Saturday, 31 May 2014

Misleading information

Something's wrong with this map. The actual AEON Mall building in Bukit Mertajam is no-where near what's shown on the map. If it's really there as shown, the AEON Mall would be practically in my backyard. But it's not. It's actual located some 3.6 kilometres away from my house. It's a 10-minute drive, not a 10-minute walk. Who's to blame for this misleading information in the AEON brochure?

Hanoi's night market and street walkers

I was looking up a dictionary the other day to see what it said about the term "free-range," as in "free-range chicken" and according to the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learners' Dictionary, the term refers to "a system of keeping animals in which they can move and feed freely on an area of open ground."

In Malaysia, a free-range chicken would thus be the equivalent of the kampong ayam, the often thin and scrawny dressed chicken that we find in the wet markets. The meat is tougher than the ordinary battery chickens but it is so much sweeter.

The Vietnamese call their free-range chickens are "walking chicken." That's what I was told anyway when my family were in Hanoi recently. They also prefer their "walking chicken" any time over the battery ones. It is said that their very popular Phở Gà (chicken noodle soup) is cooked from free-range chicken but very funny, I noticed that their chicken all looked rather fat and plump. Maybe they feed their "walking chickens" better than over here.

But I digress. The reason why I brought up the topic of "walking chicken" is because on the second night of our holiday in Hanoi, after returning from a day trip to the Ninh Bình Province and it being a Saturday night, we decided to visit their weekend night market.

This is just like our own pasar malam. The city authorities would close up the road and allow traders to set up their stalls in the middle of the road. The items sold weren't that much different from what we would find here too: clothing, shoes, handbags, sweets, fresh and dried fruits, decorations, toys, stationery, sundry goods and roadside food.

The night market stretched for about one kilometre or so but we gave up after walking along the Hàng Ngang Street (Hang Ngang Street). All the goods looked more or less the same, and if you see one, chances are that you would have seen them all. And so we turned to go back to our hotel. Tomorrow would yet be another long day for us.

But then I came across this small barrier which had been placed strategically at one of the road junctions. It was to tell people that the road was closed to vehicular traffic and only foot traffic was allowed to enter. This matter-of-fact sign wouldn't even be interesting but for its peculiar use of the English language which struck me as funnily amusing. WALKING STREET, it proclaimed, and at the back of my mind I was thinking: "and the people around us, are we all Street Walkers, then?"

If you don't know what is a street walker, please look up the dictionary.  Get me outa here, fast!

All the best, Dyana Sofya

Today's the day...

Friday, 30 May 2014

Durian for breakfast, 2014

Imagine waking up in the morning to look out at one of the most stunning vistas on Penang island. It's quite a view, isn't it? In the far distance is the estuary of the Pinang River after which this particular part of the island is called: Sungai Pinang.

As I drove up from the new Balik Pulau market towards Telok Bahang, I reached Titi Kerawang after about 20 minutes through a winding road. Titi Kerawang is where a waterfall is located but it can't be seen from the road. It would be necessary to park the car nearby and walk inwards towards the falls. And about a further 100 metres up the road, this sign would loom on the left side.

Drive straight in, but taking care to negotiate slowly and carefully down the slope before parking the car. The Bao Sheng Durian Farm with its homestay villas is just there.

The Bao Sheng Durian Farm is actually the home of my friend, TS Chang (otherwise known as Durian Seng to his durian customers), whom I've known for close to 20 years. That would have been in the mid-1990s. Got to know him because we were once Internet kakis.

And every year - well, most every year, because his home is so far away from my house in Bukit Mertajam - I'd visit him to enjoy the fruits of his harvest. He now operates his durian business solely from his home because the Bao Sheng name has spread so tremendously. The great demand for his quality fruits means he can no longer cope with bringing his durian fruits nearer to George Town. Previously, he would open a temporary shed in Lebuh Bukit Jambul (near the Equatorial Hotel) and even bring his fruits down to Thean Teik Road. But not any more.

