My human GPS

Patrick Simmon navigating from the
back seat of my car
PEGGY LOH hates getting lost in huge and complicated car parks and states her case.

IT happened again! I was once more getting confounded by hotel car parks linked to mega shopping malls. Unfamiliar with the many entrances into the massive mall adjoining the hotel, I drove into the common car park and looked for signages to the hotel’s car park.

After a futile search, I gave up and just parked where I was, making a note of the lot number so I could easily find my way back to my car.

As I dragged my luggage and walked through the busy mall in search of the hotel lobby, it felt like dejà vu. I had had a similar experience several years ago in another of Kuala Lumpur’s mega malls. Shoppers stared. Were they wondering why I was using a travel bag instead of a shopping bag?

For once, I did not look at the shops but was focused on getting to the hotel.

Front Office staff at Sunway Lagoon Hotel & Resort, KL
The mall was so massive that I had to trek down a long corridor to find a directory and get my bearings. The directory was helpful but as a new wing had been added recently, I had to ask for directions.

The guy behind the ice-cream kiosk who answered my query must have helped many perplexed people; he gave accurate directions which led me directly to the hotel lobby!

Once I had checked in, my itinerary was so full that I could not sort out my car problem until after dinner on the final evening of my stay.

When I approached the hotel reception about the free parking for my car, the front office employees explained that parking in the mall was not free unless my car exited with the hotel’s car park coupon from its car park! To enjoy this privilege, I must move my car into the hotel car park and exit from there.

Friendly staff at Sunway Lagoon Hotel & Resort, KL
The young woman started to draw a map so I could find my way to a particular level, drive down a spiral driveway and come onto a narrow path between the linked buildings to exit the mall car park and enter the hotel car park.

As she scribbled, she realised that the map was not very useful to someone unfamiliar with the complicated car park. She went to look for a colleague who could be helpful and returned with Patrick Simmon, who listened patiently as I explained my predicament.

I told him that this was not my first experience with complicated car parks, and I feared he must have thought me a dud. But I’m a stranger to these huge city malls.  In my previous experience, that hotel’s concierge was so sympathetic that he not only walked me to my car but also hopped in and guided me out of the mall and into the hotel car park. Simmon took another look at the map and reached a decision. He asked, “Are you ready to go?” and I promptly replied, “Yes!”

With parking lot info in hand, we easily found my car. Then I had another dejà vu experience when Simmon navigated me through that complicated maze from the mall car park into the hotel car park. Along the way, we observed that there were no signages that pointed to the hotel car park. But I had managed it, only because of helpful hotel employees such as Simmon, my human GPS!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 21 April 2011

Who's that girl?

Adorable baby - that's me!
As I walk out of the KLIA terminal, I keep my eyes focused on the placards being held up to spot my name because the hotel was sending a limousine for me.  

When I saw my name, I approached the bearer and said with a smile, “This looks like my name.” 

Later as we were cruising our way to the hotel, the driver confessed that I was not who he was expecting to see and struggled to explain how my looks just did not match my name.

He was quite apologetic but I assured him that it’s all right as this often happens to me.  

He seemed reassured but reiterated that he never thought it was me until I smiled and spoke to him.  

And once again, I was asked that curious question about my race.

In the course of my work, I interact with lots of people and often meet and interview many interesting personalities.  

But after chatting for a while, they are usually curious about me and I’m often asked that inevitable question about my race.  

It was sometimes a blunt: “You orang apa?” meaning, “What is your race?”  I usually choose to evade their query with a joke saying, “Hey, I’m the one asking the questions here!”

Peggy, age 3, at Istana Garden
Johor Baru
Some people whom I’ve never met tell me later that when we fixed an appointment, they come expecting to meet someone who looked Oriental.  

When I turn up and introduce myself, they are often baffled and I can understand their curiosity.  

As we get comfortable chatting, they get bold enough to ask me that question by the end of our conversation.

It’s interesting how people are being stereotyped into race groups by their looks and because I do not fall into any definite group, it causes a bit of confusion.  

It is quite embarrassing but my race often becomes a topic of discussion. Looking back now, I can recall almost exactly when I found out that I don’t look typically Chinese. 

In our school-going years, my siblings and I lived with our grandparents and grandmother would sometimes take either me, my brother or a cousin along with her to the market.

I always enjoyed this market excursion and I remember how we would walk from Jalan Ngee Heng to the central market that used to stand where Johor Baru City Square is today. 

