School starts again!

Iconic statue in the JB Convent and its
famous front steps that are a favourite spot for photos!
Soon after Christmas Day, parents and students can feel a subtle shift in the mood because it will be a matter of days before the school term starts again.  After eight full weeks of holidays, I can recall how difficult it was to adjust myself to the thought of going back to school.  The days of carefree fun and waking up at odd hours will soon be over when I must return to a rigid routine of waking up to the ring of the alarm clock and dealing with loads of homework from school.

As my sisters and I outgrew our school uniforms and canvas shoes each year, my mum will buy us new sets of uniforms and shoes while our old uniforms were recycled among us as the second set of uniforms in our wardrobe.  In those days, the uniform of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Johor Baru comprised a white short-sleeved, front-buttoned blouse matched with a navy blue tunic designed with three box pleats on its front and rear, and was worn with a matching blue belt.  With a family of three daughters, my eldest sister’s tunic will be handed down to our middle sister while I will inherit hers.  

Peggy [Right] with my sisters, Ruby [Left]
and Pearly [Centre] ready for school 
Like most school-going kids back then, our shoes were bought from Bata.  I can recall wearing slip-on canvas shoes throughout my Primary School because I did not know how to tie shoelaces.  At that time, Velcro was unheard of and it was much later in upper Secondary School that I progressed to wearing the laced-up Bata Badminton Master which was then considered cool shoes!

I remember there were book lists for parents to buy our text books prior to the school year and there was usually a trip to the school bookshop to get the required books.  Sometimes when the school bookshop ran short of supply we had to go again or visit the book shops along Jalan Ibrahim like Johor Central Store or the Abdul Wahab Store that also stocked text books.  Then my dad would help us wrap the books in brown paper and write our names on the covers in his curly cursive handwriting.

Besides inheriting old school uniforms from my sisters, I also remember inheriting their used text books.  I didn’t mind it because they were in the classes above me and it was economical for me to use their old books.  But I must admit that I was always thrilled if there was a change in the school syllabus and I finally got one or two new books to enjoy the pleasure of smelling the pungent ink as I turned the clean, crisp pages!

1964 class photo of Standard Two Yellow taken
at the famous front steps of the JB Convent
Other than from a change in the syllabus, the only new books I can expect each year are the exercise books.  In Primary School, students should have at least one exercise book for each subject and I remember we had lined exercise books that had the school name and crest printed on its standard brown covers.  I cannot recall if the back cover was blank or had any prints but these days, most exercise books come with back covers printed with the Rukunegara or National Principles, our State anthem and helpful 2 to 12 times-tables!

With a year of going to kindergarten in St Joseph School, I was prepared to go into Standard One of the JB Convent’s Primary School.  I cannot forget the pride in finally wearing the school uniform and joining my older sisters to go to school as well as the excitement in meeting several familiar faces of kindergarten classmates in Standard One Green.  Back then, there were no organised Bas Sekolah services yet so my parents arranged from a Mr Tan who had a provision shop in Larkin Gardens and also provided school transport, to ferry us in his car.

Façade of the JB Convent with the iconic statue now
preserved within a glass case
Throughout my school years, the weekend in Johor was Friday and Saturday but mission schools like the JB Convent and St Joseph School maintained their weekend on Saturday and Sunday. 
Since 1994 the weekend in Johor was officially changed and all schools enjoyed Saturday and Sunday weekends but on Nov 22, the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, declared that Johor’s weekend will revert to Fridays and Saturdays. 
So from 1 Jan 2014, the JB Convent will mark their first day of school and a milestone in its history with its weekend now changed for the very first time, to Friday and Saturday.

Every year the start of the new school term will be chaotic as parents usually take their first-year kids to school and inadvertently cause massive traffic jams near school zones.  If both or either of the parents worked in the private sector where their weekend is maintained on Saturday and Sunday, their family time is limited to only Saturday, their common day off.  With the busyness of modern families today, I just hope that this weekend change will impact the children positively and help them make fond memories of a new chapter in their school life.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 31 December 2013

Delightful December

Not your typical tree ornament but a
family heirloom that's always on our tree!
All too soon the year 2013 will be over.  Looking back, the past eventful 12 months had many ups and downs, filled with much excitement as well as a great deal of emotion. 

