Thursday 11 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook, 7 December:
Last day and a retrospect
Raw or cooked, Redskin or Paleface

Returning from so far away is bound to be a complex process. First the flight from Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur on the 7th and a stay overnight in the room we had occupied, then, early next morning, the hop to Singapore, some ten or eleven hours at Changi Airport, then the long flight to England, arriving in the early morning on a freezing cold day some 30 C below that which we had left. Then the early morning rail and tube connections, the messing about with meal times and grabbing snacks, finally arriving home only to dash out again to pick up Lily from the cattery, the heating of the house, the warm bed and a vague sense of feeling one's way round the clock in an internal darkness.

This is the next day and now the day after and that internal disorientation persists though to a lesser degree.

It is too early and rather overweening to assess our experiences of Singapore and Malaysia, on such brief acquaintance while taking into account the intensity of each occasion as it passed but maybe this can be a beginning.


Singapore is hypermodern in appearance and in much of its practice. It's like a large soap bubble. Under the rainbow colours you sense the tension holding the bubble in place. It has been an enormous sacrifice to get so far, to blow the bubble to this size, the price paid in long hours of manic, all-consuming work, devotion to good manners and orderliness, and a willingness to avoid criminal deviance, all under the paternal eye of an unchanging, if flexibly authoritarian administration.

A bubble is a kind of machine. Everything in the Singapore bubble works. It is like the Flower Dome we visited  in the Gardens by the Bay:  plants from everywhere sustained in a delicately adjusted environment, a cocktail bar, a jazz band, Christmas decorations, photo opportunities and above it all an ambitious pleasing architectural structure. It is a miracle of rare device, a sunny, stately pleasure dome. Everything functions.

Singapore is safe, efficient, civic and polite. It offers the possibility of human happiness in terms of stability, material well-being, pride of achievement and work satisfaction.  But something in the machine is slightly out of step, moving to a different rhythm. It is the spectre of anxiety and melancholy. Under the loveliness, sweetness, kindness and intelligence: melancholy. Under the glitter, the proficiency, the ruthless stabilising process: melancholy, the rich melancholy of something not quite recognised and possibly lost, or at least diminished. It is the melancholy that saves.

I myself am an urban child of the modern age, one of Eliot's rootless cosmopolitans. I understand the melancholy. I understand and appreciate the sweetness and spirituality of rootlessness. I understand the nature of the bubble and have felt it with my own hands, appreciating its flexibility while in full knowledge of its potential to burst at any time. Maybe being Singaporean is a form of rootlessness, a kind of floating within a rare device.


No one floats for ever. Nor is anyone so sure of their roots that they can take them for granted. Malaya was a single country once. How come its two old constituents, Singapore and modern-day Malaysia are so different? You find the same ethnic mix in both though in different proportions. In Singapore Chinese outnumber Malays: in Malaysia it is the other way round. But I wouldn't reduce this to an ethnic issue or even an ethnic inclination. Temperament has something to do with it but history has more.

What Alvin Pang was to us in Singapore, Eddin Khoo and Pauline Fan were in Malaysia. There is no great divide in spirit between them - they are as brothers and sisters as all human beings can be, as indeed we are to them. 'We are all cultural bastards,' as Eddin, who is part Chinese, part Sri Lankan, and a Hindu scholar of Islam,  said in an interview some three years ago. When asked about his identity as a Malaysian he answered that he hates the word 'identity'. "I think Malay culture is – this is pre-1981, -1982, when changes were happening but they were not yet so apparent – so naturally cosmopolitan that I think Malays [have an instinctive] openness and acceptance." If Singapore is a bubble, Malaysia is a stew.

I wrote at some stage that Malaysia was more raffish than Singapore. It is less safe, less tidy, more bruising and unreliable if one goes by Kuala Lumpur. But our visit wasn't primarily about KL, it was about the north of the country, Kelantan and, beyond Kota Bharu, the kampungs where the rooted are truly rooted and the songs they sing, the drums they beat and the shadowplays they perform are direct links to the distant past. These practices and communities have a flow, a charm, a magic and resonance that the modern urban world cannot offer. The roots are not exclusive or purely tribal. Wayang Kulit exists in other parts of South East Asia: what we saw was its local adaptation. The full moon, the luminous screen and the companionship of music, food and cigarettes is a rare stew for an outsider.

And of course we were outsiders. We were exotic guests. We took each other's photos. We were exotic to each other. How could one resist moonlight and the evocation of stories and stories within stories?


We have tropes adapted from anthropology and literature. We talk of Lévi-Strauss's distinction between the raw and the cooked or Philip Rahv's between Redskins and Palefaces.

