On a sentimental journey with Danny

Last February, I received a message from Danny Koh, a reader who said he recognized a familiar face – that of my grandmother – while he was using Google to search for photos of old Johor, in particular Jalan Ngee Heng!

Danny Koh at Kota Iskandar
He clicked on that photo and it led him to My Johor Stories and a collection of stories and photos which he read and re-read with interest as it brought back long forgotten memories. He regretted that over the years, he had lost all his JB contacts and he said, coming across my articulately written blog was like a Godsend!

Danny, the youngest of four children in their family, said he’s pretty sure that our paths had crossed on more than one occasion when I was little. That was because, his family used to live at No. 30 Jalan Ngee Heng, in the terrace row of houses across the road from our grandparents’ house at No. 154.

In 1965, their family moved from Jalan Ngee Heng to Taman Kebun Teh. He left Johor Baru in 1973 to further his studies in the UK and settled in London where he built his life and career.  In 2003, he migrated to Brisbane, Australia, where he now lives.

His mother, who’s now advanced in age, had moved from their home in Taman Kebun Teh to live with his sister and brother-in-law in Singapore.

In front of English College, Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar
In a long and rambling message, he listed names of my relatives whom he was familiar with and believed that they too would remember his parents.  He clearly remembered that his parents used to go across the road to attend events held on the badminton court at Ah Kong or grandfather’s house, like a wedding banquet and also to pay respects at the passing of Uncle Robert.

Danny’s memories rekindled my own because the wedding banquet his parents attended was probably that of my parents. In those days, it was common to invite cooks and their kitchen team over to serve a banquet and my parents’ wedding banquet was catered by New Hong Kong Restaurant in this manner, for guests to dine at tables set up on the badminton court.

Revisiting the site fondly known as Happy Valley
I also remember the crowds of people who came to pay their respects at his wake when Uncle Robert lost the battle to cancer. The casket was set up under a canopy on the badminton court. My siblings and cousins, who were then staying with our grandparents, had our share in making uncle feel more comfortable during his last days.

In the closing paragraph of Danny’s detailed message, he said the last time he visited JB was probably in 1997.  He said, “I do miss that little town which I grew up in. I travel to Singapore as all my family live there, and I have had fleeting visits to JB (mainly to indulge in food I have missed!)  Coming across your blog has made me realise I still have that ‘Johorean’ in me!  Perhaps it’s high time for me to make a special trip back to my roots.”

At the Church of Immaculate Conception JB
I replied and told Danny that JB is no longer a ‘little town’ as it has developed quite rapidly with widespread suburbs, many located much further than Taman Kebun Teh, a residential area which he said, was considered so far from town back in the mid 1960’s!

In March, his mother’s health took a sudden turn for the worse and he was asked to come to see her, maybe for the last time. Before he boarded his flight to Singapore, he rushed a message off to tell me about his unplanned trip and would be in touch later.

A week passed before I heard from him again. He told me how he spent the past week by his mother’s hospital bed and on the doctor’s advice, the family would move her to a palliative care facility.  After she was settled into the hospice, he thought it would be good to take a break with a weekend in JB, to meet me.

Later, I was told that his siblings would usually come to JB and drive directly to his mother’s house in Taman Kebun Teh to do what they needed to do and then return to Singapore immediately.  They hardly stopped to do any shopping or dining because negative news reports about the security situation in JB had somehow poisoned their minds and made them to think that JB is a notorious place and Singapore registered cars and its occupants, were unsafe here!

Danny with his sister, Lily, a studio
shot taken at Chau Wah Photo Studio
So that Friday afternoon when I took Danny to lunch, we got down from my car and walked across the road to a neighbourhood café.  As we walked that short distance, Danny told me that this was literally the first time he was walking on JB streets (other than from the car into his mother’s house!) since he left JB in 1973!

Then he shared with me, the wrong impression his family had of the security in JB.  I told him that as in any developing city in the world, our city has its fair share of crime. But falling victim to crime was really a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and visitors must be street smart. 

I assured him that he would get a real sense of the security situation here as I show him new and familiar sites in and around JB. So in the next 48 hours, Danny got reacquainted with the JB he once knew. 

