Sunday, November 28, 2010

Expatriate Lifestyle - Febrary 2010 - just got it, better late than...


 
***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beyond Rangoon: Part II

When I arrived at the jetty to join Beyond Rangoon Wardrobe at 5:30 am, it was still dark and hard to see.  Ernie was busy directing people as they unloaded from a truck the two thousand longyis that he had dyed.  He had been up most of the night trying to repair the axle on the truck so he could make the delivery on time.  Also present was Ernie’s wife, Kathleen, who always wore a pair of scissors around her neck so she wouldn’t lose them.  They had been working together for the past sixteen years and had been married for ten of those years.  Kathleen directed me and Rikki, one of the tour group extras, to help two seamstresses make bandanas.  She told us to tear up several basketfuls of materials, fold them into a triangle, tear again, and then pass them on.

As soon as the extras – mostly students rounded up from every available school in the Penang area – began arriving by the busloads, they were sent to one end of a shipping container filled with clothes racks.  By the time they had exited the other end, they had a shirt, longyi, bandana, scarf, and sandals.  They were also given a plastic bag to store their clothes and vouchers in.  They would need their voucher at the end of the day to get paid.  All meals, including breakfast, were provided, plus beverages, throughout the day.

Handling all the logistics was the Kuala Lumpur based Movie Location Services.  They scouted the locations, auditioned the local actors and extras, arranged for permits, provided transportation and food, and even constructed the sets, including a nearby Buddhist temple, complete with an authentic-looking 33.5 meter pagoda.  Chandran Rutnam, the company chairman, who was responsible for bringing 50/50, Indochine, and Gateway to China to Penang also brought Barry Spikings to Malaysia and had persuaded him to shoot Beyond Rangoon here.  Fortunately Spikings was impressed not only with the all-year round sunny weather that was conducive to film-making but also Malaysia’s multi-racial, multi-cultural environment, which made it possible to make a shot appear to have been filmed in a least half a dozen different countries, thus saving on production costs.

After finishing the bandanas, I helped with the 50 policemen and 50 soldiers.  First I collected their vouchers.  If they failed to return their uniforms intact, no voucher was given, thus no pay.  Although all of them had been pre-fitted and their respective clothes tagged with their numbers, problems cropped up.  One policeman didn’t have a hat, and three others, no pants.  Two seamstresses quickly got to work.  Then a soldier lost his shoes.  He had set them down and, apparently, the shoes walked away.

When everyone was dressed, they were assembled into their respective groups for inspection.  Those who were missing an article of clothing or had their clothes tucked in or wrapped inappropriately were put right.  While Rikki helped the women get dressed, I assisted the men.  Then I went around cutting the tail off their headscarves.  As soon as a group was ready, they were herded back onto the bus and sent to the set.  Then the next group was brought in.

Once we finished at the jetty, I was transported to the set, sprawled out over several streets near the Esplanade, where I joined two others named Tomcat and Libby as part of the “aging crew”.  Our task was to make sure all the freshly washed clothes were badly soiled, so the students would look like they had been wearing them for days on end.  Mineral oil was applied to the clothes to create sweat stains; dirt powder of different shades were used to create smudge; and colored wax was rubbed into the elbows and collars to add some filth.

Later Tomcat, who sported a long ponytail, needed to do some serious ageing on the lead Burmese actor’s vest, including a few rips and a bullet hole.  He couldn’t find his special rat-tail file that he needed for the job, so he sent me to a van on the other side of the set, a good distance away, to go find it.  When I returned from the van empty-handed, Kathleen assured him once again that it had been left back at the Wardrobe house.  Tomcat rolled his eyes and shook his head, then proceeded to gripe about the missing rat-tail file for the rest of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Libby was also upset and was complaining a lot.  When Deborah drifted by to see how things were going, Libby stalked off.  Everyone was reaching the ends of their rope.  This was only natural after working long hours, for weeks on end, and often under stressful conditions.

Then there was the politics.  Ernie felt he should have had Deborah’s job as Head of Wardrobe because he had more years of experience.  Deborah, however, was more familiar with Asian culture as she had lived in Penang several years ago and was now based in southern Thailand where she works as an archaeologist.  Wardrobe was her means to finance her projects.  Despite their differences, however, she and the others got the job done professionally.

