Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let’s go to market

The farmer’s market is a lively place full of colourful characters selling fresh produce and a whole lot of other things besides.

WHY make a beeline for a farmers’ market with their nose-wrinkling odours, humid conditions and noisy surroundings when you can shop in the air-conditioned comfort of a supermarket?

The answer, my friend, definitely blows in the wind. Unlike the sterile atmosphere of a hypermarket, the pasar tani gives one a sense of freedom with its open-air concept. Another magnetic attraction is that it throbs with life, thanks to the colourful personalities of the vendors and their wide choice of fresh produce, including petai just plucked from the tree and exotic jungle vegetables.

Going bananas: Bananas in the hundreds of bunches are found in abundance at Selayang.

Shopping aside, this is where you’d find hefty fishmongers and Wellington-booted greengrocers with superstar smiles – the types who will not hesitate to claim every passer-by, old or young, to be their “sweetheart” or “darling”.

It is very hard not to fall in love with this noisy, gregarious lot! You know, those easy-going types who will not think twice about hollering to another trader who is six stalls away if he’s got any lemongrass to spare for a “pretty auntie” who just must have some for her nasi ulam?

Not one to practise favouritism, everyone is either a liang lui or a leng chai. The surroundings may not be posh but it is easy to see why the pasar tani has become so popular in our culture.

Engaging smile: Jamaludin Ismail started selling keropok lekor under a tree. Today, he has two shops in the Selayang wholesale farmers’ market

The Malaysian pasar tani probably made its way into the local scene sometime in the early 70s. The whole idea of creating a temporary spot for the farmer to trade was to address the issue of the middleman. Back then, it was not uncommon to hear stories of some unscrupulous middlemen who would pay the poor village farmer a mere RM10 for a basket of durians, which were later sold in the city for RM10 per kg.

This effort to bring the farmers in direct contact with the consumer was initiated by Fama (Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority) which was formed in 1965. The main objective was to help the farmers, fishermen and livestock breeders eliminate the problem of the middleman.

Locations were selected based on market research carried out by Fama and consumer traffic; and the willingness of the district authorities to cooperate and the number of entrepreneurs who would find the area viable for trade were some of the prerequisites taken into consideration.

Training ground: The best salesmen can be found in a pasar tani, says Azizi, who is roasting chestnuts with his boss, Rezuan Baba.

In terms of commerce, the pasar tani would be a separate market from the wet, morning and night markets and were under the jurisdiction of Fama who would arrange for the basic facilities such as umbrellas and stall space for rent in each of these designated areas. Close to half a decade later, the humble pasar tani took off, and the wholesale farmers’ market in Selayang was one of the first to start.

Located by the side of the old wing of the Selayang wholesale market, with its existence traced back to 1987, it is perhaps the oldest pasar tani in Selangor, according to Kamar Kilau, 60, who is a regular shopper here.

“In those days there were only 34 lots and rent was only RM13 per lot,” reveals Kamar.

Fama support: Razlan Ismail, a keropok lekor vendor, standing in front of his colourful lorry. Painting of the vehicle was sponsored by Fama.

Today, the number of lots has doubled and, according to Shamsuddin Zainal, 30, who helps run the Fama produce stall here, rental rates have gone up to RM500 per unit.

While the business hours of the pasar tani were originally confined to the morning, the one in Selayang has extended operation hours to seven days from 7am to 6pm. Some stalls like Jamilah Hashim’s coconut stall, which sells fresh santan and kerisek, runs on a 24-hour basis.

Jamilah, 31, a mother of four, reveals that she had started in Selayang with a small stall under a tree selling cakes, crackers, pickles and steamed peanuts in 1999. She changed to selling coconut milk in 2000 when Fama offered her a stall after a former tenant lapsed in rental payments.

Enterprising: Jamilah with her sisters, Rahimah (in red) and Rohizan (in black), who are showing off the cendol and bakso noodles that are a hit with Selayang folk.

On estimate, no less than 1,000 coconuts go under the grating machine at Jamilah’s santan shop in one day.

In Jamilah’s case, the spirit of entrepreneurship runs in the family as her husband, Saiful Azam, 37, also has a poultry stall in the area.

Her elder sisters, Rahimah, who runs a nasi campur and roti canai concern, and Rohizan, who, in addition to a watermelon stall, also sells bakso and lontong, also have shops in the Selayang wholesale farmers’ market area.

Bite me: Sup gearbox, one of the many hundred types of food available at the Shah Alam Pasar Tani.

It is not unusual to find one boss managing a few stalls and keropok seller, Jamaludin Ismail, 48, is one of them. A keen biker who also has a health spa in Rawang, Jamaludin now has two shops to distribute his keropok lekor which comes from a factory in Rusila, Terengganu. Jamaludin, who started selling his keropok lekor from under a tree in 1996, says that he sells between 20 and 30 big bags a day.

The most popular pasar tani is none other than the one at the Shah Alam Stadium on Sundays from 7am to noon. What makes this market such a draw is that it is just next to the Bazaar Arena which operates in conjunction with the farmers’ market.

Catergorised as a pasar tani mega (mega farmers’ market) by Fama, this is a shopper’s heaven with over 800 stalls selling everything from fresh produce, meat and fish to bundle clothing, facial products and handicraft.

Showtime: Razali Jaafar got his 15 minutes of fame when he was featured in TV shows like Jalan Jalan Cari Makan.

One bargain hunter, Norashikin Sidek, 37, who is a regular, says that one of her favourite draws is the beef bone soup (sup gearbox) from Wak Jas and the array of fashion clothing from the bundle stalls. Where prices are concerned, hypermarkets can be cheaper, she admits, but the advantage of being able to bargain here is an added plus.

Competition is certainly keen and Azizi Alif Khalid, 26, a business management diploma student from UiTM who sells roasted chestnuts, says that working in a pasar tani is a test in PR, work discipline and marketing skills.

“The best salesmen are found in a pasar tani. You learn very quickly that charm and the ability to say the right things will win you customers,” say Azizi, who sells about 80kg of chestnuts every Sunday in Shah Alam.

Without the advantage of window dressing, one also learns to rely on creativity, and for salon owner Norhasni Muhammad, 42, that involves providing on-the-spot facials at her stall where she sells her beauty soap bars.

This is not to mean that Fama has taken a back seat with the promotional efforts. The agency will sponsor the painting of a vendor’s lorry, as in the case of Razlan Ismail, who had his done recently.

The 25-year-old keropok lekor seller who hails from Klang, Selangor, has been in the pasar tani circuit for 10 years.

Facial on the go: A marketing tactic used by Nor Hasni to promote her beauty soap bars

Ingenuity also helps to sell a product, as Jeffri Mohd, 26, found out when he changed the original cylindrical shape of the ice cream potong he sells to square shapes. This Kelantanese who has only been in the pasar tani circuit for a year is under the employ of Zaman Ice Cream which has two sales outlets at the Shah Alam market.

Incidentally, the pasar tani has also turned out to be a place where one can find fame. Razali Jaafar, 39, a former broadcasting man who gave up his job to open up his own enterprise called Uncle Jilli’s Jacket Potatoes two years ago, has attracted media interest. So far, he has appeared in Jalan Jalan Cari Makan, in a slot hosted by Maria Tunku Sabri, and in Sheila Rusly’s Ketuk Ketuk Ramadan, which were both aired over TV3.

