Post Rimbun

The first outcomes of my Asia New Zealand Foundation residency at Rimbun Dahan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia will be on display in an upcoming group exhibition. East presents an opportunity to explore some early responses to the themes identified by my time in Kuala Lumpur. 

MALCOLM SMITH GALLERY

EAST

URBAN CONTEMPORARY ART FROM HERE AND ABROAD

27 August to 30 September

Opening Saturday 25 August, 2.30PM

Malcolm Smith Gallery is partnering with Aotearoa Urban Arts Trust (AUAT) to bring Hong Kong based Cath Love to Auckland this August.  Cath Love will join local artists Oscar Low and Elliot Francis Stewart in EAST, an exhibition that looks to build connections between Urban Contemporary artists within Asia Pacific and Aotearoa.

Half Time.

At a certain point, but one which I didn't register, things became quite easy here. And with that ease came a degree of comfort. And with that comfort has come what seems like a form of complacency. Its a sense of knowing what I need to know, while still knowing that I don't. 

I suppose it stems from overcoming the initial disorientation of a new place and new ways of doing things. Removal from the known and familiar to establishing a new familiar and a new known. Here at the halfway stage I'm having to look a bit harder, think a bit deeper and dig a bit deeper. The head-turning moments are diminishing. In the first weeks here so much was noteworthy, photo-worthy. My response to Place is becoming more nuanced and thats reassuring. With the spectacle of the 'new' fading, the more substantial stuff comes to the surface.

The benefit and value of time has become quite clear within the context of this residency. My practical inclinations deem 3 months to be more than enough time in which to produce work. When running, my practice is nothing if not prolific, habits borne out of spending a lot of time working within commercial art projects and a hangover of my time making street art where within a year I could produce thousands of pieces of work, not just make them but present them to a public audience as well. 

So being at Rimbun Dahan isn't about prolificacy of production. A studio in KL is much the same as a studio in AK if the focus is driven by production, just give me the tools and I will make it. My time here is about time itself. How time enables a level of personal understanding that informs the thinking and making of work. Work that in turn, reflects this understanding in the manifestation of an audience experience that ideally resonates in the place or manner intended. 

So the value of time within this residency isn't necessarily that it enables you to make work, but how it allows you to be still and to think. Its a lesson previously learnt the hard way and its curious that it isn't more prominently located in the subconscious given the impact. Some time ago my practice was based around an intensive ongoing collaborative relationship with a number of other artists. It was successful with a healthy balance of self determined projects funded enough commercial contract work to operate as full time professional artists. But we ran the well dry. In amongst juggling the numerous projects, running a commercial space and managing a business there was no time, no space to just sit. As a result there was no development, just the rehashing of the tried and true until we couldn't force ourselves to continue. So my time here is valuable, irrespective of output.  

The idea that time is wasted if there is no clear outcome is pervasive for me and one that I battle regularly. In part it stems from my previous experiences that demonstrate that prolificacy has worked for me before. But there is also a cultural instinct at play. Prior to this residency I would have (only somewhat) tongue-in-cheekily called it "my Chinese" kicking in. A term I have come across recently, baishou qijia (Malaysian/Singaporean version), refers to raising up a family or business with your bare hands, and it is one that I instinctually identify with. Along with keku nailao, which is about enduring hardship without complaint or working hard to overcome hardship, it captures a lot of my own sense of what it is to be Chinese. But of course this is heavily influence by my circumstance and upbringing, my fathers circumstance and upbringing, his parents circumstance and upbringing and so on and so forth.. 

