Monday, November 9, 2015


By Mansor Puteh

I did a lot of sketches the when I was studying at Columbia University in the City of New York – The Big C.  

Here is the first photo of me on campus and to get that I had to enlist the help of a friendly campus guard who had been watching at me snapping away taking shots of the campus and he guessed rightly that I needed someone to snap a shot of me on the campus.

(I was supposed to take art at college in Malaysia but I chose to take mass communication majoring in advertising instead which my advisor said would take me closer film which was what I had wanted to do at graduate school in America and not at any university in the country.)

I remember arriving in the city for the first time landing at John F Kennedy Airport and taking the bus and finding a room at Sloan House-YMCA, and walking to the nearest post office across the street from Madison Square Garden where many Muhammad Ali fights took place, to send postcards and letters to my parents in Melaka, Malaysia to let them know I had arrived there in the city, but not yet stepped foot on the Columbia campus.

And talking about Muhammad Ali, I had actually bumped into him when he came to Kuala Lumpur to right British heavyweight fighter Joe Bugner in 1976 when I went to the then Kuala Lumpur Hilton where he and his entourage were staying at.

In the elevator I had just entered were Muhammad Ali, his younger brother, Rahman Ali, his trainers, Budini Brown and Angelo Dundee.

They were returning to their suites while I was going to the Paddock café on the top floor to watch the filming of a television commercial there. I was with a veteran Melayu actor now working with a film rental company so the security allowed us into the same elevator.

There was no internet then and calling by phone was expensive; besides not many Malaysians had phones in their houses then.

And I took the Number 1 local train from Penn Station and with the train stopping at every stop, until it got to the 116 Street Station and Broadway which is the Columbia University station.

I alighted from the underground or subway station as they called it here in America, and walked a few steps and immediately saw what a magnificent and gorgeous-looking campus, all safely hidden from the streets that surround it.

Many locals marveled at the fact that I could get into the university to study and coming from halfway around the world, while they who were born in the city and very near the campus, yet had not stepped foot into it, much less to be able to study anything at the university.

Many mistook me for a Japanese but when my hair became longer they thought if I might be a Native American, not a usual sight on campus and in America at that time when male students with long hair had become rare.

I must have brought back the 1960s to the campus.  

I was the only student from Malaysia for a while, until I managed to bump into a few who were doing some undergraduate degrees and one and another one their doctorates at Teacher’s College.

So we could hardly afford to form a Malaysian Students Association of Columbia to organize anything.

Dodge Hall was where the film division of the school of the arts is. And this was my first stop to check with the staff to inform them that I had arrived and would like to register as a student.

Grafton Nunes then administrative assistant of the division was the guy who sent and signed the letter of acceptance I had earlier received that when I first held it, after tearing the envelope open, and felt my knees going weak. I had been accepted by Columbia to study film!

I met him and also John Mclaughlin, two wonderful guys who became the first two persons at the university I would know.

And before I go any further and feeling more emotional let me end this article by talking about the sketch I am posting in my FB account, showing Earl Hall that is just in the front of Dodge Hall.

I remember actor Christopher Reeve who played Superman once came but I did not see him.

It is in this hall where they provide space for the Muslim students to perform their Friday prayers where they also have the Muslim Students Association office which is beside the Jewish Students Association office.

If indeed current American President Barack Hussein Obama had studied at Columbia he would be there when I was also there.

But he did not make any effort to reconnect with his experience living in Indonesia earlier for four years, so he could sample some Melayu (Malay) or Indonesian food which he liked and get to meet some of us who also included some students from Indonesia.

I have managed to return to the campus a few times after I left it many years ago. And each time I am back there I felt a strong affiliation with it even when there was no one there who I knew.

I bumped into a former American classmate, Ron Nyswaner once but I did not initially recognize him and he also did not remember me. Only much later when I was traveling in the Greyhound around America that I realized it was him.

He invited me to see he and his friends shoot their low budge feature film called ‘Smithereens’ but I could not make it. Despite its modest budget and tight shooting schedule, this film went on to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, pushing aside the more expensive big budgeted films.

Ron would later graduate and go on to write the screenplay of the Hollywood feature film called ‘Philadelphia’ for which he won an Oscar nomination.

On one of my earlier trips back to the school I read a notice on the bulletin board saying how one of the students had actually won a Student Academy Award. It was indeed a nice welcome to be able to read such a posting.

And the school itself had seen tremendous changes with the lobby on the ground floor now having a café.

I hope to return to Columbia where I still have some business to settle with the school soon… I’ll be back!

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