Friday, 23 February 2018

Pain & Gain

“Ouch ouch, ouch. Pain, pain, pain.”
“But, I am being very gentle with you” exclaimed the masseuse.
“Define gentle, please. I am adverse to pain, especially when it's my own. Ouch, ouch, ouch.”

“Good grief, and he’s still got the other foot to go with this Oriental Foot Massage”, I pondered lonely amidst the clouds. “I’m so grateful not to be an octopod”.

According to Buddhism, we living beings are trapped in the cycle of existence known as Samsara. In Samsara, we wander aimlessly and experience unbearable suffering, or foot massage as some call it. It was my dubious fortune to have accepted an offer to undergo a variety of ‘treatments’, at a luxury ‘spa’. It was at the top of one of Malaysia’s many mountains within the Titiwangsa Mountain range. The air was cool, the were clouds are aplenty and the venue thronged by myriad people.

The offer was generous. It featured an overnight hotel room, a choice of facilities available from one certain health and treatment company (and their subsidiaries) in exchange for a little writing. As the Americans tend to say, it was, seemingly, a win-win situation. The only, slight, difficulty was, that I am a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, none spa-going sort of bloke. I like spas about as much as I like gyms, and for the very same reason - I can’t see their point. I’m not a health nut, fitness freak, a gym rat or bunny. I simply cannot see the purpose of lifting heavy weights, only to put them down again to gain a six-pack while I already have at least twice that. Nor do I see the sense of running ten miles, on the spot, on some contraption and getting nowhere, literally. I don’t do games where spherical objects bounce, or fly, back and forth, or have to be chased after being kicked. Equally I seem to be immune to being anointed with various smelling oils, being poked, prodded and pretending that not only is it doing me good, but I am enjoying it too. That’s just me. Many do like this, and pay copious amounts of money to ‘enjoy’ one of the many processes on offer at any number of spa ‘treatment centres’. I prefer to read a good book.

Ten years before I had been invited, by Malaysian Tourism, to undertake a tour of spas in Perak, Malaysia. I was asked to write about the experience for the magazine Senses of Malaysia. Some spas were located in wondrous settings, some were not. Some had steam baths followed by cold baths, others did not. It was then, during those days of visiting different spas, that I discovered this lack of ‘fit’ between spas, the healthy life, and myself. My experiences left me disinclined to repeat any of the massaging, poking and prodding, even despite the glorious surroundings, the incense and the soothing music. I am, after all, not adverse to soothing music or the odd stick of sandalwood. Ten years later I was willing to put my (many) prejudices aside, and just see what I had been missing.

The ride up to the mountain ‘resort’ was interesting. It was not, quite, the helter-skelter of other Malaysian mountains but a smooth ride, albeit a rapid and windy one. It was pleasant to look out of the speeding car, witnessing rain forest tree tops set against a surprisingly bright blue sky racing by. It was wondrous to see large ferns waving in vague tropical breezes and huge, rainproof, banana leaves, not to mention towering coconut trees and other momentous Malaysian flora constructing attractive green vistas as I swiftly passed. Unfortunately, all this sumptuous scenery simply disappeared as I neared the top of the mountain, some 1700m above sea level, and entered what I could only describe as one huge builder’s site. This vista, coupled with being amongst the clouds, with mist everywhere, rendered a distinct lack of view which continued into the copious concrete underground car-parking space.

Red Dog

Maybe this was the management’s cunning plan; to bore visitors to near death with drab concrete and ugly renovations and then, as they exit the car park, astound them with towering, bright, red, Chinese dogs (wearing sunglasses) and assail those visitors’ auditory senses with fairground cacophony. The immeasurable mall projected a Blade Runner ambience (without the rain), tinged with a soupçon of Disney world. The immensity of giant digital displays were due to reach their fullest potential at Chinese New Year, but they were doing a damn fine job of impressing me right then and there.‘Venerated Michael’ gave way to scenes of rain forest, which disappeared to promote a plethora of red gearing up for Chinese New Year. The mall was massive and so were the displays. Within the mall there was this World, and that World all vying for children’s attention, while myriad shops and restaurants teased, and delighted, the adults just as much. Several floors up of this materialistic consumerism and I had reached, not just the end of my tether, but my destination.

Aromatic (and this was a word I was to hear oft time repeated on this journey) Ginger tea was proffered, and consumed whilst I sat and decided which of the many ‘treatments’ I should sample. I had, effectively, one day (split into two halves) in which to get to grips with this spa experience. I was determined to do it justice, as per my brief.

