Saturday, 28 June 2014

It's already abridged, mind you!

I received this through the post yesterday: another big, fat document. This time, the document consisted of 416 pages, inclusive of the covers, coming from Public Bank Berhad to announce their renounceable rights issue exercise. (Yes, yes, I know, I am a very small and insignificant shareholder of this public-listed company.)

This volume from Public Bank comes in the wake of the even thicker "circular" document from JobStreet Corporation Berhad some two months earlier that had weighed in with 488 pages of print. Talk about wordiness and verbosity! It's as if paper is costless.

I don't have the time to look through the whole document and I doubt many shareholders would. But I did glance through the first few pages and especially, the cover. There, in red print, appeared this line: "THIS ABRIDGED PROSPECTUS IS IMPORTANT AND REQUIRES YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION."

Imagine, if this 416-page book is only an "abridged" version, I really wonder how thick would be the full and complete prospectus, not that I would want to read that complete version too. But I would be interested to find out how many pages are in the unabridged version.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Was Penang Free School founded on 6 January 1816?

It's an interesting question, according to Marcus Langdon, a well-known author with deep interest in the history of the Straits Settlements. In an old account by the Penang Free School Historical Society which had interviewed Langdon quite some time ago (not later than 2008 or 2009, I believe), he had this to say about the school:

Q. When was the Free School founded and when was it first called the Free School? 
A. Revd Hutchings proposed the school to a meeting of the East India Company’s Penang Council on 6 January 1816. In his address he referred to it as ‘the Native School of Prince of Wales Island’. A committee was established and met the following week to draw up the regulations, etc. By June that year it was being referred to as ‘the Charity School’, or simply ‘the Public School Institution’, and even when it opened for the reception of students on Monday, 21 October 1816 -- in the house in Love Lane that William Cox had rented for himself while waiting clearance from Madras to take up the position of schoolmaster -- it had no particular title. As administration of the School was by a management committee, no doubt there were minuted records of their meetings; however, none of these have been located during my own investigations. The first mention of a name I have found is when the committee advertises a meeting of subscribers in the Prince of Wales Island Gazette of 18 October 1817, when it is called the ‘Prince of Wales Island Free School’. It is likely it became known as that colloquially and that the name stuck, rather than a conscious decision at committee level. It was there forth commonly referred to as the 'Free School ' or the 'Protestant Free School'. There was also a Roman Catholic Free School; both of which were supported by the local EIC administration...I'm talking 1820/30s.

Q. The name Penang? 
A. The island was known as Pinang well before Light stepped ashore; Prince of Wales Island was purely the name given it by Light in August 1786 and it was henceforth officially known by that name, though in every day use it was still Pinang or Penang. All official records therefore refer to it as Prince of Wales Island.

Q. When was the school founded? 
A. The first intake of students was, as stated above, on 21 October 1816, but one could argue that it was founded with the formation of the committee at the Council meeting of 6 January 1816.   The early history is indeed not well known and is fascinating!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Safira Country Club litigation

The Safira Country Club was set up in the mid-1990s. As a resident of Seberang Jaya then, I was more than happy that there was a clubhouse in my township. I welcomed it since I could go there for some relaxation if I wanted it. So I joined as a member, happily paying my monthly dues and enjoying my benefits of membership at the swimming pool (initially, but no more), restaurant and gymnasium. The facilities also included meeting rooms, games rooms, badminton and squash courts, tennis courts, a golf teeing-off range, chalets for rent, and since the last few years, a futsal building.

Recently, I came to know that the Penang Development Corporation had begun legal proceedings against the club for some breach of the terms and conditions surrounding its existing lease. Whatever terms and conditions that were breached, I do not know but I do know that a threat to terminate the lease on the property should be a serious one indeed.

I haven't attempted to find out more about the alleged breach or how the matter had proceeded from this point but as a member of the Safira Club, naturally I am concerned enough. How long will the litigation battle take? Who is right, who is wrong? And the most important question of all, how will my membership be affected?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Enjoying your durian

To the casual observer, the durian harvest this year looks rather bountiful. And the season doesn't seem to be ending soon. Not for at least another month, I think. So if anyone is having a yen for durian, now is the time to head to Penang where the best fruits are already on sale throughout the island and mainland.