When my parents were young their lives were raw: history would have eaten them raw, its rawness exposing their own rawness. It almost killed them as it did their families and friends. It left them fearing the raw, a rawness they retained in secret and rarely if ever alluded to. They brought me up cooked as best they could. Not perfectly, thank heaven, but dangerously close. Cooking was civilisation at an uncivilised time to them.

Singapore as the cooked - pressure-cooked even - and Malaysia as the raw? The Malays of the kampungs as the Redskins, the educated Chinese of Singapore as the Palefaces?

Binaries are useful, necessary even in a scientic study, but less helpful in everyday matters of human contact, human habit, human happiness. Here we are, as Eddin put it, proud to be 'cultural bastards'. Now, gods, stand up for bastards! cries the wicked Edmund in Lear. Why bastard? Wherefore base? No such thing as pure Paleface. No such thing as pure Redskin either. Our Malaysian Redskins wore Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts, used mobile phones, rode motorbikes, are mostly on Facebook and are threatened by a form of intolerant puritan Islam.  The singing boys could be out sniffing glue or committing petty crimes. Our Singaporean Palefaces yearn now for the harsh ironies and verities of poetry, now for the familial warmth of shared fate, and are threatened by a corporatist blandness that Eddin might call geekishness as supported by an authoritarian state that wants to keep a lid on things, to keep the pressure cooker boiling.

Redskin and Paleface / raw and cooked realities evolved out of compacts made with the powers that were and are, that offered this or that, that addressed this or that condition.

We understand what it is to be bastards. Being bastards is what joins us.

Next time just photos and labels.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 6 December:
The golden monastery
and shadowplay under a full moon

Not even two full days in Kota Bharu - one full day and two halves. This being our full day it is packed tight. As we are walking along with Eddin and Pauline in the morning - walking from where, to where? - we happen to pass a batik shop and happen to walk in and, once there, happen to buy some more batik items (helps the local economy, why not, good gifts - insert own reasons for buying) and feel both indulgent and virtuous at once. We are the batik gods of South Norfolk dispensing our largesse.

Fortified for the rest of the day we drop things off then drive to Mummi's having promised to visit her. Pak Eh Chom's first wife lives next to Mummi (his second wife) on the outskirts of Kota Bharu. The daughter of the first wife - Mummi has four sons, two from a previous marriage, two from the great dancer, handsome strapping young men now out in Australia - is also a dancer as was her mother, the first wife. It seems a complex but harmonious arrangement. Mummi's house is tiled and filled with photographs of her family and images of the dancing days. An early large photograph of her shows her as a startlingly beautiful young woman in three-quarter view. Her late husband is as handsome and as charismatic looking as the publicity photos suggest. There is one of him in the latter stages of his illness, looking older but still with those refined, elegant, mystical features.

Mummi serves us sweet tea as we sit round a small table. The first wife, her daughter, and the daughter's husband come and join us and we are soon shown into the other house - the first house in fact - into an older more ramshackle serviceable room with a raised dancing rehearsal space. The daughter lifts some sheets to reveal masks and other apparatus once used by her father. When Pak Eh Chom grew rich through his dancing and shamanism he built a second house, made of brick, which is where Mummi and the first wife both now live their separate but neighbourly lives.


Now we are running late so there is no time to visit more than one Thai temple. We drive, with Mummi, down neat roads, past well-cared for houses and compounds set on earth not lawn. This must be a slightly more upmarket area. The roads grow narrower, and run past paddy fields with congregations of egrets then, suddenly, in Kampung Bukit Tanah, we arrive at the glittering monastery of Wat Maisuwankiri. We drive in and park in the shade of a tree. There before us stands the great Dragon Boat (see pictures in a later post) - immense, long, and brilliant in a gold that is almost dazzling in the unsparing sunshine. The dragon undulates like waves, the prow and the bow of the ship rising at either end along with the either end of the dragon. Single figures rise at either end of the boat, one bare-chested and male, the other fully dressed with a cap that I took to be a crown (I first took it to be female but am not so sure now), both very like Ana Maria Pacheco's figures in her The Longest Journey, their arms raised in benediction or worship. The dragon's two heads incline towards the dragon figure of the prow, looking up to it.

I could go on but pictures will follow and I don't know the proper terms for specific features. Besides, this is not a museum but a working monastery. There are thin dogs everywhere, some lazing, some loping or hobbling, some running about, a few setting up a loud barking and even a howl or two. We are the only visitors. We move from shade to shade among the several buildings, each more spectacular than the last. The temple with the golden buddha is open and Pauline burns incense in memory of her father. We burn incense too, our memories less focused, floating elsewhere. There is a tall, erect Buddha rising from a roof. There is a statue of Dharma. Profusion, profusion, profusion, both inside and out - and the dogs and a gardener or two brushing the path. The place seems to burn from the ground. I find it both comprehensible and incomprehensible: comprehensible in totality, incomprehensible in detail, or, if not incomprehensible, part of a cosmology that is located in another part of my personal psychic architecture. The totality lies in the idea of transcendence and being-in, both in the present and out-of-time. We are just a few miles from the Thai border. Almost out of the world.

