Floral Art Show

A Hana-isho radial arrangement in the Ohara school of
ikebana will certainly enhance a dining table setting

“Heritage of Flowers” is the theme for the annual exhibition of Ikebana International Johor Baru (IIJB), Chapter 235, planned for June 1 & 2 at the Puteri Pacific Hotel Johor Baru.  The aim of this year’s theme is to celebrate the heritage of the various schools of Ikebana with a special tribute to Charter President YAM Tunku Shahariah bte Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman. 
There are several schools of ikebana that follow a particular set of rules and arrangement techniques with the more popular Ikenobo, Ohara, Sogetsu, Koryu, Ryuseiha and Ichiyo schools of ikebana and in this year’s exhibition, IIJB members will be creating legacy arrangements by various headmasters from selected schools.

Shirley Cheah, Sogetsu instructor, helping study group
students in their selection of flowers
IIJB members study ikebana or the art of Japanese flower arrangement that follows a fixed pattern of a triangle with three points that represent Heaven, Earth and Man, from experienced instructors as well as visiting flower masters.  The key consideration in ikebana is to use as few plant materials as possible to compose an elegant arrangement. 
The emphasis is on linear perfection, colour, harmony, space and form, and the choice of plant materials is guided by the artist’s desire to create harmony between the materials and the vessels used. 

Sogetsu student, YM Gusti Puteri Retno Astrini
practicing her flower arrangement using dried twigs
The heritage of the IIJB chapter in the Sogetsu, Ohara and Ikenobo schools of ikebana will be showcased in the coming exhibition through arrangements by members of IIJB and invited guests that represent the schools of ikebana that they are studying.  To prepare for the exhibition, the students are planning and practicing the arrangements for their ikebana presentations under the tutelage of their respective instructors.  This annual exhibition is an eagerly anticipated event because it is an opportunity for students in the study groups for the Sogetsu and Ohara schools of ikebana here to exhibit their floral art to the public.
Japanese students, Tomoko Shinohara [Left]
and Shizuyo Hiroi in the Sogetsu study group
Study group students in the Sogetsu and Ohara schools of ikebana meet twice a week for lessons that follow ikebana textbooks and take examinations to qualify before going on to the next grade.  The study group in the Sogetsu school of ikebana is guided by instructor, Shirley Cheah, an accomplished Sogetsu practitioner who has been a student of a Master of Sogetsu and President of the Sogetsu Association of Singapore, Mrs Kazue Kato Kim, since 2007. 
With more than 30 years as an ikebana practitioner, Past President of IIJB and President of the Ohara School of Ikebana, Singapore Chapter, Datin Ong Kid Ching, is the instructor for the study group in the Ohara school of ikebana.

“An exhibition is a real opportunity to display the personality of the Sogetsu Study group and for us to learn from the experience of exhibiting our floral art,” said Cheah on how her students are preparing a range of floral arrangements for the exhibition in the Sogetsu school of ikebana.  While it is usually a more mature audience who may appreciate the art of flower arrangements, Cheah aims to promote ikebana to younger people and even students.  She said this year’s trend in Tokyo is the use of dried twigs so her students are encouraged to use them in their arrangements for the coming exhibition.
Ohara instructor, Datin Ong Kid Ching [2nd from Left]
demonstrating an arrangement with some of her
Ohara study group students
“In the Ohara school of ikebana, less is more,” said Ong, a Third Master in the Ohara school of ikebana who also holds the Komon (Advisory Grade) in the Sogetsu school of ikebana in Japan. 
Ong encourages students in her study group to draw inspiration from plants and colours that exist in Nature and try to recreate Nature in their arrangements because Ohara arrangements have a lot of green as its base colour that emulate Nature and the seasons.  All Ohara arrangements for the exhibition will use unique ceramic vessels made by Ong who is also a talented ceramic artist.

