Friday, May 22, 2020

Neighbours: a Google Meet with UiTM—Penang

In every classroom, whether you are teacher or a student or an invited guest as I was yesterday, everyone should learn something.  I learned one new skill, how to Google Meet, and two new words, membawang and kay poh chee!

I was invited by Nazima Versay Kudus into her on-line classroom, Integrated Language Skills II, at Universiti Teknologi MARA or UiTM—Penang (Bertam campus) via Google Meet to answer questions about my short story “Neighbours”, from my collection Lovers and Strangers Revisited, which they were studying.  The sixty students were from the Faculty of Health Sciences.

This was my first time on Google Meet or any on-line forum during this Covid-19 MCO (Malaysian movement control order).  In 2012 I did speak to students from Ohio University via Skype for their class on Exploring Malaysia’s Diversity through Film and Fiction, answering questions about two other stories from the same collection, “Only in Malay­sia” and “Home for Hari Raya”.  “Home for Hari Rara” was later filmed by Ohio University students who came all the way to Malaysia. 

Two years earlier, in 2010, I did meet with Christina Chan and a dozen of her students from SMK (P) Sri Aman, Petaling Jeya, who were also teaching “Neighbours”, at the Popular Bookfest.  Later they adapted the story into play.  

Membawang, by the way, is a Malaysian slang for gossiping…like peeling layers of an onion, getting to the core of the truth, perhaps….Kay poh chee is a busybody.  Both words are appropriate for “Neighbours” a story about a bunch of neighbors gossiping about the suicide of Johnny Leong.  Mrs. Koh, who was once featured in a New Straits Times article, “Are You Mrs. Koh?” is your typical kay poh chee—a know-it-all busybody!

The students and I first talked about the neighborhood, how it was not typical of Malaysia for most Malay­sians.  Having lived in a new housing area that had recently opened to all Malaysians, I was given a unique perspective of Malaysia.  Over time, as I found out, new neigh­borhoods start to skew in one direction or another.  As more of one race move in, others start moving out.  Even­tually, it became a “Malay” area long after I moved away to a “Chinese” area closer to where I was teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

Had I lived in a predominantly Malay neighborhood or a Chinese one or even an Indian one, my perspective of Malaysia would have been totally it is now that I'm living in Sarawak!  Fortunately, being new to Malaysia, I was not biased against one race or another.  I judged them as I saw them, as we interacted—they were my neighbors!

The question-and-answer session lasted one hour and the first two questions were, “Is the story real?”  “Did it really take place?” I briefly talked about my neighbor committing suicide and my personal involvement and the choices I had to make, as I had written about in an earlier blog and later reprinted in Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia.

Several questions veered away from the story, about writing in general, how to overcome writing slumps, what books I would recommend, what project am I working on now, and even how to be a good neighbor, but I would steer the conversation back to the story by pointing out aspects of “Neighbours” that they may have overlooked.  I kept several questions handy just in case…like how did they interpret the story or what conclusions could they draw about the neighbors?  (They really didn’t know each other very well.)  How would someone who had never been to Malaysia perceive Malaysia, based on the story?  (It’s multi-racial and the various races appeared to mix freely.)

What is the relevance of each character and what are their main concerns?  Each character was, in fact, selfish in his own ways, concerned about their own ‘loss’ if the family moved away.  The dentist would lose two more clients, the teacher would lose her ‘best’ student…

When I asked about Koh’s main concern, they merely compared him to his wife, so he seemed ok, but as an insurance salesman, he was upset that, if Johnny had bought life insurance, he didn’t buy it from him!  He had asked Johnny several times!

I asked them, what was the significance of that last line by Mrs. Koh, when Tan asked “Who’s going to tell Veronica?” and she replied, “Not me! It’s none of my business!”

This was after she had made it very much her business, making sure that each neighbor, as they joined the group, knew exactly what had happened (according to her), why it had happened (according to her), and what was wrong with each member of that family (according to her)!  She had even insisted that Veronica was out gam­bling or spending all of her money on her daughter!

