One word: WOW (caps lock intended for added emphasis). As with all storybooks, I opened Hungry in Ipoh hoping to fall in love, and I have fallen head over heels with this book. From the cover to the contents. Just. Wow.
Hadi M Nor, editor of this book, opens the volume in a simple, unpretentious manner. I believe that he did this because he knew he didn’t need to oversell the book, that it would speak for itself.
And so it did.
For those of you who haven’t bought—and read—this book, I urge you to do so. The editor has curated a mighty fine anthology. A mighty fine one.
“No Kick” by Terence Toh
A strong opener, with a very Malaysian flavor without alienating Anglophone readers. A fun read, except at the end where it becomes a dissertation on biology, which takes away the reading experience.
“Ipoh GirlsTM” by Cassandra Khaw
Well written and sophisticated, but monotonous.
“Mastura’s Air Lengkong Adventure” by Ted Mahsun
Wow. Not a hint of the author’s signature whimsical, satirical voice. For a story written in first person, this is a good thing. An engaging read with a plausible twist ending. It’s a shame about the persistent tense confusion, though. At first I thought it was a typo, but this wasn’t the case. It’s like the author originally wrote the story in past tense, then decided to change it to present tense, but forgot to address a significant number of the changes.
“Beloved” by Atikah Abdul Wahid
This story puts a smile on my face. It is sweet, just like the desserts it talks about. As someone who bakes pavlova, I can totally visualize the opening scene. Excellent character arc, cleanly written at a leisurely pace, this is one pretty story. I can’t wait to read more from the author.
“Joget Girl” by Marc de Faoite
I love this piece. It reminds me of P Ramlee-era movies and has this jazzy New Orleans vibe to it. It doesn’t describe Ipoh as a setting, but the languid pacing, the entire atmosphere of the story…they are unmistakably Ipoh—for me, at least. The author has delivered yet another solid story, but it also feels different. More mature. Classier.
“Night in a Garden in Ipoh” by William Tham Wai Liang
This story. Wow. This story is steeped in Ipoh like a strong cup of tea in a porcelain cup. The descriptions of the settings, the descriptions of the people, the breath of the story itself, they transport me back to the city. Wow. Take this description for instance: “…old men in singlets and Pagoda shorts who stirred their nostalgic coffee…” Such a beautiful, evocative description. I especially love “nostalgic coffee”. A beautiful read. Reminds me of Eeleen Lee’s style of writing.
“The Art of Food Plating” by Eileen Lian
Oh, man. I feel sorry for this story for coming after "Night in a Garden in Ipoh". It feels all over the place, trying too hard, cramming my head like a cheerleader experimenting with mood-altering substances.
“The Ipoh Food Court” by Wong Hon Kit
I feel sorry for the narrator, who is haunted by the ghost of his perfectionist mother (not literally). Otherwise a forgettable story.
“The Ultimate Indulgence” by Tina Issacs
Another speculative fiction in this volume after “Ipoh GirlsTM”, this one an urban fantasy. Did he gain invincibility or invisibility? If he were invincible, why did he end up hiding in caves? He was talking about invisibility up to that point. The writing is solid and engaging, and the narrative voice is quirky, but the story feels too…generic. Here we have the Raja Bersiong, but the narrator could have been any (non-glittering) vampire. I don’t know. I just feel that the unique viewpoint of our peninsula’s vampire sultan could have been explored (and exploited) more. A bit frustrating, this.
“More than Enough” by Leroy Luar
Oh my. I am officially Leroy Luar’s fan. He has done it again. Another brilliant masterpiece of a short story. I lived the experience of an old woman coping with the death of her husband. The lyrical prose, the sense of love that transcends death, the beauty of companionship and family…oh my. More. I hunger for more stories from this author.
“An Epi-Curious Affair” by Julya Oui
To appreciate this story, do not read it immediately after finishing other stories in this volume. It has to be read in its own sitting. At first it felt overwhelming, but then I was able to see it cinematically: the (loud) family sitting at a round dinner table, and the camera panned in a circle as they talked and interrupted one another and laughed. I love the family dynamics and how this story actually centers around food. One of the rare stories I’ve come across where the heavy Manglish feels natural, and not used for the ‘Malaysian’ effect. This is definitely a good read.
“Mother’s Manifesto” by Angeline Woon
In this story, the house—the mansion—itself is a character. Very well done, at that. The story shows the antagonistic relationship between a new mother and her own mother, and her silent resentment toward her mother, toward her son. This one is a powerful tale.
“Finding the Way Home” by Benjamin Tham
A story set during Hungry Ghost! Finally! I had been waiting for such a story the entire volume. It’s a pretty little story, with the ending obvious several paragraphs into the story.
“Funny Mountain” by Ivy Ngeow
It was bound to happen. I was hoping against hope that in this volume there wouldn’t be a typical “Malaysian story” that meanders like a taxi taking a foreign tourist from KLIA to the hotel, with its mini-guided tour, which does nothing but take that person from point A to point B. Except there’s no point. No change. No arc. At all. And then I read this. At least this story offers a tour of Ipoh and its foods.
“Pau Babi” by Tilon Sagulu
Oh man, I feel for Mei-Ling. The story is about a mualaf (someone who reverts to Islam) who craves for char siu bao (steamed pork buns). But it goes much deeper than that. Denying herself that simple childhood pleasure is denying her very identity, a choice she made out of love. When love suppresses one’s identity, it smothers. A solid story to close this volume.
Hungry in Ipoh should be a mandatory read in secondary schools. It’s that good. Of course, there is this issue about not enough racial distribution in the volume (read: not diversity. Racial distribution), and that one transgender character. Definitely not kosher for our Ministry of Education. No sir.
What a loss. Bummer.
So parents should make this book a mandatory read for their secondary school children. Perak/Ipoh tourism should have this book on the counters for tourists to buy. Yes. It’s that good.
Come to think of it, there’s not a single story that’s about political/social commentary, and this is rare for a Malaysian anthology. I applaud Hadi M Nor and Fixi Novo for curating Hungry in Ipoh. Not only has he showcased an entire book of amazing short stories, he has perfectly captured the laid-back atmosphere of Ipoh in the stories he picked. Such a wonderful job.
I give this book a 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.
What’s more important is that this book shows how Malaysian-English literature is blossoming.
And I’m loving its sweet scent.