Laden with petai and other jungle vegetables, Abdul Rahim Muhammad’s stall in Shah Alam is what the pasar tani business is all about – selling the freshest produce, whether they are harvested straight from nature or from the farmers’ plot, directly to the customer.

Rahim, who has been in the pasar tani trade for the past 25 years, says he is chairman-cum-treasurer of the Persatuan Peniaga Penjaja Negeri Selangor (Selangor Petty Traders Association), which aims to help the small entrepreneur. The motto of the PPNS is “Dari Gerai Ke Global (from stall to the world)”, he says. But it looks like their fight is still on the local ground for now.

One of the things that PPNS continuously strives for is the protection of the pasar tani traders from unscrupulous individuals who, after obtaining licences from the council, will try to sell the lots at a high price to newcomers, Rahim says, adding that at one point, PPNS even went as far as reporting the culprits to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Thanks to their efforts, such incidents are becoming rarer but the underhanded practices still exist, he says.

> For more information on a pasar tani nearest to you, log on to

Published in The Star, Sunday, 25th April, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Food from the garden

To be truly productive, grow your own food.

WHY take the trouble to grow your own food in an age when everything can be purchased from just a stone’s throw away?

For want of an answer, the best person to speak to is Haji Mohd Arif Rahmat, 79, who was only 10 when the Japanese army invaded Malaya in 1941. Though this retired headmaster has not divulged the details of his life during that period, it is a well known fact that folks from the “banana currency” era had to grow their own food to survive.

These days, what used to be known simply as plots for growing your own greens has taken on a fancy name: “edible garden”. But to Arif’s generation, the ability to grow one’s own food was a way of ensuring survival.

Haji Mohd Arif Rahmat needs only a pot with a bit of soil and he’s ready to plant.

Having grown up in an era which put a premium on thrift, Arif likes to share the fact that he has never had to buy a single leaf of ulam nor any of the local fruits like durian, langsat, mangosteen or cempedak.

As he puts it plainly, “I have always believed that to be truly productive, you must be able to grow your own food.” But thanks to modern abundance, it is no longer necessary for us to resort to growing food for the family. However, there is a legion of avid gardeners out there who will think nothing of sinking their hands into mulch, coaxing the soil to produce a harvest that they could confidently tuck into.

It is also common for growers of edible plants to share their passion as well as the fruit of their labours with their relatives and friends. When she has visitors, Eunice Quah, a freelance designer in her 30s, usually takes them to her herb garden to introduce them to her collection of plants. “Here, smell this. It’s lemon balm,” she would say. Or “You’ve got to taste this.

This is stevia, which is sweeter than sugar.” And it is!

Most times, growers of edible plants also rank quite highly in their friends’ and family’s popularity list.

Before Arif moved from Kedah to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to his three children, he had a 1.69ha orchard that was a favourite among his grandchildren and their parents especially during the fruit season. They would help themselves to the durians, mangosteens, cempedak and langsat in the orchard.

Tall order: Ong with her 1.829m-high kailan. It was grown from a cutting given to her by another gardener friend.

Six months after settling into his ground floor apartment in Wangsa Maju, Arif’s place is now bursting with greenery from the host of potted plants he has planted. They include limes, mint, turmeric, ginger, curry leaves, lemongrass, kesum (laksa leaves), sweet potato, cekur (sand ginger), kuchai (Chinese chives), coriander, screwpine and tulasi. His little garden is now a popular spot for his daughter-in-law, Yasmin Medeonus, 48, who is a great cook.

“All you need is a pot with a bit of soil and you’re ready to go,” he says. Quah agrees, as she is also growing her sage, rosemary, sweet basil, thyme, marjoram, mint and other herbs in pots and planter’s boxes in her Taman Tun Ismail home.

Ong Suan Huah, 65, who lectures on green architecture in UiTM, has been planting long beans, convolvulus, spinach, brinjal, bunga kantan and basil on the backyard plot of her Section 17 home in Petaling Jaya for some years now yet she still feels amazed by the sight of her growing plants. “It’s an awesome feeling when you see your own brinjals hanging from the vines. You feel like such a genius even though you know that it is all nature at work. I guess this is because you know that you have nurtured your plant from seed to bush.”

Ong started growing vegetables when her grandson, Anton Siew, now six, was born. Her main reason, she says, was that she did not want her grandson to ingest the harmful chemicals that came with the bought varieties.

She began with Chinese kale (kailan) grown from a cutting given to her by her husband’s relative in Ipoh.

“After the success with the kailan I went a bit mad and started to try my hand at mustard greens, French beans and mustard celery. But I was not successful with this lot.”

Still, it is thanks to Ong’s effort that Anton and his younger sister, Trinity, five, love to eat vegetables, which is not often the case with most tots.

“This is because home-grown vegetables are nothing like the ones bought from the market. Like my kailan, there is no bitter aftertaste. There was also a time when we had long beans and we chopped them up for omelettes. They were crunchier and sweeter than any of those I had ever bought,” says Ong.

Keen gardener: Partini prefers to potter in the garden rather than watch TV in her spare time.

Dispelling the idea that she has “green thumbs”, she says she wasn’t successful at gardening before. To explain, she goes back 15 years to the time when she went on a field trip to Cameron Highlands with her colleagues. There, they visited a nursery and she emerged from it with her arms full of potted plants. They eventually died from want of attention, she says.

These days, though, she will spend entire weekends tending her plants.

“The moral of the story is, only when you are passionate about your plants will they grow,” she says.

Initiative, agrees Partini Safrudin, 35, the Indonesian housekeeper of Alex Wong, a recording artiste and Elvis impersonator, is the important factor. Though her employer’s double-storey bungalow in Ara Damansara has only a small patch of land for gardening, she has managed to plant rows of screwpines, a papaya tree and daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf).

“In my case, it’s for want of something to do. I don’t like taking naps or watching soap operas all day. So I plant things, which in turn rewards me with a sense of satisfaction and helps me to relieve stress,” she says.

Herbs to the fore

Passion for herbs: Eunice Quah with her collection of herbs. She is surrounded by thyme, rosemary, marjoram, basil, mint, sage, parsley and coriander.

FOR those who are interested in beginning a herb garden, enthusiasts like Eunice Ouah, Ong Suan Huah and Haji Mohd Arif have a few suggestions on the types of plants to try.

> Dill flower: Dill is especially suited to containers and will produce wispy leaves growing on a single stem to about 75cm high. It can be harvested about eight weeks after sowing. At this stage the plant will begin to produce flowers, causing the leaf production to stop. Keep the plants on a sunny windowsill but out of direct sunlight.

> Lemon balm: The lovely lemony scent of this herb makes an excellent iced tea with honey. It is easy to grow and thrives well in loose, fairly fertile soil with little watering.

> Rosemary: The three fundamentals for successfully growing rosemary are sun, good drainage and good air circulation. Rosemary is usually propagated by cuttings as seeds can be difficult to germinate and often don’t grow true to their parent. For a good start, gardeners have recommended periodic spraying of liquid fertiliser on the leaves.

> Sage: Grown from cuttings, the best place for planting sage is in full sun. It should be put in well draining soil as it does not like its roots to remain wet. As it originates from hot, dry climates it will grow best in local conditions.

> Stevia: Non-toxic, insect repelling and sweeter than sugar, stevia plants do best in a rich, loamy soil. Since the feeder roots tend to be quite near the surface, it is a good idea to add compost for extra nutrients if the soil in your area is sandy. The roots can also be adversely affected by excessive levels of moisture, so take care not to overwater. Choose fertilisers with a low nitrogen content.

