Everything started, believe it or not, with a story about air kisses.
About 10 years ago, journalist Niki Cheong, then a freelancer for this newspaper, told Star TV producer Tan Ju-Eng about an experience he once had with an affectionate aunt.
“She leaned in to air kiss me. I had no idea what was happening, and she just tumbled over me! And these were stories that we thought could only happen to an urban kid who lived in Bangsar,” Cheong recalls with a smile.
“When she (Tan) heard my story, she asked why don’t you write about this? And I said, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about people so close to me. And she said, if you want to make a difference, you need to be brave and courageous. Are you bold enough to do this? If you are, I’ll give you a column.”
And that was the beginning of The Bangsar Boy, Cheong’s column about his experiences growing up in one of the country’s more well-known parts of Kuala Lumpur.
Tan, formerly a senior editor at The Star’s Metro section, placed the column there, where it proved very popular: it still runs fortnightly in Metro every Wednesday, a decade after it was introduced.
This year, Cheong has compiled about 40 of his columns together into a book, Growing Up In KL: Ten Years Of The Bangsar Boy.
The striking cover depicts the author wearing several kinds of eyewear: a metaphor for the “different lenses” he has adapted while looking at life as a writer and journalist.
“I feel like The Bangsar Boy speaks to a particular way of looking at Malaysia, from a very progressive, urban vantage point. When I got to 10 years, I was wondering how to mark this, and I thought a good idea would be to reflect on all the stories I had written,” Cheong says at an interview last week.
“Some of the stories really spoke to me. Some of the stories, I felt, really spoke to the shared experiences we have as Malaysians.”
Since those early days, Cheong has become a writer, lecturer and journalist of note, who is currently pursuing his PhD at Britain’s University of Nottingham. Apart from being a columnist for The Star as well as a former editor of the paper’s youth section, R.AGE., he has been featured on the BBC, Al-Jazeera and MTV Asia, among other platforms.
He has also coordinated various social programmes for youth, such as 2013’s 50x50 My Malaysia, and 2014’s LimaPuluhTujuh.
Cheong’s book, published by MPH Group Publishing, is divided into four parts. The first centres on his family; this section was particularly touching for Cheong, whose father died in 2016.
“I use my parents in my stories a lot. The values they raised me influenced me a lot.
“When you lose a parent, they always say to let the memories live on. So it’s very special for me that I am able to immortalise my memories of him in a book,” Cheong says.
The other parts of the book revolve around growing up in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia respectively.
“I talk about things like me and my neighbours playing Uno through our fence, or playing badminton over our gates.
“There is a story where I go about doing a jog around Bangsar and end up meeting different people, like the newspaper man, the sundry shop man, the nasi lemak girl. I talk about Bukit Bintang as an urban space in a story about how we lack public spaces in the city,” Cheong describes some of the book’s content.
“And I talk a bit about Malaysia, and reflect on my views on muliticulturalism. I talk about why it’s so important for us to find our commonalities instead of focusing on our differences.”
According to the author, the book ends with a piece taken from his late father’s blog, where he speaks about his family’s experiences with interreligious marriage.
“I thought it would be nice to publish this in his memory. I think the piece really encapsulates the values I grew up with and still carry, and also speaks to the country’s social fabric. He discusses the space between culture, religion and tradition. I thought it was a nice piece to end the book with,” Cheong says.
Going through his older columns, Cheong says, was an interesting experience.
“It was weird in that I didn’t realise my writing style had changed! I would see things like, hey, I would never use those words to describe that. And, obviously, I’ve grown up, I’ve became more aware of the world. Even the way I speak has changed, and I didn’t know that was reflected in my articles!” he says with a laugh.
The book also features commentaries on Cheong’s pieces from people such as his ex-students and former colleagues, as well as luminaries such as Jo Kukathas, Carmen Soo, Elaine Daly, Datuk Zahim Albakri, and Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai (Star Media Group CEO and managing director).
“I think getting their feedback has been very useful, not just for me as a writer but as a person as well. It’s helped me reflect on how my values have changed over the years, how the things I’ve talked about have changed,” Cheong says.
“What it does, hopefully, is to allow people to relate to articles written 10 years ago, make them relevant today. Things change, people change, I learn new things every day.”
Writing The Bangsar Boy for a decade, Cheong says, has been an amazing experience that has given him the opportunity to meet a diverse range of people, as well as a platform to speak about social issues he is passionate about.
“I hope to give people a little record for their bookshelves. Hopefully, it’s something that allows them to reflect on the country they live in and grew up in,” he says.
Growing Up In KL: Ten Years Of The Bangsar Boy will be launched at 2pm tomorrow at MPH, Nu Sentral Mall, Jalan Sambanathan, Kuala Lumpur. Thereafter, it will also be on sale at all major bookstores nationwide.