When I showed him the impressive buildings at Kota Iskandar and the marina at Puteri Harbour, he simply marveled at the new developments in Iskandar Puteri.

Revisiting the shortcut that links Jalan Trus
to Jalan Wong Ah Fook
A large chunk of his memories were made when he used to ride a bicycle around and he fondly remembers the JB Convent where his sister went to school.  Then I took him to schools he studied in, first at Ngee Heng Primary School – the old premises, now a Government department – and secondary school at English College or Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar.

He remembers going for outings at a nature destination with a stream flowing through it fondly called Happy Valley and I took him to explore the site next to present-day Merdeka Park, for a glimpse of where he made many happy memories.

Danny told me he used to explore the area behind their house in Jalan Ngee Heng where he discovered the awesome sight inside the Church of Immaculate Conception, and how he embraced the religion.  He walked into the church by a side door and took his time to walk around the compound, retracing his steps when he often visited this sanctuary.

The structure at the rear of the shophouse,
has already caved in
To visit JB’s heritage quarter, I parked at the Galleria Kotaraya and as we were heading out, we met Andy Lim, the gentleman whose family used to operate the Chau Wah Photo Studio. 

Danny told him that their family used to go to this studio to snap their family photos, which was the thing to do in those days because not everyone owned a camera.  Then he (whipped out his smartphone!) to show off one of those precious studio shots of himself and his sister that was taken by Chau Wah Photo Studio so long ago!

We left the Galleria to walk up Jalan Trus to see the Johor Gu Miao or Old Temple – a place Danny remembered visiting with his father.

Across the road, Danny saw the shortcut that linked Jalan Trus to Jalan Wong Ah Fook and recalls how he used to enjoy eating a tasty laksa from a hawker stall that was usually parked around here.  He wanted to walk down the shortcut because his grandmother’s house was the shophouse next to the footpath, facing Jalan Wong Ah Fook.

At the entrance to his grandmother's place
As he led the way, I saw that it was a deeply sentimental journey for Danny as he reminisced about how he used to stay with his grandmother in this very shophouse and now to see its sorry state with the structure in the rear already caved in.  He said they used to live in both the downstairs and upstairs but later the downstairs unit was rented out to a coffeeshop business.

Then we walked down Jalan Ungku Puan to the site of the former pasak-kia or Chinese food court, where he remembered enjoying many good meals, and we saw that it was just a flattened, vacant piece of land adjacent to the infamous Sungai Segget!

A visit to the heritage quarter is not complete without a trip to the JB Chinese Heritage Museum so I had the privilege of sharing with Danny, a bit on the Chinese community’s role in the development of JB.  

Familiar food was another item on the itinerary so I took him to various destinations to have the street food that he sorely missed. When we talked about the noodles that he used to enjoy in JB, he was quick to say, ‘Ho Seng Kee’ and was surprised when I told him that they were still in business!

Glad he found his favourite noodles again!
They were not only in business, but the brand has been given a new lease of life in a café menu that is being enjoyed by regulars as well as new generation of noodle lovers who appreciate the unique taste of handmade egg noodles that are made with duck’s eggs!

I guess his mouth must have been watering as we discussed these delicious noodles and he was so thrilled that he rushed a message to his sister in Singapore – another fan of these amazing noodles. 

As we made our way to Ho Seng Kee on level 6 of Johor Baru City Square, Danny was telling me his strategy for eating these wantan noodles, first in the soup version and then, if he had some more space, the dry-tossed version. 

Check out the comments Danny wrote on the Visitors
book at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum!
Then he was silent, probably doing some mental calculations on how many bowls of noodles he wanted to buy as takeaways to give his sister a surprise treat!

So with two carrier bags full of Ho Seng Kee noodles, Danny left after an eventful weekend in JB.

Soon after he crossed the border into Singapore, he sent a message thanking me and saying how he had such a wonderful and emotional experience in rediscovering his hometown, going back to visit significant places of his early years and seeing in amazement how the town has grown into such a bustling city.  And of course, the delight of eating local food – so many restaurants, food courts and other makan places – which he said, requires more visits to further indulge!

I couldn’t help smiling when I read his message.  I was just glad I could help him reconnect with JB again.

