New year sticky sweet cake

Nin gou decorated with auspicious red-colour
Chinese character for prosperity
Every lunar new year season, you will see smooth brown-colour tubs of nin gou (Cantonese) or glutinous rice cakes among the attractive lunar new year cakes and cookies sold in shops and festive stalls.  That’s because this new year cake is an auspicious item used by traditional Chinese for lunar new year celebrations.  In any Chinese dialect, its name nin gou literally means “year cake” while most Malaysians are familiar with kueh bakul, the way the Peranakan call it.

I was browsing in a shopping mall when my attention was caught by traditional nin gou that were still in metal tins lined with banana leaves.  As the young man promoting these cakes told me that they are made by his mother from his father’s traditional recipe, my thoughts raced back to memories of how a grand-aunt used to grind glutinous rice on a traditional millstone grinder for the flour to make these rice cakes.  While we can conveniently buy glutinous rice flour off the shelves now, there was a time when homemade rice cakes were made by sheer passion and raw effort, starting with grinding glutinous rice on a traditional millstone grinder to make the glutinous rice flour from scratch!

Homemade nin gou still in metal tins
lined by banana leaves
The Chinese like to attach auspicious meanings to words and phrases and are particularly careful with each utterance at the start of the lunar new year to ensure that good fortune will follow in the year ahead.  When we were kids visiting relatives during lunar new year, I remember being warned not to say the word, “die” or risk being severely disciplined.  My wild imagining of punishments like getting my mouth washed out with soap or raw chilli rubbed on my lips, certainly kept my wayward tongue from saying anything inauspicious.

The sound of the word, nin gou, is also synonymous with the Chinese words for “year higher”, an auspicious phrase for sending good wishes for higher achievements and success as well as increasing abundance and prosperity in the coming year.  These glutinous rice cakes are traditionally made in thick round tins but may also be shaped into ingots and usually presented as gifts, decorated with an auspicious red-colour Chinese character for “fatt” meaning prosperity.

Nin gou are an auspicious item for the lunar new year
Only three ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar and water – are used to make this steamed new year cake.  Some families have their own recipes like adding a pinch of salt to enhance the taste or spreading a dash of vegetable oil on the banana leaves that line the metal tins before the batter is poured in.  This traditional cake, if properly prepared, can keep for more than a year without refrigeration because back in ancient days, refrigerators have not been invented yet. 

In some traditional recipes, the steaming time can be up to 10 to 12 hours over a charcoal or kerosene stove and the bubbling sugar as it caramelises, is a unique fragrance that connoisseurs of nin gou truly appreciate.  The special sweetness of the glutinous rice cake is why the Hokkien and Peranakan call it ti kuay which literally means, “sweet cake.”  When it is cooked, the cake is usually left to cool and settle for 2 to 3 days before they are lifted out of the tins.

This cake is now available all year round as some hawkers sell them as snacks deep-fried in a delicious sandwich between a slice of yam or sweet potato.  Eating nin gou is an acquired taste because it is not only sweet but can also be very sticky.  After the cake is cooled, it solidifies into a slab and can be easily sliced into squares.  The only true fan of nin gou in our family however, is dad who is happy to slowly nibble the solid slices especially while watching television. 

Nin gou squares dipped in egg batter and lightly
pan-fried by mum for afternoon tea!
Around the lunar new year season we usually prepare nin gou squares, dipped in egg batter and lightly pan-fried, for afternoon tea.  Another method to savour nin gou is to steam the cake slices and toss them in shreds of lightly salted young coconut to make a tasty dessert that resembles kueh kosui.  The glutinous rice content in this cake can cause the consistency to be seriously stretchy and sticky for people who wear dentures so please be warned if you are going to sink your teeth in this sticky steamed cake!

In the days before the dawn of the lunar new year, traditional Chinese families go about cleaning their home thoroughly to sweep out all the ill luck and make room to welcome in good fortune.  Families that practice Taoism or Buddhism will clean their homes and kitchen altars and replace with new items and decorations.  A week before the first day of the lunar month, nin gou and sweets like sugar-coated peanuts are offered to the Kitchen God before he leaves for heaven. 

As the recorder of the family’s conduct, the Kitchen God has an annual trip to heaven to report on that family’s good or bad deeds in the past 12 months.  As a tradition, the nin gou and sweets are offered as a bribe so that he will make a favourable report to the God of Heaven.  It is believed that when the Kitchen God eats the nin gou, his mouth will be clamped shut by its stickiness and he will not be able to make a bad report about the family! 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 30 January 2014

Serving of deep-fried nin gou at home of Datin Ong Kid Ching
Check out the slice of nin gou sandwiched between a slice of yam [top] and sweet potato [bottom] - Yum!