I began at the top. I had a haircut. I say haircut, it was more a hair sculpting. The process was congenial, pleasant even. My raggle taggle mop of wild vines were slowly transformed into something vaguely human, shapely even, under the hands of a very gentle, comely, young Chinese woman. My hair washed, cut and washed again and I was positively glowing. It was “not a bad start”, I thought, ogling myself as much as possible in the mirrors.

Stean Foot Bath
Steam Foot Bath
After steaming my feet in a wooden barrel, in the manner of Chinese Dim Sum, I was shown to a booth where my torture began in earnest. I have a very low pain threshold and swallowed my pain the best I could.

“Mmmmmm, er, mm, mmmmm”
“Is everything alright’ inquired Jon, we’ll call him Jon (the male masseuse) though it wasn’t his name.
“Eer, it’s a bit painful.”
“Do you want me to stop.”
I desperately wanted to say a resounding ‘YES”, but didn’t want to appear to be a wimp.
“Hmm, no, that’s alright”
“Are you sure.”
Again a pause for thought.

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t alright. Jon had managed to find every single pressure-point on my lower legs, the soles of my feet, and even on my toes. I grumbled about his obviously being trained by the CIA and my expecting ‘waterboarding’ next, but Jon declined to understand. I was probably the most reluctant customer he had ever had to deal with as I mumbled and squirmed. Jon, with his deadly kung fu hands, continued to discover my bodily weaknesses. I continued squirming, edging away from the source of my pain the best that I could, but my foot was being firmly gripped in a proverbial vice-like grip. Jon had his head down but, just for a moment I had the sense that he was actually enjoying my discomfiture. And, then, it was over.

The next morning, there I was again, sharp at opening time (10am).

This time, my feet were treated to a bath in a porcelain foot bath. That was before I was ushered into the ‘Quiet Zone’, through doors which, most effectively, cancelled the sounds from the mall. There was the obligatory incense curling its ‘aromatic’ smoke into the room, and a small candle with a very romantic flame. I was asked to undress, and then to lay prone. Once again I felt Jon’s sturdy, but decidedly unromantic, hands on my torso. There is little to say about this performance, except that it was a repeat of what happened on my lower legs, feet and toes, but this time on my body. I still felt every single pressure point. I felt the pain as Jon screwed his knuckles into them, felt momentary relief when he paused, and so on for the next hour. I would have described this as the most exquisite torture, only there was nothing even vaguely exquisite about it, just torture. At one point I was asked to lay supine (on my back). Jon placed a small, cool, ‘aromatic’ rice-filled lavender pillow over my eyes, and kneaded my temples with peppermint oil. This time the ‘treatment’ flew by and, before I knew it, it was finished.

I rested. Ginger tea was brought and drank.

I became curious about the black, standing, contraptions, near the front of the shop lot. “They’re On Site Chair Massage machines, used for walk-in customers.”, I was told. “Would you like to try one?”. We have a saying in England - ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, which basically means once I had started these treatments, I had committed myself to their completion. Again, I said yes.

The experience of sitting, leaning forward into the machine fully clothed, and being pushed and poked again by Jon, was just as painful as the two other times. This time, like the infamous Dutch lager ad., I felt the massage refreshing the parts other massages cannot reach. Could it be “Ouch” that I “Ouch” was actually beginning to enjoy these massages. Surely not.

Gearing up for CNY
Racing away from that futuristic mall, its entertainments and treatments, I had pause to consider the experiences over the two days of my visit. It was not the negative experience I was expecting, and not the experience I remembered from 10 years before. It was different. There were no soothing waterfalls, no soft breezes or sounds of birdsong, no walking on rounded pebbles to the scent of lemongrass, but a wholly other experience concentrating on the massage itself, a treatment rather than a treat. This had taken my mind off due dates, word counts and researching just for a few hours and, I guess, that is all bound up with a spa’s intended purpose.   

Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Blue Lotus 11

Kicking Back in Klang

Bak Kut Teh for breakfast. It’s Thaipusum, and I am in danger of getting drunk on Chinese tea. Well, not really. It’s nine am. My spouse is off plein air oil painting here in Klang. Being an Indian area, all Indian stalls, Dosa places etc are late opening, but Chinese save the day. Just at the rear of a huge light blue and white mosque is the Seng Huat Bak Kut Teh (Chinese pork bone soup) restaurant. You may want to ponder on that for a while.

