Sunday, December 16, 2012

d'NA at 10

This year's d'NA (d'Nous Academy at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia) was the 10th since it started in 2003.

I found myself on familiar ground, once again. The playground where I spent most of my devotion/quiet time is more or less the same, except that a huge Bauhinia now towers over the monkey bars!

The Bauhinia wasn't there in the past.

Bauhinia flower.

It is a legume, and its seeds are carried in pods, just like peas.

Bee at work.

Fallen leaves.

* * *


We settle, we sedimentise,
Committing the stories of our everyday—
The pulse of our lives—
To the layered rock of history,
The neatly-pressed strata of yesterday.

Which is all well if our living years
Commence in museum halls,
If we never yearn to move beyond first gear
And hang ourselves in frames upon our walls.

We are taught that the nomad's way—
The pertanian pindah—is mundur,
That the way forward is to stop and stay
Put. To allow entropy to run its course
And achieve its lowest energy goals;
But followed to its end it is maximum disorder
And the disintegration of our souls.

Cold steel on warm skin
Where does the rushing river go?
Spirit restless within; stagnant, or pregnant,
Our blood will flow.
And not as blood in centrifuge,
Slowly spun and spinning, warmed—
For our refuge is the rushing storm,
The roaring sea;
Like bees on Bauhinia
Alighting on heart-shaped leaves,
We are itinerant (let it be so)
Tapak kuda, strewn upon the grass below,
Tapak unta, saddle up and go.

We embark in earth-coloured wedding dresses
Muddy and murky, as sordid as our sin-stained hearts,
Till He establishes our hearts blameless
In holiness presentable to stand upright;
Till the good work yields a hundredfold
We shall be as soil to seed, to nourish growth,
As candle flame, to flicker, to guide
Our stumbling feet through this brief night.

(Written on the monkey bars.)

* * *

Martin Luther, 2003.

SooT, Alissa, Tien, Ben, Isaac, Michael: since 2003.
Shern Ren, Kim Cheng, Grace: since 2004.

(Photo by Esmond.)

d'NA 2012: 10 years and counting!

(Photo by Sue Min.)

Now this (monkey bar photo) is a tradition. For everything else, "Michael is right." ;-)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Broken Bread

In bread we bring you Lord, our body's labour
In wine we offer you our spirit's grief. 
We do not ask you, Lord, who is my neighbor? 
But stand united now, in one belief. 
For we have gladly heard your Word, your holy Word 
And now in answer, Lord, our gifts we bring. 
Our selfish hearts make true, our failing faith renew, 
Our lives belongs to you, our Lord and King. 

The bread we offer you is blessed and broken, 
And it becomes for us our spirit's food. 
Over the cup we bring, your Word is spoken; 
Make it your gift to us, your healing blood. 
Take all that daily toil, plant in our heart's poor soil, 
Take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream. 
The chances we have missed, the graces we resist, 
Lord, in thy Eucharist, take and redeem. 

'In Bread We Bring You Lord' by Kevin Nichols 

So I've been invited to a wedding this Saturday. One of the very few I've been personally invited to, albeit only after finding out and congratulating the bride! Apparently many invites these days go through Facebook, and since I'm not there I effectively don't exist. Such is our world today.

But I've told a few people lately how, over the years, I've been invited to far more birthday parties and funerals than weddings. This December, I thought I might be able to chalk some points up on the wedding side, but then the first funeral came—it just had to—and now, the second. God must have a morbid sense of humour.

We sang that hymn above at the first funeral, and I was very moved by it.

As I was thinking about the funeral, I told V on Monday (after I'd been invited to it) that in funerals, we are stripped of our pretensions. We can, and must, be honest. No one talks about clothes or dresses ("Wah, you look so pretty!"); there's a lot less silly small talk; estranged ex-spouses reappear; we are forced to take a long, hard look at ourselves; and families are reunited, albeit against their will.

I, for one, owe my extended family's reunion to my grandmother's death five years ago. Sometimes it takes death to teach us to live.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Back from India

Who is it now? Who calls me inside?
Are the leaves on the trees just a living disguise?
I walk the street rain tragicomedy
I'll walk home again to the street melody.

