Slowmix is an online multimedia mixtape series, consisting of things I like or find interesting. It’s performative, but not in the way I associate with social media, more like when you want to impress someone you care about. It’s partly ‘do you see how cool I am?’, but equally, trying to get closer by sharing something small and personally significant. Each mix has a name, which doesn’t indicate a theme, just a vibe.

This week I made you a slowmix called SPARRING with: Susan Sontag, John Berger, Ole Kiatoneway, Boonlai Sor Thanikul, Common Malayan Wildflowers, Miharu Koshi album covers and podcasts about masculinity.

To Tell A Story

This electric conversation between Susan Sontag and John Berger took place in 1983. Both were renowned writers of fiction and essays. They had quite alot to say about visual culture, which makes them interesting to artists. Sontag wrote On Photography, and Berger is most famous for the TV mini-series Ways of Seeing.

Here, they face-off about storytelling, the moral responsibilities of the author, and the effects of new technologies on art. It’s the exact opposite of a hot take – a timeless conversation. As in, useful and energizing no matter what decade you tune in. Yes, there will be decades after this one, and in some small way, this video reinstates that crucial reality.

The way they talk to each other is thrilling, almost erotic. The quality of their eye contact! It’s like an instructional video on how to listen, pay attention, respond and disagree – remedial class for those of us with internet- induced communication damage. Outside the reactive spaces of social media, differences and disagreements are not bullets, but seeds that burst forth, scattering the ground with possibilities.

The Black Pearl vs The Iron Twin

This is a match between Ole Kiatoneway “The Black Pearl from Andaman Sea” (blue corner) and Boonlai Sor Thanikul “The Iron Twin” (red corner), narrated by Phet-tho of Sitjaopho Muaythai. Both were master technicians of Golden Age era muay thai during the 80s to mid-90s.

In my mind, this Ole-Boonlai fight will always be paired with the Sontag-Berger conversation. Their poise, grace and skill, embodied as total presence in the face of each other, makes my heart race. They help me name a thing I aim for, and search for in fighting when I don’t encounter enough of it in art: not virality, but virility.

Names, or how do we know what we know?

Here is what Common Malayan Wildflowers has to say about its use of names:

The scientific or Latin name of each plant is given immediately after the common English name, because the Latin names do not vary from place to place as the common names tend to do. For this reason it is recommneded that the Latin names should be used in preference to English or Malay names even though they may be more difficult to memorize. Many Malayan plants do not have well known or long established English names. Malay names are often very well known but they are usually given only to plants which are locally of some economic importance, such as food or medicinal plants, or to plants with some magical significance. 

The book was published by Longmans in 1961 (i.e. four years after Malaya’s independence from British rule, 2 years before the formation of Malaysia and 6 years before Singapore separated from Malaysia) under their Malayan Nature Handbooks series. It’s written by M.R. Henderson and illustrated by Juraimi Samsuri. There’s no additional information about the author or artist.

How do we know what we know?

A scientist friend recently told me about a species of shellfish that’s been consumed locally since the late 1800s, but has yet to be described by science, i.e. yet to receive a Latin name. I can’t say more at this point, because the ‘discovery’ of any ‘new’ species is a major scientific event and I don’t want to scoop my friend.

I know many of the plants in Common Malayan Wildflowers by sight, and I love the book most for its beautiful, homely botanical colour paintings. The names, however, disturb the order of my world. For example, it lists ketumbar jawa as ‘Stinking Shareweed (Eryngium foetidum)’ whose ‘leaves when bruised give off a strong smell like that associated with stink-bugs’, whereas I know it to be a delicious and fragrant edible similar in taste to coriander. Another example: I noticed a plant with fleshy leaves and pink flowers growing in the garden this year, and identified it on Google as Surinam spinach. The book calls it ‘Sea Purslane (Sesuvium portulucastrum)’ and gelang laut, because it’s ‘found always near the sea, both on sand and in tidal mud’.

There are many ways to know a thing, to order and organize the world.


I want to know who else Youtube recommended Miharu Koshi’s Swing Slow (1996) album to. It’s a great downtempo album.

Parallelisme (1984) I didn’t enjoy so much. The *look* on this album cover, however… I sent it to Boon, who’s been cutting my hair for over a decade. He got excited, and that became my first post-lockdown haircut.

