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Sunday June 24, 2007

Eyes wide open

It’s never too late, or too early, to write that novel! StarMag’s fifth Reads Monthly mini pullout offers sage advice from authors from both ends of the age spectrum on gaining experience and putting talent to good use. 

ROOKIE journalist Khoo Kheng-Hor’s first foray into writing was a 30-paragraph story on a kindergarten party – that was cut down to seven paragraphs! 

Many would have given up writing in despair right then and there. But Khoo didn’t throw his pen away and now, three decades later, he’s the author of two English language novels, Mamasan and Taikor.  

Haven’t heard of them? We aren’t be surprised. Mamasan’s release was a low-key affair; in fact, we’d say there was no fanfare at all when the book emerged in April. So why didn’t Khoo go the usual local author route and bug all the media organisations for publicity? 

Khoo Khen-Hor in his cosy den in Cameron Highlands, where he’s working on his third novel. – Photos by LEW YONG KAN / The Star
Khoo laughs as he replies, “I write to amuse myself, my wife (Judy) and my friends and to tell them interesting stories.  

“I don’t write in the hope of becoming famous. I don’t write for money because I feel that when a person writes for money, he tends to lose focus,” says the 51-year-old, who spends much of his weekends writing novels and management books in the cool mountain air of Cameron Highlands where he now lives.  

Others want to give his books a higher profile, though: our National Library nominated Khoo’s first novel, Taikor, for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, which is, at ?100,000 (RM460,000), the world’s most valuable literary award.  

Taikor, released in 2004, received rave reviews from the local press and avid readers. The novel is a historical saga, spanning 60 years from 1922 to 1982, about Ya Loong, who immigrates into Malaya with his family from South Thailand. He joins the triads in Penang but later breaks away from them. “Taikor”, by the way, is Chinese for “big brother”. 

Mamasan is set in 1970s and 1980s Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, in the colourful world of cabarets and nightclubs. Khoo created a host of vividly drawn characters, such as dance hostesses, mamasans (madams), bouncers and the customers who patronise these nightclubs. He steers adroitly clear of stereotyping and addresses hypocrisy and how an external veneer and charm can hide flaws. 

“We cannot simply label people; oh, he’s involved with the underworld, he’s bad, or she must be bad because she’s a dance hostess. Such people are also human, they have their dreams, their hopes, their fears and they are like us. They bleed like us too.” 

Like the colourful characters in his intriguing novels, Khoo has also led an interesting and colourful life since the day he took the plunge into journalism. He cut a striking figure back then, driving around in an Alfa Romeo and carrying a battered typewriter with him wherever he went.  

For him, going into journalism was part of a life-long strategy to become an author. 

“When I first entered journalism, I had two aims. The first was exposure to life and people because I would be meeting people from all strata, from the common people and criminals, all the way up to respectable statesmen. 

“It is exposure to this that sharpened my powers of observation and listening.” 

The second aim was to improve his writing.  

“It is not clever to write tons of words and produce thick books but it is clever if you can squeeze the thick book and describe it in just one or two pages. Journalism taught me that,” he says.  

After honing and sharpening his writing and observation skills for two years in journalism, Khoo switched careers and joined the corporate world. That world, too, helped hone his writing skills and gave him ideas; the prolific writer has, to date, produced 26 non-fiction books that are mostly based on Sun Tzu’s Art of War

He found out about the classic book on war strategy that has come to be a management manual when he began having problems in his work place. 

“I used to discuss my work problems with my wife; then, one day, she got hold of Art of War and translated some parts for me,” he explains.  

His quick mind allowed Khoo to grasp the link between ancient battle strategy and the modern corporate world and apply the great general Sun Tzu’s advise. 

After a three-year stint with Kentucky Fried Chicken in Singapore, Khoo went on to set up his own management consultant firm where he has “suntzunized” many in the business community. 

The novelist, who is a former consultant-trainer to the Singapore Police Force, has also shared his knowledge of Sun Tzu’s strategies with top brass of the Royal Malaysian Police. 

But he’s cutting back on all that, spending only five to six days a month on management techniques at seminars and conferences in other parts of the country and the region because he wants to spend more time in Cameron Highlands with Judy and their “four-legged son,” Bandit, a Yorkshire terrier. 

He also publishes a monthly newsletter on his website to share with people selected Sun Tzu strategies and show how they can use them to be successful and happy. 

Does this mean he will write more fiction? 

Well, Khoo does admit to have a third novel in the pipeline; it is another historical saga that will take readers back to the founding of this country. 

His advice to budding writers? 

“I believe that for an author to be good and effective, he has to live life. He must accumulate a lot of experience in life. 

“I keep my ears wide open to listen, my eyes wide open to observe and I file away bits of information in my head or jot them down to be stored in the computer,” he explains. 

And, of course, writers have to persevere. See what happened when Khoo kept going despite that drastic cutting of his first story! 

  • ‘Taikor’ and ‘Mamasan’ are available in large bookstores nationwide. The Cameron Highlands public library also holds Khoo Kheng-Hor’s entire collection of management books as well as the two novels. 

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