Impressive menu at Imperial Paragon


When I received the exclusive invitation from Chef Benson Chia to the grand opening of Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine at the Grand Paragon Hotel Johor Baru, I was delighted to see that he was working in partnership with the hotel.


Chef Benson Chia [Right] with guest-of-honour 
and VIP guests at the ribbon-cutting ceremony

As I congratulated Chef Benson on his new venture, he was pleased to tell me that he would be doing something different in a Muslim-friendly menu to meet the discerning tastes of diners and hotel guests at the Grand Paragon Johor Baru.


Since 2018, I had the pleasure to enjoy the elegant Chinese cuisine created by Chef Benson at KS Treasures, a Non-Halal restaurant, in both dine-in and takeaway meals.


I was more than pleased to learn that he was also Executive Chef and co-owner of the Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine, opened at the Grand Paragon Hotel, Johor Baru.


Oval shaped dining tables in the main dining
hall at Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine

Chef Benson, a Johorean from Segamat, is applying the culinary skills he acquired from an illustrious career with international brand Chinese restaurants in locations from Singapore and Shanghai to Miami, USA.


This included his stints with Tung Lok Singapore, the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, and the award-winning Michelin Star Cantonese restaurant, Hakkasan in Miami.


It was good to see Chef Benson again, smiling widely as he welcomed me into the Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine restaurant and escorted me around to show me the main dining hall and private dining rooms.


The table-settling in the Grand VIP room

There are a total of seven private dining rooms in various configurations to fit two or more banquet tables including a luxurious VIP room dubbed Grand that features an exceptionally large table that should comfortably seat 18 diners.


The other rooms aptly named in Chinese that translates to Fortune, Healthy, Lucky, Blessing, Rich and Wishes, provides diners with a private dining space and are equipped with karaoke systems for their singing pleasure.


Sauce dispensers are clearly labelled in English
for the convenience of diners
who don't read Chinese

In our conversation, Chef Benson shared with me about the struggles he experienced over the past few years of the global pandemic but was grateful for the support of regular diners who appreciated his cuisine.


During the lockdown periods when his restaurant ceased operations, he continued to serve his brand of modern Chinese culinary delights as a home-chef at private dining events.


By the time the economy reopened, Chef Benson had established a reputation for fine food and soon regulars who dined at his restaurant, often trusted him to serve a menu in an omakase-style dining experience.


A serving of Organic Iceplant Salad
with Crab Meat and Mixed Fruit

This new venture in partnership with the Grand Paragon Hotel Johor Baru is an opportunity for Chef Benson to share his food culture by presenting delightful dishes that feature natural flavours derived from quality ingredients in a Muslim-friendly menu.


Just before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially declare the restaurant open, I had the pleasure to meet with Managing Director of Joland Group and Director of the Grand Paragon Hotel, Dato’ Sri Edwin Tan Pei Seng.


Then along with guest-of-honour, Tuan Mohd Hairi Mad Shah, Johor Youth, Sports, Entrepreneur Development, Cooperatives, and Human Resources Committee Chairman, and other VIP guests, Dato’ Sri Edwin and Chef Benson, participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.


To celebrate its grand opening, the restaurant launched a special promotion menu that showcases seven signature dishes where diners can enjoy a 50% discount on any two dishes from this menu, valid from now till September 22.


Chef Benson carving the Tiger
Grouper in Chilli Tempeh sauce

I was pleased to join other guests at the table, all of us eagerly anticipating the pleasure to enjoy the impressive dishes created by Chef Benson that feature familiar flavours presented in a fresh, new taste that will appeal to the Asian palate.


While waiting for the food to be served, I observed that the condiments served at the banquet table included chopped fresh garlic, chopped red chillies and pickled green chillies while the two dispensers for soya sauce and vinegar were clearly labelled in English for the convenience of diners who do not read Chinese.


The first dish in our food-tasting meal was a platter of glistening Organic Iceplant Salad tossed with Crab Meat and Mixed Fruit, topped with a sprinkle of toasted cashew nuts.


The crunchy bite of the Iceplant sprigs and cashew nuts struck a pleasant contrast to the wedges of tangy Mandarin oranges and slices of sweet red grapes, in a very refreshing and satisfying salad.


Crispy Farm Chicken in Satay Sauce

I don’t know about the others but with our appetites whet from this appealing appetizer, I was ready to savour the next dishes Chef Benson had created for the opening promotion menu.