Later, one student asked, “Did Veronica actually go gambling or shopping?”  In­stead of giving the answer, I asked, “What does the evidence say?”  Initially the student replied there was no evidence, but when I asked, “What were Veronica and her daughter Lily carrying at the end of the story?”  Another student replied, “Shopping bags!”  So, I asked, based on the evidence, did she go gambling or shopping?  I wanted them to think!  To look for clues in the stories that they read and draw their own conclusions.

Another question was, “Why did he kill himself (in the story) and also in real life?”  So, I speculated over the financial implications, the fact that he sold his motorcycle and walked home.  I also talked about how easy it is for someone to slip into depression when their world suddenly falls apart and drew parallels to the on-going Covid-19 virus, of people losing their jobs and finding themselves unable to pay their bills or to provide for their families.  Unable to find a solution, they take the easy way out—easy for them, but painful for their survivors!

I also mentioned that, if they ever get into a difficult situation, that they should always look for a solution, to focus on the good aspects of life not just their current ‘bad’ situation, and that they are stronger than they think, and to never to give up!  At times, we all need encouragement...

One of the last questions was “Did any of them tell Veronica?” and “Why did you stop the story short and not wait for Veronica to arrive?”  I explained that the real story was about the neighbors themselves, their actions and their harsh words that reflected more on them than on Johnny’s suicide.  And based on all of their excuses and their scattering before Veronica arrived, it left only Tan, the conscience of the story, to do the right thing.  In the ‘real’ story, that fell to me, the newest neighbor, the foreigner, the white guy, who had to tell Johnny’s wife and daughter what had happened to Johnny.

When the hour was up, we said our goodbyes.  Hopefully all of them came away with a deep­er appreciation for the story and for the opportunity to pose questions to the author who had written it.  (I would have loved to have that opportunity as a student!)  I know I appreciated the opportunity of my being asked and sharing my insights on writing and on life itself, especially during this historic event that we are still in the midst of, not knowing how it will all turn out or how our families will be affected (including my own in America).

We can only keep our fingers crossed (or whatever Malaysians do for good luck) and hope that our neighbors remain healthy and safe (if not, they may infect us) and that they are not wasting their time gossiping about each other….The last thing we need during Covid-19 is another kay poh chee!  One Mrs. Koh is quite enough!

     —Borneo Expat Writer

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

“The Funeral Procession” accepted by The Secret Attic, a British anthology

“The Funeral Procession”, a 1000-word excerpt from my novel A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit, has been accepted by The Secret Attic, a British anthology.  It follows the acceptance of another excerpt, “Monkey Beech”,  a full short story, taken from the same novel, accepted by the same publication last month.

So far, parts of five chapters have been published in six countries, fourteen times—all of chapters one and two, nearly all of chapters five and eleven, and part of chapter fifteen.  One excerpt was even translated into French.

I have turned two other chapters into long short stories and several other parts into flash fiction.  Even though this novel has never been published, mostly through my own stubborn­ness, since I had a chance to publish it in Singapore (and Malaysia) a really, really long time ago, I have held off and have been revising it every couple of years, including last year, where it was a finalist in the 2019 Faulkner Wisdom Novel Awards.  (Also a finalist in 2017  & 2016.

Each publication from that novel shows me that I’m on the right track and bolsters its chances of being published in the US or UK, my desired markets, along with Malaysia and Singa­pore.  I’ve been very patient.  In fact, I have completed a sequel full of excerpts that I could no doubt publish when I get around to it…
—Borneo Expat Writer

My interviews with four Malaysian novelists and one poet: 
Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.
Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.
Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day.
Chauh Guat Eng author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.  
Also, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, author of Complicated Lives and Life Happens.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

“Monkey Beach” accepted by Secret Attic, a British anthology, via a contest

It was impulsive.  I admit it.  In the Malaysian Writers Community, Tutu Dutta highlighted that it was the last day to enter the Secret Attic contest.  The prize awarded was minimal 25 British pounds.  No fee to enter, and since it was a new contest, I figured there wouldn’t be hundreds or thousands of entrants to compete against.  She said they were hoping to reach 60, the reason for the last-minute push.  They ended up with 78.