I hesitate. Thinking, do I really want pork for breakfast. The only pork we British eat for breakfast is bacon. Here, they do not have bacon, fried eggs, sausages or mushrooms. The alternative is noodles from a dubious stall across the way. A stall backing onto a drain no less. My curiosity is piqued.  I am drawn into the bright interior by the sweet scent of the pork, intestines, pig's trotters and chicken’s feet lavishing succulently, aromatic and flavoursome in constantly boiling pots. This is, of course, the reason that those pots are so close to the footpath, right at the very front of the shop. That aroma, that gorgeous scent of mixed herbs and spices are enough to make your mouth drawl, and virtually drag you into the interior in much the same way that the smell of bread, or coffee might, elsewhere.

Bak Kut Teh, Char Kuey and Rice
With the kind assistance of an English speaking, youthful, Chinese waiter I order. A small bowl of boiled pork and its gravy, appear. An equally small plate of white rice and a long Chinese savoury donut (char kueh), chopped into small pieces, are put before me. It doesn’t take me long to devour this assemblage. I feel that something is missing. Something sweet perhaps. I wonder, will I ever settle into this foreign place where order of tea is done through sign language and my scant understanding of the local language. My failing, not theirs.

A gentleman in a black t-shirt and blue jeans wheels a low trolley in. The trolley holds a stained stainless steel pot, probably full of Bak Kut Teh. The gentleman lifts the obviously heavy pot to the serving area, replaces it with a lighter, empty, pot, then wheels the trolley back to the rear. The place is busy. There is no seating room outside, under the tree, near the bridge. There is only room in the slightly warm, but fan brushed, interior. Some Indians, many Chinese (of course) and only one white man (me), take the opportunity of partaking in this porcine delight. I remain a little flummoxed, however. Nine twenty and I have, effectively, taken lunch. What the hell happened to breakfast.

I look around for the young man who seated me, wishing to have another glass of Chinese tea (no milk, no sugar). The place is constantly busy, but I am reluctant to leave. I finally get to order my tea, panas (hot).

The day outside is manufacturing its heat. The heat, and therefore the day, can be felt as far back as my seat. The fans are unable to compensate. In the distance is a haze. Before that, two telephone masts spring from out of a small jungle of trees. The black apron wearing server brushes hair from her middle-aged face. A woman in purple re-lights the fire under one pot. Black and red polo-shirted youths, male and female, bound backwards and forwards carrying pork and gravy in various proportions to eagerly waiting customers. A lorry carrying hundreds of cardboard egg trays momentarily blocks my view to the outside. A young be-hatted Indian man, staggering under a weight, brings his two arms full of egg trays to the rear of the restaurant. The lorry moves, and so must I.

Plain Dosa and Teh Tarik
Klang’s Little India is hot, but relatively quiet. Relatively because of the Bollywood singing emanating from various Indian shops. I espy an Indian restaurant, open on this auspicious day. I cannot resist the lure of a teh tarik and possibly a plain Dosa. At Restoran Sri Baratha Matha Vilas, the teh tarik turns into two. The tea’s milky sweetness is exactly what I need on such a hot day. It is not even midday and the temperature has already risen to 29°, but feels like 35° my phone’s app says. It’s not wrong.

Suddenly sleepy, I amble to see my painting spouse, then to her car and nap until she finishes her oil painting of the Masjid India Muslim Tengku Kelana (Indian Muslim Mosque), Klang. The power nap, and a cold coke-cola enable me to share a little art talk with my group of painting friends, there in Klang

The day’s heat has grown to be most uncomfortable, somehow heightened by the quietness of the Thaipusum Day. While, elsewhere, Hindu devotees perform their various vows and prayers, in Klang the pavements and roads appear hushed, Sunday-like on this Wednesday. Uncommonly there are car parking spaces aplenty, but far fewer emporiums to frequent.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Towards an Abstraction, in Chinese catalogue for Yeo Eng Hin

... through the new spirit, man himself creates a new beauty, whereas in the
past he only painted and described the beauty of nature. This new beauty has
become indispensable to the new man, for in it he expresses his own image in
equivalent opposition with nature.

Piet Mondrian in the pamphlet, Le Néo-plasticisme: [principe général de l'equivalence plastique] by Rosenberg’s Galerie L'Effort Moderne, Paris 1921.

There is an English idiom; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, meaning that the child will resemble the parent.

The Malaysian artist, Yeo Eng Hin’s works stride the lacunae between figurative and, for want of other terms, what we might want to call abstraction. Yeo reveals organic hints of his Italian teacher, the Bolognese artist Leonardo Cremonini. Cremonini, a 20th century European master painter who inspired both artist Francis Bacon and poet W.H. Auden, revelled in his predilection towards semi-abstraction. This is demonstrated in energetic works such as Le Cap (1981) and Vegetazione Invadente (1960-1961) which trends towards notions of a neo-metaphysical art. While simultaneously accepting Yeo’s debt to Cremonini, Yeo’s art works also hint at the stunning, explosive, abstractions of another of his Parisian mentors, the Chinese artist and resident of Paris, Zao Wou ki.