All eyes were on Chef Benson when he personally served the next dish to our table. It was a whole deep-fried Tiger Grouper drizzled in Chilli Tempeh sauce. This fish was followed by the next dish, a whole Crispy Farm Chicken in Satay Sauce.


The clever use of Chilli Tempeh with the fish and Satay Sauce with the chicken, simply elevated the taste of these already delicious dishes so it was no surprise that we, quite shamelessly, polished off these dishes to the last crumb of meat and final drop of gravy.


Coconut Milk Crab with Otah

For the Passion Fruit Salad Prawns, the prawns were served de-shelled to resembled curled up balls of deep-fried prawns coated in an appetising tangy sauce made from fresh passion fruit.


The meat dish was Australian Wagyu Beef Loin wok-fried in Blackpepper sauce while the piping hot soup was a Thai-style braised Shark Fins Soup served with a side of spicy green chilli sauce, raw bean sprouts and fresh coriander leaves.


The piece de resistance dish of this meal must be the Coconut Milk Crab with Otah, a serving of two mud crabs in a rich Otah sauce that Chef Benson created from using Muar otak-otak.


Otah sauce to enjoy with crab meat!

This crab dish came with pairs of plastic gloves for diners to wear because they know that only way to enjoy fleshy crabs was to hold the crabs in our hands to wrestle every morsel of the tasty flesh out from its shell.


Once again, there was no shame in licking up the rich otah gravy as we savoured the crab meat and polished off this platter quite easily.


When fresh fruit was served as dessert, Chef Benson joined us at the table for a chat and to hear our comments about the dishes we tasted.


Encouraged by the positive feedback, Chef Benson assured us that these impressive dishes were the highlights featured in the opening menu and more of such interesting dishes will be added to the menu to meet the discerning tastes of diners.


Parking is Free when validated with
this laminated Complimentary
parking card from the restaurant

When I was ready to leave, the restaurant staff passed me a laminated card that entitled diners to the Free Parking facility when they dined at Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine restaurant.


All I had to do was to present my Touch & Go cash card used for entry into the hotel carpark along with this laminated card for validation at the hotel reception in the ground floor lobby. It was a plus point that parking in the hotel carpark was Free.


Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine is owned and managed by Mandarin Empire Sdn Bhd, a company under the Joland Group of companies.


Imperial Paragon Chinese Cuisine is a Muslim-friendly restaurant on Level One of the Grand Paragon Hotel Johor Baru located at No. 18, Jalan Harimau, Century Garden, 80250 Johor Baru, Johor.


Open daily from 11am to 3pm for lunch and from 5.30pm to 10.30pm for dinner. Reservations are recommended, so please call Tel: +607 – 338 3588, +6010 293 8588 and +6010 820 7588.

Upskilling & Reskilling for Sustainable Tourism


Emerging from the Covid19 global pandemic that resulted in border closures, lockdown periods and limited travel, Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) saw how these challenging years had affected various industries and reached out to help.


IRDA CEO, Dato Dr Badrul Hisham Kassim
with Best Students and their Certificates

With the support of a special fund, PENJANA KWC or Kumpulan Wang Covid, IRDA provided a training project dubbed Iskandar Malaysia Sustainable Tourism Upskilling & Reskilling (IMSTATURE) that ran from February to June 2023 to support the tourism and hospitality industries.


Participants from the tourism and hospitality industries were invited to register to join the training sessions to upskill and reskill themselves in five categories that were provided Free-of-Charge. The five categories and sub-categories were:


1] Ecotourism and Culture & Heritage, Ecotourism and Community-based Tourism, Culture & Heritage Tourism;


2] Business Events/MICE or Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions, Event Management Certification, Exhibition Professional Management Certification, Conference Management Certification;


3] Halal Tourism & Muslim-friendly Tourism, Halal Tourism, Muslim-friendly Tourism;


4] Tourism Destination Resilience, Leading Tourism (Executive Tourism, Leadership for Hotels & Product Owners), Living Tourism, Edu-tourism, Medical Tourism, Volunteerism, Accessibility Tourism, Youth & Sports, Wedding Tourism, Digital Nomad Trends;


5] Tourism Digitalisation


Screengrab of video presentation on the
training categories in the Tourism industry
Early this year, one of their online posters that offered training for Social Media Marketing, caught my interest and attention.


As I reviewed the list of dates for the two-day training, I could not decide on when I should join because I was still busy with my Downtown Johor Baru project that was planned with Heritage Walks and Book Reading sessions from January to April 2023.


