Festive Drum Contest

Tan Chai Puan, one of the founding members of
Johor's 24 Festive Drums
Fans of the unique performance of the 24 Festive Drums will be delighted that the third International Invitation & National Competition of the 24 Festive Drums will be held on August 2 at the Educity Sports Complex in Nusajaya.  In the second edition of the event in 2012, the troop from SMJK Yu Hua Kajang swept up the prizes in all categories and triumphed as the national champion of the 24 Festive Drums competition.  This year, 10 troops representing states in East and West Malaysia will compete for the national title while 6 troops from UK, USA, China and Singapore will present guest performances. 

The troop from Foon Yew High School performing the
24 Festive Drums in Teochew City in 2008
In 1988, when Tan Chai Puan and the late Tan Hooi Song founded the Festive Drums in Johor Baru, they did not know that this spectacular art of drumming would grow into an international art-form.  Since its inception at Johor Baru’s Foon Yew High School, this unique art of drumming has spread nationwide and abroad and now there are more than 300 drum troops worldwide including professional troops in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.  The 24 Festive Drums celebrated its 26th anniversary June 12 this year and is proud that this art of drumming was recognised as a national cultural heritage by the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry on 14 February 2009. 

The winning performance by SMJK Yu Hua Kajang
in the Drums Competition in 2012
While the drums are a cultural element from China, this performing art is truly a Malaysian heritage as the 24 Festive Drums was born in Johor Baru and has gone global.  For its future development and to keep this art form viable, Tan said that drum troops will need corporate sponsorship.  He also said that a Coach Training Programme will be established to guide drummers with a standard syllabus and this would be monitored by a professional committee and supported by the Ministry of Education.

The troop from Foon Yew High School Kulai performed
using umbrellas as props in the contest in 2012
“As JB is gaining a global reputation, I’m proud to see that the 24 Festive Drums is becoming an attraction that is as interesting as JB’s annual Chingay parade,” said President of the Tiong Hua Association, Dato Sri Tey Kim Chai.  “Hosting the International Invitation & National Competition of the 24 Festive Drums in JB will also bring in revenue for the local community” he added.
It is interesting that this art form was exported back to China when the Foon Yew High School troop proudly performed the Malaysian 24 Festive Drums at Teochew City, China, on their first visit there in 2008.  In the same year, Malaysian students in Oklahoma State University started the first 24 Festive Drums troop in the United States and were proud that their drum troop had the privilege to perform at half-time for the NBA games in Oklahoma City in 2010.  

The troop from SMJK San Min Teluk Intan gave an
energetic and commendable performance in the 2012 contest

Since 2008 when drumming was included in the primary 6 school syllabus, drum troops have been established in primary and secondary schools in East and West Malaysia and even among the physically handicapped. 

Fans of the festive drums can look forward to a spectacular show featuring colourful and creative drum performances by Malaysian troops and foreign troops including the troops from the Oklahoma State University, USA, the University of Liverpool troop, UK, Hua Qiao University, China, Teochew Qinglong Ancient Temple, China and ZingO Festival Drum Group from Singapore.  Competing troops stand to win cash prizes, certificates of participation and the champion will take home the challenge trophy sponsored by Tan Sri Dato’ Low Nam Hui.

C P Tan [Seated 2nd from Left] with members of the
organizing committee at the event launch
With a smaller venue this year, tickets are limited and are available in categories priced at RM100, RM60, RM40 and RM20.  Ticket purchase also entitles photography enthusiasts to take part in a photography contest.  

Tickets are available from the JB Tiong Hua Association, JB Chinese Heritage Museum, Southern University College, Foon Yew High School and Kin Wah kopitiam at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk.  For enquiries Tel: Tel: 607 – 2249 633, Fax: 607 – 2249 635 or email enquiries to: heritage_museumjb@jb-tionghua.org.my

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 28 July 2014

Harbour Cafe's Ramadan spread

Harbour Cafe's buffet spread includes Roast Lamb Kuzi
and Nasi Pelangi that go well with an array of traditional
condiments and sauce dips
Break your fast this Ramadan at Harbour Café, Traders Hotel Puteri Harbour with family and friends over a sumptuous meal that’s reminiscent of home.  The chefs and their culinary teams at the Café have put together a buffet spread of 60 delectable dishes daily in 6 different menus that will be rotated throughout the month of Ramadan.  The breaking-of-fast buffets here will feature traditional favourites and home-style cooking designed in the tradition of family get-togethers. 
Break your fast traditionally with a selection of juicy dates and thirst-quenching drinks and then warm your stomach with the wholesome richness of Bubur Lambuk or rice porridge.  Then choose from a range of traditional appetizers like Sotong Kerabu (squid salad), Rojak Buah (fruit salad), Jeruk Mangga (pickled mango) and Chef Alan’s Special Vegetable Achar.  Executive Chef Alan said this vegetable pickle recipe, made with cucumber, turnip, carrot and cabbage tossed in crushed peanuts and sesame seeds, was inspired by his grandmother who used to make this delicious dish.

