More than just kimchi

Beef ribs sizzling on the charcoal grill
I MUST confess. I knew nothing about Korean cuisine except for kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish that’s synonymous with Korea.  But I soon learn that kimchi is not limited to only pickled cabbage or radish. It can be made with any kind of vegetable.  I also didn’t know any Korean word beyond kamsahamnida (meaning thank you).

At Kyung Bok Gung Korean BBQ restaurant in Johor Baru, the menu is filled with strange-sounding names of dishes, accompanied by helpful pictures and descriptions of the various dishes.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that my Korean friends, Dr Lee and his wife, are the ones ordering for me, a typical Korean meal.

Eating is a very important social part of Korean culture and food is usually served in bite-size portions. Koreans take such pleasure in eating that they have a saying that goes something like this: “Even the diamond mountain can wait until you have eaten your meal.”

At the table, I find a long-handled steel spoon on a plate with a pair of steel chopsticks. I am rather worried that the chopsticks will feel heavy or slippery. Koreans use chopsticks and rice bowls made of metal so I make a mental note not to let my chopsticks carelessly hit the bowl and make embarrassing noises. As the meal progresses, I’m relieved that it’s mostly a “hands-on” affair and I don’t have to worry about being clumsy with the chopsticks because I’m happily eating with my fingers.

Banchan & Barbecue

The table, built with a hole in the middle for the metal barbecue grill, is quickly covered with an array of small dishes filled with a variety of appetisers and condiments. I count 10 side plates of pickled and boiled vegetables known as banchan and recognise a few, like cabbage kimchi, boiled sprigs of spinach, bunches of broccoli with a side of red soya bean sauce and pickled sesame leaves.

This is the way to assemble ingredients on
a 'bossam' or lettuce wrap
A waitress removes the metal grill and another places in it a small container of glowing charcoal before replacing the metal grill on top. The hot grill sizzles with appetising promise when the waitress rubs a thick slab of sliced onion over it and deftly unfolds rolls of galbi (beef) marinated in soya sauce. After it’s grilled, the meat is cut into bite sizes with a pair of scissors and served.

Taking heed of the Lees’ step-by-step directions, I take a piece of fresh lettuce and place, in the centre, a slice of meat dipped in soya bean paste and top it with a slice of garlic and chilli.  The trick is to fold the leaf inwards to make a bite-size pouch and pop it into my mouth elegantly. It’s fine to add any choice of banchan into the bossam (lettuce wrap) for more flavour but be sure the whole wrap fits neatly into your mouth!

Rice & Noodles

Nachi Bokum - spicy fried octopus with wheat noodles
Nachi Bokum is a pretty platter of spicy fried octopus and vegetables heaped in the centre with four bunches of wheat noodles in the four corners of the plate.

Though it’s a pity to destroy the arrangement, the noodles must be tossed into the gravy for serving. The smooth noodles, mixed with the spicy, tangy flavour of chewy octopus and vegetables, is absolutely appetising.

Bi Bim Bap - Yummy Korean hot stone pot rice

“Be careful, it’s hot!” I am reminded several times when a hot stone pot is placed in front of me. This Korean hot stone pot rice, fragrant with sesame oil, is topped with chicken, mushroom, cucumber, carrot, lettuce, spinach, seaweed and an egg yolk.

An interesting and colourful sight. Lots of red soya bean sauce is drizzled over the rice and mixed thoroughly before I can dig in.

Fast Facts

Proprietor Lee Sang Ho and his wife, Lee Myung Ja, who come from Taejon, Korea, prepare delicious Seoul-style kimchi using only vegetable sauce. No MSG is used in any of the food.

Pancake with seafood and scallion
Some of their recommendations include pancake fried with seafood and scallion, tender grilled beef marble, chicken stew stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng, and samgyeopsal or boiled slices of pork belly served with two types of kimchi (cabbage and radish), garlic and sliced chilli.

Kyung Bok Gung Korean BBQ restaurant at 82-A Jalan Kuning, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, is open daily from 11am to 11pm. For reservations, call 07-333 3077.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 26 October 2009

Special delights of the South

Oyster mushrooms growing out of their grow bags

JUST a few steps into the dark and damp narrow corridor are tall shelves stacked tightly with neat rows of pod-like grow bags. Packed with highly enriched soil, each of these hold a pale-looking plant.  In the dimly-lit room, I see dust motes dancing in spears of sunlight and can’t help feeling a bit like Sigourney Weaver in the film Aliens, surrounded by pods in a gloomy cave.

In the distance, I hear the buzz of excited voices. From three buses, some 130 people emerge, all armed with great appetites to start the Johor Agro food trail from Johor Baru to Batu Pahat. 

I quickly emerge from the greenhouse to join Baby Liew and Alice Sung, the coordinators responsible for bringing in this enthusiastic group from across the Causeway. I am joining them on a one-day tour of the mushroom farm in Kempas Lama and to Yong Peng to visit a noodle factory and for local food products.

After a light lunch of sweet potato congee, we head to Sri Medan to sample telur pindang, a uniquely Johor tradition before going to observe how bird’s nests are harvested and packed. Finally, we’re going to a rubber and oil palm smallholding for kampung cooking and fresh fruit.

Biotech Business

Oyster mushrooms deep-fried in a
light batter - mmm...delicious!
Naturally low in calories, free of sodium, fats and cholesterol, oyster mushrooms are organically cultivated in Azmi Buang’s Mushroom Biotech farm in Kampung Sinaran Baru, Kempas. 