Starting out

IF you are planning to start your own vegetable or herb garden, start by saving the seeds and stalks from everyday staples like chillies, bitter gourds, basil or daun kesum. Soak the seeds overnight in water to speed up germination. If you’re using stalks, place them in a jam jar filled with 1cm water and let them sit for a few days until a substantial length of roots can be seen.

Soil should be loose, well drained and fine textured. To ensure that your pots do not become waterlogged, place a layer of gravel or charcoal at the bottom before sowing the seeds. To revitalise used soil, heap it in a corner or place it in a large container if you live in an apartment. Instead of throwing away dried leaves that have fallen off your plants, toss them into the soil heap and leave to mulch. You can also add in peeled skins of fruit, vegetables or the pulp from blended juices. Another type of soil which some gardeners prefer is worm compost which is said to require very little management.

Here are some home recipes for fertilisers. One is to tie up a bag of dried leaves, wetting them with a bit of water beforehand. Seal the bag tightly and let the contents disintegrate naturally before placing them on your plants. If you can get goat’s faeces, this is good manure for the plants.

Otherwise, there is the packed and sterilised variety of blood and bone meals which will have all the nutrients that a plant will need. Some gardeners also recommend rice husks and the husks of yellow peas which is purported to give excellent results.

The secret to every successful gardener lies in their willingness to experiment. This is especially so with Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme. The best way to start off with this lot is to buy ready-grown plants from the nursery. Otherwise, stick to easy-to-grow plants like daun kesum, basil, kailan or spinach which can be easily propagated from stems.

You can opt for chlorine-free water for your plants by collecting rain water. Watch out for dry spells, especially in fully concreted areas, which can make your plants wither. Device methods of shading with umbrellas when necessary.

If your garden is on landed property, you may eventually have a problem with pests. One gardener, who has experienced an attack of snails that destroyed her chilli and spinach plants, suggests sprinkling salt around the perimeter of the plants. Otherwise, arm yourself with a torchlight to remove the snails from your plot at night. The kids will find this fun!

Published in The Star March 14, 2010

Miniature venture

A husband-and-wife team get down to the nitty-gritty of decal making.

HERE’S a sticky situation if ever there was one: Imagine a water slide decal no thicker than a strand of hair ending up in a tangle.

To Vernon Law, a decal producer and model maker, the best recourse is to throw the darned piece away. Sticking the decals to a model is already quite a job, taking a trained hand no less than one-and-a-half hours. In some instances, when the 46-year-old has worked on one micro scale decal too many, it is not uncommon for him to end up cross-eyed.

His wife and business partner, Zaidah Omar, 42, and the more patient of the two, prefers a salvation strategy which involves dunking the troubled plastic strand into a bowl of water to let the soaking action loosen the problem. This is then followed by long minutes of gently prying the mess apart with a pair of non-magnetic tweezers.

Matching: Law holding the decals for the Sukhoi SU-30 MKM.

Zaidah is no doubt an asset to Law as her steady hand, perfect vision and infinite patience makes her a natural for the task of sticking the decals on aircraft models. It is also easy to understand why Zaidah is reluctant to waste a decal unless it has been torn beyond repair.

The business of making decals, which this husband-and-wife team started in 2001 from a shop lot in Bandar Baru Ampang, Selangor, can take no less than six months to a year to complete, for a single collection. Having chosen to specialise in decals for the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the most extensive part of Law’s work is in research.

An example of the attention to detail is the decal set for the A-4 PTM Skyhawk used by the 6th and 9th Squadron of RMAF which comes with a fact sheet revealing the year the contract was awarded to Grumman Aerospace to refurbish the A-4s and the specification of work done. A recommendation of the modelling kit is also included with a colour chart guide for the different years of delivery plus modification notes on any additional antennas, avionics humps and weapon pylons made to the attack craft over the years. The images are then scanned into a computer and the printing is sent to the United States and Italy for quality control reasons. It isn’t that Law has no confidence with local printers but when they saw the micro scale specifications, the first thing they asked was if he was nuts.

What they didn’t realise was Law needed them to match the scale of his models ranging from 1:32 to 1:100.

Patience is a virtue: Zaidah sticking on the decals to an aircraft model.

In recalling how he got into this fix, Law, a former draughtsman and father of one, had in 1998 taken the plunge to pursue his childhood passion by joining Miniature Hobby, a famous model shop in Kuala Lumpur’s Mid Valley Megamall. Three years later, he struck out on his own and, by the end of 2003, he was ready to export his decals to Europe, the United States and Britain where there is keen interest among hobbyists for RMAF aircraft.

“One of the most fascinating aspects of the military aircraft is in the markings and manufacturers’ specifications. One example is the Sukhoi SU-30 which is used by the Malaysian and Indian air forces for aerial combat and ground attack. In Malaysia, where they are known as ‘Flankers’, the sensors are located at the chin. The Indian version will see an extra pair of canards at the front part of the fuselage,” says Law.

In tandem with producing his own decals, Law is also heavily involved in model making from ready-made kits; his finished products of model MiGs, Sukhois and the like have gone as far as Singapore, Hong Kong and Britain where they are presented as souvenirs to senior officers.

Precious: Law and Zaidah admiring their collection of World War II fighter plane models.

Law is also a regular at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) exhibition and Defence Ministry (Mindef) events.

“Being in the industry, what they are looking for is accuracy, where the displays, from the colour to the markings, have to be exact replicated scales of the actual aircraft. Again, this takes a lot of research time to make sure that nothing, from the serial numbers to the signs indicating the location of the fuel pumps and warning signs, are amiss,” says Law, who has a library full of references.

One of his favourite referrals is a local monthly defence magazine called Tempur.

Just like his decals, Law spares no effort to ensure the same attention to detail in his models. Drawing attention to the cockpit of a Sukhoi, for example, he shows that every detail, right from the safety belts in the pilot’s seat to the instrumentation panel, is done to resemble the actual aircraft that is currently in operation.

Before and after: The MiG 29N on the left is the original colour on delivery. The one on the right, painted grey, is the colour the RMAF opted for all its aircraft.

“In the model kits, most of the cockpits are still in analog format so what I do is to ensure that it is modified to resemble the latest digital features as found in current aircraft,” says Law.

To set the standard for the quality of his finished models, Law makes regular trips to museums around the world to check out the competition. He and Zaidah recently returned from a whirlwind tour of England where they visited war museums in Collindale, London and Duxford, to have a firsthand look at the British-made Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lightnings and Hawks.

“Look, there is no need to go as far. Just check out the Singapore Air Force Museum where every display is so highly polished, you can see your own reflection,” he says.

Law has gained many regular and loyal customers throughout the years and, according to Zaidah, one way he “entertains” them is by sharing his knowledge.

Nifty: A C130 Hercules, aka ‘Charlie’, in Law’s collection.

“Did you know that the CASA CN235, which is used for VIP and light military transport, was a barter made with Indonesia in exchange for Proton cars? Did you know that some pilots have broken their necks due to the extreme G force during dives or climbs in air manoeuvres? As for the MiGs, I’ll be sorry to see them being phased out as any pilot who has clocked in 1,000 hours in these fighter aircraft is really good,” offers Law.

In retrospect, though Law’s role is confined to making the miniatures of the actual aircraft owned by the RMAF, he does not forget the real reason for their existence – to be part of the country’s defence system.

