Things that matter
An author’s debut collection of stories showcases a side of malaysia — and malaysians — that we often miss in our busy lives.
WE’VE all read those stories. The ones that tell of an ordinary person doing the extraordinary, a stranger reaching out with a kind hand or a kind word, and people paying it forward. They tug at your heartstrings and they give you hope that all is well in the world.
Alexandra Wong’s Made In Malaysia: Stories Of Hometown Heroes And Hidden Gems is all that – and so much more.
For starters, all 40 of the stories in her first book feature Malaysians, from the man selling kuih on the street corner to the neighbour with a big heart, from the retired teacher who dedicated her life to imparting knowledge to the taxi driver in his white shirt and black pants.
“The stories are all anecdotes based on my real-life encounters with ordinary Malaysians and their unforgettable acts of heroism and kindness, which I witnessed or was at the receiving end of,” Wong says.
“I wrote them down to share them with others who did not get a chance to witness them, secretly hoping these stories of kindness would inspire readers to do the same.”
The launch of her book earlier this month represents a big step for this sales managerturned-freelance writer, who has been a columnist with The Star since the end of 2007.
The book was nine years in the making; nine years of reflections triggered by chats with random people she met on buses and trains, in the warung and mum-and-pop eateries, in “obscure but charming small towns that make up grassroots Malaysia”.
All the stories in this book have been published in Star2 or MPH’s Quill magazine. But Wong didn’t stop at just a compilation. To make them more than a mere anthology, she added a backstory to each previously published tale.
The theme of hometown heroes and hidden gems was not difficult to come up with, but it was not as easy having to select just 40 stories from the hundreds she has written over the years to include in the book.
“Hence the backstories. When a reader reads all the stories together, I hope they can follow the journey I went through in discovering my own values as a writer, daughter, friend and Malaysian – a journey I believe many Malaysians go through as well.
“I also contacted each character to get their photo, which was not easy because I’ve only met some of them once in my life, and others, I last met more than two decades ago. But I am glad I went the extra mile because it reconnected me with people like the tuition teacher that instilled in me a love of the English language,” she says.
When asked when she first discovered her love for writing, Wong speaks fondly of a teacher that was instrumental in nurturing her love for the written word.
She also recalls her own determination during her primary school days to get higher marks in English than another girl in her class.
“Out of kiasu- ness, I enrolled in an English tuition class. Mrs Ho was legendary for her military-style teaching but it was really a front for a creative educator who successfully piqued our interest in the English language. To make us learn our proverbs, she said it was like ‘collecting golden nuggets’ – her methods worked!”
Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Wong frequently travels to Penang and her hometown of Ipoh. She shares that the first suggestion of a compilation of her works came in 2007, when Eric Forbes of MPH Publishing commented, in response to a story she wrote for (the now-defunct) StarMag, that these kind of “Malaysiana” stories are well-loved and that she should think about compiling her stories into a book.
“But I thought readers deserved better than a simple compilation. Besides, I didn’t think I had enough stories for a compilation of substance,” shares Wong.
It was only years later, in 2013, when Choong Cheong Fatt, a childhood friend and a photography buff, showed her a stack of photos he had planned to give his subjects as a memento, that the idea of a book came up again.
“He said I should consolidate my stories in a book; the characters I’d written about would appreciate it. The next day, I told Eric I was ready.”
Wong shares that one reader described the book as “Chicken Soup for the Soul buatan Malaysia”! An editor called them “feel good stories” for anyone who likes heartwarming
The Wit And Wisdom Of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Thanks to publishers Editions Didier Millet, 10 copies of the book are up for grabs especially for Star2 readers.
To stand a chance to win, answer the questions below: and entertaining tales.
“The take-home message is that Malaysians are awesome. It is so important to show a little kindness, not only to family and friends, but to strangers as well. You don’t have to be a titled or rich person or a celebrity to perform great acts of heroism, and the Malaysians in the stories prove it!” she says.
When asked if we can expect a second book from her, Wong says, “Only if this book does well!”
“I have hundreds of stories in my head, some floating in my Evernote drafts, some buried in a forgotten blog somewhere. And all of them are dying to get out.”
Made In Malaysia was No.1 on MPH’s local non-fiction bestsellers list last week, certainly an indication that it is indeed doing well.
But perhaps knowing that her writing has touched so many lives is even more telling.
Made In Malaysia: Stories Of Hometown Heroes And Hidden Gems is available at all major bookstores.
Connecting with people: alexandra Wong’s debut book tells the stories of real-life encounters with ‘ordinary malaysians and their unforgettable acts of heroism and kindness’. — yap CHee HONG/The Star