“What the hell,” I thought, and entered a novel excerpt set in Penang, titled “Monkey Beach”. In my rush, I failed to notice that they preferred under 1500 words.  Naturally it didn’t win.  To my surprise, however, I was one of ten chosen to be published—I wasn’t aware that was a possibility, an unexpected bonus.  Two of the ten writers are from (or based in) Malaysia.  The rest from the US, Canada, UK or Wales. 

That’s the beauty of international contests, you get to test your writing skills against those from other countries.  What may be ‘good’ in Malaysia or Turkey may not be so good in the UK.  By good I mean...your story-telling ability and the high standard of writing and all that it implies.  Having published short stories in all three of those countries (from my collection Lovers and Strangers Revisited—ten countries in all), I have a right to compare.

I admit I have not entered a short story contest in far too many years for various reasons (stories needed revision and I was concentrating on writing and revising novels).  Entering writing contests was how I came to write those 15 stories in that original collection (now 17 stories).  Back in the late 80’s, Malaysia had several major con­tests, The Star, Her World, New Straits Times (as an expat I could not enter).

“Neighbours”,  originally titled “The Aftermath” was a consolation prize winner in The Star contest thirty-two years ago.  By the way, during our Covid-19 lock­down, I have been asked to answer questions from the students at UITM next month via Google meet about that very story—still being taught!  *Here is the actual Google-Meet with students at UiTM-Penang.

The best thing about contests, besides the prospect of winning some serious money and the prestige, is the dead­line!  You either write and submit your story by the deadline or you miss out.  Many of those stories that I wrote were rushed to meet that deadline and didn’t win.  Of course not, they didn't stand a chance...they were rushed early drafts!  But, and this is the point, they got written!  I polished and entered them in future con­tests.  After I had enough stories and a good publishing track record, I compiled them into a collection.

I have also been on the other end, as judge and have blogged about what judges look for. One caveat, entering contests can be expensive when converting local currency into dollars, pounds or euros.  You must weigh the cost versus the benefit and your realistic chances of winning.  If the contest (or an anthology accepting submissions) is free, you risk nothing, so go for it!  Also, is there one winner or, perhaps, several?  More winners, increases your odds.  Are they publishing only the winner or are finalists considered for publication?

I admit that this contest that I entered was a pretty small.  It’s new.  It will grow.  The biggest contest I ever entered had over two thousand entries.  I sent in six stories, increasing my odds.  Naturally I didn’t win.  I won twice!  Third prize, RM2,000 and a consolation prize, RM500.

So, enter those contests!  Big and small—you never know.  More importantly, get those stories written!  Even though you may never win a contest you may have enough stories for a collection and, who knows, that collection itself might even win a contest!  That’s what happened to me when Lovers and Strangers Revisited won the Star-Popular Readers’ Choice Awards.  In addition to the money and the recognition, I received a pretty nice trophy for my efforts.

If you do win a contest, please think of me…and think of all those writers around the world who would love to be standing in your place.  Remember, if you don’t enter, you cannot win!

Good luck and may the best story win!

  --Borneo Expat Writer

My interviews with four Malaysian novelists and one poet: 

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day.

Chauh Guat Eng author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.  

Also, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, author of Complicated Lives and Life Happens.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Walk with My Two-Year-Old Son

I first posted this in February 2007 in another blog, though the actual walk took place in 2006.  Based on the original comments, I regret not bringing a camera.  Nor did my phone, an old Nokia, have one either.

Before moving to Sarawak and to get out of rut, I decided to take my two-year-old son, Jason, for a walk. Usually when we walk it’s to a known destination for a known reason—running errands for me or playing outside with him. Today would be different. I wanted to see if we could learn anything in half an hour. Any longer than that, the mosquitoes would be biting.

We lived in Penang, in a mostly Chinese residential area, in Malaysia. Other than being Jason’s father, I teach creative writing and recently published a collection of short stories set in Malaysia, Lovers and Strangers Revisited—the Silverfish version.

Lately I’ve been feeling weary of the “author” bit and needed to get back to “writing”. But in order to write, I needed to start observing my surroundings again like I used to do when I first moved from America to Malaysia. Jason, on the other hand, like most two-year olds, is a natural sponge, taking everything in around him. He’s also tiny for his age, petite like his mother, a Bidayuh from Sarawak.

