Thursday, December 8, 2011

Flaunt it and shine at Miss Jumbo

The Miss Jumbo pageant is not only about celebrating beauty in different shapes and sizes, but also about being proud and confident.

IT took a fair bit of coaxing to get girls to join this beauty pageant, mainly because they didn’t believe they had the potential to be beauty queens. Most were afraid of being heckled on stage and being subjected to humiliation. It also didn’t help that the pageant winner will be crowned Jumbo Queen.

In this beauty contest, participants must weigh at least 80kg – and it’s open to all women regardless of their age and marital status.

Ong Kay Li belting out Born This Way. She was chosen first runner-up.

“If you look around at beauty pageants like Miss Malaysia, they only accept thin girls. What about the ones who are more generously endowed? Shouldn’t they be given a chance to do the catwalk and to show off that they are beautiful and talented as well?” said Sungei Wang Plaza’s senior manager of promotions and public relations Lim Kok Kheng.

He was inspired to organise the beauty pageant for plus-sized girls from a beauty contest he saw while holidaying in Thailand.

“That beauty contest was held to highlight the plight of elephants and the girls had to mirror the grace of the animals,” recounted Lim, who immediately saw the pageant’s crowd puller potential.

The first Jumbo Queen pageant, held in 2007, only attracted 20 applicants. When it was held again in 2010, it attracted more than 40 aspirants. This year, 30 joined the pageant.

Lim and his colleagues are committed to making the pageant a success, and they are always on the look out for potential contestants.

Purnisha Premchand, 31, who runs an online plus-sized clothes business called Curve Queenz, initially approached Sungei Wang with the intention of becoming a wardrobe sponsor for the beauty pageant. Instead, she was persuaded to participate in the pageant.

“I saw it as a good way to market Curve Queenz,” said Purnisha.

Crowned: Yoong Swee Moon danced her way into the judges’ hearts and won the Jumbo Queen title.

There were participants who recognised the opportunity for recognition that the pageant offered. The experience must not have been all bad as Nor Intan Julyana Yahaya, 33, who calls herself Pretty Diamond, has been trying her luck for the title since 2007.

Despite its title, pageant contestants are judged not on their weight, but on poise, grooming and personality which amount to 90% of the overall marks. The remaining 10% of the score is from crowd support, which tests the participants’ ability to market themselves. During the finals, the supporters cheered on the participants complete with a frenzy of colourful pom-poms, banners and whistles.

The reigning Miss Jumbo Yoong Swee Moon was happy she won because she wanted to debunk the notion that fat people are inactive. The basketball player and sports-mad make-up artist wowed the crowd with a cartwheel at the finals, and walked away with the crown.

Some people are fascinated by the pageant for its novelty appeal. But there are others who were supporting the participants because they saw a chance to change society’s treatment of those who do not conform to beauty stereotypes.

For the longest time, only thin girls could become air stewardesses or actresses. Even if plus-sized made it in the entertainment industry, it was always in the comedy genre.

But not all big girls are content to take things lying down; some joined the contest to prove that they are beautiful.

Mandy Ong, 33, who was first runner-up in last year’s pageant, recalls how she would always receive compliments about her Barbie doll looks, but they always came with the put down “but you are too big ...”

“Since so many people think fat women are ugly, I took matters into my own hands by joining this pageant. I knew that if I could stand up in front of the crowd and let my inner beauty shine through, I would have proven a point,” she says.

Another participant, Siti Zuraida Edham, 35, was in a defiant mood.

Huge support: The crowd in a frenzy over their favourite contestant.

“You can call me fat if you want. What do I care?” said the housekeeper who tips the scale at 121kg.

Another contestant Zamzarina Ahmad wanted the public to be more sensitive to the feelings of those who are overweight. Growing up, she was teased mercilessly for being fat.

The 30-year-old assistant director, who weighs 119 kg, says that because of the taunts, she became withdrawn. Maturity and family support helped her come to terms with her size.

“No matter what size you are, you must learn how to be comfortable with yourself. Be confident, be brave and most of all, take care of your appearance,” says Zamzarina.

The contestants also shared that they faced misconceptions that they are fat because they had let themselves go, or were too lazy to manage their weight. They are seen as weak-willed because they could not control their tendency to overeat.

Many do not realise that obesity can also be caused by genetics, hormonal imbalance and health problems.

Ong revealed that she started gaining weight seven years ago, on an average of eight kilos per year, due to job stress and eating irregularly.

Chin Swee Heang, the oldest contestant at 45, attributed her weight gain to a botched up operation. Even today, the mother of three has to undergo annual adjustment procedures to realign her intestines.

But the finalists this year are determined to not dwell on the downside of being called fat. “There is no point in getting angry,” said Goh Yea Min, 29, this year’s third runner-up.

“The crucial thing is to shed this perception that obesity is a barrier to having a good social life,” said Ong Kay Li, who weighs 95kg.

Yong who won the crown this year believes in the good life.

“As the Chinese say, the ability to enjoy one’s food is to experience what prosperity is about, so I am not going to feel guilty about being a foodie,” said Yoong, who weighs 94kg.

There were those who tried to lose weight. Lee Hui Leng, 33, last year’s second runner-up, reveals that she had lost 35kg once.

“I ate nothing but apples for three months but I regained the weight after two years,” recounted Lee who trimmed down from 120kg to 85kg.

The onus is on them to stop wallowing in self pity, added Lee.

She took charge of her social life by joining the Young Malaysians Movement, an organisation aimed at promoting national unity and integration, eight years ago.

“I learned how to be a confident public speaker and performer,” said Lee who loves dancing.

Another contestant Theresa Chin, 39, said that being overweight is no excuse for not enjoying life.

“I’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu twice. So my friends call me ‘Dunlop Pillow’ but I see this as a compliment because it means I am a cuddly and warm person,” she said.

Purnisha, who works as an HR executive, said she did not face discrimination at her workplace due to her weight because it’s her job performance that mattered most. “In the end, it’s about proving your worth through diligence and wisdom. For all that is said about fat people being this and that, I feel that most times, the discrimination is in one’s own mind,” said Purnitha.

> If you would like to participate in the next Jumbo Queen contest, please call 03-2142 6636 or e-mail:

Making a living on Dead Man’s Street

Jalan Masjid in Ipoh has earned the eerie moniker of Dead Man’s Street because of its many coffin shops and funeral parlours. Star2 takes a tour and finds a lively lot.

THIS is my honey,” says Ng Kam Wah, the owner of Kam Chiew Coffin Shop, as a way of introducing his wife, Yip Woh Teng, 66.

“In fact, all the girls on this street are my honey,” adds the 70-year-old with a mischievous grin.