Cooking with Poonam

When I met Poonam Singh at the North Indian restaurant, she was also here for the food-tasting. During the meal, I observed how a good cook can vouch for the authentic taste of cuisine she’s familiar with.

Poonam Singh, a gracious host and a good cook
I paid attention to her comments about the cuisine and learnt that she is familiar with North Indian food because she grew up eating and preparing it.  Besides reviewing the food that day, I got to know her better.   

Poonam, who comes from North-East India, has lived in Johor Baru for almost four years. Her husband’s work brought her and their family first to Singapore, where they lived for three years before they moved to JB.

While she got acquainted with the city she now calls home and made many friends, Poonam longed to do something useful with her skills in cooking and baking.

With her husband’s support, she started conducting baking classes at Puteri Harbour.  Her famous cinnamon rolls is one of the popular items baked in class.

Poonam and Sashi with their dinner guests
When they entertained guests at home, there was always an interesting menu of home-cooked North Indian dishes, complete with dessert. Guests who were impressed with her cooking skills often asked her for recipes and how to prepare this or that dish.

So it was a natural process for Poonam to become a teacher and guide to help those who are keen on learning how to prepare various types of food, cakes or pastries. 

Two years ago, she started giving cooking lessons to small groups of up to 15 people, usually held in one of their homes in Horizon Hills, East Ledang, Puteri Harbour or Bukit Indah.  This was both fun and challenging because she had to lug the necessary kitchen equipment along as most of the client’s homes were not equipped for preparing North Indian cuisine!

Her cooking classes are held once a week.  Almost once a month, she would accept an invitation to be a private chef to cook a sensational meal at a client’s kitchen which was graciously served to guests in their home.

Pumpkin Pakora sizzling in the pan
As the popularity of her North Indian cuisine is being spread by word-of-mouth, Poonam is keeping busy with conducting cooking classes or catering for small groups of up to 25 people.

Besides these activities, Poonam also prepares North Indian condiments like mango chutney and ready-to-cook masala paste, packed in 500gm bottles for sale online through her Facebook page, Poonam Spice Kitchen. 

Using only fresh ingredients and quality spices from India, Poonam blends and bottles them regularly as orders are received.  To meet the rising demand, she visits India at least twice a year to buy selected spices to use with her products.

“Indians love to have guests over.  Guests are considered as gods!” said Poonam when she invited me over for a North Indian cooking-dining experience.

Poonam giving me tips on how to knead the dough
While I was delighted with the prospect of enjoying a Poonam-home-cooked North Indian dinner, I was apprehensive about the hands-on cooking part. I hope she was not counting on me to do much cooking – that may spoil the meal – but since there would be others to volunteer for the cooking, I accepted her kind invite.

When I arrived, Poonam was in the kitchen, busy with a pan of sizzling Pumpkin Pakora.  These were slices of pumpkin coated in a light batter, sprinkled with nigella sativa seeds.  When the freshly-fried slices were sufficiently cooled, I bit into fried pumpkin flavoured with a mild, nutty onion taste from the seeds. Mmm… delicious!

“Well,” I thought to myself as munched on the Pumpkin Pakora, “If this was what homemade delicacies tasted like, I’m more than ready for a home-cooked meal!”

Poonam the gracious host, gently turned the tables on her guests by switching into teacher-mode as she outlined the items that we would be preparing to cook for dinner. 

Adding chickpeas to the fragrant masala in the pan 
She explained that bhatoora or bhatura bread is a fluffy, deep-fried leavened bread usually eaten with chickpea curry or chole masala, in a traditional North Indian meal called chole bhatura.

When she asked for a volunteer to knead the bread dough, there were many who volunteered me! 

Ready to be a good sport, I did not hesitate to remove my ring and washed my hands to prepare for this task.

Then Poonam placed a mixing bowl in front of me and started measuring ingredients in: white flour, yoghurt, cooking oil and milk.  After giving a quick demo on how to knead, she smoothly handed the job over to me.

The touch of flour in my bare hands triggered off memories of secondary school Home-Science classes and how I used to make raisin rock buns – that literally felt like rocks – by using the rubbing-in method.  

Chole masala [Right] and a bunch of strawberry roses [Left]
“No,” Poonam contradicted my thoughts, as she directed me to put more effort into kneading and blending the ingredients to the required consistency before it was set aside to rise while the chole masala gravy was prepared.

