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Saturday 7 March 2015

Random Reviews - Two Welcome Introductions to Malaysia’s Living History

Random Reviews 14 & 15

Two Welcome Introductions to Malaysia’s Living History

(Trafalgar House, 2015 ISBN: 9789834324551)


(Areca, 2014 ISBN: 9789675719172)

I was keen to get my hands on both of these books since I have met both of the authors and knew that each book had been in preparation for some time. (Keith Hockton is also a customer of The Penang Bookshelf.) Each book promised something a little bit more lively than the normal ‘heritage’ fare that has populated booksellers’ shelves since Melaka and Penang were declared to be World Heritage sites a short while ago. In contrast to much else that has been written on the subject, these detailed works would give us an opportunity to take part in the living history that is still around us and, if we so wished, to adapt and develop it further.

Festivals of Malaysia’s useful calendar format points us to events that are taking place all over the country almost every week. Traditional Trades of Penang showcases a range of crafts and products that we can still use every day. Each book took some years to develop. The result is, in each case, a comprehensive introduction to the subject. You are certain to find something that you want to explore further, whether it is a fire walking festival in Butterworth or the Ari’ Muyang (Ancestors’ Day) Orang Asli festival in Pulau Carey. Similarly in Traditional Trades, you might be tempted to brighten up your kitchen with a wire egg basket or add some real colour  in your home with  gaudy kim hua traditional Chinese artificial flowers. Both books, above all, provide lots of ideas for activities or for new products to enjoy. Although much has been said and written about conserving and preserving Malaysia's past, one of the more fulfilling ways to engage with history is to live it. These books will give you an excellent start.

I do however have one niggle about both books - I cannot quite work out whether the books are intended as reference books or guide books. Maybe the answer is a bit of both. If so, they both have a bit of a problem with being neither one nor the other. Hockton goes into some detail, where appropriate, about the history and ritual of some of the events and Chin likewise explains some of the processes involved in the trades described. There is certainly enough information both in the text and pictures  for each book to be considered a basic reference book in its field. However neither shows either enough depth or analysis of their subjects to be considered much more than that.

As guide books they do not quite hit the mark either.  While each book is packed with information, that information is often insufficient when we want to actually interact with the subject that each writer covers. For example Hockton rightly has one of his lengthier sections on Hari Raya, the most widely celebrated festival in Malaysia, but there is no guidance as to how a non-Muslim might be able to participate. Generally there is a lack of clarity in explaining which events are private and which are public. Chin in his Author’s Preface informs us that he wants to document the trades and ‘to provide a starting point for further research on…our living heritage.’ Yet he misses the principal reason why traders the world over exist and will continue to exist, i.e. to sell their wares to earn a living. The rest of the book is in the same vein: there is little or no information as to how to buy what the traders presumably want to sell. Each book almost seems to carry a subliminal message of ‘Look, but Don’t Touch.’

In each case the books could have been made more useful if some of the text in Festivals and some of the pictures in Traditional Trades had been sacrificed to allow for more usable information to be inserted. Despite these drawbacks, the books are still important contributions to their respective subjects. You are not going to find anything more informative on the market at present. There is certainly plenty in each book to stimulate further engagement with each subject. However you are going to have to make a worthwhile effort to start asking your own questions and to have your own adventures, if you really want these books to give you as much fun and enjoyment as I am sure the authors intended. 

Both books are avaialble at The Penang Bookshelf. If you live in Malaysia, it will be easier to use our eBay store. If you live elsewhere, please visit