Two years ago, Azmi opened his mushroom farm to visitors and he successfully showed how these nutritious oyster mushrooms can be enjoyed in our modern diet — in soups, stirfried in different recipes or deepfried in a light batter.  We start our day with a typical Malaysian breakfast of nasi lemak served with a spicy egg sambal, crispy ikan bilis, crunchy peanuts, fried chicken and the specialty of the day, a generous helping of fried mushrooms.

At the Ecolite Biotech Manufacturing plant in Jalan Yong Peng in Sri Medan, we go for an informative walk through a corridor that replicates a swiftlet farmhouse complete with sound effects. This is to help us understand how Ecolite adopts good manufacturing practices in harvesting bird’s nests.  One side of the corridor has glass panel walls that allow visitors to observe the staff preparing and packing bird’s nests in a safe and hygienically clean environment. Those interested in the products can sample and buy them in the showroom.

Culture Lustre

Golden halves of traditional Telur Pindang
Those who have never seen telur pindang before are always fascinated and eager to shell the eggs and sample them. The tasty hard-boiled eggs are cooked for at least three days with various herbs and spices that turn the shell a dark brown colour, the egg white to a light brown hue and, when split in half, the yolk shines with a golden glow. 

Telur pindang is usually presented to guests as bunga telur on special occasions like Malay weddings and, because of its elaborate preparation, unique appearance and taste, guests often refuse to leave until they receive these exotic eggs!

Sheets of dough being rolled out of machine
For over 50 years, the Tang family has been making wheat and rice noodles at Yong Peng Mee Hock Chew, a traditional noodle factory located just off the main road through Yong Peng. 

While visitors are busy making their selections of freshly-made Hock Chew noodles and yee mee in the front hall, workers in the back room demonstrate the traditional way to knead flour. Seated astride a thick pole anchored to the wall, they bounce a mound of dough to flatten it evenly.  Properly kneaded, the dough is then passed through rollers before they are cut into broad or fine noodles and then cooked and packed for sale.

Fruity Favourites

In Kampung Sri Wangi near Yong Peng, we enjoy a buffet of kampung dishes made with fresh produce like sweet potatoes, tapioca, herbs, vegetables and fruit grown in the rubber and oil palm small-holding. 

A spread of traditional local delicacies to enjoy

Some of us are thrilled at the opportunity to taste traditional local delicacies like fried slices of sweet potatoes, steamed chunks of tapioca topped with spicy sambal, kuih keria (sweet potato doughnuts), cone shaped kuih koci (glutinous rice flour cakes stuffed with grated coconut in brown sugar), and pengat labu (a dessert of pumpkin in coconut milk sweetened with gula melaka).

We also get refreshing pineapple juice to drink and slices of fresh jackfruit on ice while huge piles of red and yellow rambutan are also quickly polished off.

Take your pick of delicious fresh kampong durians!
Under shady oil palms, there are pineapples, sweet potatoes, tapioca, mangosteen and rambutan for sale but the crowd seems to gravitate toward the durians.

The kampung variety is an instant hit with connoisseurs who make a beeline for the gorgeous King of Fruits and wasted no time in eating their fill.  Only when they finish do they take a look at the other types of fruits.  At the end of our satisfying gastronomical trip on this fascinating Johor food trail, we all leave with full stomachs and bags of local products.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 13 October 2009

Master chef keeps them coming back for more

Fried cod fish on a ved of Terriyaki sauce

Pei choey, yoke wat -- says Master Chef N. K. Lau in Cantonese to describe the texture of fried cod fish served on a bed of Terriyaki sauce. Literally translated, he said, "skin is crispy and flesh is smooth". Sinking my teeth into the tasty morsel of meat, I had to agree.

Eastern Dragon Restaurant, which opened some 24 years ago, remains a popular Chinese restaurant for both locals and visitors to Johor Baru.

Distinguished among the better restaurants in the city, Eastern Dragon continues to serve a menu of largely Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine with a sprinkling of Szechuan specialties. That's because Lau, 54, acquired his culinary skills from three top chefs in Hong Kong, who individually are specialists in rice and noodles, barbecued meats and fine Cantonese cuisine.

Lau, who hails from Sarikei, Sarawak, started his culinary career at the tender age of 12. When he turned 18, Lau went to work in a three-star restaurant in Singapore. There he discovered his talent and passion for cooking and was accepted to study the finer points of preparing a wide range of Cantonese cuisine from his three sifu (masters) in Hong Kong.

Barbecued duck that tastes great with plum sauce
Fish or fowl, vegetables or meat, Lau has given them his master chef's touch to keep his customers hungry for more.

And if two people could consume a whole bird in servings of crispy Peking Duck, it certainly does say something special about his barbecued meals.

This Lunar New Year, restaurant patrons have started to enjoy Lap Mei Farn or steamed claypot rice with ingredients like waxed meat, waxed duck and two varieties of Chinese sausages.

Lap Mei Farn is in season during Chinese New Year

This seasonal dish is obviously very popular because one customer has returned to enjoy it no less than ten times so far.

It's probably because of the premium soy sauce drizzled on the steaming hot rice which gives it such a unique fragrance and flavour.

Chef Lau adding his special sauce to Poon Choi
Besides Yee Sang or raw fish delicacy topped with slivers of fish or abalone, Eastern Dragon also serves Poon Choi or Big Bowl Feast where an assortment of rich ingredients are cooked separately, then arranged in one big bowl and braised with Lau's special blend of premium oyster sauces.

