Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Even the North Koreans are up there with the elite

Huh, I never thought that I'd see this happen but when I logged into the Internet this morning, one of the first pages that loaded in my browser was the medal standings after three rounds of the London Olympics.

It is still early days, of course, but who would have thought that among the top five countries is....North Korea with three gold medals! Two of them coming from weightlifting.

Wonderful achievements by these two athletes but they brought me some amusement when they said that their successes were owed to their country's past and present leaders.

First, Om Yun Choi gave all the credit to Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader who died last year: "How can any man possibly lift 168kg? I believe the great Kim Jong Il looked over me."

Then after the second weightlifting gold, Kim Un Guk gushed: "The secret is nothing but the support and encouragement from our supreme leader chairman Kim Jong Un, because he expects so much from all our athletes, and he expects the highest performance from all our athletes. That's the secret."

I suspect our own dear leader in Putrajaya does not expect the highest performance from our representatives in London because there are no medals yet.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

When cassette tapes once ruled my household

Over the past days I have been rummaging through my store room, digging out the old cassette tapes. There are quite a lot of them in the two boxes, about 350 pieces. And I'm not even counting the old cassette tapes that a friend passed on to me last year. If I were to add them to my own personal collection, I would dare say that the number would be close to 600.

Among them, I discovered that I still had 14 pieces of new cassette tapes. They are still in their origianl wrappers. Quite a variety: Sony, TDK, Maxell together with some others like Panasonic, LG and SKC. Type I cassette tapes mostly with a few Type II tapes thrown in. "Don't unwrap them," a facebook friend told me. "They are antique pieces. Can fetch quite a price," he said. Ha ha, I'll believe him when someone makes me a jolly good offer for them!

Anyway, I used to own an old second-hand Aiwa double cassette player but it fell into disrepair several years ago. But thanks to a friend in Kulim, I've now a new second-hand Aiwa cassette deck. Actually it was already broken down "but if you can repair it, you can keep it," he told me.

So I took my screw drivers to the cassette deck. Opened it and the first thing I saw were the two broken belts. By a dint of good luck, I was able to locate the replacement belts for this specific model. Cost me about RM60 just to have them delivered from overseas but it was worth it. The deck's now in playable condition although the fast forward and rewind mechanisms still do not work properly.

I was surprised when I pulled out the two boxes of old tapes from the store room. Most of them are still in rather good condition, which means they are still useable. Many of them are originals but about half were compilations of songs that I had asked from the old record shops in George Town. That was the rage then.

A pretty nostalgic journey, I tell you, just by looking at the cassette tape covers. The earliest compilations I ever bought were in 1979 but by 1986, my cassette tapes had been replaced by compact discs. Still, much of the music on the cassettes are now unavailable on any other media. It will make good sense for me to digitise the collection. If I have the time, that is....

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Minding your Ps and Qs

Today's story is dedicated to my family and also my relatives in the Klang Valley. You see that chap with a guitar on Page 192 of FIDELIS, the commemorative book of The Old Frees' Association? He's my cousin, Tony Oh Keng Kooi.

He was two or three years my junior at the Penang Free School. Tony and I were members of the school's Chess Club. He played Chinese Chess. Way back then, I was staying in Seang Tek Road while he lived in Jahudi Road. My mother and his father were first cousins and that made us second cousins.

When I was working on FIDELIS, this old picture revived a lot of my memories. Tony, you see, although he may still not realise it, was the factor that brought me face-to-face with another cousin, one that I didn't know existed.

In 1974 I was studying in Petaling Jaya. The nascent chess scene in the country was just getting interesting. The Chess Association of Selangor was formed in that year and they were holding their first state championship. I was taking part but since the Royal Selangor Club was quite a distance away, I had made arrangements to go to the house of another of the participants and someone else would come by to pick us up. For four days or five days I would do just that.

After the event had ended, I continued to visit Phuah Eng Chye because I had developed a close bond with him. We could speak in the Hokkien dialect of Penang and befuddle anyone who couldn't understand us. His mother was very friendly and after learning that I was from Penang, she would sometimes even join in our conversations. Part of her extended family still lived in Penang, she said.

