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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Glimpses of the Past - Wong Meng Voon (Review)

Random Review 13

Stories from Malaysia and Singapore 

Wong Meng Voon

(Heinemann Asia, 1981, ISBN: 9971640279)

After reading about three stories of this collection, I sat up with a bit of a jolt. Something seemed to be missing. Ah yes: none of these stories had any conclusion. I then looked back at the tile, Glimpses of the Past, and appreciated the message. Although the stories are fiction, the author was trying to produce an authentic representation of life. In real life, episodes seldom have the neat conclusions that some fiction writers manufacture. The story instead is just another stepping stone on the journey.

Bearing this point in mind, it was much easier to appreciate the author’s gentle and perceptive style. His writing enables the reader to eavesdrop on the lives of the characters who populate his stories. They were written at a time when labourers belonged to the country; none of the stories has any interaction with people who are not Malaysian or Singaporeans. Although a couple of the stories give glimpses of a more comfortable middle class life, on the whole, Wong’s characters are strugglers, making the best of the hard lot that has been dealt to them.

Once getting used to the nature of the stories, they are readable and engrossing. However soon I felt that there were also a couple of other aspects of life in the 60s and 70s that were missing, i.e. there was not much to laugh about and enjoy. Reflections on childhood were generally happy, but adult life comes across as being fairly miserable. Wong is definitely engaged with his characters in this ‘compassionate’ period of his career. (His later writings have been more satirical.) However it is a pity that he did not feel able to represent life as being more rounded with a few more flashes of joy.

With the exception of one story, Eight Hours in the Sewer, the stories’ characters are all from the Chinese community. Other communities barely intrude. All of the stories are the author’s translations of stories that were originally written in Chinese. So Wong presents a fairly one dimensional view of Malaysia and Singapore of the time. There is no problem with that: it may well be the way that many members of both countries’ main communities lived then and now. However, it was strange that there were probably only one or two references in this collection to religion, whether formal or popular. It is seldom that home life in any community in Malaysia or Singapore does not brush up against belief in the supernatural in some form or other.

Despite these two missing elements, of joy and religion, there is plenty to recommend in these poignant stories, particularly for readers who are not from the Chinese community. The author’s spare and imperceptibly crafted style beautifully show the common thread of humanity that binds all of us. Wong’s characters and the stories they inhabit are ordinary people faced with ordinary events, the true bedrock of any society, despite common misconceptions to the contrary.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fixing Malaysia: In Fact and Fiction

Random Reviews 11 & 12

Fixing Malaysia:

In Fact and Fiction

Can We Save Malaysia, Please! - Kee Thuan Chye 

(Marshall Cavendish, 2014 ISBN: 9789814561235)


Green is the Colour - Lloyd Fernando 

(Epigram, 2012 ISBN: 9789810726850)

Although I had originally planned to write two separate reviews, I started to read Green is the Colour immediately after Kee Thuan Chye's book and couldn't help notice how struck I was by the interconnection that I saw between the two. Both books are written by polemicists, one a playwright and journalist and the other an academic and novelist. Both lament the state of life in Malaysia, one in the aftermath of the 1969 riots and the other today. Both authors would like to see a different Malaysia, one a politically different Malaysia, the other a culturally different country.

However, there are of course differences too. Primarily Kee's book is a collection of journalism while Fernando's novel has found its way into a growing body of English language Malaysian literature. Can We Save Malaysia, Please! may well be forgotten in ten years' time, while Green is the Colour is more likely to endure. 

Kee is a witty and trenchant journalist and his contributions could well be a useful record of early 21st century Malaysian history. However when the reader is given nearly three hundred pages covering just nine months' output, there is certain to be repetition. Like any good journalist, Kee writes each article to catch his audience's attention on a first reading. Similarly when he writes another article on the same subject, he fills in a bit of background for the reader. While the style works well on a blog or in a newspaper, it is almost sure to bore the reader when the same article appears in a collection. I checked a sample article in the book against the original on the internet and was unable to find that the original had been edited for the book. So after the first fifty pages, I skim read most of the rest of the book.

Green is the Colour is a racier read. The introduction to the characters at a dewan in the aftermath of the 1969 riots is a little choppy. However the book soon settles down into a pace that makes it difficult to put down. The sketchy introductions to the main characters soon take on more form as we follow Panglima, the 'Malay' purist, his idealistic anti racist counterpart, Dahlan, and Omar and Yun Ming who represent softer versions of the respective extremes. The women, Sara and Gita, are not so strongly drawn and usually play the roles of linking the men rather than driving the plot.