After looking a bit closer at the nature of the experience of a relatively small group of a huge Chinese immigrant cohort across many years, I'm reluctant now to so readily assign certain behaviour to ethnic heritage. It just doesn't seem to fit, especially for a migratory people who have spent centuries developing distinct local versions of Chinese culture as the migrate further and further from "home". "Chinese culture" is a problematic term within the context of this residency (and beyond it to be sure). The classic Confucian dogma and Mao led ideology that characterises a popular image of Chinese values and beliefs is familiar but really has no presence in my family for a number of reasons. It isn't "being Chinese" that dictates my instinctual value of work ethic, financial independence, family or hor fun. Its a reflection of my upbringing and all it's contributing factors. Yes "being Chinese" can be a fun game to play and when with Chinese friends the familiarity with the hallmarks of "being Chinese" are comforting in that familiarity. However, its too reductive to ascribe behavioural traits to people based so heavily on nothing but their ethnic heritage. Even if loosely correct for a large swathe of that group, it discounts the individual and the richness, variety and value of their often counter-cultural experience or story. And its those personal stories that provide the ability for us to recognise the universal themes we all experience. They enable us to move beyond the unfamiliar and misunderstood, the spectacle of "culture". Through these stories we can identify, recognise and empathise and if a good story lies in the telling, then its just as well I have the time here to work on it. 

Post Script: I mentioned hor fun before which got me hungry and thinking of food. So here's a small sample of local makanan I've been into.

 

 

 

A month in residence.

 

Tomorrow I will have been in Malaysia for four weeks. In the lead up to arriving here at Rimbun Dahan I was unable to think too hard on what it meant to be undertaking this residency. I knew that it presented an opportunity to operate outside the normal pressures of life in Auckland, pressures responsible for that inability to think ahead to the residency in the first place. 

So I arrived, at 3am on a Monday, in Kuala Lumpur (KL). A city I am familiar with, a city to which my family has ties going back at least 4 generations. What's been revealing in the month I've been here though is the relative lack of understanding I had around this country, it's people, it's history, it's culture and it's challenges. Despite having visited KL 6 or so times, my perspective has been limited by a number of different factors, to the point that only now, on this occasion am I able to look and see how things actually are.

There is a definite irony in this. One of the main factors that framed my view of Malaysia through my previous visits was my family. Of Hakka Chinese heritage, my families presence in Malaysia is defined by the the New Village scheme that was implemented post World War 2 as part of the Malayan Emergency, a violent episode that closed out the colonial presence in Malaysia through a war against a communist insurgency. So my understanding of Malaysia came via the view of the Chinese experience, staying with my grandparents within a Chinese New Village, with information and experiences delivered via that perspective. 

And now here I am, in KL for 3 months to look, learn, reflect, explore and produce in depth, as an artist tasked with producing outcomes that help build relationships and understanding between New Zealand and South East Asia. With particular focus on Malaysia, on Kuala Lumpur and by virtue of my residency submission, on the experience of Chinese New Village inhabitants, i.e my own family. And in doing so, develop a broader understanding of modern Malaysian life and society. While my family experience previously limited my view of Malaysia, within this residency it is enabling me to contextualise it as part of a much larger and complex picture. 

It feels a little like walking into a place you've previously frequented with your eyes wide open for the first time. That's actually exactly what this residency is. I think its taken the better part of four weeks to be able to work through that, my previous experience and relationship with KL providing both advantages and difficulties to me as I simultaneously navigate, explore and reconcile. 

The thrust of my project here is centred around the notion of Dislocation, something evident through the history of my immediate family and our tradition of immigration, and further through centuries of ongoing Hakka migration. It's evident throughout this multicultural country, reflected in the historic election of last week with a promise to address the dislocating challenges created by a constitution that manifests in race based policy. Its evident in my own position, sitting between cultures as a Eurasian, Austronesian, Chinese, European and Pakeha. 

One of my colleagues from Auckland asked me how the residency was going. They asked in regard to dealing with the removal of my self from normal routine, from my domestic setting and my family. Its an interesting question and not one often addressed in regards to residencies. The residency experience, while a number of things, is in itself dislocating.  

My line of enquiry has a deeply personal thread, one that threw me when first confronting it. Within the residency experience you achieve the time and space so difficult to create back home, allowing a degree of contemplation not normally possible. Ive become so adept at delivering outcomes with the most economic use of time and resource, as the modern work zeitgeist demands, that the opportunity and need to go deeper with this project has become a little intimidating. And from what I can tell, the intimidating aspect is in response to the focus on self. I really don't like talking about myself. And here I am with weeks and weeks to do just that.

The residency now feels like it is moving forward to a place beyond internalisation, where the outcomes of my experience are meant to manifest in ways relatable to people through themes universal in nature but personal in origin. A month in and while no closer to knowing what these outcomes might look like, I know the significance of them and what they will embody for me and my understanding of the challenges faced by others moving between cultures. A month in and it feels like I'm only just now in a place to get started.