Vegetable Achar inspired by Chef Alan's grandmother
Fresh garden salad and cold cuts are among the range of western appetizers you can enjoy before moving to the main course items.  Chef Alan is making use of local strawberries from Cameron Highlands to create a light fruity sambal which he will use to bake with fresh whole salmon.  He has prepared up to three whole fish for each serving, so there will be enough for everyone to choose their favourite parts and savour this uniquely flavoured fish to your satisfaction.

“Just as in family-style dining, our lamb shanks are served whole for diners to share among family and friends,” said Chef Alan about the Singapore style Sup Gearbox which is braised for up to 4 hours in tomato-based thick gravy.  “These tender lamb shanks will be served warm from a giant kwali or wok and the best way to enjoy them is to eat with your fingers and dig in for its bone marrow,” he added. 

Chef Alan carves his signature salmon
baked with Cameron Highlands
strawberry sambal
More main course dishes like roasted whole Lamb Kuzi, Udang Gulai Nenas (prawns), Siput Lemak (shellfish), Ikan Bakar (grilled fish) and Ayam Percik Utara (chicken) go well with a choice of Nasi Pelangi (Rainbow Rice) and piping hot steamed white rice.  While Ayam Percik Utara is popular in the East Coast, Harbour Cafe is serving it here to meet the tastes of diners from the North who want a taste of home.  These are created with skewers of chicken marinated in a creamy sauce and grilled to perfection in the tandoor oven.

A taste of home is not complete without traditional condiments like a range of ulam (local salad), serunding (dried meat floss), tempoyak (fermented durian) and sambal belacan (spicy shrimp dip).  Live-cooking stations will be serving perennial local Malaysian favourites including roti canai and murtabak, dim sum and chee cheong fun, as well as sticks of grilled beef and chicken satay served with spicy peanut sauce and its condiments.  If you prefer some noodles, there are also choices of chicken noodle soup, Mee Bandung and Curry Laksa in the daily spread.

Sous Chef Mohd Anuar Abdullah [Left] and
Chef Neow Kok Meng presents a platter of
Nasi Pelangi with skewers of Ayam
Percik Utara
End your meal sweetly by watching the serving staff skillfully pull Teh Tarik or pulled tea and serve it with a frothy head.  Pick a choice of hot beverages and savour it with sweet treats like cubes of Supreme Durian Tempura that are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  You can look forward to an assortment of local kueh (cakes) and desserts like Bubur Cha-Cha as well as jellies, tarts, cakes, crumbles, mousses and ice-creams for a sweet ending.

Harbour Café continues in their tradition of good food quality and an incredible choice in dinner buffet spreads this Ramadan daily from June 28 to July 29, priced at RM108++ (adult) and RM54++ (child below age 12).  Live traditional Ghazal music performances start from July 2.  For reservations, Tel: 607 – 560 8888 or email: restaurantreservations.thph@tradershotel.com


Singapore style Sup Gearbox
Indulge in delectable cubes of Supreme Durian Tempura that are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 23 July 2014

Return to Jalan Ngee Heng

I received a giant cookie when I checked-in!
I’m counting and it’s been 37 years since I lived in Jalan Ngee Heng with our grandparents in our home at No.154.  We made many memories in this friendly neighbourhood but it was a sad day for us when Ah Kong or grandfather received a letter from the government advising him to vacate the house because the land was being acquired to build the highway.  I remember being part of the team along with my mum, aunts and grandma, who had the challenge to pack away everything in that double-storey bungalow and shift out after living there for about 50 years.

In 1977 Ah Kong’s house with an adjacent badminton court was demolished and the site became part of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak.  What remains of our grandfather’s house today is a tiny wedge of land situated directly opposite the Wisma Maria Medical Specialists Centre.  Part of this bit of land is occupied by an advertising pylon while an enterprising hawker has claimed our former driveway for his business!

My half-eaten cookie...
I’m glad the row of double-storey shops next to Ah Kong’s former house still remain and its original architecture still preserved.  I remember how we used to patronize the two family-run Chinese provision shops and were friendly with the operators of Indian laundries, a coffee shop, a tinsmith and the families and tenants who lived upstairs.  These buildings are now renovated for new businesses like restaurants, specialist clinics and medical laboratories and with DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru open for business now, they are poised to bring new life to this old road.

In April, I had the privilege of a sneak peek into the DoubleTree by Hilton JB hotel (Reinventing dear Jalan Ngee Heng, NST Streets Johor dated April 22) and I saw workers installing fixtures and putting finishing touches to the décor.  Suppliers delivered furniture and workers were tinkering away as I walked through the ground floor restaurants and I also saw the Level 13 restaurant and swimming pool.  I was simply exhilarated and amazed as I never imagined that an international brand hotel will be opened at No. 12, Jalan Ngee Heng and with all the work going on, I could imagine the elegance when they welcomed guests into their stunning hotel.