Daddy in 1950
While the sights, sounds and smells of that wet market were quite unforgettable, I also cannot forget that grandma had a regular vegetable stall where she would buy most of her fresh vegetables.  

I mostly remember that awful stall-holder and how he always had a kick out of teasing me. 

Even as a kid, I knew that he was politically incorrect to use such words because his nickname for me was keling mui, or Indian girl.  

Some of my dearest friends are Indian but I just disliked being called any nickname, least of all by him. 

But his constant teasing planted a seed in my mind and I started to wonder why I was called, Indian girl.  

I guessed it was probably because of my natural tan because I love the outdoors and tan so easily to become quite brown. But as I observed other girls, I realized that not just me, but my siblings and I, all do not have Chinese features.  

So when I told dad about my experience with the limo driver, he laughed.  

Dad thinks it was so funny but I reminded him that it was because of him that we ended up looking this way. Maybe that was not quite fair on him because both mum and dad are responsible for how my siblings and I turned out and we just don’t fall into any clear race category.

Mummy in 1952
It is interesting that because we are so used to how we look, we don’t realize that others actually see us differently.  

My brother is the classic example because in the month of Ramadan, some restaurants are even reluctant to serve him any lunch because of how he looks.  

In fact, he was quizzed by religious authorities while buying food during Ramadan and he had to show them his Identity Card as proof. 

By now I’m quite used to that inevitable question whenever I meet new people.  

By now I’ve also found more creative ways to answer or evade such curious queries and get my share of fun in pulling their legs. 

But when these curious people meet with my parents, they will understand. One thing is certain – for as long as I meet new people, the queries will keep coming because it’s just so Malaysian to probe and ask such personal questions.

Charming chamber pots

Spittoon seen at Lukut Museum,
Negeri Sembilan

Romance of the wedding chamber pot

AT the Lukut Museum in Negri Sembilan, I saw a brass spittoon among the exhibits that was quite unlike the spittoons I remember seeing under marble tables in old coffee shops in downtown Johor Baru.

Way back when people enjoyed chewing tobacco and public spitting was an accepted part of the lifestyle, coffee shops provided spittoons that were stout aluminum receptacles with wide mouths and broad bases, probably for easier aim and less risk of tipping over. Since the 1980s, spittoons have gradually disappeared.

I remember cringing at the sight of the spittoons in old coffee shops but could not resist taking a curious peek inside. It usually contained some water and floating cigarette butts.

I used to recoil at the thought of how many people had spat into it. If there was a spittoon under the table, I would squirm in my seat and try to keep my feet far away to avoid accidentally kicking it.

I am, however, very familiar with its cousin, the chamber pot, which the Cantonese call tham thong which literally translates as phlegm pot. 

My earliest memories of mobile toilets and portable potties must be that of the traditional chamber pot that I used at home and in our Ah Kong or grandfather's house.

Enamel coated chamber pot seen in the
Pinang Peranakan House in Penang
When my siblings and I lived in Ah Kong's house, we had a nightly ritual of collecting the chamber pot from the bathroom downstairs and taking it upstairs to use as a urinal in our room.  

Like most buildings in those days, Ah Kong's house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng was not designed with attached bathrooms or toilets.

At night, it was a challenge for us children to find our way through that double-storey bungalow to the toilet downstairs.  

So, if we forgot to bring the chamber pot upstairs, we had to grope our way in the semi-darkness and through several locked double doors before we reached the urgently needed toilet downstairs.

Using the chamber pot came quite naturally because like most children, I was toilet-trained on it. 

I remember how my mah jie used to whistle to coax my little bladder to relax and release any urine. (A mah jie is a member of the sisterhood of Chinese domestic servants or amah, usually identified by a dress code of white sam-foo blouse teamed with black trousers.)

Today, potties are ergonomically designed in plastic and come in bright colours, usually with some cartoon or picture applique on it. 

These modern chamber pots come in several sizes to fit different ages and are so lightweight that they can be discreetly packed in a bag or put in the car for travel.

Items among the traditional Chinese
bride's wedding trousseau
I remember grandma had plain aluminum chamber pots, one for each room, which she used to scrub out regularly and dry in the sun. 

By contrast, the chamber pots in our home were plain on the inside and enamel coated outside with embossed designs of pretty painted flowers.

I asked my mum about our traditional potties and was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were still in our storeroom.  

