Tag Archives: Malacca

Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court

Below is a photo of a dedicated food court in Ipoh, my hometown. By ‘dedicated’ I mean that it’s not attached to a shopping mall – the GP Food Court is a destination in itself. The building sports ultra-high ceilings that permit an extra floor above. This space houses a gym, though I can’t imagine how anyone would exercise in the midst of such tempting smells. Which may explain why I’ve yet to see the machines upstairs being used.

The GP Food Court, Ipoh

You can smell the food court before you actually enter, thanks to massive doorways in every direction. As if the aroma of so much food cooking wasn’t bound to waft upwards and outwards anyway, at the GP Food Court there are giant fans to aid this drift. The fans here really are enormous. You can glimpse an example above, on the top edge of the photograph. They swing at speed, too, though you can’t see this: you’ll have to take my word for it!

Food courts everywhere excel in choice, but there’s choice and then there’s choice. Take a peek at the photograph below.

Enough to Give You a Headache

This is the selection at just one stall. Notwithstanding the neon sign advertising ‘Rice’, this stall also serves noodles, in case you don’t fancy rice. It’s a well-known fact that you can’t serve rice and noodles on their own – you need things to eat them with  – and this stallholder is thoughtfully offering a panoply of dishes: braised, fried, boiled, double-boiled (all right, I made that up, though I imagine that they would if they could). There are raw dishes too, in the form of salads.

The sheer amount of choice can induce a headache. This is what happens to my partner; on each and every trip to Malaysia there’s always a first time in a food court and it’s as if she has never seen anything like it before. She’s overwhelmed, her eyes don’t know where to focus and her brain stops making decisions. She opts instead for the one or two dishes she knows – and never tries anything else.

Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce, Anyone?

Malaysians, on the other hand, are so blasé about food choice that stallholders have to be inventive. Ever tried Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce? Me neither. There’s also Portuguese Style Chicken Chop Rice on the top left hand side – a nod to our colonial history.

Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but the Portuguese were actually here before them, followed by the Dutch. The latter two powers only conquered Malacca, a beautiful and very historical port town south of Kuala Lumpur. Our colonial past would explain why Cheese Baked Chicken Chop Rice is on this menu – cheese is definitely not Malaysian.

You may also notice that the signboards have Chinese ideograms and English words. This is because the GP Food Court is not halal, you see, which means that its patrons are largely Chinese and Indian. The Malay populace – who by law have to be Muslim in Malaysia – would be frowned on if they entered a non-halal food court – not frowned on by us, but by Malaysia’s religious officials and the religious police among its citizenry. Who said food couldn’t be a political tool?

Nonetheless, there are (for the moment) still Malay vendors selling food inside Malaysia’s non-halal eating places, including at the GP Food Court. They usually specialise in satay – a traditional Malay dish of meat that’s diced and marinated, set on skewers and then grilled over a charcoal flame fanned by palm leaves. Satay is eaten with a rich and deliciously spicy peanut sauce. The woman satay seller in the GP Food Court owns satay stalls in two other food courts – and we eat at all three (I love her satay).

To cleanse the palate, there’s also fruit at the GP Food Court. Not just any fruit, but imported fruit. In England or France, a trader would proudly proclaim his fruit as being British or French, but we in Malaysia still have the whiff of a complex. The subtext from this stallholder’s sign is that the fruit must be good, since it’s imported.

There are thousands of food courts like this all over Malaysia. There are also halal food courts, of course. For instance, the food courts inside Malaysia’s shopping malls are all halal – because only hawkers offering halal food can gain operating licences there. Whether halal or non-halal, whether located in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca, on each of my visits in the previous ten years, every food court I went to was packed. But what people eat and how much they eat has changed – because times are now tough in Malaysia.

So tough, in fact, that even leading entertainers are speaking up. This is unprecedented. Only last week jazz singer, Sheila Majid, tweeted about Malaysia’s cost of living while a popular actress, Nur Fathia Latiff, criticised the government. Not surprisingly, both have been told to shut up.

None of this should affect visitors, however: the country remains stunning, the people welcoming, the food fabulous. Even on my most recent trip the meals I had ranged from good to superb: it’s hard to have a terrible meal in Malaysia. If you ever make it there, I would definitely recommend a visit to a dedicated food court. Be dazzled; be spoilt for choice. Do what Malaysians do: let your nose and eyes guide you. If the food smells good and there’s a queue, chances are, you won’t regret it.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia

Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year

Did you know that 2014 has been designated Visit Malaysia Year? Following a successful campaign in 2007, this is my country’s ambitious attempt to draw even more visitors to its beautiful shores.

