Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes:
Portraits of the (Malaysian) Writer as a Young Man


Bernard Wilson

Flinders University of South Australia / Chuo University, Tokyo, Japan

Copyright © 2003 by Bernard Wilson, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Make the familiar exotic; the exotic familiar.

    Bharati Mukhherjee, "A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman" [1]

  1. In the early 1950s Lee Kok Liang, a Malaysian of Straits-Chinese heritage who was to become one of Malaysia's most accomplished writers of fiction in English,[2] spent two years at Lincoln's Inn in London completing a law degree that he had begun at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Lee recorded his European observations in a journal-cum-diary entitled Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes (also given a second working title of Ramblings and Remembrances), written in London and Paris between January 1952 and February 1954, and they form, in part, the basis for his first novel, the unpublished London Does Not Belong To Me.[3] The journal is a disparate collection of sketches, thoughts, conversations, observations and personal analyses chronicling, among other issues, the anxieties and insecurities of the budding writer and the profound sense of alienation and displacement experienced by the colonial subject in an increasingly dissipated centre of empire. In their depictions of marginalisation and their resonance of the metamorphosis from colonial to postcolonial "I," the implications of these series of literary postcards are twofold, representing as they do through periphery and centre at the apex of redefinition the shifting parameters between self and other, and an increasing awareness of transcultural existence as a legacy of imperialism. This essay is by no means exhaustive in its use of the full text of the journal, nor is it intended to be. Rather I seek, through selected examples from the journal, to provide connections and correlations in the following interrelated areas: between the problematic and often hostile environment in which Lee lives during this period and its influence on him and his future prose; and the religious/philosophical considerations and sense of social and national responsibility as a writer that inform Lee’s Weltanschauung.[4]

    "And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."

    Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

  2. Sketches, Vignettes and Brush Strokes is a faithful record of the multiple frustrations and eclectic interests of the young writer’s mind, providing immediate and detailed philosophical, artistic and cultural explorations, poetic glimpses and quirky observations. Lee’s method is often diagnostic, particularly in his approach to the craft of the writer; incisive scrutiny is equally evident in both his self-analyses and the dissection of his environment and those around him. The journal is a montage of literary, social, historical and geographical references: Lee employs a myriad of sources in an attempt to define and understand his own personal artistic quest and the polarities that exist within himself and others.

  3. The first series of extracts I wish to examine deal primarily with Lee’s reactions to and depictions of his physical and social environments during the two years spent in Europe -- of particular historical relevance because a number of the portraits represent a counter-colonial discourse during a time of significant shifts in European power bases and at a time when the problematic ties between colony and coloniser (certainly in the previously dominant terms of British empire) were in upheaval: India had only recently achieved independence (1947), while Malaya was moving toward self-government (1957). Appropriately, Lee’s diary commences near the time of George VI’s death; and, significantly, the young Lee sleeps during the funeral, "not at all regretting missing it, for I felt that it was a sign of morbid curiosity, as I had not suffered any loss at all, and did not feel the loss".

  4. Lee, I would contend, provides a Malaysian refrain to Conrad, and to a lesser extent Forster, Kipling and James (whose novel The Sacred Fount [5] is mentioned in passing, interestingly in conjunction with the French evolution theorist, Henri Bergson[6]) in his depictions of the eroded -- but often seductive -- centre of empire. His is a seminal subaltern’s voice, to borrow from Spivak, depicting in measured and compassionate rather than strident tones the process of dehumanisation at the increasingly fragile epicentre of imperialism, as in the following sketch:
    The rush hour was particularly violent to-day. Every second jettisoned its shoal of human offals [sic] upon the platform; and he watched, from the corner of his eyes, the wealth of companionship that might yet remain in the tired and irritated crowds. The men were on the whole silent; the sullen, leathery-folds of their cheeks and the dirty-grey on the noses; the women somewhere stood quietly, holding on to their bags; the empty chatter of the office-girls had a gay parrot-like quality about it. The electric lamps over-head started slowly to swing as the air forced itself out from one tunnel to the other. The distant rumbling of train [sic] grew gradually and as it neared, the crowds approached tentatively nearer the edge of the platform, a solid mass of backs in dowdy overcoats turned against the advertisements on the wall behind them. The train charged in swaying like a drunken tiger, with its eyes, yellow and unblinking.
    Here Lee blends images of the bourgeois curse -- consumerism and industrialization as co-rapers of identity: the crowds huddled against the advertisements, the train as drunken tiger, as indiscriminate devourer of individuality.