I grabbed some biscuits for the both of us and a spongy orange ball to play with. We didn’t get far; halfway down the stairs, I realized I had left the ball behind while unlocking the door.

“Back so soon?” my wife asked, teasing me.

Jason wanted to hold the ball but I didn’t want him to drop it into the monsoon drain that ran alongside our street, so I handed him a biscuit instead and held his free hand securely.  I didn’t want him to fall into the drain either.

We turned the corner to the small field behind our building; we were both startled to see an elderly Chinese man sitting on the ground, looking suspicious and looking suspiciously at us. Careful not to make any eye contact, I steered Jason around this man, whom I had never seen before. Not far away from him, on the other side of a tree, was a small wicker basket. Nor­mal­ly, I would have taken a closer look but the man’s gaze continued to bear down on us, so we kept walking.

Initially I planned to play ball here, but my wife had warned me before about getting my son’s hands dirty and having him put those dirty fingers into his mouth. So, I handed Jason another biscuit. I figured we’d finish the biscuits first and play ball later. We were half way to the end of the field, when the Chinese man began to point and shout at us as if ordering us off the field. I detoured toward the road, but then I saw it, a zebra-striped dove resting peace­fully in the center of the field.

I pointed it out to Jason, and his eyes grew with excitement. We ventured closer. The Chinese man shouted and furiously waved us away. Since he was making his way toward us, wicker basket in hand, I thought it best to lead Jason toward the side of the road. We stood there eating our biscuits, observing both this strange man and this bird. I thought perhaps he was a bird-catcher, like Papageno in The Magic Flute. (I had written a novel about a delusional man obsessed with The Magic Flute.) The man cautiously approached the dove. He set the basket down, opened the lower portion and gently coaxed the dove inside.

Afterwards, he began to pick at the grass. At first, I thought he was gathering some edible goodies for the bird. Then I saw a small spool. He was rewinding the line that kept the bird from fleeing. I assumed the wings had been clipped to prevent it from flying away. This dove—called a peaceful dove, I later learned—was popular for cage-bird singing competi­tions. The man carried the dove in the basket under his arm to his motorcycle; as he rode off, Jason and I waved goodbye.

We made our way up a short alley, crossed the road and walked along a road I had never been on before since I had assumed it was a dead end. Jason and I discovered a much bigger field containing an old playground.

Delighted, Jason practically dragged me to the nearest sliding board. I helped him up the steps and sat him down at the top of the plastic slide. He squealed with delight when I caught him at the bottom—his first slide! He slid down three more times before I led him to a larger sliding board and placed him at the bottom and rolled the ball down from the top. He laughed and caught the ball.

Catching on to this new game, he threw the ball about halfway up the slide and laughed as the ball rolled down to him. He could’ve played all night, but I spotted an even larger slide at the far end of the field, so we went to investigate. It was an old wooden slide and way too tall for Jason or me. Again, I placed him at the bottom of the board and rolled the ball to the top. Jason’s eyes grew wide and wider as the ball rolled toward him, gathering speed along the way.

Next up was the adjacent swing. Leaving the ball on the ground, we got on with Jason on my lap. He giggled as we swung, higher and higher. Wanting his ball, Jason got off to play with it while I continued to swing. Jason suddenly ran behind me. I desperately tried to stop the swing from slamming into him. I somehow managed to reach around and catch Jason by the shoulder and stopped him, the swing an inch from his head.

Relieved but upset, I had a stern talk with Jason about running in back of swings. Jason, nodded.  He may not have under­stood my every word but he understood my mood and knew that he had done something wrong; he also knew or sensed it wouldn’t be fair to punish him because I was partly at fault.  Either way, we agreed not to tell his mother.

Noticing a mosquito on his arm, I swatted it away and we made our way back across the field. Blocking our exit, however, were four large stray dogs. Being a dog lover, Jason pointed with glee and said, “Dog!” He would’ve run straight toward them if I hadn’t held him back. Not sure if the dogs were friends or foes, I maintained a wary eye, while the four dogs eyed me and Jason rather warily. Afraid he might hug them to death, the dogs wisely moved from our path. Jason waved to the dogs as we passed by and said, “Bye!”

