Friday, 25 February 2011

Words do sometimes fail me

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Chocolate king

I'm in the process of reading this book by Bryan Christy, called The Lizard King. It's a fascinating account about law enforcement officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facing an uphill battle against international wildlife trafficking. For every case that they resolve, an uncountable number of other cases go undetected or hit a brick wall. Wildlife smuggling into the United States was rampant because it was a lucrative, unstoppable business.

A good portion of this book described an illegal wildlife operation centred in Penang. The last I've heard about the infamous Anson Wong is that he is appealing the enhanced sentence that the High Court had handed down.

Wong was caught at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 26 Aug when his suitcase broke open to reveal 95 boa constrictors that he was smuggling to Jakarta. Why a man of his wide reputation as an "importer and exporter" of illegal wildlife across the globe should choose to make a personal delivery has not been revealed. He could have easily recruited his mules to do the work.

But more alarming also is the complicity of the equally infamous Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Peninsular Malaysia, otherwise known as Perhilitan, in this matter. I wonder what has become of the investigations that the MACC had carried out on the Perhilitan offices subsequent to this widely publicised incident. Bryan Christy's blog is here where he continues to be sceptical yet hopeful of the will of the Malaysian government to be more serious with stopping illegal wildlife trading.

One paragraph in the book jumped out at me: "Lucio Coronel got off a plane from Buenos Aires on a Sunday morning wheeling a big, hard-sided suitcase up to the customs line. Ceramics, he said he was carrying. The X-ray showed skeletons." Inside his suitcase, the smuggler was carrying a whole load of live reptiles such as tortoises, turtles, boa constrictors and other snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, frogs and lizards. At least 450 rare, protected or endangered reptiles were found stuffed inside the suitcase.

This got me thinking back to the day I once went through airport security at Subang International Airport in the 1980s. This was well before security checks became so much stricter after 911. Anyway, when my luggage went through the X-ray machine, an ominous, mystery shadow appeared: deeply serrated and about a foot long.

The security officer looked at his colleague and then at me. I looked at him. He looked me up and down. I looked him up and down too. Finally, he asked: what's that inside? So I had to open my suitcase and showed unopened bar of Toblerone chocolates!
Reluctantly, I had to unwrap and remove the foil. It was meant as a little family surprise. I broke off a piece and ate it. All the time, both of them looked at it. I think they were in some kind of shock. I broke the tension by offering them some chocolates. They started laughing and waved me through.I dropped the bar back into the back and walked away.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Force of nature

Although I'm so far removed from New Zealand, I feel moved enough to write something about the scale of destruction from this morning's earthquake in Christchurch. It happened at about 12.30pm, New Zealand local time. This is about old heritage buildings toppling over; old buildings that had withstood earlier earthquakes but not this one.

The earthquake was quite powerful, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, and it showed the amount of damage through natural disasters. We can have the best defences and the best technology but we can never be sure that they are enough.

Of course, this is an old city and it was built some 160 years ago. The buildings then were not as strong as the present and were always susceptible to greater damage.

Yet, nobody expected to see the spire of the iconic 130-year-old Christchurch Cathedral shearing off and crumbling down as rubble on the grounds below. That it did is a great tragedy for worldwide heritage.

This is another heritage church building that was destroyed during yesterday's quake: the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

While this Roman Catholic church itself is about 150 years old, the building was completed 96 years ago. Though more modern and more solid than the Christchurch Cathedral, it still couldn't withstand the force of the earthquake. From what I can see from the picture, half of the building is gone. The remaining part of the building was also filled with cracks.

There's also a report that some 30 million tons of ice broke off from the Tasman glacier about 200 kilometres from Christchurch. A 1.2km long, 300m high, 75m wide piece of ice on the face of the Glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park claved and plummeted into the Tasman Lake, creating waves of up to 3.5 metres high which swept up and down the lake for 30 minutes.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Tanjong Pagar rail station

There are four months left before the Tanjong Pagar railway station is handed back to Singapore. From 1 July 2011, the train service from Malaysia will no longer cut through Singapore to Tanjong Pagar but will instead terminate at the Woodlands station. It will be an end to an era of train travel in this region.

The station, located along Keppel Road, is the final port of call for trains heading to Singapore. You may also argue that it is the first port of call for trains leaving from Singapore. No matter, it is hardly used to transport the bulk containers anymore, just passengers who deem rail travel as still more interesting than the monotony of road or air travel. No joke! 