There were plenty of light moments, too, when they played tricks on one another, or sat around and swapped anecdotes from past movies.  Ernie talked about the time Gene Hackman had taught Catherine Deneuve, the legendary French actress, how to swear during the filming of March or Die.  “She was going around telling everyone to ‘f— off’ without even knowing what it meant,” Ernie said.  “It was hilarious, but they all thought I had taught her!”

Since there was no American Embassy in Penang, they borrowed the stately Municipal Council building.  Besides adding an American flag, they built a wall made of Styrofoam and covered it with plaster and coats of paint, including streaks of black and gray to age it, so that it would blend in naturally with the environment.

Several cars had been overturned and set on fire.  Close-ups shots were taken of students running, ducking here and there to avoid bullets, so they did not end up like their dead comrades.  Later in the filming, there would be a ‘blood’ day when all of the people would get shot and killed.  When shot, the actor or an extra would release blood via a hand-controlled mechanism.  After each take, new clothes had to be brought in and more blood would be spilled.  A messy day for Wardrobe people, something they were not looking forward to, but the deaths and wounds had to be realistic.

Realism was important to John Boorman.  The moment the audience stops believing in the realism of the film, it becomes a farce, and they tend to reject it.  Above all, Boorman liked to engage the viewer’s intellect:  You have to have them think.  ‘Would I have reacted or behaved like that if caught in that situation?’

For the American Embassy scene, Boorman and his crew were set up just inside the gate where all one thousand extras would soon be charging.  His orders were given via walkie-talkie and relayed to a Malay translator standing on top of a plat­form who would announce them in Malay over a megaphone.  Each take took a long time to set up, and the wait for many of the extras seemed even longer since they had been there since early that morning and it was already pushing evening.  Some grew restless.  Just prior to one take, a young Malay woman suddenly shouted and ran out crying, bringing everything to a halt.  It seems a boy standing behind her had been pinching her behind nonstop.  The boy was promptly thrown off the set.

The chief advantage of being an extra or helping out behind the scenes was not only getting a firsthand view of how movies were made, but also seeing the stars up close as they performed.  Standing only a few yards away from Patricia Arquette, I could clearly sense the tension building up inside her.  Before each take, she would hop up and down and take deep breaths, psyching herself up, for she knew that Beyond Rangoon could be the perfect vehicle to make her a major star.  There was plenty of action and suspense, and it involved some serious acting, like when she had to fight off and kill a soldier bent on raping her.

For Patricia Arquette, Beyond Rangoon, was a change of pace.  In True Romance, where she starred opposite Christian Slater, she portrayed a call girl.  She also read for the part of another call girl (before Julia Roberts was chosen) in the original version of Pretty Woman.  Commenting on Beyond Rangoon, she said, “Since Laura and the priest were not romantically involved, it delved more into the human and spiritual side of a relationship.  This older, wiser man, from a totally different background was able to help Laura confront her fears and to look beyond them to become a better person.”

Acting is not new to the Arquette name.  Her father Lewis Arquette was an actor, so was her grandfather. Then there’s her sister Rosanna, who hit the big time first when she starred opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  Toto’s Grammy award-winning song Rosanna, incidentally, was dedicated to her.  Patricia also has three other siblings who act: Richmond, Alexi and David.  And now a new generation is getting into the family act: Patricia’s five-year-old son.  She had brought him along to be close to him; however, when the casting crew failed to find a suitable boy to portray her son in the film, her real son got the nod.

Nepotism is not new in the movie industry.  In fact, John Boorman’s son, Christopher, would portray the Belgian photographer in the American Embassy scene.  He was first used by Boorman in The Emerald Forest as the American boy who got lost in the Papua New Guinean jungle.  In between scenes in Beyond Rangoon, he helped out on the set wherever needed and was kept busy.

Another Boorman offspring on the set was his one-year-old daughter.  She endured the chaos with complete bliss.  No doubt, a future star in the making.  A highlight for me was being able to stand close to Boorman and the cameramen as a thousand extras stormed the American Embassy.  They came right at us.  It was an awesome feeling.  And to have it repeated take after take.  Where else in life can you restage a great moment over and over again until you get it just right?