Last September, after Ruby, our eldest sister, my brother and I went to New Zealand and Australia, we shared our photos with Pearly, our middle sister in the UK, saying that she must join us for our next trip to Perth.  Little did we know that through this time, Pearly was secretly planning with my nephews and cousins in Australia for an epic trip to Perth – Sydney – Singapore before coming to Johor Baru and leaving from Kuala Lumpur!

Just as I was settling back into normal routine after our NZ-Aussie trip, my boss calls me and asks, “Are you ready to travel again?”  Very soon, I was on a travel assignment to Osaka – Kobe – Kyoto for a distinctlyJapanese experience.  Saturated with all things Japanese, I got down to writing about my experiences while juggling assignments at local events with exciting destinations in Singapore.  Then we received an email from Pearly saying that she and her daughter, Melanie, will be travelling to Perth in early December and asked if we will join them there?

The range of sun protection used among us in Perth!
When Ruby asked her to go to Perth, she meant some time next year but Pearly surprised us with a decision to travel this December!  So it didn’t take us long to decide to go – again – because this will be a great opportunity for a sisters reunion in Perth.  It’s the height of summer Down Under so it was easy to pack lightly for this trip.  I remembered to bring along my tube of SPF 30 Sun Protection because I know how scorching the sun can be in the cloudless skies of Perth.  

My nephew Andrew and his wife welcomed us into their home again in Perth as we anticipated the arrival of Pearly and Mel after their long flight from Heathrow via Dubai to Perth.  It will be their first trip Down Under and there will be much for them to experience – especially the extreme opposite to the freezing weather they were leaving behind in the UK. Not only was it a special time for us sisters to meet again in Perth, it was also significant for the cousins to make some new memories together.  

Three sisters, [Left to Right] Pearly, Ruby and Peggy
Andrew and his wife have a trip planned to Zambia as he will be best man for a friend’s wedding there so they had no days off to spare.  I learnt they also wanted to have a short holiday in Dubai so they were saving their days for their trip.  So when they went off to work, they left Ruby and I to entertain the UK visitors in Perth.  While I drove my nephew’s car, Ruby was the able navigator who helped us find our way around using Google Maps on our trusted devices.  We became the local guides and had fun showing them the sights from the famous Kings’s Park to historical Freemantle and meeting native animals in Caversham Wildlife Park.  

Cousins [Left] and sisters [Right] at Aussie beach barbecue
evening at Trigg Island Beach, Perth
At mid-week, while Pearly and Mel went on the next leg of their trip south to Albany with Sheila, a former classmate who now lives in Perth, Ruby and I returned home as we had a wedding reception to attend in Kuala Lumpur that weekend.  With the use of modern technology, we remained in touch with Pearly and Mel as they travelled to Sydney to join our cousins there for a cousinly Christmas celebration.  We are kept posted on their fun as we look forward to their arrival for a family reunion in JB and to see our grandmother in the final sector of their epic trip.

Meanwhile, Ruby and I were in Kuala Lumpur, in our brother’s home on Friday night, getting ready for bed when there was a commotion downstairs.  His 2-car porch was occupied so my car was parked across the driveway outside the gate.  Their dog was barking and I was shocked to learn that someone was apparently, attempting to break into my car!  

Andrew [Top Right Row] and his wife [Top Left Row]
in Johor Baru again for Indian dinner
It was alarming to see the silhouette of a man standing at the gate and my brother and his wife did not hesitate to contact their neighbourhood’s security guard.  At the same time, they were puzzled as to why this so-called criminal would be standing in full view if he was attempting any mischief.  To show him that we were aware of his presence, we shouted “Oy!” at him and suddenly, he replied… “Open the gate!”

His voice sounded familiar and my sister-in-law vocalized our confusion: “Andrew?” she asked.  When he laughed in response, it confirmed our suspicion.  Standing in the light drizzle outside was none other than my nephew and his wife who arrived from Perth to give us a surprise!  

