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We’re off to off the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!

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offthewizardWho among us has not been amused and delighted by the extraordinary spectacle of Munchkins bursting into song and dance in celebration of the Wicked Witch’s demise?

Have we not wondered, at different moments in our life, if we were more like the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion?

And, just like Dorothy, have we never come to the conclusion, after a surfeit of incredible adventures, that there’s no place like Home?

When MGM released in 1939 the Hollywood version of what had already achieved cult status as a stage musical, L. Frank Baum’s immortal classic The Wizard of Oz swiftly won the hearts of a worldwide audience.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I caught the movie in my hometown but it certainly left many vivid images imprinted in my impressionable young mind. So when The Wizard of Oz was restaged between April and May 2012 at KLPAC by Pan Productions – a young and vigorous outfit helmed by the highly talented Nell Ng, Peter Ong and Alizakri Alias – I looked forward greatly to catching it.

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Radhi Khalid as the Tin Man, Stephanie Van Driesen as Dorothy Gale, Peter Ong as The Scarecrow, and special guest star Wolfgang as Toto

I wasn’t disappointed. It was as wonderful a production of a time-tested favorite as any you’re likely to see in any major city. Director-choreographer Nell Ng opted to stick close to the general tone and flavor of the Hollywood version and found herself the perfect Dorothy Gale in Stephanie Van Driesen (who even bears a passing resemblance to the young Judy Garland and, more importantly, is a well-rounded talent in terms of acting, dancing and singing).

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Tria Aziz, a magnificently malevolent Wicked Witch of the West

Another outstanding casting choice was Tria Aziz as Almira Gultch and the Wicked Witch of the West whose iridescent green makeup and powerful singing voice made her a candidate for the best supporting actress award. But, then, many other key players were equally impressive – particularly Peter Ong (Hunk/Scarecrow), Radhi Khalid (Hickory/Tin Man), and Zalila Lee (Zeke/Cowardly Lion). Special mention must be made of Wolfgang the terrific terrier who took on the challenge of playing Toto.

The multimedia effects by a digital projection outfit called Dam Interactive were, in a word, wizardly. They played a significant role in the success of the production, convincingly conjuring a wide range of atmospheres – from a violent tornado to enchanted forests, spooky castles, and an Emerald Palace fit for a Wonderful Wizard. Musical director Eric Carter Hah deserves a standing ovation for bringing the fairly complex score to life with such effortless ease I initially thought I was hearing a pre-recorded soundtrack. Then I realized there was an 11-piece orchestra hidden backstage.

Seeing The Wizard of Oz as a stage musical for the first time in my life was most definitely a treat. Even more so since many of the talented and charming cast happen to be dear old friends. As a treat for all the senses, Nell Ng’s Wizard left little to be desired – and, as I told her afterwards, my only complaint was that the air-conditioning in KLPAC was so cold I found myself sitting on my hands between rounds of hearty applause.

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Suhaili Micheline as the good Witch of the North

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L. Frank Baum in 1911

I decided to do a bit of research on the man who created the Land of Oz – that colorful character named Lyman Frank Baum (15 May 1856 ~ 6 May 1919) and found him to be way too complex to summarize. In his youth he got hold of a simple printing press and became an editor-journalist-publisher. Then he got into poultry breeding and traded in fireworks. At the same time he was infatuated with the theater and squandered a large portion of his wealth investing in unsuccessful plays. He took on a great many roles, using stage names like Louis F. Baum and George Brooks.

In 1880 Baum’s father built him a theater in Richburg, New York, and he wasted no time writing, producing, directing and acting in plays – even composing songs and conducting workshops in stagecraft . Just as he was beginning to reap some acclaim, a fire destroyed his theater, along with his costume collection and the only copies of his playscripts.

wizard_titleFailure and ill fortune continued to dog L. Frank Baum until his 44th birthday – when his collaboration with illustrator W.W. Denslow yielded a best-selling children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Thereafter Baum began churning out a stream of children’s books based on his Oz characters.

Five years later he announced a grand plan to buy an island off the California coast where he would build a gigantic theme park named “The Marvelous Land of Oz – a fairy paradise for children.” Eleven-year-old Dorothy Talbot of San Francisco was to be crowned Queen of Oz and the park was to be administered by a committee of child advisors. Baum himself intended to relocate to the island where he would presumably assume the role of a real-life wizard.

Alas, the theme park project was abandoned after another theatrical venture, The Woggle-Bug, failed at the box office. Baum even founded a film company in 1914 called The Oz Film Manufacturing Company but lost a lot of money on the venture. One gets the distinct feeling that L. Frank Baum was born just a wee bit too early. It took another visionary entrepreneur, a fellow named Walter Elias Disney – born shortly after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a runaway best-seller – to realize all of L. Frank Baum’s fantastic dreams.

Among the interesting details I unearthed about L. Frank Baum, the fact that he had the tendency to look askance at religion caught my attention. Although raised as a Methodist, Baum expressed a great deal of skepticism about orthodox dogmas. At one point he joined the Episcopal Church – but mainly for the purpose of participating in community theatricals.

In 1897 – influenced by Matilda Joslyn Gage, Baum’s feminist mother-in-law – Baum and his wife became Theosophists. The Theosophical Society had been established in 1875 by Henry Steel Olcott (a military investigator, journalist and lawyer) and the famous Russian mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophists hold that “there is no religion higher than truth.”