Datin Ong giving her comments to
student, Ira Wolf, on her Hana-isho
rising form arrangement by Natsuki Ohara
The public is invited to “Heritage of Flowers,” the IIJB annual ikebana exhibition that will be held in the lobby of the Puteri Pacific Hotel on June 1 & 2. 
The highlight of the programme on June 2 is a guest demonstration in five schools of ikebana by accomplished ikebana practitioners like Tan Bo Tan who will demonstrate for the Ikenobo school, Momoka Emmett for the Ryuseiha school, Anju Bhardwaj for the Ichiyo school, Shirley Cheah for the Sogetsu school and Datin Ong Kid Ching for the Ohara school.  While the demonstrators will be provided one common material for each of the two arrangements they will demonstrate simultaneously, containers and other materials will be chosen by them to express the style of their respective schools of ikebana.

Membership in Ikebana International Johor Baru is open to all who are interested in the Japanese art of flower arrangement.  Visit Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/IkebanaJB for membership enquiries and more info about the activities of IIJB Chapter 235.  A gallery of Ohara floral art is available on www.facebook.com/oharacircle  while enquiries on the study group for the Sogetsu school of ikebana may be sent to email:  sogetsujohor@gmail.com 
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 28 May 2014

Johor ceramic artist

Datin Ong Kid Ching with a giant poster
for her exhibition held at MAD Singapore
The solo exhibition of ceramic artist, Datin Ong Kid Ching entitled, “Made in Heaven” now on until May 31 at the Museum of Art & Design or MAD, Singapore, is dedicated to all mothers for Mother’s Day.  Ong, a mother of two, recalls the early years on how she would pursue her passion in art when her children were away in school and attributes her artistic skills to her late father who was an oil painter and also used to play the saxophone.  

Now with her ceramic art displayed in galleries and going into private collections, Ong has gained a reputation regionally as a unique artist who is both an Ikebana master and an accomplished ceramic artist.

Johor Baru-based Ong is no stranger to the Ikebana community in this region as she is a charter member and Past President of the Ikebana International Johor Baru Chapter 235 as well as the President of the Ohara School of Ikebana, Singapore Chapter.  From a young age, Ong enjoyed painting in water-colours and oil paints and she later developed an interest in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement which has several schools of Ikebana that follow a particular set of rules and arrangement techniques like the schools for Ikenobo, Ohara, Sogetsu, Koryu and Ichiyo.  With more than 30 years as an Ikebana practitioner, Ong holds the prestigious Komon (Advisory Grade) in the Sogetsu school of Ikebana in Japan and is the Third Master in the Ohara school of Ikebana.

Entrance to the Museum of Art & Design where the
exhibition is on now till May 31
Her love for Ikebana led her to study ceramic art and in 1995 she started taking lessons with award-winning Singaporean potter, Lim Hua Choon.  By 2001 Ong was able to share her gift in ceramic art with her first solo exhibition held in Singapore followed by more solo exhibitions both in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and often at Ikebana events worldwide. 
In 2003, she was sponsored by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia and invited to participate in the International Ceramic Workshop in Tokoname, one of Japan’s six heritage towns renowned for pottery in Japan.  Her works from this workshop were subsequently displayed in the Ceramic Museum of Tokoname and also featured in the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia.

Guest of Honour the High Commissioner of Malaysia to
Singapore H E Dato' Husni Zai Yaacob [Right] receiving
a ceramic souvenir made by the artist, Datin Ong [Left]
at her solo exhibition entitled, "Made in Heaven"
“This exhibition, “Made in Heaven” describes the marriage of Ikebana with ceramic art,” said Ong to clarify the true meaning of the exhibition’s title.  She explained that her interest in creating ceramic art was sparked when she failed to find the right vase for her Ikebana arrangements and decided to make vessels of her own. 
It seemed natural for her to move into handling heavy clay and forging it in flames to create ceramic works of art that would perfectly complement what she has in mind for her delicate Ikebana arrangements.