As it turned out, most of the people helping out behind the scenes were people like me who just happened to be in Penang and were either interested in how movies were made or were simply available.  Many were friends of those already involved, like the girlfriend of the second cameraman who was always hanging around the set and was soon put to work.  Or the Australian who came to Penang to see his friend and because of his sheer size was hired on the spot as a grip.

Movies are like magnets.  They attract all kinds of people.  Payment for many of us was secondary.  Some would do it for free just for the once-in-a-lifetime experience and the glamour associated with being involved in a film, especially a successful one.  Then there were the out-of-work actors who needed a steady income as they bided their time to get discovered, so they took on work as extras or small speaking parts.

As for myself, once the shooting was wrapped up for the day, I had to rush back to the jetty and help everyone undress.  In exchange for the policemen and soldier’s uniforms, they got back their vouchers.  So far so good.  For the others who were coming back tomorrow, we had to pin their voucher number to their clothes and hang them on the clothes racks in numerical order so they could easily be found the next day.

There were some complaints, too.  One boy had his new Reeboks stolen and a young woman lost all her clothes.

It was one in the morning when I finally left, only a few hours from working around the clock.  The day we had 2,000 extras, I arrived home at 5a.m., and would gladly do it all again.

When I first got involved, I often felt I was in the way, but after working behind the scenes a few days, I just did what I thought needed doing and found myself moving about the set with a sense of purpose – whether it was chasing down Tomcat’s missing rat-tail file, cutting off tails of headscarves, or coming to the aid of several people trying to find the key to a locked portable toilet that hundreds of extras needed to use.  I coolly picked up two pipes and broke open the lock, solving the problem within seconds.

“Nice move,” one of them said, before rushing inside.

It was all in a day’s work.  As Churchill once said, “If there’s no wind, row!”  You do what you have to do to get the job done and overcome all obstacles.  That’s basically what everyone does in the film industry.  That’s how films get made, including Beyond Rangoon.  And because this particular film got made, Aung San Suu Kyi finally got released.  That was back in 1995, and now she’s released again.  But for how long…
 -from Tropical Affairs:Episodes from an Expat's Life in Malaysia
                                                          Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer
* Link to Part I 

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beyond Rangoon: Part I

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi by Myanmar's military government last weekend brought back some memories for me, thanks to my taking part in the John Boorman film Beyond Rangoon, both as an extra and working with wardrobe for a couple of crucial scenes. The film, an official selection at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, had a major impact in Aung San Suu Kyi release back in 1995, after her first six years of house arrest.

Only weeks into the film’s European run, the Burmese military junta freed the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (who is depicted in the film). In her first interview with the BBC, she thanked the filmmakers for helping raise world attention on the Massacres of 1988 by her country's military rulers.

Having had experience as an extra in the movie Indochine, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, I was asked by Sylvester of Movie Location Services to audition for a small part in film Beyond Rangoon. Like the French film Indochine, parts of Beyond Rangoon were to be shot in Penang, where I’m based as a writer. For Indochine, Penang was French Indochine (Vietnam); while in Beyond Rangoon, Penang would become Burma.

Beyond Rangoon is a Hollywood production – with a British twist. Both the director, John Boorman of Deliverance, Excalibur and Hope and Glory fame, and his assistant director, Mark Egerton, are British.

The film is about an American doctor named Laura (portrayed by Patricia Arquette of True Romance and later Stigmata) who tries to overcome the senseless murder of her husband and four-year-old son by traveling to Asia with her sister Andy (Francis McDormand, who won an Oscar for Fargo). While in Mandalay, Laura witnessed a political rally led by Aung San Suu Kyi (who later won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 while under house arrest). But then things go wrong, and there’s a military crackdown. Unable to leave Burma because of a lost passport, Laura tries to flee the country with the help of a middle-aged Buddhist priest whose life is also in danger.

Leading Hollywood producer and financier Barry Spikings, with over 100 films to his credit, including the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, Elephant Man and When Harry Met Sally, came across the story by Bill Rubenstein, liked it and sent it to John Boorman. Right away, Boorman was interested. Like a lot of talented directors, Boorman had moved to Hollywood because of a lack of financial backing in the British film industry. He had also just turned down a multi-picture deal with one of the studios because he didn’t like any of the scripts.

