UnRepresented KL: Week 10

It was the last day of the writing programme. We had tarts! (The pecan ones were really nice).

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We’ve been anticipating the last day for weeks now, we know it will happen sooner or later. And yet, when the day finally came, it felt as though it wasn’t the end. We were so relaxed and casual. Veronica wasn’t even in attendance since she’s in Melbourne. Adriana even brought up an interesting suggestion during the beginning of the session: since we had never “checked in” with each other about what we’ve been doing the past week prior to any sessions, she wanted all of us to tell everyone how their week went in this session. I was just sitting there, wondering if there’s a point to creating a ritual on the last day. And that was the overall vibe throughout the session, that it was just another week, that we are in no hurry to bid our goodbyes.

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Adriana giving the thumbs up on the tarts.

We were divided in pairs and, as fate has it, I was paired up with Shari again just like in our first assignment. In this assignment, we are to comment and critic each other’s work. I think the reason the organisers planned it this way is so we don’t feel like we’re constantly on eggshells when it comes to our work, just waiting for the firing squad to give us another go. Also, having a conversation with one person creates an intimate atmosphere, so it’s easier to hear comments from another person and also to give input when it’s just the two of you. For me, this is good and bad. Good because I’m not up for another session of people shredding my work like the previous weeks. Bad because, objectively speaking, I really do need a lot of comments to help me with my draft. Shari pointed several problems with my draft though and it’s back to the drawing board for me.

After a while, at which point Shari and me were just talking and giggling about random things, Adriana brought us all together. Sitting in a circle, Adriana asked all of us what is our plan moving forward after the programme. Some had concrete plans: Al is going to delve deep into the spoken word scene, Joanna is looking for an editor to look into her short story before she promotes it while Nazli is interested in writing scripts. As I watched everyone opened up about their plans, I had the slow realisation that I had no plans.

Sure, the plan was to send my short story to interested publishers, namely Buku Fixi since they seem to be the only ones reaching out to the public. But now, after gone through several half-baked plots and drafts, I’m not entirely sure if I’m ready for that. It seems that I have a lot of work to do before I could produce a solid piece. I can write – that’s what they’ve been telling me and I know it myself – but I’m not a good storyteller. That’s like decorating a wedding cake without the cake. I think I’ve been relying on my skills in poetry for too long without realising it. In poems, you can basically throw in a couple of beautiful verses without actually going about telling a story. The reader builds the story in their mind based on your words, not you.

So, I guess the plan is to keep working? That sounds about right.

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The room back there is the lair for the artists to toil on their work. I never ventured there for some reason.

After that, Adriana passed around feedback forms and I ended up using that form to just pour my heart out about this program. It’s been really great; I can’t say it enough. I had tons of fun, I learned things a lot more than I expected and discovered bits of myself that I never knew. I think the most valuable thing for me is the chance to slip away from my routine life and discover something new. Things that I was not even aware of. All the participants in the programme are wildly different from each other but we managed to somehow connect. I could literally sit with them for hours, just talking. Which is what we did after this session was over; we walked down to a cafe nearby and talked some more about random things. From joining a gym to discussing which European country was a nicer colonizer to which 90s local tv shows we missed from our childhood. It’s nice to have a group of friends that are not tied specifically to a certain part of your life like high school or work.

I still haven’t visited Petaling Street, can you believe it? I drove past that tourist landmark so many times now but it never appealed to me. However, my initial perception of its shadiness has been erased. I don’t know when I will visit Jalan Panggong again but I know it’s a familiar place to me now.

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UnRepresented KL: No Refund

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I don’t remember the last time somebody made me a mix tape or CD. Or even the last time I made one. But on our second last UnRepresented KL session, Shari gave some of us copies of this mixtape and I was floored. It was sweet, thoughtful and incredible to think that 8 weeks ago, I didn’t even know her. 