The best fruits are still from the durian estates that dot around Balik Pulau and Sungai Pinang, although I know that Junjong on the mainland also comes out with some pretty nice ones. If it is important for durian connoisseurs to indulge in the fruit with exotic names, then the durian plantations are the place to go. There are well-known varieties such as the ang heh (red prawn), lipan (centipede), 604, musang king, et cetera, to titillate every taste bud but they do come with a more expensive price tag.

The alternative is to go search for the nameless kampong durian that are now making their appearance by the roadside and at the market place. If you don't mind the quality - and some can be good indeed - there can be pleasant surprises for the buyer.

I remember in the late 80s or early 90s when I was still working at Ban Hin Lee Bank, I was in Kuantan, Pahang to look over some possible sites for opening a branch for the bank, and night time saw me gravitating to the town square where I was attracted instantly to the small mountains of durian brought in by the villagers. I selected three small fruits and asked the vendor to open them. One of them must have been a jewel because the first words he uttered when it was opened were: "wahh, bagus-nya buah ini!" I wouldn't forget the experience of sitting down alone in the square, still dressed in office wear, with the fruits before me and tucking away with little regard to my surroundings.

Back to the present here in Penang, I see more people coming to enjoy the eat-all-you-can durian buffets. Some go for as cheap as RM35 per person. I would have been happy to order a durian buffet possibly about 10 years ago but not now. If the intention is to enjoy a good fruit slowly - and by slowly, I mean to eat the durian mindfully, tasting every bite slowly and purposefully - then asking the vendor to pick the fruit ala carte and paying market price for it is the way to go.

Durian buffet are for the masses who only want to eat gluttonously, making every dollar count without appreciating the finer points of the fruit which include its aroma and fragrance, tastiness and texture. If also the intention is to enjoy the camaraderie of friends around the durian, then the buffet-style feasting is all right. You won't be too particular over what you eat. But don't expect the highest quality durian to be served to you at that price.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Occupy Beach Street, legally, of course!

Every Sunday morning, this part of Beach Street stretching from the Union Street to the China Street junctions is closed off to vehicular traffic for a cultural event called Occupy Beach Street.

Unlike other "Occupy ..." events in other parts of the world, here in Penang, Occupy Beach Street is a different cup of tea conceived to bring out the young and old to celebrate and enjoy their city of George Town's world cultural heritage status. As such, this weekly event is state-approved and has the blessings of the Penang government.

I just happened to be there at Beach Street last Sunday and in the brief 30 minutes or so, I was greatly impressed by the diverse range of activities. Definitely worth a second visit anytime soon.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Soursop misadventure

I've just survived a terrible weekend. It first started when I went up the Penang Hill with a friend late Friday evening. At the food court, I had noticed a stall owner bringing in a basketload of soursop. Fresh, heart-shaped soursop. We locals would call it the angmoh durian because there are little soft spines on the fruit's skin.

I haven't tasted soursop for a very long time. If I were to say that I was still in my pre-teens when I took my last slice of this fruit, it is a very good indication of how long it has been. I have forgotten how it tastes like but my friend, who had ordered a cup of soursop juice from the stall, assured me that it was slightly sweet and sour. "We used to grow the tree in our backyard in Sitiawan," he told me, "but nobody wanted the fruit because of its taste." But I haven't had it for so long and yearned to taste it again. And so, I bought one of the fruit from the stall to bring home.

There were some specific instructions that came with the fruit. "The fruit ripens from the bottom and you should slice it off from there, cover the exposed part with clingwrap and keep the rest of the fruit on the table, slicing off whatever part had ripened," the stall owner said. Then the word of warning: "Don't keep it in the fridge."

Come lunch time on Saturday, I began slicing off the soursop from the bottom. But I noticed that the whole fruit was ripening already. If my wife and I don't finish the fruit fast, it would surely go bad once it had ripen. We sat down to eat as much as we could. A little bit remained unfinished. No more could we eat. Then I decided to put it away in the refrigerator. I had forgotten the word of warning from the stall owner, you see, and kept the unfinished fruit in the fridge. At night after dinner, I brought it out to finish it off.