We drive Mummi back to her house, take a few photos and return to lie down in our little oven / freezer room.


At six we set out again, this time for Kampung Kemunchup, Machang for the chief purpose of our visit to Kelantan, the Wayang Kulit. I have written about Wayang Kulit before and the link is a help but the pictures it shows are in an indoor performance space. Ours is to be outside in the front yard of a house, where it is normally performed.  It is not an entertainment as such but an ancient cultural practice based on an almost infinite hoard of stories adapted from the Ramayana, adumbrated, re-told, with variations and curious twists, complete with music and, on occasion - but not this time - trance and healing. It has been outlawed for years by Islamic law which tends to regard it as an enticement to Hinduism, though the whole is far from conventionally religious and certainly does not seek to convert.

It is quite a long journey by major and minor roads and down a track to an old rubber plantation. We are welcomed - particularly Pauline and Eddin whose Pusaka is the chief agent striving to keep the the custom going, partly through financial support and partly by exposing it to an international public that would protect it from fundamentalist religion. There have been international tours already, to Paris last ime, another coming up to Texas and other parts of the US. There will be one in the UK too.  The company has no trouble in exposure to the modern western urban life. The people, says Eddin, are very comfortable in their own skin.

They are certainly very hospitable. First we are offered a meal. We sit on the ground and eat with fingers - chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, always with sauces to dip into. I m dreadful at sitting cross-legged so have to kneel. There are little bowls and jugs of water with which we can wash our hands. Conversation flourishes, in Malay naturally. It is a privilege just to be part of this.

The stage is already set up and slowly the performance is prepared. We have drums and there is a serunai (akind of oboe, the only melodic instrument). There is a troupe manager, a head musician, a dalang (a master puppetteer), a geduk, a gendung, kesi cymbals, a gong, and more. The dalang is also the story teller. The geduk player is a thirteen year old genius in a pirated Chelsea shirt. These are not wealthy people. The puppets are ornate and traditionally made from buffalo skin. Their limbs and, in some cases, their lower jaws are articulable. The ones with moving mouths have grotesque features and are, generally, the comics.

There is a full clear moon and the illuminated screen against which the shadowplay takes place is right below it, making two rival sources of light. Little by little local people gather, some on foot, most on motorbikes. There is a musical overture, then the tree of life appears, and some of the characters: three wise comics, a princess, maybe two, a birth, a prince, some warriors, possibly Hanuman, Sita, or Rama, though what we are seeing is not the performance described here but some kind of apocryphal story. There are fights, there is comic and serious dialogue. Characters appear for a second then are whisked off, as if in the middle of battle, in another part of the wood.  Characters come in twos, threes, and fours. They engage, then vanish. The screen shimmers. All the voices are spoken by the dalang, whose timing is excellent: we don't know what the comedy is but it is clearly comic. Normally the shadow play lasts five or six hours but this is a two hour performance arranged especially for us. Clouds shift in front of the moon then expose it again. It continues to blaze down.

I go backstage to see the musicians at their concentrated work. Eddin joins them after a while. The audience come and go, their small motorbikes puttering down the rough path. Children sit at the front then are whisked off by their parents. It is a constantly shifting audience. There are few left by the end.

But there is time for some dancing. Clarissa and I join Pauline, our hostess Kak Adilah (the manager of the troupe, it is the women round here who do the managing and finance) and Eddin in the joget, the steps simple at this level, the arms in motion, enacting simple flirtation or just a kind of balance with your partner. It is our way of entering the spirit of things.

Then we sit down back in the covered part of the yard.  I have already smoked a couple of cigarettes rolled from local tobacco, slender sticks, quite long,  heavy and rich in flavour. I smoke a more commercial one I am offered. The dalang is a particularly sweet older man who explains the apocryphal story to Pauline and Eddin in Malay.

Eventually we drive back, not stopping anywhere this time. There has been neither thunder or rain. It is the first time in years this has happened apparently. And we had the full moon too. We have been lucky in weather throughout. We have never once got fully soaked, our travel arrangements were not disrupted, and our flights were relatively smooth.

This was our penultimate day in Malaysia. My intention is to write a summing up of both Singapore and Malaysia once the last half day is given its due. There is a great deal to digest and I can't pretend to have begun to digest it.

Monday 8 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 5 December:
Kota Bharu: All Drumming, All Singing and the Relax Cafe

So we get the plane to Kota Bharu in the Wild North. It’s about an hour and twenty by Firefly airline.  Firefly will always be Rufus T Firefly, the Groucho Marx figure to me. Groucho's Firefly shambled but this small twin-propeller Firefly flies and bumps its way through high cloud.

