Random thoughts on everyday life from a delusional, often whacky mind.....

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The race to the top...

It never ceases to amaze me how fast things progress. Just yesterday, I came to the sad realisation that the never-ending race to build taller, bigger and better has claimed yet another victim - the gorgeous Petronas Twin Towers. I've been told that they are no longer the tallest buildings in the world, a prize taken away from it by an upstart in Taiwan.

An aerial view of the Petronas Twin Towers

These twin towers have been a landmark of the city of Kuala Lumpur ever since it was completed in late 1996. I remember when I first arrived here in Kuala Lumpur, or "KL" as we affectionately refer to it, the KL equestrian race course was being cleared for the tower's construction. Traffic snarls along Jalan Ampang became legendary as roads were diverted, closed or sometimes opened, but reduced to just one lane. Personal experience told me never to try to traverse the Ampang stretch at peak hour traffic.

Designed by reknowned New York based architect, Cesar Pelli, the building is a simple spire-shaped structure clad in gorgeous aluminium and incorporating islamic architectural elements. Some people have referred to it as the "Giant Phallic Symbol of Malaysia", but I think its one of the most beautiful buildings in existance today. Seen under the infamously searing Malaysian sun, the buildings sparkle, and as the sun sets, it changes colour and sheen thanks to the reflective qualities of the aluminium that clads the building.

The Twin Towers sparkling under the Malaysian sun

88 floors in total, 452 metres in height, the Petronas Towers were interestingly never designed to be the tallest buildings in the world, which at that point in time was a title held by the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York. Intervention by our Prime Minister at the 11th hour essentially forced Cesar Pelli to re-design the towers with a structural pinnacle that helped the towers wrestle the title away from the WTC towers in New York - only just.

The Twin Towers defining the Kuala Lumpur city skyline

The design and planning of the Petronas Towers included some novel and innovative ideas - most noticeable of which is the Skybridge, linking the two towers at its skylobby at Levels 41 and 42. This was the interchange point for elevators going to the top-half of the building. The views from this skylobby is spectacular, and if you ever have the chance to pay the skybridge a visit, don't waste it. Tourists and visitors alike can visit this bridge for free daily between 10am and 6pm.

The air-conditioned Skybridge on Level 42

The view from Level 42 of the Skybridge

The Petronas Towers were also the first buildings to use double-decker high speed elevators, supplied by OTIS. These elevators enable the system to serve two floors at a go, speeding up vertical transit in what is a very tall building. However, this also means that each elevator lobby is made out of two levels, one serving odd numbered floors and the other even-numbered floors. It can sometimes be amusing to see people wander around the skylobbies looking quite lost, trying to figure out the system's odd-and-even numbered floor service.

A spectacular night shot of the Twin Towers from the adjoining KLCC Park

The development of the Twin Towers and its surrounding complexes also gave the city its first true park, much in the mould of Central Park in New York, on a much smaller scale of course. This park has become the favourite haunt of city slickers seeking a little respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. The view from this park, with its landscaped greens and a water feature that winds its way thru the park culminating in a water fountain, is quite spectacular as well. Boxed in by skyscrapers on all sides, its a strange yet restful feeling to be so close to the urban sprawl that is Kuala Lumpur yet distant enough to see and feel lush greenery around.

View of the Kuala Lumpur urban sprawl from the park

The construction of the Twin Towers complex gave more to the city than just a great new park - it incorporated the country's first purpose-built concert hall meant specifically for classical performances - the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. Home to the Malaysian Philharmonic, it's a relatively small, but beautifully designed hall along the lines of the classical "shoebox" shaped halls found in Europe. Acoustics in the hall are top notch, and performances there have garnered heaping praise from music lovers.

The Dewan Filharmonik Petronas

The title of "Tallest Building in the World" was given to the Twin Towers by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 1997 when the towers started operations. There was a lot of debate on the validity of the twin towers holding this title, as it was gained by the addition of decorative spires at the top whereas the WTC towers had a higher occupied floor (level 110 was the WTC's top floor). The council however, stuck with their decision and the Petronas Towers held that title up till this year, when Taipei 101, a new office block in Taiwan, took that title away from the Malaysian twins.

Taipei 101 - the new holder of the "World's Tallest Building" title

Although the Petronas Towers are no longer the tallest buildings in the world, they still hold the title of tallest twin towers, which is a consolation of sorts, I suppose.

I once read that great architecture is often marked by designs that an average man on the street can understand. A design that one can sketch with no more than a few penstrokes on a piece of paper. One that is immediately recognisable as part of its native landscape and contributes to the urban landscape in a social context as well as a visual one. The Eiffel Tower, the WTC, the Sydney Opera House are all good examples of this principle behind great architecture. I for one think the Petronas Twin Towers is a member of this exclusive club.

