UnRepresented KL: Week 2’s Assignment

A little departure from Week 1’s style but I realised that Week 2 will be even longer than Week 1.

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I know, I know, but it really is for the best because we get to do things and meet people now. In Week 2, we had a guest speaker and in Week 3, we will have a walking tour around a small part of KL as ethnographers! There is no way I can skim any of this down so the posts will be divided when it’s just too damn long. More info, the better, right? Onto our Week 2 assignment!

Back in Week 1, before we all bid our goodbyes, Adriana and Veronica asked us to write a piece, no word limitations, on an item that either has a personal or family significance. That caught me in a fix for a while because, sure, my family has things and I have things but nothing really warrants an entire essay on it. Also, I wanted something to relate back to the theme of Kuala Lumpur, which narrows down the pool even more. And then, I remembered something that will play perfectly well with the assignment and the theme. So, I got The Item, made myself some tea and got down to writing. And of course, interviewed both of my parents.

Fast forward to Week 2. It was a bit like a show-and-tell, although some couldn’t bring their Items. A lady wore a pair of earrings she had written about. Another brought a travel book. One showed us a picture of a figurine that is currently somewhere in Italy. Two wrote about dining tables (something something Malaysian’s obsession with food).  But then there were moments where it didn’t feel like it was just an arbitrary set of things, when somebody rose to the occasion. One of the participants, Al, brought his birth certificate and told us the story of how he was almost aborted. Even though he was calm as he was reading his piece, there was a steeliness behind his voice that made the piece felt silently alarming. Maybe “alarming” isn’t the right word for it but I was stunned with the ready intimacy. I don’t think I could reveal myself in that way. On another hand, because it was the day right after the disappearance of the plane MH370, one of the participants wrote about her frequent flyer card. I noticed then that we had consciously avoided delving into the latest news because it was too sad and too soon. She read her piece, her voice slowly cracking before she ended it with tears. I stared hard at the table in front of me and I could tell that everyone was suppressing mixed emotions.

So, why did the organisers ask us to write about objects? Adriana joked that she remembered the good ol’ days in school when we were told to write essay after essay about inanimate objects, eg “Saya Sebatang Pen”. Then we were asked, can an object be a character? A lot of the participants seemed to say yes; that the “object” becomes more meaningful or has its own depth through time and that we, the owners or writers, give the object its character. Even going as far as saying that perhaps the “object” could be just us bouncing our own personalities onto it. The organisers nodded thoughtfully and didn’t comment further (it’s an open space, every opinion is valid, etc) but I kind of wished that they did because behind us, I saw Veronica had written down the words “CHARACTERS, NOT CARICATURES”, which was not discussed. Perhaps they wanted us to realise it for ourselves.

And now, when I’m comfortable at home and the session is long over, I realised why the organisers chose to do the autobiography essay and later asked us that question. The theme “UnRepresented KL” is centred around voices and individuals that are not present in the current media. They are part of the demographic but invisible. And so, when writing about these individuals, how do we, as writers, be faithful to their stories without relying on stereotypes? How do we insert the authenticity of these individuals’ experience, especially ones that are heavily marginalised, without rendering them to caricatures with our own set of values? Just as we all agreed that an “object” is given its “character”, will we decide to turn these individuals to “objects” for our own use? These are all very important things to explore.

Yes, I know, I should have asked but my mind blanked and I was happy to just listen. Bad, bad, bad. Also, I believe that the guest speaker for Week 2 really helped me along to this conclusion of the assignment. Our guest speaker is named Encik Rosli and he is partially blind. In Malaysia, we are aware of the disabled community but that lies the problem: aware but not know. Invisible. We don’t know them or their issues and they are definitely not represented in the media. Hearing the story of Encik Rosli is gutting. I can’t even explain how it felt like to sit there as Encik Rosli patiently explained the problems faced by disabled individuals in Malaysia. Due to that heavy topic, I will dedicate an entire post for Encik Rosli.

And now you’re wondering what happened to my assignment (if you’re not, just play along). I was anxious when I had to read mine because I can’t escape the feeling how silly it is and how serious it got. I remember the anticipation of the others when I pulled out The Item from my bag to reveal… a mug. Yes, you read that right and, no, I didn’t do it last minute. It is a tribute to my mother and the city of Kuala Lumpur. Just like the previous post, my piece is added under the Continue Reading link below!

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Observe Exhibit A.

 

In front of you is a ceramic mug pretending to be a tankard. Its colour combination of white and cucumber green signals its dated design. However, nothing ages it quite as distinctively as the logo of a local bank that no longer exists. Kwong Yik Bank is now what you know as RHB Bank. And of course, they would have updated the company mugs by now but at this moment, the focus is on a piece of a past that never existed in my life but played a very important role in my mother’s. One of my mother’s first jobs was at a branch of the Kwong Yik Bank, which happened to be situated in Medan Pasar, Kuala Lumpur.

 

At the age of 24, my mother celebrated the first year of her marriage, was preparing for the arrival of her first newborn and had been working in Kwong Yik Bank for two out of 12 years. At the age of 24, despite having some working experience, I still feel as though I am raising my first child, which is my own self. The differences between our collected milestones not only reflect the generational gap between me and my mother but hint at conflicting perceptions of the outer world, specifically Kuala Lumpur. And naturally, how I perceive the ceramic mug is starkly different than what she perceives as a standard kitchen ware.

 

Personally, the parts of Kuala Lumpur that call to me are the ones decorated with clear window displays, massive architectural feats and giant advertisements. I feel safe clustered in obvious signs of capitalism; security is part of the parcel that I am buying from this city. Its modernity is celebrated daily. Everything else, the underbelly and the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, seems ominous in my own ignorance. “Dilarang masuk”, my paranoia would say.

 

My mother, however, once called the city her playground. My mother is the type of person that would park her car and then forgets where she parked her car 10 minutes later. But when it comes to Kuala Lumpur, no matter how radical the changes, a city perpetually under construction, she seems to know where she is and how to get where she is going. She told me stories of how she would squeeze herself into an overcrowded Bas Len Seng for work, watch movies at the Rex and have dates at illegally erected warungs in any place conceivable within the city. And as she slowly fulfilled the twelve years of servitude under Kwong Yik Bank, she and the city evolved together, somehow in sync. That’s my only explanation of how she would never get lost in Kuala Lumpur.

 

So we now return to Exhibit A: the ceramic mug. As I have affirmed, again and again, I am a tourist in Kuala Lumpur but I am also a tourist to my mother’s past. How is it that we are both so different? Every child wants to believe that they know their parents inside out; our knowledge of them was our earliest assurance and later, our disappointment. This mug is a reminder that even before I could achieve consciousness, a whole life had gone about before me. It is my souvenir of a city that I’ve never visited and never will. Perhaps I am seeing this through rose-tinted glasses: why else would I centre this entire story on an item so unremarkable? But similar with my paranoia towards the city, this form of belonging is unavailable to me. “Dilarang masuk”. And so, here I am with my souvenir, visiting my mother’s playground.

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