Monday, May 30, 2011

Hard to get lost in KL

As we arrived to pick up our tickets for "Heaven and Earth" we noted that we were surrounded by Indians. We are often the only westerners in an audience, but an all Indian audience for a Chinese play seemed unlikely. Our mistake - the City Hall auditorium was reserved for an Indian poet. A group of attendees and guards conferred and decided that the play was at the old city hall just down the street. We got clear directions and a guard walked with us to point out the building. Once we were at the right theater we found a more predictable audience demographic. As far as I could tell we were the only non-Chinese.

The play, scheduled to coincide with Parents Day. had two interwoven stories about filial piety. In one story "from ancient times" a son overcomes many obstacles to rescue his God mother (as in mother who was a god). In the other, a contemporary true story, a son murders his mother. In this case the mother made all the sacrifices. (I am not sure who celebrates Parents Day - Mother's Day is the big holiday.)

The play was in Mandarin, but subtitles allowed us to follow the story and enjoy the acting, gymnastics, and martial arts moves.We were impressed with the stamina and ability of the cast - no body was relegated to the sidelines during the more physical parts. An added treat was the orchestra that played on traditional instruments. 

Vivo Experimental Orchestra

After the play we were invited to pose with the cast - an honor for us to be in the midst of a talented and energetic troupe. And once again we were impressed with KL's best kept secret - a lively and diverse arts scene. "Heaven and Earth" artfully combined the traditional and contemporary. We keep wondering why the audiences aren't larger.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Getting News from the US

Seeing clips from Oprah's last show was scarcely surprising. We saw them on both Malaysian stations and international stations. This snap is from Al Jazeera.

We watch Malaysian news in English (also delivered in Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) and Al Jazeera, After listening to BBC and CNN in hotel rooms all over the world, Al Jazeera's different voices and different programming are welcome. It doesn't short change US news either, it even reported NHL scores along with video. (Malaysian stations pretty much stick to badminton and soccer.)

Other available news channels include Bloomburg, CNBC, a Chinese news station and an Australian one. With the television and the Internet we don't feel out of touch. We learn about things that we would normally ignore - the local a.m. talk shows regularly commented on how was in and who was out on American Idol.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Saturday Seminar - This time on politics

Since joining AWAM my mailbox has been full and the opportunities to explore what KL has to offer keeps growing. The invitation to hear Francis Loh Kok Wah speak was especially welcome. Francis teaches political science at USM, where I first met him. I admire him for his scholarly productivity, his involvement in Malaysian social justice efforts, his insights, wisdom, and his congeniality.
Francis Loh Kok Wah
For over two hours he sat and talked about Malaysian politics. I cannot do justice to his talk, and in the following I may have misrepresented his ideas. You can get an unadulterated taste of his work,  his engaging manner, and the ethnic/racial/political climate in Malaysia by click in this article.

Overall he was guardedly optimistic about Malaysia's future as a nation.  He pointed out that in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, which are prospering, the races mix at work, in housing complexes, and at the malls. This is certainly was we have observed, but Francis' optimistic conclusion may not be widely held. He also noted that the newspaper headlines may focus on racial issues the other pages focus on citizen versus government issues without regard to race.

He noted the role of NGOs, specifically those addressing gender equity, environmental issues, persons with disabilities, and human rights, in trying to influence the political agenda. These groups work independently of political party, ideology, and race. His mention of these groups confirmed that I had chosen the "right" issue-groups to study. He also stimulated my intention to resume this research - probably in July when I return from Italy.

He mentioned that the hot button issues have been around for a long time. In the past the issue would disappear. Now the discussion and debates continue. His comment brought to mind a joke that Singaporeans would rate public services with the comment "no complaint" and the Malaysians complained about everything. The difference allegedly was not in the quality of services but in the opportunities to complain about them.  For those who have been schooled in incremental change (as Francis and I were) the future looks promising. As is true in the Middle East what will happen rests with the younger generation.

As we left Francis said that we had made the right decision to move to Malaysia. We think that he is right. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wesak Day in Penang

Wesak Day commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Lord Buddha. It is a public holiday in Malaysia. So to celebrate properly we left for a holiday in Penang. (A USM colleague reminded me that I am on permanent holiday.)  On Wesak eve we looked out our 17th story room and saw a massive traffic jam and heard a symphony of horns. The next morning no traffic no horns.

We skipped the temple activities. To see what we missed check out this article from The StarInstead we drove around the island with Lina. The first stop was Queensbay, a stretch of beach that is often thick with picnickers and vendors, but not at an early hour on a day with overcast skies. Next was Sam Poh Footprint Temple. The myths surrounding the footprint vary. A local man said it was the footprint Hanuman (the monkey god) made as he flew over the sea to China. The temple overlooks a peaceful fishing village, where I had a terrific seafood dinner in 2008.

