Thursday, July 30, 2009

Good signs

The other day I sent my MRP supervisor a massive email detailing everything I've done on the project so far, and everything I plan to do. I told her that if I'm doing anything wrong, she'd better tell me now, because once I leave, that's it. It's not like I can hop on a bus and do follow-up interviews from Ottawa.

She had two main concerns:

1) I'm trying to cover too many themes. Surprise surprise, I'm neurotically over-researching.

2) WTF???

OK, so she didn't actually write WTF. What she did write was something more along these lines: So let me get this straight. You found a professional drag performer with a Yale degree, a guy who checked himself into a Singaporean Christian ex-gay ministry a la But I'm a Cheerleader only to later renounce religion and become the main organizer of KL's version of Pride, and a closeted dude who confessed his entire life story to you at a gay bar out of nowhere for no reason then agreed to do it again on tape?

Are you sure these people are for real?

The answer is yes, I'm sure these people are for real, although now I have to do some annoying fact-checking to appease my supervisor (Hello, is this the Singapore division of Straight is Great? Did you ever have a resident by the name of...).

And I'm going to take this as a sign things are going well, since nothing sells a story like a good WTF.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Riots, not diets

Earlier today I was lacing up my new running shoes to go for a jog around the lake. The cleaning lady comes on Saturday, and my roommates were out. I asked her to tell them where I was if they asked.

"Good," she said. "You are getting fat since you came here."

This is probably more shocking to you than it was to me. In Southeast Asia (maybe all of Asia, I don't really know), people say things like this. They're not insults, they're observations. The sky is blue. The earth is round. I am getting fat since I came here.

I laughed and said I know. Malaysian food comes in two categories: carbs fried in fat and fat fried in carbs. The only way to avoid weight gain is to have the will of Hercules and cut portion sizes.

But she didn't stop there. "Yes, face, fat. Back, fat. Exercise good. But you need to eat less too."

OK, this was crossing the line. I still tried to laugh it off.

"When you come back, you eat. Jogging will do nothing if you eat."

I jogged away, trying to suppress my rage and keep myself from thinking about how I apparently looked to everyone else: A fat, sweaty white girl trying to choke back tears as she ran.

Now, here's a confession: I am fairly obsessive about my weight. I just don't talk about it. Ever.

I don't talk about it because my fat-phobia comes with a generous side helping of feminist guilt. I know that even at the heaviest end of my weight range, I'm still squarely within the healthy body mass index for my height. Therefore, the only reason for me to care when I gain weight is because of an unrealistic body image created by the patriarchal corporate mass media etc. etc.

In other words, every time I eat an apple instead of a candy bar or expend brain power counting the calories in my lunch instead of reading a book, the patriarchy wins, a little. This sucks. I hate it. But the way I feel about myself when I let things slide and gain weight sucks more. So I keep doing it.

Lose lose situation.

I blame this largely on the fact I was a fat child. When I saw "Little Miss Sunshine," I immediately thought: Dear God, they invented a time machine, plucked me out of my desk in the fourth grade, and cast me as Olive in this movie. Ask Sonya. She's seen pictures.

I came back 45 minutes later. My roommates had brought me lunch. I gave the cleaning lady a dirty and triumphant look as I threw away most of my rice.

I could practically hear The Patriarchy laughing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Discovered: Rozz


UPDATE: I typed the link to Rozz's website wrong. Should work now.

Last weekend I went to Penang, an island on Malaysia's west coast. My editor at TNG gave me the phone number of a guy she's known for a long time who does drag performances at a bar there. I texted him to arrange an interview. Cramming interview requests into single text messages is a skill I did not expect to develop, but I find people here get freaked out if you call them out of the blue, and that texting for work-related reasons is much more common.

I wanted to reproduce the conversation that followed exactly, but my phone appears to have mysteriously erased its messaging history, so this is a rough approximation:

Me: Hi im claire wrkin on a doc abt sxuality in msia jacq gave me ur # wld u do an invu?

Rozz: I don't know how conducive it would be, but you're welcome to come to my show tonight. Starts at 10.

Me: Sounds good ill be there

Rozz: I won't be hard to spot. I'll be the loud obnoxious drag queen.

Me: I like you already.

So I went. The bar was gorgeous - garden out front, arched front porch, retro 70s decor and a fountain off to the side of the dance floor. I was there with a guy I was traveling with doing research on a similar topic for an international gay rights group (long, boring story - in a nutshell, small world). We ordered Blue Hawaiins because they had a half priced student special and drinks at gorgeous retro 70s bungalow lounges on Malaysian islands ain't cheap.

I already knew Rozz had sung in Broadway shows and was likely to be pretty damn good, but was unprepared for what was about to hit me.

Check out his website, a music player will launch. Sort of a cross between Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, no?

