on money and art

A recent visit to Bank Negara Museum and Gallery led me to think about the relationship between money and art within our national art institutions.

Recently, I was working on a project at Bank Negara Museum & Gallery. While literally waiting for paint to dry (my humble task that day), I decided to walk around the museum, which I’d never visited before. As I made my way through its halls that day and as I began to get deeper into the project that week, I started becoming more cynical about the purpose of art and its institutions. 

When I first arrived at BNMAG, I was duly amazed by how stunning it looks from the outside, all well-kept lawns and black tiered fountains and glass facades. In the middle of the museum is a spiral staircase, much like the one at Balai, which is supposed to be like the one at the Guggenheim?, and so from the third floor where I worked, I could lean over the banister and survey portions of the floors below. The first and second floors are the dedicated “museum” sections of the place:  there is a section on the history of islamic finance, a section on the history of money, and a section on the history of the bank. The third floor is the space dedicated to temporary art exhibitions.

I skipped the first floor because I’m not interested. On the second floor, there was an exhibition showing the collection of Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali, the first governor of Bank Negara. The exhibition space dedicated to Tun Ismail is split into half: half the space showed his collection, and the other half showed a tiny museum of his life. 

One of the first works displayed was a reproduction of a mural by Syed Ahmad Jamal, commissioned for the Bank Negara headquarters. It was a beautiful piece of design that utilised a nice black-silver-gold colour scheme. And though it was a reproduction, the print didn’t turn out half bad. I was reminded of another set of murals commissioned for a bank: the four murals on the exterior of the OCBC bank next to Masjid Jamek LRT station. Like those, the piece by S.A.J shows clearly the conditions of its commission. It’s beautiful, but it’s boring. It’s beautiful, but it’s commissioned by a bank. Like those, the metaphoric and expressionistic possibilities of art are hijacked by the shallowness of profit. I was struck by how poor art becomes when called to the impossible task of beautifying the circulation of capital. 

I continued through the gallery. The collection of works is fine. The show had no curation, and no point for curation. He bought art. Here is the art that he bought. It’s not that I am opposed to the practice of art collection—if this man had been my friend, and I’d met him at his home, and he’d walked me through his art collection, I wouldn’t have minded. What I minded, here, is how clearly the whole exhibition served to flaunt a single individual’s wealth, subsequently making the bank look good by association. What I minded was that a building calling itself an art institution would put the art of various talented artists in the base service of glamorising the collector who bought their work.

The art collection moved into a small museum of his life. On one of the walls was a big questionnaire-style poster detailing the specificities of his life. His skin colour: “sun-browned.” Another wall was dedicated to a yearly timeline of his life and achievements. There was a vitrine of his possessions and a replica of his study. Above the vitrine, there was a mosaic of lightboxes with bite-sized facts about the man himself. He liked dark colours and enjoyed western classical music. 

The various fun facts I learned about Tun Ismail Ali

I’m irritated at the shallowness of what art has become, especially on an institutional level, but the practice, while uniquely shallow on BNMAG’s part, is not exactly uncommon in the art world, nor is it a uniquely “Malaysian” failure. All over the world, the money that is financing art institutions is coming from big petroleum companies (such as Petronas), banks, or otherwise exploitative organisations. I brought this up with a friend, who argued that art being financed by banks and corporations have nothing to do with the quality of a gallery, since this practice is a given in the art world. The Tate was financed by BP; the Whitney Museum is chaired by the CEO of an arms company; the Met, Guggenheim, and the National Portrait Gallery in London were sponsored by the pharmaceutical Sackler family, accused of creating the opioid crisis in America; and what about Saadiyat Island being built out in Abu Dhabi, a city infamous for its brutal labour practices? These big boys are considered exciting and dynamic art destinations that set a standard followed by many other, smaller art institutions and galleries the world over. So the only conclusion left to be made seems to be that Malaysians are just shit at giving a shit, but (call me naive), it’s a conclusion I’m still holding out on making.

Do the Tate, Whitney, the Met, the plutocrats of Abu Dhabi, etc., etc., genuinely care about art more than we do, or are they just more experienced in beautifying their money trail? The failure of Malaysia to live up to its own delusions of grandeur has always been an area of interest in my writing. Under the influence of corporations and capital, art is reduced to a “high-brow” medium for either flaunting or obscuring one’s wealth.The Tun Ismail Ali “exhibition” has made me think our art institutions suffer from the former, but the latter is equally sinister. Malaysians are more crass, but in being so, the rift created by art and the money that finances it becomes clearer to see.

Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum, Guerrilla Girls, 2016 

Malaysian money is uncultured and new and Asian and therefore excited to show off. We’re not like our European colonisers who have a history of art. Because of this, galleries such as Bank Negara’s are not properly curated or project managed, because the point of art, for us, is still a way to show off wealth. We haven’t reached the point of development yet where we’ve manipulated ourselves to believe that the point of art is to change people’s minds, or broaden horizons, or whatever. A museum and gallery is simply what is done when one is a bank or corporation: everyone in the West seems to have them. So the gallery staff are either not properly trained to care, or have been conditioned into indifference. The artworks suffer under bad lighting and uneven walls unfit for a gallery. Artists are outsourced to line the walls in the same way that a contractor might be outsourced to paint them. The spaces end up having only the semblance of a gallery while being soulless and creatively, intellectually malnourished, like any child of wealth.

But it makes me upset, also, to buy into the ready tirade against the government and our national art institutions. Is the inefficiency and callousness of BNMAG a result of Malaysianness, or is it because it’s literally a gallery operated by a bank? Or put it another way, can you really expect anything more from galleries that are either constructed or majorly subsidised by banks and corporations, even if they hire “proper” staff who have a “background in arts”? Or put it another way: can the combination of art with exploitative capital power ever produce anything meaningful?