One day Eng Chye and I were talking about our connections in Penang. He had a cousin, he revealed to me, studying at the Penang Free School and also playing chess for the school - but only Chinese Chess. My ears pricked up. I still had very good ties with the chess club and there couldn't be many players that I wouldn't know about. Now who could that be, I wondered. So do I, I told him, I also have a cousin in the same chess club. If Eng Chye were to tell me his name, I would know for sure.

And that's how Tony's name cropped up. I almost fell off the chair. Tony Oh. He's Eng Chye's cousin? Why, that's also my cousin. How could it be, not unless we were also related in some way?

Eng Chye's mother was summoned summarily and I related my story to her. The excitement rose in her eyes. She questioned me about my mother and then she disappeared somewhere and rushed back with a photograph album. She stopped at a page and pointed out my parents' wedding picture. The black and white image of my father and mother stared out at me from the book. "That's my cousin in Penang," she blurted out happily.

What a happy revelation that I had to discover in Petaling Jaya the presence of relatives that I didn't know of at all. She was one of the three Oh Sisters that lived in Port Swettenham. My mother grew up with them.

She always mentioned them with enthusiasm but unfortunately, she never shared much information about her childhood days. Thus, I'm as much in the dark today as I was then about her - to me, mysterious - female cousins. Every Chinese New Year though, she would dutifully exchange festive cards with them. It was the only time that they could still be in touch. So here was one of them, settled down in Petaling Jaya. The other two remained in Port Swettenham.

Eventually, I returned to Penang in 1976. In the meantime, Eng Chye had gone on to Manchester and then came back to work in the Klang Valley. Despite the long years that have passed by, my friendship with Eng Chye remains strong although of course, we no longer keep in constant touch like before. We were very close in those days so much so that the joke was you should better mind your P(huah)s and Q(uah)s when you are with us. That was how close we were.

As a postscript, I must mention that when I was getting married, Eng Chye was the Best Man at my wedding. I could have asked any of my friends in Penang to be my Best Man but no, the only person that came readily to my mind was him and he came up all the way from Petaling Jaya just for this purpose. I never had the chance to thank him properly so this is as good a time to tell him, "Thanks, buddy!"

Monday, 16 July 2012

Lim Chang Moh, friend of a few months

The news reached me at about 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. I was sitting beneath the canopies at the Esplanade while waiting for the lucky draws of the FMM Penang heritage trail event to complete. Felt terribly hot, bored and tired. So to while away the time, I whipped out my mobile and got myself connected to facebook. I scrolled down and read the usual stuff but suddenly, I came across a posting that gave me a jolt.

Turning to my team leader, I told him: "Here, read this." And he did, but the news didn't solicit much reaction from him. "You don't know him, do you?" I inquired. No, he shook his head, he did not know who Lim Chang Moh was.

But I did. Lim Chang Moh was our fellow Old Free who had contributed to FIDELIS, the commemorative book of The Old Frees' Association. For the book, he had undertaken an interview of Tan Boon Lin who was the Penang Free School's first Asian headmaster.

Chang Moh and I had exchanged several emails prior to the production of the book. We were discussing his article. For example, at first, I had asked him whether it was possible to keep the article down to a page, and then two. Will be very difficult, he replied. In that case, I had told him, let me have what you have and I'll do what I've got to do. I was getting rather generous, you see, because by then I realised that Headmaster would turn out to be a mine of information. True enough, the article filled out four pages eventually.

It was not until 31 Mar 2012 when FIDELIS was launched by the Raja of Perlis at the E&O Hotel that I met up with Chang Moh. Unknown to me, he very much had wanted to attend the function. He sought me out in the hall and we warmed to each other. We exchanged autographs in our own respective copies of FIDELIS.

We agreed then that maybe, there can be a project that we could work together in the future. We also agreed to keep in touch and subsequently linked up as friends on facebook. I congratulated him when he received a state award from the Sultan of Selangor. When I learnt that he had undergone gall bladder surgery in June, I wrote to wish him well. That was the last time we ever exchanged messages.