Later we stopped at the Mosque by the Sea. While the mosque, Sam Poh temple and the beaches suggest serenity, blocks of high rises are never far behind.
On of our last stops was to the Straits Quay - seriously upmarket. This car's windshield says it all.

On to the Wesak Procession.  A restaurant owner told us it started at night and to ask at our hotel. The desk clerk said it would be at 10:00 a.m. The final authority - an item in the paper - 6:00 p.m. The procession was part Thanksgiving parade (no bands but many marching Buddhist schools and associations) and the Rose Parade - the floats had real flowers. Choosing pictures was hard. We included  the march directors getting groups out of the field and linking them with the proper float.  The giant Buddha was the last one in the procession, not the only Buddha by far. The float with children, that had them singing throughout the procession, was unique. There were a few floats with Buddhists monks tossing water into the crowd for good luck.
We joined the procession (to see where it ended) but around 8:30 we broke off and looked for dinner.

We decided that this was the night for a fish dinner. Very fresh fish, but at least they didn't murder a specific fish for our meal. We "honored" the fish and ate every piece.  And as we headed back to hotel we ran into the processions as it finished its loop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Notes from the Malaysian Philharmonic Program

Usually my eyes glaze over when I read concert notes, but today's concert notes breathed life into two musical icons: Brahms and Shostakovitch. This is some of what I read. Brahms' father was a musician (French horn and double bass) and his mother (17 years older than his father) was a seamstress. Their house was described as representing "a bare and repulsive poverty." From the age of 13 he supported his family by playing the piano nightly at "the drinking and wenching dives of the notorious St. Pauli area."

The notes on Shostakovitch suggested this is life in the Soviet Union was helped b/c his grandfather had been arrested in connection with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and he had relatives who had distinguished themesleves in the revolutionary [Bolshevik] cause.

By the way the concert was good - possibly better than the very readable notes.

A Saturday Seminar

The seminar, "The New Asset Class in Malaysia," started with the moderator thanking us for coming out early on a Saturday - it was 10:30 a.m. This is not an early country! Since we again have empty walls we thought this would give us some insights into buying Malaysian artwork. Our first lesson - we don't have the money, time, or knowledge to buy art as an investment.

The seminar in Galeri Petronas in KLCC was well put together - a director of Sotheby's Institute of Art, Singapore, talked about the economics of art as an investment (lesson - once you buy a piece of art,  good luck it liquidating it quickly); the Director of the Art Gallery at USM (just up the street from where I lived at USM) who talked about building a museum's collection; the owner of an art gallery; and a retired diplomat and avid collector. The latter has over 3000 objects of art - confirming that we would never be collectors. Among the problems of buying art other than liquidity included getting bored with a painting (then what do you do with it), running out of wall space (our problem), an artist/style falling out of fashion and how to store and maintain your art. An interesting point - works by Malay artists bring more money in Kuala Lumpur and art by Chinese artists costs more in Penang (arbitrage in the art market).  Indonesian artists are less expensive in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia than in Paris, Amsterdam, London and New York.  But watch out, there are the potential for tremendous bubbles in the market.  To paraphrase Heidi Klum of Project Runway, "what is in one day, may be out the next".

Some of the details we learned, art is a market place, where the artist, gallery owner, auction house and the buyer all have a part.  Artists need to learn to manage their careers (don't spread yourself thin by displaying in multiple galleries or showing in mediocre galleries).  Gallery owners assist the artist in managing their careers.  They play the important function of placement.  Akin to IPO's where stock is allocated to selected clientele, a gallery may work to place the artists work with selected collectors.  Some collectors may support artists early in their careers by sponsoring show, printing catalogues, and purchasing objects.  Once a collector decides to prune his/her collection, auction houses support the market by making it available to a wider audience.  Although appearing to be transparent, pricing can be an interesting practice.  A collector may use both the auction house and galleries to make purchases and sales.  Collectors may make private sales of their collections, bypassing both the gallery and the auction house (the savings can be considerable).  But the final word was "buyer beware." Verify, Verify, and Verify!  Remember, art is an economic activity that is totally unregulated.  You do not make short term profits, and the carrying costs can be considerable.

So what are we going to do.  Go to an art auction, of course.

After the seminar we enjoyed my favorite Malaysian seminar tradition - tea time (here called refreshments) Noodles, poi piah, a donut-type cake, and coffee. We chatted with a retired Malaysian banker - a bit about art, selling property, and musical performance in KL. He pointed out that the RM10 6:30 concerts were created so that office workers could attend an hour concert and spread out the rush hour jam.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Performing in Shopping Centers

When we travel (and given our current circumstances, when we move) we check out the local  performing arts immediately. In our first five weeks in KL we have seen (or heard) two plays, an indie Malaysian film, two symphonies, a chamber music performance, and a gamelan performance. More music and plays are on our schedule. Each peformance was given in a major shopping center - easily accessible by public transportation. 

