Thursday, 21 February 2019

Chap Goh Meh musings

Chap Goh Meh. That's supposed to be the first full moon of the new lunar calendar. In the olden days, the Chinese in Penang would be celebrating this cultural festival in a very big way. There would be a grand procession through the city and somewhere along the line would be a Dondang Sayang troupe touring on a brightly lit bus.

The Baba Nyonya Dondang Sayang singers would be accompanied by a small ensemble of musicians playing the violins and sometimes the accordion too, and banging out on the rebana, kompang and drums. Since moving away from George Town a very long time ago, I don't know whether there is still an annual procession come Chap Goh Meh. I do miss those special occasions where I would run out to the main road to watch the procession pass by. From a distance, we would be alerted by the music growing louder as the bus approached us.

Anyway, it was reported in New Straits Times that on 29 Nov 2018, Unesco had recognised Dondang Sayang as an intangible cultural heritage. That's good news, isn't it? The recognition was made under the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003. The last time Malaysia was given a similar endorsement was 14 years ago for the Mak Yong performance art form in 2005.

Anyway, back to Chap Goh Meh, it is actually during the daylight hours when I would be observing this festival. It starts with the worship of the deities at home - nothing elaborate for me, of course - and then I'd make a beeline to my Quah Kongsi in Carnarvon Lane, George Town, where the members will come to worship our resident deities and the ancestors' memorial tablets.

Then normally at about one o'clock, I would walk to the nearby Poh Hock Seah, otherwise known as the Tua Pek Kong Temple, in Armenian Street to make my worship to the Tua Pek Kong deity. Although this has become habitual for me to go there on Chap Goh Meh day itself, I can't quite remember when I exactly I first began this practice.

And talking about the Tua Pek Kong deity, it was reported in The Star newspaper that the God of Prosperity has predicted a good first four months for businesses in Penang, based on the flame watching ceremony at the Hai Choo Soo Temple in Tanjong Tokong. The first fanning of the embers in the deity's urn gave rise to a high and strong flame but the intensity died down for the subsequent two flames.

Now, whether or not you believe in this prediction remains to be seen but this has been an age-long ritual in Penang since 1844.

I tried to take photographs of the full moon on Chap Goh Meh night but unfortunately, it had rained in the afternoon and there was a very thick cloud cover throughout the night. This completely obliterated all my attempts to view the moon. Luckily, though, I had already taken a snap shot of the moon on the eve of Chap Goh Meh. The moon was still round enough but it wasn't completely illuminated.

In comparison, this picture below was taken on the night after Chap Goh Meh, effectively the 16th day of the lunar month. Both pictures were taken around 11.50 pm to midnight.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Chess and the constipated player

Just days before Chinese New Year, I was asked by the Penang Chess Association whether I'd mind playing in the Penang-Singapore match on the third and fourth days of the festival. Initially hesitant about committing my time, eventually I agreed to play all four games on the veteran's list. There would be two rapid chess games and two full time control standard chess games.

My wife would say later that I looked constipated in this picture. 
Perhaps she was correct. I was struggling to find a continuation that
would not embarrass me.   
Later, I opted out of playing the second day because the schedule was too early for me. I did not fancy having to wake up at six o'clock or 6.30 a.m. after coming home late on the first day. So I asked to be excused. But definitely, I would play on the first day: a rapid chess game followed by a standard chess game.

But as all good plans go, there was a last-minute hitch. I had to attend a family lunch with my in-laws on the third day of Chinese New Year. Everyone had agreed to have the lunch at 11 a.m. to accommodate me and I was happy. However, on my way out to the island, I did not reckon with the traffic congestion at the Penang Bridge toll plaza or the slow-moving traffic in the city. In the end, after trying to search for a parking space, etc, etc, I was late for the rapid chess game by about 20 minutes and Eng Seong had replaced me for the first round. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down for the second-round standard chess game:

