Dispatches from Malaysia 2003
From December 11 through December 22 I traveled to and from Malaysia, where I adjudicated at the 21st Century International Choral Festival. Here are copies of some of my letters home, and a few photos from my travels.
With the other jury members and artistic director of the festival, before the finals session.
Saturday, Dec. 13, Genting Highlands, Malaysia.
After 40 hours of transit time commencing at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday and ending
at 7 p.m. Saturday in whatever time zone this is (but it’s 13 hours ahead of
Indiana), I’m here. Weary. Worn. Unshaven. But I’m here.
And I’m literally above the clouds. I looked out of my 24th floor window
tonight to see palm tree-strewn mountains with clouds settled on them. The palm
trees poke through at the peaks. Where one expects snow on the top, in this
equatorial climate all we see is green. And clouds. It’s the rainy season
The First World Hotel, all 3000 rooms of it, is a mixture of Branson and Charlie
Chan. Add in Las Vegas and Times Square, and you have a Malaysian melange of
influences. I’m on the third floor of the entertainment zone at the cyber cafe
right now, but on the 2B mezzanine a live band is performing. A few minutes ago
I heard some very bad Christmas caroling from high schoolers across from the
Gucci store. There’s an indoor roller coaster coasting overhead every five
minutes, and a circus a la Cirque du Soleil performing just feet from where I
By the way, I really never want to fly a 14-hour flight again, unless it’s
taking me home. More of that when I’m not paying RM5 (five ringits) for 30
minutes on the computer.
I landed at Chang Kai Shek Intl Airport in Taiwan this morning. On my flight
from LA were a bunch of people dressed up as clowns. I engaged them in
conversation in the transit lounge since we were all killing time until the
departing flights. Turns out they’re doctors who entertain in orphanages and
hospitals, sort of a humorous Doctors Without Borders. And who but the founder
of the group was with them this trip–Patch Adams himself! There was a humorous
moment when he rubbed my shiny baldness with his oversized underwear, but that
will tell better in person than over the Net.
Unfortunately for me, after four flights and three connections, my luggage was
not on the flight with me. I’m hopeful it will show tomorrow. I’d packed extra
socks and underwear and brought along my shaving stuff in my carry-on, so I can
cope for a day. I’ll just wear the sweater tomorrow instead of the long-sleeved
tee I have on now.
I’m really feeling like a minority here, and did on China Air too. In South
America I at least looked like everyone else even if I didn’t speak the
language. Here I stand out. As I walked over the casino/resort/hotel/tourist
destination that is Genting tonight, I was stared at, looked over, eyebrow
scrunched-at, and generally, although without malice, made to feel a bit out of
place. And I am. At least until the Australians and Kiwis arrive on Monday.
So I’m healthy and happy to be here in this incredible first world country. You
know they drive on the wrong side here? I thought that only happened in Japan
and my beloved GB.
Speaking of Britain, I read a book about life as a student at Cambridge on the
way over, and I left a trail of magazines on each jet I was on. I had too many
Atlantic Monthlies stacked up, so I’m reading them in fits and starts on this
Oh yes–one doesn’t get to Malaysia by going across the Pacific as one would
expect. No, one flies north from LA, hugging the North American coast and
crossing the International Date Line way north over the Bering Sea, then coming
down over Japan and flying over the Sea of Japan until one reaches Taiwan.
Curious! One also doesn’t pass food in this country with ones left hand. It’s
The view from my hotel, above the clouds.
Genting Highlands, Malaysia. Monday noon, December 15.
Deo Gloria, my luggage arrived last night at about midnight, 40 hours later than I did. I have never valued a fresh pair of pants and a silk shirt more than today. The luggage seemed to have gone on more of an adventure than I, making it to BAH, wherever in the East that is.
I attended Fantastica, a 90-minute circus show, yesterday afternoon (in between shopping for but not buying clothes, just in case). The circus, incredibly well produced and incredibly loud on the speakers, featured Belarussian, Ukranian and Russian entertainers, with Chinese acrobats thrown in for good measure.
After the circus, I sat down with the choral event organizers for an hour, just to chat before the storm hit today. I’m impressed with what they’ve pulled of here–38 choirs from around Southeast Asia, all in a first-ever international competition. I’m the sole westerner on the jury, joining with a Mongolian, a Malay, a Philipino, a Chinese, and a Singaporean.
There’s a Starbucks here, so I spent most of my morning quaffing dark Western coffee on an outdoor patio and reading the KL newspaper. My good friend Loo showed up just a few minutes ago, so we talked briefly. He’s busy with two choirs this week, but we’ll spend the weekend together in KL before I leave on Monday.