In the light of this, can any traces of L. Frank Baum’s metaphysical inclinations be found in The Wizard of Oz? Considering that the Wizard presides like a deity – inspiring awe, reverence and not a little fear – over the inhabitants of Oz, isn’t it delightful that it takes a fearless and innocent little girl named Dorothy to gain entry to the Emerald Palace and penetrate the Wizard’s high-tech public relations apparatus, so that the Great Wizard of Oz is ultimately exposed as an eccentric “extraterrestrial” trickster, a master illusionist, a professional thaumaturge – albeit a disarmingly benign one?

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It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to draw a few parallels with The Matrix movies – wherein the Archons or Fates appear as a funky assortment of complex metaprograms running the holographic pseudo-reality from which Thomas Anderson aka Neo the hacker escapes (after he swallows the Red Pill offered by Morpheous) and fulfills his destiny as “The One.”

Indeed, I would venture the opinion that The Wizard of Oz qualifies as a forerunner of The Matrix. It’s easy enough to replace the Wicked Witch of the West with Agent Smith. Now I’m seriously looking forward to the musical version of The Matrix.

6 November 2012

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Does this qualify as political commentary?

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A Whodunit with Heart, Mind and Soul

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Coming up with a good opening line is every author’s challenge – especially so if one happens to be debuting as a crime novelist. For his maiden attempt at producing fast-paced pulp fiction with pith, Alois Leinweber settled on this one: 

“The woman sat down close to him, close enough for him to feel her warmth through his trousers.”

It worked for me as I found myself turning all 252 pages of Jasmine for the Dead with eagerness and ease. Set in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, the book starts off as a classic whodunit, with an honest cop as the main protagonist and much of the action revolving around the discovery of a naked white body by the steps of the national monument – dead, of course, skull bashed in with a hard object and a bullet wound in the neck.

Turns out the murder victim is an Englishman named James Hollander, freelance journalist and former British soldier posted in Malaya. Apparently he has been shot with an army issue pistol from the early post-war era.

Chief Inspector Chee Keong is the sort of detective who rarely gets in the news – simply because he takes his job seriously and enjoys it. Assisted by his trusty sidekick Haris Askandar, Inspector Chee Keong is modeled after famous fictional sleuths like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – a cop with razor-sharp intelligence and a bloodhound nose who somehow manages to remain likeable and human despite his less-than-pleasant job.

The English translation of his book was launched at Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Club on 11 May 2014

The English translation of his book was launched at Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Club on 11 May 2014

Leinweber takes pains to develop the Chief Inspector as his central figure, so that within a couple of chapters he serves as the reader’s alter ego even as he pulls together the various plot strands. Apart from his detective work, Chee Keong has a personal life. He jogs, he has a wide circle of friends, he’s well read, likes his food, enjoys travel, and he has an alluring Malay girlfriend named Sharifah. The author uses the romance between Inspector Chee Keong and Sharifah to shed some light on problems confronting interracial couples, and I don’t doubt that some of it is autobiographical.

Investigating the murder of James Hollander leads the dedicated sleuth down many intriguing paths across a broad span of time and space. We learn that the murdered Englishman is linked with the 1948 Batang Kali massacre – another ugly blot in the history of British colonialism wherein 24 unarmed Chinese villagers were brutally executed as a warning to others against collaborating with Communist insurgents. Relatives of those killed in Batang Kali have waited 66 years for the British government to apologize and compensate them – but in vain. Was James Hollander a member of the Scots Guards platoon responsible for this bloodbath? Why had he been visiting Batang Kali and seeking out surviving relatives of those shot in cold blood?

The dead journalist, we learn, was previously married to a German named Petra Schmidt, senior executive in a Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical firm with a few skeletons in its closet involving contaminated medicines (which they were foisting off in Southeast Asia through their Bangkok office). Although long estranged from one another Petra and James had yet to formalize their divorce.

True to his calling as an investigative journalist, Hollander had been digging into this scandal and had uncovered enough documentary evidence to do an exposé that would have devastating consequences on the pharmaceutical firm. Instead of admitting to unethical practices, the company had invested in a high-powered public relations agency based in Kuala Lumpur to do some damage control.

Inspector Chee Keong also learns that the dead man had had a keen interest in Malaysia’s notorious human trafficking syndicates. Hollander had apparently taken it upon himself to establish a special fund to help stranded foreign workers, lured over to Malaysia by unscrupulous recruiting agents, who then confiscated their passports and forced them into slave labor. Realizing that negative publicity alone wouldn’t solve the problem because of entrenched corruption within the Malaysian bureaucracy, James Hollander had begun extorting “donations” from agencies recruiting foreign labor, which he then channeled into his fund.

To further complicate the plot, James Hollander shared an apartment with his gay lover, a German expatriate named Hubert Gehrcke, who seemed troubled about his partner’s promiscuous tendencies.

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A bit of chamber music for the book launch

With so many different leads to work with, Inspector Chee Keong is hard pressed to find out which one to follow. On top of all this, he has to deal with a less than supportive Chief of Police, his immediate boss, the crusty Datuk Nazim Ahmad (whose personal secretary, Azleena, happens to have a soft spot for Inspector Chee Keong, thereby easing the tension a little).

Another Datuk enters the thickening plot, Azmi Hamid, director-general of the Immigration Department. Suspicion surrounds this suave character who openly admits to the detectives that he was once a partner in a foreign worker recruitment agency. Datuk Azmi solemnly warns Chee Keong and Haris that there are moles in the Police Force they must flush out.