Night view of the swimming pool on Level 13 of
DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru
On May 30 I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation from the hotel to go for a trial stay and all I had to do was to confirm my check-in date.  As I replied with my preferred dates, I’m aware of what was involved in a trial stay and mentally prepared myself for the experience.  But most of all, I was just thrilled that I was going to stay in Jalan Ngee Heng again!

Guests at the DoubleTree by Hilton JB enjoy a parking privilege in the basement car-park so I drove along the one-way street down Jalan Gereja around Menara Landmark to reach the hotel porch to turn into the car-park.  I like the freshly-painted, brightly-lit basement car-park that has spacious driveways and wide parking lots.  Following the signs, it was easy to find my way to the hotel lobby and on checking-in I was presented with my room keys along with DoubleTree’s signature giant chocolate chip cookie!

The cookie-with-check-in is a delightful DoubleTree by Hilton gesture to welcome guests and I could not wait to taste it as it felt warm and heavy in my hand.  As soon as the bell staff dropped my bags and left the room, I reached for my cookie and started to munch on it while I inspected the room facilities.  One bite led to the next and I almost finished the 0.056 kg (almost 2 ounces) cookie filled with generous sprinkles of melting chocolate buttons and chopped nuts before I remembered and stopped to take a photo of it!

Ah Kong's former house was at the top of
Jalan Ngee Heng at the end of the row of shops [Right]
Members of Hilton HHonors guest loyalty programme, invited guests and representatives from the media like me, thronged the hotel for an experience before it opened on July 1. 
We sampled a wide range of local cuisine served from live cooking stations and buffet spreads in the Makan Kitchen and savoured snacks, sandwiches, salads and pastries with brewed beverages at the Food Store.  Refreshing drinks were enjoyed at Axis Lounge in the lobby and by night, the charming ambience at the Level 13 poolside was the preferred place to chill out after dinner.

Concierge staff helping me upon my check-out
My stay was not a laze-and-eat time but I was tasked with the responsibility to use the hotel facilities and experience the outlets to give constructive feedback in forms provided.  The hotel is committed to their hospitality brand and takes a serious view of my comments after I had sampled food and interacted with staff for my experience of food quality, facilities and service standards.  While hiccups are expected in pre-opening operations, I’m glad that everything is being done to give guests a special experience at the first DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Johor.

When I snuggled down to sleep, the bed was oh so comfortable but their pillows were just too soft for me.  The Housekeeping Department was still in the process of preparing a menu of pillows so I made do with my usual modification of adding a layer of fluffy towels to my stack of soft pillows.  The sun was peeping in from the edges of drawn curtains when I woke up and I was shocked to see the time because I had slept so soundly but it felt so good to wake up in Jalan Ngee Heng again, just as I did 37 years ago.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 21 July 2014

He cooks in the dark

Allan Fraude cooks in the dark!
When a friend told me about Allan Fraude, the star of a 13-episode TV series “Cooking in the Dark,” I was keen to share his story because Fraude is blind and he cooks.  With the right attitude, Fraude, 53, has overcome obstacles with sheer determination and I believe his passion for cooking will inspire others who may be going through challenges in life.  So I made arrangements to visit him and experience his culinary skills.  It was a reunion of sorts when I invited myself over for lunch because way back in the 1950s, my parents and Fraude’s mother used to work together in the Johor Baru General Hospital (now known as Hospital Sultanah Aminah). 

So while our mothers sat down for their chit-chat, I join Fraude in the kitchen to start his cooking demonstration.  Even sighted people may have problems in whipping up a meal but when Fraude comes into his kitchen, he seems comfortable in a
familiar space.  That’s because his wife, Wong Man Chen, has organised their kitchen in such a way that Fraude knows where everything is and can reach for items quite conveniently.  The twin sinks, narrow draining board area as well as the four-stove gas cooker are his domain when he takes over the kitchen to cook seven dishes for our lunch.
Fraude's spicy Devil Curry
The affable Fraude kept up a lively banter as he worked and he did not hesitate to apologise for his small kitchen and how he always works up a sweat while cooking.  I assured him that it’s all right because perspiration is all part of the exercise and that I will let him freshen up after cooking with enough time to powder his nose before the photography session. 

Throughout this time, Fraude was moving around the kitchen between the sink, stove and refrigerator and I was careful to dodge out of his way as he moved with confidence in his familiar work space.

Early Influences

Fraude, the sixth in a family with five older sisters and one younger brother, was not born blind but gradually lost his sight in 1990 due to glaucoma.  His late father, Kalliff Paul Fraude, a Eurasian of Scottish and Thai descent was born in Ipoh and came to Johor to work as a Field Conductor with the Kulai Palm Oil Estate.  His Thai grandmother used to prepare spicy dishes in Thai recipes and as his father acquired a very spicy taste, Fraude and his siblings also got used to the fiery flavours of their unique Thai-Eurasian recipes.  Fraude recalls how he used to help his grandmother buy ingredients for her recipes and this was probably what sparked his interest in cooking and the reason for his personal taste of extremely hot spicy flavours!