The coffin wholesaler is not a rampant playboy but he is one undertaker with a sense of humour. His most appreciative fan is none other than Yip whom Ng has been married to for 44 years. According to Ng, it was she who made the first move while he was still an innocent youth back in his father’s old coffin shop in Buntong, Perak.

Cham Swee Hung says the real objective of the job is to console the living.

For Ng and his honey, it’s a partnership set for eternity. He has already bought their coffins and they are safely tucked away in the store. Ng paid RM25,000 for each, revealing that the oak caskets of modern elegant design had been imported from the US.

“These models have a built-in elevating base which allows you to raise the body for viewing and then lower it back before the lid is sealed,” says Ng, proud of his acquisition.

When the time comes for either one of them to go, he hopes that the send-off will be similar to the one that he had overseen for the late Lay Heng, a timber tycoon, in 2006. During the funeral procession, 200 of the deceased’s friends and relatives took turns to carry the casket from Jalan Bendahara to Jalan Gopeng, a 5km journey.

Like most of the funeral directors on this street, Ng inherited the coffin business from his late father. Jalan Masjid or Dead Man’s Street has been Ng’s home and workplace for 42 years. He and his wife live above their shop lot on the same row as eight other coffin shops. In the evenings, they sit in wicker chairs at their shopfront and talk about the day, serenaded by the tinkling bells and chants of Taoist priests from nearby funeral parlours. They are semi-retired now and their son, Chuan Wai, who is in his 30s, oversees the company’s business, taking the company into the third generation.

The screws devised by Ng Kam Wah. Note the grooves which allow the quiet turning action from a turnkey to lock in coffin lids minus the stressful sounds of hammering.

How Jalan Masjid evolved into a one-stop area for bereavement needs may have its answer in Chop Wing Hup, the first casket shop to open here. Lau Say Kee, 66, says that his grandfather, Chee Chong started the casket company in 1923 in what was then known as Hume Street.

“My grandfather, an immigrant from Kwantung, China, was the owner of a betting parlour. He became a coffin maker by circumstance when he had to make one for a close friend who had passed away. Word got around and he soon found a new business for himself,” says Lau.

Another company is believed to have opened at the same time as Chop Wing Hup but Lau recalls that it winded up soon after. This places Kwang Fook, a 60-year-old casket company, as the second oldest establishment on the street. It is run by Kooi Swee Keng, 64, who took over her father-in-law’s business when her husband Cheng Kok Kuan passed away suddenly from a heart attack at age 53.

True to the saying that birds of a feather flock together, others followed suit, giving the street its unique identity.

Riding on a celebrity’s popularity: A hearse rental service making use of Michael Jackson’s photo to illustrate how a deceased’s image will be displayed during an actual funeral procession. Where star power is needed, celebs like Leslie Cheung, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are popular choices.

In touch with the times

At the street entrance, opposite the old Ipoh bus stop are the Phuan Yee and Foo Kwong Association buildings, the street’s busiest funeral parlours. How these buildings landed their roles dates back to the time when the upper floors were used as convalescent homes for the destitute 30 years ago. Cham Swee Hung, 36, of New Cham Fei Casket says that it made perfect sense to hold the wake downstairs when one of the residents passed on. The convalescent home has since closed but people still look at these associations as the ideal spot for wakes because all their funerary needs are nearby.

In terms of funerary services, this street would see many firsts as the industry evolved to accommodate the changing face of time. An old photograph shows that sometime in the 1920s and 1930s, the street would see its first motorised hearse in the form of a Bedford truck, rented by the Machinists Association (no longer in existence), for one of its members who had passed away in an accident.

In 1973, Kam Chiew made headlines in The Star. It read: “Here Comes The Coffin – In A Crane”. According to Ng, he had then constructed a large teakwood coffin measuring 1.829m by 1.524m to hold the remains of Yeong Chin Poh, a wealthy Chinese medicinal shop owner. As the weight would make the slippery slopes of the burial site too dangerous for it to be manoeuvred by hand, the Yeong family agreed to hire a crane to avoid a mishap.

A typical walkway in Dead Man’s Street.

One will also find traditional vestiges like the handmade Mui Fa Mak (shaped like a rose in Cantonese) coffins. One of these rests in Kam Chiew’s store, waiting for the owner to claim it as her eternal resting place. It is a symbol of a faithful husband’s vow to provide for his wife from beginning till end for its making was commissioned before the husband’s demise in 2006.

These coffins come with a special locking system which sees a series of nails being turned into ready-bored holes to secure the lid. No hammering is involved as the nails are fastened with a turnkey. They were invented by the old masters to shield grieving families and expectant mothers from loud sounds.

Despite the taboos that come with death and of public perception that this street was where things went bump in the night, business flourished. Most of the funeral directors here drive luxury cars and as for their fleet of hearses, the Toyota Alphards are the latest rides, going for a rental rate of RM800 a day. In terms of property value, rent for a ground floor shop lot was RM600 in the 1960s and 1970s. It has since ballooned in the past few years. The one and a half shop lot occupied by Kwang Fook cost Kooi RM400,000 to acquire.

Nothing to be afraid of

There is the perception that only casket shops can do well here. Ten years ago, when Kooi tried to diversify her business by opening a bookshop and an accessories boutique, she had to close down within a year due to poor sales.

Phuan Jun Hei, a 30-year-old sales executive from Fook Loke Sau which was part of the Eight Eleven group, does not fully agree. He points out that while the left row of the street has been conquered by casket and funeral services, there is one lone cushion maker on the right row that has been there for at least 20 years. In the end, it is all a matter of having a clear view of one’s target market.

“The dominant business here is in bereavement so a bookshop offering Buddhist prayer books and self-help titles on how to cope with loss may do well. For those who are inclined towards fashion, there is a market for shrouds and mourning clothes. So, it is important to have the right concept,” says Phuan.

The plus point of being unique has inadvertently thrust the street’s tenants into the spotlight. Cham proudly reveals that he had just been interviewed by Astro recently.

Ng also remembers how he had gone to a police station in Sungai Siput for the first time only to be told by an officer that he was famous. It turned out that an article on him had appeared in a popular Malay magazine subscribed by the policeman.

Chong Peng Wah, 50, who has the task of bathing the deceased at Kwang Fook personifies the camera-loving character. On hearing that his picture would be taken, he quickly donned his coat.

But not all crave the spotlight. A mourner who had just lost his father asked us to leave the funeral parlour while we were trying to snap some pictures of a paper house.

“Show us some respect. We are already overwhelmed as it is. We don’t need more hassle from you,” he says, the distress clearly showing in his voice.