  5. Similarly, Lee’s description of Oxford Street, in which there are "thousands of human heads, thousands of agonizingly slow-moving human limbs, thousands of faces, of various expressions, crammed along the pavements", depicts a society in fragments, connected only at a base physiological level -- a society which he observes is in an advanced stage of dissipation, as in this critique of Angus Wilson’s The Wrong Set in which Lee establishes part of his own literary landscape for London Does Not Belong To Me and beyond:
    Although he appeared to show a disintegrating society, the scene had disintegrated when he arrived. He just picked up the fragments.
    London Does Not Belong To Me and the majority of Lee’s short stories portray a similar view of society -- not disintegrating, but already shattered, its inhabitants either drones or dysfunctional misfits, grasping for contact and connection. Lee’s portrayals, though, however bleak, are not nihilistic; at the heart of all of his writing is an intrinsic belief in humanity, in the individual’s propensity for small, ordinary triumphs.

  6. In a sense, I would argue, the narrator of London Does Not Belong To Me, Lee’s Straits-Chinese Marlow, originated in the sketches within this journal. Thus the urban landscapes of London and Paris provide Lee with the canvas upon which to paint his cultural revisionism: the marginalised natives of Conrad’s fiction are given voice, however tortured, initially through Lee’s narrator in London Does Not Belong To Me, and later through the outcasts and victims that people his narratives set in Malaysia. Lee’s journal and first novel thus in part constitute a rudimentary attempt to expose and redress the axis of domination. The outcasts in these cityscapes (be they marginalised by race, culture or sexuality) echo the Conradian angst in the face of alterity, and Lee’s asides at times even reverse and parody these notions, such as in this inversion of the occidental cliché of oriental inscrutability:
    You have to peel an Englishmen off like the bulb of an onion before he will give you his confidences. And what disappointment after such an effort!

  7. Lee’s social commentaries display the outcast’s eye for, and empathy with, fellow pariahs; blending realism (in the style of the Russian realist fiction he so admires) with, as Harrex terms it, "Chinese poetic brush strokes,"("Up and About" 3-12) he juxtaposes societal (and sexual) polarities, often ironically, to raise questions of social justice and hypocrisy:
    The sun, a ball of orange, the moving tracery of branches.

    Along Bayswater Road, the pavement, clear and straight; 4 prostitutes, haggard of faces, palms gripping the elbows, as the cold wind blew, stood waiting among the bare stretch -- no one in sight, expect 4 plump nuns, short of height, who were walking towards Marble Arch.

    He continues to experiment with dichotomy as implicit social critique: a street musician "hobbling and shuffling along the pavement, among the still silent limousines"; a street sweeper with "lined leathery features, oblivious of everything around him, grim and concentrated in his job" makes "a circular detour round a couple standing before a taxi"; and this:
    Walking with Murray in Curzon Street. Opposite, a restaurant with glassy-bay window; behind the neat squares of the window sat the diners, remote and silent, continuously forking up scraps of food. Below them, unseen by them, stood a little hunched-backed figure in a soft mousy cloth cap, walking to and fro, as if he had nothing in the world to do.

  8. Lee is tentatively developing portraits of social inequality and injustice while honing the craft of writing; and these social pastiches are evidence that Lee Kok Liang’s writing, as Kirpal Singh argues, has in it a totality that transcends physical (and geographical) context.[7] This universality is achieved primarily because the young Lee is already capable -- albeit in relatively elementary style -- of conveying messages not only of social validity but images of undeniably dramatic visual power, embryonic foundations of which may be seen in this passage as an example:
    Two street urchins. About 3 feet tall -- brother and sister, with dark curly hair -- very pre-occupied; the boy sucking a fruit, the girl hugged a big loaf of bread under her arms; dirty overcoats; walked, stopped, together, closely, oblivious of the outside world; across the street and lost in the dark.
    Lee, in keeping with the influence of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Turgenev (all referred to in the journal), is adroit at fusing elements of innocence and degradation in a spare, immediate prose style: all of these previous extracts have as their essence a mute appeal to the reader, a silent eloquence; their latent power stems from the author’s ability to entwine the thwarted potentiality and lost innocence of the social exile in each brief sketch.

