Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Waterskiing show the latest attraction besides Ferris wheel


Two hours before show time at the Taman Tasik Titiwangsa boathouse, Toni Snow, the 25-year-old lead skier breaks the 12-member crew of the H2O multinational ski team into small groups to practise their pyramid stands.

Snow, an American who started skiing at the tender age of 17 months, has done more than 10,000 pyramid formations in her show career.

All set: The skiers getting ready with their ropes and boards before the boat drags them on skis.
In forming the upper tiers of a pyramid, female skiers are always favoured because they are more agile.

“Sometimes the lighter girls can feel very heavy on the guys who form the base of the pyramid and vice versa, the heavier girls may seem lighter. It’s all in the climbing technique. If you apply heavy steps on a supporting shoulder, this will create unevenness where balance is concerned. The secret of keeping a pyramid formation steady is in keeping the body tight,” said Snow.

In Snow’s case, even minute details like where the girls’ ropes should hang after they have descended from their upper tiers is looked into as dangling ends can get entangled with the base skiers’ legs and cause accidents.

But these are no green horns that Snow is working with. Even Maddie Genengeles, 17, the youngest member of the show, was already waterskiing by age three.

Starting off: The girls sitting on the men’s shoulders before assuming a standing position.
Dave Thornton, 29, who has done close to 3,000 pyramid formations with other performing ski troupes, said he had been part of a five-tiered pyramid formation on a few occasions.

“They call this the sport of a thousand falls.

“Practise and team work are essential to getting it right,” said Thornton.

While the uninitiated may wonder where these pros find the strength to hang on to the towlines, perform stunts and wave at the crowd at the same time, Gary Choong, 39, a Malaysian performing with the troupe, would brush it aside as an easy feat.

Highly-skilled skier: Toni Snow doing a solo on her swivel board. Waterskiing is second nature to this American who started skiing at the age of 17 months.
He said the secret was in finding one’s point of balance in the water instead of fighting the line.

The double-tiered pyramid formation is one of the many tricks the H2O ski team is currently famed for.

According to Richie Terrril, 29, an employee with the Australian-based company, choreography for the water ski show had been planned weeks in advance before the grand-scale launch of the ‘Eye of Malaysia’ Ferris wheel on the night of Jan 6 this year.

The H2O skiers are here until April 7. The show’s repertoire includes waverunners (jetskis), pyrotechnics, spectacular water screen images as well as laser lights and music.

Terril provides an insight into how the team has found a way to synchronise the whole show, especially when it comes to the deployment of pyrotechnics.

The 18-minute show will start off with a countdown and this is when the ski team will start their stop watches.

Guided by the times, they will then press the required buttons to activate the pyrotechnics.

The result is a spectacular display of sparks cleverly timed to gel in with the beat of the music and the laser lights.

The Wet and Wild Ski Show is on from Wednesday to Sunday at Lake Tititwangsa.

Showtime is at 9pm and entrance is free.

Published in The Star on 8 March 2007.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thrills galore

At the Lost World of Tambun, an adrenaline-filled adventure awaits – but first, do a bit of planning.

AT the Lost World of Tambun, it is the magic of the mountains that beckons first of all.

The enchantment begins as soon as the limestone hills in all their majestic glory are sighted. For those who are attuned to nature, there is a positive buzz, an indication of rejuvenating ions in the rich, oxygen-filled air.

Looking at the scene, one gets the impression that there are a series of hills in the background but according to the locals, the whole range is known by one name, Gunung Dato. It must be mentioned that Gunung Dato is the middle part of an estimated 60km-long limestone massive which stretches from Gunung Gajah in Kuala Dipang to Gunung Kantan in Chemor.

Fun with a view:Gunung Dato provides an enchanting background to the park.

Hymeir Kamarudin, 47, president of the Malaysian Karst Society, says the 448m-high limestone peak that overlooks the theme park is a result of deposited dead sea creatures and other shell animals which have been compressed millions of years ago. It was formed when these heaps were pushed up by land movements and this relatively young hill is believed to have been formed about 400 million years ago.

“What we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg, as 95% of this limestone hill is still underground,” says Hymeir, hinting that the hill can still “grow”.

Impressive as Gunung Dato may be, the jewel in this theme park’s crown has to be an upright, phallus-shaped 80m-high limestone formation, which has been politely called “The Needle of Tambun”.

Jokes aside, this is possibly a geological wonder – if not a miracle of nature! According to Hymeir, the splitting of limestone formations usually begins with the appearance of fissures and cracks in the wall that can be caused by the combinative elements of temperature change, wind and water. In most cases the fissures are usually jagged and when a split occurs, the shape is inadvertently an irregular one. In this case, by some blessing of nature, the cracks had run along the right lines to give the rock formation a clean split, as if both sides had been cut apart with a knife.

For those who believe in the power of nature, such sights will no doubt be a reminder of its subtle might.

The best way to suss out the whole place is to take a ride on the train

But enough of the view already! Those who have children in tow will quickly be reminded that staring at limestone hills is not the way to spend a day of fun at a theme park.

In an online review, one blogger made a snide remark that the Lost Word of Tambun is a lost case, calling the theme park a boring place with inadequate facilities for the ticket price it charges (RM30 for adult; RM24 for children below 12; FOC for children below 90cm).

Whatever it is that made this blogger unhappy, the first thing to remember when in a theme park is to throw away one’s inhibitions and have fun. Don’t be afraid of getting wet and to tilt your head up and taste the raindrops should it rain.

Never mind about walking around barefoot in wet clothes too – it is the fashion here.

For those with children along, remember that it is also your day to bond with them.

Nevertheless, it is still important to do a bit of planning so you can make full use of the seven to eight hours that you and your family will be there.

There is no fun to being stuck at the sandy bay even if it has a wave pool that generates seven types of wave patterns, or to be put on sentry duty guarding the family’s bags for the whole day. So it is advisable to change into your bathing suits and then chuck everything – towels, wallets, dry clothes, milk powder, baby bottles etc. – into a rented locker (RM10 per unit). That will leave your hands free and your mind at peace. The lockers are programmed to recognise your own specially-created personal identification number so you will not need to carry a key around.

Thrilling spin: Another way to dry off is to take a ride on the Dragon Flight.

The next thing to do is to hitch a ride on the vintage train, which is actually a modified tram. This will allow you to list down all the cool hangouts, the petting zoo included. Expect to spend two to three hours at the zoo to allow the children to make an educational connection with the reptiles and mammals there.

Then go for the tube slide or cliff racers rides and have an exhilarating time! Whizzing down any of these four giant slides, or the speed coasters, will surely shift your heart from left to right. We dare the reader to try out the biggest, fully open slide which is 155m in length!

Those with vivid imaginations are bound to feel that they are going to sail right into the air. But don’t worry, at the very worst you’d only end up with a big splash in the pool in the end. For a bit of suspense, try the totally enclosed slide where you zip downwards in total darkness.

Expect to be here for the next two hours as the children will want to go back for numerous rounds. One tactic to get the children to move from this addictively fun spot is to feign a fainting spell, as this writer did, citing vertigo and high blood pressure as excuses.

