Elizabeth Tai

Scribbles about reading, writing and publishing in the digital era

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Lessons from “Begin Again” (and yes, it’s also a review)

Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo in “Begin Again”, an awesome movie about second chances and the joy of creating with your entire soul.

Mark Ruffalo. He was the primary reason why I watched this movie. His characters often hold a cauldron of pain inside their seemingly strong/irreverent facade and the man has a way of making you want to hug him from the other side of the screen. (And to me, his version of The Hulk is the best.) What can I say? I love angsty men.

Dan is a classic Ruffalo character. At the beginning of the movie, we see how he’s at the wrong end of the corporate ladder; he’s about to be fired from the recording label he started and had suffered through seven years of mental instability, alcoholism and the worst case of marriage blahs ever. And yeah, his daughter thinks he is a loser.

When he meets Gretta (Knightley), he was minutes away from jumping off a subway platform. Then Gretta reluctantly sings on stage … he pays attention … and finds a reason to hang on.

He sees in Gretta not just fresh new talent but a reason to reignite his love for creativity. For Gretta, who just got majorly screwed (not in the romantic kind of way) by her rock star boyfriend Dave, Dan gives her the reason to live a life beyond being the girlfriend of Dave and to have the courage to share her immense talent with the world.

Critics could accuse Begin Again for being clichéd. “Yeah, yeah. I can see the ending a mile away. Dan finds a reason for living, he pieces his life together and so does Gretta.” After all, the tagline of the movie is, “Can a song save a life?” How obvious can you get?

But the movie doesn’t end the way you’d expect. In fact, I’d be terribly disappointed if it did. But despite that, the movie’s ending is both satisfying and, if I may, profound. It reinforces the message that we should all create from our souls.

For creatives like me, Begin Again speaks to my heart so deeply that I was dying to stand up and shout, “Hell, yeah!” It says, Dare to

  • … suck.
  • … create even if you think you suck.
  • … create even if people say you suck.
  • … create even if you don’t get a seal of approval from the “people who matter”.
  • … say no to the “people who matter”.
  • … create even if you don’t have the best equipment …
  • … or the best talent.
  • … create art that don’t smell of money.
  • … be true to yourself.
  • … create for the joy of creating.
  • … never compromise your integrity.
  • … take control of your art and share your passion.

On top of that, it has a killer soundtrack (Kiera Knightley sings in this one, and she ain’t bad at all). I leave you with the lovely Kiera Knightley singing my favourite song in the movie. The Adam Levine version is as good, but I love her purer version ;)

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Review: The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

Chicken Chronicles by Alice WalkerThe 37 essays in The Chicken Chronicles is actually a collection of Walker’s blog posts. But this is not just a day-to-day chronicle of the life of a chicken owner. Instead, Walker reflects on the world via the lens of her relationship with chickens. She talks about Gandhi, writes a tribute to Michael Jackson, wonders about dealing with the rose-munching deer that occasionally invades her garden and ponders the loss of her innocence. And with names like Gertrude Stein, Rufus, Agnes of God and Babe, it’s hard not to fall in love with the fowls.

I love chickens, after all. Especially marinated with spices and fried to a crispy crunch.

Ahem, just kidding.

What worked: I suppose if anyone could write a memoir about chickens, it would be Alice Walker. Although the book teeters dangerously close to being mushy and smarmy, Walker’s beautiful prose just beautifully conveys her love and infatuation with the chickens. The chickens – with adorable names like Babe, Gertrude Stein, Agnes of God and Splendor – don’t have memorable personalities, however. Not sure if the fault lies in Walker’s prose, which does a great job in the description department or it’s because, well, they’re chickens.

What didn’t work: Walker calls herself the chickens’ “mommy”, and writes letters to her “girls”. This particularly literary device is an acquired taste. But I found them funny and endearing, and at times I actually laughed out loud by the fowl antics. The only letter that didn’t do it for me is the essay where she talked about how her childhood was ruined because of a tragic incident involving a chicken … and dinner.

Final say: Like I said, The Chicken Chroniclesis an acquired taste. If you’r a lover of good prose, whimsical stories of the animal kingdom and highly tolerant of anthropomorphism, this book may just give you a chuckle or two.