Ikebana arrangements from a live demonstration by
three collectors of Datin Ong's ceramic art, using their
favourite vessel from their own collections

On May 12, “Made in Heaven” was declared open in an event graced by Guest of Honour, the High Commissioner of Malaysia to Singapore, His Excellency Dato’ Husni Zai Yaacob. 
Attended by some 200 guests, the event highlight was an Ikebana demonstration by Datin Susan Lai from Kuala Lumpur, Anna Kwan from Indonesia and Viola Yong from Singapore using three ceramic vessels made by Ong.  For the first time, guests at an exhibition in MAD Museum of Art & Design witnessed an Ikebana demonstration that brought out the beauty of the exhibiting artist’s ceramic which exquisitely matched the floral arrangements.

A creative display by MAD to show guests how Ong's
ceramic art can enhance your home décor
Ong describes her artistic expressions in ceramic work as incongruous with her personality because people are often surprised that she is the artist who created vessels in such abstract shapes, forms, colours and textures. 
This is understandable because Ong is an elegant, statuesque lady while her works of art are hand-built irregular forms in unusual textures that are often covered in matte glazes.  Spurred on by the success of “Made in Heaven,” Ong is inspired to continue creating more vessels for Ikebana made new materials like clay mixed with acrylic, wood or metal.

“Made in Heaven” by Datin Ong Kid Ching is on now till May 31 at MAD Museum of Art & Design, 333-A Orchard Road, #03-01 Mandarin Gallery, Singapore 238897.  Tel: +65 – 6734 5688.  Website: www.madmad.com.sg

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 21 May 2014

Datin Ong and her gift to me!

I'm so blessed because Datin Ong Kid Ching, graciously presented me with a piece of her ceramic art! 

When she handed me a black carrier bag with MAD printed on one side, I can feel a solid piece inside and carefully set it down.  She told me its a piece from her collection which a collector had already bought 10 pieces and this one is specially for me!  Thanks!!

I'm a proud owner of an Ong Kid Ching ceramic art - presented by none other than the artist herself!  Wow!

KL's Chinatown

I walked pass this street corner at
Jalan Tun H. S. Lee as depicted in old photo!
Locals who live and work in the heart of Kuala Lumpur may be so familiar with the neighbourhood in KL’s Chinatown that they are oblivious to sights that seem interesting to out-of-towners like me.  It is quite a challenge to negotiate the busy roads both by car and on foot because the pavements are narrow or some construction is going on at various street corners.  Or stage buses are parked at pedestrian crossings with engines running, waiting for passengers to alight or board and generally causing obstruction.

I walk across the bridge towards Central Market but my eyes are riveted to the street graffiti that adorn the walls of the storm drains.  Malaysians indeed do have talent and I pause to look at their street art that are both colourful and eye-catching.  I also see the fast-flowing river which gave our capital city its name, Kuala Lumpur. 

My Geography lessons did not go to waste because I can recall that our teacher said the city is located at the confluence or meeting point of two rivers, the Gombak and Klang Rivers.  In the Malay language, kuala means a junction between two rivers while lumpur means mud, so the name Kuala Lumpur literally means a muddy river junction!

Mangled signboard but I can still read it!
I’m trying to find an address at Jalan Tun H. S. Lee and the use of Google Maps is a great help because (to the unfamiliar!) it is quite a maze to find the way on foot among the rows of old shops and buildings.  While there is a destination to reach, I can’t help but get distracted by the colourful sights and sounds in the old streets. 

I of course, captured a few interesting photos in my walkabout but when I returned to Johor Baru, I was caught up with work and did not find time to organize the photos.  My sister and I took our mum out on a recent weekend and we went to check out the newest mall in Kulaijaya.  As we walked through the food court, my eyes were glued to a far wall because it was filled by a huge poster of a street scene that looked oh so familiar.  My mum and sister walked on but I stopped to look closer at the details until I recognised that it was a photo of KL’s Chinatown that featured Jalan Tun H. S. Lee!

This old photo compelled me to sort out my photos to share with readers, a glimpse of the heritage I saw when I was in KL’s Chinatown recently.   It’s so uncanny that I was walking around those very streets just as those people did in that old photo!