The northern part of Malaysia is more strictly Muslim than KL but we are here to see things more ancient than modern Islam. Eddin hires a car from an airport rental he has long known. Our hotel is dinky and looks modern but the wifi is sporadic, the air-conditioning likely to switch from frozen to lukewarm without warning and there are many switches on the wall which impress by number without actually doing anything. The staff are friendly. All the women wear hijabs, some very stylishly. The softly, occasionally more loudly piped music is unremittingly Christmassy from Hark the Herald Angels to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  We dash through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh to Santa’s grotto where we are met by Boney M. But where is Slade? Slade is missing. Noddy Holder will be blasting from thousands of UK retail stores, blending seamlessly into George Michael or Paul McCartney or even John Lennon, but rarely if ever Boney M. It must be a cultural difference.

Kota Bharu is naturally a bit more ragged at the edges than KL but it’s decent and the older streets have the nobility that several decades of use confer. They are more or less of a size. The temperature in the hotel lobby is on the cool side but once outside the heat soon gets you, particularly in the sun which you can’t avoid for ever. One hurries from shade to shade. Shabbiness is congenial, proof of honesty of purpose. It is your friends round a table and the cat slipping between the chair legs. E and P have their favourite places to which we are introduced.

At the very first stop for late lunch, about 4pm, Eddin and Pauline see a face they recognise at another table, an older woman who bursts into tears on seeing them. They embrace for a long time then we are introduced. She is known to them as Mummi. She is the widow of the great Manora dancer, Pak Eh Chom, who died some four years ago. Mummi is seventy-one now but it is clear she would have been a great beauty in her youth. She still is beautiful. And her husband was very handsome indeed, so handsome that fathers really did lock up their daughters when he came to town. He was also a shaman. Here is a story told about him as a shaman.

Pak Eh Chom, along with other dancers and musicians, was on a tour organised by E and P,  and they were all staying in the YMCA which has communal showers. When Pak Eh Chom discovered this he was distraught and would not be consoled. One of the other dancers explained. 'He refuses to use the the showers because when in the shower he turns into a wild boar.' Shamanism means, among other things,  fully identifying with your spirit animal and turning into it on occasion, particularly when in a trance. We, after all, have our equivalents in comic book form. The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman, Superman and the rest are all downmarket commercial forms of shamanistic beings. For shower read phonebooth.

We were to see Mummi later on a visit so that she might take us to see some Thai temples. Thailand is very close to Kota Bharu and the history is, as ever, complicated. As we were talking to her in the diner, a chapter of the local equivalent of Hell’s Angels were roaring up and down the road - up, down, back, back again, and so forth - the handlebars raised, the silencers ripped away, the purpose of the whole exercise being, presumably, to demonstrate auditory control over their domain. Whoever roars loudest dominates the conversation. We never saw them again after that first day.

But we are not here for the town - we are here for the kampungs, the villages in the sticks that are an hour or two’s drive away, places in the jungle,  old rubber plantations where the last mile or so is not down a proper road but down narrow tracks that are quickly flooded. And floods are frequent since the rain seldom lets up for long. Being rookies, and forewarned, we were inwardly anxious about this but take comfort, reader, the gods were to be on our side to the extent that the natural balance of the weather was quite upset. It was the opposite of The Tempest for us. Some Miranda must have been interceding on our behalf on our way to Pasir Mas and Kampun Barggol Perdana.


We were led there in the evening by Cikgu (teacher) Alam. The rain was threatening and did in fact come streaming down but only for a few minutes as we were driving down a rough and narrow path by the river, but it was relenting, growing intermittent and slowly reducing to large generous drips before dying away altogether.

There is a yard in front of a simple house, some patches of grass, some mud and a covered area. The drums are outside when it is dry and drawn back under cover when it rains. The company is mixed, men, women, old and young. We are all outside a little concerned in case a storm decides to break.

The evening is divided into two: Rebana Ubi (drumming) for the adults and Dikir Barat (singing) for the boys. The drums themselves are marvellous, buffalo skin stretched on local wood, large, decorated, with  spokes the drummers hold onto with one hand. The spokes are like a catherine wheel, red, yellow and green, with crowns and stars on top (See pic). There are only drums and about eight drummers. They beat to a core 4/4 time with many cross rhythms.

Then the boys set to. They sit in a very tight circle with a few percussionists (no teenage girls here - all revising for exams, says Eddin. Boys? Forget revision!) One boy picks up the mic and begins to sing from a sheet of words. His voice is strong and sensitive. The other boys form a chorus, swaying this way and that, clapping, shouting, raising their arms and waving their fingers as if casting a spell. Another boy, an even better singer, takes the mic. The songs go on. They sing us a welcome song. They sing fast and slow. At the end they sing us a farewell. I recognise the tune. It is, unmistakeably, The Isle of Capri. as sung by Bob Hope, but much transformed.