The 600m adventure river is your next best bet as it is right next to the sliding tubes. Plop in, relax and let the waves carry you along. Prepare to be amused by stone frogs that will spit water at you and look out for a drenching too as there is a giant tipping bucket along the way. You might want to rent one of those round floats (Single for RM18/ Double for RM22; deposit for both are RM10 each) to enjoy this attraction but make sure to keep a close watch over them as they have a tendency to “walk” off.

At the end of the river, there is a children’s wading pool. Here again, you’ll be expected to head the charge as pirate chief while the young ’uns run head first to the water cannons, spraying elephants and slides before clambering on the pirate ships.

Perhaps this is also when mum and dad may want to go at the dry rides at the amusement park. Judging from the thrilling options on offer, it will not need much persuading to herd the children to try these out as well. From personal experience, the swing chair ride is highly recommended.

After a round of thrills, this is perhaps a good time for one parent to visit the hawker stalls while one stands by to keep watch. Though there is no shortage of vigilant (and dishy looking) lifeguards here, there are clear signs to remind parents to keep watch over their brood at all times.

Having a picnic style lunch at the sandy bay is a great way to unwind. This relaxing spot with swaying palm trees is as good as being at the beach and the view of the limestone hills is, again, stunning.

One of the fun things to do in this area is to stand under the fountains and just let the water course down and allow the natural flow to cool and massage your weariness away.

For those who love warm baths, there is the deliciously relaxing hot spring dip by the beach area. As evening draws near and about an hour before the park shuts down, nothing beats a long soak in the hot spring where you can feel the prickly sensation of minerals on your skin.

The hot spring is so popular, the dipping hours have been extended on Fridays and Saturdays (from 6pm to 9pm) and aptly called “Hot Nights”.

For enquiries, call 605-5428 888 visit their website at

Published in The Star on Nov 22, 2009

Art everywhere, but who cares?

THERE is no lack of wall murals and public sculptures in almost every nook and corner, and from this display of artistic prolificacy, public knowledge on the Malaysian art scene should not be a matter of contention.

Sadly, the reverse is true.

“I am embarrassed to admit it, but I have no idea who the artist is,” answers one building manager when queried on a metre-long mosaic art piece in a landmark building.

Money matters: A mural depicting the world of ringgit and sen in the lobby of Bank Negara done by Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal in 1971. The artist, now in his 80s, was honoured as a National Artist in 1995. Ahmad earned his place in Bank Negara’s prestigious art collection after his entry won the National Bank of Malaysia Mural Competition in 1970.

Shockingly, representatives of another establishment even revealed that they were going to chuck the sculpture flanking the entrance of the building into storage because it was gathering too much dust and becoming a bother to clean. Others merely shrugged their shoulders and appeared content with their ignorance.

“This is a typical characteristic of develop­ing nations, where art is not considered important,” said Majid Amir, 38, a curator at the National Art Gallery.

For this curator who thinks nothing of waiting a whole day for stencil artist Albert Rat (he is notorious for keeping an elusive distance from the public and press) to show up, this sense of apathy towards public art work is disappointing.

“The field of public art is not for the ‘small guys’. This is because the structures that go on display in public usually take on a larger-than-life scale. This means that the work has to ‘interact’ with the public. It may be climbed on or subjected to all sorts of weather conditions. Crucially, it has to be sturdy and be able to withstand the elements.

“This requires the artist to have experience in architecture, engineering and a thorough knowledge of building materials, not to mention the talent to achieve an aesthetic form that will appeal to the eye. Ultimately, it will not be something that an untrained individual can handle. All the more, such pieces deserve recognition,” said Majid.

Hanging sculpture: A hanging sculpture by an unknown artist right above the stage in the centre court of the Putra World Trade Centre outlining the Minangkabau roof of the building. The beauty of this piece lies in its ability to present itself in a different form when seen from different angles.

Speaking from experience is sculptor Ramlan Abdullah, 49, who is best known for the giant keris in front of the Bukit Jalil Stadium and whose works have been displayed in KLCC and Sheraton Perdana Hotel in Langkawi.

“It is dangerous to think that art is insignificant because a country’s artistic heritage is a mark of its identity. Take, for example, how the Statue of Liberty is synonymous with New York. The presence of art gives one a sense of place, and for a nation, it is also a reflection of its technological advancement,” said Ramlan, who has 22 years of experience in the field with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.

Installing a piece of public art is no cheap affair. Majid revealed that starting prices began at no less than RM100,000 but this was still subject to the materials, detailing and size. In answer to cynics who opine that such installations might be better replaced with more useful facilities, Majid argued that it was important to think about how art could contribute to a civilisation.

“Art is about using the left brain, the part which enables creative thinking. Nurturing this part helps society to achieve a balance between creative and logical thought which can sometimes be too rigid. The absence of art will leave a vacuum in civilisation,” Majid insisted.

Bond between man and beast: Illustrative details from the Selangor Turf Club Horse sculptures depicting the relationship between horse and mankind in the building of kingdoms, industries and chronicle their presence in the making of history.

So, where does an aspiring artist begin when it comes to entering the field of public art?

“Everything begins with a proposal,” Ramlan stated matter of factly.

The other thing is to take a bold step by submitting one’s sketches for competitions, a platform which has helped Ramlan gain recognition. Incidentally, Ramlan’s work bagged top prizes in Japan and the Philippines. The next step is to approach the architecture firms and he cited Hijjas Kasturi Associates as an example of a positive force in encouraging public art.

“Another useful tip is to do a bit of homework on who is behind a building project and to submit one’s work directly to this individual. Once this person takes a liking to your work, the deal is more or less set,” Ramlan said.

Published in The Star, Nov 17, 2009.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coming alive with colour

Just how do monks and nuns celebrate Chinese New Year? GRACE CHEN visits Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen monastery.

Jenjarom, Selangor (Malaysia) -- THE Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen monastery in Jenjarom, near Banting, Selangor, is a landscape of lanterns and flowers. In the gardens, the trees bend under the weight of pink cherry blossoms, and the tea trees have been sculpted into Bodhisattvas. At seven metres, they are a majestic sight.


As Venerable Man Dao comes to greet me, the first words to leap out of my mouth are: “Are those cherry blossoms for real?”

The 58-year-old nun laughs indulgently and explains that they are artificial. “But isn’t the effect spectacular?”

I nodded.

“We set up these decorations so that people will feel the joy and confidence of Buddhism,” explains Man Dao.

A former secretary, this KL-ite joined the order when she was in her 30s. She tells me the monastery will be open to the public from Jan 28 to Feb 19, 10am to 10pm, in conjunction with the coming lunar new year. Among the highlights is the Lumbini Garden (meaning “abundance of fruits and flowers”), which houses a tower of lapis lazuli.

The night-time scene is breathtaking >>

Thousands of potted plants within the monastery, most of them in full bloom, will fill the air with heady scents. Outside the main shrine, three brightly-lit animatronic figures of the Buddha and Boddhisatvas will sprinkle holy water from an elevated rail. There will be a yearend praying ceremony at 8pm, and at 10pm, the lanterns will be lit. Come midnight, devotees will line up to offer their first incense for the new year.

