From the Desk of the Festival Director: Why Nasi Lemak?
It was the Festival designer, William Harald Wong, who shared a powerful insight with me once: he had been working on the Tasting Asia regional exhibition in 2002 showcasing food from the region, for which the late renowned poet Yesi (Prof Leung Ping-kwan), based in Hong Kong, had written a poem on the iconic Malaysian breakfast nasi lemak.
Malaysians feel strongly about our nasi lemak: we fight back when neighbouring countries try to appropriate it, comment when foreigners don’t know how to eat it, spin off various err… products and even make it into a cake and a costume.
So, with that background, what was extraordinary was not just the power of the language in this poem but the fact that, in all likelihood, William pointed out to me, this renowned poet had most probably never even tasted nasi lemak in his life.
Yet, drawing on his imagination and empathy, Prof Leung could build on our shared connection based on rice as a staple food and see past the dish itself to articulate the comfort and reassurances we derive from this uniquely identifiable meal – as William puts it “a poet overcomes all”.
I loved it so much that I used this poem as the introduction of my subsequent pitches on the Festival, how art can move us and bring people together, however diverse our backgrounds.
Never feeling hungry when you eat it
Never feeling sad
Fewer and fewer people grow rice
Fewer and fewer work in the fields
The city develops different tastes
Yet rice always neutralizes our pain
Feeling full when you eat it
Feeling strong when you have it
Fewer and fewer people sow seeds in Spring
Fewer and fewer harvest in Autumn
The city develops different melancholies
Rice has become the bits and pieces you lost
Fewer and fewer people grind the grains
Fewer and fewer people husk rice
The city gives you scars in seven colors
The rice gives you consolation in white
Never feeling grief when you eat it
Never feeling wrath
Never feeling lost when you have it
Never gone astray
Available online: https://www.whwdesign.org/tasting-asia