Globalization has been kind to Malaysia in some ways. McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC are all present here in the Highlands. Budweiser flows from taps. There’s a giant Santa Claus in the shopping mall, right next to a shop selling Malaysian hand-crafted pottery. Last night I watched two scarved but not burkha-ed Islamic girls putting up a Christmas tree. Islam meets secular Western commercial holiday. There’s not a creche to be found, but there certainly are Santa Clauses, trees, candy canes and the like. I heard Frank Sinatra crooning Christmas carols in the coffee shop at the Taiwan airport on Saturday. I talked to Loo about this briefly, and he verified that Malaysia, as a first world country, has adopted many of Western customs. I’ll verify–cell phones are EVERYWHERE.
Now that my luggage has arrived (and my battery charger), I’ll be taking pictures this afternoon. We start the choral event with an opening ceremony and concert tonight, then I have two full days of adjudicating. Thursday is master classes with six choirs, then an afternoon of interest sessions that I’ll attend as observer.
I can tell already that I’m going to be a oddity in a good way (but some would say I am already!), as the only Anglo to be found in these concert halls.
With some members of Victoria Junior College choir from Singapore.
Genting, Malaysia.Tuesday, 8 p.m., December 16.
It’s just about sunrise back home in Indiana, but here it’s 8 p.m. The clouds
have settled onto the mountains yet again, and the outside world has receded.
All is commercialism inside the hotel. The casino next door to this cybercafe
is waking up. But we have work to do……….
I ate dinner tonight with four of the five other judges. We’re feasting at the
major cafeteria here in the hotel. Tonight was stuff that I really don’t want
to know more about, but it was good anyway. I ate about five kinds of fruit I’d
never had before, and with the exception of guava, the rest were pretty dandy.
We met as a panel this morning at 10 to go over our rules, talk through the
intricacies of international adjudication, and set our sights on the prize. At
1 p.m. today we commenced judging, finishing four categories later at 6.30 p.m.
In a few minutes we all gather again to review and revise the day’s results.
We’ll wrap up about 10.
Tomorrow is the long day, with the most advanced choirs. Each group will sing
three songs. We give marks on each song in several categories, and we give an
overall impression rating too. I think I’m the only judge providing critical
commentary on the page, but since that’s my habit, I’m going to keep at it.
Thursday morning I’ll give master classes to six choirs. That evening is the
grand finals where the top choir from each category is in performance, once
again being marked up, this time against each other. It’s cutthroat! And it’s
very possible that an outstanding high school choir from Singapore, for
instance, could take the prize over a professional group that has even higher
standards but doesn’t meet them.
Surreal moment of the day: yesterday I watched a Malaysian dance troupe (mostly
high school kids with a few youngsters) perform a typical American-style dance
show, with tunes by Madonna, etc. Then they did a 20-minute reduced version of
the King and I. Now King and I is set in Siam (now Burma), and it’s by an
American Jew and an American Republican. They were using the Julie Andrews cast
soundtrack. British meets Siam meets Malaysia meets American mid-century
Broadway. And all this on the “Times Square” stage in the monument to commerce
mall here at the hotel. I have pictures to show to prove it.
The dark descends in the East, but daylight reigns over the USA. Tomorrow
starts the Great O antiphons at Evening Prayer, proving that darkness will give
way to light in just days.
The Malaysian dance troupe presenting bits of The King and I on the Times Square stage at Genting Highlands resort.
With Novo Concertante of Manila after a master class session.
Genting, Malaysia. Thursday, December 18, 6 p.m.
Well, friends, this is what it’s all about.
Today, for the first time in the four-day competition, we judges got to work
with individual choirs and visit with individual people. They’ve rightly kept
us somewhat separate, but with the finals set (after last night’s session) we
got to do master classes today. I’m elated when a Filipino choir sings better
just because I rearranged the way they were standing (which reminds me of the
old joke with the punchline $10 for the two taps, and $490 for knowing where to
tap). I’m delighted with high schoolers from Anglican High in Singapore respond
so incredibly and fervently to minor changes I suggest in their presentation.
And I’m humbled with kids from mainland China speak better English than some of
my own students………..
As the sole non-ASEAN judge, I was elected by the jury to give the jury’s
comments to the crowd at the finals announcement this afternoon. Nelson, the
artistic director, translated into Mandarin as I was speaking. I purposefully
threw in some really big words, which got the mostly-English-speaking crowd
laughing, and then Nelson got to giggling too. I thanked them in Malay,
English, and Mandarin, which got a big ovation too.
