Retracing footsteps

12 09 2018

I enjoy visiting Kuala Lumpur for a variety of reasons. The Malaysian capital, known by its acronym KL to most, provides me with a sense of having returned home home in a way that home – some 200 miles away in Singapore – is no longer able to do.

An old market in KL.

It would seem strange, if not for the history Malaysia and Singapore shares and perhaps, for the frequent visits I have made to KL since I was a child. In the bits of the past, found in the modern of the bustling metropolis, I especially find joy in. The disorder of their shophouses, the clutter along the five-foot-ways, the colours and smells of old street markets and old coffee shops, are that reminder of the Singapore that I grew to love as a child that I would never otherwise be able to ever see again.

Lunch time at Lai Foong.

An old coffee shop that I remember from my childhood visits to the city, the Kedai Kopi Lai Foong, is one such reminder. An institution in a city in which there is no shortage of such old gems, the 1950s coffee shop seems little changed from the 1970s and is quite reminiscent of the busy urban centre coffee shops of Singapore’s lost past.

Mirror, mirror on the mosaic wall.  Mirrors were commonly given as opening gifts at coffee shops in Malaysia. Mosiac or kitchen tiles were commonly used on the walls of coffee shops both in Singapore and Malaysia as they could be easily cleaned and did not require frequent repainting.

Positioned at the corner of Jalan Tun H. S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, it sits just across Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock from Petaling Street (or Chinatown). That and its proximity to Central Market – now the touristy Pasar Seni, has meant that the coffee shop has long attracted more than its fair share of the local crowd as well as a steady stream of out-of-town visitors. With Tripadvisor now inflating the number of would be visitors, any attempt to seat oneself in the confusion of tables and chairs in the shop’s confines, presents quite a challenge. Any intent to savour some of the coffee shop’s famous fare must now be accompanied by the patience of a saint, some guile, and most of all, a fair bit of luck; all of which I must have had when visited the coffee shop for a bowl of its much-talked about beef noodles back in June.

A scene reminiscent of the coffee shops of old Singapore, with its stalls lining the outer edge of the shop.

A posting I made on Facebook of the bowl of beef noodles invited a comment from a locally based acquaintance, in which a recommendation was made to have the wanton mee at Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye, another old kopitiam. With its location along Jalan Bukit Bintang also presenting me with an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an area of KL that I had lost touch with, there was enough of a motivation for me to hop on the MRT to Bukit Bintang, just a few days later.

Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye.

Despite the familiarity I had with the area, I had no impression at all of Toong Kwoon Chye prior to my June visit. I found it quite easily, tucked away in a quiet corner of the street. It might have been the time of the day but even if it was of a similar vintage to Lai Foong, Toong Kwoon Chye couldn’t have been more different. There was absolutely none of Lai Foong’s rush and time, seemed to slow to a standstill, the moment that I stepped into the coffee shop.

Furnished in what may be described as the classical kopitiam style, with marble topped tables and wooden chairs – sans the spittoons of course – Toong Kwoon Chye’s old coffee shop feel was made complete by its counter, even if it was somewhat more modern in looks than one might have expected. Just like any old coffee shop of the good old days, a row of clear-glass jars with red covers stood at one end, half filled with biscuits and other snacks for sale. With so much of a sleepy old out-of-town kopitiam vibe about it, it seemed fitting for me to while the morning away sipping on a cup of coffee and take the time to savour the plate of shredded chicken noodles that I had ordered.

The ebb and flow at Toong Kwoon Chye.

The lazy breakfast put me in the mood for an unhurried stroll, which first took me inside Sungai Wang Plaza. It was one of two interconnected malls from the 1970s I never failed to visit whenever I find myself in the area. The other, which I liked better, was Bukit Bintang Plaza. That has since made way for redevelopment. With little to distract me in Sungai Wang, I decided to continue my stroll outdoors instead and soon found myself retracing footsteps I must have last made some four decades past.

The changing face of Jalan Bukit Bintang – now missing BB Plaza.

The familiarity I had with Bukit Bintang had come out of numerous family holiday stopovers in KL. Holidays abroad in my childhood, with the exception of a visit to Thailand in 1978, invariably meant road trips across the Causeway. KL, a six-hour drive before the North-South Highway made drives a breeze, served as a break-journey point on the road up to more northerly destinations such as Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill (at which the Singapore Government maintained holiday facilities for civil servants). The combination of affordable accommodation, shopping and food in Bukit Bintang, made it a good location to put up in.

Tong Shin Terrace.