As my project wound down to a close in April, I registered and joined the training on the final dates of April 27 & 28, held at Digital Marketing Consultancy, Johor Baru.


My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now
books received by Reza Mohamed of IRDA

Over these two days, I had an eye-opening experience as I joined the class and saw how participants could gain from the digital marketing training experience.


Then recently, I received the invitation to the Closing Ceremony for the Iskandar Malaysia Sustainable Tourism Upskilling & Reskilling (IMSTATURE) project that will be graced by IRDA Chief Executive Officer, Dato’ Dr Badrul Hisham Kassim, along with a long list of related government agencies and tourism industry players


No, my name was not on this distinguished list but I was honoured to be part of this event, not because I was one of the registered participants for the training, but probably due to my established working relationship with IRDA.


Johor is among the top five states that
are popular destinations for domestic travellers

The most recent collaboration with IRDA was my participation in the Downtown Johor Baru project, a collaboration between IRDA and Think City, supported by Majlis Bandaraya Johor Baru (MBJB) which kicked off in 2022.


Among other events with IRDA, I had the privilege to be part of the Award Committee in the Iskandar Malaysia Beyond Boundaries (IMB2P) programme, first in 2018 and again in 2019.


Guest speaker, Faeez Fadhlillah

I am also grateful for the encouraging support of IRDA to My Johor Stories who keep a stock of my books to present them as premium corporate gifts to guests like ambassadors and industry leaders on their official visits to Johor.


That day when I arrived at the foyer to the event hall, there were people clustered around cocktail tables, eating and chatting while waiting for the start of the event.


Among them was Gladys Goh Chik Moi, a tourist guide (I was meeting her for the first time!) who recognised me from the blog posts that she follows in My Johor Stories.


Along came her colleague who introduced herself as Peggy Koo, and upon hearing my name she exclaimed, “So you are Peggy Loh!”


This was because she was often asked if she was Peggy Loh and expressed how delighted she was that Peggy Koo had finally met with Peggy Loh.


Definition of Tourism & Sustainable
Development, shared by the guest speaker

The event kicked off with opening remarks from the Master of Ceremony followed by the introduction of our eminent guest speaker, Faeez Fadhlillah, Chief Executive Officer of Tripfez and Salam Standard.


In an engaging session entitled, Key Tourism Trends, Action Plan to Create a Sustainable Policy, Faeez presented his analysis of the tourism industry in Johor using charts, graphs and statistics, and explained what it means to have a sustainable policy for the tourism industry that can be applied well into the next few generations.


At the close of this presentation, there was a Question & Answer session where the audience was invited to ask relevant questions.


Peggy Koo speaking at the Q&A session

While several people stood up and commended IRDA and the partnering agencies in providing the Upskilling & Reskilling training in the Tourism industry, one of the concerns highlighted was, now that the training was over, what was next to maintain the momentum and sustain the careers of tourist guides?


There was a general consensus that visitors from Singapore were both discerning and demanding, and how to deal with the challenges faced by tourist guides here.


One of the relevant issues highlighted by Peggy Koo was her experience of the long queues and waiting times that could range from three to seven or up to nine hours, at the Immigration checkpoints for entry into Johor.


While tourist guides were trained to welcome visitors with, “Selamat Datang” and “Salam Sejahtera,” she pointed out that which such massive delays, we have already offended our visitors at the entry point.


So instead, they were compelled to replace the warm welcome with words of apologies and comfort.


She added that the drivers also faced the challenge of spending long hours at the wheel, inching their way through to the checkpoint and then to continue with the long drive up-country, something which was unhealthy and dangerous.


IRDA CEO, Dato' Dr Badrul, addressing the
audience in his closing speech

In his closing speech, IRDA Chief Executive Officer, Dato’ Dr Badrul Hisham Kassim, expressed his appreciation to all partners in the Tourism and Hospitality industries, the training providers, government agencies and local authorities involved.


He also congratulated all participants, especially those who excelled as Best Students in their training categories and received their Certificates at the event.


He was also pleased to announce that Johor will be the host for several major events, both local and international, that will welcome more visitors to the Southern Region.


Dr Badrul presenting a souvenir to the
guest speaker, Faeez Fadhlillah

Dr Badrul then responded to the issue of the long wait at the border checkpoints and assured everyone that the Chief Minister himself has taken personal interest to alleviate this matter.