“In a way, I see myself playing a small part in inspiring patriotism among the younger generation by encouraging them to join the RMAF. I know of one modeller who joined the air force and he is now a captain flying an F18D Hornet,” he says.

Vernon Law can be contacted at 012-661 3698 or Visit his workshop at 24C Jalan Wawasan 2/4, Bandar Baru Ampang, Selangor.

Published in The Star March 26, 2010

Queen of the Cosmos

HERE'S an interesting insight on what was going on inside Carrie Lee Sze Kei’s mind when she was in the finals of the Miss Chinese Cosmos International beauty pageant in China in 2004.

“I was hoping to fall down a flight of stairs and hurt a leg. Then, I’d have a good excuse not to represent my country,” said Lee, 24.

There you have it. The real truth from the crown owner of Miss Chinese Cosmos International 2004.

It may sound odd to think that a winner could have such negative thoughts. After all, don’t all the self help gurus preach the power of positive thinking and the effect it has on the ultimate outcome?

“Of course, I wanted to win. Deep down in my heart there was this faint glimmer of hope but at that time, I dare not dream of the impossible,” said Lee, who eventually won over the judges’ hearts with her implacable charm.

Winning the Miss Chinese Cosmos International title was no mean feat for Lee who revealed that the contestants had to go for soldier training and rafting.

Many girls, she said, dropped out because they could not take the harsh training.

“One contestant had to be airlifted to hospital as she could not breathe due to the thin air in Luku Lake, Yunnan, where the altitude is higher,” said Lee.

Lee, who was 19 at that time, surmised that her perseverance was largely due to her athletic background.

She was a striker and centre in her school’s handball team and as a school runner, she has 120 gold medals to her name. Being fit had been a plus point for this former student of SMJK Segambut Jaya, not to mention a winner’s natural desire to triumph above all odds.

“It may seem to many that beauty queens are goddesses and true when they are on stage, they do have that aura. However, being a beauty queen requires stamina and strength. You have to be poised and confident at all times and I will tell you, it was not something that came naturally to me,” said Lee.

It is presumed that beauty queens are born and not made. Looking at Lee’s delicate features and slim 169cm frame, it is easy to believe that this Kuala Lumpur-born Sagittarian already has her name in the stars from the very beginning but what lies underneath her innocent baby-faced features is an ambitious and determined businesswoman.

At an age when other girls were busy pursuing their tertiary education, Lee had to work as she needed to support her family.

“I worked three part-time jobs, one of which included working night shift in a cybercafe. During the weekends, I’d take on the job of a sales promoter. This was when I’d get calling cards from the casting agencies,” said Lee.

It was a chance that she would not miss, thanks to the efforts of her friends and family members who egged her on into giving a go at the entertainment industry. By this time, however, her business acumen had kicked in and despite her tender age, she was already organising events for her clients.

“It started with a simple request to find more promoters and what I would do was to find 10 girls who could do the job and I’d make maybe about RM20 from each of them in terms of introduction fees. Things progressed from there and over time, I just did what came naturally,” said Lee, who has become a pro at event management.

Still, at the time of her first beauty contest, the Miss Tourism International in 2003, Lee admitted that she had not yet mustered enough confidence to take part in such a grand event.

“My initial philosophy was to have a steady footing as a businesswoman. Furthermore, I was the type to get stage fright and I was very scared of speaking out,” said Lee, who had once owned a boutique and a nail spa.

In came her ardent supporters who insisted that she gave the pageant a go and to cut a long story short, Lee emerged triumphant to eventually wear the coveted tiara as Miss Chinese Cosmos International.

It was a decision that the judges would not regret as Lee eventually took on the job of promoting the pageant in Malaysia and later on in South East Asia, under her company, White Fairy, which is situated in Bandar Sri Damansara.

In addition, Lee also clinched the lead role alongside Filipino actor Alfred Vargas in Muli, a hit Philippines drama series in 2006.

Detailing the rides that have accompanied her thus far, Lee who started off with a Gen 2 is proud to reveal that she will be awaiting the arrival of her Audi TT next month.

“What I wanted was a Nissan Fairlady but I thought that the Audi would stand out better because it was rare. This will be a personal treat for me,” said Lee.

Still, the Audi TT will not be Lee’s first thrill ride. Back in Hong Kong, she has her boyfriend’s Ferrari 430 waiting in the garage.

“After driving a Ferrari, there is nothing you can’t handle,” said Lee.

However, for the family oriented Lee who is the second of three siblings, a sports car would not be the end all for someone who likes to have her family members close by.

This is why she also has a Hyundai Grand Starex, a 11-seater family car where parents, brothers and cousins can fit in comfortably. In fact, big SUVs are quite a hit with Lee, who used to have a Nissan El Grande parked in her driveway. The Nissan eventually made way for the Hyundai when the numbers in her family grew.

“Big and spacious is what I like about the Starex,” said Lee.

For more information on Carrie Lee, check out her website at

Story and pictures by Grace Chen

Published in CBT

Steady Footing With The R350

HERE'S an interesting tidbit from Datuk Michael Tio, the managing director and group chief executive officer of PKT Logistics Group.

According to this 41-year-old father of two who started life as a used car dealer at the age of 18, a car is very often an extension of one’s personality.

Say, if you drive a Mercedes, high chances are that you may be a stable, consistent and conservative character with a corporate outlook.

If you prefer a BMW, then you’re most probably one of those ambitious but fun-loving types.

To satisfy your curiosity, Tio has been driving a Mercedes R350 for the past three years and incidentally, the car that will ultimately turn him on is not the one which has the most kick or power but one that will offer value for money and good resale prospects.

It is such consistent traits that have put Tio at the helm of PKT Logistics which offers total transport solutions not only for fast moving consumer goods but for CKD vehicles and automotive parts for manufacturers and assemblers in the Asian region.

Another advice from Tio is to never buy a car from a smoker who has no qualms about lighting up at the wheel. People who smoke while driving, maintains this anti-nicotine crusader, is obviously not too particular about car care as evidenced by the burn marks and stinky interiors.

As for the best candidates to buy a second car from, it is the ladies who win hands down because they are most likely to send their cars in for service on time. In addition to being high scorers in the hygiene department, they are less likely to go into hard shoulders causing less wear and tear.

Tio is not blowing hot air here. Long before he started the automotive logistics division in PKT, a venture which he described as a "high volume game", Tio has been wheeling and dealing in luxury cars from his days as an accounting student in the University of Hull in Britain.

“The first car I bought while in college was a Mercedes 230E from an old couple. They were pretty worried because I had a baby face then and looked much younger than 18. When they asked me where I got the money, I had to tell them I was buying it for my father. Then when I got into the car, they had to teach me how to drive it because I didn’t know how to operate an auto transmission,” recalled Tio.

Being a car dealer made Tio a popular guy at school as at any one time, he’d have a Panther 3.6, BMW 735 or a Mercedes 300SE in the parking lot.

Delving into his past experience, Tio revealed that he has always found Mercedes cars durable while the most complaints came from the Jaguar owners. The BMWs, after a certain mileage, had electronic issues. This was during the 1980s and Tio recalled that this was a time when the British car dealers had yet to iron out their communication strategies with their Chinese buyers. In came Tio who argued for his brethren whenever there were complaints about imperfect gearboxes that made the cars jerk in the second and third gears, a common problem at that time.

“This was my form of customer service and most of the time we negotiated on repair bills with the buyers and bore the costs,” he said.