One of the things we must have done with sufficient regularity, for me to have remembered them in such vivid detail, were the walks to Chinatown. That took us down Jalan Alor or Tong Shin Terrace, and then west along Jalan Pudu. Both Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace seemed to have retained much of their character, although I am told that Jalan Alor’s well patronised nighttime eateries now cater to quite a different crowd.

I found myself taking a little detour into the area’s back lanes, perhaps in the hope of finding a nasi lemak stall that we had stumbled upon during a June 1979 sojourn in KL. That visit to KL was one to remember for several reasons. It provided me with my first experience as a football spectator outside of Singapore. The match that I caught was also one of huge importance to the Singaporean football fan of the 1970s, the Malaysia Cup final.

The back lanes around Tengkat Tong Shin.

The final, played at KL’s Stadium Merdeka, saw Singapore take on a Selangor team that featured Malaysian footballing legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam and Santokh Singh. The final that year was significant for the debut of the talented Fandi Ahmad, who was also playing in the competition for the first time. Fandi, then 17, would go on to illuminate the competition in which Malaysian state teams and Singapore featured.

STadium Merdeka today, surrounded by a development that is seeing the rise of Malaysia’s tallest building, a 118-storey tower that will also be the third tallest in the world.

As the match coincided with a trip we were making, we were able to obtain tickets at the stadium when they went on sale. That made it all the more memorable, as it meant that we were seated in a section occupied by the crowd of boisterous home supporters in a match in which controversial 66th minute Selangor goal proved to be a turning point. Mokhtar would add a second to complete a two goal victory for Selangor but all that is another story. What would also make that trip one to be remembered was the joy of discovering nasi lemak at its simplest, served at a makeshift stall.

A courtyard hotel.

There no nasi lemak to be found this time, not at least the manner in which that was served. However, the back lanes yielded several new discoveries. Spruced up and a lot less familiar, they now feature brightly painted wall murals, modern eateries and a very nice looking courtyard hotel.

A back lane eatery.

Back out from the back lanes, it all became familiar once more down Tong Shin Terrace. An old block of flats, which I had always assumed to have been a low-cost housing development, came into view. I therefore was quite surprised to learn with Google’s help that the development, the Blue Boy Mansion, was thought of as a landmark development when it was erected back in 1962.

The Blue Boy Mansion.

Inside the Blue Boy Mansion.

West from from Blue Boy Mansion along Jalan Pudu, just past Tung Shin Hospital was another familiar sight. Now in disguise as the modern looking Pudu Sentral, it was unmistakably Puduraya, for a long while KL’s main bus station. The station now sees just a fraction of the bus services that used to operate out of it. I realised how time has flown by in attempting to recall when I last took a bus out of the station. That was a trip to made in the mid-1990s to Kuala Kubu Bharu to catch another bus up to Fraser’s Hill.

Hitting Pudu Sentral meant that I was closing in on Chinatown. As there was still time to spare, I decided to make my way to Lai Foong  in the hope of satisfying an urge I was having for its char kway teow, only to find the stall closed. The disappointment of that, coupled with the rising heat and humid of the mid-June Klang Valley afternoon, made the lure of modern KL – in the form of an air-conditioned mall – hard to resist. I soon found myself in one to cool off and then have a late lunch, before I headed back to Petaling Jaya where I was putting up.

Char Kway Teow at Lai Foong.


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The mysterious peaks we sing of in “Di Tanjong Katong”

26 12 2017

The tune “Di Tanjong Katong”, a National song, is one we are most familiar with in Singapore. The lyrics of the song contain this rather peculiar verse:

Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah,
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga;
Hancur badan dikandung tanah,
Budi yang baik dikenang jua.

While the lines of the verse, which seem to have little to do with Tanjong Katong and with Singapore, are borrowed from an age-old Malay pantun or poem, they seem to want to invoke an unexplained longing for the places that are named.

Tanjong Katong

Di Tanjong Katong.

Singapore’s obsession with its recent past has allowed an amnesia for the time when Singapore’s place was in the Malay world to set in; a time when singing of three peaks of Daik (the line “Gunung Daik bercabang tiga” translates into “Mount Daik has three peaks”) might not have sounded odd at all. The distinctive summit of Daik is a most and recognisable of features on Pulau Lingga, an island that is thought of by some as the Malay world’s motherland1. Lingga is spoken of as a heartland of the Malay culture and language and it is on Lingga, where Malay is spoken in one of its purest forms.

Gunung Daik bercabang tiga.