Our roast turkey for Christmas Day dinner!
He had planned this way ahead and did not expect his aunt and cousin Mel to come from the UK and for his mother and me to turn up in Perth again.  Throughout our stay in Perth they did not give a hint of their plan to come home for Christmas because we knew they had a trip to Dubai and Zambia.  
But they did not tell any untruths because they did not give specific dates and we assumed that they would leave directly for Dubai.  Instead, they arrived in Singapore on Friday and went to see his grandparents to pick up the car before driving to KL to give us a grand surprise!

That night, it was a long time before I dropped off to sleep because I just could not believe that Andrew and his wife were actually here.  It was only earlier that week when they saw us off at Perth airport and before the weekend, they were with us again!  Ah…the joys of global travel…

This must be one of the most pleasant surprises ever as the family was together again to celebrate Christmas at home.  Our celebration was more meaningful not because of the gaily wrapped gifts under the tree or the sumptuous meal complete with roast turkey and all the trimmings, but because of the dear people gathered close again at a very special season of the year.  Happy Christmas one and all!


Mitai Maori Village

Maori dancers showing off their quick
reflexes in a stick-throwing dance
One of my earliest memories about New Zealand must be singing the English version of Pokarekare Ana or Hurry Back to Rotorua, a Maori folk song during school campfires.  Its lyrics are so vividly remembered that I started to sing it as we drive towards Rotorua from our lodgings in nearby Taupo.  Its catchy tune is so familiar that the others in the car join me in the chorus, lustily belting out, “Please hurry back home love, I miss you so!”

Another thing that I always associate with New Zealand must be the protruding tongues and eyes of the All Blacks rugby team when they perform their traditional haka chant before each game.  So for me, a visit to New Zealand is not complete without a Maori experience.  With dinner reservations already made with the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua, I’m eagerly anticipating, not just the taste of traditional Maori food but also an authentic Maori cultural experience. 

Minarirapa Mitai-Ngatai is the
Mitai family patriarch

As dusk falls on this wintry night, the temperature is dipping fast while more guests arrive to join us in the banquet hall.  Of course, John, our host plays a vital role to warm us up for the evening and he is quick to “break the ice” among the guests.  He welcomed us to the village of the Mitai tribe and named us the Tribe of Many Nations.  From his ice-breaking activities, I learn that besides our family from Malaysia, there are guests from US, UK, several European countries and from Australia or “Across the Ditch” – the way Kiwis say it to poke fun at their neighbours! 

The lady at the reception told me that this is a family-run business that started in 2002 and Minarirapa Mitai-Ngatai, their 79-year old family patriarch, is still involved with it.  His shoulder-length snowy white hair clearly reflects his years and he’s seated at the rear of the hall, playing his saxophone to provide jazzy background music.  Later when I met him, I told him that I’m from Malaysia and he pleasantly surprised me by saying that the Maori have many words that are similar to our Malay words like mata (eye), telinga (ear), langit (sky) and ikan (fish)!

Hangi and Hongi

It is still light outside as John leads us outdoors to a small shed to see their traditional cooking pit or earth oven they call, hangi.  (It struck me that this word sounds so similar to how we pronounce, wangi, the Malay word for sweet smelling!)  

John introducing the hangi buried
under the sheets of damp gunny sacks!
John said the Maori traditionally line the cooking pit with hot rocks and place their food wrapped in large leaves, on clean sticks and tree bark to reduce burning from direct contact with the hot rocks.  Then more leaves, sticks and other vegetation were used to cover the food to protect it from being crushed by the weight of the layer of earth on top.

As John introduced the structure of the hangi, my eyes are riveted to the large sheets of damp, dark gunny sacks spread out in a heap on the ground.  He said the wet sacks are used to trap the heat around the food to bake it in the ground.  However, in modern times the Maori have substituted the use of large leaves with wire trays lined with aluminum foil to cook traditional hangi of chicken and lamb and root vegetables like potatoes and kumara or sweet potatoes. 

John peeled open the layer of gunny sacks to reveal trays of food under a white sheet that was baked in a slow-cook process for about three to four hours.  It dawned on me that this food from the pit will be prepared and served for our dinner later and I just couldn’t wait to taste it. 

