Thursday, January 17, 2008

Our Burgess Pilgrimage

Thought I'd share with you some of the photos I took on the trip up north to Kuala Kangsar on the "Burgess pilgrimage" I made with Rob, Elaine and Abu. For those of you who've skipped a beat, this town was my home for three years. And Anthony Burgess ... or rather John Burgess Wilson also lived and taught and began his career as a novelist there in the fifties.

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Even Burgessians (for such we are, said Dr. Rob) have to eat. First stop, breakfast at the Tapah service station. While globalisation leads to a distressing homogenization of the world, and fast food franchises looking the same the world over, at least the local branch of Dunkin' Donuts is bold enough to initiate a new variety.

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The only place to eat if you want to connect with the real Kuala Kangsar is Yut Loy restaurant, famous for possibly the best pau (steamed buns with a range of fillings) in Malaysia, and also as a smokers' haven for the Malay College boys, allowed out to town on Saturdays. They congregate in the room upstairs as they have for decades. And no doubt the friendly proprietor tips them off when a prefect or teacher approaches. Ah, tradition!

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And the only dish to eat in Yut Loy if you want to follow local traditions is "egg steak". (A culinery delight i don't think even Boolicious has discovered.)

The dish that was invented for British and Aussie servicemen stationed in the town after the war and during the emergency when they couldn't afford beef steak. It consists of two runny yolked fried eggs, dowsed in a gravy made of dilute Worcestershire sauce, enriched with tinned processed peas, and served with thick slices of toast. Of such stuff are gourmet dreams made.

It feels like a place where time has stood still. These pictures of Kuala Kangsar in the floods date from 1967.

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On to the official tourist route, which took us on a winding drive around Bukit Chandan, the town's royal hill and one of the richest spots for architecture in the country. Above, of course, is the famous Ubudiah Mosque:
... bulbous as a clutch of onions ...
as Burgess said irreverently in Time for a Tiger. We also pointed out to Rob and Elaine the Sultan's Palace, Istana Iskandariah (left):
... designed by a Los Angeles architect ...
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Sadly, the Istana Kenangan (built without the use of a single nail) was closed to the public.

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An army of asplenium nidus bent on world domination in the branches of an ancient rain tree on Bukit Chandan.

An old house (right) I loved to cycle to when I lived in Kuala Kangsar had burned down and only the blackened frame remains. Really this breaks my heart. I remember exploring inside the house, being careful of the broken floorboards ... and finding two thrones in an otherwise empty upstairs room! The house became the hang-out of drug addicts and I guess that's how the fire started. Clearly, it was yet another palace on a hill of palaces and I guess that no-one really cared enough to try to preserve it.

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The most important stop was to see King's Pavilion, built 1905, which served as the British resident's home and later as the prep school for Malay College. This is where Anthony Burgess/ JB Wilson lived (upstairs) when he was hostel master. My husband was one of the seven year olds he describes in his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God, crying themselves to sleep at night and pissing off the balcony (which Abu says isn't true, but as Rob says, if Burgess were given the choice between the truth and a better story, he'd go with the latter). This is also where Burgess' protagonist Victor Crabbe lived in the alternate universe's Kuala Hantu.

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The building now houses the Sekolah Menegah Raja Perempuan Kalsom.

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Next stop was the Idris Club, named after the fun-loving Sultan Idris. In Time for a Tiger, Burgess rechristened it the Iblis Club. Iblis, of course, means Devil. All these cheeky renamings of Malaysian towns and landmarks would have passed the books foreign readers by. My theory - Burgess wanted to share a joke with his Malay speaking readers (to whom the book is dedicated) and not let the others in on it. (He didn't even fully explain the joke in his autobiography).

I used to be a member of the club. (Actually this is where I brought Abu on our first date!) To quote Burgess in Earthly Powers:
It was in Kuala Kangsar, if you will forgive the novelettish circumlocution, that I met the love of my life.
But now the Idris Club seems a very sad, rundown place and the people running the place seemed more than a little suspicious of us.

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I had to sneak this picture of the billiard table through an open window. Can't see Burgess being a snooker player but I'm sure his characters played a frame or two here.

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Of course, our trip culminated in a visit to Malay College, where the author taught. The school features prominently in Time for a Tiger.

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On our trip home, we stopped off in Ipoh and christened the trip with Tiger Beer and tea. The 101 year old FMS bar is faced with closure, and many of the old shophouses seemed to be boarded up. More heritage buildings about to be lost?

I did a sterling job of pointing out other landmarks that make their way into Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain ("That's a cave temple over there") and Preeta Samarasan's forthcoming Evening is the Whole Day. Am thinking of taking up bibliotourism for a living.

If you'd like more on Burgess in Kuala Kangsar, I think you will find this extract from the first volume of his autobiography, quite fascinating ... particularly on the topic of Malay ghosts and the affair he carried on with a coffee-shop waitress called Rahimah.

14 comments:

Jane Sunshine said...

Oooo...this is the place where Victor Crabbe lived? THE one that Finella (sp.?) hated because of the din made by the boys at lunch....The Malayan Trilogy just came alive with all the places that you've described. I would so love to do a tour one day.

