The essay Sayang

Winner of the 2007 Sun Festival award for travel writing.


He was an unctuous, rat-faced little man with furry teeth and shifty eyes, and I took to him immediately.

“You wanna buy copy watch?” he said, glancing furtively over his shoulder for the police or the other street hustler whose patch he was working.

“No, I don’t wanna buy copy watch. Bugger off.”

“Perfume for the missus? Very cheap.”

“Yes, I know she is. But no, thank you.”

“I find missy for you?”

“Certainly not! I snapped with a haughtiness of manner that probably didn’t help. “I’m a good boy.”

“Ahhh,” he replied with a salacious wink and a conspiratorial tap of his nose, “you want boy?

And so it went on until he had exhausted every one of his products and services, and most of my patience.

The street hustler: one of the many faces of Asia.

When colonial Britons disembarked at Asia from their Peninsula and Oriental steamers, dapper in linen suits and panama hats, their mems resplendent in fines and plumes and long white gloves, they were struck, so it has oft been reported, by the smell. “The peaty, fruity reek of Asia” they called it. A rather pithy description from ones so flamboyant. Had they arrived today, in the verbose twenty-first century, they might have been inspired to complete the stanza “With a whiff of night-blooming jasmine, a trace of pungent spices, a hint of sambal belachan and a miasma of iffy drains”. Asia has a smell, and always has had a smell, as evocative as the perfume of a past love.

The myriad smells: one of the many faces of Asia.

When I arrived from my cold, grey northern European country about a hundred years after those in fines and plumes and long white gloves, I wasn’t so much struck by the smell of Asia as by its colour. It was sight after blindness; the Technicolor feature after the monochrome trailer. Under a sky as blue as Delft china, nature’s hand was manifest in a way I never thought possible, every gradation of green to the nebulous horizon splashed with showy flame-of-the-forest, cascading bougainvillea, exquisite orchids and pale clematis. Man hadn’t done a bad job either, the concrete-grey streets a tumult of striking sarongs and saris, snow-white turbans and dhotis, subtle batiks and vivid silks.

A prism of colours: one of the many faces of Asia.

In common with most of my fellow countrymen, I was born with a largely philistine palette, and after a lifetime of boiled cabbage and suet pudding, my first Asian dining experience sent my taste buds into spasm. Never have so many flavours been harnessed for the pleasure of so many tummies, and at so modest an outlay. Every vegetable, every fruit, every herb and, it must be said, and I’m sorry if I upset anyone affiliated to an animal protection society, every creature, is imaginatively prepared for the table, whether that table be in the home or in a restaurant or coffee shop.

The infinite variation of flavours, from the piquant to the protected: one of the many faces of Asia.

During the hours of daylight, Asia is a cacophony of clattering food stalls, wailing religious callings, hawkers hawking their wares (and their phlegm) and whining two-stroke motorcycle engines at maximum torque. But come the witching hour, the commotion retreats, as an animal to its lair, leaving in its swirling wake only the hushed and soporific: a glorious sedative no scientist could invent and no alchemist could concoct. In the still of the night, Asia is a chorale of rattling crickets, grunting bullfrogs, trumpeting trumpet beetles and clacking mah-jong tiles being washed for the next game.

A musical score of sounds; fortissimo to piano: one of the many faces of Asia.
Marco Polo, when he first came upon Asia back in the thirteenth century, described it as “a world almost totally unknown to western Christendom: a place of legendary kingdoms, weird creatures, exotic peoples and fabled riches”. Legendary kingdoms and fabled riches I have yet to stumble upon, but exotic peoples and weird creatures I can concur, especially weird creatures--you should have seen the guy who tried to sell me that copy watch!

Exotic peoples and weird creatures: one of the many faces of Asia.

Asia: a continent of clichés, contrasts and contradictions; a continent that is both a balm and a stimulant to the senses; a continent possessed of Oriental charm and tropical deliciousness; a continent that when I first arrived took my breath away (and I still haven’t got it back); a continent that for the past thirteen years has been the place that I call Home.

Sample chapter extracts from the upcoming novel A Siren Land by Graham McEune

The white-painted bungalow with blue shutters would not look out of place in the hills that overlook Cannes or Nice, nor would its neat vegetable garden, tended lawn and pruned rose bushes look out of place in the heart of rural England. Yet this bungalow, at the end of a crushed oyster shell driveway and surrounded on three sides by tropical jungle, is on the outskirts of Tanah Rata, the principal town of the Cameron Highlands, a part of the extensive mountain range that runs, like a backbone, through the centre of Peninsular Malaysia.

