Category Archives: Culture

3 Days / 2 Nights in Penang, Malaysia

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Katong district, Singapore

I never expected that I will really enjoy my overnight stay in Singapore. It was a stopover transit on my way back to Melbourne. I did some research on the hotels nearest to the Changi Airport and came across Village Hotel Katong. My requirements are simple – hotel must be nice and clean at a reasonable price and walking distance to shops and food outlets. Everything else doesn’t matter as it is only an overnight stay.

On arrival at Village Hotel Katong, it was more than I expected. The hotel is new. The lobby area is welcoming. The Front Desk staff friendly and efficient. I was offered an upgrade to the club package which includes the use of the club lounge, breakfast and a gorgeous large room with a free standing egg shell bath tub in the living area of the bedroom. All these perks at an extra Singapore $50.

After check in and settling into my room, I freshen up a bit, went to check the club lounge and hotel facilities. Then, went for a walk along the main road, East Coast Road, in search of something to eat. There are a number of modern cafes, restaurants, open bars and a handful of traditional shops, including one which will stay with me for a long time. This one, with a big signage “Glory Catering”, has a selection of homemade nyonya kuih on a stand in front of the shop. Behind the stand is the Poh Piah station and the main food counter selling a range of Indonesian nasi padang curry dishes, noodle dishes from mee siam to mee rebus and nyonya laksa. Everything looks delicious. I settled for a bowl of “mee rebus”, which I haven’t had for many, many years. I also ordered one serve of poh piah. Drink a homemade barley as a cooling drink. I knew the food will be good as I stepped into the restaurant. It’s raw and authentic. It is nothing like one of the modern establishments down the road. But, what I didn’t expect was that the food and drink I had were more than just good. They were much, much better than I expected! If I were to live in Singapore, I would have to go back again and again to eat at this place, or to take home some of the poh piah to snack. The nyonya kuih were delicious too, which I had to take away 2 slices to try. The food and drink cost Singapore $8.20 and the two pieces of kuih cost Singapore $1.20. Unbelievable. I never knew such good food and price still exist in Singapore. As I left, I had to tell the “uncle” and “auntie” that I really enjoyed the food. The uncle who was making the poh piah was well dressed. He told me that he has been making the food for over 40 years! It looks like a family establishment that has been passed down a few generations because the taste and flavour are very authentic.
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I am impressed with Katong district. Walking around the neighbourhood streets is interesting. They are clean and green, beautiful “peranakan” terrace houses and bungalow houses. The area looks wealthy. It is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of glitzy Singapore city.

In the evening, I walked a bit further and came across “Joo Chiak Road” which is a long stretch of road dotted with bars, karaoke nightclubs, restaurants and and Indian’s grocer! This is old and new Singapore. There were a number of expatriates drinking at some of the open bars. The karaoke nightclubs are completely “black out” on the outside. They looked sleazy.

I had a simple traditional Chinese open air restaurant serving a range of dishes. It was a nice and simple dinner that cost only Singapore $6.50 and the barley drink $1. Singapore is affordable if one lives outside the city.
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Teochew Puppet and Opera House Penang

Every time I went back to Penang, I will made it a point to walk around the old part of George Town. There is always something new to discover – whether it is a street art, cafe or shop. This time, there is no difference. I found a few new places. It was only 4 months ago since I walked around the old town. It is easy to walk around the little streets and back lanes of old town. Some streets are busier than others. The motor vehicles usually moves at a slow pace due to the narrow streets. It is quite safe to walk or to cycle.

There were many local and interstate tourists, Chinese and Malay alike, when I was there. I was told it was the school holiday. People were walking slowly and some were on hired bicycles. Most of them were looking for Penang’s famous street arts. It’s like playing a “hide and seek” find me if you can. In the hot and humid weather, it is not ideal for those who cannot take the heat. Some Chinese women were holding an umbrella sheltering from the heat. Their thinking is that “dark” is not “beautiful”. Fair skin is “nice” and perceived as an educated and refined lady. Dark skin is associated with “hard life” doing hard labour work underneath the sun. To me, that is nonsense. Some were born with a darker complexion that others. Some prefer to sun-bathed and have a nicer tone to their skin colour. After all, some sun is good with a bit of vitamin D.

Yesterday I walked around the old town for almost 3 hours. I took my time to explore the area with a little break now and then for a refreshment and snack. I found a nice traditional Cantonese pastry shop where they make a variety of “piah” (chinese biscuits) filled with sweet and savoury ingredients, “pau” (dumplings) and Chinese herbal drinks. All freshly made on the premise. I found some street arts that I have missed previously. But, the most interesting find of all has to be the Teochew museum located at 122 Armenian Street, George Town. The place is called Teochew Puppet and Opera House. It has a wide collection of iron rod teochew puppets, full dress costumes and head gears, musical instruments and an opera stage for scheduled live performance.

