Tag Archives: Penang


Contents page from "Special Problems," Life Library of Photography, 1971.

Contents page from “Special Problems,” Life Library of Photography, 1971.

1. Using Graininess to Make the Particular General

In a park under a roof he squats, gleaming with droplets of sweat, his nude back a constellation. Thread-like rain traces the air down from a darkening sky. He shouts something that is not a word; receives an answer. He plays music, and holds his hands in a shape that could be prayer of combat.

2. Stark Black and White for Emotional Power

He reaches the squat through a stretch that tests the strength of his leggings. They strain at his hip, making a contour of his underwear, visibly white through the black thread of his outer garment. As if disapproving, the grey sky rumbles.

3. Shadows to Startle the Eye

His retreating companion still shouts, scattering monkeys over the clearing. They cast the forest into relief, breaking its blackness into wide shadows.

4. Drama from the Misused Film

His martial pose is not a match for the soundtrack: a saccharine pop song for Chinese girls. There is nothing to channel except dance, which is the opposite of what he’s doing. Instead, the diamond formed by his hands is like a portal, offering a target to socmic energy. But no force could penetrate this cloud of pop, making depth shallow, force farce.

5. Making a Point by Chopping Off Heads

Sport shoes a shade too small, stretched over skin. Legs constrained and straining. Arms set like a mission to keep the hands in place. Torso bare and saturated with sweat, not pooling but patterned; a second scaly skin.

6. The Power of Distorted Perspective

Here my glasses fog arhythmically, as if given breath by the tropics. I switch my phone to a brighter setting, test sunglasses until it rains. The man enters the pagoda in which we’ve sheltered ourselves from four walls of rain. I want to look elsewhere, but can’t see anything, only what’s in front of me – the sweat on his back, neck and head.

7. Tampering with Lenses to Break Up the Light

Reading vertically down from the sky: grey, white, black, green, grey, green, grey. A spectrum of forest under cloud.

8. For Mystery, Focus on the Wrong Thing

His retreating companion continues to shout, scattering monkeys. He is without music, synching his rhythm to the animals’ advance and retreat. His path turns and ascends toward the waterfall, his voice lost among thunder.

9. Mellow Tints from Reciprocity Failure

As the monkeys scatter and regroup, elevating their tails, the white tips catch some element of the light, becoming iridescent. I squint and the earth deletes itself, along with the monkeys, an apocalypse survived only by the deep sea writhing of white tails.

10. Sun Shots to Turn Day into Night

On balance dark clouds lighten themselves by contrast with the earth they shadow. Like a bride, veiling the sun only makes us take notice. When it dims itself, there is nothing else to see. I look out and up at the point of whitest darkness.

11. Sacrificing Detail to Create a Mood

Across the sky: clouds. In the air: rain. On the mountain: forest. Over the clearing: monkeys. Under the roof: a diamond.

12. An Inferior Lens for Superior Effects

As he squats I write, copying an index from a guide to photography. It’s called “Special Problems,” as if art was something to solve. But if this scene is the answer, what is the puzzle?

13. Indoor Film to Create a New View of the Outdoor World

If this roof had walls it would be dark inside. The squatting man would be a monster, sensed by the ear, nose and skin. The pop music would start silly then turn sinister. I would not be writing this.



Spill 1

The owner delivers the cutlery himself, but it’s a ruse to corner his audience. “They’ve set me up just around the corner,” he enthuses, gesturing along the coast. “My friends back in KL are amazed when I tell them that I get to work in five minutes. I tell them, sometimes there’s traffic, though. Sometimes there’s a jam, and then it takes much longer. It takes six minutes!”

My tea arrives; it’s full to the brim but I stir it vigorously, clinking the edge as the condensed milk rises. Dark powder also swirls through the brew. Cloves, I guess, or something else from the garden. “I’ll leave you to enjoy your drink,” prattles the man, retreating. We sit in silence for a while, enjoying the sound of crickets. Then Julien says: “I’ve never had tea like this.”

We’re in the restaurant at the Tropical Spice Garden, a converted rubber plantation that now tells the story of fragrant plants from the region. Water flows through the ornate garden in a series of cascades. Visitors are lulled by the soundscape into uniform concentration, dutifully sniffing bark and leaves or plugging commands into their audioguides. At the far end of the garden water rushes past large teapots from which visitors can pour themselves a herbal blend of stevia and chrysanthemum. We drink several cups.

This is a marketing ploy for stevia, which a woman makes us chew as soon as we enter the gift shop. This in turn makes us crave the tea that the manage talkatively delives. It’s a kind of ecosystem in which visitors are nourished then harvested.

“Sir, would you like to see a monkey?” a waiter asks. Sure enough, high above the restaurant, a white-tailed monkey browses for food, testing fruit then discarding husks. They drop heavily onto the floor of the restaurant, narrowly missing tables. I peer the other way, off the edge of the balcony. The cliff beetles down to the coast road and the shallows. “Imagine if there was a landslide,” I say.

