Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Viva Malaysia!

This year, I had arguably the most meaningful Merdeka ever. It began with home-made dhall curry and ended with, among other things, a brinjal ratatouille at Upekka in Section 17. Gastronomy aside (for we Malaysians mark our days with meals and our weeks by mamak suppers), it was a day which saw a bunch of young people hanging out in and around old, dilapidated buildings.

Here, I will tell the story of the afternoon, for the morning's adventures must be saved for another day. We journeyed from the solace of beef noodles to the ironic freedom of the exterior of a prison, then from the ecstasy of ice-cream to the melancholy of a train station.

* * *

We started with beef noodles opposite Central Market, along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

Shannon joined us at Central Market, after I'd picked up a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 (because I badly wanted to shoot the day in black-and-white).

Apparently he wanted to test the mask's effectiveness against AH1N1, and figured that downtown KL was the best place to do so.

I showed him this picture last night, and I remember his response included words like (or to the effect of) 'danger', 'fear', 'panic' and 'Malaysia'.

Street view across the Central Market building.

But for the buses and some of the signboards, this picture could have come from the 1950s. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the two photo shops; photography is alive and well! And just now in class, my coursemate Yani noticed the person staring out the window of the frontmost bus.

Exterior, Pudu Jail.

Between the brick wall and the vast open field, there is a path. I saw children cycling along it recently and was determined to explore the route. Come Merdeka, we did.

Guard tower, Pudu Jail.

I like the symbolism of the cross frame in the window, as if saying Jesus is watching over everyone, inside and outside of the prison. C.S. Lewis wrote, in The Abolition of Man, that there was no one in prison Jesus did not minister to.

When I see this picture, it is hard to think otherwise.

So we are developing, and we've put ourselves on the map in so many ways.

But do we really know where we are going?

It was the 31st, so we paid Baskin Robbins at Times Square a visit.

A quart and five pink spoons go a long way!

Having paid the old KL Railway Station a visit on 28 August, we decided to come back and do a proper shoot. And what better time to remember a monument of our colonial past than on Merdeka itself?

Over the weekend before Merdeka, I came across this article. It's not often something I read makes me cry; this piece did:

An excerpt:

The overall impression [of KL Sentral] was that of greyness. [...] Here the roof trusses and ceiling were grey, the polished granite covering the floor was grey (with a few beige highlight pieces) and the walls finished in grey aluminum cladding. All very modern, yes - but this could have been any where in the world. At the old station you knew that you had arrived in Asia - with its humidity and colour and hustle and bustle. The spires, minarets and Moorish arches announced that this is a city whose inhabitants are Muslim. The old concourse was not air conditioned so the hum of city traffic penetrated the hall, mingling with the pungent smells of food from the nearby canteen. Now you arrive in a grey air-conditioned cocoon. This is progress they say, but it takes all the romanticism out of train travel.

One of several giant glass windows, between the platform and the foyer.

At first glance, it's just a window. But no other structure will allow sunlight to bathe the otherwise dark interior of a railway station, other than a glass ceiling.

(The PKVians who went on the Ipoh trip might remember the rather glorious foyer of the Ipoh Station. Same idea here.)

That Elton John song comes to mind: this train don't stop here anymore...

The waiting.

(Finally, a shot to go with my now three-year-old 'Evanescent Shadows'!)

Empty arrivals and departures to nowhere.

(Thanks to the newsstand proprietor who allowed us to use the newspaper rack as a bench!)

Ruth returning the flags Hyma abducted for our romp through town.

Yani said Ruth looks 'cute, very childlike'. It immediately occurred to me; what happened to the childlike pride and enthusiasm we used to have in flag waving?

This morning I read on the cover of The Sun that Malaysia will soon have a Formula One team. The model car Najib's proudly displayed was quite literally Malaysia's flag wrapped around an F1 car.

But the flag is not just something we wear around our heads or one our uniforms, not just something we plaster everywhere once a year or affix to our cars and motorcycles, not just something we paint on our faces or tattoo on our bodies, whatever.

Say what you will, the flag is what we wear in our hearts. Blue for love and unity, not tolerance; red for courage to do what is right, even if it leads to our death; white for purity and wisdom, not self-righteousness; yellow for the sovereignty of our beloved Malaysia, and the reminder that our allegiance to our nation and to our Lord are inseparable.

