- Side visits
- My big regret
- Opening the show
- Numbers game
- Closing the show
- New directions
In the meantime, I had been pursuing a 50+ show at Blenheim that we were calling Quality Time. But the disappointment of the millennium event left me feeling a bit high and dry.
I was then approached by Blenheim’s Asia CEO who wanted me to help launch a public show in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. I lived out there for about eight weeks to put the show together and to run it. It was held at the Putra World Trade Centre and was a public show featuring 4x4s, Super Bikes and Jet Skis – it was called REV ’96. The CEO was hoping that I would stay, based at Singapore, and this was to be a dry-run for us both.
I stayed in a hotel near the exhibition centre that had a nice Thai restaurant, but most lunches and dinners were with the team and therefore primarily consisted of duck rice. If I could get them to go street cuisine, then we could branch out into satay and rice.
I managed to get them, only very occasionally, to go to the Hard Rock Café or other western venues but then they spent much of the next day complaining that Western food made their teeth ache, their food was of course all usually pre-cut and diced for them.
ASIDE: My hotel was used by a large group of middle-range tennis players on a circuit that played two separate yet consecutive tournaments across two weeks. From Tuesday onwards more and more of them were back at the hotel having been knocked out. I got in to a card school with a number of them, most notably Jeremy Bates, who was on a good run and arrived a little later into each week. But they all soon had a great deal of time on their hands for card-playing.
While I was posted out there, I took two very interesting side visits.
The first was to see a show Blenheim was running up in Bangkok, by then I really needed some R&R away from Malaysia. I went up on the Friday night and returned on Sunday so as to cause little inconvenience to REV ’96. It was at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, for an engineering trade event with a series of large international pavilions.
As I arrived at the venue, walking through the show I could feel there was a problem. The large German contingent was not happy and threatening to pull because their pavilion was getting no traffic. Despite my R&R objectives, the Asian CEO called me into a meeting of the team. He was a Chinese Malaysian and he set about laying in to the senior Thai guy at length, it must have gone on for fifteen minutes. I leaned forward and whispered in his ear ‘solutions?’. He ignored me and carried on the bo—–ing for another long period. I repeated ‘solutions?’ and he turned and asked me what I meant – schoolboy error on my part!
As a result, I was walking the halls until 2am with a signage contractor who said he had run out of vinyl, yet under pressure rustled up a secret stash. We used rope-and-post and blanking-off shell walls with signage to alter the traffic flows through the hall.
Then at 6:30am I had to address a room-full (sixty or more) of young female Thai students, to get them to do something that was completely against their principles. No need to call #MeToo, I got them to stand in aisles and say ‘This way sir’, pointing visitors along desired routes. Sometimes four or five of them were used to block an aisle to do this. If you know anything of young Thai girls this is extremely low down their list of acceptable things to do.
But it worked, by 11am the Germans expressed themselves to be happy and I did get a Saturday night of R&R before heading back to KL.
My second side visit was a two-day trip to Jakarta where I was to propose the launch of a new electronics trade show to the Minister of Electronics. We had a meal of their most-popular fish in a top restaurant. It reminded me of Tripoli, more bone than flesh.
It was still an early phase for PowerPoint and I had selected an off-the-shelf template of a desert island with a palm tree and the sun out at the horizon.
The Minister had shown no English, working instead through the interpreter. But at the end he called me to one side and asked, ‘Was your PowerPoint depicting the sun setting on the British Empire?’ We Brits were not quite enjoying the best Indonesian relationship at the time. But he did have a glint as he asked this with a good English accent that proclaimed he could only have learned this in Britain. I replied, ‘No it is to show that the Sun never sets on a Blenheim show!’ He took it in good part and left chuckling.
I found it quite disturbing that I could not phone anyone, locals couldn’t understand my surname over the phone. At least in Japan I could introduce myself as Bento-san (lunch box) and make them laugh. So, I was reduced to getting the team to fix my appointments. At least when face-to-face I could make myself understood.