What Leinweber has achieved with Jasmine for the Dead is nothing less than a craftsmanlike tour de force. It’s not easy to keep so many balls in the air with a plot so rich in false trails and red herrings. For a first novel, he has succeeded admirably in serving up as a main dish a mature and intelligent action thriller in the classic whodunit format – with lots of titillating side dishes thrown in.

In the process Leinweber manages to address a plethora of political issues that constitute the shadow side of Malaysia’s sunny disposition – the smiling face she presents to the casual tourist. Particularly poignant are his revelations on exactly how human trafficking works in Malaysia. The nightmare zone he leads his reader through is stark and vivid. Indeed, it was what triggered my decision to review Jasmine for the Dead – just to get the message out to more people who need to know what’s going on.

The author himself is certainly no casual tourist, having lived several decades in Malaysia with his German-educated Malaysian wife. I was introduced to him many years ago as someone with wide ranging interests and skills. Apart from being (yes, you guessed it) a freelance journalist, Alois Leinweber also teaches German, literature, and music in an international school. He has also written travel books and produced a 30-minute documentary (Rebel Dancer, 2003) on legendary classical Indian dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Apart from that, he’s a passionate accordionist and aficionado of the arts.

I assume he can also cook, as he pays loving attention to what his characters consume at every meal, making his whodunit work overtime as a culinary guide to Malaysia. It was a distinct pleasure to see my own country through his eyes and I heartily applaud Alois Leinweber for doing a thoroughly magnificent job of capturing the subtle flavors and nuances that make Malaysia so unique.

If I wished to nitpick, I might pounce on the fact that I found the ending a bit of an emotional letdown. As Malaysians we have become almost paralyzed by our inability to vote out the corrupt regime that has bled the national coffers for almost 44 years – or since the introduction in 1970 of a barely concealed apartheid system that has effectively promoted mediocrity to the very top, forcing a massive brain drain of talent and oppressing those who opt to stay).

It has reached the point where we feel deeply disappointed whenever the big fish get away with murder – as they invariably do, and continue to do so, even in works of fiction.

And this may sound petty but as a lifelong smoker, I couldn’t help feeling slightly affronted by his constant harping on people’s tobacco habits. But apart from that, Leinweber’s preliminary venture into pithy pulp fiction gave me so much pleasure, I am already looking forward to seeing Inspector Chee Keong and his assistant Haris Askandar in their next detective adventure.

Who knows, somebody might even have the good sense to buy the movie rights to this stimulating sizzler?

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Jasmine for the Dead was originally written in German and published as Jasmin für einen Toten. The English translation was published under the Aletheia imprint in May 2014 and distributed by Gerakbudaya.

 

Best Nineties Novels I’ve Read

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Well, I read ingredients on powdered milk tins and packets of Twisties, Sabri Zain’s Reformasi Diary printouts in the loo, and all the noisome pop-up ads on websites (no, I lie about this last). But I hardly ever read novels.  Neither does my dad, nor did his dad, nor his dad before him.  It may be genetic.  My dad used to collect stacks of Popular Science and Popular Mechanic magazines full of practical fix-it-yourself tips. In his mid-eighties he still enjoyed tinkering around with his car and home improvements (like toe-operated fan controls).

ImageI collect pirated photocopied Popular Metaphysics manuals on practical ways to activate and maintain one’s Merkaba (which Bob Frissell has deftly defined as “the image through which all things were created, a geometrical set of patterns surrounding our bodies… a counter-rotating field of light that encompasses both spirit and body and [serves as] a vehicle – a time-space vehicle.”) The ancients say the best Merkabas run on clear intentions, total compassion, and wishful thinking.

But I digress.  I do occasionally read a novel or two, so on those occasions, there’s much to celebrate and to share.  Have you read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie?  I have … one and a half times!  I enjoyed it so thoroughly, when I reached the end with great reluctance, I simply had to return to the first page and begin all over again, just savoring the man’s consummate craftsmanship and imaginative stamina.

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Salman Rushdie

It begins on a high pitch full of frills and promised thrills, then backs up a little and launches into a psychokinetic fractal tapestry of humanity in all its soap operatic complexity, tragedy, and comedy.  Everyone and his closet queen uncle is in Rushdie’s multi-generational tale of two families.  Dostoevsky meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the result is a compelling, masterful fusion of social anthropology, history, and magic realism.

The plot thickens to the point where you begin to suspect it’s about to curdle, but Rushdie adroitly whips it up again into a whole different texture and perspective, until it becomes so sinister, so surrealistic you think he’s gone overboard… but, no, his instincts and his integrity as a master student of the human condition lead him unerringly to a climax so explosively apocalyptic, so archetypal, you KNOW his mind never once wandered off its predestined course, his hand never wavered at the helm… okay, keyboard then.  People,  I honor and value Salman Rushdie’s diabolically precise and articulate intelligence.  Anyone who STILL wants him put down for verbalizing his version of the truth is a mortal enemy of the only non-transferable values we possess: our ethical, intellectual and spiritual liberty.