That was when my problem started. That same night, I suffered from gastric wind in the abdomen. Was it coincidental with the expired soursop I had taken? I don't really know but when my wife tapped on my belly, it sounded that the whole drum section of an orchestra had just finished playing. Bom, bom, bom, my belly went. Nasty wind in the tummy. My wife applied some medicated oil to soothe it down and I felt slightly better after that.

We awoke at about four o'clock the next morning. My wife's company had organised a golf tournament in Penang and I had offered to drive her there. After that, I would have some hours to kill in George Town before heading to The Old Frees' Association in Northam Road to join some other members at this year's OFA durian party in Balik Pulau.

But my system was feeling queasy and I had to take a purge in the morning before we left. And I felt better after that. Much better to be relieved of the tension in my system. After dropping her off at the Penang Golf Club in Bukit Jambul, I went to the Esplanade to watch the sunrise. It wasn't spectacular or brilliant. Just a normal brightening of the morning and then the sun burst through some clouds. Was that it? Well, that was it.

The only other thing that interested me was the Espanade coming to life with people jogging, walking, catching a snooze under the shady trees, fishing and council workers clearing rubbish left behind by non-civic conscious people the night before. Some rubbish had fallen into the sea, too far away for the council worker to retrieve them and the waves disposed of them later.

By then, my abdomen had that funny bloated feeling again. I decided to cut short my time at the Esplanade and Beach Street (where the Sunday cultural festivity, Occupy Beach Street was going on) and rushed to The Old Frees' Association where I relieved myself for the second time since morning.

At about 10.15a.m., the bus left the OFA and we were on our way to Balik Pulau. As I had woken up very early in the morning, I decided to catch some 40 winks in the bus. Everything was all right until we hit the patch after Telok Kumbar when the road began getting windy. I woke up to find my head swimming. By the time we arrived at the new Balik Pulau market, I was all pale and green in the face. Every other people who saw me had noticed the change in my appearance. I immediately went to the toilet and relieved myself for the third time. Possibly, the nutmeg balm helped to relieve my discomfort too. But I must say that I felt much better; so much better that I found that I could even enjoy some of the durian at the farm.

Back home, however, I found myself strangely weak with very poor appetite. My wife had cooked some nice seafood vermicelli soup for dinner but I found that I really couldn't stomach it. My abdomen remained queasy and I had to run often to the toilet to let go of the accumulated gastric gases. As the two of us were very tired from the day's activities, we decided to retire early at about 10 o'clock. At 11.30p.m. I awoke with that now familiar feeling in the gut and rushed to the toilet again. Luckily, that would be the last time I had to do so. I slept soundly after that and this morning, everything felt quite normal again. Thank goodness for that.

The moral of this story is: don't totally disbelieve the old wives' stories. There must be some basis in the advice we hear from young. Fruits such as the soursop and chempedak must be eaten fresh. If already cut and kept in the fridge for a later consumption, it can possibly lead to a brief bout of food poisoning if we are not too careful. Wind in the tummy. Bloated tummy. Extended tummy. Farting. Purging, Vomiting. All signs of possible food poisoning. Not good at all and for one that had recovered from a bout of diverticulosis as well, it can be pretty alarming.  

Saturday, 21 June 2014

City lights from Penang Hill

This was the scenery from Penang Hill last night, looking out to the city of George Town in the far distance. However, with the hazy days are upon us again, all attempts to take a reasonable photograph from up the hill was a challenge. Too fast a shutter speed would mean that the city lights would turn up as tiny random pricks of light only, and too slow a shutter speed would mean that the haze particles would start dispersing the city lights. Moreover, the spotlights from the City Stadium were throwing my exposure out of whack. In addition, I also had problem with the manual controls on my compact digital camera last night. So this ugly shot was about the best that I could achieve, unfortunately. There are better pictures elsewhere on my blog.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Wong Chun Wai's version of Penang's history

Wong Chun Wai, the group managing director and chief executive officer of Star Publications (M) Sdn Bhd, and I both go back a long way although I was never in the employment of this newspaper. But we knew each other, all right. Somehow, our paths had crossed way back since the 1980s or so, although I really can't remember how we first got to know one another. Most probably from the newspaper's office in Pitt Street then.