  9. But although Lee’s urban sketches often portray the social inequity within London, he is also equally capable of infusing the cityscape with a stark and symmetrical natural beauty, such as in this portrait of a winter’s afternoon:
    London sky on a wintry afternoon. Looked up at the sky, while walking under the slender branches; noticed the way the bareness of the dark strokes swiftly pierced the gloomy silver of the sky -- houses, buildings, the long narrow pavements, the trees, the pen-holder lamp-posts, covered with stillness; the squares of the pavements so neatly and accurately patterned to take in one’s steps, the railings rounded the corner like dark unlit candles; the lights from the windows in the basement, rooms carefully furnished, bulbs in hide-pink shades, arm-chairs flung in corners, glowing scars or incisions in the electric fire, a swift motion of the occupant across the windows; the dull portals with gold letterings round the pillars; 7 or 8 steps down into the basement.
    And, contrarily, of providing an impish interpretation of the mundane:
    Women with dogs; young women with fashionable and youthful dogs; big or tiny; old women with scruffy dogs -- how patiently they stood by while their dogs pissed against the post with one leg uplifted, trotted around, smelt, wagged tail, smelt, and when satisfied, women and dogs continued onwards.

  10. It is particularly in Lee’s French postcards, though, that one discerns a greater confidence in his own unfolding sense of his skills as a writer. Resonant of a number of James’ characters in the wide-eyed wonderment of the pseudo-innocent abroad, one is also reminded in some passages of Joyce’s Araby -- itself a tale of suppressed desire, lost innocence, and the (false) allure of the exotic -- and through the images of despair and entrapment associated with Lee’s Parisian accommodation, which is situated in a prostitutes’ zone "specialis{ing} in Africans" and possessing "narrow, smelly lanes, flanked on both sides by tall buildings with shuttered windows", a Dickensian eye for social inequity. His journal reflects the marked class (and at times racial) divisions within the city by alternating between images of urban dissolution and desperation:
    No wonder one of those touts, buttoned up in his uniform, outside a plush cabaret cried out in English ‘My god, my god, how difficult.’ It seemed as if Pigalle was in a torpor -- and not even the night could break the spell.
    and of Paris as exotic (and materialistic) Other; such as in this description of the Rue de Rivoli:
    A whole long row of arches, curves flowed after curves, with shadows engraved on the floor by the lights. Shops with elegant windows, a multi-coloured arrangement, with a profusion and confusion, the eyes could not take in at a glance. It was a pain to watch the window when striding along. A curious-looking hat disappeared from view as I was beginning to fathom its mysteries, and there appeared a large silk scarf with printed patterns, and then another row of black suede shoes, and whole rows of glittering blue-vivid jewels, and gloves and watches and dresses with huge flaring skirts and tight bodice, and bottles of perfumes -- an Aladdin’s cave for the rich.

    Some streets were enchanting -- so straight and broad with the darkness floating in the middle, while along their edges, carefully placed, like a long string of select pearls, were the round, flawless, globes of lights. Above these, the buildings rose like craggy cliffs veiled by a blue mist. And cars, as they rolled along, had their gleaming roofs washed by bands of quivering lights -- along the archways the steady muffled drumming of feet -- in the background, gathered more lights, tiny and vivid, sometimes winking in the vague cool atmosphere, like the milky way -- so many and countless were these to the naked eye.