Entrance to Petaling Street, a popular street market destination which is now covered for the convenience of shoppers and merchants; Note the tourist coach and van parked nearby!

A sign spotted at Petaling Street with a warning by order of the Mayor of Kuala Lumpur that it is prohibited to sell any counterfeit product brands

Traditional wooden clogs used by the Chinese – the men’s style is different from the ladies clogs which are more elegantly shaped [See far left on the row of clogs]

If these walls could speak, what tales they will tell?  Check out the wall stains, peeling plaster and broken windows that give this building so much character!

      Guys, fancy a haircut at Stylo – opened since 1937 – the oldest barber shop in Malaysia?

A serving of Shin Kee Beef Noodles in clear soup is topped with a dollop of fragrant minced beef stir-fried in dark sauce – simply delicious!

Façade of Central Market, a commercial cultural centre that showcases Malaysian traditional handicrafts, is now a popular destination for both locals and foreign tourists;  The building was the former main wet market in Kuala Lumpur which was adapted for reuse as Central Market in 1986

Inside the Ladies Room in Central Market; Please note that entry is only upon payment of RM0.50 per person into a coin-machine that operates a little turnstile!


Go all out to save heritage buildings

Members of the Chinese media speaking to Datin Pat Lim
at the event
I was among a small group of concerned citizens who met to chat about the preservation of heritage buildings, share information and exchange ideas about the conservation of architecture and historical artifacts in Johor Baru.  Initiated by Tan Chai Puan, a local cultural activist who was instrumental in the transformation of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk into a cultural hub in the heart of old Johor Baru, the event brought together an eclectic group of people who share the common passion for preserving our city’s heritage.  It was interesting that we met casually on the eve of a public holiday, in the top floor of a chic little café designed inside an old shop along Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk – a perfect example of how old buildings can be revived by new ideas!

Tan Chai Puan speaking passionately about
preserving the precious heritage of JB
In 2004, when the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association moved to its new premises in Taman Sri Tebrau, they reached a decision to convert their old building on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee into the JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  When the museum was officially opened in 2009 by previous Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman, he declared the road a Heritage Walk and local businesses like coffee-shops and a traditional charcoal bakery experienced a business revival as local and foreign tourists made this street a regular destination.  The building at No. 56 dubbed the Red House, hosted art and cultural events and served as an impressive backdrop for many successful cultural events including the live nationwide Astro TV telecasts of Lunar New Year eve countdowns.

Kim Wah kopitiam experienced a business
revival after the then Johor Menteri Besar,
MP for Johor, Datin Pat Lim and other
VIPs enjoyed coffee there as part of the
event for the official opening of the JB
Chinese Heritage Museum in 2009
Tan, the Head of the Arts & Cultural Development Department of Southern University College and an Advisor to the Malaysia-China Arts & Cultural Association, is passionate about JB’s heritage and in activities that encourage every community to get to know each other better.  As JB has been rapidly developing over the past two years, he is keen about preserving the city’s character and unique identity and was glad that just by word of mouth, the group of locals who turned up comprised a good mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian.  I trust they were also keen to meet Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, great-grand daughter of Wong Ah Fook, and hear her views as a professional historian and author of several well researched books on Johor history.

It was nostalgic to recall that the JB we once knew used to have a coast road and magnificent houses including the bungalows popularly known as the Spanish houses and elegant bungalows built on the hillock along Jalan Skudai used to overlook the Johor Straits.  The landscape in this area is changing in the name of development and towering condos and apartments will soon shield the straits from Jalan Skudai.  From her research, Lim said that JB still has about 20 heritage buildings and cited some interesting examples locally and abroad where such buildings and old shops can have economic value and have been successfully put to adaptive use. 