So these are his durian fruits. Various names and varied types of shapes, sizes, flavours and fragrance. But they all boil down to one thing: guaranteed good quality - full flavoured - durian that ripen on the trees and fall down.

When I arrived at Bao Sheng yesterday morning at 7.15a.m., there was nobody in sight, not even Durian Seng and his family. Too early for visitors, I suppose.

But in the distance, I could hear the sound of a motorcycle revving away as it went along the hilly path to collect the fallen fruits. Soon enough, the motorcycle arrived back at his home with a basket fully laden with the fruits. Several trips later, the floor was covered by a layer of durian and his staff appeared to sort them out and label them for delivery to buyers elsewhere.

As for me, I waited patiently until Durian Seng was free enough to join me for a breakfast of tongue-numbing durian that we washed everything down with some freshly brewed pu'er tea. And that's a little-known fact about freshly dropped durian fruits.

If you are lucky enough to come across a freshly dropped durian, meaning that it had dropped less than two hours, the taste of the durian pulp is not only exquisitely delicious but it delivers a slightly numbing or tingling effect on our tongue. And that's a rare durian experience.

Durian aficionados look forward to this sensation but you would have to be very lucky to come across such a fruit. Obviously, the fruits that we come across selling at fruit stalls in the towns and the city would have lost this feature as hours would have passed since these fruits were picked and delivered.

While having my durian breakfast, I threw a glance over his plantation. There, below where we sat, was one of his villas completely surrounded by lush greenery. It's quite possible for people to book one of his villas for an overnight stay. You'd wake up in the morning to the sounds of nature and the wide open vista of Sungai Pinang below you. And what's more, during the durian season, there's always this lovely sight at eye level when you look out the window:

In any case, if you want to enjoy a spot of fresh durian and get a tour of his farm at Sungai Pinang, just give a call to Durian Seng (012.4110600). He has various packages to suit visitors ranging from the basic RM25 package to an extravagant RM120 package! In any case, click here for the Bao Sheng Durian Farm website.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Colourful school assembly

Notice anything wrong with this picture? Maybe there's something with it, and maybe there's none. 

But it was taken just a few days ago at the Monday morning assembly session of the Penang Free School, when a few Old Frees turned up at their Alma Mater for a second soft launch of the memoirs of JMB Hughes who was the school's last European headmaster from 1957 to 1963.

Call me old fashioned if you must, but what disturbed me was seeing the boys dressed up in all manners of T-shirts.

Though it certainly added some colour to the occasion, I thought that it was dreadful that the Monday school assembly had become so trivialised. A school assembly session is a formal affair and is a long cherished tradition for the Penang Free School. But as it was, the boys were made to look so sloppy, and that's already putting it very mildly.

The pupils should be dressed properly in school attire and everyone should be proud to wear their school tie, NOT dressed in coloured T-shirts and other sports wear. Okay, I was given to understand that this was Sports Week and immediately after the school assembly, the pupils were going straight for their games. But that was beside the point. It's no excuse, really, because they could have changed quickly from their school uniforms into their sports attire after assembly.

So this is one matter that the school headmaster should address immediately. As an Old Free himself, he should ensure that school traditions must be maintained and that this absurdity should be ended henceforth.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

An adventure through the Tràng An grottoes

When I was planning our trip to Vietnam, I was discussing with the travel agency on the places to go while in Ninh Bình Province. The morning itinerary was already filled up with the visit to the Bái Đính Temple but the important question was where to go in the afternoon before returning to Hanoi.

Try the Tràng An grottoes, I was advised. "Trang An is less popular than Tam Cốc-Bích Động (Tam Coc) as a tourist site but the scenery is just as beautiful," the agency told me. Alright, I told the agency, let's go to Tràng An.

So that was how on the second day of our family vacation in Vietnam, we landed ourselves in a small, open sampan, fully exposed to the unbearably hot afternoon sun with nothing more than my wife's umbrella to be shared by the four of us, as the sampan's owner paddled us up and down the lengthy waterway.

