two arms' length
The windowpane of my carriage frames the lush foliage of palm trees racing past, brushing the glass between us, appearing to me a disjointed blur of green. I am on a train near Batu Pahat in Johor travelling up the peninsula northwards toward Ipoh, Kedah, and Penang. The towering palms are rooted into the ground. They are not moving.
For the most part, the journey by rail is quiet and comfortable, and I can travel the span of the old country, the region once known as Malaya, in half a day. Much of the railway network on the west coast was first developed by the British in the nineteenth century to transport tin out from the mines and rubber out from the jungle, stretching just under five-hundred miles for a twenty-two hour trip. Ninety years ago, it took the Japanese occupying forces some two months to cover the same distance on bicycle. Six months ago, our own politicians did the same circuit in their black European SUVs, extracting votes from one end of the jungle periphery to the other in a campaign trail leading up to our national election, the same election where the Islamic far-right made sweeping gains in what is now known as ‘the green wave’. Right now, my mind is wandering across the hinterland at a hundred miles an hour as I connect these sentences on my laptop.
In between visiting artists all around Malaysia, I am still working via email, writing (or a least trying to). I read an email from ACMI about a new work from Naarm-based artist Olivia Koh titled Minyak Sawit Keluarga (Palm Oil Family) based on a journey to her family estate, a historical palm plantation in Johor. It is not too far from my moving carriage, a stone’s throw, two arms’ length.
Outside, the trees jeer and leer triumphantly over me, intermittently blotting out the harsh tropic sun that is glaring up rows of disjointed text on my screen.
Minyak Sawit Keluarga is a digital co-commission with Hyphenated Projects that offers us a video work in five sections, exhibiting in ACMI’s digital gallery, Gallery 5. The sections are titled sequentially (1. 树/pokok/tree/மரம்) (2. 農場/ladang/plantation/தோட்டம்) (3. 森林/hutan/jungle/காட்டில்) (4. 动物园/zoo/zoo/மிருகக்காட்சிசாலை) (5. 屋/rumah/house/வீடு) but are accessible as distinct viewings in no particular order, through icons overlayed on a birds-eye-view map of the plantation that is half obscured by a cloudy smog. I choose to watch them in order.
In my sequence, Olivia walks through the plantation guided by her Chinese uncle, framing and recording on a handheld camera as she moves over the trail. He is talking about the place and pointing out details in the fruits and trees. She responds in kind and is later shown accessing reels of the Malayan Film Unit, a postwar propaganda operation of the British colonial government, which then plays for us overlayed and interspersed. These three voices embody a conjoining narrative that never really seem to contradict each other. Overlapping footage of past and present portray a stasis of sorts, the green plantation as a site of extraction frozen in time, rows and rows of kept trees budding, ripening, dropping; a perpetual factory arranged and operated with precision. An imprint of large tyre tracks cut through the grounds, leaving a muddy residue behind. An aluminium roof worth a thousand ringgit is stolen quietly in the night.
I recognise the the Melbourne Zoo in the fourth section, off the signs and billboards of tropical animals that display the message “Don’t Palm us off” next to “Zoos Victoria, fighting extinction”. A white voice is narrating Robert Menzies’ visit to Malaya, spouting out phrases about interdependence. Olivia visits a display showing rows of assorted junk food and approaches them with a barcode scanner. There is something eerie about going to a zoo to see animals printed on a plastic board. They always seem happier, more willing to be seen than the real ones. The real ones have no alternative but to rely on keepers to clean and feed them in their enclosures.
In the fifth section, I witness the funerary burning of a paper house in a Kimzua 纸扎 ritual. The house itself and other paper constructs are elaborate, colourful and over the top. The burning of the house is shown almost in its entirety with the accompanying fanfare of cymbals and gongs. A mound of smouldering ashes is left behind. The last burning I attended was that of my paternal great-grandfather when I was ten. They told me that we were providing for them in the afterlife, giving them cars and mansions and servants so they would retain the comforts that they had in this world. I found it difficult to understand how the dead could still rely on the living for their needs.
the tiger and the chameleon
In primary school I made a poster presentation about palm oil for a subject called kajian tempatan (local studies).
- The palm oil tree was first introduced by the British as an ornamental plant from Africa.
- Today, palm oil exports account for seven percent of Malaysia’s GDP, and plantations cover over fifteen percent of the entire nation. Malaysia and Indonesia together provide ninety percent of the world’s palm oil supply.
- Vital industries like this are key to Malaysia’s vision to become a self-sufficient developed nation by 2020. They keep the nation on track to becoming a first-world country and a respected member of the global community.
In London finishing a thesis (a foolish endeavour), I got lost walking through Hyde Park late at night.
In a tram on the way to the office, I watch a crowd gather around a backpacker playing the didgeridoo outside the State Library of Victoria.
What kind of animal would you be?
Both Olivia and I arrive an hour early (how characteristically un-Malaysian) to our coffee meeting at Captain’s. We meet each other on the way in and sit at the window overlooking the H&M on Bourke Street.
We talk about our families. Her voyage to Johor, my visits to Penang. We trade histories. Both our paternal families owned plantations; hers came down from Taiwan to grow rubber and then palm oil in Batu Pahat, mine were tin miners in Serdang Lama that pooled money through the Hakka clan to buy over a rubber estate nearby. I tell her about the Hakka gangs that still exist in the area, and about my birthright as a member. She tells me that her uncle still visits the farm most weekends from Singapore even though the family home stands empty. The mine in Serdang Lama is now a large amusement park and shopping mall; the Chinatown shophouse our rubber estate paid for was burned down by the government for being a communist hideout. The children have all but left the Batu Pahat estate that the grandmother refused to abandon; the burning ritual takes place on the land and the ashes spread into the forest of fruits budding, ripening, dropping.
We finish our flat whites, and she leaves to work on her next project near the market while I linger once again over a laptop screen, gazing intermittently at hurried shoppers with bulging bags climbing up and down stone steps as they chase after a tram that is already in motion.
– Brandon K. Liew is a writer, reviewer, and doctoral scholar of Malaysian Literature. He is the curator of the audio-archive A Wasteland of Malaysian Poetry in English and treasurer of the Malaysian Writers Society. Visit his website
Experience Olivia Koh's Minyak Sawit Keluarga (Palm Oil Family)
1. Maniam, K. S. 'The New Diaspora'. Globalisation and Regional Communities: Geoeconomic, Sociocultural and Security Implications for Australia, edited by Donald H. McMillen, USQ Press, pp. 18–23.
2. Tiang hong, Ee. 'Malaysian Poetry In English: Influence And Independence'. Singapore and Malaysian Writing, [Special Issue] Pacific Quarterly (Moana), vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 1979, edited by Kirpal Singh. Paper presented at Writers' Week, Adelaide Festival of Arts, 25.2.78 to 4.3.78.
3. Taken from the opening line of Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915).