U2, 'Shadows and Tall Trees'

Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two, we are one

The Kinks, 'Strangers'

I feel like a boy all over again.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

John Sexton on photography

I can never get enough of this John Sexton interview:


I’m going to try to do a little bit better tomorrow than I did yesterday, but on any given day I’m going to try to do the absolute best I can.

It was amazing how a photograph—looking at the contact sheet—brought back those memories thirty years ago in Yosemite or three days before.

Photography is such an important aspect of the way we record our lives today—whether you’re picking up your prints from the drugstore, or whether you’re going to great lengths in your own darkroom, photography has that ability so effectively to conjure up all of these these emotional responses. You remember so many things about the experience that aren’t even conveyed, aren’t physically in the photograph.

Photography is an act of recollecting. We think of photography as a spontaneous process, but oftentimes—especially working with film—you expose the negative, you process it, something else comes up; you may go back to a negative in a few days, you may go back in a few years. Even if you print it right away, a few years later you might interpret it differently because of other photographic or other experiences you have.

A photograph that’s an effective photograph—one that’s made from the heart—I think, should reveal not only that which is in front of the camera—the subject—but it should also reveal the element behind the camera: the photographer.

And you also have to expect that you need to have a good day of photography even if you don’t expose film. Some days you just can’t see anything. Then you start trying a little bit harder, then you’re for sure not going to see anything. You try and say, “Even if I don’t make photographs today, as long as I’m looking, as long as I’m trying to be open”—have an enjoyable day, enjoy the experience. If you photograph the landscape, you’d better love being in the landscape, with or without a picture to prove you were there.

I still like the magic of the silver process. I like the fact that when I expose that piece of film it needs to be exposed properly. I like that discipline that’s necessary. I suppose that I like the uncertainty—that I don’t know until the negative is processed exactly what I have. And in terms of the print, I find that the tactile qualities, the sensuous quality, of a silver gelatin print is different that even the finest examples of digital output today, unless that digital output happens to incorporate a silver gelatin print.

Monday, October 01, 2012

1 October, 2012

The CD turns 30 today:

Sivin turns 40.

And Fit turns 24.

Happy birthday, all!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Malaysia Day 2012

I didn't go on my usual Merdeka pilgrimage this year. So it seemed fitting that I should head back to that place, that confluence, where Kuala Lumpur was born—where, in some ways, I learnt to live—on Malaysia Day.

And this time I went with a very special friend from Miri, V.

It began at 2.30 a.m. in KL Sentral, where I waited for V:

"I'm doing the atmospheric thing, sitting in a barely-lit café in a nary-lit station, soft rock music playing, steam from my teh-o rising into the void."

And then 'Kite' played—in Burmese! And what serendipity, the exchange with Simon.

I've seen countless photographs of those prayer coils, but never of the photographers who take those pictures. Huang Di temple, Jalan Tun H.S. Lee.

Rising over the trees, the flag at Dataran Merdeka, the DBKL building, and the Sultan Abdul Samad building. I've always liked the wildness of KL, and I still imagine a possible future in which we come to terms with our identity as a tropical city and bring back the power of green spaces and mighty trees.

It doesn't help that the row of trees in front of Taman Midah has been cleared. And yet, I still hold out hope.

Betel leaf (sirih) vendor, somewhere near Lebuh Pasar Besar.

Seeing all this bloody meat reminded me of a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, which V told me about. Read it at this link.

You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner [...] It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child's passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway's first stories "In Our Time" went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In "This Side of Paradise" I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

[L]iterature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the "works." You wouldn't be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.


What will we make of the past that secretly crumbles within us while we think we have moved on?

Hanging drink, yet again.

The last leg that evening was unphotographed. But it was a journey, a conversation, I will not forget.

* * *

Postscript—observations on 28 Sept:

KL remains an elusive and perplexing city. Here, just across the river from the Dang Wangi LRT station lies a kampung house.

Beneath the 'stilts', at that ground level of all kampung houses, the residents of the house (presumably) run a gerai/warung.

View of the kampung house from the bridge across the river.

Of all things—coconut trees and bananas in the heart of KL. For this, among other reasons, I've always felt that this city is alive.

While I appreciate some 'upgrades' and changes, like the integration of the numerous train lines (STAR, PUTRA and Monorail), so much of the city is being transformed into the image of the big cities of the North and the West.