Undampened by the mourner’s attitude, Chong quickly found another willing candidate in Kong Wah, 64, who happens to be from the Kam Chiew group.

Kong has been in the business for 30 years and we, it seems, are in luck. They are in the midst of preparing a wake for a former employee, Wong Yee Lam, who had passed away at 7am in an old folk’s home earlier. He was 73.

“Of course you can take pictures. The deceased used to supervise our workers here. I used to drink with him. We are friends and colleagues. He won’t mind,” assures Kong.

Meanwhile, one hears the constant hacks of dry coughs. Many undertakers in Jalan Masjid are heavy smokers. Being on call 24 hours, nicotine, they say, helps keep them awake.

“Organising a funeral is not easy,” says Kong.

“Bungle up at the onset and everything goes awry. Even as I am talking to you now, my mind is already thinking of other things,” he says.

Kong’s eyebrows shoot up immediately on the insinuation that undertakers can be made party to murder cover-ups.

“For us, the most crucial document is the death certificate. Without it, nothing moves. The only way to get a death certificate is from the police,” he asserts.

And don’t expect to hear any ghost stories from this lot.

Lau is the first to shake his head when asked about netherworld encounters.

“I blame the media for planting such thoughts in the public’s mind,” says Lau.

The drama, says Ng, is always from the living.

Of the most unforgettable was a doctor who performed an autopsy on his own mother. Ng, who was there to oversee the funeral arrangements, recalls how the man’s sister had berated him in front of the whole family when she found out what he had done.

“Not that my client was heartless but all he wanted to know was the cause of his mother’s death,” he shrugs.

On the other hand, Ng feels that the doctor should have been more accepting of his mother’s demise as she was already in her 80s.

The niggling question of whether Jalan Masjid will continue to retain its infamous reputation in the future remains to be seen. There is talk that authorities are planning to discontinue licences and move everyone to an industrial area in Fahlim. But feedback reveals that it is an exercise that will see plenty of discontent.

“The first time they actually talked about relocation was 20 years ago. After that, nothing was heard. I guess a suitable place has not been found yet. Anyway, I don’t see the point. It’s not that we are troubling anyone,” opines Lau.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Magic In A Can of Paint

Everyday life inspires colour trends. But to own a colour, you have to build a relationship with it first.

ASTOUNDING as it may seem, blacks and whites will be the latest colour trend for 2012. It is a prediction that makes even Heleen Van Gent, head of Akzo Nobel, a global paints and coatings company which produces Dulux, smile in disbelief.

“If I told my grandma that I was going to paint my room black, she would say, ‘Child, you can’t do that!’” says the 48-year-old mother of three, with a laugh.

Agreed that we have been raised to associate colour with symbolic meanings, but Van Gent reveals that everyone has an adventurous streak when it comes to colour. She recalls a presentation she did in China some time ago.

Heleen Van Gen says colours and world events go hand in hand, and each era has a signature shade.

Thinking that the Chinese would fall for reds, she presented a colour palette in the auspicious shade, anticipating that it would hit home. However, they were more interested in what was in fashion at that time!

But Van Gent assures that it will not be all grim and gloomy next season, where wall colours are concerned. Knowing the Asian mindset, the trend will definitely take on a more vibrant character.

As for colour predictions, what’s going to be in is not the result of crystal ball-gazing or a matter decreed by a select few. Although she has a panel of architects, professors and interior designers from around the globe presenting their findings, the decision on a season’s favourite colour ultimately stems from the man in the street.

It is everyday life that inspires designers and stylists, who in turn present their ideas in fashion magazines and design books, she explains. It is from here that the sprouts of a season’s trend will take root and spread. And colour, being such an integral component in our lives, will naturally find a place for itself.

Colour, Van Gent adds, is not just a shade on a pallete. It is life itself. Colours and world events go hand in hand. One example is the Go Green movement, which aims to raise environmental awareness, and the Think Pink campaign for breast cancer awareness. People also “see red” and “turn blue” in the face.

Each era also has its signature shade. In the 80s, there were neons. The 90s was dominated by earth colours, while metalics heralded the millennium.

Van Gent grew up in the 60s, when orange was the colour of the era; she remembers vividly receiving an orange table lamp.

But the colour that has had the most influence in her life, however, is the classical shade of dark blue found on jeans and sweaters worn by schoolgirls, with white shirts to match.

“I liked the colour scheme so much that I used it in my house,” she says.

For an inkling of how the black and white trend may be translated in Asia, we take a hint from Van Gent’s own home.

She brightens up her rooms with keelims, handwoven Indian rugs made by people who use colour instinctively. For example, a weaver may suddenly run out of thread. If the same colour thread is not available, she might just continue weaving with that of another shade. The result is an exciting and unexpected feel to the whole piece. Against the backdrop of black walls, the effect is stunning.

But no one should be a slave to trends, she adds. It is the onus of the homeowner to experiment and do a bit of soul-searching on what shade her walls should sport.

“My house is like a paint laboratory. If you touch the walls, you can feel that they’re soft because there are so many layers of paint underneath.” Well, Van Gent has painted her house no less than six times in two years.

This, she says, allows her to see how a colour will look like in real life. Take, for example, the Celestial Sun shade in the Dulux range. On the swatch, it is almost white. But once it’s on a wall, the brightness of this yellow is almost dazzling. Interestingly, instead of having a blinding effect, the colour is neutralised by surrounding elements.

“Yellow is like a prehistoric colour. It is found in nature in plants and greens. It is present in antiques and you’ll be surprised how this colour can really work in a roomful of classical furniture,” she enthuses.

For this colour expert, there is magic in a can of paint. An old grey building can be given new life with a fresh coat of colour – not necessarily yellow, of course. In a community project that Van Gent took part in to revive the surroundings of an economically-challenged area in the British Isles, the change in the children’s behaviour was apparent when their old school yard was repainted.

“It still gives me the goosebumps when I think of it. The children came to their newly repainted school and were so happy to see the transformation that they started jumping and running,” she recalls.

Closer to home, a can of paint is certainly cheaper than renovation work, and easier to use, provided one has the right tools and know-how. Van Gent recalls that her husband repainted their bedroom red in one night.

However, the first step is to build a relationship with colour.

If you need help on the best way to get acquainted with or how to “own” your own favourite shade, check out, a charity website launched by Dulux to raise money for Unicef. Roger Moore, the actor who shot to fame as Ian Fleming’s James Bond, is the spokesperson for the charity.

Peaceful Parents Joyful Juniors

Seeking peaceful resolution to problems

For the workshop, communication is the first to be emphasised.