The signboard to the oldest building in JB is hidden
behind overgrown plants at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1
She said the oldest building in JB is the old public library (Perbadanan Perpustakaan Awam Johor) at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1 and more effort should be made to preserve heritage buildings such as this and others like the Johor Military Force building, the Dato Jaafar building and the JB jail. 
She explained that while the old mansion at Jalan Bukit Meldrum that locals fondly refer to as the Wong Ah Fook mansion, may not be listed in Wong Ah Fook’s will or his wife’s will, it may have been their holiday home here as they lived in Singapore.  Lim recalled that when she was a child, she and her father used to visit the mansion located near Jalan Quek Keng Kang that belonged to Wong Ah Yim, Wong Ah Fook’s nephew and business manager.

The old public library is almost overtaken by jungle!
It was agreed that more in-depth research must be done to establish the history of the old mansion but its turn of the century architecture deems it a heritage building and it should be preserved.  Initial investigations revealed that the land on which the old mansion stood was bought and sold several times and when rows of shops were built around it, the old mansion was no longer visible from the main roads and made it virtually forgotten.  The old mansion was formerly used as a school before it was rented out and over time, the building gradually turned decrepit as a squatter settlement.

The Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple is carefully
preserved while high-rise buildings are built around it
Lim discussed several examples of how heritage buildings have been transformed into prestigious tourist attractions that proudly adorn travel brochures.  She cited the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion, better known as the Blue Mansion in Georgetown that was successfully restored into a unique destination for Heritage homestays, guided tours and venue for special events. 
Another interesting heritage house in Georgetown is Suffolk House, former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement on Penang Island that was rebuilt in 1805 and later neglected but restored to its former glory as a stunning example of an Anglo-Indian garden house.  Suffolk House is now an elegant venue for social and corporate events, offers guided tours and is also open to the public to enjoy its charms when they have lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in the charming restaurant. 

Dr Shan reciting the poem that he was
inspired to write about the old mansion
at Bukit Meldrum
She pointed out that Hardwicke House in Georgetown was creatively preserved for adaptive use when the owners built a 31-storey L-shaped skyscraper around the heritage building.  A similar example of such conservation here is how Menara Ansar and the Puteri Pacific Hotel are built around the 100-year old Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple along Jalan Trus because of the temple’s strong significance in Johor’s rich history.  Similarly, the owners of the old mansion could preserve the heritage building and challenge their architects to come up with a creative building – not necessarily as impressive as the 44-storey skyscraper as the China Central Television headquarters in Beijing – but just as creative and functional!

It was such an eye-opener to hear various views and ideas from likeminded locals from different walks of life who share a common passion in preserving the character of our city that I was determined to look up the oldest building in JB (and I did!).  The event came to a close on a poignant note with Dr Shanmugam Subbiah’s recitation of the poem that he was inspired to write about the old mansion on Bukit Meldrum.  It was ironic that even while we were discussing the issues concerning our city’s heritage buildings, excavators were already moving into place and on that same night, the old mansion was demolished.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 9 May 2014

Malay comfort food at Mak Teh's

Façade of Mak Teh restaurant at Jalan Kolam Air, JB
If you passed Jalan Kolam Air recently, you may have spotted Mak Teh restaurant among the businesses that are open in the new rows of shophouses at Nong Chik Heights. 

Named after the chief cook and wife of proprietor Aziz Abu Bakar, 69, Siti Hawa Talib better known as Mak Teh, 62, the restaurant is fast gaining popularity for their menu of Malay comfort food.  From the constant stream of customers at the restaurant for breakfast, it looks like their search for food that reminds them of mother’s cooking, ends at Mak Teh’s.

Serving staff will add gravy to a serving of Laksa Johor
The restaurant has a casual dining ambience where customers are invited to help themselves from the breakfast buffet and order drinks from the waiting staff.  There is an interesting sense of trust as customers are welcome to enjoy their meal and return to the buffet to pick more food if they so wished.  At the end of the meal, customers should just go to the counter to tell Aziz the items they ate and he would tally the bill for payment.

It is open from as early as 6am and early birds hungry for a taste of local food will appreciate the buffet of familiar favourites in the breakfast spread.  Regulars seem to know what to do upon arrival so just join the crowd to look at the food choices before you take your pick.  To the uninitiated, it may be a bit intimidating because there are no signs that label the items as the most of the locals know enough about the ingredients in each dish to make their choices.

