I know. Many months have gone by since the last newsletter. I do not feel like writing very often. I go, feel, live, get overwhelmed, get totally enchanted, sometimes I fall in love and only then I feel like writing. If nothing overtakes me, what should I write about?
Let’s start with the news part. I think the most important one is that I am now back to work full time. I work for a Hong Kong garment manufacturer called TAL Group and I help them reduce their social and environmental impact. I hence do the exact same job as before, except I am no longer consulting but employed full time. The company has 12 production plants spread across South East Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China) with about 24,000 employees and I am based in their Hong Kong headquarters.
After two fabulous years of Princess Life, I am now back to square one, between airports, hotels, writing emails late at night, manufacturing floors and the rainy smell of South East Asia. Obviously now the most important part of my life comes later, nearly last. This is the rule, one cannot have it both ways; if on the one hand we do something that requires a certain degree of commitment, we need to give up some other parts because time and space are not compressible. Nasty physical rule.
Since I started working again, I have spent a lot of time in Penang, Malaysia. Malaysia is an interesting country because it is made of several ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Indian. They all are and feel Malaysians but have different origins. Malays are an ethnic group, Malaysians are all the citizens living in Malaysia. The largest ethnic group after the Malay one is the Chinese. It is amazing to think that Chinese people are 1.3 billion in China and God knows how many other millions exist outside of China? Most people in Malaysia speak Malay (which is very similar to Indonesian) and English but the majority of the Chinese ethnic group speaks Hokkien (a Fujian dialect), Mandarin and also Cantonese and they switch from one language to another with extreme dexterity. Malaysian English sounds strange and funny; it is very distinctive and I am now able to mimic it.
Food is important for Malaysians and they spend most of their time eating local food and drinking interesting and colourful drinks. They eat in simple places called ‘food court’. The food court system is straightforward: a large variety of small adjacent restaurants that share a common central area of tables and chairs. Each restaurant is highly specialised in one cuisine type or even one food type and one can buy different dishes from different places. They use these food courts for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time they are hungry, ie approximately every 2 hours. The drink menu is impressive, as long as the food one. They drink mostly cold, many fruit juices and a lot of coffee. They do not have the ‘hot tea only’ culture like in Hong Kong or China.
While I was there I tried many Sino-Malaysian, Malay and Indian dishes but the one thing that has struck me the most and which has also been the trigger for many laughters and jokes is the Malaysian papaya. Before going to Penang, I always thought that papaya (an orange colour fruit similar to melon) was boring and with no taste. Well, I think Malaysian papaya has proved me wrong. The small type of papaya has a very beautiful and intense orange colour, it is very juicy, unmistakably tasty, it is very sweet and its fragrance is definitely memorable. It has been several weeks that I have been praising this papaya and if I could, I would write a Japanese Haiku to glorify and canonize it. For me now there is no shadow of a doubt: only Malaysian papaya counts.
In Malaysia, Malay have political power. According to their constitution, all Malays are Muslims and politics and laws give conspicuous precedence to this ethnic group and religion. My colleagues gave me numerous examples that can illustrate this disparity. Malays are the only ones to get full civil and political rights; all the other ethnic and religious group have to compromise in order to keep this surface peace. The first time I was in Penang it was during an Indian festivity: Thaipusam. They were selling coconuts that one must buy and then squash on the ground in order to get Lord Muruga’s protection. I obviously did not buy any because I could not see myself crushing a coconut on the ground; I think my coconut would have bounced back without squashing and my life would then have been a nightmare, totally outside of Lord Muruga’s dominion. There was music everywhere, a lot of Indian people in the streets and all of a sudden, everything stopped. When I arrived back to the hotel, I asked why things stopped unexpectedly and the Indian door bell man told me that usually during Indian and Chinese festivities, the Malay ethnic group does not tolerate noise and public space occupancy so much so they have to respect a strict time schedule. The next morning, I realised this rule was not applied to the imam who was screaming muslim religious songs in a microphone at 5 am.
The Chinese ethnic group holds the economical power. Their immigration to Malaysia goes back to the naval commercial activities that were happening in the South East Asia sea during the 15th century, during the Ming dynasty.
At the time, many Chinese naval merchants settled in harbours such as Malacca, Singapore and Penang. The most famous ones are the ‘Peranakan’, also called ‘Babas’ (male) and ‘Nonyas’ (female). They were rich and cultured, symbols of Imperial China and they mingled with the local Malay population because until the 19th century, there was a law in China which prevented women from leaving their country. The merchants could therefore not bring women and wives along and had to get married to local women. From these blends, interesting features came out: Chinese with darker skin, very different features but also a language (Baba Malay) and an original and fascinating cuisine and culture. When the English colonised Singapore at the beginning of the 20th century, many Peranakans moved there for economical and commercial reasons. They felt very much at ease with the Europeans and the European way of doing business; they had strong links with the English government and demonstrated clear allegiance to the English crown.