Hangi, traditional Maori food for our dinner
Later at the dinner buffet, I recognised the hangi items cut up and served with stuffing and an array of gravy, mint sauce and cranberry sauce.  When I sink my teeth into the chicken and lamb, I’m delighted with its smoky, earthy aroma and how the meat is fall-of-the bone tender!

To explain the difference between the words, hangi and hongi, John shared a few funny anecdotes about how guests often mistake hongi, the traditional Maori greeting of touching the nose and forehead, for a kiss on the mouth.  Such errors of course, resulted in much embarrassment!  So once he picked a volunteer to represent the Tribe of Many Nations, John practiced doing the hongi with him before we went into the village to meet the Mitai village chief.

Culture and Ceremony

It’s bitterly cold and darkness is creeping in as we follow John on a short trek into the bush to the Wai-O-Whiro stream to watch Maori warriors sail in on a waka (war canoe). 

Maori warriors sailing in on a war canoe!
At first I can see lighted torches moving among the trees on the slopes high above the stream but they swiftly disappear.  In a few moments I hear the distant sound of traditional chants and it gets louder as warriors, garbed in traditional outfits, paddled in on a canoe.  As the brawny warriors alighted to stride into the village, I caught sight of bold tattoo patterns on their faces, arms and legs.

A traditional village is recreated on a stage under a shelter with overhead heating and seats for guests to watch the cultural show in comfort.  Speaking with wit and eloquence, the Mitai village chief interacted with the guests and shared more information about the Maori heritage.  While members of the cultural group demonstrate the various arts, he told us about ta moko or tattoo art and discussed several types of traditional weapons, the poi dance and the haka or war dance.

I’m intrigued to see that not just the warriors but even the women have tattoos on their lips and chins.  My curiosity is satisfied when the village chief explained that these tattoos traditionally reflect the person’s ancestry and personal history, his or her social rank, knowledge, skills and even marital status.  

Maori warriors performing the traditional haka
As the warriors whirl around to perform the haka with fierce foot stamping and rhythmic thigh slapping, I can also see a lot of protruding tongues and eyes.  In many cultures, sticking out tongues and widening the eyes are considered rude gestures.  But even though these expressions may seem intimidating, I learn that the Maori are emphasizing a point or expressing their passion and are not necessarily being aggressive. 

Facial expressions or pukana are indeed an important facet of Maori performances.  It’s interesting to see that while the men widen their eyes, bare their teeth and stick out their tongues, the women will open their eyes wide and jut out their tattooed chins.  

Doing the hongi with the Mitai village chief!
As I soak in the village vibe, I’m swept away by the mesmerizing rhythm of the haka and can’t help being captivated by the Maori’s rich culture and their pride in the poetic descriptions of their ancestry and heritage.

Fast Facts

The Mitai Maori Village is at 196 Fairy Springs Road, Rotorua Central, Rotorua, New Zealand.  For more info and reservations, visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 12 December 2013


After my article, Meet the Maori, was published in the NST Life & Times on 12 Dec 2013, I received an email from my boss at the Travel Desk.  This is her message of 16 Dec 2013:

Hi Peggy

Just got a call from a fan all the way from Terengganu/Kelantan!

His name is Tan Ee King and he was touched by your story on Rotorua.  He remembers the song but can’t remember the lyrics and was wondering if you could share the lyrics with him.  


. . .
Hello Mr Tan, 
You asked for it!  Here are the lyrics:

Pōkarekare ana

Pōkarekare ana
ngā wai o Rotorua,
Whiti atu koe hine
marino ana e.

E hine e
hoki mai ra,
Ka mate au i
te aroha e.

Hurry Back to Rotorua
(English Translation)

Hurry hurry hurry
Hurry back to Rotorua
To the mountains and the valleys
Hurry home to me.

I know I know
You had to go
Please hurry back home love
Hurry home to me.