As one of the busiest border crossings in the world, long waits were inevitable but the long queues on long weekends linked to Public Holidays were often aggravated by the sheer volume of vehicles.


He was clearly sympathetic and hopeful for a smoother transfer between the borders when the Rapid Transit System (RTS) link – currently under construction – should be completed by 2026/2027.


He was pleased to announce that with the RTS, commuters will only need to go through one Immigration checkpoint on each side of the border and encouraged more patience while we waited for the completion of the RTS.


The event closed on this positive note with a time of networking over lunch.


For more info on IMSTATURE go to webpage:

Rhythm of Suvarna and JB Drums


On that evening of Saturday, March 18, when the Drum Up JB! show was staged at the Permaisuri Zarith Sofiah Opera House, I met my friend, Ajith Baskaran Dass of Suvarna Fine Arts, the Indian classical dance virtuoso in the art of Bharatanatyam.


Ajith Baskaran Dass [Right] watch as two
dancers dance to the drum beats by Lim Yi Kai

It was easy to spot the familiar figure that was Ajith among the crowd who were waiting for the call bell to signal the start of the show. With him was, Lim Shao Xi, his student who will soon graduate from the Suvarna dance academy next year.


I am fondly recalling this evening because it was significant that two cultural activists, Ajith of Suvarna Fine Arts and Tan Chai Puan, co-founder of the art of the 24 Festive Drums, who have established their artistic reputations not only in Johor but also to a worldwide audience, were there.


It was very special to meet them together again because I had the privilege to document the stories of both Tan and Ajith under Portraits in Book One of My Johor Stories, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, a book that went on to become an MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller in 2017.


I was with Tan Chai Puan, co-founder
of the art of the 24 Festive Drums

Among the activities planned to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the 24 Festive Drums was the Drum Up JB Coffee Talk held on Sunday, June 18, where I had the pleasure to participate as Moderator with three guest speakers, Tan, Ajith and Mohd Shahril Abd Manan, Programme Manager with Think City Johor Baru.


I thought this was a major milestone event which brought together key personalities and likeminded people in the local arts, culture and heritage scene to share their thoughts, issues and ideas, with the aim to bring about change and progress.


While many valid points were highlighted and discussed in this event, it was very good that the conversation continued among the guest speakers and others in the audience, in a profitable post-event discussion.


Lim Yi Kai in a scene from
the Drum Up JB! show

This Coffee Talk certainly did its part to connect people and one of the interesting outcomes of this event was an arrangement between Lim Yi Kai of JB Drums and Ajith of Suvarna Fine Arts to meet up to explore a possible collaboration between the art of the 24 Festive Drums and the art of Bharatanatyam.


Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled that this was actually happening!


This was because Ajith and I already had an exciting discussion – long before this – about how wonderful it will be to present a performance of Bharatanatyam to the beat of the Chinese drum in the art of the 24 Festive Drums.



Ajith listening to the rhythm
as Lim Yi Kai beats the drum

After their first get-together at the dance studio of Suvarna Fine Arts, I was delighted to receive from Lim, a group photograph taken after their practice session with Ajith.


I did not hesitate to share my excitement with Ajith and in our conversation, I could feel the determination to share his knowledge with Lim in spite of the cultural differences and their language barrier.


It was interesting to learn that Ajith made himself clear to Lim with the help of Shao Xi, who translated Ajith’s instructions to Lim in Mandarin.


With their next practice session arranged in the following week, Ajith invited me to join them and I did not hesitate to accept.


Suvarna Fine Arts is located on Level Two

That evening, I arrived just on time to see Lim – along with his Chinese drum, stand and drumsticks – waiting for Shao Xi to open the door.


It was good to see Lim, all geared up to learn more about Indian classical music. We were joined by his colleague and fellow drummer, Jarratt Leong Shi Kit.


As in any other art form, it will take time and effort to learn and it will depend on their level of commitment and how much they wish to invest their time and effort.


Ajith guiding Lim Yi Kai and Jarratt Leong
Shi Kit [Left] in learning the beats for the rhythm

Just inside the door, a shoe shelf was provided for us to remove our footwear before heading up the flight of stairs to reach the dance studio for Suvarna Fine Arts on Level Two.


I was warmly welcomed into the studio by Ajith who introduced me to his students and Shao Xi, whom I had met with Ajith at the Opera House in March.


A few minutes later, we were joined by Ms Chow Pei Foon of Chow Drama, a performing art school in Johor Baru.