JB's teenage art savant

Yap HanZhen receiving his award at the Asian Para
Art 2013 event held in Tokyo, Japan
In 2011 when he was just 13, Yap HanZhen, a savant autistic teenager in Johor Baru had his first solo art exhibition. Themed, “Of Obedience, Solitude and Beauty,” HanZhen presented an exhibition of his pencil sketches of dogs, cats and butterflies and the profits from the sale were channeled to the Kiwanis Careheart Centre school fund. 

This prolific young artist then embarked on a project to sketch creatures in our mangrove forests and in late 2012, HanZhen published a book with 30 beautiful sketches entitled, “River Biodiversity.”

Johor Ancient Chinese Temple at Jalan Trus, Johor Baru
HanZhen started sketching as a hobby in 2009 and by keeping a daily routine in drawing he filled up dozens of sketch books with fascinating images.  From animals, birds, insects and river creatures, HanZhen, now aged 15, recently started to draw Johor Baru’s charming old buildings to preserve the ancient icons’ architectural beauty for posterity. 
His sketches are so impressive that he has been commissioned by the Daiman Group to draw a series of Johor Baru’s old buildings for the new Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in Menara Landmark!

Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam
Temple sketched in the inimitable style
of Yap HanZhen 
His architect parents, Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne Yap, said their son was diagnosed as autistic at age 2 and they believe that the creative environment at home helped to develop his language through drawing.  To expand his vocabulary and to communicate with him, they encouraged him to draw objects and label them.  So he drew everything he saw, from everyday items at home to things they saw while on holiday, usually with great detail and accuracy.

“It was almost by accident that we discovered he could draw while we were teaching him to increase his vocabulary for speech,” said Yvonne, who recalled that he could draw all the things at home and accurately labeled his pictures.  He has an amazing gift in starting to draw an image from the top to the bottom or from the bottom to the top but either way, his sketches would all be completed in the right proportions.  HanZhen may doodle a quick sketch in just 3 minutes or take a week to create a masterpiece and has drawn more than 500 documented art pieces in the last 2 years.

HanZhen drawing at his art exhibition held in Sri Ara
Private School's Open Day in September 2013
HanZhen, a good-natured teenager who also plays the piano, attends a local mainstream international school and has teachers and school friends who appreciate his art.  After school each day, he usually spends almost 2 hours drawing sketches with 3B pencils.  His sketches have been sold during his school’s Open Days and the profits were donated to the school’s choice of charities.

Last year, HanZhen’s sketch of the historical Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca was selected as one of the winning entries from among a pool of 1000 entries in the Asia Para Art 2013 competition in Japan.  His success earned him a special invitation to Asia Para Art 2013 held in Tokyo in October 2013 where his talent was recognised with an award.  It looks like this talented young artist will be kept busy not only with his commissioned work for the Hilton Double Tree Hotel Johor Baru but also in providing the illustrations for a children’s book with an international release.  For more info about the artist and his work, visit:


Sketches are commissioned by Daiman Group for the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel, Johor Baru

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 30 January 2014

Say it with cards

Some cards I received including the pretty postcard
 I mailed home from a recent travel assignment in Japan
How many greeting cards did you receive this lunar new year?  I remember how we used to get so many cards that it was enough to string them up in a long line as our festive d├ęcor.  But the truth is, the number of greeting cards we received last Christmas and this lunar new year is at an all-time low and the number of cards we received so far can be counted by the fingers on one hand!

Giving and receiving is a part of our culture and even in primary school, Chinese classmates used to exchange lunar new year cards with each other by passing it over by hand.  I remember observing how these cards, distinguished by their pink colour envelopes, were sometimes left under books or slipped inside the desks.  The joy of sending and receiving a card or letter is universal and in the days before electronic technology, the postman was my favourite man-in-uniform because he’s the guy who delivers my mail!

I derive much pleasure from receiving cards and letters and am sure others do too so I make it a point to send out cards even when there is no particular reason.  When Hallmark and Memory Lane cards became too expensive, I buy blank-inside cards from own-design card makers wherever I travel so that I can use them for any occasion.  My sister in the UK, who is a postcard collector, is the happy recipient of interesting postcards that I send her from every destination that I travel to!

Human connection and reaching out to one another is a basic human need and in our family, we have a tradition in sending greeting cards to friends and relatives for each festival, particularly at Christmas and the lunar new year.  Every year, I will buy the cards for dad to write before I affix the stamps and post them.  Dad has several mailing lists that he uses for reference at each festive season and he keeps them safely within the boxes of unused cards for easy retrieval next year. 

