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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By ROUWEN LIN star2@thes­

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

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