Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Wayang Kulit Performance in Kelantan ...

Last weekend, Pat and I headed out for an overnight trip to the state of Kelantan, Malaysia.  This was where Pat did her Ph.D. field research back in the mid- to late 1970's, and where I was sent as a Peace Corps Volunteer right out of college.
Our mission this time: to go and check out a performance of the wayang kulit (shadow play) in Kelantan. The Kelantan shadow play was the subject of Pat's research and Ph.D. dissertation in the 1970's.   Pat's teacher, the master shadow play puppeteer (dalang) Hamzah Awang (pictured on the left ca. 1976 with drummer Mohammed Ali) passed away in 2001, and his son Rahim is now trying to carry on the tradition.
Rahim (shown here in a 2010 photo with his wife Aini and kids --- who are much bigger now!) has gathered some surviving members of Hamzah's troup and is using his father's collection of instruments and puppets to perform when he has the time and can get the troupe together.  Speaking to him, and listening to him play, you get the impression that dalang Hamzah is back among us!
Among the old-timers in Rahim's troupe is Mohammed (Mat) Ali, whom you saw playing on the right across from Hamzah in the 1976 photo above.  He is now retired from the police force, and is partially paralyzed in one leg from a stroke he suffered recently.  But whenever Rahim performs, and whenever other practitioners of the traditional arts (mak yong, main puteri, etc.) need a hand, Mat Ali will drag his bum leg and be there to help!
By the way, play around with the map at the top to see where Kota Bharu is in relation to Kuala Lumpur.  Use the zoom (+) and unzoom (-) buttons with the arrow keys to get a feel for the geography of Peninsular Malaysia!

Pat and I set out of the Subang regional airport in Kuala Lumpur for a short flight to Kota Bharu.  We flew on an ATR 72-500 short-haul turboprop plane on Firefly, a low cost domestic carrier.  It was the Malaysian low-cost airline Air Asia that started the no-frills revolution in this part of world, shouting the slogan "Now Everyone Can Fly!"  How prophetic!

We rent a car at the Kota Bharu airport and drive into town to check in at the Crystal Lodge Hotel, a nice, modest little hotel on Jalan (street) Che' Su, almost right next door to the place that Pat used to rent when she was a grad student from U of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Pat was doing field research work, studying the music of the wayang kulit for her Ph.D.  The house that Pat lived in is long gone, a "victim" of urban re-development.
A short walk from the hotel, along the banks of Sungai (river) Kelantan, is a beautiful riverwalk recently completed.  When Pat was doing her research, she would bicycle
from her place to one of these floating docks that served as a terminal for the river taxis (speedboats) that would take her across the river, bicycle and all.  On the other side, she would pedal the bike, field recording equipment and all, from Kampung (village) Laut to Hamzah's village of Kampung Gerong.  At that time, there was no riverwalk --- just mud banks!
On this trip, we're accompanied by Prof. Kathy Foley (left), a theatre arts professor from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  Kathy is in Malaysia most of this year on a Fulbright grant to research Malaysian theatre.  She is a specialist in the Indonesian puppet theatre.  Pat is sharing her office at the University of Malaya with Kathy this year.
After a sumptuous dinner of Kelantan-Thai dishes, we drive out to Kampung Kebakat, where Rahim has built a panggung (theatre) in his front yard.  Rahim's day job is in the building trades, so he has built an all-weather, hi-tech panggung, with outside lighting, PA system, and an audio equipment room.  A 21st-century village panggung!

When we arrive, we briefly stop inside Rahim's house to say hello to Aini and the kids.  The kids are now teenagers and are scurrying around getting the place ready for an expected influx of design and photography students from the MARA Institute of Technology near Kuala Lumpur, who are on a field trip to Kelantan.  The students' lecturer is a friend of Rahim's, and the MARA Institute has underwritten the performance.  While waiting for the students to show up, we look into the panggung and find the percussion players lounging around in the panggung waiting for the students to arrive.
Rahim tells us that tonight's performance is special.  In his previous performances, he has never performed the buka panggung (stage opening) ceremony because he never learned how to do it from his dad.  But tonight, he has dug up another old timer from the villages nearby who knows how to perform the ceremony.  This fella will coach him on how to perform buka panggung.  And sure enough, the front of the panggung is already set up with plates of yellow-dyed cooked rice, boiled eggs, and other accoutrements for the ceremony.  Note the puppets set into the banana tree trunks (which are very soft), ready to be used in the performance.