It may just be for sentimental reasons but I was thrilled that we still have these museum pieces at home.

They are now a rarity and that's why I was fascinated to see some displayed in the Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant at the Singapore Night Safari Park. 

There was a charming chamber pot on a ledge above the modern toilet in every cubicle in the ladies room.

At the Peranakan Museum in Penang, I learnt that while the portable chamber pot served as a very handy privy, it was an essential item for a Chinese bride at the start of her married life for yet another reason.

The Chinese word for what goes into it is translated as "yellow gold" so if the bride brought a chamber pot to the groom's house, they will be blessed with wealth. 

That was why the all-important chamber pot was among several items like basin, jars, trays and a wooden washboard in her wedding trousseau.

The chamber pot is part of the toilet deco
at Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant, Singapore
In bygone days, the chamber pot played a significant role in family life. 

For instance, a new daughter-in-law was assigned the daily chore of emptying her mother-in-law's chamber pot.

There was something repulsive about stagnant urine and how the daughter-in-law carried out her daily duty, whether joyfully or miserably, would determine her future relationship with her mother-in-law.

Today the chamber pot may still be in use for ceremonial reasons. 

I remember when the wedding entourage returned to Uncle Arthur's house, young cousin Derek was asked to pee into their new chamber pot so that the newly-weds would be blessed with a son. 

All eyes were on poor Derek as he was coaxed with all sorts of whistles to persuade him to "perform", and after a tense wait, he finally did.

Incidentally, Uncle Arthur and his wife were blessed with their first-born, a son, cousin Kevin.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 14 April 2011

Johor's exotic eggs

Golden halves of Telur Pindang
In bygone days when there were no convenient R & R rest-stops for refreshments along the way, travellers usually carried a parcel of packed food on long journeys. 

One of the favourite fast-foods of travellers in Johor must Telur Pindang, a handy hardboiled egg cooked for hours in a variety of herbs and spices with a month long shelf life.  As travelling with packed food is quite uncommon today, these exotic eggs are now usually presented to guests as Bunga Telur at special occasions like Malay weddings.

Guests at Malay weddings will usually receive Bunga Telur as a token of appreciation for gracing their special day but it’s a Johor tradition to use Telur Pindang instead of ordinary hardboiled eggs.  Using Telur Pindang as Bunga Telur is considered a little more prestigious because a great deal of work, time and effort go into the preparation of these eggs.  Its elaborate preparation, unique appearance and taste make these eggs extra special and very often, guests refuse to leave until they receive these exotic eggs!

Siti Sahruliza Bte Karim
Siti Sahruliza Bte Karim, 23, explained how her mother, Mismah Bte Abu, 48, has a family recipe for Telur Pindang and has mastered the art of cooking 100’s of eggs for each special event.  Mismah is the daughter of Abu Dakam, a traditional herbalist in Batu Pahat who started a family business, producing and selling traditional massage oil and dried medicinal roots and herbs.  Using the brand name, Warisan Dakam, the business now operates as Syarikat Perubatan Tradisional WD Sdn Bhd.

The preparation of Telur Pindang begins with the selection of the finest quality farm-fresh eggs.  These eggs are then washed and readied for boiling in a brew of herbs and spices over a period of at least 3 days.  

This special concoction is made from herbal leaves with local names like, Daun Senduduk, Daun Manggis (mangosteen leaf), Daun Jambu Batu (guava leaf), Daun Bebuas, Daun Serai Wangi (lemongrass), Daun Salam, Daun Limau Purut (kaffir lime leaf), Daun Lengkuas (wild ginger leaf), Daun Pandan and onion and garlic skins.  

The recipe also uses a blend of spices that include coriander, ginger, wild ginger, onions, cinnamon, caraway seeds, white cummin, aniseed, ground chillies, curry powder, salt and soy sauce.

Some of the ingredients in recipe
to make Telur Pindang
There’s even a method to prepare the pot for cooking these eggs.  Firstly a layer of herbal leaves will line the base of the huge cooking pot before a layer of raw eggs are gently arranged and a layer of blended spices evenly distributed over it.  Each layer of eggs will alternate with a layer of herbal leaves, garlic and onion skins and a layer of spices.  The spices also act as natural preservatives to give the eggs long shelf lives.

