KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 5 — “Being Malaysian isn’t about one size fits all,” says Alexandra Wong, author of Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems.
She should know.
Her articles, including her popular Navel Gazer column in The Star, have been compiled into a collection of tales that show what it means to be truly Malaysian.
From a former nuclear scientist from France who has made Malaysia his second home to family life in an Iban longhouse, Wong digs deep into the lives of ordinary people and uncovers their remarkable stories.
“Their lives are so varied and different yet they are all uniquely Malaysian,” says Wong.
“After all, our country is a land rich in history, culture and diversity. We don’t have a single way to be Malaysian; instead, we have many, many stories.”
Wong’s own story would make for good reading. A bookworm since young, she grew up with the typical expectations that she would have to get “a real job” eventually. Writing was encouraged, but only as a hobby.
“In the mid-90s, after my Form Six and before I started at university, I joined The Sun as a cadet reporter. I covered mostly entertainment news and then the food scene. Honestly, I didn’t get paid much as a novice and I had to take several buses to work, but I really enjoyed it because it was what I wanted to be,” she says.
This early taste of the writing world made Wong long for more but, like every obedient Asian child, she continued studying and started climbing the corporate ladder soon after that.
“After graduating in English Literature from Universiti Sains Malaysia, I first worked at a non-profit organisation and followed this with a sales job at Dell for seven years. But I never gave up my dream of writing.”
In 2005 Wong left her managerial position at Dell to pursue her dream of being a full-time writer. During this period, she wrote for various national dailies and magazines while perfecting her craft.
“I was very blessed in that I made many people along the way, especially editors, who encouraged me. Right after I left Dell, I wrote about why I had quit my job. I sent the article to New Straits Times and I remember one of their editors Joan Lau liked it and even blew up the picture of my parents tending their flower garden.
“I was very moved by this and it gave me strength to continue writing.”
Another wake-up call for Wong was an accident she experienced in May 2005.
“It made me realise that life is so short; I had to pursue what I love while I am still able to. So I started ‘chasing my passion’ – as clichéd as that sounds – by writing as much and as well as I could.”
Wong became known for her heart-warming and introspective stories; even when she was writing about food and travel, she was really writing about people.
“I enjoy writing about warungs and kopitiams, and I love speaking to different people from all walks of life. Everyone has a story.”
Each “hidden gem” that Wong unearths inspires her to look for more.
For her, leading a simple life and taking public transport isn’t a sacrifice because she is happy doing what she loves.
“I remember bringing my mother to Nasi Vanggey in Ipoh. It is opened by a relative of the famous Nasi Ganja founder. The Nasi Vanggey owner, who has a degree in commerce, told my mother that I was an ‘experience millionaire’ and that impressed her!”
Wong’s tenacity as a writer is balanced by a practical and methodical work ethic.
“I will always test the viability of an article by posting it first on my blog.
“If the post garners a lot of comments, I will then expand it into a full article. This is how I can survive as a writer; I don’t sit around waiting for an acceptance letter from an editor. I keep writing and selling my work.”
Two of the people Wong had interviewed in Made in Malaysia died — the last chapter is a moving dedication to one of them — and this has reminded her yet again on how brief life can be.
“I feel the sense of urgency and my motto is to ‘try everything once’.
“The least we can do for ourselves is to give ourselves the chance to chase our dreams and to conquer our fears.
“I used to worry I couldn’t do justice to the people I interviewed. I understand now that these are their experiences, what they went through, but what I write is told from my perspective.”
These stories that Wong tells? They are stories that can only be made in Malaysia.
Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems is available at all good bookstores.
Find out more about Alexandra Wong at: