Play It Again, Sam

Gabrielle Wong is a librarian in Casablanca, Morocco. As intriguing as that sounds, she’s better known as founder and curator of vintage-kl, a nostalgic collection of old snapshots of the city.

Gabrielle crossing the Sahara desert

Gabrielle crossing the Sahara desert

Name: Gabrielle Wong

Age: 34

Current city: Casablanca, Morocco

Hometown: Born in Ipoh, raised in KL.

Number of years abroad: Since 1999. The first time I left the country to live overseas was to attend university in Los Angeles. I returned to KL after graduating. After three years at home it felt like time to go seek out new and different experiences. And so, I went back to school in the US where I got a masters degree in library science. Following that, I found myself in Kuwait as a high school librarian in an international school. The opportunity to work in Morocco came up in 2012; that’s how I ended up in Casablanca.

What do you for a living?
I’m a librarian in an international school. I’ll let everyone reading this fill their heads with every imaginable librarian stereotype now. In reality, I’m a teaching librarian. That means, besides recommending good books I also teach students how to be smarter researchers and better users of information.

Is Casablanca your most exotic home so far?
I think that’s a matter of perception. To many of my colleagues, growing up in Malaysia is pretty exotic. But yeah, telling people I’m a Malaysian living in Morocco has been a great conversation starter.

What inspired your move to Casablanca? What do you like about living there?
Casablanca—despite its name conjuring up lots of exotic images—isn’t terribly exciting. But living in north Africa is an opportunity to travel around the region. Morocco is geographically diverse and so beautiful. It’s worth noting that many Game of Thrones episodes were filmed in southern Morocco.

The highlight so far was a trip to the Sahara desert, and crossing the Atlas mountains to get there. I also got to experience inter-continental travel on a ferry—from Africa to Europe—through the historical Straits of Gibraltar.

What do you not like about living in Casablanca?
Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and sometimes it feels like it’s bursting at the seams. There is the usual big city problems in a developing country: congestion, pollution and the social effects of rapid rural-to-urban migration.

What do you miss about Malaysia?
This answer is easy and predictable: the food! The variety of and accessibility to all kinds of eats in Malaysia is something I never take for granted.

What do you not miss about Malaysia?
The daily commute for work, or just traffic in general. Also, I’m sometimes surprised by the casual biases Malaysians have against foreigners working and living in our country. I know it’s not a uniquely Malaysian problem but it gets uncomfortable. Especially when I am myself a foreigner working in a foreign land and conversations at home turn to a discussion of us against them. I don’t miss that.

How did you come up with the idea for vintage-kl?
From conversations that start with “Remember when…?” When I meet up with old college mates we get to talking about places where we used to hang out. But with the rapid changes in KL, what once used to be your favourite mamak stall by the roadside is probably now the front entrance of yet another shopping mall. Being away from home also makes me more nostalgic.

So, I started searching online for photos of places that once were. Many of the images online are postcards but what I’ve found more interesting are the street photography and personal photos. The next logical step was to curate these images and share them with the world. It’s been really satisfying to see people respond, that they enjoy the collection.

Do you plan to return to Malaysia in the future?
Yes. Maybe one day. I enjoy being a teacher librarian and would like to keep doing this as well as continue seeing more of the world. Anyway, there isn’t really a demand for librarians in Malaysian schools. Is there?

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