In front of the main shrine the bell will be struck.

“There will be volunteers all over the compound to guide the crowd. A hundred thousand or so devotees will line up for the incense-lighting ceremony to make their wishes for the new year. There will be a sense of harmony in the air and, though there is a big crowd, no one will push and there be no rush,” says Abbot Hui Xian.

“I don’t sleep but spend the whole night praying,” says Man Dao. “This is the time when I feel most at peace and in my prayers I wish for all the good things to come to mankind.”

The two-year-old monastery is expecting close to two million devotees. Last year 190,000 devotees turned up during the 4th day of Chinese New Year alone.

The monastery planned the logistics, like parking, security, traffic and crowd control, six months in advance.

“By organising this Lantern cum Flower Festival, we hope to educate the devotees on the way of Buddhist thinking. This is also a time to enhance and promote family ties,” Man Dao tells me.

And to think that monastic life is one of quiet contemplation and prayers!

Man Dao says that such perceptions of monastic life are outdated. “Monks and nuns no longer live lives of seclusion on faraway hills. In these modern times, we don’t hide away. The Fo Guang Shan (meaning Buddha’s Light Mountain ) aims to promote humanistic Buddhism by going into society to spread the Buddha’s teachings,” explains Man Dao.

Venerable Hui Xian, 31, remembers how he spent Chinese New Year as a layperson, when he was mostly concerned with himself and what he wanted.

“Now as a monk I am busier with more things to do. I start my day at 6.30am and don’t finish until 10pm. But we feel happier here because what we do is for the benefit of others, not for oneself. Before, I only asked to be blessed with prosperity and good health for myself. Now that we are bestowing those blessings on others, I feel them coming to me. This brings more joy and it makes a big difference,” he says.

Satisfaction in serving others

Ask any monk or nun as to why he or she has chosen to serve the religious vocation, and you are likely to get an interesting answer. Take Venerable Hui Shiuan, for example.


“When I was young, a fortune-teller told my parents that I would not live past my teenage years because I was such a sickly child. But I did. From the Buddha’s teachings, I learned that I had to be the master of my own destiny. Joining the brotherhood of monks, I hope to inspire others to uphold Buddha’s teachings,” says Hui Shiuan, from Tainan, Taiwan.

Do the monks and nuns take time off to be with their own families during Chinese New Year?

Venerable Hui Xian, who hails from Kelantan, says there just isn’t time. “It’s our families who come to us. My mother is very proud to have an abbot for a son. When family members come to the monastery they treat us with respect and call us si fu. They are happy to see us,” he says.

Abbot Hui Xian >>

But what about those whose family cannot make the journey?

“At first, some find it hard to accept but sooner or later they come to terms with it,” says Man Dao. According to Hui Xian, a monk’s priority is no longer himself but mankind.

“Our priority now is towards the people. The people in the monastery become our family. Our time is devoted to the study of the Buddhist scriptures,” he explains.

“As monks, we are not only dealing with ourselves but with mankind. When devotees come and tell us their problems, we have to help. We are living in very troubled times, so we have an important role to teach and guide them in the Buddhist way,” adds Hui Xian.

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Man Dao says there are sacrifices to be made when one takes the vows to become a nun. She takes the Buddha as an example.

“Gautama was so dedicated to achieving enlightenment that he left his wife and son to search for the truth. If he had not made that sacrifice, there would be no Buddhism today,” she explains.

Becoming a nun or monk is not as easy as one might think. Man Dao says the monastic order vets all candidates carefully before they are accepted. They prefer candidates who are single and have impeccable morals. Once chosen, the person goes through a period of study and exams before being ordained.

“There is no such thing as seeking refuge in a monastery just because someone broke your heart or because you are trying to escape the responsibilities of life. That only happens in the movies,” she asserts.

“And no, we don’t do kung fu or catch mosquitoes with chopsticks!” quips Hui Xian, the abbot.

To give us a glimpse of what life in the monastery is like, Man Dao takes us to the Buddhist College within Dong Zen. There the students wear grey uniforms and there is no idle chitchat or loitering before class.

“The discipline is strict. Students are required to sit up straight during lessons and when they are reading the scriptures. At mealtimes they have to line-up. In the dining hall, they eat mindfully. They sit up straight and there is no talking or choosing food,” she points out.

Yu Mei Ling, 32, who once studied hotel management in the UK, is a student at the college. She says that the learning environment in the monastery is very healthy. Yu’s fellow classmate, Lisa Ngadi, 32, from Indonesia, says the strict discipline helps to better one’s personality and allows better control of emotions.

It is not clear if these two will be ordained as nuns – for now they will only say that the learning has helped them to understand the Buddha’s teachings in a deeper way.

“Once you are ordained as a monk, it does not mean that there is no turning back. Should a monk decide to return to the outside world, he will go through a disrobing ceremony. After that he is free to leave the monastery.

“There be no shame,” she assures. W

To contact Fo Guan Shang Dong Zen call 603-31911533 (Malaysia)

Published in The Star, Jan 28, 2006.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the food trail

A trip to the Lost World of Tambun is fun. What makes it even better is the array of good food places along the way.

NOTHING brings out the appetite like a fun-filled day at the Lost World of Tambun in Sunway City Ipoh.

Sunday Metro, your faithful makan guide, looks at the big question of where to eat as we go on an adventure trail of food stops leading to and from this theme park.

Hearty breakfast

As the Lost World of Tambun only opens at 11am (on weekends it’s 10am), you will seriously need to consider the breakfast issue.

Hawkers’ paradise: Foodstalls at Jalan Medan Ipoh 5 offer everything, from rojak to seafood and noodles to grilled chicken wings.

For those who are looking at sampling Ipoh’s famous hawker fare, consider a short drive to the New Weng Fatt coffee shop in Tingkat Taman Ipoh, Ipoh Garden South, which is about 10 minutes from the Lost World of Tambun.

Here is where you’ll find Ipoh’s famous curry noodle and Hakka Mee, served by the Cheah brothers who have another shop in Jalan Theatre in Ipoh’s old town.

This stall in New Weng Fatt is run by Chan Kum Ho, 46, the boss’ wife. She reveals that they have been serving their Hakka noodles with toppings of minced pork for three generations now.

You’ll love the wide array of springy fish and meat balls and many diners have also given the crunchy foo pei and fried wan tan the thumbs up.

Eric Wong of Unique Seafood holding up a Spider Crab.

For a good morning boost, ask for a beef tripe and meat soup with beef balls to go with your noodles. A budget of RM5 per person will easily tide you till lunch time.

Not to be missed at the same shop is the Teluk Intan glutinous rice with lashings of curry and thinly cut char siew by Ng Kong Chiew, 46, a Teluk Intan native who moved to Ipoh.

Priced at only RM3, this recipe, according to Ng, is no less than 48 years old having been passed down from his grandfather.

What makes this meal so satisfying is the combinative balance of sweet and savoury flavours from the roasted meat and curry sauce. Note that one is not enough, so it’s best to have this as a side dish together with something else.

And don’t miss out on the white coffee at Weng Fatt. It is delicious, hot or cold.