In hindsight, we should have bought the straw hats at the souvenir shops to hide us from the searing heat but we thought it was unnecessary until it was too late. All around us in other boats, the touritsts were either wearing these hats or holding umbrellas. I can say that my wife wasn't all too pleased with having to be out under the scorching sun. "I'm going to be burned very brown," she kept mumbling throughout the whole time in the boat.

Well, almost the whole time. The only time we escaped from the sun and the heat was when the boatman took us into the cool and dark grottoes, and if I wasn't mistaken, there were seven of them that we entered during the two-hour trip. There were, of course, more grottoes than seven, and they connected the lakes together throughout the Tràng An region, but we visited seven only.

As these were natural caves carved into the limestone hills by nature over millions of years, there was very little lighting and in most parts the passage ways were narrow and we had to look out for the rocks that loomed in front of us. On all occasions, we had to avoid the rocks on the left and right of us, and also stalacmites from the caves' low ceiling. Although we made it through the caves unscathed, I am sure that there must have been accidents before with unsuspecting tourists.

It looked almost ridiculous going boating in the hot afternoon with nothing but a filmsy umbrella to shelter us from the sun.

While out in the open waterway, we were mostly surrounded by beautiful limestone hills but there were also stretches of padi fields on the flat lands. The water, unfortunately, I cannot say that it was clear enough to see beyond two or three feet below the surface. Nor did I see any fishes around - maybe I wasn't looking hard enough - but we did catch sight of a pair of mountain goats.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Hanoi Day Two: Visiting the Bái Đính Temple (Chùa Bái Đính)

On the second day of our family's vacation in Vietnam (10 Mar 2014), it took us almost two hours to reach the Chùa Bái Đính (Bái Đính Temple) in Ninh Bình Province which was located about 120 kilometres south of Hanoi.

When I was planning this trip to the Vietnamese capital, I was a bit thrilled to realise that we could celebrate Wesak overseas. My wife was saying it was a pity that she could not celebrate Wesak at the Buddhist Hermitage Lunas this year as we would be away, but I knew that the Bai Dinh Temple would certainly give her a good surprise.

We arrived at the temple grounds to find the whole place decorated with the Wesak flags and buntings. The 2014 United Nations Day of Vesak, an international Buddhist conference, was being held there at the same time and I read later that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister DM Jayaratne, ambassadors and officials of many countries, over 1,000 Buddhist dignitaries and experts from 95 countries and territories, along with 10,000 Vietnamese monks, followers and citizens were present. That was certainly impressive.

The entrance into the Chùa Bái Đính grounds which at 700 hectares could make it the biggest Buddhist temple complex in South-East Asia.

Main decoration for the United Nations Day of Vesak 2014 celebrations.

In order to reach the Pháp Chủ Hall, we had to walk through a long corridor. On one side was a long stretch of arhats, standing 2.3 metres high and carved out from green Ninh Bình stone. It was interesting to see that visitors had rubbed the statues until the surfaces had smoothened out to display the stone's deep green hue.

According to what I've read, there are altogether 500 such statues, with each Arhat striking a different pose, but along this corridor I could count only 250 of them. Maybe there is a different corridor for the remaining statues but we weren't taken to see them.

This was the Pháp Chủ Hall with the magnificent statues of Lord Buddha and his disciples. As this was the Wesak week in Vietnam, worshippers were everywhere, taking up almost all the space in the vast hall, and some even leaving their bags and belongings on the floor to reserve their personal space while they disappeared somewhere for lunch. We wanted to go further and visit the pagoda and the Tam Thế Hall but because of the conference, entry was restricted only to the delegates and we were not allowed in. Reluctantly, we turned back, going past the same 250 Arhat statues that we saw earlier.

The same arch that we entered from, as we existed from the Bái Đính Temple. 

We took these tramcars to and from the car park some one or two kilometres away.

