Monday, November 27, 2006

Young, smart - and published

Young, smart - and published
The Star, Starmag, Bookshelf, 1 October 2006

Original submission:

Fifteen-year-old Lim May Zhee is not just your average self-published author. Alexandra Wong tracks down this fifteen-year-old to her school, and finds out that she does not only have talent to burn, but has tons of resourcefulness, resilience and maturity to take her far.

Flitting around in her black cockail dress, she looks a trifle young to be a fulltime staff. Like the people I talk to, I reckon she is probably a college intern hired to take care of the attendees of the local authors’ gathering in MPH Bookstores, 1Utama.

Her presence goes largely unnoticed until shortly after Lilian Too delivers her speech. She goes up to the floor and in a clear and steady voice, begins to address the cadre of venerable writers.

“Hi, since everybody has spoken their mind about virtual books, perhaps you might want to hear the point of view from a teenager’s perspective. My name is Lim May Zhee, and I’ve just self-published my first novella, Vanitee Bee.”

Two days later, I walk into the school grounds, rended by conflicting emotions. The initial euphoria of scoring a potential scoop is rapidly evaporating, replaced by a growing burgeoning sense of apprehension.

After her crowd-stirring performance, she had breathlessly feted by instant admirers. Some even ask if she is the daughter of Yvonne Lee, acclaimed author of The Sky Is Crazy fame. The potential of her turning out to be narcissistic teen tyrant was a foreboding possibility, and the last thing I wanted to deal with, after waking up at an ungodly hour (because I had to conduct the interview at her school) and enduring an hour-long commuter ride into a strange town (it was my first time to Klang), armed with vague instructions that “the school is somewhere in town”.

I’d had a glimpse of that potential feistinesss during our first lengthy chat after the authors’ event.

She was a literary Maria Shaparova, sending deceptive dropshots and stunning smashes over the verbal court. Her questions ranged from professionally cautious, “So, if I am interviewed by you, does this mean I can't accept any other interviews from people?” to plainly precocious, “Would you rather buy an iDog or a wallet for your boyfriend?”

“Well, consider it a chat. If it doesn’t get published, I’ll buy you ice-cream, ” I dangled a lame incentive as succour.

“I am fifteen, not five,” back came the swift retort, followed by a deft save, “but yes, ice cream would be fine.”

She is more fiery filibuster than vanilla pie, but I’m intrigued. Definitely more intrigued than the jaga who directs me to the principal’s office today. “You have to get his permission on to speak to our students,” the uncle apprises me. I gather from his non-plussed expression that this is not the first time journalists have dropped by to interview their star.

The recess bell tolls, and a horde of students bound boisterously down the stairs.

I can barely recognize the girl in white shirt and brown skirt who stops in front of me. Bereft of make-up, and she’s all scholarly and teenagey, quite unlike the self-possessed young woman who wowed the adult audience with her articulate speech two days ago.

After some demurring, we adjourn to the teacher’s room downstairs. I remark that she is markedly less feisty than her online personality. She admits to being more daring online. She even declares brazenly, “I wouldn't mind a bad review on the front page of The Star because being a published writer made me learn how to take things in my stride.”

Ah, that now-infamous book that almost never happened. The thing about being a fifteen-year-old author is, people don’t take you seriously. Out of over 100 people she wrote to, only one person responded.

But that one good samaritan made all the crucial difference. She referred May Zhee to a contact in MPH, who saw enough potential in her eponymously titled book, Vanity Bee and recommended it to another publishing house, and voila, history was made.

I ply her with the usual questions.

How did you get inspiration for the book?

For Vanitee Bee, nothing in particular inspired me because that's the kind of book I have been writing about my whole life. Teen life with a mixture of fantasy. Everything in life, the books I read, the movies I watch, everything inspires me.

What was the most difficult part about getting the book published?

Writing the book was easy, because when you feel so passionate about something, it just comes naturally. The hardest part was probably getting the support from my parents. I undersatnd my parents’ fears – they were just worried I would sideline my studies for this. But I knew I was capable of balancing this and my homework, and in the end I did it myself because there was no other way.

So are you saying your studies were not affected at all?

Nope, my studies were unaffected. I scored straight As for PMR, which took place while I was in the middle of writing and editing the book.

Without your parents’ financial resources, how did you manage to pull it off?