Maybe I will try out all her album cover looks.

The man in me is killin’ me

I had a dream about hunting down an enemy. I was in a room, searching for them. There was a large oval mirror in front of me. I looked into it and as the view panned left in my dream, I saw reflected in it a man sitting to one side, at the back of the room. He was tall and heavyset, wearing a white shirt and long pants, and glasses. He had slightly wavy grey hair. I had never seen this face before but I can remember it even now. I realized with a shock that I was the hunted, not the hunter. He stood up. The urge to run was overwhelming, but I knew I had to face him. I turned around. He held a large knife, and stabbed me in the chest with it.

These podcasts are about men and I found them illuminating. Good medicine if you need it.

The Mythic Masculine #12 – Courting the Undefended Heart – Boe Huntress (Thirteen Queens)

The Mythic Masculine #7 – Thriving Life & A Prayer for All Men – Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining)

The Mansal Denton Podcast #031: Tyson Yunkaporta (Pt 1) – Aboriginal Teachings: Rites of Passage for Men, Community, and Personal Agency

The Mansal Denton Podcast #032: Tyson Yunkaporta (Pt 2) – Becoming One With Nature and Listening to Her Wisdom

The title of this post belongs to my friend L.Low, who texted it to me as a joke sometime last year while I was preparing my work ‘In The Skin of A Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita)’ for Singapore Biennale 2019. Gnarly is American slang for a tough, intense or complicated situation (the ‘g’ is silent).

I wanted to publish my proposal and budget, with annotations to show how projects change as they cross from idea into real life. 90 percent of how art actually gets made and shown in the contemporary art world is an opaque process. I hope this small crack in the wall will be useful to fellow artists.

Recently, Patrick Flores presented a paper about being artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019 (SB 2019) for Conference: Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency hosted by the Post-Graduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts. In this recording he talks about taking an art historical approach to curating contemporary art in biennales. One of the threads he pursued at SB 2019 was abstraction. He mentions ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’, as well as the works of Boedi Widjaya, Alfonso Ossorio and Carlos Villa in terms of abstraction and how they sit alongside, ‘in critical adjacency’, with modernity.

Screenshot of video. To view video please click this link:

Here’s a quote from the Q & A portion of the talk [42:30]:

“I’m a trained art historian. I tried to hijack the Biennale with some art historical methods. I tried to smuggle, like some kind of contraband, some art historical methods into the Biennale structure. I think this was one way for me to discuss the colonialism and modernity through the development of modern art in Southeast Asia. It was fortunate that the National Gallery Singapore was one of the sites of the Biennale. In that site, there is a huge collection of Southeast Asian modern art. I wanted to complicate that modernity, and to find out how that modernity relates to the history of the contemporary that is embodied by the Biennale.

Hence, the transitional nexus that come in the form of the work of abstraction, not only through the contemporary works of Boedi Widjaya and Sharon Chin, but also the neglected works in America of Alfonso Ossorio and Carlos Villa, who were also responding to abstract expressionism, but can nowhere be found in the art history of that movement. It was a good opportunity for me to do that in a Biennale. By doing that, I was doing art history, but at the same time, responding to the concerns of contemporary art, which are about racism, migration, colonialism and sexuality. But all of these were inscribed and embodied in material form, through the idiosyncratic abstraction of Ossorio and Villa.”

– Patrick Flores, June 2020

Below is my annotated project proposal and budget for ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’. I hope reading it alongside (in critical adjacency with) Dr Flores’ presentation will be fruitful, prompting deeper thought about how power and material conditions affect the production and dissemination of different kinds of knowledge, across all the stories we tell ourselves about time: the time-stories of modernity, the contemporary, art history or, that gift, scarcely understood, of the present, now.


A few notes about career opportunity, privilege and ‘getting selected’ for biennales:

This is not my first time at the Singapore Biennale. I did a public performance project ‘Mandi Bunga’ there in 2013. It’s rare, though not unheard of, to participate in the same biennale more than once. Biennales are not designed for continuity. Or rather, they are designed to continue certain structural aspects of the contemporary art industry, but tracking the development of individual art practice across different editions is not one of them.

