It was getting to be midday when that black SUV landed in my garden. Two artist friends, one small boy, a dog, and a woman whom I not met before, exited from the vehicle. The equatorial sun was typically hot, burning my arms. I welcomed my guests into my greened garden. I had no idea who that woman might be- my friend’s lover perhaps, his wife (whom I have never met) cousin, sister, the possibilities were endless. Later she was introduced as the artist - Honey Khor. I was pleased to meet her, but still had no idea who she was.
A conversation rolled out. I was trying to publish my book of poems entitled Remembering Whiteness and Other Poems, and one of those friends was offering possibilities for that to happen. The woman, now known as Honey, had a book project in mind for a charity that she worked with. Honey, it seemed, was looking for a writer. It was a charity project. Charity projects frequently mean no pay.
After an hour or two drinking local coffee (consisting of very sharp coffee beans roasted with margarine and sugar, doused with lashings of condensed milk and hot water, and a dash – perhaps a soupcon, of evaporated milk) we chatted, perhaps even flirted a little as, in my peripheral vision, I watched the dog and boy frolic in my garden. Honey tentatively approached me about writing her book. I said that I should have to think about it. Consider the time that I would have to spend. Way up the pros and cons. Delve into the nuances - but I knew from that moment that she had mentioned charity (and Cambodian children) – I was hooked - line, sinker, heart and all.
Over the following few weeks, the artist Honey Khor and I met a few more times. The idea for a book grew, as did a relationship exterior to the book. Honey and I dashed down to Singapore (in what turned out to be her black SUV), to meet with Bill Gentry – the founder and managing director of the charity - Colors of Cambodia. Bill was a little surprised. He eyed me up and down - like some prospective father-in-law, but still gave his ok for me to be in on the project and…. we were set.
The shape of the book jelled - as did a relationship between Honey and me. Within a short space of time, Honey and I were on our way to that gem of green and lost cities - Cambodia. We had research and interviews to do. We had photos for the book to take, people to meet, schools to visit, villages to see and a whole country to absorb in a very short space of time. Our skates were on, wheels were oiled, and we were ready for the off………..
Perhaps it was the headiness of the Cambodian air. Perhaps some glint of maddening sun prompting enchanting romance, some glamour caste by a passing Apsara, for in a moment of dreamy bliss (and in the back of a dusty tuk-tuk) I proposed to that artist Honey Khor, and she, after a moment or two of heart-pounding worry – said yes! We got married there – in the gallery which is Colors of Cambodia, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Bill Gentry (founder and managing director) was there and helped organise a very last minute wedding……and that was but the beginning.
For the rest of that one solitary week, Mr and Mrs me juggled our personal lives and performed the tasks necessary to pull together the book which was to become - A Story of Colors of Cambodia. In a frenzied whirl, we jumped in and out of ancient, rusting tuk-tuks – felt/tasted, Khmer dust on our faces, in our mouths, in our hair, and secreted within our nostrils. It was the Cambodian dry season. Heat and dust were everywhere, yet despite those minor inconveniences we interviewed many of the key players in the story of the charity - Colors of Cambodia. In hardly awoken mornings we visited Cambodian schools - where Honey and Bill taught art to underprivileged Khmer children. In brisk paced afternoons, we looked at smiling children faces, smeared with dust but very much alive and beaming love. During those days I observed the stressed businessman Bill and hard working Honey - singing, dancing and interacting with those Khmer children - in a most transcendental way. It worked. Laughing, joyful children drew. They smiled and drew some more. Bill and Honey were a huge hit. In each class in each school we visited during that time - all children clamoured to be next to them, as that energetic teaching duo fed off of the children’s love and natural innocence. I was bemused, enchanted by those interactions between these two foreigners and the Khmer children, and knew then that I had done the right thing in accepting Honey’s offer for the book. It was life changing - it changed mine.