Beneath the bungalow’s ivy-covered portico, a guano-covered Mercedes 200 is parked askew. Built in 1965 it is now more than twenty years old, and looks it: its once immaculate coachwork a study in rust and dints and scars—evidence of an accident-prone life, an uncaring owner, or both.

Inside the bungalow, the rooms are decorated in the style of an English seaside guesthouse. Faded prints of hunting scenes hang aslant from mottled walls; a Bakelite lampshade swings at the end of a length of braided flex; and a pair of tarnished silver candlesticks sit either end of a hardwood mantelpiece, below which the remains of a recent fire smoulder in the hearth. It is quiet. There are no clocks ticking, no refrigerator humming and no radio playing. The only sound—and it is as small as it is incongruous—comes from the five-inch velvet-black wings of a Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing as they beat against the inside of the blue-shuttered window searching for a way out.

The Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing, a butterfly, as its name suggests, with wings of bird-like proportions, is as prized by lepidopterists as the Penny Black is prized by philatelists, and this one is a highly collectable example. Young and perfectly formed, its metallic-green markings, iridescent against the velvet-black, glint spectacularly in the fingers of sunlight that stream through the jalousies.

In the corner of a bedroom, a thin-limbed Chinese man, with a head and stomach disproportionate to the rest of him, hauls himself from a dishevelled bed and looks towards the sound that has woken him from his afternoon nap. Casting off the shrouds of sleep, he fingers the last long filaments of hair he will ever own into an ingenious general effect over his broad cranium, hitches up his voluminous cotton drawers, and with a crabby listlessness drags himself across the floorboarded room towards the blue-shuttered window. As he walks, so his huge stomach slops from side to side like a giant blancmange being brought to the table by a lame chef. He has fuelled it for years on rich food and beer in the misguided belief that it makes him appear prosperous. He is neither a young man nor a handsome man, so to appear prosperous is important to him: it was his reason for buying the old Mercedes. Although no more than eight paces to the window, he is breathing heavily by the time he arrives, and almost asthmatically by the time he has pursued, trapped and scooped up the butterfly in his bony and calloused hands.

After a moment to regulate his heart beat, he returns to the side of the bed, and with an affected smile that reveals a snaggle of brown and broken teeth, he compresses his hands into a facsimile of a Siamese greeting: slowly, millimetre by callous millimetre until all traces of life have been extinguished. Justice served, he peels his hands apart, and the Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing rocks and falls like an autumn leaf on a breathless day, before setting down on the bare stomach of the girl lying on the bed.

The girl is slim, almost to the point of being thin, and her skin is smooth and taut and flawless. Her long brown hair fans out on the pillow and frames her face; it is a fresh and pretty face. And her eyes, like teardrops stretching templeward and darkly mysterious, on any other day might be described as hypnotic. But not this day. This day, if you were to describe them, you would use the words “sad” or “vacant” or, more accurately, for you would be nearer the mark, “scared”. When she had arrived at the bungalow the previous evening, she was a picture of sweetness and youth. She was healthy and attractive. She was innocent and naïve. And she was fourteen years old.

It was the last Friday of an unusually warm August and Oxford looked wonderful: the aged colleges burnished golden by the morning sun, the street musicians playing Vivaldi for loose change, the learned, the journeymen, the lovers, the malcontents.
Limping my way through a leafy St Giles with the remnants of the previous night’s alcohol inundation, I failed to appreciate the beauty of it all, failed, in my addled state, to appreciate the beauty of life in general.

I was on an assignment for the paper—although “assignment” is perhaps too grand a word for a snippet of gossip that would need a worldwide news famine to stand any chance of advancing much above a single column paragraph at the foot of page six. But I tried not to dwell on it. It was my job. It kept me out of the office, enabled me to grab a quick one whenever I felt like it (which was quite often), and offered that all-important sense of feeling wanted. I was sweating because of the heat, limping because of an accident with a barstool, and hungry because in my forgetful state I had left my wallet in my other trousers. So when I bumped into Helen—appropriately across from the Martyrs’ Memorial—all pink and scrubbed and light of foot, what I saw was an angel from heaven: someone sent by the gods to deliver me from the Lamb and Flag. And she didn’t disappoint. She gave me money, said motherly things about my limp, and showed her full range of expressions, from grave concern to abject horror, as I maundered above the traffic noise about what a miserable morning I was having, and that if one more thing should go wrong I would hurl myself off the kerb into the path of the next scurrying pedestrian, and she had better not try to stop me.

