Zedeck Siew - A Thousand Tousand Islands - TRANSCRIPT

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Zedeck

Me and Mun Kao we became really close friends because we both harbored the secret of playing games, but it was always shameful for us because it didn't feel adult or serious. At a time it was cyber cafes or whatever. I know you go to cyber cafes and play like these Co Op shooters. We can bond over this because we can’t talk about this, this bad habit to anybody else.

Iko

You're listening to The Lost Bay Podcast, a show about and with indie tabletop RPG creators and artists. I'm Iko the The Lost Bay Podcast is supported by its patrons, a big shout out to Perplexing Ruins, Xiphosura, Sam Leigh, Adam Kennedy and Bryan Stauffer. Thank you so much folks for becoming patrons. You can become a patreon too and help me grow the show and give voice to amazing creators and artists, just head to patreon.com/thelostbay, and I've put the link in the show notes too.

Today, my guest is Zedeck Siew author of the collection of zines A thousand thousand islands, he co created with the visual artist Mun Kao Zedek and Munk Kao’s zines are unique. They are poetic and elegant, beautifully illustrated, extremely well written. There are eight of them, plus four appendices and two bundles. They are game neutral fantasy zines, inspired by Southeast Asia. Zedeck and Mun Kao are kickstarting right now their first book a mega setting and collection of adventures, a campaign set in the underworld called The reach of the Roach God. The project looks really beautiful. The reward tires are great. I've put the Kickstarter link in the show notes. It runs until the end of November 2021. And we'll talk about the Kickstarter later in the show. But first, here’s Zedeck about his first gaming and game design experiences.

I mean, what's your story with RPGs? How did you discover them or start playing or?

Zedeck

I don't know how I started discovering role playing games. But you know you're you're sort of browsing the internet as a young person. And like the first thing that really caught my eye was the old AD&D sort of planescape campaign setting. And I really got into those just as objects of imagination not really for play because I didn't understand how to play. As far as I knew nobody was interested in my sort of immediate social circle.

Iko

Zedeck eventually met new friends in the art and theatre scene and started playing RPGs two things happened that led Zedeck towards writing RPGs set in Southeast Asia, meeting Mun Kao and reading a blog post review and Patricks Stewart’s blog False Machine about the book, The Art of not being governed by James Scott, about the region of Zomia.

Zedeck

So there is this region mountainous region called Zomia, which border Burma and Thailand and the sort of like mainland Southeast Asian states, and it's known to be a sort of area where the nation state doesn't have a grip. The identity is fluid, the tribes are constantly changing. Yeah, it was just an interesting blog post, because it was looking at all this very interesting ethnographic information from the lens of how could we make a game out of this or just imagine it was not so much the game aspect of it as the imaginative aspect of it. So like, it was just a way to look at a real thing, but sort of really run away with your imagination. Yes, which I found really inspiring. And that's how I got into making my own stuff.

Me and Mun Kao we became really close friends, because we both harbored, the secret of playing games, but it was always shameful for us because it didn't feel adult or serious. At the time it was cyber cafes or whatever. I know you go to cyber cafes and play like these Co Op shooters. We can bond over this because we can't talk about this. This this this bad habit to anybody else.

Iko

You were secretly nerds basically. Yes, yes

Zedeck

Exactly. So that sort of graduated into hanging out a lot. And eventually, we both were saying we spent so much time doing this, how can we turn this hobby into work so that we can justify the time we spend on this? We're not tech people so like we're not coders or whatever. So the only thing we knew how to do was sort of like make stuff with our hands

Iko

Zedeck and Mun Kao’s first game is not an RPG, but a card game. And from the beginning of their collaboration, the creative duo experienced a way of working that would become a signature of their work for Zedeck and, Mun Kao creating games is both a way to talk and also to learn to discover new things about the world that surrounds them.