Pulau Lingga took its place in the old Johor empire of the 16th to 19th centuries as an outpost the sultans could find a retreat in being located at the southern reaches of the widely spread sultanate. Positioned along an ancient maritime trade route to Palembang and Jambi, principal centres in the days of Srivijaya, and there are suggestions that it may have already come to prominence well before it served as a Johor outpost.  Paul Michel Munoz, in his 2006 book “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula”, opines that the island kingdom identified by Marco Polo as “Malaiur” in accounts of his return voyage to Europe could quite possibly have been Lingga – based on estimates provided of distances travelled [Malaiur is a name that was also associated with a Malay kingdom centred around Jambi in Sumatra, which was at one time also part of the Srivijaya empire].

Pulau Lingga also took its place as the seat of Johor’s royal court on two occasions; in 1618, when the capital was moved there as the Acehnese threatened – only for the capital to be sacked by the Portuguese in 1625. Old Johor’s last sultan, also moved to Lingga in 1787, in an attempt to isolate his court from the Bugis (the increasing influence exerted by the Bugis meant that they were effectively running the sultanate from its capital in the Riau). The turning point for Lingga came with the Johor Sultanate’s breakup, a point at which the Dutch and the British were extending their influence. Singapore, in which old Johor could trace its roots to once again prospered when the British East India Company set up its trading post while Lingga was left to the remnants of a sultanate that had lost its clout.

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore (Pulo Panjang) in an 18th century Hydrographic Chart seen in the National Archives of Singapore’s online site. (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/755f2349-a18d-11e6-9af5-0050568939ad).

The advances of the modern world has not made it much easier to get to Lingga and the group of islands around it that takes its name. The islands, now also part of the Lingga Regency within the Riau Islands province, are served by ferry services from Batam or Bintan. Even with the fast ferry, it involves a four-hour journey. This I had the chance to find out for myself when I made the same journey to attend the four-day Festival Gunung Daik, at the kind invitation of the Lingga Regency. With invitations extended to groups outside of Indonesia for the first time, the festival, which was held from 19 to 22 November, attracted an invasion of several hundreds.

On the road to Dabo on Pulau Singkep.

Dabo, on the more populated island of Pulau Singkep, was best equipped to absorb this influx. A 45-minute road journey from Singkep’s northern maritime gateway at Jago, Dabo wears the look of an town which has left its best days behind. It was indeed the case. The town grew out of the riches the extraction of Singkep’s sizeable deposits of tin had provided, until some two decades ago when the last of the mines closed. The extraction of a deposit, found in the darkened interiors of the narrow and windowless structures that now dot Dabo’s urban landscape, seems to be a new but less lucrative gold. The dark spaces mimic the caves in which swiftlets nest and the nests, which the birds make with deposits of their saliva and nesting material, are much valued by the Chinese for their purported medicinal properties.

A disused mining pool that scars Pulau Singkep’s landscape.

The sleepy town’s main draw, at least for the Singaporeans I was with, was an old coffeeshop named Bintang Timur. Time seems to have stood completely still in this Chinese owned coffee shop and the Eastern Star is very much reminiscent of the kopitiams of the Singapore of decades past. If not for the lack of time, it would quite easy for me to waste a morning away over a cup or two of the kopitiam’s strong aromatic brew, made just as it was in the coffeeshops of old Singapore.

Time stands still at the Kedai Kopi Bintang Timur.

The town has culinary offerings that may also delight the Singaporean. Fried kway teow, seemingly prepared exclusively by Chinese men with well weathered faces from roadside pushcarts, is a local favourite. So is laske (or laksa), prepared and served in a manner that will explain the many ways a dish of laksa is served across the region.In Dabo, its base is a noodle made from coils of sago starch. The dish is served fried or as we are used to in Singapore, with a delicious spicy gravy poured over.

A char kway teow seller in Dabo.

In the evenings, a more substantial meal can be obtained from the town’s ikan bakar or grilled fish stalls, which are probably the town’s real treat. In addition to having fresh catch from the sea grilled over a fire, there also is the opportunity to savour it served in the more sweet than sour version of asam pedas gravy popular in these parts.

A popular ikan bakar stall.

The guidebooks point to Dabo’s religious buildings as its tourist sights. The town’s mosque is impressive, as is a large Chinese temple. The temple, the Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna, and a large building in the vicinity in which the local Chinese association is housed, suggests that there is a substantial immigrant Chinese community in Dabo. Some in the community apparently have ties with Singapore. As with much of the Nanyang, the community’s forefathers arrived as part of the diaspora of southern Chinese to the region in the 19th century. In Dabo’s case the tin mines provided work. Today the Chinese run many of the local businesses. Beside being involved in the birds’ nest trade, there also are a number of  food and beverage outlets and sundry shops owned by the Chinese. Chinese vendors can also be found in the town’s pair of markets. The markets, one for the sale of fish and the other for vegetables are both worth a look at.

Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna.

A vegetable seller at Dabo’s Vegetable Market.

Chinese labourers working at the Singkep Tin Company eating a meal (photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikipedia Commons). Many Chinese came over to Singkep to work in the tin mines.

The townsfolk’s favourite spots lie further afield. These include a waterfall, several beaches, a hot spring bath, and an oddity of an attraction in the form of an awkwardly positioned cannon. The artillery piece, the meriam tegak, is found at the edge of a beach southeast of Dabo. Buried with only its upwardly aligned muzzle exposed, the locals offer several explanations for the odd alignment. One thing that the differing accounts agree on is that the contributing factor for the cannon’s position is the wrath of a woman!

Meriam Tegak.

The cannon is close to Dabo’s favourite beach, Pantai Batu Berdaun. A popular spot for swimming and a picnic, the beach is named after a rock on which a tree is perched – the “leafy rock” or “batu berdaun“. A house with a curious collection of animals in its compound near the rock was however the centre of attention. It turned out that the house was some kind of animal shelter. The animals, all of which were abandoned, had been taken in and cared for by the house’s kind owner.

Pantai Batu Berdaun.

An animal shelter near Pantai Batu Berdaun.

The waterfall and the hot spring bath will take a little more effort in getting to. The 3km long unmetalled road to the spring bath provides more than a bumpy ride. The path it takes is interesting as it is line with the large waterlogged scars that the extraction of tin has left on the landscape. The baths, which are especially popular with the local folk, seemed much less appealing in the tropical heat as compared to the cool waters found in the pools at the waterfall at Batu Ampar.

Batu Ampar Waterfalls.

The hot spring baths.

The less populated Pulau Lingga with its three projections does have a lot more mystery about it. Lingga, which lies on the Equator just north of Singkep, actually derives its name from the tallest and largest of the three high points. The projection, also named Daik, was thought in the old days to resemble a linggam – Sanskrit for phallus.

A view towards Lingga and its three pronged peak of Mount Daik from Jago on Pulau Singkep.

Penarik near Daik.

Among Lingga’s main attractions is the Resun Falls – the largest waterfall in the Province of the Riau Islands. There are also several  sites that will provide some understanding of Lingga’s colourful past. One, the Museum Linggam Cahaya, has an interesting collection of artefacts. Some show the external links the island had, and a sense of the position it held. Pottery on display, recovered from the depths, include pieces that are thought to date to Song dynasty China. The museum’s most noticeable and popular exhibit is however from a more modern event and is a skeleton of a curious and yet to be identified creature from the deep, named locally as a “Gajah Mina” or Sea Elephant. The bones are from one that was found on the shores of Lingga and one of two similar carcasses that washed up in the Riau Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Museum Linggam Cahaya.

The island’s historical sites provide links to the Lingga of the last days of the Johor Empire and to the Lingga of the post Johor days when it was the seat of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. One is the ruins of Istana Damnah, a 19th century palace built in Daik by during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam II (1857-1883), which lies close to the museum. An adjacent site contains a 2002 interpretation of the palace and its main hall, the Balairung Seri. Left abandoned after the Dutch took positive control of Lingga in 1911 and with Riau-Lingga’s last sultan, Abdul Rahman II, having fled to Singapore, the original wooden palace was left to fall into ruin.

Ruins of Istana Damnah.

Another view of the site of Istana Damnah.

The replica Istana Damnah as seen from the replica Balairung Seri.

The site of the Lubuk Papan baths is also nearby. A bathing spot used by those in the palace, the baths were located at a bend in the Tanda River. Today, concrete sides and gazebos placed around it have altered the charm the baths would have had. A natural stretch does exist upstream and this may provide some sense of the attraction as a bathing spot that the entire bend may have had.

Finding peace upstream from the Lubuk Papan baths.

A former fort at Benteng Bukit Cening, and the graves of several of Lingga’s rulers, pre and post break-up are some of Daik’s other royal sites.  Old Johor’s last sultan, Mahmud Shah III, is buried at Daik’s Masjid Jami’ Sultan Lingga. The remains of his son, the half-brother of Hussein of Singapore and Johor and the Riau-Lingga’s sultanate’s first ruler, Abdul Rahman I, can be found on Bukit Cengkeh.

