By Liew Suet Fun
TJ Tan, author of “Travels in the Malaysian Rainforest”, died in July last year. In this remembrance, friend and fellow writer, Liew Suet Fun recalls his passion for the written word and the final enigma of his departure.
The last time I saw TJ was in a crowded coffee shop in Section 5, Petaling Jaya. We had met for lunch, a sumptuous meal of banana leaf rice of which he said was one of his favourites. We spoke of our frustrations as writers; the lack of appetite amongst local publishers for non-fiction, documentary works which we both favoured and the perennial challenge of securing financial support to produce such books. Towards the end of our conversation he said that he was tired and looked forward to his yearly one-month break. It was the only way to remain sane, we agreed. Before parting ways, I asked him to sign my copy of “Travels in the Malaysian Rainforest”. I saw his face light up, and knew without a doubt what the book meant to him.
It was a rare meeting for us, this despite the fact that I had known TJ since my teens in Taiping. He was my brother’s classmate who occasionally came by our house to visit. Later, he attended the youth meetings at the Methodist Church where I was also a regular. In his youth, I remember him to be shy and quiet whose complexion carried a perpetual intimation of a blush. We never really spoke. I had the impression that he had come to seek spiritual truths and had little use for the social niceties that many others favoured.
His cousin, Ooi Eusie reinforced my early impressions. TJ and her were of the same age and as children would often meet at each others’ homes and play together.
“He was so quiet that we would tease him by saying, why is it so hard for you to speak,” she said. But though he possessed this unerring capacity for silence, he was good-natured and kind.
“He always smiled and never said anything bad about anyone or anything,” she added.
TJ, a second child and eldest boy of four in the family may well have discovered that there was comfort in the silence, for it allowed him to cast a shroud of privacy over a life he jealously guarded as his own.
A marine biologist who graduated from the University of Bangor, Wales, he chose instead to become a journalist first working with foreign news agency and publications and a local newspaper. Eventually he set up Blue Mountain Press to “publish the work (he) believed in”.
Throughout his adulthood, Ooi feels that he also chose to become increasingly aloof with the family.
“We would have get-togethers frequently and asked him to come but he never showed up,” she explained. “We all had the illusion that he was living well and doing what he wanted but maybe he just felt he had not achieved anything of value in those years.”
The extent to which TJ’s life was layered became apparent only after his passing. Ironically, many of these revelations turned out to be more prosaic than profound.
They trickled in through friends who knew him in different ways.
“We found out he had become a Catholic, that he was called Jonathan, that twice, he almost got married, that he had a heart problem and that he was living on a financial edge for many years,” Ooi said.
What many people did not know however was that TJ was also working on a new book. When Ooi was tasked to clear up his belongings in his house, she discovered “stacks and stacks of notes and papers, video footage and thousands of photographs”. However, she never found a manuscript or any draft related to a new title.
Several years ago, when TJ and I exchanged emails, he had mentioned that he was working on a book and subsequently I had met several people he had interviewed for this purpose
In life, as in death, TJ kept this veil of secrecy firmly wrapped around himself.
Sometime around July 14 last year, he breathed his last, alone in his house. About a week later, a neighbour noted a strange smell and made a police report. It was then that they found him.
Three weeks ago, I met a couple in Ipoh who knew him but did not know he had died.
True to form, the revelation of his departure travels as a trickle.
In my home, on a glass-topped coffee-table stands an army of creatures fashioned in crystal and wood, which once was his; they are whimsical reminders of this brilliant man who chose a path he believed in. On my bookshelf sits “Travels in the Malaysian Rainforest” bearing an inscription for me by his hand. It recalls the last time I saw him smile.