Itinerant traders in their make-shift stalls.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Holiday in Japan

There's no holiday in Malaysia today but there's Holiday In Japan, representative of a series of new sounds that were emerging from a country that was recovering from the ravages of the Second World War and finding themselves liberated from traditional music forms. Although the new music was recorded and produced in Hawaii, they featured Japanese bands and sometimes bands of mixed nationalities, playing "new songs of freedom from the past" from Japan and around the East Asian region.

Take, for example, this seven-inch extended play vinyl record. There were just four tunes here but listeners can definitely recognise Yie Lai Shan as Chinese, Bungawan Solo as Malayan or Indonesian and Dahil Saiyo as Filipino. It is still possible to buy or listen to Holiday in Japan through music streaming services.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The white crocodile's tale

JMB Hughes was the last European headmaster of the Penang Free School. However, Hughes was before my time as he retired in 1963 while I entered the school in the Sesquicentenary year, 1966. Ever since he died two years ago on 16 Mar 2011, there had been several attempts to have his memoirs published.

At long last, it has been published in Penang by Areca Books. The soft launch of the book was held today, fittingly at The Old Frees' Association clubhouse in Northam Road, attended by some 30 people. I understand there will be another soft launch tomorrow at the Penang Free School after the school's Monday morning assembly.

All the best, Ramkarpal Singh!

Today's the day...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Making a simple solution difficult

I was at the Safira Country Club in Seberang Jaya yesterday morning. Went there after dropping my wife off at her office nearby and then decided to use the club's gymnasium facilities. And after I had tidied myself up and about to go off, I decided to ask the person in charge of the physical activity section - the club has a swimming pool, gymnasium, sauna, tennis court, golf, futsal among many other facilities - to enlist someone to check into the ladies' changing room for a hair brush that my wife might have left behind yesterday evening. 

The chap couldn't locate the housekeeping lady and asked me to come back in the afternoon! So I suggested instead that he could ask one of the ladies in the administration section to help. He hesitated so much that I had to do it myself. 

I put my request to the male staff at the counter and instead of doing what I wanted him to do, he decided to go through their lost and found section and said there was no hair brush. I said, why don't you ask one of your female colleagues to help?? I just needed her to go into the changing room and look. What was so difficult about that? What was so difficult about opening his mouth to ask? 

In the end, the club manager ambled by and came to my assistance. And at the same time too, a lady staff had already come out to help me. She went into the changing room and presto, she found my wife's hair brush immediately. It was by the sink and now, it is with me. I thanked her profusely and we exchanged some small talk before I went off. 

This incident is not about the hair brush but the attitude of the people at the club. I really can't fathom why sometimes, it is so difficult to do something simple. Why would they need to make a mountain out of a molehill? I just can't understand.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Gondola Hotel, Hanoi

While my family and I were in Hanoi, we stayed in the Gondola Hotel, a three-star establishment right smack in the heart of the Old Quarters, within five minutes walking distance of the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake), shopping and sights, and great local Vietnamese food!

Despite the hotel's close proximity to some of the busiest streets in Hanoi, the rooms were unbelievably quiet. The Ngõ Hàng Hành (Hàng Hành Street), on which it was located, was quaint and laid back, and a throw-back to the old colonial times.

All the staff was friendly, and the doorman was always ready to help with the guests' luggage.

The front desk staff especially was very helpful. As they spoke excellent English, conversing with them wasn't a problem at all. In fact, I kept having a feeling that they wanted to talk more and used us to practice on their English. Well, that, I wouldn't mind at all.

Like almost all buildings in Vietnam, the Gondola Hotel was long and narrow, and towards the back of the hotel, the building extended out at a right angle. I would estimate that the width of the hotel was not more than 17 feet.

There were altogether eight storeys and we stayed on the fourth floor for the first two nights and the sixth floor for the last two nights after returning from an overnight trip to Halong Bay.