The station was built on reclaimed swampland and declared open by the Straits Settlement Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, on 3 Mar 1932. As the southernmost end of the Federated Malay States Railway, it served the needs of Singapore town, particularly the transport of goods from the nearby harbour. But the rapid development of and improvement to road transportation dealt an inevitable death blow to the station's purpose from the 1980s onwards. And until 18 Dec 1988, people could still say their goodbyes at the platform, paying a mere 20 Singapore cents for a platform ticket.

The railway station was a sore point in the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore had always wanted to reclaim sovereignty over the station and the rail track that cut through their country, but Malaysia had refused. Actually, it all boiled down to two old goats at the opposite ends of the causeway. As long as Mahathir Mohamad and Kuan Yew were in charge - and in the 1990s, Mahathir was still in charge and Kuan Yew was still very much in control - you'd know that the two old goats would always be at loggerheads over one thing or another. Tanjong Pagar was one of them.

I believe that I may have travelled to Singapore through this railway station perhaps six or seven times in my life. Every time I passed through the arrival gate, I felt like going through a time warp. One moment I could feel like it was in the 1960s or 1970s, and the next moment I would be stepping out into modern Singapore!

In the late 1980s, I used to travel a few times to Johor Bahru. That gave me lots of opportunity to pop into Singapore at the end of the day. Mostly I would just use the bus service but once in a while, it would be by train. I'd buy the ticket from the rail station in Johor Bahru. Didn't cost much in those days.

The last time I used the train was on New Year's Day this year. The annual Singapore-Malaysia chess match was being played in Singapore and I decided to come back by train. For old times sake. Before the Tanjong Pagar station closes down.

So there I was, at the railway station at 12.30pm, patiently waiting for the departure gate to open. And when it did, all it took was a short walk down the old platform to the Malaysian Immigration and Customs checkpoints. "Anything to declare?" I was asked. Nope, I replied, and the Customs officer waved me through. Another few steps and I was already onboard the train. Second class, air-conditioned comfort. All the way past several historical train stations along the southern route, such as Kulai, Kluang, Segamat and Gemas before passing through more modern stations like Seremban and Nilai. Finally, journey's end was the Sentral Kuala Lumpur.

Here, one more picture from the iconic railway station. This is a closer view of the marble bas-relief that greet visitors to the station. Nobody can miss these four allegorical reliefs of Agriculture, Industry, Commerce and Transport - reflection of economic prosperity during the heyday of British rule in Malaya - with each personification holding symbols unique to their character. They were created by Rudolfo Nolli, an Italian sculpture and architect. It would do well for the Singapore government to conserve this station as a heritage building.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Where is George Town's tram service?

One thing that Penang is very famous for is the knack of holding seminars and talks where many fine ideas are proposed and discussed. This makes everyone feel pretty smug: from the organisers right down to the participants. And then there are also the pressure groups who want to stop this project and that project. That is what we are good at: holding seminars and talks.

One thing that Penang is bad at is the implementation of new ideas. We can talk and talk until the cows come home; we can propose and discuss until the cows come home; but when it comes to turning these ideas into concrete reality, we seem to hit a brick wall. They are KIVed (kept in view) until the next convenient seminar is arranged.

Why do I say this? Well, we have been talking ever so much about improving traffic infrastructure in the inner city of George Town. There's so much traffic congestion that there is talk of closing off some of the roads during peak hours but nothing is done. There is talk after talk about reintroducing tram services but nothing ever materialises. We've had experts coming in to give their two cents' worth of opinion and proposal but nothing ever changes. Heck, there are even remains of tram tracks from the heyday of Penang's heritage past but they remain unused - the experts say they are reuseable - and only serve to remind us that yes, there was once a tram service in George Town.

I'm ranting about this because in today's newspapers, there's suddenly a story about Malacca set to operate a 40-kilometre tram track that covers Malacca's main tourist attractions. Hell, while all the politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs in Penang have been spouting hot air over the issue, our thunder has been stolen by our sister heritage city! Now, what do our authorities - local, state or federal - got to say about this?? I'm as mad as hell.

St George's Church re-opens

I was down at George Town's heritage zone yesterday morning and I headed straight for the St George's Church in Farquhar Street. The Church re-opens its doors for Service today after a 10-month long renovation work to restore the main building and the Francis Light Memorial to its pristine, almost original condition. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful heritage buildings in the city. The design consists of strong, simple lines without any loud decorations to mar its beauty. The columns remind me of ancient Greek architecture.

This is the view that most people will associate with the Anglican Church. The Francis Light Memorial is in the foreground. The mahogany tree seen here is standing strong even though it is more than 120 years old. There is another one beside the entrance. Below is the main building, photographed from various angles.