In Malaysia, donating an artwork to a national art institution is considered significant enough to warrant a tax deduction

Collectors can get a tax deduction by donating art to national art institutions, but the public fails to gain anything from their contribution when minimal effort is put into setting up the exhibitions or into enlightening the public on art. With the Tun Ismail Ali collection, we do not contemplate anything except for the fact of this single person’s career and his taste in art. When collectors donate their art collections, the public is afforded the chance to look at a work that would have otherwise remained in private view, but the possibilities of art are still limited to what one can gain by only looking at it. In Malaysia, these possibilities are hijacked by poor arts management, which is where my grief as a Project Manager arises, but I also don’t think art becomes better by producing better exhibitions. Producing sleek, interesting, and internationally-renown exhibitions is not the only way that an entity with a lot of fucking money can show its concern for the arts, if indeed they are truly invested.

Right now, I’m thinking about the Federal Art Project, a project under the Works Progress Administration that was created in Depression-era America. You would think that, given the current climate where the National Endowment for the Arts is facing termination under Trump’s America, surely a desperate, Depression-era America would have been even more likely to cut funding to the arts. And yet the Federal Art Project received 7% of funding from the WPA and continued to provide employment to artists, because it considered art production a legitimate field of work like any other. Under the Federal Art Project, artists were hired to create murals, paintings, and sculptures for public spaces and government buildings, along with being incentivised to painstakingly document an Index of American Design. From 1935 to 1943, over a hundred community art centres were set up to train young artists; the only costs these centres had to bear were material fees. Some of the artists supported by the Federal Art Project were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Poster for the Harlem Community Art Center, New York City, 1938 

Going back to the question of whether banks and corporations can ever work meaningfully with art and artists, I think we need to look beyond the success of exhibitions if we want to gauge amount of care. Sure, BP sponsors the Tate and they still put on stunning, globally-anticipated exhibitions, so why can’t Petronas Gallery or BNMAG be better? But to dilute care for the arts to the sleekness of an exhibition neglects to realise that this superficiality is the same factor that probably drove Bank Negara and Petronas to set up evidently pointless galleries in the first place.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts looks good. It allows corporations to have their names associated with something highbrow and cultured; it is an attraction that mystifies and distracts from the essentially base, exploitative, and frankly boring activities of capitalism at work. The difference between our Malaysian art institutions and Euro-American art institutions is that Malaysian art institutions don’t try hard enough to look good. The new money slipped out and revealed its coarse hometown accent.

Right now, all over the world but especially in Malaysia, accepting corporate funding for the arts is one of the best forms of funding available, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Many artists rely on corporate commissions and patronage. In Malaysia, the consequences of this seems to be that art suffers from a lack of care from being reduced to a vehicle for flaunting wealth. We suffer from commissions that produce boring art and do not exhaust the full capacities of artists. Gallery exhibitions and public programmes that are executed as formalities rather than out of any real interest. On a wider scale, the consequence is that we are always stuck in a contradiction where art fails to reflect the world we live in. The domain of art is relegated to the domain of looking, but not necessarily impacting: the domain of art fairs, biennales, galleries, ever glossier and exciting “shows”.

In an article for The Guardian, Michelle Wright puts forward a fear that if one becomes too involved with tracing and subsequently protesting the money that funds the arts, then our art institutions will start to die out. Corporate funding is already on the wane, as corporations turn to funding services they consider more obviously beneficial to the public, like charities, education, or health services, where its members aren’t encouraged so much to ~express themselves~. I understand. I obviously understand, and I obviously want all the people passionate in the arts—artists, curators, and the other people like me who work for them—to continue having the funding to do what they love. But I’m not sure how long art can live within the contradiction before artists and the general public just become tired and cynical of what art can achieve. The argument against not making things “political” is the argument that art for art’s sake is possible—is the only art possible—and I’m just not sure how tenable this argument is. If you can’t stop people from trying to express themselves, then there are two options for deadening the noise: you can censor them, or you can disempower the institutions in which they express themselves, make these places irrelevant to the general public’s daily lives, so that the force of their art stops short at the eyes and does no further damage. This is art for art’s sake, incapable of meaning.

I think the Federal Art Project was getting at something, even if it had to be forcefully born out of desperation. It’s possible for art to be transformed into something a bit more democratic and meaningful, especially if we have the faith to believe in its capacity to be so. I just want to think a bit more complexly about art, and money, and exploitation. Of what art can do beyond just looking good and enabling a screen for money to disappear. 

In writing this piece, I aimed to consider the ways that corporate galleries fail art in Malaysia, but I also wanted to go a bit deeper and question the involvement of exploitative and oppressive industries within the arts on a wider scale. To blame the failures of Bank Negara Museum and Gallery on Malaysianness and the government doesn’t go far enough, for me, in interrogating the role of banks and corporations in the arts. It doesn’t do enough to answer to the gap between what art relies on, and what art purports to achieve.


✨🍆 In convo w/visual artist LITH NG on her show @ Urbanscapes 2018 🍆✨

[Disclosure of potential bias: Lith is my friend.]

When I sit down to talk to Lith Ng, we’re in a small, dimly-lit back room and she’s intently stabbing a dick with a hand drill. The dick is made of resin and was moulded into its shape by pouring the resin into a condom (which she bought in bulk off Lazada) and leaving it to harden. Inside the dick is a strip of paper containing an anonymous confession that she got by crowdsourcing on the Internet. On her worktable are numerous other dicks, all in various stages of being completed and in the middle of hardening.

On the day we’re meeting, it’s still a week left until the first day of her show as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition currently being held at Ruang on 2 Hang Kasturi. She’s drilling with a look of intense concentration, alternately stopping abruptly to answer my questions thoughtfully and then just as suddenly returning to drilling the holes again. The holes are for her to screw hooks into, for the dicks to be hung up on the ceiling of Ruang.