  11. The prose in this vignette has the mesmeric dreamscape quality of a world illusory and removed, lacking the immediacy of Lee’s observations of proletarian connection and suffering. Though Lee cannot effectively "belong" -- to borrow from the title of his novel -- to either section of this society, and while he is constantly demonised by his sense of exile, even among the lowest end of the socio-economic scale in London and Paris, shared struggle and oppression provide a point of connection not available in the doubly-foreign world (cultural and economical) behind the shop window. Compare the previous extract with Lee’s evocation of Place Pigalle, by day a "cocotte caught without her usual finery and paint" but by night, as Lee notes in these two extracts, "life began to bustle and hum":
    ONE. A number of pavement-stalls selling hot chestnuts, nut-and-sugar bars, sugar floss -- and the glitter of lights and movements seemed to gather speed like a merry-go-round. Soon we came to the outskirts of the poorer district. Their bars were more crowded -- more dense with tobacco smoke - filled with a greater proportion of negroes and Moroccans who lounged against the counter, or sat in chairs - all very crowded and chatting rapidly. A few glanced out at us when we paused - fixed upon us a challenging or threatening stare - insolent and unconcerned. Here under the bridges of the railways are the huge preserves of those who lived by the night. As soon as darkness fell, they came out.

    The prostitutes had their favourite spot under the bridges -- all cheap flesh -- and in the twisting lanes and alleys prowled the touts, spivs, and leaders, all on the watch-out for game.

    Already, there were a number of pros. on the streets. They huddled together on the pavement. The older ones had to come out early. Usually, fat and frowsy, with cheap hand-bag slung over the crook of the arm -- and a cigarette in the mouth -- they remained talking to one another in whispers -- and when we approached, one would raise her head, and from her fleshy face, already showing signs of wear and tear, she flashed a pair of rapacious and calculating eyes on us, as though we were the prey of an alert hawk. Behind her was the open door of a cheap hotel. In the gloom, a few more figures could barely be seen. When we passed a window, we saw, sitting [as if] in conference, a number of women behind the curtains.

    TWO. Desultorily, I walked along the streets -- watching the night-life. My feet were hurting terribly. Touts and pros. In counter-cafes, sitting on high stools, drinking, or standing and talking. The pros. kept a sharp eye for customers. Even when they were talking, they were surveying the passers-by. Sometimes a blonde in a faded fur-coat, her face heavily-made up [sic] by F. standards, her nose wrinkling as though she had scented a victim, would dart out with a quick heavy, calculating glance at me -- and then swiftly dropped [sic] her eyes. Some would pout their lips, and assumed what they thought was a provocative posture. Most of them are getting on in years, with pouchy coarse-grained cheeks, and looked like stuffed turkeys as they paraded on the corners in their cheap fur-coats. Others greeted one occasionally with "Bon soir, m’sieur". While I was walking along the pavement, looking at the restaurants, shops, and cheap fun-fairs, a girl, still very young, without make-up, and oily-looking, sidled up to me, looking over her shoulders at me, her eyes fixed into an inviting and awkward glance, her lips frozen into an acted smile. Her hair was dark; and the manner in which her head was screwed round, dissolved whatever neck she might have had. I smiled and shook my head. She walked up and chose another customer. Poor kid, trying to earn some money. Life must have been tough to her; she wasn’t pretty; didn’t have the money to get dressed up; and obviously she was poaching on other’s preserves -- no standing room left for her.

  12. Again, Lee’s observations provide the muted articulation of the clandestine observer; if Lee’s London settings are often peopled with hollow men, Lee’s urban portraits in France seem to set Henry James adrift in a Parisian waste land, "a faint rubble lost in the grey mist". Like James, he shows a keen interest in the complexities of moral and sexual choice and shows a propensity for incisive cultural observation. The streets and the bars are the fraught spatial habitat of the marginalised -- Negroes, Moroccans, prostitutes, the detritus of empire -- but it is the shadows, what takes place behind the obscuring curtains, that provide the allure for both author and reader. The prose, particularly in the first of the two extracts, clearly lends itself to psychoanalytic criticism; Lee in voyeuristic mode peers into windows, gloomy doorways -- sexual and societal portals to another existence (alluring, threatening, fulfilling, repulsive) which may only be glimpsed through the nocturnal, predatory imagery. The first of the two sketches contains some of the devices used in Lee’s portrayal of the phantasmagoric pursuit of the shadowy Cordelia, Lee’s Circe in London Does Not Belong To Me, and, in elementary form, the psychological demons that beset the protagonists of so much of his short fiction: glimpses of lust and betrayal, of danger only half-discerned. But Lee’s descriptions of the dissolution and desperation in these scenes also clearly reflect his own fraught search for acceptance amid alienation, an intrinsic need which, driven by his physical and psychological isolation and frustration, imbues his social portraits with a melancholy despair that is underpinned by innocence and compassion.

