Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

On 31 August 1957, Malaysia celebrated its first Independence Day.

I got my first bike when I was nine. I rode every day and skinned myself badly when Dad took the training wheels off the first time. He doesn’t know this, but I cried because I was so happy.

I got my first paycheck when I was 17. I was an accounts clerk at a local department store. I made less than 400 bucks a month for a five-day week. I came home exhausted and marveled at how parents – mine, anyone’s – manage to keep it together. I regretted being a crap child, and suspected I would be an even worse parent. I still believe this today.

I drove a car alone for the first time when I was 18. When my Dad gave me the keys he couldn’t look at me and I thought he was cos he was worried about his car (it was new, it was a two door, it could fly). Mom later told me he lit some incense and prayed when I was out the door asking Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy to keep me safe.

I went on my first trip alone with my first girlfriend when I was 22. I told her mother the week before, a little awkwardly, that I was going for a holiday with her daughter. I also told her we would be staying at a hotel. “Take care of my girl,” she said. Then she kissed me on the cheek. And being a very traditional Chinese mom, she never kisses anyone.

I lived away from my folks for the first time ever during my last year at Uni. I have always been independent, but never alone. And while my friends found the first month amazing, I was nearly crushed by homesickness. But I learned to be alone without being lonely, I discovered I loved driving, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I fell in love with writing.

I got dumped for the first time ever, and it happened on Valentine’s Day. Within a month or so, people rushed to tell me she was seeing someone new, and I knew who my real friends were(n’t). In fact, she paraded him. It messed me up bad and I felt very low. Then one day, I realised: If she didn’t hurt, then it couldn’t have been special. And if it wasn’t special, I didn’t lose anything. And then I was ok.

In 7 years or so, I will have paid off my house. My parents will still live in it. As will my kids, whom I guarantee you will be beautiful – inside and out.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Movie review: Red Eye

I'm once again plugging for my poor movie blog.
Read the latest.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Bleed me

People are awfully nice to you when you’re giving blood.
They use foreign sounding phrases like “May I please…” and “Is it ok…”
All this while doing things like jabbing you with a pin.
Slapping the inside of your elbow to find a vein to stick huge fucking needles into.
Asking you to pump harder with your wrist (never thought anyone would be telling me to do that).

I read somewhere if you lose more than 50% of your body’s blood, the damage, the sheer shock to the system is irreversible, even if it’s replaced after. And I’m wondering whether it’s my life force draining from me into a plastic bag that is affording me this moment of clarity. Whether some kind of cellular death is endowing me with a period of rare insight:

The blood bank is like the tax receipts department of the government.
All smiles and helpful nods while they bleed you.

In fact, giving blood is perhaps the best way to bleed.
You can have a gallon of blood gushing out of your skull courtesy of some blunt force trauma and you’ll be told to wait.
But give blood, and you’re ushered into a nice waiting room with magazines.
And as O-type blood ran from me, I found death and taxes to be a perfectly natural pairing.

When I finish, the nurse smiles and carefully – almost lovingly – carries the 450ml pouch and sets it in a tray with its own code number. She gives me a donor booklet with the date of my first deposit. She even rushed to hold the door open for me.

“Thank you, please come again.”

Just like the tax department.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Time's up

They are everywhere.

Big friendly letters announce ‘Instant Cash’ or ‘Quick Money!’ A few speak with uncanny insight and understanding: ‘Need help?’ or ‘Take the pressure off.’

The copy for loan shark ads is succinct and effective. The language clear as whistle, and the promise like a lifeline to those drowning. And you have to be drowning to be willing to give up the following information:
A photocopy of your bank passbook/statement.
Copies of your past two months’ pay slips.
A photocopy of your ID or driver’s license.

You have to be driven to desperation to give up such private information for sums as low as 300 bucks.

Interest rates are in the order of 40-50%, usually calculated on a weekly basis.
A loan of a thousand becomes 1500 in a week, increasing exponentially.

