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Confluence & The Monsoon Masterclass Journey

When I decided to work with Tourism Selangor for the last 3 years, the one thought that became my compass was to make people change their perspective about traveling in Selangor. Somewhat of an ambitious task but with every effort, failed or otherwise was always about that. About wanting to make this state (a backyard for a majority of the urban folks especially) fun and cool.

Knowing that I was not going to continue my contract with the company, I had to make sure that I need to do one last thing I’ve been telling myself since I was at OBSCURA. To turn Selangor into a photography hub as much as Vig has turned Penang into one. Didn’t know how or when. It was just something that I planted in my head while working on #TSBreakAway which had a lot of influenced from OBSCURA itself.

Then a door opened. No, it was merely a key presented on my table by my then-boss Fazly, along the lines about having a budget to do something good before we both leave the company. That’s when I immediately called Vig and hoped that he would jump on the wagon.

That call turned out to be what we now know it as The Monsoon Masterclass program.

There are two parts to this superb program – 5 days photography masterclass workshop with James Whitlow Delano and Monsoon Artist in Residence (Monsoon AIR) with Ian Teh. I really wanted to join the workshop but fate had other plans and so I lived vicariously through seven students’ documentary-styled photography work. Which then turned into a 2 weeks exhibition at The Boulevard, Publika from March 23 – April 6, 2014.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think much about some of the work exhibited but when you read their summaries, you start to develop a storyline in your mind and analyse closely what each photograph is saying from the photographer’s point of view. You create this conversation in your head with the photos; questions like who are you, where is this or how is it possible starts to build up one after another. The next thing you know, you get absorbed into their realm. There are seven different subjects, all of which were documented around Selangor. Some of the stories can knock your socks off, that much I can tell you.

Monsoon Masterclass 01

I couldn’t have thought of anyone better to tell Irene‘s The Afterlife Architect story than Vig

K.G Monsoon Masterclass 03

K.G Krishnan walked us through his story about the Street Sisters in Klang

Hanif Maidin Monsoon Masterclass 02

Hanif Maidin‘s Tanda Mati gives a bigger impact when it’s printed

There are two entities I would go all out for an event they do and know I’ll come back inspired. One is from Kakiseni and another is Vig.

Having followed @monsoonair on instagram and facebook religiously (in other words, stalking) and heard stories from Vig about Ian Teh’s assignment for this program, I couldn’t wait to see the outcome.

Ian Teh spent three weeks in a span of two months exploring Selangor’s coastline with Hanif helping him to do the research and Nadia as his partner in crime, driving from one end of the state to another. I knew bits and pieces of it, of what’s happening, where he is going and all that jazz but if I know Selangor the way I do, she always knows how to surprise us. She just does and she did.

Ian Teh_Confluence Exhibition

Confluence is a sum of what is happening to our country in a wider perspective. It’s almost akin to Ian Teh’s love letter written to her people. Much like how I would conclude my journey with the state, I couldn’t have thought of a better word to describe it than one that he had said the first time when I asked him how did the assignment made him feel.

“It’s bittersweet.”

That’s all it takes and needs to sum it up really.

Ian Teh_Confluence 01

Ian Teh_Confluence 02

Of course, I also know that he knows a lot more about Selangor in that 3 weeks he was diligently documenting the coastline compared to the rest of the nation combined. It is only when you put yourself out there that you would know the nitty gritty side of this enchanting yet bleeding state of ours. Almost to a point that makes you want to do something to give back.

Ian Teh_Confluence 08

Oh yeah, might I add that Ian Teh is a Malaysian born (shout out to PJ peeps!) British photographer. And like everyone else, we have our own preconceived ideas about a certain place..until we actually get to know the real deal.

During the launch of his book Confluence at Publika last Saturday (his exhibition with the same name is also in Publika until April 6, 2014), I didn’t expect him to be such a jovial storyteller. Of course, I say this because, I’ve only know him through his work since OBSCURA and never had the guts to go up to him and say hello when I realised he was sitting a table next to mine at a local mamak spot in Hartamas prior to his Monsoon AIR assignment. Only a week before this launch had I manage to actually talk to him and ask some questions that were in my head for a while. Heck, my first photo of him was of his shoes when I was introduced by Vig. Being the typical doofus that I am, I was too shy and starstruck.

Ian Teh_Confluence 03

There’s this sense of humour you get that’s very British too. Making fun of yourself in a dry manner sorta way.

Anyway, it was interesting that we were gathered in front, all prepared to absorb knowledge as he narrated his journey when I suddenly felt like we were in a reading class of some sort. We were all very close to him, sitting in a semi circle. Listening intently to Cikgu Teh, Veronica chirped.

Ian Teh_Confluence 04

You see that black book he’s holding? Yeah that’s one fine piece of..sweet yummy book if it’s ever edible. It was so impeccably made to a point that the cover designed by Azeem Idzham is probably the coolest interpretation of Selangor’s map I’ve ever seen and the way Shafiq Halim designed the layout of the book, you know there were a lot of thoughts going through when each page is flipped. Tash Aw, Prof Khoo Kay Kim and Eddin Khoo enveloped their thoughts for the essays in this book.