Position after 21...bxc3
[Event "Penang-Singapore match"]
[Date "2019.02.07"]
[Round "2"]
[White "John Lee, Singapore"]
[Black "Quah Seng Sun, Penang"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A45"]
[PlyCount "136"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Bf4 c5 3. e3 d6 4. c3 cxd4 5. exd4 g6 6. Nf3 Bg7 7. Be2 O-O 8. Nbd2 b6 9. Nf1 Bb7 10. Ng3 Nbd7 11. Qd2 Ne4 12. Nxe4 Bxe4 13. Bh6 Nf6 14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15. O-O Qd7 16. h3 Rac8 17. Nh2 Qb7 18. f3 Bf5 19. Rf2 b5 20. Nf1 b4 21. Ne3 bxc3 (see the first diagram) 22. bxc3

If my opponent had played 22. Nxf5+ gxf5 23. bxc3, I would have been in for a torrid time. Maybe the game would still be balanced but the dynamics have changed and I would be required to play more actively on the queenside to compensate for my broken kingside. The threatening 24. Qg5+ would be looming and if I were to play 23...Qd5, thinking that I can defend the pawn, there would come 24. c4 and my opponent is definitely better.

Position after 37. Qb2
22... Be6 23. Rff1 Nd5 24. Nxd5 Bxd5 25. Rfc1 Bc4 26. Bd1 Rb8 27. Qe3 Rfc8 28. Bb3 e6 29. Rab1 Qd5 30. Qe4 Qa5 31. Qe3 Rb6 32. Qd2 Rbc6 33. Bxc4 Rxc4 34. Rb3 Qf5 35. Rb7 a5 36. Rb6 Qd5 37. Qb2? (see the second diagram) Rxd4!

Suddenly, I became wide awake in this game. Could this really happen? Was a rook combination in the air? I knew that I could recover the sacrificed piece after a series of exchanges but should I play 37...Rxd4 or 37...Rxc3? My assessment of the position lasted one or two minutes but I wasn't thinking deep enough.

I opted for 37...Rxd4 because a gut feeling told me that it was far more spectacular. But Dr Ronnie Lim pointed out to me later that 37... Rxc3 would be a gross mistake on account of 38. Rxc3 Qxd4+ 39. Re3! (see the third diagram) and the rook was safe because my queen was pinned by my opponent's queen. I would have blundered and lost a piece. Oops!

Position after 39. Re3
38. Re1 (after 38...cxd4 39. Rxc1+ Qxc1 40. Qxd4+ and 41. Qxb6, I would be up by two pawns in the game) 38...Rd2 39. Qb5 Qxb5 40. Rxb5 Rxc3 41. Rxa5 Rcc2 42. Rg5 Rxa2 43. f4 h6 44. Rg3 Kf6 45. Rb1 d5 46. Rb7 Rf2 47. Rb4 Kf5 48. Rb7 f6 49. Rg7 g5 50. fxg5 hxg5 51. Rb7 Rf4 52. Rb5 Ke4 53. Rgb3 e5 54. Rg3 d4 55. Rb4 Re2 56. Ra3 Rff2 57. Rg3 Rb2 58. Ra4 Rbe2 59. Rb4 Kd5 60. Rb5+ Kc4 61. Rb8 Rf4 62. Rc8+ Kd5 63. Rd8+ Ke4 64. Rd6 Re1+ 65. Kh2 Re3 66. Rd8 d3 67. Rxe3+ Kxe3 68. Kg1 Ke2 0-1

For the record, this inaugural match was won by Penang with a 50½-45½ score. That's a margin of five points. After the first day's play, Penang was leading the Singapore team by a mere one point. The hosts had won the first round handily but the visitors stormed back in the second round. However, Penang played decisively in the third and fourth rounds on the second day to put the victory to bed.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Xu Yuhua, private tourist

Two days ago, I received a surprise invitation to dinner. The former women's world chess champion, Xu Yuhua, was in town, the invitation from Swee Sie said. Swee Sie is the president of the Penang Chess Association. And she told me that Hamid had told her that I would know Yuhua.