Spill 2

Back towards Georgetown, it’s mid-afternoon at the beach town of Betu Ferringhi. There’s a sense of siesta, even among those who are awake. We choose the massage place not for its name (Desire) but for its fish tank, visible enough to make us pause and get talked in by the tout. “You’ll see their hands,” he explains. “They’re vergy experienced.” But my guy is less about experience than brute strength. With each lunge at my legs his bicep creeps out from the sleeve of his polo-shirt. “SNAILS,” it says, “Ocean Spirig.” He’s fastened both of its buttons. His force is offset by a liberal approach to oil which he squirts into his hand every minute or so. When he pounds his fist into my sole it squelches. But again the soundtrack is aquatic. A group of friends is trying out the fish, gasping as they swallow dead skin from their feet. The aquarium filter is the parlour’s radio, drowning out my own inhalations.

Spill 3

We started the day on residential jetties, peering through grilles at the domestic lives of those who live over water. Their homes seemed perfectly standard apart from their stilts, which made them a fully signposted tourist attraction. There were floating shops and temples, too, seemingly kept from drifting only by buckets of concrete pierced by planks of wood. At the end of one pier a man was preparing incense sticks and joss paper for a ceremony. I stepped past him to a public toilet, realising too late that I was pissing right into the sea.

We walked back into our first tropical storm, sheltering awkwardly under a stranger’s verandah a few metres out from the short. “Should we get a coffee, or something?” Julien proposed. The same thing happened much later in the day, when pelting rain drove us from the beach into a food court. While Julien sought desserts I was asked if I was thirsty by three separate individuals. It’s as if they knew we tourists were coming, swept in from the beach like driftwood, serving an unseen ecosystem in which we stir, sip, spill.


type 1

“Take another one,” I said, handing Julien my phone – “with more of Luther.” I stepped closer to the statue, brushing aside a plant. “Smile,” said Julien, but I held my face in a stern arrangement, locking eyes with the lens, chanelling ingrained Protestantism. Later I would upload the double portrait to Instagram, tagged #lutheran4lyfe. Beside me Martin is dark blue, looking down at the Bible, as if embarrassed. “Do I look like him?” I ask. “Somewhat,” Julien politely replies. It’s clear that I need something to show for my unseen heritage, so unkonwn in my hometown. A German brow, a Lutheran chin. Here in KL I find my founding father, and newly resolve to read him one day.

type 2

We are leaving the capital for the province, tracing in reverse our migration journey. It’s also the highway on which I travelled to Taiping and Kuala Kangsar 15 years ago, in wide-eyes recovery from Bangladesh. We board a bus that features wide seats and gold curtains. Similarly unique vehicles pull out nearby: executive coach, club class, first class massage coach. If you will be delayed, you might as well do it comfortably.

What brings me back to this highway? I’m repeating something with a view to improving it, dooming myself in the attempt. As Gospodinov puts it in The Physics of Sorrow, I’m “longing for something lost or that had never taken place.” Having cancelled Calcutta I’m back in KL, seeking to repeat and refine the past. As we pull out of the bus station I see a future of further imperfect bus rides in which only the vehicles change: same quest, different curtains.

type 3

Before the trip we’d eaten at one of the Indian retaurants so prevalent in Kuala Lumpur. The menu hadn’t changed since my last visit fifteen years before. Teh tarik with roti canai, again, with a second roti for the same old road. “What menu item are you,” I asked Julien, “and why?” When my turn came I said I was the scoop-by-scoop buffet – ultimately generous, but somewhat hard to approach.

These restaurants always make me happy. Something about how successful ordering seems so easy to achieve. It’s the opposite of a Melburnian ordering coffee, knowing in advance that it won’t be the best she’s tasted. Teh tarik with roti canai. Why visit India?

Near the entrance to the restaurant an old man orders not one but two cups of tea – one milky, one black, with ice to stir through the black one. I am mesmerised, until I see the young man behind him who has also ordered two different teas. What have I been drinking for the last fifteen years? Clearly a sequence of two teas is what’s needed, moving from dark to light, cold to hot. A minute later friends of both men have arrived and taken their single teas. So it’s one or the other not both. But I can’t unsee my first impression.

type 4

We had stumbled on Martin Luther, but in Penang I was looking for a statue. This city was founded by Francis Light, father of Colonel William Light whose statue looks over Adelaide a block from where I lived during my first year of studies. Luther Seminary, attending St. Stephen’s Lutheran church at which I appeared as Jesus in the Easter play. This site of peak Lutheranism nourished my soul, associated in some way with wider pride in the colony of South Australia and the city of Adelaide, which Colonial Light (Francis’ illegitimate son) had planned.

They used this Adelaide statue as a likeness for his father’s, given equal prominence in Georgetown. Did they etch out any trace of his South-East Asian mother, or did some of this weirdly survive in the rendering of the old man, moving up a generation as it sailed back from Adelaide? I’ll have to check another time, or else live with the mystery, as Captain Francis was walled up in his fort when we passed, guarded by cannons.

We walked back to our hotel through the arcades of shophouses converted into hotels and cafes. “It’s like a toy city,” I said. Julien said: “It’s like Europe.”