Saturday, 31 July 2010

Cenotaph at George Town's Esplanade

It's easy to forget that Penang has its fair share of war memorials. As far as I know, there are two.

The first is actually an "anti-war" obelisk erected at the Ayer Itam roundabout by the Chinese residents in Penang to commemorate the atrocities suffered by Malayans at the hands of the Japanese invaders during the Second World War.

The second memorial is by the waterfront in George Town. One cannot miss this latter memorial, also known as the Cenotaph here. It lies directly ahead if one walks down Esplanade Road from the direction of Light Street.

The foundation stone of the memorial was laid by the then Resident Councillor of Penang, Captain Meadows Frost, on 11 Nov 1928 which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Armistice. A Penang War Memorial Fund was started prior to the memorial's construction and $7,000 was collected initially. By the time of its completion, the cost had ballooned to $12,000 - a substantial amount of money in those days - owing to ornamental parts being ordered from England. The unveiling of the memorial was supposed to be made on 4 Aug 1929, the 15th anniversary of the declaration of the First World War, but because of delays it was only unveiled ceremoniously with a lot of sombre pomp on 11 Nov 1929.

The memorial, designed by architect David McLeod Craik, was built entirely of Penang granite. It consisted of an oblong Cenotaph of seven feet by nine feet by 20 feet high rising from a peristyle 20 feet by 16 feet approached by five granite steps three feet high flanked at the corners by four plain pedestals, the total height of the monument being 24 feet and the base being 35 feet by 30 feet. A striking feature of the memorial were the bronze ornaments consisting of a sword and laurel wreath that were set in a niche. At the four cornerstones were the badges of the British Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine.

War memorials are common sights in many old British Empire cities and towns as they were built to commemorate British losses during the wars. The Cenotaph in George Town was meant to remember those who had died during the First World War, thus can be seen engraved in the granite "Our Glorious Dead 1914-1918".


That's almost a century ago. No one living today in Penang can possibly remember anything about this old "Great War" and the purpose of the Cenotaph risks being consigned to a pocket of local history and subsequently forgotten. To keep the memory alive and relevant to today's Malaysians, there is now a smaller accompanying memorial to commemorate those unnamed people from Malaya and Malaysia who fell in World War Two 1939-1945, the Siam-Burma Death Railway 1942-1945, the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960, Indonesian Confrontation 1963-1966 and the Reinsurgency 1968-1990.

Friday, 30 July 2010

G for Green, G for Gold IS

The last time I visited Dato Tan Chin Nam in Kuala Lumpur was in January this year. At that time, his office was still at the Menara Tan and Tan. Many things have changed since then. His office has relocated to an impressive new building which is just a stone's throw away from the old one.

However, this fact had completely slipped my mind when I went down to Kuala Lumpur last week. Yes, somebody did tell me about the relocation but you know, unless you pay greater attention to the details, information just does not seem to register totally.


That's why I was very surprised when told about his new office at the GTower. "Everybody knows where GTower is," Daniel Yong of the Mid Valley City told me over tea. It's the new corporate address of Goldis Berhad which owns this 28-storey building that sits strategically at the intersection of Jalan Tun Razak and Jalan Ampang, just across the road from the Embassy district of Kuala Lumpur, and basically up the road from the Petronas Twin Towers.

But this building is more than just about the location. Officially, GTower is the first green building in the country. It is fully certified with a Green Mark Gold ranking from Singapore's Building and Construction Authority. What this means is that the building is green (G for Green, perhaps?). A lot of environmentally conscious decisions had been included to reduce its carbon footprint and bring immense savings benefits to the company. Already, this building boasts a 25 per cent reduction in energy usage as compared with other similarly sized buildings. Waste energy from the central air-conditioning system, for example, is rechannelled to heat up the swimming pool.

Then there is greenery everywhere: from the exterior of the building to the interior and of course, on the roof top. The exterior features a seven-storey assemblage at the entrance. "A work of art that is alive and growing" was how GTower's executive director, Colin Ng, described it to the newspapers. "Choosing plants over the usual granite or marble finish allows the company to make a strong green statement." The lobby area features a living, green wall as one walks past the tight security to the lifts.