The Moor’s Last Sigh was to me a novel so satisfying, I didn’t need to read another for the rest of the decade.  But I’d already chomped through Wayne Stier’s picaresque, whimsical, pun-slinging, made-for-the-hammock Malacca Gold – which cleverly combined maverick scholarship with romantic fiction, and yet managed to smuggle in a few enriching insights and historical vignettes.  I thought it was educational and entertaining, and just the thing to translate into a major box-office movie. [Malacca Gold is reviewed in depth here;]

ImageThen my internet friend V. Susan Ferguson sent me her two self-published novels – Inanna Returns and Inanna Hyper-Luminal – which were the perfect dessert, after having gorged myself on a stack of paleo-anthropological studies by Zecharia Sitchin on the Mesopotamian myths.  Apparently, Ms Ferguson was reading Sitchin’s The Wars of Gods and Men when she experienced a series of spontaneous retrievals from her genetic cache.  The Sumerian goddess Inanna appeared as a holographic vision and merged with her cellular consciousness.  She began to reconstruct a brief history of the Anunnaki, the Sumerian Sky Gods of the An lineage who, Sitchin reports, colonized this planet nearly half a million years ago and subsequently created a labor-saving device: US!

Well, Sitchin’s books are based on 30 years of meticulous research in dusty museum vaults deciphering half a dozen dead languages.  But they ARE founded on archeological artifacts, and this emphasizes their important function: which is to convince Homo sapiens sapiens that the Adamic races were the by-product of a genetic experiment gone awry.  Remember The Island of Dr Moreau by, er… was it Jules Verne or H.G. Wells?  Anyway, Marlon Brando played Dr Jeanne Moreau in the recent Hollywood remake.  I won’t discuss Sitchin’s monumental work here.  Those interested can buy, borrow, or steal his books from Toh Seng Keat (the only person I know who owns the complete set) or from Amazon.com.

V. Susan Ferguson’s ghostwriting effort on Inanna’s behalf was luminous and divinely inspired, I thought. She beautifully fleshes out the skeletons Sitchin dug out of humanity’s closet  (or was it just Mother Hubbarb’s cupboard?) The ancient gods of Sumer – Enki, Enlil, Ninhursag – who later became the ancient gods (or Neteru) of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Canaan, Judaea, and India; and later Peru and the Mayalands, are resurrected skillfully and empathetically by Ms Ferguson, and integrated into a contemporary context.  This is what makes her Inanna books so valuable: she transforms the mythical into modern mystery teachings of irresistible cogency and veracity.  She makes us understand, as in a gratuitous epiphany, exactly why we are the way we are.  Part of it was a genetic legacy of the “gods” who manufactured us from the silly putty of simian DNA; the rest of it was pure bad luck or evil karma or hubris or whatever, but there IS a way out of the evolutionary predicament we’re in.  We have to awaken from our cultural trance, our religion-induced spiritual somnambulism, be jolted out of our collective amnesia back into anamnesis, into full recollection of who we truly are.

ImageAs an epilogue of sorts, I have to include Shahnon Ahmad’s political shit-stirrer, the ingeniously titled, SHIT. I confess that I have only read portions of it, a testimony of how basic my Bahasa skills are.  But from the little I have savored, I can feel the tradition-shattering force of Shahnon’s poker-faced prose which reminded me in places of Samuel Beckett’s 1950s experiments with literary nihilism.  But in Shahnon’s case the prime concern is obviously not so much with nothingness, the void, the vacuity of human existence – but with the forced evacuation of our political innards.

We’ve seen all kinds of movements here but the ultimate goal is to achieve healthy and regular bowel movement.  It takes real guts to do that.  And in these dark and rumbling days of borborygmic unease, when the whole nation seems divided between those who dwell froglike, in their own bloated yellow bellies and those who aspire towards the higher mind or a return to the soul, it cheers me up immeasurably, like a well-pitched burp or perfectly-timed fart, every time I see SHIT prominently displayed in all the Mamak newsstands.  Can anyone tell me why the Mamaks seem to have a monopoly on sales of Shahnon’s history-making novel?  Roti canai and teh tarik not enough ah?  Shiterature oso wan ah?

Posted in December 1999 on artisproactiv@yahoo.com in response to Amir Muhammad’s request for reviews of books we enjoyed in the 1990s.

A Mandarin Vision of Clockwork Oranges

Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew

By George (Nonis); Angsana Books, 200 pp, 1991  

Imagine a sophisticated republic such as Plato might have conceived, where the poet is called a fool and madman – and secret policemen supply the jokes. Wink and nudge, jury and judge. Dissent by numbers. Does it sound like Singapore?

Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s
second prime minister

Then read Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew by George (Nonis). You can do it in less than an hour: it’s mostly cartoons. “The book everybody thought was impossible to publish,” says the backcover blurb. Chuckle chuckle.

“I’m not disrespectful of my leaders,” Nonis declares. “Lee Kuan Yew is my favorite politician, and Confucius my favorite philosopher.” He even thinks it’s a good idea (after witnessing CNN’s Gulf War on TV) to spend money on guns, tanks and missiles. “We should all take war seriously.”

That was a dead giveaway. The book’s an apology masquerading as brave new political satire. An apology for whom or what?, you may ask.

Why, for the wonderful way of life in Singapore and for Lee Kuan Yew’s mandarin vision of clockwork oranges. Confucius, he say: “Gong Xi Fa Cai!”  The same to you, I say.

ImageThe artwork and text are inoffensively engaging – and I was initially charmed by Nonis’s easy wit and fluid cartoon style. He draws female torsos and legs very well (did he perhaps escape from an ad agency?). But his repetitive claims to red-hot controversy and daredevil taboo-bashing prove quite unfounded. No, I can’t believe that even a Singaporean could regard Hello CT, Goodbye KY as a radical breakthrough in socio-political commentary.