Fraude pounding dried prawns using
a traditional mortar and pestle
Chili padi – the small firecracker chili peppers – features greatly in the recipes that were handed down through his Thai grandmother to his father.  Fraude said that his father had a few favourites like Devil Curry, fried kway teow and fried rice that he often cooked for the family, always laced with a generous dash of chili padi.  He fondly remembers how irresistible his father’s Devil Curry was because no matter how spicy it tasted, they would bear the heat to eat it.  They were probably trained for it because since he and his siblings were about 2 or 3 years old his mother would pick the potatoes from the spicy Devil Curry and rinse them out in water for them to eat! 

In the estate, they lived in a bungalow and had a carefree childhood, roaming the estate and mixing freely with Malay and Indian neighbours.  Fraude said they discovered the pleasure of eating traditional Malay and Indian food and were exposed to various cuisine and cultures especially during their festive seasons.  One of the images he remembers well from his childhood is how his mother would grind her own chili paste manually using a batu giling or grinding stone, to cook her famous curry and other spicy dishes.  She is Chinese Teochew and between her Chinese recipes and his father’s Eurasian dishes, they created some unique family favourites, the most popular being a form of Roti John they fondly call Roti Babi because it is a sandwich filled with minced pork, dipped in egg batter before being fried and then savoured with a special spicy dip sauce.  

In those days, travelling traders would set up a small pasar malam or night market in the estate on pay days to sell food and clothes.  Fraude said this was a much anticipated month-end treat for the family because his father often bought them satay and ketupat from a vendor.  He said they seldom ate out and the only times they could savour meals in restaurants was when they were invited to relatives’ wedding banquets.  Even after tasting a wide variety of food, the fond memories of all the good food that his parents used to cook are an inspiration for him to replicate them.

Turning Point

His wife, Man Chen, was a former schoolmate who became his sweetheart and they were married in 1989.  For 10 years Fraude was a Frontline Staff with a bank in Kulaijaya and over the years, he often experienced high eye pressure and was later diagnosed with glaucoma.  He did not realise that optic nerve damage was gradually developing in his eyes and his vision was slowly deteriorating.  Man Chen recalls the horror of being called to the bank one day for an emergency when Fraude was suddenly bleeding from his left eye.

Allan Fraude with his wife, Man Chen [2nd from Left], their daughter Rebecca [Left], his mother, Rose [Right] and
their pet dogs Dang Dang and Tzu Tzu [on his lap]
She rushed him to the hospital but after treatment, the permanent damage to the optic nerves resulted in his gradual loss of sight in his left eye.  Man Chen will never forget that night in 1990 when she was pregnant at full-term and her water suddenly broke.  She said it was a miracle that Fraude managed to drive her safely to the hospital in Johor Baru at about 2am when there was less than 10% vision left in his right eye! 

Fraude’s glaucoma degenerated rapidly and when their daughter, Rebecca, was just two months old, he became blind.  With such a disability, he could no long work with the bank and had to be rehabilitated to acquire new skills.  In 1993, Fraude joined the Gurney Training Centre in Kuala Lumpur where he learnt to read Braille and other skills to live with his disability.  Even though Fraude took a training course in massage therapy, he did not pursue it as a career.

Fraude with the dishes he cooked for
our lunch!
Man Chen became the sole breadwinner of the family and as she hardly had time to cook, they usually had their meals in the homes of Fraude’s mother and his mother-in-law or they would eat at nearby restaurants.  At one point, they decided to order catered food for its convenience but it was not long before they got tired of the menu and cancelled the order.  In her advancing age, his mother seldom cooked and as Fraude started to miss her food, he decided to try cooking their family recipes.

It was a turning point for Fraude when he made up his mind to be useful in the kitchen to provide meals as memorable as what he experienced in his own childhood.  If he was unsure of the recipes, he would phone his mother to ask her about ingredients and how to prepare certain dishes.  He realised that if he did not learn how to cook those familiar favourites, he may never taste them again because even his sisters did not master their family’s recipes. 

“My wife and daughter were my guinea pigs,” said Fraude with a chuckle as Man Chen smiled in agreement.  Her courage in supporting his culinary pursuits reaped a mutual benefit because Fraude gained a new confidence as he successfully whipped up many family recipes not only to his own satisfaction but to the delight of family and friends who enjoy his delicious dishes.  

