Looking East


  • Made In Malaysia
  • Sunday, 29 Jun 2014

A band performing at the 2014 Rainforest World Music Festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching

“WHERE are you from?” asked Zainal, peering at us through the rear-view mirror.

A chorus of “Kuala Lumpur!” greeted the cabbie in reply, though that was only technically true for one third of his passengers.

After months of anticipation, we were finally in Sarawak for the Rainforest World Music Festival, an internationally-acclaimed cultural extravaganza.

Unfortunately, I fell sick within hours of our landing.

Perhaps it had something to do with our first day there. While everyone else puttered by on motorcycles, cars and small lorries, we stuck out like sore (and sunburnt) thumbs after insisting on walking everywhere.

Getting around on your own two feet, it seems, is a mode of transportation mostly favoured by out-of-towners eager to take in the sights.

It didn’t take long for the heat to beat us into the cool confines of cabs, easily secured since the MyTeksi taxi-booking service expanded to the state in March.

Zainal said little else while we drink in the sights, but kindly volunteered a cure after noticing my persistent coughing.

“Buy Coca-Cola and mix it with Eno. The lemon flavoured one, with this much Coke – one glass and that will go away,” he said, indicating a pour of about three inches worth of the carbonated soft drink with his free hand.

Like the remedy, which I half remember from some other well-meaning person in the past, all three of us found Kuching an intriguing mix of the new and familiar.

Its low buildings and vast, visible expanse of clear blue skies reminded us of skylines from our childhoods in Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Setapak respectively, though we’d be hard-pressed to say what exactly reminded us of home.

Certain areas brought further places to mind, with a commercial stretch reminiscent of a busier Bang Na – a district in Bangkok, Thailand – and one bar on Ewe Hai Street boasting a distinctive Melbourne vibe.

You know the kind – warm-light bulbs strung about just so to cast a dim, flattering glow on its patrons, cauldron pots for sinks, and wobbly al fresco seating featuring plenty of old wooden crates.

The boggling sense of both deja vu and displacement even caused one member of the party to say “back in Malaysia …” by mistake, only to correct herself immediately after.

Of course, some things are unmistakably their own.

There was an all-enduring pleasantness I’d never encountered anywhere else – try as I might, I cannot remember one bad encounter with our fellow Malaysians across the South China Sea.

Many were engaging conversationalists; generous with their favourite – and not so favourite – truths about the place they call home.

Fun fact: a certain watering hole sees fights breaking out at 2am “like clockwork”, so have your nightcap of local rice wine and head home before then if assorted altercations are not your poison.

And not a single person resorted to the rude failsafe too many here utter immediately upon meeting new acquaintances: “I probably won’t remember your name.”

In Kuching, pass them on the street and they’ll make the call out to you, even if days have passed since your first brief meeting.

Another truth is their appreciation for live music.

A stroll along the Waterfront on a quiet weeknight saw no shortage of acts belting out tunes for passers-by, who were happy to stay for a few songs and then some.  

But back to the festival.

The damp heat at the Sarawak Cultural Village venue was a different beast from the searing weather in the town centre, with one volunteer remarking that previous years enjoyed cooler temperatures.

Performers from all over the world – Ukraine, the Basque country, England, Italy and Tanzania, to name a few – took to the stage one after the other, each music to the ears of different sets of festival-goers.

All heady stuff for someone already a little light-headed from her medication – little wonder that those in better form were flailing about on the festival grounds with especial abandon.

Bad habits are hard to break, so I found myself giving too much thought as to why certain sounds and arrangements were more enjoyable than the rest.

Funnily enough, what brought me back down to earth – and really helped with quelling the overthinking – was hearing a voluble group decrying the state of the public lavatories in a gaggle of accents.

“I like everything in Malaysia except the toilets!” one lamented, as the others voiced their assent.

Like their all-encompassing appreciation, perhaps it’s enough to know what you dislike, to know what needs work. For everything else, you cut your losses and  roll with the punches.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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