Beyond Rangoon was different. It involved an unusual friendship between an older Asian man and a younger American woman, both from very different cultures, and it also documented history – the 1988 democracy uprising in Burma plus it examined the nobility of the human spirit when caught in an extreme situation like in Deliverance, Boorman’s signature film.

Deliverance, by the way, made a star of Burt Reynolds who went on to lead the box office for six straight years. No doubt Patricia Arquette was hoping for a repeat performance. All the right ingredients were there: a good script; a US$25 million budget; Barry Spiking’ commitment, and John Boorman’s dedication, plus a top-notch director of photography in John Seales, an Australian who had been nominated for Oscars in cinematography for Rain Man and Witness.

The part that I was asked to audition for was that of an Australian doctor. I met with Barbara and Mary Gail, in charge of casting, and was given a few lines to read. After rehearsing them a couple of times in the hallway, I read them as convincingly as I could:

“Are you a doctor?”

“I’d like to help,” Mary Gail replied, reading Laura’s lines.

“Thank God. We can certainly put you to good use. Where the hell did you come from anyway?”

Several of my friends also read the lines. A few of us were later called back to be video-taped for John Boorman’s final approval.

In the end, in order to shorten the film, the lines were cut.

Then Sylvester called me back a couple of months later, in early January 1994. He said John Boorman was in town and wanted to meet the extras. Instead, we got to meet Walter, the acting coach.

The following week, I was told I would be in the American Embassy scene to be shot in March and that I needed to meet Ernie to arrange my wardrobe. Ernie suggested something smart and casual and a little touristy, so I brought two sets of clothes. The Wardrobe house was stuffed with racks and racks of clothes. The front door was wide open so I wandered inside.

Ernie, a Hungarian transplanted to California, suddenly appeared, coming up the steps from the basement.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, referring to both the house and his hands, which were stained red. “I’m in the middle of dying longyis (Burmese sarongs). I need to make them different colors so they all don’t look alike.” He shrugged his muscular shoulders, suggesting that someone had to do it; he just wished it was someone else.

I sympathized with him and showed him my clothes. “Try them on and we’ll see how you look.” He took a Polaroid of me in both outfits. “Boorman likes to see the clothes. He’s very detail-oriented – wants to make all the final decisions.”

I glanced at the other pictures, recognizing several friends, including Joanne.

“Ah,” Ernie said, nodding knowingly. “She’ll be your wife.”

“Ah,” I replied, hoping my real wife didn’t mind, nor Joanne’s husband, who was a lot bigger than me.

Another change of plans.

It seemed Joanne and I were not “blond” enough for the American Embassy scene. Instead we would be hotel guests. I was told to be at the set at 6:30 am. When I arrived at 6:15 am, I was promptly told the time had been changed to 8:15.

“Sorry,” a young Malay man said, “I tried to call you.”

The hotel that we would be guests of was the Cathay Hotel, which had been renamed the Kipling Hotel for the film, in honor of the writer Rudyard Kipling.

Since I had written several articles on Indochine, I was asked not to write any articles about Beyond Rangoon until after the filming was completed. I had to sign a document to make it official. The reason for the news blackout was because of the sensitive nature of the film and the attempt to protect the families of any Burmese actor or consultant still living in Burma. So in this article, I have left out every Burmese name except for Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the time was in prison. (Twenty years after the uprising, she is still being kept under house arrest.)

Deborah, who was in charge of Wardrobe, took one look at my geometrical Balinese shirt and said, “I have just the thing for you,” and she asked me to follow her to the Wardrobe container. She held up a pair of plaid shorts.

“You got to be kidding,” I said. “That's tacky!”

She nodded with a smile. “That's the look, I'm afraid,” and asked me to put them on. My shoes and socks were light brown, my legs pale. Not a pretty sight. “People will notice you,” she said, which didn't make me feel any better.

Joanne’s flowery outfit naturally clashed with mine, while another extra, Joelle, who has red hair, was asked to wear a pink dress.

“Where's the Lady in Pink?” Boorman kept asking. “Have the Lady in Pink stand over there.”

Joanne and I were to stand inside the entrance where Walter instructed me to point to an intricate wrought iron window and explain its cultural significance to Joanne (which I ad-libbed) as Patricia Arquette’s tour group entered the hotel. The tour group – a mixture of American, French and Swiss middle-aged ladies – were all hot and tired, and the poor receptionist, played by Malaysian actress Tiara Jacquelina, took the brunt of their complaints.