A design by Quinlan Maling, a nephew in the UK,
reproduced on a greeting card we received last year
Aware of the delivery time necessary for overseas addresses, dad has a method of sending to those abroad first and then writing to the local addressees later.  Every year, the sending and receiving of greeting cards keeps us in touch with friends and family members near and far and we are always delighted to hear from old friends, even if it was just once a year.  If we received a card from someone who is not on dad’s list, dad will add him to the list and reciprocate by sending him a card!

A few years ago, as usual I posted the first batch of lunar new year greeting cards to relatives abroad, including those in Singapore.  About a week later, dad received a greeting card from a grand-uncle in Singapore who enclosed a small note with a stinging rebuke for causing him the inconvenience of paying a fine for insufficient postage.  When dad showed it to me, I was simply mortified that I inadvertently put the wrong postage for his card and since that embarrassment, I always pay closer attention to the card addressed to him so that such a mistake is never repeated!

While I have embraced the use of modern technology, there is nothing like the feeling of opening a stamped envelope that someone had taken the time to choose, write and post to me.  Granted that there are cute icons and easy apps for sending electronic greetings, social media messages and emails but nothing can replace the joy of receiving a traditional card.  We can say that we want to “save the trees” but something is definitely lost when we join the modern trend to send no cards, e-cards or group emails.

Dad's mailing list that I used for reference to send out
lunar new year greeting cards
Handmade or personalised cards are works of art and unique gifts that I will always treasure.  A friend in the UK sends me greeting cards designed with his family photo on the cover and this gives me an annual update of how they look like as the children are growing up.  A greeting card we received last Christmas that was created with a design by Quinlan Maling, a nephew in the UK, will certainly join my collection of precious card mementoes!

This lunar new year marks a milestone in a new chapter for us as dad, who is getting on with age, decided to retire from writing greeting cards and handed the responsibility over to me.  Using dad’s mailing list for reference, I sign off the cards with mum and dad’s names along with mine as I’m aware that their contemporaries who receive my cards, may not recognise who the sender is if my parents’ names were not there.  There is a bittersweet feeling as I write the cards and read with a tinge of sadness that at least five name should be dropped from the list because they are no longer with us.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 29 January 2014

Johor Sketchers

Renee Mohd showing off her sketches of
the Pontian coastline
Inspired by the spirit of the US-based Urban Sketchers, a group of people in Johor who are passionate about sketching, have adopted their principles and started to sketch scenes from observation in various locations in Johor. These individuals were already involved with sketching and painting in various mediums but the birth of Johor Sketchers brought them together to share their passion for sketching.  Since its inception in June 2013 this group has been meeting regularly to capture on paper, some of the most iconic scenes that are unique to Johor.

It all started when American, Buzwalker Teach, an art lecturer with Raffles University Iskandar in Nusajaya, met with local sketch artist, Taib Aur, at his kiosk along Jalan Wong Ah Fook.  Teach, better known as Buz, was thrilled to see Taib’s sketches of local scenery and to meet a fellow sketching enthusiast.  When Buz presented Taib with a book of sketches by Urban Sketchers, they were inspired to start a similar group in Johor and hoped to someday compile such a book on Johor life and landscapes.

Taib Aur captures a scene of Orang Seletar
fisher-folk shucking mussels at their village
With this in mind, Taib connected Buz with local drawing enthusiasts like Mohd Hafizal Nordin, Eric Ng Han Meng and Khairi Maulana, who goes by the moniker, Tok Rimau, and they in turn invited their own network of like-minded friends to join Johor Sketchers.  While each one has their own style and choice of drawing or painting mediums, they share the same passion for going on site to sketch scenes from real life.  As this reflects the core principles of the Urban Sketchers to sketch from observation or to draw from life, it sparked off a creative connection that bonded the artists together distinctively as the Johor Sketchers. 

Members of Johor Sketchers started to hang out together and meet as often as twice a month for on-location events. Armed with his or her sketch book or sheets of paper, each sketch artist chooses a spot to sketch a scene or subject that appeal to him and soon after outlines appear on the paper in rapid freehand drawing, the images emerge.  Very often, the artists keep visual diaries to record a series of scenes viewed from a variety of angles before the sketch is fully developed with water-colours or other types of paints.

Buzwalker Teach with his sketch of a wooden shack with
amazing detail at Kg Bakar Batu Tampoi, Johor
Johor Sketchers have captured interesting scenes from trips to places like the marketplace in Batu Pahat, nearby Senibong, Stulang Laut and Johor Baru’s old mansions and iconic buildings. 

Trips such as these allow the members to enjoy the outdoors and get to know a place by talking to the local people who come to observe them while they sketch.  This not only gives them a sense of the place and its history but also an understanding of the sentimental value of a building or traditional lifestyle in a rapidly developing Johor.