Jason and I crossed the road where I noticed three Indian children playing in a fenced in area with three rabbits. Jason didn’t know what to make of the rabbits. Other than Bugs Bunny, he had never seen a live rabbit before. Eyes large and round, he marvelled as the rabbits hopped across the lawn pursued by the three children.

Watching us watch the rabbits were two stray cats. Jason took an interest in them. He gave chase and the cats, fearing for their lives, hid under a car. Jason squatted down, bent over, and laughed as if to say, “You can’t hide from me!”

Four dogs, three rabbits, two cats.  What next?  We were nearly home when we came upon this woman who was walking beside us, almost step by step, although we were in the alley and she was at a lower level beside her building. The woman kept looking up at Jason and me as if trying to get our attention. Then we saw it. Perched on her left hand was a small green bird. I pointed it out to Jason. Like the elderly Chinese man, the woman was taking her bird for a walk.

When we reached home, I glanced at the time.  Exactly half an hour had passed since we had left for our walk. In that short time Jason and I had seen a lot and had a whole lot of fun and even made a discovery and learned a valuable lesson about safety. 

Already I was looking forward to our next walk—no doubt our first walk in Sarawak.  Soon, though, he would have a little brother to walk beside him.

   --Borneo Expat Writer

Saturday, August 24, 2019

My interview with Malachi Edwin Vethamani is in Blue Lotus 19

My interview with poet and short story writer Malachi Edwin Vethamani, author of Complicated Lives and Life Happens was published in Martin Bradley's Blue Lotus 19, pages 8-17. Originally I had blogged about our interview in July 2019 

My other interviews with Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, was published in Blue Lotus 12, Ivy Ngeow, Cry of the Flying Rhino, in Blue Lotus 13 and Golda Mowe, author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey, in Blue Lotus 15 and Chauh Guat Eng author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change in Blue Lotus 16 

Blog links to the other interviews with four Malaysian novelists: 

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day.

Chauh Guat Eng author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.  

—Borneo Expat Writer

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Arte: Joseph Conrad and Me—Sarawak’s French Connection to Lord Jim

Pierre Duyckaerts and Sebastien Bardos

“The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave,” wrote Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born English novelist of Heart of DarknessAlmayer’s Folly, and An Outcast of the Islands.  When French documentary maker Sebastien Bardos of Elephant Doc contacted me in late March about his project “Conrad’s Malay­sia” he asked me a question.  Of course, Conrad had been to Borneo where he had set several of his novels, but the question posed to me, had he ever been to Sarawak?  The short answer is no, but the long answer is, without Sarawak, Lord Jim would never have been written.

Sebastien works with Laure Michel, who came to Sarawak in 2017 for a Somerset Maugham and Sarawak pepper document­aries, which I had blogged about in the five-part series “Somerset Maugham and Me.”  Like Maugham, Conrad will be filmed for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte for the program “The Invitation to Travel” or L’Invitation au Voyage to be aired in October 2019.

Sebastien will be working with Karen Shepherd, who had worked with Laure on the pepper docu­mentary and her husband Peter John, featured in the segment “A Personal Invitation”.  On the previous production, Karen and I worked closely with Laure, recom­mend­ing people and sites.  We did the same with Sebastien until he hired fixer Edgar Ong, who for thirty years had worked in the local filming industry including such notable films as Farewell to the King (1989) with Nick Nolte and The Sleeping Dictionary (2003) with Jessica Alba, both set in Sara­wak.

Edgar would partner with Adrian Cornelius who scouts locations and deals with logistics.  Adrian is also involved with the on-again-off-again film The White Rajah, about the life of James Brooke, that dates back eighty years to the mid-1930’s when Errol Flynn was originally scheduled to star, until delays and World War Two came along.  I met Adrian last year with Rob Nevis while discussing taking part in The Road to Nationhood series. Initially I was considered for a non-speaking role of Charles Brooke but ended up play­ing smaller roles, including a man who was beheaded (sadly cut from the documentary) and Captain Henry Keppel—who, as it turned out, gave Joseph Conrad a helping hand in writing Lord Jim.  More about that later.