And of course, here is the Church interior, all splendidly spruced up and ready for its first official Service today.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

More than just to drink wine

A very familiar tune played on the glass harp!

And if you like what you saw, there's more of Robert Tiso here.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Nice touch!

Here is a good reason why I continue to like this new, exciting 2010/11 reboot of Hawaii Five-0. In the original series, you won't ever see Jack Lord doing this:

Yes, pushing a car that's just broken down! Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett would be too proud to do this on the show, and the original Hawaii Five-O was Lord's show. By the way, that's the car that Jack Lord used to drive in the old series. I love it when the current producers continue to bring back elements from their predecessor.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Two good reasons

There is one good reason why the Queensbay Mall at the southern part of Penang island should be a place of choice for anyone to visit. No, make that two good reasons.

The first is the presence of Ace Hardware. When I visited the Queensbay Mall yesterday - my first in two months, I think - I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ace Hardware has finally arrived in Penang. Whee! There's no longer a need to visit the chain at the MidValley MegaMall anymore. All I want, I can now find on the island.

And the second good reason is finding Daiso Japan also at this shopping mall. My aunt and wife would love this place! Admittedly, I'm not familiar at all with Daiso but a walk through the shop quickly told me what I've been missing all along. Daiso sells everyday household stuff at an unbelievable RM5 per item. Reminds me of those Sepuluh Sen or Dua Puluh Sen thrift shops that used to be so popular in George Town during the 1970s.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Meeting Teddy

How long has it been? I thought it was close to 30 years but I was wrong. It was much closer to 40 years. That's about how long it's been since I last met my cousin, Teddy. But I had gotten in touch with him again last month when I saw a piece of art in an exhibition in downtown George Town.

We had promised to meet up in person but it was not until today that we managed to do so at another art exhibition at 86 Armenian Street.

This time, he didn't have to share the limelight with anyone; it was his own solo exhibition, themed 7th Heaven. Do go there if you are the artsy-fartsy type and even if you're not, the artwork is guaranteed to impress you. The exhibition runs until 31 Mar 2011.

Labour pain

Labour pain? You don't know anything about labour pain unless you are a porcupine!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Art within art

Armenian Street. For a long while, this old road is associated with the historic enclave of George Town. Tourists go there basically to visit the Poh Hock Seah, the Yap Temple and the Cheah Kongsi. But not necessarily so nowadays.

Today, it has sort of become fashionable. Restaurants and art galleries are opening up along this road which makes it a destination for those people with interest in the art scene. Take 86 Armenian Street, for example. Upstairs is the Studio@Straits, a nice gallery for exhibitions. I've been there twice already. But sometimes, you have to look farther than the art pieces on display. The interior of the gallery is art by itself. During my last visit there, I took the opportunity to create my own art impressions with my cheap camera. Have I succeeded?

I'm going to show you a small corner of the gallery. There's an oil painting lodged between two windows at the studio. The painting by itself is superb but I am looking at the greater picture. Just as the artist had created art with his oils, I'm trying to show a bit of creativity myself. A juxtapositioning of colours. So without much ado, here are my interpretation of the gallery itself.

Monday, 14 February 2011


I've never been taken in much by all the hoo-haa over the various Chinese New Year animal signs. So what if this is the Year of the Rabbit. Okay, the rabbit is an adorable creature but that was all the furry creature meant to me. But after having gone to this year's Chinese New Year cultural and heritage celebration in George Town on 12 Feb 2011, I can well understand why people are going gaga over the rabbit.

There, at the square where the Acheen Street flea market usually operates in the evenings, the organisers of the CNY celebration had included an exhibition of rabbits. (As a side note, why wasn't there an exhibition of tigers last years?) So there I was, among the curious folks who thronged the square to take a closer look at all the caged rabbits. I've got to admit that I've never known so many different specimens existed.  Some were obvious cross-breeds and that's what made them even more interesting.

And Mogwai (below) fascinated me the most.

A valentine experience

Stephen, did you find out eventually who were on the other side of the wall? Ha ha...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Unplanned highlights

My wife was asking me whether I saw anything interesting at yesterday's George Town Chinese New Year heritage celebration. I told her plenty! And then I showed her this picture of a car being towed away by the Penang Island Municipal Council. Much earlier, there was a public announcement to ask car owners to remove their vehicles from the area. Whoever drove the car either did not hear the announcement or paid no heed to it. So there it went, being towed backwards from the celebration zone with its alarm blaring. Sure people buy ang kong jee, one!