Zedeck

It was actually Mun Kao who came to me, I remember this, I was off on a writing residency, it was in a sort of rural location, and then she would visit me on the weekends with a prototype of a card game he was making about the Malaysian political system. That's how we started working together. That card game was called Political. It was heavily modelled after the card game version of Monopoly. And it was all about backstabbing each other and stealing people's voters and like getting the other party to lose voters by engineering, some sort of like, controversy. One because was sex scandal. One of our biggest political sort of meltdowns in the 90s in the late 90s, was the deputy prime minister at the time being fired and arrested for sodomy. It was the weaponization of colonial era homophobic law to to destroy a rival politician. We made the game because one he was going to justify our shameful nerd secret, but also because we did truly want to understand how things worked. So making the game as a way to understand a subject.

Iko

After this first collaboration, the two creators started soon working on the first A thousand thousand islands zine.

A thousand thousand islands has a very consistent shape and form. There's the zine format, visually in terms of layouts and that's quite extraordinary. I mean, because it means that from the beginning, you you nailed like the right form. How did that happened?

Zedeck

A thousand thousand islands started as a research project. Mun Kao is a visual artist. Previously, in his career he used he used to make a lot of these art zines. He used to sell them at art bazaars and stuff like that. It was this project that he began out of the frustration, he felt looking at sort of imagery in popular culture and or fantasy fiction, which would claim and sort of take inspiration from Southeast Asia by was basically reskinning the same story we know from mediaeval Eurofantasy, or sort of like, Chinese Wuxia, sort of like, whatever and then like, instead of a knight in armour, or like, a Shaolin monk, you'd have guy with a Kris. Mun Kao wanted to look into the way things looked in pre colonial Southeast Asia, the way things felt, what people ate, what clothes that they wear, did they wear shoes are not? How did they tie their hats, things like that. Because it would be a way to counteract this boredom that he felt when he saw these things, and also understand who we are. The research project was fueled by the need to know more. And that's how we started making these scenes.

Iko

Okay, so A thousand thousand islands islands starts as a research project, and it's a series of zines. And in the beginning, did you have that aspiration that plan? Or was it something you discovered? While you were doing it?

Zedeck

When Mun Kao and I started talking about it, I can't recall how we came up with the name, I think it was many islands or like the islands was always in the title. So we named it A thousand thousand islands because we didn't know what we would discover because it was open ended. The name was a convenient way to keep things open ended as well. So each zine is an island, that's great. And we could basically make as many or as few as we wanted. The idea of continually making decisions is something that just we fell into as we sort of read more things or discovered more things and like got fixated on certain details. Typically, it's either Mun Kao has an idea and like starts making images and then he sends those images to me, or I have an idea and then I sent a document with sort of notes to him.

Iko

Zedek has had a longstanding relationship with writing before becoming an RPG or fiction writer. He was a journalist, he worked for several years in Kuala Lumpur then moved back to his hometown, where he started writing fiction and RPGs

While I'm doing most of my RPG stuff in English, which is not my first language at all, I have to like natural languages, but English is not one of them. So I was wondering in which languages did you write RPG stuff, you know, in the first place, was it in English in other languages or?

Zedeck

I am primarily an English language writer. Even when I was writing for work it was for English language publications. And I do a bit of translation. And I do try to write in Bahasa Melayu, which is Malay. But the vast majority of my work is in English. Like I actually have had conversations with local publishers who publish in Malay. At one point I remember having a conversation with with my publisher Motley comics, saying that, hey, you know, like, I know some people who might be interested in translating such and such game into Malay, are you guys interested in it? And Amir, who, who runs that publishing sort of outfit said, we can look into it, but why? The people here who play RPGs already played in English. And even if English isn't your first language, they want to play it in English, because English is, unfortunately a class marker for the middle class. And there are sort of subtle class markers and aspirational sort of markers that are attached to playing RPGs or going to a hipster cafe. So Mun Kan and I have sat down and talked a lot about sort of style, what are the ground rules of A thousand thousand islands, like in talking about how we employ a language that is not Southeast Asian is to basically go that: no, English is my first language, English is Mun Kao’s first slash second language. English is a South Asian language, and to basically just use English like it's ours. So when we refer to a monarch, you say, King, you don't say Raja, which is the king in the local language, which is what sort of exoticized or Southeast Asian texts would do. If you grew up speaking English, just speak English. And let the outsider figure out that you are not talking about the same kind of thing he or she understands.