 

 

Relocation & Regroupment (Part 2)

The Briggs Plan was a central piece of what is called the Malayan Emergency, a prolonged state of disruption coming off the back of WW2's end. And central to the Briggs plan was a strategy of Relocation and Regroupment. Relocation being the rounding up of people (mostly squatters) in a particular area and positing them into a new compact and secure place. Regroupment being the reorganisation of existing residences based around primary industry sites.

With the Japanese defeated and the British looking to remove themselves from their colonies and consolidate after the cost of the war, the largest armed force in the country was the communist guerilla force of the MPAJA. Pre-war the MPAJA (Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army) was originally an anti-British outfit named MPABA. Both versions of this group being the armed manifestation of the MCP political party.

The post war situation in Malaya was problematic on many fronts. Immediately following the wars end the British tried to create a united Malaya through the Malaya Union where all citizens would have equal rights, something rejected by many Malays and the territory rulers. The Union was abandoned by the British creating a sense of betrayal to the Chinese who had born the brunt of the Japanese occupation.  Economically the main industries that had driven the country were badly damaged. Tin and rubber production which had been a major supplier to the pre-war world had been strangled off during occupation due to only being able to export what ever of those commodities Japan might require and were able to ship. With plantations abandoned and mines closed or in disrepair, Malaya came to suffer from high unemployment, low wages and inflationary pressure on basic food items. As a result the increasingly difficult living conditions (including famine) provided the MCP a propaganda tool to use against the British. Mimicking their pre-war strategies, they turned again to industrial action in the countries labour force. Once again the British response was swift and direct with many agitators arrested and deported back to China, this of course only fuelling the growing unrest.

In the immediate aftermath of the war independence was being granted to countries throughout the Asia region including India, Indonesia and Vietnam. With this looming state of independence in Malaya, the MCP, fuelled by Chinese Malays concern that they would be squeezed out of a new Malaya, drove an armed programme of attacks against British interests led by the newest armed faction of the MCP, the Malayan National Liberation Army. The MNLA took up the guerilla strategies used against Japanese occupation and established themselves as a rural force that used the jungle to protect themselves. Central to the ability of the MNLA to conduct their activities were the rural Chinese civilian population who numbered around half a million at the time and were sympathetic to the cause given their lack of citizenship and voting rights, ability to own land and high levels of poverty. These rural Chinese were largely farmers and labourers squatting on land they didn't own around the jungle fringes, and they were an effective source of recruits, food and information to the MNLA. 

Come 1950 there were an average of over 100 attacks per month being carried out by the MNLA. In the same year General Sir Howard Briggs was appointed to Malaya and a plan bearing his name was implemented. The Briggs plan was founded on the belief that the best way to combat the MNLA was to erode their support base and the benefits they received from it. The Chinese squatters were identified as one of the main enablers of the MNLA and it's ability to sustain itself. As a result a "New Village" scheme was embarked upon which saw the forced Relocation of approximately 500,000 people (nearly 10% of the countries population) into 450 secure camps or "villages". Given these New Villages were designed to both keep the civilian population in, and the communists out, they were fenced with barbed wire, had controlled entry points with armed guards, were under curfew from 6pm to 6am and villagers were banned from leaving with any food least they be supplying the MNLA. 

My father and his family were relocated into one of these villages. In 1950 Serdang Baru was established 20km south of Kuala Lumpur city. Formed in proximity to the original small town of Serdang Lama, families living and working in the surrounding rubber plantations, tin mines and farms were all relocated into this New Village over a two to three year period. Like many of the New villages in the state of Selangor it was at the top end of the scale in terms of size with around 10,000 residents coming to live there. Some families relocated their dwellings into the New Village while basic houses were made for others. A few families held farms already within the New Village boundary and were unaffected by the relocation process, if you disregard the creation of hundreds of close quarter neighbours. Serdang Baru like many New Villages was located on land with a sandy base of little value. Electricity was supplied to the village and the occupants granted title of their residence and the land it sat on. While many inhabitants would have now for the first time been able to live with electricity and own land, the trade off was substantial when you consider the loss of freedom of movement and other impacts on personal sovereignty.  