The concretised Lubuk Papan baths at Daik.


Getting there:

There are fast ferry services (daily I believe) from either Tanjung Punggur on Batam or Tanjung Pinang on Bintan to Jago in the north of Pulau Singkep and it typically involves a 4 hour journey. Jago in the north of Singkep is a 45 minute drive to its main town, Dabo.  There also are ferry services between Jago and Tanjung Buton on Pulau Lingga. Getting around seems quite challenging and recommendations range from hiring ojeks (motorcycle taxis) or renting motorcycles. It would be best to inquire locally.

For travel products such as ferry tickets, hotels booking and, local tours and transfers in the Riau (primarily Batam and Bintan), do visit Wow Getaways.  More information on the Riau Islands can be found at https://discover.wowgetaways.com/.

Jago, one of the maritime entry points into Pulau Singkep.


Note:

1 One who feels strongly about this is Ahmad Dahlan, Batam’s mayor from 2006 to 2016 and a student of Malay history. In his 2014 book “Sejarah Melayu”, he speaks of the move Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s court to Daik in 1787, even if it was in an effort to isolate himself, as a return to the the mother’s lap.


Lingga and Singkep in photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157690104466625
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157689803316854


 





Laksa’s origins will surprise you

28 11 2017

I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of laksa. The dish, which has an amazing range of equally delectable localised variations, brings great comfort and joy to many in Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and Singapore. There is perhaps no other dish that can so strongly be identified with a locality. In its very basic form, laksa is a vermicelli like noodle in a broth.  While it can be said that it is in the countless variations of this broth, tempered by the influences of over a century, that has provided the various forms of the dish with its local flavour; its origins as a dish, how it morphed into what we see of it today, and even its rather strange sounding name, is a source of great puzzlement.

Singapore Laksa

One suggestion of how laksa got its name that has gained popularity is that it was derived from a similar sounding Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand. This, it is said, is an allusion perhaps to the multitude of ingredients that go into making the various forms of its broth the celebration of flavours that they are. I am however inclined to take the side of the suggestion that the wonderful encyclopedia of the world’s culinary delights, the Oxford Companion to Food, offers. That has the word laksa being Persian in origin. Lakhsha meaning “slippery” in old Persian, was apparently also used to describe noodles, which the book also credits the Persians with the invention of.

Sarawak Laksa

That latter suggestion will no doubt spark endless debate. There seems however to be evidence to support the assertion such as in the many noodle type dishes that are found spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe – all with names that all sound very much like lakhsha. Examples of this are the Russian lapsha, the Uyghur laghman, the Jewish lokshen, the Afghan lakhchak, the Lithunian Lakštiniai, and the Ukrainian lokshina. The Italian sheet pasta dish, Lasagne, also sounds uncannily similar to old Persian for noodles.

Lokshen (photo: Danny Nicholson on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0).

As with the variants of the Near East, Lakhsha seems to have become a similiar sounding laksa in this part of the world. Early Malay-English dictionaries, such as one published by R. J. Wilkinson in 1901, have laksa both as the word for ten thousand, as well as for a “vermicelli” – ascribing the latter’s origins to the same Persian word.  The use of the word as such is seen in several of the news articles of the day. One report, in the Malayan Saturday Post of 29 December 1928, shows how “Chinese Laksa” was then made, through a series of four photographs. As a word to describe a type of noodles, laksa is in fact very much still in use in places such as the Riau Archipelago. There, “lakse” or “laksa”, is taken as a noodle of a similar appearance to the laksa we find here made from the staple of the islands, sago.

R. J. Wilkinson’s “A Malay-English Dictionary” describes the word “laksa” both as a word for ten-thousand as well as for a kind of vermicelli.

Uyghur laghman noodles (Nate Gray on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

There also are early descriptions of how that laksa may have been prepared in the press. One, found in a 1912 report on hawker fare in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, describes what seems to be quite a different dish from the one we are now familiar with:

A familiar dish with the Chinese coolie and Straits school-boy is “laksa”. The vendor of this compound, vermicelli, “rats’ ears” (mush-rooms), and other things in a kind of soup, shouts out every now and then “Laksa a wun!” and many who taste it declare that it is A1.

