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Conversations with Sharon Chin & Zedeck Siew

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Conversations with Sharon Chin and Zedeck Siew
Through The Eyes Of Artists, A Glimpse Of Malaysia

22 May 2016 - Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, Malaysia


A lot of art now skips that crucial local step. I want to address a specific audience that feels very real. The criticism I get is, “Don’t you want more people to see your art?” But I think that’s how it spreads. If I zoom in on the local and the specific, it has more resonance outside. Even the thought that it starts from the outside doesn’t make sense to me. – Sharon Chin

After several hours of rolling past kilometres of palm oil plantations, the bus pulls into Port Dickson. Back in the 1980s, I recall Port Dickson being described as one of the several short holiday destinations that were but a drive away from Singapore, much like Fraser’s Hill or Melaka or Kota Tinggi.

It was only in 2016 that I paid my maiden visit to the sleepy coastal town that is only 72km from Kuala Lumpur.

Objectively speaking, PD - as it’s affectionately called – doesn’t inspire confidence. The beaches aren’t of the white sandy sort one might expect of a “beach resort”; the waters don’t look clean enough for a swim; most of the buildings – commercial and residential – look the worse for wear, some altogether unfinished and abandoned.

But, Mackerel didn’t travel to PD for a holiday. Art and conversation were our purpose and we imposed on the hospitality of two of Malaysia’s emerging talents – visual artist Sharon Chin and writer Zedeck Siew.

KEEPING THEIR DISTANCE

Sharon: I don’t blame people who live in KL for thinking that KL is Malaysia (chuckle chuckle). May be because it’s a valley, right? Like a vortex, you can’t get a sense of perspective.

Zedeck: I think it’s easy to have this sense that KL = Malaysia. We’re quite inclined to think in centralised ways in this country.  Very Putrajaya.

Even with art, as with many of the happening (ie: cool, significant, important) things in Malaysia, Zedeck says that much of the country’s theatre is concentrated in KL; so, too, the galleries. It was only fairly recently that theatre in Penang came into its own.

“That’s because Penang is an opposition state,” Zedeck offers.

Having lived in KL for about 10 years, Sharon and Zedeck made the decision to relocate to PD in 2011. It was a homecoming for Zedeck and the case of “uptown girl” for Sharon who is originally from KL. 

Sharon: It took me two years to fully adjust to PD. I remember feeling lost for at least a year. It was a bit of an existential crisis. Didn’t make any art in my first year. When we left KL, I was at a crossroads with art. I told myself, “I don’t want to make art anymore. I want to be a political activist.” (Bersih, a movement calling for free and fair elections in Malaysia, was a catalyst for that thought.)

I wasn’t sure of what I was doing anymore.

But, I had lost faith with the art.

Then, one day in 2012, the cloud lifted and I started drawing again. And I started with the weeds in our garden. This coincided with that realisation that “art’s the thing!” It was always the thing and is still the thing now.

PD has given me a clarity about art and politics and my place with those. It helped me to understand how I could help with what I have, more confidence about what I’m doing and can do within my own sphere of influence, which is enough. The idea of self-sacrifice for change is, to me, vile and misguided.

Photo: Sharon works on a drawing of a PD resident's late parents' wedding picture. "It’s easier to interface with people here. 'Oh, you’re an artist? Can you draw me?' I’ve done two portraits so far. Of our gardeners. May be that’s one way I can give something back to this town."

Zedeck: I spent our first two years here in PD writing almost 100 short stories. None were particularly good, but I had to write all that to get started. 

(Like the 10,000 hours...)

Zedeck: Yes, and it’s helped my fiction immensely. I have less of an “imposter’s cringe”. The “how dare you call yourself a writer?!” berating. I feel now like I’ve done the necessary work.

Sharon: Zedeck was a child prodigy. (“Yes, you were!” she exclaims turning to face him). He was this kid still in school but hanging around with all these older theatre people.Zedeck: I wanted to move to KL. I was about 14 and thinking, “This town is too small for me. I want to go to the big city. I want to meet cool people. I want to be a cosmopolitan modern person!” I wanted to meet more writers. 

(Did it meet your expectations?)

Zedeck: I got a lot out of KL. I worked at an arts and culture website called Kakiseni (and with other similar journals). I lived in KL for 10 years and did the media thing for about half of that. The other half was spent growing up.

I never got around to writing fiction when I was in KL. And now, I don’t have a media job that I can use as an excuse for not writing my fiction.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PULSE OF MALAYSIA

Sharon and Zedeck live in a modest and spartan single-storey house in a middle-class residential estate that sits on the periphery of an oil refinery; the two are separated by the remains of a disused railway track. The flaring is a spectacular sight, especially at night.

The house is the very same one that Zedeck grew up in, and out of. His relocation to PD was a homecoming in every sense of the word.