At the recent preview of a workshop with the enticing title, Peaceful Parents, Joyful Juniors, my boys, aged eight and four, got into a fight. It did not take long before the younger fella’s bawls turned the cosy room into a giant pressure cooker. At that moment I had the urge to give both a tight slap.

But wait, wasn’t I in a room with two experts? Now’s the time to find out if this programme is effective or quixotic, I thought.

“Take a deep breath,” advises Jin Yap and Carly Nair, the workshop facilitators.

I do. As I exhale the four-year-old extends his hand and asks Mummy to kiss the pain away. His brother unmasks the real perpetrator by showing me the fresh scratch marks on his arm. By the time both have had their say, the anger has evaporated. No slap equals no tears, and no more outbursts equals a happier mum.

Call it a little sample of what to expect at Nair and Yap’s workshop.

Nair, 29, who hails from Scotland, is a hypnotherapist. A mother to three-year-old twins, Nair was inspired by her school guidance counsellor back in Aberdeenshire to pursue a career in wellness.

Twenty-six-year-old Yap has eight years’ experience as a counsellor. At 18, he went to Dehyana Lee, a life coach specialising in addiction and breath work, to undergo a 12-step recovery programme. In addition to breath work, Yap also practises art therapy.

Both Yap and Nair advocate NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and EFT (emotional freedom techniques). In a nutshell, NLP teaches people how to build rapport and trust by active listening; EFT is a way of soothing energy disruption by tapping on the energy meridians to remove negative thinking and beliefs.

These, in addition to art and colour therapy, are the tools used in Nair and Yap’s workshop.

Yap and Nair use EFT and NLP to help children and parents understand the emotional aspects of a relationship better.

But back to my boxing champs, do I let it go? What if I do, will it mean that I am condoning physical violence?

“We don’t have all the answers. No doubt parenting is a challenging and exhausting task and that’s why we think that parents are heroes,” laughs Yap.

Truthfully, they state that their workshop on peaceful parenting does not come with guarantees. Instead, the aim of the day-long session, which involves parent-and-child (between ages seven and 12) participation, is focused on communication methods and exploring parent and child emotions.

There will be activities designed to understand the power of verbal and non-verbal communication, and parent and child will be taught how to use visualisation, a technique to create images in the mind for better confidence and performance. At the end of it, it is up to the parents to practise these methods with their children.

“The catchword here is active listening. The same way you listen to a business prospect is the way you should listen to a child. Don’t just focus on the words but read the body language too. It’s also about putting emotions into your daily communication with the children,” explains Nair.

But having started the programme two-and-a-half years ago under the banner of Rainbow Children, surely they would have something to share, I push on. What can a parent do on days when tantrums and patience are in opposition?

Nair suggests self-reflection.

“Ask why this is grating on you. Is it the noise that bothers you? Why? Are you irritated because you are tired? Or are you unhappy with your husband for not taking out the trash? Many times, parents take out their frustrations on their children,” says Nair.

Going deeper, she adds that parents are the ones with issues, not the child. Say, when a child makes noise, why is there a need to shush him up? Is he doing anything wrong? Or when you are in a family restaurant and your child does that, and a diner gives the kid the evil eye. In telling the child to keep quiet, you are actually trying to please the other person who has made you uncomfortable, she points out.

If it’s a lesson in consideration that you’re trying to drive home, explain why. Make it clear that the digestion process works best in a calm and soothing atmosphere. Explain that whooping noises do not contribute to sereneness.

Still, keeping junior happy does not mean an end to rules and conduct but instead of resorting to authoritarian methods, one can impart lessons in a fun way.

“Say, if you are in a library, you can engage a child in a little contest of who can talk more softly, for example, instead of going ‘sshhhsshhhsshhh’ all the time,” says Nair.

And Yap is all for sparing the rod. “Resorting to caning or adopting the ‘My Way Or The Highway’ stand is very damaging. A lot of social ills and problems come from there,” he notes.

He also reminds parents to lead by example.

“If parents want to have children who are sharp in following their own dreams, but they are not doing the same with theirs, then how can they expect their child to do so?” he asks, adding that his experience as a counsellor shows that children mirror their parents’ actions.

In an earlier workshop, Yap separated the children and parents in two different groups where they were asked to act out a tantrum.

It turned out that the children’s actions were identical to their parents’!

This means that it will be pointless to tell a child not to fight when the parents are constantly arguing or to expect them not to swear when every single sentence a parent utters is filled with expletives.

Yap also points out that when parents complain that their children have to be told a hundred times to brush their teeth, maybe it’s because the very basic practice of listening to each other is not carried out among the adults in the family.

For Yap and Nair, having happy children is largely dependent on the atmosphere at the home front. As such, the first step towards peaceful parenting is to take on a positive stand. This means ensuring that only practices which are in line with what is good and right are observed among the adults. That will pave the way for junior to have a joyful and meaningful childhood.

The Peaceful Parents, Joyful Juniors Workshop takes place next month at B2-05-03 Bukit Utama Condo 1, Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. For details and to register call (010) 277-2950 / (03) 7713-2091 or e-mail

Emotion-filled performances at fest

THE Collision Arts Asia Festival which took place at Publika in Solaris Dutamas recently also featured a 72-hour creation challenge for the artistic community to see if they can muster up a show within three days.

In an effort to raise money for underprivileged children in Cambo-dia, artistes from all walks of genres banded together to perform for free in a two-hour show which ended with a spectacular aerial and fire show from Viva Circus and Psycusix.

Spins: Hula hoop fire trick from Psycusix.

Opening the act was Hilton Lee, a male belly dancer who admitted that he had spent more time on his costume than worrying about rehearsals.

With six years of experience in his hips, Lee gave the ancient art of seduction a tribal fusion feel with his wicked gyrations.

Making a special appearance was Michelle Chang of Sutra Dance Theatre who showed her support for the arts by joining forces with four new dancers to present a whimsical piece on a love triangle.

From Olah Karma of KupuKupu Arts and Events, comes a haunting tale of infanticide told through dance. Titled Komulo Nimbus, it is a story of an insane young mother who murders her babies. But instead of being vengeful, the souls of her twin sons take pity in their mother’s suffering and refuse to go to heaven until she is healed.

Why so serious?: A dancer in Komulo Nimbus immerses himself among the audience and earns a candid camera moment with this playful fan.

This sad piece saw an unexpected lift when a member of the audience took the chance to snap a picture of himself with one of the twins midway through the show. Much to the dancer’s credit, he maintained a straight face.

Olah, who is the head of the AH! Project, which aims to raise awareness on social problems through the arts, is famed for his thought-provoking pieces.

His last performance, Medula Oblongata, at the Short and Sweet event at KLPac was about the story of how six glue sniffers came clean.