Tok Rimau interacting with the
locals of Kg Bakar Batu Tampoi
Recently the Johor Sketchers went on location to Kampung Bakar Batu Tampoi, a fishing village on the edge of the Danga River populated by Orang Seletar.  The village presented rustic morning scenes of fisher-folk selling fishing bait from stalls, groups of women busy shucking mussels and boiling them in a cauldron heated by firewood while children and dogs play and loiter around.  

With an exclusive residential area being constructed on the opposite banks of the river and the new highway to Nusajaya in the horizon, members of the Johor Sketchers made it their mission to visually preserve such scenes as they are aware that sites like this may soon disappear. 

The portrait being painted by Eric Ng attracted
the interest of these Orang Seletar children
“Johor has big aspirations to develop into a modern metropolis but where will all this go?” asked Buz pragmatically as he added a few more details to his sketch of a wooden shack with one wall made of sheets of zinc roofing that the local fishermen use as a store for their equipment.  He is seated on a low stool and surrounded by curious children as he sketched in the morning sun while Mohd Hafizal Nordin picked his spot on the wooden jetty to sketch the image of a roughly constructed wooden pontoon.  With the tide out, this structure rested at an awkward angle on the dry shore but it certainly appears to be an interesting subject to him.

Taib Aur's sketch of the old Customs checkpoint at
Tanjung Puteri, fondly called the "duckhead," as it was
being demolished
“I take longer to draw a scene because I often stop to talk to people,” Buz added because he usually has curious observers asking him questions as in his experience while sketching a street scene at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk.  He encourages and inspires his students with field trips to interesting places like Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk where they can draw on location and mingle with the local people. 

Buz, who has been living in Asia for the last 18 years, with a year and a half in Johor Baru, is excited that Johor Sketchers has brought so many sketch artists together including a visit by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore to JB.

A sketch of a crumbling old mansion in the grounds of the
Johor Baru Prison at Jalan Gertak Merah by Buz Teach
“When you sketch, you absorb the soul of a place,” said Tok Rimau and he went on to explain that the artist usually analyses the scene or the structure of a building before they start to sketch it.  Like most naturally gifted sketch artists, Tok Rimau, had his earliest drawing lessons from his father and has now learnt a great deal more through his interaction with fellow members.  He said all of us learnt to draw while we were in kindergarten and somehow lost the skills along the way but Johor Sketchers is encouraging everyone to rediscover the joys of sketching again.

Some members of the Johor Sketchers with Orang Seletar children at Kampung Bakar Batu Tampoi, Johor
“Our ultimate dream for Johor Sketchers is to compile our sketches of Johor into a book and preserve them for posterity,” said Taib who is clearly thrilled with how the creative passion of the members of Johor Sketchers is being ignited and honed by each other’s energy and creativity.  For more info about Johor Sketchers and their future events, email to: or

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 29 January 2014

Class of 1981 reunites

A commemorative cake decorated with the original
design of the CHIJ crest
Thirty-two years is a long time but it’s never too late to pay tribute to our teachers.  On Nov 30, 62 students from the class of 1981 in JB’s Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus met with 14 former teachers and two former school office staff at a reunion event.  While many of the girls still live in Johor Baru, a number came from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Kota Kinabalu and Ipoh as well as two who travelled back from Guangchou and Shanghai in China to attend this reunion.

After 32 years, many have changed their names when they were married and moved into different ranks as wives, mothers and even grandmothers.  Yet the bonds of friendship that was formed in Convent JB is apparent as the girls embraced old friends and picked up from where they left off after they completed Form 5.  This reunion is a preliminary event to garner as many who are keen to join their joint 50th birthday celebration in Langkawi in September 2014. 

Mrs Oliveiro [Left wearing white shirt] leading in singing the school song
The highlight of this event is to pay tribute to the teachers who have in many ways, moulded and mentored the class of 1981 to become successful and confident women today.  A classic example is Angelene Chan, now a Singapore-based, award-winning female architect who was involved in a wide variety of challenging projects like The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest indoor shopping mall and Resorts World Sentosa’s Universal Studios Singapore theme park.  Chan paid tribute to former Physics teacher, Cheng May Ping, who taught the fundamentals so well in Bahasa Malaysia language that she found it easy to switch to the English medium when she went for further studies in the university.

It was an afternoon of reminiscing as the schoolmates recalled the roles of the former teachers and honoured them for an enduring legacy that has left a positive impact on their lives.  While Mrs A. Y. Lim was their Form 1 Maths teacher, Mrs Diana Wang was their Form 2 English and Geography teacher.  Wang was also their volleyball coach who always remained cool, calm and collected, even in very stressful situations.