The dicks come in various sizes; some are hung up while others rest flaccidly on pedestals. As a project, it lends itself to humour and double entendres in their interpretation. Even as I watch Lith drill the dicks it’s hard not to laugh about it. Speaking about the hook, she says angrily, “it won’t fit!” The “flaccid” dicks on the pedestals are literally rendered useless, failing to perform, as they are made from resin. The dicks are castrated and contain their sins (in the form of the confessions), never to be relieved. The dicks are on exhibition like a street flasher, but now the power dynamics are changed as a young female artist is the one in control. It’s objectification without a victim. It’s dicks on the ceiling, hanging low enough to brush your face when you walk through. It’s funny or disgusting, depending on your temperament, and it’s both light-hearted and serious at the same time.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 1.25.38 AM
image via artist’s Instagram

Lith’s goal in making these dicks is to encourage young women to talk about their sexuality. Having been raised in a tight Chinese community, she tells me about the various forms of bullying and sexual shame that young girls were subject to, and about the boys who were allowed to freely joke and talk about sex, while any girl who did was ostracized for it. Girls even had sexual rumours started about them as a form of bullying. (She tells me about a rumour started about a classmate of hers who went to a bathroom with a pen.)

Thinking about it now, Lith understands the psychology of children, in that when one bullies another about something, it would usually be a subject that the bully was insecure about and felt shame for. Her goal in making the dicks then, is to offer a platform for women to speak about their sexual experiences (good or bad), with the anonymity allowing them to say anything they want without fear of stigmatization or shame. It’s a medium for young women to say everything they want to say deep down but can’t, and for any (straight) male viewers to reflect on and possibly use as a catalyst for change in the way they think about sex and female pleasure.

“I’m afraid of high school friends following me, but I also kind of want them to follow me [on Instagram, where she posts her work]. I hope that when they see my stuff, it’ll be an eye-opener for them,” Lith says, making it clear that the toxic environment she grew up in continues to inform her adult creative life. It’s a testament to how long-lasting of an impression childhood can leave on a person, especially a childhood of shame, guilt and repression. She laughs. “There’s only like three people from high school following me. I don’t know what they think, maybe they think it’s fucking gross. But who knows, who cares.”

Maybe it’s because of the closeness of our friendship, but she talks in a warmly offhand manner, clearly as someone who’s confident and fully comfortable in her self. Her experiences growing up may inform her work, but the shame and self-consciousness no longer imprisons her. She doesn’t care about offending people with her art. The only thing she seems self-conscious about now is being original.

“I just don’t want to make cliche shit la. […] I’m just really stuck in the whole ‘I don’t want to make cliche art, but I don’t have any inspiration of my own’ loop.”

From here, I ask her about her inspiration and influences. This whole time, as she alternately starts and stops drilling at the dicks, she’s also been alternately sitting and squatting on her chair, in her own Thinker’s pose. She pulls her legs up now so that her whole body is on the chair’s seat, and with her knees reaching her chin, she scrolls her phone looking for the names of her influences. Louise Bourgeois is a big one, along with Annicka Yi, Tracey Emin and “Sarah… Sarah what-the-fuck-is-her-last-name… Oh, Sarah Lucas.” In describing each artist’s work, she keeps coming back to a central point: rawness. Rawness either in their messages (Bourgeois, Lucas), or in the materials they choose to use (Yi), and/or both (Emin).  She admires unboundedness, unself-consciousness, not giving a fuck.

To wrap up our interview, I ask her what, if given a limitless budget, she would want to do and experiment with. She answers immediately, “I want to make a fucking huge-ass large-scale installation, man.” But her ideas haven’t gone further beyond that, because she believes she’d never really have the funding to carry out anything on such a large scale. It may involve ice. She has a fascination with unpredictable materials, such as ice and resin, and earlier in the interview she’d shown me a few dicks that didn’t turn out as she’d liked them to—air bubbles caught in the resin, condoms that couldn’t be pulled off properly and reacted badly with the resin, etc. When asked to think limitlessly, she’s only certain about two things: it has to be massive and it has to be unpredictable. She doesn’t believe it will ever happen, but I hope it will.

In Defence of Pleasure is on view at Ruang, 2 Hang Kasturi as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition from 3 to 18 November 2018. The dicks are for sale at prices between RM150-170, Lith can be contacted at yeeleng.n@gmail.com.

Art notes: Attempting object empathy @ Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”

or: What does “installation” even mean anymore? 

I first heard the term “object empathy” through a video on theartassignment, when viewers were given the art assignment to empathise with a broken object and then to “fix” it in their own original way. Among the various works were broken objects that viewers had found around their house and then patched back together with the use of staples and especially band-aids, conferring a humanity to the broken object. When I visited the installation portion of Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”, I started thinking again about object empathy.

Consider the title as a starting point—“Minta Perhatian”, which I’ll translate as “Your attention, please”, with the “please” being vital. The title is a call of attention to the new and exciting mediums being used in the contemporary art scene. This is how the “Minta Perhatian” show has been set up: it’s a three-part show, split into “arca” (sculpture), “instalasi” (installation) and “media baru” (new media), spanning a nine-month period alternating between featuring different forms of new media dominating the contemporary art scene. When I visited, the medium being focused on was installation.

But say we chose to interpret the title differently—not as a call from a gallery to the public, but rather as a description of the call from the medium to the artist: please pay attention to this block of metal. Please pay attention to this block of wood. Please pay attention to this cloth, this serving spoon, this broken chair. Object empathy. It occurred to me, walking through the exhibition, that the work of sculpture and installation is a task (conscious or not) of empathy with inanimate objects. Artists see a living potential in them to be transformed into something meaningful, beyond their mundane usage; or otherwise, artists empathise with and wish to celebrate the object’s mundanity. Of course, this is generally true of all art—that art is the task of empathy and conferring beauty, regardless of subject/object matter—but possibly sculpture and installation art are the forms that most allow objects to exist as they are. As in, a painting of a fork could be beautiful for the way it confers beauty upon the mundane fork, but the viewer also admires the painter’s ability to paint, whereas a sculpture or installation using forks uses forks.