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Reading and Writing Young Adult

One of my biggest dreams is to earn a Masters in Creative Writing. I know getting one doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be a better writer but I’ve always wanted to rub shoulders with fellow writers and soak in a learning environment where people are encouraged to create and explore.

So, when I discovered Tabor College‘s Creative Writing course, I was psyched. I scanned the curriculum and deemed it a very practical (they teach you to write, hey!) and non-hoity-toity. (I avoid snobbish Creative Writing courses that poo-poo genre fiction and demand that you write book-length exegesis about literary works that put you to sleep.)

However, when I discovered that the first course available was “Writing Young Adult fiction”, I thought, maybe I should wait for another subject to come by.

Young Adult is my least favourite genre. Years of Twilight exposure did not endear me to it, self-absorbed teens irritate the frak out of me and I did not have the tiniest desire to write in the genre. I have always found it puzzling that some adults read YA; I felt that it’s for kids and felt that I’ve outgrown the genre.

I thought back to my unconventional reading childhood. I didn’t really grow up reading the usual suspects: Enid Blyton, Dr Seuss or what not. My community library had an unusual collection of books for kids, and my first book from the library was about Mathematics. I was totally in love with it. I wish that translated into amazing mathematical genius on my part, but it didn’t. But it sure instilled the love of reading in me for some bizarre reason.

By the time I was 12, I’ve devoured non-fiction biographies of famous writers and scientists, read the works of Shakespeare (in comic form, less you’re too awed and impressed), was introduced to the wonders of Asterix and Obelix and books about astronomy. I suppose you can say in terms of the stuff I read, I grew up too fast ;)

I was only introduced to young adult works after I was 13, and by then I found them rather childish. Some did hold my interest – The Chalet school series (like, who didn’t want to study in a chalet up in the hills of Switzerland??), the Hardy Boys (I had a crush on them boys), Sweet Valley High (only because I wanted Jessica Wakefield to someday pay for her bitchy ways) and a horror series for YA called Dark Forces (I still love them and miss them and wish they were on Kindle). But mostly I read adult books. Uhm, like Danielle Steel (apparently, I started quite a craze in school without even knowing about it), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and lots of Stephen King.

I digress.

In the end, what convinced me to enrol in the subject was a) the lecturer is well-known YA author Rosanne Hawke b) because I hated YA. What better way to learn something new than to step out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy? Rosanne’s not going to preach to the converted, that’s for sure!

Rosanne promised me that she’d change my mind about YA by the end of the semester. I had serious doubts. Half a semester passed and I found myself plodding through the selected novels and those that I’ve come across from the library. I was no closer to liking YA at all. I had a “meh” reaction to most of the novels. This is not good.

Frustrated, I shared my “despair” with the class.They gave me an idea: Perhaps you’re not reading the right genre? Then I realised something: Young Adult is an umbrella genre with different kinds of genres beneath it. What I’ve been reading was literary YA, or most notably – YA fiction set firmly in reality.

I had to do a facepalm then because I have always shied away from realistic fiction. There’s always some element of fantastic in my stories – the ones I read and write. I think it’s because stories are a way for me to escape, and even if I want to process real issues, I’d like to explore them in a world removed from mine. After a tough day at work I’d have enough of the real world, so it made sense to escape into something different. My brain just shuts down if it’s not speculative fiction.

Fuelled by the suggestions, I visited Goodreads for suggestions and found Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, a sci-fi, dystopian YA.

Well, I was lucky. Shusterman’s Unwind had a very compelling premise: What if unwanted teens are sent of to organ-harvesting farms by their parents? Better, it was well-written and wonderfully plotted. And I ended up reading the novel in a few hours. Now, this is a marked improvement. Before, I had to schedule my reading by chapters per day for the assigned readings. It felt like work rather than pleasure.

Well, it looks like there’s some hope for me after all.

I am starting to think that my attitude towards YA came about because I prejudged the genre. Perhaps if I worked on removing this judgement, I’d be more open to literary YA or YA set outside my comfort zone genre. Until then, I’ll just explore the sci-fi/fantasy YA out there ;)

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Identity Politics and Malaysian Lit

Sometimes I think that the Malaysia literati should just take a chill pill.