KL, as it is, probably has more trees than Osaka—but we don't feel the heat in the Japanese cities because of the climate there. When will our town planners realise that KL can never—must never—become like New York, or London, or Tokyo, or Paris? Let us seek our identity here in this land, designing the city that it may serve her inhabitants and give life to them.

Happy 49th Malaysia Day. We turn 50 next year—what would we be able to say of our country then? The answer lies in every decision we make today.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Narnian tree

For Joan, and SooT.

I always remember that part in Acts, about God giving us our places and seasons.

A tree He plants in Asia is meant to draw richly from its soil and give shelter and life in its land. Sometimes the fragrance of the plant spreads to distant places, and sometimes the wind will carry its seed away.

But as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Magician's Nephew, the Narnian tree never forgot its home.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Pyramid in a Plate

For Dr Evelyn and Vanessa.

What do you see?

Most everyone will see a plate of thosai with the usual condiments/dips: chutney and dhall.

But imagine for a moment that you are in Egypt, and the thosai is a pyramid. That's the white skin of a tent with support beams on the left, the vast golden sands of the desert on the right, and the orange evening sky in the centre. High up in the sky—if your imagination permits—lies a cloud and a semicircle moon, descending as night descends upon da

At least, that's what I saw this morning.

Thanks for breakfast, Dr Evelyn.

* * *

On a separate note, I like how the light fell on my sister's polar bear and monkey.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Two Pairs of Chopsticks

A bowl of pan mee, a plate of loh mai kai, a glass of barley, soup, chilli and two pairs of chopsticks—and Kampong Koh chilli sauce!

Not quite the proverbial 'bowl of rice and two pairs of chopsticks', but it will have to do.

Firdy's Open House, Merdeka 2012

(There seems to be a slight problem with the rendering of the images. Click for better resolution.)

Najib: "Kami mendengar."

Fitrah and cousin Fasya, crossing the tracks at Jalan Templer—such a kampung thing to do!

Taboo, arguably the noisiest 'board' game around.

And chess, undoubtedly the quietest.


Spot the one who's not from Sri Aman.

First-year mates, who started the journey in 2007.

Firdy, the doctor, and the doctor-to-be.

It's so hard to say goodbye, sometimes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Library at Leisure Mall

So The Library is opening in Leisure Mall, exactly a week from now.

This is big news in a small corner of the world. Branches so far exist in Avenue K, The Curve, IOI Boulevard, Subang, Klang and Butterworth. Totally did not expect one to open up in a backwater neighbourhood mall like Leisure Mall.

And... though I've lived here all my life, it only just occurred to me today that the pyramid above the GSC cineplex looks suspiciously Louvre-like.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Fish

That was my father's final joke, I guess. A man tells his stories so many times, that he becomes the stories.

They live on after him, and in that way, he becomes immortal.

~ William Bloom, in Tim Burton's Big Fish, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cookies Wagon

I saw the Cookies Wagon on the road the other day, after exiting the East-West Highway for the NPE.

Looks cool, and their website is here:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Street Scenes

Street photography is a popular genré, and probably has only increased in popularity since people like Cartier-Bresson, Atget and Doisneau brought it to the masses during the era when Leica revolutionised photography-on-the-move. (To be precise, Atget was only appreciated after his death, but that's another story.)

But over the decades, 'street photography' has never been an easy genré to define; it easily overlaps with other categories such as portraits, landscapes and still life. And it has given rise to innumerable clichés, some of which are discussed in this article by Gordon Lewis.

For what it's worth, I think street photography should not aspire to be 'too much', or look too imposing, or attempt to convey coerced messages. The viewer should 'feel' the place through the picture, and the message (if any) should come across through the integrity and honesty of the photograph. The best 'street photography' can only happen when the photographer actually becomes one with the street.

* * *

On 30 May, Tim and I visited the Connaught pasar malam. Despite living so nearby, I've only been to it no more times than I can count on one hand.

He wanted to try out his new 105mm, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to put the FM10 through its paces—it had not seen much action, if any, since the Kuching trip in July last year—a manual camera for 'street scenes' in the style of the old photojournalists.

View from the overhead bridge.

Char koay teow man.

Fried chicken.

The vendor and her audience.

* * *

A few days later, I decided to bring the same camera (with the same 28mm lens) on the BF Ipoh trip. The Old Town has been exhaustively photographed over the years; as Geoff Dyer wrote in The Ongoing Moment, the bar has been set so high that I was free to walk right under it. So, I decided to do the obvious, and literally just shoot whatever I was witness to.