Ms Amy Wong cutting the cake with the
help of Zharina Anuar, representing the
CHIJ class of 1981
Many may not know that Amy Wong was also a Convent JB student in 1951 and she was in the first batch of teachers who were trained in the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, UK.  She applied her Kirby-trained skills in both the Convent JB Primary and Secondary schools and always carried herself with poise as the epitome of fashion and British sophistication.  Puan Hjh Bashariah Mohd Sharif, their Bahasa Malaysia teacher in Primary school was so gentle and kind and used to treat them like daughters while Mrs Josephine Louis is best remembered for her story-telling and the girls fondly remember how they used to sit close together to listen to her spine-chilling ghost stories!

They girls agreed that the former Cecilia Chan who is now Mrs Lian, stills looks the same since the girls last saw her in school and how she is very articulate in her speech.  They also recalled the inspirational speech that Girl Guides advisor, Theresa Loh, made before a marching competition and her encouragement not to give up in the face of challenges still helps them to deal with difficult situations in life.  Puan Shamsiah Ahmad is honoured for her creative method in teaching History by drawing an outline of the Asian continent on the board, a style that went a long way to help students understand the lesson by recollection through visualization.

Some of the recipes that Home Science teacher, Mrs Yoke Wah Parthasarathy, used to guide them in baking rock buns and cakes are still being used in their own homes today.  Two former office staff, Doris John and Letchumy Muthusami, were honoured for their devoted work in the school office while the “rose among the thorns,” En Zulkipli Mahmud, their former Bahasa Malaysia teacher is admired for always setting the bar on how an elegant gentleman should behave. 

Antoinette Oliveiro who earned the moniker “Netball Mummy” for her commitment to coaching the school’s successful netball team is quoted as once having said, “You can take a girl out of the Convent but you can’t take the Convent out of the girl,” and the class of 1981 was on their feet, clapping hard to honour their former teachers with a standing ovation.

The CHIJ class of 1981 with former teachers and school staff at the happy reunion
A commemorative cake designed with the original school crest was made in memory of the Irish nuns, brave women who believed in educating other women and travelled across the oceans to educate students in Convent JB.  The cake was cut by Amy Wong, assisted by Zharina Anuar who represented the class of 1981 and the spirit of camaraderie was strong as everyone joined in to sing the school song.  Also present was Ramlah Mohamed, who in 1955 was the first Malay lady to run a Convent school in Malaya, a former principal of Convent JB Primary School and dear friend of the late Sister Xavier (1919 – 2008), an Irish nun who is synonymous with Convent JB.
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 29 January 2014

Jaro goes Arty

Jaro handicrafts are attractive and useful souvenirs
Since the 1960s many locals and expatriates in Johor Baru choose to buy JARO handicrafts not only for their unique quality but because they are made by special people.  Fans of JARO products know that every JARO product is special because its quality and workmanship is matched by the determination and effort that’s put into its creation.  

Founded in 1952 as a rehabilitation center for TB patients, JARO or Johor Area Rehabilitation Organization has evolved into an established rehabilitation center, recognized for its quality training and products. 

Jaro products are special because they are
made by special people
JARO is a registered charitable society that manages a sheltered workshop that caters to the rehabilitation needs of the physically and intellectually disabled, spastics, visual or hearing impaired, the chronically ill and those who for personal reasons, have difficulty in getting regular employment.  They are given opportunities to be gainfully employed in a creative and productive manner in the bookbinding, basketry, tailoring and handicraft workshops.  While its range of products continues to be attractive souvenirs for visitors, a new generation of people in Johor who have a similar passion for handicrafts, are still unfamiliar with JARO.

So when JARO’s General Manager, Annie Thomas, approached Sofia Cole of Arty Party Johor Baru to hold an event in collaboration with JARO, the charity project took off with a life of its own as Arty Party has links with a wide spectrum of creative people.  As they pooled their exciting ideas and resources, an interesting programme of art activities emerged for the day-long event held in JARO on Jan 11.  Dubbed “Creative Connections,” the event had stalls for handicrafts, food, workshops and art activities as well as a stage for performances of acoustic music, poetry recitals and stand-up comedy, with part of the proceeds going towards JARO.