Suvarna's 20 years of fine arts

Suvarna Shakti is the theme of Bharata Natyam
performance at the 20th anniversary celebration
Twenty years ago, Ajith Bhaskaran Dass left a career in law to focus on his passion for Indian classical dance and established Suvarna Fine Arts, his own dance academy.  In the past two decades Suvarna has produced distinct and original dance works that combine authentic classicism with universal appeal.  With his mastery of techniques in the rigorous disciplines of both Bharatha Natyam and Odissi, Ajith has collaborated with professional productions locally and abroad to produce an impressive repertoire of performances.

Renowned as one of the most accomplished Bharatha Natyam dancers in this region, Ajith has performed in some of the most prestigious venues around the world and was voted Best Male Dancer in the December season of the International Music and Dance Festival in Chennai, India by the Shankarabharanam Trust in 1996.  This award-winning, Johor-born performer and choreographer was the first male Indian classical dancer to be featured in the 2000 International Arts Festival in Frankfurt, Germany and also the first Malaysian to perform at the famed Lincoln Center and at the Joyce Theatre, Broadway, New York in 2003.

Ajith [2nd from Left Front Row] acknowledging his
first four students who are still with him now
“I’ve always wanted to be both teacher and performer of Bharata Natyam,” said Ajith, who learnt to dance under his illustrious gurus, Adya K. Lakshman and Ramli Ibrahim.  Ajith’s teaching style in Survana includes in-depth understanding of the dance rather than learning the steps alone.  Even though his students are eager to dance, they must listen to lectures to learn about the concept of the dance and understand the lyrics to the music before they can perform more competently.

At age 25, Ajith started Suvarna and he performed its first show with just four students – Sujatha Vijay, Ananthemalar Durairaj, Vijayan Veeryan and Vijay Chandran.  These students graduated under his tutelage and are still with the dance academy as teachers.  From a humble beginning in Johor Baru, there are now 600 students in five branches of his dance academy located in Pulai, Saleng, Masai, Kulai and Kluang.  And every year since 1994, Suvarna showcases its students’ talents in elaborate stage productions. 

A dance tribute to the Goddess Saraswati who plays the
music of love and life on a traditional stringed
instrument called a veena
Ajith believes in giving his students a holistic education in all aspects of dance, from dancing and teaching to choreography as well as stage production.  So in every production, some of the senior students are not only dancers but also given the opportunity to be involved in wardrobe management, set and lighting design and execution.  At Suvarna, only students who seriously want to continue dancing will be given their dance debut or arangetram – a solo performance where the guru presents his pupil to the public. 

The Goddess Rajarajeshwari, the consort of Lord Shiva,
in a beautifully choreographed tableau
To commemorate Suvarna’s 20th anniversary, a show entitled, Suvarna Shakti, a Bharatha Natyam dance that invokes the myriad manifestations of the Goddess Absolute, was performed recently.  Ajith’s older sister, Dr Asha Dass, paid tribute to her brother on behalf of their family in a speech sprinkled with accolades, anecdotes and a bit of humour.  Among other things, she said Ajith has devoted his life to Bharata Natyam, not only as a dancer and performer but also as an amazing choreographer. 

Ajith Bhaskaran Dass [2nd from Left] the guru who is also
the Nattuvanar or dance cymbalist, who provided the
Nattuvangam as he played the cymbals and recited the
rhythmic patterns or Solkattu for his dancers
In the tradition of gurus of Bharata Natyam who are well versed in the art of dance as music and the choreographer of the dances, Ajith was the Nattuvanar or dance cymbalist who provided the Nattuvangam as he played the cymbals and recited the Solkattu in rhythmic patterns for his dancers.  Throughout the show, Indian classical dance enthusiasts in the audience were impressed by Ajith’s experience and expertise as the dancers and the Nattuvanar performed in total harmony.  The dance performance was accompanied by a ‘live’ traditional orchestra with Theban Arumugam on mridangam, Manikantan Gurunathan on violin, Ghanavenothan Retnam on flute, Kumaran Palaniappan on tabla and Bhavani Logeswaran’s exquisite vocals. 