Curators have their own reasons for selecting artists, and each biennale has its own structure for deciding on curators and/or artistic directors. The curatorial process of SB 2013 compared to SB 2019 was very different. I won’t comment on the curatorial process here because it’s not my purview.

What I can comment on is my choice to take part. In the case of Singapore Biennale, both times, I was invited by curators I had strong personal relationships with. For my part, this was the main deciding factor. The other was geographic proximity and the shared history between two nations. My works in both Singapore Biennales were about important socio-historical events in Malaysia. That ‘Mandi Bunga’ was staged outside an institution in 2013 and ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’ inside one in 2019, is one way to read the trajectory across these two works.

Another reason I accepted the 2019 invitation was because I thought there could be an opportunity to talk about biennales and the selection of who gets to participate. Let me be clear: meritocracy is one of the foundational myths of our times. I know biennales represent coveted career opportunities for artists. Participation brings one into the circulation of an international art circuit, market prices may rise along with recognition, acquisitions follow, etc. My antipathy towards this structure is ideological and publicly stated multiple times. I participate selectively because I too, like Dr Flores, wish to be a smuggler. Perhaps we all do, and perhaps that is how we all justify doing what we do. The question is, what do we smuggle and for whom? Here I’ll be quiet because true contraband is usually passed around in silence.

Anyway, if you’re an artist and want to increase your chances of being selected for biennales whatever your reasons, these are my suggestions:

  • At the very least, have a website that archives your work. Social media accounts are good, but not enough.
  • Language privilege is real: Write about your own work, invite friends or other artists to write about your work. Write about other people’s work. Interview fellow artists. Archive this writing together with your artwork. Do this relentlessly. If you’re not good at networking or forming relationships with powerful people, this is how you create currency around your work and your name.
  • Language privilege is real, part II: most of this writing should be in English or translated into English. I’m sorry, it’s not fair, none of this is fair, but as of now, that’s how it is.
  • Take every opportunity you’re given, whether it’s in speech, art or writing, to say and do what’s truly in your heart and mind. Treat it like there will not be a next time. Yeah, be too much, it’s fine, that’s your job. Be brave and rise to the occasion.

Last year Amanda Nell Eu asked me to do production design for her second short film, ‘Vinegar Baths’. I worked on her first (my first too!) a couple of years ago: ‘Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu’, which I blogged about here. In the process, I developed an appetite for designing sets and characters for film. Compared to my main body of artwork, it’s a much weirder and darker me that comes out to play.

Incidentally, the shooting of ‘Vinegar Baths’ began just as I’d gotten out of a terrifying encounter with the supernatural while on an art exchange programme overseas. It was the darkest experience of my life, from which I count myself fortunate to have returned intact. Maybe it wasn’t the most sensible thing to plunge into making a monster-ghost movie immediately after, but it turned out to be good for my mind and spirit. Film-making is about assembling a story piece by piece. I had to do the same, to survive and heal from my experience. Step-by-step, scene-by-scene.

This is the first drawing I did, of the main character, Chin, a maternity nurse who also happens to be on-call when women and girls don’t want to keep their fetuses. She’s looking kindly down on Vivian, one such woman.



Above is a page from Hantu Hantu: An Account of Ghost Belief in Modern Malaya by J.N. McHugh (Singapore, 1955), with illustration by A.F. Anthony. I was particularly taken with the description of her as ‘a flying rope of fire’.

After reading the script, I texted Amanda this photo of moth balls, saying ‘I already know what the colour palette will be’. Candy-pastel poison. In public toilets in Southeast Asia, you’ll often find these pretty balls in the sink holes, to stop cockroaches from crawling up.


Here are some scene drawings. I was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s painted storyboards. I used Buncho oil pastels to force myself to be less precise in the drawing, to focus on mood and atmosphere.




I would’ve done more full-coloured drawings, but was pressed for time. Art for film is about the film, not the art.

Some stills from the movie (all courtesy of Amanda Nell Eu, don’t reproduce without permission):




I like set design, but I REALLY love costume design. Working on Amanda’s films, I’ll see the overall colour palette first, then I’ll see what the characters are wearing. Everything else comes pretty smooth from there.

