The Taboo/Art of Book-Burning

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.


Nature calls

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Squirrels – cute, harmless. Usually scampering along Rimbun Dahan’s periphery brick wall.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!


The village ajumma were out today, plucking the choice plums from te trees lining the road outside Toji. Swaddled in their sun hats and hoods, they would hit the trees with a stick to make the green downy fruit fall, then load them onto their trolleys. By evening, all the rejected plums left on the road had been flattened by passing cars’ tyres – leaving brown splats on the asphalt.


On the day Han A left, she and Su Jin took me to Heungup to eat Muk! It’s basically buckwheat paste jelly, in cold soup, which you then mix with rice and eat. Love it! And love saying the name! Which demands an exclamation mark! Always!


Korean pancake with leeks


Kimchi pancake (I think)

Dramatised reading

On May 27, 2016, an intimate recital was given, featuring dramatised readings of two of Park Kyong Ni’s short stories, Snow Flower and Siamese Twins. The readings were by Seoul’s Whale Theater, headed and directed by Lee Hae Seong. There was also a musical interlude by Park So Young on kayagam.


Kayagam lesson

Adorable 10-year-olds in the beginner’s kayagam class

Every Thursday, my musician friend Park So Young makes the hour-long drive to the next town of Pyeongchang to teach kayagam at an elementary school there.

Pyeongchang, incidentally, is where the 2018 Olympics Winter games will be held. In summer, the snowboard and ski shops are closed, and the ski slopes are nothing but blank grassy bits where no ginseng or vegetables grow.

I tag along with So Young and her friend, a robotics teacher, to Myeonon Elementary School, where I sit in with 10- and 11-year-olds on their kayagam class.

Yes, I wore my Breaking Bad socks to class

Turns out that I have a real aptitude for it. While my plucking and strumming technique is not quite there yet, I got the hang of the famed Arirang in a few minutes, and then picked up Onara, which I previously knew only as the theme song to hit K-drama Jewel in the Palace.

So Young is a fantastic teacher, and all her kids love her – running up to hug her in the corridors – because she is just so fun! And encouraging, even while strict on proper rhythm and technique. She lets us practise on our own, before calling on each of us to play a small section, and then we all play through together from the top to the end.

My little classmates and me, who boldly asked me questions in English and told me their parents have been to Singapore before.

Snuck in to take a look at robotics class.

The lessons are free – you just need to purchase a robotics kit, which costs about US$99, and which would take the whole term to build. The kids look so cute coming to class toting their tool boxes. Very professional!


Hard at work

The cute and friendly school building

Yellow buses leaving the school, after enrichment classes end, around 5pm

 Mountain, Part 2    

A long overdue post, from the last time I went up a mountain, more than two weeks ago.

You won’t know it from this picture, but I was about to pass out from the steep climb at a fast clip set by Mr Lee Hae Seong. But point a camera at me and ask me to smile, and I can’t help myself. I really can’t. (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


That’s everyone, being held up by me, because I was so out of breath and needed to rest (again). (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


Me, again, holding up everybody. (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


Half-dead at the peak. It’s chilly up there, but I was sweating buckets. Hae Seong tried to tell me that there was something special about the tree behind me, but I wasn’t listening, because I was trying not to, um, throw up and faint. (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


Me, holding up everybody on the way down. (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)



Me, skiing downhill – right after Hae Seong said: “Walk faster! I’m hungry!” (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


Follow the leader! (Photo: Lee Hae Seong)


Cliff that looks like a face. Or an owl. Or a lion…


The view


Wefie (Su Hyon’s face is classic – “OMG, I’m so bored. How slow can this girl walk?!”


Just as I’m feeling like dying, I collapse on the ground and see this sprout. And I think: Okay, I’m going to make it. (Three minutes later, as I’m staring at Hae Seong’s back, I’m like, ‘Argh! I hate you! Why did you make me come up here!’) (Three hours later, when I’ve had a shower and a nap, and my body is pleasantly surprised that it didn’t die, and is singing with joy, I’m having lunch and thanking him for dragging me up there.)



Ajumma cap

One day, at lunch, my friend Bong Lae tells me that we are going to shop for a sun hat for me.

I guess he has enough of me trotting out the excuse that it’s too hot and sunny to get out of post-lunch walks.

He gives me three options: a Nike sports/golf visor; a frilly country hat; and an “ajumma cap”. I pick the last option, because it is my ambition to be an authentic ajumma. But being a fuss pot, I reject the options Bong Lae show me on G-market, the massive Korean internet shopping emporium.

