Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Sarawak Author Golda Mowe Featured in a Documentary


Congrats to Golda Mowe on being featured on Past Present Future Episode 5: Writing Natives, which aired 4 August 2021 on TV Sarawak (TVS). 

Having come across my author-to-author interview with Golda, Deborah Christopher, who studied Cinematography at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) where I taught for a number of years, asked me if I was in­terested in being interviewed for a documentary featuring Golda Mowe.  Golda, from Sarawak, is the author of the novels Iban Dream, Iban Journey and Iban Women

                                                                        Blue Lotus 15

Deborah is the co-producer for a documentary series named Past, Present, and Future, a project funded by TVS.  Each episode highlights different stories of Sarawak personalities who have incorporated their culture and traditions from the past into their present (and future) careers or projects.

I was glad to hear that Golda Mowe was being featured since she is underap­pre­ciated and de­serves a wider audience.  I was impressed by her discipline, her persistence and her will­ingness to rewrite.  Many Malaysian writers do not seem to want to put in the extra work, thinking it is good enough for Malaysia.  The good ones, like Golda and others that I have interviewed who want to attract an international audience, know better.

Due to the on-going pandemic, the project was delayed.  Then last year the film crew nearly got locked down in Sibu while interviewing Golda.  Meanwhile, I made a list of things to do before the film­ing:  reread Iban Dream and purchase and read the other two novels in the  series; prepare for the interview by coming up with something interesting to say; make notes, reminders of what I need to do the week and the day before the shoot (including domestic chores—sweep­­ing, dusting, cleaning the living room); and more reminders for the morning of the shoot itself (arrange mythology books on table, make sure I have handy everything I may need—water bottle, pen and notebook, outline of my talk in case I go blank.



After reading Golda’s three novels, I learned a lot about Iban myths, their fears and dreams, their omens and taboos, their customary laws (cannot refuse a visitor if he makes a request to stay at your longhouse and cannot refuse food offered to you), the significance of weaving patterns (and the harmful risks of trying to weave above your skill level) and also retribution, an obligation to take avenge if one of your relatives was killed.  Also, that the ideal matrimonial match should be between a feared head­hunt­er and a gifted weaver.


For the documentary I was asked to talk about Golda, her writing, and her life journey, which got me to thinking in terms of The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, a book by Christopher Vogler, which I picked up at a writing conference in Maui, along with a companion book, Myth and the Movies, Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films by Stuart Voytilla.

Vogler, inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, discusses the use of archetypes such as the Hero, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardians, the Herald, the Shapeshifter (gods and demons), the Shadow and the Trickster.  Also the Mystic Structure and Stages of the Journey:  Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting with the Mentor; Crossing the First Threshold; Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Innermost Cave; Ordeal; Reward (Seizing the Sword); The Road Back; Resurrection; Return with the Elixir.

This mystic structure can be applied to nearly every story from adventures to romance to slapstick comedy, even to animation such as Disney’s The Lion King.

To prepare myself for the documentary, I broke my presentation into four parts: (1) Golda’s use of mythology; (2) her plots and themes; (3) her personal writer’s journey and how we met (MPH workshop that I conducted in 2009); and (4) her writing in Sarawak and publish­ing in Singapore.  I had written a blog about publishing books in Malaysia and Singapore.

A common theme in all three of Golda’s novels is the hero being made a scapegoat or an outcast—you against the world (both visible and invisible).  The hero, even as a child, is often forced to undertake the ‘hero’s jour­ney’, like Tarzan, or Mowgli in The Jungle Book, or Simba in The Lion King, often cast out unfairly by society.  In Golda’s Iban Dream, the child Bujang, is raised by an orangutan…destined to be a great warrior.  All three novels are connected by a cursed family line and each hero/heroine sets out to prove that they are not cursed, to right wrongs.


Deborah and Jeremy Emang (the producer and director), along with the rest of the crew, Shawn and Elisha, arrived at my house for the half-day shoot.  They proceeded to set up the camera and lights and the rest of their equipment in one section of our living room, aimed at me sitting at a round table and with several coffee table books on mythology and lost cities, lost empires, including Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, with a nice backdrop of collected items from my travels.

Once the filming began, I proceeded to talk about Golda’s personal hero’s journey as a writer and her own mystic journey, some of which I had learned from my research from my previous interview.

Then I spoke about the hero’s journey within her stories and how it dates back to ancient Greeks, which she, coincidentally talked about during her own segment.  When most people think of mythology, they often limit themselves to Greek and Roman mythology, dating back to the Trojan War.  But every culture has their own mythology, and Golda Mowe wrote about the Iban mythology that is important to her.  She writes about what she knows, what she has learned, and from her meticulous research to get the details of her rich Iban heritage correct.  It’s these details that make her fantasy novels palpable.  As a reader, we are caught up in their journeys, their quests, their battles with demons and headhunters.