Ironically, the car dealing venture that would pave the way for his future nearly got him into trouble. The stress caused Tio to fall asleep at the wheel during a trip from Hull to London and he nearly collided head on with a lorry.

Though those used car dealer days are over, Tio still has a pressing dilemma concerning the current love of his life, his gold R350 (the other is his wife’s Peugeot 308 Turbo).

“I’ve had this MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) for the past three years now and it’s time for a change but I just don’t know what to settle for next. The R350 has such a strong presence and till today it is turning heads,” said Tio.

Man and machine found each other when this freight forwarder was looking for a mode of transport that could accommodate his two children, their comics, their minder, his father-in-law and husband and wife.

There was some fierce competition with an S-Class along the way but good old fashioned Teochew sensibility prevailed as Tio weighed the pros and cons.

“For a 3,500cc engine, the R-Series was definitely more value for money as it can seat more passengers. I also like the big front grille,” said Tio.

The only gripe that Tio has is on the lack of after sales service when it comes to his ride, namely in the spare parts department. A brush with faulty electronics in the auto door of the booth of his R350 saw Tio going back to the workshop not once but three times!

“They told me that they had no stock in hand and a replacement part would take a week to arrive,” he said.

Tio is one of those doting owners who will not hesitate to replace a driver the moment he suspects that they are trashing his car.

“I don’t like the drive-fast-and-then-brake style. It makes me feel very disturbed because I can feel the engine transmission suffering from all that work. At the end of the day, I can feel its exhaustion,” he said.

Tio’s driver, Mat Noor, who is in his mid-40s knows this well and both work to make each journey in the R350 a pleasant drive.

“We work as a team,” said Tio, who always makes it a point to sit in front with Mat Noor.

Story and pictures by Grace Chen

Published in CBT (Cars, Bikes and Trucks-NST)

Queen of Etiquette

MANY will remember Aziah Jasmin Azizul as a former TV3 newscaster but to the legion of professional consultants, she is known as Ms Manners.

Making the shift from TV screen to the business of telling people how to dress, behave and act couldn’t have come more naturally for this Ipoh-born beauty who drives a black Perdana V6.

“I feel that the crux that makes manners so important in any culture is the need to take the feelings of others into consideration,” said Aziah, 38.

The realm of road motoring, according to this personal image and style consultant, is badly in need of etiquette awareness.

While it may seem difficult to say one’s Ps and Qs from the confines of an enclosed cabin, Aziah maintains that there are some things that motorists could observe.

One is to refrain from picking one’s nose when traffic comes to a standstill.

“No one should be caught in action doing this. The only place where you should pick your nose is in a toilet with the door closed and curtains drawn,” said Aziah.

Spitting out of windows is another no, no.

“Not only is this disgusting but it is also a health hazard as it spreads viruses and contributes to air pollution. From the pedestrian point of view, it’s like manoeuvring a mine field when you have to watch where you are stepping,” said Aziah.

This etiquette queen, who started driving at the age of 17 in her brother’s Proton Knight (later known as the Proton Aeroback), even has an answer for motorists who is facing the predicament of black or white smoke emitting from their vehicles.

“Apologise. While it is not possible to let every motorist know that it is not your intention to foul up their breathing air, you can at least apologise to the nearest driver. I remember stopping at a traffic light once and this biker who had white smoke coming out from his exhaust turned to say sorry to a driver who had its windows wound down,” she said.

Signalling is also another gesture of politeness. In Aziah’s etiquette book, nothing can be more irritating and dangerous for a driver who does not use her signal lights, especially when there are other motorists waiting to come out of a junction.

While she maintains that it is unforgivable to cut queues in traffic, should the inevitable happen, then it is only proper to raise a hand in a gesture to ask the other drivers for permission to cut into a lane before manoeuvring one’s vehicle into place.

"It is more forgivable for a driver to do this rather than to cut in abruptly and cause the cars behind to a sudden brake. Though there is an urgent need to save time in today’s hectic lifestyle, understand that others too have the same urgent need to reach a destination, so practice consideration,” said Aziah.

As for the horn, Aziah, who confesses to being a speed demon on straight, clear roads, said that it should only be used for two things - in emergencies and as a gesture of friendliness.

“You know how some drivers go ‘teet, teet’ and then wave? I’ve seen some drivers do that for big trailers when they give the all-clear signal for cars behind to overtake. To honk at a vehicle in irritation is likened to giving someone a scolding. I am sure that it is not in one’s best practice to go about scolding strangers,” she said.

Aziah is especially stern with those who park in lots reserved for the handicapped.

“The disabled already have enough problems with mobility. They don’t have to contend with inconsiderate drivers who deny them of easy entrance to shopping malls and other public buildings," she said.

Although Aziah’s Perdana V6 runs on automatic transmission, this former student of SMJK Main Convent, Ipoh, admits a preference for manual drives as it gives her a macho feel. It was the same reason for her choosing the sporty GTi Satria as her first car.

“Changing gears makes me feel active while driving,” said Aziah.

Talking of her dream car sees her eyes misting over as she whispers the hallowed name of the red Ferrari.

“Sometimes I am afraid of myself when I realise that I love speed," she said.

"I once drove from Penang to Kuala Lumpur in two hours. This was at night too but I have discovered throughout the years that I am a better driver at night than in the day as the glare makes me feel sleepy.”

For more etiquette advice from Aziah, visit Star Studio at 5-1, Jalan PJU 5/10, Dataran Sunway, Kota Damansara, 47810 Petaling Jaya.

By Grace Chen

Published in CBT (Cars, Bikes and Trucks-NST)

Mum In The Fast Lane

WITH a toss of her lush curls, Gina Finanza, 35, looked at the trophies displayed in her comfortable living room and declared that for once, people should stop looking at gender especially in the field of motorsports.
“There’s no such thing as having an advantage just because you are male or female in rally driving. In the end, it’s the best person who will win the race,” said Gina, who clinched the championship in round one of the Rally Sprint and Rally X in Sepang last year.
To Gina, who credits her mother Morni ‘Ann’ Rahman, 61, for inspiring her to take up motorsports, the stand to maintain gender neutrality is also a standard that she imparts to other aspects of her life.

