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Food I’m missing

Barely back in Paris and I’m hankering for Malaysian food. Apparently a fortnight was hardly enough for me to eat to my heart’s content, and boy did I eat. Gone was the 3 meals per day “rule” which got easily doubled up when different people tried to feed me at different times of the day. Not only that, I wouldn’t even think about photographing the food but just grabbed the plate/bowl and started wolfing them down. The damage? Just under 3kg of weight gain… (eeep!)

Malaysian noms

Malaysian noms

From homemade favourites such as popiah, mee suah (longevity noodles in Chinese red wine – not shown), bak chang and assam laksa – made upon request; my aunt and grandaunts are simply awesome! – to eating out as well as trying to finish up Chinese New Year meals, it was a full-fledged makan-thon! My family was not the only people enthusiastic in feeding me, my close friends put in major contribution too! Had I remembered to photograph everything, this post is going to be very, very long indeed.

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Reunion of the departed

Much has been said about the importance of family reunion dinner during Chinese New Year. However, within certain ancestor-worship practicing family, the reunion of the departed is equally important. We were taught to remember our ancestors, to invite them home on special occasions, and to share festivals with their spirits.

CNY preparation

CNY preparation

This Chinese New Year also noticeably marks my first ancestor prayer session where my grandfather now sat among the departed, while everyone else had had time to get used to it in the past couple of years. In the past, he would be the one cooking up a storm in the kitchen and prepared the reunion meal. I kept expecting to see him by the large wok, tipping in all kind of ingredients and served up dish after dish in quick succession.

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At the joss paper store

For the third time in seventeen years, I travel home to celebrate Chinese New Year. Usually, I keep my visits to the summer months, when I could take extended time off without too much difficulty, but upon my grandmother’s request, I’m back for two weeks and pretty much entirely at her disposal.

CNY preparation

CNY preparation

In the run up to the Chinese New Year celebration and the preparation for family reunion dinner (and prayer), I accompanied her to a local joss paper store to stock up decorative items for the house as well as some supplies, like joss sticks, prayer papers, candles, “money” for the dead “in the Kingdom of Helheim” no less! It’s all part and parcel of the culture, but sometimes I feel guilty about all these burnings of offerings considering the dire state of our environment…

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Postcards: Kuala Lumpur (MY)

Unlike many of my friends, I have never lived in Kuala Lumpur, neither to study nor to work. Instead, it becomes a pitstop each time I travel back to Malaysia, mostly because my flights arrive and depart from KLIA, and usually I’d organise to see my friends in the couple of days leading to my departure.

Trying to show F around was therefore not a particularly easy task, since my knowledge of the city is rather limited. Armed with a good map, we managed to get around the historical centre of KL, taking in a few classic sites and walked the streets whenever it wasn’t raining. Oh yeah, they seemed to be heavy downpour for 2-3 hours each of the few days we were there, which curtailed some of our planned sightseeing.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

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The temples of Batu Caves

F and I visited quite a number of Hindu temples while in Bali, so it was rather interesting to contrast those with the Hindu temples that we typically see in Malaysia. Not only are they architecturally dissimilar, the customs and practices of the devotees also bear differences. Since we saw the Mother Temple of Besakih in Bali, it was apt that we picked Batu Caves as its counter comparison.

Batu Caves is famed for the annual celebration of Thaipusam, taking place early in the year (January/February) to mark the gifting of a vel (spear) by Parvati, the wife of Shiva, to her son Murugan, created by Shiva from the flame of his eye of wisdom. It was this vel that was ultimately used by Murugan to emerge as victor against Soorapadam, an asura who was terrorising the devas. On Thaipusam, devotees from all over Malaysia, following a strict period of cleansing, fasting and preparation, begin a pilgrimage of kavadi bearing. A kavadi is a burden bore by the devotees to be offered to the deity in exchange for good tiding and/or aversion of serious trial and tribulation. It is an absolutely fascinating festival to observe.

Batu Caves

Batu Caves

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A daytrip to Pangkor

If you talk to F about my hometown, he’ll tell you right away that there is not much there. And he’s right. Here, you either work, eat, shop or sembang (chit chat); there is a distinct lack of interesting attractions and activities when you’re used to the kind of variety found in many European towns of similar size. Still, for me, it’s home, and I’ll happily stay for a spell without having much to do except searching for the next best eat. For a small town, it kinda rocks that way – outsiders come here for delicious snacks and meals.

