Thursday, June 22, 2017

Popular Bookfest Horror Writing Workshop (The Star, 20 June 2017)

Here is a link to the actual workshop.

Here is a link to their 2016 workshop.  And the 2015 workshop.

And to my recent five-part Maugham and Me series about being filmed for the Franco-German channel Arte in 2017.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

From Hari Raya to Somerset Maugham

Every year, around this time, I usually get an extra reminder that Hari Raya is coming up.  This year was someone’s Facebook posting of the opening pages to my short story “Home for Hari Raya” from Lovers and Strangers Revisited.  The story was adapted into a film by Ohio University’s School of Media Arts & Studies.

Led by Associate Professor Frederick Lewis, a team of students came to Malaysia for the filming and worked with Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), in Shah Alam.

Other than writing the original story (and the story behind the story), I helped to edit their screenplay.  I had hoped to meet the team at UiTM, but we had a scheduling conflict and I missed out…

But this year, I was thinking about "Home for Hari Raya" for another reason due to another filming project that I recently became involved with courtesy of Somerset Maugham.  The French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, which became Trois autres Malaisie, had attracted the attention of Laure Michel who contacted me from France about her documentary Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham for Arte, a Franco-German cultural channel, which aired on 5 June 2017.

In my five-part series, Maugham and Me, I blogged about the behind the scenes look at not one but three documentaries that she and Richard Cloue had filmed while in Sarawak. I then blogged about watching the films, adding links to all three projects.  (The links will remain online until early August 2017, so if you come upon this after that, the links may be gone.

So for all Malaysians who celebrate Hari Raya, Selamat Hari Raya!  And for the rest, enjoy the Open Houses and the holiday!

And if you have an interest in Somerset Maugham and/or Sarawak, here are the links (with some great photos) to the five parts of Maugham and Me: Part IPart II Part IIIPart IVPart V


For those who read French:  Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders
Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Arte: Watching the French Documentaries on Maugham, on Pepper, and on Peter’s Personal Invitation.

While watching the French documentaries that Laure Michel and Richard Cloue did for the Franco-German cultural channel Arte on Somerset Maugham, on Sarawak Pepper, and on Peter John Jaban’s Personal Invitation on the upper Sarawak River, I realized that the vast majority of the footage they had shot was left unused.  There is only so much footage you can use when there is a severe time restraint.  Something has to go—often 90-95 percent!

They even cut out the jail sequence!

Of course what’s also missing are the behind-the scenes drama that I had blogged about in my five-part series Maugham and Me:  whether to shoot at Fort Margherita or the jungle; whether they could film me inside the jail; whether my house would be suitable for filming (and when and how many were coming!); whether the rain would stop so they could finish Peter cooking in bamboo at the edge of a river; or whether there was enough daylight to finish the Maugham shoot.

Then there was Michel Viet losing his drone (and could they find another before he returned to France), plus his jumping into the bloated river in a gallant effort to save the drone (plus all that great aerial footage) at great personal risk to himself.

Then came that somber, drone-less ride home in the longboat before Richard decided to liven it up with some photos of us.

Also missing for Laure and Richard were all the weeks, months of hard work, the advance planning, the preparations, the travelling to Malaysia and Borneo, and the post production work of putting it all together and making difficult decisions:  what to cut, what to leave in, and the sequencing to make the documentary easier to follow and entertaining for the viewers.

Of course, if this was an hour program, they could cram everything in, but all that footage from three separate venues in Sarawak (and outtakes in the jungle), plus Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, in the Maugham story alone, had to be compressed into a little more than 12 minutes!

Because the programs were in French—unless you speak French—it was difficult to follow what was being said in English since it would get drowned out once the French translation kicked in.  Still, in any language, it was visually stunning to watch and fun for those of us involved, to see how they pieced together each documentary.  In Sarawak they shot three in five days, and on one day, they worked on all three!

Naturally, I enjoyed watching myself (I come in around the 10 minute mark, but I kept wondering, did they cut me out altogether!) and then seeing my wife (the boys got cut) and others that I recognized.  Hey, that’s Bernice!  And Serge!  Then from the other films, there is Karen!  And Peter!

As I watched the Maugham story unfold, I kept looking to see how much footage they actually did use. I especially wanted to see if that sunset through the jungle on the upper Sarawak River at Kampong Git that had so mesmerized us had the same magical feeling on film or if they even included it!  They did, but the real magical part, that red glow through the jungle was too dark to film.  Richard, who was further back, did manage to shoot it above the jungle or was that the sunset from the previous evening?

Still, what a wonderful feeling to be a part of such a cross-cultural experience—from France to Borneo—that came right out of the blue and ended in that stunning sunset along the upper Sarawak River.


Below I posted the links to all three films, though I was told that the films would only be avail­able on line until early August ’17, so if you come upon blog later than that, the links may be gone (though it might be available elsewhere will some diligent googling). For now enjoy:

Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham (12.19 minutes):     

Sarawak Pepper (12 minutes): 

Five-part Somerset Maugham and Me links: Part IPart II Part III, Part IV,
Part V

Joseph Conrad and Me 

Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Beheaded on the Road to Nation­hood—Part II 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Arte: Somerset Maugham and Me—Losing a Drone and Finishing Maugham—Part V

Richard Cloue, Peter John Jaban, Michel Viet, Robert Raymer, Laure Michel, and Bidayuh boat owner!

While filming the departure and arrival of Peter and the Bidayuh on the longboat, Michel used his drone for the full river shots.  Michel also had the drone follow the longboat down river. Our view was obscured by an overhanging tree.  Then disaster struck.  The drone, accord­ing to Peter, had collided into an overhanging branch on the opposite side of the river, and dropped.