We are offered some food and warm generosity. We take pictures of them. They take pictures of us. We take pictures of each other together. We set out.

On the way home, a little after midnight,  we stop at the Relax Cafe, Maggi Ketam (the Golden Crab) for a bite. A group of young men in blue and white hooped football shirts are at one table. They could be the Queens Park Rangers youth team.  Another group in red are at another. The TV is on. It is showing a thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman which is immediately followed by a spoof horror (I think it’s spoof) where a modern American male with a neat unflappable hairstyle seems to be lost in a medieval village. He undergoes severe horrifying trials without his hair once losing its shape. Demons emerge. Our hero whips out a chainsaw and sends them splurging. Another wave of nasties is dispatched with a rifle. This must be an NRA promotion. A comely maiden admires his hairstyle and weaponry. It was meant to be. The cafe’s opening hours are advertised as being open from 4.44pm to 1.11am. It is just about 1.11 now. We are on our way.

Back at hotel shorly before 2am. Pictures provided once I am home, but there are short movie clips on Facebook. Eddin is a full prince-warrior and Pauline is the glamorous queen of night - and come to think of it, of day too.

Friday 5 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 4 December:
Germany day and Poetry-Film evening

This time lunch at the Roast Duck, a Hong Kong style restaurant in Bangsar Village, with Eddin, Pauline, the head of the Goethe Institut in KL, Rolf Stehle, the director of the Literaturwerkstatt in Berlin, Dr Thomas Wohlfahrt and a young German intern whose name I didn't catch though it might be Alexander. The occasion is the presentation of a selection of poem-films from the Zebra archive of the Literaturwerkstatt. Lunch naturally involves duck and a good many other things. Clarissa and I are nothing to do with the evening except as guests, and being invited to dinner means as rather privileged guests. But then that is what we have been the whole time really. We make friendly conversation, I mostly with Herr Stehle since we are next to each other at the round table. After lunch Eddin drives us back to our accommodation. We could walk it in fifteen minutes but walking isn't done much here when a car is available. When in Kuala Lumpur do as the Kuala Lumpurs do.

The film show is in the evening at APW a converted printing works complete with auditorium, bar and much else. Slowly the hall fills up and, eventually, overfills. The idea of poetry-film is not films that may be poetic but rather the interpretation of an actual poetic text, often through computer work. We see about a dozen short films including a relatively early but ingenious version of Austrian sound poet Ernst Jandl created on an Amiga computer, move on to a snappy rhythmic interpretation of a Peter Reading poem and many others involving drawing, reading, performance, stop-frame animation, abstraction, grotesque and mixtures of them all. The one that takes my breath away is by  one by Taiwanese poet, Ye Mimi, They Are There But I Am Not. Here is the link to it. Its timing, its restraint, its depth, its spare lyricism, the quality of its feeling and thought and its sheer simple precision seemed far beyond the rest to me. There was a fine comic-grotesque version of a poem by Ingeborg Bachman, an excellent rap performance by an exiled American Cambodean poet, versions of Billy Collins (his 'Budapest') and Mahmoud Darwish at the end reading one of his to simple figure images and arabic script in motion. Everything was pretty good and some excellent. The ones that dealt with issues might be most effective in moving emotions but their intentions are clear from the start. They set out to do something and do it. Sometimes they collapse into a kind  of bathos (I don't blame them, their cause is great and drives them into grander forms of rhetoric) before recovering. There are extranous reasons for admiring these and indeed people do admire them. John Giorno speaks a fine comic poem against family values. Everyone laughs and claps loudly in approval of the message before returning to their family values. Another  poem rhapsodises about freedom and jazz,  and all the good things one might rhapsodise about and everyone claps. Sure we clap. It's easy.

We like to be told we are free spirits laughing at convention. It help us to go on with our conventions. We have businesses to run, deals to clinch, jobs to go to, articles to write. I don't think this is precisely hypocrisy but a kind of social behaviour, like people who want to be thought interesting at parties and declare, 'I am mad, me, quite mad!' You can bet your bottom dollar they are saner than you are.

But I love Ye Mimi's film and I love her poem. The two together are a bringing out of the poem not by illustrating it or referring to it, but by realising it at quite another level. I shall be looking out for her work.

We meet old friends from last year, poets and translators. Then a drink at the bar with Herr Stehle, Dr Wohlfahrt, and friends. I try something called a Budapest cocktail (that's two Budapests in one evening, neither of them anything to do with Budapest) simply because of the name. It contains rye whisky and lapsang souchong and a few other things. It is pleasant and strong. Then we are off to a late meal of naan dipped in whatever curried sauce is available together with nibbles of tandoori chicken. It is late.