Edgar had called for a meeting in May to work out some preliminary details and suggestions for locations (I had suggested Fort Margherita for my segment), but the day that we had agreed upon proved problematic for me.  My Bidayuh mother-in-law had passed away and that was the day of her funeral.

Getting reacquainted with Joseph Conrad, I reread Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim and delved into the thorny issue of his connection to Sara­wak.  Born in 1857 at the height of the British Empire, Joseph Conrad started writing late, in his thirties, after twenty years in the merchant marines, four with the French and sixteen with the Brit­ish.  Conrad always viewed himself as a writer who sailed, rather than a sailor who wrote, and used the pen name Joseph Conrad for his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the coast of Borneo.  Almayer’s Folly, together with its suc­cessor An Outcast of the Islands, laid the foundation for Conrad’s repu­tation as a romantic teller of exotic tales, a label he disliked; he felt it was a misunderstanding of his purpose and it would frustrate him over his career.

Although Conrad had never been to Sarawak, he did have three significant connections to Sarawak that greatly aided his writing of Lord Jim.  Published in 1900, Lord Jim was famously based, at least the second half of the book, on James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.  An English adventurer, Brooke sailed into Borneo in 1838 and earned the title White Raja after assisting Pangeran Muda Hashim of Brunei in defeating the rebels led by Datu Patinggi Ali.

The first half of Lord Jim, however, deals with the Patna incident, whereby the captain, the first mate (Lord Jim) and two crew members abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship leaving hundreds of passengers to their own fate.  This episode was based on an actual event.  In 1880, the S.S. Jeddah travelled to Singapore to Penang en route to Jeddah and began to take on water during a tropical storm; the captain and some crew abandoned ship with 700 pass­engers aboard.  The ship didn’t sink, so there was a huge outcry and a trial in Singapore over their cow­ard­ly actions.

Coincidently, James Brooke had an Official Inquiry in Singapore over mis­leading the British about killing so-called pirates to collect bounty, when in fact he was fighting natives defend­ing their land.  Like the character Lord Jim, James Brooke had been living under a cloud.

Resisting British imperialism, Brooke founded his own dynasty, the White Rajas that ruled a jungle kingdom larger than England for one hundred years.  James Brooke became a cause celebrity, often written about in Illustrated London News, which was founded in 1842, coin­ciding with the start of Brooke’s ‘war’ against the so-called pirates.  Brooke was mythi­cized as an Imperial Hero, capturing the imagination of would-be romantics and adven­turers.  In addition to being the model for Lord Jim, James Brooke was the inspiration for Rud­yard Kip­ling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.  Conrad was hailed as ‘the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’.

On 6 July, I arrived at The Ranee Boutique Suites at the Waterfront where Edgar Ong intro­duced me to Sebastien Bardos and Pierre Duyckaerts, who had flown in from Penang on about two hours sleep.  They found the heat in Penang oppressive and had been sweating nonstop.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Kuching might be worse because of the humidity; luckily for them, it was partly cloudy outside.
Sebastien told me that for the Conrad story they had previously inter­viewed Jean-Luc Henriot in Singapore, Serge Jardin in Kuala Lumpur, and in Penang, Gareth Richards, who runs the Gerakbudaya bookstore.  Serge Jardin, who I believe I met in Penang many years ago, lives in Malacca and took part in the Somerset Maugham docu­mentary.  Sebastien informed me that my book Trois autres Malaisie, the French transla­tion of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, was being listed in French travel guide­books to Malay­sia, good news for my French publish­er, Editions GOPE

Over coffee and tea, Edgar ran through the shooting schedule for the next three days.  Before leaving the hotel, Pierre hooked me up with a microphone.  The plan was for Adrian to drive us across the Sarawak River to Fort Margherita, but I suggested it would be better for Sebastien and Pierre to take a tambang across, which I thought would be more interesting and quicker than a roundabout drive and risk getting stuck in traffic.  Adrian could meet us at Fort Margherita.