Legend says that the original Poon Choi was served in a traditional wooden washbasin but now this humble village dish is served with superior ingredients in restaurants. Lau created many original sauces for his dishes and as his clientele loved the variety of tastes, he decided to share these secret sauces with them.

To do this, he set up Eastern Dragon Food Industries for large scale production of hygienically-packed sauces under the brand name "Chef King".  Today, Lau's halal-certified products are available at Jusco supermarkets here and NTUC Fair Price shops in Singapore.

Eastern Dragon Restaurant is located at Jalan Serigala in Taman Century in Johor Baru.  It is open daily from noon to 3pm and 6pm to 10.30pm. For details, call 07-3319600 or surf

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 19 January 2009

Carers of the elderly are the real heroes

My granny's hand in mine [2010]
AFTER talking to a relative on the phone recently, I pondered over how many more elderly people with children who live abroad are now coping with aging problems and hospital visits. 

My relative was asking about my father's recent medical procedures as she was trying to help an uncle come to a decision on his medical condition. His children were living abroad, with the other in Singapore being even too busy to meet the doctor in Johor Baru.

She was in a dilemma because this uncle needed urgent medical attention and she was ferrying him and his wife around and meeting the doctors on behalf of their children.  After I shared more details of my dad's experience, she had a clearer idea of what to do.  I was glad I could give her the support she needed because it was a serious matter meeting doctors and making medical decisions.

It's rather sad that the parents who sent their children to study abroad some 30 years ago would not have them around when they are needed the most.  At that time, it was a trend to send children for studies abroad but after they graduated, many decided to settle there.  While these children may visit their parents frequently and the parents reciprocated with holidays in their adopted country, many aging parents are no longer able to travel much any longer.

Judy Lim Ghek Huay [Left] introduced herself
and bought me a drink!
Last month, I went on a media tour and as our group relaxed in the lounge after dinner, I was pleasantly surprised when a woman approached me and asked after the health of my parents and grandmother. 

She introduced herself as a former Convent School student and someone who could identify with my family stories in the Your Johor page.  She had 10 other siblings but she felt it was her privilege to be able to care for their mother. 

In fact, she found my stories encouraging, especially as she had cared for her mother until her death recently at the age of 94.  I was both humbled and encouraged by this encounter.

Last week I was further encouraged by an email from a cousin in Australia.
He wrote: "Sorry to hear of your mum & dad's continued ailments -- I guess that is part and parcel of growing old. They are fortunate to have an ultra considerate daughter to care for them. Thinking back, all those years ago when you were deemed the most 'extroverted' in your family -- one would never have imagined you been tasked with such responsibility. Please pass on my best regards to your mum & dad."

My granny and I [2010]
I know of others who share this commitment and who have planned their lives around their parents' medical needs at this stage of their lives. 

As parents grow older, they pose new and difficult challenges to their children and being there for them in the twilight years of their lives is the least the children can do.  There are even children who have made major changes in their own lives to be with their widowed parents with medical problems.

For example, a friend of mine who held the number two position in a state department decided to quit her job so as to spend more time with her mum, who is suffering from various ailments.  Every now and then, she may miss the prestigious position and daily work challenges but for now, there's no other place she would rather be than by her mum's side.

Likewise, another friend left his exciting life in New York to be home with his dad in Johor Baru.  In between hospital visits and weekly trips to the market, he submits his work with the help of modern communication technology.  These filial children and others who care for the elderly who are not even their parents are real heroes of our time.  I salute them for finding fulfillment in everything they do to make the lives of the elderly, especially those with long and debilitating illnesses, more comfortable.

Researchers say that people over age 80 are the fastest growing population group in the developed world and we don't have to look far to see that we've been hit by the silver tsunami! 

Each family will eventually experience aging issues and it's a comfort for full-time carers to find support among each other.  There's no denying that people will grow older but many live longer now. Therefore, it's up to us to ensure that our elderly don't grow old alone.  After all, this tsunami is just a huge wave and it's an opportunity for us to ride the crest with them.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 24 August 2010

They are old but they glow for us carers

Afternoon tea with my granny
I WAS awakened by my phone on Aug 24, with a friend's reaction to my article, "Carers of the elderly are the real heroes", published on this page that day.  However, his text message included a friendly jibe about my face in the photo. 
I replied saying that I wanted to show how well my 98-year-old granny looks as she's loved and cherished now.  This message was just the start of a series of calls, text messages and emails in response to the article.
But I was not the only one receiving feedback because one of the carers I mentioned in my article also received calls and reassuring comments.  She told me she was touched and reassured because many friends appreciated her sacrifices in her career and she hoped that my article would be an eye-opener to many.
Cousin Malcolm who lives in Sydney,
visiting granny in Johor Bahru in 2006
My cousin in Sydney emailed "Congratulations on your most poignant article. I am sure there are many who will relate to your article. To my mind, it is worthy of an in-depth sociological case study."  I don't know about his idea of a study but he's right that many can connect with it because they are also riding the crest of the silver tsunami.
Bong, whose parents live in Kuching, wrote from Perth, saying: "How apt an article. That's my struggle right now.  Thank God He's provided us with a lady who can drive, who's at my parents' house six days a week. 
I was back in Kuching on and off for the last year trying to sort these issues out.  Ultimately, I guess in their twilight years, someone needs to be there.  Right now, we're taking turns to be back every two months, with outside help being at the house six days a week."
Siok, who lives in Sydney, emailed: "Good on you for the article. There are many unsung heroes. As a carer, a lot depends on how you perceive the whole concept.  "You can either look at it as it's something you have to do, pay-back time or simply it's just a life-cycle. Accept it, and it's no more a chore. But I must admit it will be easier if the 'burden' is shared among siblings."
Sally, whom I met at a Rotary event recently, called to share her thoughts because she could relate to the sentiments expressed in my article.  She's caring for her 90-year-old father and accepts that it's a gift and not a chore.  I'm sure there are many like her and I take my hat off to these real heroes.
A lawyer friend waxed lyrical in his response. He texted: "Read your article about the elderly and reminded me about the lyrics of a song: You know old trees just grow stronger and rivers wider everyday, but old people, they just grow lonesome waiting for someone to say hello in there, Hello!"
People are often so wrapped up in their routines that they can't spare any time for the elderly, who are often left alone or with a paid helper.  It's a good reminder because it takes so little for us to spend time with them but it means a lot to them to have our attention.