If you’ve been following my UnRepresented KL posts then I apologise because I have not been updating. Week 6 and 8 went by so quickly and for a good reason. Unlike the previous weeks where we stepped in other people’s shoes and discovered KL from their perspective, these past two weeks have been about us and our writing. So, I have been busy writing the final product of my UnRepresented KL experience. Yes, we are now in the final days of the writing programme and we are refining our work. Bernice Chauly, a very respected individual in the local writing scene had been invited for these past two sessions and gave us some really tough love. She does not mince her words, I’ll give you that. 

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Bernice sitting at the end of the table. It’s a bit like Godfather, yes.

There will be a reading scheduled in June so no pressure! No pressure, at all. 

When I think about it, my blog posts about UnRepresented KL have been quite ethnographic in nature. In the first few posts I did for this programme, I hardly mentioned any of the individuals personally unless they did something of note in that week. I tried to capture a very vivid but objective point of view of my experience so that others can have a taste of that as well. However, it’s difficult to be unattached to these people because they are so awesome. When they found out about my blog, Vimal, Shari and Al discussed among themselves whether they should stop reading it so my blogging won’t be influenced by their presence. I was touched: we hardly knew each other and yet they’re ensuring a space for me that is comfortable. I’ve never met any acquaintances who would be as warm and accepting. 

The later blog posts about UnRepresented KL started to lose the objective edge but had more of my personal thoughts and emotions. After all, my experience is uniquely mine and I am sure others would have their own personalised perspective of their experience. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of the programme were beyond what was tailored for us: when Adriana and Veronica brought us to a mamak restaurant for lunch, when a group of us went to the Arts 4 Grabs event at Central Market and even just the long chats we had after the session was long over. Our objective was to learn and document parts of KL but, in doing so, we are all creating our own memories of KL shaped by this experience. 

There is already talk of the second instalment of this programme, planned for the month of August. Hearing the organisers discuss the future of UnRepresented KL, without us, made me feel sad. For one thing, I just don’t want this programme to end! Secondly, I am jealous of this new batch of strangers who get to experience a new round of this programme. Thirdly, UnRepresented KL feels very much like our own label to describe our group but soon, we will have to pass it on to the new participants. Lastly, we will lose the group; we exit the programme as friends but also, as individuals. I felt like asking whether we could just sneak into one of the sessions. Alumni perks and all.

If you’re reading this and thinking of joining the next instalment of this programme, I can’t recommend it enough. Adriana and Veronica are great people and I really have to thank them for allowing me to be in this programme. Highly motivated but incredibly humble, these two made us feel welcomed and our opinions respected every single time. 

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I am really going to miss these people. However, I have to keep my head straight and start cracking down on the writing because I am nowhere near done. 

UnRepresented KL: Week 5

Before we started this week’s session, our guest speaker had asked us to tell everyone three things: your name, the reason why you like to write and the colour of your underwear. Week 5’s session was different from previous sessions in many ways.

Week 5’s guest speaker was Yeoh Seng Guan, a lecturer of anthropology from Monash University, who writes because he feels that he has to write. And he happened to be wearing black underwear that day. (A lot of people wore black underwear that day, turns out).

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Now that we have rolled over the half-point mark of the programme, I can gauge what Adriana and Veronica wants to achieve through UnRepresented KL. This programme is not trying to romanticise Kuala Lumpur in any way; in fact, there is a certain gritty realism about the things we’ve learned of the “other side” of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Some days, I do feel burdened by the knowledge of what I have learned of my country, especially the negative aspects of things. But you can’t simply unlearn the things made visible to you. Opportunities come in various forms and some of them are in the shape of responsibilities. 

I have to say, this week was thankfully guiltless as we took on a more academic route. Seng Guan was the only speaker who gave us an assignment weeks before his own session and handed out reading materials prior to it. Three anthropology journal articles that are knee-deep in jargons. Me and a couple of my UnRepresented friends obviously struggled since most of us left school in years. It was just like being back in class! I’m not entirely sure if everybody welcomed it.