Today we fly to Kelantan to see  the shadowplay of Wayang Kulit based on the Ramayana. The play can last several hours and involve trance and healing. Fortunately Pauline will be there to interpret for us. Kelantan is about an hour's flight to the north. We stay two nights then return here on Sunday and stay the night before flying back to Singapore to catch our flight to the UK. I don't know whether there will be wifi in Kelantan but I have a strong suspicion there will be.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 3 December:
Meeting the Diana Ross of the Mah Meri,
discovering the sky at the Straits

We breakfast in on the items we bought in Bangsar Village - some cereal, a water melon, a few bananas, some very nice if expensive bread and some cream cheese. There is a kitchen below but we are unlikely to make much use of it. Afterwards I return to our dim lit room to write yesterday's post until eventually it's time for lunch.

It's about ten minutes walk down to the shops to Antipodean, the cafe / restaurant where our daughter's friend took us for coffee. No sign of Snow this time. We order blended iced drinks with fruit and vegetables. I see paprika chicken on the menu and, just because I am curious as to what a Malaysian version of a Hungarian meal tastes like, I order it. It is nothing like Hungarian of course, more a kind of satay with a side dressing of beans. Very nice but not much taste of paprika. That's not a disappointmentI, it is an education, a perfect embodiment of Steiner's notion of modified meaning. (You ask for bread in different languages and you get bread but not the same bread). It would be different paprika, of course. There are many waiters for a small restaurant, each young, t-shirted and anxious to please. Outside it is building up for what promises to be a proper monsoon. On the way out the proprietor, a tall friendly looking Australian, asks us if we have umbrellas. We do. It begins to rain as we walk back. There are two cockerels on the pavement chasing in and out of yards. A man notes us on the hill and cheerfully remarks on the weather. There may be a lot of rain with plenty to come but we are slowly developing tans. The storm doesn't materialise.

In the afternoon we take a drive with Eddin and Pauline down to Pulau Carey to visit the Mah Meri people, one of eighteen (or nineteen, depending on sources) of indigenous people remaining on the island, each of them here tens of thousands of years before anyone else. Eddin and Pauline's organisation, Pusaka, exists to support them and their cultures. The drive takes little over an hour or so. Most of it is down four or five line carriageways, past apparently isolated, miserable looking high-rise estates that remind Clarissa of Kiefer's Monumenta. Eventually we turn off down smaller roads with ranks of palm oil farms and tiny kampungs or villages (pretty much like this) , or just a few stray houses in clearings, and find our way to Pulau Carey and the centre.

Rashid Esa at centre. Refreshments.

The centre is run by a remarkable man, Rashid Esa. Once upon a time he worked in IT then he threw it in and started walking. He walked across India, he walked the Silk Route, he walked to meet the Mujahideen, and to meet (successfully) the Dalai Lama then he found a hut - or built it - in a jungle kampung in Malaysia and lived there fifteen years. He shows us round the place. Many others have written about visiting the Mah Meri at Pulau Carey and their accounts are available elsewhere (for example here and here). When modern people visit indigenous people they describe what they see and look to catch them performing rituals and dances and crafts, which is understandable and even admirable in some ways. I feel a little awkward about it, if only because life isn't a performance and what shows is only part of what is.

Rashid is fully aware of this. He talks quietly. He dwells on Mah Meri secrecy, their several languages, the DNA, the relationship between men and women (the women considered to be equal). He talks of marriage, of sex, of the importance of boats as dwellings, of fishing, of animism and the absence of the concept of beauty. The dream life is as real is the waking life. Trance is part of ritual. The masks and figures they carve are associated with healing and are evocations of powers as dreamt. Beside the masks there is the palm leaf origami woven by the women into ornate crowns, wands, tokens, and skirts. The secrecy extends to the names. Names are taken on, so one girl in the tribe has adopeted the name Diana Ross. We meet her. She is a pretty, modern girl with a slight pout. She is responsible for selling the objects the tribe produces and which is a source of extra income for them. Not that they save the money: it goes as soon as earned. Their number system extends to the figure three.

These contradictions of living a life that, in one way, is ancient, that keeps very much to itself and rejects modernity but which, at the same time, accommodates itself to motorbikes (a red one is parked in one of the huts), amplifiers and various mod cons, are like a fog through which it is hard to see anyone. Who actually is 'Diana Ross'? What is she thinking or feeling? What does she do the rest of the time? Why be 'Diana Ross' at all? She can't be more than eighteen at most. We don't see many of the tribe around but someone is playing an instrument through an expensive wrecked amp. The tribe don't live in the centre, of course, but come in to make things and sell them. Their relationship with Rashid, he tells us, is one of distrust. He has enemies who will take tea or coffee with him.