Iko

Every zine explores not only a specific thing or aspect, but also a specific place, meaning that you're drawing inspiration, your inspiration from things you are discovering about, yes, your culture and your past, but also from your present.

Zedeck

That's correct. So a lot of it comes from our sort of reading, because the research project is oh, so open ended. It's not like, hey, we're doing a sort of like structured pseudo academic to dive into things. Mun Kao and I just reading the books... we pick up and like getting interested in certain factoids, The zine called

Iko

Too many zines!

Zedeck

I can't remember the name of my zine, Korvu! One of our zines, basically came out of a single line I read in a book about Kelantanese building sort of woodworking and boat building, which was in the state of Kelanta, at the beginning of the rainy season, or the monsoon season, there'll be a huge precession in the royal boat by the Sultan or the King. And it would be sort of like the rain festival where people would come out and dance in the rain. There was a little fact about it, which was a lot of couples get together. So they start dancing in the rain, which was really such a rich image. And that zine basically started from that one line.

Iko

How do you work? What's your work routine? What happens? No, from the beginning to the end of one of your zines, what happens?

Zedeck

Generally, it happens thatoMun Kan sends me a folder full of images, like about 15 to 20 images, and he'll have some notes of what he was thinking when he was making those images. And then I look at his notes, I think about it, and I I take maybe, I want to say a month, but it's probably like three to six months, because I'm very slow. And then he just doesn't disturb me at all occasionally, or he'll he'll message me say hHey, how's it going? And now tell him I'm late. But yeah, I mean, like we more or less leave each other alone. You know, he's working in and he passes it to me, and then I work in that I pass it back to him. So once there's both art and text, where we work together is when there's something about the imageor text that that either one of us feels uncomfortable about or like a point of detail that needs to be emphasised that isn't emphasised or like was was sort of like miscommunicated. A:n example of this is so Mun Kao was a committed vegetarian. He came back to me like saying that, hey, you know, this detail in the zine about this characters being cruel. And the way that you are illustrating this cruelty is that they slaughter animals a lot. Can we not do that? Because for one, it makes Mun Kao personally uncomfortable, like the casual cruelty to animals like and also if you look at our sources of inspiration in many cultures in Southeast Asia, we're not typically meat eating, at least untill the colonial age, they were mainly pescetarian. And they ate lots of vegetables and fruits and, and grain. So the way we resolve that is like, Yeah, I agree that animals shouldn't be a shorthand. So let's be candid about it. This culture is cruel and they and the people.

Iko

So speaking about writing and research, I was wondering, what are your writing idiosyncrasies? You know, what is your writing routine? I mean, what how, like this materially writing happens for for you like.

Zedeck

It's a lot of anxiety. I'd like to say I sit down at my desk for long hours, like basically working hours, but mostly just spending doomscrolling and like just reading random stuff, or when I've got deadlines, and you know, I just play video games a lot. Which is very bad for the deadline.

Iko

What do you play with? What kind of games do you play?

Zedeck

I've been playing also all games like which have really no connection to the work I'm doing now. I'm currently writing a sort of adventure, which is inspired by sort of Thai Buddhist monasteries. I've been playing Stalker, the old FPS Ukrainian sort of like set in, like in a fantasy Chernobyl. So that's as far away from the sort of work I've been doing.

Iko

It is what you write on your computer here where I'm seeing you?

Zedeck

Yes, yes. Yeah, I just sit in my living room and face the computer all day and all night. But where a lot of the writing gets done is away from the computer when working in the garden or in the shower, or like, I often walk down the hill, there are some shops down the hill from where I live, and they often walk down like to buy food, a lot of that walking does contribute to like, okay, now I need to get back and sit down and computer and like, type that out. So I don't forget it.

This, there's this one thing that because in averages, we write, or at least like I like to write it off, like random tables. So when I'm writing, when I have a word processor open, like visually, every entry needs to be equal in length. So every line has to like, so I'll take a steel ruler and like put it to the screen and, it doesn't have to be exact by it has to be exact enough. I don't know why I started doing this. Because obviously, it doesn't make sense. When you when you change the alignment. When you change the margins when it's laid out. This, none of this would matter, right? And the word length because the word lengths are different. I can't bring myself to move on, if instance is longer or shorter than the other. I am trying to try justifications to make it sound not so bad.