Still, the book should sell well in Singapore where the government’s campaign to make people read more has been remarkably effective. And this is a book that lends itself to being picked up, flipped through, bought on impulse, and then discarded like so much styrofoam (Singapore’s most lethal export).

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s quote on the very first page sets the tone of the book: “We believe in making Singapore an enjoyable place for all of us. At the right occasion, I think we should all have a good laugh, even to the extent of laughing at ourselves.” [Emphasis mine].

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s
“God of No Mercy”

There you have it. Writer-cartoonist George Nonis has his official sanction to tease the hitherto uptight Titans of Total Rule. I bet Chok Tong has a whole stack on his desk. I can just hear him chortling: “Have you seen this? Ha ha ha. It’s damn funny, you have to read it!” Chortle chortle.

Oh dear, I don’t mean to be mean – but I’m inclined to believe that the Singapore government’s brave new Fun Policy provides for subsidized evening classes in Good Clean Chortling. Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew will most likely be a prescribed text. 

[First published in the New Straits Times, 7 September 1991]

KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE – WITH TOURIST DOLLAR$

ImageIn Praise of Kuta by Hugh Mabbett (166pp, January Books, 1987) 

Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies observed in the 1930s that the Balinese have “a suppleness of mind which has enabled them to take what they want of the alien civilizations reaching them for centuries and to leave the rest.”

The fact that half a century later Hugh Mabbett (a New Zealander with a rightful claim to intimate knowledge of the region) can reaffirm this view is comfort indeed to those who have relished the splendor of Bali and are therefore loath to see it vulgarized and venalized by massive tourism.

In Praise of Kuta, Mabbett’s second book on Bali, is a highly readable little book with a big heart and noble vision. Adroitly combining the skills of journalist, historian, back-alley guide and social commentator, Mabbett has turned in a significant, topical study of general interest. His prose is fluid and lucid throughout and his perceptions warm and wise. A great deal of the research put into it is first-hand and intensely personal – an approach that has produced more than a few gems of insight.

Kuta’s outstanding characteristic, according to Mabbett, is that “it has grown much of its own accord, with only slight intervention from government or big business. It is a do-it-yourself resort, created by individual entrepreneurs, not by companies.” (For the uninitiated, Kuta is Bali’s de facto tourist capital, the “hip” hangout and global village that sprang up higgledy-piggledy in the late 1960s and is today one of the world’s most famous holiday destinations.)

Pride and dignity

Mabbett is convinced that “if by some weird mischance the tourists should vanish, the beach lose its surfers and bathers, the hotels and bars and restaurants crumble, the old Kuta would emerge from the ruins and carry on. There is a persistence here, and energy and pride and dignity, that the casual visitor may not perceive.”

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Kuta’s legendary white sand beach

Most visitors to Bali have little opportunity or inclination to study the sociocultural mechanisms that underlie the legendary gracefulness and self-confidence of the Balinese. Obviously, Mabbett has not spent his extended stays in Bali acquiring a tan and getting drunk on the island’s scenic offerings. Instead, he has assigned himself the mission of a quick-eyed and quick-eared anthropologist and emerged with a wealth of valuable information, especially concerning the banjar system: a unique form of local government named for “the modest buildings where members of these extraordinary organizations meet.”

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Kuta Square in the 21st century

The banjar, unlike its bureaucratic counterpart in other societies, emphasizes the element of human  interaction within each Balinese community rather than the institutional aspects of administration. Each family appoints two members (“usually husband and wife”)) to the district council, which arrives at decisions by consensus.

When a couple marry or on the birth of their first child, they are considered banjar members, superseding their parents – which “means that membership is mainly youthful and that rule by geriatrics is avoided.”

Change is kept under control by the spirit of community and a sense of organic continuity generated by banjar suka-duka rituals – cooperative participation in events of pleasure and sorrow – be they weddings or funerals, births or cremations, harvest time or the curbing of crime.

So effective has the banjar system proved, Mabbett declares that it is “as vital as it ever was – and certainly larger (in Kuta).”

Surfing was introduced to Bali in 1936

Kuta’s incomparable, cosmopolitan appeal (along with a few popular misconceptions) are entertainingly discussed in chapters devoted to:

SURFING: “Virtually all writing about surfing in Bali falls over itself in praise of the waves.”

THE DRUG SCENE: “The most dangerous delusion any visitor to Bali can entertain is that Kuta is still… a place where anything goes. If a visitor thinks and acts like that, all that goes is the visitor to jail, and not just for thirty days.”

THE NOT-SO-UGLY AUSTRALIAN: “During weeks in Kuta, speaking to scores of people, I found not a single Balinese who voiced any antipathy towards Australians. A typical comment was that some drank too much and acted stupidly, but most were good people.”

And, of course, Mabbett offers amusing anecdotes about Kuta’s hedonistic titillations: from Wet T-Shirt competitions at the Bali Waltzing Matilda to the beautiful Balinese beachboys sought after by white women on solo sun-&-fun vacations.

Beyond this, Mabbett argues that “the Australians are actually making a useful contribution to maintaining Balinese culture.  Even young Kutanese can remember hard times. The town is vastly more prosperous now, and prosperity has brought with it the means to restore banjar buildings and temples and to engage more fully in cultural and religious occasions… tourists who are in Kuta only for its beach and its bars are not likely to have much impact on the way of life. In this sense Kuta is a useful quarantine station.”