Literally, a 'street' scene: an intersection.

Another intersection.

Concubine Lane.

Not quite the happening place it was in its heyday, but Jia's family runs a very nice restaurant there, comfortably tucked away from the main thoroughfare.

Shoes and debris, Concubine Lane.

Noodles crossing the road, in front of Sin Yoon Loong coffee shop.

The LUNA van.

If you know what colour the van is, it probably indicates how old you are. Either that, or the fact that you're still using classic colour pencils in spite of your youth and this hyperdigital era—wonderful!

* * *

Two Saturdays ago, I came across this screen by the main escalator at KL Sentral.

'Time Machine TV' was true in an unlikely sense: the show being screened was ThunderCats (the 2011 version), which now runs every Saturday on TV3, I think. It brought back memories because I used to watch the original '80s ThunderCats many years ago.

I still think of Lion-O as a super-muscular adult-bodied cat, and not a teenage fledgling of a warrior. But at least they kept the awesome theme song!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Just between you and me

On the surface I am making myself useful by teaching and doing documentation projects for the University. But why should I conform to the ‘production line’ mentality in which every endeavour must result in something marketable/of commercial value?

I consider myself a creator: I write, I take photos, I paint, I create. I don’t sell these things, and only a handful of friends ever see them. So why do I do what I do? Simply because I consider all of this training and practice: the discipline of a craftsman.

The ‘usual’ path consists of either jumping into the corporate sector after graduating, else staying in academia and pursuing a higher degree. But I’m taking my time, I’m observing the world and learning things—not necessarily better things, but different things than if I’d gone down any of those other paths. And all of this is invariably moulding me, preparing me for challenges I have yet to face.

So I don’t have the career momentum many of my friends are gaining; I’m not on my way to a PhD like a good number of my friends are; but I’m nonetheless growing in knowledge and skill, sharpening my abilities day by day. And one day, I believe all of this will be worth it, and when that day comes, these abilities will, I believe, serve their turn.

(Thoughts after dinner at Jalan Bangkung, 18 July 2012.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lynn Johnson on Vanishing Voices

This is the kind of photographer I want to be:

Ever since I saw Lynn Johnson's work on the National Geographic's van Gogh story some time back, I fell in love with her style and approach.

Her astonishing portfolio for the July 2012 feature article on endangered languages:

Monday, July 02, 2012

d'NA Taiping: Revisited

Out of curiosity, and because Tim showed me his recent Taiping portfolio, I rescanned my d'NA Taiping 2009 photos, this time on the Plustek scanner at home.

Joan left a comment on this post asking about the group picture on the rocky wall, and I shall begin there.

* * *

d'NAers at the rocky wall on the trail up Bukit Larut.

d'NAers on a rock, on the Bukit Larut descent.

Tree ferns, Bukit Larut.

Joan at the Allied War Cemetery, Taiping.

View into the lobby, Peking Hotel, Taiping.

(Note the incredible tonal range from the bright signage out front, to the relatively dim hallway.)

Road crossing at night; view from a passing train.

Makes me think of Eric Peris's work on moving dancers. In his words: "I have even reduced Ramli Ibrahim to a blur."

KL Railway Station, pre-dawn.

This is the view from the other side of the train. The first shot I took—in the original post—remains among my favourite railway scenes to date.

* * *

On the trip I put two new pieces of gear—the 28mm and 105mm lenses—through their paces; the former is among my favourite and most-used lenses today, and the latter testified to Nikon's tank-like manual-focus lens engineering, surviving a rather nasty drop from a Land Rover up on Taiping's Bukit Larut.

I shot two Ilford films: HP5 Plus 400 (two group shots above) and FP4 Plus 125 (the rest of the photos above). HP5 was my go-to film until I discovered Kodak's Tri-X during the ET shoot; the former has great contrast, while the latter is much more generous in the midtones and has a certain granular characteristic which I promptly fell in love with.

FP4 Plus, however, remains largely unrivalled among all the B/W films I've shot—it seems to come into its own shot in relatively diffuse, low-light, low-contrast situations. The pictures above were developed at E-Six, and it remains to be seen what I might have been able to pull out of it had I developed it at home.