A productive jackfruit tree greets visitors at the front gate and as you slowly take in the ladies fingers growing in the far corner and the infant papaya trees by the front porch, you increasingly get the feeling that you’re being watched. In a fleeting moment, far too easy to miss, you just might see a small black bundle of skittish energy dart out of the house, bound across the garden and leap into a mess of overgrown hedges just beyond the boundary fence.

Her name is Mini PSB.

Zedeck: Penyu was a cat of ours. Penyu’s sister was a stray that looked like her. Penyu’s sister’s boyfriend was a black tom who liked to hang around Penyu’s sister. Mini PSB is probably one of his kids.

Photo: Mini PSB is reputedly shy and anti-social, and has been known to take up to a week to feel comfortable around visitors (if you stay that long). She sat at the front door on Day 2. We were rightfully flattered. 

 

It is a quiet neighbourhood and it’s plain to see why Sharon and Zedeck find it conducive to working on their art. But, it isn’t always quiet or even isolated from everyday Malaysian life.

An uncomplicated chain-link fence barely six-feet high demarcates where Chez Siew ends and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Datuk Haji Samad - a government-run secondary school - begins. Zedeck even has a key that unlocks a connecting gate in his backyard.

Sharon: The school is the bane of our lives. Yet, it’s a horrible blessing in disguise because we don’t really need to read the news to understand why Malaysia is the way it is. It all starts in the schools. The brainwashing, the way teachers bully students, the way students are expected to react to people of authority. All replicated across Malaysian life.

Zedeck: We have the five national principles, the Rukunegara, and they include pledging loyalty to the monarchy and the country. My understanding is that the school has modified that to read, “loyalty to the monarchy, the leaders and the country”. 

(Can, ah?)

Zedeck: Someone told me that schools often have a version of the Rukunegara for their students. But they aren’t supposed to replace it.

Sharon: There is a stage with a cover for the principal, teachers and all. Students are sit in the open facing at the stage. Assemblies look like political rallies with politicians in their ornate chairs in the shade.

Zedeck: Morning assemblies take place at dawn (Oh, joy). But, there are co-curricular days when the assemblies take place around lunchtime. 

(OMG! That's bloody hot!)

Zedeck: We recently heard this during an assembly speech, “Students, you have to read 60 books a year!”  I mean, just the idea that you have to stipulate a number…then the head mistress nagged about how the students were treating the library, disrespecting the teachers and librarians who had put the library together. I remember thinking, “I never want to go into that library. I wouldn’t want to touch any books lest I get scolded.”

Sharon: We’ve seen children run through the fence and through our garden, either cutting school or trying to sneak in when they’re late. 

WE ARE LANGUAGE

It’s a sense of self. How can you think if you don’t think in a particular language? - Zedeck

The language of instruction in many, if not all, state-run schools is Bahasa Malaysia, “BM” for short. This has been a topic of discussion, particularly with the teaching of mathematics and science, and the increasing evolution – read: sense of internationalisation – among scores of urbanite Malaysians.

Sharon and Zedeck have a deep connection with language; both as an issue and a subject matter for their work.

Language is, undoubtedly, one of the markers of identity so much so that the almighty They say that if you pinch someone – whether rousing them from slumber or just because you're irritating – the first word they utter is in their native tongue.

We’ve tested this in the Mackerel office; “fuck” is the dominant word of subconscious choice. 

Zedeck: I grew up in an English-speaking Christian household. I’m an anglophile. There was once when I refused to get out of the car because my parents had enrolled me in a Chinese-language school. The tantrum worked and they moved me to a Malay-medium school. I don’t speak or write in Chinese. Once I left school, the use for Malay petered out for me and I’m only picking it up now.Our society is really divided. One of the ways is through language. We see this in theatre, the media and literature.Because of the way things are now, why would an urban liberal-leaning English speaker pick up a Malay language paper when subject matter and writing style are quite different?

Sharon: People like to read stuff that is written in a certain way. 

(Are there differences in how a news story is written in an English and Malay language paper?)

Zedeck: Yes, there are.

Sharon: Sometimes it’s a totally different viewpoint.

Zedeck: Language is a sticking socio-political point. For example, someone from the Malay community who is trying to learn English might be met with criticisms like, “Why so stuck up? Want to be Mat Salleh, is it?” 

(* "Mat Salleh" is slang for “white man”. In Singapore, the equivalent is “ang moh”.)

Then, there’s the middle class person who laughs at the working class person for speaking English badly.

And urbanites say, “We need English to compete in the real world. Why are you wasting time with BM?”

I do feel uncomfortable speaking in Malay. I don’t speak it in the vernacular style, I don’t speak it well. There’s a lot of shaming. 

(What is the vernacular style?)

Sharon: Supposedly the more authentic Malay. But I don’t agree with that.

Zedeck: 2-3 degrees removed from the original. Gone through evolutionary processes already. 