Young entrepreneurs Mohd Rideuan Burhanudin and
sister, Shafika, promoting products imported from Thailand
Arty Party Johor Baru, a brainchild of three ladies with a passion for the arts, has established itself as a platform for local artists to showcase and promote their work to the public.  Since its inception in December 2012, Sofia Cole, Jess Wong and Jennifer Neng have organised several themed arts and crafts events like Santa’s Last Minute Shopping, Art by the Bay, Mingle, Chat and Get Inspired and the Arty Party at the 10th Johor Baru Arts Festival.  Through a strong network among people who are passionate about the arts in Johor Baru, they brought together an eclectic list of handicraft artists and performing artistes to participate in “Creative Connections.”
Melissa Dahlan [Left] with Jaro committee members,
Datin Pat Lim [Centre] and Sumedha Sehgal [Right]
The stage came to live in the afternoon when budding artistes under AGAS, the acronym for Gerakan Anak Muda Gagah d’Selatan, loosely translated as the Gallant Youth Movement of the South, entertained with music, poetry and comedy shows.  Local artists from Johor Sketcher were invited to showcase their art while visitors participated in workshops for Still Life Drawing and Claypot Painting.  Art, craft and food stalls with a variety of handicrafts and services kept visitors browsing around in JARO before buying items of their choice.

Most of the participants like baking enthusiast, Melissa Dahlan of Kek and Kookies, said that she connected with Arty Party through the social network and was virtually unaware of JARO before that event.  Her passion for baking is apparent from her keen introduction to the range of decorated cup-cakes and cake-in-a-jars.  She explained that while cup-cakes like her delicious Mocca Walnut drizzled with Salted Caramel are baked, the cake-in-a-jar varieties are steamed in a traditional double-boil method. 

Dayu M. Selim's henna art draws a steady
stream of visitors to her booth
Among the participants in the event was Cecilia Por of City Ladies who specialises in handcrafted bling-bling items like handphone casings that are decorated by glittering gems.  Azyan Hamzah of Lucky Artwork promoted her handcrafted journals and guest books while henna design artist Dayu M. Selim of Dayu Design kept busy painting designs on her customers’ hands. 

Through “Creative Connections,” visitors and local artisans like these had the opportunity to creatively connect with JARO – one of the pioneers of quality handicrafts in Johor Baru.

JARO is managed by Chairman Dato’ Jimmy Low Boon Hong and a Committee of socially conscious professionals.  The Jaro showroom is open Sunday to Thursday from 8.00am to 5.00pm, and closed on Friday, Saturday and Public Holidays.  It is located along Jalan Sungai Chat and has retail outlets in Johor Baru City Square and Holiday Plaza.  Tel: 07 – 224 5632.  

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 20 January 2014

Carve that tuna

The emcee initiates the bidding process with the audience!
Every day at noon, visitors to Sakai City can join diners in Daiki Suisan Kaitan Sushi restaurant to witness a demonstration in carving up a Hon Maguro or bluefin tuna.  This is one of the exciting highlights in our Osaka itinerary and while I’m partial to sashimi, I’m a little apprehensive about watching the fish being cut up.  As our coach arrives and parks in front of the fish wholesale market where Daiki Suisan has two restaurants nearby, I don’t have time to mull over it as our group is welcomed and ushered into the Daiki Suisan Kaitan Sushi restaurant.

Guests are seated around a kaitan or conveyor belt, dining on freshly made sushi that they can pick from the moving belt but my eyes are riveted to the bluefin tuna that’s lying lifelessly on a cutting board.  I realise that we arrived just on time.  While the emcee-auctioneer is adjusting his microphone, a master carver is strapping on his gloves to start the carving demo.

Fish Carving

The master carver slicing into the Bluefin tuna
I’m standing behind a crowd, at least three deep away from the kaitan but I still have a clear view of the master carver as he raises his sharp knife to effortlessly slice off the fish’s jaw.  With deft movements of his sharp knife, he removes the skin off the top of the fish head and proceeds to carve out one of the most coveted parts of the fish head – its fleshy cheeks.  The cut pieces are passed to an assistant who quickly puts them in trays and wraps with cling film as the emcee gives a running commentary in Japanese and addresses the audience with an upraised arm.

Members of the audience responding with counter-bids!
When the audience responds with a chorus of Japanese words and similar upraised arms, I notice their pointed fingers and guess they are giving lower counter bids to the auctioneer’s offer price.  As more fish parts are offered, the shouting gets louder as diners and members of the audience join in to call out bids.  Carving a fish is certainly a fine art and I guess I can cope better with watching, probably because the process is bloodless.

I learn that various parts of the tuna are sold separately because each part commands different prices – the most expensive being the fatter portions of the fish – like the Ootoro or belly meat.  It is the norm for sashimi or raw fish connoisseurs to bid for the best deals and get their favourite parts of the fish for their own consumption or for re-sale in their restaurants.  From the enthusiastic bidding for the fish parts, I can see that raw fish lovers know that the best parts of the fish tastes so good that they should never be cooked!