As in most Indian gravies, distinct flavours are from the blend of spices and Poonam spared no effort in showing us the range of raw spices and ingredients – naming them one by one – before selecting the required items to put into the blender. 

This handy gadget is probably one of the modern conveniences that Indian kitchens are using to blend spices instead of the traditional stone grinder. With a quick electric whirr, the spices are speedily blended and ready for use!

The delicious aroma of Chole masala
reminds Florence of her dad's famous curry!
As the blended spices sizzled in the hot pan, its mouth-watering fragrance filled the kitchen and whet my appetite for the taste of chole masala and freshly fried bhatura!

But our meal was not just chole bhatura as Poonam had prepared an array of dishes in advance.  Ever the gracious host, she was aware that we might not get to eat until midnight if we were to cook all the items she had laid out on the dining table!

She had pre-cooked two recipes that originated from Assam; Chicken Masala with potatoes and Potato with Green Peas.  Oven barbecued chicken drumsticks that were marinated overnight were topped in a tasty sauce made with fresh ingredients like garlic, ginger, chillie, sesame oil and yoghurt.

There was also Aloo Tikki or potato cutlets and a refreshing chickpea salad to complement the dishes that were served with Jeera or zeera rice, white rice dotted with cumin seeds.

Rolling out the risen dough and frying bhatura under
Poonam's watchful eyes!
For dessert, Poonam had baked a selection of Nankhatai, Indian shortbread cookies, as well as prepared kheer, a rice pudding made with boiled rice, wheat, milk and sugar with delightful bits of cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios and almonds.  She even found time to carve fresh strawberries into roses and presented them in a tiny vase!

Dinner was ready to be served when her husband, Sashi, arrived home from work.

With the pan of oil ready heated, the bhatura dough that was left to rise, was rolled into small balls by hand and then flattened using a rolling pin. These round pancake-like dough was deep-fried in the hot oil until they puffed up into soft and fluffy ‘flying saucers’ and were served hot!

You will agree that there’s nothing tastier than a home-cooked meal but it was even more meaningful and memorable when the dishes were prepared with love and care, along with chole bhatura that was made by amateurs (us!) step-by-step, patiently guided by Poonam.

First Intensive Care Unit in JBGH

My memories of the Johor Baru General Hospital [The Iskandarian, Dec 2016], triggered by the recent fire tragedy in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), caught the attention of reader, Dr Anand Sachithanandan.

Dr T Sachithanandan [2nd from Left] receiving a
cheque from Menteri Besar Johor,, Datuk Othman
Saat [Right] at Bangunan Sultan Ibrahim,
BukitTimbalan in March 1968
Dr Anand, a Kuala Lumpur-based cardiothoracic surgeon who grew up in JB, shared with me his memories of the JBGH in particular about the ICU, because his father, the late Dr T. Sachithanandan, founded the ICU in 1968. 

The idea to establish an ICU in JBGH was first conceived in October 1965 by Dr T. Sachithanandan, the Chief Anaesthetist of Johor, a young specialist and Jaycee leader to provide “specialist care for patients during the critical stage of their illness.”

Dr Anand told me about its fascinating origins and as I read the historical accounts gleaned from writings by Tan Beng Hui in his book, Supporting Life: The Journey of Intensive Care in Malaysia, I had to share this story of how a handful of young men committed themselves to undertake a project that has perpetual benefit to the local community.

These young men aimed that the project to create an ICU in the JBGH, should give the “maximum benefit to all sections of the community regardless of age, sex, race, social status, religion or political beliefs” and decided that it should provide a service that was both pressing and urgent.
The Jaycees or volunteers in the Johor Baru Junior Chamber International (JCI), actively involved in this project included Low Theng Kiang, Dr T. Sachithanandan, Talib Majid, Low Theng Siang, Gerry F. Pestana, Joseph Mah, Wong Leong, Mahan Singh Penu, Rejal Arbee, Yusof Abdul Rahim, H. L. Tennakoon, Sunny Low, Mohammed Masbah Ahmad, Looi Ah Lek, Dr Ahmad Yasin Mohd Said, Lau Sun Leong, Roy M. A. Lim, Mahmood Haji Nasir, Lee Tian Chew and Lim Sow Kooi.

