I met Wu Ma at the thieves’ market in Georgetown.

He’s 87. For the past 30 years, he’s been drawing pictures everyday.

He rents a small shack where he lives alone. His neighbours watch out for him. When he dies, they will buy the coffin – ‘棺材! You know or not?’ – and burn his body. ‘No need to burn nonsense like incense and money. All that ghost stuff, I don’t believe.’

The drawings are in piles, in clear plastic bags. Horses with laughing faces and strange proportions gallop across white space. Mysterious figures hide in caves or behind foliage. There are shadowy ghosts and ghouls, as well as plain, austere landscapes. Those are my favorite.

At one point, after chattering on about the materials he uses, most of which I couldn’t understand, he suddenly unscrewed his water bottle and flung its contents over the drawings I’d taken out of their bags to look at. ‘Aghhhh! Nooo!’ I squealed, horrified. My arms stretched out to prevent more splashing. He shook the moisture off a drawing and laughed. ‘No problem! You see? This is a good painting. Water can’t do anything.’WuMa01
He was born in China. He came to Malaya with his parents when he was a little boy. ‘My papers are red. I’m half a person of here, half a person of there.’ I asked if he had gone back since then. He shook his head and frowned. ‘No, no. Bad memories. People are lucky now. So lucky! It was horrible then. Parents would sell their children. I was the only one my parents didn’t sell. And for what? Some jars of sesame oil and bags of rice!’

His bicycle was parked behind him. I tried to charm him: ‘Is that your horse, uncle?’ ‘Huh? Oh! Hahaha! Yes. I ride it everyday! Draw and ride bicycle, that’s all I do. Now doctor says I have to eat less meat, because of my – ‘, pointing to his liver. ‘The doctor at the hospital is good. They take care of people like me who have nothing.’

I wanted to talk to him until the world ended, but I had to go. We were meeting Fan Chon from Run Amok gallery for dinner. I picked three paintings and asked how much.


‘Three paintings. For you, discount. XX ringgit. So, you want me to sign them?’

He opened a rectangular tin and showed it to me. ‘You see? These are the things I use to make rice!’ His box of tools – the outside and everything in it – was stained black. It was the patina of time, and love. Your tools have to earn that kind of patina. The only way to get it is prolonged daily use.

He dipped a well-worn Chinese brush into a small round tin filled with black goop, and wrote his name and the year on each picture. Then he put them into a plastic bag, handed it to me and smiled. When I tried to slip in an extra XX ringgit, he shut me down immediately. ‘I said XX, and I meant XX! I don’t change my mind. Take it!’

I noticed that the people around him were smiling. When I left, the surly looking uncle who was selling stuff opposite waved to me and said: ‘Come again next time, har?’WuMa03

Some notes:

– The thieves’ market is at the corner of Lebuh Armenian and Carnavon. It’s a gritty, slightly dodgy looking place, a patch of the city claimed by locals and migrant workers to sell or trade just about anything you can imagine. Phone chargers, remote controls, half a telephone, broken toys, used clothes and shoes… all salvaged from the detritus of modern life. Part of the reason Wu Ma made such an impression on me is because the atmosphere of the market was palpably different to the rest of Georgetown, which feels to me like a picturesque heritage themepark, where everything is consciously on display.

– Wu Ma and I chatted in Mandarin. Some of that language has stuck to my bones after 6 years in Chinese primary school. I can grasp context and syntax very well, but my vocabulary is poor. I probably understood him to about 70 percent accuracy.

– The ‘Ma’ in Wu Ma’s name = horse.

– Over dinner, I was astonished and delighted when Fan Chon told me Run Amok’s first show was an exhibition featuring Wu Ma! Nothing says more about the vision and kick-ass indie spirit of this awesome art space. I’m hatching plans to do something there next year. Seriously, check out Run Amok!

– Fan Chon told me that Wu Ma prices his works according to how much he needs at the moment. I am aligned with this approach, having used it myself, so I won’t reveal what I paid, except to say that it was very affordable. If you buy Wu Ma’s art, I think you should pay whatever he asks, not more, not less.

First three paintings by Wu Ma. Above: Portrait of Wu Ma by me.