Bye and bye, the students arrive.  The bus drivers had gotten lost trying to navigate the dark streets in an unfamiliar area.  The students immediately set up their photographic gear and start snapping pictures as Rahim welcomes them and briefs them on what they will be seeing tonight.
Under the coaching of the old fella in the blue shirt, Rahim dons a shawl on his head and begins the buka panggung ceremony.  He remembers seeing his father perform this numerous times, but the exact mechanics of the ceremony elude his memory.  With the old-timer coaching him continuously, Rahim ably performs the rituals and recites the various prayers.  Some students start to crowd the windows and snap photos, while others sit outside waiting for the show to start.  Usually the wayang kulit performances are multi-night performances of some aspect of the Ramayana epic popular in India and SE Asia.  Tonight, because of the limited time, one of the short cerita ranting (branch stories) will be told.
The prologue common to all wayang kulit performances comes on screen as the demigods on the left and right descend on either side of the Tree of Life and the sage in the middle.  Rahim, as the dalang, manipulates the puppets, ques the musicians, narrates the parts of all the puppet characters, sings the songs, and pushes the performance forward.

With the symbolic forces of good and evil battling in the skies, the story can now proceed!

As the story proceeds, Rahim is working hard inside the panggung.  Take one minute to see what it looks like from the inside:

As the story goes on through the night, the audience gradually transforms to inlcude folks from the neighborhood, who have been attracted to the wayang kulit sounds emanating from Rahim's yard.  There are a lot of kids in the audience, many of whom have come directly from the local mosque after the final prayers.  Students are starting to doze ...

Take another short minute to see what the audience is seeing; here two of the heroes, who've been transformed into demon shapes for their naughty deeds, tearfully beg forgiveness from their liege lord:

The performance finally comes to an end way after midnight.  The students troop back groggily to their buses, and the few remaining kids and neighbors go home chatting and laughing.  Pat has spent the entire evening entrenched with her video camera in front of the screen, recording the performance.  Kathy Foley spent the whole time inside the panggung with the performers, recording their activities.  We stay to talk with the performers and Rahim after the show.  Kathy orders some puppets from the local puppet-maker for her to take back to UC Santa Cruz for their museum.  We finally drive back across Sungai Kelantan back to our hotel.  We'll sleep well tonight!

We sleep in some, then walk around town a bit the next morning before heading to the airport for the flight back to Kuala Lumpur.  I have a feeling that Pat and I will be back to Kota Bharu to see Rahim and other performers from time to time.  Pat's audio and video recordings of Rahim's father's performances and musical pieces will be invaluable for Rahim and his troupe to learn the pieces that he never had a chance to pick in bye-gone years... it'll be fun !

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Two Weddings and a Memorial ...
Celebrating Life in Kuala Lumpur

Shortly before Pat and I left Malaysia for our summer sojourn in Michigan, we attended a series of events that celebrate the cycle of life. We attended two weddings, the start of a new life for two young couples.  We also participated in a small, private memorial ceremony to honor and remember an old friend who passed from the scene in 2005.

The first joyous occasion was the wedding of Adzam and Syazana.  Adzam is one of the geologists you saw in the last blog.  Pat and I drove down to Port Klang, the city that serves as the port for Kuala Lumpur and much of the rest of the country.  Syazana's family had held a similar reception at her home town near Ipoh, a few hundred km to the north, and now it was Adzam's turn to have one at his place.

Adzam's family had made the reception venue into a block party for the neighbors and friends; a tent with buffet and banquet tables was erected along the length of the road in front of the row of their townhouses.

Adzam had invited much of our construction company's site office to attend, as well as his family and the whole neighborhood.  The tables were full of neighbors and fellow workers, including us...

While the guests were feasting outside, Adzam and Syazana were receiving friends and relatives inside Adzam's parents' house, seated at their thrones in a traditional Malay bersanding.  Read about Malay weddings here.

So this is the happy couple!  I'm not sure what Zana thinks of her husband's work deep in the bowels of the earth mapping the rock formations behind a tunnel boring machine, but that's the farthest thing from her mind right now as they look forward to their life together!  Pat and I wish them the very best !

The second wedding was in the city of Shah Alam, about 25km west of Kuala Lumpur.  The bride is the daughter of Naim Yunus and Sabariah Moh'd Zain.  I "met" Naim on-line as a fellow member of Malsingmaps, a group of Garmin GPS enthusiasts who took it upon themselves to create road maps of Malaysia to use on their Garmin navigators when Garmin had no useful maps of the country.  Today, Garmin has adopted the Malsingmaps map as their standard Malaysia/Singapore map that they sell on their website.    Naim and Sab are world travelers and tireless bloggers.  Their daughter Nuraini ("Nuni") is a doctor serving her compulsory government service (for medical docs) in a rural district town, and her husband Zaman works for a land development firm. 