Congratulatory message from then Prime Minister
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, to the Johor Baru
Jaycees dated 3 Feb 1969, on the official
opening of the ICU in JBGH
The JCI is a worldwide non-governmental federation of young leaders and entrepreneurs with a global network across all continents, which empowers and enables young men and women to improve the lives of their communities and country through volunteer work.

Creating an ICU in the JBGH was the biggest and most ambitious project ever undertaken by any Jaycee chapter in Malaysia and in the 1960s, every single Jaycee in JB took up the challenge with a clear objective that such a ward should become a reality.

At that time, there were no ICU wards in any of the few private hospitals in the nation. The only ICU in the country then was at the University Hospital, now known as University Malaya Medical Centre, which started service in late 1968 and was officially opened in January 1969.

When Dr Sachithanandan and the Jaycees considered the possibility of establishing the first ICU in a government hospital, it seemed like a novel idea but with foresight, sheer determination and hard work, the ICU in JBGH materialized and became the first ICU in Johor.

Dr T Sachithanandan [Centre] leading a clinical walk around the ICU ward in early 1969;
The ICU was separate into cubicles with mobile partitions (top half glass/lower half wood),
a feature jointly designed by the JBGH staff and Johor Public Works Department that received universal attention 
This ICU was built at a total estimated cost of RM120,000 through funding from three different sources: public funds, State government funds and Federal government funds.

Initially, the Jaycees raised funds from charitable donations by the Johorean public and received funds from the Johor state government led by then Menteri Besar Datuk Othman Saat.  However the RM60,000 raised was only sufficient to purchase the necessary medical equipment.

Dato Dr T Sachithanandan, teaching vital
'airway management' techniques to junior doctors
and ICU nurses at the JBGH in the early 1970s
Dr Sachithanandan then led the Jaycees in successfully petitioning the Federal government to match every Ringgit it had already collected and the resulting RM120,000 made the ICU dream a reality in JBGH.

This tripartite source of funding from the Federal government, Johor State government and an NGO like the JB Jaycees, was one of the earliest examples of state-civil society engagements in the nation.  

At a time when government finances to enhance and expand medical services were rather limited and strictly regulated, this was unprecedented!

Much care went into the structural and clinical design of the ward to ensure that it facilitated the needs of modern day medical and surgical care.  And when it was unveiled in February 1969, the ICU in JBGH was considered a state-of the art ward for that era!

Located in a refurbished ward on the second floor of the hospital’s East Wing, the ICU had 3000 square feet of floor space with capacity for eight beds.

It was fully air-conditioned with each of the four functional ICU beds being hooked up to monitors located at a central nursing station to provide the duty nurses with immediate and continuous recordings of patients’ vital functions like blood pressure, heart rate and respiration.

Dr T Sachithanandan presenting
his speech at the official opening
To maintain patient privacy and yet ensure continuous observation, a new design technique was introduced which divided the ICU ward into cubicles by means of mobile partitions.

The top half was made of glass while the lower half of solid wood incorporated the patient’s lockers.  Suspended curtains completed the cubicles into private “rooms.”  

This design technique, jointly designed by the JBGH staff and the Johor Public Works Department, received universal attention. 

At the National convention of Junior Chamber Malaya in Seremban in 1966, this ICU project won ‘Best Project of the Year.’

It was the efforts of a truly multi-racial group of ambitious young men who earnestly set about to bring positive change to their local community.  In our current climate of growing racial and religious intolerance, this is a sobering thought.

This ICU was a thoughtful and deliberate modification of existing facilities which only came about as a result of Dr Sachithanandan’s vision and commitment, and the outstanding fundraising work of the JB Jaycees.

The successful establishment of the first ICU at JBGH prompted then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra to challenge other NGOs to emulate this remarkable feat.

The success of this ICU project in JBGH illustrates how visionary leadership and collective, selfless, group effort can surmount financial and bureaucratic challenges, and should inspire others to do likewise.

As we acknowledge the JB Jaycees’ historic effort to establish the first ICU in JBGH, it is also a timely reminder of the power of genuine collaboration.