Anyway, Rozz told me to come back two nights later and do the actual interview. "Whatever else you write about me, make sure you tell them the nails are real," he said. I inspected. He spoke the truth.

The interview lasted about half an hour. Then I just sat there and talked to him for about two more. He's hands down the most interesting person I've ever met.

Rozz was born to Muslim parents (but wasn't raised Muslim) and went to high school in Malaysia. I asked when he started doing drag performances. "Well, I guess it was when I did my first performance." He said no one ever bullied him in high school, and no one's ever harassed him in Malaysia or tried to raid the bar he sings at in Penang.

I asked him why he thinks that is, and he basically attributed it to having a loud mouth - he said the jocks in high school were more afraid of him than he was of them.

So many people I meet in Malaysia seem to have this paralyzing fear of rocking the boat. Of course, there's a lot to be afraid of - detention under the ISA, for one thing. But the more I learn and the more people I talk to, the more it's clear that fear of what family and peers will think is a bigger factor keeping LGBT people quiet than the fear of being arrested and charged.

Rozz doesn't just rock the boat. He decided this boat sucks, is cramped and smells funny and has a poorly lit makeup mirror. So he jumped out a long time ago, and prefers to swim.

This seems to be working out pretty well for him.

Friday, July 17, 2009

So long, TNG.

Today was my last day at The Nut Graph. I took my blazer and got out. Literally. I kept it in a drawer attached to my desk.

They're finally starting to run all the features I had backed up in the server, from when we weren't sure if I was going to get my student visa or not and they couldn't publish my byline. So look out for articles on KL's changing indie music scene and why Malaysia isn't likely to revoke its sodomy laws any time soon, as well as more feature interviews in the Found in Malaysia section.

That internship was the most challenging thing I've ever done. I often wanted to beat my head against the wall. I frequently found myself getting home at 9:00 wondering what in the world made me think being a reporter in Malaysia was a good idea. And the fact that all my hard work was sitting backed up in a server made it even more frustrating.

But damn, am I ever glad I did it.

I got tons and tons of contacts for my MRP. I was even able to make my interviews for the sodomy laws article do double duty, and now have one of the leader of the opposition's lawyers and a conservative Muslim member of parliament on tape. That's a blog post for another time, possibly titled "Putting the 'fun' back in 'fundamentalist.'"

And more so than that... it was just really, really cool to work for that organization.

In Malaysia, the print media is controlled by censorship laws. Because the laws only mention print and broadcast media, online news sites can't actually be charged under them. So they're popping up like crazy, and criticizing away.

I have never heard of this happening anywhere else. You hear about people turning to blogs for their information in countries with media censorship, but I've never heard of entire, fully functioning newsrooms developing a parallel media system.

The Nut Graph is the coolest one. It's like a hybrid between Canadian lefty news commentary stalwart rabble.ca and The Toronto Star. It does these intellectual feature news analyses that are sort of a news story/op-ed hybrid, but it also does daily news reporting. This is what I think is missing from the "alternative media" in North America like rabble - it's not really news media, because it's not gathering and reporting the news. It's letting the usual corporate suspects do that, then ripping them apart for having a corporate agenda, as if this is surprising.

The Nut Graph has a political agenda, definitely. But in Malaysia, being in favour of free speech and against detention without trial makes you a rabid radical in many quarters.

I really liked writing these news analyses. I really liked being allowed to use my own brain to deduce what the implications were of the interviews I was doing, instead of having to call an "expert."

This week in the journo blogs, everyone is blowing a gasket because the editor of the Financial Times predicted almost all news websites would start charging for content within a year. Cue the usual self hating journalistic whining. You can't charge for content, because newspapers don't produce enough original content of value for it to work, goes the argument.

Want to make a subscription based pay wall work for your news website? Get the government to pass sedition and censorship laws against the print and broadcast media. That's why Malaysiakini, a competitor site to TNG that focuses more on breaking news, is so successful - if you want original content of value, it helps if it's illegal for your competitors to produce it. In fact, Malaysiakini is the only successful paywall news website I've ever heard of.

Perspective, people. Perspective.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why I’m going to stop listening to grown ups

Recently, the blog and Twitter-spheres have been a-flutter over a report written by a 15-year-old intern at Morgan Stanley about the media consumption habits of teenagers. The report states, among other things, that teenagers don’t like to look at banner ads or pay for things online, don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio, don’t use Twitter and like to play video games.

The first wave of blog coverage treated this like a revelation from above. My God! We traditional media types really are in trouble! And teens don’t use Twitter? My entire world has been turned upside down!

The second wave was a backlash. People started to point out things like the fact this “report” contained zero objective research and was, in fact, just one 15 year old’s opinions and observations. One from the BBC also pointed out that he and his friends don’t necessarily represent every teenager on the planet.