It makes perfect sense yet it’s also capable of breaking your heart. There are only 300 copies of the black version and 100 limited ones for white which you can purchase online here. I highly recommend anyone who loves photography or books of any kind to add this to your collection. You know it’s made with lots of love. Maybe some blood, definitely sweat and tiny bit of tears were involved in the making of this beautiful piece, who knows?

Ian Teh_Confluence 06

But if you had to buy something, let it be Confluence. You won’t regret it.

Also, I managed to record some bits of his session. Wished I had recorded the whole thing! So much humility and honesty in the way he delivered his answers when we asked him some stuff.

This particular video was when someone asked him “Why did you name your book Confluence when you kept on repeating coastline instead?”

He knows his stuff yo.

And then I asked, “What is your best memory during this trip?” .. and you know his Malaysian side had to come out first when he confidently replied “Food!”

In the end, I do think the magic behind The Monsoon Masterclass and Monsoon AIR is something we should respect highly. I felt so proud knowing this finally happened the way it did. That all that hard work and frustrations resulted into this magnificent platform for all photographers and storytellers alike to grow. I only wish for this to continue to be the best it can be, changing one viewpoint a time.

Truthfully, it really couldn’t have happened without Vig, Ian, Nadia and everyone else in the team. They really pulled out a rabbit from the hat this round. They really did.

Watch out world!

Ian Teh, Vig & The Monsoon AIR

To sum up what The Monsoon Masterclass and Monsoon AIR meant to me is exactly the way I had posted on my instagram:

“The only time I had this surreal feeling (referring to the aerial shots of the coastline above) was when I watched my favourite movie from Dain Said entitled Bunohan, which was an Oscar nominated flick too. Coincidentally, both were documented during the monsoon season; only in different states of Malaysia. So my point is, there’s so many great bits in Malaysia by Malaysians..just that there’s too few to spread their magic around. Tash Aw said it well in Ian Teh’s book Confluence – we think we know who they are, we think we know their stories, but in fact, nothing is certain. It’s people like them that made me changed my mind about what I knew and what I want to do in long run.”

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Relocating My Malaysian Identity: A European Dig

London Graffiti

I should have known better.

Yeah that’s what has been chiming in my head the past few days when this certain realisation hit me. A year later after it happened no less too for that matter. Ah, God works in mysterious ways indeed.

While I was moving around Europe, I stumbled upon an interesting pattern. One I love repeating the story to others but never actually connecting the dots. It all started when I was in Shephard’s Bush, London. We were walking back from Jamie’s Italian for an early dinner (you’re best at reserving a table in advance) and I came across a Ukrainian who pointed out about my cheeks which had red streaks due to the dry weather and issues with blood vessels. While on normal terms, I wouldn’t be so open to trying new things, for some reason I just felt like I should. I knew Dead Sea and Himalayan Salt are very good for sensitive skin but never got around to use any.

His name was Mario. I remember because of my favourite childhood video game. Upon knowing I’m a Malaysian, he instantly spoke to me in Bahasa Malaysia. Delightfully at that. In my head, I was amused, speechless and dumbfounded because..well I’m thousands of miles away from Malaysia and here I am having conversation with a stranger who has never been to Malaysia in Malay.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he has good PR skills. Which is partially true too.

But then again, given how London is, someone’s bound to pick up Malay as a language because this city is filled with them anyway. It kinda sorta made sense to me .. I guess. Still, of all languages in the world, I had to get to know people who speak it. The main reason why Mario learned to speak Malay is because many of his clients are from Malaysia. It made the connection easier for him and in many ways, I admire his courage to learn something new and willing to improve himself.

Again, of all languages. I can understand if it were French, Italian, Mandarin or Spanish but I’ve not met anyone who isn’t living in Malaysia willingly learn Bahasa Malaysia as their third, fourth .. language.

London Millennium Footbridge

A while later, as we were making our way across The Millennium Bridge to the Big Ben, someone asked me if I could take a picture of him with the background. Once I did it and we exchanged a few words, one more person spoke to me in Malay when “from Malaysia” came out of my mouth. This time, he was from Lithuania (I think). It was a short conversation, a brisk one but it got me thinking, what are the odds that I get to meet these people? ME of all people.

Let’s back track a little here in case you have no clue why I’m making a big deal out of this. For decades, I’m known to be that kid who has no affinity with Malaysia. Heck, the first place I felt like I belonged somewhere was Jakarta on my first visit (and then subsequently Haarlem and Roma). I’m also that kid who had planned to migrate to Italy and make a life there. The idea was to make my way to RUFA.

It also has a lot to do with how easy I feel to just be me and engage with strangers along the streets in Europe.

Of course, that didn’t happen but that feeling of being an outcast still throb in my heart but slower as of late.