Perhaps the most “exciting” thing one can do is to visit the nearby Pangkor Island, an island inhabited primarily by a thriving fishing community but in parts have been developed for tourism. It is a short ferry ride over from Marina Island or Lumut (this takes a wee bit longer) and once arrived, there is no shortage of shocking pink taxi-vans in waiting to take you on a 2-hour island tour.

Pangkor Island

Pangkor Island

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Postcards: The legacy of Georgetown (MY)

A single blog post is hardly going to be sufficient to tell the rich history and the many tangible heritage sides of Georgetown, and I would not even dare to try to write a succinct summary in fear of getting it wrong or short-changed it in any way.

Instead, I’ll let the photos take you through a simplied journey, of appreciating the kind of childhood that is familiar to my generation (and those that came before, for we played barefoot outside and wouldn’t think of sliding an icon on a touchscreen gadget), on looking at freeze frames harking back to the colonial time, or seeing how much we stand to lose if we do not preserve part of our roots.



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Postcards: Kek Lok Si (MY)

The Temple of Supreme Bliss, or Kek Lok Si as it is known based on Fujian dialect (the most prominent dialect in Penang) pronounciation, is the most celebrated and largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Sitting atop the hill and overlooking Ayer Itam, it is said to be auspiciously located and feng shui-approved to protect the well-being of the temple and its devotees.

Constructed in 1893 under the direction of a well-supported head monk of the Kuan Yin Temple i.e. Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, from local consuls to the Chinese Emperor Guangxu, Kek Lok Si incorporates motifs of Buddhism from Burma, Thailand and China – a nod to both major branches of Buddhism: Mahayana and Theravada. (Note: ask most Chinese Buddhist and they’ll have a hard time telling you which branch of Buddhism they are followers of, in part due to the integration of Taoism to muddle up the mix further.)

Kek Lok Si

Kek Lok Si

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A Perhentian stopover

My trip home last year was short – a mere ten days – and for a number of practical reasons, F stayed put in Paris. It therefore makes this trip his first to Malaysia, and with a couple of big family events to attend, he was in for the tough task of meeting absolutely everyone. If there’s anything you ought to know about Chinese family events, it’s that just about anyone related in anyway gets an invitation and the extended branches could get a little too crazy.

In order not to overwhelm him with the amount of time we spent with too many people at the same time, and to also introduce him to parts of Malaysia, I planned a couple of stops in Penang and Perhentian Besar during the weekdays flanked by family event weekends, and just before flying back, we had a quick visit of Kuala Lumpur and its environs.

Perhentian Island

Perhentian Island

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Project 365 – Week 40

Final week of holiday and then we’re back in good ol’ Paris. We were lucky to not have suffered too much from jetlag when we flew out to Southeast Asia, courtesy of a 3-hours hotel room rental in KLIA to nap before we headed further south to Bali. We were all adjusted from Day 1 after arrival. Coming back, it’s different. We now find ourselves up at 5am and ready to sleep by 7pm. Good thing we have relatively flexible working hour, since it means starting our work day by a couple of hours earlier than usual (might as well) and therefore ending it slightly earlier too.

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Old Dutch fort

30 Sep: Many many years ago, my friends and I did a geographical survey of the area surrounding this former (reconstructed) Dutch fort, designed in the 17th century to store and to protect the abundant tin supplies in the state. I don’t remember what we wrote, but it was certainly back in an era when I was punching away at a typewriter so we would have a neatly written report. Spaces were left empty on certain pages so we could incorporate tables, charts and photographs. There were just no such thing as instant paragraph editing and constant play with format etc, so we really had to plan ahead on layout to make sure everything was good to go!

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Project 365 – Week 39

Week two of our holiday came and went. We spent a good few more days snorkelling in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia (not to be confused with East Malaysia, which is part of Borneo) before we returned to my hometown for yet another family event. The questions that were hovering on everyone’s lips upon seeing me were (1) “Why did you get yourself so tanned?” (Uhmm, there’s no why, just how, and I was enjoying the outdoors for a good bit in the last 2 weeks!”) and (2) “When are you getting married?” (“Honestly, I’m not in any hurry to.”) Nobody seemed to take me seriously on either in any case.

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23 Sep: I have been to Kek Lok Si on multiple occassions and yet somehow, I have never noticed these crystal ceiling lamps before. Not only that, I have also been missing the vibrant colours behind the chandeliers, along with the cobwebs of course. Could it be the (lack of) expectation for decorated ceilings in Asian structures that tend to be unadorned, unlike European palaces and halls that come kitted with extravagant frescoes and decorative elements? If so, I’ve been remissed.