My sister, Pearly [Right] visiting from the UK,
greeting granny while mum [Left] looks on
Mary's email from Britain said: "Excellent article!  Today, at exercise, one of the ladies there is going through a rough patch with her mother and I told the friend she wasn't alone.  We are all her support team.  We all go through that phase and there is always one child left to do it all.  Nowadays, we do talk about it openly, which is good therapy."

It's indeed therapeutic to talk, share tips and experiences and encourage each other on because it can be very taxing on carers who are tied down to a 24-hour, seven-day commitment.  So on a public holiday like the recent National Day, I went out with friends who are full-time carers, for a nice meal and retail therapy.

A guy, who moved from New York to Johor Baru to be with his dad recalled that he saw his dad care for his father-in-law who lived with them until his demise.  Likewise, I saw my mum's devotion to her mother and I invited granny to live with us after Ah Kong passed away. 
I often tease my dad, who I think holds the award for 'Best Son-in-law' because he welcomed his mother-in-law to live with us for almost 20 years.  Children learn by example and pick up habits and traits, both good and bad, from adults and their environment.  So our attitude towards the elderly plays a vital role in moulding the minds of our younger generation.

In his own way, Vincent D'Silva, an English lecturer who often uses my articles for his language classes, is doing his part because he used this article as a reference to give a writing assignment on the topic, "My Grandmother".

It's heartwarming to know that caring people in Johor Baru and the world over are not swamped by the silver tsunami but are encouraged as they continue celebrating our elders.  Finally, Gabriel's text succinctly summed it up with: "They may be old to some, but for me they are gold..."
This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 8 September 2010

All I really want for Christmas...

Gifts under our christmas tree

IN the weeks before Christmas, a shopping trip in Johor Baru is a mad frenzy of snarling traffic and human congestion.  The whole stretch of Jalan Tebrau is almost always chock-a-block with vehicles and it is impossible to find parking space in any of the malls. 

Then there are the long waits in line to pay for one's purchases.  With the annual influx of holiday makers and festive shoppers, the people and vehicle congestion in Johor Baru is definitely at its peak during Christmas time.

I remember Christmas as a special time when mum would thoroughly spring clean the house before dad put up our Christmas tree.  We the children always tried to help but probably gave our parents more stress trying to help with the decoration.  Then we would observe with excitement the packages under the tree that grew in number as the days passed.

Peggy [Far Left] holding my big dolly
with sisters, Ruby [Centre] and Pearly [Right]
Mum and dad always kept us guessing as to which were our presents as there would usually be no names on the gifts.  When the adults were not looking, my siblings and I would examine the wrapped presents closely for hints on who they were for. 

While we shook the boxes and even sniffed them to guess the contents, we were careful not to damage the nicely wrapped gifts and wrapping paper.  Sometimes we could tell from the obvious shapes that the gifts were books, but I will always remember a big doll that I received from our grandfather Ah Kong.

It was only recently that I learnt from mum that this doll created a bit of jealousy among the children and Ah Kong had to buy a similar one to placate the disgruntled cousin.  My dolly had a cherubic face, golden hair and wore shoes and socks with her pretty dress.  Her eyes would even shut when I laid her down to sleep.

I loved this doll for many years and kept it for so long that mildew started to grow on her face. One day my mum gently suggested that I throw her away because she was beyond repair and I reluctantly agreed to part with her.

When I was a child, shopping and traffic congestion were not my concern because I was on the receiving end of others' goodwill.  But now I've learnt that there's more joy in giving than in receiving.  Having an extended family and a wide circle of friends means I have to write a list to prepare well thought-out gifts that are appropriate for each and every one.  To avoid the last minute rush, my gift buying starts whenever I see anything suitable anywhere at any time of year.

While expensive and branded items may make an impression, you don't have to burn a hole in your pocket to find something nice.  Like birthday gifts, Christmas gifts are also personal and they should suit the individual's taste and interest.  It just takes a little bit of thought to get it right and when you do, seeing the happiness on the recipient's face will be gratifying.  If it is obvious that your friend or family member has had to feign excitement upon opening the gift, maybe it's time to pay more attention to his or her likes and dislikes before you go out shopping.

When my youngest nephew opened my gift to him this year, he excitedly shouted his thanks because it was just what he wanted. This gawky teenager, who recently sprouted more fuzz on his face, was simply delighted to receive his first shaving set from me!

I believe it's better to give something thoughtful or useful which can be appreciated instead of an impersonal and generic item.  If you are clueless about what to give, it's safe to present some classy chocolate or yummy all-butter shortcake which the recipient could share with others who would only be too glad to help to appreciate it.  A personalised gift shows just how much we know the person and I'm grateful to get meaningful gifts every year.