Much like kiasu parents who believe that their children should only read books that contribute to their academic success, they are often fretting over the type of literature being written and consumed by Malaysians.

I was reading Daphne Lee’s post, Reading Local Lit, in which she said: “In Malaysia, those of us who do love to read have certainly had our tastes and expectations (of what a story/book should be like) shaped by Western mainstream writers/ critics/ literature. This affects the fate of local literature, especially how it is perceived and if it is read.”

I can’t think how I might define Malaysian literature without referring to styles established in Europe and North America. Malaysian writers, especially those whose medium is English, have European narrative traditions hanging over their heads, so to speak, and it’s hard not to be intimidated, influenced (bullied) and judged by these traditions. Readers are in a similar position. Even our exposure to African and Asian literature is controlled by what is available in the West, and translated by American and British publishers.

Here’s my take: Rather than think of Western literature as an all-consuming, pulversing force, I think of it as a gem, a wonderful contribution from one part of humanity to another.

The Malaysian literati are far too anxious to establish Malaysia’s cultural identity in fiction, and I think it’s a bad idea to force the issue on writers and readers.

Elif Shafak: Leave identity politics out of fiction.

In the TED talk, The Politics of Fiction, Turkish author Elif Shafak said: “Stories lose their magic when they become more than a story.”

She spoke about a time when a literary critic questioned why she only included one Turkish character in one of her novels, and the character’s a male on top of that.

“He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happen to be one.”
Identity politics are affecting how stories are being circulated, read and reviewed, she said.

“Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world like me, then you are expected to write stories about Muslim women and preferably the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You are expected to write informative, poignant, and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant garde stories to your Western colleagues.”

Turkish author Elif urged writers to transcend identity and cultural politics. And I agree with that so much that I want to shout it from rooftops. Identity politics is such a disease in Malaysia; it affects every facet of our lives, don’t let it infect our literature too. Writers should transcend that, not play along.

Furthermore, Malaysians have grown up being told what is acceptable for us to talk, write, tweet, watch or read. The last thing we need is for the Malaysian literati to lecture writers and readers on what’s acceptable/better to consume!

No, Malaysian writers do not need to write about Malaysian characters leading Malaysian lives on Malaysian soil. Nor do Malaysian readers have the obligation to.

Writers should write what’s in their hearts, whether it be bodice rippers, space operas or an experimental literary work that would make New York Times book reviewers swoon in ecstasy.

If you still insist on fretting abou something, then fret about this: We need to instil the freedom and joy that reading and writing brings and leave identity politics where it belongs: In a newspaper gathering mushrooms somewhere.

What we need to do is to give budding Malaysian creatives the freedom to explore what piques their interest and give them the tools to pursue it. Unfortunately, there are not many creative writing classes in Malaysia, and they’re often dominated by folks who often tell you that your work is only deemed worthy if it’s written in a certain style/genre/setting.

I really believe that once Malaysian creatives embrace this freedom, stories with our unique cultural identity will emerge naturally.

Meanwhile, kick back with a John Grisham or a Dan Brown and don’t bloody feel guilty about it.

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My year of writing dangerously

In 2012, I not only moved to Australia, I also started a new career, wrote a Young Adult novel, worked with a Malaysian publisher on two children’s books and started a new column about e-books called Reading Revolution with The Star. Oh, and on top of that I was taking Dean Wesley Smith’s online writing courses.

To say that I had a busy year was a massive understatement.

I can honestly say this: Don’t ever do what I did!

Boy, although I did get quite a few things accomplished (move to Australia was a success, I’m now a nursing assistant on the way to becoming a nurse or perhaps occupational therapist, completed my YA novel, published the children’s books and Reading Revolution is up and running, having recently migrated from iPad form to online) – it was by far one of the most stressful years of my life. Fulfilling and perhaps satisfying at times, but I had many sleepless nights and anxious moments where I felt that my house of cards was going to fall down on me.

But my year of stress was not wasted. I learned so many things about writing fiction:

✔ I have sped up my writing speed (in terms of writing a novel) considerably. I wrote my first 80k novel a few years ago and it took me two years to write it because I “discovered” the novel along the way. (In other words, I was a pantser.) However, this time, I defied my pantser inclinations by planning in advance.

