THE Jardin d’Acclimatation, a private park in Paris, which also proudly hosts the famous Louis Vuitton Foundation building, was quickly filling up with the weekend crowd: families in tow and dogs on leash to enjoy the theme park and activities it had to offer. From a distance, the gentle lilt of a song, unmistakably that of a Kelantanese folk song, could be heard in the crisp afternoon air.
Dikir barat from Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast state in Napoleon III’s beloved garden? Yes, it would somehow seem out of place. But then again, what better way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bilateral relations between Malaysia and France?
Performed in French and Malay by a group of Malaysian students from universities in France for the benefit of the growing crowd, the performance was just one of many that showcased Malaysia’s rich culture: traditional Sarawakian dance, the joget, the Indian dance and the Chinese lion dance. Dr Shahanum Shah’s performance on the gamelan did much to calm the nerves, especially after the energetic silat display by members of the French Silat Seni Gayung Fatani. It was indeed a Malaysian-French occasion, organised by the Malaysian embassy in Paris for this occasion.
Set not far from the stage, along the road from the entrance of the park which boasts about two million visitors a year, was a row of stalls showcasing Malaysian fruits, batik, Malaysian palm oil and various arts and handicrafts. A little French girl tried her hand at batik from Terengganu, and a French man went to the fruit stalls for his umpteenth slice of jackfruit.
Nearby, French couples queued to dress in Malay wedding costumes and have their pictures taken with the Malaysian flag in the background.
“I am sure Parisians who don’t really know very well where Malaysia is, or where Kuala Lumpur is, have learned a lot of things about Malaysia,” said Marc-Antoine Jamet, president of Jardin d’Acclimatation and secretary-general of LVMH.
“I am sure this has helped a lot of people who are planning their summer holidays. This is a good opportunity to know Malaysia better. I am sure the people of Paris are very happy to discover Malaysian specialties, and to have the opportunity to have a Malaysian lunch. It is very difficult to find a Malaysian restaurant in Paris.”
Not too far away, the Nur Muhammad foodstall was making a killing with their murtabak and banana buttons. Further away, the crowd around the Malaysian food truck was growing bigger. Umbrellas fought for space under the rain as people hung on every word of advice from chef Norman Musa, who was cooking nasi lemak.
They oohed and aahed at the smell of pandan and lemongrass leaves passed around by Norman’s assistant. The nasi lemak went well, according to Norman.
“At first, they would not try our food. Now, they are willing to. I have reduced the spiciness. Interest is growing. I was even interviewed by the media here,” said Norman, who went on to demonstrate Malaysian curry laksa.
The way to anyone’s heart, regardless of nationality, is food — and culture. Audran le Guillou, who coaches members of the Silat Seni Gayung Fatani, claimed that it was love at first sight for him when he saw the silat.
“It was fate. I wanted to learn Muay Thai or kung fu, but when I saw the silat, it was certainly love at first sight,” he said, looking back at 18 years of teaching Malay martial arts to the French.
French journalist Lionel Crooson fell in love with Sarawak and the history of the Raja Brookes family twenty years ago. He went on to research their history, writing historical novel Le Drogman de Borneo, or The Translator of Borneo, which he believed would give his French readers glimpses of Malaysian culture.
Ambassador Dato Ibrahim Abdullah was more than relieved that the morning rain had finally stopped and that there was a decent crowd gathering around the stage.
“Politically and economically, it has been good between the two countries. Now we want to focus on introducing our rich culture to the French,” he said.
One person who seemed to be enjoying the day in spite of the downpour was Tourism Malaysia director Abdul Rahim Harun, who was pleased to welcome back the participants of the popular television survival programme Koh Lanta, who spent months on a Malaysian island.
He said the programme, watched by about seven million people per episode, was a good way to showcase Malaysia.
Participant Camille Sold gushed her praises of the people she met on the island and the fish that set off her skin allergies.
“It was crazy and amazing. We all had a wonderful time. We will surely be going back with our families,” said the one-time shop-girl, who recently married Everton and France midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin.
A couple who represent the French-Malaysian relationship is Wan Hua Chapouthier and her husband Dr Georges Chapouthier. Wan Hua (née Goh) went to France to study the language with the intention of going back to Ipoh to start the Alliance Française there, but fate had other plans when she met scientist and researcher Georges in 1972.
Both are now 72, and they personify true French-Malaysian ties.
Wan Hua, who works with the Malaysia delegation at Unesco, has adapted to life in France, but as Georges says, you can never take the Malaysian out of this Ipoh lass.
Both are pantun and poem lovers, having gone back to Malaysia for the 33rd World Congress of Poets in Ipoh.
Georges and Wan Hua, who has written pieces for the Malaysian media, and two books of her own, deserve a whole column devoted to their life there. Both are familiar faces at Malaysian events.
The day ended well with a joget lambak. Although the crowd was not as big as those at Malaysian events at Trafalgar Square in London, it was a start. The little boy prancing around with the silat performers and the little girl putting her touches on the batik screen will grow up remembering their part in the Malaysian-French celebration.