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Project 365 – Week 38

This is week one of our main holiday for the year and we’re in south east Asia! It had been a rather relaxing week, all in all, with considerable time spent in the sea – what can I say? F loves snorkelling – and some other time sightseeing and eating. There would be a lot of eating throughout the trip. Such a shame though I was given wrong info about a certain family function so our time in Bali was cut short. Oh well…

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Funereal offering

16 Sep: There are nine directional temples in Bali and among them, this is the least known to foreigners. Pura Masceti is off the beaten path, the site truly sacred (no watersports or sunbathing on the stretch of the beach adjacent to the temple) with countless purification and funeral ceremonies taking place here. Legend also has it that this was where Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakhsmi came to end their relationship following a fierce argument. Balinese therefore believe that couples in relationship should not visit the temple or risk coming to their own irreconcilable differences.

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We’ve jumped hoops, performed tricks and cartwheels. And then we were PACSed ;)

It has been a stressful few weeks, in no small part due to paperwork concerns. It’s not just about run-of-the-mill effort in gathering the necessary documents, it’s the little things that we did not know we needed and only told within limited time frame, related to me, the foreigner! Documentation to be sent from abroad is bound to take time. How’s that for additional anxiety? In a way, this is our first tough exercise in proving that we are committed and want what we want. (Poor F had to do a lot of running around on my behalf. Luckily, he was on holidays before starting his new job.)

I thought I’d write this little info-post which hopefully would be helpful to someone intending to get PACSed. Particularly for Malaysian-French couple. Mind, this is based on our experience and what we’ve been asked to provide. The information is currently up-to-date but I won’t know when changes would be made in future. Could perhaps keep an eye out on the Service Public page on PACS?

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Day 272: Forbidden (to me) mosque

Over the years, I have visited a lot of Buddhist temples, perhaps even more churches/cathedrals, a handful few Hindu temples, and peeked into a synagogue once (not properly visited though). I’m only really missing out on visiting a mosque now, no? The one photographed here is only a small one. Regardless, given I am non-muslim, mosque visit is pretty much out of bound.

I should have probably gone to one in Dubai or Abu Dhabi when I was in the UAE last year. Not in Sharjah though (one even was clearly marked at the doors – non-Muslims forbidden to enter). There are a couple of rare ones that are open to everyone that I know of. However, Abu Dhabi was too far from Sharjah where I was based, whereas Dubai has a fixed guided visit time at 10am that simply wouldn’t work when taken into consideration the morning office traffic flow from Sharjah that could see me stuck for 2-3 hours even at 7am departure. One word – eeek!

Day 271: Tiger en guard

Ok, I’ve been on temple overload this month and it seems you’re on the receiving end too. Between Sri Lanka and Malaysia, I have seen enough statues of Buddha to last me for a while, and taken enough photos too that while sorting through them, I’m getting confused of which is which! Additionally, in Sri Lanka, a shrine can be found easily even along any main road that one takes, so I couldn’t even tell you where I have seen which. Ooops.

This will be the last among the temple-related photos for now though. I’m heading back to Paris tomorrow, but before that, a visit to our local temple is a must, for a prayer of safe journey for myself and good health for my family. The tiger god is a guardian spirit of the temple and from where I stand, it looks calm yet alert and stern, ready to confer its protection. I feel strangely serene here.

Day 270: Cave temple

Ipoh is a former tin mining town, surrounded by caves within limestone hills, a number of which are pilgrimage sites for Buddhist devotees and for visiting tourists to the area. Among the most famous are Perak Cave, Sam Po Tong and Kek Lok Tong, each with impressive temple settings as well as scenic views atop the hills.

In the distant, from Kinta City, one of them can clearly be seen, except with my poor orientation and carelessness in not noting exactly where I was looking, I can’t tell you which it is. I can only deduce that since we were in the south of Ipoh, it would be either Sam Po Tong or Kek Lok Tong? Who wants to play guess the cave temple? ;)

Day 269: Taoist deity

Deity worship usually includes praying to idols that are culturally relatable to the community. Afterall, pilgrims need an image they could believe in. For example, for the Chinese community, there’s a perception of the kind of clothes these deities would wear. You certainly won’t find Christ’s style loin-clothes on an idol around here. (Or at least none that I am aware of.)