Then the pot will be filled with enough water to cover all the eggs and put to boil for up to 2 and a half or 3 days to get the eggs evenly cooked and coloured.  It’s more economical to use wood fire for such long cooking hours, so the fire must be constantly fed and the right water level carefully maintained.  At the end of 3 days, the brew is left to cool before the eggs are removed from the pot of mushy leaves.  

While Siti Sahruliza and her family are actively involved with the promotion and sale of Warisan Dakam traditional herbal products at Agro Tours, they also seize the opportunity to showcase Telur Pindang as a uniquely Johor tradition. 

They put up an interesting display of the ingredients for the recipe, a cooking pot filled with cooked eggs in the brown brew of herbs and spices, and with plenty of eggs for sampling while Siti Sahruliza answers curious questions and explain the tradition of Telur Pindang to tourists.  From the enthusiastic queries and how tourists eagerly crack shells to eat the eggs, it was clear that everyone enjoyed the agreeable taste and texture of Telur Pindang. 

Herbal brew of Telur Pindang in the pot
Natural colours from boiling guava and senduduk leaves will stain the eggs and turn shells into a dark brown colour while rich flavours from the variety of herbs and spices are infused into the Telur Pindang.  Under the shell, egg whites are tinged light brown and when split in half, the yolk shines with a golden glow. 

The versatile Telur Pindang can be eaten on its own as a snack or appetizer, or as a condiment with rice and noodles.  In fact, there’s medicinal value in eating Telur Pindang because senduduk leaves are traditionally used as a cure for diarrhea and to heal wounds.  

This Johor culinary tradition lives on as these exotic eggs continue to make their appearance not only at Malay weddings and special celebrations but are also featured in fascinating Johor Agro Tours.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz in July 2009

Christmas comes early

Facade of HIJ Convent Johor Baru
I was arranging to meet A. Oliveiro to return some old photos but her text reply read: “In school today, 11.30am Christmas play.”  It’s October 22, way too early for Christmas.  So, I guessed she was there for rehearsals.

But when I saw the hall jam-packed with girls wearing T-shirts with the words “Christmas Concert 2008”, I realised that the Johor Baru Convent School’s annual Christmas pageant was on.

I paused at the door and watched the girls sing together with a live band playing piano, drums and electric guitars. The lyrics and graphics were projected onto a screen by a LCD projector.  As I was musing on how things had changed with advancements in technology, I was ushered to a place close to the front and was suddenly surrounded by singing school girls.  I saw Oliveiro a row ahead but as there was no opportunity to speak to her, I sat back to enjoy the show.

Elegant ballet dancers performed
There were performances by secondary school students, primary school girls and girls from a school for special children. I could not help but smile as all the male roles were performed by girls dressed up as boys.

There was a violin recital, a mime which made clever use of signs and a medley of Christmas carols by the award-winning JB Convent Choir. 

The energetic youngsters were giving performances of hip-hop dance and jazz ballet which were unheard of when I was a student at the school.  In our time, there were only cultural dances. The few modern dances we had were “illicit” items slotted in to shock our conservative teachers.

As the classical ballet dancers wowed the audience with their grace and elegance, my mind was flooded with memories of the 1971 operetta The Magic Belt, a major production staged in this very same hall.

A ballerina had danced solo in the opening scene of this performance. One of the shows was even graced by members of the Johor royal family who were invited as guests of honour.  I can still remember the props and the characters.  There was a king, a beautiful princess, fairies and gnomes. I played one of the naughty gnomes.

Nativity scene in JB Convent's annual Christmas pageant
JB Convent’s Christmas pageant is an annual year-end event and during my time, a charity was identified to be presented with gift hampers.  A nativity play would be staged and each class would troop behind the Three Wise Men to present their decorated hamper.

The hampers were then given to the charity.  I remember how I used to bring a bar of Lux soap or a tin of Milkmaid condensed milk to help make up that hamper from our class.  Each class would select representatives to dress in a particular theme and walk up to the stage with the hamper.  They would be acting or dancing, accompanied by singing and music.  It looks like a short walk now but when I was younger, it seemed a lot longer.

"Togetherness" was the theme presented by
Form 5 Science in 1974
The format of the Christmas pageant has changed and the roles are played by a different generation of students.  But it’s pretty similar to what I remember in the old days.  The event always ended with a nativity play with shepherds and sheep.