The New Village scheme proved unpopular to both the Chinese and the Malays. The Chinese were subject to collective punishment, preventative detention and summary deportation aimed at weeding out communist supporters, while the Malays were upset that their kampungs and settlements went without the infrastructure spend and resource investment that accompanied New Villages. The dynamics within the New Villages, the effect the near overnight creation of these villages on it's residents, the loss of full autonomy. These are not so apparent and are much harder to gauge than the nature of the physical aspects of the New Village construct.

In the 60 plus years that have passed since it's creation Serdang is both different and seemingly unchanged. The fences have been removed, the guards disbanded and 3rd generation multi-million dollar rebuilds on-top of original house sites are underway. The population has swollen and in every direction around the village there is now concrete and development. As kids our grandparents house sat at the boundary, immediately adjacent to the original entry point into the village. There was still a sense of separation from city and development. The house was frequented by a range of exotic wildlife and at night there was an equal mix in the audio backdrop of motorbikes and nature. No trace of that remains and this is really just symptomatic of the meteoric growth of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur in particular, growth that shows no sign of abating any time soon. The grandparents house has just been bowled and a new development is underway, only the back fence with its barbed wire and a solitary tree tucked away in a corner remain of what I knew.

 I stayed a couple of nights in the Serdang area last week, very close to the original Serdang Lama settlement in fact. During the 20 minute walk to the village for dinner I got talking to a young Indian man. He was a resident of the same building I was staying in. He asked where I was going, he could give me a lift as he was picking his car up from a mechanics just ahead of us. "To the village for dinner" I told him. "What village?" he replied. In amongst this mass of concrete, roading, townhouses, condominiums (but distinct lack of footpaths) sits a village whose story is largely now unknown to the tens of thousands of residents who live in sight of it. The village continues to move further from it's origins, you now hear largely Mandarin in which was an almost exclusively Hakka speaking village (the children have stopped learning it). The cottage industries which were both a necessity during the years of the emergency, and a cultural hallmark of the residents that were relocated here, are dying; the traditions of pancake makers, incense makers, wicker furniture makers, coffin makers, shoe makers and many more will be lost. 

There does remain a sense of palpable history however. Only it's not in regard to the upset and upheaval that lies in the founding of the village, its in the character of the community that was created there. Its in the people that still reside there. My own 93 year old grandmother is currently living in Auckland having moved there a number of years ago in her relatively advanced age. She is remembered in the village. My one chance point of contact who I happened to meet in Serdang took me to lunch at a restaurant down the street from my grandparents house. This restaurant is owned by an older Hakka man whose father used to make traditional Chinese coffins on the premises. The restauranteur remembers my grandmother, "she used to dress really well", "their house was always well maintained", "they had a Datsun with air-conditioning". His acquaintance grew up round the corner from my father, his mother still lives in the same house, a first generation hut. You can tell by the lack of brick work at the bottom of the walls, it's all wood. Apparently the termites found in the sandy base of the land where the village was built ate many houses requiring the rebuilds to make use of brick for the first few feet of wall coming up off the ground. In the market place the same hawkers or their sons and daughters, or grandchildren are selling the same produce and food stuffs in the same places on the same street as they were in the 1950's. The Chinese tradition of buying fresh produce every day is alive and evidenced in the plentitude of fruit, vegetable, preserves, proteins, spices, herbs and other items available. There has been talk of developing a new two story building to house the markets but the hawkers are strongly opposed to this. The street my father's family were first relocated onto has a run of houses in their mostly original (basic) state including the one where they lived. All through the village these old houses feature the deities chosen by that household for worship, painted in characters above the door. The inside altar is visible through the open front doors and the roofs are anywhere between 2nd to 4th generation with the thatched or zinc sheeting now replaced by iron.

