Friday, 30 November 2012

Remembrance Day 2012 in Penang

I came across these Remembrance Day pictures from BuletinMutiara in facebook. I'm glad that it turned out to be quite a ceremony. The date was 18 Nov 2012.

Just a question: why didn't someone (the organisers) give a poppy to the Chief Minister? Everybody seemed to be wearing one, except him, and he was the most important guest at the wreath-laying ceremony.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Another trip to Bao Sheng Durian Farm

It is still not too late to make a trip to the Bao Sheng Durian Farm in Sungai Pinang, about 10 kilometres either direction from Balik Pulau or Teluk Bahang. Still time to savour some of the most delectable durian fruit in the country. The end-of-year season will most probably last until the middle of December.

Just last week, I managed to pull along two friends to visit TS Chang (more popularly known as Durian Seng). I've been here countless times but this was the first time for Long Kin and Heng Swee. I don't think they were disappointed with the visit. I never am.

Despite it being a weekday, there were quite a number of other people around. That says a lot about the popularity of Bao Sheng, doesn't it? Its name is already known far and wide. For the record, we had the Green Skin Ang Bak, Hor Lor and Red Prawn. Good variety.

Durian Seng with Heng Swee, myself and Long Kin before the start of the feast. 

Durian Seng's son has obviously learnt well from his father. 

Me with the Ang Heh (Red Prawn) variety. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Taiping revisited: Maxwell Hill

This was the second visit to Taiping in two weeks. While the first visit was primarily to visit the Sasanarakkha  Buddhist Sanctuary there with my family, this second trip was made with a friend from Singapore. The objective was to climb up Maxwell Hill along the tarmac road. As far up as we could afford ourselves to go.

We started off from the base at 11.40a.m. I must say that it was a very refreshing walk, a completely change of scenery from my usual hill treks at the Bukit Mertajam Hill. Different things to see every step of the way. Was very impressed with the huge trees growing perpendicularly up from the ground. Still can't put a name to these trees, however.

And it wasn't just the scenery that captivated me. There was also the smell of fresh greenery all along the way, enhanced by the rain during our trek down the road.

Ordinarily, I do not bother to walk or trek that far up a hill. The hill in Bukit Mertajam, for instance, is only about 450 metres above sea level and the distance until the peak is something like 3.7 kilometres. In Taiping, the elevation of Maxwell Hill is 1,250 metres and according to the markers, the hill road is about nine kilometres long.

But when the scenery is new and there's good company, distances become quite relative. Stephen and I managed to walk a good six kilometres until the Tea Garden. Two hours to get here. He wanted to go on till the top but looming dark clouds, coupled with hunger pangs and a deserted building at this Tea Garden, made us do an about-turn down to the base, which was another six kilometres of walk, that we reached at about 3.20p.m. Along the way, the government 4WDs were whizzing up and down, ferrying daytrippers up and down the hill. At times, I was tempted to flag one of them down but resisted the urge. Anyway, the 4WDs were always full of passengers and I doubt they would stop.

On the way down, we struck up a conversation with a Taiping resident. It was at about the time that we caught sight of a green snake. He was fascinated that we had come all the way from Penang just to go up Maxwell Hill. We talked of many things, including local politics, and my most interesting observation was the still seething anger in him regarding the three political turncoats in the state in February 2009 that caused the fall of the Pakatan Rakyat government. Especially, he heaped scorn on the former DAP assemblywoman.

Here is a small section of the pictures from the Maxwell Hill trip:

The starting point of our walk. According to the milestone, it is nine kilometres till the end, though not necessarily the top.

I was impressed with the size of some of the trees like, for example, this one.

Caught sight of this small red flower by the slope.

 One of the typical hairpin bends.

This is Resthouse Number Three. The road gets more deserted after this point.

The hairpin bend at Resthouse Number Three.

Wild orchid. 

Rain clouds in the far distance. Of course, it rained. What do you expect from Taiping?

The abandoned government building that makes up the Tea Garden. We had thought that there would be some sign of life here who could give us a warm cup of tea but no, the whole place was deserted despite it being furnished with chairs, fans, conference room, toilets and plush chairs. Heard from the Taiping resident that it was previously looked after by people but their services were terminated by the government. The place is not left to rot. Big waste of taxpayers' money, if you ask me, but then, that's always the attitude of the Barisan Nasional government.  