I introduced myself as Durian Mat Salleh Feringhee. Durian is a locally popular spiky and extremely smelly local fruit, usually described as smelling like gym socks and likened to the smell of foreigners. Mat Salleh is used to refer to white Caucasians, variously described as albino, it was a disparaging term for a sailor or missionary. Feringhee is an Arabic-derived less-pleasant term for the otherness of a foreigner. This usually broke the ice!
Communication was a challenge in Malaysia. I was perhaps more amused than disturbed by the fact that contractors would come to the office and despite both groups being Chinese they would hold the meeting in English, it was painful to listen to their ‘Manglish’, their Malaysian-English pidgin or creole. I said don’t worry about me, feel free to talk in Chinese, but they remonstrated that this was a business meeting and those must be in English.
We had a Chairman who was a Tan Sri Datuk. Titles became even longer where the individual was Haji, having visited Mecca (like I all but did – above). Tan Sri is the second-most senior federal title in Malaysia denoting a recipient of the PMN or PSM, seventh and eighth respectively, in the order of Malaysian federal awards. Today there are just 75 of the former and 250 of the latter. Datuk shows he was also a recipient of the PJN or PSD, the ninth- and tenth-ranked Malaysian federal awards; there are around 200 of each living. He was well connected, but when I asked him to check our advertisement’s translation into Malay he could only say that it was about right, but could not suggest how to make it fully acceptable, he indicated the written language was a tad vague, quite vernacular. Descriptions of the language suggests it is still in flux and some of the confusion may be based upon their move from using Arabic script to Roman.
Malaysians constantly finish an English sentence with -lah, which derives from the Chinese, yet has no specific meaning. Technically this is described as a ‘discourse participle’ it is used more to add tone than to change the sense of the sentence. One dictionary suggests that a Malaysian who doesn’t end every sentence with -lah is considered snobbish.
A rather annoying version of it is Okay-lah, its usage has one sense similar to the many T-shirts sold there, saying ‘Same, Same’. But it becomes annoying when you try to explain something and get Okay-lah or worse, Okay, Okay, Okay in response. You soon come to realise that they didn’t understand when they say this. So, you try another approach and get OK, OK, OK again, and you just have to accept that they still don’t get your point!
Back in KL, the organisation of the Rev ’96 promotion was odd too. I went to meet the local newspapers to ask them to do features for the show, but they greeted me with a simplistic response. They explained that the amount of advertising I bought would determine the degree of editorial promotion I received in return. I gently tried to explain that in the UK if I suggested any such advertising-editorial linkage for newspapers or magazines, I would be drummed from their offices. But here they stuck to their guns.
I went to meet with radio stations and inadvertently became an approved Malaysian Radio scriptwriter. They listened to my pitch with interest and asked me what I thought they might do as a programme, we tossed it around and I agreed to map something out overnight. In retrospect I paid too little attention to the task. I suggested what their interviewer might ask and how one of our named exhibitors might respond, in this way underlining the many benefits of the show. I gave them a copy of my rough workings, they took it, went away for a day, got it officially ‘chopped’ by the government and then they had permission to read out, live to air, my half-considered words, religiously sticking to my script. What might I have included with more time?
My big regret
The Adventure Club of Kuala Lumpur exhibited and ran displays at the show and invited me to join them before the event to go on an expedition into the jungle.
But before they asked me, they showed me a video of a previous expedition. There were lots of pictures of people removing leaches from various parts of the body. But the scene that really dissuaded me from going was one showing a 4×4 stuck up to its wheel arches in a muddy ditch. Two other vehicles were winching it out when the metal hawser snapped, and one strand whipped across one of the club-member’s face. It opened up the flesh on his face in an arc across his cheek, then across the bridge of his nose and forehead. How it missed his eyes was a mystery. Looking back now, I wish I had gone on the trip despite the potential for nasty beasties and lifetime defacements.