Here’s a page from my character deck for Chin. (Btw, I learned how to do decks for film by taking part in ASTRO Shortcuts Workshop in 2016. I was invited by Amanda to be part of her team for ‘Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu’)


Her make-up look was faded, badly-done semi-permanent tattoo make-up. Inspired by these trippy pictures on the internet:



‘Vinegar Baths’ just won the Next New Wave Award and SeaShorts: Best Cinematography Award at SeaShorts Film Festival 2019 in Melaka. Happy to have worked on this pastel-coloured, blood-soaked film. Shout out to the stellar Art Team for bringing the production design to life.


Amanda along with other winners at SeaShorts Film Festival 2019. Photo from SeaShorts Film Festival Facebook page.

About that blood. Here’s a couple of my own production shots:



Some drawings I made for International Women’s Day.

Free to download, share, print, use for non-commercial purposes ONLY.

International Women’s Day March on SAT, 9 March 2019.

Meeting points:

  • 8AM, Jesselton Point, Kota Kinabalu
  • 10AM, SOGO, Kuala Lumpur

More info:


1) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (9.4 MB)



2) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (11.4 MB)



3) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (7.2 MB)



4) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (11.7 MB)



5) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (9.2 MB)



6) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (10.4 MB)



7) *CLICK HERE* to download hi-resolution (6 MB)



10 Dec 2017 – The hallway to the kitchens is thick with people and the smell of boxing oil. I’m not fighting tonight, but feel as anxious as I would at an art opening: I’m smiling too much, overly aware of being tall, and compensating for it (to whom?) by darting furtively along the walls, like a rat.

I hear my name, and see kru A.’s hand raised above the crowd in that familiar gesture when he calls me over to him to start training. He’s almost naked, except his hips, which are wrapped neatly in dark red cloth, secured with ropes running over the front and back. His hands and arms are armored in rope up to the elbow. He’s about to perform the ceremonial wai kru to open the event tonight. We both glance down at his body, shining with oil and sweat. ‘It’s hot!’ he says, laughing. ‘You look… you look… good!’ I stammer back, feeling like a rock star just said hello to me backstage. I wonder if I should hug him or ask for a selfie, instead I blurt out ‘Uhh, I’ll see you later!’ and scurry away, mouthing ‘Sharon, you idiot’ to myself like a dazzled 16 year-old.

I find the corner where my teammate V. is waiting to face her first fight. Fear and ebullience hits her in alternating waves, closer and closer together, like labour contractions. ‘Whooaahh, I feel alive!’ she whoops, followed immediately by ‘Oh shit. I need to pee. Why do I need to pee again? I just peed 2 minutes ago!’. I laugh and hold her hands and massage her shoulders, glad it’s her and not me, but envious too.

The familiar snake music drifts over, and I sneak into the ballroom where the stage is. It’s just starting. Kru A. is in the middle of the ring, hazy in the spotlight. When he moves he seems bound and unbound by the sinuous sound – now pulsing, now liquid – and above, or perhaps, below it all, stillness. His face is drawn inward, as if looking at a point far inside where the people watching can’t go.

After certain movements, he nods his head slightly, as if to himself. They’re enigmatic and weirdly articulate, those nods. Appraising. So the sun might nod to a mountain, or a wall, or a tomb, or the edge of a meadow, as it moved across them. A tiger might nod like that to a king, before it decided to eat him, or walk away.

His complete presence in his body makes me suddenly aware of my own. My back straightens; I take a breath. Another. My eyes come back into my face – I realize they’ve been floating about like holographic projections on the lam. My attention follows, sliding into focus, sweet and sure. The sense comes back into my sinews.

He raises his arms, fists outwards, and his torso arches like a tongue of light. I feel the beauty undoing me, the beginning of tears.

My whole being is suffused with hopeless longing, shot through with a sharp prick of joy: light glinting off the peak of a mountain I will never reach. The grace, the self-possession. The total ownership of body. More than winning fights, more than anything, I want that; to earn that.

All through the evening and night, through the ups and downs of the fights, the afterimage of my kru lingers. A quick ride home, a hasty dinner. At last, in the quiet hug of solitude, I tell myself, then text it to the people I love: I saw a mountain today, I saw a mountain.


Gone to look for my body’ is a line from a song called ‘Weary’ by Solange, on her 2016 masterpiece album A Seat At the Table.