Teochew opera is extremely popular in olden days of Penang and usually performed at an outdoor mock-up stage to coincide with some religious festivals. The performances are not only for the human but for the Chinese deities and the “after life”. I am glad to see a place like the Teochew Puppet and Opera House, which brings back the culture and heritage to the main stream, housed in a prewar terraced double storey shophouse in a heritage protected zone area gazetted by UNESCO. It is privately owned and operated by the the 5th generation of the Kim Giak Low Choon (KGLC) Teochew Opera Troupe. All the collections in the museum were privately owned by the Goh’s family over the generations.

Ling Goh, the current owner, learnt her art forms from the age of 8. She learnt the art of opera and puppetry from her mother, who has performed in puppet show for over 50 years. She is passionate about her culture, heritage and art performances that spurred her into opening this wonderful place to share with the public. There is a small entrance fee to keep her business viable and going. I am not sure if there is any fundings from the government. I suspected there is none as this is a privately owned business driven by passion and love to preserve the art forms. However, I wish the state government, especially the tourism and cultural minister, will support and encourage a place like this.

The Teochew opera or Chinese opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms, combines literature, music and drama with elaborate costumes and lots of make-up. The singing and music have high-pitched notes. The performance comes with stories that were told and retold for centuries – A General frames a minister and has every first-born in a village killed. A jilted lover poisons the person she holds responsible for her misery. A poor farmer gets caught up, unwittingly, in the state’s secret affairs and corruption.

Ling Goh usually plays the main character. Her skills are very versatile – she can performs as a woman, a man, an elderly – all of which were done elaborately through the costume, headgear and facial make-up. Her story is usually told through iron-rod puppets controlled by skilled puppeteers – truly a family event as Goh’s parents, brothers, nieces and sister-in-law are involved, their ages ranging from 12 to 71 years old. Her niece is now learning the art forms to carry on the Goh’s tradition into the 6th Generation! This is incredible and deserves an accolade of awards.

I was very lucky to have met Ling Goh and her staff and volunteers. They are very passionate and happy to share their knowledge and history. Every single piece of the collections in the museum has a story to tell. It is worth the visit and take some time to relax and have a chat with either one of them, including a guided tour of the collections.

They have a Facebook Page, which you can Like to find out of their latest news and scheduled performance.

The Teochew Puppet and Opera House is located at 122 Armenian Street, George Town, Penang.

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White Night Melbourne 2014

It has been a week since I came back to Melbourne after spending 2 weeks in Penang and Bangkok for Chinese New Year. I had a great time but almost didn’t make it to Bangkok wondering if it will be safe to visit due to their internal political turmoil of protestors camping and blocking some of the major streets. But my 2 nights in Bangkok on my way home was nothing but peaceful and relaxing. I went shopping. I caught the hotel river boat and the sky train.IMG_0088

Since I came back to Melbourne, I went to see Kid Creole and The Coconut live concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre. This was the first time Kid Creole has done a gig in Melbourne! It was a privilege to recall the eighties. I was also looking forward to the biggest event of the year on the weekend – White Night Melbourne 2014! A festival of arts, lights and entertainment from dust to dawn. This was the second White Night. Melbourne hosted the first White Night last year. I counted myself among the 300,000 people who flocked to the centre of the city as lucky to experience the first White Night in Australia! It was spectacular and was the best art and cultural event I have ever experienced in my life! Naturally I was looking forward to this year which started last night Saturday 22nd Feb at 7pm until 7am this morning Sunday 23rd Feb.P1160145
This year, there was much more publicity in the press, subscription newsletters and through word of mouth. There was more awareness created by the media and people. The result – more people and more crowd. I was astonished when I reached the centre of the city of Flinders Street about 11:15pm. That was about the same time as last year when I went to see the events. It was packed. Not just packed with people, but massively overcrowded with people jammed in the main intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets. It was quite daunting and the amount of people on the flight of steps on Flinders station leading to the street were people after people. It was an unbelievable sight. Nothing I have ever seen in Melbourne. It was nothing like this last year, with a more organised crowd and a live band on the steps of the Flinders station. I quickly moved away from the main intersection fearing that at any moment if there was a sudden alarming incident, there will be an unsightly crushing of human upon human. That will be a “White Night” to remember! I was more concerned about this crowd than I was when I was in Bangkok just a week ago.P1160094
I felt more at ease once I was away from the massive crowd and walked along Swanston Street across the Princes Bridge. At the south side of the river towards the Alexandra Garden, there was the trajectory light show streaming into the almost clear and cloudy sky creating an amazing criss crossed of light beams forming an hour glass into space.P1160105

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I walked towards Alexandra Garden for one reason – to find the perfect spot to see the “faces on the trees” – an artwork by Craig Walsh called “Monument“. This was the highlight for me. Having sat down on the edge on the south side of the river, it was almost surreal to gaze across the river in the dark towards the north side at the row of trees with moving images of human faces.P1160141

