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Archive for the ‘Malay abroad’ Category

Royston Tan directing actress J.Rosmini in his film which was inspired by the sounds of his childhood.

Sound is a one of our most powerful senses. A small tinkle, a laugh can bring forth memories, associations and expectations.

Recently, Singapore’s filmmaker Royston Tan was in California to talk about his films and his career. One of the projects that he was involved in was 7 letters, an anthology of short films by Singaporean fimmakers. He shared with the audience his film in the anthology titled “Bunga Sayang”.

“Bunga Sayang” means “Flower of Love, or Flower of the Heart” in Malay. It refers to the title of a song that has a central role in the film.

Royston explained that the film was inspired by the sounds of his childhood.

One of them was the sounds of the traditional Chinese opera. The opera was often staged in a public area where everyone could come and see. (It was also a part of my childhood. Like most children, I was drawn to it when it was staged in my neighborhood. For me, what was most fascinating were the shiny, colorful costumes, especially those with the long, flowing sleeves.)

Another inspiration for the film was the sounds of a song.

The main protagonist in Royston’s film is a young boy, around 10 or so. A normal day, after school, brought a small crisis. The tap in his flat suddenly stopped when he was taking a shower.

The boy called his mother, who was away working, who then instructed him to go to his neighbour’s house and to request if he could finish his bath there. The neighbor, an older Malay woman, couldn’t speak English, and the boy spoke broken Malay, but somehow they communicated.

After the shower, he found himself drawn to the kitchen where the woman was preparing food, while her radio filled the flat with the song “Bunga Sayang”. The sounds and notes of that song formed a strong memory of that day for him. And soon a friendship developed between the two of them.

“Bunga Sayang” is a heartfelt film because, I believe, it was made from the heart. Watching it made me think of the sounds of my childhood. And what comes to my mind, without hesitation, is the sound of fish frying in my childhood home.

Our big extended family was run by my grandmother and grandaunt. They would start cooking around 10 or 11 am in the morning. I would often hang around in the kitchen, being in their company, or enjoying doing some coloring.

One dish that was often served in our home was deep-fried chunks of tongkol fish, which is a type of tuna fish. Oil was heated in the kuali, a deep frying pan. And when the first chunk of fish hit the hot oil, it created a pristine sizzle and hiss. So clear that one could visualize the hiss rising up, winding up, from the pan.

That sound, together with the fragrance of the turmeric spice coating the fish, leads me back to my young days, in our sunny, warm kitchen in the tropics.

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Ramadan bazaar Geylang

Carpets galore…for every room in the house.

hari raya baju kurung

Dressed up….a stall selling baju kurung, the traditional Malay costume for women.

The Ramadan bazaar in Geylang Serai, the Malay district in Singapore, has made its yearly appearance again. In time for shoppers preparing for the coming Eid festival, or Hari Raya as it is known in Malay.

One can find a variety of goods including traditional Malay costumes and festive cookies. Malays are said to be houseproud, and household goods such as carpets and silk flowers take centrestage, ready to spruce up the house and to welcome the visitors.

Selamat Hari Raya; Eid Greetings.

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sheila majid songs

The month of May began with a unique musical note.

Sheila Majid, Malaysia’s jazz diva was in Los Angeles last weekend to give a concert celebrating her 30-year mark in the music scene. Sheila is very popular in many countries in South East Asia, and some of her hits are considered modern classics of Malay music.

I’ve always liked her songs, especially her hits in the 1990s. So I made it a point to be at her performance. She gave a great show, singing her greatest numbers that the audience came to hear, plus segments paying tribute to musicians who have inspired her including Michael Jackson.

Sitting in the theater, listening to her belting out her hits, while the chandelier lights on the stage threw prisms of pink and purple rays, at times I felt that I was in an emotional-dreamy space or some kind of a time tunnel.

You see, In the 1990s, I was living and working in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. And her songs brought me back there.

I was very fortunate to get a career as a feature writer for a daily newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, and those years were among the best working years of my life. To me, there’s nothing like the energy and atmosphere of a newsroom. We always get the news first. I met people from all walks of life, seen many places, while on assignments.

I was in charge of a number of columns including art and women’s issues, and I had great bosses who gave me the independence and trust to manage the columns with minimal interference. I worked with a group of interesting colleagues, and out of this, several life-long friendships have developed.