“Did it bring back some memories?” I read Oliveiro’s lips above the din of deafening squeals and singing from hundreds of screaming girls after the grand finale.  It certainly did. It looks like the school’s Christmas pageant, a proud heritage of the 83-year old Johor Baru Convent, is absolutely here to stay.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 30 October 2008

Tapu Hakka specialties

Stuffed beancurd in soya bean soup
Armed with their grandfather’s recipes, the Ho cousins are cooking up a storm at the Ke Ren Lai cafe, writes PEGGY LOH

THE first time I heard the phrase, Ke Ren Lai, it was in a popular Mandarin children’s song about a guest visiting a child’s father but he was not in.

Ke ren is the Mandarin word for hakka which means “guest”. Hakka people are well known for their cuisine. I like Hakka dishes such as hum cha (or lui cha fun — thunder tea rice), yong tau fu (stuffed beancurd) and kau yok (sliced pork with preserved vegetables).

Winnie, my Hakka friend, introduced me to Ke Ren Lai, a cafe serving Hakka food and I have made repeat visits to savour my favourites. As I got better acquainted with the cafe, I realised that Ke Ren Lai was a clever play on words and a very catchy name for a cafe!

The Hakka is one of the main dialect groups of Chinese in the country and Hakka communities can be found in the western parts of the peninsula and in north Borneo.  In Sabah, Hakka is the main Chinese dialect spoken and in Johor, the Chinese in the Kulaijaya and Kluang districts are predominantly Hakka.

Cousins in food

Cousins Ho Yih Keong and Bryan Ho grew up enjoying Hakka food at home, so when they ventured into the food business, they naturally decided to serve Hakka cuisine.  The Ho cousins offer Hakka food from China’s Tapu district in the Guangdong province, where their grandfather originated from.

Yih Keong, who has a wealth of kitchen experience, is involved with the operations while Bryan applies his marketing skills to the business. The first outlet opened in Taman Pelangi in 2002 and since then, two more branches of Ke Ren Lai opened in Johor Baru City Square and Sutera Mall, serving Hakka specialties made from recipes that had been handed down through the generations.

Noodles and abacus beads

“This is the correct way to eat the noodles,” says Bryan as he shows me how to eat the Tapu Hakka minced meat noodles. Most people eat the noodles and meat separately but that’s not the right way to appreciate the full flavour of this dish.

Hakka yam abacus beads
Bryan explains that the minced meat is stir fried until dry to let it absorb all the sauces. To enjoy the right balance of taste, he says, this flavourful minced meat should be eaten together with the noodles.

Abacus Beads is a must-try Hakka specialty. Using my chopsticks, I pick up a piece of dough that’s made with a blend of tapioca and yam. This dish is so named because the dough is cut into the shape of abacus beads. This is stir fried with minced meat, dried shrimp, sliced mushroom and seasoned with light soya sauce and a dash of rice wine or vinegar.

Hakka Thunder Tea rice set or Hum Cha
I can feel the spongy bounce of the dough with my chopsticks and it feels rather chewy to the bite. But it’s surprisingly good. After a while, I lose count of how many abacus beads I’ve popped into my mouth!

Thunder tea rice, a dish synonymous with the Hakka, is an acquired taste because not many people can appreciate eating rice with a green tea brew.

Traditionally, ingredients for the green tea (such as toasted peanut and sesame seed, mint, basil, sweet potato leaf and tea leaf) are ground together in an earthen bowl with a stick pestle made from the guava tree.

A bowl of rice, fragranced with garlic and shallots and topped with a variety of chopped green vegetables, dried tofu and pickled radish, is served with a bowl of this strong green tea. I prefer to eat the rice and vegetables and drink the soup separately but the Hakka way is to drown the rice with the tea and slurp it all up!

Soup and specialties

Pig stomach and chicken pepper soup
“It’s not the same if we substitute pork with another meat,” Bryan explains when I observe that the menu has a lot of pork dishes. It’s interesting that many Hakka dishes use pork belly with pickled vegetables or fermented beancurd.

Some typical Hakka specialties include stewed pork trotters, cha yok (braised pork belly with black fungus) and mui choi kau yok (sliced pork with yam and preserved vegetables).

Another favourite is deep-fried slices of pork belly marinated in nam yee (fermented red beancurd).

Ke Ren Lai has a range of noodle dishes served with a typical Hakka specialty, yong tau fu or stuffed beancurd in clear soup.

Tofu triangles and a variety of vegetables such as eggplant, bittergourd and mushrooms are stuffed with a blend of minced pork and fish, dried prawn and salted fish. Traditionally, the stuffed tofu and vegetables are served in soup but they can also be served fried or braised.