But then also, there is another thread that links the two of us together: his wife, Florence Teh, who was once my ex-colleague at Ban Hin Lee Bank.

At the beginning of January 2013, Chun Wai began writing a series of stories on the history of Penang as seen through his eyes. When I saw the first article that came out, I was thinking to myself: yup, it was about time that someone wrote about the rich cultural, historical and heritage background of the place which I endearingly call home. I followed his weekly columns diligently and collected them every week before consigning the rest of the newspaper to be sold off.

When he decided to end his column one year later, I was actually feeling rather morose that I couldn't be re-living my past through his reminiscences any more. This series of his, more than any other opinion column that Chun Wai had written for The Star newspaper, had united present and former Penangites like never before. I am certain that it struck the nostalgic chord in many of us. But in truth, despite Penang having had so much history, my beloved land still has so much to offer for the future.

I am very glad now that his stories have been compiled into a book. Plus, there is a bonus as well. As mentioned on the book's cover, several of his colleagues in The Star - many of them whom I've known for countless years too - have penned their contributions for inclusion here. So it is not only Chun Wai's memories that I am enjoying here but fond recollections by people like Joe Chin, Tommy Lee, Lim Cheng Hoe and Soo Ewe Jin.

P.S. I shouldn't be saying this but I have to. On page 232 of Penang's History, My Story, my name has a small honorary mention. It's good enough for me. :-)

Note: The book should be out on the bookshelves of the major bookstores by now, costing RM38 per copy. However, I bought my copy from the Penang Heritage Trust office in Church Street, George Town. I understand that all proceeds from the sale of this book will eventually go to the PHT, which isn't a bad thing at all. Now, my immediate task at hand is to see how I can get Chun Wai to autograph it, seeing that he's there in Kuala Lumpur and I'm here in Penang....

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A stroll through Hanoi's Old Quarter

After our leisurely breakfast at the hotel, my wife and I set off for the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake) again but this time, with my daughter and son in tow. We had to take them there to see the lake before heading into Hanoi's Old Quarter.

By 9.30a.m. Vietnam time (10.30a.m. Malaysian time), the crowd at the Hoan Kiem lake had thinned out considerably although there were still people taking in some quiet moments:

We headed out to the Old Quarter. Now, this was really the colonial part of Hanoi. Hanoi with its rich colonial past, full of cultural heritage. A part of Hanoi that hadn't changed much from the days when the French ruled Indochina. Still the narrow streets, still the old houses with their narrow frontages, still streets lined with trees. But of course, there have been progress. A city like Hanoi with no progress would not be a living city at all, and Hanoi embodied a city that was modern and thriving despite the retained quaintness of the Old Quarter. This is something which I would like to see in my George Town as well.

Various signs of progress in the Vietnamese capital: one, the abundance of motorcycles on the roads, and two, the inescapable mess of overhead electrical cables.

Of course, it was easier to take a picture of the motorcyclists as they zoomed away. Less dangerous that way. Even before we had arrived in Hanoi, well-meanng friends had already told us that in order to cross the roads, one must be fearless, step out from the curb and walk slowly across. The motorcyclists know how to avoid you as long as you do not stop suddenly in the face of approaching motorcycles. Easier said than done, actually, when we faced the oncoming vehicles. Some motorcycles just could care less of whether or not you had stepped into their paths and we had to jump back.

I hear that this tangled mess of overhead cables is quite common in many cities in third world countries. I don't know about other places but I was truly amazed by the cables. They were everywhere! It is a wonder how technicians can ever deduce which cable are theirs just by looking as them.

When we were walking in the Old Quarter, whether by day or by night, we couldn't help noticing that motorcycles were parked on the pavements. It was well and good if the pavement was wide, such as in the above picture, as there were still enough space for people to navigate in-between the motorcycles. But there were many streets with narrow pavements and the presence of the motorcycles, though lined up in orderly fashion, meant that people were forced to walk on the roads and had to keep an eye out for traffic at the same time.