I have wondered what drove Junior to consider and ultimately choose a loan shark as an option. His middle class parents are well to do, and outwardly, he does not want for anything. I had speculated he might have been tricked into being a guarantor for some other desperate friend. One neighbour speculated he might have gotten himself in debt with the online gambling that seems is becoming a plague amongst youths.

The house has been very quiet.
The porch light is on, but the house itself is dark.
Since the last visit from the collectors, my neighbours seem to have gone into hiding. They were missing for more than 24 hours and only returned once in the past week, and even then only during the day.
The plants are beginning to wilt from neglect.
The same laundry hangs from lines, uncollected.

Junior’s sister was asked by one of our neighbours about the trouble.
She was somber, but frank about the matter: “Yes, my brother’s in some trouble with loan sharks.” A coupla months back. Junior’s sister had a bad auto accident right in front of our street (I called Auto Assist for her). The car was totaled but she was uninjured.

She returned to the house this week to collect some things. It is mere coincidence that she also took delivery of her new car this week. And when she drove it over, I wonder if those men in the van saw her.

For two nights, a white van has been parked on our street. The men inside made no noise, but also made no effort to hide their presence. Our neighbourhood patrol were informed and on the second night, they asked the men to leave.

I wonder what they thought as they sat waiting for Junior and his family who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay them and yet managed to splash out for a new ride. I wonder if that’s what made them decide to crank things up a notch.

Tonight, there is red paint on my neighbours’ walls.

My mother, who grew up in a rough neighbourhood says this is the last warning.
It is a traditional signal used by loan sharks.

The red paint is a message: When next we come, there will be blood.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

This is not good

About three weeks ago, my dad was watering the plants when two men arrived in a car and started banging on my neighbours’ door. They shouted profanities and started screaming for my neighbour’s eldest son. They were so worked up they hadn’t noticed my dad, who by then was quite terrified. Then they saw him.

According to dad, it was like someone flipped a switch. All menace fled from their faces. They smiled and asked him politely if he knew my neighbour’s son. My dad said not really and added (lied, actually) that they weren’t around much.

They asked my dad to pass along a message.
“Just tell him his friends dropped by.”

They drove off, but returned a moment later. One of them got down, grabbed one of my neighbour’s potted plants and hurled it into their driveway where it shattered, sending shards of clay everywhere. Then they sped off. Nobody came out, but when I locked up somewhere past midnight, I heard someone cleaning up next door.

That they were loan sharks is no mystery. But until now, we’d reckoned we were the only ones who knew. We tried to be discreet and restricted our enquiries to “Is everything ok?” The answer was always yes, nothing to worry about, we’re fine thanks, before disappearing into the house.

On our side, we’ve been worried.
We worried about finding ourselves in a situation where we may not be able to avoid involvement. All sorts of scenarios come to mind:

Thugs storming the house.
A kidnap in progress.
An attempt on their lives.

Basically situations where you won’t know how you’re going to react until you’re in it. And you don’t ever wanna be in it.

We knew Junior was in beaucoup bad shit.
They knew we knew.
And no one else.

All that changed tonight.
This evening, many residents along our street returned to find flyers pasted on their doors and mailboxes. The notes were all in Chinese - which some can’t read - but the details were recognisable enough.
An address.
Car registration.
And most glaringly, a photocopy of an ID card.
Though enlarged and badly printed, the face is still recognizably my neighbour’s son.
There are angry exclamation marks and dollar signs all over the flyer.

My neighbour scurried all along our street, frantically ripping off the flyers.
But the damage is done. A lot have seen the flyer and very soon, everyone will know.

Now here’s the bit that scares me.
About a week ago, Junior decided to shave his head bald.
With the exception of the glasses he sometimes wears, he now looks a lot like me.

A lot.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The powers that be

It is a new world.

Green from trees is now visible.
Colour is visible.
The atmosphere, which a mere 24 hours ago was ash gone airborne, can now support human life again.
The city re-animated itself and drew its first clean breath in more than a week, exhaling a sigh of relief.