Helen was my colleague, and as we worked together, ate together, drank together and slept together, I suppose you could also call her my girlfriend. We had been seeing each other for almost two years, and got along remarkably well considering our vastly different backgrounds. What tied us together, other than the odd moments of drunken, carnal frenzy, were a shared mordant sense of humour and sharp tongue. Our favourite pastimes (other than the drunken, carnal frenzy bit) were putting each other down, preferably in public, and ridiculing anything the other said that was intended to make us appear sophisticated or erudite.

As my maunder gravitated towards a diatribe, Helen backed away, inch by subtle inch, until the distance between us was one that a bucolic plague carrier would have considered excessive.
“Don’t do that,” she soothed, as I waved my arms about like a guest nightclub singer who doesn’t know when to stop.

“Do what?”

“Wave your arms about like a guest nightclub singer who doesn’t know when to stop.”

“Why not?”

She answered by extracting a perfumed Kleenex from her frilly sleeve and holding it to her nose.

“Oh, come on, I don’t smell that bad . . . do I?”

“Not if you’re a skunk, no.”

A sightseeing bus revved its engine and heaved away from the kerb, belching a cloud of blue toxic waste in our direction. I coughed like an old coal miner and slapped myself as though my suit had spontaneously combusted. Incredibly, though threatening to poison me and everyone else on the pavement, it completely missed Helen.

“I was thinking of going up to Boar’s Hill later,” Helen said, “to the Old Vicarage for tea with Aunt Hilda. You want to come along?”

“Aunt Hilda? Nah.”

“I think you ought. It might help you unwind.”

Dear Helen didn’t need to raise her voice to be heard above the traffic noise; her educated, haughty, jolly-hockey-sticks accent cut right through it.

Out of a sense of familial duty and a free lunch, Helen met with Aunt Hilda once a week at Oxford’s neo-Gothic Randolph Hotel. In the two years I had known Helen I had never been invited, until today. But I wasn’t to let it go to my head: I was there for moral support, not to be the guest of honour, as was patently clear when Aunt Hilda arrived, chauffeur driven by Tom in the Daimler, and totally ignored me. But it was water off a duck’s back. I can take any amount of being ignored if the person doing the ignoring is standing me lunch.

The Randolph suited Aunt Hilda. It was from her era. Bejewelled and tiara’d, ermined and brocaded, and with a feathered boa slung over her shoulder, she was born to the sumptuous surroundings: the fripperies that anywhere else would have looked ridiculous seeming in perfect unity with the surroundings. She had had her hair resprayed sunburst-orange and styled into kiss curls, which instead of hanging over her brow all coyly and childlike, which I believe is the point, stood erect in little tufts, like rows of carrots. Her eyes were so heavily made up she had trouble keeping them open, her lipstick looked as though it had been applied by a chimpanzee and her rouge by some mechanical buffing device. And as for the lavender water, she must have taken a bath in the stuff.

The maître d’ piloted us between the tables of the opulent Spires Restaurant, a cornucopia of chandeliers, oil paintings and college crests, and sequestered us in a distant corner, far away from the other diners. I wondered why.

With solemnity, the comestibles were ordered, without consulting me, and three bottles of the hotel’s best Chablis delivered, with ceremony, to our table. Aunt Hilda clapped her hands gleefully as she prepared to taste it, and it was a treat that exceeded my expectations for the whole afternoon, a comedy of manners better than anything that was going on at the Playhouse next door.

The sommelier, a linear gentleman of great age, with iron-grey hair and a Charles de Gaulle nose the colour of beetroot, poured a driblet of wine into Aunt Hilda’s glass for her appraisal. Aunt Hilda looked into the glass as though she was looking into a microscope, tut-tutted, sneered up at the wretched fellow as if he had poured cold tea, and gave a sign for him to add more, which, as he valued his job, he dutifully did. As he poured, he kept one eye on what he was doing and the other on Aunt Hilda, waiting for another sign to tell him when to stop. The glass was on the brink of overflowing before she said “When.”