The island of Penang is mainly populated by Chinese Malaysians. They are not all from Peranakan origins. During the 19th and 20th century, there were many waves of Chinese immigration to Malaysia; people were trying to escape difficult times and were looking for a better life. Malaysia has now become theirs, they feel a clear sense of belonging to this country and they see today’s China as a foreign country with which they have little or no bond.
During my free time in Penang I went to visit the ‘Peranakan Museum’. These Peranakans have nothing in common with the modern Chinese I know. They seemed so refined, nearly Japanese! The ceramics, the furniture, the fine fabrics, their beautiful hand made shoes, the paintings, the jewelry, the silver and golden belts that seem works of art, the Indonesian style beds, the glass blown lamps, the embroidered bags. So much delicacy, total grace and sophistication! Exactly what communist China threw in the rubbish bin, the sad and tragic end of the Imperial era and what has been one of the most eminent and compelling cultures in the world.
Since I have arrived in Hong Kong I am obsessed with the idea that something vast can disappear in a short time frame. It is as if we let Pompei collapse (!), as if we would take down the Duomo of Florence to build a few modern commercial centers, as if we sold the Palazzo Normanno of Palermo to build a Disney land. As if, all of a sudden, we gave away our past, our strong will to keep precious cultural heritage and our admiration for beauty. As if we got bored of eating well and developed a taste for repulsive food. As if we wanted to substitute our taste for aesthetics with an exaggerated sense of pragmatism that leaves no space to harmony or style. For me, this is is pure horror but this truly happened to China.
During the past weeks, I have totally reassessed the conception I have had so far of human relationships in Asia. I have been in contact with people who come from various parts of South East Asia and I must admit that they have made me think a lot about the types of relationships that we (Europeans) can aspire to have here and also about my own expectations. I think I have seen a glimpse of possibility to accomplish myself from a social and human standpoint in Asia. While for 2 years, I did not see any light in the tunnel, I think I now feel more reassured and full of hope and prospect.
During the past weeks, I have spent a lot of time in our production facility in Penang and I have travelled a lot with a group of Chinese Malaysian colleagues to visit all our South East Asian plants. I can happily claim that they are extremely sociable, smiling and, I still have not worked out completely why yet, but I feel they are very close to us in mentality.
One of the first things that struck me in Penang was the fact that men and women observe each other and give clear sign of mutual appreciation. They compliment each other on their physical appearance, their personality; they look at each other a lot, they smile, they skillfully joke and delightfully court each other. They always try to get to know you, talk to you and they are genuinely interested in your responses. Their behaviour codes are to me quite clear, very similar to ours and their ways of trying to win you over is, like ours, more a way of being, rather than a real conquest (I guess you can always choose which way you want it to go!). After 2 years of dull Hong Kong, I must say that so much freshness and lightness turns everyday life into a sweet and charming wonder and finally brings you back to life. Obviously we are not at the level of Sicily or Naples, this is a more edulcorated Asian version but you have no idea how much it can revive!
I have noticed that they value friendship, they joke all day long and the most incredible thing (for me, constantly surrounded by distant Hong Kong people) is that they joke exactly like us. A large part of our sense of humour is actually cultural, it is not universal. A component of it is made of codes and filters we inherit from our culture. The Cantonese ‘joke’ with words and language. Malaysians joke with behaviours, situations, sex (above all!), friendships, relationships, habits, etc.
With my colleagues I have had very deep conversations about life, love, relationships, our cultural differences and I must say it really warms up my heart because I had never reached such depth with Asian people before. I think it is the very first time I met a whole group of people who still lives in a ‘not too much standardised’ way, non conformist, with ideal and ambition that are different from only making money and becoming rich. We have spent many hours together in cars, planes, airports, after our working days, and I am amazed by their sense of humour, the profundity and the intensity of their conversations. Some exchanges were very moving and we talked for long hours about life, its delicacies, its bitterness, its contradictions, ours weaknesses, our affections, our dreamed and real loves, our moral and social values and their total inadequacy with our lives or our instincts. For the very first time in Asia I have had the feeling that I did not need to make any effort to adapt and share something intimate and personal with authentic people. I have been raptured by these people, so fundamentally different from venal and pragmatic Cantonese and Chinese. They have somehow reconciled me with my oriental life and definitely given back faith in human relationships in this part of the world. And while we were crossing Thailand or Indonesia, the conversations I share with every and each of you each time we meet, profound, moving and natural, these moments I miss the most, all came back to my mind. Maybe for the very first time I have felt home in Asia, I felt cuddled by these elevated thoughts and for the first time I have felt considered for what I really am, in my most in-depth inner self because these people have somehow managed to reach that place in me. And I think this has been, indisputably, the only valid reason for me to send you this newsletter.
Hugs and kisses