Anyone would be forgiven from reading above to assume that the G in the name stands for Green but it is not. Not wanting to risk making assumptions myself, I asked Dato Tan what it stood for. Gold, he said, part of the Goldis name. So now we know. I followed the patriarch of the company (he's retired from all the executive functions and everything is in the hands of his daughter, Lei Cheng, who is the Chief Executive Officer) up to his office.

Officially, everything stops on the 28th floor of the building but in the lift, his office is marked inconspicuously by the RT button. RT, that is, for Roof Top, a wonderfully secluded floor with a breath-taking view of the city around it. Of course, the floor is green as well and workers were looking after the plants as I stepped outside to take in the grand view.

All too soon it had to end as I bade farewell to him and made my way down the building, past the tight security again and on to the LRT station around the corner to take me to KL Sentral.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

St Anne's feast, 2010

I thought that I wouldn't be visiting the St Anne's church this year but I did. Got pulled into visiting the place by my wife. It's actually more of a photography opportunity for me than anything else. So here are my interpretations of the festival. By the way, the climax of the St Anne's feat will be this weekend. I had thought wrongly that it would be last weekend. The best time to visit the church grounds will be now, before the weekend brings the visitors, devotees and small traders from all over the country. You'll be avoiding the jam on the roads everywhere near the church and of course, avoiding the inevitable rubbish strewn everywhere.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Woken up by the moon

Many people say that the full moon does strange things to them. I don't believe it. To me, a full moon is just another full moon. It shines bright and it blanks out the stars in the night sky so that you don't see them. The only effect - and there's nothing strange about it - that the full moon has on me is when it shines directly into my bedroom. It happens very rarely, though, but when it does I can't sleep. Like what happened to me last Saturday morning. At about 5.20 in the morning, I could sense a light piercing into my dreams. It was so intense that it woke me up. It was one of the brightest sources of light in the night sky for quite a while despite it not being the full moon yet. My mind was still groggy enough when I walked to the window but I knew that I had to take the moon's picture. My first attempt wasn't very successful, though. My settings were wrong. All I got was this round blob of light. Then I realised that I shouldn't be doing that. If I wanted to take the picture, I shouldn't be over-exposing the shot. There....that was better. A shutter speed of 1/320th of a second and an f-stop of 4.5. I managed to capture an image of the moon's surface. That very familiar shadow on the surface that sometimes looks like a moon fairy and sometimes like a rabbit.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

War, music, chess and golf

I've an interesting combination of subjects today. But let me start by saying that finally, after several months of continually picking them up and putting them down, I've finished reading these two books. One after another, of course, not together. And I must say that I enjoyed them tremendously.

The first book, The Communist Conquest of China, by Lionel Max Chassin, written even before the start of the Cultural Revolution, is long out of print. General (retired) Chassin commanded the French Air Forces in the Far East from 1951 to 1953, and organised the French Air Defence Command in 1953. As a senior military advisor to France's prime minister, Chassin had unlimited access to normally inacessible intelligence sources. Chassin's book was a result of a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the events, actions and motives in the Civil War struggle between Mao Tse Tung's revolutionary army  and Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist forces.

Chassin made some prophetic comments at the end of the book. For example, he wrote: "When this immense agricultural country achieves an industrialisation backed by the natural resources of Manchuria and Sinkiang, it will assume a leading role not only in Asia, but in the world. And the average intelligent, adriot, patient, enduring, and fully capable of manipulating machines... It is true that China, for the moment, is confronted by an immense task of reconstruction. But such was the case with Russia in 1918; This precedent proves that only twenty years suffice to industrialise a great agricultural nation - and the pace of history moves ever faster. We must thus expect to see, a few years from now, the emergence of China as a very great power."

As for the second book, Waking Up In Memphis, I was getting a little tired of reading about war and history, so instead, opted to read about music and history. This is a collection of articles by Andria Lisle and Mike Evans -- Lisle lived and worked as a journalist in Memphis while Evans was a writer based in London. Together, they touched on the unique musical landscape of Memphis by talking to people, listening to the music and basically experiencing the city first-hand. I think they did a great job of conveying the real flavour and musical heritage of Memphis and bringing the experience to people like me who appreciates blues, jazz, country, folk and rock music but haven't ever stepped into the United States.