At the “Minta Perhatian: Instalasi” exhibition, one of the things I found interesting was how many of the works attempted to depict people. I saw at least two artworks that overtly tried to depict people using inanimate objects, making me think they might have been more suited to being categorized as sculptures rather than installations. One of the earlier ones was an exhibit of a “family” which used household items arranged into anthropomorphic forms (the head of a rake standing in for hair, cullenders for breasts, etc). It seemed to me like a more advanced form of making 3D stick men using marshmallows and toothpicks. 

Conversely, Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s Mother and Child felt like a more successful “family” sculpture. (Again, I think this piece belongs more in the category of “sculpture” rather than “installation”, so just have this in the back of your mind for every forthcoming piece of artwork I mention anyway.) This was a piece that I feel worked with the material for more than a perfunctory purpose: it saw the potential in the material to contribute to the overall understanding of the art. Using black wire mesh, Sharmiza Abu Hassan created two forms resembling jellyfish, one larger (presumably mother) than the other. The way Hassan chose to curve the wire mesh allows it to look like the tentacles of a jellyfish, or the folds of a veil, droop of a tablecloth or shadow of a ghost… all the while being deceptively hard, like the simultaneous softness and grit of mothers. Mothers being figures that always seem close to death, even in their prime of life and most abundant of love: suffocating mother as black wire mesh net, mother behind the black veil, mother and child as two dark clouds closely resembling each other, separated. Another thing that made it interesting was how, if you stood far enough away from it, you couldn’t tell the actual mesh from the webbed shadows it cast on its pedestal.

The exhibition featured two works that used chairs, which is maybe an attempt to place Malaysian conceptual art alongside Joseph Kosuth’s genre-defining “One and Three Chairs“, or maybe they were just chairs. It was at the second one, Mohd Farizal Puadi’s Don’t Touch, where I started thinking about object empathy w/r/t the artassignment video, because it seemed to answer the video’s assignment in a more elaborate way. It’s like the artist dissembled the entire chair neatly, just to put each individual piece into glass, and then attempt to assemble the glass-encased parts back together again—for no apparent reason other than to see if he could. The chair is close to being perfect, but when viewed closely, you can see the places where the pieces don’t fit quite right—maybe through a small oversight, but maybe because they are irreparably so. Not just because they’re now encased in glass, but because the individual pieces, once separated, simply resist being artificially joined back together again, no matter how neatly they were disassembled. Object empathy is exercised in the attempt to fix it again, but also in accepting its limitations, and sanctifying those limitations in glass.

I keep going back to the naming/categorization of this exhibition, and how unsuitable the categorization of “installation” is for most of the works shown. It really seemed to be largely sculptures, and the only work I could probably describe as installation is one of the first works you see when you enter the gallery, which is Yee I-Lann’s Kedai Commemorate. The fact that this work takes the first room suggests the curators’ own awareness of the exhibition’s categorical shortcomings—placing Kedai in the starting room is a kind of pre-emptive apology, I guess. Yee I-Lann’s work isn’t a sculpture of people like the rake-and-cullender family, rather it’s a suggestion of people. Rows of school pinafores line the left walls, while lines of commemorative paper party plates line the right and strung up on the ceiling are clotheslines drying good morning towels. They all combine to suggest a life that’s relatable to a huge number of Malaysians, except the people are missing, and the only tangible sign of a “life” are the words printed across all the objects proclaiming, “MALAYSIA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE MALAYA!” Rather than the sculpting of an artwork for exhibition in a space, installation considers the space to be fundamental to the art.

I left the exhibition thinking about people, and our relation to the inanimate objects that make up our lives. From the inanimate “people” to the chairs to Kedai, what struck me was the artists’ tendency to depict [human] life, even when using mediums that resist artistic utilization (i.e. vs. painting/drawing/photography in which you can literally depict human life), as if our way of empathizing with these objects, or as if the unrealized dream of these objects, which we aim to fulfil, is to metamorphosize them into being a person.

Art notes: “Lopung is Dead!” @ A+ Works of Art, Sentul

The foundational ethos of punk rock is speaking truth to power. If you look at the work of Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap (“pangrok” being a localization of “punk rock”, “sulap” being a Dusun word for a kampung hut), you can see their punk rock heart shining through and true. Several days ago, on the 4th of October, they launched the opening night for their first ever solo exhibition in A+ Works of Art, located at d6 Sentul. The exhibition is titled “Lopung is Dead!”, with “lopung” being another Dusun word for pythons, and which in Sabahan slang is also used to refer to lazy and irresponsible workers.

As their choice of names hints, the work that the art collective does is highly localized. Their work is influenced by current events and everyday life in Malaysia; their prints criticize political corruption, environmental disregard and governmental propagandizing, while also celebrating the strength, beauty and unity of the people, especially the orang kampung.  

When I entered the space, there was a huge semicircle of people crowded around two massive floor-to-ceiling canvasses, both of which make up the work “Sabah Tanah Airku”. This is perhaps their most famous artwork, since it was hit with censorship last year when the organizers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW were forced to pull it down due to pressure from anonymous public complaints.

“Sabah Tanah Airku” presents two “Versions” of Sabah: on the left side, there is the postcard-perfect Sabah–a harmonious Sabah, a picture that rings somewhat true, a picture still worth making, but also a superficial one. In Version #2 on the right, we see the facade discarded. Farmers who are toiling happily in the former are depicted with angry, weary faces in the latter. The “prosperity” and modernization of the former shows its consequences with the privatization and environmental destruction portrayed in the latter. While the former is composed in a bottom-top arrangement, with the people depicted in the foreground receding into the back, the latter has a top-down arrangement that portrays the people aggressively dominating the picture and the land.