Logo too big, I say, when he shows me a Renoma-branded one. How about this one? I ask, pointing to a plain version.

Too cheap, he says. Quality sure to be bad.

I hem and haw. We scroll up and down the page.

Finally, he says: You go to e-mart and see, and try on.

So, after dinner, we drive to the local hypermarket, and – after trying a few models – settle on this:

Besides keeping harmful UV rays off my face, while allowing me to see where I’m going and not bang into walls (and not forgetting to mention the adjustable flaps that can go up and down, depending on whether there is side-sun or not), it can also double up as a prop for our next Daft Punk costume party:

I am so pleased with my ajumma cap, and cannot thank Bong Lae enough (he even helped me to tear off the protective film on the visor and tweezed out all the tiny bits that got stuck in the gaps) for helping me to get one.

Now, when I walk around Wonju, I blend in completely with all the other married aunties with their tight perms and colourful floral sports coats. Kudos to Han A for not wanting to cross the road and pretend she doesn’t know me when I’m wearing it in the hip part of the city, though. My 16,000-won ajumma cap even comes with a string so I can hang it around my neck when it’s not sunny. I love it. Looking for a uniquely Korean souvenir that is both practical and stylish – for yourself or for a loved one back home? Look no further.


Kimchi, beef, rice and cucumbers for lunch

  Before I came to Toji, a former resident advised me that the food there “might not be Korean food you’ve had before”.

I am glad to report that I am totally used to and love the food here. Cuisine at Toji is traditional Korean, with the organic vegetables farmed in the area. It’s very healthy fare. Every meal features rice – or occasionally noodles – and assorted Korean side-dishes, such as kimchi, stir-fried vegetables, anchovies and braised eggs. There are fish-and-chip days (with mayonnaise, and lemon juice from a cute squeezable plastic lemon bottle), Korean pancake days, Korean curry, and bibimbap days. And there is always a bowl of soup to go with your meal.

If you like Asian food and love rice (like me), then you’re in luck. I’m always looking forward to meal times, and getting hungry way before dinner. Meal times are strict – you are required to be at the restaurant on the dot, so that the food does not get cold and the kitchen staff do not have to wait around to clear up after you. I’ve gotten such that my writing comes out in a rush in the hour before lunch or dinner – because I know I must write faster so that I don’t end up being late for food.

That said, it’s nice to have non-Korean food for a change. And last Friday, Fiona – who is leaving at the end of the month – and novelist Im Su Hyun gave a few of us a treat at the best Korean-Chinese restaurant in town, Golden Dragon.

For starters, we had a dish of sea cucumber, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and prawns:

Then sweet and sour pork, which was fabulous! It was different from the version I’m used to back home: sweeter, with a hint of honey, and less salty. The meat was tender and the flavour more delicate than MSG-laden Cantonese restaurants’.

To round off, after several other courses, we had jajangmian (my lousy spelling) as well as this, cham pong, or spicy Korean seafood noodles:

May dance

Every so often, drums will sound from the base of the mountains, like a clarion call for the kaypoh like me.

A steady, hollow-metallic thump – like someone hitting a Milo can – forms the backbone, joined by a flurry of secondary beats. I have heard it on some afternoons but have not thought to go investigate. Finally, last Saturday, my friend Park So Young texted me to go to Toyo restaurant, on the slight hill across from Toji, just as the drums began to beat.

It turns out that it is a traditional Korean dance performed only on weekends in May; an agricultural celebratory ritual. The women, wearing bold hats with colourful pom-poms on them, twirl their hands and sashes, while moving in and out of circles and lines.

The men, meanwhile, wear hats with long ribbons on them, that they can twirl in the air by moving their heads and necks in a particular way.

The whole performance is fascinating, with some truly acrobatic moves (Freestylin’ original Korean B-boys, doing hand-stands! Human pyramids!).

When the whole thing was over, I followed the performers up the hill to the Wonju Maeji Nong-ak preservation society, where I spoke to Mr Choi Yeo Yeong, the music director of the Korea Traditional Arts Group A-Ul. He told me that the performance was called nong-ak, or “farmer’s music”, and that it is an art handed down the generations (read more about the Korean folk music tradition at Wikipedia).

The performers start training from a young age, for example during middle school, and it takes about seven years to learn the artform. Mr Choi himself majored in traditional bamboo flute at university.

Performers after a show, at the Society for Preservation of Wonju Maeji Nong-ak building