I continued to talk until I heard an all too familiar jingle from an ice-cream truck.  Knowing that sound equipment for the filming could pick it up, I took a much-needed break and drink of water.  We waited several minutes until the vendor made his rounds and took away his jingle.

I picked up where I left off and continued to say what I felt needed to be said on Golda’s behalf.  I had done my home­work and was well prepared.  After the interview, Jeremy told me that he had written a list of questions but I had answered all of them as I spoke, so there was no need to interrupt me.  He could relax, check off each un­asked question, and concentrate on the filming. 

Jeremy Emang 

A few weeks later, Deborah contacted me to borrow my three Golda Mowe books for another shot (since Golda was still in Sibu) and promptly returned the books.  During the actual documentary, I appeared four times; however, I was bleeped only once.  What I said was the right word for the context (bullsh…ing).  I thought they would cut it from the actual documentary.  Instead, I have my first recorded ‘bleep’ caught on film, a badge of honor.

Although I didn’t get a chance to meet Golda again, it was good to see her on film.  Since she did all the hard work, the research and writing her books, she deserves all the credit for her well written books about Ibans in Sarawak.  I wish her all the best with her writing and hope she continues her hero’s journey that all writers must undertake if they dare to dream and write and see their work published.


                      —Borneo Expat Writer

 My other Interviews with First Novelists:  

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.
Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day, finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009.
Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 

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

Five part Maugham and Me series



Saturday, September 4, 2021

A Final Farewell to a Tango Dancer

I originally wrote this article “Farewell to a Tango Dancer” in 2003 for a farewell dinner for Anni Nordmann before she left Penang, Malaysia where I first met her, and later published a revised version for Tropical Affairs.  Having learned that she had recently passed away due to cancer, I thought I would post the article as a final tribute to Anni.

                                                                   Joelle, Robert, Anni

If expats are good at one thing it’s saying goodbye because we do it so often—to expats leaving and those staying behind.  Expats come in two types:  those who come to a country for a year or two before moving onto the next country, and those who come to one country and stay put.  Anni Nordmann was both.  She had been an expat in eight countries—South Africa, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, Gabon, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singa­pore—before arriving in Penang, Malaysia where she ended up staying for sixteen years.  

After being away from the United States for 28 years, she’s finally returning home.  Like other long-stayers-in-one-country expats like myself, I was wondering, how do you say goodbye to a fellow expat whom you thought would never leave?

Like Anni, when I came to Malaysia 20 years ago, the intention was never to stay for very long, but as years went by, I became settled.  Initially I was awed by those long-time expats who had been here for ten or twelve years, and thought, how do they stay that long?  Don’t they miss their families and friends back home?  But as the years went by, as we started our own families here, this becomes home,             

Although I moved to Penang in 1985, Anni came in 1987 with her Swiss husband and three-year old son, Chris.  Later we discovered that before we met, our paths had crossed several times.  Anni was living in Holiday Inn, where her husband was the general manager, and I had been to the Holiday Inn on many occasions, attending various func­tions, including a Thanks­giving dinner for Americans where she was also present.  My ex-wife and I were close to Stella, Holiday Inn’s guest relations officer, and attended her wedding, as did Anni.  In 1991, after four years, after Anni had already left Holiday Inn, after her husband had moved away to another hotel in another country, we finally met.


During the filming of Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the director decided to do a day shoot instead of a night shoot for the Christmas Dinner scene, thus several male expats had to back out as guests and tango dancers.  So the casting people called me as one of the replacements.

Before the actual filming of the scene, all eight tango dancers met in Hotel Equatorial with the film’s choreo­grapher.  In walked Anni, a classy looking Ameri­can who played polo and taught horseback riding.  Anni, however, was not fated to be my dancing partner.  Instead it was her good friend Joelle Saint-Arnoult, another longtime expat from France.  For one week we learned how to dance and turn and dip to perfection.



Our Christmas Dinner scene in the old Crag Hotel atop Penang Hill took four days to shoot.  Elegantly dressed in period outfits from the 1930s, Anni sat directly across from me, so we had plenty of time to get to know one another.  A few weeks later, Anni, Joelle and I were invited to take part in the racing boat scene in Parit, Perak.

with Lind Dan Pham 

After Indochine, all three of us were extras in Beyond Rangoon—also set in Penang—di­rected by John Boorman, starring Patricia Arquette and Francis McDormand, and Paradise Road, directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Glenn Close and Cate Blanchett.  In Beyond Rangoon, Anni and I worked a few days in wardrobe when they needed extra help to deal with 2000 extras, where we gained a whole new perspective into movie making.