I was hesitant. Me knowing Yuhua? Why, that was a long time ago. A very long time ago. In fact, 21 years ago. I very much doubted that Xu Yuhua, a former women's world chess champion who had conquered the world stage in 2006 and met with hundreds, if not thousands, of talented chess personalities, would remember me.

In 1998, she was one of many budding new talents from China, all eager to follow in Xie Jun's footsteps (see Note #1 below). Yuhua had arrived in Malaysia to play in the Asian women's chess championship that would be held at the Awana in Genting Highlands from the eighth till the 22nd of April. Representing China, of course. I had been offered the chance to be the Deputy Chief Arbiter at this event. The Chief Arbiter was around but he would be leaving it to me to run the whole tournament with no interference. So technically, I was in charge. Yuhua played masterfully and was crowned as the Asian women's chess champion at the age of 21. She was awarded the Indira Gandhi Trophy. That was basically the first time I met her (see Note #2 below).

Seated from left to right: Anupama Gokhale, Ambica K Kutty (arbiter from India), Sathe Bagyashree, Maisa Ovezova, Maral Ovezova and Eva Repkova. Standing from left to right: Xu Yuhua, Ngan Phan-Koshnitsky, Maria Lucia Sulistya, Tamin Upi Darmayana, Nguyen Thuan Hoa, Nguyen Thi Dung, Mekhri Ovezova, Le Thi Phuong Lien and ... Quah Seng Sun!
Now 21 years later, she would be in Penang with her 12-year-old son. On a private holiday visit. As a tourist. Actually, she was supposed to be holidaying here with her parents but her mother became ill in the fortnight before her trip. Although her mother recovered, she decided to forego the trip. Thus, Yuhua arrived in Malaysia alone with her son. Her last few days had been spent in Kuala Lumpur and after Penang, she was travelling to Langkawi. Spending Chinese New Year in Langkawi? Yes, she said. Good luck, there's nothing much of interest there. All the action's here in Penang.

So there I was at the New CRC Restaurant in Pangkor Road. I walked in and immediately saw Swee Sie with three of her committee members, Eng Seong, Eu Hong and Lake Khee. "Hello, do you remember me?" I asked Yuhua as we shook hands. Awkward smile that conveyed the answer, "no".

Never mind, I can always show her something to jog her memory. Whipping out my mobile, I showed her this digitised picture from 1998. A picture of her and me....and Phan Ngan Koshnitsky. Phan Ngan was another participant in the Asian women's tournament. She's Vietnamese but living in Australia where she had married the son of Evelyn Koshnitsky, one of Australia's most well-known promoters of women's chess from the 1970s and continuing well into the 1990s.

Yuhua let out a laughter, almost a muffled scream. Thrilled, I could see. Then I showed her a second picture that was taken at the closing ceremony of the tournament. A shot of all the participants together. As the Arbiter, I had squeezed myself into the frame. The only Beauty(?) among the Beasts(?).

So the ice was broken. Everyone started relaxing and dinner proceeded smoothly, lasting for about two hours before we all broke up happy. I hope that I won't have to wait another 21 years before meeting her again.

The next morning, I learnt that Yuhua had sent the pictures back to her dad in China. And her dad had responded by writing a poem to extol the lasting friendship between the chess players of Penang and China. I tried to use Google Translate so that I could understand the poem in English but Google made such a mess out of it that nothing read logically at all. I shall reproduce the poem below in case there are good Samaritans who can provide a good, easily understandable translation. Good luck!

Note #1: Xie Jun was the first women's world champion from China. She won the title in 1991 from Zsuzsa Polgar who was then from Hungary. Xie Jun held the title until 1996. At that time, the women's world title was a close tussle between Xie Jun and Zsuzsa Polgar. In fact, it was Polgar who won back the title in 1996 before relinquishing it again to Xie Jun in 1991. Zhu Chen was the second Chinese player to be the women's world champion from 2001 to 2004. And Xu Yuhua was the third Chinese women's world champion from 2006-2008. After Xu Yuhua were Hou Yifan (2010-2012, 2013-2015 and 2016-2017), Tan Zhongyi (2017-2018) and presently Ju Wenjun (since 2018). Very much a Chinese stranglehold on the title nowadays.

