HIS sunny demeanour and cheery greeting brightens up the dank Monday morning. Clad in a dark purple buttoned-down shirt and a pair of white slacks, titanium framed spectacles adorning his face, the chap I’ve come to interview today looks like he’s dressed for the top rung in the corporate world.
Well, my guess is correct, in parts, for he has been in that field for the past 15 years. However, beneath the polished exterior lies a creative side - unleashed when he puts pen to paper.
Meet Tan Bok Hooi, affectionately known as Alex, author of A Man And His Wallet & Other Stories that is a collection of exemplary stories based on his observations of the everyday Malaysian life.
His confident exterior belies his nervousness, something he confesses to, the moment we meet. “There were only two other occasions when I have felt this nervous. One was when my first cerpen (Malay short story) was published in Dewan Siswa back in 1990. The other was when my current book was shortlisted as one of 50 Best Malaysian Titles for International Rights by Majlis Buku Kebangsaan Malaysia, (Malaysian National Book Event) and later exhibited at the International Book Festival in Frankfurt,” he says with a smile.
A Man And His Wallet is a collection of anecdotes that Tan describes as little vignettes of life’s journey.
“It’s not a book that tells people what to do. Instead, it’s meant to share with readers the options you can choose in life,” he explains, adding: “Life is all about making decisions - those that will take us to places, be they good or bad. That’s why there’s a maze on the front cover. We will never know where we’re headed but we still need to make choices.”
Launched in July last year, the collection of stories that make up A Man And His Wallet not only questions the choices we make while growing up but also illustrates situations which we’ll come across as we reach adulthood.
The book comprises three parts that are dedicated to the three important phases of life: childhood, teenage years and adulthood.
The author points out that with each passing phase comes more responsibilities. “When we were young, our questions were simpler, thus our answers were also simpler. As we progress with time, decisions become harder to make. To find simplicity again isn’t easy and it gets even harder as the years go by,” says Tan.
Born in the 1970s in Bagan Dalam, a small village near the port on the mainland of Penang, Tan is the oldest of four siblings and the only son. His love for writing began unexpectedly while he was preparing for his SRP exam. “I read a lot of Dewan Masyarakat, a Bahasa Malaysia periodical to sharpen my Malay language proficiency as I was determined to score an A.
I even submitted an essay for a competition which, to my surprise, led to me being invited to a writing workshop in Kuala Lumpur,” he recalls.
His time at the writing workshop, called Antologi Cerpen Bengkel Minggu Remaja Ke-IV 1988, which was facilitated by prolific writer Othman Puteh, resulted in his essay being published as a collection in a book titled Salji Masih Berguguran. He recalls that his elation at seeing his work being published for the first time triggered his writing ambition.
Candidly, he discloses that he’s left-handed and confides that he’s grateful for the fact that his parents never tried to correct his preference. Instead, they chose to encourage his creativity. It’s this creativity that got Tan into drawing and sketching - something which has also helped mould his skills in creative writing.
“Being able to draw and write put me at ease and enabled me to delve into my imaginary world that’s filled with wonders and adventures far removed from the realities of life,” says Tan.
Meanwhile, his sketches and doodles illustrate his current book, depicting characters from his stories.
Tan says that he was surprised when he received the invitation to that first writing workshop back in 1988, which in turn sparked his interest in writing.
“I didn’t think that I had a great command of the Malay language. My family speaks Hokkien at home. I didn’t even know much English before attending Penang Free School and the little Malay I knew, I learnt through conversing with my friends,” he adds.
What’s even more surprising was how his love for physics actually helped in furthering his early writing career. “I love astronomy and so most of my stories at that time were science fiction. My very first story that was published in 1990 in Dewan Siswa, a monthly Bahasa Malaysia periodical for secondary and university students, titled Perhitungan Terakhir, came from that same genre,” shares Tan, eyes shining.
His penchant for physics subsequently brought him to the capital where he graduated with a Master of Science in Physics from Universiti Malaya. This was followed by a career spanning 15 years in the medical equipment industry. He admits that a lot of his time was spent then climbing the corporate ladder.
As we approach the end of our meeting, Tan tells me that he’s a great believer in doing things that make him happy. “Childhood is very important. The more we recall our younger days, the easier it is to mould our character and keep our feet firmly on the ground.
“It also reminds us that we have the freedom of choice. That’s why I’m now exercising my choice by being a writer again.”