Sebastien and Pierre were expecting a bigger boat, perhaps like the one the tourists use for the Sarawak River Cruise, so they seemed taken aback when I pointed out the tambang waiting for us.  We ducked our heads and climbed aboard.  I sat up front looking out at the river while Pierre filmed me taking in the view and also the steers­man, while trying to catch the splashing sounds made by the tambang.  Once we reached the other side, they filmed me climbing out onto the small jetty where a few passengers were waiting to board.  Unfor­tun­ate­ly they had to wait a little longer since Pierre wanted to film the steersman in front of the tambang.  The waiting passengers watched with amusement.

After filming the tambang departing the jetty, Pierre filmed another arriving with Kuching as a backdrop.  He took more shots of the Waterfront and then filmed me standing at the edge of the jetty.  I was told to keep my lower body planted (and to avoid falling into the river behind me); however, I could move my upper body as I talked about Joseph Conrad, who died in 1924, on the 3rd of August, which happens to be my birthday.  Sebastien and Pierre wore hats while I melted in the late-morning, partly cloudy sun.  Thankfully, Sebastien had an um­brella, which provided us shade in between shots.

In addition to Conrad and his connection to James Brooke, I was asked to speak a little about Kuching—its history, its reputation as a river city, the Waterfront and the antique galleries at the Main Bazaar, as well as my own impressions when I first visited Kuching twenty years ago.  I purposely did not talk about the ubiquitous cat statues; Kuching means cat in Malay.

We took a short hike up to Fort Margherita and found Adrian who offered us lime-flavored 100Plus isotonic drinks, their first.  Pierre then filmed me with the fort behind me in the dis­tance as we continued with the interview.  Fort Margherita was named after the Second White Raja’s wife, Ranee Mar­garet Brooke, author of My Life in Sarawak.  I pointed out another, though minor Sarawak connection, when Conrad wrote a letter to the Ranee, praising her Uncle, James Brooke.

“The first Rajah Brooke has been one of my boyish ad­mira­tions, a feeling I have kept to this day strengthened by the better understanding of the greatness of his char­acter and the unstained rectitude of his purpose.  The book that has found favour in your eyes has been inspired in a great measure by the history of the first Rajah’s enterprise and even by the lecture of his journals as partly reproduced by Captain Mundy and others.”

Conrad knew the Malay Archipelago as a sailor.  In writing Lord Jim and other Borneo-based novels, he could rely on his own observations for the natural surroundings and the sea.  His landfalls, however, were limited to four stops at Berau in East Kalimantan, which he used as a setting for Almayer’s Folly.  Instead, he relied on read­ing first-hand accounts by others including James Brooke’s journals and those who had written about him, as mentioned in the above letter.  He also relied heavily on a second major connec­tion to Sarawak, Alfred Russel Wallace, of the Wallace Line fame, who was based in Sarawak for fourteen months, collecting birds and beetles and other specimens to ship back to England. 

Wallace travelled extensively throughout the region and wrote about his experience in The Malay Archipelago (1869), highly regarded as a great travel book and the most famous book on the Malay Archi­pelago—the very reason Con­rad kept the book handy at his bedside, which he had used for several novels.  Conrad not only relied on Wallace’s description of the area but also used Wallace himself as a model for the character Stein in Lord Jim.  Stein was the man whom Marlowe had convinced to hire Lord Jim to work for him in some remote, out-of-the-way locale…so he was sent to Patusan, a third connection to Sarawak.

Some experts have argued that Patusan, the setting used in Lord Jim, was based on Berau in East Kalimantan, a place Conrad had visited.  Others suggested that Patusan was located in Java; however, con­vincing arguments have been made that Patusan was in fact based on an actual site on the Batang Lupar river in Sarawak that was called—Patusan.  Although Conrad was never there, he did read about Patusan in a book by Captain Henry Keppel.  A friend of James Brooke, Keppel wrote about their exploits in Borneo in The Expedition to Borneo on HMS Dido for the Suppression of the Pirates—another significant tie to Sarawak.