Serdang has long since lost it's fences, checkpoints and guards. The communist threat was successfully addressed and the Malayan Emergency officially declared over in 1960. Today, other than the river that marked one edge of the village, no boundary exists that suggests this New Village was created almost overnight in the middle of a rural area dominated by rubber plantation and open face tin mines. Tin mines so vast that they were at one stage the largest in the world and that now, filled with water, host the palacial abodes of some of the cities most wealthy people on their shores. The area is now called Seri Kambangan and when you mention Serdang to the local people of Kuala Lumpur they may know it but only as a station on one of the infamously slow KTM train lines. A station that isn't even that close to the village itself. Serdang is a historic artefact in its own right. Evidence of a social experiment, arguably a social necessity. In that regard it is one of another 450 across the Malay peninsula. Each containing thousands of stories around their formation and the impact on the lives of those once held within them. 

Its an interesting space to occupy when you begin to consider the loss of heritage, tradition and identity occurring in Serdang Baru, against the disruptive and heavily interventionist approach of its creation. What was lost by those first inhabitants of New Villages? What was gained? What unintended outcomes came out of the making of these focus points of Chinese culture in Malaysia, and how has that come to inform contemporary Malaysian society? Contemporary Malaysian identity? 

 

 

Relocation & Regroupment (Part 1)

I am not an academic, nor do I want to be. However some of the background research conducted for this residency probably warrants some degree of rigour. I am more focussed in building some personal context around how my family came to be in Malaysia and as a result I have no doubt that the below summary of the founding of modern Malaysia holds its share of both inaccuracies and ignorance. If you are so inclined to apply the aforementioned rigour then by all means do, you can share it with me via the Contact page of this website. Critique, criticism and condemnation all welcome. ;)

 

The British presence in Malaya arose through the British East India Company taking the island Penang in 1786. In the early 19th century Singapore was established as a major port and in the ensuing years Britain became more and more involved in Malay affairs as their traders continued to expand their operations and relationships with the different ruling Sultanates throughout the region. Colony status was officially delivered in 1867 and as the British lent support to the Sultans through a particularly bloody period of fratricidal war, they were able to gain concessions that effectively delivered them legislative, judicial and administrative control of Malaya.

Unlike some of the other colonial powers the British interest in their colonies seemed driven by economic betterment of the Empire, not the governance of far flung lands. In their efforts to maximise production of both tin and rubber through the 19th century they encouraged large scale recruitment of Indian and Chinese* labour, often based on a 'coolie' (indentured labour) scheme or similar 'credit ticket' systems where workers paid off their passage over time. The influx of Chinese was such that by the late 19th century the towns of Singapore, Penang and Ipoh, as well as the states of Perak and Selangor had Chinese majorities.

*(Chinese movement into Nanyang (South East Asia) had been occurring since the late 1700's. Most of these were Hakka people from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces who were typically uneducated, landless and oppressed. The prospect of settling a new land was an attractive opportunity despite the hardships of the journey and settlement.)

While the Chinese arrived poor they were relatively successful at establishing prosperity. Moving into trade and initiating the banking and insurance industries, they came to hold substantial wealth and influence through their business operations. Business ventures were often funded in partnership with London based firms and much like the British achieving leverage with the Sultans through provision of military strength, the Chinese managed to gain their own political clout through provision of loans to the Sultans who apparently tended to spend more money than they raised. Chinese cultural capital was aided by their strong clan based identity, mutual aid societies, entrepreneurial nous and creation of their own schools including the recruitment of teachers from China.

Through this period of the late 19th century to early 20th century, Malay nationalism rose in response to a number of factors including anti-colonial sentiment, resent towards the Sultanates for their alliances with the British and Chinese, the growing Indian and Chinese presence, economic dominance by the Chinese and the arrival of Christianity. 

This was the environment into which my grandfather landed in Malaya, sometime in the late 1920's or early 1930's. A toddler on arrival, his family (most likely from the Guangdong province in China) clearly had an unsuccessful attempt at settlement in Malaya as he was soon sold to another family to raise the fare for their passage back to China. The sale of children was not an uncommon practice and this transaction appears to be unremarkable in that regard.