Rooms were very clean and spacious, and I would kind of rate them as four-star or even five-star equivalent. Only the absence of a swimming pool may have denied them a higher star rating. And did I mention that the rooms come equipped with a very fast WiFi speed? Yes, they do.

In my opinion, the breakfast buffet did not offer a very luscious spread but it was still a good, ample mix of western and local Vietnamese food. A cook was ever present to prepare eggs in whichever manner was requested of her, and a highlight of every meal was the preparation of the Phở (rice noodle soup).

My verdict of the Gondola Hotel: highly recommended.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò Prison)

When our city tour of Hanoi ended with a visit to the Hỏa Lò Prison, I was unprepared for the bleakness of this historic place. It was a fascinating reminder of the horrors of prison - full of suffering, full of both mental and physical torture and of course, executions were quite common - although the Vietnamese authorities would like you to believe that while the Hoa Lo Prison was a shocking hell hole for captured Vietnamese revolutionaries during the time when the French occupied Indochina, in contrast, captured American pilots during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese called it the American War) were treated relatively with respect when they were imprisoned there.

The Hỏa Lò Prison was built by the French colonists in Vietnam at the end of the 19th century to hold their Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence. The French called the place Maison Centrale or Central House, a euphemism for prisons in France.

When first built in 1896, its maximum capacity was meant to be 460 inmates but by the time the French colonists relinquished Vietnam in 1954, conditions in the prison had become so miserable that more than 2,000 people were held in sub-human conditions.

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam held their American prisoners of war in the same building. Maybe the conditions were no longer as appalling as during the French colonial times but definitely, the American POWs were subjected to torture and indoctrination, not to mention poor food and spartan and unsanitary living conditions. In response, the Americans gave a nickname to the Hỏa Lò Prison, calling it sarcastically as the "Hanoi Hilton".

About half of the prison was demolished during the 1990s to make way for high-rise development but the gatehouse remains today as a museum.

When I was walking along the corridors and visiting the exhibitions at this museum, I had to remind myself that propaganda was still very much in existence and the Vietnamese authorities retained bragging rights when describing the Hỏa Lò Prison. After all, they were the ones that had chased out the French in 1954 and won the American War in 1975, and that was all that mattered to them.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Foo Heong past its heyday

During its heyday, the Foo Heong Restaurant in Cintra Street, George Town was one of the most popular places in Penang for anyone to have a sumptuous dinner.

Every evening it would be full of patrons, occupying tables downstairs and upstairs. It served some of the most fabulous course dinners but usually, I would go there to order its special sar hor fun.

I remember that in the late 70s, I was invited there for a dinner by my first bank supervisor, Ng Chak Hon, to celebrate his promotion to become the manager of the Ban Hin Lee Bank's branch at Komtar. He was given a table upstairs and the food was excellent.

The Foo Heong Restaurant's reputation was enhanced further by the presence of their brash, loud-mouthed proprietor who was a very surly man with a perpetual scowl. A stocky guy, he sat at the counter and whenever someone made an order through him, he would write it down on a slip of paper and then barked out his orders. His loud voice carried well into the kitchen. None of his staff dared cross his path. His wrath was really Old School "charm".

I would guess that when he died, all the kitchen staff were actually quite relieved. His children took over the restaurant but there was no more loud-mouthed shouting. Unfortunately with his passing, business was never quite the same again.

As the decades rolled by and the old cooks had either retired or died, the quality of the food went downhill. The patrons became less.

But I was not quite prepared for the sight that greeted me when I passed by the restaurant last Monday evening at about nine o'clock. The whole of the ground floor was deserted. The only sign of life was from the family members who were gathered at a table beneath the staircase and playing on a computer. Upstairs was in darkness.

This, then, is the fate of Foo Heong Restaurant, once one of the busy eateries in the city.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The "tui nee" ceremony

I received a telephone call this morning from an old family friend. She was asking me how long it has been since my aunt had passed away. "It's one year already," I told her, and added, feeling rather surprised with the timing of her call, "actually, by the Gregorian calendar, yesterday would have been her first-year death anniversary."