Please consider bibliotourism career path as I would sign up for it.

bibliobibuli said...

any time you want to go, i will come along too. no charge. except for a belanja of a plate of egg steak.

Rob Spence said...

Great job, Sharon! Very odd to see my photo on a blog- especially as it's not a seal...
I'll have a go at this too on Topsyturvydom. Meanwhile, back to the marking...
Rob

kam raslan said...

Love the pictures. I know the house you photographed. I too wandered around it some time ago, which was great fun. My father came from KK and went to Clifford and MCKK (before Wilson's time). There are plenty of ghosts, of the good kind, lurking in that town. It's strange that of all the British authors who could be associated with KK it would be one so modern and iconoclastic as Burgess. Burgess started his writing career in KK and Orwell as a colonial policeman in Burma. They both reacted against what they saw.

Really enjoyed the talk that Rob Spence gave. Well done.

Anonymous said...

OH, my mum is going to love these pictures. She spent her earliest childhood in KK and went to Clifford School.

If FMS is torn down, I might just die. I don't think I shall be able to bear it. And I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. Isn't there something we can do? I'm still heartbroken over what happened to my alma mater (the Ipoh Convent). Foolishness!

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I remember reading The Malayan Trilogy for the first time in a cold, wintry city, and reading it in such a strange place made me feel exhilarated and lonely all at once... it was like really *seeing* my country for the first time, in a way (albeit through the sardonic eyes of Burgess). Your pictures and accompanying text makes me feel the same way... and unfortunately, I've only passed KK, never actually *spent* time there. Your little travelogue thingy makes me want to go... I love the pictures! Or maybe it's the combination of the pictures and your words.

Really sad that I had to miss the talk.

And I hope those straw-filled doughnuts were tasty!


Subashini

bibliobibuli said...

oh poor rob. being back in britian is not so bad ... but marking?

kam - plenty of ghosts, yes. my own ghost too sometimes! still riding her flying pigeon bicycles between idris club and the house i lived in by the school.

preeta - fms is very special and worth fighting for. (anyone from badan warisan listening?) but they say that these days they have hardly any customers. the food is good and the people who run it really nice.

subashini - join jane sunshine and me for the kk tour!

Anonymous said...

Ack. It's the common Catch-22 of a town being special and unspoiled because it is not overrun by tourists, but because it is not overrun by tourists, businesses can't survive there. Yeah some folks in my family were just back in Ipoh and said it seems to be dying. This is happening all over the world -- the globalised, supersupercapitalistic economy makes it impossible for small and mid-sized towns to thrive. Just as 4 corporations rule the world, soon there will be only 40 megacities, sprawling unstoppably and swallowing up all the world's resources.

At the very least, if FMS the restaurant cannot be saved, the building should be preserved and used for something else. But after what happened to the Bok House, I've no faith the the Badan Warisan.

Anyone want to move to Ipoh, buy the FMS building, and turn it into a bookshop, like the beautiful ones in Sharon's post the other day ;-) ? The one in the Dominican Church in The Netherlands was pretty special.....

PS

Argus Lou said...

That English policeman in 'Time for a Tiger' is somehow appealing despite his drinking and money-borrowing habits, ya? I laughed out loud when I realised 'Tiger' referred to the beer and not the endangered mammal.

That yellow-and-black istana was open to the public several years ago. I went there with a foreign friend. A middleaged or elderly prince of some sort was there to collect entry fees and regale visitors with his recollections.

Burhan said...

i'm having problems with mc's big school being red now. they claim it was the original color but i'm still not fond of it.

bibliobibuli said...

preeta- short of chaining themselves to the gates of bok house i doubt that badan warisan could have done more. they just didn't understand the underhand sneakiness of the other parties involved.

i would like to see FMS renovated a bit ... it is tatty and gloomy, a bad 1960's makeover. much could be done with it though. i'd keep on the staff who are so friendly and can cook well, and keep the beautiful blue paint in the five foot way outside. (i wanted that colour for my bedroom!) it has so much potential

but i think the whole area looks as if it might be redeveloped and that makes me very sad. especially so since most of the old ipoh mansions seem to have gone. the town that tin built is in decline for sure.

funnily enough, kuala kangsar, which is much smaller place seemed to be thriving.

argus lou - i was at the re-opening of the palace in the 1980's! in the early '90's i took my mum there and then a couple of years later my sister and her family. i'm really sad it isn't open to tourists now as it is a completely unique building

burhan - it does look wrong, doesn't it. my eyes had to adjust too. but i'm sure it will revert to white next paint job.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

"Am thinking of taking up bibliotourism for a living."

That sounds like a wonderful way to make a living. What fun!

bibliobibuli said...

come here, bonnie and i will take you round. not at all joking ... (especially not after having rob and elaine take me up on the offer). beside the "burgess in kuala kangsar tour" i would also chuck in the "harmony silk factory" tour" and the "gift of rain" tour and maybe after may when preeta's book comes out "the evening is the whole day" tour ... and all for free

tried to email you the other day but it bounced. will give it another shot

Anonymous said...

DD's donuts are too hard, too cold and too sweet. Donuts are supposed to be warm and fluffy :P