Spalding Gray, who was in The Killing Fields (and wrote a monologue about his expereinces in the film, Swimming to Cambodia, later committed suicide), was the tour leader, Watt. He turned to Laura, whom he had been coming on to, and said, “I’m having this most overwhelming urge to murder whiny middle aged women.” To which Laura replied, “Where would you be without them?” and walked away.

At this juncture, Boorman decided Joanne and I should approach the front desk and ask directions to one of the main tourist sites. He told James, the props man, to find us a map, which we would peruse for several moments before approaching the front desk. As soon as we arrived, Spalding Gray would look directly into the camera and say, “The bar?”

Since the Cathay Hotel had no bar, a real bar had to be created out of one of the rooms. They also turned the spacious hallway upstairs into an old-fashioned bedroom, complete with an antique bath.

Dressed casually in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts, Boorman constantly surveyed the set through a pair of friendly eyes. He made eye contact with everyone, including the extras, and rarely did he overlook a detail. For example, just as the tour group arrived, another hotel guest, upset with the shoddy service, signaled to the porter to collect his two suitcases and follow him out of the hotel. After the first take, Boorman walked over to the two suitcases and picked them up. Upon realizing they were empty – as we had all assumed – he told James to put some sandbags inside. He didn’t want the suitcases to appear heavy; he wanted them to be heavy so the porter would have to struggle as he lugged them across the lobby – something he had to do half a dozen times. Luckily for him, someone in the crew always carried them back.

In between takes, technicians and handymen would rush back and forth to make adjustments here and there, whether to correct the lighting, or to block something unsightly out of the way. Due to the physical constraints of the hotel lobby, no matter where we stood, we were in their way. As soon as Boorman was ready for the next take, all movement and sound had to cease – something some of the local workers helping outside didn’t seem to understand. Each time, Emma, one of the assistant directors, would have to go outside and tell the workers, particularly two Indian men carrying wood back and forth, “Not a sound!” Thinking they were being clever, they removed their shoes and kept on going. Emma caught them. “Don’t walk! Don’t move! Don’t carry!”

Before entering the hotel, the tour group had arrived in a tiny, filthy mini-bus – too small, in fact, to carry the entire group. So they faked it. Those who couldn’t squeeze in stayed off camera until the camera moved away from the mini-bus. Meanwhile, 600 extras were being prepared for a procession that the mini-bus would have to weave around before it arrived at the hotel. Shooting scenes out of sequence, which I learned firsthand in Indochine, was common in filming.

Also common was that no matter how much time, effort, and expense had been put into shooting a scene, there was always that element of unpredictability – the weather. After 600 extras had spent the entire day getting dressed, made-up, and had rehearsed what they had to do, it began to rain. So all 600 had to return the next day and start all over again.

My role for the day was finished. Deborah, however, asked me and some of the extras to help out in Wardrobe during the upcoming American Embassy scene where there would be a thousand extras, and another scene with two thousand extras, which I gladly agreed to.

                   -from Tropical Affairs,Episodes from an Expat's Life in Malaysia
                                                               Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

*Link to Part II 

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.



Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kuala Lumpur: An Expat's Writer's Experience

On my first visit to Kuala Lumpur in 1980, the plane that I was traveling on wasn’t allowed to land at the Subang Airport because another plane was in flames on the runway.  Until the wreckage could be cleared we were forced to make a detour to Penang.  Not a good first impression, but one that fueled my creative imagination.  For over twenty-five years, I have been coming back to Kuala Lumpur.

For me, Kuala Lumpur has always been associated with writing and meeting other writers.  Not long after moving to Penang in 1985, one of my short stories won a consolation prize in the Her World short story contest.  At the award ceremony I met several KL-based writers like Cean and Ridzwan Chesterfield.  I met them again when my stories won prizes in two of The Star’s contests, including third-prize for “The Future Barrister”.  The writers would take me around and show me the less glamorous side of the city, from Chow Kit to the abandoned apart­ments behind Bukit Bintang Plaza, which had been taken over by drug addicts and prostitutes who openly plied their trade.  

