Of irony and Fay Khoo

10 April 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 10 April 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
My son is studying English at school and he needed my help for his homework. He asked me to explain what irony means. I told him it is what his mother makes me do with my shirts. His teacher did not find that funny but I was not trying to be funny because I really hate doing the irony.
Proud parent

I had enormous difficulty trying to grasp the concept of irony when I was at school and I still do not really get it. Something is ironic if it is the opposite of what it is meant to be, but it is not sarcasm, which is something else. It is not always clear when something is ironic or just unfortunate. Alanis Morissette famously said, “It’s like rain on a wedding day”, but that is not ironic, it is just unfortunate.

I think a good example of an ironic event can be found in the US. Michael Flynn was briefly US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser until he was fired. Now, he is likely to be grilled by a Senate committee about Trump’s connections with Russia. He said he is willing to testify but only if he is granted immunity from prosecution first. And yet, during the presidential campaign, he said anybody who asks for immunity must be guilty and he led a chant about Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up”. I think that is ironic. I am not really sure what irony is but I know it has nothing to do with ironing your shirts.

Fay Khoo

Fay Khoo died recently after a short but savage illness, and she was still so young. Fay was a writer, broadcaster, gourmand and the closest of friend to so many people with whom she enjoyed life and food to the fullest and for whom her unmistakable laugh is still ringing in their ears. You may not have known Fay, so you must imagine a woman who is a force of nature and the centre of your social world. And then you meet a completely new group of people and find out that she is the centre of their world as well. And then you go to a completely different country and discover that they all know her too, and they all have stories to tell about how she took them to some unknown place to have the best cow stomach goulash in the world. And you are left wondering, how does she find the time and energy? Fay Khoo was a force of nature and I assumed she was indestructible.

Fay loved food and she must have picked up her eating bug in her native Penang. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Penang’s myriad food stalls, and later she would develop the same knowledge for KL, Australia and just about everywhere else. Back in the early 1990s, she took me and several others on a whirlwind tour of George Town’s food. We had to eat this fellow’s mee at precisely 9.32am and then that fellow’s mee at precisely 9.47am because that was when the food was at its optimal “bestness”. She gave us a glimpse of the heartbeat of George Town and like a true Penangite, she was clear that as outsiders, we would never be able to find these places ever again. And sure enough, I have never been able to find any of those stalls again. All I can say is that there was a coffee shop with tables and chairs. The trip was exhaustive and exhausting. It was not the happiest of days for me because at the time, I was absolutely crazy about Fay Khoo and I just wanted some alone time with her, which never happened.

Fay and I never became particularly close but since the 1990s, our writing careers seemed to develop in parallel. We both started writing at the same time for Men’s Review magazine and then for so many of the same publications until eventually, both of us started broadcasting on BFM radio station. I don’t imagine that she felt the same way but I have always felt a spirit of competition with Fay.

Now, suddenly, I have lost my jousting partner and a girl I was crazy about in my youth, her friends have lost the whirlwind at the centre of their world, her family has lost a daughter and a sister and we have all lost an advocate for the cornerstone of our collective culture: our food. Fay Khoo was so full of life, so present and active that it is difficult to write about her in the past tense. If Fay can go, then any of us can go. But I am sure that she is up there preparing a feast for us all.

Reprinted with the kind permission of