The pomp and pagentry during the grand opening of the Twin Towers in 1998

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

When Fires Rage...

Don't ask me why or how, but sometime last year I was appointed my office's "Fire Marshall". It wasn't a democratic decision, that I assure you, but alas, here I was, seated at the back row of the Keck Seng Tower auditorium on the 15th floor awaiting the building management to start the "Fire Marshall Meeting", as it was called.

Free bottles of drinking water were handed out along with a thick manual titled "Menara Keck Seng Fire Emergency Plan". My curiosity hightened, I flipped thru the booklet and couldn't help but break out into minute, but somewhat noticeable bursts of sporadic laughter.

Now, to most people, something with a title that long MUST be serious stuff, right? Well, in a way, yes, the manual was made with a sole purpose in mind - to brief the Fire Marshalls on how to handle an emergency evacuation of their respective floors due to fires in the building. But what I found most amusing was the fact that it had, firstly, a whole chapter (18 pages worth) of what they termed "compulsory announcements" that must be made upon the Fire Marshall noting that the fire alarm has been triggered in the building.

I'm all for pre-written scripts and all, but 18 pages worth of "compulsory announcements"??!! This bordered on being ludicrous! Let me give you a few "compulsory announcements" that I must make in an event of a fire:-

(at page 1, announcement 1)
"Ladies and Gentleman, there has been a fire alarm in the building. Kindly shut off your PC's and other electrical or electronic equipment, gather your immediate belongings and head to emergency staircase no.1 for suite 1 and staircase no.2 for suite 2. DO NOT PANIC, DO NOT USE THE ELEVATORS"

On the face of it, its a mighty fine announcement, but hey, wouldn't the blaring alarm make the first statement redundant?

There's more
(at page 2, announcement no.5)
"Please fill in the attendance form with me before proceeding to your designated emergency exits"

OK...this one takes the cake as THE most silly announcements in history! Here's the situation - the building is being razed to the ground (okay, so sue me for dramatisation), people are panicking despite your pleas not to, thanks to compulsory announcement no.1 above, smoke fills the floors and everyone, including the Fire Marshall just has one thing on their minds - to get the hell out of the floor. What does the building management want us to do? FILL FORMS! You're gonna have 50-60 people lined up in smoke-filled hallways filling out forms while fires continue to rage out of control nearby. Whomever thought of this wonderful plan seriously needs to have his head checked.....

It would be marginally acceptable if it was a simple two-line form asking for the occupant's name and floor, but noooo......As it is, the form is a whole page, 12 items in all, requesting for the occupant's name, phone number, e-mail address and this one must have been thought up by a sadistic building management staff.....a column in bold italics marked "next of kin".....how nasty is THAT? You tell the Marshalls to assure the occupants that they're not gonna be roasted to death and yet you ask them for their next-of-kin in a form? I doubt people would even have pens with them to fill the forms with as they choke to death on the billowing smoke......

In any case, they are gonna test this "plan" out this Friday at 10am....it should prove amusing. I for one know that if it was a real fire there are only two possibilities that could occur - we dump the silly plan and run for our lives or, we die of smoke inhalation filling out forms! Wish us luck!

The behemoth with form-filling fire escape plans

Monday, September 20, 2004

Pluck this!

Had a chance to catch PLUCK – the musical at the Actor’s Studio over the weekend, and it’s a performance that I won’t forget for a very long time and, in my mind, shall be the standard by which many other musical-comedies will be judged from henceforth.

A witty and inventive string trio who comically make their way through a gamut of classical masterpieces ranging from Mozart to the theme from Pink Panther. Formed in 2002, these three crazy musicians have astonished audiences everywhere with their zany combination of gut-wrenchingly funny comedic relief and excellent music.

Since winning the prestigious Tap Water Award at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, PLUCK has played to sold-out houses in the UK, Europe and Australia, including Sydney's Big Laugh Comedy Festival, the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Finland's Jyvaskyla Festival and Italy's Tetro della Tosse in Genoa.

PLUCK consists of Jon Regan, the group’s viola player, Sian Kadifachi, the cellist and Adrian Garratt, the violinist. The group hails from London and has won the Tap Water Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They’ve performed to sold-out houses in Britain, Europe and Australia. Malaysia, too, at least on the night I was there – the show’s last performance on Sunday night.

Described as a musical where “…great music falls into the hands on talented idiots”, it’s a winning attempt at looking at the classics on a lighter note, allowing it to appeal to a much larger and younger audience than traditional, often stuffy, full-on concerts at philharmonic halls where uncomfortable evening wear is a must.