In 1987 I came to KL for a two-day writing workshop conducted by K.S. Maniam, sponsored by The New Straits Times; again I met several familiar faces as well as an aspiring poet named Jeya.  After the workshop we shared a crowded bus to the Klang Bus Station, and while waiting for her bus connection to return to her husband in Klang, we had teh-o at the nearby coffee shop at the Starlight Hotel on Jalan Sultan.  I turned our lively conversation that centered on the appearance of two Western women who showed up in backpacker attire – sleeveless loose tops, short shorts and no bras – into the short story, “Teh-O in K.L.” which appeared in Her World magazine and was included in my collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers and later Lovers and Strangers Revisited.  

The story is about a mat salleh and an Indian woman reflecting upon how opposite races tend to attract, a common theme in KL, a multiracial melting pot for Malaysians and expats.  Expats, by the way, are a source of constant curiosity.  Often I would feel that I’m being watched, stared at, or even ogled.  At times, flattering, but mostly unnerving.  The color of our skin makes us stand out, but too often expats have a way of attracting needless attention, even Westerners like me who take a subdued approach while trying to fit in.  It’s impossible to be anonymous whether boarding an over­crowded minibus at Central Market, having nasi ayam at a hawker stall or wandering the five-foot ways in search of a story.

In the early 90’s I would come to KL for the annual Book Fair held at the Putra World Trade Centre.  I would snake my way along with the crowd in order to get a feel of the publishing industry while searching for a publisher for my collection of short stories.  I would then pop over to The New Straits Times, where my articles regularly appeared in their Sunday Style section.  I would also make the rounds, meeting writers or visiting with magazine editors regarding my short stories or articles.  When Lovers and Strangers came out, Her World featured me as a personality for their November 1993 issue.  KL can even make a lonely expat writer like me feel glamorous.

I was once invited to KL to give a reading at the Australian High Commis­sion along with a dozen other writers, including Rehman Rashid, whose book A Malaysian Journey came out at around the same time as Lovers and Strangers.  I read one of the stories from my collection, and I was already looking forward to coming back to KL for future readings.  But then I started teaching creative writing at USM, and after going through a divorce, a custody battle, and being a single parent with a work permit, I rarely came back to KL.  

Eight years later Silverfish began its New Writing Series, so I would come down to KL for the book launches, the readings, and the writing conferences.  Although I had lost contact with most of my KL-based writing friends, including several I used to exchange stories with, Raman Krishnan and Sharon Bakar introduced me to plenty of others.  By then the city of Kuala Lumpur had already changed forever for me, thanks to the Twin Towers and KL Tower, and the new gleaming airport built far, far away that would require a ride on the equally new KLIA Express to KL Sentral, to an LRT connection and then a short walk to wherever I happened to be staying.  

In the past I often arrived by train or by a bus and I would walk everywhere.  A lot of my old haunts from the mid- to-late 80’s were no longer there, torn down by progress.  Even Kuala Lumpur’s lovely sounding name, despite its ‘muddy estuary’ meaning, has been reduced to the lazy-sounding and non-descript “KL”.  At times, I felt like a stranger, disoriented.

What I missed were the old hotels like those on Jalan Sultan where I often stayed, places like Lee Mun Hotel, with its stained glass windows on top of dark brown paneled walls.  I also enjoyed staying at the nearby Colonial Hotel with its numerous staircases that seemed to go up and down forever, a virtual maze.  Whenever I stayed there alone I would feel compelled to grab someone off the street and say, “You got to see this place!”  I would give them the grand tour, their mouths agape – no doubt they suspected me of ulterior motives.

Those old Chinese hotels had character.  Staying there was always an adventure – you never knew who you would bump into, from backpackers, to adulterers, to transvestites, and to a lovely pair of Indonesian lesbians.  Of course, as a writer, I would write all this down in various notebooks, from my journal to my daily descriptions, where every day for years I would describe whatever caught my fancy, from the strange odors I would encounter to the patterns I’d find in floor tiles.  I would also describe the rooms themselves to use later in my short stories or novels.