✔ It’s really important to develop your writing process. Unfortunately, every person’s process is different. I’m still trying to discover what mine is, though I now have a rough idea. Around my 10th year as a journalist, I developed a system which helped me write my features very quickly. At first, I thought it was an inferior process – robotic, even. I would write the skeleton of the article very quickly. Then I would shift bits of dialogue from my interview transcript into relevant sections. Later, I would write in bold things that need to be researched, clarified or further questions. After I fill in the gaps, I write. It usually takes me about 1-2 days to write a 1000-word feature (excluding interview and pre-interview research time). Now, I realised that fiction writers, especially professional ones, write the same way.

However, it’s critical to discover just what suits you. For one, I realised that detailed story plans are not for me. All my plans fly out the window because my characters have a mind of their own and often do things outside of my plan, the naughty buggers. Still, I also realised that having some kind of outline helped me immensely.

✔ It’s important to understand that mental clutter/distractions/negativity can affect your writing. For example, I realised that my perfectionist tendencies have been huge barriers to my writing (fiction, anyway) and was the main reason why I procrastinate. I had to learn to ignore my devillish inner critic and just bloody write. Oh, and get some counselling or read some self-help books. And I’m not saying this in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

✔ I am thankful for my 13 years as a journalist – it has given me the discipline to write even when I don’t feel inspired. For six months, I wrote at least 5000-10000 words a week.

✔ It’s best to write with your editing mode shut off. Meaning, don’t write and edit at the same time. You’re forcing your brain to switch functions and it slows you down considerably. And it can be stressful too. So, during your first round, write free flow without fixing spelling or grammar or going off to the Internet to research bits of stuff. Just write. Which brings me to the next point:

✔ Shut off all distractions. Multi-tasking isn’t a good thing when you write. For a person who was proud that he could study, watch TV, surf and maybe eat at the same time, it was a revelation :) The NYT article, A Focus on Distraction, calls this “rapid toggling between tasks”. Your brain takes longer to gear itself from task to task. So, let’s say you’re writing, then you notice an email pop up. You go check the email. When you return to write, it’ll take your brain a few minutes just to get back to the groove. I learned a fun trick from Dean Wesley Smith: I would set my timer at 30 minutes and write my heart out. It became a game – I loved seeing how many words I could finish in 30 minutes!

✔ I learned to work with publishers. Egad, contracts. Not one of my favourite things, but certainly eye-opening.

✔ In the end, you can only learn by writing that novel/short story. And another. And another. And yet another. This is one thing my years as a journalist taught me: Write again and again – that’s how you improve. Sure, you can take 1001 courses and read 1002 how-to books, but you won’t be able to discover what works for you as a writer if you don’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

✔ Practise your writing but also learn from the experts at the same time. As important as writing to learn is, it’s equally important to learn from the experts. So join workshops, read blogs and interact with other writers.

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Review: A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen

I have always been a sucker for animal stories (big James Herriot fan here!) so when I spied this book at the Marion Library, I took to it immediately. Then, there was the claim that this neko saved his life, so how can I resist that?

Like James, Bob was down and out when James found him. He was hiding out in the flats he was living in and James decided to spend his very meagre cash to nurse him back to health. He named him Bob after a character, a killer, in Twin Peaks but didn’t think the ginger cat would stay with him. Fortunately for James, Bob was nothing like his namesake.

He thought that Bob would leave him for the streets immediately, but instead Bob stuck by him, giving him loyalty, love and lots of laughs. James, back then a drug addict on rehab eeking out a meagre living on the streets, found himself suddenly concerned with another creature besides himself.

But having Bob had another amazing effect on his life: Suddenly, people were noticing him more when he busked and as a result, he was earning more!

But it’s not all roses and daffodils – James discovered that not everyone was kind to him and Bob. Some took pleasure in bullying and tormenting him and sometimes, even Bob. And despite Bob’s charm, the system and people’s apathy was working hard to make life difficult for folks like James.

Still, James found himself having another motivation to exist: to give Bob a good life. And in order for him to do that, he had to straighten out his life.

