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 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

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


                                                                  Robert Raymer,  Pixbugs Studio

The Taib Mahmud tribute film was quick—one month from audition to seeing myself as Brother Patrick on Sarawak TV as part of a tribute for the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak’s 84th birthday.  

Two days before my audition, Alex contacted me, asking me if I was interested in the playing the role Brother Patrick, headmaster of St Joseph Secondary School.  He was audi­tion­ing for Brother Charles, a stern class teacher who carries a cane.  Alex and I had pre­vious­ly taken part in the Road to Nationhood: Sarawak that was aired on the National Geographic channel.


Alex passed the phone to Michele who works for Film Makers Company who in turn was hired by Pixbugs Studio, in charge of Production, to do the casting and wardrobe.  She informed me that auditions would end in a few days, so I made an appoint­ment for Thursday afternoon.  I dropped off one of my sons at St. Joseph Secondary School, slipped on my Covid-19 pandemic face mask and arrived at their office.

After filling in my per­sonal details and measurements, Michele passed me my lines.  A lot of lines.  I had a mo­ment of panic.  Although I have been an extra in four feature films, including Indochine, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, I’ve never had to interact and exchange lines with other actors before (not even in plays, although I’ve been a stage manager for several Penang Players productions).

I did take part in two French documentaries, one on Somerset Maugham and the other Joseph Conrad.  For both projects, I extensive­ly researched my subjects and expounded upon what I had learned, their ties to Sarawak.


Exchanging dialogue with an­other actor is quite different.  You have to listen closely, react accordingly, and speak your lines on cue.  The church scene was a very long dialogue sequence between Taib and Brother Patrick at a crucial junction in the film.

Not sure I was up to it, I considered bailing on the project, but Sam, who was Michele’s boss, came over and gave me a pep talk and encouraged me to try out since I was there.  Due to Covid-19 there weren’t that many expatriates in Kuching in my age category who could (or wanted to) act.  Ok, so may­be they were desperate.

Michele gave me some time to mem­orize my lines.  She then filmed me as I stated my name, age, height, and previous acting experience.  I then had to act out four emotions: Happy, Sad, Angry and Excited.

“Have you ever done this before?”

“No,” I replied, but found it fun.  The less fun part was remembering my lines which I kept flubbing, even skipping whole paragraphs, but eventually I got the hang of it.  After a few takes they convinced me that I did fine.

At home, I still contemplated bailing since I was in the middle of a long writing project and didn’t want to break my momentum.  Then I figured someone else would get the part.  That didn’t happen.  Late Friday,  I got the call.  I was in.  So was Alex.

                                                           Pixbugs Studio

I had to break the bad news to my two sons, Form Four and Form One, that I would be acting as the headmaster of their school, although the year would be 1955.  I also had to learn their motto, Ora et Labora (Latin: pray and work) and their school rally song.  Two of my scenes would be set at their school.  As a father, now and then, you need to embarrass your children.

I arrived at Pixbugs Studio at the same time as Alex for the briefing, rehearsals and costume measurements, where we met Alester Leong-Director, Bernie-First Assistant Director, Shawn-Director of Photography, Liew-Cast Direc­tor, and a handful of other actors, many of whom were students, including from St. Joseph private, plus the two main actors, Ezmir who plays Taib Mahmud and Adhwa, Taib’s friend Annuar.

                                    Pixbugs Studio


Jocelyn-Art Director and Melissa-Makeup Artist studied my face—an unnerving experience having two young ladies conferring back and forth on the flaws of my face up-close and per­sonal and what they would need to do to make me look more like Brother Patrick since a total facelift was out of the question (and out of their budget).  Alex got the same treat­ment.

  Brother Patrick

  Brother Charles

Rehearsals went well since we could look at our scripts if necessary.  The school rally song went horribly wrong.  Some of the students knew it by heart, the rest of us were clueless.  Someone found the music and the words on YouTube, so we tried to follow along.  Later I asked my son if he had a copy of the school rally and he passed me a notebook that had the words on the back, so I cut it out and kept a copy in my car.  Turned out there was more than one version, so I had to amend it accordingly.


A Taib Production Talent group was set up on WhatsApp to keep us informed of production details and shooting schedules.  Plus, a second group, Cast for Untold Story, to ease com­muni­ca­tion between the director and the principal cast, which included updated copies of the script and video references for the main characters so they could see the facial expressions and mannerisms of those whom they would portray. 

I suggested a few editing changes in my lines to improve emphasis, which were readily accepted and caused additional updated scripts.  Alester and Bernie were very accommodating.

Filming would take place on Wednesday, Sarawak Day, at Carmelite Monastery, and then on Saturday and Sunday at St. Joseph.  By Tuesday most of the lines that I had mem­orized got changed.  They were changed again when we were handed the new script on Wednesday.

I was told to bring black shoes, not to wear my wedding ring, and was given a pair of round glasses, which made it difficult to see, but gave me a rather nice Harry Potter look.


No one said anything about a white t-shirt to wear un­derneath the white cas­sock.  For some reason I thought the cassock would be dark…burgundy perhaps.  Luckily, they had a spare t-shirt.  Later, I realized that I had over­looked that detail buried within all the other messages.  I then brought a spare t-shirt for Garrett, another Brother involved with the Sunday shoot, who was under the impression he was to wear a white dress shirt, not a white t-shirt.  Miscommunications happen.