Rising from the dead to breathe life into the show was Reizo Zen, who has been impersonating Michael Jackson for the last 20 years.

Zen had started life as a clown before developing an interest in mime and later, impersonation.

A cry: An Iranian student dances the part of the insane mother in Olah Karma’s Komulo Nimbus.

Fans of MJ can reconnect with the Gloved One through Zen in Facebook.

As this was a charity show, Mr Banana, a clown from Canada, also did his bit to drum up donations by passing his hat around.

Unperturbed by the lukewarm response, he pleaded with one generous member of the audience who was watching the show at the upper floor to take out his wallet and throw him RM10. To watch more of Mr Banana’s antics, catch him on

Closing the Collision Arts Festival was Viva Circus who performed a series of pole dances and aerial stunts.

At one point, hearts almost came to a stop when an aerialist went into a free fall only to be stopped at the last minute by a series of clever knots she had made in the folds of hanging silk.

Credit also goes to Psycusix, who had the crowd moving back to ensure that they would not be razed by the flames of their fire show extravaganza.

To warm up, they showed off their arsenal of tricks which included contact juggling, poi and wand levitation.

Viva Circus began humbly as a pole dancing outfit four years ago. Over time, Vivian Lea, the founder, expanded the group’s show repertoire to include aerial artistes and give budding local acrobats a platform to show off their talents.

Fantastic Faun

A lithesome dancer commands the stage as a frolicsome forest creature.

WHEN L’apres Midi D’un Faune (The Afternoon Of A Faun) was staged in 1912, famed premièr danseur Vaslav Nijinsky nearly caused a riot. The editor of France’s venerable Le Figaro newspaper started a campaign against the ballet, calling it shameless and deeming Nijinsky’s choreography “too expressive”. Thanks to the furore, the dance was only performed another few years before it was shelved.

It was revived in the 1980s by two dance notation specialists who reconstructed it from Nijinsky’s notebooks and photographs taken shortly after that first performance. Since then, the piece has been performed by the great Rudolf Nureyev and later elements of it were used by Queen’s Freddie Mercury for the band’s I Want To Break Free music video in 1984. Coincidentally, it was in that same year that Ramli Ibrahim would perform his own version of the frisky, uninhibited faun in Malaysia when he returned from studying dance abroad and established the Sutra Dance Theatre.

And recently, Ramli reprised the choreography for Sean Scantlebury of New York’s Battery Dance Company.

Animal behaviour: Sean Scantlebury as the faun in Ramli’s choreography of L’apres Midi D’un Faune. — Photos by GRACE CHEN

This intriguing performance had its start in January, when the American troupe – working with the UNCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Aswara (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) and Sutra – held dance workshops for refugee children. The workshops were part of the Battery Dance Company’s Dancing to Connect programme, which exposes children from low income families to the arts.

The lithesome Scantlebury, 31, had been a visual treat on stage, and a bulb must have come on in Ramli’s head after the lights had dimmed at the Aswara auditorium in Kuala Lumpur back then....

So, did Ramli’s contemporary version of L’apres Midi D’un Faune cause a scandalous sensation at the DBKL Auditorium on Sept 22? Well, suffice to say that, though one could have heard a pin drop, there were no gasps of outrage. Today’s dance audiences are obviously well acquainted with the animal kingdom and animalistic movements, thanks no doubt to National Geographic and the Discovery Channel....

As the titular faun, Scantlebury was simply amazing, and not just because he managed to effect a sort of crazy calm while kicking his heels in the air, an action that may have made a less competent dancer look silly. It was his ability to appear masculine as he placed his palms together to endearingly rest his cheek on them. It was his underlying energy that commanded every eye. It was how he made Sutra dancer Divya Nair float like a feather when they danced together.

Of course, the stage was not Scantlebury’s alone to conquer, and there were three other performances in the Into The Center production that night.

In Karma, which featured actor Sandra Sodhy as Mistress Maya with Ramli and Sutra dancer Guna as her servants in the illusory web of Time and Death, it was the constant rasp of Valerie Ross’s musical score that set a rather unfortunate mood. A member of the audience remarked that the performance felt more like a tribute to a mosquito god. And thanks to her menacing presence, Sodhy too came across as a human-sized insect. Others thought the piece too much of a mish mash of classical Indian dance, ballet and contemporary dance.

The ‘faun’ with Divya Nair who becomes the object of his affection.

But the piece did tug at the heart strings when we saw how seamlessly Ramli and Guna came together despite their age differences.

Those who have followed the growth of Sutra from the days when it was an open-air ashram in Brickfields, KL, would know that Guna joined Sutra in 1989 at the age of 26 and is now Ramli’s right-hand man. What both have gone through to withstand the test of time revealed itself in this piece – and the moment when Guna lifted Ramli in his arms and spun the senior dancer took on a metaphoric significance.

Finally, we came to Layapriya, choreographed by Jonathan Hollander, the head of the Battery Dance Company, using a musical score from Finish composer Eero Hameenniemi.

The conventional practice has always been, fast tempo equals swift movement but Hollander seems to have broken this traditional rule. The 60-year-old choreographer would not only apply this to Layapriya but to another vignette for Into The Center, when Ramli moved like a snail despite the ascending tempo of tabla beats in the background.

When the same treatment was seen in Layapriya, there was a brief moment when this writer wondered if they were playing the wrong music. When the tempo rocked, the dancers glided. When there was the anticipation that the pace would finally pick up and move on, things still remained in slow motion.

What gives, we wondered at first. Then we recalled what the MC had said at the beginning of the show: Take a deep breath and relax. And that, in turn, reminded us of the snail.

A few days earlier, we had observed a snail in Ramli’s garden. Content in a pot and oblivious to the snarling 6pm traffic just outside his gate, the snail was rippling leisurely across a leaf no bigger than a palm, leaving a shiny coat of slime in its wake.

There were two ways of regarding the snail: As a pesky critter out to destroy or as a potential idea for a National Geographic documentary entitled Lessons On Taking Your Own Time, Starring The Snail. If one was of the second school of thought, one would have appreciated Layapriya and learned a lesson from it: Command your surroundings, don’t let them overwhelm you.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Malaysian Masala

Although locally-made Indian movies are not a dime a dozen, there have been inroads made into the scene.

TO trace the colourful trail of Malaysian made Indian movies, we must go back to the 1960s. One could consider Rathapei (Bloody Lust) as the first Indian film made by a local production as it had been done by a dance troupe who recorded their performance on stage while touring India.

Two more projects would follow suit in the 1970s. One was by Felix Anthony, a producer from Ipoh with Thun Bangal Urangu Vathillai (Worries Don’t Stop) and Anbe En Anbe (My Love).