Came across this green snake slithering on the road as we came down. It was probably harmless but I wasn't going to find out.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

J.R. Ewing (Dallas)

The greatest oil baron that never lived.

Larry Hagman
21 Sep 1931 - 23 Nov 2012

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Hugh Laurie: Let them talk

Several years ago, I had commented to one of my old schoolmates that I had a weak spot for the PG Wodehouse books. I have been reading Wodehouse since the 1980s and I found his titles irresistible. He was the creator of some of those wackiest characters like Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves. "Have you watched the television series, Jeeves and Wooster, then?" he asked me.

That was the start of a remarkable journey for me, to track down the television series and all the episodes. I found that there were altogether four seasons of this British series (of course, you must leave it to the British to produce such a television show; the Americans have little class when it comes to comedy) which starred the comedy duo of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

It was then I got really hooked on to the talent of the two actors. The turn of language was exactly what I was looking for in television comedy shows. The last time I had really, really, really ever enjoyed myself with a comedy series was when Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were broadcast. Wanting more of such "British nonsense", I discovered the Blackadder series as well as A Bit of Fry and Laurie, all starring the comedic duo. Of course by then, I learnt that they had diversified into other television roles, such as Stephen Fry In America which was a documentary series and the choleric House MD which I think that I don't have to say anything about. It's so well-known.

Through House MD, Laurie had made an incredible mark for himself as an actor in America. But maybe less so as a musician though. However, music was one of his interests and he demonstrated in A Bit of Fry and Laurie and occasionally in Jeeves and Wooster that he was up to it as a very competent pianist and guitarist. But his singing voice is something else altogether. He is not a natural singer. Despite this, he has the guts to put out a debut album recently, called Let Them Talk, which is his tribute to the American blues genre of New Orleans.

Over the past two months I had been agonising whether to buy this album on compact disc or vinyl record. Finally about three weeks ago, I decided that I should go for the vinyl version. So I went into ebay and searched around. The vinyl version was rare but it was available. Eighteen days ago, I was notified that the parcel was on its way.

Eighteen days is an agonisingly long wait but this afternoon, the postman arrived with the parcel. I wasted no time opening it, removing the album and checking the condition of the double LPs, then put it through one complete round of wash to remove the dirt and grime (you wouldn't believe the dust inside the record sleeves) before letting my stylus gently caress the record grooves. (Note: My only gripe is that the record company should have produced a gate-fold record sleeve. They could have done a better job with the packaging and presentation. Is this art lost forever??)

There were two surprises with this album. The first was the weight of the records. Quite heavy, possibly 180g vinyl, but I can't confirm. The second surprise was the complete lack of surface noise from the records. No pops, no crackles. And just a silence between tracks. Wonderful. Below is the playlist. I know that on compact disc (there are more than one version), it is possible to buy a version with bonus tracks. But there were no bonus tracks on the records though, but that is how it is supposed to be. The original real McCoy in full fidelity. It was such a blissful hour for me.

Side One: St. James Infirmary, You Don't Know My Mind, Six Cold Feet
Side Two: Buddy Bolden's Blues, Battle of Jericho, After You've Gone, Swanee River
Side Three: The Whale Has Swallowed Me, John Henry (featuring Irma Thomas), Police Dog Blues, Tipitina
Side Four: Winin' Boy Blues, They're Red Hot, Baby, Please Make a Change (featuring Sir Tom Jones & Irma Thomas), Let Them Talk

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

DIY record cleaner: a spot of ingenuity

I was strolling at the Gurney Plaza in George Town and happened to pass by an audio shop when the Clearwater Smart Matrix Pro record cleaner caught my eye. This is one of those modern contraptions that some audiophiles use to clean their vinyl records. It consists of a turntable and an arm that acts to vacuum dirt particles after the machine is done with wet cleaning the record's surface.

