To the happy few...
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.


Tan Tong


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