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Mads Lange, merchant-adventurer, lived in Kuta from 1839 to 1856; his daughter married into Johore royalty

But it is in the capacity of historian that Mabbett most impresses: his accounts of Kuta’s past are brief but evocative  – from the arrival of a Dutch expedition in 1897 to the introduction of surfing in 1936 by a young American, Robert Koke, who later (with his future wife Louise Garrett, whose drawings are featured in the book to great effect) founded the Kuta Beach Hotel, forerunner of today’s native-style homestays… and the beginnings of Kuta’s cult status in the 1960s as the place to be.

An interesting chapter on Mads Johansen Lange, a Danish merchant adventurer who lived in Kuta from 1839 to 1856, climaxes with the revelation that Lange’s third child was a daughter, Cecilia, delivered by his Chinese wife Ong Siang Nio; the same Cecilia Lange who went to school in Singapore where she met and married the future Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore – and became great-grandmother to Sultan Iskandar, Malaysia’s 8th Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Protect Kuta’s spontaneity

Mads Lange apparently had far-ranging and ambitious genes: “no fewer than seventeen Langes are listed in the 1985 Singapore telephone book. ‘Miss Singapore 1986’ (Farah Lange) was a Mads Lange descendant.”

The tight-paced documentary effect that Mabbett has achieved with In Praise of Kuta makes it an exemplary work in contemporary chroniclership. Photographs abound, many in color (and hence, perhaps, the somewhat stiff pricing of the book). But as the blurb on the back cover says:

“Kuta is a fun place. Don’t wait for the video, read about it instead.”

Mabbett concludes with some very cogent advice to the forces responsible for tourism development: “What Kuta does not need is the cold and clinical hand of an overzealous town planner. A single big-city shopping complex would be a crime, and more than one would be a disaster. The paramount need is to protect Kuta’s spontaneity…”

[First published in the News Straits Times, 24 April 1987]

For a  magickal glimpse of this island paradise, read KEMBALI KE BALI

 

 

 

 

WRITINGS ON THE WALL

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Antares catches a whiff of ‘concretoceptual word-artist’ Latif Kamaluddin’s BAD BREATH

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Latif Kamaluddin, philosopher-monk
disguised as a human being

A couple of years ago, Latif Kamaluddin asked me to review a self-published collection of his “concretoceptual poems” entitled Words Have Meaning. It was printed in black ink on red card, which brought on eyestrain on top of brainstrain.

Much as I’m fond of Latif Kamaluddin the human being, I couldn’t oblige. In the first place, his idea of poetry, which he terms “word-art,” left me cold and unmoved. I viewed it as a purely cerebral exercise – a verbal wank to relieve the pressures of a stultifying ivory-tower tenure – Latif’s way of rebelling against everything academia stood for by parodying with a poker face the academic mindset itself.

Recently I received in the post his second self-published compilation, this time printed on recycled brown stock and infinitely more legible and stimulating, which bore the irresistible title (itself a work of word-art): BAD BREATH & FIREPROOF DRAG QUEENS (Otherwise known as Khepa’s Dilemma – Being a Concretoceptual Celebration of Irrelevant Research).

Never mind who Khepa is and why he’s in a dilemma, one soon gets used to Latif’s esoteric references to obscure authorities and his invocation of little-known sadhu lineages. With his navel-length Mr Natural beard, perpetually furrowed brow, and shiny pate, Latif could easily pass for a sadhu or mad monk himself.

Indeed, this hirsute professor-cum-philosopher-turned word-artist, who heads a small research unit in Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, looks like some venerable Greek Cypriot archbishop or a mantra-chanting beatnik poet from an era long gone. All he needs is a pair of shades to completely mask his identity as that rarest of endangered subspecies – an “Indo-Malay-Hungarian” academic holding a unique niche in a field unvisited by mainstream Malaysian concerns.

All the more reason, then, that the advent of Latif’s second concretoceptual word-art anthology should not pass unremarked. In the arid, conformist intellectual climate of Malaysia in her slogan-slinging, consumer-industrial phase of development, Dr Abdul Latif Kamaluddin shimmers like an oasis of open-minded eclecticism and eccentricity – an indicator that there is intelligent life yet in the utilitarian factories of state-controlled academia. Or at least a mutant high-brow graffiti artist at large in the instant ghettoes of our national psyche.

What does Latif mean by “concretoceptual”? What on earth is Word-Art? Is it all a put-on? And who is Nabanidas Baul, whose mad Bengali sadhu visage opens and closes the slim volume? I can’t answer these questions. Unless some brave soul takes on the challenge, we’ll just have to accept Latif’s word for the existence of literary and philosophical notables like Dolf Hartsuiker, Oeyvind Fahlstroem, Konstantin Amadeus Wecker, and Hermes Phettberg. This is one highly educated hierophant mystic indeed.

Among my personal favorites in the anthology, Latif’s Ode to Mr Bush deserves special mention for its clarity, cogency and conciseness: 45 “SIEGHEILS”  (all in caps) arranged like a column of orcs in 15 rows.

Politics is another prime example of concretoceptual word-art: what looks like a trash can constructed  from the word POLITICS contains only the looped phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” No bin liner, bed linen or bin Laden jokes, please.

In Words-Worth, Latif approaches the zen heart of a logical-mystical conundrum with pristine geometric economy: “WORD ON PAGE/PAGE ON PAPER/PAPER ON BOOK/BOOK ON TREE/TREE ON SOIL/SOIL ON EARTH … EARTH IN SOIL/SOIL IN TREE/TREE IN BOOK/BOOK IN PAPER/PAPER IN PAGE/PAGE IN  WORD.” Twelve 3-word lines set in two vertical columns with a “prayalic” break – suggesting the sacred pause between inhalation and exhalation, destruction and creation, one swing of the pendulum and the next.

