Daydreaming at the Warung

The first rule of the Malayan jungle is: You do not stop in the middle to take a selfie.

If you do, you will find yourself quickly transformed into a feeding post for mosquitoes. Even if you are as well-wrapped up as I am, in parka and long pants (sons of bitches go for your phone-holding hand and idiot photo-taking face). Imagine here then a photo of the ripe jackfruit clustered at the bottom of the nangka tree that I saw on the way out to lunch.

Walk purposefully instead, down the muddy ruts made by the tyres of cars coming and going from the musicians’ hideout at Penang House. Keep going until you see the green avenue leading to the main road – the moss-green cobble-stone lane shaded by tall trees of your dreams. Keep going, until you narrowly avoid being run down by a three-tonner and dodge traffic to cross a dual carriageway.

There, you’re at the Warung Selera Ria. Where a plate of nasi campur plus a can of Coke is costing me RM10.50 (S$3.50). Where the head-scarfed ladies working here smile at me and are amused by my uncovered buzzed hair and complete lack of Malay conversational skills beyond “makan” and “minum”. I do the tourist thing and sit, dawdling over my rice, watching people come and go: a woman dressed in a completely white uniform, down to sensible white shoes, whom I assume is a nurse, buys a packed lunch and then drives off business-like in a little blue hatchback; a dude with sunglasses too small for his face, in a Manchester United jersey, arrives to drink teh halia with a friend; assorted pakciks shoot the breeze with clove cigarettes between stained fingers.

If this were a Wong Kar Wai movie, it’ll be 1994 and a long shot of the protagonist sitting, elbows propped on table, while the world flits by on sped-up motion would ensue. I’m warung dreaming.

Elsewhere, crowds gather this weekend at rallies in KL city.

My half-eaten lunch (not a food blogger, yo)
A view of Rimbun Dahan’s main gate from the warung


Turns out the musicians and composer in the opposite house are quite famous.

I was typing on my verandah when viola player Katherine came out to look at the monkeys scampering wild in the trees. We started chatting and she told me they were a string quartet working with noted Malaysian theremin-player and film scorer Ng Chor Guan on a new piece to premiere on Dec 11. I said I would very much like to watch them perform it then and she said she’ll find out about how I could get a ticket.

I went back into the house and looked them up and found the event details at Raw Art Space:

If you are in KL then, definitely check them out. I’m looking forward to how the piece woild sound, after eavesdropping on its progress.

Home for the next 26 days

My home until the end of December is Rumah Balai, which roughly means House of the Hall in Malay (I google-translated it). It used to be a balai, which is essentially an open-air shed/studio for artists before it was turned into cosy accommodations for one. According to Xeem, the arts manager here, writers like Rumah Balai for its peace and quiet – it’s in the back compound, further away from the main building and main road.

The first night here, I had a shit-load of crickets screeching outside for company. Then a bunch of musician/dancers from Germany moved into Penang House across the compound, and now I can hear them practising their violin. Sometimes, I see one of them having a smoke on their verandah and we wave hi. So it’s really pleasant.

I keep the windows closed to keep out the mosquitoes (mosquito coil once a day really helps), but the house has latticework under the roof so ventilation’s really good. With the ceiling fan going, it even gets quite chilly at night. Here’s where I sleep:

And here’s where I write:

Not super neat, I know, but everything’s within reach.


And kitchen:

Most of the time, I’m sitting here, fanning myself like a towkay while I think:

There’s a warung across the road where I eat my lunch with my newspaper and try to pretend I can understand Malay (“teh o is limau, minum” is the extent of my spoken vocabulary). And there’s an artist lounge-cum-staff office where I pop by when I need to borrow books or crave quick human interaction.

Other than that, I’m pretty much left to my own devices. There’s a supermarket about 10 minutes away by Grab. Nothing fancy – the mall’s called The Store – but you can get pretty much all the groceries and sundries you need there.

It’s been raining most of the time since I got here, which is great, because I love the sound of rain. In fact, another thunderstorm is preparing to come down on us as I type this. Okay, back to the grind.

Rimbun Dahan

I’m currently on a one-month residency in Rimbun Dahan, an artists colony in Selangor, Malaysia. It’s located half an hour from KL Sentral station and about 10 minutes by car to the Sungai Buloh MRT station.