Having already finished the two books above, what should I do now? Actually, I'm torn between starting on these two titles which swing between the two extreme ends of success and failure.

Behind Deep Blue should be an absorbing account of the personal journey by Hsu Feng-Hsiung. I'm very eager to read about the Deep Blue project, from its roots at Carnegie Mellon in 1985 to its shocking defeat of Garry Kasparov in 1997. The second book, The Phantom Of The Open, should be a hilarious story by writer Scott Murray and actor Simon Farnaby that covers the story of Maurice Flitcroft who played in the British open golf championships in 1976. This is the absurd true story of the most useless pro golfer ever. But I'm sure there will be a lesson there somewhere within the pages.

So how? Which book should I start with? Oh, decisions, decisions....

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Curry mee

Unusually, I'm writing about food today. Not something that I usually do on this blog. But it's all because of a comment I made on facebook more that a month ago. I was lamenting about the quality of curry mee around Bukit Mertajam. In particular, I was condemning a stall at a coffee shop along Jalan Kampung Baru. It was positively the worst curry mee that I had come across. And yet...people in the town were eating it as if there was nothing else to try!

Enter Long Kin, an old friend from my old Ban Hin Lee Bank days. Come, he said, to Kulim. There's a coffee shop there selling curry mee. Not too bad, he assured me. So, towards the end of last month, we went together to seek out this shop.

My verdict? Not too bad. It's unusual to have crullers with curry mee but it tasted all right. I know now that there is at least one curry mee stall near me that is acceptable to my taste buds. But technically, this coffee shop is located in Kulim about six kilometres away from my home, not in Bukit Mertajam.

A few days ago, Long Kin called again. Can I pick you up in the morning, he said, and head to Taman Bukit, this time in Bukit Mertajam itself? Of course when it comes to food, I'm game to try anything new. So there I was at this food centre which I never knew existed at all. So much for having stayed in Bukit Mertajam for the last five years, isn't it?

My verdict again: nice. This is certainly close to the curry mee I like. It had all the flavours and textures I yearned for with rich, rich ingredients thrown in.

By the way, the best curry mee stall I know on the mainland is still at the Chai Leng Park wet market's food centre. In my opinion, nothing beats the curry mee there, not even the well-known one at Jalan Raja Uda in Butterworth.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Anatoly Karpov in Malaysia

Anatoly Karpov, 12th world chess champion, made a courtesy call on Olympic Council of Malaysia president Tunku Imran ibni Almarhum Tuanku Ja'afarat the OCM office in Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday. Karpov is challenging incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov for the post of president of the World Chess Federation (Fide) this September and was making a whirlwind visit through several South-East Asian countries in an effort to raise support for his campaign. Accompanying him on his three-day stop in Malaysia was Richard Conn Jr who is the candidate for Fide deputy president.

In the evening. Karpov held a press conference at the Executive Club of the G Tower in Kuala Lumpur where he outlined his campaign. Also present were Dato Tan Chin Nam who sits on the Advisory Board of Karpov's campaign and Hamid Majid who is the candidate for Fide general-secretary. Later, he played two exhibition blitz games against 12-year-old Yeoh Li Tian and Malaysian international master Mas Hafizulhelmi.

An alternative to polystyrene

This is not an advertisement plug for any company but I was really impressed to see this chap put his money where his mouth is! What better way is there for him to show that his products are safe for human use than to consume them himself? He means business! He's really digging into his own meal tray!

P Ramaness runs Return 2 Green Sdn Bhd, a company in the Prai Free Trade Zone on Province Wellesley, the mainland portion of Penang. The company manufactures a whole range of biodegradable products made from sugar cane waste fibres: bowls, plates, cups, trays, lunch boxes and cutleries. Within 180 days of use, the company claims that their products will have broken down into organic compost and fertilisers. Their website is worth a visit.