    In some ways I am in an enviable position. My nation is new and the writers are striving and experimenting and searching. Chekhov could write of typical Russian traits . . . But what of the Malaysian man if there be one? That I suppose would be a voyage of discovery.
    Lee Kok Liang[8]

  13. A sense of a national and cultural accountability provides both burden and focus in Lee’s literary career, embodying as it does self-exhortation underscored by artistic insecurity and the cultural cringe of a writer used to viewing himself and his creative output through the lens of colonial subject:
    I must write and write; so that like Joyce, I may put Malaya on the map; there shall be no more half-hints that we aren’t of the same standard as the rest of the leading nations in the world in culture and in appreciation of things beautiful.
    The evocation of Joyce as patriotic mentor is, in part, Lee’s recognition of a shared artistic ostracism, amplified upon his return to his homeland; the emergent seeds of this sense of Malaysian-contextualised exile may be witnessed in the alienation and suffocation motifs in "Return To Malaya," whose loose plot culminates in the witnessing of a woman’s gradual inability to articulate. The emblematic mutes of Lee’s writing are in part influenced, I would speculate, by the predominant sense of exile and related linguistic experimentation in Joyce’s texts. Joyce, writing from a position of artistic and social periphery, provides Lee with a template upon which to transcribe both his own problematic position as artist and as Straits-Chinese Malaysian, and to chart the tenuous and troubled course of Malaya in flux. [9] It is also clear, both from the experiments in discourse styles in Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes and the persistent fraught references to articulation in London Does Not Belong To Me, but particularly from Lee’s short fiction, that Lee, through his emotionally and physically crippled characters, undertakes a metalinguistic exploration that is to continue throughout his later fiction. In seeking an "economy of expression" in a prose that "was not always grammatically correct, and often deliberately so because it captured the cadences of his community" (Kee 33), Lee ultimately arrives at linguistic regression as motif -- a muteness that has clear localized social and political implications, but one which resonates with silent accusations that are not, I would advocate, only directed at Lee’s immediate community but are, rather, more universal in portent.

  14. At the heart of much of Lee’s writing is the (post-/neo-) colonial binary of rejection and acceptance, as is clearly documented in the "kind refusal" of "Death is a Ceremony" for publication by Stephen Spender and the subsequent commissioning of "Return to Malaya". Lee’s meeting with Spender ("…keen eyes … face … warm and tanned and … in that state of being baked, when the freshness and the firmness of the cheeks slowly congealed into lines and net works … lanky body, his coat hung about him loosely; tighter at the shoulders and back, because of his hunched attitude, and flapping around the sides.") and Irving Kristol, co-editors of Encounter,[10] is recreated in the journal in great detail, and is of particular significance for the "allegory of cultural imperialism"(Harrex 3-12) it documents:
    Shutting the door, he turned to me: "Will you have coffee?" He still looked at me in an inquiring manner, as if he was trying to place me. Obviously he did not remember me. I said no. He walked round his table and sat down on a chair -- he offered me a chair -- so I sat opposite him. He waited for me to open. So I opened hesitantly: "I sent you a story, and you asked me to drop in." He remained silent -- he still could not place, and wanted to conceal this fact as much as he could. "Remember, the story D. i.a. C. ['Death is a Ceremony']" "Oh yes." "Well, I like to have a talk with you -- what you think about my story?" "I like it very much -- I have no criticism generally -- you write well." I sat silently as his answer glided over my questions. Again I said: "Do you think the organisation is -- not well done?" "Not that" -- and then he opened up slightly -- "but reading about death at such length can be depressing. You could do something about the length. Besides there’s not enough story to warrant such length." I mumbled: "So it’s the length and story. Well I cut it." He hurriedly replied: "Yes -- but I’m afraid we’re so full up here at the moment." He still failed to understand me, so I said: "I only want your criticism -- I am not worried about whether I get published or not."