Note #2: In those days, I was also doubling up as the webmaster for the tournament website: one of the first few chess tournaments in the world to have a presence on the Internet. Nothing sophisticated, of course, but it was still a website. I had it hosted on Geocities, now defunct. But the tournament website can still be viewed here.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Venus, Jupiter and the super duper blood wolf moon

In the last few days, the pre-dawn sky has been filled with a wonderful sight of Venus closing in on Jupiter and then moving away. I had been trying to pull myself out of bed at 6.15am so that by 6.45am, I could position myself at my back door to watch the two planets as the day gradually grew lighter. My only problem was that despite the planets shining brightly, I needed to hold the camera as still as possible and slow down the shutter speed to a quarter (¼) second or even slower. Even then, Venus and Jupiter appeared only as dim dots.

21st of January at 6.38am
The smaller dot is Jupiter. It is much farther away from the earth than Venus and thus would move relatively slower in the sky. Thus, if the two planets are viewed over several days, Venus would seem to have overtaken Jupiter. The bonus over the last few days was that a small number of the pictures were clearer than the bulk of them and when I digitally enlarged and processed the dimmer Jupiter, I could make out the four Galilean moons. Magnificent, indeed. But of course, this wasn't the first time that I had managed to see the four main moons of Jupiter. I've been writing about them since 2015.

23rd January at 6.52am
The first full moon of 2019 that we saw on the 20th of January happened to be loosely described by space enthusiasts as a super blood wolf moon. (But they missed out on the word "duper" as in super duper blood wolf moon.) A Wolf moon is the first full moon of the year. A Blood moon is an eclipsed moon when the colour turns rust red as it hides in the earth's shadow. And a Super moon happens when its orbit takes it closest to the earth, thus making the moon's size looking bigger than normal. Writers tend to get excited when they are able to string several words together.

Yes, there was a lunar eclipse on night of the 20th but unfortunately, it was not visible from this part of the world. The Americans would have seen it but not us. For us, the moon remained just a full moon on the 20th of January. But it was also the last full moon of the Chinese lunar calendar because come 05 February 2019, we shall be celebrating Chinese New Year, the Year of the Pig. Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!

This picture of the full moon was taken on the 20th January at 8.52pm.
And this picture was taken on the 23rd January at 7.35am

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Danang, day four: Ba Na Hills

The fourth day of the old farts' stay in Da Nang proved dreary. The day started well enough but the weather turned dreary -- cold, wet and dreary -- when we left for the Ba Na Hills.

Now, the Ba Na Hills was about 45 minutes to one hour away from the One Opera Danang Hotel where we stayed. It was a long drive but time passed rather quickly before we found ourselves at the spacious parking area which had the potential to hold, maybe, 100 tour buses. It was tremendously huge. We were suitably impressed.

At the onset, I would want to say that the Ba Na Hills has been developed into a theme park. It comes complete with a cable car system -- more than one system, if you count the various lines -- and tourist attractions like a funicular train, a golden bridge supported by gigantic hands, other gigantic disembodied body parts, flower gardens, French villa, pagodas and temples, indoor amusement theme park, wax museum and, of course, several hotels and restaurants. There are no casinos on the Hills though, or otherwise one of its favourite attractions would surely be to bet on the fast-changing weather. Sunny, misty, wet, all constantly changing by the hour.

Meanwhile, my take on Ba Na Hills is that the Ba Na Hills is to Da Nang just like Penang Hill is to Penang. Both sites offer a cooler respite from the warmer climes of the lowlands. But I wouldn't want Penang Hill to suffer the same fate as the Ba Na Hills. It's fun to go up the Ba Na Hills for all these tourist attractions but to me, it loses its appeal after a while. I prefer the laid-back beauty of Penang Hill anytime. Okay, I've said my opinion.

