Penang’s frontline survivor

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Kim Gooi could be mistaken for a retiree with a penchant for the blues. However, underneath that jovial exterior resides a harder – and more fulfilling – reality.

One can glean that Kim Gooi has lived an amazing life just by looking at him: donning a slanting beret, his whole persona exudes the sense that he’s flirted with disaster for the best part of his life. He tells first-person accounts of SouthEast Asia’s most crucial historical events that I only had the luxury of reading about in books.

To spice things up, Kim is a bohemian old hand, someone who’s able to recount his oneyear stint in Keng Tung jail of 1970s Burma for illegal border trespassing with the same spontaneity he uses to recall the long-gone, smoky opium dens of Penang and their population of human cocoons.

Born in Penang, Kim discovered journalism at 21 when he met a Dutch freelance photojournalist on the train during a solo trip to Northern Thailand. The European was returning from the Burmese border where he had spent time covering the Karen rebels. “I travel to places, write about them and get paid,” he had said, completely changing young Kim’s outlook on life.

Kim in an ocean of poppies.Kim Gooi

At the time, Kim was based in Singapore to study and work. His first stories were published locally, and he had his first big break when Hong Kong’s prestigious Asia Magazine accepted his story, “The Singing Fruit”, which he wrote when, hitchhiking from Penang to Singapore, he met a man who showed him how to choose the best durian by “listening” to the sounds of their pulp.

Shortly afterwards Kim resigned from his job in Singapore, hopped on his motorbike and rode back to Penang, where he settled down for about a year running a guesthouse for Western hippies in Teluk Bahang. It was a crucial time to get connected with travelling reporters, and soon enough Kim made the move to Bangkok, the City of Angels.

Sea of refugee tents.

Khmer refugee crossing.

“Bangkok was a paradise on earth, the biggest playground in the world – if you were young,” the almost septuagenarian sage tells me candidly. “When I arrived in the 1970s there were opportunities, great food, no traffic jams and way too many available women. The US base in the northeast had just closed down, and many people had come to live in Bangkok.”

That was how Kim started to make a quirky living. “Country girls from the northeast would come to the city to meet the ‘needs’ of the foreign tourists. My first job was as a letter writer: as I was learning to speak Thai, I helped bar girls read and write letters to their johns in English. At first they paid me in beer, but then I thought about asking for money as there was a limit to the booze I could drink. The girls were literally waiting for me every day, waving papers in front of my door!”

Kim.

With basic needs taken care of, Kim exponentially increased his local writing reputation until he moved to the ThaiCambodian border at the height of its tragedy. “My arrival was perfectly timed: the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge running to the Thai border to recruit people for their guerrilla war against the Vietnamese, thousands of refugees dying at the border,” Kim recounts. “The BBC, CNN and Japanese TV stations needed feature stories and documentaries, and they had big budgets. US$200,000 was standard for producing a 30-minute feature documentary, and everyone wanted to show off and compete with each other to deliver the best coverage,” he fondly remembers.

“By then my by-line was everywhere in Thai newspapers such as The Nation and Bangkok Post, and when CNN and BBC came to the border, they immediately sought me out. I was the top gun in Aranyaprathet. People like Italian foreign correspondent and writer Tiziano Terzani came only years later. Also, they didn’t speak Thai and were dependent on interpreters. I was a one-man crew. I started working with TV productions, making as much as US$150-US$200 a day. It was a fortune back then. Thanks to the war, I passed from struggling to get that kind of money to all expenses paid within a matter of days.”

Kim explains that his success in the field was a direct consequence of his respect and empathy for the local people. “I never showed off. The locals liked me and the TV stations hired me for that,” he says. “I was also working as a fixer. When foreign TV troupes were coming, they would call asking me to organise their hotel rooms, transportation, interview contacts, etc. I was earning very well, working for a month and then stopping to rest for two. I had a house in Bangkok manned by two maids. I was the only Malaysian who could do that,” Kim remembers.

Vietnamese prisoners of war.

"Writing magazine features has changed a lot. Nowadays, when you read an article you realise that the author has talked to a person for just a couple of hours and has immediately written the feature. During my time, sometimes we sacrificed up to a week per story."

The inevitable question to ask him then is why he left such comfort in Thailand to come back to Penang, where today he barely squeezes out a living. “As I said, Bangkok was paradise – if you were young. After I got married and had my son, I realised that the crime rate was shocking in Bangkok. Kids shoot each other on school buses! I was sending my son to an international school, which cost me around THB30,000 per semester. When I divorced my Thai wife and contemporarily became aware of the way the military in Thailand was increasingly rising behind the political powers, I decided to go back to Penang and live a more tranquil, albeit less swanky, life.”

Phnom Penh at twilight.

Kim returned to Malaysia in the early 2000s and was one of Malaysiakini’s first writers. He gradually abandoned the profession to dedicate himself to his other passions: tai chi and playing the blues harp. Part of the choice was disillusionment with the way the journalism industry had changed since Kim’s Bangkok heydays: “Writing magazine features has changed a lot.

Today’s editors ask for only about 500-800 words. I enjoyed writing and researching more. Nowadays, when you read an article you realise that the author has talked to a person for just a couple of hours and has immediately written the feature. During my time, sometimes we sacrificed up to a week per story. What’s worse, today’s journalists don’t read enough background information and don’t study the culture of the places they cover.”

I ask Kim for advice for young writers. “Study the area you are covering first and foremost,” he answers. “There’s no need for superficial reporting: have empathy with your subjects and write real stories, not promotion-style pieces like those the New Straits Times and The Star run to satisfy the ruling elite of this country.”

Kim, flanked by Ferrarese and partner.

In similar quixotic ways, Kim self published his book, The Poet of Keng Tung Jail, a collection of his best essays. It was Gerakbudaya bookshop’s best-selling title in 2014, and is now being reprinted and re-edited with a few additional stories. “I self-published because I wanted to have control and I didn’t feel excited by the services provided by local publisher SIRD whom I approached originally,” Kim says. “I have a particular vision for my stuff and I didn’t feel like they could help me as I wanted. The book editor they offered was too young to complete the task; he had no idea what to do with my stories.”

Perhaps he who has ridden side by side with tragedy and witnessed the death and rebirth of Indochina is allowed the final say on such matters. I hope that the pen of Keng Tung’s poet keeps on distilling unvarnished truth for all of us newcomers.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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