    We then loosened up. He asked me where I came from etc. Something burst inside me, and soon I found myself talking to him -- about my difficulties in writing -- how I had to take care of the children -- "have you a family?" -- not the children, but my sisters, and when I get home I won’t have much time -- "where are you working?" "At the bar." "What!" "Oh, I practise at the bar." "Selling drinks[?]" "Oh no we have no pubs there."

  15. The dynamics of this meeting -- Spender’s unintentional condescension, Lee’s placatory and self-deprecating responses, the cross-cultural misunderstandings and stereotyping -- illustrate "the repertoire of positions of power and resistance, domination and dependence that constructs the colonial subject (both coloniser and colonised)" (Bhabha 38). Artistic (and, in part, cultural) validation for Lee, at least in this period of his writing, necessarily involves engagement with the hegemonic alterity, but Lee’s responses also indicate elements of subversive counter-colonialism:
    Irving all of a sudden: "Oh yes, something in the line of a letter from Malaya will do."

    L: "I can do that."

    Irving: "Something about artists and intellectuals. No politics. No politics. Just tell us how they live and work."

    L: "I can do that."

    Irving: "For instance, do you know about the Chinese -- I imagine there are lots of them there."

    L: "I can do that. There are lots of Chinese writing -- usually in newspapers -- but not well paid."

    Irving: "That’s interesting. But aren’t there many of them there, writing and lots of papers."

    L: "Yes -- but not well paid -- the supply usually exceeds the demands; and besides, a clerk writing in English gets more."

    Irving: "That’s the sort of thing we want."

    L: (in a self-confessional mood) "Sometimes it’s difficult to write. When I get back I shall hand out a card to my friends. ‘L. will be ill from 7 in the evening till to-morrow morning’."

    S. (silence broken): "Did you hear that, Irving?"

    Irving did not -- and continued: "You see this is the sort of thing we want. Write on a personal note. When did you say you’d get back."

    L: "About Feb. 28th." Irving: "Write to us at the end of March."

    S: "Do you draw. It would be more interesting if we had some line drawings."

    L: I’m sorry I don’t. But I can try to get hold of some native drawings and sent it along as well -- if you like." -- (L. busily thinking of the possibility of having a second article.)

    Irving: "Yes write to us at the end of March. Something about 3,000 to 4,000 words. You come from Singapore?"

    L: "No, Penang."

    Irving: "On a personal note. That’s better."

    S. gently added: "We will pay you of course."

    L: (in dreadful silence -- never dreaming of being paid at all)

    Irving hastily added, thinking in a calculating manner: "Oh yes. Our rates are 30 for 3,000 words. You can have it in dollars or pounds."

    L: "I’ll send the article when I get home."

    Irving: "Oh yes, one thing we must not forget. Your address."

    L: Writes -- and then hands it over: "It has a Scottish name. Lots of Scots -- very shrewd people -- industrious -- heads of department, planters, miners. Maybe the Chinese are industrious as well -- so the two get on together."

    Irving excitedly turned to S.: "Do you hear that?"

    L: begins to gather up his satchel etc and beret.

    Irving reminded him: "Well, we’ll expect to hear from you when you get back. We’ll have lots of persons walking in -- some from Hongkong. They promised to write something -- but we’ve not heard from them."

    "I am not like them. I cannot stop writing even if I want to. It sort of wells up within me,’ L said curling his fingers and raising his arms chest-high.

    Irving: "I don’t mean you."

    Effusive thanks on both sides.

  16. The resultant "Return to Malaya," also published in the collection Mutes in the Sun and Other Stories, provides a cross-section of the plural landscape to which Lee has returned and, while celebrating diversity, suggests an increasing alienation and hostility in what Lee later views as "a very corrupt and corruptive society and money talks, politic [sic] talks, power talks, but people do not". [11] Thus the acceptance/rejection binary, clearly evidenced in the European settings and interactions of Lee’s journal and first novel, also manifests itself within the geographical alterity of Lee’s homeland.