At a recent function, Ramaness was showing people his biodegradable dishes that could be viable alternatives to polystyrene once the latter is banned in Penang. To prove that the products were so organic that they could be digested, he chomped into a plate to demonstrate its biodegradable property. Dramatic but impressive. Should strike a chord with environmentalists everywhere!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Ban on polystyrene use should come sooner, not later

I am very glad that the Penang government is going one step further in its efforts to have a cleaner, greener state by banning the use of polystyrene material (styrofoam) for packing cooked food effective from January next year.

When I was at the Streets Come Alive event at the George Town Festival earlier this month, what held back my family from enjoying the food tidbits on display and on offer at the stalls was the use of polystyrene cups and plates. At that time, we were already aware of the possible health risks that this material could bring. Why take the chance? Whenever we buy hot food from outside, we also bring our own metal tiffin carriers. Neither do we want our hot steaming food in the clear plastic bags.

I've only two regrets, though. First, it is still going to take five more months before enforcement. Why on earth can't this ruling be implemented sooner, like in October or September or even August? Second, this ban should be extended to all food courts, not just those under the Penang Island Municipal Council and the Province Wellesley Municipal Council. Health risk is the same, whether hawkers are plying their business at private food courts or Council-run food courts, so there shouldn't be double standards.

Nevertheless, while looking at some archived news, I am heartened to note that both private and government hospitals in the state will be banning polystyrene use even faster. According to Sun2Surf, private hospitals have already taken steps to stop using such containers while government hospitals have up until next month to do so.

Time for it to go

My main desktop computer at home has almost outlived its usefulness. Only God knows how long I've owned it. I can't even remember myself. However, it really must have been quite a while ago because it's using the very old Pentium4 processor and its memory is a grand total of (gasp) 768MB. It takes me ages to boot it up and then it opens programs at its own sweet pace.

I've another desktop computer at home. It's slightly - but only slightly - newer than my main machine but unfortunately, it's broken down beyond repair.

Last night, I thought that I could perhaps salvage something from the second desktop and use it for the first one. So I stripped it of its harddisk and two pieces of 512MB DIMM memory chips, and tried to instal them into the main desktop. Nuts. The settings must be wrong because it now refused to recognise my DVD-drive and the extra harddisk. Nothing else that I could do but to switch the cables back to the original configuration.

But at least I had a partial success with my memory chips. After a lot of physical push, I managed to increase the memory from 768MB to 1GB. Wahhh, a 33% memory upgrade! And mmm, I could detect a oh-so-very-slight better response. But I still have two unused DIMM cards with another 768MB of memory. For all they were worth, they resisted my efforts to push them into the remaining slots. I could not get the clips to catch properly at both ends. And then I discovered the reason. My two DIMMs had only one notch each while on the motherboard, the slots had two notches. Absolutely incompatible, like pushing square pegs into round holes. So much for all my sweat and effort, I've only slightly improved the darn machine to 1GB of memory. It's still agonisingly slow to boot up.

I think it's time to build a new machine or otherwise, my wife will grumble that she cannot use the computer at all. Sigh....

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Out of line

This is the face of an uncultured civil servant, one who talks back. In fact, a kurang ajar of a civil servant.

A state development officer posted to Penang. In recent months, he has been responsible for carrying out a spat of controversial projects in the state under orders from the bigwigs in the Federal government without regard for the Penang government or the wishes of the people of Penang. His latest controversy was to push for the expansion of the Penang Botanic Garden, especially the building of the twin arches at the entrance of the Garden, and threatening to withhold development funds from the state if the project did not go ahead.

Well, in the last months, he has been taking a lot of heat. He has been roundly criticised for his high-handed handling of the projects, for brushing aside the Penang government and not willing to listen to their side of the story. If ever there's a Little Napolean that's full of his own self-importance, he is the one.

Now, a self-respecting civil servant is not supposed to say anything in public even under duress but this one, evidently, thinks he is the exception, that he has the right to defend himself in public. Earlier this week he called a press conference within a press conference to give his two-bits. I say that's out of line for a civil servant. If he cannot take the heat, he should go away. Get himself transferred. Or, better still, resign and go into politics where he can say all he wants, all he likes. Don't embarrass the civil service. Don't embarrass your masters in Kuala Lumpur.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Where's the remote control?