Here is a clearer picture of the machine, taken from the What Hifi website:

Actually, I was more intrigued with its price. I had always believed that such vacuum-assisted record cleaners are pricey but I was not prepared for the little sticker I saw:

What, RM6,300 for this machine?? Jaw dropping. I staggered off. I had expected that perhaps with RM2,500, it was possible that a buyer could maybe still be able to get some change back. But the RM6,300 price tag was much beyond my expectation. Not that I wanted to buy a unit but I shall definitely stick to my own Do It Yourself record cleaner. It may require some elbow grease to use but definitely, it had cost me no more than RM300 to assemble.

The wooden lazy suzy rotating base was purchased from IKEA quite some time back. I liked it because it was silent. The round, inch-thick rubberwood chopping block was bought from my neighbourhood supermarket and then sandpapered down, the red non-slip mats were obtained from a car accessory shop and then cut to shape and the ribbed black rubber mat was cut to size from an old piece of discarded car rubber mat. And very recently, I had sawn off the end of an old ball-point pen to make the little plastic spindle. The whole set-up is quite sturdy. Rather proud of this, actually.

Here's a short video of how I actually use it but you will have to pardon the background noise especially when the overhead fan blew into the camera's microphone. Perhaps one day I shall remake the video. In the meantime, you can always turn down the volume on your computer.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Esplanade: Trees chopped down

Was this the work of the Penang Island Municipal council (MPPP)? Or was it the responsibility of some other public authority? Where is the accountability? Whatever, I am disappointed with the attitude. Deeply disappointed. Grossly indignant. And with what?

With the wanton and illogical chopping down of some fabulous trees along the Esplanade Road (Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah) in George Town, Penang. 

This has always been one of my favourite spots of the Esplanade: a shady piece of land outside the Fort Cornwallis and directly across the road from the Royal Malaysian Navy base, where some nice shady trees had been planted and growing well since goodness knew when. A long time ago, actually.

I can declare that the trees were still around when I took part in the FMM Heritage Explorer Trail in July this year. The walk had taken us along the Esplanade Road and when we walked past the Fort Cornwallis and the Lighthouse, I had commented to my wife and fellow participants from The Old Frees' Association that these trees made the nicest part of the Esplanade.

Well, they are gone now. All hacked away and uprooted, including one huge tree where only the stump remained. And of another huge tree outside the fort, it has been pruned of all its leaves and the stark naked branches stand out like sore thumbs. Undoubtedly this tree will sprout new shoots but it will never regain its former glory. I hold the public authorities, including the Penang state government, responsible for the destruction of this little square which is located smack within the UNESCO World Heritage core zone.

Here is how the area looked like in the past. The pictures were taken more than two years ago (July 2010, to be exact).

This tree is gone, all gone. All that's left is a stump!

Monday, 19 November 2012

NZ travelogue: Around Christchurch with Alan

Meet Alan, one of my old chess kaki from the Penang Chess Association days. I knew him back in the 1990s when he was still working at Hewlett Packard in Penang. Towards the end of the decade, he decided to pack his bags and move his family to Christchurch in New Zealand.

When my wife and I visited the South Island last year, we re-established contact, and we still do keep in touch till today. It was good to catch up with him again. And getting to know his family. The son, born in Penang and last seen as a toddler, has grown up a teenager. The daughter, born in New Zealand, completes the family.

On the last day of our vacation in New Zealand, we caught up face-to-face at the Riccarton Bush. Alan was little changed except he looked a bit stockier. Could be the additional layers of clothes to ward off the anticipated autumn chill. (Except that New Zealand was experiencing some weird weather pattern in 2011. Right until June, the weather was warm enough to fool some trees into bearing flowers when they should not.)

We spent the rest of the day together until it was time for us to catch the AirAsia X flight back to Kuala Lumpur. Speaking of AirAsia X, I am quite disappointed that the long-haul budget airline had decided to terminate its services to Christchurch. I'm sure it was not because of some silly excuse like not making money on this route. On the contrary, I believe the airline was doing well as it brought plane loads of Malaysians and other tourists directly to the South Island. Malaysia Airlines only fly to Auckland.