A colourful serving of Nasi Kerabu
For instance, spaghetti is the main ingredient for Laksa Johor, a noodle dish unique to Johor, topped with raw cucumber curls, bean sprouts, onion-rings, fragrant leaves and a sprinkling of crunchy chai-poh or preserved turnip. 

Mee Rebus is distinguished by its yellow noodles topped with slices of hard-boiled egg and green chillies, sprinkles of savoury crisps and chopped ku-chai leaves.  These two Johor favourites have a slice of lime to drizzle over the noodles and needs to be topped with gravy before savouring.

Make your own serving of Lontong Kering
Serving staff are on hand at the nearby gravy counter where a range of gravies are kept warm so just hand your plate over for them to pour the gravy over your noodles.  A serving of Laksa Johor is topped with rich, spicy fish gravy while the Mee Rebus is served after its vegetable-based gravy is added.  

There are several condiments at the counter to add to the noodles for that extra zing like sambal belacan or spicy shrimp paste for Laksa Johor and a blend of dark spicy sauce for Soto Ayam or chicken soup offered in a choice of rice vermicelli or ketupat rice cubes.


Nasi Lemak is a popular choice at Mak Teh
There is Nasi Kerabu which is served with a topping of serunding or savoury meat floss, a side of mixed raw vegetables, two types of sambal, a piece of fried chicken and half a salted-egg, or assemble your own fried noodle meal with choices of fried noodles like kway teow, vermicelli and macaroni (pasta) with a dollop of sambal and bulls-eye fried egg.  From the available ingredients like ketupat, sambal, serunding, beef rendang, hard-boiled eggs and spicy peanut sauce, you can also make up your own portion of Lontong Kering.  Another popular choice is Nasi Lemak or rice steamed in coconut milk which often gets sold out first because customers simply love it!

A selection of local kueh or cakes
A live cooking station offers freshly made roti canai that is served with a side of dhall or lentil gravy but you are welcome to help yourselves to any add-on items from the buffet.  There is also a range of sweet and savoury kueh or traditional cakes to choose from like Seri Muka, Kosui, Bingka Ubi and rolls of Roti Jala filled with curried potatoes.

While there are waiters to attend to customers, don’t be surprised if Aziz comes to take your order or passes you squares of table napkins as he often mingles with customers. 

Aziz Abu Bakar [Right] tallies up the bill for
customers at the counter
Aziz said he was just 18 when he started working in the food business with the canteen in his alma mater, St Joseph School in 1968 and later went into his family’s Mee Rebus business at Jalan Lumba Kuda.  Now a father of 10 children, 3 of whom are adopted, Aziz and his wife have two other restaurants that are run by their children in Bahau and Senawang. 

Located at No. 8 Jalan Kolam Air 1, Nong Chik Heights, Johor Baru, Mak Teh restaurant is open daily from 6am to 11.30pm.  For lunch, the restaurant serves a range of dishes for Nasi Padang, Nasi Negeri Sembilan and Nasi Johor while steamboat, satay and ala carte items are offered in the dinner menu.  For catering enquiries, Tel: +6019 – 736 8663.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 5 May 2014

Celebrating mum's helpers

Happy Mother's Day dear mum!
As the month of May rolls around, we are honouring our mothers but I’m also celebrating mother’s helpers because in this modern age when most mothers have careers outside the home, the caring of children are often left to the grandparents, baby-sitters or domestic helpers. 

When I was born my mother had a full-time career as a midwife with the Government hospital and as she returned to work after her maternity leave, I was entrusted to the care of Mei Cheh, a mah jie or helper from the traditional Chinese sisterhood of domestic maids.  Years later after my younger brother was born, my mum had to leave her job to care for him because she could not engage a reliable helper. 