The two works that make up “Sabah Tanah Airku”

Over in the next section is a collection of prints grouped under the title “Ma=Fil=Indo”, depicting an internationalist vision of a Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian union as proposed by Filipino hero Dr José Rizal many, many years ago. The Malaysia of today seems wholly dedicated to be something it’s not, by incessantly importing foreign goods and corporations from those who used to colonize our region (America, the United Kingdom, Japan…), and so the Ma=Fil=Indo series showing solidarity with our neighbours is refreshing to see.


One of the works in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series

Pangrok Sulap works with woodcut printing, a medium that’s perfect for the collective’s political message–a message that is clear, frank and literally stated in black and white. Their art has the ability of being both elaborate and simple at the same time. “Sabah Tanah Airku” are massive prints of elegant complexity that are completely filled to all four corners with various allusions and symbols, yet the message is unmistakable. The snake-and-ladder “Ular Lari Lurus” prints are a literal game of symbols, but it’s an easy game, one that any Malaysian will understand and relate to. Like the punk rock music that inspires their name, Pangrok Sulap’s works show that sometimes the most effective way of fighting injustice is to say things as they are. In black and white, on a large canvas and in public.

Towards the end of the night, a few stools were brought out for five of the collective’s members to give a closing performance. One of them pulled out a guitar with a bright yellow sticker on it that proclaimed “WE CONSUME WE DESTROY.” They performed a couple songs, ending with one called “Orang Kampung”. Though the audience didn’t know the lyrics before they began, the song had such an easy, infectious chorus that people were soon singing along.

Speaking the truth, challenging corruption, showing solidarity and politicizing your guitar. Works about farmers and the land, exhibited in an art gallery in a commercial building in the capital city. Pangrok Sulap’s exhibition is a reminder that fighting injustice really can be as easy as the chorus to their song, if only we have the courage to say things as they are and the mindfulness to remember, always, the shared land and history that we are all indebted to.


Field notes #3: Family Mart (multiple locations)

Or, “I only have time to go to the convenience store.”

In our collective imaginations, the convenience store is an in-between place. It’s almost never a destination in itself, and visiting the convenience store is never an event. Even our homes, which we take for granted more than most other places, offer us feelings of relief or joy upon our return. But going to the convenience store doesn’t stir up any emotion, because it’s often a place we visit out of necessity, a place that’s accessible and decently-stocked and open 24/7.

The convenience store is the closest thing we treat to a home besides our own and our loved ones’ homes. In the convenience store, anything is allowed at any time of day, and no one bats an eyelash if you turn up with unbrushed teeth and hair. It’s a place where people bump into each other in between the tiny aisles and the cashier almost never even looks at you, let alone smiles; rudeness in the convenience store is accepted more readily than it would be anywhere else. You’re in a rush, you just woke up, you’re trying to find that one specific thing and can’t figure out where in all the haphazard organisation it’s been buried. The aisles have no names and the people aren’t really people. The convenience store is a place that doesn’t really exist; like a dream you forget the moment you wake up, the convenience store exists only when we need something, and then disappears again at the chime of the bell over our heads on our way out.

As such, with the convenience store being so much a place we take for granted, it offers a small slice of home, ease and relief at every corner. We need the convenience store like we need a home, because it provides for us, but also because we need these places where we’re allowed to just be, and this provision by the convenience store is perhaps one of its most overlooked services.

FamilyMart, however, changes the way we interact with convenience stores. Maybe the Japanese are used to FamilyMart, but Malaysians were not. The franchise first opened in Malaysia in 2016 and it took Malaysia by storm—everyone became enamoured with FamilyMart. It was treated as a true novelty when it entered Malaysian markets, because of how much it provides in the name of convenience. FamilyMart is a place where you can pay your bills, get cheap coffee hot or iced, buy a hot meal and enjoy it in-store, and the franchise is always innovating further for the future of convenience.

Above all, FamilyMart actually makes you think, unlike the mynews or 7-11 or gas stations that we’re used to, because it is so wholly foreign and untested to us. It offers the sense of escapism that any predominantly foreign brand store would offer. Next to the gardenia breads you can find a “green tea melon pan”, and next to the Lipton iced lemon tea you can find “clear” milk tea. Next to the normal cashier counter, there’s a special “oden counter” where you queue up if you want to buy fish cakes and udon noodles in hot soup. FamilyMart offers variety in an establishment that we frequent because of its lack of variety. FamilyMart becomes a destination in itself because it offers an alternative that we’re not used to. Why should I walk down the street to the FamilyMart when there’s a mynews next door? Because I want something specifically Japanese that only FamilyMart can provide.

The convenience store is predictable, because we know what we can get there and more importantly what we can’t get there. We can’t often get fresh food, and we can’t get an experience, and while it fulfils our most pressing need at the moment, it perhaps doesn’t do it in a way that’s healthy or most desirable for us. But FamilyMart offers all the same things that we expect from a convenience store while packaging it in the dream that, more than just fulfilling our needs, it can also fulfil our desires.


Recently, I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 movie Chungking Express for the first time. Something that struck me was his use of the convenience store, even though this location didn’t play a big role in the film as a whole. I was interested by the way the convenience store served to facilitate Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung’s desires, building a bridge between the personal & mystical with the banal everyday. In the convenience store, Takeshi can find his canned pineapples that will expire on a specific date, and Tony can dry a wet letter from Faye Wong on the grill, as if the convenience store was there to accommodate exactly these very specific needs.

Though Chungking Express was filmed in Hong Kong, not Japan, and though it was released years before the emergence of FamilyMart on the global scene, the way Takeshi and Tony use the convenience store in this movie made me think of the way we use FamilyMart these days—or rather, what FamilyMart provides for us in services that we didn’t even know we needed.

Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character looking for his canned pineapples in a screencap from Chungking Express

The use of the convenience store in Chungking Express to facilitate desire made me think about FamilyMart as a place that provides for everything, and about what kind of significance convenience stores may hold for our future. The transformation of the convenience store into more than an in-between, but into a destination in itself: starting with a café (many FamilyMarts already have a small sitting area where people can enjoy their hot meals), and then what—a restaurant, supermarket, mall? Many other supermarkets, such as Giant and AEON, have already expanded into becoming full-fledged neighbourhood malls, while the upscale Ben’s grocery store has even commanded a whole street of Ben’s-owned restaurants and stores out on Jalan Batai*.

In-between places can’t really exist in a capitalist economy, because many businesses endeavour to expand outward, provide more services and thus become more profitable. FamilyMart isn’t an in-between place, because we’re allowed and given reasons to spend more time there than is expected for a convenience store. Convenience stores lay the foundations for our lives, because we need convenience more than we need variety: we need an all-in-one place where we can rest, nourish ourselves, pay our bills, withdraw money and settle everything that is extraneous to our working lives. (Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that food, drink and rest become as incidental to our lives as topping up our phone.) And as FamilyMart grows to fulfil extraneous practical needs, I wonder how much it will grow to fulfil other needs as well.

Needs such as Takeshi’s need to find canned pineapples that expire on a certain date so that he can move on from his ex, needs such as Tony’s need of a grill where he can dry a rain-sodden letter from Faye Wong. I’m wondering about how much the convenience store can really provide for us. I’m wondering if there will come a time when all of our lives can be settled at a FamilyMart.


Because of how much the convenience store provides for us, I’ve personally always thought of it also as a site of desperation. Yes, you go to the convenience store when you’re in a rush or need a quick fix, but you also go there when you’re down on cash, or because something else is preventing you from doing something that’s good for you. I’ve visited the convenience store when I felt too useless to go to the grocery store, and I’ve visited the convenience store when I’ve been too anxious to go out to a normal place and eat a normal, cooked meal.

As I’ve said, the convenience store offers a safe haven where you can indulge in the same anonymity, ease and ugliness as you would in your own home. At the convenience store, you forget to leave all the emotional baggage at the door because you’re allowed to bring it in, a “service” you may not easily find anywhere else.

Underneath all of its plans for future services to expand into, perhaps what FamilyMart is truly striving to provide is the veneer of a home outside the home. On every corner, a convenience store that provides for the entire hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, including self-actualisation. And then, just as Japan’s innovations in improving standards of living are all ultimately in the service of increasing productivity, back to work and “the real world”.


(I’m thinking, also, about that one evening we’d fought, and decided to make our separate ways back, and I’d stumbled upon you again smoking a cigarette and checking your phone outside a FamilyMart. Is this one of the services it offers as well? Everyone, at some point, will need to go to a convenience store, and they will need the convenience store more often than anywhere else. Maybe if one waits long enough at a FamilyMart, the loved one will eventually return, if just to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Chungking Express, Tony Leung re-discovers his stewardess ex-girlfriend again in the convenience store, pulling a drink out of the chilled section.)

Tony Leung’s character waiting for his letter to dry in a screencap from Chungking Express.

*It is telling that an “upscale” grocery like Ben’s expanded into Jalan Batai. A mark of luxury is variety, because there is nothing more luxurious than having the time, energy and money to go out of your way to get what you want. However, even the relatively luxurious families seem to prefer convenience over variety, and so Jalan Batai…

Field notes #2: Dolly Dim Sum (multiple locations)

2018-07-26 22:39:08.635

OK, so I’ll let you in on a secret: if we’re friends, especially new friends, I’ve probably brought you to Dolly Dim Sum at some point.

This dim sum restaurant chain provides, for me, the perfect answer to the most basic, foundational question of urban life, i.e. “What do you want to eat?”* When you grow up on a steady diet of malls upon malls upon malls, it gets tiring trying to figure out what to eat after a while because you get so inundated with all the choices. Do you: want to go somewhere that’s known to be a crowd-pleaser, where you can just get over the perfunctory need to satiate a hunger, such as a mamak or a food court or even a McDonald’s? Or maybe you want to keep things interesting, in which case maybe you try out one of the other generic non- or otherwise slightly-pricier-chain restaurants around. And if you’re trying to impress because you’re a gastronome, then maybe you try somewhere else that’s not a mall.

I usually bring people to Dolly Dim Sum if it’s an Occasion, like we haven’t seen each other in a while, or if it’s one of our first times hanging out. It’s nice and expensive enough to make lunch or dinner feel special rather than just the satiation of a basic need, but also casual enough not to put the situation on edge, unlike various other upscale dim sum, or generally Chinese, restaurants*. It also provides an excuse to just stay in the same spot for an extended amount of time without having to figure out what to do after eating, because the food just keeps piling on and on, because that’s how you eat dim sum. And best of all, it’s accessible for KL kids, with branches in Nu Sentral, Pavilion and Avenue K. No, actually, best of all, it’s fucking good. 

There’s just something about dim sum that I think is impossible to fuck up. Sure, you can have cheap, tasteless dim sum, but the only truly bad dim sum is, I think, cold dim sum. There’s just something so homely to me, and so easy to love, about anything that’s been steamed. And dim sum is lovely as comfort food, because of its warmth and oiliness and chewiness. The way you bite in and you get a mouth full of that warm, familiar flavour that you’ve been raised on ever since you were a child.* How every dim sum is wrapped up, but when you bite in it all just melts into. I love it all. The steam fogging up glasses. The bamboo nest. The perfect, inimitable texture of a bao.

I come back often, and I’m always excited to bring people there who’ve never been. There’s probably nothing particularly amazing about the way they make dim sum, and most other Chinese Malaysians are probably used to the kopitiam style of dim sum, but. And maybe there’s something to be said about a dim sum place that follows mall hours when dim sum is normally only eaten for breakfast, but. Up on the wall, there is a list of the various dim sum they serve, but all in English.* Maybe there’s something about the higher prices they charge, but. Maybe there’s something about the inauthenticity of the dim sum experience, but. But, this isn’t China, is all I have to say. I remain excited to bring my friends to Dolly Dim Sum to share an experience with them, even if it’s not the “authentic” (?) dim sum experience. And I remain convinced that it’s one of the better answers out there to the “what is to be done [in this mall]?” question, if you’ve been put in the situation where it has to be asked anyway.