One unforgettable Christmas several years ago, a church elder we fondly call Uncle Charles delivered a Christmas message about giving gifts.  The tradition of gift giving, after all, started with the first Christmas. As he was speaking, he waved a small white envelope [that contained something] that he and his wife came across while on holiday in Australia, and thought how it would make an appropriate gift for someone back home.

Uncle Charles gave me this bumper sticker
Later during our traditional Christmas lunch, while the church family were exchanging greetings and gifts, I was shocked when Uncle Charles presented that envelope to me!

Firstly, I was deeply touched that he and his wife had thought about me while they were on holiday. 

When I opened the envelope, I saw a bumper sticker for my car and when I read the words on it, I was stunned that Uncle Charles had thought those witty words were about me! 

It read: "Women are born leaders -- You are following one now!"   If you know Uncle Charles, you would know that it was an absolutely radical choice for a gift.  The bumper sticker may have cost a mere A$2 (about RM6) but it's priceless to me because it came with such special thoughts.

It's not how big or how pricey the gift may be. I agree with Burton Hillis who said, and I quote: "The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree (is) the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other."

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 3 January 2011

The day my dad got 'whacked'

Cousins [L to R] Malcolm,
Philip and my brother, Kenneth
My grandmother used to say: "Tinggi tinggi, pendek pendek, slope sikit," when it came to instructing the barber how to cut boys' hair. What her instructions for a close buzz crop meant were to cut "high, short and with a slight slope".

When the three boys - my cousins and brother - were younger, they were escorted to the barber for their haircuts by Ah Kong, our grandfather.  

I can never forget how they would return looking as bare as shorn sheep and smelling of pungent perfume!

The barbershop, located along Jalan Wong Ah Fook, was just walking distance away from Ah Kong's house in Jalan Ngee Heng. 

They would exit from the back gate to walk downtown, crossing just one road where a surau still stands at the beginning of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and reach the Indian barber, just a few shops away from where the Rex and Lido movie theatres used to be.

When the boys were older, they were sent out by themselves with this instruction to the barber and the money to pay for their haircuts. After hearing it repeated for many years, how can I forget such an explicit instruction?

As school-going children, we lived in Ah Kong's house and used to walk to our schools. Granny was in charge of us and she took her role very seriously, especially in the boys' personal grooming.  

My sisters and I were spared from her regimental zeal to keep us neat and clean because I guess girls would would know how to groom ourselves well. 

After the kitchen renovation in that old house, there was a custom-built dressing table conveniently close to the bathrooms for us to use.

The buzz cut is still popular today!
I can still picture that triangular dressing table and almost smell the Brylcreem hair-cream that Ah Kong used and the distinguishing scent of Tancho, a green, waxy pomade that our uncles preferred for styling and slicking back their hair. 

As the boys were careless about their hair grooming, granny insisted they kept it short so that they did not even have to comb their hair!

I learnt from her that there was something she called "head dirt." 

She would wield a face flannel to threaten the boys that she would go in to scrub their heads if they failed her inspection when they came out of the shower.

We can now laugh about those horrifying threats but at that time, the boys said it was quite nerve-racking if granny carried out her threat.

My cousins and brother are now fathers of sons and I observed with interest that at some stage of their childhood, the sons also sported close-cropped hair. 

Maybe it's a family tradition for small boys to have buzz cuts, but granny was wise in insisting the boys had their hair short because it was so easy for lazy boys to manage. 

I guess this style is making a comeback because many adults are now wearing their hair in a short-crop, but maybe it was also because they did not have much left on top.

Barbershop along Jalan Trus
While walking along Jalan Trus, I peeked into a barbershop and had a flashback to a time long ago when I first witnessed an Indian barber at work.  

I can never forget that day when my dad brought me along for his shave and haircut. This was where I discovered that strange contraption - the barber's chair - and the various types of clippers used to trim dad's hair.

While I was supposed to sit on a bench and amuse myself by reading some comics, I could not keep my eyes off the barber when he brandished a blade and started to sharpen it zealously.  

When he cranked the chair into a reclining position and covered dad's face with shaving foam, I watched in fascination as he deftly removed the foam stroke by stroke, with the sharp blade.

Of course, I've seen my dad shaving himself at home but it was different watching the barber drag a super big blade across dad's face and down his throat. While I was fearful that the barber would accidentally nick him, dad looked calm and relaxed, lying there with his eyes shut.

But when I saw dad lying so still for so long, I grew anxious. Thankfully, his eyes opened and the barber set the chair to an upright position. 

I felt a bit silly and relieved that the worse was over. But suddenly, the barber started to whack dad across his back and neck. To my horror, before my eyes, dad was being beaten repeatedly!

My instant response was to jump up and yell, "Hey! Stop hitting my daddy!" 

But as I saw dad smiling and chatting congenially with the barber in Tamil, I realised that it was all right because dad was obviously not hurt. After the "beating" stopped, dad was dusted with some sickly-sweet smelling talc, but he declined being doused by the shop's after-shave.

After dad paid the barber, they exchanged a few more jokes in Tamil before we left the shop with dad clean-shaven and well-groomed, while I came away enriched by my initiation into an Indian barbershop ritual.