What I loved: Bob’s lovely character really shines through in this book. You definitely get the feeling that this kucing is one one special creature. But what I really appreciated from the book was how James highlighted the plight of the homeless, how they are ignored by society and how little help they received from people.

He mused that if a cat could give him such love, support and compassion, why couldn’t his fellow human beings?

So, if you see someone trying to sell Big Issue at a street corner somewhere, buy a copy because it will help them straighten out their lives.

Final thoughts: I loved this book! Read this in two days, and that’s only because I didn’t have much time to read books because of my busy schedule.

James Bowen has quite a different life now. His book has hit the bestsellers’ lists, have been translated into so many languages, and he even went to the United States on a book tour! His second book on Bob, The World According to Bob, was just released in July this year. Hopefully, James’ success will lift him off the streets completely and provide people who are down and out the inspiration to change their lives.

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Life has taken me over

One of the goals I want to achieve in Australia was to travel as much as I can. Here I am in the little picturesque German village of Hahndorf in South Australia. And yes, it was Autumn.

Wow, I have to say that I have been extremely tardy with my blog writing. Life has really taken over me in an insane way. But I was looking over my old post, Why I quit my job to move to Australia, and realise that I need to seriously update you with what’s been happening in my life.

In that post I wrote some of the goals I want to achieve during my time in Australia:

1. I will be studying and upgrading my skills: Goal achieved!

I am now a qualified nursing assistant/care worker. I work around 80 hours a fortnight. Although I feel so blessed (in Australia, you’re happy to get hours to work!) it’s a physically demanding job. In an eight-hour working day, I can easily walk up to 7km! I have to also lift a lot, so I sure have a good workout on the job. Needless to say, my body ached so much when I first started as a care worker!

Now, we are not nurses per se (though the residents/patients often call us that!) but we support nurses in their jobs. We basically do things like catheter care, pressure area care (patients need to be turned so that they don’t develop bedsores), feed patients, change their continence aids and help them with showers etc. Some people think it’s a dirty and lowly job, but I found that it has given me a good idea how nursing works and has given me invaluable experience in helping others.

I now know how to deal with people suffering from dementia and how to give palliative care. Seriously, I don’t know what job that exposes me to the workings of healthcare without years and years of study! If you want to gain experience before embracing a health care career, being a care worker is the way to go. Many of my colleagues went on to study nursing, medicine, pathology and yes, occupational therapy, something I hope to do one day.

While my new career is occupying most of my time, I’m still developing my writing. I’ve been taking online writing classes with prolific writer Dean W Smith because I like his practical lessons and no-nonsense approach to writing. Writing is not something you do when “inspiration hits”. After 13 years as a journalist, I realise it is also very much about time management, learning new techniques and overcoming your personal demons, believe it or not. Writing fiction, however, demands a whole new set of skills. And to my surprise, I had to get over a few psychological hurdles before becoming an effective fiction writer. To be honest, I am not there yet, but I have managed to speed up my writing considerably.

2. I would like to get Australian working experience: Achieved!

Best of all, I have colleagues from around the world. China, Nigeria, Botswana, Australia, Indonesia … it made me realise how underexposed we Malaysians are to people from other countries. I’m such good friends with my African colleagues that when I read articles like this (Profiling Africans is crazy, says Minister) I feel really ashamed of being Malaysian. I also remember how suspicious Malaysians are of foreigners and realise that Australians are extremely welcoming in comparison. Dear Malaysia, we have a long way to go.

3. I want to travel: Sorta!

I was too busy working to travel too much, but I visited places such as Carrackalinga, Hahndorf and McLaren Vale. Gorgeous, all of them! Next year, I plan to take a few weeks off to visit New Zealand :)

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Appearing on 891 Book Club

Me with 891 Afternoons presenter Sonya Feldhoff.

As I said in the post before, ABC Radio contacted me because of a post I wrote about my visit to the Life of Pi set.

You can listen to the interview in its entirety at the 891 Book Club Archives.

It was an interesting experience, being on a radio show. Especially if you’re the one being interviewed! I’ll tell you the truth – my heart was pounding when they asked me questions about the book because I read the book over two years ago and had to refresh my memory about the details.

(The interview happened because 891 Afternoons presenter Sonya Feldhoff came across my post about my visit to the set of Life of Pi when I was a journalist.)