This sign was spotted in a toilet at the Narita international airport in Japan by a traveller. Note: In case you can't read, just click on the image to see a clearer picture.

Monday, 19 July 2010

George Town's Beach Street: Then and now

I wasn't satisfied with the picture I had used in my blog post last Tuesday, so I purposely went out to George Town again to snap a second shot. As much as possible, I really want to recreate the same view as shown in the old print. It's still not very exact but fortunately, close enough for comparison.

More than a hundred years separate the two images. There are changes upon changes but many things still remain the same.

The building on the right side of the road - once occupied by Pritchard & Co - is still standing although the height has been reduced from three storeys to just two. Barkath Store, before they bought up the tall building on the other side of the road in the second picture, used to operate from the corner of the bullding where Pritchard & co once occupied.

In the first picture, the front of the white building on the left side of the road was demolished when the Mercantile Bank put up their glass facade. Although an attempt has been made to restore the facade of the building, it's quite clear from the second picture that it's now recessed inwards, no doubt a result of local regulations. The one-storey building on the left in the first picture is now replaced by the ABN-AMRO building housing the Royal Bank of Scotland branch in George Town.

Oh yes, the road is just as crowded today but modern motor vehicles have replaced the pull rickshaws of a hundred years ago.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


I found this yellow grasshopper with black speckles among my plants this morning. It must have measured easily three inches from head to the tip of its wings.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Voice that is Johnny Farnham

I'm looking out the window and I see the rain. Huge torrents of rain with the muffled sound of thunder in the far distance. Yes, the rainy spell is upon us again. Lately, the weather has been gloomy in the afternoons. A good respite from the heat but it plays havoc with my walking exercises at the Bukit Mertajam hill. I haven't been going up there for weeks as I try to recover from some knee problems but now that I feel strong enough, the weather breaks.

Anyhow, as I watch the rain, my thoughts go back to 1969. On the local radio station then -- and the Radio RAAF Butterworth (RRB) was a local station to both Australians serving at the air force base in Butterworth and the people of Penang -- hit after hit of Australian pop singers of the 1960s were being broadcast for what they were worth.

My head is filled with the song Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. It was a hit for American singer BJ Thomas and was originally from the film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  There were many cover versions of this song but in my opinion, none was ever better than this particular version by the Australian pop star Johnny Farnham:

Prior to this song, Farnham had gained attention in Australia with a cover version of Harry Nilson's One (but I prefer the cover version by Three Dog Night) and a novelty song, Sadie (The Cleaning Lady). However, it was Raindrops that turned him into a teen idol.

Like most Australian singers and bands, Farnham was little known outside Down Under. Nevertheless, he had a little following here in Penang among folks of my age because of our exposure to the RRB station. He can well consider me as one who actually liked his music enough to go pester my friend, Art Yew, in Australia to bring them back for me.

For a while, he was singing with the Little River Band but after a falling out with his bandmates, resumed his solo career. From the Whispering Jack album came possibly his biggest hit, You're The Voice, a song that would test any singer's vocal ability. Ladies and gentlemen, the unofficial national anthem of Australia:

But before that, Farnham had teamed up with Australian boy band Human Nature to record yet another memorable hit, Every Time You Cry. I won't include that music video here but instead, show another one of Farnham singing it live in Brisbane in 2009.

Anyone viewing these three videos here should come to the same conclusion as I that Johnny Farnham remains one of the biggest and most impressive acts that could have been more popular outside Australia and New Zealand. To me, he stands tall as a music legend.

Subsidy cuts begin

The main news today centres on the Federal Government starting to remove the subsidy system in the country.

We hear that the subsidy system cannot remain in place forever. It is bound to kill off any country's economy eventually, so the official explanation (propaganda goes).  Reluctantly, for the good of the country, the government says that the subsidies must be reduced. This is the first stage of the process and the prices of some essential items have been increased effectively from midnight. But be braced for more subsidy cuts every six months or so!