Peter had ex­pected it to float on the river and was waiting to capture it, but instead, it sank.  The river was too deep and too muddy to see.  The Bidayuh cast his fishing net several times but failed to catch it.

Meanwhile, Michel, in panic mode, handed me his glasses and shirt and went into the river to see if he could retrieve it himself.  Although understandable, I thought it was a really bad idea….This is where serious accidents happen; the river’s current was swift from the recent rain and Michel was not young at age 68.

Luckily for Michel, Peter and the Bidayuh made sure nothing un­toward happened.  Eventually, all three of them returned to us, though saddened by the loss.  Not only was the top-end drone gone (that cost 700 Euros), they lost all that great footage on the river.

When I handed Michel his shirt and glasses, he looked at me with startled surprise.   

“I thought I had lost them.”

As we were about to leave for Kampung Git, there was some concern that there were too many of us to ride safely in the longboat—although long it can be quite unsteady getting in and out.  Again, I felt like an extra tire that wasn’t supposed to be there.  Once the six of us settled in with all the gear, with Richard at the helm so he could get in some river shots, we were fine.

Get­ting out though was another matter; when Michel got out, the longboat rocked and I, in the midst of getting up, landed on my back.  I was just glad I didn’t end up in the river.

With the light fading and time running out, since they were scheduled for the pepper farm shooting the next few days, this was their last chance to finish the Maugham shoot, so Richard had me sit on some boulders, with the river and the longboat as a backdrop. 

I talked about the characters in some of Maugham’s stories, who came out here between the wars, adapt­ing to life on the lonely outposts alongside Borneo rivers, sur­rounded by jungle, feeling at times euphoric, like a king among his far-reaching district, his domain, not seeing another Wes­tern­er for months at a time.  For some, this was the life; for others, they buried their loneli­ness, their misery, and their unsuitability for the task (even their incompetence) by getting drunk.

In the preface to the Completed Short Stories, Vol. III Maugham wrote, “England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them.  Their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent.”

As an expat, having spent half of my life in Malaysia, I could relate.

While some of the district officers and other expats went “native”, others took the opposite extreme, dressing up for dinner every evening, even when dining alone in a remote administrative outpost surrounded by the Borneo jungle, like War­burton in “The Outstation” who felt, “When a white man surrenders in the slight­est degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self-respect, and when he loses his self-respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.”

Regarding “Flotsam and Jetsam”, Maugham wrote, “It was rather absurd, and somehow sinister to see the social pretense in those poverty stricken surroundings on a Borneo River.”

Maugham himself admitted, “I never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the channel be­tween my native country and me.”

Maugham also wrote in one of his later novels, “I want to see life and death, and the pas­sions, the virtues and vices, of men face to face, uncovered.” Here in Maugham country, he found it and exposed it in his short stories.

Richard told me there was no more light to film, but I was on a roll and wanted to keep talking, to finish answering the questions that Laure had showed me earlier.  I suggested that, al­though they couldn’t see me, they could continue filming for the dialogue, which they could then use as voice over for earlier shots of me walking here and there in the jungle.  Laure agreed so I con­tinued to talk in the fading light.  

I had just finished, when suddenly, unexpectedly, on the op­po­site side the river the jungle lit up red from a stunning sunset.  Excited, Richard asked me to stand at the edge of the river, facing the sunset, while I talked about being in the moment, feeling mesmerized yet also euphoric stand­ing there in the silence in near-darkness, alongside the upper Sarawak River…

I became this silhouette against the river and the jungle amid this amaz­ing afterglow of red.  I also felt what those lonely district officers must have felt when they wit­nessed the same beautiful sunset. 

Later, I texted my wife to relate what happened to Michel’s drone.  When I reached home, the boys were sad and expressed their concern for Michel, whom they re­ferred to as “master of the drone.”

"Master of the Drone" Michel Viet with Jason, Laure, and Justin

“Did Michel cry?” Justin asked me.

I said, “No,” but I told them about his gallant effort to save his missing drone at great per­sonal risk to himself. 

I had suggested to Karen that perhaps she could borrow or rent a drone for the pepper shots.  She knew some people who had drones, and was able to borrow one, so the filming con­tinued on schedule….On Thursday evening, after the pepper story was complete, Laure asked me to join them for drinks at Grand Margherita and seafood at Top Spot.  It was fun see­ing them again and hearing about the rest of the shoot.

But now it was time to say goodby, at least for now, to Somerset Maugham.

Although I was not paid for my part in the filming and went into it fully understanding that, (though hoping some money might materialize), I was rewarded many times over by renewing some friendships, for the excitement the filming brought to my children (especially seeing a drone up close and in operation), for the op­portunity to go upriver on a longboat (thanks, Karen!) and watching Peter cook this marvelous dinner in bamboo on a tiny pebbled beach at the edge of river.

For me, being able to break out of my routine, to take step back from writing in isolation and realizing there’s a big world out there in my own backyard—Borneo—felt awfully good.

The following days, as I reflected back over those moments of being filmed talking about Somerset Maugham in three distinct settings, I wasn’t so concerned about how I would come across, how quotes could be misconstrued or even taken out of context to fit the documentary’s or even the listening audience’s preconceived ideas about Maugham or life here in Borneo... 

Instead I thought of that sunset, the vivid color of red glowing in the jungle.  For me, that was the perfect ending for a magical two days of filming that literally came out of the blue.


Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: It will be available online until August 4th!

          Joseph Conrad and Me 

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 
         Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II