Cooking in the Dark

Fraude’s new-found confidence in cooking caught the attention of his niece, Sonia Chall, who was so impressed that she introduced him to a local production company, Crooked Mirror Productions.  The producer cast him as the star of their 13-episode TV series “Cooking in the Dark” where the blind cook shares the secrets of his family recipes.  In the 30-minute programme hosted by Malaysian TV personality, Jay Menon, Fraude demonstrates his unique ability to cook in the dark as he kept up a lively banter with her.  This TV series aims to inspire the disabled with Fraude’s “can-do” spirit and uses cooking as a life analogy to show how we can overcome any obstacles in life with determination and a positive attitude.  

Cameras filming Fraude for the TV series
with Jay Menon looking on
He recalls his exciting experience during the filming in Kuala Lumpur and the challenges of cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen but agreed that it was great fun to whip up more than 20 of his family’s recipes for the series.  Besides his father’s recipe for Devil Curry, Fraude also made local favourites like popiah, nasi lemak, petai sambal as well as Indian fish curry.  While the TV series is in post production and waiting to be aired, I’m glad that Fraude graciously agreed to demonstrate his cooking and let me taste some of his food.

“I’ve never cut myself before,” said Fraude with a smug smile as he wielded the knife with precision to slice the cucumbers for stir-frying with dried shrimps and garlic.  Using his touch and feel senses, Fraude put dried shrimps and garlic pips into the mortar and pounded them with the pestle.  I watched with fascination as Fraude washed and measured out the lengths of brinjals and ladies fingers and deftly cut them into equal lengths to add into the Fish Curry simmering in the pot.  He listens to the sizzle and pop and smells the fragrance of the sautéed ingredients to ascertain how well cooked the food is as he moves the pots and pans around the stove and sink with an amazing skill by literally cooking in the dark.

My mum [Left] catching up with Rose, a former colleague
As we sit down to enjoy a sumptuous lunch of some of Fraude’s favourites, I’m deeply humbled because he has proven beyond a doubt that his sightless eyes, is no disability.  My respect for Fraude grew with every bite of his fiery Devil Curry, Fish Curry, Masala Mashed Potatoes, Egg Omelet, stir-fried Cucumber with dried shrimps and garlic, Stewed Chicken in black sauce and stir-fried Bean Sprouts with salted fish.  His determination to live more independently and contribute actively to the well-being of his family, is truly an inspiration.  As Rebecca helped to serve at the table and Man Chen tidied up the kitchen, I can sense their unspoken pride in Fraude.

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 20 July 2014

Return to Masai-chusettes

Modern street in Masai now
One of the earliest stories I shared in My Johor Stories was, Going back to Masai-chusettes, with memories of Masai, the district where my parents were transferred for their work with the Government Health Centre.  This was way back when Johor Port was yet to be developed and Pasir Gudang was just kampung Pasir Gudang with a beautiful sandy beach where I learnt to swim.  At that time, Masai was like a “cow-boy town” with just one main road that was bordered by ramshackle shophouses.

My sisters and I used to commute to school by school van and we travelled almost 26 km or 16 miles each way on the old road between Johor Baru and Masai.  I remember our driver, Ah Tek, and his family also ran a coffeeshop in Masai and on our drive back from school, he often stopped at a supplier in Pandan to collect trays of steamed pau to ferry back to their shop in Masai.  I will never forget the mouth-watering aroma that filled the van and how my stomach growled as I fantasized about sinking my teeth into those freshly steamed pau!

Road sign for Jalan Sekolah in Masai
Later when we were in secondary school, we often stayed back for extra-curricular activities and it made more sense if we took the public bus instead of the school van.  In those days, there was no bus terminal in Masai and so at night after the last trip back to Masai, the driver would park the bus on the grassy verge at Jalan Sekolah by the Post Office.  

Sometimes the driver of this Alec Bus No. 39 may forget to shut the windows and when we boarded the bus in the semi-darkness early the next morning, we would be accosted by swarms of mosquitoes that had come to hide inside the bus!

Another view of the main road in Masai
Jalan Sekolah was also the road that led to the Pusat Kesihatan Kechil or Health Sub-Centre where my parents used to work.  In my story, My mum the midwife, I shared some of my mum’s adventures as a midwife among the families who lived in and around Masai, as well as in the nearby estates and Felda settlements.  While my mum was allocated a terrace unit of staff quarters in the health centre compound, my dad – the Hospital Assistant or “doctor” and dresser – was assigned a single storey bungalow. 

Mum however, never occupied her quarters because as family, we stayed in dad’s bungalow next to the health centre.  My parents were based in Masai for 13 years and as they became part of the local community, my siblings and I were fondly referred to as anak mee-see, mee-see or missy being the local phrase for nurse.  The house next to ours was a semi-detached unit with each unit occupied by the families of the Assistant Nurse and the Staff Nurse.

Sign for Pusat Kesihatan Kechil at the health centre
My parents enjoy gardening and they used to spend a lot of time weeding and tending to the flower beds around our bungalow and next to the Health Centre.  At one time, dad started growing vegetables and the grassy space between the health centre and our bungalow was their vegetable patch, neatly cultivated with cabbages, chillie, eggplant or brinjals and ladies fingers plants.  I shared this in Green Fingers, my story about my parents and their organic farming experience in our own little garden in Masai.