ASIDE: The show was in 1995/6 and emails and WiFi were not yet in common usage. I was to be away for many weeks and so I had to send letters to Jane. The last time I had done so was in my late teens before we were married. We had been married for almost 30 years and I was now 48 years old. Just how did I address her in a letter? I wrote the first letter full of good intentions, but Jane replied to say ‘thanks for the travelogue’ – so I had obviously pitched it wrongly. I knocked the edges off the tone and content as we progressed. But it wasn’t just the content, it was the act of writing. I had been using computers since the late 1970s and seldom hand-wrote anything.
Opening the show
One of the toughest times at a show is as it is being opened, lots of last-minute tasks, stands not quite ready, contractors not quite cleared, hall management to satisfy, visitors amassing… So, imagine my surprise when the Chinese sales manager was nowhere to be found and not answering his radio. Eventually I discovered he was at the back of the venue creating a shrine and praying to whomsoever for the good luck of the show. I politely pointed out that you make your own luck by working diligently at opening the show.
We had submitted details and paid fees to a number of local bodies to acquire their approval for the event. Our Tan Sri Datuk had listed these, mostly religious bodies that needed to be on side. However, on the first morning some unlisted Islamic body turned up at the venue and demanded additional fees or they would close the show. We paid.
But perhaps weirder than this was on security. We hired a contractor that was associated with the venue to do our stewarding and security patrols. But about a week before the show I was approached by the Malaysian SAS, who insisted that they should provide periphery security. They decided they would put on some adventurous displays up in the row of trees on site. It wasn’t a request it was that this was happening. But then I learned that we had to provide the squad with food every day, but thankfully they would set up their own campsite at the venue, so I didn’t have to pay for their lodgings. Having worked with the British SAS I found this approach somewhat weird, they would not sing for their supper like this.
Chinese numerology was odd too, I think most westerners now know that 4 is unlucky and 8 is lucky. This is because, in Chinese the number 4 sounds very like the word for death, sei and séi, hence many Asian hotels avoid having a 4th floor, a 14th floor and so on.
But it’s not that simple, when I tried to publish the show’s actual attendance figures, I noted reluctance on the part of the Chinese team (which was most of them). They were disturbed because it ended in …28. I queried their reaction saying I thought 8 was supposed to be lucky, but apparently 28 is not. We ended up picking an arbitrary number that caused no such concerns, but then most shows published attendance that was not any more accurate.
Closing the show
I mentioned earlier how quickly a show disappears once its close is announced. This show took this to heart, an approach all its own. Beside the centre was a fast-moving river, it was a dark reddish brown from up-country rains and would occasionally carry bushes or even trees with it. I spent rather less time in considering the black bags flowing by, some of them as big as body bags, nor questioned too closely the local sewage procedures.
However, on our last afternoon the river overflowed its banks and rushed through the exhibition hall to a depth of two or three feet. Worse, all the electrics in the hall were connected at ground level, so the power and aircon were knocked out straight away leaving us in this hot, dark hall not knowing quite what we were wading in. Opening the doors gave us light but most of the fixtures, brochures and equipment were swiftly carried away. The 4×4 and jet-ski guys were not complaining as they drove/rode out!
I decided that the dry(?) run was quite sufficient for me, I wasn’t prepared to move there more permanently despite a valuable package being offered. Jane came down and joined me for a few days holiday after the show before I headed back. When I discussed it with her it was evident that grandchildren were in her thinking and she didn’t want to be in Singapore when that was about to happen, so the idea was dead in the water – literally.
Almost my last night there, I got a call at around 11pm while lying in bed, it was the UK Managing Director of Blenheim, David Pegler, who kindly explained that when I had finished in Malaysia there was nothing currently for me to do back in London. Presumably it was his clumsy way of trying to get me to take the Asian role, I just bid him goodnight.
He had always been a bit odd towards me, for example he would call Event Director away-days and did not invite me saying that I already knew what he was going to present (I was a know-all?). I was certainly older than the others but would have happily played my role, I concluded that he was more embarrassed by his own lack of experience.