I don't know about you but on a personal level, I know that the removal of subsidies is going to affect me. Primarily, it is the increase in the price of petrol by five cents to RM1.85. An increase of 2.8 percent may be minimal but it sure will have knock-off effects on transportation cost and every else that depends on transport! And what doesn't depend on transportation to move goods and foodstuff from one corner of the land to another? Moreover, there's also a hefty 25-cent increase per kilogramme in sugar prices. Sugar does not affect me that much but again, there will be ripples felt from this move. More reason to see food prices increasing soon.

All these are rich fodder for people to criticise the federal government. Already on facebook, I'm starting to see people posting that that's the result of choosing the Barisan Nasional in the last general elections, and that we should be voting for the Pakatan Rakyat in the next one to come. Blah blah blah.... All very predictable reactions.

But, seriously, folks, is there an alternative solution to this subsidy conundrum? I'm no economist, so I don't know at all. If there is anyone who can explain it clearly to me, I'll appreciate it very much!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Delay is the deadliest form of denial

Have you heard of Prof C Northcote Parkinson? He was a British naval historian and the Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya in Singapore, but he was also an author of about 60 books, many of them filled with his delightful wit. Ah, the richness of the English language. In one of his books, he suggested that there was a Law Of Delay.

And what is the Law Of Delay? Simply put, it means that "delay is the deadliest form of denial". If you delay making a decision on something, you are actually preventing or denying justice from being done at all.

Therefore, I'm not surprised at all that the matter of bringing down the two arches at the Penang Botanic Garden is being delayed so long. It's just Parkinson's Law Of Delay being put into practice!

Recently, the Penang Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) gave excuses for not demolishing the arches yet. First, the DID said that the tilting arch bore no immediate danger. Second, the DID was waiting for the official word from the Ministry of Tourism.

Yesterday after two weeks of dithering -- meaning complete silence -- the DID gave more excuses for the delay. Now, they said that they would have to consult the experts at the Public Works Department (PWD) before it demolishes the arches. "We have no experience in demolition," cried out the state DID's director, Anuar Yahya, "so it’s better for us to ask those who do."

And when he was asked when the demolition would take place, he said it was up to the Tourism Ministry. "We will meet with the ministry soon to present our report on the tilt of one of the arches."

Bah, humbug! They are all the same. One damn bloody excuse after another. All part of bureaucratic inefficiency, whether it is at the federal level or the state level, in whatever form: delay, denial, incompetence. Talk only, with no positive action. And in the meantime, I'm wondering what the NGOs in Penang are going to do next. Are they going to let this unacceptable delay carry on until November this year?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

George Town's heritage bank buildings

George Town can boast today that it is home to many of the oldest banks in the country. Long before the foreign banks decided to open their branches in Kuala Lumpur, they were already doing business in George Town.

For example, I mentioned in this blog three years ago that the Mercantile Bank Ltd used to occupy a building beside the Algemene Bank Nederland (ABN) along Beach Street. The former began operations in George Town as the Chartered Mercantile Bank of India, London & China in 1860 and was issuing Straits Settlements currency notes by 1882, one of the few banks with the privilege.

As for the ABN, it started operations in George Town as the Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij or Netherlands Trading Society in 1888. After a merger with the Amsterdam-Rotterdam Bank (AMRO), the merged entity became known as the ABN-AMRO Bank in 1991. Then about 10 years ago, the bank relocated to another part of Penang and the old building was converted first into a restaurant (Old China Cafe) and later, used as an art gallery (run by the Koe Guan Kongsi). In the last few years, the Royal Bank of Scotland completed its purchase of the ABN-AMRO Bank and moved back into the stately building.

Interestingly, this heritage building originally sported a hemispherical dome on its tower instead of the pyramidal roof we know today.

If we compare the two pictures above, we can see a passageway that runs beside the building. It used to be a decent road, Crown Road, that separated the ABN building from the old British East India Company (EIC) building. Later, when the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) erected its own imposing building on this plot of land, it intruded into Crown Road. Today, Crown Road is just an alley. Apart from a newsagent and several Muslim coffee stalls opening here, it's now mainly an alternative walking route to the Bangunan Syed Putra government offices.