Maybe there was some other more sinister reason which I'm speculating, like Malaysia Airlines persuading AirAsia X to stop competing with them on this sector when the two airlines were still working together about a year ago. Maybe, in return for AirAsia X's getting landing rights to Sydney, they were persuaded to give up Christchurch. Anyhow, Christchurch wasn't the only long-haul destination now off the AirAsia X horizon. Even their flights to London and Paris have disappeared.

But this digression aside, I suppose Alan must have been quite pleased with the small diversion in his life. Seeing us and well as some other of his friends was like catching up with news from the homeland. I ploughed him with news on the political developments in the country, and especially the positive news emanating from Penang. Hope he salivated and thought about coming here for a holiday sometime in the future.

When we left the Riccarton Bush, we ended up at the Foo San Teahouse in Rountree Street for some Malaysian dimsum. Alan told me that the family running this joint was from Ipoh. When we arrived, the place was packed with people. Mostly Asians (Malaysians and Singaporeans?) but there were other people there too.

Somehow, we managed to grab a table with the six of us crammed round it. The food wasn't very impressive but hey, after being away for slightly more than a week, eating Malaysian dimsum was a welcome change to our diet.

Alan suggested that we stopped by his house in Christchurch but before we did, there was a small diversion to the Raewards Fresh warehouse to pick up some fresh produce. "We'd normally come here weekly to pick up our provisions," he explained. Yah, okay, the warehouse was an eye opener. We hadn't seen so much abundance of New Zealand vegetables, fruits and meat in one central location before. Produce of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some going for ridiculously cheap prices although there were others which to me, were rather expensive.

This, below, is Alan's house at the northern part of Christchurch. An impressive double-storey building quite unlike the typically NZ houses I noticed everywhere else. "We were fortunate not to be affected during the earthquake," he told me. The whole of Christchurch had rocked and rolled when the earthquake struck and the areas most devastated were the central business district and towards Lyttleton to the south-east.

I walked around. I commented that he was a bit of a green thumb. I could see even lengkuas plants growing there. "Oh, they'll die off soon enough. It's because of the balmy weather we're experiencing now that they are still surviving. They are being fooled by the weather. When it gets chillier and frost sets in, all these will be killed off," he said.

I found out later that he wasn't joking. By July that year, winter had really settled upon the South Island and Christchurch was buried under a thick layer of snow.

Soon, we decided to go for a drive into the Christchurch CBD. "We'll it is impossible to drive into the CBD," Alan explained, "as the whole area has been cordoned off. We can only go around and walk as near as possible to the barricades." This was a real pity as one of my original intentions, when I bought the flight tickets to Christchurch - and this was way before the earthquake - was to go admire the Christchurch Cathedral and jump on board their tramcars.

The Wok On In Cafe in Kendal Avenue was our final destination in Christchurch. We all trooped there for dinner. Alan had a little surprise for us.

"Here, meet Ah Hock. He's from Penang and he owns this place," Alan said, and it was true. If I'm not mistaken, Ah Hock's roots are in the Noordin Street section of George Town or its whereabouts. He still goes back often to see his folks and presumably, to pick up more culinary secrets.

He and his staff cooked up a mean meal in Christchurch and we enjoyed ourselves with his improvised versions of Char Hor Fun, Char Koay Teow, Wantan Mee and Nasi Lemak. As far as we were concerned, the food was different but still close enough to the real stuff back home. His little cafe was just about three minutes away from the Christchurch airport and so, it was quite convenient for us to have a slow and hearty meal while we killed time before leaving for the airport. Here's part of the menu. Quite a wide variety of items.

Soon, we really had to leave. And with great reluctance, I had to say goodbye to Alan and his family. Alan, I hope to be able to meet up with you again one day, if not in Christchurch, then perhaps in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur or Kuching. Keep in touch!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Remembrance Day: better late than never

The only picture I could find on the Internet (found it on facebook, actually, courtesy of Andrew Yong from the Chief Minister's Office) of this year's Remembrance Day ceremony in Penang. It should have been held on 11 November 2012 but had been postponed a week to today for whatever reason.

The Chief Minister, the High Commissioners of Britain and Fiji, as well as representatives of Australia, New Zealand and Singapore were present. I would have loved to be there to observe the ceremony at the Penang Cenotaph if not for the closure of the Penang Bridge due to the marathon.