When I think about Dolly Dim Sum, I think not so much about the food, but more about the fact that every time I’ve been there I’ve been happy. (A fact that is probably enabled by the deliciousness of the food, even though I don’t think of it. Good food brings people together, because it enhances the quality of life in the moment of eating, even if the food itself is unremarked upon. I don’t have studies or facts to back this up; I’m just happy.) Dim sum, I feel, offers a utopic vision of eating, because of how it induces the eaters to share. Rather than each person ordering their own meal, and maybe sharing a starter, and maybe trying bites from each other’s plates, dim sum is several small dishes that are supposed to be shared among all the people eating. The nature of Dolly Dim Sum also encourages more chairs at the table, because more mouths eating = more of different types of dishes you can order. On the few occasions that I’ve been to Dolly with only one other person, we found it impossible to finish everything in front of us, but also impossible to order a lesser assortment of dishes.

Everyone has their secret arsenal of Dolly Dim Sum’s, a.k.a places to take a date, or places to make conversation easier, or places to buy dinner for a friend you haven’t seen in a while, but what I find so funny is that we think these places are guaranteed crowd-pleasers when maybe it’s really just us wanting to return. I enjoy bringing people to Dolly Dim Sum, but I can’t necessarily say that it’s had the same impact on them as it’s had on me. It started because an ex-colleague recommended it to me and a close friend; then I suggested it as a dinner spot to another friend because it was still a novelty to me and I knew we had a shared love of dim sum; and then it was a place that I suggested for dinner because I couldn’t figure out where else to go. Twice, it’s been the destination for a farewell dinner–first for me, and then again for an ex-colleague. But it’s because I always know there’s going to be that guaranteed pleasure of sharing warm food.

“What do you want to do?” in this city saturated with malls. I’ll do what I always do: return to the places where I was happy, and eat the food I’ve always loved since I was a child, and eat also like a child, because I’ve never found a graceful way to eat dim sum. And then I’ll bring you too.


[This post isn’t affiliated with or sponsored by Dolly Dim Sum in any way. Also don’t come to me if I made you try DDS and you ended up not liking it: I’m mostly writing about myself here.]


*Replace “eat?” with “do?” as appropriate.

*Nb. use of the words “various other” and “generally”. I’m mainly thinking of the dim sum/Chinese restaurants where there’s a white tablecloth and the waiters wear suits, but of course I know about the red-cloth Chinese restaurants that are just as good as–if not better than–their white-cloth counterparts. Another post another time.

*When we were younger, my brother loved eating egg tarts. He couldn’t stop eating them. My brother and I don’t talk too much anymore, it’s just how life goes, but maybe when I order egg tarts it’s not so much because I love it (and I don’t, it’s always been my brother’s staple), but because he did. I guess it’s a way to pay a secret homage to our shared childhood, a way of saying, even if just to myself, I remember this about you. I could never forget.

*As an aside, do you want to know something I find so exciting about Malaysia? It’s that when a dim sum place translates Chinese food names into English for their menu, I wouldn’t consider it a bastardization. It’s that I don’t even think a single Chinese person works at the Nu Sentral branch, and I have no problem with that. It’s that the translation into English shares the loveliness of dim sum, makes it understood and accessible to other races in Malaysia. And it’s not complicated, and it’s not cultural appropriation, and it’s not whatever wagamama tries to do with Japanese food, and it’s really easy and cool and I love us.

2018-07-23 01:28:03.647

Field notes #1: Telawi Street, Bangsar

It’s July, the start of the hot summer months, except it’s always summer here. Well, it’s the start of something anyway, and I can’t tell yet if it’s benevolent or not. I’ve never had any real touchstones for what a good thing is, everything seems to get mixed up.

Right now while writing this I’m back in Bangsar, the area in KL where I used to work for almost a year. It’s strange to be back and to remember past surroundings. Because this whole area used to be my life, now I can’t go back there without feeling a kind of infinite weariness, like I’m always wanting to leave it as soon as possible. Next to me two men in business wear, a Malay man and a white foreigner, presumably on their lunch break, are both smoking a fat cigar each. It’s only one in the afternoon. Across the street there’s the man who sells the colourful woven baskets, as there always is.

Something that I’d somehow forgotten about the Bangsar area is how many mixed-race children and families there are. Seeing a number today, I realized that that’s always been a defining feature of Bangsar for me. The scent of the two guys’ cigars is very strong; I’ve never smoked one myself before. They’re talking about various Arab countries they’ve been to. Being in Bangsar is like being in some self-contained alternate dimension where somehow the ratio of white people to locals is differentiated by a gap so small you wouldn’t have thought it possible if you’ve ever been anywhere else in Malaysia. Where do all these white families come from, and do they actually live here? And what do they do all the time in this same area?

I’m trying to figure out what it would be like to have a nice, white family by the way Bangsar is built and what it provides. Rows of bars. Rows of upscale Western food eateries, some of them also bars. Four Western restaurants in a row across from me have a similar aesthetic: The X, BAIT, elmesòn, and The Social. All of them seem to have dark interiors with exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling for lighting. Their signs are sleek, minimalist, in a serif font. They proclaim an abstract name that points, ultimately, I guess, to nothing. It’s not like Nirvana’s Banana Leaf or Raj’s Banana Leaf a few stores down. Nor is it like Devi’s down the road, whose full name even on the signage is “Restoran Devi’s”. There’s a trend now among new start-ups to name themselves in the abstract, rather than describe itself directly. Which is why a new cafe may be called something like “VCR” (a block over), but probably not “[Owner’s name]’s Kopitiam”. I guess I don’t feel any which way about it–people can name their businesses anything they want–but there’s always going to be something about the it-is-what-it-says-on-the-label-now-what-do-you-want-to-order-ness of Malaysian signage that I am thankful to still be living to experience before the abstract words that point to nothing eventually engulf it all.