Aunt Hilda, her hand as steady as an assassin’s, lifted the glass to her lips without spilling a drop, and with one frightening gulp drained the glass dry. A refill of equal measure was demanded, and although this too disappeared from the glass with the same pragmatic swiftness, she didn’t swallow it, but instead swirled it around her mouth like a cheap mouthwash. She forced it back and forth between her teeth as though trying to dislodge a piece of spinach, she rocked her head from side to side, she blew out her cheeks, she gargled, she dribbled, she grunted, she moaned, she cooed, and finally, with a drain-like gurgle, she swallowed. I let out a noise that started as a giggle and finished as a kind of snorting guffaw. Helen and the sommelier remained dignified and impassive. I liked that. She put the glass down, smacked her lips, touched the sommelier’s arm, nodded her approval, gave him her spider’s web smile and flashed her yellow teeth. He clicked his heels and filled everyone’s glass to the brim, then retreated obediently.

During the meal, Helen unfolded her story, and it was pure theatre. Never before had I heard such opacity sold with such clarity: a few snippets of information and Helen had rewritten Anna Karenina, each statement uttered as if it were an incontrovertible truth. Aunt Hilda made a far better audience than I did. She didn’t interrupt once, just ate her food, drank her wine and belched. So believable was Helen’s story that it completely fooled Aunt Hilda, for by the end of it she had convinced herself that not only was he still alive, but that he was down on his luck and out of money, and therefore unable to return to England to spend his final years with her.

“I know what we’ll do,” Aunt Hilda announced, as a regurgitated morsel of food disappeared down her gullet. “We’ll go out there and find him and bring him back.”

We?” Helen said, in a tone that would also have said, had she finished the sentence: Oh, my God, what have I done now? She looked across at me for help, for the moral support I was brought along for. I pretended I hadn’t heard anything by looking idly up at one of the college crests. Balliol, I think it was.

“Yes, you’re right, my dear. When I say ‘we’, what I really mean is ‘you’. I’m too old to go all that way, and besides, I never did like the place. Too bally hot, no proper food, no decent wine.” And at the mention of the word she held up her glass in salutation. “Cheers,” she said, quaffing the contents and smacking her lips appreciatively.

Helen looked across at me again. I brushed some imaginary lint from my jacket, emptied my glass with a loud gulp and smacked my lips, just as Aunt Hilda had done. I was enjoying every minute of this.

“Auntie, I can’t go all that way on what is, let’s face it, just a whim.” There was a note of panic in Helen’s voice that I hadn’t heard before.

Aunt Hilda gazed into her lap and her eyes misted over, and there was a long, sorrowful pause before she spoke again.

“I’m sorry, my dear. You must think I have taken leave of my senses. I’m just a stupid old woman. Please forgive me.” She spoke languidly and I thought she was going to cry. “But he is still my husband.” She gave a wan smile to no one in particular and her voice was barely audible. Helen bit her bottom lip. This was wonderful stuff. I was aching to find out what was going to happen next.

Suddenly, as though having taken a shot of phenol to the heart, Aunt Hilda sprang back to life, so startling Helen that she dropped her wine glass, which luckily was empty, for it was a great wine, I had decided, as I decanted another generous helping for myself.

“That young man of yours,” Aunt Hilda said, her voice full of conviction again. “The one with the lovely name. He doesn’t look like he’s very busy. Looks a bit of a layabout, if you don’t mind my saying. He could go.”

I nodded slowly, warmed from the wine. Get out of that one, Helen, I thought, before realising she was talking about me.

“Auntie, he’s a journalist, the same as I am.” Only not anything like as good, she would have thought. “Neither of us can drop everything and go swanning around the world just like that!” Helen snapped her fingers but there came no sound. She must have been sweating.

“I thought that’s what journalists did: swanned around the world just like that!” Aunt Hilda snapped her fingers with a clean, dry “clack” and three waiters appeared as though out of thin air. She shooed them away. “I’ll pay for everything. He must have some holiday due. Tell him it’s a holiday and that I’m paying for it, and in return he does me this little favour.”

“No, Auntie, I’m sorry. He’s not free.”

I couldn’t believe it. They were continuing their conversation, which now centred wholly around me, as if I wasn’t even there. I caught Helen’s eye and pinched myself on the cheek, but she paid me no attention. She probably thought I was testing to see how numb I was from the Chablis.

“Well,” Aunt Hilda said, reverting to the languid tone that had worked for her earlier, “promise me you’ll at least give some thought to what I’ve said. A little hope is all I ask for at my age.”