“This is not the Stone Age where brawn is needed to survive. Today, almost every aspect of our daily lives has been automated and tasks can be completed via a touch of the button. So, that puts men and women in an equal playing field where the excuse of not being able to perform most tasks due to one’s gender is no longer applicable,” said Gina.
This does not mean that this strong-headed lady has refused to acknowledge the male role in society.
It’s just that when it comes to living one’s dreams, she feels that the issue of gender should never be wielded to deter an individual from pursuing ambition.
“The only thing that will hold anyone back from doing anything they have set out to do is the willingness to learn. The next thing I suppose is the courage to get out of your own comfort zone,” said Gina.
Gina said that her attitude is largely influenced by her mother, who used to participate in motocross races on a Kawasaki ZZR 250 in the '80s with people like Sunny Ramalingam and Chow Kit Chong at the Batu Tiga tracks.
Like Gina, Morni or Ann as she is better known, is still a stunner for her age with perfectly coifed hair and impeccable make-up. The only thing that betrays the hidden speed devil in her serene smile is her penchant for cargo pants.
Still, the years have called for a slowdown of sorts and this meant having to sell the bike for a slower ride - a Proton Wira GSR Turbo 1.8 in matt black with orange lines!
“My mother always stressed that we should be independent. We had a strict but simple upbringing. By five, I could wash, fold and keep my own clothes. By age seven, cook for the whole family. Not that my brothers couldn’t do it but they made a mess every time and I couldn’t stand it,” said Gina, the youngest, the only girl and the only one who has followed in her mother’s footsteps, of four siblings.
Being independent from a young age has certainly worked to her advantage.
“I find that this sense of independence has been crucial to my success in rally driving. This is a sport where you have to watch out for yourself. Say, if you have a puncture, you’d have to fix the problem very quickly or lose time. Then, there is not only your own safety to consider but your co-pilot’s as well because once you become the person behind the wheel, you take on a certain responsibility,” she said.
In retrospect, she affirms that her upbringing has also honed her to become an organised multi-tasker which has enabled her to finance her own rally car, a Satria GTi 1800cc GSR, in addition to owning a Honda Accord 2.2 Vtec, a Wira GSR Turbo 1800cc and a Kancil 650cc L5 Turbo.
Due to her impressive record, Gina is also currently supported by Hypertuner, which gives back up as her service crew in rallies, MH Tuner, which does the repairs and tuning and Race, which sees to her car’s alignment.
“I am very calm under pressure. At times, when my co-pilot fumbles, I can make my own decisions without making it known that she has made a mistake. I think this is important where the safety aspect is concerned and also to alleviate unnecessary stress for both parties,” said Gina.
Talking of keeping her head, Gina recalled a time in 2008 when she was a participant in the Malaysian Rally Championship in Sepang.
During the flag off, her bonnet flipped open and cracked the windscreen while she and co-pilot Nur Rashidah Abdul Rahim were travelling 140km/h on the highway.
With their view suddenly blocked, Gina kept a cool head by peeping under the bonnet and steered her rally car to safety. Despite broken windscreen and all, Gina managed to clinch 3rd place in the P12 class of round 6 in the competition.
Gina, a mother of four who works as an occupational safety and health officer with a local telco giant, began her racing career on go karts in 2004, making her debut at the Pan Global F1 Driver Search at the Sunway Extreme Park.
By the next year, she had garnered enough experience to win the Maxis Inter-Department Go-Kart Competition.
The move to rally driving came about in 2007 when she took a Satria GTi for a spin around the Sepang track.
“With no disrespect to any party, I found it to be a boring affair after a while. After going round and round, I knew by heart what speed I should take for each corner,” recalled Gina.
When she discovered rally driving, thanks to friend and mentor Jagjeet Singh of Wheelspin, there was no looking back.
“There is nothing as exciting as tearing through a twisty, muddy gravel road! That is how I have adopted the tagline, ‘Let’s Skydive Horizontally’ as my motto,” said Gina.

By Grace Chen

Published in CBT (Car, Bikes and Trucks-NST) Sunday April 11 2010.

Meeting Bond’s M

ON Joanna Chee’s business card, her position is simply stated as “M”. M, James Bond fans will tell you, is the secret agent’s lady boss.

This seems apt, for Chee, 40, director of nightclub Bond in Avenue K shopping complex in Jalan Ampang, certainly fits the bill of a strong but feminine character. Having been in the nightlife business for 13 years, Chee is one tough cookie.

Once when she was seven months pregnant and working for a newly opened club, Chee had to resort to standing in the doorway of the club to stop an over-enthusiastic crowd from barging in.

“I think they stopped the moment they saw me. I was huge! And I don’t think anyone would be so heartless as to push a pregnant woman aside so they can come into a club!” laughs Chee who, on numerous occasions, has had to step right into the middle of a fight to break it up.

(Second from left) Joanna Chee has vast experience in operating a nightclub. — Starpic by AZHAR MAHFOF
“I know most of these people so it’s easy for me. I feel that sending in the bouncers would just create more tension. I just go in and tell them not to do this in my place because it’s not cool. I normally get the respect. I’m lucky that I have this sort of ‘likeability’ with my guests,” she says.

Some may remember Chee from the 90s as the cute chick with boots in Echo, Bangsar. I, for one, will never forget her dancing on stage during The Right To Question Party at The Mines in 1998 – a beer in hand and a sticker in the form of a question mark stuck to her chest. If you have been to any of those island getaway parties these past eight years, chances are you have met Chee.

“I loved those parties because it had all the elements of fun and romance and hints of a ‘dirty’ weekend,” she recalls fondly.

A mother of three now, Chee used to bring her eldest child Ben, now 21, along for the island revelries. But she has stopped organising these parties because her two younger children, both under six, need her at home.

Today, she is still in the business of nocturnal parties but Chee says she doesn’t go clubbing anymore. She prefers to spend the time with her children, reading them stories and tucking them in at night. She’s done her fair share of partying, at any rate.

Hailing from Klang, Chee started her first club in 1993 in Atlanta, Georgia when the rave movement was just beginning. When she came home during the 90s, her first posting was in Penang in Novetel’s Shock Egypt club. Boom Boom Room opened in Kuantan and Chee worked with them for two years, then came to Kuala Lumpur to do the marketing for Wall Street, near KLCC.

Echo Jazz Bar, Twelve SI and Nouvo followed.

Experience, she has plenty. But Chee says the nightlife scene is not the easiest business to be in. Competition is keen.

“You can’t just open a club and hope people will come. You have to do a lot of marketing,” says Chee.

If she has to hire belly dancers to attract the crowd, then that’s what she will do. In fact, that’s precisely what she did – getting professional belly dancers to teach the ladies the moves for Wednesday’s Bond Ladies’ Night.

Chee says that in opening a club, one has to be clear about what one wants and meticulous in executing the plans.

“This includes details like the music, door reservation policies, and what type of people we want in the club. These tie in with the concept of the club. In choosing the sound, Bond has opted for old school, as in Modern Talking and Michael Jackson. It’s music that you can actually dance to and still look sophisticated,” she explains.

“Once they get the crowd in, the PR people have to go on the floor to ensure the evening works out well. Those who like to dance would be ushered to a place near the dance floor and those who just want to chill out will be put in a section where they can people watch.

“If you tell us that you are coming to see us on a particular day and you don’t show up, we make sure that you know that we noticed you did not show up. In this way, customers feel that they belong,” she says.

Chee says it’s important to create a relationship with the customer by putting in a bit of care and friendship.

“I feel that it is important to train my PR girls to be professional in the way they carry themselves with the clients. You can be in contact with your customer every one or two weeks, and you can do this either by an SMS or telemarketing.”

The business of selling fun also requires an outgoing personality. You must be willing to hit the dance floor when it is empty and walk up to total strangers and treat them like old buddies.

Chee says that at her club everyone is treated equally, whether they are buying a bottle of premium whisky or just a glass of juice.

“The question I always ask myself is: are we doing enough? To me, a customer is always right. If they complain, it means something is wrong, so we have to listen. That’s how we improve,” says Chee.

“There was a time when I had to do everything myself and it was very tiring. But I have since learned how to plan and delegate so that different people will do specific tasks. I still have sleepless nights, but I take time out to meditate and eat healthily,” says Chee.

And when she leaves for work, Chee has peace of mind because her husband is supportive.

“He is just wonderful with the children. Not only does he see to their needs but he is also their educator,” says Chee of her New Zealand Chinese husband

The Star, Saturday October 14, 2006


When we were party animals

I HAD shied away from the nightlife scene three years when Dave Avran, editor of Smoove Pinch, said, “We are organising a succession of parties, called The Remember Series, to pay tribute to the popular clubs of the 1980s and 1990s, from April to December. Would you like to come?”

