We, the Survivors- book review

It’s not often that a story of a murderer elicits sympathy but We, the Survivors pulls off this feat deftly. Told as a recollection of the life of a Malaysian Chinese ex-convict leading up to his act of manslaughter, this novel written by Taiwanese-born Malaysian Tash Aw is a somber but powerful tale of rural poverty, illegal migrant exploitation, environmental destruction, and class differences.

Having served his time in jail and now living a simple life as an ex-con, Ah Hock is approached by a young lady who is doing a PhD and wants to interview him as “field work” for research. Through the course of many interviews conducted over several months, Ah Hock tells of his humble upbringing in a poor fishing village, his move to the big city, and his gradual rise from manual labor work to foreman of a fish farm. He is doing well, having married and bought a house, until a childhood friend shows up.

Having grown up with Ah Hock in his village, Keong was a teen hoodlum and drug dealer in his youth, hustling around in the big city Kuala Lumpur until he becomes a labor broker. That is, he specializes in finding migrant workers to do manual labor. Given that these workers are most often illegals and have no work permits, they are easily exploited and sometimes literally worked to death. Keong’s reappearance in Ah Hock’s adult life is an ominous development that changes it for the worst.

Ultimately, this happens after Ah Hock desperately tries to find replacements for sick workers on his farm, leading him to ask Keong for help from his shady contacts. In a sense, Ah Hock is also responsible for what eventually happens, and hence his own downfall.

Eventually, the interviewer decides to turn Ah Hock’s story into a book, which Ah Hock is nonplussed about. Ah Hock’s interactions with her, which often form interludes between his narration of his life story, demonstrate the stark difference in their backgrounds (Ah Hock did not graduate from high school) and outlook on life. She is highly educated, opinionated and strongly critical of problems in the country like corruption.

We, the Survivors is a moving but sad book to read, especially with the way how Ah Hock seems to have accepted his fate with resignation and a lack of regret. The book does well to avoid descending into overwrought emotions or sappiness.

While Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s more prosperous countries, there is a lot of exploitation of migrant workers as people from poorer neighboring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh are often smuggled into the country looking for a better life. In We, the Survivors, their fate in the country is told in sometimes horrifying detail.

This is the second book I’ve read from Tash Aw, with the first being the Harmony Silk Factory. Both of these books are set in Malaysia (his other books take place in China and Indonesia). Tash Aw has an impressive ability to make the hot, sultry Malaysian landscape a compelling backdrop for his books, whether it be the tin-mining boom city Ipoh or in this case, rural Malaysia.

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang

Penang, Malaysia
Penang might be a small island* off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but it is probably the country’s most popular destination to visit. Penang boasts a lot of heritage architecture, great street food, a mountain, and a small but pleasant national park on its northwestern coast. Penang was one of the British Empire’s former Straits Settlement, and its capital George Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it shares with Malacca, another former Straits Settlement. With almost 40% of its population being Malaysian-Chinese, Penang has the highest proportion of Chinese in Malaysia and is one of the country’s most multicultural places.

The capital George Town has an extensive heritage district that boasts many historic colonial buildings including a fort, Chinese temples and halls, shophouses, churches, mosques, and mansions. This is similar to Ipoh, the inland city which was my previous stop on this trip, though much more extensive. Some of the buildings have been restored and look very new while those that had not still have a sort of old-time charm.

There are also several murals in various buildings, with the most well-known painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (I only came across two or three of them but I wasn’t actively searching for them). Popular with tourists, Zacharevic painted them in 2012 for the George Town Festival. My favorite mural, the “Indian Fisherman,” was painted by another artist.

One of the most well-known sites is the Clan Jetties, several long waterfront piers along which entire Malaysian-Chinese clans live. I found several of them quite touristy with gaudy signs and lots of souvenir stalls, but there were also a couple of quiet ones. To be honest, I found the view of the sea from the end of the jetties more interesting than the actual jetties. As people actually live there, remember to be respectful when walking around and taking photos.

One notable piece of Chinese history in Penang is the Sun Yat-sen Museum, the preserved house where the Chinese revolutionary Sun, often considered the “father of modern China,” lived for several months in 1910. While there, he organized and raised funds from the local Chinese community in his efforts to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty. The house is a fine, elegant two-story dwelling that is very long and features open space in the centre.

Penang is famous for food. However, I’m not a foodie and was traveling solo, so I didn’t indulge in too much of the local delicacies. I did enjoy Chinese noodles and Indian food, as well as nasi kandar, which is rice with fried chicken.

*Penang also includes part of the neighboring coastal mainland called Seberang Parai, which is larger than the island. But travelers usually just go to the island, which for all purposes is Penang.

How to get there: You can fly to Penang or you can cross over on a car ferry from the mainland, after getting off the train at Butterworth station (which I did).

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia
Goddess of Mercy temple (Kuan Yin Teng), built in 1728, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang”

Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park

Penang National Park, Malaysia
Malaysia’s island* state of Penang is rightfully known for being a food and heritage paradise, but there are other things to do besides eating and wandering around historical neighborhoods. Hiking on Penang Hill is one, and trekking in Penang National Park is another. That’s right, Penang has its own national park which covers a corner of its northwestern point, featuring beaches, forest paths, and a little turtle conservation center.

While sometimes described as the world’s smallest national park, it is still a decent place to get lost (figuratively speaking) in forest and hike to secluded beaches. There are two main beaches- Monkey Beach and Turtle Beach – which you can hike directly to on different trails from the park entrance. The latter is where the turtle conservation center is located. When I visited, there were a few mid-sized turtles and a few tiny baby turtles. I’m not sure if there are monkeys at the former, but there are definitely monkeys on the trails.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

If you’d rather not hike through the forest, you can take boat rides at the entrance to get to the beaches directly.

