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.