Helen nodded, though not very convincingly.

Three hours and three bottles of Chablis after arriving at the Randolph we left it, amid much bowing and scraping by the maître d’, the sommelier, the commissionaire, the concierge and the general manager. Aunt Hilda made her ceremonious exit by shaking everyone by the hand and slipping wads of fivers into respective pockets. I insinuated myself into the queue and held open my trouser pocket expectantly, but Helen, ever the spoilsport, plucked me out by the ear, thanked me for all my help and told me to sod off, then, Helen being Helen, said she would call round later.

Arriving in the tropics for the first time, especially when leaving a British winter behind, can be something of a shock to the system. As I walked the short distance from the air-conditioned terminal building to the taxi rank, I knew at once that I had brought too many warm clothes with me. Still, it would probably turn cold later, I told myself. It didn’t. I thought I used to sweat during the dog days of an Oxford summer, but that was a mere toe-dip compared to the full body emersion I experienced as I waited the few minutes for my taxi.

It was about an hour’s drive from the airport to Puduraya, downtown Kuala Lumpur, and a little before ten in the evening when I arrived. Having no desire to tramp the torrid streets looking for a YMCA just to keep Helen happy, I was relieved to see the sign for the Puduraya Hotel, bright yellow against the black sky, right next door to the taxi stop. I haggled like a local to secure a good room rate—yet probably still paid twice what a local would have expected to pay—was offered a girl for the night, tactfully refused, took a cold shower, turned up the air-conditioning, helped myself to a beer from the mini bar, watched “Mr Bean” on TV and was comatose by two-thirty.

I slept like a convalescent, dreaming of the girl I had turned down, and awoke at seven. (This jet lag was a piece of cake.) After another cold shower, I put on my Marks & Spencer’s boy scout shorts that Helen had bought for me as a going-away present, and took my chicken drumstick legs into the streets to acquaint them with an equatorial sun.

The first thing that struck me as I stepped into the blinding morning light—so blinding it sent a pain fizzing through my brain—was the number of people about so early. The second thing that struck me was the noise they all made, a situation not improved by the city’s million or so motorcyclists, all of whom seemed to be up and about at the same early hour.

(In Southeast Asia, motorcyclists drive to the law of the street, and that, I soon discovered—and pedestrians had better beware—bears not the slightest resemblance to the law of the road.)

After wandering around like a little Oxford boy lost, of stoically ignoring the wolf-whistles my legs were attracting and of adroitly sidestepping the many motorcyclists who had mistaken the pavement for the road, I came upon a coffee shop with a spare seat, so I grabbed it. With no menu, waiter, self-service counter or utterance by me, a doughy pancake with spicy dhal and a glass of sweet tea appeared before me, as if they knew that that was what I wanted, or, more likely, that that was all they sold. It wasn’t the table d’hôte of most capital city centre eateries, and I didn’t have any problem with that, nor did I have any problem with the reckoning, which equated to a packet of salted peanuts at the Lamb and Flag.

After breakfast, I continued my reconnoitre, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells as easily as my clothes absorbed my sweat—which was torrential. It was midday by the time I found my way back to the hotel. I threw myself on the bed, steam rising from my body like something being boiled in a saucepan, and gathered my thoughts and impressions. “Bloody hell,” I said. Then I thought of Helen, and Aunt Hilda, and Reg, and the Paper, and Los Paraguayos and rolled onto my back and thrashed my arms and legs in the air like a dying cockroach and giggled hysterically like a madman who had tricked his way out of the asylum (a simile I found rather fitting).

After a short snooze to fine-tune my body clock, I took my third cold shower in twelve hours, decided it best to cover my legs from an unsuspecting Malaysian public until they had some colour in them, re-packed my bag and set off in search of the railway station for the final leg of my journey.

Probably because it’s only the good, sober and hardworking who die young, I made it to the railway station unscathed in about forty-five minutes. And what a forty-five minutes, and what a railway station. Had I been told it was the state mosque, I wouldn’t have questioned it. My train was due to leave at three, and so it did, on the dot. The station guard, immaculate in his off-white uniform with contrasting black epaulettes and brass buttons, trilled his whistle and switched his flag in a way befitting a custodian of one of the world’s great railway stations. The carriages jerked once, twice, then slid gracefully out of the sheltered station and into the silver afternoon sunshine.

Sample extract from Chapter One of the upcoming sequel to Upcountry.