Malacca. After a 4 hours bus ride from opulent Singapore, we arrived in Malacca, deposited in a low-end shopping mall cum bus terminal. It was busy with young people and old, now girls dressed in Muslim headgear, but aside from the shift in the language tones – Singapore was a babble of Malay Chinese Indian all peppered with the clipped sounds of the new language of EnglishInternational – and the drop down-scale, not so different – MacDonald’s version of globalization. A taxi ride into the center of town – not a big burg is Malacca – saw a shifting cityscape of near 3rd world crossed with “developing” – a fistful of high-rises (hotels mostly – and what will become of these in the coming years when global depression cancels out the easy tourism of the last few decades?), an unhappy mix in which international money blots out the local, leaving only a residue of what was once the regional culture. Now it is iPods and, as outside the window, Mercedes-Benz – the usual status symbols of the globalized world. I can’t say I find it attractive, and I suspect a deeper inquiry beyond “well, they buy it, ergo they must want it” which the marketeer logic would propose, would reveal a wounded psyche in which the old cultural patterns have been abruptly uprooted, and replaced with market-oriented new “values” the depth of which extends only to the next shift in fashion.
A walk through central Malacca shows the result: tawdry run-down signs of the past jostled by a smattering of new buildings, bland hotels one might find almost anywhere near a beach, and then, passing the UN “World Heritage” notice, we come upon “Jonker’s Walk” which runs a handful of blocks, a setting made famous I think by a Conrad novel. If one could see beneath the veneer of tourist-aimed signage and carnivalesque lighting, it is probably a charming display of regional vernacular architecture. The trouble is that under its oppressive load of tourist lures, its been pretty much wiped out. Instead there’s an outdoor market proffering the same junk one might find on any tourist street across the globe, though of course with some local flavoring. Unfortunately the local element is overwhelmed by the tacky carnival atmosphere, the same western and Malay-Singaporan tourists (not that many at this time of year) meandering the booths which are selling mostly the same trinkets they could buy back home. Such are the glories of globalization. Back in Singapore this is writ large, with Gucci and Hermes and BMW vying for the big-bucks in a sprawling district of obscene wealth, a tropical 5th Ave or Rodeo Drive. In less monied Malacca it’s far lesser items, but essentially the same globalized game of corporate logos attempting to attach themselves to your ego, like a virus. Nike iPod etc. uber alles. The tourists flock with grim set looks, taking photos of themselves in “exotic Malacca,” guzzling the same beers and whiskey’s they could have at home: Carlsberg, Johnny Walker. We passed a garish stage-set, with red Chinese lanterns floating overhead, and large announcements wishing everyone a good Lunar New Year 2009 (though lunarly speaking it is not 2009, but globalization begets a cultural pastiche, and while the signs wished good luck, the astrologers reckoned this Year of the Ox was going to be a downer, and so far they’re right), while on stage to an over loaded PA system a lady warbled karaoke style, followed by another whose voice bent off pitch for a fingernail on blackboard screech. Your 15 seconds of local fame. Back in Beijing the Chinese New Year commenced with the inauspicious burning down of the almost finished Mandarin Hotel, a Rem Koolhaas 30 story edifice which almost finished (May occupancy scheduled) burned up like a torch in a matter of an hour, top to bottom. I await the architectural autopsy to find out just what materials were used on the cladding that found pictures of the skeletal structure aflame, each column and beam alight as if set with Christmas decoration. And I wondered is the adjacent bit of architectural muscle-show, the China Telecom building, similarly clad and equally flammable? Its cantilevered excess would seem a perfect no-escape (aside from a leap into the 70 story void) design which might have the Dutch architect’s office a bit nervous now. And one wonders outside the internet “conspiracy” circles, just what the broader world makes of the fact that this inferno covered the structure top to bottom, but, unlike the World Trade Center, it failed to collapse.
From Malacca went to Kuala Lumpur to visit friend U-wei, a filmmaker busy preparing new feature based on Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. We didn’t get much chance to see the city, except to note it had exploded in the 4 years since I’d last been there and the Petronas Towers now have some serious company, if nothing quite so high. A serious flush of money, or something pretending to be money, has gone through the place in those years. U-wei was pretty busy so time with him was short, though we got a bit in with Julia, mom to a set of twins around 14 months, and a 4 year old Milah. Lovely kids – we were jealous.
Then on to Rawa Island, off Mersing on Malaysia’s eastern shore, 2/3rds the way back to Singapore. In the big bus terminal, a hectic marketplace for multiple bus “lines” – some of which I think compose a single bus – we got taken for rubes and sold tickets that then required “follow me” to another place, dumped in another person’s lap, then another, and I caught the scam early and had noted a police kiosk and went to demand they accompany us. Marcella used her Italianate “pissed off” manner and they obeyed, and after more hassle than civility should require we got our proper tickets and on the bus, a failed con-job this time around. The cop acted like it had been a small misunderstanding about 20 cents difference in ticket prices, but it was a scam and I suppose normally tourist victims would throw in the towel. I am sure the police guy knew all about this, but he was covering for the scamsters. A little stain on the trip and note to be wary.
Rawa Island is a tiny little low-key resort place, with a nice beach, living in a one room cottage high up on stilts, surrounded with jungle foliage, the caw of birds, the gentle lapping of waves. We got in some swimming around the coral reefs (which seemed sick to me, if still beautiful) – gigantic blooms of seeming flowers rich in fractal repeats, sea anemones, the dazzle of tropical fish. We didn’t have snorkeling gear, just swimming so going down for a look was a 30-60 second affair. Marcella, who virtually did not swim 3 years ago and was afraid of water, went out 150 meters to the edge of the reef, and got over her nervousness and went down to look up close at the array of wonderful things 10-15 feet down. Next time snorkeling gear or some scuba lessons.
The deal included meals which came in 3 main courses, a massive amount of pretty good fusion cuisine, but way too much for one’s well-being. Tropical juices. Mmmm mmmmm mmmmm.
A very needed relaxing 3 days of bliss before we went back to Singapore, and at the last moment I discovered I’d misread the ticket (from before leaving !) and we’d missed our mid-night Sunday + 15 mins flight, and after a rush to get it sorted had to buy new tickets. Minus $900. In a well-traveled life that was a first for me. Alzheimer’s setting in?? No, just carelessness and stupidity, of which I have an ample natural supply.
Now back in Seoul piecing together the edit line of SWIMMING IN NEBRASKA, a perfect example of the stupidity store I have. Fortunately I have it mostly recovered, though I am missing one major shot and must wade through upteen poorly labeled and unlogged tapes to (hope to) find it. Classes start next week, meaning gearing up to make a feature using students as helpers, collaborators, and perhaps actors, crew or whatever. Back “home.”