Another ideal spot, consider it a pit stop, is behind the Giant hypermarket in Jalan SCI 2/2 in Sunway City itself which is less than three minutes’ drive from the theme park.

There you’ll find many mamak shops offering a rich fare of mee goreng, roti canai and nasi lemak.

One personal favourite spot is a place called The Coffee Shop run by Johnny Ng, an amiable and very boyish looking 50-something who used to run Rum Jungle, one of Ipoh’s happening night spots.

Johnny Ng’s eggs on toast at The Coffee Shop

The Coffee Shop may look sparse from the outside but they have great half-boiled eggs on thick toasted white bread.

This simple breakfast priced at only RM2.50 makes for an ideal meal especially when you have very young children in tow, and dining here is an escape from the hustle of the busier mamak shops.

It is also less stressful in terms of catering to junior’s toilet needs as the restrooms are squeaky clean.

The chatty Ng, a Muslim convert, is also good company who strikes up pleasant conversations with all the patrons. There is also free wifi, which gives time for the adults to catch up on their latest Facebook postings.

Relaxing lunch

For lunch (by now we presume that everyone has amply soaked themselves in the adventure river and the wave pool at the theme park), the best recourse is the Waves Restaurant at the Lost World of Tambun itself.

Think fried chicken wings, burgers and spicy fried rice with sambal belacan.

It’s not exactly Ipoh fare as we know, but try cajoling a brood of excited children to leave the park just so that you can go for your bean sprouts and chicken with kway teow.

Tosai Anaconda at Nasmir

It will not work! The park’s marketing manager Mazian Nawawi, 32, recommends the deep fried fish fillet with potato wedges: Dory fish is used instead of fish cake patties, she says.

If choice is the issue, there is always the Kukuntalu hawkers’ section, which offers chicken rice, crepes, iced cendol and keropok lekor.

Nourishing snacks

If a light midday meal is more to your taste, the spicy tuna and chicken waffles at the Lost World of Tambun are a recommended option.

Fluffy with generous fillings, these warm, well-toasted waffles make for a wonderful snack and will give your taste buds a lingering memory.

Chow time: There’s lots of food to choose from and savour at the Lost World Of Tambun

Responsible for this novel idea is Sivaji Raja, 35, the assistant manager of food and beverage in the park.

The waffle inspiration, he modestly reveals, is nothing more than a combination of a light batter and a basic filling of mashed tuna and chicken mixed with spices and chillies.

“On a normal day, visitors can snap up close to 300 of our spicy waffles,” he says.

For teatime, the cherry scone at the Rimba Teahouse within the petting zoo is another edible gem.

Served warm with strawberry jam, butter and cream, it is very filling and one can be shared between two persons.

While the conservative palate may insist on washing this rich buttery confection down with coffee, Sivaji recommends the roasted rice tea, a special blend of honey, brown sugar, screwpine leaves and rice made exclusively for the Lost World of Tambun.

Tasty dinner

When the park closes at 6pm and everyone has towelled down and comfortably settled in dry clothes, you’d want to consider dinner. If you’re feeling plush, there is Unique Seafood in Persiaran Lagoon Sunway, just next door to the Lost Word of Tambun.

Barely a minute’s walk away, this place has a wide range of live seafood including spider crabs, lobsters and Scotland clams.

You decide on what you want, and these will be scooped up from the aquarium and cooked the way you want it.

For a sumptuous seafood treat of spider crab in a superior stock of dried scallop, pumpkin and free range chicken, be prepared to fork out no less than RM500.

Eric Wong, 29, the senior manager, gives full assurance as to the freshness of the seafood in this two-year-old Chinese restaurant, which is pork free.

There are also other meat and vegetable dishes ranging in price from RM6 to RM58 for a set lunch for four persons. Of note are the ostrich with XO sauce and crispy lemon chicken.

For the budget conscious, an option is Nasi Kandar Nasmir along Jalan Medan Ipoh 2 in Bandar Baru Medan (Ipoh Garden East, as locals call it), which is about six minutes’ drive away from the Lost World of Tambun.

Nasmir is famous for its half-metre-long Tosai Anaconda - one order at RM6 can easily feed three! They are also known for their briyani rice with ayam kampung (free-range chicken) and nasi kandar.

If you want a night out in the open, there is a hawkers’ paradise right across Nasmir’s in Jalan Medan Ipoh 5.

The food stalls, which at last count numbered more than 200, span the front and back streets and offer everything from rojak to seafood and noodles to grilled chicken wings.

Old-timer Dahapi Ismail, 70, who sells satay here says he has been doing business at the same spot for the last 20 years.

Dahapi is very much the chatty type and if you’re thinking of touring the rest of Ipoh after a visit to the Lost World of Tambun, he may be able to give you some suggestions on where to go.

To get to the Lost World of Tambun, drive along Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah Utara and then Jalan Tambun. Head for Sunway City. The theme park is just right after the Giant Hypermarket.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The new face of batik

In Malaysia, batik culture is not bound by tradition like in other countries. Here, designers can design what they like — something stylish and classy that will appeal to the international market.

Aaron George and Raymond Von Jolly designed the dress being worn by Corinne Adrienne (below, right)
THE idea of attending a batik exhibition is enough to induce a yawn from me. Think batik, think “aunty” and “uncle”. But when publicist Bill Bora, 39, called to announce that he was organising one at The Weld, I was intrigued.

After all, the man is known for his Midas touch.

“I promise you, no baju kurung, no sarung, no pareo. It’s batik with a difference,” Bora assured. “Just come and see lah.”

So here I am at the Batik Showcase 2006, and who should I meet but actress Corinne Adrienne (of Spinning Gasing fame), 29, twirling around in a Von Jolly evening dress.

“Check out the flow. Don’t I look like a goddess?” she gushes.

And there’s no reason why Corinne should not look like one. The Von Jolly uncle-and-nephew designer team of Raymond V. Jolly and Aaron George know their batik – they bagged the grand prize in the fashion category of the 2005 Piala Seri Endon, the premier batik competition in the country.

For Corinne’s number, the duo opted for soft, dreamy chiffon with georgette lining. A daring neckline allows a peek at Corinne’s cleavage and a left slit down the hem shows off a bit of leg. It’s just the right outfit for a glam queen to strut her stuff on the red carpet!

“With batik, you must be imaginative,” says Raymond, 53.

Michael Shu, 30, who has been working with batik for five years, adds, “You can never get two pieces that are exactly the same. When drying batik fabric, even the time of day can affect the colours. The hot sun will make the colours turn out brighter. If you dry it during sunset, the colours will be muted.”

Anything but dowdy

Never let Kareem Said Khadaied, 50, hear that you think batik is dowdy. The head designer of Khadani, a batik design house, is deeply passionate about his art and will defend it to his last breath.

“The first thing you must know is that batik is a methodology, not a design. The word originates from Indonesia. It means ‘dropping wax onto cloth’. This methodology is found throughout the Malay archipelago, China, Japan and Australia. Malaysian hand-drawn batik originally comes from Japan.

“If you study Western textile design, you’ll find that a lot of these were influenced by batik. Prints produced by hand in Indonesia were taken by the Dutch to Holland and copied by European designers,” he explains.