But then, we had already observed her death anniversary a week ago, I added. Last Thursday was the anniversary date if you reckon with the Chinese lunar calendar. The "tui nee" ceremony, as we Hockkien Chinese would call it.

Unlike funerals which are all rather public occasions with friends and relatives coming to pay respects to the deceased on their final journey, the tui nee ceremony is very much a closed, private family affair, and we were my aunt's closest relatives in Penang. My daughter had come back from Kuala Lumpur to join the rest of the family to participate in the occasion.

Firstly, we picked up some vegetarian food offerings from the Happy Realm vegetarian food centre in Burmah Road before proceeding to the Buddhist Triple Wisdom Hall in Pangkor Road where we had arranged for two of their resident monks to chant prayers at my aunt's memorial tablet in her memory. That done, we went down to the Kong Hock Keong (Kuan Yin) Temple in Pitt Street to distribute the vegetarian foodstuff to the vagrants there.

My wife was telling me later that some of the vagrants were asking around themselves whether anyone wanted the vegetarian food. That surprised me! As vagrants, they should be thankful that anyone is giving them fresh food regardless of whether the foodstuff is vegetarian or non-vegetarian, but here are some vagrants who are beginning to get choosy. Well, beggars shouldn't be choosy, isn't it? Anyway, they did line up to collect the foodstuff from my wife.

That done, we proceeded to the Sri Mahindarama Temple in Kampar Road. This was the last stage of the day's occasion. We listened in to the monk's prayers before they partook their lunch, and I did the transferring of merits to the deceased by symbolically pouring water from one container to another. And that was that. My aunt's first-year death anniversary observed and done with.

After a quick lunch in the city, it was time for the four of us to go home, pack our clothes and head out to the airport for a well deserved vacation together.

As an after-thought, I should add that this old family friend wasn't the only person who asked about my aunt in recent weeks. At the beginning of this month, one of the vegetable sellers at the Kampong Baharu market here in Bukit Mertajam asked me whether it had been a year since her passing. A few days later, one of the stall owners at the same market asked me the same question. And only this morning, it was another stall owner who did so. My aunt must have had some good friends there when she was still alive....

Monday, 19 May 2014

Hanoi's Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long)

Right after visiting the Ba Đình Square, we were brought to the Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long (Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre) in Hanoi to watch their famed water puppet show. This is their showcase of Vietnamese water puppetry, traditionally performed in padi fields.

Initially, we had some reservations about having to sit through the whole performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, especially since we were all very tired from our flight from Kuala Lumpur and discovering that the show would take about an hour to complete. But basically, we were all quite tired and wanted to go check into the hotel.

Much to our surprise, the show came out all right. Quite entertaining, in fact, despite not understanding all the singing in the Vietnam language. But even without understanding their language, we could more or less follow the flow of the singing which was narrating the folk history of the Vietnamese people.

The part of most interest to me featured the legend of the turtle lake, how their national hero had received a sword from the gods in the lake and used it to defeat his enemies.

And then one day after peace had returned to the land and while on his boat on the lake, a huge turtle emerged to grab the sword and return it to the gods.

The water puppetry performance is played out in a huge sloping auditorium with a four metre-by-four metre square stage which was a pool filled with water until waist deep.

At the side of the auditorium sat the orchestra and singers. Behind the pool were curtains were the hidden puppet masters who would manouevre the puppets fitted on poles held beneath the water surface.

Knowing how much resistance there is when trying to move objects within the water, this can be quite a strenuous task indeed. And yet, the puppet masters went about it quite effortlessly. Very impressive indeed.

Lights were dimmed during the performance and photography was very difficult. So unfortunately, I don't have many pictures to share here.

Our tour guide informed us that the water puppet show was one of the highlights of any trip to Hanoi. He said that it was often full house at each performance - about five per day - and unless one wants to take chances with buying tickets on the spot, he recommended that tickets be bought in advance.