Take everything into your own hands! The only thing I could afford to pay for was copy-editing, besides printing of course. I had to do proof-reading myself and I hated it! Everytime I proof-read the book, I will have this urge to edit the book and I was too late in the publishing process to edit a lot. I remind myself constantly that after the book is out, I will make my patience and effort worth it. Luckily, I am the kind of resolute person who puts my whole heart into things of that importance. I sidelined social life, entertainment and when situation permits, my studies.

What can an adult gain from reading your book?

I wasn't targetting my books at adults but I really hope adults would be able to see things from a teenager's angle through my book. Because I write as the first person and the theme of the book is really what goes on in a teenager's mind and life. Half of the book is the thoughts of the Lindsay Vanitee, my lead character. Some adults just do not see things the way teenagers do anymore, or rather, they have forgotten what it feels like to be a teenager, especially on topics like sex and rivals.

Do your friends treat you any differently now that you're a bona fide published author?

Surprisingly, no lar! Why like this ah? Shouldn't they be kissing my toes, begging to be added in my MSN list? Just joking! This is a good thing, actually. People who dislike me still dislike me and people who like me are very happy for me. And so the circle of life goes on.

Why did you wear a school uniform at your book launch?

“I am a student. Why should I hide that fact?”

How did you develop such an impressive vocabulary?

“I create my own thesaurus. I write down new words and sentences I come across so that I know how to use them in future.”

What keeps you going despite the pile of rejections?

“A long time ago, a friend and I wrote to a local editor to ask her for this chance to write a teenager's column in a newspaper. Okay, it sounds stupid...but really, that's what we did! She didn't reject us or worse, ignore us. She actually replied and said she will think about it, and we all know what that means, but I was really happy that she even replied us two naive teenagers. Someone said success is when opportunity meets preparation, and I’m just preparing myself for that window of opportunity.”

All that confidence, and talent to burn too. I tell her that if I were 15, I would hate her.

She laughs and informs me modestly, “Actually a lot of writers in the USA get published at a young age. I want to show people that if I can make it, so can other aspiring young writers in Malaysia.”

Now that Vanitee Bee is already selling fast, she is hard at work on the sequel, as she plans to turn the novellas into a series, like Charmed. Naturally, all that writing gets squeezed in between homework, household chores, bedtime curfews and all.

But she recognizes challenges as part and parcel of a writer’s life. “I already decided to make writing my job when my first letter got published in Youth2 at 13. Writing is a worthy trade, and I know you may not earn much, but it doesn’t matter that much. I mean it matters to support your life, but it doesn’t matter if I can earn a lot or not, because at least I’m doing something I love.”

An adult couldn’t have said it better.

Let's talk about sex!

Bangkok Post, My Two Cents, 23 April 2006

Beyond Angkor

Marie Claire, Malaysia, July 2006, Global Report


Cambodia is every bit as stunning as the promises in the brochures. The soaring spires, the delicate apsaras and the august bas-reliefs inspire swift intakes of breath and all manner of lyrical waxing.

Unsurprisingly, one million curiosity seekers (and rising) flock here yearly for the ancient temples, but contemporary Cambodia is so much more than that. There is the palm-fringed south coast, the untamed landscapes in the northeast, and the region's last remaining freshwater dolphins near Kratie.

But most of all there are the resilient people whose spirit – and smiles – remain intact despite enduring three decades of bloodshed.


The road linking Siem Reap town to Tonle Sap is only 11 km long, but clouds of dust, the uneven road and the bucking bronco of a tuk-tuk ride makes it feel a whole lot longer than a 45 minute ride. The roadside shrubbery is so thickly encrusted that they seem to be sprouting reddish-brown leaves. The dust is contributed mainly by the convoy of tourist vehicles that ply the Tonle Sap-Siem Reap route daily.


As soon as we alight from the tuk-tuk, a swarthy young chap beckons us to follow him. We tread on soft slippery silt to reach the riverbank, where a fleet of wooden cruise boats are docked. We wade through the murky water and climb aboard one with peeling blue paint.

The young man, henceforth known as our captain, busies himself for our voyage. Then, realising that my friends and I are standing uncertainly, he pulls out two rattan armchairs underneath a tarp. "Come come, take a seat." I feel a bit like a Colonial rajah cruising down a river.