As one would expect, Fernando, the novelist, is more nuanced than the campaigning journalist, Kee. However they do share a common characteristic in that neither is able to paint a picture of  their 'demon' that is convincing. Panglima, the villain of the novel, has few, if any redeeming characteristics, while the Government, Kee's constant target, receives little, if any, praise. There is a danger in adopting a black and white approach in that the writer ends up preaching to the converted. Fernando was, at least, aware of the danger when he wrote of the idealist Dahlan '...Are not Dahlan's opponents committed, too? Is not Dahlan wrong just to bring an idea without asking how it should be brought in for people of different cultures?'

Fernando does not fall into the trap of presenting the characters with whom he has most sympathy as being flawless. Sara is naive in her dealings with Dahlan, while Yun Ming, a capable Government servant, is reckless in pursuing his love of Sara and Omar is a brute in the bedroom. By contrast I did not find any of Kee's articles taking the Opposition to task in the same way as he does the Government.


On the other hand Kee Thuan Chye's books clearly do sell otherwise his publishers would not continue to bring out new collections of his journalism. He must have a strong following: a Reader's Digest poll found him to be the 34th most trusted individual in Malaysia. You can see why. When he sticks to the unvarnished facts, as he does in his article 'Mayday for MH370 and Malaysia', he is spot on and hits his target hard. I hope one day a wider readership will better appreciate his journalism in an edited compendium of his quality pieces.

Lloyd Fernando's message is more timeless. His narrative is interwoven with quotes and reflections that can be more easily absorbed by the general reader. Green is the Colour also has a transnational message for any country struggling with national, racial and religious identities. The book does not provide a solution. Each of the characters has her or his own take on that. However Fernando does provide plenty for debate.

Its should be remembered that, despite the time lapse between publication of the two books, both authors were conscious of living in a society where speaking one's mind on 'national' issues was and is difficult. As Fernando puts it ",If a third person was present, speak for that person's benefit. If he was Malay, you speak one way, Chinese another way, Indian another. ...In the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened: the wound beneath continued to run pus."

Neither author falls into this trap: both are forthright with a purpose. The purpose is to encourage readers to dare to reveal their own truths more often so as to be an authentic spur to change. Fernando's novel illustrates the pains of change, while Kee's articles emphasise the obstacles. Nevertheless, the prospects for change, however blurry and frightening, are brighter because Fernando and Kee, at least, did not keep silent.



Saturday, 2 August 2014

New Arrivals in August

New Arrivals in August

As of 13th August 2014
(Regularly Updated)

Listed below are books which have arrived at The Penang Bookshelf recently.  (All prices are post free within Malaysia. If you live outside Malaysia, please ask for a quote for postage.)

Prices are shown in Malaysian Ringgit in blue.  If you're looking for prices in other major currencies, you should be able to find them in The Penang Bookshelf Full Catalogue which is updated regularly. Books sold will be so marked. So if you want to order any of them or want further details of any of the books before you make up your mind, do contact me at

By the time you read this, some of the titles may already be on the Penang Bookshelf website and eBay store. Do check. Prices are in Malaysian Ringgit in the eBay store and in US Dollars on the main website. Each site has a new arrivals page for the current and previous months. Where the title is in grey bold in this blog, it is linked to a fuller description of the book on or in The Penang Bookshelf's eBay store.
The books are all used unless indicated otherwise. Abbreviations used are A = Acceptable, CD = CD Included, DJ = Dust Jacket, EL = Ex-library, F = Fine/AsNew, G = Good,  HB = Hardback, LB = Leatherbound, N = New, NF = Near Fine, PB = Paperback, SG = Author Signed Copy, SC = Slip Case and VG = Very Good

