a cul-de-sac of half-built three- or four-storey houses guarded by some very sleepy dogs. At this point of my walk, it started to pour, so I headed back to Rimbun Dahan, a little soaked by the time I got there.
Checked out some books from the library over at Rimbun Dahan’s artisy lounge to keep me occupied (when not writing) over the weekend.
“The Khutbah Diaries” by Shanon Shah, in New Malaysian Essays 2 (Matahari Books, 2009, edited by Amir Muhammad), is a fascinating and engaging read. A Muslim’s heart-felt response to some intolerant and narrow views expressed in Friday khutbahs in Malaysian mosques and beyond, this essay reminded me of how little I know about Islam despite living my whole life in a multi-cultural society.
Malay for Everyone is a Malay language text, so you can see how determined I am to improve my Bahasa Melayu. Vita is a biography of writer Vita Sackville-West, and I can’t wait to get stuck in it (not least for the quotes from letters that say: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia [Woolf]…”
But I am probably most excited about Animal Architectute, about the wondrous creature-made structures in our world, like the huge nests of the spinifex termite.
…chirp when it’s silent knows nothing. The crickets at Rimbun Dahan are LOUD. They sound like a buzzing metallic orchestra. Like supersonic car alarms going off in unison. I’m wearing ear plugs right now, I kid you not. When it gets a bit hard to think, I yell “Enough!” to no one in particular in my little house. They ignore me, of course.
On the upside, who says it gets lonely around here?