It didn't help that we were unused to the traffic flow in Hanoi, as the vehicles travelled on what we would call the wrong side of the road when compared to our own inherited British flow of traffic. Whenever we thought that a motorcycle could come at us from the front, it actually came from behind us. Looking left and right took on a completely different approach!

Anyway, wherever we walked, there were always the local residents (and some foreigners) sitting at low tables and chairs outside some shops and eating, drinking, smoking and chatting away. This was a weekday and the time was probably close to noon in Hanoi. Weren't these people supposed to be at work instead of enjoying themselves drinking and eating? I never found an answer to my inquisitiveness.

But they were everywhere, as these two pictures above and below would show. 

See the overhead electrical cables? They really are everywhere too.

The locals set up their stalls almost everywhere. Here's one selling pickled fruits on makeshift stands right outside their shop front. Looked pretty appetising but we didn't buy.

Could this lady be calling me to come over to try her durian or was she trying to prevent me from taking her photograph? Actually, she didn't want me to take her picture. But there you are, local Vietnamese durian on sale in Hanoi. No, we didn't buy. No point. No overseas durian can ever be better than our own homegrown ones.

Even down a dark alleyway, there is no escaping seeing people doing business. At that other end of this alley, we could see a lady hawking her ware at a drink stall.

One of many small temples that we came across during our walk.

And very interestingly, we noticed a bag of fresh shellfish, still muddied, being offered for prayers at one of these temples.

By above noon time, the sun was really up in the sky and the humidity had gotten to us. It was stiflingly warm and we couldn't walk any more, despite making various pitstops at some coffeeshops to enjoy a cup of coffee or some of their fried springrolls. Besides, we were getting real hungry. So we decided to head back to the hotel and have our lunch at the pho ga (chicken rice noodle) stall next door to it. Back in our rooms, it was time for an afternoon siesta as well as to begin packing up for our return to Penang.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Mixed feelings

I do harbour some mixed feelings this year. 

Although I'm so happy to be alive and well, especially after my bout of hospitalisation at the beginning of the year, it has not escaped me that from this year onwards, I am now eligible for more discounted fares, for example, if I should decide to travel by KTM train to any destination or by the KLIA Express or Transit train from the airport to KL Sentral.

But the latest sobering reminder that I have reached the age where younger adults would term me politely as a senior citizen was when I received this letter from the Penang Government asking me to go collect some money as part of their Senior Citizen Programme.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dr Wu Lien-Teh: Still Malaysia's largely unsung hero

What does it take to make Dr Wu Lien-Teh's name more familiar with the people of this land? 

His works are so well documented in China but still largely unknown in Malaysia, the land of his birth and death.

Apparently, it will still take a lot more work before Wu Lien-Teh will be truly appreciated and acknowledged for what he had done on the world stage of public health. But what impact did he have on the international public health debates of his time?

If the public talk on Wu Lien-Teh, organised jointly by the Penang Heritage Trust and the Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society at the former's Church Street office in George Town, Penang, on 1 Jun 2014, can be taken as indicative, he played a very prominent role internationally. More than 50 years after his death in 1960, the Chinese, especially, are still totally indebted to him.

The Sunday afternoon talk in George Town attracted some 30 or so people, including people from the medical profession and some Taiwanese folk, but they were attentive as guest speaker David Luesink, a visiting assistant professor in East Asian History at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, USA, gave an interesting account on his research into Wu Lien-Teh's work and interacted with the audience.

"Dr Wu spent time training in the top bacteriological labs, and was the foremost expert on plague in the world, up till the late 1930s,” according to Luesink.

While Western medical authorities thought it was bubonic plague, he proved beyond doubt to the medical fraternity that it was pneumonic plague and hence succeeded in containing what could have been an international pandemic.

Needless to say, he faced several prejudices while fighting the plague, not least from a very unhappy fellow medical colleague, a French doctor named GE Mesny, who could not accept Dr Wu as a peer and questioned his methods.

Mesny's famous outburst, "You, you Chinaman, how dare you laugh at me and contradict your superior?", was well documented in Wu Lien-Teh's memoirs, Plague Fighter.