A version of this was published in the March 2017 issue of The Iskandarian

Photos and information, courtesy of Dr Anand Sachithanandan

Allan celebrates his 40th

“What gift should you present a man who has everything on his 40th birthday?” I asked myself when I received the invitation from Allan Fernandez. I mulled on this for a few days and even before I came up with any possible gift ideas, I replied him, “Thanks for your invite – I will be there.”

Allan Fernandez, who thinks he's
Chewbacca, wielding a light sabre
Days passed swiftly with me glued to my desk, working hard to meet deadlines and I almost forgot about the birthday party until Aidah prompted me with a text message. I was at my desk when I reached for my phone and read, “Eh, are you invited to Allan’s birthday party tomorrow?”

This took my eyes and thoughts off the computer screen to focus on the million dollar question I had pondered upon since that day I received his invitation. I was not surprised when Aidah confessed that she shared the same dilemma and as we chatted about this, I assured her that we will come up with something suitable real soon.

In the past few years, Allan had become synonymous with the destination we used to know as EightLido because he was the driving force behind its creation. I had the privilege of being there at its early stage when the restaurant served a range of exciting tapas in a setting reminiscent of a Spanish casa.

Since 2011, the garden setting at Eight gained the enviable reputation as the destination which is more than just a restaurant. It was a special place where marriage proposals were made and accepted, where garden weddings were held and the place where Johoreans were proud to host their guests.

Allan and Miin with Aidah and I, and our gift to them
Allan was always a good host who not only shared some exciting meals at Eight with me over our chats about the JB we love, he also generously shared some of his prized collection of single-malts with me!

Eight was the venue for some of the most interesting and entertaining shows Johor Baru had ever seen – and which guests still talk about – and I had an unforgettable front-row experience in the no-holds-barred comedy of the incomparable Kumar.  This was probably the final show held there before the curtains came down on Eight.

Looking back, it looks like Eight was probably where friendships were made to last. So when Allan wed Miin, I too had a memorable experience, sharing their beautiful wedding story and their awesome black-tie banquet.

Allan blowing out his candles in one breath!
I snapped out of this pleasant reverie because thoughts about Eight still did not answer that important question about what gift we should present to a 40-year old who is about to become a first-time father!

I thought Allan, the cool guy with a great sense of humour, should be presented with a novelty that comes from our hearts – something that you can’t buy off the shelves – something custom-made for him…

I guessed some guests would bake or buy him a birthday cake so I decided to take my fun idea to my baker friend at Passionfood Café & Bakery and get her to create it for me.

At first she was apprehensive: “What? Decorate one cupcake?”

Allan cutting his cakes in one stroke!
I told her no, not one but one for dad, one for mum and one for the baby-on-the-way.

The idea was for the much-anticipated little one to celebrate along with his (it’s a boy!) dad’s 40th birthday and they should take the cupcakes home to enjoy!

Once the baker understood my idea, she asked me for facial description like, “Wear specs?” So I gave her specific details like dad is Indian bald/botak and mum is sweet, fair Chinese with long hair, so the baby should be, latte colour…?

Her reply was instant: “Is it Allan Fernandez?” she quizzed! Ah! Spot on with her guess!

When she knew who the recipient was, my baker was confident that the design should work well – even to minute details like facial features, hair and skin tone.  When I collected it, I saw that the results were more than satisfactory.

Our custom-made gift to the man who has everything
on his 40th birthday!
Carefully balancing the cake box in my hand, Aidah and I arrived at the party, hosted at Magnum Sports Cafe, Puteri Harbour.  

A glance at the backdrop design reminded me that Allan is a serious Star Wars buff who thinks that he’s (ahem!) Chewbacca – I suppose, the version with less hair!

As always, our big-hearted Allan hosted an exciting party with good food and great company from his huge network of friends.

When it was time to cut his birthday cake – it turned out that he had five cakes – not counting our three little cupcakes!

Brandishing light sabres with blinking lights, we sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Allan.  With Miin and his mother by his side, he attempted to blow out all the candles on his five cakes in one breath!

He also tried to cut across all the cakes in one stroke but carefully preserved our custom-designed gift of cupcakes to quietly enjoy at home.

Happy 40th Allan, and many more birthdays to come!