This article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 5 December 2010


Cousins together again [Left to Right]
Malcolm, Kenneth and Philip
Cousins in December 2010
[Left to Right] Malcolm, Philip and Kenneth

Dearly missing my street snacks of old

Three-wheeler hawker stall displayed
in the National Museum of Singapore
THE sound "tock-tik-tik-tock" signaled the presence of a kway teow th'ng or soup noodles hawker.  

The hawker and his assistant, usually his son, would play a little percussion instrument consisting of two short bamboo sticks to create this tune as they peddled their freshly cooked noodles.

If you lived in the heart of Johor Baru some 40 years ago, you would be familiar with these mobile hawkers and the street food they served.

I was in the Food section of the Living Galleries in the National Museum of Singapore when I had this rush of memories harking back to the days when I lived with my grandparents at Jalan Ngee Heng.

Surrounded by a display of food-related artifacts from the 1950s to the 1970s complete with sound effects, I was transported back to those days when hawkers used three-wheeler stalls with a cycle seat or walked and manually steered their stalls.

Some hawkers, like the satay and mee rebus man, used a kandar or a carrying pole across the shoulders, with a rattan basket or wooden box suspended from each end of the pole. 

It is a bittersweet realisation that these street traders are now a thing of the past and their stalls can can now only be seen inside a museum.  

My consolation is the hope that these mobile hawkers may have passed on the recipes to their descendants who could still be serving those dishes today.

Ceramic bowls typically used
by hawkers to serve noodles

In modern cities, street food is now served from stalls organised in hawker centres, food courts or from stalls in coffee shops.  

For the younger generation, these are probably the only places where they learn to enjoy tasty street food. 

They will never hear the distinguishing tunes, calls, horns or bells from each hawker as he pushes his cart on the street to make his presence known.

Ah Kong or Grandfather's house at Jalan Ngee Heng was bordered by streets on three sides and hawkers' "signals" could be heard from afar.

As soon as we recognised which hawker was coming, my aunty, who enjoys street food, would quickly ask one of us children to stop the hawker for her. So anyone who was nearest to the windows upstairs would lean out and holler to the hawker.

I remember two of my aunty's favourite noodles because the hawkers would usually stop their push cart right in front of the house and sometimes, she would send me out with a container to buy the noodles as a take-away.  

By that time, other noodle fans in the neighbourhood would also flock around to place their orders. So it was best to buy take-away and when my aunty enjoyed her noodles, she would share a fish ball or a sliver of prawn with us.

Incidentally, a family member of one of these hawkers still serves my aunty's favourite Teochew soup noodles for breakfast now from the Melodies Gardens hawker centre here.

Two blocks down the road from Ah Kong's house, at the corner of Jalan Ngee Heng and Jalan Gereja, was a coffee shop with a mobile hawker parked in front so regularly that it was almost a fixture in the area. 

I had my first taste of Teochew char kway teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles in sweet dark sauce) from this hawker. 

We dubbed him "action man" because he enjoyed performing to an avid audience as he deftly wielded his ladle, cracked the eggs and twirled the sauce bottles with such a flourish, not unlike a skilled bartender.

In fact, we were so familiar with him that we could even bring along our own eggs to stir-fry into our char kway teow for a lower price.

Mobile vendor on tricycle in Penang
If we spent an evening playing in the park at Istana Gardens, we usually ended the outing with a stroll along Lido Beach. 

This would include an ice-cream treat and indulging in snacks from mobile hawkers parked there.

One of our favourite snacks was rojak petis, a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in spicy peanut sauce. 

The rojak was served wrapped in dried simpoh ayer or opeh leaves, a waterproof and biodegradable platter, and we would have as much fun spearing the fruit and vegetable pieces with wooden skewers as eating them.

Besides the ice-cream man, another favourite mobile hawker among children was the kacang puteh or peanut man. I remember the varieties of toasted nuts displayed at the back of the bicycle and must confess that I was often greedy for many of them!
The kindly kacang puteh man would wait patiently for me to make up my mind before he picked a paper cone created from old magazine pages and filled it to the brim. 

To this day, I can never figure out how the peanuts tasted so fresh and delicious even though they were sold from open bags and not air-tight containers. 

I was thrilled to buy freshly toasted peanuts from a street vendor in Bangalore, India, as they no longer around here. They may have retired or moved into hawker centres and food courts.

While most hotels and private events often feature hawker fare to give guests a taste of street food, it's just not the same. Maybe this is the price of progress, but it's nice to reminisce about mobile hawkers of days gone by.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 25 October 2010

Shopping is fun again

My favourite 4-letter word - SALE!
AS the third and youngest daughter in our family, I used to inherit clothes that my sisters had outgrown. Since the day I was born, I probably wore nappies and baby clothes that were passed down from my sisters.

It made economic sense to pass down clothes to the next child, so in my early years, I just wore well-worn and comfortably seasoned outfits.

That's why I always looked forward to our annual year-end shopping for Christmas dresses in Singapore.  May May Department Store used to stock some of the prettiest dresses but I must confess that I simply loathed the sewn-in can-can petticoat that was all the rage those days because some of its edges would scratch and irritate me.

Photos of me wearing such dresses can attest to this as I also wore a scowl on my face because I was often annoyed by the prickly petticoat!

Sometime during my teenage years I suddenly outgrew my sisters and could no longer inherit their clothes. Aware that new clothes would be painful on my parents' pocket, I got a bit worried about my diminishing wardrobe. But my anxiety was short-lived because I started to inherit adult clothes from my aunties, my mum's younger sisters!