When it comes to tourism, the Malaysian government has learnt what to say. To lure the world, Malaysia’s racial, cultural and religious diversity are endlessly exploited. On a page entitled People, Culture and Language, my favourite part comes at the end of the first paragraph:

“Malaysians…respect one another, regardless of one’s race, religion and background. It is this ‘true’ Malaysian value that binds them together” (my emphasis).

Indeed. Malaysia is multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural. It has been this way for so long that we cannot remember a time when the country was monolithic, if indeed it ever was. And Malaysians do continue to live in relative peace and harmony with one another.

But intolerance has been on the rise. I have felt this myself. I am recognisably Chinese, and during my last three visits, I was stared at by cold eyes which said: SQUATTER! I know I was not imagining this, because there were plenty of others (thank goodness) who welcomed me warmly as a fellow-Malaysian.

Into this fray comes the word ‘Allah’. Allah is Arabic for God, though I would liken Allah more to Almighty God, a concept pertinent to the monotheistic religions of the world. Allah has been widely used – without any issue – by Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, there are claims that the word Allah pre-dates Islam. (For anyone interested, here are a few links: In the Name of Allah, The Economist Oct 15, 2013; an informative blog from the Arabic Bible Outreach Ministry; also Christian Answers which states that Jews and Christians in the Middle East called God Allah for five hundred years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad).

Within Malaysia itself, the word Allah has apparently long been used by Malay-speaking Christians, who knows for how long. Since 1615, claims the Asia Sentinel. Who can tell? All I will do here is to note that Portuguese traders actually arrived in Malacca (a well-known port in Malaysia) in 1511, and among their missionaries was St. Francis Xavier.

Does any of this matter? It wouldn’t, if the Malaysian government had not decided to ban the use of ‘Allah’ by anyone other than Muslims when referring to God.

This issue, which has simmered since 2007, is not just a matter of semantics: when the use of a word is deemed to be the sole preserve of a particular group, it encourages feelings of religious exclusivism, superiority even, which in turn, breed intolerance. The loop here is subtle, self-perpetuating and insidious.

I have already described the rise of intolerance in Malaysia in an earlier post (see Where is Home?). Since the Allah row broke out, a sinister new twist has been added: places of worship – a host of churches, a Sikh temple (because Malay-speaking Sikhs also use the word Allah), and in retaliation, Muslim places of prayer – have been attacked. I deplore all of these, acts which would have been unthinkable in the Malaysia I once knew. A country riven by division is not the country I want to see.

Unfortunately, we can hardly count on the current government to halt the trend, since it helped create it in the first place. Tensions rose again when Malay-language Bibles (with the word Allah) were seized by the religious department. In a gesture of peace and reconciliation, Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia’s famous former Prime Minister, appeared with flowers at a church. This is the Malaysia I remember, yet she was far from universally applauded. Following this, the King declared that in Malaysia, the word Allah was only for Muslims. Right on cue, another church was firebombed with Molotov cocktails.

Diversity itself is not the issue. There will always be divisions in any society: brown/white; Muslim/non-Muslim; Sunni/Shia; rich/poor; Chelsea fans/Arsenal fans. This last is only half a joke, my point being that any division could be turned into a fault-line if it is ruthlessly exploited. Differences do not need to become fault-lines; they only become fault-lines when a corrupt government, hell-bent on staying in power, deliberately cultivates religious and racial tensions to divide and conquer.

The bigger question is this: what sort of Malaysia do we want? A country where all religions are truly respected, as the Visit Malaysia Year website tries to imply? Or a country where Islam is implicitly assumed to be superior and every non-Muslim deemed an infidel, tolerated only because s/he cannot be got rid of?

I keep being told that the majority of Malaysians are like me, that they want a pluralistic, progressive, tolerant society of the twenty first century. This may be true, but we face a problem: the majority stays silent. The silence of the majority has allowed the vociferousness of a minority to shape a political agenda which has slowly but invidiously changed the country. As this thoughtful opinion in the Jakarta Post notes: “there is only a thin line between tolerance and intolerance”. THERE IS ONLY A THIN LINE BETWEEN TOLERANCE AND INTOLERANCE. We should not be complacent.

In a clarion call last week, a courageous lady told Malaysians that we must resist our silence and fear. Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former President of the Malaysian Bar, a woman honoured by Hillary Clinton with an International  Women of Courage Award in 2009 for her unstinting pursuit of judicial reform and good governance, made a speech reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s.