Impossible not to admire and like Rashid. This has been his dedication and is his life. He persuaded the government to fund the building of the centre but they never asked him what it should look like. He was not consulted. The money went to the developer who put up groups of standard  concrete exhibition spaces and work huts ('losing' some of the money along the way so the open-air  auditorium part isn't finished). In appearance it is like any official idea of a 'heritage site'. The structure is ornamented with some bits of palm origami but it is clearly a product of cultural policy. No wonder the Mah Meri feel suspicious of it. They'd be suspicious of anything to being with.

The first thing I see on entering the centre is what remains with me. In the workshop immediately to the left of the entrance sits an old man. He has made a large 'tiger' representation and there is a smaller part-finished version nearby. He regards us without expression. He does not acknowledge or smile. But then I see his face isn't entirely expressionless. What I see there is a barely disguised disgust. I don't blame him. 'Diana Ross' is a mask too. The Mah Meri are expert mask makers.


Afterwards we drive down to the coast. The road is tarmaced, narrow, with the occasional house either side of it. A drunk man is being helped by his family or friends. One keeps slapping him on the back. Stray dogs (are they stray?) meander or flop or chase each other. They look like miniature deer, slender to the point of starvation, their heads pointed, their ears large. They are almost spirit, graceful and unconcerned about passing cars. Two capuchin monkeys appear in the way and scamper off. Right ahead of us the sun is rapidly falling through the sky. The clouds are complex, grandiose. The moon, almost full, is high and behind us. Then we arrive at the Straits and the sky goes into dazzling overdrive. It is so dramatic, so shifting, so pure it is irresistible. We take out our cameras and point at it. Here is a sample among many.

 Here is the water..

One man is fishing or gathering up nets. A small cormorant-like bird slips across the surface and lands on a stump rising from the water. The dogs lollop down and investigate something at the water's edge. A man a few yards away is reading a book in the fading light. Later his car roars past us back into settled territory. We stop at an enormous hangar of a basic restaurant to taste delicious fresh fish and crab while discussing our impressions of Singapore. The trouble with Singapore, says Eddin, is that it's a country of nerds. I consider the idea but am sleepy by now and fall asleep in the car like an old man. It's true I slept only two and a half hours the last night but I still feel ashamed of it. Once back in the house I quickly enter the kind of sleep out of which no animistic dreams emerge. I couldn't carve it. I can't remember it.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 1 & 2 December
The beautiful monastic guest house and the half-empty purse

I kept a pretty copious notebook on Malaysa last time, about sixteen nmonths ago (you could start from here and move back or forward) discussing politics, religion, culture, people and places. My intention is to continue as from there.

Population of Singapore c 55 million: population of Malaysia has just broken the 30 million mark. It's a shortish hop by plane (about an hour twenty) from Changi in Singapore to Subang in Malaysia. But for the occasional massing of clouds you can see what is below you. It is sea, river, lagoon, jungle, settlement, town, neat and lush palm oil farm, and red clay soil. Subang is a small airport but the difference from Changi is marked. Subang is pocket-sized, scrappier, more like a downmarket version of Luton Airport in England. The small plane is full and judders a little through the heavier cloud which, for the most part, is broken up and under us. They serve us a drink and a slice of cake which is more than Ryan Air does. People go to and fro for family and work reasons.

Eddin is there to take us to Bangsar Village where we are staying. It is a well-to-do suburb with concrete modernist houses. The drive through KL is not like the drive through Singpo. Singpo is ever neat and clear: KL has a more raffish look. From Singapore it looks dangerous. Maybe not just from Singapore. Other friends who were here in previous years have expressed great affection for the place but have also issued warnings. Nor do you need friends to do so when the very street signs in this comfortable, somewhat fashionable neighbourood point to the danger of bag snatching.

But this is Monday and after settling in to our ultra modern, beautiful and faintly monastic guest house in which we have a room  the rest of the place being empty but for Shiva, our Nepalese caretaker who must be spending much the most of his current life in the house. (Photos of the house will follow)

Eddin and Pauline call back in the car about 8pm to take us to supper with Karl, a young lawyer, and Khalid Jaafar, scholar and politican with a new appointment. This is a reunion of sorts as we met Khalid in Malacca last year, and Karl was a constant companion on last year's travels. Everything is a little late because of KL traffic. A strong yellowish light in Fierce Curry House. We are open to the street, the fan turning. The curry is not quite as fierce as the restaurant name suggests.

GS, Khalid J, Pauline, Karl, Eddin, Clarissa

Talk turns, as one might expect, to books, translation, the state of our various nations, extending to the triads and the Japanese yakuza. I find myself engaged and fascinated, both listening and talking. But we're a little tired now so are driven back to the beautiful monastery.