When I was blogging about the heritage banks in George Town three years ago, I mentioned that the premises of this old Mercantile Bank had long been left empty. Mercantile Bank later became the Beach Street branch of the HSBC in the mid-1960s, while the other HSBC banking office became known as the Downing Street branch. For about 30 years, the two branches of HSBC were operating almost side by side, separated only by the ABN-AMRO Bank. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, the two branches consolidated into one and the old glass building in Beach Street was vacated.

As a child, I hardly ventured into this part of George Town because there was no reason for me to do so. The fact that my father was working here was irrelevant to me at that time. Therefore, my earliest impression of the HSBC's Beach Street branch came after I started working at Ban Hin Lee Bank which was further down the road. As far as my memory went, the HSBC Beach Street branch had always maintained this glass facade and I never ever questioned him whether the building looked any different from the day he first started working there.

So for many years, this building with the glass facade was empty. In the last two years or so, contractors boarded up the front of the building and began some feverish renovation work away from the prying eyes of the public. It was only in the last few months that the boardings were finally removed to reveal this:

The front of the building now has an almost colonial feel. Maybe I shouldn't use this "colonial" word and should instead say "heritage" look. At first, I thought that the building's new heritage facade couldn't be real. Did the owners (presumably, still the HSBC) do this purposely to blend the building with its surroundings and give it a heritage look? Remember that I had always thought that the building had a glass facade. Now, the front looked almost as old as its neighbour, the ABN-AMRO building.

Then over the weekend, I remembered that I had some digital pictures of Old George Town stored somewhere in my computer. I opened them and was delighted to see that there was actually one precious picture that showed the original facade of this building. Now it made sense to try and restore the look.

Well, it may not be an exact reproduction of the original facade but the restoration work is close enough. And I'm happy that there are still corporations in Penang who take George Town's heritage status seriously enough to bring the shine back to the city. It's not only this building that is undergoing conservation and restoration. Even the row of shophouses that used to be Pritchard & Co on the opposite side of the road are being carefully restored. I can't wait to see what's in store for a revitalised Beach Street once all this have been accomplished.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Psychic Paul's predictions

Ladies and gentlemen, the ball may be round and the results unpredictable but Paul the Octopus has made it all look so very simple. 

But has it? Have we been set up? Have we fallen for the oldest con trick in the book big time: hook, line and sinker? Has it been a conspiracy of the highest order? Have the results been known all along?  

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Streets did come alive in George Town

[UPDATED] My wife and I enjoyed ourselves tremendously at the George Town Festival's Streets Come Alive event last Wednesday evening on the occasion of the George Town Heritage Day, organised by the Penang government to celebrate the city's listing as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.

However, amidst all the month-long celebration, one concern persists in my mind. Can all this be sustained? Right now, the government and the organisers are brimming with enthusiasm and they have lots of energy and ideas. There are several events throughout the whole month and I do welcome them but there is potential danger around the corner.

First, the traditional cultural events may run a bit thin eventually. Local residents may find them tiresome after a while if the same cultural stuff is strutted out several times a year with hardly any variation. Of course, overseas visitors may find them all charming and wonderful, but we need the local Penangites to come out and appreciate their culture too.

Penang culture is not all Baba and Nyonya. Even among the Chinese community, many do not have Peranakan ties. So there must be events with their own culture as themes within the George Town Festival. And of course, we have the Malay and Indian communities within the city limits and especially beyond. So it is good that when we celebrate, we are celebrating together. My wife and I had a lot of excitement when visiting the Indian-Muslim section of the street celebrations on Wednesday. Many things were new to us. Even the old, familiar things felt new to us.

When I took to wandering around the streets last Wednesday, my observation was that many of the Chinese and Baba and Nyonya events were close replications of the Chinese New Year open day celebrations. So basically, it is the same stuff being churned out. Now, with Hari Raya just around the corner and Deepavali coming at the end of the year, will the organisers have fresh ideas or will we see the same, similar stuff at the Hari Raya and Deepavali open days too?

You see, that's the real challenge of our cultural heritage. We celebrate together as a whole during the George Town heritage day but we also need to celebrate our cultures separately at the appropriate time, be it Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, Deepavali or even Christmas. Too much of even the same good thing can dampen the enthusiasm of both organisers and local residents. We cannot live on the interest of the foreign or outstation tourists alone.