At that time, my father was still alive and living in Kuala Lumpur as well. He was also a journalist, (he preferred the word ‘newspaperman’) in his younger days. Now that we shared the same profession, we had a lot more to share, discuss, even argue. And I learnt a lot from him.

One of her songs that Sheila sang that night was Aku Cinta Padamu which means “I love you”. It’s a beautiful ballad about a woman who wonders how many times or ways she has to convince a man that she loves him while he remains unsure. It brought a crystal clear memory of a morning ride on the bus, on my way to the newspaper office.

(At the time when I was riding the Metro buses in the city, the driver often had piped in music throughout the bus. Usually it would be from a radio station, the medley of songs entertaining him as well as the passengers on the commute.)

That morning, Aku Cinta Padamu was played by the radio DJ. I was going through the break-up of a long term relationship. And hearing that song, the tears just flowed down. I was both sad and embarassed, quickly trying to wipe the tears, hoping that the passengers who were standing in the bus would not see my meltdown.

But on the whole, the 90s were good years. I actually had seen Sheila performed in Malaysia when she had been invited to sing at a product launch event that I had to cover. In that time between her performance in Kuala Lumpur and this one in Los Angeles, some threads of my life have changed, and some have not. I guess that’s life.

Ah,….songs. They do have their special way of transporting you back to the past.

And so, to everyone who have been a part of the journey, of my years in Kuala Lumpur, thank you for the life experiences and the memories.

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kuih or desserts from Malaysia

A selection of Malaysian desserts in petite-sized servings. A favorite is the layered jelly (on the right), especially the one with the creamy white layer, made from coconut milk.

 

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hari raya food

Encik Aziz displaying his cooked ketupat in a manner that reminds me of my childhood kampung home.

Shopping for Eid, or Hari Raya as it is known in Malay, is in full swing in Geylang Serai, the Malay district in Singapore. In the last few days of Ramadan, the stores and bazaar offer almost everything in preparation for the celebrations.

As I wander around, I take in the colors. I see things new and things traditional. Festive food sold includes ketupat, rice dumplings eaten with meat dishes and a variety of sauces.

It takes a lot of work to prepare the ketupat from scratch – the way my grandmother and grandaunt did. We all helped, too, with the various tasks.

It starts with buying stalks of young coconut leaves. The leaves are woven into pouches using age-old techniques. The pouches are then partly filled with rice, and sealed. The final stage, the cooking, requires boiling the ketupat for at least four hours till the rice expands to a nicely firm texture.

It’s good that some people are selling the ketupat in various stages of preparation, providing that convenience for many households.

I come across Encik (Mr in Malay) Aziz selling fully prepared ketupat. Stop by for a little chat, and convey my respect for folks like him who keep our traditional foods and arts alive in the face of changing times.

I smile at the way he stores the ketupat – hanging on a pole. My grandmother used to do that in our kampung or childhood home. I really don’t know why, but as a kid, I loved the sight of the wooden pole laden with ketupat hanging in our kitchen.

Memories come rushing back: the ketupat and food prepared by my grandmother’s loving, meticulous hands, enjoyed by our extended family every festive season.

Selamat Hari Raya. Happy Eid.

hari raya feasting

Ready-made ketupat pouches at the Geylang Serai Market.

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jalapeno peppers plant

Glad that the jalapeno plant is enjoying the hot days –  conveniently providing me with the spicy kick that I like with my food.

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Hari Raya feasting

Celebrating with the classic marble cake.

Hari Raya, or Eid, festival in Singapore and Malaysia is a boon time for those with a sweet tooth, as every home will greet guests with a selection of both Malay and western cakes and cookies.

A cake that is popular in our family is the marble cake. My aunts bake really good ones, and one could say that they are “traditionalists” or purists as they only bake the classic version of marble cake. The one that uses pure cocoa powder to create the rich brown swirl for the cake.

I suppose as I grew up with this kind of marble cake, I’m also a traditionalist at heart. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate other varieties of marble cakes.

As a kid, when we went visiting, and were served with a marble cake with red or green swirls, it was an exciting discovery for me.

It was as though it opened up a whole new world; as though a peek inside other people’s lives was offered up with each slice of the brightly swirled cake.

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