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SRB Diary: Home Alone: A Malayan Writer in Glasgow – Scottish Review of Books
by Chiew-Siah Tei

SRB Diary: Home Alone: A Malayan Writer in Glasgow

October 19, 2009 | by Chiew-Siah Tei

AT MY EVENT in London’s Asia House, a childhood friend, now a Londoner, brought with her a detailed map of Malaysia, spreading it out at every opportunity, running her fingers on roads and railways, tracing them all the way to my – our – hometown.

Malaysia? You mean Singapore? some asked.

My friend shook her head and pointed at the peninsula, then the small island underneath, explaining: Between Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south.

A repetition of my countless attempts at clarifying my origins since I first set foot on this land.

At school, history told us people of this land I now step on flourished with every drop of sap from our rubber plantations, with every leaf of tea from Cameron Highlands, every harvest of pepper and palm oil. With every squeeze of sweat and blood from the people of my land. We learned these by heart.

What do they learn here, I wonder? An empire that was the glorious past, and the source of its grandeur was not to be questioned?

A history that is partially hidden doesn’t provide the whole truth, hence isn’t the truth. But how many would care about knowing the truth, the forgotten, the less known, especially when it happened so long ago, so far away, so irrelevant—as they and their ancestors are the beneficiaries not the victims and so why bother to concern themselves – it seems? On my return train journey I wrapped my hands over the book on my lap – one of the very first copies of Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes – and felt the rumbling inside it: the crash of the old and new values, the power struggle between the emperor and the Dragon Lady, the trotting of the foreign troops into the heart of the Forbidden City, the starving peasants who threw their fates into the South China Sea….

And the history was lost.
(But who would care?)

I felt the rumbling inside me.

Back in Glasgow, I walked out of the Central Station into the weekend evening crowd of bar- and pub- and nightclub-goers. Hysterical laughter, drunken mutters, heavy music. I clutched the book in my hand and locked it tight in my arms.

Thousands of miles in a walk of the fingers, a blink of eyes.

I think of my friend and her map.

That afternoon in Asia House I watched her tireless fingers run eagerly on the lines that led to a dot she called home. I thought of asking her, after nearly 20 years in foreign parts, now, what does home mean to her? The milling crowd set us apart. I watched her: her features, her familiar gestures; and listened to the now tinted yet still unmissable tinge of accent from the tropics. The sense of home loomed large.

At that precise moment, she was ‘home’ to me. And I could only watch her from a distance, across the throng of people known and unknown.

Time and space make the barrier.

I knew I had lost it, home, not from the moment I boarded the plane to Glasgow in 1994, nor was it in 2002, my second trip, but long before that. The day when I took the night bus and travelled 300 miles to the tiny green island north of the peninsula to attend university in 1984, I knew it would never be the same again.

Like that year in 1996, after spending fifteen months in Scotland, I went back to find that the old five-bedroom wooden house by the river where I was born was no longer ours. We, the family, had moved to a new residential area, a new house big brother bought to show his respect, to realise his filial duty for Mum and Dad. One searing afternoon, I drove slowly past the old house. It was still there, the crude wooden building, grinding into sight; but under the blinding sunlight, everything seemed to have faded before my eyes: the red pillars, the green walls. My memories. A man walked towards the door, opened it, entered and locked the grille behind him. Click. I was a stranger outside the house once mine. Something surged inside me. I pressed on the accelerator and drove away instantly, before my tears blurred my vision.

Memories of people and their activities cling tightly together with the place where all these happened. I realised I had lost them forever: the smell, the colours, the echoes in the barren space, the curtained room my sister and I played in, the cobwebs in the corners of the beams.

Even the shouting and cursing and the constant busyness once so unbearable.

Everything faded.

Time doesn’t turn back, and I knew I had to make my choices.

The day when I boarded the plane to Glasgow in 2002, I was locked outside my own country. By none other than myself.

Thousands of miles in a full day’s flight. Bangkok, Singapore and then I was back in Malaysia, another two days of hectic schedule.

I was in Kuala Lumpur, the morning after my book launch at the British Council.

Exhausted, jet-lagged, and this was the first of my seven interviews of the day.

I mentioned the last general election and the young man’s eyes gleamed.

Where were you then?

In my flat in Scotland. I mimed typing and staring at the monitor.

Writing? His voice turned hard; the ember in his eyes died down.

I shook my head.

The Executive Suite on the nineteenth

floor of the hotel had its window overlooking Bandar Utama, once a barren outskirt, now packed with residential and shopping complexes.

Cars crawled in lines in the business day traffic. I thought of the people inside them. Where were they then?

Then, was the day that changed the political landscape of my country. They called it a tsunami – a political tsunami.

The date was 8th March 2008. Earlier

that day, I exchanged emails with my sister, reminding her to go to the polling station.

Nothing will change; I read the usual pessimism between the lines and recalled the prose I wrote after the 1999 poll: “… Rumours sneaked surreptitiously between the electronic mailboxes like scurried rats, spreading fear and worries. Of a possible riot, of another ethnic conflict”.

And so,
“…The hands found their way to the old,

familiar scale (lopsided, chipped and faded). Checked”. (The ancient scale is the emblem of the National Front, the ruling party, which has dominated the Malaysian parliament since the country achieved its independence in 1957.)

And so,
“…Hope flopped down like the aban

doned banners from the electric poles, lying feebly on the ground. Dust-coated, trampled on, torn”.

It was absurd, the entire set up. The day after the 1999 general election, I slumped in my seat in my return bus to Kuala Lumpur after a purposeful trip home to cast my vote, shivering in the afternoon heat. My fellow passengers were locked in their quiet thoughts: eyes averted, smiles rare. An uncomfortable dead silence in the loud roaring of the engine. As though the air had frozen. Outside the window, mini flags and fliers bearing slogans and figureheads fluttered in whirls of dust as the wheels rolled past, and then dropped down.

My heart sank with them.

There would be another repetition. And


Hopeless, totally hopeless. A voice screamed inside me.

The urge to leave, to turn my back on all this grew stronger.

So I did, at the first instance I managed.

Then came 21st March 2004, another

polling day. I sat in my little flat in Glasgow Southside. The day passed as any other. The predicted repetition was, well, predicted.

March 2008. Since October last year I began to hear noises, scurrying between the world wide webs, lurching into my electronic mailbox. The minority among the minorities, the Indians, finally shouted: ‘Enough is enough!’ Loud and clear, bellowing across the sky of the capital. The demonstrations, the street riots, the demand for change. My heart began to pound, but then, I quickly shut my machine down. Expectation would only bring forth disappointment. 1999 was a lesson too big, too significant to forget.

8th March 2008, the big day. After an exchange of emails with my sister, I sent a text message to my friend, a candidate from the opposition front, to wish her good luck on her attempt at a third term in the parliament. If I were there I would have been in her camp, helping with translation (a multiethnic nation needs multilingual information), distributing fliers, visiting voters, like the way it was in 1999. I thought of my other friends in the non-governmental organisations. They were still fighting on.

And I?

There is always a twinge of guilt when I

think of them, when I read about their frustrations, the countless fruitless public debates and denunciations, the numerous petitions that always lead to nothing. Still, they fight on.

Well, I write. I told myself: The world needs to be informed. Yet the heaviness inside me remained.

Outside the window of the Executive Suite, as though the deadlock had been broken, the cars began to run smoothly past. I imagined them rushing to the polling stations, then.

The young journalist was inquisitive, getting impatient.

That night, then, I turned on my computer and saw that the sky had been turned over. By midnight, the victory in the tiny island of Penang was an early sign to the many more to come. My heart capered: It was no longer a dream. I glued myself to the monitor until my eyes grew sore, until it was confirmed: the opposition front had snatched five of the thirteen states, and the unbeatable two-thirds majority was overturned.

In the Executive Suite of the KL hotel, my voice rose in excitement, and I saw a smile on the young man’s face, a smile which I imagined was the same as those in the streets in the morning after 8th March 2008. A mutual recognition of a possible hope.

But who cares?

After days of frantic reading of the inde

pendent news websites, when I finally walked out of my little flat in Glasgow, my excitement turned to water as my passionate talk of a political tsunami was met with blank stares and casual nods. And no follow-up questions. The ignoramus chooses to be ignorant; the uncaring resort to continuing not to care.

I think of my book: Who would care?

Thousands of miles in a full day’s flight. Back in Glasgow.

I was asked to appear on television to

talk about my book.

What degree of freedom of expression was there in Malaysia? The question finally came through the telephone line in a pre-interview chat. I felt the twitch in my heart.

My author friends from China told me, long ago, that regardless of the subject matter of their dialogues, their sessions would always lead to human rights issues in their country.

And we all know the anticipated answers. Do they make it the uppermost agenda

to question British authors about the dawn raids of asylum seekers, the forced deportations, the 42-day detention without charge and the invasion of Iraq, or at the very least, the drunkards and homeless in the streets of Great Britain? Certainly they don’t.

I think of my book, of the dominant nations against their weaker counterparts, of the world that can never be fair, never be unbiased.

But who would care?

I hope someone, at least someone, would.

From this Issue

Hammer of the Scots

by Karl Miller

Boosters and Begrudgers

by Graham Walker

A Life of Loose Ends

by Rodge Glass

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