  17. But the plurality of Malaysia’s cultures and religions, while causing segregation and separation on the one hand, also provides Lee with fertile ground for developing a multifarious and hybrid approach to the human condition. In a hesitant exploration emanating from an "argument with an ordained person", Lee grapples, Godbole-like, with a theological conundrum:
    We are part of God -- but what about rocks and animals -- if God creates them -- are they part of God too -- oh no -- complexity of organism -- spiritual and animal -- how are you sure you are not reasoning only within the knowledgeable human framework -- perhaps animals and plants are part of God too -- oh no, God creates them for our happiness -- egotistical view.
    And in allowing himself a brief late-Victorian lament ("To be mysterious in modern times is untenable. Even the elements, the poltergeists, the kinetelepathic phenomena, are robbed of that graceful and childlike sense of mystery that surrounds them when science has not come to the present stage. We are hemmed in by rationalisations of the modern way of life …"), Lee hints at the uneasy relationship between science, religion and hedonism that is depicted in Flowers in the Sky.

  18. Further, the complex inter-relationship between political and religious dogma, a continuing thematic touchstone, may be evidenced in his musings upon reading a biography of Hopkins:[12]
    It was very interesting when I came to the period of his conversion to [the] Catholic Church and attending a Jesuit training college. The description of the Long Retreat -- an exercise in meditation and purification suggested an interesting parallel with that advocated by certain monks of the Buddhist religion.

    Again the author’s speculation on why men of intelligence etc surrendered so completely to authority -- so much so as to depersonalise themselves -- reminded me of the requirements of the cadres in the Communist Party.

    The tension between the ascetic and the profligate, particularly in terms of materialistic and sexual abstinence and gratification, is as much central to Lee’s writing as is the related Buddhistic preoccupation with ephemera and permanence; the transitory nature of relationships, the fragility of culture and society, the ultimate durability of self:
    Friendship is not as stable as Self. To depend on friends is a pleasurable event; but in all cases, it is but an event; it passes with Time; but to seek integrity in Self is an ever continual battle, and by how much we may proceed towards that integrity have we proved ourselves worthy of living.

  19. Lee's journal (and his subsequent related novel London Does Not Belong To Me) charts the journey of a young Straits-Chinese man moving beyond the inscriptions of coloniser and colonised to more elastic definitions of individual, cultural and national identity(ies). As such, it is very much a collection of epistles from (and to) multiple, fractured selves: the colonial subject in transition, the postmodern man, the transcultural nomad, the marginalised observer, the apprentice writer. In closing, I refer -- as one may well imagine Lee to have done -- to Sartre’s manifesto What is Literature?, translated and published in London less than two years prior to the first entry of Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes:
    One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too. And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must then take up arms. Thus, however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle. Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are committed, willy-nilly. (Sartre 47)
    Sartre’s sentiments, one feels, closely correspond with Lee’s own personal resolutions. Informing his prose at all times is a social and artistic integrity, a meticulous dedication not just to the aesthetics of writing, but also to its inherent social and cultural implications. Though the larger body of his writing is often specifically Malaysian in context, it seeks most importantly to reflect the universal human condition, the plight of the isolated individual, the oppression of the marginalised. Lee’s work ethic, perhaps in part emblematic of his Straits-Chinese heritage, saw him a writer, a member of the Penang State Assembly, a solicitor, an advocate of cultural pluralism. His commitment, to provide voice(s) for the marginalised on multiple levels -- and that voice is artistic, political, Malaysian, universal -- seeks to ensure, to borrow words from his own problematic homecoming, that "the children, screaming and laughing on the banks . . . born with lusty lungs"[13] remain so.