Fish Market

Customers shopping for the choicest fresh seafood
As the bidding for freshly cut fish continues in the Daiki Suisan Kaiten Sushi restaurant, our group moves to the adjacent Daiki Suisan Fish Market for a tour of the wholesale outlet where shoppers can buy home fresh seafood or arrange for the restaurant to prepare and serve the seafood in a meal.  Established as a leading seafood wholesaler, Daiki Suisan has a distinct advantage as a retailer with their consistent supply of fresh products from around the country for their group of restaurants in the Kinki Region.  Its past noon but the market still has a throng of shoppers browsing around in the various sections to buy fresh fish, shell-fish, prawns and snow crabs, pre-cooked seafood as well as packed cooked meals.

Customers can also buy cooked meals here
As I walk around the market to look at the interesting range of seafood, I’m also stealing looks at the shoppers and thinking about the traditional Japanese diet that promotes longer life spans.  The Japanese has the longest life expectancy in the world, averaging 78 years for men and 85 for women, and many Japanese look remarkably young for their age. 
As I watch one of their staff slicing raw fish before arranging them in a pretty fan on a plate, I’m convinced that I should adopt the Japanese eating habit because raw fish retains more nutrients and slows down the aging process! 
Take your pick of fresh cuts of sashimi!
Besides obtaining fresh produce from the sea, I learnt that Daiki Suisan also cultivates tuna to meet the demand for quality seafood.  Looking at all this food in the market is making me hungry and I’m overjoyed when the tour ended with an invitation to dine in the adjacent Daiki Suisan restaurant.  As the first course of appetizers is served, we exchange a polite, “Itadakimasu” the Japanese wish equivalent to Bon Appetite among our group members before tucking into our delightful lunch made with the freshest seafood.

Fast Facts

Sashimi can't get any fresher than platters like these from the fish market!
Fish carving demos are held daily at 12 noon with a second demo session at 6pm on weekends.  Daiki Suisan has two restaurants located close to their Fish Market at Nakamura-cho, Kita-ku, Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, Japan.  For more info, visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 16 January 2014

Alvin Tan, fine artist

Artist, Alvin Tan, attracted much attention
as he painted the street with a broomstick!
When artist Alvin Tan, a San Francisco-based Malaysian artist was travelling on public transport in Asia recently, he observed that there was virtually no human contact among fellow commuters.  As the advancement and convenience of technology is being used to save lives, he was troubled that it is also isolating people who are too preoccupied with their devices that they are losing touch with each other.  This observation was like a “culture shock” to him and became the inspiration for him to express the irony of people who are being connected by electronic devices but yet are getting more disconnected with the people around them. 

Tan, a 1976 graduate of the Kuala Lumpur College of Arts, went to further his art education with the Accademia di Belle Arte Roma in Rome.  His exposure to the art world abroad and its potential in Malaysia encouraged him to relocate his entire family from Alor Setar to live in Johor Baru in 1982.  As his parents and siblings settled down here, Tan used to commute to work in Singapore with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where he lectured in Western Art History and the Aesthetics of Art and Psychology of Art until 1989 when he continued his education with the California College of the Arts, Oakland in USA.

Alvin Tan [Right] working among the black buntings in
 his site-specific installation at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
Since 1978, Tan has participated in art exhibitions held in Portugal, Italy, Singapore and the USA where he presented solo, partner and group exhibits.  He was among the pioneers of the Singapore Artists Village who joined founder, Tang Da Wu, in the art colony in the late 1980s to exchange ideas and encourage artists in new experiences and experiments.  While he continued his art studies with the Academy of Art University in San Francisco between 1991 and 1993, this prolific artist presented a number of solo exhibitions in San Francisco and Singapore, and in 1995 he was commissioned to create a wall mural in the Parrot Paradise of the Jurong Bird Park.

Last December Tan, a Peranakan of Teochew origin, who works and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and family, was visiting Johor Baru and seeking a contemporary art space in the city to make an impact with his art.  As he explored the heart of the city and discovered the charm of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, he concluded that Johor Baru is more than ready to experience art in the city.  He was delighted to receive the green-light from the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee and went about getting the materials and sponsorship to create his site-specific art installation that he aptly entitled, Connect Disconnect.

 JB mayor Ismail Karim [4th from Left] and JB Tiong Hua
Association members admire "Connect Disconnect" by
Alvin Tan [2nd from Left] at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
His artwork that was first put up on Dec 14, attracted so much attention that he was encouraged to present it again on Dec 21.  This installation comprised 120 pieces of 7-ft long buntings that were suspended along a 15-meter length of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk that was painted in Tan’s distinctive style.  This length of the street, painted in a range of colourful paints sponsored by Colourland Paints, inevitably attracted a great deal of attention particularly when Tan was painting the street with a broomstick!

