Nazi Goreng– A hard-hitting and entertaining story of a racialised Malaysia

loading Hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan.

Marco Ferrarese is an animated fellow. The author of the controversially titled but highly entertaining and painfully truthful Nazi Goreng exudes high-octane energy, and the fact that he is also a punk-metal musician might explain why. He hails from a small town in Italy called Voghera, which is situated 60km south of Milan. “It’s an industrial town and there’s not much to do there,” he says. So, he turned to music. “I started playing music when I was 12, and I released my first 7” record when I was 14. I was also writing fanzines about punk music and B-movies.”

All was not rosy in Italy. Ferrarese thinks that Berlusconi’s policies in the 1980s had hurt the country’s arts and culture scene badly. “He basically made a monopoly of culture. It was a kind of mafia of the arts. We actually had a lot of fantastic artists in the 1960s and 1970s, like Pasolini and Fellini. It’s a shame that it has come to a stagnant point for culture, so I decided to leave. It was near impossible to work as a writer or a musician if you don’t have connections.”

Ferrarese loves Malaysia – Penang, in particular. But there was something he observed about this country. “What came very rampant to me within the first few weeks I was here was the racism in everything. It’s very strange to me that religion and race are so strong. I was once applying for a visa here to India and the officer asked me for my religion. I was like, ‘Why do you want to know?’”

That was one of the factors that inspired him to write his book. In many ways, Nazi Goreng is an account, albeit fictional, of what he has heard, read and experienced from living three years in Malaysia. “I am a musician here – I play in punk band Weot Skam when I am in Penang. Through my time with this band, I found out that there are some Malay supremacy groups that use Nazi iconography to support ideas based on the concept of Nusantara. They borrow from Nazi skinhead music to re-vindicate the concept of Malay supremacy. I met this guy at a show who was wearing a patch with the skull and the eagles and I asked my friends, ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘Oh they’re Nazis.’ I was like, ‘They’re brown, how can they be Nazis?’”

Weot Skam.

Ferrarese took that, along with his outsider’s point of view, and bundled it into a book. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the way Nazi Goreng sheds light on immigrant workers in Penang and Malaysia as a whole. They’re not portrayed as the thieving criminals that many Malaysians perceive them to be. On the contrary, they’re seen as victims, and it’s not hard to wrap one’s head around that notion because more often than not, they really are1. “I want to stress that the things I wrote about these people come from real interactions with many of them,” Ferrarese says.

Another thing that’s different in his book is the absence of the ubiquitous and more often than not benevolent white-skinned character. “There’s no white backpacker, no white detective, no mixed bloods or whatever. The only white people you find are very marginal figures.”

That being said, there’s this irrational fear of stereotypes when reading a book written by a foreigner on Malaysia. It tends to happen – just look in Anthony Burgess’ Malayan Trilogy from another time. However, some stereotypes ring true, as Ferrarese testifies. “If you tell me that this is a stereotypical book, I would answer yes, because Malaysians like to stereotype. The people I interacted with for the past three years showed me all these things. A Malaysian told me, ‘You cannot go out with a bag because there are snatch thieves around.’ I always go around with a bag and nobody has ever touched me!”

With all the stereotyping, it’s a wonder why Malaysians are still struggling to find an identity. Our clamours with Singapore and Indonesia over which culture belongs to whom hint at this insecurity, but Ferrarese easily defines us. It all boils down to food, of course. “Malaysia, for me, can be described as a plate of nasi goreng because of the different ingredients, colours and spices. I wanted to try to describe this country in a way that nobody has ever done before. A lot of books by Malaysian writers are set in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sick of reading about Malaysia under the British colonial lens because the British have long since left. You guys have to wake up and see that there are things you can write about!”

And Ferrarese is not one to shy away from controversial writing. “People should understand that I’m just trying to give them my take on things. I have been asked, ‘Do you know that this book is controversial?’ Yes, of course it is, but do you know that for a foreigner to come here and see the racism in this country, it is very controversial too?” he counters.