Here is part of it:  “When they speak the language of racism and bigotry, we must respond with the language of unity and togetherness. When they speak the language of ignorance, we must speak the language of knowledge. When they attack our brothers and sisters, we must defend them. We must respond from a position of knowledge if we see such ignorance. When they create fear, we must respond with courage, when they divide, we must unite.” (As reported by The Malaysian Insider, Feb 11 2014)

No one could have put it better. Fellow-Malaysians, our despair is the enemy’s biggest weapon. It is not too late to rise, to challenge bigotry when we see it, and reclaim the Malaysia we’ve lost. Because Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can).


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia

Celebrating the Year of the Water Snake

It began, as all Chinese New Year celebrations must, with food. Paper plates loaded with steaming hot rice and stir-fried vegetables were spread onto tables. “Eat! Eat!” the women running around both floors of the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) exhorted, in a way which brooked no dissent. Disobedience would not have been an option.

A crowd numbering hundreds had gathered on a discreet street in north London where the ICA is located, to ring in the Year of the Water Snake. In addition to fan dances, calligraphy, demonstrations from a kung fu master and of course, the Lion Dance, there was to be literature: poetry from a British-born Chinese writer, and a reading by me of extracts from my novel. We’ve never done this before, Dr. Stephen Ng, ICA’s Coordinator, and Lady Katy Blair, its co-Founder and CEO, had confided; you will be an experiment.

Amidst whispering and much howling (from the younger guests), it seemed to me a brave experiment, especially since part of the audience spoke only halting English. As I watched people run hither and thither, I wondered how the afternoon would go.

Those worries didn’t last long. We were soon distracted by an insistent beat and the clanging of cymbals. On a pavement outside, a round Chinese drum, its black lacquer gilded with golden characters, had been set up. Lion is approaching. boom-boom-boom The drum was extraordinarily loud, inducing a shiver in the pit of my stomach – a frisson I always feel when I know that the epic Lion Dance will follow. Neighbours peeked out of their windows as the Lion approached, bearing its multi-coloured head. This was a friendly beast, so friendly that at least one little boy was tempted to peer solemnly into its ravenous mouth. The Lion wagged cheeky pink tongue and tail in every corner, which I hope was enough to chase away any evil spirits lurking.

What's in there

By the time I returned inside, the upper floor of the ICA had been transformed. In its place was a concert hall decked with rows of chairs. From the stage at the front came the dulcet tones of a Chinese flute, so lulling that even the children stopped squirming. When Anna Chen, poet and activist, took to the stage, she invigorated the crowd by half-reading and most astonishingly, half-singing, her poignant poems. The lyrical Anna May Wong must die was especially powerful – ‘a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend’, it says on Anna’s website. (I hope everyone reading this will have the opportunity to watch Anna perform). I could see that people listened, but you had to be able to hold their attention.Anna Chen reads her poetry

All too soon, it was my turn. I had been told I would go onstage after the fan dance. I waited in the wings, tense because I knew it would be the first novel reading at the ICA, afraid also that my story might not be regarded as ‘Chinese enough’ for a community event of this sort.

Indeed, the family in my novel is mixed, the woman who leads it being a Nyonya – part of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia which dates back centuries. Many people today have never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas, even in Malaysia. This is a great shame, because the Nyonyas and Babas successfully created a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay culture long before globalisation existed. In their way of life, they have something to teach us, especially in present-day Malaysia where race drives your rights, or the lack of them (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost).

The first passage I read told the ancestral story of the Nyonyas and Babas. Selina introduces the Nyonya themeTo make my reading come alive, I had watched videos of actors and politicians speaking. I also enlisted the help of two Malaysian students, Wahidah and Aufa Dahlia, who gallantly came on stage modelling Nyonya costumes. Wahidah, her hair tied up in the famous Nyonya chignon, looked resplendent in a tailored vintage sarong kebaya.Demonstrating sarong kebaya Her blouse and sarong came from Aufa’s private collection, while her feet were adorned by a pair of hand-made Nyonya beaded slippers which had been purchased from a shop, Colour Beads, in Malacca. This beautiful town is arguably Malaysia’s most historic, and a large Nyonya-Baba community once lived there.

Wahidah was subsequently joined on stage by Aufa Dahlia, who showed off her modern Nyonya attire with great aplomb. The audience sat enraptured, so graceful were the kebaya ladies. Later, many went up to Aufa’s table, where she had placed a sample of the kebaya blouses she sells on her website as a hobby. If the kebaya ladies and I were to form an act, we would surely be hits on a reading circuit!

Modern NyonyaOther artistes followed, including the kung fu master whose rhythmic movements mesmerised everyone. Look at the picture below and you will see why he was a tough act to follow, especially by a writer reading her second passage late in the day. Kung-Fu masterFortunately, I was aided by the dramatic second scene I had chosen to read and by the prop I brought along: the Nyonya kueh (cakes) which feature in my novel. I had only two varieties with me – both from the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – but they disappeared in seconds after being shared out!