And then as I was watching a puppet show in Armenian Street, the lights suddenly went off. Seconds later, a commotion not more than 30 feet away. Some electrical lines had short-circuited and caught fire. I think that was the end of the puppet show and the nearby activities that depended on the same power supply. They might as well pack up and go home. Suddenly, I felt so sorry for them.

[A little anecdotal update (15 Feb 2011): I bumped into Salma Khoo today. She owns 120 Armenian Street, the San Yat Sen Centre, just up the street from the stage of the puppet show and so, was affected by the fire too. I asked her how long was the power cut. "I don't know," she replied, "we just locked up the house and went home."] 

Anyway, my photos on the celebration are already uploaded to facebook here.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

St George's Church, Penang

After about a year of undergoing restoration work, I hear that the Church of St George the Martyr at the junction of Farquhar Street and Pitt Street will reopen very soon for its first service, possibly by 23 Feb 2011 at the earliest.

I notice that there is a new clock in the spire. There hasn't been one since December 1941 when Japanese aircraft bombed Penang. The church building was almost destroyed: the roof was blown off and the old clock was totally wrecked. Although the sturdy walls withstood the carnage, the Japanese soldiers came later to bring down one of the walls. But worse than the destruction, the place was looted until nothing was left. For the present work, the church decided to replace the clock. I hear that there is also a new priest, Padri Charles, who arrived here December last year. The church had been without one for about two years.

But there is one regret. Although the whole church building and the Francis Light Memorial in the background have been restored to a pristine condition, the perimeter wall wasn't included in the project and it remains in a bad condition. Plus, I hear that the church authorities are unable to prevent backpackers and vagrants from climbing the walls into the compound to camp during the night. Obviously, security must be beefed up after the church reopens. 

Friday, 11 February 2011

A case of condom jacking

It seems that the Malaysian Police are investigating how a consignment of 726,000 condoms can disappear while on transit between a factory in Perak and it's ultimate destination in Japan. Maybe the transportation truck overturned on the North-South Expressway and people simply stopped their cars or motorcycles to scoop up the spilled cartons of condoms, yes? Just like what happened to the spilled coins on the expressway earlier?

Anyway, a news report last week said that Sagami Rubber Industries had loaded the shipment into a container at its Perak factory but that it was empty with the locks replaced when it arrived in Tokyo. “We are unhappy. This is the first time such a thing has happened since our Malaysian production started in 1997,” the factory manager said. Sagami’s head office has said that the condoms are worth RM4.5 million at Japanese retail prices.

Already, wisecrack remarks are being made about this incident. "The police will never solve this case: the villains have protection. They may even be hardened criminals." "This story gives a whole new meaning to 'taking precautions'." "Stringent controls should be enforced to prevent similar leakages from occurring." "I think they need to stiffen the penalty."

But where can the condoms actually go to? Perhaps, these few clues can help the condom police:

I hear that 12,500 pieces went into the making of this evening gown. No wonder I couldn't see any more purple ones in the pictures below.
The white ones are definitely almost gone now...
Don't worry, at least they are not totally red or totally yellow. Just half of each, which means there will be some leftovers of the reds and yellow.
Looks like there will be leftovers of the greens too since the leftover whites are used to fill in the blanks.
Surely, this can only be creative use of all the odds-and-ends coloured pieces? Never put them to waste if they can be recycled.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject on recycling, I came across this old story about recycled used condoms. As an ethnic Chinese who considers Malaysia home, I am embarrassed over the greedy antics of the Chinese in China. They are without any scruples. They will not stop at anything for profit of any kind with disregard to public health or decency. Tainted milk and tainted medicine. But using used condoms as hairbands? Now, that's a new low.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

While my guitar gently weeps

I just have to share with you this interpretation of George Harrison's song. A great collaboration between arguably the greatest ukulele and acoustic guitar players today, Jake Shimabukuro and Tommy Emmanuel.

And here's a second version of Emmanuel and Shimabukuro jamming away at a concert.


Have you watched the latest kungfu action flick, Shaolin? Is it this good?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Cause and effect

How can I believe in them anymore? Serious. They say all sorts of stuff, they claim all sorts of stuff. They stretch their own credibility to the limit.

Here is possibly the biggest joke of 2011 ... so far! At a recent Chinese New Year open house, Penang's former chief minister, Dr Koh Tsu Koon, tried to take credit for the state's success in attracting new investments in 2010. He claimed that the achievements enjoyed by the current Penang government were due to efforts carried out by the Barisan Nasional (BN) state government previously.

Oh, what a laugh! What an utter nonsense. If this was indeed true, then I think we must go further back in time to the days of Francis Light. After all, if that man had not the vision to set up a trading post here in 1786, we would probably not have any worthwhile civilisation here! So the good old captain must be given due credit for Penang's current investment and administrative success, don't you think so?