My grandfather, now named Liew Kon Chin would have been about 15 years old when the Japanese invaded Malaya during WW2. Under British rule a policy of "Malaya belongs to the Malays, other races are temporary residents" can be attributed as a seed for trouble to come, a seed watered by the Japanese. With the Sultans collaborating with the occupying force on the premise of being delivered a united Malaya, including Borneo and Indonesia, the Japanese acknowledged the Malays as sovereign people. The Chinese however were considered 'alien enemies' and in February and March of 1942 the Japanese occupiers embarked on the Sook Ching (purification through suffering), a large scale 'purge' that started in Singapore and spread up the peninsular. Figures for those executed in the Sook Ching range from a Japanese tally of 5,000 to a Singaporean count of 70,000. In addition to the executions, Chinese schools and business' were burnt down and closed. While I do not know about the conditions in which my grandfather lived during occupation, being a Chinese teenage male, his safety would not have been guaranteed. I have heard a story about him hiding from the Japanese in ponds using a reed to breath through, but if this is true or just a good story I don't know.

Upon the Japanese invasion British Colonial authorities found an ally in the (formerly illegal organisation) MCP, and prior to being defeated they freed all communist political prisoners and trained 165 MCP members in guerilla warfare.  These 165 MCP members in turn formed the basis of the MPAJA, the Malayan People's Anti Japanese Army. This force was responsible for the armed resistance of the occupying forces and numbered over 4000 fighters. Its efforts were also the cause of increasing reprisals towards Chinese civilians by the Japanese. This in turn led the migration of many Chinese (including my grandfather) away from urban centres and into the rural areas on the fringes of the jungles becoming squatters. These locations while providing some sense of safety from the Japanese forces, also provided the MPAJA with a source of shelter, food and recruits as they operated from their jungle bases.

The wars end in 1945 caught the players in Malaya by surprise. The British had actively been supplying arms and direction to the MPAJA and with the sudden withdrawal of the Japanese, the MPAJA being the largest armed force in the country with 6000 members, was left to fill the void. 

Malay nationalism, evidenced in 1938 by the founding of the Young Malays Union (KMM) and stoked pre-war by a number of factors had grown during occupation, and in the post war environment began to shape into an independence movement. Meanwhile British policy, dictated by their now bankrupt state, centred around the withdrawal from the colonies. As a result Malays became more concerned about the mostly Chinese MCP and the armed MPAJA appearing ready to occupy the position of the British once they left. The British negotiated a reluctant disbandment of the MPAJA, with may weapons returned and members paid and hailed for their resistance efforts during occupation. The MCP were able to operate without suppression and went about organising themselves politically around a coalition to achieve independence within legal means. While the moderate faction of the party had prevailed at leadership level, the 1947 discovery of a longtime British operative having infiltrated their senior leadership resulted in a distinctly more anti-British position.

In search of an operational governance model, a British proposal around a Malayan Union was opposed by Malays on the basis it weakened Malay rulers and granted citizenship to Chinese and other minorities and in 1946 the United Malays National Organisation was founded on the basis of an independent Malaya run exclusively by Malays. This was in direct opposition to the MCP who wanted independence with full equality for all races. 

In 1948 the still British government responded to an environment of rising tensions by outlawing trade union federations, an antagonistic move towards the union aligned MCP, then four days later declared a national state of emergency following the murder of three European planters on an estate in northern Malaya. Police now had powers to search, hold and execute without trial. In the following two weeks hundreds of MCP members were arrested and the party outlawed.

Party members regrouped in the jungle and reformed the MPAJA, calling themselves the MPABA (anti-British) before once again renaming themselves the Malayan Peoples Liberation Army (MPLA) and drawing on the unreturned weapons left over from Japanese occupation. They worked closely with the civilian population (displaced to the jungle fringe by the Japanese occupation) who had a sympathisers organisation called the Min Yuen. Guerilla attacks on the British and civilian sympathisers averaged 17 a month come February 1950, escalating to over 100 a month by October the same year.

I know nothing of my grandfathers life between the wars end and 1950. I do know that the British response to the escalating attacks in the form of the Briggs Plan, had direct impact on my grandfathers family which now included his wife and two sons. The family being subject to the implementation of the plan's dual strategies of Relocation and Regroupment.

Part 2 to follow.

 

Strangely Familiar

It shouldn't be any surprise given this would be roughly my 7th visit to Malaysia. The first (according to the photos) going back to when I was around four years old.  The last only two years ago when I came with my wife as newly-weds. 