I’ve been wanting to write about training muay thai since last year, but my mind has always come first, and this was something I wanted to just let my body do. Then I realized I was stockpiling notes, feeling the wave of words come, and letting them break into foam, lost. I’ve been gone, standing on the shore, listening to the roar. Now I have its rhythm, and write my way to the return.

Part 1, Part 2


Proposal for a Collective Decision-making Model for the Visual Arts Community in Malaysia

< Draft 01, 17 May 2018 >

  • This proposal calls for visual artists and art practitioners to assemble in self-organized groups based on affiliation or locality, known as Sidang Lokal (Local Assemblies), to discuss issues directly affecting them.

  • It then calls for a Sidang Umum (General Assembly) to be held at a public space or institution, where delegates appointed by each Sidang Lokal present, coordinate and administer the viewpoints and decisions of their local assemblies.
  • Each Sidang Lokal appoints two members, 1 female and 1 male, to be delegates at the Sidang Umum.



  • Sidang Lokal groups are self-formed and self-organized amongst artists and art practitioners.

  • Groups may be based on affinity, locality, or already existing associations.

  • The purpose of the Sidang Lokal is for artists and art practitioners to gather in groups of their choice, to discuss and make decisions on issues that impact them directly.

  • Membership can change, but each Sidang Lokal must consist of at least 11 members. There is no upper limit on membership.

  • Existing registered associations can only form one Sidang Lokal regardless of their membership size.

  • A person can only be a member of one Sidang Lokal.

  • Attendance and minutes should be recorded at every Sidang Lokal meeting. This duty rotates amongst the members.

  • Decisions are made by consensus and majority vote.

  • Each Sidang Lokal appoints two members, 1 female and 1 male, to be delegates at the Sidang Umum.

  • The delegates are strictly mandated, recallable, rotated frequently and responsible to their Sidang Lokal. Their function is purely administrative and practical.

  • The power of policymaking is the exclusive right of the Sidang Lokal. Delegates to the Sidang Umum are strictly responsible for the coordination and execution of the policies adopted by their Sidang Lokal.



  • Sidang Umum is a general assembly, held at regular intervals, where appointed delegates from the various Sidang Lokal present, coordinate and execute the viewpoints and decisions made by the local assemblies.

  • The purpose of the Sidang Umum is to form a network for information sharing and collective decision-making on issues that impact the entire visual arts community.

  • The role of the Sidang Umum is limited to coordination between the many Sidang Lokal.

  • The goal is always to maximize local power and autonomy while achieving a necessary degree of communication and coordination across the community.

  • All decisions made at the Sidang Umum must be formally adopted by the Sidang Lokal in order to be binding to their members. For example, if the Sidang Umum votes that a formal written request be made to the ruling government to establish a separate Ministry of Arts and Culture, and one or more Sidang Lokal do not agree, the members of those local assemblies are not required to be signatories to the request.

  • Sidang Umum should be held in a public space or institution in open session. If the assembly moves into closed session, this will be voted on by the delegates of the assembly.

  • Responsibility for chairing and recording minutes of the meeting rotates amongst the delegates of the Sidang Umum.

  • Decisions are made by consensus or majority vote.



  • This system is based on the principles of direct, face-to-face democracy and participatory administration.

  • The crucial elements are decentralization, localism, self-sufficiency and interdependence. This model democratizes community interdependence without surrendering the principle of local control.

  • Distinction between policymaking and administration must be emphasized. The power of policymaking rests in individual citizens at the Sidang Lokal level. The Sidang Umum or other regional councils have the responsibility of administering and coordinating those policies.

  • Appointed delegates or representatives are strictly mandated, recallable and rotated frequently.

  • Differences and diversity are welcomed. Minority opinions should be given space and hearing, but decisions can be made by majority vote.

  • Consensus should not override democracy in decision-making. It is the process of discussion and decision-making that drives innovation and adoption of new ideas.

  • Gender equality is paramount. Delegates to the Sidang Umum must consist of 1 female and 1 male from each Sidang Lokal. Assemblies at all levels must strive for at least 40% representation of either gender.



  • Translate this proposal into various languages. Anyone!

  • Artists and art practitioners are encouraged to start forming their own Sidang Lokal, organizing meetings, recording minutes and sharing the outcomes publicly.

  • Prepare an updated draft of this proposal based on feedback.