When I had my own income, it was such a pleasure to shop and choose my own clothes.  Shopping for clothes was no longer a once-a-year tradition but I shopped whenever I fancied.  If I spotted something nice, a voice seemed to call out, "Buy me! Buy me!". But over time, I learned to ignore the voices and bought only when I've carefully considered that it's a need and not a want.
Mega Sale poster
These days I'm spoiled for choice in Johor Baru with offers of best buys during the mega sales, mid-year sales, year-end sales, and every excuse for a sale.  Then I noticed something.

At first I thought I was alone but I'm relieved to learn from my friend Ida and others that they too have noticed there are many careless and insensitive shop assistants in town. Perhaps it's their lack of training but their tactless approach is simply rude.

Ida said she would usually browse around during sales to find the right sizes, designs and colours. On one occasion, the salesgirl stood at a distance with folded arms and watched Ida dig into the bottom of the box for the larger sizes.  As she ended her futile search and turned away disappointed, the assistant casually said with a hint of sarcasm, "Saiz awak tak ada..." (There's no size for you.)

One day when I was merely getting a feel of a garment's fabric, a saleslady who probably wanted to save me the time and energy, bluntly told me, "Ni pu ker yee."  I was truly hurt when I heard that as I knew enough Mandarin to understand what she had said: "You cannot (fit)!"

Now if there's ever a gentle way to break the bad news to me, I would have welcomed it!

But Ida probably got it worse when she stepped into a store. A sales promoter made a sweeping glance at her and simply stated, "Sini size 40 tak da." (No size 40 here.)  In another shop, she picked up an outfit and the salesgirl promptly told her, "The largest size is only L."  She was going to buy it for someone else but the insensitive assistant lost that sale because Ida was sorely hurt by her remark.

We used to derive great pleasure from shopping.  Now it's has become quite depressing especially since Ida realised she was shopping in a plus-size store.  The average Malaysian woman fits "L" and "XL" sizes and it's not fair that merchandise is only designed in small sizes or the ambiguous "free size!"

Stores must know that not only petite but curvaceous women too need nice clothes. Elegant designs are seldom made in sizes for them.  Merchants complain that revenues are low during the sales but that's because they don't make merchandise that shoppers can buy.  So it's about time designers and merchandisers studied the trends and stocked their stores with the right merchandise which real women can buy and wear.

Our question is: "How do we buy when there are no right sizes in the design of our choice?"

Shopping abroad is the ultimate feel-good experience because we can easily pick out a wide range of clothes from any store and some petite ladies admit they even have to select from the children's department!

Just as I thought that I had to go overseas to shop, I found a store with clothes for the petite (size 8 to 12) and well-endowed (14 to 20)!  Best of all, the thoughtful and well-trained shop assistants made shopping there such a joy!

"We also have that in green," said a cool dulcet voice behind me as I picked up a yellow dress and after discussing sizes, she took my selections to the fitting room to help me try them. The clothes fit so well that I made a mental note to write and ask them to open up an outlet in Johor Baru as they already have four in Kuala Lumpur and one in Australia!

There's still hope and at last, shopping is fun again!
This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 21 September 2010

A prevailing sense of lawlessness

Blatantly disregarding No Parking sign
HAVE you seen cars that don't belong to the disabled but are parked in lots assigned for the disabled?
I can almost hear you say out loud "Yes" because you know the disabled have a sticker with the wheelchair symbol on their cars. The disabled lots are always clearly marked with the International Symbol of Access or International Wheelchair Symbol so able-bodied drivers have no excuse to plead ignorance.

Disabled lots are located closer to the entrance and designed a little wider with better access for wheelchair users and those with other disability issues. This is because they need more space to move themselves from the car and onto the wheelchair.

Some hypermarkets also allocate lots for parents with baby carriages and older customers but very often, the rightful users do not have the opportunity to park there because of lazy and inconsiderate drivers, who have already occupied those lots. I recently watched an able-bodied driver coolly retrieve his car from the disabled lot and worse still, he seemed oblivious as to why I was shaking my head at him with disapproval!

A friend told me that inconsiderate parking was probably his dad's pet peeve because he would easily spot careless parking around the city.  This made me more aware of the various kinds of thoughtless habits among road users. In the past month, I regretfully discovered many of their disappointing traits.

Inconsiderate parking across two lots!
Every two weeks, I visit the city library to borrow and return books. The small parking area in front has limited lots and to maximise use, drivers should park properly.  One day I saw a car parked across two lots -- a totally selfish behaviour -- because it deprived another car from using the adjacent lot.  Parking is free at the library but I still thought this driver should be penalised for being so thoughtless.

In fact, some airlines require plussized passengers who occupy more than one seat to buy a ticket for an additional seat or buy an upgrade to a cabin with larger seats.

Airlines are so strict about this that those who don't upgrade or purchase a second seat may be denied boarding the plane. Likewise, drivers as such should be fined, blacklisted and refused entry unless they park properly at the specific lot.

Talking about penalties, the fine for parking in undesignated areas in some shopping areas seems to be no deterrent to drivers who own posh cars because I spotted a Mercedes Benz positioned right next to a No Parking sign.

The fine was RM50, probably only a drop in the ocean for the car owner. Due to this blatant disregard of a clear warning, maybe it's time this shopping centre increased the fine.

Parking in yellow box next to a fire hydrant
Last week, I was at Sultanah Aminah Hospital to visit my aunt who underwent a cataract operation. If you've ever been to this hospital, you know how the car park is always congested with many cars parked in undesignated areas. 
After going around in search of a parking lot, I finally found a spot next to a yellow box and fire hydrant. When I went to retrieve my car, I was annoyed to find a red car parked in the yellow box.