But why is the use of batik on the wane?

“Now in Malaysia, there seems to be a massive confusion as to what is batik. There is a lot of promotion for the use of batik but no clear definition as to what it’s all about.

“The problem was that the synergy between the fashion designers and the textile manufacturers was not there until Piala Seri Endon came about. Most of the textile designers do not have a strong tailoring background. We stuck to the basics like sarong, baju kurung and pareos because we did not have the expertise.”

Just then, a stir of excitement interrupts him. Actress-singer Ziana Zain makes an entrance in a Khoon Hooi creation using one of Khalid Shamsuddin Arshad’s batik designs. Khalid, like Kareem, is one of the old timers in the batik industry.

“That’s Khalid’s work. You don’t have to tell me that. You see, it takes a man like Khoon Hooi to bring it out. That’s what I mean about achieving synergy with the fashion designers and the textile manufacturers,” Kareem says excitedly.

And it is no doubt a stunning piece. The green, long-sleeved chiffon gown is awash with gold renjis (splatter) to give it the illusion of texture, while the skirt has colourful butterfly motifs to add to its allure.

Kareem Said Khadaied next to a Ranting dress;

A new era

Khalid, 48, doesn’t doubt that designers like Khoon Hooi will bring about a revival in batik.

“The possibilities are endless. From evening dresses to curtains – all batik needs is fashion designers doing something with it. It’s just a matter of colour schemes and placement of patterns,” he says.

Sharing his optimism is Sharifah Maheran Barakbah of Barakaff, 58, another fashion textile designer with over 30 years of experience. Her collection, which includes fabrics like crinkled chiffon, silk and satin, are mostly of the contemporary floral kind for the middle and upmarket segments.

“Yes, we may be orang lama (veterans) in the industry but we must be up to date with market trends,” she says.

Farah Fazila of Innai.
Kartini Illias, 47, who began her own range of ready-to-wear batik in 1999 thinks it’s important to be contemporary.

“To expand to the global market we must make that point at home first. We have to make our people perceive batik in a different way,” she asserts.

But old habits die hard. Some traditionalists have raised fear that batik will lose its “Malaysianness”.

“The thing is to open up and be liberated. Sometimes we over-react and focus too much on the nitty-gritty instead of looking at the big picture. That applies to a whole lot of things, not only fashion.

“To me, our batik culture is not as bound by tradition as batik in the neighbouring countries. Theirs go back hundreds of years and batik has to be of a certain design because it has cultural ties.

“But we are free to do what we like with ours – something stylish and classy that will appeal to the international market,” she argues.

Farah Fazila, 22, of Innai, a batik boutique, is one of the designers working hard to make that change happen.

“Even when I was a teenager, I loved batik. My friends would tease me about looking like a makcik (aunty) but I have always found it trendy. At Innai, I am working to make batik appeal to the youngsters. Just think of batik with jeans,” she says. W

  • Round 2 judging for Piala Seri Endon 2006 will take place on Dec 9 and Dec 10 at Berjaya Times Square. The final results will be announced on Dec 17.

    Shopping info: Innai (03) 7728 3184, Khalid Batik (03) 6250 7448, Barakaff (03) 5510 5748, I.Kartini (03) 2382 2833, Von Jolly (03) 7958 6162, Khadani (03) 6138 8312.

  • Published in The Star, Weekender, Saturday October 7, 2006

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Pineapple fibre frocks

    Even those indifferent to fashion will be curious about a gown made from pineapple fibre.

    Designers: Aaron George (standing) and Raymond Jolly.
    Von Jolly Gallery
    Bangsar Baru
    103, Jalan Telawi
    Kuala Lumpur
    Tel: 012-2678233/019-2456241

    All gowns are made of soft chiffon, velvety silk and delicate georgettes, right? And so when Sarawakian designers Raymond Jolly, 53, and Aaron George, 29, of Von Jolly say they are launching a three-piece collection made of pineapple fibre, I think my leg is being pulled.

    “You’re kidding, right?” I shoot back, incredulous.

    They assure me they aren’t.

    But seeing is believing, so I make for the Von Jolly Gallery in Bangsar to verify this strange dress with my own eyes.

    But the designer team of uncle and nephew decide to prolong the suspense and take me for teh tarik at Devi’s Corner. It is important, they insist, that I first be made to understand that their latest line is not a fruity idea.

    And so, over some tea, I learn that this fabric, made of pineapple fibre, is actually tepina, which is 50% silk and 50% pina (pineapple fibre).

    Raymond and Aaron say they stumbled upon the fabric during a holiday to an “Asian island”. But instead of waxing lyrical, the two started, oddly enough, to lambast the tepina as a “rogue fabric with incorrigible characteristics”.

    “It has a low thread count, so we have to use lining. It is also rough in texture,” says Raymond.

    Aaron nods and complains about its unsuitability for batik, saying the colour spread can only be controlled to a certain degree.

    So why choose the tepina, I ask.

    The pineapple batik dresses. — VON JOLLY
    “Our collections have always featured the soft and flowing look. For our new collection, we wanted to have structure. The tepina affords us this luxury,” says Aaron.

    “It is a unique fabric, possessing a beautiful shine. You can see this after it has been ironed. Under heat, the fibres will expand and give the dress the illusion of volume,” chimes in Raymond.

    The exoticness of tepina is also another plus factor.

    “It is not commonly used here, so it will give the wearer an exclusive feel. Of course, the question will arise as to why we didn’t use something local, like the pua kumbu (tapestries from Sarawak), which is equally exotic. But we had to consider the practical aspects.

    “The tepina, which has already been through a colour adherence process, can withstand washing with minimal colour run. Subject the pua kumbu to the same treatment and you can write off the whole piece as a kitchen rag,” explains Raymond.

    “The theme of this new collection is based on the lively atmosphere of a wedding. The design philosophy is best described as eclectic, a juxtaposition of the elite, the luxurious and the refined,” says Aaron.

    They show me their grandest piece, a long, panelled gown with puff sleeves, an orchid patterned affair in red and orange done in the batik style. This number, says Raymond, is marked for a red-carpet night but it will have to wait till the right woman comes along.

    “The wearer has to have height to carry off this number,” says Raymond, who reveals that Erra Fazira was supposed to have worn it for a live event but it was too big for the slim actress and needed adjustment.

    “Alterations are no problem but it takes time. The event was scheduled for noon the next day and she only came in the day before at 4pm. We had to decline because there would be no time for fittings,” he explains regretfully.

    The rest of the collection comprises a flouncy, knee-length dress with a flirty off-shoulder cut and a men’s jacket.

    “Not a very big collection, is it?” I am on the verge of saying when I remember the wedding theme: the stunning gown would be for the bride, the matching jacket for the groom, and the knee-length dress for the bridesmaid.

    It makes sense.

    And the price tag?

    The Von Jolly team charges no less than RM2,000 for each piece. Tepina may be a “rogue material” but it’s not cheap, is it?

    A touch of glamour

    The pineapple batik dresses. — VON JOLLY
    Fashion designers have always aligned themselves with celebrities to push their creations to the forefront, and in this regard, the Von Jolly duo are no different.