This week, we learned about ethnography and how to delve in writing an ethnography. This is incredibly useful tool, especially if you’re trying to write about authentic characters with unfamiliar backgrounds. So, not only you will be able to get valuable data about these individuals but you’re also exposed to their wants and needs. In its most basic definition, ethnography is written works about people. As I’ve mentioned before in Week 3, we were supposed to be amateur ethnographers, interviewing and documenting the people around Petaling Street. That didn’t happen due to the weather intervention. We were still given that assignment to write though and I used my moment of being lost in Petaling Street for the ethnography assignment. At first, we all had assumed that ethnography meant writing about people in the most objective and detailed way possible, stripped from any of our feelings or thoughts that could be misleading.

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Seng Guan explaining more about ethnography while Joanne looks on.

But first: back to the three introduction questions above before you think Seng Guan was being lecherous for no reason!

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UnRepresented KL: Week 4

It’s already a month of us riding on this writing programme, led by Adriana and Veronica, to every nook and cranny that hits us in the gut. Every session makes me feel guilty. It’s either because this programme made me realise how privileged I am or how ignorant I’ve been about my own backyard. So far, however, we’ve only heard the experiences of Malaysians. Unrepresented locals. People that are behind the curtain. But they are, even how alien they may seem to the general populace, our fellow countrymen.

But how about those who are not? Those who inhabit our space but, in our minds, do not belong here?

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In this week of UnRepresented KL, we had two photographers presenting on the concept of visual storytellers. When I walked in FINDARS that Sunday, the room was dark and a stand was propped at a corner with all the pipe-chairs facing it. The speakers were, by far, the liveliest speakers we’ve ever had on this programme. They were cracking jokes and presenting their work as though they’re talking to a friend, rather than a bunch of strangers. There is KG Krishnan, a lanky and friendly man who speaks as quick as a machine gun. Then, there is the bubbly lady named Beatrice Leong who punctuates her points with laughter. I have to admit, whenever I think of experienced photographers, my mind goes to Sean Penn’s character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. You know, intense loner types with a third eye for the beauty and suffering of the world. 

But their friendly casual demeanour betrays the fact that these photographers have no problems waving their cameras into dangerous and grave situations. KG told us his experience in capturing the life of transgender sex workers in Klang. Not only these sex workers’ schedules are nocturnal but KG also had to work his way around pimps, gangsters and reluctant clients. Beatrice, on the other hand, had travelled to rural Sabah to document the politically-driven relationship between the indigenous people and the availability of water. Each had proven that they are not shy to go beyond their comfort zones to tell these unseen narratives.

Their photo presentation was equally grim. KG and Beatrice presented their photoseries titled “Project Home”, a visual narrative on the migrant workers in Malaysia. I knew at some point, throughout this programme, that we will be dealing with migrant workers. The general public’s relationship with migrant groups has always been on eggshells. They have been a constant presence in our lives, made horribly stark thanks to the previous election where some Opposition members accused Bangladeshi migrant workers partaking as “ghost voters”. However, this photoseries does not relate to the earlier political skirmish but it does question the development of KL.

When they first arrived in a squatter area inside of a construction site, their photography group hit gold when a chatty migrant worker named Syaiful Islam took an interest in their project. Beatrice explained that, initially, the objective of the project had been to showcase the “plight of migrant workers”. Syaiful became the fixer, the middle man, the tour guide, their friend. He showed them around the area and even into the homes of his fellow workers. Their homes are made of modified shipping containers. Yes, shipping containers. The “fancier” ones were built from scrap materials from their construction site. It was practically a small town within that squatter area; with the varying nationalities of the labour workers, KG called it a “tiny UN”. There is a grocery store, a restaurant, communal toilets but all in conditions that are no way ethical. The photographers’ choice of using black and white tones made these horrible living spaces even more pronounced.

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UnRepresented KL: Week 3

My ability to get lost is incredible. Not only do I get lost driving in KL but walking around KL turns out to be too difficult for me, too.

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If you have read my post on Week 2 of UnRepresented KL, you will remember that I mentioned this week’s session will involve a walking tour and us trying to be amateur ethnographers. That did not happen, unfortunately. Previously, we had been facing unusual weather conditions such as prolonged drought and the haze that follows after series of bushfires. On that Sunday morning, IT RAINED. I know, I shouldn’t complain, the rain was for the greater good, etc. But I was really looking forward to that tour.