  • 3D Glamorous Beaded Embroidery/Sulaman Glamor Manik 3D - Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2010) PB N RM60
  • A History of Malaya - RO Winstedt (Marican & Sons, 1962) HB VG  RM160
  • Among the White Moon Faces - Shirley Geok-lin Lim
  • Borneo People - Malcolm MacdonaldSOLD
  • Beaded Accessories/Aksesori Manik - Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2010) PB N RM60
  • Beaded Flowers/Bunga-Bunga Manik - Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2010) PB N RM60
  • Beads Crystal and Thread Emroidery/Sulaman Manik Kristal dan Benang - Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2010) PB N RM60
  • British Malaya - LA Mills
  • Can We Save Malaysia, Please! - Kee Thuan Chye - Exasperated, but ever hopeful, Kee launches into his fourth polemic on what he sees that needs fixing in Malaysia today. His previous three broadsides became best sellers and it's unlikely that his fourth tirade will fare any worse. Despite his penchant for scathing and witty attack, the author does also pose some imaginative solutions for the crisis that confronts him. - (Marshall Cavendish, 2014 ISBN: 9789814561235) PB N  RM50
  • Common Malayan Birds - MWF Tweedie (Longmans, 1960)  HB G  RM40
  • Common Malaysian Moths - Avril Fox (Longmans, 1986)  HB VG  RM150
  • Fortitude: The Life and Times of Heah Joo Seang - Pamela Ong - The first biography of one of Penang's more prominent businessmen in the first half of the twentieth century. As was often the case, it was a rags to riches story, but rather than concentrate on that aspect, the author highlights the reforms that he brought to the rubber industry, his philanthropy and his politics during the independence period. As a Straits Born Chinese he was opposed to an independent Malaya with special rights for the Malays, a cause he ultimately lost. 182 pages with an index. Signed  by the author - (Straits Times Press, 2014 ISBN: 9789814342704) HB N DJ RM60
  • Frank Swettenham & George Giles: Watercolours & Sketches of Malaya 1880-1894 - Lim Chong Keat & Henry Barlow
  •  Glimpses of Old Penang - Neil Khor Jin Keong - This book was produced for the 30th anniversary of the Star, once a Penang newspaper, but now a national one as well. Instead of devoting itself to the newspaper's history, the book reviews the history of Penang itself from when it was established as a trading port by the British in the late eighteenth century until the early 20th century. With a wide range of old photos accompanied by informative text from some heritage heavyweights. 149 pages. - Star Publications, 2002 ISBN: 978983951212) HB VG RM500 SOLD
  • Intrigue A Penang - Georges Vidal (Collection La Fouine, 1948)  PB G  RM160
  • Islam in South-East Asia - MB Hooker (ed) (EJ Brill, 1983) HB VG RM200
  • Made Wianta: Art and Peace - Marc Bollansee & Apinan Poshyananda (Times Editions, Singapore, 2000) HB VG DJ RM100

  • Malay Courtesy - Mubin Sheppard
  • Malay Traditional Attire/Pakaian Tradisi Melayu - Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2009) PB N RM60
  • Memories of a Nonya - Queenie Chang (Eastern Universities Press, 1982)  PB VG RM140
  • My Life in Sarawak - Margaret Brooke (Oxford University Press, 1994) PB G RM40
  • Nyonya and Kerawang Embroidery Techniques/Teknik Sulaman Nyonya dan Kerawang - 
    Rosita Jaffar (FTIM Designing Centre, 2010) PB N RM60
  • Penang Views, 1770-1860 - Lim Chong Keat - The purpose of this work was to catalogue the extant painting and prints of Penang from the 1770s untill the nearly a hundred years later when photography arrived. After research in Museums in Malaysia and Singapore, India Office Library in London and amongst private collections, Lim was able to assemble more than 160 paintings, prints and sketches which are now reproduced, mostly in colour, for this book. Each of the items are  annotated by the author, a noted architect and conservationist of his time. 236 pages. including a bibliography - (Summer Times, 1986 ISBN: 9789971976040) HB  VG  DJ RM330 
  • Plaited Arts From the Borneo Rainforest - Bernard Sellato (ed)
  • Singapore Women: Three Decades of Change - Aline Wong & Leong Wai Kim (Times Academic Press, 1994) PB VG RM120
  • The Communist Insurrection in Malaya - Anthony Short
  • The Cree Journals - Michael Levien (ed) (Webb & Bower, 1981) HB  NF DJ RM60
  • The Hikayat Abdullah: An Annotated TranslationAbdullah bin Abdul Khadir
  • The Peoples of Sarawak -  Tom Harrisson (ed) (Sarawak Museum, 1959) PB  VG RM90
  • The Moon at My Feet - Katherine Sim (Hodder & Stoughton, 1959) HB  VG  DJ RM150
  • Ulu Tiram: A Cameo of Life at the Time of "The Emergency" - Peter & Kathleen Thomas Anne Loader, 2005) PB  F RM130
  • Upper Nankin Street, Singapore: A sociological study of Chinese households living in a densely populated area - Kaye Barrington (University of Malaya Press, 1960) HB  G  EL RM130