There are exceptions of course. This particular deity (Zhang Gong Fa Zhu) has its root in Fujian Taoism, and is particularly interesting, because not only it can be found in black, it is also found in depictions of red or green, pending on its intended purposes. This black idol symbolises its role as a saviour and a protector.

Day 268: Satay vendor

One of my favourite dishes from Malaysia is satay, where chicken or beef (although nowadays some places have even more meat options) have been marinated and then grilled/BBQ-ed over charcoal, giving this succulent skewers of meat that’s best served with chunky peanut sauce that’s spicy and slight sweet at the same time. I don’t even want big chunks of meat, but just small pieces of lean meat cooked to perfection.

No matter where I go in the world though, anytime that I have tried satay when it’s featured in the menu, they have always been rather disappointing. For one, some places thought it’s fine to deep fried the skewers of meat (no, it’s not). Other places make funny sauces and an unfortunate order once had me “enjoying” peanut butter in curry sauce disguise as the satay sauce. That is wrong at sooooo many levels.

Day 267: Guardian temple lion

A temple near home recently underwent some serious renovation and they certainly up the ante at the scale level, particularly with the erection of various statues of a pantheon of deities normally worshipped by those practicing Taoism/Confucianism. Some of them are about the height of 2-3 storeys building!

They also added some traditional decorative elements, such as this guardian temple lion, at the gate to the square of deities. The lions always come in pair, usually one with mouth open and one with mouth shut. They are signs of courage and strength, and protection against bad luck and evil. I am simply drawn to the playful nature depicted by this lion, that life is free of worry and there are bundles of good in the world.

Day 262: Hawker dining

I’m torn. When it comes to food, say, eating out at a restaurant, I prefer one which has limited menu but serve great tasting dishes on offer. Do only a few things, keep it simple, but do it really well, and change according to season. A very sound principle in my opinion.

But when it comes to Malaysia and hawker dining, then I want lots and lots of options. Afterall, the stall owners should have satisfy the principle mentioned-above. Each stall serves a limited few items that are their specialties (at least that’s the concept). And now, I should be spoilt for choice of a wide variety of food without worrying if one single chef is being overextended in terms of his/her culinary repertoir. Win-win, right?

Day 261: Say a little prayer

As a child, I was told, that whenever I burn some joss sticks, the smoke of the incense would carry my wishes to heaven. Invariably, the wishes run along the lines of good health for everyone in my family and success for many endeavours that we undertake. To pray specifically for wealth is not something I would include in my silent chant.

I guess that’s part of the difference between the practice of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and in Malaysia that I have observed. In Sri Lanka, the offerings are typically of flowers, food and oil, whereas in Malaysia, incense burning is a lot more prominent. Buddhism in Malaysia is also less pragmatic and perhaps more inclusive, shaped by a mélange of various fractions of Buddhism as well as Taoism and Confucianism, each not thought to be mutually exclusive. Fascinating things, culture and religion are. If only I have more free time, I wouldn’t mind getting to know more in details.

Day 260: Apa khabar?

After over a week of holiday in Sri Lanka, I arrived in Malaysia this morning, having just missed the Malaysia Day which was celebrated yesterday. Officially, this year, it also incorporates the Independence Day celebration, which normally falls on 31 August but due to the dates that Eid-ul-Fitr fell this year, it got shifted by a couple of weeks.

All along the route that I’ve travelled thus far, national flags can be seen prominently displayed, be it outside commercial buildings or domestic residences. Some have kept it low-key with a single flag flying above a pole while some have decided to go the other way by showing off strung small flags running along the length and/or the periphery of the buildings, with/without one (or more) large flag.

Happy (belated) Malaysia Day!

TAR in Penang

The Amazing Race took off to Penang, Malaysia in its latest instalment, challenging the racers a) in the Detours to either carry a dozen of giant joss sticks (“Buddhist Tradition”) to the top of a temple or balancing chingay flags across a certain distance (“Chinese Custom”), and b) in the Roadblock to prepare a Hindu offering.

Here’s a video if you’ve missed the airing on Sunday night.

The pitstop of the race is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a beautiful heritage mansion that houses antiques and collectibles associated with the culture and custom of the Peranakans.

In a couple of months time, I’ll be heading to Penang where one of my brothers lives. I must make this one of the places to see. Afterall, our greatgrandmother was originally from Penang and she was a Peranakan too. It’s high time for me to take a deeper look into part of my heritage, which I should have learned while she was alive. However, being young and naive then, I didn’t appreciate just how much I would have missed out by failing to take an interest in it.

It is definitely time to catch up.

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