Lakse or laksa, describes these noodles made from sago in Pulau Singkep in the Lingga group of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

One of the many ways in which laksa is served on Pulau Singkep is with a fish broth and sambal.

poem, penned in 1931 by a prominent personality Mr. Seow Poh Leng – a Municipal Commissioner and a champion of hawkers’ rights – provides an idea of how the dish had by the 1930s, started to evolve. An attempt to draw attention to the difficulties street hawkers faced, the verse also describes how a dough of ground rice became “lumps of tiny snow-white coils” when boiled and which was then “served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice”. Published in the Malayan Saturday Post of 16 May 1931, the piece was the writer’s response to the death of a laksa vendor. The vendor had taken his own life after several run ins with the Municipal authorities that deprived him of his livelihood.

Laska Siam, served at another popular Penang laksa stall, this one at Balik Pulau.

By the 1950s, laksa as a dish, seemed to have already taken on several distinct styles. A 1951 article in The Singapore Free Press, “Let’s talk about food”, mentions two types of “Siamese” laksa: one sweet and one hot and sour, along with a “Nonya” laksa. The two variants of “Siamese” laksa are again mentioned in a 1953 Singapore Free Press article on food in Penang. The sour type “Siamese” laksa identified is perhaps the predecessor to the Penang or asam (or assam) laksa dish of today as another 1951 report, this time in The Straits Times on Penang, seems to confirm. The article draws attention to one of Penang’s attractions, Ayer Itam (now spelled Air Itam), to which the young and old would walk six miles or brave a ride on a crowded bus to. Ayer Itam, is identified as “the village with the famous Kek Lok Si”, and (a seemingly already popular) “Siamese” laksa (Air Itam is a location many in Penang flock to today for asam laksa).

A bowl of Penang or Asam Laksa.

Another version of Asam Laksa from Madras Lane in Kuala Lumpur.

What we can perhaps surmise from all of this information is that despite its shared name, laksa in its many variations are really different dishes. Built on an otherwise tasteless base of rice or sago vermicelli or a noodle substitute, how its various forms of laksa have been flavoured to excite the palate, says much about the invention and the creativity of the region’s pioneering food vendors.

Variation on a theme, Laksa Goreng (Fried Laksa), Peranakan style.

Lakse Goreng topped with crushed ikan bilis from Pulau Singkep.


A Hawker’s Lament
by Seow Poh Leng
(Malayan Saturday Post, 16 May 1931, Page 18)
We came from far Cathay, the land of old renown,
A livelihood to seek in this far-famed town.
My parents they are old but still must toil each day
My father selling bean-curds, my mother selling “kway”.
We left our home and kin to this far distant shore;
And promised to return to see them all once more,
To share with them and theirs what little we have made
By dint of patient toil, by means of honest trade.
By four o’clock each morning when you are all abed
The ‘laksa’ I’m preparing that people may be fed
I grind some rice to powder and knead it to a dough
Then press it through a sieve to a boiling pot below.
This stringy mass of flour which hardens as it boils
Is made up into lumps of tiny snow-white coils;
Then served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice
My ‘laksa’ finds more favour than the ordinary rice.
In woven bamboo basket made up in several tiers
Are placed my tooth-some wares and the necessary gears.
In a gourd-shaped earthen vessel the ‘laksa’ simmers low,
All day aboiling gently on charcoal burning slow.
From street to street I wander, my pace a steady trot,
And bear my loaded basket as well as the steaming pot.
The noon day trade I seek and may with luck—oh rare !
Avoid the stern police who ask a certain share.
These guardians of the law with lynx eyes watch for me,
And more than do their duty unless I pay a ” fee.”
They see that I comply with what the by-laws state;
That is, whatever happens, I must itinerate.
Sometimes from sheer fatigue I pause some breath to take,
To dry my streaming sweat, to ease the limbs that ache;
And then the “Mata-mata” finds me resting there,
And forthwith to the Court I must with him repair.
And once – alas the thought! – in prison cell I lay.
The fine imposed on me was more than I could pay.
What use is there for me this arduous life to lead?
My humble cries for mercy receive but scanty heed.
By ceaseless toil I tried an honest life to lead.
If I the “tips” forget, the traffic I impede.
And for such bogus crime there is no other way –
Before the Court I’m brought and straightway made to pay.
I’ve plied my trade from childhood, the profits have been small,
Yet I would quit right gladly for any work at all,
Seek work at any distance – if only work there be
Without the constant harass and the unofficial fee.
A rickshaw puller – aye the “totee’s” job I’ll do.
I’ll go to Malacca, I’ll go to Trengganu.
Alack! my quest is vain, my faintest hope is gone;
My limbs they are weary, my heart with sorrow torn.
Good-bye the M.H.O., my last farewell to thee!
Good-bye to all M.C.’s, good-bye the I.G.P.!
You wish me back to China, you want me off the street;
Posterity shall know I die your wish to meet!
Not satisfied with fines the Magistrates impose
The dreary prison cell must add to hawkers’ woes.
My goods and property you wish to confiscate?
But here you will not win—the law will come too late!
Good-bye my parents dear, good-bye my kith and kin!
Think not the step I take a very grievous sin.
Right well I am aware of honour due to you;
And thank you from my heart for lessons wise and true.
To comfort your old age my level best I’ve tried.
My efforts seem in vain, the cruel fates decide.
I cannot stoop to crime and slur the family name,
So drink this portion dark, preferring death to shame.