Two grueling days of hearing 45 choirs total now give way to a finals tonight
which features a Malay children’s choir, that Filipino 20-something group, three
Singapore choirs of high school and college age, and one other group I can’t
remember. Tonight all we do is listen, rank them one through six, and let the
Meanwhile I’ve smiled more and had more photos taken today than I’ve had in the
last year in aggregate. I spent an hour giving a one-on-one conducting lesson
to a Singapore free-lancer. He’s awfully interested in Ball State for a grad
degree. Several other people have inquired about grad study, including the
festival artistic director (who’d like to start on a doctorate if we could work
out distance learning). He’s already invited me back to Singapore for a couple
of weeks of rehearsals and masterclasses. All we have to do is work out
details. And I bringing home a ton of new (to me) music, some of which will
find its way onto concert programs very quickly.
Tomorrow = Kuala Lumpur and three days with my old friend Loo Kia Chun. I
intend to be nothing but a tourist!
As you can tell, today has been invigorating and completely refreshing!
More to come from the far side of the Earth,
Grace and peace,
With members of the choir from Tian-Jin University, Republic of China, after the Thursday finals.
With my dear friend Kia Chun Loo after the Thursday afternoon concert.
Monday, 22 December. Los Angeles.
Traveling east over the international date line really screws with your head. I
left Malaysia yesterday morning (Monday morning there) for an 8.45 a.m. flight
to Taiwan via Hong Kong. I left Taipei, Taiwan at 4 p.m. Monday afternoon. I
arrived at LAX at 11.30 a.m. Monday morning.
And now I’m on a 12-hour layover before taking the red-eye back to Indy tonight,
arriving at 6.20 or so Tuesday morning. The layover is being spent getting
pictures developed, gawking as a tourist at the Chinese Theater, buying t-shirts
and postcards in the shops near Hollywood and Vine, and trying to stay awake
with copious amounts of caffiene at this cyber-cafe.
Malaysia has, I think, replaced at least one of my other favorite countries as
near to the top of my heart. The food, the clutter and melange of culture, the
people all have seeped into my mind in a big way the last 11 days. But first,
back to Thursday….
Thursday night was the finals. I spent a few minutes before the big concert
just watching people in the grand lobby of the convention center.
People-watching didn’t last, though, as many of the choristers were asking for
photos. The posing for photos went on for quite a while at the post-concert
party, too. I have quite a few of my own, but there will be photos of me with
kids from Singapore, Malaysia, and China floating all over the Web for some
time, I fear!
The post-concert party was a really tough one to leave, simply because I was
connecting with so many people. When I finally left that ballroom, there were
tears in my eyes.
Friday morning I slept as late as I could, then packed and left for Kuala Lumpur
with Loo. We did the sights as the day wore on–KLCC shopping district and the
Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest buildings; the Central Market; Chinatown
and the night market full of hawkers; a couple of other shopping districts. We
spent much of the evening with the Filipino choir–they’d won the competition,
and they were spending a last night in KL. I have new friends from that group,
and look forward to a trip to Manila sometime soon.
Loo had spent way too much money to put us up in a first-class hotel. After a
sumptuous breakfast, the two of us saw a different side of life as we took a bus
(think third-world, teeming bus station with crippled beggars and masses of
people) from KL to Melaka, one of the most historic cities in Malaysia. We were
both tourists for 24 hours in this delightful town, including another night
market in Chinatown and a visit to the crypt where St. Francis Xavier lay buried
for 18 months before his body was taken to India in the 16th century.
Sunday, after returning to KL, we walked quite a bit, including a food market
area. We caught a late night movie at the Petronas Towers cinema. I stayed up
all night, then headed to the airport at 6 a.m.
Back on American soil now, I’m honestly wishing I was still in Malaysia. Part
of the reason is that I reconnected with Loo, and I realize anew just how much
this guy means to me. Part of it is the people, the pace, and the Eastern
approach to life. It’s awfully different from the USA!
I had three of the most disparate meals of my life in the last three days:
Saturday night at a European-style restaurant in Malaka and an incredible steak;
Sunday lunch of rice balls, steamed chicken, roast duck, chili sauce, and
coconut juice; and Sunday night of satay and fried noodles with a Tiger pilsner.
And I’ve had more curry in the last ten days than I care to recall.
Travel on China Air is not recommended for anyone. They’re cramped, noisy, and
no fun. But when are aluminum tubes hurtling along at 39,000 feet over vast
spaces ever fun?
Thanks for reading, and for allowing me to think of you every time I wrote for
these last few days.
Grace and peace, and a blessed end to Advent,
At a Malaysian history museum in Melaka, Sunday, December 21.