Entering the building, we were to take a 20-minute cable car ride up into the mountains. We looked upwards and that was when we saw the first sign of ominous clouds forming. Clouds turning a hint of grey and then becoming darker. But we old farts from The Old Frees' Association were already committed to this trip.

Now, where the Ba Na Hills are concerned, you have to take a chance with the weather. It can be incredibly clear with blue skies and you can see around for miles. Or it can be damp, wet, dreary, cold and incredibly misty. We drew the short end of the straw. Wet and misty would be our experience.

Their cable car ride is supposedly the longest in the world. Imagine that. A South-east Asian country possessing the longest cable car ride in the whole wide world. And we were on it. Zooming up into the clouds. Mist all around us. Below us, the lush green tropical vegetation.

Soon, we arrived at the end of the line and we were quickly bundled by the guide to the Golden Bridge which consisted of a pair of hands seemingly holding up a 150-metre long pedestrian bridge. This attraction was only finished last year and it explained why it was one of the most popular places to visit at the Ba Na Hills. Despite the inclement weather, we all clambered onto the bridge for a very bleary group picture. But what else could we do but to make the most of this weather?

We were to remain there for about half an hour before taken to explore somewhere else. But two of my tour members got themselves lost. Okay, we acknowledged that it was not the fault of the tour guide that they got lost. They simply wandered off by themselves. And with there being 32 of us, each having a mind of our own, it was very difficult for the guide to herd us together.

Somehow, after about a 45-minute search, the two missing members were found. By then, it was too late to be shown more of the area. We had to take another cable car -- a shorter trip this time -- to go up the hill again. This was to the French village. By now, the weather had gotten worse. It was raining and the mist was thick. So thick, in fact, that all the buildings were shrouded in grey. Our group had either to don raincoats or open their umbrellas. My wife and I preferred to use our own umbrellas and so, with an umbrella in my left hand and camera in my right, hoping to be able to take some clear pictures which was impossible, we marched from the cable car station to the restaurant to take our lunch.

After lunch, there was little time to explore the place before the guide led us indoors somewhere to visit the wax museum. Along the way, we had to pass through an indoor theme park. All the attractions here were filled with people. We hurried through the place into the museum. Spent about half an hour there before we headed back to the cable car station for the trip back to the base station and thence, back to Da Nang.

My first inkling that the Ba Na Hills was a theme park was when I saw this sign. Not once, but everywhere. You just can't avoid the name of this corporate entity.

I don't know what  the stone carver was thinking of, but he made this stone monkey look like it was enjoying itself tremendously

Soaring into a misty world

One of the huge disembodied sculptures

And that's us on the Golden Bridge. There's another hand somewhere in the distance, which we couldn't see because of the mist. But it's there, all right!

I could get Saw See to point her finger at the stone finger....

....but despite showing her how to, she couldn't get my finger to touch the sculpture!

Luckily, a friend happened to take this impromptu picture of me, which sort of compensated for all my frustrations

If you look hard enough, you'll see me holding the OFA logo 

A very welcome lunch, if only to get out from the cold and damp. Temperature outside was 16 Celsius

What's there to see when it was wet, wet, wet through and through?

Sun World? It was more of a Wet World!

The indoor theme park

Wax museum

Wordless scream. And I guess the reflection of my hand in the mouth added to the terror of the moment.

Fancy that, a heater fan

And here we go back down the hill

One last place for us to visit in Da Nang, and that was the market. Huge place but we could only spend about half an hour here. Many of us picked up tidbits of food to bring home to Penang.

The next morning after breakfast, we checked out from the One Opera Danang Hotel for our flight home to Penang. An exhausting 96 hours in Vietnam. Despite some slight misadventures here and there, the vacation was well worth it, especially among the other old farts from The Old Frees' Association. Hope to do this again next time!

I wonder what can be cooked with dried shrimps this size?