Author: Bernice Chauly
Publisher: Epigram Books
Page numbers: 351

Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There is a love letter and a scathing, unflinching criticism of Kuala Lumpur’s liberal, politically aware, but ultimately hedonistic and self-indulgent of community of upper-middle class professionals who desire political reformation but are unable to deliver it.

I first learned that Bernice Chauly was writing ‘a novel about the Reformasi’ at the London Book Fair. I’d already been living in Singapore for a few months and my time at the Fixi London booth was like a homecoming abroad, and like all homecomings it has its own experience of reverse culture-shock. I had given up asking for an itinerary, we consumed too much wine at a launch, and after teaching everyone the proper way to talk dirty in Hokkien a certain bestselling fantasy author crept under the shelves to catch up on her sleep. Between my time working with expatriates or abroad, I have begun to associate Malaysians with disorderliness, and with that a sense of warmth, sincerity and spontaneity. I missed it while in Singapore, even as I found myself missing Singapore’s spic-and-span cleanliness and clockwork efficiency in the few days that I was in London (why are Londoners always jaywalking?).

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Bernice Chauly reading a chapter from Once We Were There at The Star. Image credit Gem Yen.

So it was here that I first learned about a novel that I think has rightly deserved the hype of being the novel about what Liew Chin Tong called a ‘wasted generation’ – Malaysian young urbanites of the late 1990s and early 2000s who believed in a dream of a wealthy, infrastructurally developed Malaysia and who first experienced disillusionment in that promise through the events that followed: the Asian Economic Crisis and the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim.

The novel’s first chapter plunges the reader into the pulsing beat of Kuala Lumpur – the protagonist, Delonix Regia (thereafter known as Del) and her colleague Sumi are drawn into the Reformasi rallies of the 1990s, an event that stirs them from middle-class malaise into political awareness. The descriptions are written in short sentences: ‘Loud weeping. Strangers vomiting. A large woman in a scarf sprawled on the floor, sobbing’.

Interspersed between these scenes of revolutionary zeal and fire are descriptions of Kuala Lumpur’s hedonistic, Ecstasy-laden clubbing scenes of the 90s: ‘Dealers were raking it in. MDMA was on everyone’s lips and tongues. There was pussy and dick everywhere…Everyone was high’. Del desires political revolution, but has little qualm partying with peers who are popping pills to ‘forget…our shitty jobs…the 2.5 kids at home, the mortage, the credit card bill…the lies our politicians told…the refugees who were being beaten up at detention camps that very moment’.

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Image credit Jason Erik Lundberg.

There is a sense of frustration, disgust, and empathy as one recognizes in Del and her peers the people that mark Kuala Lumpur’s professional upper middle and middle class: the intoxicant-fueled, politically angry, socially conscious individuals who are very much a part of Kuala Lumpur’s circles of vice and corruption that they detest. They smoke Sampoernas, drink excessively and rant about politics into the night. They are rightly and righteously outraged when a publication they work for face revocation of its publishing license, getting fired up to start a Malaysiakini-like news portal called Saksi. Yet they consume drugs and keep company with those who supply them (including the Triads) get business contracts through Bumiputra privileges and governmental connections, mingle with those who have orgies with Eastern European models (in reality, these ‘models’ could well have been trafficked), and opt for adoption of children given to them by baby traffickers.

Some readers have found these depictions of hedonistic journalists hard to believe, but my personal experience corresponds with what is depicted in the novel quite well. When I first moved to Kuala Lumpur in the early 2000s, the hedonistic party scene was winding down (in part because the feng tau music and the death toll associated with Ecstasy decreased its popularity) but was still present. Journalism had yet to feel the full brunt of the Internet and the industry, as well as the ringgit, was in a much stronger position than it is today.

Kuala Lumpur’s underclass is represented in the novel as well, primarily through the lens of Marina, a transsexual sex worker whom Del interacts with in her activist work. Although Malaysia’s corruption and the violence has direct impact on their lives – Marina shares her suspicion that many Malaysian men are bisexual and live closeted, frustrated lives; and she suffers the violence that follows their internalized homophobia – political issues seem to exist in an alternate reality for them. Their struggles and sufferings are more immediate and horrifying: Marina states in a shockingly plain manner that ‘My whole life I am dealing with men who rape me’.

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Image credit Epigram Books.

The novel’s narrative reads like a series of events read in quick succession: rather than a conscious three-part structure with build-up, plot climax and denouement, the characters are plunged into events and respond to them. Del meets her future husband, Omar, while looking for a drug-addled friend who has gone missing while partying; the next time we hear of this friend appears to be months after. In their Reformasi-driven youth, Del and Sumi are excited to be mingling with journalists who have covered warzones, but their journalistic ambitions are put aside when they marry. Mahathir fires Anwar and pages later Mahathir anticlimactically resigns.

The effect of this is a sense of realness and immediacy. We get the feeling that Del could be a real, flesh-and-blood woman in Kuala Lumpur, and her peers likewise. Symbolic features and thematic concerns – most notably in the novel’s prologue and epilogue – are present, but they are sparingly used. In writing the novel Bernice Chauly has opted for brevity, with sentences that are short, sensuous and punchy. (It is a very different style from her other longform work of literature, Growing Up with Ghosts.)

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Bernice Chauly at the launch of Once We Were There. Image credit Epigram Books.

For some reason Epigram Books felt that an important plot development in the story was worth spoiling in the blurb: Del gives birth to a daughter who is later kidnapped. Motherhood, particularly the intensity of the experience and the way it alters the life and mind of an ambitious professional is rarely explored in literature, and by writing about motherhood and loss Bernice Chauly has given much needed (and wanted) voice to this female experience. The reader can feel her tiredness and sense of being overwhelmed, and the tragedy that follows a single moment of an all-too-human mistake is heart-rending.

Perhaps, arguably, Once We Were There’s weakness is its partly-happy ending. During its book launch in Singapore, Bernice Chauly has mentioned that the novel has often been rejected for being too bleak and that the note of optimism in the novel reflects her own optimism for Kuala Lumpur and the country as a while. But while the ending ends neatly for some of the characters – Omar’s character arc and progression ends well – for others (Del in particular) the conclusion feels sudden and forced. But perhaps a bleaker and truer ending to the lives of these fictional KL-ites would have been too uncomfortable for those of us for whom the city and its challenges are real.

Bernice Chauly’s Once We Were There is now available at all major bookstores nationwide. Read a local book recently? Drop us a comment or send us an email at to share your thoughts with us!