And we have the department upstairs to thank for it, apparently.
The Prime Minister called on the country to pray for divine intervention and the front page of the papers shows devotees from every race – almost a caricature of national unity – appealing to their higher power.

And whaddya know, someone answered.

There is blue sky.
Sunlight is strong enough to cast shadows.
Birds no longer swarm aimlessly above buildings. Whatever it was about the haze that screwed up their radar, it seems to have gone.

Most days, I laugh at this shit.
I believe in will and action and getting off your fucking ass to solve problems.
But I also believe my eyes.

About four years ago, I was at the Sepang International Circuit covering the F1 for the magazine. My photographer was delayed by heavy rains though he was calling a mere five minutes from the circuit. The rains were bad enough to cause a gridlock several kilometres long.

But up above the racetrack, was a perfect circle of clear blue sky.
You can see the circle because the blue ended sharply, bordered by storm clouds. It was like someone had cut a hole in the storm and let the sun in.

A few days before, there were reports in the papers the race might be suspended due to the rains that had been falling non-stop for a week. It was monsoon season. But the organizers confidently stated that race fans had nothing to worry about. Reporters asked if bomohs would be called in. The organizers simply reiterated that all would be fine.

Bomohs are local shaman who have been called upon for generations to cure illnesses, exorcise demons, remove curses (or create them) and other sundry mystical services.
Bomohs can find out if your husband is cheating on you.
They can curse the little 19-year old tart he's been screwing.
And they can make him fall head over heels in love with you. Again.
But bomohs have corporate clients too.
Whenever organizers have a big event that they don’t want ruined by petty things like the weather, they sometimes call in a bomoh. It could be the launch of a new car, or a rave party. Doesn’t matter.

But even magic has rules: Apparently, bomohs cannot change the order of events, merely the timing. For instance, they can hold off the rain or speed it up.
But it usually means stealing from the future.
A call for rain now might possibly mean worsening some dry spell into a full-on drought somewhere in the future.

And if you believe the rules, and we’ve had any help for this haze, well.
We can only pray.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Something wicked this way comes

I’m typing this from my office. Outside, the city is covered in ash. Anything more than five minutes in the open and your eyes sting and your body coughs, rejecting the lungful of ash and smoke it just inhaled. Seeing beyong 300 metres is futile.

The international press – BBC, AFP – report that the Malaysian government has declared a state of emergency. In reality, only two areas on the west coast have been included. The government were quick to dispute the foreign news reports. But it doesn’t matter – the winds will turn the errors into fact soon enough. Anyone with a window can see this.

I’m thinking about the Time magazine article on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing I read a few days ago.

I’m thinking of Krakatoa as the volcano rained hot ash and death onto fleeing citizens.

And more than once, I push back from my desk to check the horizon.
That out of the thick grey smog, machines on metal legs will arrive to claim our planet as their own.

Monday, August 08, 2005

3 Immigrants: Nick

Nick is Greek (but of course) and makes some amazing burgers. They are huge, jaw-dislocating things, and when I finish one, there’s no room for the fries I always order and end up throwing away.

I usually turn up Thursday, late in the evening, always forgetting that Australian shops close earlier than Malaysian ones. But Nick is there, always smiling and always ready to make me a burger.

And there were the little things.
Every now and again, I get a fried fish fillet or a mutton kebab. Despite my strongest objections, he would give them to me completely free (“It end of day. If you don’t take, I throw anyway. At least you eat!”)
I also noticed no matter how late I was, he was always open. Then I realized he was waiting for me.

After awhile, I couldn’t take the guilt so I lied to him and said my Thursday classes had been shifted to Saturday morning. So I walked in every Saturday morning, and I sat down without a word. Nick would know to bring me what I wanted – a bacon sandwich, toasted, and a cup of strong black coffee.

I took a picture of Nick on my last day in Melbourne. He hugged me and when he cried, so did I. When I moved to my new house, I lost a coupla things. That picture was one of them.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Someone told me

"It doesn't really matter how you meet.
It only matters that you do."

How true.
How very true.