The afternoon started as these receptions usually do with a sumptuous catered buffet luncheon.  The reception was at the auditorium of the state museum in Shah Alam.  As the guests were finishing their lunch, the bride and bridegroom were being treated to a performance of the traditional Malay silat martial arts.  (The bride's in the picture seated at front, wearing the purple head scarf.)

 At the conclusion of the silat performance, Zaman and Nuni make their way to the auditorium's stage.  In their wedding, their bersanding well-wishers will go up to the thrones on the stage to wish them well.  In the first wedding the bridegroom was wearing a traditional Malay bridegroom attire.  Zaman, however, opted for a business suit.

The happy couple is seated at their thrones waiting for the MC to start the ceremony. After prayers, friends and relatives will make their way up the stage to wish them well.  At this point, Pat and I bid farewell to Nuni's parents and make our way back to KL.  (Today, I understand that Dr Nuni and Zaman are expecting a baby soon!)

Finally, we complete our celebration of life by accompanying Marion D'Cruz and Marge Martinez, old friends we've known for almost 40 years, to memorialize Marion's husband Krishen Jit, who passed away in 2005.  Krishen Jit is widely considered to be the father of modern Malaysian theatre.  Numerous articles, books, and academic papers have been written on his work.  But Pat, Justin and I also remember him fondly as a friend and also as Justin's kindly godfather (Marion being Justin's godmother).

When Krishen passed away in 2005, his ashes were scattered in the ocean outside of Port Klang, the port city that serves Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur.  Every year since then, at the anniversary of Krishen's passing, Marion goes out with some friends to scatter flower petals in the ocean off the ferry terminal in Klang.  This year, Pat, Marge and I accompany Marion.  Marion (in the yellow shirt) is checking out local motorboat operators who can take us out to the site.  In the background is a water bus that just pulled in from Pulau Ketam (Crab Island).

Marion strikes a deal with one of the speedboat operators, and we're off!  Marion has gone to a neighborhood flower shop near her house and has brought the flower petals with her.

We reach the site and throw the flower petals in the water, drinking a toast (we've come prepared) in the boat to Krishen.  We laugh and we reminisce before heading back to shore.

From the ferry pier, we make our way to the "Little India" section of Port Klang for a quick meal before heading back to Kuala Lumpur.  The streets are festooned with the flags of political parties for the upcoming general elections.

So we end our memorial outing with a lunch of Indian tosai, chapatis, potato pancakes, and mutton curry.  If Krishen were still with us, this is how we would have ended our outing as well! Cheers, folks!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) Breakthrough Ceremony

I've been remiss in cranking out blog entries.  I took a job with my old friends who are currently working on digging a water supply tunnel near Kuala Lumpur.  (See last year's blog entry about the tunnel.)  I've been too busy (tired, actually)!  I'm working part-time with the joint venture construction company that's building the tunnel, helping them with technical documentation for constructions claims.  (I'm waa---aaay too old to be working inside a tunnel site!)

This past Friday, we had a really impressive ceremony to mark the completion a tunnel stretch being excavated by one of our three tunnel boring machines (TBMs).  I've got a cool (short) video for you to watch!

First, some background.  This tunnel, a part of the Pahang Selangor Raw Water Transfer project, will deliver water from the Malaysian state of Pahang (which has lots and lots of rivers and water) over the mountains to the neighboring state of Selangor, where Kuala Lumpur and other population centers are located.  It is a classic "interbasin" water transfer project.  You engineers, earth scientists and other techies reading this can download this past issue (PDF file) of the magazine of the Board of Engineers Malaysia and read about the project starting on Page 42 onward.  The construction is funded 75% by Japanese aid, and 25% from Malaysian government funds.

Location Map

The tunnel is 44.6 km long. This makes it the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia, 11th longest in the world, and with the 8th highest overburden (height of ground above tunnel --- 1,246 meters in this case) in the world. The TBMs are gouging a 5.2 meter diameter tunnel through some pretty hard granitic formations.