Does the driver not know that this space should be kept vacant at all times in case of a fire emergency? I shudder to think of the chaos that will ensue should a fire break out and the fire engine does not have easy access to the fire hydrant.

Similar yellow boxes are painted on exits from emergency vehicle depots, but I often see drivers queuing at these boxes.  When road junctions and intersections are painted with a criss-cross grid of diagonal yellow lines, vehicles may not enter that marked area and must wait for a gap in the traffic flow before moving.  From the way many disregard the the yellow box and are indifferent to causing a gridlock, I assume they must be either colour blind or simply stubborn.  If an ambulance or fire engine was prevented from passing through because of that gridlock, lives and property may be lost and for the victims, a trail of suffering would ensue.

If I hear an approaching siren while driving, I would check where it was coming from and respond immediately by giving way, but many drivers are simply deaf to the screaming siren. Every minute counts for the patient being rushed to the hospital and that property which is on fire, so why don't these drivers feel any urgency to give way?

It's not only the bad attitude, but it seems that all knowledge of the Highway Code is forgotten after drivers pass their driving test. Will people be more civic conscious only when they have a wheelchair-bound family member or a close one whose life is at risk or when their own property is threatened by fire?

Or maybe when there is stricter enforcement of laws.
This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 12 August 2010

Capt Bala's wisdom to the rescue

Broken lines divider at junction into Jalan Pujaan
from dual-lane Jalan Dato Jaafar
IT’S an understatement to say that I had an eventful weekend. On Saturday morning, I was at the Road Survival Skills Programme that was officiated by Johor public order and traffic police chief Superintendent T. Ravindran.

Organised by the Johor Women’s League (Jewel), this programme was facilitated by Captain Balasupramaniam Krishnan of the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. Through an engaging and enlightening presentation, I learnt a great deal from Capt Bala, a safety activist and expert in crimes against women and girls.

He used real-life case studies in Malaysia to educate and empower the participants. Capt Bala was recognised as an Outstanding Young Malaysian for Humanitarian and Voluntary Services in 2004. He received the Young Humanitarian Award in 2005 for search-and-rescue missions after earthquakes and the Asian tsunami.  His experience and knowledge went a long way to open my eyes to many simple, yet effective, techniques to stay safe on the road.

I didn’t know I had to draw on my newly acquired skills so soon because on Sunday, I was involved in an accident.  For outings with my parents, I drive my mum’s car because it’s more comfortable for the elderly than my three-door car.

Dented rear end of my mum's car
As we were approaching our house, I kept to the right side of the two-lane Jalan Dato Jaafar and indicated to turn right. There was on-coming traffic so I slowed to a stop until it was clear to turn.  Suddenly, I felt a hard bump which was followed by the sound of another loud crash.

A taxi had rear-ended my mum’s car and a van subsequently crashed into the taxi.  As soon as I realised we had been hit, my first response was to see if my parents were all right and despite being quite shaken, we were calm.  All three vehicles had come to a standstill — mine on the right lane with the indicator still on, while the taxi and van were on the left.

When I got out of my car, I saw the taxi driver throwing his hands up in distress as he approached the van.

By this time, the van driver was leaning out of his window with his hand out-stretched.  Both men shook hands, probably to establish camaraderie or in apology, but the next words I heard confirmed that it was a male-bonding ritual.

With his finger pointed at me, the van driver had no qualms in loudly barking: “Itu perempuan berhenti baru signal! (That woman stopped before signalling.)”  Such an unjust and untrue accusation could enrage any self-respecting woman but because I knew what he was doing, I remained calm as he continued his tirade of accusation and self-pity.

The taxi driver seemed confused by how the van driver was drawing him into a “men-united“ front to pin the blame on me. But he was responsible enough to hail a passing taxi to transfer his passengers in their journey before entering the fray again.  I knew what I was up against and to spare my parents the anguish, I asked them to take a short walk home. Left alone with the two men, I remained silent as I listened to their suggested options.

By then, a few taxi comrades had stopped on both sides of the road and came out to inquire with the taxi driver. The van driver had also summoned another friend who promptly joined him there.  If there was one person I wished I had on my speed-dial, it must be Capt Bala. But the next best thing I could do was to apply the knowledge he shared in the programme.

I recognised the typical characteristics of a road bully and I was not about to become a victim.  While the men were discussing options on what to do next, I quietly wrote down the vehicles’ details, took photos and called my brother. 

I remembered Capt Bala saying, “Survival is a dying art” and he ended with the encouragement, “It’s up to you now!”

Everything happened in a split-second but I was absolutely certain of the facts.  I drive on this same stretch of road several times daily and have the discipline of using indicators well ahead of time.

To avoid any confrontation, I spoke very little during the discussion and when all options were exhausted, they reached a conclusion to lodge a police report. 

From the start, I was ready to refer the matter to the police but the other drivers were adamant about thrashing out the issue.  My brother met me at the police station and as I walked in, I could sense the irony as it was only yesterday that I was at the Road Survival Skills Programme!

The issue of safety is a matter close to every woman’s heart and this experience proved again how women, in the aftermath of an accident, could easily be intimidated by dramatic outbursts laced with false accusations. Women drivers in shock can also be overwhelmed by being out-numbered by strange men, who naturally stand together against “silly women drivers”.  I agree with Capt Bala, who said “Knowledge is important” because it was knowledge that has kept me composed sure and strong in that incident.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 28 July 2010