Malaysian educator revisits his ‘growing up gangsta’ years in a Johor Baru kampung

US-based writer Azly Rahman's memoir 'Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry And Stories From My Hippie Sixties', which reconciles culture, identity and belonging, is also a glimpse of youthful times in Malaysia in the 1960s. Photo: Penguin Random House

Azly Rahman was just six-years-old when he witnessed a beheading at the back of his house in Kampung Majidee, a Malay village about 8km away from Johor Baru.

It was a bloody affair but a necessary one to get a chicken dinner.

His entire family was involved in the “gangsta experience” as he calls it. The children would run around to chase and catch the chicken and his family members would then pluck out its feathers before slaughtering it.

Finally, the matron of the family, his grandmother, would wield her trusted kitchen knife to cut it into pieces to cook her beloved chicken curry. It was an adventure to prepare a family meal.

Azly, 59, who resides in New Jersey, United States with his wife and children, proudly shares over an early morning Zoom interview that this simple anecdote of a Malaysian kampung scene has never failed to capture the imagination of his university students.

“I was teaching globalisation and I told them that if you go to the supermarket today or even a fast food restaurant, the chicken is already prepared. They don’t have to be part of the slaughter.

“But this was my life growing up, with no electricity and no Internet and they had so much fun listening to it,” says Azly, who is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books.

He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing.

This backyard chicken slaughter story and more from his barefoot adolescence would find their way into Azly’s memoir Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry and Gangsta Stories From My Hippie Sixties, published by Penguin Random House.

In this book, Azly revisits his formative years in Johor Baru and the hippie experiences of the time.

“When you talk about the hippie 1960s, I don’t consider myself a hippie because I was very young then. But the people around me were trying to be hippies, even though the village consisted of people who didn’t speak English very much. The influence of rock music was very prevalent,” says Azly.

He began writing his book as part of his masters in fine arts thesis in creative non-fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey in 2014. It took Azly more than five years to complete the memoir.

“I had so much fun writing this memoir because it took me away from my highly academic and philosophical writings and gave me the chance to recall all these memories,” says Azly.

He has written more than 400 analyses and essays on Malaysia and authored books such as Multi-Ethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future and High Hopes To Shattered Dreams: Second Mahathirist Revolution.

Azly, who teaches world history, psychology, cultural perspectives and sociology of the future, is no stranger when it comes to Malaysian socio-politics. His is a critical view on the domestic affairs of the country, framed by the events of the past.

His previous books detail that side of his academic and political writing. In Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry and Gangsta Stories From My Hippie Sixties, the mood is laidback and accessible for readers.

The growing up years

As the second child among five siblings (four boys and one girl), Azly straddled both the Western world and a conservative Malaysian upbringing.

Azly and his family moved to his grandfather’s house in Johor Baru when he was five from the army barracks of the Royal Malay Guard Regiment of the British Malaya army corps in Singapore. His father was part of the British military.

As a schoolboy, Azly experienced what he calls “liberal education” at Johor Baru’s all-boys’ school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Temenggong Abdul Rahman (1) in the mornings.

In the afternoons, he would attend religious classes and in the evenings, Azly would escape into the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

“We had a radiogram at home. So, growing up, I listened to vinyl records that I borrowed from my uncle’s friends everything from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond,” he shares.

In fact, to reconnect with his childhood years, Azly began collecting vinyl records four years ago.

“We were also one of the first households in my kampung to have a television. But being Johoreans, we were fortunate enough to get two extra channels from Singapore. I watched black and white programmes like Leave It To Beaver, Lassie and Gilligan’s Island on top of P. Ramlee movies or Bollywood films.

‘When you’re writing about memories, you’re writing things that are really meaningful, nostalgic, powerful and some that are painful. It has a visceral effect on you,’ says Azly. Photo: Azly Rahman‘When you’re writing about memories, you’re writing things that are really meaningful, nostalgic, powerful and some that are painful. It has a visceral effect on you,’ says Azly. Photo: Azly Rahman

“All of this gave me a window to what the West and America was about. And the Western influence was very strong, especially through music. It introduced me to a culture of freedom.”

As a young Malay boy, his traditional kampung upbringing and life soon collided with liberal Western culture.

It’s this tense duality that Azly tackles in his memoir, taking readers on a fun, carefree and sometimes reflective journey.

Azly also talks about the temptation of drugs, demonic possessions, the death of a family pet, being a Muslim, the fear of being circumcised and even the May 13 racial riots.

“The May 13 chapter especially I tried to explain why most of my writings today are all about fighting against religious bigotry, trying to stop religious extremism and finding equality for all the races.

“Because I saw all these things and I was confused and angry and I wanted answers,” says Azly.

“It’s not easy to talk about memories. When you’re writing about memories, you’re writing things that are really meaningful, nostalgic, powerful and some that are painful. It has a visceral effect on you.”

Language with a groove

Across the chapters, Azly weaves the stories tight using hippie jargon, Malaysian slang, poems, rhymes and references to the songs he listened to.

“I find spirituality in rock lyrics, especially. It fits very well in the spiritual domain that I inhabit as a Muslim. To me, there’s no conflict. And you can find these music elements, the references and the metaphors, weaved into the stories. It’s like a tapestry. It’s a gangsta memoir. And I had so much fun with the language,” admits Azly.

He confesses that this undertaking gave him the chance to finally understand his younger self better.

“You can call this a road trip for the soul, a psychological time travel.”

It was a personal mapping process, going back to his teenage years.

“I wanted to understand what this boy was thinking, how he saw things, what he experienced. What language would he use if I talked to him now?

“For the last 50 years, I’ve been trying to talk to that boy and now I begin to understand him,” says Azly.

“Hopefully, this memoir will be used in schools and institutions because it has a lot of history and it talks about multiple cultures, seen through the eyes of a child.”

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