In my novel I am working on, I combined my old description notes of a hotel on Jalan Sultan, including the singlet-wearing Chinese men who manned the front desk – desks that were rarely positioned in the front of the building, but often down a long dim-lit corridor at the base of the steps.  When­ever I stayed at these hotels, I never knew what I was going to find.  If it wasn’t fresh paint for the upcoming Chinese New Year then it was a funeral procession awaking me early the following morning.

As soon as I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur Station Hotel, “a colonial fantasy of spires and minarets, cupolas and arches”, where I stayed a couple of times in the mid-80’s, I knew that the setting demanded to be used in a story – a story that I originally named “Joking” when it appeared in Her World, but later changed to, “The Station Hotel.”  The characters I invented for the story would visit the Lake Gardens, the National Museum, and Central Market before eating at the Station Hotel where by then their affair was coming unglued.

When the story came out in Lovers and Strangers, no less than six people thought that I was writing about them!  A wife of one of the men was adamant that I wrote about her husband because they shared the same name, Lee, and the descriptions fit (except he was an American and my character was Chinese).  To prove that I had not written about her husband, I dug up the original Her World version published years before I had met them.  Others who “saw” themselves in the story were not so easily convinced.  I didn’t ask who they were having an affair with – I figured it was none of my business.

In 2005 while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I had to make a trip to KL for a reading at Silverfish, so I took the opportunity to stay at the now renovated and upgraded The Heritage Station Hotel Kuala Lumpur.  After an absence of twenty years, staying at the hotel proved invaluable for rewriting the story.  I felt a powerful connection to my past, to the original inspirations for the story, and to what I was trying to do with this heavily revised version that nearly doubled its length.

At Silverfish, after I had read my story, a woman arrived late and expressed her disappointment that she had missed my reading, so I mentioned I had this other story that I was in the midst of rewriting, full of rough editing notes.  She and the others present asked to hear it.  Afterwards, another woman said that she loved it but only wished that her friend, who had recently stayed several months at The Station Hotel, was present.

Now and then while in KL, I would go to the Coliseum Café & Hotel on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman for their sizzling steaks.  As I writer, I loved the colonial atmosphere, and would take out my journal and start writing until the food came and then afterwards linger with pen in hand.  At times though, I wished they would change their tablecloths, which they never seemed to do.  Once in the late 80’s, I brought a KL-writer friend and as we entered, the stench was so overwhelming that we both looked at each other in horror and abruptly turned around and ate elsewhere.

On another visit to KL in the late 80’s another writer friend took me to the Le Coq d’Or located in the turn-of-the-century Bok Mansion.  I was so glad to have dined there and felt rather sad that KL had decided rather hastily to tear down such an exquisite piece of architecture.  A shame really.  They could’ve put it to a far better use.  It would’ve made a magnificent setting for a museum, an art gallery, or a cultural center.  It had it all – character, charm, ambiance and history – right in the heart of KL.

At times, I must admit, KL has brought out the worst in me.  Blame it on the traffic, the congestion, the confusion of Pudu Raya when I used to take buses back then, or maybe it was because my marriage to my now ex-wife was not going well so all those lonely nights staying in quaint hotels or wandering the streets chasing a pretty smile or sidestepping a gaggle of transvestites eyeing me up and down had a cumulative effect.

Yet recently I brought my fourteen-years-old son Zaini to KL and we had fun playing tourists, going shopping, and having dinner at the Hard Rock Café, which left a lasting impression on both of us.

During a recent visit, I was walking near the Hard Rock Café late at night when I saw the top of the lit-up Twin Towers beside a full moon in all of its glory.  I stood there admiring it for what seemed like half a lifetime, about as long as I’ve been coming to KL.  Another man appeared with his head down, walking briskly.  When he saw me standing there, he gave me an odd, annoyed look as though I was blocking his path.  I pointed up to what I had been admiring and he glanced in the direction of my finger and then took a double take and halted in his tracks.  I was glad to see that KL – the Kuala Lumpur of the past and the KL of the present – could still hold someone’s attention, as a timeless beacon, especially for an expat writer like me.
               -from Tropical Affairs: Episodes of an Expat's life in Malaysia

                                            -Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer   

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Writing a Memoir and Learning from Eat Pray Love

For the first time in my life, after seeing a movie, I’m actually reading the book, which is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love.  My wife, who was in Hong Kong, asked me if I wanted anything.  Initially I replied, “I’m fine,” but the next day I thought of the book and asked her to pick up a copy at the airport, so she brought it home yesterday. 