    Since they began collaborating in 2005, the uncle and nephew have won the grand prize in the fashion category of the Piala Seri Indon batik design competition and have dressed celebrities like Sazzy Falak, Wan Zaleha Radzi and Asha Gill.

    Batik is a theme that is present in each of their creations.

    “When Sazzy Falak hosted Anugerah Era in September 2006, we had to come up with an outfit that blended in with their Denim and Leather theme. So we created a denim gown with a batik motif for that Malaysian touch. This is a reverse technique where we had to paint ethnic designs on the denim after the gown was made,” recalls Raymond.

    Their efforts paid off because Sazzy was voted the Best Dressed Woman by EH! Magazine in one of their 2007 issues.

    Dressing Asha, says Aaron, was a breeze because of her perfect figure. Asha wore a Von Jolly chiffon gown at the TAG Heuer India Polo Event on Nov 30, 2006 in New Delhi.

    “Asha liked the gown Wan Zaleha wore to a function at Starhill, Kuala Lumpur, so she gave us a free hand with the design. We opted for big floral prints because we knew she would be able to carry it off,” recalls Aaron.

    “As for Wan Zaleha, she wore our Summer 2007 range, which carries a Greek goddess theme, at a TAG Heuer event on Nov 16, 2006. She is petite, but has a mannequin’s figure, so we played with drapes and flows to give her a fuller figure. For this, we used our signature colours of purple and olive.”

    Raymond, who formerly worked in Shell’s logistics and planning department, says affiliations with celebrities are just part of the big picture.

    “The challenge for a designer is not in dressing a model but in making the average-looking woman look stunning. Models are perfect but normal women come in all sizes and shapes, so it’s important for your creations to have a good sense of proportion,” he explains.

    “The haute couture line is a competitive business but we have devised a business package that ensures exclusivity is maintained, from the production of the fabric to the completion of the dress.

    “Then it is a matter of getting good clients and doing the best for them. Word of mouth will eventually travel and the client base will grow from there,” adds Raymond.

    How is this different from another designer’s approach?

    “The others may get their fabrics from Euro Moda or Gulati’s, but our forte is batik. All our fabrics are hand-painted batik designed by us. We see to it that the end result comes out as expected – refined and very, very exclusive,” says Aaron.

    Published in The Star, Saturday March 17, 2007

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    Arabian Tales

    Arab perfumes for a change

    THERE is nothing like a whiff of perfume to salve the tired soul, so Raghda Emad, 19, of Oud Al Anood (“The House of Good Smells”, in Arabic), believes.

    “Arab people like to smell good,” says Raghda.

    Raghda, an Iraqi who came to Malaysia when she was just three years old, says her family’s love affair with perfumes started nine years ago when her father, Emad Abdul Razak, 48, a former ship captain, decided to open a perfume factory in Kajang nine years ago. Today, the family-run business has four retail outlets.

    A good wood perfume is black.
    “My father is the nose for Oud Al Anood. He spent three years searching for fragrant wood in South-East Asia and experimenting with perfumemaking in our home kitchen.

    Even before that, everyone in my family was into perfumes.

    “My mother always wore a flowery scent called Amirah, which means “princess” in Arabic, while my father prefers the strong smells of fragrant wood. For me, it’s the soft smells of vanilla,” she says.

    The young perfumer’s training in the trade began when she started helping out in her father’s factory at age 14.

    Elaborate perfume bottles.
    “I had to open each and every bottle and sniff the contents. Perfume comes in three categories: strong, medium and soft. The strong smells are usually from wood like gaharu, while the mediums are from flowers like rose and jasmine. Vanilla is one example of a soft smell,” she explains.

    The shop carries 50 types of scents.

    “Everything we use in our perfume oils is natural. There is no alcohol, which means that Muslims can use them during their prayers.”

    According to Raghda, they carry two types of perfumes: wood oils and perfume blends of flowers and spices.

    “All the wood oils are processed in our factory. The process requires cooking the wood to extract the oil. You can tell a good wood perfume by its colour, which should be black. They are so thick that it is impossible to put them in spray bottles.

    “There is no such thing as a good wood oil going bad as they have no expiry date. In fact, the longer you keep it, the better.

    Arabian favourites include canned sheep head, brains and feet, and non-alcoholic beer. — Starpix by SAMUEL ONG & GLENN GUAN
    We have a 12ml bottle of 20-year-old wood oil worth RM3,000,” she says.

    Raghda says chemically made perfumes have a distinct smell of alcohol and don’t usually last. Some people are allergic to them.

    “A good perfume, when applied properly can, last a whole day. Even if you were to dab a little behind your ears, it should carry you through for at least four hours,” she claims.

    Oud Al Anood is just next to Hotel Malaysia in Jalan Bukit Bintang. For enquiries, call 012-2154601 (Emad Abdul Razak). Prices start at RM30.

    Dine at Aladdin’s

    I AM not pulling your leg. I really met Aladdin recently. No, not the character from the Arabian Nights but a real-life person in Jalan Berangan, off Jalan Bukit Bintang, a spot now dubbed Arab Street.

    His name is Aladdin H. Salih (pic), or Ala for short, and he is a 51-year-old Iraqi. Ala is the owner of Sahara Tent, Malaysian Tourism Board’s Best Middle Eastern Restaurant in 2001 and KL Halal Food Guide’s in 2004.

    Unlike his fictional namesake, this Aladdin hasn’t a genie for a sidekick, but it has not stopped him from working his magic on his restaurant. Decorated with traditional Bedouin covers, borders and ornate Middle Eastern pieces, Sahara Tent is not unlike the cave in Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.

    “Everything about food I learnt from the women,” laughs Ala.

    “During a trip to Malaysia, I realised there was no proper service for the Arab tourist. I saw the potential when no-one did. The location was not considered by many as the right choice as it was considered a ‘red light’ area and the abandoned playground was a haunt for drug addicts. Nevertheless, I went ahead,” he recalls.

    Today, Ala’s place is the main draw of Arab Street with its fountains and Moorish arches. The abandoned playground is now nicely lit with fairy lights.

    “People say Arab food is like Indian food. In fact, Arab food is nothing like Indian food,” he says.

    Middle Eastern cuisine is somewhere between the subtle flavours of Europe and the hot and spicy notes of Asia. In our menu, there is a mixture of all the favourite dishes from the Arab lands,” he says.

    Some of the favourites include Babylon Chicken, which is de-boned whole chicken stuffed with basmati rice, pistachios and raisins. It takes two hours to prepare, and is redolent with cinnamon. Another dish Ala recommends is the Whole Roasted Lamb, which is marinated with black lemons, cardamom and cinnamon.

    The saffron rice is another specialty, and Ala says it is reserved for special occasions as the spices used can cost up to RM300 for just 100g.

    “At Sahara Tent, we blend the saffron to a very fine powder, then add a little sugar and warm water to make a reddish paste. This is then refrigerated, and when the rice is ready, we put a few spoonful of the mixture into it. The result is a beautiful colour and a wonderful smell,” says Ala.