We fall into a conversation about our respective countries. To my delight, Koi (that's his real name) has reasonably good command of English, enough to carry on a meaningful conversation.

He plies me with questions about Malaysia. Do most young people complete high school? How much does a graduate earn? When he learns that a graduate's monthly salary is equivalent to the price of a house on the floating village, he whistles appreciatively.

Before we head back to the jetty, we make a compulsory stop at the snake and crocodile farm. Roughly the size of a coffee shop, it's a floating platform fashioned out of wooden planks with a souvenir shop and food stall in addition to the snake cages and baby crocodile trenches. I wander around distractedly for a bit, politely rejecting the salesgirls' persistent solicitations. Thankfully Koi motions to leave before I succumb to an overprized woven bag.

While walking across the gangplank, I notice some movement at the edge of the platform. From a distance, I make out a little boy sitting in a basin, floating among the tourist boats anchored at the platform.

I wonder how a child can be allowed to play in the water, unsupervised.

I don't give it a second thought when I climb back into the boat and wait for the rest to file back in. From the corner of my eye, I notice the little boy paddling determinedly towards my boat. With a surprising velocity, he maneuvres himself into the narrow passageway between my boat and the neighbouring one parked a few feet away.

I'm perplexed and just a little bit annoyed at his obliviousness. Should the two boats move towards each other without warning, he would be crushed to death.

Annoyed or not, I refuse to be a witness to an accident waiting to happen. I scramble to my feet and stagger towards him, struggling to balance myself in the swaying boat. I flail my arms wildly to get him to move away from his precarious position, but he shows no intention of budging. To my chagrin, he breaks into a wide grin and starts waving back at me instead. By the time I reach the edge of the boat, I am ready to throttle him.

When I'm inches from him, I see the reason for his seemingly senseless actions.

At close range, he looks even thinner, ribcage practically sticking out of his torso. His shirtless torso is soaked to the skin. As for the basin that transports him around the lake, he has ingeniusly stuffed himself into a flimsy vessel that looks barely big enough to fit somebody's puppy. The left arm - or what remains of it - ends in a premature stump a few inches away from his shoulder. So that's why he keeps using his right arm, it dawns on me.

I fish a dollar out of my waist pouch. He leans across to grab it with his wet palm. Something like relief flits over his face, but I can't be sure. In a flash, he has paddled away from the passageway, as quickly as he had appeared.

I sink into my Colonial rajah chair, vaguely aware of revving engines and chattering voices. As our boat slowly pulls away, I scour the surroundings. The little boy is a safe but visible distance away, bobbing gently on the water. He looks back and waves at his accidental benefactor with his good arm.

That beatific smile keeps me company till he fades out of sight.


As the Boeing 747 whisks me away from the dust and the squalor, my mind wanders back to the functional huts and grubby kids at Tonle Sap. I begin to rethink my earlier sentimental righteousness.

I doubt if they are aware that they fall into that category dubbed "hardcore poor." And really, do I have any right to inoculate them with a dose of depressing reality? Perhaps my indignation is misplaced. Perhaps it is not my place to say anything.

One thing is clear. The little boy on the lake may have lost his arm, but not his spirit. If ignorance is the price to pay for a little slice of happiness, it's worth every dollar.

Uniquely fusion

Uniquely fusion
The Star, Weekend, 25 Nov 2006, P. 26

Original text:

Francis Western Food should carry a warning:"Danger: semi-starvation ahead!"

To illustrate what I mean, let me describe how Francis Cheah, 53, prepares my Cajun Chicken (RM11.50). He begins by laying a slab of tenderized drumstick meat over a clean sheet of aluminium foil. Over that, Francis neatly arranges a handful of chopped button mushrooms, julienne strips of ham, and several slices of freshly cut tomatoes. Finally, he crowns the stack with a slice of mozzarella cheese and a sprinkle of paprika, before popping the whole lot into the oven.

"Wah lau eh," Poi Sun, my housemate exclaims. "This guy really takes his sweet time hor. Can starve to death, man, watching him cook our meal."

In truth, it's only fifteen minutes of waiting. However, the kitchen is right smack in front of the customer tables, and observing Francis lovingly arrange his food like a piece of art, amplifies our anticipation a thousand-fold. He seems oblivious that his customers, inflamed to the point of hysteria, are nearly chewing the skin off their knuckles.