Mei Cheh carrying Peggy with my sister
Ruby [Left] and Pearly at the staff
quarters at Jalan Dato Wilson in the
compound of the JB GH compound
In those days, there was no such thing as unpaid leave so when we were older, my mum rejoined the Government service but she lost all her benefits from her previous years of service.  Both my parents were then transferred to the Health Sub-Centre in Masai and the staff quarters assigned to them was a single-storey bungalow next to the Centre.  Mum soon engaged a domestic helper to do a bit of cooking and cleaning and our house was close enough for mum to pop in for a peep at us or check on the helper.  I remember it was so safe that there were no metal grilles on our windows and they were always wide open so whenever we raised our voices for fun or in fights, our parents could probably hear us.

Our first helper, Har Mui, was a young Chinese woman who chose to change her career in rubber tapping to become a domestic helper.  She was in her early twenties and it was the first time she was working in a home rather than in the plantation.  It was also the first time my siblings and I had a helper who was young enough to play with and I remember playing indoor hide-and-seek with her because there were so many hiding places inside our bungalow!

When we had more time at home during the school holidays, Har Mui introduced me to Mandarin pop music from the songs that she listened to from her transistor radio.  At that time, Mandarin was like a foreign language but I soon learnt what wo ai ni means and I remember trying to copy down song lyrics in Romanized English.  She was Hakka and spoke to us in strangely accented Cantonese but we often sang along to the pop songs in Mandarin that became so familiar that I can still recognise the tunes today even if I cannot recall any of the lyrics.

On a visit to Haw Par Villa theme park, Singapore in the 1960s with Har Mui [Right];
Peggy [Second from Left] next to mum [Left]
In return, we had fun teaching her to speak in English and she was like an older sister, taking care of us especially when we went out together as a family.  I remember how much she enjoyed our visit to the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore because she could read Chinese and appreciate the mythological legends that were illustrated by the stone sculptures and scenery.  It was a sad day for us when Har Mui had to leave to get married but we stayed in touch and also visited her after she moved to live with her husband’s family in Sedenak.

A gift for mum on one Mother's Day
It was difficult to replace Har Mui particularly because we had built a bond between us and even though my mother left word with the villagers to introduce a candidate as a domestic helper, it was some time before any one suitable came along.  Meanwhile, our third uncle whose wife just delivered their first baby was seeking a helper and as they needed someone more urgently, my mother found a young Indian woman for them.  She was Saroja, a domestic helper who took care of uncle’s young son and later went on to help our fourth aunt when she delivered her firstborn. 

I cannot forget Sornam, Saroja’s younger sister who was probably inspired by her sister’s success in working with our families and said that she too wanted to be a domestic helper.  So when my mother was approached about giving her a job, we agreed that she could come to us more as a companion because she was just a girl.  The poor girl, however, did not have the same personality and attitude as her sister and it did not take long before she realised that this was not for her and decided to quit.

Saroja [Far Right] at our house on Christmas Day in the
late 1970s with some visiting family members
Someone said that even if we forgot those in between, we would always remember the first and the last.  Domestic helpers were an extra pair of hands to help mum at home because we have always been trained in doing household chores and could manage quite well by ourselves.  However, mum still wanted an adult to keep an eye on us while she was at work and finally a Hokkien woman named Khor Mui Eng came to us.

Since we the children do not speak any Hokkien, it turned out to be something like a chicken-and-duck situation because we just could not communicate.  I was probably just playful and mischievous but I made no effort to cooperate with the poor woman who was also not quite able to follow my mum’s instructions.  Looking back, I believe that my parents had already realised that she was not fitting into our household but was still giving her opportunity after opportunity.

Things came to a head one afternoon as we sat down for our usual afternoon tea when our parents came home from work and she made us a pot of hot tea.  Mum had given her a simple recipe to mix caster sugar into black tea before serving and that day we had a huge shock at the first sip of tea because it tasted salty!  This was easily explained because Khor Mui Eng mistook table salt for caster sugar and she had put salt in our tea instead of sugar!  Happy Mother’s Day!
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 2 May 2014