So there must be continuous change if the government and the organisers want to keep the interest alive. In this respect, I do welcome the efforts of the organisers to bring in the new foreign acts. Patrizio Buanne may be irrelevant to the cultural heritage theme of the George Town Festival but at least, he brings in a welcomed distraction and gives a big buzz to some sectors of the local community. Frankly, I'd like to see more of this happening during the George Town Festival but please do keep the ticket prices reasonable if the organisers want more participation from Penangites. Don't turn events like this concert or the Emily Of Emerald Hill play into ultra-exclusive events where, with non-paying guests greatly outnumbering the paying guests, the latter feel like they are subsidising the former. And believe me, this is a REAL feedback.

Finally, coming back to my theme of maintaining interest in the George Town Festival for the long term, I do remember that we did have the Penang Arts Festival for several years. The month-long festival was held in July too. However, this festival died a natural death after a while. That was a good case study on the sustainability of festivals in Penang. It will do good for the Penang government and the George Town Festival organisers to delve further into the demise of the Penang Arts Festival. Perhaps they can learn a lesson or two from there. For the sake of our UNESCO world cultural heritage status, the George Town Festival must continue, and continue successfully.

In the meantime, here are just a few of the pictures that I took at the Streets Come Alive event on Wednesday. My wife and I concentrated more on the Indian-Muslim enclave along Pitt Street (actually, outside the Kapitan Kling Mosque) although we did wander into the Poh Hock Seah and the Cheah Kongsi along lower Armenian Street and the Khoo Kongsi at Cannon Square. More pictures are available from my facebook photo page.

Wow, that's oil hot enough to cook anything and this vendor simply placed the vadai dough in the oil with his fingers. Vadai is a typical Indian savoury snack that's shaped like a doughnut and usually made from dahl, lentil or gram flour.

Teh tarik demonstration. Pardon the pun but this is always a crowd puller.

The traditional wooden clogs are seldom seen nowadays. Nobody wears them anymore, so there is a greater need to preserve this culture.

Lions resting after their dance

Teochew opera, and very often female performers would take on male roles during some of the performances.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Being thankful

I've been busy. What with the streets coming alive in George Town for our anniversary (don't say that I don't have a good sense of humour) and all that, I also had to contend with my wife organising a programme in mid-week for her company.

So, being out of the house for two days - myself silently accompanying her faithfully outside her work and she following me by my side around the city - and coming home totally bushed last night, that explains the silence on this blog.

My thanks to Ted, See Ming, Stephen, Long Kin and others for their good wishes.

It has been a long journey of 25 years. Although the road had been slightly rocky once in a while with challenges thrown up at the most unexpected times, things had always turned out all right at the end.

I know that some of you are also working towards this milestone in your lives - various stages of it - and I would wish you a pleasant journey ahead. In the meantime, Saw See and I are looking forward to the next 25 years.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Our anniversary

It's our 25th wedding anniversary today (7 July 2010) and we're glad that the Penang state government has declared (it) a public holiday. Ha ha ha...

Of course, you are not bound to observe today's public holiday in Penang since it wasn't gazetted under the Holidays Act 1951 but if you do, please think of us when you celebrate! :-)

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

George Town Festival 2010: Streets come alive

Tomorrow is George Town Heritage Day, the day when the streets in the inner city will come alive with activities to celebrate the second anniversary of George Town's UNESCO world cultural heritage status. I was enjoying the festive air last year and I know that I shall be enjoying it again this time. However, it's with a lot of regret that I have to forego the morning and afternoon programmes. There are other personal matters to attend to, which means that I am only free for the evening programmes.

But never mind, I still intend to have a good time. However, I haven't decided where to go yet but it's quite likely that I shall make my way to Armenian Street and Pitt Street for the showcase of traditional food and craft. And a pop into the Khoo Kongsi is called for too, for maybe if the time is right I can catch the brief Beijing Opera performance. Mustn't forget the lion dance on high poles at the Cheah Kongsi. If it's anything like the performance during the Chinese New Year, I know that this one is going to be equally breath-taking.

Yes, it's going to be an interesting evening...