Oh, by the way, don't let anybody tell you US companies can't compete overseas! The three TBMs in use here were designed and built to this project's specs by The Robbins Company of Solon, OH. Their PR hacks were here in droves to record the breakthrough (while the poor Robbins tunnel guys were slaving away at their TBM). Robbins is reckoned to be best of their class for the "hard-rock" TBMs, while their German competitors are reckoned to be better for "soft-rock (shield)" TBMs.

TBM Excavation Directions and Progress to Date

Of the 44.6 km of the tunnel, 34.5 km are being excavated by three TBMs. The rest (the red parts on the figure) were excavated by conventional drilling-and-blasting or by cut-and-cover.  As you can see from the figure above, TBM-1 is excavating downstream from the Pahang side, while TBMs 2 and 3 are excavating upstream from Selangor towards Pahang. It was TBM-3 that just completed its 28-month, 11.6 km run.  The other two have several more months to go.

VIPs ranging from senior Malaysian government officials, the Japanese ambassador (remember the funding source?), the design/construction supervision engineers, and invited guests like press, staff from subcontractors and suppliers, neighbors, local government folks, etc., were bused down "Adit 4" (access tunnel #4) that carried us down to the breakthrough spot.  Without further ado, here's what happened --- watch the video:

(In case you can't see the video in the box above, go to:

The VIPs in the front were covered with dust, but pretty soon they forgot the dust as the TBM-3 crew started emerging from the cutterhead that had just broken through:

Waving Malaysian flags, the TBM crew in red coveralls, the Malaysian geologist, Japanese and Indonesian tunnel engineers, and that Robbins guy in blue all emerged from a tiny maintenance hole in the cutterhead.  A Japanese kiyome site purification ceremony followed, with Japanese tunnel engineers from the two Japanese contractors in the joint venture "anointing" the exposed TBM-3 cutter head with salt, rice grains, and sake rice wine.  Then the VIPs started speechifying --- we'll skip that part.

After the speeches, the photo opportunities started.  For more than an hour after the speeches, long after the VIPs and most of the invited guests returned to the surface for a sumptuous buffet lunch, folks were taking pictures. First, the TBM crews that worked in the TBM-3 tunnel posed with the cutting face (strangely reminiscent of the sandworms of Dune.)

The tunnel engineers from the Japanese contractors broke out some Japanese flags.  With some of them clad in traditional happi coats for festive occasions, they roar their triumph with their Malaysian, Indonesian, and Bangladeshi staff.  The crews of TBMs 1 and 2, who will not have a public "breakthrough ceremony" like this when their tunnels meet towards the end of the year, also join in for a picture at the cutting face:

Before going up to see what's left to eat of the fancy buffet that's been laid out at the surface (courtesy of the Japanese Embassy), chief geologist Frank Pittard from the UK poses for a triumphant picture with his staff of Malaysian geologists.  Every day, without fail for almost three years, they've been mapping every inch of the rocks that haven been exposed by the excavation in various tunnels , determining what type of supports the engineers needed to keep the newly-excavated tunnel sections from collapsing:

Anyway, on behalf of Pat and myself, I'd like to say "hi" to our readers, and we look forward to seeing many of you in a couple of months' time back in Michigan! Please make sure the snow is gone by the time we get back! Cheers!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Business Trip to Bali, Indonesia

In my previous post, I covered some highlights of the 2012 PASEA Study Group symposium in Manila.  Even as the 2012 symposium concluded in June, the Study Group executive committee was soliciting proposals for the 2014 symposium.  So far, there have been proposals submitted for holding the 2014 event in Luang Prabang, Laos, and in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.  A third option for the 2014 symposium location is Bali, Indonesia.  Here are their locations:

Last week, three of us --- Pat, Dr. Moh'd Anis Moh'd Nor (--- "Anis," an old friend of ours teaching at the University of Malaya), and Yours Truly --- set out for a quick trip to scout the venues for a possible Bali symposium location.  Pat and Anis also hope to identify the key members of the local events organizing committee.  As usual, Yours Truly is just tagging along for the ride --- I've never been to Bali!  (Click on the photos on this page to view an enlarged version.)

We land at the Bali Int'l Airport after a three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur.  Anis breezes through immigation; his Malaysian passport lets him enter Indonesia without a visa.  No such luck for Pat and me.  A long line of Aussie tourists snakes before us, and a planeload of Chinese tourists is right behind us.

We finally make it through the line.  Anis, bless his heart, has already retrieved our bags, and is waiting for us.  We make our way out of the airport, walking past a familiar American fine dining establishment.  We are headed for the parking lot to a waiting vehicle that we've hired for the next few days.