Dance performances by Suvarna Fine Arts are always a visual delight
Looking back to the last 20 years where Suvarna has been promoting and nurturing classical dance as a powerful medium for the performing arts, Ajith is determined to continue his legacy in training and producing dancers of exceptional talent.  While Suvarna is recognised for their vibrant dance renditions, striking choreography and innovative theatrical presentations, Ajith has a vision to create a suitable venue for the arts in Johor Baru where professional artistes can stage their shows.  For more info and queries on Suvarna Fine Arts courses in Bharatha Natyam, Odissi, contemporary and folk dances, email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 12 December 2013

Titans of the Past go on exhibit

The largest fossil of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (T-Rex)
ever found, is one of main exhibits
If you are fascinated by the mysteries of dinosaurs but the only ones you have ever seen are from movies, documentaries, books or magazines, then you should visit the exciting and educational “Titans of the Past – Dinosaurs and Ice Age Mammals” exhibition at the Science Centre Singapore.

This exhibition will transport you into the prehistoric era of the dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals as it features two international travelling dinosaur exhibitions – “The Growth and Behaviour of Dinosaurs,” which is co-produced by the Museum of the Rockies (MOR), USA Montana and Kokoro Co. Ltd, Japan, and “Ice Age, The Exhibition” from Aurea Exhibitions, Argentina. 

A series of Triceratops skulls replicas that
track their growth from juvenile to adulthood
You will have the opportunity to see real fossils that include the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex (T-Rex) skull ever found and Kokoro’s state-of-the-art animatronics that brings dinosaur replicas to life.  There are quality specimens of Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Hypacrosaurus and T-Rex and interesting exhibits that track the development and growth of these four dinosaur species that test the latest sensational hypothesis of world renowned paleontologist, Dr Jack Horner and his research team.  They discovered more than one third of all dinosaur species classified from the Cretaceous Period that may actually be juveniles and not different species as were determined by paleontologists for the past century. 

A young visitor is overwhelmed by the realistic replica
of a T-Rex at the exhibition
“The exhibition tells the story of a dinosaur’s life using real fossils and specimens that have played a pivotal role to facilitate our continuous efforts to demystify the prehistoric age and uncover new findings,” said Dr Horner, the MOR’s Curator of Paleontology and technical advisor for the famous Jurassic Park movies.  “We are in a better position to showcase the prehistoric era and I am sure visitors will be intrigued by what they see in the exhibition,” he added.

One of the highlights of this exhibition is a series of replicas of Triceratops skulls that track their growth and development from juvenile to adulthood.  You will see how their neck shields develop over age, becoming most attractive at adulthood and then fan out into more porous shields as they age.  This may be because thick and big neck shields would be impossible to carry as they advance with age.
Fossil of the sabre-toothed cat [Left] and the replica
of a saber-toothed cat from the Ice Age
You can play with an interactive display of the Hypacrosaurus presented as Baby, Juvenile and Adult to hear the unique sounds they make at these stages of their life. The Baby makes high pitch squeaks as it probably remains safely within earshot of its parents.  However, the sonorous sound by the Adult resonates deep and loud to reach longer distances.

For the first time, two life-size dinosaur skeleton casts and Ice Age Mammals exhibits from the Aurea Exhibitions are being showcased in Asia.  You will be awed by the Argentinosaurus that measures 36 meters long and 7 meters high, the largest Sauropod ever found and be thrilled to see the cast of Giganotosaurus, one of the largest terrestrial carnivores in the late Cretaceous period.  The Ice Age Mammals exhibition features 10 animatronics animals including the ferocious sabre-toothed cat and giant Mammoth with its massive curved tusks and beady eyes.
Life-sized dinosaur skeleton casts will dwarf and delight visitors to the Titans of the Past - Dinosaurs and
Ice Age Mammals exhibition at the Singapore Science Centre
To enhance the visitors’ experience at the exhibition, the Science Centre Singapore has put together a range of educational programmes such as animated demonstration shows, talks and lectures by paleontologists and hands-on workshops on dinosaur forensics.  This exhibition is held in the Science Centre Singapore, Annexe, from 10am to 6pm daily until 23 Feb 2014. Rates for a Family package (2 adults & 2 children) at S$68, Student S$11, Adult RM20 and Child (aged 3 to 12) S$16.  For more info, visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 11 December 2013