The Sensei of Place – Penang

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Tan Twan Eng has a new book coming out this month: The Garden of Evening Mists. It’s his first full-length publication since being long-listed for the Man Booker prize for his debut novel The Gift of Rain in 2007. In Penang for the George Town Literary Festival in late November, he only modestly mentions it. Perhaps this self-effacing trait comes from his Chinese heritage or perhaps it’s simply the natural stance of an introverted writer who writes the books that he himself wants to read.

Twan Eng’s second book also has a Japanese theme, or should I say, develops The Gift of Rain’s theme of the complexities of relationships between people who are native to Malaysia and their Japanese sensei. A sensei is a master, a teacher, and the ‘hero’ of Rain, Philip had a convoluted relationship with his sensei, Endo-san, which leads in the end to an impossible choice. The Garden of Evening Mists, set in the Cameron Highlands of 1951, is the story of a woman who has had to do what it took to survive one of the Japanese occupation’s brutal prison camps. After enduring this terrible experience, and yet scarred by it, she goes to ask the creator of the only Japanese garden in Malaya to make one for her in KL. Himself a refugee, and so also culturally dislocated but in a different way, he refuses at first but finally allows her to study the art of Japanese gardening with him. Against the backdrop of the Emergency in Malaya many mysteries and perhaps healings unravel in unexpected ways.

When I first speak to Twan Eng I had hoped for a method of translating the streets of George Town into the actual locations of The Gift of Rain. But his approach is far more diffuse. It’s the sense of place tempered by the imagination of history that he writes about. He researches through meticulous reading and also by listening to the stories of old people. He loves time shifts in a book – “so much nicer to write.” And he loves editing, the playing with language, and fine tuning of phrases until they sing. I meet him in an anonymous global coffee chain overlooking the now muddy, marshy shoreline of Gurney Drive, which we can both remember was once a golden sandy beach. As he gazes towards the new development of Straits Quay, which he tactfully says is “very Singapore”. I ask him where he would like to go in George Town.After a pause, he replies, “The Khoo Kongsi”. I wonder why. “It’s beautiful and I haven’t seen it in a while,” is the enigmatic answer. It’s also very clean, a romanticized yet antiseptic interpretation of the past.

The old Khoo Kongsi clan house, which I remember in the 1960’s as a sprawling living place full of scraps, dogs and cooking smells, is now an immaculate museum. With its gilding smartly re-done

it’s the epitome of glossy heritage. We enjoy its gilded halls in fully tourist mode and then take a stroll down Armenian Street. Twan-Eng gently challenges my romantic notions of the past when I spy a man with a typewriter sitting on the pavement and say that it reminds me of the old letter writers who used to ply their trade as recently as twenty years ago in George Town. “Perhaps it’s good that people are literate, and so don’t have to rely on others to write their letters,” he suggests. Before we go for a mango lassi in the tiny café of Amelie he wants to find his father’s old house in Armenian Street. He can just remember it from the 70’s but is disappointed that it looks so ordinary, so unreconstructed.

There’s just time to dodge into a secondhand bookshop where he scans to volumes with an experienced eye before we say good bye. I was left with the impression of a dedicated professional writer – private,thoughtful but with a hidden warmth. A true sensei of his craft.

Source: The Expat February 2012 Issue

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