Of course!

Avran and I go back a long way, almost 10 years. This was when I was a cub reporter for a small publication called Movin’ KL. We’d badger the former manager of Roxy Club at Renaissance to allow us in to cover the VIP parties. And good ole Dave always gave in despite the complaints from his guests. How the memories are returning.

DJ Bernie
The Remember Series is what you’d get when an “uncle” decides that he is not ready to relinquish his Harley bike for the rocking chair just yet.

“The senior DJs and patrons told us crazy stories about the fun they had back then. They said it was missing in today’s clubbing scene and suggested it would be nice to bring it back,” says Avran. And that was how The Remember Series was born.

The first party was on April 8 at Bond in AvenueK. So far there have been eight Remember Series parties recalling the popular clubs of the 1990s, like Baze, Scandals, Saqs, Boom Boom Room, Heaven at Modesto’s Forum, Barbarran Bar and Dance Club, DV8, Viva Dance Club,

Bringing the past to the present is not easy since most of the old clubs no longer exist. Avran and his team had to track down former nightclub owners to get an accurate picture of how they did things back then.

“We needed a place that could fit the crowd and be flexible enough to cater to the various nuances of our tribute nights. Bond Lounge in AvenueK was very supportive of our needs and fitted the image we wanted.

“But the plan is not to stick to one place, as we also want the crowd to experience other venues. For example, the Betelnut and Brannigans tribute night was held at Sugar Club at Crowne Plaza Mutiara Hotel,” Avran says.

All the Remember parties, they decided, would be held on weekend nights.

“We knew our target market could only be persuaded to come out on a weekend night. This is so that they can recuperate after dancing and singing the night away. Understandably, most say they aren’t as energetic as they used to be,” admits Avran.

Getting the music right

Then came the little detail called the music. DJs from the old clubs, like Mr Q of Baze, Groovemaster of Viva, and Philippe de Souza (now spinning in Rum Jungle) of Betelnut were called in.

According to Avran, finding the DJs weren’t a problem but getting them to play the songs from the old days was. Some had sold off or given away their music collection. Others had retired and become rusty. And the vinyl of some of the old records had warped with the years.

One 31-year-old deejay, who only wants to be known as DJ JD, tells me that some rare club versions like After The Love Has Gone by Princess and JD Taylor’s Long Hot Summer Night had to be re-mastered and remixed again after being downloaded from the Internet.

“Altogether it was a long and tedious process of searching for the songs because they are no longer found in the record shops. And because we could only get 10% of the sound from the MP3 format, we had to bring the sound up to 100% again,” says JD. Jeremy Lee, aka Groovemaster, 30, says the Remember parties certainly bring back the old memories. Jeremy, who began deejaying at 15 in shopping malls, was only 25 when he played at Viva but by then he was already one of the most expensive DJs around, making around RM8,000 a month.

Groovemaster and DJ Royston at the Viva tribute night at Bond in avenueK.
“When we were in Viva, people had this perception that we were arrogant because we didn’t entertain requests. This was for work reasons because requests interrupt the flow of the music. The idea was to build the tempo slowly and then go to a high. We created an upmarket dance club with the brand of music that we played.

“We also played mambo jambo, which is mainstream R&B, and 1970s and 1980s music, where you’d get Kool and the Gang and Billy Joel. Then from 1am till closing time, it would be Happy House (disco type of beat),” recalls Lee, who now runs his own golf consulting business.”

The scene has changed, Lee observes.

“During the 1980s, people could go to clubs without worrying about raids. But now people are starting to rely on unnecessary substances. This, I think, started to happen in the 1990s when I had my first experience of being in the middle of a raid at a club in Bukit Bintang,” said Lee.

JD thinks the pill-popping trend does not contribute to the party atmosphere at all.

“Back in those days, we would be on a natural high and when people danced, you could feel a sense of camaraderie,” he remarks.

“Now,” chips in Lee, “there is a very cold and pretentious feeling with the people in the clubs.”JD also thinks people in those days had more class. They had a certain style because clubbing was an occasion to dress up. Nowadays, the crowd is not only unpolished but too hip-hop. Also many of today’s clubbers tend to go to a club alone compared to back then when people went in groups, which contributed to a better party atmosphere.

DJ Bernie, 36, whose real name is Bernard Charles, says there is little variety in the clubbing scene in terms of music. He reckons that the nightclub owners had better do something about this before the people start heading overseas to party for the weekend.

These deejays cannot help but miss the bygone days. What JD misses most of all is the music flow of today’s clubs.

“The new deejays seem to have taken the shortcut where everything sounds like it has been cut and pasted together. Back then, we would blend in and remix the songs so that it would not sound choppy,” he says. “Nowadays,” Lee adds, “I get the impression that the new deejays are either deaf or mute. You seldom hear them speak. In those days, we would build up the hype by doing things like turning the volume down so that the crowd could sing along.”

While the Remember parties are just the thing for nostalgic deejays, some were sceptical the parties would really take off. After all, the party animals of the previous decade have become the parents of this decade.

“They couldn’t believe that we managed to get these old regulars to come out of their family lives for just one night to celebrate their hey days,” explains Avran. “I think some of them got very sentimental about it and realised that all those years of being a DJ had a meaning after all.”

For the climax, watch out for the Remember Series bash in December called “Reunite – Class of 1980-2000”. Expecting close to 3000 people, Avran and his team from Smoove Pinch will be playing 25 years’ worth of music in one night.

Coming tribute parties in November and December are listed below. Cover charge: RM 30 with one free drink unless stated otherwise.

Remember: Tin Mine, Rumours & Club Oz
Remember: The Backroom KL Immaculate & Silhouette Sessions 1999-2000 Reunion
Remember: Movement
Remember: Echo, Ohm & White Room Bangsar
The Remember Series Finale – Reunite

  • For more information on dates and venues, visit: or contact Dave Avran at 019-235 4775.

  • The Star, Saturday October 14, 2006

    Having fun with music

    No thanks to the cheeky antics of The Abonation, a street band in Jalan Bukit Bintang, I experience the most embarrassing moment of my life right in the middle of a busy street in the Golden Triangle.

    I try to beat a hasty retreat but Megat Shamsul, 30, the band leader persuades me to stay.

    “Clap along and be part of the rhythm party,” he urges.

    “Oh what the heck,” I think, giving in and finding myself having the time of my life.

    It is quite an introduction to the world of interactive music, where the audience is invited to jam with the musicians! Everyone is invited, never mind if you don’t have a musical background, say the Tugu Drum Circle, another street band that encourages crowd participation.

    Rosdi “Shady” Zahari, 27, of the Tugu Drum Circle, says it’s just a matter of feeling the rhythm and fitting in. All one needs is a good ear for music and a sporting spirit, adds Izzardzafli “Nicky” Fadzil, 27, of The Abonation.

    The Abonation brings people together in their public jam sessions. --Starpic by SIA HONG KIAU
    Shady, a self-taught percussionist, has been teaching drumming techniques to the group, free of charge, for three years.

    “It’s very easy and anyone can do it. Once you can play, we’ll teach you how to improvise with different beats and that’s when you can learn to ‘sing’ with the drum,” says Shady.

    You don’t have an instrument? No worries. The musicians will probably lend you theirs. In any case, you can always make your own, like Paul Lau, 45, the founder of Tugu Drum Circle, did. He makes percussion instruments out of broomstick handles with bottle caps nailed to them.