On Sunday, through facebook, I learnt that Chang Moh had passed away. We were acquaintances for only a few months but got to know each other better from April. Weeks after his operation, he succumbed to some complications. He fought a brave fight but unfortunately, the illness got the better of him. My thoughts are with his family.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The moon, Venus and Jupiter

I wonder how many people noticed it this morning but there was an interesting display of the celestial bodies. Actually, I wouldn't have noticed it myself if I had not participated in the FMM Penang heritage trail event. While waiting for the event to start, I happened to glance upwards at the brightening sky.

It was already 6.59a.m. and normally, it would be very difficult already to notice any object in the sky. But not this morning. There, lingering quite near to the waning crescent moon were two bright spots of light in a cloudless sky. The brighter one was Venus while the dimmer one was Jupiter. Together, they were aligned almost in a straight line, truly a remarkable occurrence. A marvellous sight for anyone with a passing interest in astronomy.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Roger Bannister

I couldn't believe that this here was Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile on 6 May 1954. He's now 83 years old, and seen here carrying the Olympic torch as it makes its way across Britain.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

NZ travelogue: the Fo Guang Shan temple

My wife was visibly surprised when I pulled up at the Fo Guang Shan International Buddhist Association NZ at the junction of Harakeke Street and Riccarton Road in Christchurch, New Zealand. Frankly, so was I. I had not expected to see such an impressive Buddhist building in the heart of the city but here it was!

But I have got to say that this was a Buddhist temple with a difference. It looked totally unlike others that I have seen. You need to throw away your pre-conceived idea of how Chinese temples look like traditionally and look at this one with a fresh eye and an open mind. The concept of this building in Christchurch was modernity and the design was architecturally appealing.

After we parked the car, we went round to the front of the building. There were three stone statues to greet visitors. One was obviously that of a Buddhist monk sitting in deep meditation, no doubt about that, but the other two required a stretch of the imagination before we could accept that they were indeed a modern artistic interpretation of some other Buddhist concepts.

The interior was also equally interesting. On the upper floor was the huge shrine hall and a long corridor running deep along the length of the building while the lower floor housed a cafe as well as some exhibition rooms.

When we visited, there was an exhibition of calligraphy paintings by the 82-year-old founder abbot, Venerable Master Hsing Yun. This old monk, it seemed, was a master of the one-stroke calligraphy, that is to say, every piece of his work would have to be completed in a single continuous movement. He was forced into mastering this technique because of failing eye sight.

During the Christchurch 6.3-magnitude earthquake in 2011 when large areas of the central business district of the city were destroyed, the Fo Guang Shan immediately reached out to the city and the victims by providing a great community service. Their earthquake relief service centre gave free hot meals, free basic medical supplies and cleaning items and free Internet access to the victims irrespective of race or religion. In addition, there was access to the temple's main shrine for anyone who needed spiritual counselling.

So that's it; our visit to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple in Christchurch. From here, it was next to the Riccarton Bush where a Sunday morning market was going on. More later....


Friday, 6 July 2012

Door knockers at Armenian Street

Went walking along the cultural heritage enclave of Armenian Street in George Town, Penang this afternoon and came across this pair of door knockers. I have always been fascinated with them.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

July's (very almost) full moon

For your information, this isn't an under-exposed picture of the sun low down in the sky. No. Rather, this is a picture of the full moon - well, it's almost a full moon - over the roof of my neighbour's house. I took the picture this morning - it was just one of many - when I was awakened by bright moonlight streaming into the bedroom.

Time was about 5.30a.m. Despite feeling groggy, I had the presence of mind to go search for my camera. Turning to the window, I snapped a few shots without really thinking about the subject. They were bad, and that really woke me up.

So I began fiddling with the controls. It's good that this Fujifilm F500EXR came with manual control, better than my old Panasonic FS15, but there are still lots of limitations. Perhaps a DSLR is the next step to go. Anyway, there's also a 15X zoom on this camera which is of course very slightly better than my even older Minolta Konica Dimage Z5 camera which has a 12X zoom.

I took about 20 shots with the camera. All hand-held and despite the moon being so bright, there were still a few that turned out blurred because of camera shake. Image stabilisation does help but not totally. You would still need to learn how to steady yourself when using a long shutter speed or maxing out on the zoom control.