A modern-day epicurean equivalent of Marquis du Sade, you say?

Or perhaps, a badminton coach, as I found out later. That was actually how he honed his unusual fusion-style cooking - when he toured fifteen European countries during his coaching tenure. Trained in cooking, he subsequently abandoned racquet for skillet, but the teacherly demeanour never quite left him.

During my first foray to his stall at the antebellum Guan Hiang coffee shop, Penang, where Francis presides from 5.30-10.30p.m. every day (except Monday), I actually thought he looked more headmaster than chef extraodinaire. In the square-framed spectacles, side-parted hair, and taciturn demeanour, I could easily imagine him reducing rowdy hooligans to quivering choirboys with his thousand-yard stare.

I remember nearly jumping out of my skin, when he emitted a sudden cry and waved anxiously to his one assistant. "The exposure to air is drying up the potatoes! They're not going to be fit for consumption soon! You better empty this tupperware and get a fresh one out!"

As the spectacle unfolded in front of me and other bemused customers, my friend thrusted a flyer into my hand, eyes twinkling. "Here, some entertainment while you wait."

Wondering what he meant, I scanned through the flyer.

"The All New Francis Western Food! – Fusion Style!

New Venue: Guan Hiang Coffee Shop

Location: Junction of Pulau Tikus Traffic Lihgts (Look out for banner)

Business Hour: 5.30pm to 10.30pm

Business Off Day: Monday

Contact Person: Francis Cheah at 012-4930554

After that bit, it went on to say:

"Whoever has tasted Francis' food … knows what to expect.

Whoever has yet to…. Must try!!!!

Francis prepares all the food … Come and enjoy your meal with your loved ones at this simple and clean shop."

As if not to leave things to chance, he signed off in caps, "From ME, FRANCIS."

It raised my eyebrows all right.

That was two months ago. In irrefutable proof that life comes full circle, I now find myself thrusting the same flyer to Poi Sun. As her order is served, I watch in awe. My wisp of a housemate Рa whopping five foot nothing in stockings Рgobbles down pork chop, cheese, bacon, mushrooms, ham juliennes, mash potatoes, coleslaw, and two slices of garlic bread in record time. The clich̩ must be true, I think. Petite girls DO come standard with an industrial-size gullet.

She bubbles, "Today, I belanja. Very happy to find a nice place to eat!"

I'm ecstatic. Not only does it pass her exacting standards (Ipoh girls are notorious for their egalitarian palates), but I get to eat for free.

"You planning to write about this place?" she looks at me meaningfully.

I think hard. Yes, I have in fact considered writing about his place, but the little girl in me hasn't gotten over her childhood terror of the authoritative figure.

My insides quivering like a bowl of jelly, I swagger up to Francis, and in my most worldly-wise womanly voice, ask him if he would let me review his place.

He gives me a sidelongs glance. "Are you going to charge me for the advertising?"

"Of course not!" I exclaim, affronted. "I just like your food. I wanted to write about it, but thought it was more polite to ask for permission first."

In case you come after me with a giant cleaver the next time I show up, I think privately.

He nods cautiously. As he gradually warms up and expounds about the home-made sausages, tender meats and other finer points of cooking, I feel the cockles of my heart glowing. Why, the gruff exterior belies an artist who is just deeply passionate about his craft after all.

Speaking of artists, I do have one major bone to pick with the wordsmith who designed his menu. He has done a marvellous job with the flyer, but the menu is as dull as chalk!

How can anyone possibly say boring Baked Tom Yam sausage (RM8.50), when it is no less than four plump, juicy, fusion-style sausages, infused with a tangy accent thanks to an outrageous topping of finely-chopped ginger torch?

How can Francis live with plain old Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop with Cheese (RM13.50), when they are nothing short of a treasure trove of goodies capped by a beautifully browned canopy of melted cheese, accompanied by humongous hunks of garlic bread dunked in melted butter and some mysterious spread I can't quite put my finger on, a dollop of self-made mash potatoes?

You get my drift, don't you?

I know what I should do. I'll ask Francis to give me a call, when he wants to revamp his menu.

Even stern headmasters welcome constructive feedback, yes?


The Star, Weekend, 25 November 2006


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