When my younger brother was old enough to go to school, my parents decided that it was better for us, school-going children, to live with our grandparents rather than spend time in the daily commute.  Our Ah Kong or grandfather’s house was at Jalan Ngee Heng, just walking distance to our schools, a most convenient location particularly for my brother who went to St Joseph School.  During this period, our term holidays were always extra special because we spent them in Masai.

The sorry state of the former health centre now
My siblings and I visited Masai recently and we saw that it is no longer a one-road town but has a network of roads and lanes with new blocks of buildings and a much wider main road.  The Chinese temple is a familiar landmark but there is now a bus terminal and the town was teeming with cars and pedestrians.  I asked my brother to drive around to have a look at our former home next to the health centre and he drove up the back road from the town.  

When I saw the doctor’s quarters – last occupied by Dr John Daniel when mum and dad were still based there – with an overgrown garden, I suspected that things have drastically changed.  The two rows of terraced staff quarters have been renovated but they were all shut and there was nobody around.  Then when we rounded the bend to drive up the slope where the garage was situated next to the Health Centre, we realised that the whole compound was abandoned!

Facade of our former home in Masai
The gates of the health centre were thrown wide open and the building, with its doors removed, seemed forlorn and plants were even growing inside.  While the dilapidated interior is typical of an abandoned building, a section looked bright and I guessed that it was because the roof was broken and natural light was pouring in.  It was a sorry sight, especially as the banner with the barely visible words, Di larang masuk, was also torn and fraying – and I wondered how long have this place been left to rot and fall apart!

I figured that the Government Health Centre has been rebuilt at another site but it was sad to see how the entire compound here had been carelessly abandoned.  The roof of our former home have been changed and it looked like it was recently painted, and it made me wonder if there are plans to use those buildings again but the wide open gates are an invitation for intruders to get up to some mischief in Government property.  As we left the site, I was filled with sadness for the sorry state of this place that we once called home and where we made many fond memories.

The Masai Health Centre has relocated to a bigger site at the top of Jalan Sekolah

Tan's battle against H1N1

Tan Ban Gun is a businessman in Johor Baru
Angela, my friend from Asia Medevac Services (AMS) called me one evening recently to ask if I can join them to meet a patient who was going back to the hospital for his first check-up.  I was rather puzzled until she clarified that his was a rare case where the patient had a dangerous lung condition and was literally brought back from the brink of death with ECMO support.  I listened carefully to ascertain if this was a newsworthy item while I mentally checked my calendar to see if I could avail myself for this.  As I began to understand what Angela was saying, I felt that I should cancel anything lined up to go with her to meet with the patient and his doctors.

Our arrangement was to travel to the hospital together and Angela said that she will collect me from my house rather than let me park at her office.  On that morning of our appointment, she messaged me saying that their driver will pick me and that I should expect an ambulance!  I’m aware that they operate an ambulance service so I replied in jest telling her that I refuse to lie down…

I guess our neighbours who observed an ambulance arriving at our house were curious but must have been surprised that I took time to snap photos and then climb in at the front passenger seat!

My ride to the office was in an AMS ambulance!
The driver and I had a nice chit-chat about his work while he sent me to the AMS office located at the lobby level of Tropical Inn JB where I met Angela and she drove us to the hospital.  When we arrived, it was already close to lunch time and she told me we were going to eat soon.  The patient, Tan Ban Gun, 59, with his wife and son were in the lobby, waiting for Dr Su Jang Wen, the thoracic & cardiovascular surgery specialist, who would be joining us for lunch.  

On our drive, Angela filled me in on the details about Tan’s case and how he had a miraculous recovery after a 21-day stay in hospital.  By the time we meet, Tan would have completed his first check-up with Dr Su and after lunch, Tan would go to for his check-up with Dr Kenneth Chan, the respiratory physician & ICU specialist.  Our time together would give me the opportunity to meet both the doctors who looked after Tan and interview Tan and his family members.

Doctor [Left] having lunch with his patient, Tan [Right]
When I was introduced to Tan, he was understandably bursting to tell me about how his dramatic medical experience had given him a new perspective of life.  As his wife looked on with loving indulgence, Tan spoke to me enthusiastically in a mixture of English and Mandarin, while his son chipped in to clarify what his father was trying to tell me.  We continued our chat over lunch and even though it was a sumptuous meal, I must admit that I could hardly eat because I was getting a whole lot of info from the doctor as well as Tan and his family.  

By the end of the afternoon, I managed to grasp a clearer picture of the medical emergency and the emotional roller-coaster ride that this family went through to save Tan’s life.  This is Tan’s story:

About one and a half months after I returned from a trip to China, I was the only member of our group to start having cough and flu symptoms.  I have never been hospitalised in my life but this was the start of a dramatic medical adventure that led to my 21-day stay in hospital.  At first, I consulted a clinic doctor as an outpatient but after taking his prescription, my cough and flu symptoms still persisted so I went to consult another doctor but even after I took the second prescription, the symptoms still did not cease.

