|For most and for me, Paris has been and will still be considered the
capital for excellence in art. It is the centre for new ideas and artistic energy;
it is the place for instruction and enlightenment.
The joy to be in Paris again after an absence of 8 years was mixed with bitter-sweet
memories. In 1964, I was awarded a one year French scholarship to study at L'Ecole
Nationale Superieure des BeauxArts in Paris. I was happy until I discovered that
life in Paris was not easy. Paris could be an unhappy yet attractive place to live
in. You can understand why only when you have lived there. I would not have chosen
any other place. It is where I belong spiritually, morally, and culturally. It is
where I spent my happiest days and my most miserable moments.
On my arrival in Paris I was put in a 2-star hotel in the Montparnasse. Later when
my scholarship ended I moved into a smaller hotel in Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau situated
between the Halles and the Louvre Museum. A teeming commercial and market centre,
it was always noisy and crowded day and night. The hotel was old and small. I had
only a bed, a writing table and a small cold basin. Through the years I was hard
put to keep myself going. Many of my fellow-students like Yeo Hoe Koon, Tew Nai Tong,
Long Thien Shih, Loo Foh San and Li Chung Chuan had to be creative to make ends meet
by hard work, endurance and courage. We finally managed to arrive at something although
I almost gave up the struggle. I was tired of everything˝ life, art, acquaintances,
even friends except for those who had the same interests and were good company. With
these friends I enjoyed good talks, music, wet cold evenings, intimacy, red wines,
street worship, shop-gazing, alley sopping, Seineloafing, exploring the least-known
arrondissement and visiting museums and galleries.
If you like France you will love Paris for its people, its scenery, its climate,
its fine food and wine, its history and its priceless cultural artistic heritage.
It is a place to which no traveller, whatever his race, background, tastes and aspirations,
can remain insensitive. Nature has endowed it with one of the most delightful climates
to be found anywhere. History has left its mark everywhere. Paris's past has been
a turbulent one consecrated by four or five centuries of heroism, toil, penury and
sacrifice, failure, success and renown. It has been a magnet and still is, to artists,
poets, writers, scholars and intellectuals from the earliest times and has often
been known as the 'Hot Pot of Genius'. It is a true home of Liberty, Equality and
Fraternity. The true spirit of freedom is reflected not only in French art and letters
but also in the everyday life of the people themselves, the way they go about the
day-to-day business of living.
For most Malaysians, Paris is not a real city,
it is a legend. No city in the world has quite the same attraction, the same fascination,
the same glittering unreal image. In literature, in the movies and in popular song,
no city has been described in terms so extravagant, so romantic, so different from
ordinary life as Paris. Since childhood I have learned that Paris is the city where
everyone falls in love not only in spring, summer and autumn but in winter too, where
writers and artists escape to find their creative freedom, like Hemingway and Henry
Miller among others. In Paris you live in a garret without a centime and you are
definitely happy because it is the tradition to be poor, cold and happy. Endless
stories about Paris made it for Malaysians the alpha and omega of all that is romantic,
adventurous or strange. For those of us who read French the situation becomes even
more complicated because instead of reading matter-of-fact descriptions of modern
Paris, we find ourselves impressed by lines like Baudelasire's 'fourmilante cité.
. . où le spectre en plein jour accroche le passant. . .'
Finally the big day arrives and the Malaysian is
face to face with Paris, the reality and the legend. Perhaps his first view of the
city is from one of the enormous train stations. If he arrives at the Gare Saint
Lazare early on a foggy morning it will remind him of a certain famous painting by
Monet, where he sees nothing but a few waiting taxis and empty streets. Perhaps he
lands at Bourget and immediately thinks of the old airport in Kuala Lumpur in Jalan
Sungei Besi, and wonders why he can't see the Eiffel Tower from the steps of the
air terminal. Or perhaps he is a young Malaysian student from London, hitch-hiking
into Paris on a hot summer afternoon with some francs in his pocket hoping to get
a letter from home and a little money at Banque Nationale de Paris. Whoever he is,
however he arrives, he isn't aware at first of the difference between the Malaysian
myth of Paris and the real city. The reality will sink in slowly in a few days.