The French doctor refused to wear a face mask while examining infected patients in Harbin and himself succumbed to the pneumonic plague about six days after he was exposed to it.

For the record, the Carnegie Fund Committee of France awarded a Foundation Gold Medal to Mesny's widow in May 1911. It was reported briefly in the New York Times of 16 May 1911 that Mesny "lost his life while engaged in heroically fighting the plague at Harbin."

According to the same brief NYT news item, "Mesny was among the foreign physicians who volunteered their services in combating the plague in the Far East. His death occurred Jan 12.

"When he realised that he was attacked by the plague he isolated himself in his rooms at a hotel, drafted his will, and wrote farewell letters. He begged his friends not to inform his wife of his illness, and died alone."

For his life's work, Wu Lien-Teh was nominated in 1935 for the Nobel Peace in Medicine, the only time that a Malayan or Malaysian had ever achieved such high recognition in medical research.

My other stories about Wu Lien-Teh are linked from here.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Early morning at Hanoi's Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake)

The 13th of May 2014 was our last full day in Hanoi. As we didn't have any tour planned for this day, this was supposed to be our free and easy day. For the first time since arriving in the Vietnamese capital, we could afford to wake up later and have a more leisurely breakfast.

Nevertheless, my wife and I woke up at about 7.30a.m. Not wanting to wake up our son and daughter in the next room, we decided not to waste our precious time in Hanoi and went for a stroll by the famed Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake).

The Hoan Kiem Lake was practically just a stone's throw away from the Hotel Gondola. Down the street and a right turn, and there we were, the lake was right before us. And at 7.30a.m. Vietnamese time (8.30a.m. Malaysian time), the roads were already full of people commuting on their motorcycles.

The lakeside was teeming with people too: people jogging and exercising, people sitting down on benches and looking out towards the lake in quiet contemplation, and of course, people chatting away with their friends. In short, it was bustling with activity.

We crossed to the other side of the road. There was this place that looked like a temple. A crowd was gathered there for some religious dedication. According to a plaque outside the building, this was a memorial to their national hero, Le Loi, who was later to become the Vietnamese king, Le Thai To. Legend has it that he wielded a magic sword that was later to be returned to the Hoan Kiem Lake by a turtle, hence the Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake.

 We continued our walk back to the hotel, passing by this huge tree 

And the streets were alive with businesses opening up.

 Early morning fruit seller with her mangosteens

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Hanoi Day Five: Full moon over Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake)

Today is the 15th day of the Chinese fifth lunar month, which makes it exactly one lunar month since my family spent our last full day on vacation in Vietnam. When we were in Hanoi on 13 May 2014, it happened to be Wesak Day too, which we couldn't celebrate back home in Penang but were lucky enough to have been caught in the midst of this holy occasion at the Chùa Bái Đính (Bái Đính Temple) (Bai Dinh Temple) in Ninh Bình (Ninh Binh) Province, about 90 kilometres south of the Vietnamese capital.

I'm jumping the gun with today's story as I haven't yet  said anything about the morning of our Day Five in Vietnam. But you see, it is totally appropriate as a full moon story. When we were done with our dinner at the Chả Cá Thăng Long (Cha Ca Thang Long Restaurant) - again - we decided to take a stroll through the Old Quarter and as we neared the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake), my daughter alerted me to the nice, bright full moon in the sky.

Of course, we had to whip out the cameras and try to photograph the moon but the first few attempts on Auto mode only resulted in a round white orb. It was only after I switched to the manual mode on the camera and adjusted it to under-expose did I manage to get a decent picture of the moon:

So this is the full moon at Hanoi on the 13th of May, 2014. Then, as we rounded the corner, we came to the Hoan Kiem Lake with its Thap Rùa (Turtle Tower) all lit up splendidly. Out came the cameras again:

But then, right above the Turtle Tower was just about the most spectacular moon that I had seen for quite a while. A full moon over the Hoan Kiem Lake; a full moon over Hanoi, and what an occasion it proved to be as this was Wesak Day, the day of the Lord Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing into Nibbana. A memorable end to a memorable holiday.