Examples of KL Malay would be:
Spoken: kamu orang = korang
SMS style: xpe = tak apa

Sharon: Sarawak Malay is more suited to my tongue. They use “kamu” (the polite “you”) a lot, which is more comfortable to use. Less harsh. 

Sarawak – and Sabah - is a current focus for Sharon. She's in the throes of an illustrated journalism project called, “In The Land That Never Was Dry”. The genesis of the project was a drought in 2014 during which there was no rain in Port Dickson for about four months. This stirred deeper reflection in Sharon because, being of the tropics, Malaysians take water pouring from the sky as a given. Sharon travelled to Borneo (East Malaysia) as part of her research.

Zedeck: I will never be able to speak the “vernacular” Malay. I don’t have that social circle. Approximating it is just like me putting on a shirt, unlike Gina Yap and Uthaya Sankar who are so at ease with the language. (Yap and Sankar are non-Malay writers who write in Malay.)

Sharon: People need to be allowed to stammer in whatever language they are learning or using. It must be lived; must be inhabited. The discussions on language seem so far away because they’re on policy level.

Many of us see language as a means to economic mobility. It’s an instrument of control, progress…But it is more than that. It’s far deeper; it’s the fabric of communications.

Zedeck: It’s a sense of self.  How can you think if you don’t think in a particular language?

Discomfort is an essential part of the discourse. If you feel comfortable with “This is the real Malaysia”, something is wrong.

By saying, "This is what Chinese is (or supposed to be)", that this is the one identity, you coach people to not want to see the stammering or searching as a necessary part of our interactions. 

(Let’s step outside of the enabling environment of stammering and gesturing. The Internet doesn’t support gesturing.)

Zedeck: True and what I’ve learned from playing RPG online is that English speakers talk a lot, non-stop. The rest of us (who speak more than one language) are waiting for the non-verbal cues. We speak less and slower. 

(So, what was the whole Maths-Science debate?)

Zedeck: A few years ago, we tried to use English to teach Math and Science. It was a failure because teachers didn’t have time to brush up on their English enough to effectively teach the subjects.

Which led to suggestions to improve levels of English as a first step. Malay groups are against the teaching of these subjects in English. Yes, there are political arguments (being bandied about). But it’s an oversimplification of a complicated issue. 

(How has your life changed having picked up Malay again in a more serious way?)

Zedeck: I’m focusing on translating BM fiction to English. It’s complicated because I’m translating not just the words or intent; there’s a non-verbal component to fiction that I have to translate as well.

I’ve recently been translating chapters of a novel by Faisal Tehrani. Perempuan Politikus Melayu – The Malay Politician’s Woman.

Sharon: Translations – we can do more of. And it doesn’t involve such huge impossible policy changes. It’s a giving and circulating of the language.

Zedeck: It is also a creative act. Instilling one’s self in that act of translation. It’s a solidarity thing, which opens up lines of communication. I could translate the work of someone whose politics I don’t necessarily agree with. But it’s expanding the discussion without the need to agree. 

That’s the problem with Malaysia – let’s pull rank, let’s present the united front, let’s bury the discomfort of working with people we don’t agree with under the veneer of unity.

Sharon: Everything in this country is designed to keep citizens from finding one another and communicating with one another. How to break this stranglehold? Work directly with one another. Seize the Internet. Take these little actions and amplify them.

Zedeck: We have the ITBN – a national translations institute. It’s a government agency.

Sharon: But it’s not as interesting as people translating little poems for each other, which is not reliant on any government body. Who knows what will happen at the next elections? Someone might say translations aren’t important.

Zedeck: You don’t need an arts council to make art. 

And so, the art-making continues in that single-storey house in downtown-ish  PD, sans air-conditioning, amidst the mighty flares of the oil refinery, propaganda blaring from the school’s public announcement system and decisions about whether to eat at the same coffeeshop for the third day in a row.

Sharon is now on a three-month Hotel Penaga artist residency in Penang courtesy of Rimbun Dahan. Zedeck is working on his elusive novel and continues to contribute short stories to anthologies. Together, they are creating an illustrated book of tales about Malaysia’s flora and fauna, tentatively aptly entitled, “Local Flora And Fauna”.

LINKS

Related video:
http://www.mackerel.life/creative-coupling

Sharon Chin:
http://sharonchin.com/
https://medium.com/@thesharonchin
http://sharonchin.com/archive/projects/bungabersih/

Zedeck Siew:
http://zedecksiew.tumblr.com/

Current Work:
http://fixi.com.my/produk/littlebasket2016
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/626515
http://www.poskod.my/deep-water/
http://poskod.my/features/currents-water-power-in-the-interiors-of-sabah/
http://www.bfm.my/world-water-day-2016-sharon-chin-in-the-land-that-never-was-dry.html