I consulted the third doctor, explained that I did not improve even after two courses of medicine and he suggested taking a chest X-Ray.  From the X-ray, he suspected a viral infection and advised me to get admitted for treatment in a hospital.  On admission, I was placed in the normal ward but my condition rapidly deteriorated and the next morning, I was put in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  I had difficulty in breathing and was told that I had contracted pneumonia, a condition which caused my lungs to be almost completely filled with fluid. 

Dr Su Jang Wen [Left] with Tan on the day
the patient was discharged  from hospital
Efforts to help me breathe through a ventilator only made matters worse and I was deteriorating so rapidly that I later learnt that my wife, who was with me, was so shocked that she fainted.  She and my eldest son were afraid that they were going to lose me and sought the help of the doctors to give me a chance to survive.  They realised that part of the problem was that the ventilator was exerting a positive pressure on the lungs to force air in and this was increasing the inflammatory response.

When my family reached a decision to transfer me to another hospital, the doctors contacted the Parkway Patient Assistance Centre in JB who initiated an emergency response from Asia Medevac Services (AMS), an organisation who provides bed-to-bed transfer services in this region, and made the necessary arrangements for me to be moved.  Later my son told me that the doctors from the discharging and receiving hospitals spoke to him about my delicate condition but my son was determined to do everything possible to save me.  At that point, I had only 13 per cent of lung capacity left but my family was prepared to take the risk and shift me to better medical facilities if it means that I would have a chance to live.

Meanwhile Dr Su Jang Wen, a thoracic and cardiovascular specialist and his team at the receiving hospital were preparing the ICU room with all the necessary support equipment for me while AMS rushed me over in about 30 minutes through an emergency transfer.  On arrival, I was immediately hooked up to the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) support, a process that drew blood while adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide before pumping it back, to allow my lungs to rest and recover.  While I was on ECMO support for five days, I was also constantly monitored by Dr Kenneth Chan, a respiratory physician & ICU specialist, who made sure I was safe and comfortable.

Tan with Dr Kenneth Chan in the hospital garden
on his first check-up date back at the hospital
When my breathing stablised, I gradually recovered and stayed in the hospital for another 16 days.  No one would have imagined that I almost lost my life because of flu symptoms but later, tests showed that my condition was caused by the H1N1 flu virus.  At a recent check-up appointment at the hospital, the doctors found that I had lost 10kg and now weigh only 80kg.  I used to have borderline high blood pressure but now I am normal and I feel like a new man!

My doctors explained that ECMO treatment was originally used by surgeons for heart and lung surgeries but now the equipment has been simplified and the technology was transferred for use in the ICU.  I’m ever grateful to the partnership of Dr Su and Dr Chan, working as a team for ECMO treatments for almost 5 years, and how they did everything possible to ensure my survival.  I’m also thankful to the efficiency of AMS, the first of its kind bed-to-bed transfer services based in JB for patients in this region, for without their support, I may not be here today.

I am from Pontian and I met my wife, who is from Segamat, while we were in Singapore and we settled down in JB.  We have three sons, the eldest aged 32, and we have been operating a small business as a gas cylinder distributor in Mt Austin for more than 20 years.  As an entrepreneur, I have been pushing myself relentlessly all these years but since recovering from this life-threatening experience, I’m looking at life differently now.

I must have been at Death’s door but now that I’ve been given a new lease in life, the next chapter of my life will certainly be more meaningful.  I have learnt that life is indeed priceless and now that I have been reborn, I’m not driving myself so hard but am going at a much slower pace, taking walks in the park, getting in touch with Nature and enjoying my family life.  More importantly, now I can look forward to seeing my sons get married.  

For more info on Asia Medevac Services, visit website: www.asiamedevac.com
For more info on thoracic & cardiovascular surgery specialist, visit website: www.tcss.sg
More info on Respiratory Medical Associates can be found on website: www.respmed-associates.sg

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor, on 16 July 2014

Charming coffeeshop culture

Toast and teh-see: Notice how they typically serve
the drink carelessly spilled into the saucer!
Long before air-conditioned coffeehouses and cafes started in Johor Baru, there were family-run coffeeshops that locals fondly call kopitiam.  

This word is coined from the Malay word for coffee, kopi and tiam, the word for ‘shop’ in Hokkien dialect, probably because the early coffeeshop operators were mainly Chinese of Hokkien, Hockchew and Hainanese dialect groups.  Even as more chic cafes and franchise coffee-chains are opening in our rapidly developing city, a few old kopitiams are still thriving with the patronage of a loyal clientele.