For more years than I care to admit, I had wanted to visit Angkor Wat. It was on my bucket list next to Indonesia’s Borobudur and India’s Taj Mahal and Khajuraho. Over time I had managed to get to just one of those incredibly spiritual places – India’s Taj Mahal, during a tour of Rajasthan. Then, over a laughingly British breakfast of nicely fried eggs, Cambodian bacon, French style Baguette rolls and a passable Khmer coffee, I discovered that Honey was taking me, and a group of advanced students from the Colors of Cambodia gallery, to the expansive ancient Hindu complex of Angkor Wat. To say I was thrilled was a massive understatement. It was the best honeymoon present in the world that my (newly married) wife could have given me. Honey and the students sketched and produced some very fetching water-colour paintings, while I took photos and eventually sat, then began composing a poem which eventually became Colors of Cambodia, and featured in the book.
In that week, aside from teaching and ogling at Cambodia, we generally got down to the business of the book. In the warm evenings, when we were not observing the advanced students painting in the gallery – we rested amidst the calls of romantic cats on tile roofs, and mulled over the day’s events/recordings/observations. That became our honeymoon – visits to captivating places, meeting intriguing peoples and seeing happy, laughing children who wanted nothing more than to be loved and to be nurtured, and who in return gave warmth, love and happiness.
Back in Malaysia, Honey (now going under her birth name of Pei Yeou) busied herself with organising the sponsorship for the book. There was a notion (born out of the idea that every penny should be for the charity it was given for) that the – A Story of Colors of Cambodia, should be entirely self-sufficient, and not rely upon any finance from the parent charity Colors of Cambodia, or from its parent company Positronic. That effectively meant that while I was busy collating the material I had gathered for writing, writing, poring over countless photographs for inclusion into the book and wrestling with design programmes, my new wife was even busier raising funds to support the printing of the book - the book launch and just about everything else.
That black SUV fairly flew around our home city of Kuala Lumpur and, on occasions, dashed down to Singapore so that we could liaise with Bill. Frail tyres became punctured and air-cons refused to spread cool. Soothing music started to send us to sleep, while rousing music interfered with the earnest conversations we were having about publishing details. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners were frequently grabbed on the run, with no opportunity to cook for ourselves, except for the very rare occasion when I cooked pasta, or wasabi potato salad for a monthly Dhamma meeting. One evening a month, we allowed ourselves the luxury of a cheap bottle of red wine – but only after work had finished at 10pm, and we were too tired to do any more.
At one point, due to severe frustration and feeling neglected by my new spouse - I seriously considered posting my wife’s hand phone – the one with the cute red rubber cover and bunny ears - to some far-off destination – Poland perhaps, or Timbuktu, just so she could spend a little more time with me – without that object being between us. But I didn’t. I realised that these inconveniences were a necessary part of the process of delivering the book. It was all about the book, and the Cambodian children who were the ultimate recipients of all this hard work.
Meetings came and went, as did deadlines. Temperatures rose both in and out of our apartment – outside due to a thick fog haze settling over dusky Kuala Lumpur, and inside due to acute differences of opinion over the designing of the book. The book’s cover changed at least three times during this period. But, eventually, all temperatures cooled and we were able to move on with the book writing and design. My dear wife took a two week break to Europe, leaving me to write in peace. That was heaven. No meetings for that week, no pressures other than my self-imposed writing deadline. I really began to make writing progress.
Then, one fine equatorial day - Pei Yeou, aka Honey, gave me the great news. She had managed to raise the entire amount to print the book. We were both ecstatic. There were so many kind people who believed in our project, and some had parted with large sums to enable the project to move along. We shall always be grateful to those people, their unselfish generosity, and the way they rallied around when the need was there.
Book editors appeared as if from nowhere, helping hands stretched out to guide us and assist us with the creating of the book, its editing and smoothing over the written and design cracks which were inevitable with such a project. Always, at the back of our minds, was the thought of the children we were doing all that for. It was for those Cambodian children, in Siem Reap, who had difficulties attending school and/or who had no access to art, school books, school bags, pens, pencils etc. Many had no school uniforms either.
Eventually the writing was done. The book designed, re-designed, and designed again. We were swept towards our printing deadline, and the result the profusely illustrated book – A Story of Colors of cambodia. The book is not a full account of that charity, rather just a brief insight through the eyes of one volunteer – Honey Khor, the woman who became my wife, in the gallery belonging to that charity – Colors of Cambodia.