The performance at Actor’s Studio on Sunday began rather oddly with a nervous-looking Jon fumbling about the stage carrying a violin, viola and cello – and smiling sheepishly and uncertainly at the audience as he walked onto stage and sat on his chair. Jon has the uncanny talent of making the most comical of faces, and I must admit, he was the star of the show in my eyes.

Sian and Adrian made their entrance shortly thereafter, and, proceeded, to the shock of purists, to play their instruments like guitars. But the result was great music – and it provoked the delight of the audience.

As the performance unraveled itself, it became obvious that the trio were frighteningly adept at interpreting the classics in the most hilarious of scenes. Jon and Adrian were seemingly permanently engaged in an endless duel of pointless competition.

Sian, was the sane one in the performance. She often sulked endlessly, but this just added immensely to the performance – she was the good cop. She did, however, have the world’s best fake smile especially reserved for Adrian – something we could all relate to when facing our bosses, I’m sure.

Adrian, Jon and Sian performed classics from composers like Bach & Mozart, stirred in some jazz, and a few Beatles numbers – all in a very unconventional way. Even Pink Panther’s theme made an unseemly appearance! Jon’s unexpected appearance with HUGE cymbals was gut-wrenchingly funny. I’m sure this man is a normal, mature adult off stage, but on-stage he takes the cake for being the funniest, most childish character I’ve seen in a LONG time! And all this from a character that doesn’t speak a single line!

It was not all violins, viola and cello, though. Sian’s amazing vocals was given a chance to captivate the audience in her rendition of the ever-popular jazz piece “Fever”. It turns out that Sian had graduated from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music with honours in cello and jazz singing. Her voice has an amazing sultry quality that is totally at odds with the comical character she portrays in the performance.

There was also, to my horror (as I was seated on the second row from the stage, which is WAY too close for comfort when these sort of things happen) the almost compulsory (at least by Malaysian standards) audience participation, and two “lucky” members of the audience got “wooed” by Sian, Adrian and Jon in a hilarious scene where the three of them went all out to “chat up” the two, using nothing but their “instruments” of choice. Having Jon and Adrian just a foot or two away from my seat was an unnerving experience, to say the least.

All in all, it was one of the best performances I’ve attended in a very, very long time. If you ever get a chance to catch the trio again in town, don’t miss it – you’ll kick yourself in the behind if you did!

A little history on the “PLUCKERS”:-

Sian is PLUCK's smallest member but owns the largest instrument. Her cello is only half the story, though - Sian's other instrument is her amazing voice. After graduating with honours in both cello and jazz singing at the Guildhall School of Music, Sian's work has ranged from traditional classical gigs to playing and singing with jazz ensembles and pop bands. She also tutors adults at the East London Late Starters Orchestra (ELLSO). She has played at the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms, sung in the Jazz Café and Ronnie Scott's in London, is releasing an album in 2005 with the group Shrift, and has a beautiful surname that sounds rather like a sneeze.

Jon is PLUCK's viola player. He graduated with honours from Exeter University's music programme (where he developed an understanding of post tonal analysis and played the violin in drag!) and earned a Masters in Music from Trinity College London (during which time he served Angus Deayton asparagus at the Brit Awards). He now leads a double life as both player and conductor with the Dorking Philharmonia. Just in the last year, he appeared on a catwalk in Slovenia, entertained Steven Berkoff, and wore a wrestling mask in front of over 1,000 people. His other musical talents include being an excellent guiro player.

Adrian Garratt's career started in 1996, when his violin-playing led him into the world of busking. Since then, he has entertained crowds in three continents with his street-performing routines, as well as keeping up more traditional playing. He has worked with Yehudi Menuhin in the UK, Vladimir Ashkenazy in South Africa, and Rainer Hersch below a strip club in Soho. Rarely separated from his rucksack or his bike, the phrase "regular income" is not part of Adrian's vocabulary. He is known to his friends as 'Liberty Man' because of his penchant for fine clothes.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Puteri Gunung Ledang....what tosh!

Went with a friend to watch the much-hyped about 'Puteri Gunung Ledang' ("PGL") - the Malaysian film industry's first attempt at a proper big-budget production. Officially, the producers of the film say they spent 15million making this movie, though rumour has it the final figure was closer to 20 million big ones......

So, the BIG question that needed an answer to was whether this movie was truly the sign of a turnaround in the film industry in the country. Up till now, the industry focused its efforts on small budget (though often over-hyped) productions using, ironically, pop and rock artistes as their 'stars', letting them loose on often mediocre storylines with shoddy acting and horrendous cinematography. It was often nothing more than marketing ploys to maximise exposure for big names in the local pop and rock circles.