Coffeeshop coffee is not only often served spilled into
the saucer but it may also come in chipped crockery!
I used to go Johor Baru’s main market, then located at Jalan Wong Ah Fook (where JB City Square is now), with grandma and I remember our coffee powder was bought from a vendor who had a stall in the upper floor.  The young Indian vendor whom we nicknamed, Cassius Clay – the former name of champion boxer Mohammad Ali – would weigh out grandma’s choice of coffee-beans before putting them in a grinder.  I can still hear the shrill whine of the grinder and the fragrant aroma as the beans – the pure stuff that was not roasted with sugar or butter – were ground to the desired texture and neatly packed into brown paper bags for us.

Coffeeshops still use traditional cloth bag
strainers when they brew their coffee!

With such fine quality coffee being brewed at home, there was no reason for us to drink coffee outside.  So my first experience of going to a coffeeshop was probably when we were travelling en route to Ipoh for our family holidays.  In those days when there was no Plus Highway with proper toilets in rest stops, the toilet convenience in the coffeeshop was why we stopped there and sometimes had drinks and snacks.

In those days, the standard furniture in coffeeshops was marble-topped round or square tables matched by wooden chairs with round seats.  The name of the coffeeshop would be emblazoned across a huge mirror on at least one wall as well as on the bamboo chinks hung from the front entrance that was unrolled to keep the interior cooler.  Since the 1940s, coffeeshop décor was typically beer, soft-drinks and cigarettes advertisements that were graced by popular Hong Kong female movie stars with the products and brand logos. 

The menu at traditional coffeeshops usually
include these items.  Can you identify them?
One of the first things that I noticed in a coffeeshop and remains engraved in my memory must be the spittoon that was placed under each table.  My mum warned me to stop swinging my legs under the table or risk accidentally kicking the spittoon over and I obeyed, cringing at the thought of countless people having spat in it.  Back then spittoons were provided for people who chewed tobacco and even though it was unhealthy, public spitting was socially acceptable.  But I’m grateful that the use of spittoons in coffeeshops gradually disappeared in the 1980s.  

The coffeeshop ambience also left an impression of noise and chaos contributed by the convivial chatter of customers that was punctuated by frequent yells among the staff.  I observed how the staff must speak in loud volumes because order-takers would transmit the customers’ orders to the staff at the work stations simply by shouting the order in their lingo.  They just did not believe in walking a few steps to convey the message but must shout it and I used to be amazed at how the messages could be accurately received over the din!  It was quite impossible for me to decipher their language but much later I learnt that “Kopi-O noh!” means two black coffees!

An elegant Nasi Lemak set served in modern coffeeshops
In traditional coffeeshops, kopi refers to coffee with condensed milk while kopi-O is black coffee.  If you want your coffee with evaporated milk, your order should be kopi-C and it is served with sugar unless you clearly state, kopi-C kosong.  If you like an extra strong brew, you should say, kopi-kau because kau means strong and dense in Hokkien dialect or you say kopi-O-kau for extra strong black coffee.  These phrases also apply for tea orders like teh-O for black tea or teh-C for tea with evaporated milk but the permutations can get quite complicated for instance, a black tea order without sugar but with ice is, “teh-O-kosong-peng.”  

In the beauty of coffeeshop language, a phrase like teh-O-kosong-peng is a typical Malaysian mix of languages that reflect the social circles that gather regularly in traditional kopitiams.  Coffeeshop customers present a scene of unity and racial harmony where all races share a common bond in enjoying coffee and a favourite menu of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs, nasi lemak and mee siam.  From politicians, lawyers, retirees, businessmen and families to career women, the kopitiam remains the place for people to sit together for a drink or a meal, not just at breakfast but also for lunch and afternoon tea.  

It's heart warming to see that our typically
Malaysian coffeeshop culture still prevails today!

Last week in a kopitiam, I enjoyed breakfast along with customers of different races who can agree on the menu of coffee, kaya toast and the range of rice and noodles.  There was something familiar about slurping up perfectly timed soft-boiled eggs from a saucer and not being offended if coffee or tea was served in chipped crockery or spilled into the saucer.  Even though we are seeing more coffee joints and artisan cafes that meet the ice-blended, cappuccino and latte tastes of urbanites, it’s heartwarming to know that there is still a clientele who appreciates coffeeshop cuisine and culture. 

Then I watched as two men arrived – Chinese and Indian – and when they saw that all tables were already occupied, they did the acceptable thing in kopitiams.  They politely asked and then tompang or joined a table occupied by two young men that had two vacant seats.  By then I was no longer looking surreptitiously but openly staring at them because I was totally charmed by this personification of Malaysian coffeeshop culture.  The two men sat down, chatted amiably with the young men and when their orders arrived, enjoyed their meal together in warm camaraderie.  Such a culture of harmony and agreement that still prevails in our charming coffeeshops is truly an inspiration for us to emulate in our daily lives.

A version of this article was published in the July issue of The Iskandarian