Latif’s polysyllabic concretoceptualizations walk a tightrope between the serious and the absurd, between the sagacious and the puerile, between solemnity and spontaneity. In a preface entitled Why Write?, he solipsistically concludes:

“WE WRITE (AGAIN) BECAUSE it is an act of semi-totalized self-colonization.” Practitioners of tantric sex value the sublime process of orgasmic non-ejaculation, wherein the seedforce is redirected internally along the spine, so that it can inseminate and fructify the crown chakra, meeting-point of Mind and Spirit.

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Front cover of Bad Breath & Fireproof
Drag Queens

Well, imagine attempting to do that in print.

There is a noticeable change in the tenor of the works dedicated to the poet’s muse, who is acknowledged only as “K.” His words become grounded in organicity, they even acquire rhyme: “We are but blood and a tear/Posted on some painted door/Yet we know not what to bear/All we ask for is some more” (Liturgy for K).

Occasionally, Latif erupts in pure peevishness, notably when he addresses local politics in pieces like Alamak Ulamak, Lagu Kebangsaan, Wa Wa Wa San, Bladi Gomen, Guess Who, Malaysia Boleh, and Sudden Death. Yes, he also writes in Malay and Manglish whenever he’s feeling particularly pissed off. Though these off-the-wall moments do not attain the heights of poetic finesse, they do serve a potent purgative purpose, and reveal a man whose heart is essentially with the rakyat, even when his mind soars way above the clouds.

Latif the Human Relations Worker has been known to support fringe causes with a burning passion, attending to marginalized groups like abused children, the visually handicapped, and the transgendered (which explains the reference to “fireproof drag queens” in the book’s title). Indeed, Latif provocatively dedicates his second anthology “to the Malay-Muslim Apostate.” There are times when one is sharply reminded of the paradigm-shifting power of the printed word.

BAD BREATH is destined to be a collectors’ item: a bold and fragrant breeze of inspired unworldliness, lovingly published in a limited edition and on sale at Silverfish Books, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru (next to Devi’s Corner).

For a free digital sample of Latif Kamaluddin’s concretoceptual word-art, visit http://www.magickriver.net/latif.htm

October 2003

8 Brilliant Plays in 4 Tumultuous Years

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ImageHuzir Sulaiman must be sick and tired of being called precocious, an enfant terrible, a veritable prodigy. But that’s only because people believe him when he says he was born in 1973.

After reading his recently published Eight Plays, I’m convinced that Huzir must be at least several years my senior and ready to withdraw his EPF money. Either that or he’s suffering from progeria – a wasting disease that grossly accelerates the aging process – because I distinctly recall acting with Huzir Sulaiman in a 1981 production called Struggles of the Naga Tribe when he claimed to be only seven. Well, even then, he seemed rather precocious – and a whole lot more approachable than the image of the enigmatic and disdainful savant he sports today.

But I’ll say this: few people I know deserve to be called “creative genius” as much as Huzir Sulaiman does, regardless of mental age or attitude towards his audiences.  I have no idea what his formative years were like. I know his parents are incredibly smart (his dad was one-time president of the Bar Council, and featured prominently as a senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s defence team) – but what books did he read, was he good at sports, did he like girls? I’m told he was a top student at Princeton, though I haven’t a clue what his major was. All I know is that Huzir returned to KL in the mid-1990s looking like a tweedy middle-aged Ivy League professor.

But, boy, could he act! He was superb in every rôle he played, even when cast as a Malaysian “Mr Bean” in a silly TV sitcom series. Then he tried his hand at directing – and the results were outstanding. Next thing I knew, this prodigious enfant terrible had churned out a slew of plays – all of them excellent, damn him!

And now Silverfishbooks have published eight of them in an affordable paperback edition. Unfortunately the laminated covers curl as soon as you begin to read. Well, one either lives with this or holds out for a hardcover edition. And this collection undoubtedly deserves a permanent place in any library. Not everyone thinks plays are good reading but in this case I found the text extremely engaging as literature, and the exercise actually forced me to change my mind about some Huzir productions I’d seen (but more about that later).

It’s true Huzir’s first play, a one-man show called Lazy Hazy Crazy, was pretty much an Instant Café Theatre revue – but without the rest of the famous cast, of which he had been a member for a season or two. It was nonetheless hilarious and wackily inspired, and established his Straits Theatre Company as a cutting edge force. The playwright decided to omit this early effort from the collection – either because he prefers the numeral 8 to 9, or perhaps he felt it didn’t quite match the elegance and sophistication of his subsequent works.

A strategic move: because his second play, Atomic Jaya, was simply explosive. No, it didn’t bomb. On the contrary, it was arguably the most scathing, timely, and intelligent satire ever seen in these parts. The first version had the incredible Jo Kukathas playing all 14 parts. It was revised and restaged three years later in Singapore with the phenomenal Claire Wong as the entire cast.

Who can resist quoting a brief exchange between Dr Mary Yuen (nuclear physicist) and General Zulkifli (who commissions her to build the first Malaysian atom bomb)?

General Zulkifli welcomes Dr Mary Yuen to the research laboratory of Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn. Bhd.