Ice tofu with minced century egg
“This is very good!” says Yih Keong as he passes me a bowl of piping hot pepper soup cooked with pork stomach and small pieces of chicken.

“We use free-range chicken,” he adds. In the cool air-conditioned cafe, the peppery soup tastes warm and lovely as it trickles down my throat. I privately compared it to the home-cooked brew I’m familiar with and must agree that it’s just as good.

Of the many dishes that use tofu in its various forms, I best like the chilled tofu with century egg sauce. The brick of white tofu is topped with a contrasting black sauce of minced jelly-like century egg.  It looks both interesting and intriguing.

When I spoon a wobbly portion into my mouth, my eyes snap open wide at the explosion of flavours from the iced tofu and the exotic taste of century eggs. Yum!

Fast facts

Check out the menu for more Hakka specialties — drunken chicken and soup such as black beans with pork and lotus root with pork. There’s also a range of traditional desserts like barley beancurd sheet soup with ginkgo nuts, guilin gao (Chinese herbal pudding) and brewed herbal tea. The menu at each outlet varies slightly and convenient set lunches are available in the City Square outlet.

Ke Ren Lai
6 Jalan Pingai, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Tel: 07-331 2430.
It has branches at:
Johor Baru City Square , Tel: 07-278 2788
The Sutera Mall, Tel: 07-5588 388.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 31 March 2011

Splash of local colour

Rashid Abdul Samad in front of his showroom
Adding a splash of local colour

IF you were in Mersing you would probably be just passing through.  Other than eating your fill of fresh seafood and buying some dried seafood products to take home, you may think there's nothing else to do here.  Known as the gateway to the Endau-Rompin National Park and the idyllic islands in the Mersing Marine Park, this fishing town, however, is fast becoming a popular tourist destination on Johor's east coast.

This is where Rashid Abdul Samad has a little showroom filled from wall-to-ceiling with hand-drawn and painted batik in his rustic kampung house.  Rashid, a designer and entrepreneur trained in the Kelantan batik technique, has more than 15 years' experience in the art of batik painting.

Rashid guiding guests to add colour to their batik pieces
Rashid Batik is a collection of exquisite works of art painted on cloth in various sizes, ranging from handkerchiefs to scrolls and banners.  The bold designs by Rashid Batik is a mix of solid colours with clever shading that gives a realistic touch to subjects like orchids, flowers, butterflies, seascapes, underwater scenes and abstract images.

Ready-made items like pareos, blouses and kaftans made of fabrics like silk, crepe and cotton, are also wearable.  Rashid also accepts orders to create custom-made or personalised designs for individuals and corporations.

A lady who loved watermelon had Rashid create a special design of slices of cut watermelon with an interesting touch of tiny ants crawling on each slice to depict how sweet the watermelon tastes.  So if you have a subject in mind, just let Rashid put it on fabric and you can have it tailored into into a unique outfit.

Rashid skillfully drawing with a canting
Hand-drawn batik offers endless possibilities for artistic freedom.  With a practised hand, Rashid uses a canting to draw outlines with smooth strokes on fabric stretched on a wooden frame.

A canting is an instrument with a small brass bowl at the end of a handle and a tiny spout on the bowl that allows melted wax to run onto the fabric.  Next to his showroom, a wide shelter in his garden houses a workshop where rows and rows of wooden stands with frames of fabric are brought to vibrant life with his designs and blends of colours.

This is also where you can try your hand at painting your own piece of batik. All you need is time and a little confidence in your creative expression.  Rashid provides a choice of picture outlines on fabric in various sizes for your selection.

After you have made your pick, he will let you choose your colours and advise you on the colour combination.  Then, armed with paint and brush, you will bring the designs to life by gently applying the colours onto the fabric.  Follow Rashid's demonstration and you cannot go wrong.

Add your signature after colouring your piece of batik
Painting can be therapeutic so take your time to enjoy the whole experience. You may just discover the artist inside you.  For groups of visitors, it can be exciting to organise a batik painting contest to challenge each other to create the most vibrant piece of batik.

So the next time you are in the neighbourhood, don't just pass through Mersing. Have a batik-painting experience with Rashid Batik and arrange to collect your masterpiece when it has dried the next day.

If you cannot spare the time, leave your address for Rashid to post it to you. Remember to sign your name with a felt-tip pen at the bottom of your masterpiece before you frame it up for all to admire.