So the cultural shift that occurred in the time it took to travel from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur*  didn't catch me so much unaware, rather it was more of a "oh thats right.." moment. 

*(I don't recommend the Air Asia flight that lands in KL at 3am btw no matter what the savings - in the fog of landing I managed to lose one of my slippers at the airport. Not really a slipper though but an Allbird lounger - gutted!)

Oh thats right, same same but different. Things can look similar but they're different in ways both nuanced and striking. Yes there are systems, ones we can recognise from "home" and some of them done much better here, but under the surface you find a shift taking place that a Eurocentric worldview is going to have a little trouble with. The application of this Western/European lense is hard enough to defy within New Zealand where we find ourselves surprised when encountering difficulty working within the maori world; yet when here it seems almost irresistible - planning, communication, punctuality, they all rub against our expectations and sense of norms around how shit gets done. I guess this is a natural response to new places, making comparisons between the familiar and unfamiliar. Seems weirdly competitive though when you wander into the "what's better?" territory. Same same but different. 

Grab is the superior Uber here in South East Asia, in-fact Grab just took over Uber in the region, not over took but a proper take over. Downloading the app ahead of departure was a good move. Opening it and ordering a car at KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) was easy and then this..

"so far! No one will take you, for 90 can" ..checks the route.. "NO! 75km! Too far!"

Yes there is a really well established app based alternative to conventional taxi's here. It's well designed and really effective until the driver thinks it's too far to drive you. So it's ultimately discretionary then. The problem wasn't that it was too short a trip with too small a fare, the opposite. The guy I'm talking too asks another driver hanging out next to us and we just get a raised eyebrow laugh. So no car out to Rimbun Dahan where I'm staying then. For those in Auckland we know we are on the cusp (arguably already amongst) of seeing some major infrastructure projects roll out in our city, in Kuala Lumpur this has been underway since the establishment of the town in 1857 (it's younger than Auckland) and it can be seen in the public transport system. The train running directly from the airport to town starts up at 5am, which is just over an hour away.

The KLIA Ekspres got me to Sentral Station in half an hour and it must have been just before 6am when I arrived at Rimbun Dahan. My Grab (successful from Sentral Station) took me up the long drive and dropped me into a pack of barking dogs. Welcome.

The key that was meant to be out wasn't but I get into my allocated studio via an unlocked roller door. Good: bathroom attached to studio = shower. Not so good: Still locked out in the dark with swarming mozzies. Rubbing up against those expectations around how things get done much? Yeah, a bit. I'm at the mercy of the mozzies, within the studio I find half a mosquito coil but have no way of lighting it.. so close.

Despite this I'm smiling through it all, partly due to the lack of sleep but mainly in response to just being here. "Here" is a number of things; yes it's being at a residency where I get to focus primarily on the production of art (something I haven't had the luxury of in a long time),  but more so it's about being in the position to spend a decent amount of time in a city I have a lot of fondness for but not a lot of understanding of. "Here" is the opportunity to personally and creatively engage with "place", a place my father was born and my grandfather lived his life. I don't have long roots here, the Chinese in Malaysia are relatively recent immigrants and the Hakka people from which I descend have been in constant movement for centuries, so much so that the word Hakka translates as 'guest people/families' or 'strangers'.

In lieu of a bed or comfort in general I walk the grounds at sunrise and come 9am there's still no one about so I go look for food down the road. Oh thats right... The smells, the sanitation, the way life works, the way of life. Not so same same, more different. Being the overwhelming racial minority (if I discount being Eurasian in NZ), different. Holding effectively zero cultural capital, different. At least I have some familiarity with hawker food and some clue around the way it works. Breakfast is Rendang and Hokkien Noodle. I get a silly wave of pride a few days later when I learn a residency mate got ill after eating there. Not me mate, my capsules of Slippery Elm are a bit of a secret weapon in that regard, that and good luck.

Back at the compound I meet Angela, one of the hosts and I get a tour and a key. The key is more welcome than the tour at this stage (having effectively been in transit mode for about 19 hours) though Rimbun Dahan is a beautiful expansive place. I am lucky to be here. There is enough about it that matches my recollections of staying with my Gung Gung and Po Po in their village as a kid. Not that different, mostly same same and defintely strangely familiar.