I’m here to write a novel on joss paper that’s meant to be burnt after reading. On the way here, I tried to explain what exactly this means to the Grab driver who picked me up. The idea is to distribute the pages to readers, and each reader has to commit their single page to memory before burning it. That way, a community forms around this burnt book: it is only by speaking to the other readers that one gets the whole story.

“How many pages?” asked Danny, who earlier confessed that he doesn’t have time to read anymore. “How long each page?”

I confessed in return that I didn’t know yet.

“How you find these readers?” Danny continued. “How to make sure they burn the page?”

I suggested getting each person to send me a video of them consigning the page to fire. Then admitted that there were bits in my plan that needed to be worked out as I went along.

“Just write it first hor,” I said, more to convince myself than Danny.

In any case, it was nice to have someone not in the least literary so interested in my project. I got Danny’s number and promised to get in touch when the month is up and I am done.

I’ve been here three days and have started writing Rimbun Dahan-inspired poems on the smaller squares of joss paper I brought. I keep these ‘single-serving’ slices of writing in a Ziploc sandwich bag because it’s the monsoon season and the crazy humidity in my little house makes everything paper curl. You should see how warped my passport looks now (hopefully it still works when I need to go home) and my tarot cards are bent in the middle just from sitting out on the coffee table for an hour. But I digress.

Anyway, see the larger packet of joss paper in the second picture? That’s meant for the novel, which I need to plot out before I begin writing. I’m gonna use a Sharpie, because the original plan of bringing a typewriter with me was scuppered (you try lugging a 2kg antique in your hand carry up a budget flight).

This is sort of a long, work-related post. Will write something about my little converted-shed house and the area in my next post.

Last few days

It seemed like such a long time when I first got here: three months. Twelve weeks, stretching out like an endless road ahead of me. Eighty-four days with which to spend as I like, provided I sat down each day and put a certain number of words on a page.

And then, just like that, the adventure is winding down. My time at Toji, coming to an end.

My son Lucien and I found a book in the Toji library, written by a Singaporean artist, 阿果 or Lee Kow Fong, titled 寻找 (Searching). I had seen the book in Singapore bookstores before, but it was only upon opening it here that I realised that Lee had reproduced Toji in his whimsical illustrations for the children’s tale. Here was the bus stop, where I had waited for Mystery Bus #34 for so many hours (and missed it, sometimes). The little wooden house of a bus stop that was recently torn down and replaced with an ugly modern glass and grey steel version. Here were the corn fields I had helped plant, and the wooden stiles bordering them. Here, in Lee’s pages, was the path I took from Gwirae House to the main building every day, with its rough-hewn wood planks as steps.

This is how it will be, from now on. Toji, embroidering my dreams, and peeping from the edges of my dreams. If you’ve ever been to Toji, you are automatically admitted into a welcoming club. Membership is in the imagination. But we will know one another, recognise the tell-tale signs, and clasp hands gratefully.

Everything has been magical, and leaving is hard. As I sip yuzu tea in Random Coffee House in Central Market, I think that this is possibly the last time I will do this. The golden retriever is snoozing behind the counter, and I will have to pet it some other time. The shop with the Wonju illustration mugs I have been eyeing is closed, and I will have to buy them some other time, too. As I catch 34 back, I rock in my seat and listen to the serene woman’s voice announcing each stop in Korean, and think this will be the last time she will be the soundtrack to my daydreams. As I walk back from the bus stop, I think, this will be the last time I will trudge past these golden chrysanthemums lining the road, clustered around the sign that says “SLOW”.

Toji has become home, and leaving it is hard.

Father’s Day at Chiaksan

We spent Father’s Day in a caravan at Chiaksan National Park, about an hour’s drive from Toji. The caravan, meant for six people and extremely comfy for our family of four, cost 100,000 won (thank you, Yeo Jeein, for going through the trouble of helping us book it on the Korean language-only website!).


The weather up at Chiaksan was lovely, and we took a leisurely late-afternoon 1km walk to Guryongsa, the temple nestled on the hill. And then we just did what campers do: laze around in our caravan and eat microwaved sausages; emerging occasionally to look at the full-moon in the sky and hang out at our picnic table.

Day out with Jiwon

Left to right: Julian, Park Ji Won and Lucien
Took the kids out on Saturday, for a day of fun with my friend Park So Young and her nephew Ji Won.