    The restaurant also boasts a traditional Yemeni dish called Mandi – chicken or lamb with rice cooked in an earthen pot in a special stove.

    The stove, which has a depth of 1.83m, is coated with sand, stone and salt. Firewood is used to heat up the stove for two hours. The basmati rice is put under running water for an hour, then mixed in the pot with meat marinated with cardamom, saffron and raisins. The earthen pot is sealed tight with a wet cloth and left to cook for two hours.

    Sahara Tent has Arab-speaking staff at every station and there are curtained booths where veiled women can dine in private.

    “It is very inconvenient for Arab females to dine in public as they have to lift their veils. So we allocated these booths where women serve the food. It’s our way of showing respect to the culture,” concludes Ala. W

    For reservations, call 03-21448310 or pop by at 87, Jalan Berangan, Off Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

    Shisha lifestyle

    Jalan Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur should be renamed Shisha Street, judging from the number of shisha vendors you will find in the area.

    According to Mahmoud Jamil Mohammad, 26 (right), a vendor who plies his trade near Waffle Stop beside Lot 10, shisha, or water pipe, is very much a part of Arab culture.

    “The Arab world cannot do without the shisha, even the ladies. Anyone who has the time and wants to relax, goes for the shisha and most coffee shops and restaurants in the Middle East have it,” he says.

    A shisha session can last 1½ hours, and Mahmoud keeps his regulars happy by regaling them with his tales. He never tires of telling people that he went into the shisha business five years ago because he got of bored staying home and watching TV.

    To light a shisha, hot coals are placed on an aluminium foil covering a small earthen receptacle which holds the maasel or dried preserved fruit mixed with honey.

    The smoker inhales through the shisha’s long hose, passing the heat and smoke through the long stainless steel body of the shisha. It is a smooth draw, as everything passing through the water in the glass base is filtered and cooled down.

    For hygienic purposes, a disposable plastic nozzle is used as a mouthpiece and after each session, the shisha is washed and the glass base refilled.

    Customers can choose from nine different flavours like vanilla and cappuccino. He claims that the maasel he uses for his shisha contains no tobacco.

    A doctor I talked to says the effects of shisha smoking have yet to be researched thoroughly.

    “There is no guarantee that prolonged exposure to it will not affect the lungs. As it is, shisha comes in many varieties and some do contain tobacco. Thus the health risk will also depend on what the smoker is burning.

    “In order to ascertain the health risk connected to shisha smoking, we’d have to find out what kind of chemicals are in the shisha. Then we will be able to tell how these substances will affect the smoker. One may say that it is just preserved fruit and honey, but compare that to the haze, which is only smoke from burnt wood.

    “In the end, all forms of smoking are harmful, no matter if they are cigarettes or shisha. The safest thing you can inhale is fresh air,” says the physician.

    Published in The Star, Saturday 24, June 2006.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Colours of Deepavali

    A rangoli artist seeks to bring joy through his colourful works.

    HIS colourful rangoli are about the only things that can compete with Mohan Maruthamutu’s dazzling smile. Just like his jovial and energetic nature, Mohan’s vividly hued rangolis pretty much reflect the Deepavali mood. This 30-year-old’s artful rice grain scatterings are currently on display on the floors of Sogo, Mid Valley and other well-known shopping complexes and hotels in the city.

    Yet, Mohan’s journey in life has not been an easy one. Having stopped school at age 12 due to lack of finances, the sixth child of seven siblings shares one of the most distinct memories in his teenage years. It was that of experiencing a total feeling of calm as he sat on a temple floor to arrange stray turmeric-dyed rice grains that had fallen of an altar.

    “You must understand that I did not purposely seek to become a rangoli artist. It came to me. There I was, sitting on the floor and seeing the rice grains, my hand just reached out to them.

    Artistic mastery: Mohan Maruthamutu creates his colourful rangoli without any chalk markings

    “There was no conscious planning on my part when I formed those rice grains into patterns. Now that I recall, it is rather uncanny how I took to rangoli art,” reveals Mohan who speaks Tamil and fluent Bahasa Malaysia.

    Though it did not cross his mind then, the added years of maturity have convinced Mohan that divine intervention bestowed upon him the blessing of artistic skill. This is evident because he finds it very hard to draw images of any kind with a pencil and paper but when it comes to making rangoli of peacocks, lotuses and other intricate free-form patterns, it is a different matter altogether.

    “All my rangoli patterns are done freehand. I do not need chalk markings,” he says.

    The interest towards rangoli art could not have come at a timelier moment as Mohan, who was then 15, was still trying to come to terms with his father’s death.

    Mohan’s father, a City Hall gardener, died after falling from a flight of stairs. His mother, a cleaner, was left to fend for the family and for some time, Mohan and his siblings were on the verge of poverty.

    Centre of attention: The main subject of a rangoli is usually set in the middle. This one has a lotus motif.

    It was during those difficult years that Mohan, a former pupil of the Cheras Tamil School, used the rangoli as a form of expression.

    Rangoli drawing absorbs you entirely. There is no place in your mind for other thoughts because you need to focus your concentration on forming the patterns. Interestingly, a rangoli may have a beginning but there is no ending. You could continue with one pattern after another for the same circle. The only constraint will perhaps be space or until you run out of rice grains,” says Mohan.

    Naturally, Mohan’s talents as a rangoli artist soon caught the attention of the temple’s devotees. At the age of 16, Mohan got his first paid commission to do a peacock rangoli for his friend’s brother’s wedding. From then on, his reputation grew by word of mouth.

    As to whether rangoli are magical in nature, Mohan prefers to see them as symbols of impermanence and illusion.

    He has heard the older generation proclaiming that rangoli can prevent evil spirits from entering the household, but Mohan personally opines that rangoli possess the power to bring joy.

    He believes that due to their fragile nature, rangoli are a metaphoric representation that sees each person and physical object from the perspective of eternity as a brief, disturbed drop of water in a vast ocean.

    Technique is everything: The trick is to allow the grains to trickle from the palm in a smooth flow.

    Reflecting on his own personal experience, Mohan, who works as a dispatch rider for a motor spare parts shop, sees this in his own life.

    Though life has been hard, the present is a far cry from his poverty-stricken teenage years and today, this dutiful son can afford to tell his mother, Kalimah, 57, to rest. Mohan is also the proud owner of a new home.

    His only concern at the moment is his mother’s heart condition. She had to undergo an angioplasty recently. Still, Mohan, who has been a vegetarian for the past 13 years, is confident that she will have many happy years to come.

    Having the advantage of youth, Mohan is naturally enthusiastic about his future as a rangoli artist.

    “I dream of starting a company specialising in rangoli creation. The only thing is to lay down a standard procedure of operation so that quality is preserved and that is something that I will have to work out,” he says.

    To deepen his knowledge of the art, he is planning a trip to India for an intensive rangoli course.

    “Like a painting, rangoli drawings require that the artist learn the finer points of shading, texturing and toning. My goal is to achieve a realistic image of people with the rangoli method of rice scattering,” he explains.

    Mohan’s advice to the beginner is to adopt the correct hand position, which is to shape it like a funnel so that the rice grains can trickle from the palm.