One was a disaster. The other two never saw light of day due to lack of funding.

He’s the man: M. Suurya, a newcomer to the silver screen, plays the quintessential Indian hero. The actor, who is director M. Subash’s cousin, helped to produce Pensil in 2005.

So, credit for the first locally-made Indian movie to become a success has to go to Panchacharam Nalliah, better known as Pansha, who directed Naan Oru Malaysian (I Am Malaysian) in 1991.

Pansha, an established film distributor who then shot to fame in Adutha Veedu, a TV3 Tamil drama about hostile neighbours in 1984, recalls what spurred him on.

“During the 80s, many production houses from India did their filming in Malaysia. Every time they came, there was a lot of talk about collaborations with Malaysian artistes to encourage the film industry. But as soon as they finished production, these people went back and nothing more was heard. So, I decided to do something about it by making my own film,” says Pansha who wrote, directed and played the hero in the movie.

Naan Oru Malaysian made its run in three locations and raked in RM150,000. Pansha recollects that it played to full house in Kuala Lumpur’s Federal Cinema during its week-long run and even reckoned that it would have done better if not for the turmoil between two bickering political parties who had forced the authorities to cordon off the town area which affected attendance at the Coliseum Theatre in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, KL. But in all, the man has no regrets.

Haani Shivraj and Gana Pragasam in Appalam, directed by Afdlin Shauki.

In 2005, Deepak Menon made Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road), a Tamil film with English subtitles. The film was shown at a number of film festivals across the world including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, San Francisco International Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival, Korea, Nantes Festival 3 Continents, France and the Fukuoka International Film Festival in Japan. A few years later, he released another film, Chalanggai (Dancing Bells). These were not your average Tamil movies, but rather stories portraying the daily life of people as humanly and realistically as possible, and met with a promising reception. However because they were made in digital format (which is not yet a recognised medium), the movies were not classified as locally made films.

What made Naan Oru Malaysian different for Deepak’s films was that it was shot on 35mm film. According to Pansha, the director and producer of Naan Oru Malaysian from Berjaya Film Production, shooting on film is a giant step for the industry in terms of cost as it requires a huge budget. A can of film which has a screening time of five minutes can cost RM500. So, a full length movie spanning two and half hours can take up to 100 cans. In truth, this means that last year’s production of Appalam was indeed only the second Malaysian-made Indian movie after Naan Oru Malaysian to be shot on 35mm film.

Malay director Afdlin Shauki’s Appalam was produced by Tayangan Unggul, a sister company of Astro, and released with much hype from the media.

Pansha (middle) with well-known local actor Ramesh (right) in a scene from Naan Oru Malaysian.

Interestingly, Gana Pragasam, the actor who played the hero in this movie was also the first producer to come up with the Tamil VCD.

Hello, Yaare Peserathe (Who Is There?), a comedy about prank calls, was first released as an audio cassette in 1999, before it was adapted into a two-hour VCD movie.

“There was no Indian movie VCDs back then except for the Kollywood imports. I wanted to create a new market,” recalls Gana.

The start was not encouraging. When he bandied the idea to local producers, one told him point blank that no one would want to see his face.

Unperturbed, Gana went ahead. A stall at Batu Caves, Selangor, set up during the Thaipusam festival, became his first sales outlet. Eleven VCDs and RM2.5mil later, this prolific producer, director, script writer and actor is best known among Tamil movie fans as the local comedy king. His latest project, Budak Estet, an animation is due for release in 2012 as a 26-episode TV serial.

M. Subash in Pensil, about a disabled boy’s unconditional love for his drunkard father. The success of the film shows that an Indian movie can do without the song-and-dance formula.

Having forged his own path into showbiz, the former Toshiba copier technician is also the industry’s most fiery advocate.

In a letter to Astro in August this year, Gana who is also president of Malaysian Indian Art Activist Association, voiced that the current practice of the broadcasting station in producing local Indian content on an in-house basis was no help in encouraging the industry to progress.

“Allocations to produce documentaries and 26-episode dramas should be given to private production companies to help the industry expand. Local stations should have at least one Tamil channel airing 100% locally produced content,” he says.

The National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), he added, should also play its part by allocating grants to deserving companies.

So is the Indian movie scene in danger of extinction? A personal observation at a DVD store in Brickfields, KL, shows that it is still progressing at a healthy rate. This year alone sees two film releases.

One is Garuuda, directed by M. Subash. Released in August. It features actor M. Suurya in his first starring role. In this action-packed movie, the fight choreographer is none other than national taekwando champ, Selvamuthu Ramasamy, who made headlines in the 1989 and 1991 SEA Games with his gold medals.

Another is Anusthanaa a thriller starring Anaantha the THR Raaga DJ, and Haani Shivraj. Shot in Kampar (Perak), Fraser’s Hill (Pahang) and Kuala Lumpur, it promises plenty of suspense and drama and should be released at the end of the year.

Another new movie, anticipated for the Deepavali season according to Pancha, is Vilaiyaatu Pasanga (The Tuff Nuts) directed by Vimala Perumal

Being Malaysian-made, the local Indian movie naturally has a muhibbah feel.

For example, in Singakottai, a GV Media VCD production of a comedy about a royal court that has isolated itself from the modern world, the king receives a letter from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall! Audiences are quick to recognise the palace as the Sultan Abdul Samad building in front of Dataran Merdeka.

In Undercover Rascals, starring C. Kumaresan of Gerak Khas fame and Jasmine Micheal, the hero’s best friend falls for a Chinese girl, lending a unique touch to the song-and-dance routine.

So, since we are brewing our own productions would it be possible for an Indian movie to go without the song and dance for once?

Subash, who directed Pensil, a story of a disabled boy’s unconditional love for his drunkard father which was shown over Vaanavil in 2005, gives a ready nod.

However, he points out that one of the trials of making Pensil was a rejection slip by a station because there was no song and dance. But after sinking more than RM25,000 of his and his partner’s hard earned savings into the making of the film, they were not going to let go.

The perseverance paid off because when it finally made it on Vaanavil, the response from the media was huge.

“I got people calling to ask how they could help the boy in the movie and I had to tell them that it was a fictional character,” says Subash, who played the lead role. (In 2008, Pensil was made into a Malay film and screened at cinemas, with Subash reprising his role as the lead character.)

But one thing that no Indian movie can miss is the love story and one of my favourite love scenes is in Undercover Rascals.

This is where the hero enters into the line of fire with his Mitsubishi Evolution IV to rescue the damsel in distress. Seeing the baddie go for his gun, hero swings heroine to safety and in that split second, their eyes meet and they fall in love. How dramatic!