    These interactive street groups sound nothing like a conventional band. Their music seems to come from the heart and soul. It’s tribal. Organic. Catchy. Very alive.

    “It’s a form of community service,” says Shady, of the free music lessons they offer.

    “Not everyone can afford music lessons and there is a saying that if you keep knowledge locked away, it will wither and die. Share it and it will grow.”

    Nicky, for his part, thinks that public jam sessions may help youths on the streets who have neither the resources nor space to pass the time productively.

    “When I started busking at Bintang Walk two years ago, I thought, ‘Why not teach these street youths to make music instead of sitting around and wasting time’?”

    With this in mind, Nicky invited youths to join his new band. Today, they have five core members and their d├ębut album Birth will be out Aug 15.

    Public response to jam sessions by The Abonation and Tugu Drum Circle are encouraging.

    One retired 55-year-old TNB technician who calls himself Ramli Rock joins The Abonation in their sessions at least three times a week. A paraplegic, Ramli thinks the activity is a way for him to rejoin the mainstream.

    He plays the harmonica, bird whistle and beats time using a comb handle and wooden block. These jam sessions always make Ramli’s day and is a great way for him to make new friends. W

    For a copy of The Abonation’s album Birth, call Nicky at 016-3670 138. They play from 9pm to midnight every day in front of Maybank near BB Plaza

    Drumming to foster unity

    Life is full of funny turns. For example, if Paul Lau, 45, had not been working 12-15 hour days as a landscape designer three years ago, the Tugu Drum Circle may never have been formed.

    Feeling “physically and mentally drained” from his hectic work schedule, Lau decided to look for an outlet for stress.

    Drumming sounded like a good idea, so Lau decided to take up drum lessons with Lewis Pragasam. But he hardly had time to practise. Luckily, Pragasam did not forsake this “tardy” student of his. When he formed Beat Club, Pragasam invited Lau to tour the country with the drum and percussion band.

    And that was how Lau became hooked on drumming and how the notion of creating a “drum circle” began to form in his mind.

    Drum circles, explains Lau, are not new. It has its origins in the US when an African drummer, the late Babatunde Olatunji, started the practice of drumming as a form of community service. What makes drum circles unique is that there is no audience. Everyone is part of the performance. The goal is not precise rhythmic articulation or perfection of technique, but the ability to form a group mind, a state of “entrainment”.

    “When everyone makes music together, their brainwaves are in sync. This is a primal form of communication that creates a non-vocal bond with all people regardless of gender, race or religion,” Lau says.

    The Tugu Drum Circle jamming. --Starpic by SAMUEL ONG
    “When everyone in the drum circle is in a state of total synchronicity, there is a special moment where everybody gets a natural high and their bodies feel light. I have felt this and even without thinking, my hands would move to the rhythm,” says Lau.

    This drumming enthusiast says that when people come together to make “in the moment” music, it creates positive thoughts and feelings. It also fosters a sense of muhibbah as it brings people of all races together in an activity.

    “As you can see, our country is very rich in drum culture with influences and traditions from various parts of the world. We have Chinese, Malay and Indian drums but they rarely come together in a jam session. Our aim is to bring people together from all walks of life and build a stronger community spirit by making music together,” he says.

    Lau thinks drumming also allows people to “voice” their feelings.

    “In the Tugu Drum Circle, anyone who starts a rhythm is the leader and the group will support that person. As the rhythm continues, it could metamorphose into another rhythm and everybody will support the player of that new rhythm.

    “Everyone is a star whilst being supportive of each other, and, in the process, everyone gets to ‘speak’. As such young players will also get a ‘voice’ regardless of their age and this empowers them to ‘drum talk’ as young people are usually too shy to voice out their feelings”.

    To take his drumming passion further, Lau attended a seven-day workshop – thanks to a provisional grant from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage – in Hawaii on Aug 7, where Arthur Hull, a reknowned drum circle facilitator, conducted his Drum Circle Facilitator Playshop 2006.

    Lau hopes the experience will enable him to take the Tugu drummers to a higher level. – By GRACE CHEN

    The Tugu Drum Circle gathers every Sunday from 5.30pm to 8.30pm at the National Monument in Lake Gardens. To get in touch with Paul Lau, call 012-2663292.

    The Star, Saturday August 19, 2006

    A tribute to T-shirts

    Figure Eight, a fashion and music event saw a hip crowd turning up in full force at their T-shirt bazaar and dancing to their line-up of local bands at the Central Market Annexe recently.

    Though the flyer did not say it, there was no denying that this “do” was a tribute of sorts to the humble tee with the appearance of eight local bands wearing limited edition T-shirts.

    Drummer and founder of Tugu Drum Circle, Paul Lau, 46, was the first to sing to his piece of cotton covering.

    Hanging out in comfort: (From left) Shahir, Fyra and Ewan clad in to their favourite tees to suit the occasion.
    “T-shirts are the easiest to wear when it comes to performances. Unlike sequined stage costumes that have to be dry-cleaned, you can just chuck a T-shirt into a washing machine. I’d rather wear them than anything else,” he said.

    At the gig, Tugu Drum Circle wore white limited edition tees with colourful screen-printed figures designed by Kurasaraksaksa, a label that also carries a line of unusual jewellery, bleached and worn sneakers.

    Otherwise, what makes a T-shirt cool, apart from the material, is definitely the design.

    According to Norhayati Md. Noh, 3,1 of Dollhouse, the idea was to achieve authenticity with inspiration from everyday life.

    “It is important to express oneself and the T-shirt is one way you can do that and be noticed,” she said.

    And for a touch of radical self-expression, there is no better vehicle than the T-shirt.

    DTG, an acronym for Don't Trust Girls, is one such label, a division of crazeecausa, a local line of skater related merchandise founded by a Mike Tan in 2004.

    “Just like girls are always saying that boys are not to be trusted, here’s an insight to how boys feel about girls as well,” the stall operator said at the bazaar.

    In what he terms as an effort to promote the local music and T-shirt art scene, Warren Chan, 29, organiser of Figure Eight, said it was inevitable for these two disciplines to complement each other.

    Chicken Hotel: Norhayati of Dollhouse says this T-shirt is open to your interpretation.
    “Musicians are like heroes and naturally, their fans would want to have a piece of them. One way to do this (in addition to buying the band’s music) is to wear a t-shirt with a picture of the band on it,” he said.

    As for the objective of connecting T-shirts and music for the Figure Eight event, Chan said he had seen this as an opportunity to help the fledgling T-shirt design scene.

    “It is a young but thriving market. This is largely due to the fact that T-shirt art is more accessible to the youth unlike art (say for example the work of a portrait artist) because they can wear it,” Chan said.

    At this juncture, Reza Salleh, 24, Chan’s assistant said T-shirts were not only for the young but transcends across all generations.

    “One of my favourite photographs is of my grandpa in a Batman T-shirt,” he said.

    As for the negative image of the T-shirt wearer being a slovenly and unprofessional character, Reza said it was as a matter of perception.

    “We are not here with the agenda to say that you should wear a T-shirt to the office though I know a lot of professionals who do. We are just giving the artists an outlet for creativity because we feel T-shirt art is a valid art form and it should be given the same amount of respect,” he said.

    The Figure Eight event is organised by Junk, a music magazine that targets those aged 18 to 25.

    For more details, visit

    Published in The Star, Saturday June 23, 2007