    The rice grains, he says, can be coloured by soaking them into a solution of poster paints or food dyes.

    Doing the proper rangoli can also be an easy affair, he assures. One method is to lay a stencil on the floor and then follow the lines, filling in the spaces as you would with a colouring book. He also recommends applying glue to a surface beforehand. This is the fastest way to make a rangoli and he has seen some novices pour a surplus of rice on top of the pattern before sweeping the extra grains away, he says.

    For this Deepavali, Mohan has four stencils for our readers. Photocopy to enlarge and have fun making them.

    > Mohan can be reached at 016-6176765

    Lighting up his life

    A business born in desperate times is now proving lucrative for lantern maker.

    WHEN it comes to making lanterns, Khoo King Eng, 36, says: “Everyone can do it. It’s just like making a birthday card.”

    To prove his point, the father of two demonstrates by bending a metal wire around the outline of a seahorse. It is an easy task as the shape has been outlined with nails hammered into a piece wood.

    This is how we do it: Khoo King Eng bending a metal wire around a nail outline to create a bunny-shaped lantern as his son, Yu Fun, five, looks on.

    Khoo makes two of these frames and then solders the two sides onto another strip of wire which already sports a coil in the middle. This is the candle holder, which also forms the base of the seahorse structure.

    Translucent coloured paper is then placed across the frame, pulled taut and then glued.

    Lastly, Khoo’s wife, Tan Sueh Mei, 33, a former art student, paints in the eyes and other details with sure, swift strokes. For ease of transportation and storage, the lanterns are then pressed flat.

    “Lanterns were a common subject in our school art projects. Even today, there is no lack of lantern makers in states like Perak and Pulau Pinang, who treat it as a cottage industry,” says Tan.

    The Khoos ventured into lantern making five years ago after they found that they did not have the money to import ready-made lanterns from China.

    Lanterns galore: Khoo’s shop in Petaling Street stocks a huge selection of lanterns and other decorative items including those imported from China.

    Given that they now have a 10-year business dealing in seasonal decorative items that had grown into a chain of 15 shops from Johor to Kuala Lumpur, this was hard to believe.

    The Khoos, however, had a reason for their cash flow problem. Their son, Yu Fun, now five, was born with a congenital heart defect. When Yu Fun was only two days old, he had to undergo corrective heart surgery.

    “When my wife and I embarked on our lantern-making venture, we were on the verge of bankruptcy.

    “We had just let go of the 14 shops because we had no time to manage them. We were that focused on Yu Fen. The only reason that we had hung on to the shop in Petaling Street was because it was closest to the hospital,” recalls Khoo.

    Describing his foray into lantern making as a last-ditch attempt to save his floundering business and raise money for his son’s medical bills, Khoo says he took a crash course in making lanterns four months before the Mid-Autumn Festival that year.

    “It took me close to a thousand tries before my staff and I got the production process right,” Khoo recalls.

    Somehow, Khoo’s efforts paid off with his first run of 20 designs selling 5,000 units. Today, while other lantern makers usually see orders coming in about six months in advance, Khoo gets bookings a year ahead. Thus, he makes lanterns all year round.

    Looking at how the lanterns have become an important part of his retail business, it is no surprise that Khoo now regards them as symbols of luck and perseverance.

    “Remembering those early days of our lantern-making activities reminds me of the lowest point in our lives. We did not have enough money for Yu Fen’s medical bills and my relatives could not help us,” Khoo reveals.

    “In fact, they even advised us to give up on Yu Fen, which was something I could not accept. So, in the end, it was sheer determination that spurred me to produce those lanterns.”

    Talking of the time when he and his wife used to work 14-hour days while dealing with the emotional and physical toll of caring for a sick child, Khoo says that there was just no time to entertain depression.

    “Instead of resorting to drink or drugs for relief, we went headlong into making lanterns,” smiles Khoo who also handmakes Christmas and Chinese New Year decorations for his seasonal decorative items shop.

    Design-wise, says Khoo, lanterns come in all shapes – from all the animals in the Chinese zodiac to modern marvels like aeroplanes and motorcars. Cartoon characters are also not left out and keen consultations with his children help Khoo to keep in touch with the current trends where animated personalities are concerned.

    “There are some years when traditional shapes like fish, dragons and pigs will sell very well but at other times, there is a trend for cute cartoon characters. I try to predict what will be the hot items and incorporate them into my designs.”

    While the bulk of Khoo’s production still consists of lanterns made with lead wire frames and translucent paper, he also accepts orders for shop decorations. The latest is for a red 3.65m balloon lantern for a dried waxed meat retail chain.

    He also has as a prototype a series of red brocade lanterns with electric bulb illumination for the traditional Chinese wedding chamber.

    “Lanterns have always played a central role in Chinese culture. Not only is their presence felt during the Lantern Festival but in the olden times, Chinese households would have giant lanterns hanging at the entrance with the surname of the family emblazoned in them. You can also see them at weddings, funerals, during Chinese New Year and as decorations during major festivals,” Khoo points out.

    Citing that the materials for lantern making can range from paper to silk, Khoo says that the only limit is one’s imagination.

    Still, his methods are considered modern in comparison to the olden times when lantern frames where made from thin strips of bamboo.

    “You are talking of an art form that dates back to 230BC, when lanterns were made from rice paper,” he says.

    Khoo surmises that the origin of the Chinese lantern was probably tied to the basic need for portable illumination. The soft glow of a lantern was definitely seen as a better alternative (and safer) than carrying a blazing torch.

    It also did not escape attention that a lit lantern also bears resemblance to the full moon. Consequently, the lantern became a popular means of decoration and a source of illumination during the full moon festival.

    Just like any item that has entrenched itself into the history of human civilisation, the Chinese lantern would evolve with the times.

    They can be elaborate pieces of art with detailed paintings. Some also feature complicated mechanisms with rotating parts powered by nothing more than the simple principle of hot air circulation.

    The invention of batteries and LED lights also turned the soft glowing orbs into gizmos with blinking lights and sound effects. This type of lantern is still considered by many customers as a safer option for younger children.

    While many fanciful legends have been woven about the Chinese lantern, Khoo presumes that the actual significance has more to do with reminding young people about tradition.

    Logically, the invention of electricity should have eliminated the need for candle lanterns. However, lighting one on a romantic Mid-Autumn evening does bring to mind how mankind has progressed. There is also the therapeutic effect of watching the soft glow of a lit lantern.

    Business wise, this spells good news for Khoo who has become a major supplier for Chinatown. And since he also does wholesale trade, he considers those imported from China as his main source of competition.

    “There is no way that we can beat the ­prices of their paper lanterns, which are the bestsellers currently,” says Khoo whose own handmade lanterns are priced between RM8 and RM15.

    Looking forward, Khoo maintains that it will take a lot more than the pricing issue to make him give up his business and he is already thinking of making more elaborate designs with layered tiers and tassels.

    This is where even he would admit that while lanterns may be easy to make, the more elaborate ones will definitely take a longer time in the design process.

    Check out the lanterns made by Khoo at 17, Jalan Hang Lekir, Kuala Lumpur.