The perfect example of this would be the last local film I watched - "ISKANDAR" - starring Awie, the local rock star. To say this movie sucked was an understatement. The acting was atrocious - wooden and unrealistic, and the plotline so predictable you didn't need a crystal ball to see what would come next.

But back to PGL. The story is basically premised on the Malay legend about Puteri Gunung Ledang (referred to in the movie by her Javanese name, Gusti Puteri), a mythical princess who falls in love with the Malaccan Sultanate's Admiral, Hang Tuah. In its original form, its a simple yet elegant tale about forbidden love between the admiral and the princess. Although accounts of the Malaccan empire are usually based on half facts and liberal doses of fantasy, its still a nice tale to tell.

However, the movie butchers this tale in alll its glory! Whats so bad about this movie? Hmmm....

Where do I even start?

Firstly, the inconsistencies......PGL, the character, is, by most accepted accounts, supposed to be a mythical figure - in the movie, the producers seemed like they couldn't decide to make her a mortal or a supernatural being - so they ended up making her a hybrid-Javanese princess who could teleport herself and communicate telepathically. Strike One!

Strike two for inconsistencies comes in the fact that someone obviously forgot to tell the producers that the timeline they chose to portray was blatantly off-tangent. Sultan Mahmud, a pivotal figure in the movie (as the Princess's suitor) took the throne in 1488AD. Majapahit, the Javanese empire from which the Princess hails from (at least in the movie) was already non-existant by 1478AD. Perhaps a historian should be on the payroll the next time Malaysian film makers decide to make a historical epic.

Then there's the much-hyped about sets. They say a good 1/2 of the budget for the movie was blown on elaborate sets. There's virtually no evidence of this in the movie. Set largely in the lush forests of Malaysia, theres barely need for elaborate sets here. The only obvious one was the representation of Malacca itself, and even this simple task was botched royally.

Malacca in the 1400's where this movie was set, was at its peak of its power. One would rightfully expect a bustling town at the very least. However, in the movie, Malacca is depicted as nothing but a small village in the middle of nowhere. The producers actually proclaimed proudly that they utilised CGI for the movie. But looking at the set representing Malacca, I seriously think the producers got shortchanged by the contractors who built Malacca for them. If they couldnt' build the sets well, the least they could do was CGI the city in...but nooooooo.....the Sultanate is nothing but a fishing village!

The set for the throne room was the movie's only set worthy of mention. It accurately portrayed the grandeur of a Sultan's seat of power even if the gold-leaf accents on the walls looked slightly tacky.

Then there was the acting! My God! The acting was SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO bad! Tiara Jacquelina, who portrays the Princess, had all of 3 expressions - horny, goofy and pissed off. Which is heaps better than the bloke who played Hang Tuah - M. Nasir - who had all of ONE expression - just brooding. Thanks to the wooden acting, there was absolutely no on-screen chemistry between M.Nasir's character and Tiara's.

Tiara holding one of her 3 available expressions

The only people worth tagging the name "actor" to was Sofia Jane (who was 8 months pregnant at the time but her tummy was quite skillfully hidden) who played the Queen quite skillfully, and the actor who played the "Datuk Bendahara"....he was good.....both stood out by playing their roles well, using subtle yet masterful facial and body language that communicated their character's emotions well beyond their mediocre lines, no doubt written by a script writer during his lunch breaks over a cup of teh tarik.

But the brilliant acting of these two were just overshadowed by the horrid storyline, which was riddled with confusing flashbacks and PGL's annoying bouts of telepathic sex with Hang Tuah disguised as numerous frolics in bodies of water (suggesting she was "wet" perhaps?) and the unbelievably slow pace of the movie!

They tell me the original was 3.5 hrs long, which had one hour edited out. If I were the editor, I would have hacked the whole movie into a 30 minute short film, cos basically that was all the movie was worth, really. Often there's like a good 40 seconds of silence where Tuah and PGL "get it on" telepathically......I nearly died sitting in that cinema....I ended up sms-chatting just to stay awake!

If there's one area that PGL has shown progress in the industry is the quality of the cinematography. Well chosen locations and precisely metered lighting set the correct mood for most of the scenes. The quality of the sound was also worthy of mention - where Malaysian movies would normally have out-of-sync lip-synching for the actor's voices (they conventionally film movies here first and add the audio much later), PGL had what seemed to be live recorded sound, which was a major advancement in my opinion.

However, as a whole, one cannot help but feel shortchanged by this movie. I left the cinema thanking my lucky stars that I got a free ticket to watch this movie. If I had to pay RM 10 for this, I would have been seriously pissed off.....

If this represents the pinnacle of the Malaysian film industry, I'm saddened....truly saddened. what could have been a showcase of local talent has yet again fallen into the death trap of "too much hype, too little substance" that our film industry is so well known for.