* * *

In recent days I have been thinking very much about our colonial heritage. After all, I spent seven years in a colonial institution, and the effect it has had on me is unquestionably profound.

Independence is not about the hibiscus we stole from Hawaii or the flag from America or the oil palm from Africa, all of which we have proudly appointed as ambassadors of our nation.

It is about remembering in so many ways the influence of colonialism on Malaysia and knowing that we do not move forward by leaving the past behind, but by bringing along the past which remains alive in the present.

I think that is why Jesus wore the nail marks on His hand (though indeed they need not be present in the resurrected body), and I think that is what Steven Curtis Chapman meant in the words, "Remember your chains, remember the prison that once held you before the love of God broke through."

It is so easy to relegate the Malaysia this generation does not know to the history books, but I owe it to people like Chung Chee Min and Kok Kin who taught me that we cannot move forward if we abandon the past.

Knowing, truly knowing, our heritage is the only safeguard against both false sentimentalism (the sort of patriotism the government tries in vain to instil) and armchair cynicism ("Those days were better; there is no future for Malaysia").

But the catch is that heritage is not something that can be learnt from books. It is inherited through the stories we hear from our grandparents, from first-hand accounts; it is acquired by visiting the sites and sharing in the footsteps of those who have walked those paths.

* * *

Keluar. Exit. Get out. Leave.

I woke up this morning to this thought: I still believe in Malaysia.

Last night's 'roundtable' discussion the Wendy's left me with quite a bit of food for thought, in spite of my relative inactivity in the conversation.

Tim wondered why the seats in Parliament are fixed, while those in the UM Student Council are not; "So what if someone from the Government wants to sit with a friend from the Opposition?"

My answer to him reflected something I've been thinking about quite a lot lately: there is a much greater sense of humour here in campus than there is in the political world out there. Here we still know how to laugh at ourselves; politicians have long since forgotten.

Maybe there is something in the path Tim is walking, i.e. to become a doctor. Perhaps that is also why I see myself heading towards becoming an educator. Maybe we believe in the bipartisan search for truth, or maybe we're just not strong enough to take sides.

Either way, I'm glad I'm not alone.

Later, as Shannon drove up into my college, he said the discussion gave him little reason to want to stay in the country. I realise that, in contrast, nothing has ever made me want to leave this country.

I'm no blind patriot, but I hold on tightly to the words of the apostle Paul to the Athenians.

"From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him..."

So for what it is worth, I still believe in Malaysia. If God hasn't left it, I don't see why I should.

* * *

I love film scans! Except for some brightness adjustments to compensate for (very) minor scan infidelity, none of these pictures were edited. I will not begin to estimate the amount of Photoshopping needed to get a digital image to put on as much character as film black-and-white.

Film equals merdeka from hours slaving in front of the computer. With less time spent touching up photos, I can spend more time thinking of what to write. The pictures and the words both stand to improve.

Maybe i'll set some of the pictures to poetry. Some of them seem to be screaming for some rhythm!

The sweetest Merdeka message yet: "We may be two independent individuals, but we'll have each other to rely on, always!"

* * *

All pictures by Benjamin Ong except the one of Ben and Shannon by George Zachariah. Black-and-whites shot on Kodak Tri-X 400 with a Nikon FM10 and 50mm f/1.8 lens. Colour pictures shot on a Nikon P5000 digital camera.

(For the record, this is post number 750; I'm three-quarters to a thousand!)

Happy 46th Birthday, Malaysia!


adelewill said...

Hi Ben!'re still my favourite photographer..hehe..very nice pictures!

Adrian Benjamin Lim said...

Here's a pic of u at the recent cc trip.

They know u don't have a facebook account so they tagged me pula..lolz
The photos are from Alan Teong.

SimianD said...

Adelene: Thanks, but of all the people such a comment can come from, I think I least deserve it from you lah. Am still waiting for your National Geographic cover story on kerengga!

(In the meantime, go shoot/write for the Malaysian Naturalist...)

Adrian: Sorry but I can't seem to get the link to work.