In 1992, Anni, Joelle and I were asked by Angela Clark another tango dancer from Indochine, to help  revive Penang Players after a twelve years hiatus.  Our first play was Admirable Crichton where Joelle and Anni had small acting parts.  Anni’s big part was sound effects, and I was stage manager.  Our behind-the-scenes roles continued for several produc­tions including, Gosforth’s Fete, Between Mouthfuls, The Mousetrap, and Dick Whittington and Wonder Cat.  Joelle played the Wonder Cat and Anni’s son Chris, then age 10, played Dick Whittington.

During this time, Anni and I shared other adventures, too.  She helped to dress me up as Santa Claus for St. Christopher’s School, where her son Chris was attend­ing.  Thanks to Indochine, we became models for Hotel Equatorial, City Bayview, and Bacchus, a French restaurant owned by Joelle and her husband.  We were then hired to dress up as Colonial Officers and their spouses at the E & O Hotel for 200 French Lotto winners. 

For the Penang Heritage Trust’s Twenties Revival at the former Runnymede Hotel, we were asked to reprise our roles as tango dancers from Indochine and put on a performance.  By then, the eight tango dancers in Penang had dwindled to five.


Anni and I shared a penchant for visiting places where we didn’t belong, like the remnants of a house in Batu Ferringhi where another long-term expat-cum hermit named Bill McVeigh was still living out the remainder of his life before he passed away.  We snuck into several abandoned bungalows, including one where we were chased by bats, and another time, I tore my shirt slipping through a hole in a fence. 

 There were sad moments too, like giving blood to a fellow Penang Player who later died of cancer; although he was from Penang, he was a long-term expat in France.  Anni, at her own personal risk, once helped another expat flee Penang from an abusive husband. 

In the last five years, Anni devoted herself to “The Farm” at Lone Pine Hotel, where she taught horseback riding, resurfacing now and then to do the sound for yet another Penang Players’ production.  Meanwhile I settled to a life teaching creative writing at USM, went through a divorce, and eventually met someone wonderful from Sarawak and remarried. 

While I concen­trated on teaching and my own writing, Anni offered to read an early draft of my novel and gave helpful feedback.  Over the years she had edited two more of my novels and some short stories.  Extreme­ly supportive of my writing, she, Joelle and others from Penang Players volunteered to launch my collection of Malaysian-set short stories, Lovers and Strangers.  Later they did again for the revised version, Lovers and Strangers Revisited.  By then Anni had left, although I acknowledged her in the book.

When Joelle first told me that Anni was leaving Penang, I contacted her and we quickly caught up with each other’s lives, reminiscing about all the adventures we had shared in Penang, as well as airing each other’s concerns about her returning to the US and her future life as a former expat whose heart will always be in Malaysia where she had spent a third of her life.  When I was going through a difficult custody battle for my son, she gave me the timely advice to “keep your head high”.  I know she will be do the same no matter what happens in the US where many fellow Americans have never traveled out of the US, other than weekend trips to Mexico or Canada, and have no desire to do so.

Like many other short- and long-term expats in Penang, as well as hordes of local friends, especially those in Penang Players or from The Lone Pine—we will miss Anni, particularly Joelle and I, who will remain behind in Penang as the last two tango dancers.

*Later, in 2006, I left Penang for Sarawak on the island of Borneo in East Malaysia where I still reside as an expat. Joelle remains in Penang.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

“The Stare” Published in Thema (Spring 2021)


My short story “The Stare” was published in Thema (Spring 2021) in the US.  The story was first published in New Straits Times in Malaysia back in 1986.  That’s 35 years ago, so I guess it has a timeless quality about it.  I got the idea after visiting an old Malay cemetery and wrote about it in Story Behind the Story.  This is the fifth short story published in Thema, four from the Lovers and Strangers Revisited collection.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Being Brother Patrick of St. Joseph in Abdul Taib Mahmud: An Untold Story-Part II


                                                                               Pixbugs Studio 

After filming at the chapel at the Carmelite Monastery (see Part I), both the school assembly and class photo scenes at St. Joseph Secondary School were switched to Sunday, the final day of filming.  All the extras—Garret-another Brother, Leslie-the photograph­er, and about three dozen Form Five students from St. Joseph—were brought it for the shots.

                                                            Pixbugs Studio 

There was some drama in the school assembly when the Taib and Annuar characters arrived late and Annuar collided with Brother Charles who was wielding his cane.  My opening lines addressing the school assembly went well, just needed to work on the cadence.  The tiles, however, were slippery from the early morning rain for my dress shoes, so I had to be careful while walking and then climbing onto the platform (they had to remove the makeshift steps which were even more precarious).


                                                            Pixbugs Studio 

Jocelyn would assist me coming down, which I didn’t mind.  One take, I even had two ladies helping me, one for each hand.  Wouldn’t look good if I fell since they didn’t have a spare cassock.  What did fall was the top portion of an old gramophone that was being wound up to play the school rally.  The two previous takes went fine, but then the whole top portion of the gramophone dropped off.


                             Pixbugs Studio 

Still, the school rally had to be sung. 

                                                                                                        Pixbugs Studio

I made the announcement, put my hand on my heart, as did all of the students, and we sang the school rally.  I had been rehearsing all week and had it memorized, but I kept screwing up the lines and then picking it up later and screwing up again, although no retakes were done for my sake, which I found…well, surprising and relieving.  Then I got an idea.  I asked Alester, our director, to ask all of the students to put some school spirit into the song, since they all knew the song by heart, and to sing loudly, too, which I hoped would drown me out (and cover my mistakes).  It worked!


                                                                               Pixbugs Studio 

While waiting for the class photo scene, I ran into Donjie, the kantung seller, who Alex and I knew from Road to Nationhood: Sarawak.

                                      Donjie           Pixbugs Studio 

                                                        Pixbugs Studio 

By the time the class photo sequence was ready to begin, the sun was directly above our heads and we were all melting.  Although I acted cool, the bald spot in the back of my head could feel the heat.

                                           Pixbugs Studio 

                                                        Pixbugs Studio

                                                          Pixbugs Studio 

This was where the film ends, just as the photo­grapher called out, “One, two, three…”  He had no flash in his camera, but in the film, it flashed, and the class photo morphed into the actual class photo with Taib Mahmud taken in 1955.

 Taib's Class Photo 1955

I thought we were done, but we were called in for an ADR—Additional Dialogue Replace­ment—to dub in lines that weren’t clear on the film for a variety of reasons, some out of our control like that passing ambulance.  I immediately dreaded redoing the school rally, some­thing I was still sing­ing inside my head, and desperate­ly wanted out!  Then I figured, since they were no longer film­ing, I could read from the script, so no problem.  No, the school rally was fine and the close-ups on me were at the beginning before I had time to mess up.

We arrived at Momentum Studio Thursday evening.  Since I had the longest drive home, and it was a school night and I had to be up at 5:15 a.m. the following morning, they let me go first. 

“Are you ready?” asked Amos as he led me to the sound room. 

“When have I ever not been ready?” I replied jokingly.

My wife would’ve laughed at that.  “Now what?” she would say, after another delay when­ever we were rushing anywhere.

“Wait,” I told Amos, “I forgot my backpack…”


                                                          Pixbugs Studio 

On the monitor was me from the church scene, kneeling in my pew.  I needed to redo the prayers.  Bernie keyed me in with a series of three beats.  On the fourth non-existent beat I would begin.  It was weird speaking to myself, trying to match the words with the lips that were moving in front of me.  All I had to do was say my prayer a couple of times and then I silently prayed it would be over before they changed their minds about redoing that song.

One month to the day of my audition to play Brother Patrick I happened to be in Sibu when I heard that Sarawak TV would be airing our film that evening; however, they weren’t sure of the time, anywhere from 7:30-9:30.  The hotel didn’t carry that channel, but I was told it could be watched live online.

We watched the news at 7:30, and kept glancing at the time as the program, a tribute to Taib Mahmud dragged on…a variety show of speeches, singing and dancing that culminated with the presenta­tion of our film by Pixbugs Studio—his special birthday present—at 10 pm!  By then both of our boys were sound asleep.  Nevertheless, my wife and I watched the program on her phone in bed.  Luckily, it didn’t put us to sleep.

       Here is a link to the 15 minute video:

What really jolted me awake was the first shot of me—a closeup of the balding spot on the back of my head as I stood on the podium about to address the school assembly.  It was not a good look.  Shocking to say the least since I never see that particular angle when I look at myself in the mirror, nor do I want to see it, let alone millions of strangers.  Other than that, the film was nicely done, shot in black and white in a nostalgic style befitting Malaysia in the mid-50’s.  For Malaysians, think P. Ramlee.


                                                          Pixbugs Studio 

                                                         Pixbugs Studio 

                                                        Pixbugs Studio 

The boys got to see it the following morning.

“You look weird,” one of them said.  So much for making a good impression.       

An astute Catholic friend, other than pointing out the bald spot, noted that the sign of the cross before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was:  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (not Holy Spirit as I had said.)  Oh well, for me it was still a wrap…in the can…and launched onto TV land and into the realm of Social Media throughout the world…and into infinity and beyond...

Next time, I just pray I don’t have to sing that school rally again and maybe they could cover up that bald spot for me.  A nice stylish hat would do.

Being Brother Patrick Part-I 

          —Borneo Expat Writer

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Somerset Maugham and Me—Part I-V 

Joseph Conrad and Me