Posts Tagged ‘Asia’

fishing village penang

A high rise condominium building situates behind a fishing community in the island of Penang, Malaysia.

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morning at beach

A new day breaks in a fishing village in Thailand; a traditional fishing boat enhances the landscape.

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milgrain jewelry

I was shopping online for an affordable band ring. I have always been attracted to things, such as wooden furniture or photo frames, that have a rope design or beaded borders. Thus it was no surprise that I chose a ring that has bead-like borders on the outer edges.

In the process, I also discovered a new word – milgrain. Milgrain refers to a row of tiny beads along the edges of a piece of jewelry. It often refers to the row of beads seen along the outer edges of a ring.

The word comes from the French ‘mille-grain’, which means “thousand grains”.

The use of milgrain for decorative enhancement has had a long and global history – used in jewellery in Asia, and also during the Edwardian and Art Deco eras. While historically, the milgrain beads were created by hand, today tools make the process an easier one.

I think “milgrain”, with the artistry behind it, has become one of my favorite words.

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Malaysian countryside


Countryside, Malaysia.

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petronas towers

Standing at the patio of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, I saw this view of the Petronas Towers. I like the detail, and the contrast, made by the row of palms.

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Tai Chi

This is the view from my aunt’s apartment in Singapore. Almost every weekday morning, I could see this group of women doing their Tai Chi exercises. Tai Chi is a Chinese form of exercise that uses slow, meditative and controlled movements.

The tropical greenery around them enhanced my enjoyment of the scene.

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Yee I-Lan, "Sulu Stories".

Nguyen Van Cuong, "Porcelain Diary 2".

Identity and politics. Two powerful themes.

I’ve always been fascinated by how contemporary Southeast Asian artists contemplate these and other issues in their art.

A dichotomy of East and West; how ideas and institutions from these two influences interact form much of the basis behind the art. This melding itself is reflected in the form of the art. These contemporary artists use local or Asian aesthetics to comment, reflect or dissect on salient issues. And for me, therein lies the fascination.

Recently, I had the chance to get a look at this artistic tradition again through the exhibition “Negotiating Home, History and Nation” held at the Singapore Art Museum. The exhibition continues till June 26.

It features the works of 54 practitioners of contemporary art from six Southeast Asian countries  (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines), covering a broad range of media including installations and photography.

I find that, as is often the case, the works of the Indonesian artists are among the most powerful and forceful in their presentation. An example is Mella Jaarsma’s costume installations.

In “I am Ethnic”, she challenges the issue of gender bias in a lean, provoking manner. Jaarsma utilizes an entire goatskin to focus on the ritual of sacrificing two goats for the birth of a male baby and one goat for a female baby.

Nindityo Adipurnomo uses the konde, a traditional Javanese hairpiece, to comment on Javanese culture and tradition. He recreates an oversized rattan konde mixed with various media.

Apart from being a decorative hairpiece, the curator’s notes explain that the konde is also “worn on special occasions …and is associated with woman’s ideal place in society”. In the konde, Adipurnomo sees both reflections of sensuality and limitations associated with a woman.

The konde is also his commentary on the future of traditional crafts in the increasing onslaught of commercialism.

I’m always drawn to topics of memories and personal history, and thus I find the works of two Malaysian artists Zulkifli Yusoff and Yee I-Lan quite compelling.

Yusoff’s “Koleksi Ibu” (Mother’s Collection) is an emotive collage. He combines images of entertainment magazines, childhood recollections and covers of spiritual books to record personal memories that belonged to his mother, and which were also a part of his childhood. There is a sense of joie de vivre and of simpler times underlying the collage.

Yee is from Sabah and her photo images center on the sea, and its role as an artery that has influenced history, trade, immigration and politics in the region of her birthplace.

For the time that I was in the exhibition hall, it was like taking a unique trip, glimpsing into the psyche of Southeast Asia, a region which I truly love. I would have liked to see more paintings, but on the whole, the exhibition is certainly worth a visit.

Zulkifli Yusoff, "Koleksi Ibu". (All NHHN Art Exhibition photos courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)

Agus Suwage, "Give Me More Questions 1".

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The iris in my garden has just bloomed. They are always the first flower to appear, signaling the arrival of spring and warmer weather.

But this March  finds me crossing the Pacific Ocean, and back in Singapore and Malaysia visiting friends and family, and taking care of some matters.

It has taken a while to get used to the heat, but there is always the refuge of air-conditioned malls and eating places. It has been wondeful catching up with all the important people in my life, and meeting some new ones as well.

I spent two wonderful days at a close relative’s wedding .  Besides the gaiety of a wedding, I find the festivity to be a microcosm of the different cultural and generational influnces that are part of my extended family, and society. I will be posting photos and videos of the wedding soon.

So far, I have been mainly in the cities, and some of the initial effort involved getting used to the crowds. And needless to say, it has been superb sampling all the local food again. I have to slow down on a couple of days, as I still have many more dishes to go!

At the same, I’m always amazed at the food sellers and others who continue to keep the traditional food and trades alive and thriving, amidst all the modernity that continuously sprouts around them. I will feature these “unsung heroes” in my blog soon, as well.

Journeys to the place where you grew up often offer a bag of emotions and reflections. It is a good way to welcome spring, even if the season does not exist in the tropics.

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obama2The day is here. We all have our own reasons for supporting Barack Obama.

It’s true that Obama’s message of “hope and change” has an emotive appeal for many.

But I think the most important thing for me was that I could identify with his narrative, although I grew up and spent much of my adult life in Asia.

The first thing is that I grew up as a minority in an Asian country. I think you have to live life as a member of a minority ethnic group to understand what is required of you to deal with inbuilt perceptions and racism .

We know how much it takes to be successful. I want to go back to history, as I was reminded by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley on the Larry King show that the world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali played a role in opening the door for global recognition for an African American.

I’m old enough to remember what Muhammad Ali meant to the world in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, there was no non-white role model for such huge success. He represented this shining, brave example all over the world. People everywhere would cut work and skipped school whenever his matches were televised. From the metropolis to the smallest village in Africa, for a long time, Muhammad Ali was the most recognized name in the world.

Today, we jumped to Obama. Whether one admires the United States or not, almost everybody agrees that to be the president of the US is to reach the pinnacle of success, and to helm the most powerful position in the world.

And we want to claim Obama as a part of our identity or as part of our dream, as we did with Muhammad Ali.

Obama also seems to embody or symbolize many of qualities that I identify with or admire. He is biracial, and having lived in different countries, is comfortable with many cultures. He is certainly not xenophobic, and we see in him in him someone who will not see any one people or race as being “lesser” than the other.

He is inclusive; always classy in his bearing and refused to play dirty politics or say nasty things about his opponents in the presidential race, though they threw all kinds of stones at him.

At the same time, in the back of our minds, we also know that to get this far in American politics, you have to have a measure of “killer instincts”. But for a while, it is good to know that a nice guy can still win.

We want to believe that the Obama administration heralds a post-racial era, a new foreign policy that will be fairer to countries and people that the Bush administration have labeled as “evil” and “rogue”.

But we know that there are tough task ahead for the new president. Criticism of his policies and management style is already forming a line in some people’s heads. And we know that oftentimes the position can change the man.

But for now, we bask in the glow of this historic inauguration. It’s incredible when you think that three years ago, nobody thought that a biracial, African-American man would be the President of the United States. Obama’s election says a lot not only about him, but also about all the people who voted for him.

Thank you, Obama, for giving us the belief that despite all the ugliness in the world, there is still enough idealism to try to change the status quo for the better. The world wants you to succeed.

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