My old Seang Tek Road neighbourhood

In case anyone is curious enough, this is my favourite Hokkien Mee hawker stall on the island. It is located right opposite the first entrance into the Kuantan Road Market. I've known of its existence for more than 50 years but had never attempted to try the food until several months ago. The big irony is that I've known of this family and their business ever since I was small. You see, our families were once neighbours in Seang Tek Road until we were forced out by a new landlord who wanted to use our homes for other purposes.

The chap's name is Ah Leng. He is about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Obviously, when we were just young 'uns, the Hokkien Mee stall was run by his father, a loud but jovial character named Tua Bak who, in the afternoons, would pull up a chair and sit fanning himself on the five-foot way of the house with his singlet rolled all the way up till his armpits. His favourite expression? "Wah kor, eh!"

We never got to socialise much. Dunno why my grandparents and parents refused me permission to go mix with them. But we were neighbours, all right.

My family stayed in the corner lot of a row of four townhouses within yards of the road's junction with Dato Kramat Road. The house number was 10. Beside the house was a narrow alley way which ran the whole length of the building before it turned sharply left to join a wide alley off Perlis Road at the back of our home.

I do not know about its reputation now but long ago in the 1960s and 1970s, Perlis Road was one heck of an infamous place that rivalled Irving Road in notoriety. They were the hotbeds for prostitution and other questionable activities after dark. My father used to ride a Honda motorcycle at that time. Sometimes when a vehicle parked itself at the front of the house, it would be impossible to push his motorcycle into the house from the front and he would have to come in through the back door. It was my job to open the metal backdoor for him to push the bike in or out. From about eight o'clock onwards, I would always see shadowy characters congregate in the corners. Occasionally when things got heated up a bit, someone would accidentally crash or fall onto the backdoor and startle everyone, especially my grandmother. But they were harmless to us and we just left them to their activities. Come to think of it, there was little that we could do too. The authorities knew of the goings-on but their raids were few and far in between. In the mornings though, the deserted back alleys would reclaim their apparent innocence and sometimes I'd see joss stick makers spread out their joss sticks to bake in the sun.

To the left of my home was an Indian apom stall. The skinny hawker was quite a colourful character, very dark skinned and toothless. He stood out in his white dhoti. He used to live in a house somewhere across the main Dato Kramat Road. Mighty good business, if I remember correctly but by noon, he would have already washed the whole stall and floor clean. Tambi, he always called me, and I would always refer to him as the aneh-neh man. His apom was basically white, made from a batter of flour, milk and coconut water, which gave it a slight sourish taste. For all I know, it could have contained some tuak (fermented coconut water) too. My aneh-neh man would always entertain special orders. Like, for example, he would mix an egg into some of his flour batter before cooking for us. His other variant was just to break open a small hole in the egg shell, push a chopstick in and stir up the yolk and albumin, and then shake the egg contents onto the apom as they cooked in the earthen ware. I don't get to see much of the traditional clay pots nowadays as modern apom sellers have moved on to metal mini-woks.

So my home was actually one of four townhouse units in Seang Tek Road. The facade of this row of buildings looks so different now. Whoever owns the buildings had knocked down the front walls on the ground floor and put up metal shutters. I still get a tinge of sadness every time I pass by my old home.

My old home, the corner unit, as it looks now in 2012

We stayed in the corner unit and right next to us was Ah Leng's family. On his right was an old and dark sundry shop which I always found interesting. At the slightest excuse, I would go there to buy stuff wanted by my mother or grandmother. The proprietress was a nice elderly lady, quite plump. We always called her Chai Tiam Mah Ah Chim. She was a first-generation Chinese immigrant and the most fascinating thing about her was her bound feet. As a result, she always had a great deal of difficulty walking. She had several grandsons and one of them, Bee Loo, was my age. We both went to the same Westlands Primary School. I think that it was in 1966 that he died suddenly of an unknown cause. We never attempted to find out the details. We just accepted that one day, he was gone.