Ferrarese is relentless in his rhetoric. “This could be an example of a country most open-minded about social and religious issues. If you go to Pitt Street, you’ll see a mosque, a Chinese temple and a Hindu temple. I like to describe Malaysia as a place where prayers float up to the sky in three languages, and I think that Penang is much more interesting than any other part of the country. I want to give justice to the place I love.”

He admits that he got lucky with Nazi Goreng, which he wrote in just 45 days, as he sent it to the right person. “Because of the title, it went from the bottom to the top of the publisher’s very large pile.

Chen's hearse, flanked by Chung Ling students.

Three days later, he wrote me and told me he’d read my book and wanted to publish it. I didn’t expect to get this book out on an international publisher like Monsoon. So far the support has been very good.”

What’s next for this writer who is unafraid of stirring the hornet’s nest? “I’m actually working on a new novel, which is a fictional account of my trip.” He’s referring to a trip he made last year, when he hitchhiked from Singapore to Italy. The journey took him six months because of visa restrictions, and boy did he miss Penang food (“I was in Uzbekistan eating mutton dumplings every day because there was nothing else to be found. I thought of Penang and I was crying, ‘Jesus, where is my curry mee, hokkien mee, naan bread?’”).

And Ferrarese strongly feels that there’s something about Malaysia that can’t be found elsewhere. “Generally, people are real. You have to chisel your way into the country, but once you are in, you keep coming back. You miss the convenience of food available 24 hours on the streets. You miss the smiles of people. You miss the fact that the girls are always dressed in very short attire and stuff like that,” Ferrarese says with a cheeky smile. “This is an Islamic country they say, but it’s not, realistically,” he continues, and pauses. “It’s like dating a nerd – you get them in bed and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ For me, this is Malaysia.”

Reviewing Nazi Goreng

The first thing that grabs your attention is the title. With a name like “Nazi Goreng”, it shouts at you to be picked up. The cover shows a skinhead with a crescent moon and star on the back of his skull, and the words “YOUNG MALAY FANATIC SKINHEADS” are unmissable. It should also be noted that Ferrarese’s name bears an unmistakable gothic scrawl, a prelude for the reader to prepare for a spiralling dark journey. Or it could just be Ferrarese’s little tribute to punk metal. Once you

Once you get past the shock factor, Nazi Goreng proves to be a gripping read as it follows the exploits of the young Malay protagonist from Kedah, Asrul. Ferrarese brings the reader into the seedy underbelly of Penang, and we never once doubt the book’s authenticity. There are no swaying coconut trees or balmy tropical dawns (the only time the word “tropical” was used was to describe the familiar stench of our garbage trucks) – Nazi Goreng presents a darker, far more dangerous view of Malaysia and Penang. It tells of things that many of us know about but have never experienced before, e.g. drugs, drug distribution, guns and gang warfare. It is ultimately a story of racism and revenge, of how one single incident in a person’s life can cause a lifetime of hate, grudge and violence.

Its honest depictions and grittiness won this reader over, and it must be mentioned that the pace of the writing is deliciously fast. A noir fiction of sorts, one cannot help but to race around with Asrul and his malevolent mentor, Malik, from the back alleys of George Town to KL and even Taipei, then back to Penang where the final act takes place in the sleepy borough of Balik Pulau. Even Gama, the dinosaur of supermarkets in Penang, is given a mention or two.

Nazi Goreng handles sex well – it definitely doesn’t shy away, but neither is it full-fledged pornography. What this reader mildly disapproves of was the way Ferrarese treated Ming Fei, the seductive drug mule from mainland China. However, her pumped up sexuality is perhaps justifiable as it comes from the perspective of the young, hormonally-charged protagonist. And, this is being pedantic, but further editing for typos and formatting might be necessary for future editions of the book.

That aside, I will give Nazi Goreng two thumbs up for its fun entertainment, audacity (Ferrarese would probably call it balls) to tackle taboo subjects, realism and relentless pace. Grab it while you can.

References

1www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/after-recorded-slapping-migrants-cop-shiftedto-desk-job

Travel writer, musician and author of Nazi Goreng Marco Ferrarese has quite a few things to say about Italy’s “mafia of the arts”, Malaysia’s social climate and Penang food.



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