Turns out, I had my own unofficial walking tour because I got lost on the way to our venue. Typical. Unlike previous weeks, this week was held at a place called Petaling Street Art House, tucked away in a corner shophouse in Jalan Sultan. Basically, I held up this week’s session (I was 45 minutes late) because I ended up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to (this deserves its own post) and Adriana had to pick me up. When we finally arrived, everybody cheered, probably because they are grateful that I am not lying unconscious in a ditch somewhere.

Petaling Street Art House is everything that you would expect of an independent artistic space that values heritage art: it is eclectic, fascinating and houses many valuable vintage items, many of which were donated by the residents of Petaling Street themselves. There were a number of displays showcasing different types of old media and vintage items. There is a Chinese opera costume propped across the room. Old black-and-white photos on the walls, reminding us of a bygone era. Vintage mugs repurposed tastefully as lamp fixtures.

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Chong Keat Aun, speaking about the history of Petaling Street.

The man of the hour is Chong Keat Aun, a DJ for RTM in the day and an enthusiastic preservationist of Petaling Street’s culture and heritage every other hour. When I came in, I immediately noticed how dark it was and there were rows of benches placed in the middle of the space, almost church-like. For UnRepresented KL’s Week 3, the space morphed into a dark auditorium for Keat Aun’s picture presentation about Petaling Street back in the early 1900s and the people who built the foundation of what it is today.

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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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UnRepresented KL Writing Programme: I’m in it!

ImageI don’t know which lucky star I have to thank but somehow, I managed to snag a spot in Poskod.MY‘s writing programme, UnRepresented KL!

This entire programme is really cool:

“Currently in its first year, UnRepresented KL is on the lookout for writers who would like to spend ten weeks exploring themes of ‘being unrepresented’ and unrepresented narratives in and around KL … Held over eight sessions across ten weeks, UnRepresented will be a mix of small group workshops (from writing exercises to group walkabouts) and talks by guest presenters who will help us explore KL through their lenses. These talks will span different disciplines such as documentary, photography and anthropology.”

There are ten participants and I’m one of them! Tempted to online-stalk the rest.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of something like this, even before I knew something like “this” exists. To be exposed to the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur, to peek behind the tourist backdrops, to know all these people from different walks of life. And the best part is that we’re not just being let loose in the middle of the city and commanded to go crazy. For every week, there will be a guide who will introduce us to different aspects of Kuala Lumpur. It’s really important to me that it’s somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about. It’s so easy to simply label KL and Malaysians from your own perspective and leave it at that.

And I get to write about it! There’s even a proposed reading at the end of this programme so I’m jittery with nerves at the moment.

When the invitation email popped up in my inbox, I was really surprised. I was only aware of this programme two days before the closing deadline, thanks to my friend, Mijah. To enter, we had to write a 100-word essay on whose narrative we believe goes unrepresented, a 100-word personal statement and a 20-word answer to a question. All of this seems very simple except for the fact that I actually started my application on the day of the deadline. I like to live on the edge. So, I had to whip up something quick.

And if I’m being honest, I didn’t think I was going to be accepted. I’ve always had this feeling of insecurity when it comes to my writing and all these tiny paragraphs that represent my application just didn’t seem enough. So, I figured I might as well have fun with it. Be cheeky about it; at least it might get a second glance or two.

Can you believe that I actually sneaked in the words “sexual organs of plants” for my personal statement? My personal statement started with this line: “I have always been enamoured with the written word and despite painstakingly memorising the sexual organs of plants in high school, I knew that writing would be a big part of my future”.

And I got accepted? In fact, I think that’s the reason I got accepted; I had them at genitalia of plants.

Tomorrow, I will meet the organisers and nine other participants. I am incredibly nervous right now, which is why I hardly talk about this programme all week because I am trying to keep all of it under a manageable invisible container. In my mind, all the rest are probably Malaysia’s answer to Stieg Larsson and I’m… Dan Brown.

I will definitely try to blog about this 10-week experience if I can. So, watch out for this space!

Wish me luck!