Rashid Batik, located at 132, Jalan Haji Bandi, Kg Pengkalan Batu, 86800 Mersing, welcomes visitors between 9am to 5.30pm daily. Call 07-799 6205 or 019-720 6295 to make an appointment.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 27 April 2009

Real VIPs

Our friendly postman doing his rounds in the
So who are the real VIPs?

There are various types of Very Important People or VIP’s and for many, our own family members may be our VIP’s who require special care and attention. 

However, VIP’s usually refer to those well-dressed people at events who wear corsages, sit at the main table or walk on that red carpet.  They are also accorded the most gracious treatment and served the best food.  But I often wonder who the real Very Important People are?  

For me, VIP’s are probably the unsung heroes whom we often take for granted because they are always there to make our daily lives more comfortable.  But when there was any disruption to our normal routine, we suddenly realize how important they are.  Take for instance, our dustmen.  Everyday when refuse from our home is put into the dustbin outside, we expect the team of garbage collectors to remove it regularly. 

Our indispensible dustmen
If the dustmen failed to turn up for a week or more, scavenger cats and dogs may have a free-for-all street party while we fume over the decaying stench and debris strewn in front of our home.  The absence of the dustmen makes us feel how important it is to have regular rubbish removal.  

So if it’s possible to make the dustmen’s job more pleasant, we dispose of our waste matter properly with glass, aluminum, paper, plastic and perishable refuse, each packed separately.  I believe a small effort on our part would go a long way to make their job easier and even let them earn a little more by selling the recyclable items.

Another very important person is our newspaper deliveryman whom we count on to send our daily news to our doorstep.  If you are like my dad who must hold a hardcopy of the newspaper to read each morning, then you know how awkward it feels when there was no delivery.  When the deliveryman was on long festive breaks, it means I must go out early to buy a copy of newspaper so that dad does not have any disruption to his normal routine.

One morning after dad went out as usual to collect the newspaper from the porch, he returned disappointed and empty-handed because there was no newspaper.  Even though the deliveryman did not give any notification of holiday leave, I privately prepared myself to go out to buy dad a copy but I still urged him to check if it accidentally slipped under the car.  He claimed to have looked in all the likely places but in vain, so before I went out to buy him the newspaper, I looked around again and was relieved to see the newspaper that had landed on top of our bougainvillea bushes. 

People in this electronic age may opt to use the internet or hand-phone to read mail, magazines and newspapers but to many in the older generation, nothing is like holding a hardcopy to read.  In our house, reading the daily newspaper as well as receiving cards and letters by snail mail is still very precious.  In fact, dad even recognizes the distinct sound of the postman’s motorcycle and only by listening, he knows if the postman paused to drop any mail into our letterbox.

For a long time, the postman was one of my favourite people because he delivered long-awaited replies to letters I wrote to friends after we separated from school.  I always felt the postman was doing a real service because he’s vital in keeping us connected.  When the song – Please Mr Postman was made popular by the Carpenters in the 70’s, I was not surprised because I felt that he deserves to have a song written about him.

Ah Kee, my trusted mechanic, checking my
punctured tyre
As I was driving out last Saturday afternoon, I felt something amiss about my car but I drove on cautiously.  When I stopped at the traffic lights, a man in the car next to mine got my attention with his wild gesticulating. 

He appeared to be genuinely concerned and he confirmed my suspicion that there was something wrong with my rear tyre so I gestured my thanks and drove slowly to my mechanic.

Now my trusted mechanic, Ah Kee, has been looking after my car for the longest time.  When he saw how my car was limping into his garage, he dropped what he was doing to attend to my car. 

While I waited, Ah Kee discovered two tiny nails in my punctured left rear tyre and after a quick repair, made my car ready for the road again.

He also had a quick look at my car engine and topped up water and oil, reminding me to send the car in for a thorough investigation, when I can spare the time.  I do a fair amount of travelling so I truly appreciate his preventive methods rather than wait for any major breakdown.  Ah Kee had come to my rescue more than once, when my old car decided not to cooperate and since those harrowing experiences, my mechanic has risen in the ranks of my VIP list.

When you give it some thought, I’m sure there are many more unsung heroes in our lives who deserve our respect and appreciation.  So remember to thank the mechanic, maid or postman for their service and when you see the dustmen pass in their smelly truck, do give them a wave.  I always do and it certainly makes their day.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 29 March 2011