  1. In The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction 1693. Back

  2. Although Lee Kok Liang only published one novel and two collections of short stories in his lifetime, his writing spans a period (1949-1992) crucial to changing perceptions of self and nation in the Malaysian psyche, and his prose fiction has been acknowledged by Southeast Asian and Australian critics alike as a vivid chronicle of the issues confronting the Malaysian diaspora and Malaysian identity. Born at Alor Star, Kedah, Malaya, in 1927 to a prominent Straits-Chinese family, he was educated in English and Chinese; his first story was published in Present Opinion, a journal issued by the Melbourne University Arts Association in 1949. His short fiction invariably draws on his familiarity with the oppressed and ostracized in Malaysian society, while his published novel, Flowers in the Sky, narrativizes contrapuntal philosophical perspectives drawn, in particular, from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. Lee died in 1992. Back

  3. Scheduled for publication in 2003 through Maya Press, Kuala Lumpur, edited by Syd Harrex and Bernard Wilson. Back

  4. As in the editing of the text of Lee's novel London Does Not Belong To Me, in quoting extracts from Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes I have made minor amendments to the text in relation to typing errors and issues of clarity but have attempted to retain the particular cadences, phrasing and grammatical structures that remain an important stylistic component of Lee's prose. Back

  5. Recorded as Sacred Fire in the original journal. Back

  6. It is possible to speculate that Lee’s writing, stylistically and thematically, was partly influenced by Bergson, the French philosopher and Nobel laureate who advanced a broadly influential theory of evolution based on the spiritual dimension of human life. His doctoral dissertation, Time and Free Will, presents his theories on the freedom of the mind and on duration, which he regarded as the succession of conscious states intermingling and unmeasured. Back

  7. In "Transcending Context", Singh argues that the "more universal elements" in Lee’s writing have been largely ignored and that although many critics have evaluated Lee’s work predominantly from a sociological context, "in his writings we discern a larger world, a world which so subtly but firmly impresses itself upon our sensibility precisely because it goes beyond, well and truly beyond, its immediate context" (205). Back

  8. From an undated speech presented at a Singapore writers’ conference. Transcript held by Fakulti Pengajian Pendidikan, Universiti Pertanian Malaysia. Back

  9. ibid. Lee comments, in the same speech, "James Joyce at the end of his novelette Portrait of an [sic] Artist as a Young Man, showed the young writer observing the fluency of English spoken by the Englishman, and compared it with his hardwon battles and in the end stated his credo that out of the mighty smithy of his soul he would forge the uncreated conscience of his nation however handicapped he might be in the language he could write in, or words to similar effect. Perhaps writers in similar circumstances may aspire -- that’s a thought!" Back

  10. The cultural journal Encounter was founded by Spender and Kristol in 1953 and was co-edited by them until 1958. Back

  11. See Thomas. Lee makes this comment in an appended letter to the author dated 15 April 1980. Back

  12. Lee refers to the biography of Hopkins by Eleanor Ruggles, published in 1944 (reprinted 1969). Back

  13. Lee Kok Liang, "Return to Malaya" in The Mutes in the Sun and Other Stories Federal Publications, Singapore, 1981 (1991) p.141. Back

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. "The Other Question." In Contemporary Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Padmini Mongia, London: London, 1996.

Harrex, Syd. "Up and About in London and Paris: The Literary Apprenticeship of Lee Kok Liang." World Literature Written in English 35.2 (1996): 3-12.

Kee Thuan Chye. "Foremost of the First Generation." New Straits Times 30 December (1992): 33

Lee Kok Liang. Death is a Ceremony and Other Short Stories. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1992.

---. Flowers in the Sky. 1981; rpt. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1991.

---. London Does Not Belong To Me. Ed. Syd Harrex and Bernard Wilson. Unpublished edited manuscript.

---. The Mutes in the Sun and Other Stories. 1981; rpt. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1991.

Mukherjee, Bharati. "A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman." In The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 5th edition. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: Norton, 1995. 1683-1685,

Sartre, Jean-Paul. What is Literature? 1950; rpt. London: Routledge, 1993.

Singh, Kirpal, "Transcending Context: The World of Lee Kok Liang's Fiction." In Malaysian Literature in English: A Critical Reader. Ed. Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter C. Wicks. Kuala Lumpur: Longman, 2001. 204-211.

Thomas, Veronica. Lee Kok Liang: A Straits Chinese. Tesi Di Laurea, Universita’ Degli Studi Di Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Facolta’ Di lingue E Letterature Straniere, 1979-80.

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