We went to Museum San (my third time!) where the Singapore boys checked out the James Turrell exhibit, while six-year-old Ji Won went on a tree programme in Korean – introducing him to the trees on the museum’s grounds. After refuelling on udon and pasta at the museum cafe, we headed to Oak Valley, a golf course/resort/condominium development nearby, where the kids hung out at the playground, paddled in giant plastic bubbles on water, and drove bumper cars in a pool.

We rounded the long day off with yummy Korean bbq at a joint recommended by So Young’s brother. And then it was multiple hugs and a small carpark chase, before Ji Won’s dad picked him up, and So Young drove the rest of us back to Toji.

Ji Won’s the cutest Korean kid I’ve ever met (so far), and I love how he never walks, but runs everywhere. He’s such a big bunch of energy. And whenever he runs up to me to ask a question, he always responds with a loud and emphatic “OKAY!” to everything I say. At dinner, he eats up everything with gusto, and gnaws on the beef rib bones with the most animated cartoon-character expression. He should have his very own TV show.

Goodbye 105, hello 203

The family is here to visit, so I’ve shifted from Room 105 at Gwirae House to bigger digs at Toji Cultural Foundation’s main buildings. I miss Room 105 a lot, particularly my unimpeded mountain view, as well as the easy access to party central aka. the common room. I even miss its distinctive smell (an earthy scent, from the soil that blows in from the fields when I open my windows).

But 203 is good, too, being in a really quiet part of Toji (we’re the only folks in these parts at night, give or take a few overnight lodgers). When I look out the window in front of my desk, I can see the kids playing ball on the lawn. And the ping-pong room, the kids’ new fave, is just a skip away.

Room 203’s key is big-ass in comparison to my old set.


Room 203-A, where I work now, and sleep with younger son Lucien at night (he gets a comfy futon on the floor)

Room 203-B, where the husband works, and where the elder son Julian sometimes taps some Star Wars fan fiction on dad’s laptop



The kids are loving it at Toji, and keep pestering me to let them go to Gwirae’s common room. Lucien’s new best friend is poet 손유미, who used to be my next-door neighbour in Room 104. He reserves the seat next to him at mealtimes for her, and loves eating ice-cream and playing badminton with her.

Everyone’s really kind to us, and Yeo Jeein rocked up one morning with a huge bag of snacks for the kids.

Elder son Julian tells his dad: “I like Toji. Can we come again?”

And his dad says: “You know what to do. Become a writer and apply to Toji, and we can all come visit you.”

Hard at work

Seoul International Book Fair 2016

Entrance to the fair
I took the express bus from Wonju Express Bus Terminal to Seoul, COEX, to check out the Seoul International Book Fair.

Buses run from Wonju to Seoul at 15-minute intervals, or thereabouts, and getting on one is fuss-free. Just take mystery bus 34 to the Express Bus Terminal (you can see it very clearly from the bus, it’s right next to the road and has an English sign). The terminal is also where you can catch buses to other parts of Korea, such as Incheon and Gangneung. Anyway, an express ticket to Seoul costs 10,400 won, and the journey is 1.5 hours. The seats are comfy, and you can watch some K-drama on the on-board TV screen if you so desire (I just wanted to sleep).

When you get off at Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, just head for the subway station right next to it. To get to COEX, I had to take the No.3 line, change to the No. 2 line at Seoul National University Station (the next stop), in the Gangnam direction. And then get out four stops later at Samseong station. If in doubt, just go to the information station at the Express Bus Terminal station and ask. The very kind young man there gave me a subway map, very specific directions, and brought me to the right platform. Once you get to Samseong station, COEX is right there. Just follow the signs.

Shaky-handed cam from excitement at the fair
German books at the fair
Man Booker International prize-winning translator Deborah Smith at a press conference (I was sitting really far behind, hence the zoom and the heads.)
More bad photos from me, but I’d just stumbled upon the press con, and didn’t have my ‘working’ camera with me – just my iPhone.
The fair was fairly – ah hah! – interesting. There were some illustrators there, selling their very whimsical artwork, as well as booths by the Wonju municipal literary department and major Korean bookstores. I did a tour of the whole thing in about two hours, and then headed back to the express bus station for the 5.45pm back to Wonju.

I’d actually bought a ticket for the 6.30, but they allowed me to exchange it for an earlier one, since I didn’t have much to do but hang around. There’s a huge underground shopping mall there, but I’m kinda trying not to buy anything because I’m going to have enough trouble getting stuff home as it is.

Anyway, verdict: getting from Wonju to Seoul is a piece of cake.