I just processed the pictures through Picasa and this, I should believe, is about one of the better pictures from the camera. BTW, it has been digitally enlarged to fit into the frame. Not what I would prefer to do normally.

Monday, 2 July 2012

KTM inter-city rail services

For the past 12 months, I've been resorting more often to using the train to travel between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. It came about because of two primary reasons.

One, the train station in Bukit Mertajam is only a mere four kilometres from my home and therefore, I can happily dispense with the need to ask my wife or son to drive me all the way to the Penang international airport at Bayan Lepas which is 32 kilometres away. Imagine the time, money and effort saved.

Two, as an alternative to flying, my family is coming round to agreeing that rail travel is much safer than taking the inter-city buses. We've heard enough stories about horror bus crashes along the highways and they are not limited to night travel only. The issue of under-paid and over-worked bus drivers has not been resolved at all. Only when there are fatal accidents will the authorities be seen to say or do something. But even then, once the news quieten down, it's back to Square One regarding the bus drivers.

Therefore, can anybody blame me for wanting to use the train services instead of the bus or the aeroplane?

Anyway, the first time that I used the train in the last 12 months was in August 2011. It was the end of the Arthur Tan Malaysia Chess Festival and I chose rail travel to return from Kuala Lumpur just for the lark of it, wanting to experience what first class rail service on the night train was all about.

I have to admit that my first impression of the train service was good: plush seats that could be almost fully reclined, ample leg room, air-conditioned carriage. Journey itself was smooth, the carriages had very good suspension and no longer rocked or shook on the tracks, and the external noises were generally well filtered out. The only drawback was that the carriage lights could not be turned off or dimmed and this affected my sleep greatly. But other than that, I rather enjoyed the journey.

Maybe I should also relate an anecdote. What happened was my fault, actually. When I arrived at the KL Sentral, I went to the wrong waiting area. Instead of the north-bound waiting area, I joined a group of travellers who were waiting for the south-bound train to Singapore. Luckily I realised my error after descending to the platform and I had to make a mad rush to catch the correct train. The whistle blew within seconds of my jumping on board.

Then last April after making a quick day trip by car down to Kuala Lumpur with my daughter, I hopped only the night train for my return trip. This time, I decided to book a second class sleeping berth. At least, I could then draw the curtain and cut off the lights in the carriage as much as possible. Again, it was a very pleasant journey. The mattress was firm and more importantly, the sheets were fresh and clean. The carriage was again very well insulated from the external noises and it was a very smooth ride.

Last weekend when I found that I had to go down to Kuala Lumpur, I resolved that maybe for once I should make the whole journey by train itself. My destination would be the Subang Jaya station and I reckoned that I just needed to hop onto a KTM Komuter train at KL Sentral. So on Friday night, I caught the 11.20pm train from the Bukit Mertajam station - again, travelling on the second class sleeping berth - and I arrived at the KL Sentral at 6.45am the next day. A completely hassle-free trip.

Coming back on Sunday night, the night train left the KL Sentral at 11pm and pulled up at the Bukit Mertajam station at 6.10am this morning. This was the biggest surprise of the whole journey: the train arrived right on the dot.

I've never known the KTM inter-city services to arrive punctually but here, I was already standing on the BM station's platform at the time that KTM had advertised that they would arrive. So I must say that I have been thoroughly impressed by my latest experience and will have no qualms about using the rail services again in the future.

What I'm really looking forward to is for KTM to complete their double-tracking project for the Butterworth-Ipoh sector as soon as possible. I understand that the project is currently scheduled for completion at the end of 2013 but I shall welcome if this can be achieved sooner.

What I want is that KTM will extend their ETS service all the way from Kuala Lumpur to the north as soon as possible. That will reduce the travel time from the present seven hours to four hours. (KL-Ipoh is already two hours with the ETS service, and BM-Ipoh should be even faster as this is certainly a shorter distance.)

Now, wouldn't that be interesting indeed? It will certainly give the airlines a serious run for their money! At the very least, KTM can expect to siphon off prospective air travel passengers who already stay on the mainland and who are, like me, baulk at having to go all the way to Bayan Lepas just to catch a flight to the Kuala Lumpur international airport or the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (KLIA-LCCT).