YUEN:  Yes, I was confused about the sign. You mean this is a private company?

GENERAL:  It’s not my decision. Everything they must privatize now. But it’s okay. The directors of the company include seven generals and one Prime Minister’s son. You must have Prime Minister’s son. Keep them busy. Otherwise if unemployed they will start the NGO.

Exquisite precision. Atomic Jaya had the same electrifying intensity as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s hyperrealistic Brazil. It was delightful to be able to read the script and be mesmerized all over again by the sparkling wit and sheer inventiveness of this brilliantly mad exposé of the psychopathology of Bolehland.

The Smell of Language – an involuted and priapic experiment in verbal synesthesia (no doubt inspired by the fractal semantic constructs of Jorge Luis Borges) struck me as one huge wank when I saw Huzir perform it – albeit a highly erudite one with serious political undertones. But as a printed text, it holds enormous appeal for anyone who takes pleasure in cunning linguistics and the ruthlessness of intellectual virtuosity.

It’s easy to see why Hip-Hopera – Huzir’s shot at writing and directing a feel-good rap musical – proved such a box-office hit, playing to packed houses for a full month. The characters are breezy and instantly likeable, the tunes lively, funky (and forgettable), but the lyrics… the lyrics are something else, check this out:

I’m a soap-box preacher, a lyrical teacher
And if you come into my theatre there’s an usher who will seat ya
And if you come into my parlour I’m sure I’m pleased to meet ya
And if you come into my bed you can see the main feature
Got a lot of philosophy that just might reach ya
Cause I dig Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche
I need ya, I’ll feed ya, I’m never going to cheat ya
But if you lie like the President I am going to impeach ya

Genuinely capable and inventive individuals like Huzir Sulaiman are the only cure for Terminal Malaysiabolehitis. Their creative contributions rescue us from chronic cultural embarrassment or, worse, premature self-congratulations.

I regret missing Zahim Albakri’s performance of Notes on Life & Love & Painting, which received critical accolades. Reading it was truly an aesthetic experience and further reinforced my admiration for the way Huzir Sulaiman has integrated his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. His diatribe on the myth of artistic originality is worth framing as a poster and I feel compelled to quote a portion of it, truncated for brevity:

We have rubber trees because rubber trees were brought here from Brazil by the British. Chilli is not indigenous. Chilli was imported from South America 500 years ago. What comes from Malaysia? We buy our rice from Thailand now and our sarongs from Indonesia. Was the novel invented in Malaysia? No. Did we invent films and television? Is painting indigenous to Malaysia? No. Is abstract art an outgrowth of weaving mengkuang? Like fuck it is. So why should anybody expect me to be original? It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. Would you like some coffee? No? It’s Colombian.

He even succeeds in ending the monologue on a positive, life-affirming note. Awesome! It’s one of those wonderfully self-contained masterpieces one wishes one had written.

The neo-existentialist mood of Election Day annoyed and depressed me when I caught the play, staged as it was nine days after a bitterly disappointing election that saw business-as-usual triumph over ethical and environmental considerations. But in the ensuing years, I have come to accept that Huzir was right – the male ego’s desire to screw something terribly sexy, like an exotic woman or an entire country, transcends belief systems and underlies all acts of betrayal. However, I’m still unhappy with the way Huzir disposes of two of his characters, getting them hauled off by the cops for assaulting a police officer. Surely he could have found some way to invoke the dreaded ISA?

Those Four Sisters Fernandez represents the playwright’s exploration of his own Malayalee roots. There are many scintillating moments and memorable lines, yet the play leaves a great deal unresolved – but I suppose life’s a lot like that. As an attempt to document the collective psyche of a fascinating subculture and how it responds to change, the play carries considerable value. Nonetheless, it isn’t my favorite in the collection.

The last two plays – Occupation and Whatever That Is – have only ever been staged in Singapore. The former was commissioned by the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival while the latter was presented as part of an evening of 10-minute plays entitled Squeeze and SqueezabilityOccupation is a masterful and disciplined exploration of internal puns and rhymes, and the nebulous nature of historical reconstruction. I found it a tad clinical yet strangely heartwarming. What impressed me most was Huzir’s knack of capturing the inflections of his characters’ speech in print.

Huzir Sulaiman of Studio Wong Huzir

If one must draw comparisons, it’s Salman Rushdie who comes to mind: I regard Rushdie as one of the most engaging contemporary writers in English, a happy and unexpected by-product of the late great British Empire, whose “native” soul fuses ecstatically with his “colonized” mind. Well, we don’t want a fatwa on Huzir’s head – but it definitely does me proud to claim dat young fler as an old friend (no pun intended). And to think he used to call me “Uncle.” This is ridiculously mature work for someone who just turned 29.

Whatever That Is reads like a miniature gem in the chic and cerebral style of Yasmina Reza (whose award-winning play, Art, was staged by Huzir’s Straits Theatre Company in June 2001). Huzir certainly knows how to play with pregnant pauses, making silence speak louder than his wonderfully crafted words.

An extremely hearty slap on the back to Silverfishbooks for making Huzir Sulaiman’s Eight Plays available in print. What an excellent public service. May it reach far and wide and redeem our pygmified intellectual self-esteem. I hope we don’t lose one of our finest creative minds to a neighboring country for lack of appreciation.

[First published on kakiseni.com, December 2002. A year after this review, Huzir Sulaiman decided to settle in Singapore, where he married Claire Wong, another former Malaysian and an absolutely superb actress.]

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