A Malay laksa vendor in Penang, c. 1930s (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline | Mrs J A Bennett Collection/National Archives of Singapore).


 





Days of despair, rays of hope

12 09 2017

Riding out the storm, the evening after, 12 September 2001, Ostend.





The many faces of Munich (and beyond)

31 08 2017

Munich has just got to be one of the coolest places on earth. Its compact size and cycle friendly infrastructure, makes it an ideal place to explore on foot or on the back of a bicycle. You will never go thirsty with its abundance of breweries and beer halls and gardens, and even if it is fairly flat, there are a host of lofty places and activities to take in the views from which you will realise that some of Germany’s highest peaks and ski slopes, are not really so far away.

Munich and its environs is also a place for romance. It is two hours away from the fairy tale Neuschawnstein Castle. In the city itself there is a huge testament to love in the Nymphenburg Palace – and its gorgeous grounds. The summer palace of the House of Wittelsbach, it was built as a gift of love to celebrate the birth of a long awaited heir.

I had the privilege to have a taste of what Munich and its surrounding had to offer, spending a full four days there this summer – thanks to the Munich Tourism. It wasn’t quite really enough to immerse oneself in the wonders but what it the four full days did leave was a realisation that the Bavarian city, whose wealth was built on it being at the crossroads of a busy medieval trading route, delights you in more ways than its famed food, beer halls, football and fast cars.


Flavours of Munich

Marienplatz and the New Town Hall, seen through the arch of the Old Town Hall.

The Nymphenburg – a gift that Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria had built for his wife, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy for the delivery of a long awaited heir.

View of the Frauenkirche from the viewing deck of New Town Hall.

Beer tasting at the Donisl – one of the city’s many food and beer places.

There’s even surfing in the city – at the man-made Eisbach in the English Garden.

The colours of Viktualienmarkt.

A beer garden at the Viktualienmarkt – a place where you can bring your own food.

A packed Allianz Arena – home of Bayern Munich – during the recent Audi Cup.

The Allianz Arena – where tours are also conducted – is best viewed at night.

And if you are at the Allianz Arena during match day – don’t forget to get your hands on that instagram worthy pretzel.

The religious side of Munich – the inside of the rebuilt Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady).

A city of monuments – the Wittelsbach Fountain.

Get up close and personal with the innovative lightweight tent roof on the Olympic Stadium through the tent roof climb.

BMW Museum at BMW World.

Kirche St. Coloman, Schwangau.

Simply breathtaking – the view of the Neuschwanstein Castle from Queen Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrucke).

View of Hohenschwangau from Neuschwanstein.

The gondola to Zugspitze – Germany’s highest mountain.

Top of Germany – Zugspitze – with a crane now constructing a gondola station.

Painted façade at Oberammergau.

Gateway to Austria – at Zugspitze.

The road to Altspitze.

Badersee Lake and the Zugspitze Massif.

More to follow …


 





A white pre-Christmas

25 12 2016

Scenes taken in snowy Sapporo – during a prelude to a storm that would bring the city and the Hokkaido prefecture its  heaviest December snowfall in half a century.

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10 reasons (out of possibly thousands more) to want to win that trip to Spain

18 09 2016

Spain with its rich history, diverse cultural and culinary influences and its much varied geography, is a country that offers a wealth of experiences to the traveller. There are many reasons to want to visit it, much more than the ten that follow and you now have a chance to find that out for free with TripZilla. The travel magazine and portal is looking at giving  a 12 D/11 N trip sponsored by the Spain Tourism Board and Turkish Airlines away in  Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines through its SPAIN IN THE EYES OF SOUTHEAST ASIA giveaway.

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The contest is open only to residents of each of the countries mentioned who are between 23 and 55 years old. To take part, a minimum of three smart phone taken photographs (taken in their respective countries of residence) that participants feel best represents Spain, need to be submitted. Participants will have until 24 September 2016 to do this, after which one winner will be selected from each of the three countries. The trip to Spain being given away will include round-trip tickets, hotel accommodation and guided tours.