Meanwhile, plots continue to simmer and boil, enveloping everything in an aroma of drama and suspense.

Only this time, the cooking is happening right in our own backyard.

As for what’s in store for the future, trends show that the dream of “making it big in India” remains popular. But there are those who prefer to break away from the pack.

Currently, Gana is collaborating with partners from Bangladesh for Foreigner, a movie chronicling the life of a migrant worker abroad.

“Compare the Malaysian population of 28 million, Bangladesh has 180 million. You can do the math from here, I guess,” concludes Gana.

Published in The Star Monday 24 October 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A chef called Susur

Susur Lee is riding the wave of culinary stardom that he himself created through sheer effort and determination.

THE mention of Chef Susur Lee not only evokes the flavours of lychee with foie gras mousse or roast lamb loin with Sichuan eggplant stew, it also brings up the interesting subject of nameology, a coined word meaning the science of names.

You see, Susur is not this super chef’s real name. It’s Steven, a name this 53-year-old readily admits that he had never liked. It has something to do with the way it was pronounced by his brethren back in Hong Kong, where he started his career as an apprentice at the Peninsula Hotel at the age of 16.

“You know how they have a way of making English names sound Cantonese?” says Lee wryly.

The decision to settle for Susur had come about when this Hong Kong native, who is now based in Toronto, was in his mid-teens.

“I liked Susur for the sound. It was neither masculine nor feminine,” he says.

Driven to succeed: Chef Susur Lee’s competitive spirit led to his rise from last place to tie for overall second place in the über competitive Top Chef Masters cooking show last year.

Interestingly, nameology is about vibrations, a wave phenomenon which is believed to have an electromagnetic effect. Indian ancient seers believed that if these vibrations connected well with one’s birth planet, it will make the individual highly successful, making all the difference between fortune and misfortune. For Lee, who currently owns five restaurants in Toronto, Washington, New York and Singapore, there is no doubt that the name “Susur” has seen to his phenomenal rise in the culinary world. Lee was in Kuala Lumpur recently to give us a hint of what he’ll be preparing for the Hennessy X.O.’s Appreciation Grows Gastronomy dinner event that will be held in Malaysia at the end of October.

The youngest of six siblings and the son of a tea lady, Lee was heralded as one of the “Ten Chefs of the Millennium” by Food And Wine magazine and was called an “improvisational artist” by Gourmet magazine in 2000. Shang, Lee’s New York restaurant, is a destination for the city’s A-list society and Zentan, his restaurant in Washington, has been graced by Michelle Obama. Nearer to local shores, there is Chinois in Singapore, a partnership with the Tung Lok Group which owns and manages over 40 restaurants in Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan and India.

Of course Lee’s success does not simply rest on a name alone.

His is a character that does not take well to defeat.

Kelly Choi, the host of Top Chef Masters which airs over Bravo TV mentioned Lee in her blog ( when the chef made an appearance on the show’s second season last year. Choi had observed how the jovial Lee had suddenly turned “fiercely dark, almost tormented” when the results announced that he had only received two and a half stars and was placed last.

According to Choi, Lee’s anger lasted minutes and she could feel the heat from his rage emanating through his pores. Pride must have spurred Lee to go all out during the elimination round of the show and he roared back from the dead to clinch the second spot to move into the champion stage. The winner was Marcus Samuelsson; Lee tied for second place with Rick Moonen.

Later, Choi, who tasted the chef’s competition fare would describe his menu of slow-roasted curry chicken roulade stuffed with rich sausage and his creamy polenta and grits paired with sweet, chunky tomato jam as “utter ambrosia”.

Evidently, this brand of warrior spirit had been in him from day one.

“You ask me what has driven me to do well from the beginning? Back in the 1970s, there were plenty of aspiring cooks from China who would be more than eager to work in Hong Kong. So, if an apprentice was not up to mark, he could be easily replaced,” says Lee.

But ask him what has been his driving force and he mentions his mother.

“She worked until her hands were red and raw and she cried all the time,” recalls Lee who describes this period in his life as a difficult one.

Twenty-two restaurants and one culinary cookbook later, Lee can still recall his mother giving him a drumstick from a steamed chicken in a bid to chase his bothersome presence out of the kitchen. Back in the 1950s, when chicken drumsticks had not yet been subjected to mass production, getting such a choice piece was an indication that a child was much loved.

“My mother is my motivator and educator. She taught me how to stand up for myself,” he says.

Lee had, in fact, almost followed in his mother’s footsteps. His first post in the food and beverage industry was as a bartender; he recalls washing hundreds of glasses every day, the very same thing his mother did. Something must have clicked in his mind then or maybe it was because he had found a fun bunch of friends in the kitchen department. Either way, he worked up the nerve to approach the manager to request for a transfer.

Though Lee does not serve canapes in his restaurants, he could not resist adding the finishing touches to these Pacific oysters. They come with julienned pickled cucumber and yuzu dressing.

“I always had an ‘establishment’ in the kitchen. When I was in the bar, the kitchen would give me food and, in exchange, I’d give them drinks,” chuckles Lee mischievously.

It was in the kitchen that he became part of the brotherhood, a bunch of old-school Chinese chefs whose colourful characters could only be matched by their “flowery” vocabulary.

One name which Lee can still recall is a colleague who goes by the moniker “Phau Tak Fai” (the equivalent of Speedy Gonzales in Cantonese).

“He was one guy who could remain cool no matter how pressured the kitchen was,” recalls Lee.

It was in this tradition that Lee would hone his culinary skills and emerge as one of the first restaurateurs to marry Chinese cooking with French techniques when he opened Lotus, a 12-table diner in Toronto, Canada, in 1987. The restaurant lasted a decade before Lee decamped to Singapore to consult for the Tung Lok Group. He returned to Toronto in 2000.

But in all, Lee would credit serendipity and the spirit of adventure for some of his winning recipes. He shares an anecdote of how he managed to wheedle an authentic green curry recipe from some Thai cooks.

“When my son was just six months old (he is 21 now), my wife and I decided to holiday in Thailand. Being very particular about his food, I had packed his brown rice and seaweed in a box. So when we went out to eat, I had to borrow the restaurant’s kitchen to prepare his food. It was there that I met the cooks, a bunch of ladies who were preparing green curry at that time. When they found out I was a chef, they let me try their green curry and that was how I got this recipe. Today, you will find this recipe in my book Susur: A Culinary Life, co-written by Jacob Richler,” says Lee.

For Lee, cooking is likened to a journey of lifelong learning. He vacuum-packs ginger flowers when he is in Asia, carrying them home in his personal luggage to his Toronto restaurants just so that he can put them in his tamarind sauce. He constantly keeps himself on his toes with tasting menus, inspired by his finds in the marketplace.