My first thought was actually that someone should investigate Morgan Stanley for employing child labour, but never mind.

The original rush of coverage was a very interesting exercise in how tuned in these supposedly tech and media savvy commentators actually are. Anybody who thinks that the fact 15-year-olds don’t read newspapers and don’t like online banner ads is breaking news... well... hasn’t talked to one in a while. A long while.

Compare this to the reaction this blog post got. The title kind of says it all: “Why being an employed journalist is the best thing that ever happened to me.” It challenges a lot of what has become the new conventional wisdom: Traditional journalism jobs will soon no longer exist. Journalists will have to learn to build their own websites and become entrepreneurs to survive. Everyone will have to learn to be a one-man multimedia marching band, equipped with video camera, three blackberries and a microphone for every assignment. Oh yeah, and this is a good thing, because of crowd sourcing and community building, or something. Grit your teeth, grin, and enjoy the future of journalism.

This post also makes these arguments: Readers care more about reporters uncovering new stories than filling websites with multimedia doodads, learning a beat inside and out is more valuable than learning web design for a journalist, and this controversial kicker: Journalists have valuable skills they deserve to be paid for.

Check out the angry comments.

I read these media type blogs in a rather lazy way: I subscribe to an RSS feed called Journalism Blog Mashup that aggregates a lot of the biggies. I’m glad I started reading them. This Fleet Street Blues post came to me through it, for example.

But I’m even more glad I read the initial wave of reactions to the Morgan Stanley intern report, because now I know that they often don’t know what they’re talking about.

If these people, who supposedly know so much about the changing role of media, are surprised that teenagers would rather listen to LastFM than traditional radio, why should I listen to them when they tell me I will never get a real job and had better start learning HTML yesterday?

I’ll make the same disclaimers Fleet Street Blues did in a follow-up post: Of course learning computer and multimedia skills are important. Of course journalism is changing like crazy, and nobody knows where it is headed. Of course a lot of traditional jobs are becoming redundant. Of course there’s more J-school grads than jobs.

Also, I’m no luddite. I think citizen journalism is awesome, not something to be afraid of. I think social media and the internet are revolutionizing the world. Also, I’ve decided I don’t really care if newspapers survive or not, as long as journalism does.

But still. I think there’s a bizarre trend of self-hating journalists cropping up. Boo hoo, we deserve to descend into poverty, we’re so irrelevant, everyone wants to read blogs instead of us and we deserve it.

This is a totally useless attitude. I’m going to gleefully stop paying attention to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A little perspective

I don't read Canadian news much these days, but I did hear about the hooplah around Stephen Harper accepting and possibly pocketing a communion wafer at a Catholic service.

Here are some words I've seen used to describe the scenario: scandal, outrage, desecration, controversy, sacrilege.

Strangely, a communion scandal erupted in Malaysia a few days later. Except this took things a step or two further.

A writer for the magazine Al Islam decided to go undercover at a Catholic mass to see if he could find any evidence of Muslims being converted to Catholicism, or the church using the term Allah. Conversion out of or into Islam is, to make the understatement of the year, a rather touchy subject in Malaysia.

Muslims are covered by a parallel, state-level syariah legal system. Some states require Muslims converting out of Islam to undergo counselling and have an official body rule on whether they can convert or not; some charge apostasy as a crime. Also, if it's not totally clear what religion someone is, it can be tricky to figure out things like inheritance. And if that wasn't complicated enough, Malay Muslims and indigenous people get special treatment under the constitution, which translates into affirmative action type quotas in education and business.

Remember when I said Malaysia was the most complicated country on earth? Anything I write about Malaysia for non-Malaysians seems to require an encyclopedia of background information. Also, please don't draw conclusions based on this about Islam or Malaysians. As far as I know, Malaysia's unique in the way it ties up Islam and Malay ethnic identity in its constitution. Also, scholars disagree on what to do about Muslim apostates, but the Qu'ran says there is no compulsion in religion.

Anyway. The communion thing. So this guy from this magazine goes undercover at a Catholic mass. He writes that he sees some people who look Malay, but doesn't see any evidence of attempts at conversion or the use of the word Allah (The use of the word "Allah" by other religions is also a touchy subject). When the time came to take communion, he accepted it, but spat it out and photographed it. The photograph was published along with the article in the magazine.

I'm not a religious person. Also, I'm a journalist, and I'm not supposed to have opinions. But it seems pretty clear to me that this is ACTUAL blasphemy and disrespect of communion. Poor Harper was just confused. Either that, or he ate it off camera, and the whole controversy is over nothing, like he claims.

Other things Canadians don't have to deal with that we shouldn't take for granted include detention without trial and sedition laws.

