ALL IN GOOD TASTE
What does it take to be a tastemaker? Six of Malaysia’s most influential creatives tell us how they make the world pay attention. By Jamie Khoo
Malaysia’s rising tastemakers tell it like it is
There’s no denying the world has a bit of a crush on Asian creatives, innovators and intellectuals right now, and Malaysia is certainly getting its share of the love. To celebrate our immense homegrown talent, ELLE Malaysia recently teamed up with Esquire magazine, MSN Malaysia, CapitalFM and television channel Life Inspired to profile six agenda-setting Malaysians. The result was Tastemakers, an original production that aired on Merdeka Day. The chosen six, personally selected by judges from the four media, including ELLE’s editor-in-chief Andrea Wong, were Tee May Yee, co-founder of artisanal ice-cream company The Last Polka; illustrator and animator Boey Cheeming; architect Farah Azizan; product designer Benson Saw; artist and content developer Marini (Nini) Ramlan; and fashion designer Jonathan Liang.
So what does it take to stand out from the crowd? Nini, who works for the country’s biggest production company and has collaborated with top international brands such as Fendi and Nike, attributes her success to an inquisitive attitude.
“A tastemaker, to me, is someone who is not governed by ‘the rules of life’. She is willing to test out ideas out of curiosity. I prefer the ‘why not’ route; give [things] a go and see what happens.”
Saw and Boey, however, both of whom have collated large portfolios of work abroad, share their occasional frustrations with the local art and design scene. They feel that although we have the talent and resources, many Malaysians are still afraid of breaking new ground, preferring to ride on the coattails of international trends.
“We have the technology to make things as good, [so] why don’t we come up with our own stories? Do something original,” asks Boey, who is currently based in California. “There are a lot of people who look at what is out there now and what they think would make money, and follow that. It’s a secure way of making some money but that’s not going to break through anything.”
As co-founder of a multi-disciplinary design firm with offices in London, Singapore and KL, and a portfolio boasting more than 700 projects across Europe, Asia and Australia, Saw knows a thing or two about creative cross-border thinking. However, he shares the frustration, listing obstacles such as “dealing with clients who were not willing to take any risk at all but expect huge returns” and the tendency among Asians to “easily stereotype a particular profession or industry [and] not see the potential in the designers who have been designing small objects.”
But if pioneering new movements seems daunting, the tastemakers teach us that nothing creates a spark quite like taking what we are already good at, and making it amazing. Where better to find inspiration than in the familiar? For all the international accolades they’ve obtained, the success of our six fire-starters stems largely from the Malaysian elements of their art.
Tee of The Last Polka is passionate about “celebrating the Malaysian experience and recreating nostalgia”. In fact, it was mostly her local flavours, such as salted gula melaka, pandan kaya and teh tarik, that won over foodies.
She is also confident that our adventurous spirit and diverse heritage will continue to drive new culinary discoveries. “Our
We have the technology to make things as good, [so] why don’t
we come up with our own stories? Do something original.
cultural roots are so rich, so varied, that most Malaysians are born with a curious palate. Our own local cuisine is hard to define without considering the multiple influences of larger Asia, the Middle East and Europe. With that sort of culinary context I feel like our appetite for new foods never stops evolving.”
In art, local textures, flora and fauna are a large influence in Nini’s work, while Boey’s two illustrated books, When I Was a Kid parts 1 and 2, and his daily web comic (iamboey.com) draw heavily on his Malaysian childhood and experiences.
In architecture and interior design, Farah rose to acclaim not only for her work with Ng Seksan – himself so well known for his artful incorporation of local aesthetics – but for projects such as Lone Pine, Hit & Mrs, and Plan B in Ipoh, each recognised as icons in their neighbourhoods. However, it isn’t mortar-and-brick success that appeals to Farah. She attributes her success to the unique interpersonal qualities found here. “There is no shortcut in this industry, you have to start at the bottom. [But] everyone here is willing to help each other – I think that’s special about Malaysia.”
But these six tastemakers are all making a mark both regionally and globally, too Liang is not only based in fashion capital Paris, but holds shows there; Boey has won awards for his animation work and is a recipient of a TED Ads Worth Spreading award; and Saw’s firm VW+BS has been featured in publications such as ELLE Decoration UK, Wallpaper*, Monocle and Architectural Digest.
It looks like the tastemakers may have cracked the code to getting Malaysians more fired up about their own creative industries, while also figuring out what it might take to get ourselves on par with the rest of the world.
Boey calls for a change at the most fundamental level of education, saying that the fostering of an awareness and appreciation for art has to begin at a primary school level. “Art is not placed as an important thing to study and until we do that, we will always fall behind,” he says. “It’s the same as not sending a kid to train for the Olympics when he’s 16; you train them from when they’re six.”
Then, it is important we support and engage our own talent. “We need to have companies and businesses start promoting our local designs in people’s everyday lives. For instance, the local airline or automotive sectors could use Malaysian designers instead of engaging foreign consultants,” says Saw, whose company partnered with the Virgin Atlantic design team to design the upper class bar and cabin of a new A330 in 2011.
For Nini, it’s simple; she believes there is already a lot happening locally; we just need to shout about it more. “What are happening in Malaysia right now are what I like to call ‘pocket’ events – organisations running their own events and not looking big enough as a whole. I’m quite confident we’ll start flourishing soon when great minds come together to make bigger noise.”
Marini (Nini) Ramlan, Jonathan Liang, FarahAzizan, Tee May Yee,
Benson Saw, BoeyCheeming