Afterwards, people came up to say how much they had enjoyed my reading. One woman thanked me for opening her eyes to the diversity of the Chinese diaspora, a few even asked where they could buy my book. Alas, I had to say it was not yet published but I gave them my card nonetheless, as it has the address of this blog on the back.

The grand finale of the afternoon was a Ching (Qing) Dynasty costume parade which starred a Mandarin, a Court Official, a Eunuch, the Empress and of course, the Emperor, all in borrowed robes which had never before been worn in the UK. Truly a fitting way with which to end such an uplifting day.

The EmperorAs we headed off, I thought of those who had come before us. It was not just Emperors and Empresses who made history but the coolies leaving in desperate circumstances, and before them, during the Ming Dynasty, the adventurer traders who left to settle elsewhere. These ancestors, all of them, have left their mark in the sands of history. And we their descendants are immensely fortunate, in having such a rich heritage to celebrate.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

How to be a Good Daughter-in-Law

I had the good fortune of speaking to Malaysian writer Lee Su Kim during my recent trip. What that has to do with being a good daughter-in-law will be revealed in good time…

With Lee Su Kim, I share a fascination of things Nyonya and a love of reading and writing. She started writing long before I did, and has had several books published. Su Kim also happens to be a founder member of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and its first woman President. Demonstrating true grit, Su Kim very kindly called me up despite being on her way to see a doctor!

Being a Nyonya herself, it’s not surprising that Malaysian as well as Nyonya themes run through her work. The fact that I heard about Su Kim at all was purely down to luck. My aunt happened to attend the launch last year of her latest book – a lovely collection of short stories entitled Kebaya Tales, published by Marshall Cavendish.

As I worked my way through the book, I realised how much I enjoyed reading it, which was why I set out to contact her. I could see how much of herself Su Kim has put into Kebaya Tales – the book comes across as a labour of love. In addition to stories, she has included personal mementoes: family photographs, shots of the vintage kebayas – the beautifully embroidered blouses in diaphanous material worn by Malay women and Nyonyas – which she inherited from her mother, as well as pictures of the beaded slippers for which Nyonyas are famous. All of these help make her culture come alive to a reader with no previous knowledge of what Nyonya means.

On the subject of beaded slippers, when I was last in Malacca, I bought two pairs of these. (As an aside, Malacca was at one point an important port; see map below to understand its strategic position.


Which also explains why it is one of Malaysia’s most historical towns and has a large Nyonya population). 

To get back to the famous beaded slippers, here’s a photograph of the pair which I gave my partner.

You may not be able to see them, but the top of the shoe comprises tiny beads in many colours. The beads are patiently threaded together to create the flowers and butterflies which adorn the black background, itself made up of the same tiny beads. The smaller the beads (which this shoe happens to have), the greater the expertise required, and the greater the patience demanded. At one time, beading was considered a required skill for a Nyonya, one on which a potential daughter-in-law could expect to be severely judged.

As for the stories in Kebaya Tales, Lee Su Kim succeeded in drawing me in and sometimes, in shocking me. Her tales contain unexpected and occasionally disturbing twists, but she invariably managed to weave in some or other aspect of Malaysia. A few stories touch on folklore, others on parts of our history which remain unresolved, such as what happened during the war years, yet others contain unspoken beliefs which permeate our culture.

However, you don’t need to be a Malaysia expert, because the stories provide easy reading. The collection is also totally self-contained; Su Kim even included brief notes about the Nyonyas as well as ample commentary about their kebayas and sarongs.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with being a good daughter-in-law? The answer is that in addition to the mementoes I mentioned above, Kebaya Tales is interspersed with fragments of idioms and poetry. The following ditty, itself taken from a book by another Malaysian writer, caught my eye:


Dried bean curd, sweetened buns,

To be a good daughter-in-law, know your manners,

Go to bed late, get up early,

Comb your hair, powder your face, dab on rouge,

Enter a room holding a needle,

Go to the main hall and wash the crockery,

Praise your elder and younger brothers-in-law,

Your parents in turn will be praised for your good upbringing.

Hokkien ditty, reprinted in Kebaya Tales, taken from the book Of Comb, Powder and Rouge by Yeap Joo Kim 1992, published in Singapore by Lee Teng Lay Pte Ltd

I re-read the ditty above many times, always laughing. It amused me to see how miserably I would have failed! Based on the above criteria, I make a lousy daughter-in-law. Praise be to the Heavens.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Nyonya, Writing