  • Send this proposal to key government officials in charge of arts and culture, as well public art institutions in Malaysia, calling for their endorsement and for them to organize and call an inaugural Sidang Umum for the visual arts community.



  • This proposal is based on American social theorist and political philosopher Murray Bookchin’s (1921 – 2006) model of LIBERTARIAN MUNICIPALISM, in which citizens make decisions collectively through face-to-face democratic neighborhood assemblies. These decisions are implemented through a CONFEDERATION or network of administrative councils, whose delegates are elected directly by, and are responsible to, the popular assemblies.

  • It draws heavily from two essays in particular (linked below): ‘A Politics for the Twenty-first Century’ (1998) and ‘The Meaning of Confederalism’ (1990).

  • It was prepared by Sharon Chin, in consultation with Tan Hui Koon, Danny Lim, Zedeck Siew and Ooi Ying Nee.

  • It was prepared in the context of the Malaysian visual arts community, but the model and its principles can be adapted to communities exploring bottom-up, directly democratic ways of collective decision-making.



Loomio is a simple, user-friendly online tool for collaborative decision-making. Loomio lets you host discussions online, invite the right people to participate, come to timely decisions and transform deliberation into real-world action.

Explore by joining the Sidang Lokal Test Group here:

  • Murray Bookchin, ‘A Politics for the Twenty-first Century’ (1998) and ‘The Meaning of Confederalism’ (1990)

These two essays are from the book The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, published by VERSO. They can be found in PDF format here, strictly for educational and non-profit purposes only:

From Athens to New York, recent mass movements around the world have challenged austerity and authoritarianism with expressions of real democracy. For more than forty years, Murray Bookchin developed these democratic aspirations into a new left politics based on popular assemblies, influencing a wide range of political thinkers and social movements.

With a foreword by the best-selling author of The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin, The Next Revolution brings together Bookchin’s essays on freedom and direct democracy for the first time, offering a bold political vision that can move us from protest to social transformation. A pioneering voice in the ecology and anarchist movements, he is the author of The Ecology of Freedom and Post-Scarcity Anarchism among many other books.

There’s a revolution going on in northern Syria, one that challenges everything we know about government and society and freedom. With centuries of ethnic oppression behind them, their backs against the embargo wall of Turkey, and the ruthless forces of the Islamic State laying siege to their cities, the people of Rojava are trying what might be the most ambitious social experiment of our times. Two-and-a-half million people are trying to live without a nationstate, using direct democracy to build a society ruled from the bottom up. As the Syrian civil war rages, the Kurds and other ethnic groups of Rojava fight for autonomy, feminism, ecological stewardship, cooperative economics, and ethnic, linguistic, and religious pluralism.

It behooves us to understand their struggle as best we can. This book, compiling the words of militia members and academics alike, lays out the Rojava Revolution in plain language.

The introduction and overview of the Rojava situation can be read in its entirety at:


A chronicle of one of the most dynamic experiments in radical social transformation in the United States. The book documents the ongoing organizing and institution building of the political forces concentrated in Jackson, Mississippi dedicated to advancing the “Jackson-Kush Plan”.

Jackson Rising documents the history of this movement, its contributions towards the radical transformation of the United States, and its political implications for social movements throughout the United States, the global South and the world.


Building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.

——— END ———

PDF version of this document: AYUH MERAPAT_ ASSEMBLE NOW Draft01

Word version of this document: AYUH MERAPAT_ ASSEMBLE NOW Draft01

My knee in March 2016


11 Oct 2017: I spent last week sick and denying it. When the fever started on Monday, I thought I would be back in training by Wednesday, and when it was accompanied by a dry hacking cough that kept me up for the next five nights, I was still stubborn enough to book class on Saturday, which, of course, I had to cancel.

My mind went strange places, including convincing myself that wellness was a matter of will. A real fighter wouldn’t let a cold stop their training, in fact, a real fighter wouldn’t have gotten sick at all.

In short, while my body was fighting a virus, I was fighting my body. The fever came and went. I was like an abusive lover, tenderly feeding my body vitamins one moment, berating it for not responding by instantly getting well the next.

It was the same when I injured my knee last year. The same mental tape. When? When will you be back to the way you were? And why? Why are you not healing the way I want you to, in the time that I need you to? Rehab exercises, turmeric, physio sessions, kinetic tape – what else do you want from me?

