Kee Thuan Chye: just in so many words : views, reviews, & other things, Heinemann Asia, Singapore, 1992. 267 pages, $17.90
review by Otto Steinmayer.
[suggested headline: “O rare Thuan Chye!”
Reviewing this book puts me between the devil and the
deep blue sea—for the best and pleasantest of reasons. I may get it
from you, reader, because I find it impossible here to be a critical
critic, and because I have nothing but good to say, I may well wind up
giving you an incomplete review. And I may get it as well from the
author, because, I’ve learned, nothing disgusts a writer more than
soupy, gushy, unqualified praise. There’s nothing runs truer in regard
to writing than the old saying that your enemies do better than your
friends for keeping you honest.
What can I do? Kee Thuan Chye, though indeed a respected colleague and friend, really does deserve an offering of praise, not only for this book—which we’ll get to—and for his work as playwright and director of plays, but for many other things, and not only from me personally, but from all Malaysians in return for his outstanding services to our literature.
Malaysian newspaper readers have had a
stimulating time with the
literary section of the New Straits Times that Thuan Chye
conceived and continues to edit. These pages remain the most exciting
and intelligent print in the nation, and are of such a standard that
they need not feel ashamed next to any similar effort of another paper
in the world. They make, in fact, the corresponding section of my
hometown US paper, the Hartford Courant, look like a cheap
supermarket tabloid. The literary section has been the place where
important and tart controversy has been aired. Thuan Chye has put me
and many others in his debt by encouraging us to write and giving us
the space to publish, doing his best to let many Malaysia voices (along
with my humble foreign voice) to speak out.
Thuan Chye’s just in so many words is a
collection of reviews
of theatre, film, books, interviews with important Malaysian artists in
serious media, travel-writing, and a sprinkle of social commentary.
These were written over a period of 13 years and serves as an excellent
guide to the state of the arts in Malaysia during the 80s, and to
issues that are still relevant into the 90s. He ranges over the entire
scene (it’s quite a benefit that one can do this here, commentary isn’t
fragmented into specialties) taking in Sudirman as well as Lat as well
as A. Samad Said as well as Ramli Ibrahim.
Thuan Chye is a writer of a type that was once far more common than today: the literary man who is a journalist, or the journalist who is a man of letters. Thuan Chye’s respect for literary standards is evident on every page of his selected articles. His prose is more than clear, it is chaste, and often rises to elegance, a quality that often gets thrown out in the process of creating copy. He always seems to be speaking to the reader, and his virtuoso use of colloquial Malaysian English for one film review exemplifies the truth that the best writing is closest to the bones of speech.
As an interviewer, Thuan Chye’s talent is to allow the subject and help him to present himself without interference, in a gentle series of suggestions. As a film reviewer, he writes for the person who wants more out of a movie than a two-hour dose of dope.
Thuan Chye is a rare man here, and a valuable man to be where he is, a Malaysian patriot, though perhaps not a patriot in the official sense, a man who is willing to take Malaysia seriously. This seriousness—never cloying or solemn—and concern is the theme that runs through in just in so many words from beginning to end and binds the articles into something of a piece.
To tell the brutal truth—and I, as a foreigner, expect to be told off for—the Malaysia of the surface is an sickeningly philistine nation. Philistinism is a product of development. Look at the extraordinary spending on monstrous projects, high rises, towers, golf courses, condos... To paraphrase Dashiell Hammett, “Tsk, tsk. So much money, so little taste!” or practicality, as we already see the overloading of basic services like electricity, water and roads.
The philistine goes out and spends, acquires
wildly; his dream of the
elegant life is a penthouse condo, his apex of beauty a Mercedes 300.
It’s a sentimental attitude. What’s imported is good whatever it is,
what’s local need not cleave to any standards.
Artistic care is quite another thing. the artist—in whatever mode or medium—takes time, practices patience, tries to pare things down to the most effective minimum, to get rid of superfluities. Where do you find abundant discipline like that in Malaysia outside of the humblest and least public class? Old ladies in kampongs take 4 weeks to weave damasked sleeping mats that could be put in museums. Writers here get more notoriety but are often taken as little seriously. The difference is that mats being cheap, the weaver must stick to a high standard or not make even the little money she gets; but when people pay no attention to standards in the “prestigious” arts, bad writing crowds out the good.
Aren’t care, carefulness, concern, taking things seriously at bottom as Malaysian traits as “chin chai” and “tak apa”? Shouldn’t there be somebody to say so? That a critical rigour which praises and blames with an even hand is no sign of disrespect or denigration but the healthiest encouragement a commentator can offer?
Yes, Thuan Chye deserves commendation simply for
his giving a shit;
he cares about literature in public. He cares about literature
as a whole, feeling that all writing from anywhere is the common
property of all human beings, and he cares intensely about the
literature and art of his own country. In his travel pieces Thuan Chye
takes an interest in the countries he visits, but he is never agog, and
always relieved to come back home. There are many persons of
intelligence and talent born in so-called third world countries like
our own who leave without regret the milieu of their birth to join the
“great tradition” of Other Lands. But Thuan Chye would seem to be a
lost soul out of Malaysia; he hankers as much for the flavour of local
prose as for the nasi briyani, hokkien mee, and satay of
This is the truth that wherever, whatever, we may have been fated to have been born, we have to deal with what we have. No one can do our thinking for us, and nobody ought to feel ashamed for taking on that human duty. It is a mark of intelligence to respect intelligence. Thuan Chye’s just in so many words is happy evidence that there are Malaysians out there thinking as well as anyone else on the planet, and an encouragement for us to do more.