Our car is one of the smaller Toyota vans, driven by our Balinese driver Wayan.  Pak (Mr.) Wayan turns out to know the area inside out.  Our van can seat five passengers relatively comfortably, and up to seven tightly.  (More if you push it.) Pak Wayan will be our driver for the next two and a half days.

We plunge into the extremely crowded Bali traffic going from the airport to the various tourist beaches (where most Aussies are headed) and to downtown Denpasar, the provincial capital of Bali.  Our hotel is in the middle of Denpasar.

Along the way, we pass many Hindu temples.  Where there would be neighborhood mosques in most of the rest of Indonesia, Bali has temples.  Most Balinese practice a unique brand of Hinduism that is quite distinct from the version found in India.

One neat thing about Denpasar (and much of the rest of Bali) is that government buildings, commercial establishments, and larger private homes try to hew to the traditional Balinese-style architecture.  Even this familiar foreign establishment is trying its best to fit in ...

There appears to be festivals and rituals going on at many temples in town.  These Balinese ladies in traditional dress are entering a temple archway.

Bye and bye, we arrive at Hotel Puri Ayu, a 44-room hotel on Jalan Jendral Sudirman in Denpasar.  This hotel has a simple but great Indonesian breakfast buffet...

Pat and Anis check us into the hotel that will be our base for our Bali stay.  After a short rest, we pay a visit to Anis' friend Rucina Ballinger for dinner that night.  Rucina is an American who's a renowned Balinese dancer, and author of a book on Balinese performing arts.

The next morning, we start on the business portion of this trip.  The map below indicates the locations we show in the photos that follow.  Click on the map markers.

Our first stop is the office of the rector (president) of the Universitas Udayana, the main university in Bali.  The rector's office is in the Buikit Jimbaran campus, while the venue of interest to us is in Udayana's Sudirman campus downtown. 

Today, we are accompanied by Prof. I Nyoman Darma Putra, who teaches Indonesian Literature at Udayana University.  He will introduce us to the University rector, and will, if Bali is chosen, be on the local organizing committee.  Pat and Prof. Dharma confer outside the university admin bldg.

We are ushered into the Rector's office.  On behalf of the ICTM PASEA Study Group, Anis requests the university's participation in the 2014 symposium, if Bali is selected.  The Rector notes that arts promotion is one of the university's missions, and pledges full support.  He tells Prof. Dharma: "Make it so!"

Thus empowered, we travel back to Denpasar to the Sudirman campus of the unversity.  This campus is only about half a kilometer from our hotel, an easy walk should we go back there in 2014.  We check out the building where the auditorium sits.

The auditorium was being used, letting us see the seating and audio-visual arrangements.  In ICTM Study Group symposia, all participants sit together and listen to all the talks --- there are no parallel sessions.  The room must be large, well equipped, and comfortable.  This facility passed with flying colors.

Then on to STIKOM, a private college specializing in IT.  STIKOM sponsors many of Bali's cultural events, working with Udayana U. in many of them.  Their graduates go on to universities in Malaysia and elsewhere for their degrees, both graduate and undergraduate.

We have a sumptuous Balinese seafood lunch with STIKOM's administrators.  Anis and Pat explain how two of the four symposium days can be held at Udayana and the other two at STIKOM.  They stress that the cost must be affordable for Indonesian graduate students from around the country to attend.

We then inspect STIKOM's large meeting room.  With the proper furniture, the room should do well for the symposium sessions.  The auditorium and STIKOM's entire campus are wired to the hilt for audio-visual and internet access.  Pat and Anis are satisfied that both venues will do well for a Bali conference in 2014.

And just like that, the main business portion of this trip is done!  It has been a very successful trip. If held in Bali, the 2014 Study Group symposium will be a blast!  And now it's time to relax for the evening in a touristy setting... this is Bali, after all!  We go out to dinner in the Jimbaran beach area.

The tourist dinner experience is not complete without an "authentic" Balinese dance.  Watching this, Pat and Anis conceive of a 2014 conference sub-topic: "Invention and Re-invention of performing arts" (or something).  This theme would include the pseudo "culture" created for the travel industry.

But enough work and academia for now!  We join Aussie tourists in swilling beer and wine and soft drinks, and enjoy a relaxing meal on the beach.  Tomorrow we tie up minor loose ends, and check out some possible hotels for the 2014 symposium.  On the day after, we visit the town of Ubud.  Stay tuned!

NEXT: A day in Ubud with Garrett Kam ...