Actors Studio is on the roof of Lot 10, which bills itself as "a favourite with tourists and up-market shoppers." The two nights we went the audience had fewer than 30 persons, so the 196 seat theater felt relatively intimate. During intermission we could observe very buff men and women working out at a nearby fitness center - we are clearly not part of its target membership. The play Brickfields Then and Now was in two parts. A single actor told stories of growing up in KL, from colonial days. It deserved a larger audience, but we went of two weeknights.

The Malaysian Philharmonic plays in a hall attached to the KL City Centre (KLCC) - a city within the city. In addition to a major shopping center and symphony hall it has an art gallery, a multiplex theater, an aquarium, a science discovery center, and convention center. Our first trip to the symphony hall found the ushers operating as camera police. As soon as a cell phone was spotted an usher rushed over. So we  have to settle for the photo posted on the MPO website

The High Winds, an all-Malaysian chamber ensemble, performed in an annex to Pasar Sini, the Central Market. Central Market started life as wet market; now it is a one-stop site for local arts and crafts. The space didn't look too promising - folding chairs crowded together and a plain interior. The conductor noted that KL lacks a chamber hall, but this space was more than merely adequate because it had wooden floors and a high ceiling. The first notes confirmed that the space worked well. Also note the lack of grey heads. The audience for this and the symphony is very young - we would estimate no more than 10 percent of the audience is over 50.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Update: The search for bread

A new town means new loaves of bread to squeeze. In Indianapolis we found the perfect loaf with one squeeze and later we discovered that there were others just as good. In KL/PJ have tested loaves at the up-market groceries; every loaf was relatively squishy. The news stand down stairs sells a whole grain loaf that works well for toast. To help in our search Doug began reading Malaysian food blogs - a major task give the number of food blog and the quality of the reviews. The bloggers often refer to themselves as "food obsessed Malaysians." Truer words were never spoken.

On Friday we were in the neighborhood of Levain that had gotten excellent reviews. The restaurant was jammed. [Downtown KL should be avoided Fridays after noon - incredible traffic and crowded restaurants.] Levain had downstairs tables, patio tables, and upstairs tables and finding an empty one was a bit of luck. We had a tasty, reasonable priced lunch: dry pasta curry and chicken bologinase spaghettini.

As for take-out we skipped the pastries and went straight for the bread. The baguette (whole grain and cereals) was the winner - a relatively dense load with great flavor. The rye had a robust rye taste but it was less dense than what I was looking for. The whole grain loaf is waiting to be toasted. The bottom-line we will happily stop by for a meal and bread if we are in the neighborhood. Next week we will try a German bakery in Bangsar and see if we find a load that we will go out of our way for.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Free Walking Tour of Brickfields

Almost by accident we discovered that KL City Hall Tourism Unit sponsors a weekly walking tour of Brickfields Saturday mornings at 9:00. (The available information about frequency, registration, and start times varies; our impression is the tours have evolved to weekly, with no preregistration required, but an 8:30-8:45 arrival to complete paperwork. Non-Malaysians will be asked for their passport number!)

Brickfields is one of the older areas of KL. It originally is where the city's bricks were manufactured. In October it was re-branded as Little India @ Brickfields.

The tour started a the Y, which is easily seen from KL Sentral. The Y is a center of the community with a hostel, cafe, and barber shop. It give language lessons, provides a number of activities for hearing impaired, and hosts the senior center. The walk started with a historical presentation - partially a KL then and now. The shop houses and coffee shops which gave Brickfields its character are being replaced.

To us three aspects of Brickfields stood out. An impressive number of religious bodies - Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Lutheran, Methodist, Syrian Christians, and Catholics. We went into a Hindu temple and Buddhist Community Center. Both were very clean, in contrast to India, and serene in contrast to the general busyness of the KL. Second, the raised tracks in the sidewalks to guide visually impaired walkers and the number of people with white canes (mostly men) signal this area is a center of services to the blind. The Malaysian Association of the Blind is large and airy. According to their website the association offers training in a number of skills, but blind masseurs is either the profession of choice or a strong stereotype that persists. (In 2008 I visited the Malaysian Society for the Blind - in the same neighborhood, in more modest quarters, and no training in massage. "Society for" signals that a group is run by the specific disability group.) The area has 100 shop houses for civil servants. Our guide stopped and asked a man who was washing his car about the house. He said that his monthly rent was RM300 a month (about USD100), equivalent housing would run RM1000. Once he retires or gets new employment he will have to move.

The weather was iffy (potential rain storms) so we were a small group
- Doug, me, Happy Yen, and our guide. Happy runs waterfall tours that we may test out some day, perhaps when we have a house guest. We were all about the same age and a group of four made for easy conversation. At the end we were met with a representative of the Tourism Unit.