Now I’m a third the way through it, having completed the part on Italy.  I wasn’t planning on reading the book right away since I was already in the middle of book that I began to read while in the middle of another book, and didn’t want to put that aside for this third book.  I prefer to work my way through one book to the end before starting another, which is how I managed to complete 150 books in the last three years.  If I start abandoning books for other books like I used to do, I hardly finished anything.  But Eat Pray Love will be an exception, since it’s for work.     

Eat, Pray, Love     I got this book because I was in the midst of another first, a memoir about the year following my divorce (beginning the very day the divorce was made official).  Although it was the worst year of my life, a roller-coaster of emotions that I barely survived, literally, it was also a year of triumph, on many fronts.  An amazing year, actually; worthy, of say, a book.  It’s been over a decade now, though I’m still working in my mind how this all came about, how it all could have gone horribly wrong (it nearly train wrecked my life in several different areas), and how I some how got through it all in one piece, culminating with an end-of-the-year-victory that surprised everyone, especially my lawyer, who flatly told me, “That’s impossible.”

By writing about it, I wanted to bury a few ghosts, and I also thought this story would benefit others, too, so long that I reigned in the bitterness over the mean petty stuff that people inflict one another after they are legally divorced, and keep it all in perspective, this bigger picture of survival that I have in mind.  Rereading my detailed journal, full of quotes, too (I was happy to see), brought plenty of surprises, things I had totally forgotten, like, in the midst of all this court drama, I not only fell in love (which truly saved my life) but was also in Anna and the King.    

Since most of that year cut to the core and brought back a slew of bad memories, I admit that writing this has been a challenge, so I wanted to see how Elizabeth Gilbert dealt with the ugliness of her own divorce, on paper.  I also wanted to see how she framed the book, structured it, and the little things like, what tense did she write it in (pleasantly surprised that she wrote it in present tense), and was it strictly a chronological narrative, and if so, how did she handle the days/dates – or where they even important?  

For her they weren’t, but for my story they are since it involves two court cases—a court case within a court case that overwhelmed the original case because the potential fallout affected my very freedom in Malaysia.  The nearer I got to those impending dates, and an even bigger one later, the more things started to heat up.  So much stuff was happening, enough stuff to wreck anyone’s year, but for me, that was only one week, and the following week would get a whole lot worse—and this would go on, it seemed, week after week, plus all the other stuff that happened in my life.

Since a strict time line seemed necessary for most of that year, I was finding it tedious by around page 30 because of these days and dates:  “On Tuesday, 21 January... then on Thursday...and on the Saturday, 26 January,” so I was wondering, should I just do this in a diary form and put the dates on the top, and then focus only on the days that were relevant.  This could work, but I didn’t want to go that route if I could avoid it.

I had other issues to resolve, too, and I thought reading Eat Pray Love, since it was so famously successful, could point me in the right direction, if not for this book, then another memoir that I was keen on writing about, a journey I took 25 years ago en route to Malaysia, whereby I backpacked on my own for six months to places like Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, only to end up with dysentery in Nepal.

Both of these books have been on my mind for years, and I decided I needed to write both books for myself and for my children (what, you spent three days on a felucca on the Nile, and stayed in a cave in Petra?), yet also make the story universal for others, too. 

I figured if you’re going to write a good memoir you better read some good memoirs to see how others have done it, to give yourself some options.  Since the movie resonated with me on so many different levels, I thought, I needed get the book, read it, learn from it, and get back to writing my own books that I hope will be equally as successful as Eat Pray Love.  Naturally all writers want, as Gilbert referred to it while speaking at TED, that “freakish success".   Bring it on!

Then, after quickly deducing who Richard from Texas is, and verifying that fact on Google, I was both startled and delighted to read that he ended up on Oprah twice and was even writing a memoir, but then on 8 March 2010, he suddenly died in his sleep, at age 62.  A little of me died, too.  It will sadden me knowing that fact when I read the next section of the book on India.  Yet it will also remind me, that hey, you don’t have all the time in the world to write your memoirs (and your other books), so if you’re going to do it, buckle down and just do it, and get on with your life!             
                                                  -Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer 


***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.