Zao Wou Ki, a graduate of the famous Hangzhou National Academy of Fine Arts, now called the China Academy of Art, in China, relocated to Paris in 1948. He began experimenting in oil on canvas, ink on paper, lithography, engraving, and watercolour, and amongst his circle of friends were modernist artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. Zao frequently, yet subtly, references his Chinese ancestry in his oil painting in a methodology seemingly eluding many proponents of Singapore/Malaysia’s Nanyang. Yeo was a student of Zao’s, and of Cremonini, in the early 1980s.   

Yeo had an extraordinarily fortunate artistic upbringing. Before residing in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, for four years, and studying drawing and painting under the notable artists mentioned above, Yeo had spent his formative years studying, in Kuala Lumpur, under the renown Malaysian artist, Chia Yu Chian, for two years. It was a close relationship, not just founded in art but because Chia and Yeo came from the same Chinese dialectical background - Teochew. Chia recognised in Yeo, a young man very committed to his art, a little of himself. Chia was very lenient towards Yeo, guided him and let him stay well beyond his appointed hours at his studio, to finish his work. It was those little things which endeared Chia to Yeo, helping him understand the professionalism of the man. Chia’s advice to Yeo, was for him to go directly to Paris, rather than spend unnecessary time at Nanyang Academy. Though schooled well by Chia, Yeo understood that he was not ready to go directly to Paris, and needed to strengthen his skills before going abroad.

The opportunity to study under Chia gave Yeo a foundation strong enough for him to enter the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA), in Singapore, for three years (1976-1977). This was at a time when teaching of the fine arts (meishu xueyuan) at Nanyang, had started to develop into a broader based art school (yishu xueyuan) providing training for visual arts, design and performance subjects.
Eschewing both the newly established Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA, 1967), and the even more recent Kuala Lumpur College of Art (KLCA, 1968), it was at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts that Yeo was able to further absorb nuances from the Nanyang masters, such as Georgette Chen (Chang Li Ying, Zhejiang, China). Chen had been a student at the Art Students League in New York, and later studied art at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris, France. Chen was still teaching painting and drawing at Nanyang (1954 to 1980), when the young Yeo attended. Chen was amongst the immigrant Chinese population of Singapore who had became Nanyang’s Western/Eastern stylistic fusion forerunners. Echoes of those Nanyang teachers can be seen in Yeo’s early works such as Tea-picker in Cameron Highlands (1976), and echoed in later works such as Sound of the Lotus (1995) and Orchids (1997). 

That is not to say that Yeo’s paintings resemble those of his teachers. They emphatically do not. And yet, there are essences, or better yet Baudelairian ‘correspondances', connections and interactions between the works of the pupil and of the teachers. As his mentors before him, Yeo has striven to generate a style of his own; a style looking forward towards abstraction, while remaining, perhaps temporarily, anchored in the figurative.

This may be witnessed in ‘sparkling’ paintings such as Kuala Lumpur at Night and Johor Bahru before Dawn. In his larger painting, Kuala Lumpur at Night, Yeo works with a neo-impressionist attention to light, making the painting shimmer with light in its textural splendour. While capturing the city’s imposing array of modern buildings, Yeo lends an ‘other worldly’ sensation to the whole, hinting at the city as a fantasy. I am reminded of Jean-Luc Goddard’s French style poster for his film Alphaville, created by Jean Mascii, in all its 1965 ‘futurism’. In the landscapes Niah Cave 1 and Niah Cave 2, there are hints of Cremonini’s use of semi-abstraction as a method of depicting that which reveals itself in characteristic shapes and textures. Yet Yeo resists the inclination to be just another Cremonini, but strikes out on his own, seeking inspiration from his subject matter.  Yeo’s flower series leans more towards a melding of Chinese Ink Brush painting, and contemporary acrylics, again with hints of an abstraction which had been demonstrated with the master China’s Zhang Daqian’s paintings, like Peach Blossom Spring (1982).

There is little doubt that Yeo’s work reached a pinnacle of excellence with his recent series of very spiritual paintings, concerning Cambodia’s Angkor (2014), which I have written about elsewhere. However, that is not to dismiss Yeo’s other landscapes, his flower paintings or his sparkling cityscapes, which all deserve reviewing.