Now it is Tuesday. After a larger than necessary breakfast in a nearby eaterie we return to the room and wait for our daughter's good friend, who has lived here for four years, to take us for coffee as arranged. It is near the shopping complex just down the road. Her advice runs as follows:
  • Watch out for bag snatchers. 
  • Carry a spare half-empty purse even if you are in a car. 
  • Walk closer to the wall than the kerb because bag snatchers might be on bicycles or motorbikes.
  • Don't rely on the police. 
  • If you are driving don't use a filling station at night. 
  • Don't walk at night.
For all that she likes being here. She has grown very fond of it. She is not looking forward to leaving though her family will have to soon as her husband's contract runs out. It is just being streetwise and is more or less what the road sign was telling us. This, among other things, is what being raffish means.

Coffee is served by an exquisitely beautiful, delicate looking girl called Snow who greets our friend with genuine warmth. She has, our friend explains as Snow goes to get our coffee, a one year old son at home in Burma whose first birthday she could not attend because the agency who brought her here has confiscated her passport. This is pretty common and though her employer has tried to help her it's not much use going to the law. The girl returns, smiles and wrings her hands as she talks.  Her hands shift and fly and clutch. She is grateful that her customer asks her things and offers her affection and respect. Is she too cowed, too grateful, I wonder. Waiters at home don't behave like this. They are your equals who just happen to be waiters. Any day the situation could be reversed. Not here. Life presses down on the poor and is unlikely to lift its foot off their necks.

Migrant labour can be pretty much slave labour. But there's no need to feel superior about this. It happens in England too. I have seen it at first hand. It is a rarely acknowledged fact of life.


Later we go for lunch with our hosts,  Pauline and Eddin, two forces of nature. Both write columns for the press, both translate, both fight for threatened cultural causes; they establish magazines and publishing houses for translating world literature into Malay. Both are scholars of an imposing kind, Pauline more quietly but just as impressively. Eddin, who has several books on the go, is in perpetual motion around the world as speaker, lecturer, scholar, writer, historian, advocate. He has hardly been home for months. Pauline runs the show in Malaysia.

Our time together is an endless conversation: the same territories as before, but deeper each time with ever new elements drawn in. There is much personal history too: the dramas, eccentricities and expectations of parents and grandparents, our memories of public events and how they flowed around us. Conversation with them is as dynamic and wide ranging as they themselves are. It can switch from James Callaghan to Paul Celan and back again in minutes. It is exhilarating and touching at the same time.

I don't want to report too directly on conversations though. It always feels like a betrayal of confidence. As in Singapore I will try to give a flavour of things said, maybe a memorable phrase dropped here or there. The gist is that we all feel as though the world has entered a period of madness. For Eddin that period started in 1967, it seemed to me to begin in 1979. I have every confidence that he is right.

In Singapore you try to put your finger delicately on the pulse of social life. You have to seek the pulse out. Life is more sushi than fierce curry, more fresh fish than mutton. Here things are more overt. The subject is constantly in front of your eyes.

A few fragments from the high street bank of the imagination:

From the museum of misery. Two hands moving in the dark. The smell of wrung cloth. A rusting star. Miles of rough sea.
From the museum of misery. Three coins of negligible value. The pavement under the pavement. A tongue in a plastic bag. Rain scraps.
From the museum of misery. An impeccable uniform with change of cheap clothes. Consolations. Tin sheds. Rooms with teeth. A white smile.
Those at the bottom smile and hope to survive. They mount scaffolding, dig ditches, clean windows and serve, serve, serve.
Seasons? Hot and wet, or hotter and wet. Days merge into aeons, clouds gather and disperse. The powerful dispense their wisdom and piety.

Not exactly imagination. Today to travels. An island. A tribe. Details next time.

Monday 1 December 2014

Leaving Singapore 1 December

Brevity now as we are shortly off to the airport. The sky is the full English, the greys translucent, clouds high and vague, a few drips of rain and the whole looking to clear. That is from the window. Out there it is warm and close.

We have said goodbye to the doomed spaceship that is Fusion Spoon with its friendly crew. We have packed away what we unpacked minus my books but adding new books.

All journeys are dreams lodged in the real world. Humankind cannot bear too much reality, said Eliot. We take our reality where we can find it but it comes to use of its own volition when it feels like it. Eliot also suggested that poetry in our time has to be difficult. Yes, it sometimes has to be difficult, but sometimes it just falls into your palm and you just have to place it carefully on paper. Sometimes it is as simple as the light in the morning.

It would be good to think so, wouldn't it? Good to think it will just fall into your palm like that. We can hope so.

We have received love and kindness here. That should be noted. We will think fondly of Singpo and our friends who are dear to us. Thank you. Now to Malaysia, the bigger island.