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Rowena Foong designs and makes clothing with her sisters as the creative collaboration and retail store, High Tea with Mrs Woo. She lives in Newcastle with her husband, daughter and part-time stepson.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother lately so this edition of In Wild Air has bubbled up from recent musings about family and heritage. Also, someone said to me, ‘there is no magic in our world these days’. I’ve been thinking a bit about that too, and here’s what I know.

Rowena Foong
is In Wild Air



Culture

Fu Shui


When I was a kid and struggled to recover from illness at any time, more serious Chinese remedial intervention would often follow initial Western medical treatment. The most mysterious medicine I remember taking was a burnt piece of paper in a cup of water. We’d go to a Daoist shaman’s house, a clinic, and consult with them about my ailments. They would write a script, a spell, on a thin piece of rice paper. Back at home, my mum would burn the paper and drop it in some water. I would then have to drink this cup of ashy-water to ingest the medicine. From memory, it felt like a really serious process, as though the gods had been consulted to cure me of the flu, which was not really the flu but something more severe.

Daoists’ are godless after all, and this is more magic than medicine.

People

A Year with My Grandmother


My grandmother, Lee Swee Sien, is turning 94 this year, or around that age. She doesn't know for sure that she was born in 1923. Some time around then, she told me. Her marriage was arranged to my grandfather where they grew up somewhere in Guang Zhou, China. They migrated to Gemas, Malaysia where she birthed, lived and work as mother, servant and provider in a house that accommodated at least 50 residents at any one time, over quite a long period of her life. Each family inhabited a bedroom in the large, wooden shophouse that my dad grew up in. She has known hardship I have no way of understanding. There is so much muscle, so much strength, under all that wrinkly, unassuming elegance that is her.

I made a video work called
‘a year with my grandmother’ where we spent a whole day folding every day of a 2015 calendar together. It was an attempt to compress years of time we missed into 7-minutes. It was a silly, tedious, impractical process. She mostly grumbled about the pointlessness of the exercise, and fell asleep intermittently - sudden bursts of song or action from the soap operas on TV, or my aunt calling out from the kitchen, would drag her in and out of consciousness - but she kept going, kept folding.

These days, she doesn’t remember my name anymore. I’ll always remember her. At least until I’m 94.

Places

Madras Lane Wet Market


In this wet market in the middle of KL was our grandfather’s favourite hawker stall for yong tau foo. This place has existed for decades, at least 50 years, though it feels centuries old.

It was raining heavily when we arrived there for lunch one day. We turned off the noisy main street of Chinatown into the busy, gritty alleyway that is known as Madras Lane. It was really wet and humid which enhanced the intense experience and scenes of chickens being slaughtered, pigs’ guts being scraped off chopping boards sodden with blood, splattering onto the slippery footpath, onto our shoes, as our senses were assaulted by the sour smells of rotting vegetable matter and fresh fish, as we stumbled along the damp, narrow corridor towards lunch. Resident rats scurried along broken plastic wings of old awnings, across rusty metal eaves, as we pushed our way past steaming pots of bubbling broth, to a table.

Would you call that an open drain, dad? asks my stepson as he looked around, shrinking into his seat, wondering if we were in the right place.

Things

Cities & Desire


One of my favourite books is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I’ve read it cover to cover a few times but I love picking it up whenever I feel the need to read a random passage, or chapter. The story is an imagined conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo who has been summoned to narrate the places he has visited in Khan's empire. He describes a myriad of fantastic cities that are actually just metaphors of one city, Venice.

When I enter these cities, I find myself in a dream-state, arriving at travel destinations and long-forgotten sites suffused with wonder and melancholy.

Another book that takes me away is the Codex Seraphinianus, a wild undertaking by Luigi Serafino. It’s an illustrated manuscript of an imaginary world, described in an imagined language, entirely hand written and drawn in coloured-pencils.

When I enter this world, I find myself completely absorbed in discovery, enchanted by the bizarre fruits and creatures, engrossed in the outrageous illustrations of games and peoples, of this place.

Thoughts

A Pineapple a Day


In the movie Chung King Express, the character Qiwu languishes over an ex-girlfriend. He gives himself a condition, a ritual, for a period of time that he performs before he can move on. He buys a tin of pineapple, every day, with the expiration of 1st May (his birthday). By the time this date rolls around, he will either rejoin with her or that their love will have expired. On that day, without him doing anything different from any other day, something changes, something different happens. I love this. I do this. We all do this, right? We prescribe specific, seemingly irrational, rituals to get us through something or to a point. Sometimes inexplicable to anyone, usually resonates with everyone. There’s an easy line that we cross from ritual to habitual too. Recently, the rituals I’ve constructed involve my 1 ½ year old. There was a gap between dinner and bedtime that was fraught with restlessness and frustration. So we made a routine of getting in the stroller, walking to our shop, stopping to look in at the wooden statues at Benjamas Thai and the greeting cat at the Sushi Train along the way, getting to the shop where I would ask her to arrange some boxes on a set of shelves until she was tired of it, then stroll home looking for bats in the night sky. We performed this sequence of actions, had the same conversation, exactly, every evening, for weeks, until whatever it was that needed to shift, shifted.

I love that this happens. I do this. We all do this, right? We prescribe specific, seemingly irrational, rituals to get us through something or to a point. Sometimes inexplicable to anyone, usually resonates with everyone. There’s an easy line that we cross from ritual to habitual too.

Recently, the rituals I’ve constructed involve my 1 ½ year old. There was a gap between dinner and bedtime that was fraught with restlessness and frustration. So we made a routine of getting in the stroller, walking to our shop, stopping to look in at the wooden statues at Benjamas Thai and the greeting cat at the Sushi Train along the way, getting to the shop where I would ask her to arrange some boxes on a set of shelves until she was tired of it, then stroll home looking for bats in the night sky. We performed this sequence of actions, had the same conversation, exactly, every evening, for weeks, until whatever it was that needed to shift, shifted.

Wildism

Not On Any Map We Know


I was spending time in North East Arnhem Land building shelters and learning how to weave with Yoglnu women when we were brought to a sacred place. This is women’s country, they told us. All the trees here are our grandmothers.

Women and children only are allowed to come here. If a woman is menstruating, she is not allowed. It is the law of this place. There are no crocodiles so we are safe. If a woman is having trouble or wanting to bear a child, she will fall pregnant not long after bathing here.

Which is what happened to my friend Jo. She fell pregnant to twins not long after spending some time in this very old, ever-flowing spring.