Melissa slicked back my hair and did the makeup.  Meanwhile Ezmir and I ran through our lines.  Once we were ready, we were driven to the set, to the chapel at the Carmelite Monastery.  For the shoot that morning there was only three actors, but 30 for production! Most were from Pixbugs, some from Film Makers, others were freelancers.  

                                                           Pixbugs Studio

Amos-Sound Designer fixed me up with a microphone hidden underneath my clothes.

                                                          Pixbugs Studio

                                                            Pixbugs Studio

While they filmed the two students shyly entering the chapel, sitting on a back pew, and then making their way up the aisle towards my character, I had plenty of time to go over my lines.  Sam from Film Makers dropped by and told me that he was glad that I got the part, which made me feel good.  I didn’t ask how many others I had beaten out just in case I was the only one.  (I think there was one other person who came in second place…Covid-19, what to do?)

Later, I found a secluded place in the monastery so I could practice rising from a seated position and saying my lines—out of eyesight and earshot of everyone else.  Or so I thought.  Suddenly a door opened, and I found myself face to face with an elderly nun who gazed sus­pi­ci­ously at me dressed in a cassock.  She said she heard someone talking and thought I needed to be let in.  I apologized for disturbing her and explained my presence.  I hoped that I had her bless­ing and not a curse for disturbing her peace as I went back to rehearsing my lines.   

                                                           Pixbugs Studio


                                                           Pixbugs Studio

Finally, I was allowed inside the chapel and guided to the second pew and briefed.  For effect, smoke was created by waving a carpet, which added to the stuffi­ness inside.  With the cameras rolling, I would start by kneeling, then I would sit back in my pew.  Two students would appear at my side.

                                                           Pixbugs Studio

Surprised at seeing them, I would stand to greet them and then listen to their formal request to leave classes early on Fridays to attend prayers at the mosque.


Three paragraphs had been cut from Ezmir’s dialogue, but I felt they were crucial to con­vince Brother Patrick to grant Taib (and the other Muslim students) permission since the lines also cited the school motto to great effect (a nice tie in to the school assembly scene, shot later, but would come sooner), since this was a piv­ot­al, dramatic moment in the film. 

                                                          Pixbugs Studio

I had expressed my concerns to Ezmir and others earlier before I finally approached the director on the set.  Alester readily agreed, so he asked Ezmir, who also agreed to re-insert those three para­graphs back into his already rather long dialogue (and thankfully he could still remember them!)

                                                         Pixbugs Studio

                                Pixbugs Studio

Ezmir and I then took about nine takes.  Ezmir, who did an excellent job of acting through­out, kept stumb­ling over his lines (he had an awfully lot to say and those three para­graphs taken out and re-inserted thanks to me didn’t exactly help).  Then it was my turn to stumble a few times.  One take was going rather well for both of us until a passing ambulance blaring its siren drowned us out.  Final­ly, it looked like we could both make it all the way through in time for lunch, but half-way through my final sentence I blanked out.

“Take five!” Alester called out.

Everyone cleared out of the chapel for some fresh air, but I remained behind, sitting in the pew, stewing.

The next take we nailed it!  We needed another take as backup, and then, ran through it few more times for close-up shots.  By then, no problem.  

Problems for me came later when they filmed me kneeling, saying my prayers.  Nothing like having all of their attention focused on make me feel like being put on the spot.


                                                            Pixbugs Studio

Occasionally they would forget to let me up while they conferred on the various takes, adjusting the prayer beads, and making sure that the cross draped over my hand appropriate­ly.  I felt the pain in my knees and lower back since I was kneeling in an awk­ward angle to get the right height among the pews for the cameras, which were moved to various positions.  I was perspiring from the strain, which the director noted and duly apologized.


                                                          Pixbugs Studio

It was past 2 p.m. when we finally finished shooting at the chapel.  Although I was done for the day, Ezmir and Adhwa still had filming that afternoon that would last late into the even­ing.  On Saturday and Sunday, Brother Patrick would return for two more scenes in Part II.    

                   —Borneo Expat Writer

#  #  #

Being Brother Patrick-Part II 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

Joseph Conrad and Me 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

“The Musical Tree” has been published in The Blue Lotus, Special Issue, 22


“The Musical Tree”, previously published in French for Editions GOPE, and an excerpt from my Penang-set novel A Perfect Day for an Expat Exit, has been published in The Blue Lotus, Special Issue, 22.  The excerpt, a flash fiction, was part of the short story “Following the Cat” that appeared in Off the Edge in Malaysia and Thema, a USA literary Journal, in 2006.  Thema, by the way, recently accepted one of my short stories, “The Stare” due out in 2021, the fifth short story for them, all set in Malaysia, dating back to 2005.  I like working with them because each issue has a stated theme and if one of your works already fits that theme (or if you can revise it to fit), it increases your odds of publication.

Two other stories from the same novel, one a short story, “Monkey Beach” and the other flash fiction “The Funeral Procession” were also published this year in The Secret Attic, a UK publication. 

Recently I revised the 88,000-word novel and have been consid­ering reverting it back to the previous title, The Woman on the Ferry, the first novel in a planned trilogy set in Penang.  The second novel, in progress, will be The Lady on the Balcony.  The third novel, already completed, The Girl in the Bathtub.

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