I positively think there are lots of sour grapes in the failed politicians of the previous state government. I positively believe that they still can't accept the reality of the day. It is not as if the present government had been sitting idle and reaping in the fruits from the past. What fruits, anyway? Not much, as far as I can remember. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we were doing just about enough to maintain the status quo in Penang. At that time, we were really only basking in past glories. Penang's name did not impress much among investors anymore. Penang's past achievements did not matter anymore. And the real culprits for this state of affairs must rest on the shoulders of Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar Ibrahim and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. And to a lesser extent, Koh Tsu Koon and even Lim Kit Siang.

I have always felt that it was Mahathir that suppressed Penang's growth. He couldn't do anything about the bridge because it was already being built. But he tried all he could to turn his Langkawi into the next preferred tourist destination, at Penang's expense. He tried to build a new international airport at Sungai Petani, at Penang's expense. During his tenure as the deputy prime minister and finance minister, Anwar could have done much to improve Penang's lot but he did not. He had it within his means to do so but he, like the rest of his federal government cronies of that time, looked the other way and concentrated resources elsewhere. Abdullah Badawi tried to do something but he was too weak politically to make things happen fast. Plus, he chose the wrong projects that benefited only his circle of people. But what's new in that? Nothing! Dr Koh turned out to be so much of a Yes man to his political masters in Kuala Lumpur that it became ingrained in his character. In trying to please everyone, the best solution was to do nothing and maintain the status quo. And what about Kit Siang? He had a role to play too. He tried to topple everyone at the General Elections, knowing fully well that it would be at the expense of the incumbent Dr Lim Chong Eu. Lim Kit Siang takes credit for unseating Lim Chong Eu but he should also be made responsible for gifting Koh Tsu Koon with the chief minister's seat. Who knows how Penang could have progressed further if the no-nonsense Dr Lim had continued sitting in that chair? We'll never know.

Anyhow, a government that thinks they can rest on their laurels will always find a rude shock standing in their way eventually. It is only through constant hard work that any state administration can continue to draw in the investments. And I am satisfied that a lot of work has been done by the present government. It's not that apparent, of course, as the mainstream newspapers choose to downplay the attempts but ultimately, the statistics cannot lie.

Which brings up another matter. I shall call it the biggest joke of 2010. As late as 28 Oct 2010, people in the previous state administration were still claiming that Penang's foreign direct investment was not healthy. On the decline, said Dr Teng Hock Nan, chairman of Penang Gerakan. Huh, I haven't heard anything from him since news of Penang's latest investment figures hit was released last month.

Oh well, so much for failed politicians.....

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Among old friends

So how was your extended weekend? For me, it was hectic enough. On the third day of the Chinese New Year, my family spent one whole day on the island and got ourselves caught up in a traffic jam stretching from Pangkor Road to Batu Ferringhi. Came back in the evening and my whole body was tingling from the effects of the sun although we were out of the direct sunlight most of the time.

But one day earlier, I had spent a pleasant evening in the company of my old schoolmates. Yes, after eight long years, we had a big reunion dinner again. Though the attendance was much less than in 2003, we still had a sizeable crowd present. It was good to see all of them again. But in the intervening years, we lost friends like Mokhtar, Pheng Kooi, Beng Beng, Saik Kee and Saik Chuan. I'm looking forward to the next big reunion. It may not happen soon but surely, we are targetting 21 Oct 2016.

Standing (left to right): Seng Oo, Bakke, Ewe Leong, Soon Chye, Teik Wah, Kah Kheng, Michael, Kok Hin, Siang Jin, Tow Keang, Huan Chiang, Seng Chye, Kah Thiang, Abu, Leong Teik, Chun Hoo, Hock Leong, Eng Siang, myself, Chuan Keat and Teong Siew. Seated: Poh Guat Cheng, Hwang Hong Shi, Daisy Chuah, Phang Peng Yoke, Cheng Hin and Tan Joo Sim. Squatters: Errol, Kean Chuan, Choi Choon and Swee Poh. Not in the picture: Sani, Kwek Kong, Kian Foo, Chin Chuan and Cheng Chye.

Actually, we went one step better this year. We tried to touch base with a few schoolmates from the primary schooldays. Not very successful as they are much harder to contact. Nevertheless, here we are, four of us from Westlands Primary School.

Myself, Seng Oo, Chien Cheng and Siang Jin. Missing out in this picture are Cheng Chye and Chuan Keat. Would have loved Keat's Old Farts cap!