Iko

I mean, it's not bad. It's not bad at all. I mean, why not? I mean, like every creator has

Zedeck

Restraints, right? It's a kind of restraint. So like you get is How do you formulate the language or a turn of phrase or a piece of like, piece of information delivered poetically. Yeah, and this is one of the this is one of the format's

Iko

Zedek, and Mun Kao are running their first Kickstarter for their first book, The reach of the roach God. But there are a lot of structural barriers that make the access to the market difficult for creators living in some countries. And one of those barriers is that Kickstarter is not available in many countries, and Malaysia is one of them. So typically creators in Southeast Asia partner with a US distributor or publisher to run the Kickstarter. But Zedeck and Mun Kao decided to find a way to run the Kickstarter themselves. This is why

Zedeck

We're doing a Kickstarter because it's one of the tools to make this RPG stuff sustainable because Mun Kao and I are kind of like owns the means of production sort of people. We want to have a sense of ownership of the project. And that ownership means also running the campaign ourselves, printing it here in Malaysia, and figuring out shipping. Obviously, you're going to partner with distributors, but personally I feel very strongly about it because a lot of sort of artistic creative mediums in Southeast Asia are traditionally very dependent on the eye and attention of the West. For example, arthouse cinema in Malaysia during the 90s and early 2000s Malaysia was the novelty place for certains festival curators. So these Film Festival curatoes would come and then like for about five years to a decade he was like all over all these arthouse film festivals. And then the attention shifts elsewhere and in the creators who were fostered under this influence are now left to flounder because the attention in the material and financial support has shifted. Obviously, collaboration is great, but I know of too many examples where local creators become dependent on funding from the outside whether it's a government or corporate funding or in the in the case of RPGs. In particular, it's like funding and material support from the west.

Iko

So The Reach of the Roach God Kickstarter is running right now. As of today, you have 20 days left to back the project. I've put the link to the Kickstarter page in the show notes. Here’s Zedeck about what's going to be inside The Reach of the Roach God book.

Zedeck

So the book is called Reach of the Roach God, Mun Kao was was thinking a lot and looking at a lot of caves. Because some of the biggest world caves in the world cave systems in a world in Southeast Asia and caves are quite evocative. Right. So then, as usually started exploring visually, and then when I looked at all his drawings, they say: Okay, I see an adventure here, adventure here and adventure here. So now it's three adventures. Basically, this is our take on the Underdark, so to speak, and my goal was growing sort of cultures based underground cultures that have gone underground. So then to support the three adventures. I sort of said, Okay, those cultures need describing or those cultures need fleshing out so so imagine like three of our zines

Iko

Packed together.

Zedeck

Yes

Iko

Plus?

Zedeck

Plus the three adventures so that is not a book. It's called Reach of the Roach God because Mun Kao and I both really hate roaches. In so researching cave stuff, Mun Kao just fixated on roaches. So he started drawing lots of roaches, because caves obviously are full of roaches, especially caves that have birds in them which

Iko

So it's going to be an intense writing experience for you.

Zedeck

Yes. It's very it's very uncomfortable already. I was complaining the other day about having to Google roach mouthparts and like, what does roach blood smell like? And yeah, it's it's going to be gross. So yeah, it will be it will be trees starting adventures leading down into a sort of cave or underground world.

Iko

That was Zedeck Siew, co creator and writer of the zine series A thousand thousand islands and of the book, Reach of the roach God. You've listened to The Lost Bay Podcast the show about and with indie table top designers and artists. It's produced by me Iko. And music is by Avery Isles. If you have enjoyed the show, please consider supporting it and help me to grow it and give voice to amazing RPG designers and artists. I'll put a link to the last bay podcast Patreon page in the show notes. The Lost Bay Podcast episodes are also available on YouTube with English subtitles. Thanks a lot for listening. And until next time, stay well. and salut!