All of this also reminds me of a guilty moment in my own childhood. I used to sing in a Catholic church choir, even though I'm not Catholic. The first time I sang at a service, most of the other kids in the choir got up to take communion. I went with them, but I had a vague feeling I was doing something wrong, so I put the wafer in my pocket.

That's right - I actually did what Harper was accused of doing. Although in my defence, I think I was about 11.

I told my mom about it and she was kind of half shocked and half thought it was funny. She explained the whole "body of Christ" thing to me. I asked if I could eat it. She said yes. So I did.

In conclusion: Communion and religion are confusing. And count your blessings. Both the secular and the religious ones.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Discovered: Joe Kidd and Malaysian punk rock

I've been working on an article about how venues for indie music have changed over the years in KL. I got the idea for it because my roommate took me to an opening party for a merch, zine and CD shop called Ricecooker the day after I got here. The guy who runs it is named Joe Kidd and he's pretty much the father of Malaysian punk rock. I'm gonna guess he probably wouldn't characterize himself that way, but he definitely plays a big role in spreading punk and DIY culture in the country. Say hi to Joe:


As you can probably guess, not everyone in Malaysia is thrilled about kids spiking their hair up, rebelling against authority, and playing loud, noisy, political music. Joe says the cops regularly urine test everyone at shows in rural areas for drugs. A few years ago there was a big raid on a New Year's eve show where about 400 people got rounded up, loosely based on the perception of black metal being tied to satanism. And just last year, Joe's band provoked what has been described as a riot at a rally for the opposition coalition when they performed a song about "ass-licking" that ended with the lead singer showing three inches of his boxer shorts to the crowd.

The opposition coalition in Malaysia is a weird and often unstable mix of a socialist-leaning party, a social justice/reform-minded party, and a pro-Islamic state party. Some members of the latter were less than thrilled about these antics - although as Joe pointed out in the interview, some defended him and said a lot of his band's criticisms of corruption were "spot on."

I asked Joe if there are any upcoming happenings. He said that soon, there's going to be a show in a very small town on the east coast, half an hour away from where he grew up.

This is where I need you to help me. Do you find all of this fascinating? Because I sure do. But it's also extremely possible that I've developed a weird, niche interest in Malaysian misfits that is not shared by my fellow Canadian citizens. Also, I have a soft spot for kids making home made punk rock shows in unlikely venues, because I, too, was once a 14-year-old rebel who was known to bust out a skank and a mosh at Oakville concerts held at the YMCA and ice rinks.

The reason I'm asking is because I'm wondering if I could tag along to this concert and try to freelance something out of it.

To me, the story is just the sheer "WTF??" factor, the contrast of kids embracing this subculture and making it their own in a small, rural town in a developing country. There's also a kind of circular-ness to Joe returning to the region where he grew up. In terms of what's "new..." well, I dunno. I'll find something.

But seriously, if you journalism-savvy classmates of mine think it would be a waste of time, please tell me.

"We ain't got no place to go, let's go to a punk rock show, come and take me by the hand, we're gonna see a punk rock band..."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

So white I'm clear

Yesterday I woke up, made my morning Starbucks coffee, and got ready to go to work at my unpaid internship with a non-profit alternative news website. Sadly, I live too far from work to ride a bike like I do in Ottawa, so I take the monorail. I selected The Low End Theory from my full, illegally downloaded discography of A Tribe Called Quest albums to listen to on my full-sized iPod. Both at my flat and at the office, I'm the only white person around, which is totally adding to my authentic cultural experience abroad. So different from last year when I took a year off to backpack and just hung out with other tourists - erm, "travelers."

Sadly, this also means I'm of limited usefulness as a reporter since I don't speak Malay - but I'm totally trying to learn it. I even listened to an online audio lesson the other day. Saya tidak boleh bahasa Malaysia. That means I don't speak Malay. Being a vegetarian is also infringing on my cultural experience, as is the fact I just can't bring myself to eat with my hands yet. Good thing I eat fish and have a "what I don't know won't hurt me" policy - which I've been told is very Muslim of me.

I set up an interview for an article I'm writing about spaces for indie music shows in Kuala Lumpur. I take notes in an ordinary spiral notebook because I wasn't able to find any moleskins before I left.

At night, I went out to a gay bar with some people I met last weekend - for research purposes, of course. You see, I'm making a radio documentary for my Master's research project about gay communities in Malaysia and how they have a vibrant, open presence here despite international impressions about the legal, religious and cultural environment. Finding subjects - and an internship, and a place to stay - was surprisingly easy: I met them all on Facebook before coming here. Isn't the internet spiffy?

Today I think I'll finish season two of The Wire. There's gotta be somewhere I can find a pirated copy of season three around here.

So that's 20 "Stuff white people like" posts that apply to me. And I bet I missed some. Should I kill myself now, or later?