“It is all about understanding the process. We articulate our expressions into our cooking. Chefs are a bit like rock stars. We love nothing more than to perform and please people,” concludes Lee.

Chef Susur Lee will be cooking at the Hennessy X.O.’s Appreciation Grows Gastronomy dinner from Oct 31 to Nov 6. For enquiries, call 03-2178 0230 or go to

Published in The Star, Star 2, 23rd August 2011.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Home-grown cooks

WHAT spurs people to cook at home?

Cost is one factor. Eating out is not cheap – not where quality is concerned.

A plate of mixed rice with vegetables and meat in the city can cost up to RM7. If you are feeding a family of three, then one meal alone can easily come up to RM30 with drinks thrown in.

Then, there are parental concerns.

The upper floor of Huck’s Cafe, a private kitchen started by Poh Huck Seng in his double-storey corner house in Gasing Indah. As Poh limits the number of diners to 20 per night, the waiting list is one-and-a-half months long.

Two years ago, Susan Beh, 40, discovered that her son, Aidan, now six, had eczema.

“We found out that this was caused by a food allergy, and triggered by oyster sauce, sesame oil and mushrooms, the very things which are often found in commercially prepared food,” says Beh.

As a full-time mother, Beh is lucky that she can supervise Aidan’s meals personally, something she could not do during the first two years of his life when she was working and cooked only on weekends.

Beh says it is love for her family that motivates her.

Poh Huck Seng

“When your loved ones request for a certain dish, it is hard to say, ‘no’. That was what sparked my interest.”

For Poh Huck Seng, a 47-year-old father-of-three, cooking at home was the last thing on his mind in his bachelor days.

But when his first child was born 19 years ago, he had a change of heart, simply because he wanted the best for his son.

“The first thing I made was apple juice. At that time my son was only three months old.”

Since then, this doting dad has used his kitchen skills to impress his children. Since it was Poh’s wife who did the daily cooking, this event organiser thought that he would provide some novelty to their diets.

“They learned how to count by watching me bake almond butter cookies. Each child would have their own shape and they’d recognise which one was theirs. They would gobble everything up before the cookies had time to cool!”

Home cooking eventually paid off for Poh. When he started posting everything he cooked on Facebook in an album called Huck’s Café, it attracted his friends’ attention and soon, they began to request for “sampling sessions”.

“It’s a popular trend in Europe where people will go to an individual’s house for a taste of home-cooking. I thought why not give it a try so I started taking reservations,” he says.

Today, Poh has taken to cooking as a full-time venture, opening his double-storey corner house in Gasing Indah in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, to diners who will either give him a menu to follow or surrender themselves to the surprises he comes up with.

As Poh only limits the nightly capacity to 20, the waiting list is one-and-a-half months long. For reservations, check out Huck’s Café on Facebook.

Published in The Star 28, June 2011.

Cook for comfort

If you care about what you’re eating, preparing your own food is safer than eating out all the time.

ELAINE Ho is not telling anyone not to eat out. Nor is she turning her nose up at those who do. What she’s saying is: Cooking at home can be a good thing.

Ho, 28, lived and worked in Australia for 10 years before returning to Malaysia in 2009 when she got married. That was when she discovered that most of her friends and family members resorted to having all their meals outside. Ho, who has a degree in Food Science and Technology from Curtin University, Western Australia, found this alarming.

“Food may be cheap here but there is the question of what’s inside. The oil may have been reused many times and there is the hygiene issue, especially with hawker food.”

Eating well: Elaine Ho strongly advocates home cooking.

This planted the seed of an idea for her website, which she works on full-time. She filled it with simple recipes and food tips, like how to stop vegetables from wilting, the correct way to wash mushrooms, and how to cut meat and store fresh fish. It has everything that a home cook would find handy, and on good days, the website sees up to 600 visitors.

Ho’s recipes may be too simple for advanced gourmet cooks, but they are intended more for the younger crowd, perhaps those who are living on their own for the first time.

“Cooking at home has its own appeal. Thanks to personalities like Nigella Lawson, people are beginning to embrace cooking at home. They see it as a ticket to popularity where the home of a good cook is always a favourite place for a gathering with friends.”

But is Ho realistic? Not every young adult can afford his own apartment. When all the space one has is a room and the landlady says that the kitchen is out of bounds, then what?

“Find another place. Obviously, she does not have your best interests at heart. A reasonable person will realise that in order to put in your best at work, you will need proper nutrition,” she says.

All that fuss over a meal, says Ho, will definitely pay off in the end.

“When you take charge of your own meals, the quality is there. Let’s say you fry your own noodles. You can throw in lots of vegetables and meat, adjust the salt level and hold back on the oil. Noodles cooked in a shop will either be too oily, salty or will not contain enough meat or vegetables.”

Nutrition is another crucial issue. A burger bought from a stall will contain too much fat. A plate of chee cheong fun is made up entirely of starch and sugar. If you include fish balls, there may be a little protein.

In the long term, a diet high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar is not going to bring good news.

“I am not saying, ‘Don’t eat out’. If you’re Malaysian that’s almost impossible because there are so many good food places here. What I am advocating is that eating out should be a treat, not something that is done for every meal.”

Ho has heard enough groans though – the two most common complaints are: no time, and too much hassle with the cleaning up later.

This is where Ho makes her entrance as the food scientist.

The first thing she asks is for the lazy cook to think green with spinach, green apples, kiwifruit, green pears, celery, cucumbers and broccoli. They are rich in nutrients that can support retinal health, and help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Green fruits and vegetables also contain chlorophyll, which has been proven to be effective against cancer.

The next thing is to wave the flag for things like tomatoes, watermelon, strawberries, raspberries, red apples, red onions and red grapes. They contain powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage.

So, can eating out offer the same deal?

“The thing here is to think of the end result, not the hassles,” says Ho.

Next is to set aside the notion of cooking as a chore.

“Think of quick meals. A baguette stuffed with minced chicken, a slice of fried egg and Chinese parsley is an example of a quick and easy meal. Egg sandwiches sprinkled with spring onions don’t take more than five minutes.”

As for the lack of space or appliances, well, there is always the rice cooker. Think of one-pot meals where carrots, beef and rice can be cooked at the same time. There is also the option of steaming fish and vegetables in the same pot while the rice cooks.

Ho suggests looking at cooking as therapy.

“The goal is not to achieve full marks for whatever you have cooked. Instead, look at it as a way to bond and communicate. At the end of the day, the aim is to bring your family or friends to the dinner table where you can eat and enjoy each other’s company.”

Published in The Star, Tuesday June 28, 2011