The ABC radio offices is quite polished, and it was fascinating to watch the studio operate. On one side is the presenter and guests with their mikes and earphones, on the other are these people operating switchboards and computers.

Outside the glass-encased studio is a regular office where I assume the journalists work. Ah, how I missed that world!

I was ushered into the glass-encased studio, asked to put on the headphones and sit in front of the mike. I felt as if I was going to sit for an exam!

Still, my bestie in Malaysia said she could see me via the web telecast of the show and said I was just fine. Well, you be the judge!

You can listen to the interview at the 891 Bookclub archives here:

This is what this episode is about according to the 891 Bookclub website:

It was a special thrill in our 891 Book Club to welcome one of the authors whose book we are focussing on this month.
Karen Lord from the Caribbean was in the studio to personally discuss her book “Redemption in Indigo”, which has been described as a modern day fairytale.

And it was interesting to hear her describe how she fleshed out the fool in her book, a character rarely afforded such attention.

Our other book in the spotlight is now a much loved modern classic.

I must be one of the few book lovers who somehow missed reading “Life of Pi” in the first few years after it won the Mann Booker Prize but it’s been wonderful to finally catch up on it for our 891 Book Club.

Timely too, with Ang Lee winning the Best Director Oscar this week for his movie version of “Life of PI”.
I managed to track down and welcome to the studio Elizabeth Tai, a freelance writer, who has not only reviewed the book before but visited the movie set in Taiwan to interview Ang Lee.

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I will be on ABC Radio’s Book Club

I received an e-mail a few days ago from the producer of the show. She happened to come upon my post, Cover the Life of Pi, where I wrote about my experience visiting the set of the movie.

She thought that it’ll be interesting for me to come on the show.

To be honest, I’ve been on the other side of the mic; in 1999, while I was a journalism student in Curtin University, I worked in the community radio show as a reporter and actually interviewed people (ministers, activists, the lot) and even acted as producer for the show. I’m used to being on the other side, the one asking the questions. I’m not used to being asked questions!

Well, I’m not sure how big a part I’ll play in the show, but I’m intrigued to witness how Australian journalism is done. If I’m not mistaken, I’m one of the book reviewers that they invite to the show – these book reviewers are often members of the radio station’s book club.

You can listen live to the show at 2.30pm (Adelaide time – 12pm Malaysian time) today (Friday, March 1, 2013) at their live stream:  http://www.abc.net.au/adelaide/programs/webcam_radio.htm?streamFile=localadelaide&streamTitle=Conversations

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Covering Life of Pi

I had the privilege of visiting the Life of Pi set in Taiwan and was in the water tank set to witness how scenes like this (sans tiger) were filmed.

My articles, Bringing Pi Into Being and Rough Voyage, came out last November in The Star.

It brought back great memories – visiting lovely Taiwan, meeting Ang Lee and being in a huge water tank (the world’s largest water tank set or something like that) to watch the great genius at work. Life of Pi holds a special place in my heart because it was the last movie I covered before resigning from The Star and moving to Australia.

Ang Lee, at first glance, is like the uncle next door. He may be soft-spoken, quiet and humble, but beneath all that is a creative genius. I was simply impressed by the Taiwanese director’s drive and attention to detail.

I visited the set around  May last year. It was located at Taiwan’s abandoned Taichung airport. Sadly, by then, the tigers were already flown back, but the production was in full swing.

Ang Lee on the set of Life of Pi.

We were shown around the set and I saw a team of people meticulously working on props such as journals, clothes, furniture, debris, plastic fish … but the best part was seeing how Ang Lee and his team put together such an ambitious film. We even saw the 3D mock-up film of the amazing sinking ship sequence that you see in the trailer.

There’s an astounding amount of careful planning that went into the film to ensure that the film stayed on budget; Ang Lee lamented a few times that he wished he didn’t have that burden on his shoulders, so I’m really glad that Life of Pi received mostly positive reviews from critics. In fact, it’s nominated for an impressive 11 Oscar Academy Awards and 3 Golden Globes! Good going, Ang Lee!

PS: Which is why I should really watch the movie soon … yes, these days I’m really not up-to-date with my movie watching. I used to be so good at this! Heh.