Then I learnt that when Shao Xi was a student with Foon Yew High School, Chow was the instructor in their Drama Society.


Among the posters on the wall was
this rendition of a portrait of Ajith
captured in his younger years

For further education, Shao Xi went to university in Taiwan where he studied Western classical music and trained as a vocalist when he pursued a Degree in Western Fine Arts.


“I’m a baritone,” Shao Xi modestly declared in English that was heavily accented with Indian nuances.


When he struggled to find the English words to express himself, Ajith gently helped to supply the words. Shao Xi then explained that his English language improved with the help of his Dance Master, Ajith.


Shao Xi, who’s ethnic Chinese, was proud to share with me that he had his family’s support to pursue Indian classical dance in the art of Bharatanatyam under Ajith’s tutelage.


When Shao Xi was still in Taiwan during the global pandemic and lockdown periods, he felt acute homesickness and sought to continue with his dance practice in his free time.


In Taiwan, he worked part-time with a Chinese restaurant and after business hours, he had permission to use the space for his dance practice.


After he had shifted the tables and chairs to create a space to dance, he would meet his Master online for his online dance classes with Ajith.


A powerful performance of classical Indian dance,
Bharatanatyam to the beat of a Chinese drum

That evening, Ajith wanted me to meet with Chow and explained that Suvarna Fine Arts recently conducted workshop sessions with Chow Drama with much success.


Ajith hoped that this could be the start of an exciting collaboration where he could transfer his knowledge in Indian classical dance to enhance the training and experience of the students in Chow Drama school.


I believe the experiences of both Shao Xi and Chow with Suvarna Fine Arts were an inspiration to Lim who had returned to continue with his drum practice session with Ajith.


When I asked Lim about his learning experience with Ajith, he smiled widely and simply replied, “Maths lesson!”


I paused to digest Lim’s reply but Ajith came to the rescue and explained that there was a science in Indian classical music where a circle of rhythm is repeated in five rhythmic cycles. He said this cycle was called, “Pancha Nadai,” in Sanskrit.


As Ajith declared that it was, “Very simple,” I turned the pages in my mind to my little knowledge of Hindi – which my dad taught me – and counted from one to five and confirmed with Ajith that, panch, was indeed five in Hindi.


Lim using a drum stick to beat the rhythm
on the wooden floor to learn the cycle of beats

While I’m quite a dud with numbers, I was pleased that Lim was a versatile learner who easily grasped the difference between the standard four-beat rhythm in drumming the Chinese drum and the song in cycle of 16 in Indian classical music.


At the recent Coffee Talk, Ajith had emphasized that Indian classical dance and music was based upon ancient tradition, characterized by intricate and subtle melodies and complex rhythms, and was not pop culture or the stuff from Bollywood.


Ajith had prepared a blank sheet of paper for Lim to make his own notes as he guided Lim to strike the Chinese drum at three different speeds; single, double and quadruple beats.


Meanwhile, Ajith the prolific instructor, had prepared his own music sheet as a guide through the practice and had Lim sit down with him to learn the beats by the clapping of hands.


Then I watched with interest as Ajith continued in his traditional role as teacher, conductor in music and rhythm, and as vocalist while Lim responded with drumming to the rhythm, the senior students playing the traditional Indian metronome instruments and the two young dancers, Lim Shao Xi and Gayatiri Rajendiran danced to the beat.


Shao Xi and Gayatiri dancing to the rhythm
 of the Chinese drum beats by Lim Yi Kai

It was fascinating to observe that Lim was beating the Chinese drum to the rhythm of Indian classical dance in coordination with the tinkle of the tiny cymbals while the two dancers performed their routine in graceful unison.


“Artistes connect at different levels,” declared Ajith who believed that the core was the same and that artistes can easily connect with artistic integrity.


At the close of this practice session, Ajith was pleased to see that Lim had risen to the challenge and felt optimistic that with this humble start, the next generation will progressively build on what they have learnt in this exploration for collaboration.


I echo Ajith’s sentiments and agree with him that our time together was a wonderful exchange of knowledge and cross-cultural assimilation.


I know that mastering the art of Indian classical music may take some time but with commitment and a lot of practice, I am confident that Lim will achieve a performing level that meets with Ajith’s requirement.


Suvarna Fine Arts is located at Nong Chik Riverside, No. 17, Level 2, Jalan Kolam Ayer 2, Kampung Mohd Amin, 80200 Johor Baru, Johor. [Reference, JJ Fitness]