Right before Turtle Beach, there is a meromictic lake, where there are two distinct layers of water – one saltwater from the sea, and the other freshwater from the rain. However, this lake is only full during the monsoon season from May-November so unfortunately, when I went there in January, it was just a dried lakebed.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

How to get there: In Penang, you can take the 101 or 103 bus from the KOMTAR bus terminal and get off at the final stop, which is the park. The ride takes around 45 minutes.
Note: The park is free but you need to register at the front desk.

*Penang actually consists of an island (the main part) as well as a small part of the mainland coast next to the island. This mainland part is called Seberang Perai, which is where Butterworth train station is located (from the train station, you transfer to a ferry to get to Penang island). Continue reading “Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park”

Malaysia travel- enjoying art, religion and scenery in Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh is an attractive city, especially its Old Town and its surroundings. The city is ringed by limestone hills, some of which feature Chinese Buddhist cave temples, while the Kinta River runs through it, with the Old Town on the west bank and the newer areas to the east of the river.

In my previous Ipoh post, I mentioned the Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club museum. This used to be a clubhouse for Hakka Miners and is now a museum, with most of the inside maintained as it used to be decades ago. The museum offers free scheduled tours, which you need to book online in advance, and so I did. The tour was led by a local Hakka Malaysian-Chinese, naturally as the museum is about Hakkas, who did a very good job telling everyone about the mining club’s history and members, as well as the Chinese community as a whole.

It was amusing to learn that some of the local Chinese magnates had multiple wives AND mistresses (this seems to be a common old Chinese custom), what the different Chinese groups who came to Malaysia did (Hakkas and Cantonese went into tin mining, the Hokkienese opened shops etc), and what the Hakka club members did at the club – gambling, smoking opium, playing mahjong, and even enjoying the company of prostitutes. You might be able to tell that the miners’ club was men only and the wives were not allowed. While all of this sounds quite raunchy, I don’t want to give people the wrong idea, so let me assure you that our guide was a humorous and friendly guy who wasn’t bawdy or anything like that.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Meanwhile, besides the giant murals spread out across the Old Town, there is an entire lane filled with beautiful wall murals across the Kinta River from the Old Town. The Mural Arts’ Lane features colorful depictions of local Malaysian people and culture. It doesn’t seem to be as well-known as the Old Town murals which were done by a well-known Lithuanian artist, but that suited me as I didn’t mind being one of only two people there. However the lane of murals has another surprise – an attractive blue and white mosque tucked into one end, the Panglima Kinta mosque.

When I walked inside the mosque’s compound to take pictures, two girls suddenly called out to me from the mosque. I was a little surprised when they asked me if I wanted a free tour inside, but I agreed and met A and R, two local Malays who were mosque volunteers. They showed me around the mosque, including the worship area, and told me about the rituals for worship. The mosque was right next to the Kinta river, and back in the old days, worshippers would actually come on boats to the mosque. We ended up having a good discussion about different things, including that A was interested in Chinese and could actually speak some Mandarin. Though the two of them wore hijabs, the traditional Muslim women’s veil that covers the head and body, they were quite friendly.

That was a very memorable experience, and I have to say, maybe there is something good in the air about Ipoh. I already talked about the city having Asia’s nicest Cantonese in my previous post, and these two girls were like the nicest Muslims I’ve ever met while traveling. To be fair, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, when I visited the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, three men came up to me and started telling me about Islam. In Kuala Lumpur, while visiting the National Mosque, a woman volunteer (one of several there) spoke to me about Islam as well. I did tell them I was a Christian but I didn’t mind hearing about Islam. An amusing thing that both the Kuala Lumpur mosque lady and A and R mentioned was why Muslims segregate men and women while worshiping – to avoid being distracted by the opposite sex while praying. It’s a reasonable point, I suppose.

Moving on from Islam to Buddhism, I visited three Buddhist cave temples. Two of them were south of Ipoh while one was north of it. Perak Tong is a large cave temple, but even more relevant to me was that it was located in a hill from which you could ascent to the top and enjoy a sweeping view of the surrounding area.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Back in Ipoh, one unexpected artistic discovery was a building in which each floor was lined with colorful murals showcasing local lifestyle from the 1920-60s. These murals featured mostly Chinese while the murals on Mural Arts’ Lane were Malay, Indian and Chinese. It was free to enter though on one floor, there was a small concubine (mistresses of Chinese men) museum. The building, Wisma Chye Hin, was mostly empty but it was a new venture aimed at creating an artistic and shopping center. I hope they succeed because they really put a lot of effort into it as the murals were fantastic.

I like museums a lot and I tried to visit one in Ipoh, but it was closed, which I only learned when I arrived at the museum’s closed gate (the guard told me it was being renovated). This was the second time it happened to me in Ipoh, the first when I walked up to the Sam Poh Tong cave temple and saw the gates were shut though it was 2.30 pm. There was a security guard and when I asked him why it was closed, he said, “because the workers decided to get off work.” That was very annoying but I had no choice but to leave. That said though, the positives in Ipoh outweighed the negatives by a lot.

Ipoh, Malaysia
What looks like dirty, rundown houses overrun with vines are actually modern boutiques set in a picturesque complex (mentioned in my previous Ipoh post). Next to these shops is the restaurant below.
Ipoh, Malaysia Continue reading “Malaysia travel- enjoying art, religion and scenery in Ipoh”