More importantly, inside of Keppel’s book was an actual map of Patusan, identifying the fort and village that Conrad had put to good use since he had never been there himself.  By look­ing at the map, you could see that Conrad followed it closely in his descriptions of the fort and the village, the river, the tributaries—integral to the ending of Lord Jim.  That map, along with Keppel’s descriptions of Patusan, was perfect for Conrad to use in Lord Jim—in lieu of actually visiting the location—just as Conrad had based the Patna incident on the real S.S. Jeddah and the subsequent trial in Singapore.

Incidentally, although Joseph Conrad never visited Sarawak or Patusan, present day Sri Aman, another famous English writer did—Somer­set Maugham.  Maugham, in fact, nearly died in Patusan in the 1920’s in a tidal bore and wrote a story about the incident, “Yel­low Streak.”

When I finished speaking, we went to another side of Fort Margherita so Pierre could take some more shots.  He then brought out a drone and I couldn’t help but recall what happened to the drone used in other French documentary; it went around a bend and struck an over­hanging branch and was lost in the river.  Pierre used the drone to film me walking alongside Fort Margherita; then walking down some steps and approaching the entrance.

Later, after enough footage had been taken outside of Fort Margherita (after Sebastien and I had finished solving the world’s problems), Pierre packed the drone away and we entered the Fort.  Pressed for time, we had to bypass the nicely done Brooke Gallery@FortMargherita.  They filmed me inside the fort climbing the stairs and making my way along the parapet walk on two sides, past a bolted but unlocked door containing some heads.  I had first seen the human heads about twenty years ago, which they kept in a suspended rattan basket, but now covered with traditional cloth to keep tourists from disturbing them.  Previously I had blogged about seeing heads at a Bidayuh longhouse and being disturbed that evening at my wife’s village by an actual spirit—my first and hopefully my last encounter.  

by Paul Carling
by Paul Carling

I kept asking Sebastien if they wanted me to open the door to have a peek inside but they didn’t seem to understand the significance, so I would glance at the door each time I passed by, only natural since there was a skull painted on the door.  Sebastien did press me about my views of how the Bidayuh revered James Brooke because he had put an end to their seemingly endless slaughter by the Iban head-hunters.  Back in the 1840’s, village after village, including my wife’s village, Quop, had been decimated.

At a lookout tower, they filmed me gazing out at the Sarawak River, slowly turn­ing my head from right to left.  Back on the parapet walk, despite the mid-afternoon sun beating down on me, the clouds having long since departed, we continued with the interview.  I talked about the tragic fates that Conrad gave to the principle characters of his novels and stories.  He often saw the darker side of man whether it was The Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, The Secret Agent, or the elusive anti-hero of Lord Jim, trying to escape the shame of abandoning the Patna, while still remaining noble—not an easy task for any man to do.  This was also the theme of Lord Jim, the restora­tion of a man’s honor and pride.  In many ways the character Lord Jim is one of us…tragic; a part of him would always be kept secret so we would never know like others will never know our own secrets.

view of Old Courthouse with Cat



After wrapping up the filming at Fort Margherita, we dropped off Pierre at the hotel so he could take some shots of the nearby historical building since there was still sun.  Adrian then took Sebastien and me to the Old Courthouse where we met with Karen Shep­herd, who would be talking more in depth about Alfred Russel Wallace, and Peter John, about the local inhabitants.

Edgar Ong joined us.  Sebastien and the others tried to finalize the details and the logistics for the next two days of filming in Kuching.  They had just settled on an itinerary—Santubong for one day and Bau, Siniawan and the river along Suba Buan for the other day—when Sebastien asked about seeing some wildlife, particularly the proboscis monkeys or the orang­utans, to work into the documentary.  Since they couldn’t do both (located in opposite directions) and still complete the other filming in Bau, they settled on Bako National Park where they could see plenty of wildlife in addition to the proboscis monkeys and some jungle shoots for Karen.

Proboscis monkey, Sarawak Tourism

Since my part of the Joseph Conrad filming had come to an end, I called it a day, feeling rather burnt out from way too much sun, yet feeling satisfied in knowing that without Sarawak, Joseph Conrad would never have written Lord Jim.

*Here is the link to the video on Lord Jim.


Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II