The fourth house in our row of townhouses was rented out to a small bakery. We knew very little of the business there except that once in a while, I would be asked to buy one of their small butter cakes. I clearly remember that a cut cherry would be stuck on top of the cake. It was always a treat to take the cake home and then dig the cherry out while nobody noticed. But of course, my mother always knew where it had went. Into my stomach.

Beyond the row of our four townhouses was a longer stretch of other residential townhouses. We had even less interaction with the people there except to know that a retired nurse lived in one of those houses and her son eventually ended up as a teacher in the Penang Free School. A trishaw man stayed at the farthest end of this row of houses. Somehow, my grandmother knew him as Sek Lim and come every April, she would book him to peddle us to the Batu Gantong cemetery for Cheng Beng. I remember leaving the house in the trishaw at about six o'clock in the morning. All around us it was still dark, but by the time we reached York Road or Batu Gantong Road, daylight had broken and we could see the roads covered by an impressive layer of yellow flowers from the Angsana trees. For a long while, Uncle Sek Lim ferried my grandmother to other places too. For instance, every time she was sick, we would arrange for him to take her to the International Clinic at MacAlister Road. Peter Tan Ewe Aik was the doctor there. I do know that he was somehow related to my grandmother's side of the family. When we were forced to move out from Seang Tek Road in 1980, I was told that he came by to claim some of the nonnya antiques in the house.

So what else do I recollect of my old Seang Tek Road neighbourhood? Well, there was a small temple across the street diagonally from my home. Once or twice every year, the temple would have some sort of celebration and there would be a puppet show over three days. Because the sundry shop was almost directly in front of the temple, the puppet stage would be set up on the five-foot way. You can imagine the din and noise over the three days, especially at night until about midnight. This was one aspect of my childhood days that I found most uncomfortable. Occasionally, I would be so fascinated with the hand puppets that I'd go watch the puppet shows briefly but I never got to understand what went on onstage or offstage.

Oh yes, one final comment and it's about the alleys in this part of the city. The alleys were all inter-connected and it was possible to walk all the way from New Lane to Pahang Road without having to use the Dato Kramat Road. As mentioned earlier, my backdoor opened out to the alley from Perlis Road. If I were to cross this road and turn left, I'd soon come across another alley wide enough for a trishaw to navigate through but not cars. This was a crooked alley which would end at Irving Road. On the opposite side of the road was a wide backlane that joined up with New Lane. There used to be a mechanic here. My father knew him well and later, I also used to use him when my own motorcycle needed servicing. This mechanic's shop is closed now. Opposite the front of my home was another backlane that connected Seang Tek Road to Malacca Street. After crossing Malacca Street, it might still be possible to find a small gap between two rows of houses which would join up to an alley that opened out to Siam Road. There, another backlane would take me to Pahang Road.

So this is it: a rough recollection of my childhood days in the old neighbourhood around Seang Tek Road. Had been meaning to write about it for a very long time but was unable to find the inspiration. There are more memories but I shall leave them to another time.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Kathina Buddhist festival in Lunas

While Monday saw us at the Sasaranakkha Buddhist Sanctuary in Taiping, on Tuesday we were at the Buddhist Hermitage Lunas for their Kathina celebration. The car park was  filling up fast and the BHL was already packed with people who had arrived since the early morning.

In the kitchen, volunteers were already getting down to work in preparing the food for the monks and devotees. We were just in time for breakfast, actually.

At 9.45a.m., the Kathina procession began. Led by an image of the Buddha, the procession wound its way slowly through the compound of the BHL. Behind, a few hundred devotees followed.

There was also an equally large number of devotees from the Burmese community at the BHL. Ever since they built the huge arch across the entrance in the Hermitage several years ago, they have considered the BHL as their spiritual home. Across from the kitchen, they had already claimed their own space to prepare for their celebration.

To the Burmese, Kathina is an important Buddhist festival and their celebration would inevitably feature their donation trees. Some were already well decorated but there were a few still in the process of being put together.

Of course, what is a festival here in Malaysia if there's no food? I was early enough to enjoy samples of Burmese dishes they offered. But not my wife; she was rather hesitant to try. Off hand, I would also guess that there were a few hundred Burmese. Totally recognisable when they wear their sarongs.