Just four simple steps are needed for the chance to win this valuable trip, which are:

  1. Sign-up @ https://www.tripzilla.com/spain-tourism-board-giveaway
  2. Take a minimum of 3 snapshots of places, items or colours in your country that you think best represents Spain
  3. Upload your photos onto the TripZilla Facebook page event with the hashtags #visitspain #winatriptospain #spainintheeyesofsoutheastasia
  4. Add a caption to describe why you think that place/item/colours in your photos best represents Spain

More information on the giveaway can be found at TripZilla.com and also TripZilla’s Facebook page event.


10 (out of possibly thousands more!) reasons to want to win that trip 

The stunning sight of Toledo rising above the River Tagus

The historic city of Toledo, as view from Cerro del Emperador.

Toledo, as viewed from Cerro del Emperador.

The vista from the Cerro de Emperador after dark is just as stunning ...

The vista from the Cerro del Emperador after dark is just as stunning …

As it is just before sunrise.

… as it also is just before the sunrise.

2

Quaint villages right out of a book of fairy tales

Twilight descends on O'Cebreiro, a hilltop village along the French route of the Camino de Santiago. The village church is where the Holy Grail is housed.

Twilight descends on O’Cebreiro, a hilltop village along the French route of the Camino de Santiago. The village church is where the Holy Grail is housed.

A traditional thatched roof stone hut known as a palloza at O'Cebreiro.

A traditional thatched roof stone hut known as a palloza at O’Cebreiro.

The village of La Riera in the Asturias.

The village of La Riera in the Asturias.

3

The opportunity to spend a night in a historic building

Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela, built as a hospital in 1499.

Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela, built as a hospital in 1499.

Inside the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

Inside the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

Parador Hostal de San Marcos in León, built in the 16th century as a military building.

Parador Hostal de San Marcos in León, built in the 16th century as a military building.

4

A wealth of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that span a period of more than 2000 years

The amazingly well preserved 2000 year old Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

The amazingly well preserved 2000 year old Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

The gondola, seen from the walkway.

A UNESCO World Heritage site from more recent times – the Vizcaya “hanging bridge”. 

5

Its gorgeous seaside towns

San Sebastian in the Basque Country.

San Sebastian in the Basque Country.

Castro Urdiales, a grogeous seaport in Cantabria close to Bilbao.

Castro Urdiales, a grogeous seaport in Cantabria close to Bilbao.

6

Some of the oldest university towns in Europe

The University of Salamanca, which dates back to 1134, is the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in Europe.

The University of Salamanca, which dates back to 1134, is the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in Europe.

Salamanca.

Salamanca.

The original university at the town of Alcalá de Henares goes back to 1293.

The original university at the town of Alcalá de Henares goes back to 1293.

Alcalá de Henares. The town is also known for its famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated literary figure.

Alcalá de Henares. The town is also known for its famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated literary figure.

7

To learn about its rich and fascinating history, particularly that of the Rerconquest 

The reconquest - in which this cave in Covadonga in the Asturias, featured.

A cave in Covadonga in the Asturias, which featured in the launch of the Reconquest,  a significant event in Spain’s history that remains very much embedded in the Spanish psyche.

The walled medieval town of Ávila, whose walls date back to the 11th century and are said to be the best conserved of the age. The walls were constructed following the reconquest and repopulation of the area.

The walled medieval town of Ávila, whose walls date back to the 11th century and are said to be the best conserved of the age. The walls were constructed following the reconquest and repopulation of the area.

8

A set of still used pilgrimage routes that date back to the 9th Century

Pilgrims on the long road to Santiago de Compostela. A well used route is the Camino Frances, which involves a 780 km walking journey from the south of France.

Pilgrims on the long road to Santiago de Compostela. A well used route is the Camino Frances, which involves a 780 km walking journey from the south of France.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St. James (Santiago), one of the 12 apostles, is kept.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St. James (Santiago), one of the 12 apostles, is kept.

The city of Santiago de Compostela.

The city of Santiago de Compostela.

9

Its impressive Gothic cathedrals

Toledo Cathedral.

Toledo Cathedral.

Burgos Cathedral.

Burgos Cathedral.

Stained glass inside León Cathedral.

Stained glass inside León Cathedral.

The walled town of Segovia is topped by its impressive cathedral.

The walled city of Segovia is topped by its impressive cathedral.

10

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

The Gueggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Gueggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

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