Hyper-vigilant and agonized, I counted the days of missed training, which turned into weeks, then months.

Today, it’s as if I never tore my meniscus, and besides a lingering cough, the recent cold is all but forgotten. My body has healed, in its own time, in its own way.

I will tell you a story about the mystery that exists between mind and body. Up to March this year – a full 12 months since the tear – I was still taping my right knee before class. My left kick had never been pretty, but it was worse now, because it’s not the kicking leg that matters, but the standing leg, the one that pivots. Tall Coach watches my left kicks on the bag, and how I frown and wince with each one. He asks if my knee hurts. I’ve been asked this before, by other trainers, and always answered no, because I don’t want to seem weak, or like I’m making excuses. This time, I stop and think about it. ‘No,’ I say, ‘There’s no pain, but it feels, I mean I feel… afraid.’ I’m laughing, sheepish. Tall Coach nods, silent for awhile, then tells me: ‘Your knee remembers the trauma.’ On hearing those words, a gap that had existed in me for a year closed, as surely as a key fitting into its lock. I felt the click, not in my knee, but my whole body. I turned back to the bag and executed a series of almost perfect left kicks, more beautifully than I’d been able to do before I got hurt.

It would seem that my knee had mended long ago, but there is so much more to healing than the knitting of flesh and bone.

I’m learning – and it’s hard for me, very hard – that to be sick or injured, isn’t some kind of moral failing. It doesn’t say anything about commitment or ability. It’s simply a thing that happens to bodies: to have a body, is to be ill or incapacitated sometimes. To not be optimal.

Even in the sick time, the body is speaking. The body doesn’t just exist during training, or for training, or for any of the thousand productive things I need it to do. The body’s suffering does not pit it against me. It IS me, in sickness and in health.

There’s a phrase in the Tao Te Ching that I often puzzle over. My understanding of it goes in and out of focus.

I suffer because I’m a body;
if I weren’t a body,
how could I suffer?

In the hardest moments of training, it’s my mind that searches for escape. Anything to occupy it away from the sharp difficulty of the present, be it halfway through a 5km run under the blazing sun, or the last twenty of 200 sit-ups. Usually a song will loop in my head (the chorus to Solange’s Losing You), or a phrase (You must free your ambitious mind, and learn the art of dying. – Bruce Lee). If my mind is elsewhere, maybe this body that’s suffering is not me.

Recently, I’ve been telling my mind not to leave my body to endure the training on its own, to stay with it. What happens in those moments I haven’t found the words to tell. Not well, anyway. It’s a little like opening up more… bandwidth. A rush of information? Of sensation? I am a nut cradled in its shell, existing in inner darkness and in outer light, enduring, being one. I can’t do this for more than a couple of minutes.

If I weren’t a body, how could I suffer?

To train muay thai is to trace new routes, to know what it’s like when my shin hits my partner’s in a drill, or when Young Coach’s foot connects with the side of my head in sparring. It’s also to go over old routes, tracing the deep grooves of where the mind goes in sickness or suffering, as if seeing and knowing them for the first time.

Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching, An English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, Chapter 13


Gone to look for my body’ is a line from a song called ‘Weary’ by Solange, on her 2016 masterpiece album A Seat At the Table.

I’ve been wanting to write about training muay thai since last year, but my mind has always come first, and this was something I wanted to just let my body do. Then I realized I was stockpiling notes, feeling the wave of words come, and letting them break into foam, lost. I’ve been gone, standing on the shore, listening to the roar. Now I have its rhythm, and write my way to the return.

Part 1

Disclosure: the proprietors of A+ Works of Art have previously purchased my work

Chong Kim Chiew, Isolation House (2005) at Rumah Air Panas


I’m late. Sentul, like Cheras or Kepong or Shah Alam, makes me anxious – a result of mere unfamiliarity, which I suppose you could say defines the Malaysian condition. Waze sends me to Bangsar on the NPE and onto Sentul Link. I see familiar buildings, but the elevated highway messes with my sense of direction, already useless in the best of times, and renders everything distant.