Let’s go back to Nirvana’s. Its aesthetic (or lack thereof, which can also, among a rising monolithic Western influence, become an aesthetic; some of the clothes sold by Malaysian streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar at the end of Telawi can attest to that) is distinctly different from the rows of bars/restaurants directly opposite me. It has a faded pink sign in a curly italic font, tungsten lights and decals of Hindu gods/goddesses on the white tile walls. A small peeling sign says “no alcohol allowed”, another one says “no outside food and drinks allowed”, and someone has scratched in a superfluous “is” between “drinks” and “allowed”. Around the corner there’s Raj’s Banana Leaf, which has been closed ever since someone posted a video online of its workers washing the dishes in dirty water. Raj’s is a chain. I’m trying to imagine if Malaysia had taken over the world, and instead of a McDonald’s, every major city had chains for tandoori chicken and people ate off big leaves with their hands.

Another aspect of Bangsar that you can’t not talk about when you’re talking about Bangsar is its nightlife. Like I said, rows and rows of bars. You can have your pick between the massive Gridiron sports bar, or one of the more upscale ones I mentioned above, or any other one of a dozen more. Shelly Yu’s, on the same road as The X, bait, etc., serves Malaysian-, particularly Nyonya-inspired cocktails, mixing their liquor with various staples of a Malaysian upbringing like pandan, gula melaka and even pei pa koa… one item on their menu comes with a “whole egg”. If you’re looking to dance, you’re probably looking for SIX, a tiny nightclub in the middle of Telawi that markets itself solely on Drake imagery. It’s recognisable by its neon logo of the Drake praying hands. You already know the ones. Six’s popularity seems like a hyperbolic testament to the fact that in Kuala Lumpur youth culture, the end game is a sublimation with Westernness. Clubs, like raves, are a strange liminal area where you’re invited to lose yourself, where all the strict, conservative rules that define Malaysia during the daytime get suspended for a few hours at night. And I wouldn’t want to intrude on someone else’s fun, but I have to point out the correlation suggested by Six that to “lose one’s self” in Malaysia—or the ultimate goal of freedom from a long week of work/school—is synonymous with being in a Drake-inspired club playing trap songs where the majority of the lyrics are about cool watches or expensive cars or cheating on your girlfriend. Of course I have fun, but I don’t know what this means or where it’s going.

I  guess it’s kinda sad to me that to talk about Kuala Lumpur is necessarily to talk about a heavy Western, particularly American (OK, Drake is Canadian, etc.), presence. I’d like to describe the city using words and place names that wouldn’t be understood by someone who’d like to exploit our market. However, maybe we’re not without hope. Bangsar has all the trappings of an upscale neighbourhood without necessarily being “nice”. How to ignore the litter on the streets, the massive cockroaches running across storefronts, the overspilling rubbish bins and the occasional roadkill. If you wanted “nice”, i.e. clean, you’d go to a mall, and yet Bangsar’s appeal, despite the two malls, still remains, I believe, out on Telawi Street. Graffiti over metal shutters when the stores are closed. The pasar that runs every Sunday evening is still an event. The mall is where the grocery store and two Thai Odysseys are, but the streets are where people go to see and be seen, which is funny because they’re so ugly.

Maybe there’s just not really any way to be “nice” in Malaysia. The perpetual summer weather and, I guess, the total inability to give a shit that I think every Malaysian, including myself, was born with, just shoots that dream in the foot. I don’t think I’ve ever looked “nice” in this country, because I’m always mildly sweating and the humidity makes my hair frizz. One time, while on a first date, he took me to a fancy steakhouse at the end of Telawi Street and then we just sat on the dirty steps of a bank opposite smoking. I can’t tell whether me saying all this is putting you off or not, but understand that when I talk about dirty water and roadkill and cigarette butts I’m unironically talking about it all with the most love I’ve ever felt for anything.

There’s something about the way Malaysia always seems to undermine its own attempts to be something it isn’t. Something about how we can never give ourselves fully to an identity other than what we grew up with, how rather than growing up alienated from our Malaysianness and affecting to be Western, it’s more a kind of swallowing of these other cultures into our own, and building a contradictory identity out of that. I’m interested in how people grow up in a multicultural society, how they absorb foreign identities and turn it, somehow, into a bigger collective identity. Another similar city that comes to mind is the city of London, where the music, fashion, food and language that make the London identity so distinct is a result of the various immigrant families who live there. Yet it’s not necessarily an “immigrant”, i.e. “outsider” identity per se: the outside reaches in and indelibly shapes the core, so that it creates what London is, no matter how much any white Londoner may deny it.

Perhaps I’d like to think that, in our own way, Kuala Lumpur is the same. That Bangsar is the same. That, rather than the decay of a national identity, it is a testament, rather, of the perseverance of a national identity. How we take the culture that is exported to us and in turn bastardise it, because we just can’t fucking help ourselves. Someone has the idea of setting up an upscale bar & eatery, where they serve mushroom soup for almost RM20, but they won’t be able to set it up anywhere else except on a dirty street where rats scamper after dark if they want to get any business at all. I guess I’d like to think that we are practising our own appropriation of Western culture, but that we’ll always forget to clean under our fingernails. The reverse, of Western culture eroding our own, is a bit sad to think of. I guess.

The two men next to me smoke their cigars. But it’s a Coffee Bean. This is a coffee chain. We’re in a Coffee Bean and, presumably, they’re on their lunch break. They may smoke them, on their lunch break, and talk about the various Arab countries they’ve visited, but I’ll never ever think that the sheer ridiculousness of the scene—a cigar, on your lunch break, in a coffee chain, outdoors in 30°C—is anything except Malaysian.