Anyway, I didn’t think much of bumping into foreigners who has never been to Malaysia speaking Malay although the joy they show when speaking the language made me feel like we in Malaysia might miss something, that spark that makes it special. Or maybe it’s just me. I could somewhat relate to that feeling when I get to speak (rusty) Italian with people but I never viewed (what is supposedly) my Mother Tongue as part of that euphoric experience. We tend to take things we have for granted right? So that was me with my birthplace. I suppose, no matter where I go, I can’t escape from my root. No matter how badly I wanted.

Which reminded me of one time when I was in Jakarta, at my favourite music shop in Plaza Salina. While going through the cds I plan to bring back (ended up with a dozen), two Indonesian kids were at the counter asking for Siti Nurhaliza’s albums. At that moment, I was like “Of all times and places!”. To those who doesn’t know, Siti Nurhazila is one of Malaysian’s biggest artists, especially in the late 90’s and 00’s.

So you see, God has a wicked sense of humour when it comes to things I try very hard to remove myself from.

Coloured Shadow

Then, while we were waiting for Guilia, my childhood pen pal who I was very lucky to meet for the first time a day before she moved to London, we dropped by Hard Rock Cafe Roma to kill time. There were some demonstration happening down the street so we thought, might as well take cover till it settles down for a bit.

As I was about to pay for my t-shirt at the counter, I greeted him the typical way any Italians would.

“Ciao! Di dove sei?” he asked while giving me this unsure look. Got me wondering if I had pronounced something wrongly (chances are I might given how long I’ve not put it to practice).

“Io sono di Malaysia..” I was a little bit hesitant to say since I wasn’t sure if he would know where it is. Oh how wrong I was.

“Oh! Malaysia! Kamu apa khabar?” All bouncy and happy in perfect Malay intonation mind you. Trying to wreck my brain deciphering his accent, as I would think it’s sorta normal if it has some Indonesian influence but nada. Zilch.

For the longest seconds ever, I didn’t manage to answer him. At all. Suddenly my brain just shut down and turn into mush. Of course, the fact that he looks like an Italian version of James McAvoy didn’t help make me feel any better.

I was awestruck by the fact that he’s cute (hello James MacAvoy long lost twin!) AND speaks perfect Malay which made me look more like a fool. Blergh. Way to go Dian!

“Hello?” Reality finally hit me, blankly staring at him while he titled his head, giving me this adorable look like he didn’t believe I’m a Malaysian. Yeah, what a dweeb I am right?

“…..err khabar baik..”

He was so not buying it. He said it himself. “Are you sure you’re from Malaysia? How come it took you a while to answer?” smarty-pants wearing the lopsided smirk didn’t make this surreal conversation any easier for me.

I couldn’t tell him that I was lost for words because of him. So I said what came to mind,

“Been away from Malaysia for a quite a bit”.

Yeah right, it was only four weeks since I left. We both broke out in laughter soon after and continued talking about our different cultures, what got him to learn my language and his with me. It was like looking at your reflection, just a different version of you.

That I found him very cute when he was counting numbers in Malay made my day even more endearing. Ah Italians, they just know how to charm you without even trying. Totally forgot to take a photo of him was something I regret a little bit. Just a little.

So what was Francesco’s reason? Bahasa Malaysia/Malay is the easiest to learn because it’s similar to speaking in Italian, you spell the way you pronounce it. I never really thought of it that way until then. Never really got myself to see it from another perspective about my country, the language that I never think too highly of. That’s also probably something many of us don’t get to see too, not because we don’t want to but perhaps too jaded by the current affairs and the on goings of Malaysia to see the beauty that lies behind being a Malaysian.

Rome Train

I find it strange, so strange that the past few entries has been about me finding my identity in Malaysia. Finding my place and voice in the country I’ve lived all my life. And maybe that’s a good thing, that things are happening the way it is because I always believed that in order to appreciate something you have, you have to learn to see it for what it is and what you can do to make it better.

So about me wanting to remove myself as far away from Malaysia is slowly diminishing (for now) because I feel like I have a task to do here, a purpose He’s given me, even if I can only make one person’s life a difference in Malaysia, that would be enough for me.

I’m still going to travel wherever I want to but I use that to see how I can contribute back to this place that needs a lot of like-minded people to hang on. Hang on to any good faith you can find deep inside and do our best to be the change we yearn to see.

Got this off The Single Woman

And in this case, being crazy might just be the antidote to our conundrum.

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Sunrise in Bagan Lalang

Sunrise in Bagan Lalang

Heart Life

Paint the clouds,
the trees and your life
for this story is about
how you do it, dream it
and most certainly live it.

Your strength is in Him
that belief, that hope
it all comes from Him
so carry faith,
carry it all the way.

Have heart, lots to start
As wisdom will impart
when you make mistakes
So take heart,
Life is a work of art.

It was one of those rare moments when I’m able to wake up early for sunrise. To be honest, I wasn’t able to sleep the whole night.

And it’s nice to see such relationship exists in front of my eyes. That beautiful moment between a parent and child.

Hopefully as we move forward with technology, we bring along the human aspect in our lives.