It’s tempting to fall into the lull of this speed, the lack of friction. From my home to the destination, via algorithmic app, in an Uber or a Grab, personal playlist streaming on Spotify. I float in my car, the road clean and smooth. It’s a soporific effect. I struggle against a sense of inevitability.

I experienced Kim Chiew’s installation as it was originally conceived, twelve years ago, at the artist-run space Rumah Air Panas, which was on a road called Lorong Air Leleh, surrounded by roads with names like Jalan Air Madu, Jalan Air Bersih, Jalan Air Dalam, and Jalan Air Pusing, in place called Air Panas, in Setapak. Today, a highway runs through where Rumah Air Panas used to be.


I remember the earth under my feet, and the hole it’d been dug out from. The hole, outside the house, was wide and deep enough to bury a human body, and filled with light brown rain water. We entered the locked house by a door near the roof, down a shaky staircase. Inside, down low, the spread earth pressed against the white walls of the house in a dark ring. Here and there were cages, objects inside: a wooden crutch, a flute, a gourd. Eight enclosures and eight tools to stand for the Eight Immortals who crossed the sea in story.

In this new version, in a newly opened gallery housed in a commercial complex built by YTL as part of their multi-billion ringgit Sentul Raya redevelopment plan, there is no soil. The floor is concrete. The cages  – just two of them – are empty.

Many years ago, I lived in a rented house. We had a god that we’d brought with us from my childhood home, on the ground, in a red hut. But we didn’t take care of him – it’d been a hard year. I could barely take care of myself, and two dogs. We didn’t light his oil lamp, forgot to lay out his cheroot and curry and soft pink cakes, and the rain rotted his red wooden plaque inscribed with glittering gold Chinese words I couldn’t read. When it came time to move again, a man well-versed in these matters came, looked at the hut, and told us: there was no more god, he had left.

I thought about this as I looked at the empty cages.

Chong Kim Chiew, Isolation House (2005 – 2017) at A+ Works of Art, d6 Trade Center, Sentul East


Another thought rippled up, unbidden – am I Chinese?

The rusty metal plates bearing the names of roughly 40 new villages remain in the new Isolation House. Slowly they oxidize, breathing oxygen, alive: Semenyih, Rasa, Batang Berjuntai, Jinjang, Salak Selatan.

During the Emergency period (1948 – 1960), in an effort to halt the spread of communism amongst the rural population, the British colonial administration resettled 530,000 ‘squatters’ and workers into more than 400 new villages across Malaya. These ‘new villages’ were guarded camps, with strict curfews enforced by police. The large majority (but not all!) were ethnic Chinese.

This history of the new villages – is it mine?

I remember, as a teenager, quite literally, growing up in shopping malls: specifically, 1 Utama, Bangsar Shopping Center, Jaya Shopping Center, Subang Parade, Sunway Pyramid and Midvalley Megamall, where my parents had opened a chain of deli-style restaurants.

But I go further back, to childhood. An old lady, Ah Chun Yi, took care of me, while both parents worked. In the day, after school, I went to her wooden house. Was it in a village? I can’t… remember. I dig for it, but I hit concrete. Her long hair, her soft voice. Her polyester floral shirts. Naps in the hot afternoon, the standing fan and fluttering of green lace curtains. No, that was in my grandmother’s house, where the god came from, the one who left.

Who else besides me remembers the feel of soil on the parquet floor of Rumah Air Panas? The pixelated video documentation of the original Isolation House tells us almost nothing except that this work existed in another form in another time. It’s my memory that gives the new Isolation House its full meaning – without it, the defining feature of this work, which is loss, is lost. Or say rather: locked. Hard to reach, and thus, hard to read. Harder now than it was 12 years ago. And soon it will be harder still.

In his refusal to stage a straight reproduction of an acclaimed past work, his commitment to the reality of this new site, and his fidelity to the truth of where we have come in the last decade, Kim Chiew teaches us that we must – we can – learn to read and face our history even in the smooth, clean and silent concrete.



This installation is part of the exhibition Kadang Kadang Dekat Dekat Akan Datang: Chong Kim Chiew & FX Harsono, 15 Sept – 7 Oct 2017 at A+ Works of Art

‘Playing with History’ by Beverly Yong, a joint review of Chong Kim Chiew’s Isolation House and my first solo exhibition Boats and Bridges, first published in 2005 on (now defunct).