He explained that the street, painted in bright colours, represented the world at our feet.  He believed that everyone should be able to relate to colours and chose to use colour in various shades and intensities as a language to communicate our moods.  He hoped that the attractive colours would encourage people to look at the beauty that surrounds us and literally, “stop and smell the roses” rather than be preoccupied with their electronic devices. 

"Connect Disconnect" along a 15-meter stretch of
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, JB
In contrast, the 120 pieces of buntings made of poly-carbon fabric, were in solid black colour and painted with the outlines of six different human characters engaged with using electronic devices to represent the genders and ages of people who are caught in the “head-down trap.” 
The message in this art installation made such a strong statement that it impressed Johor Baru mayor Ismail Karim, when he visited Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk with representatives of the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association on Dec 14.  Encouraged by the positive response to his art exhibit, Tan is upbeat about bringing more contemporary art to the masses and looks forward to the next opportunity to exhibit in Johor Baru again.  Tan can be contacted on email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 14 February 2014

First new weekend

The traditional kuda calendar has illustrations of
race horses printed on the dates for race days
Just as I said in, Once again, our school year is upon us (NST Dec 31, 2013) the roads outside the schools in Johor were lined with cars throughout the day on 31 Dec when parents went in for student registrations.  At mid-week on Jan 1, the usual chaos reigned for parents and students, teachers and administration staff as well as school bus drivers on the first day back at school.  Just two days into the new school term, they had a welcome breather when the first new weekend arrived on Friday and Saturday.

Like most people in Johor, I’m waiting and watching and trying to get into the groove of the new weekend.  While there is a lot going on about adopting new routines and adapting to the changes, I’m ready to adjust and enjoy whatever is possible while life goes on around us.  Because Friday is maintained as a holy day, I’m mindful that a great deal of activities is now cramped into Saturday, particularly on Saturday nights, and wonder if I can cope with attending all of them.

In a shopping mall last Friday, my friend and I were considering the dining options for lunch and we were obviously drawn to the colourful buntings that advertised their set lunch promotions.  Some of the dining deals looked very attractive and we checked out several options before deciding on the restaurant that we both agreed on.  The helpful waitress was ready to seat us when I casually asked about their lunch promo and she told us that it does not apply on Friday because the promo is for weekdays only!

Fans of Sushi King can still enjoy weekday promos
Miffed by this disappointment, we went around the mall doing a quick survey of some of the food outlets with weekday or weekend promos and came to the interesting conclusion that their staff are not quite informed about the current deals.  That’s probably because their employers or franchise owners with Federal headquarters are also ill prepared for the weekend change and its implications to such promos.  If you are a fan of McDonald’s breakfasts, just be aware that their weekday breakfast sets are no longer available in Johor on Fridays but fans of Sushi King will be delighted that their weekday promotions still apply from Mondays to Fridays.

There will also be countless hiccups and much confusion among the general public who have dealings with Government departments and it will take some time before things settle down into an acceptable norm.  Staff in Government offices, particularly in hospitals and clinics, must pay closer attention to the calendar when they fix the date for the next doctor’s appointments for patients.  If the medical staff inadvertently wrote an appointment date that falls on a Friday, the poor patients may obediently return for their appointment, only to be disappointed to find the clinic closed on Fridays!

Check that your car park coupons are still valid!
One of the questions I was asked last Friday is if Friday was a free parking day and my quick reply is, “No!” because Sundays will remain the free parking day in Johor Baru.  This raised the question of who will be checking the parking coupons if it was a weekend in Johor but I learnt that the parking coupon checkers are contract staff who will remain in operation on Fridays.  So don’t forget to display your parking coupons on Fridays and Saturdays to avoid unnecessary fines and please check if your coupons are valid for 2014!

For pensioners like my parents, the new year probably means putting up a new calendar and in our house, they must have the traditional kuda calendar where dates are indicated in a monthly grid.  One glance at the illustrations in the boxes will show us a great deal of info including the public holidays and the Saturday and Sunday horse race days that earned this calendar its name.  While it may seem that the new weekend may not affect pensioners, I know it’s going to take a bit of time for us to adjust to the new weekend activities like a change in the day we go to church.

Enjoying our buffet lunch on the first Saturday of 2014
It looked like the first new weekend of the year was working itself out nicely as I enjoyed a leisurely buffet lunch with the family and had a restful afternoon before going to evening service on Saturday.  As I turned the covers on my bed to settle in for the night, I felt as though it was a Sunday night because it will be a school and work day tomorrow.  The next morning, I got up automatically thinking I should be heading to church after breakfast but stopped when I suddenly realised that there’s no morning service and I had the whole day ahead to rest and relax.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 13 January 2014