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Next I made my way back to the north side of the river and headed towards Federation Square. The crowd hasn’t reduced in size. It got bigger. It was past midnight! There must be hundreds of thousands of people everywhere.P1160150
By that time I almost had it and thought I should head home until I saw a crowd queuing to get into The Forum theatre – a house of human curiosities!P1160165
I joined the queue which didn’t take long before I got inside the building. The artwork was curated by Ashley Crawford, “Cabinet of Curiosities“. I wasn’t sure what to expect except the main centrepiece at the entrance foyer looked a bit strange. The entry was free and R-rated. Underage not allowed. So I was in for a big surprise and shocking experience I told myself.P1160166

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As I entered the main theatre hall on the ground level there was a heavy heart beat – a thumping heart beat with a projection of a human heart on the main screen. It was a heart beat of a heart beat.P1160176
On ascending to the first level of the building, I entered the next hall and was not sure if I should or should not sit down. In the end I did. It was a film of naked human with hooks pierced through their skins and hung up high swinging in circle. This was an extreme to the human body. I have seen hooks pierced into human skin especially during Thaipusam in Malaysia. But I have never seen human being hung up high with hooks on the body. I was thinking the human bodies were dead bodies until their feet were placed on the ground and realised they were real and very much alive! The second segment of the film, my stomach could not take any further and I had to leave before feeling sick in my stomach!P1160170
By 2am, I have decided it was time to call it the night. The crowd hasn’t dispersed much. It was still busy. I was lucky that I live in the city fringe with easy access to Tram to go home.

Hopefully next year there will be more police patrolling the streets and crowd. This year brought out more people who were into partying than enjoying the arts and culture of the exhibitions. It was a different crowd than last year. There were alcohols and marijuana in the air. A mixture of concoction spelling disaster for parents with young children and prams in the crowded streets.

Overall the event was good for Melbourne as a world class art and culture city of Australia.

Art is Rubbish is Art by Ernest Zacharevic

When I first read about a solo exhibition by the popular Penang street artist, a Lithuanian born Ernest Zacharevic, long time residence of Malaysia, before I left for Penang, I had to include that as a “must-see” exhibition in my calendar on my recent trip.

Zacharevic has make himself famous national in Penang and Malaysia after he started painting his wall mural on some of the old, dirty and exposed walls that nobody care to repaint in the old town of George Town, gazetted as worth preserving as a world heritage site by UNESCO. These walls have since been painted over by Zacharevic displaying some of the most famous photographed painting by the locals and visitors to Penang. Zacharevic has now attracted even a wider international interest with coverage by BBC news and other international publications. He is being compared to other world famous street artists, like Banksy whose painting can fetch a fortune.

Zacharevic launched his first solo exhibition in George Town called “Art is Rubbish is Art” at a disused bus depot, Hin Bus Depot, an ideal location for such an exhibition. The venue is interesting itself with a sheltered main building leading to an exposed open space in the back with broken walls and overlooking the back of a row of old brick terraces.P1150646

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I went there with my partner and a couple of new friends whom we came to know and met in Penang. I came to love street arts after living in Melbourne, one of the street art capital in the world. Penang street art painted by Zakarevic has a different feel to the street arts in Melbourne. Zakarevic’s painting of his local social experience and children happily playing and laughing are the sort of scenes that the locals will accept. There is nothing controversial about his artwork. However, there was a recent work that he did in Johor Bahru of a snatched thief that didn’t go down well with the authority.

His recent solo exhibition; however, I believed is a bit more moody with interesting subjects. It will be interesting to see what he does next.P1150636

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Penang – The Snake Temple “Flame Watching Ceremony”

P1150454P1150475Back in Penang again. This time for the Chinese New Year, visiting my family and relatives. Not many places in the world, even in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan practices the Chinese New Year traditions in the way the Chinese in Penang does. One such event is the 6th day in the Chinese Lunar Calendar – Choo Soo Kong’s birthday.

The Chinese folklore was that there was a Buddhist monk by the name of Qingshui, also known as Chor Soo Kong, who has gained supernatural powers through this skill in speaking the dharma and mediation. It was told that he was able to heal people and have said the town of Anxi during a period of drought, bringing rain as he went from place to place.

Worshipping of Chor Soo Kong is extremely popular in Penang and Taiwan. During the 6th day of the lunar festival, the main temple – The Snake Temple – celebrates his birthday with staged street performances, street food, stalls with Chor Soo Kong’s figurine from separate temple branches and the flame watching ceremony. Chor Soo Kong’s devotees, mostly Chinese with Hokkien background, as far as Singapore and Taiwan will flock to Penang to celebrate this event.

I was fortunate to be back in Penang during this time and the 6th day of the lunar calendar was on the 4th February 2014. This was the first time I have ever been to this event. It was busy but enough room to move around without pushing and shuffling other people. Most people came to worship or to enjoy the street performances – lion dance, snake dance, drummers, Chinese opera, martial arts and the flame watching ceremony, which I was told is to predict the future of Penang’s state wellbeing for the horse year. P1150493 P1150482 P1150481P1150499 P1150444 P1150419P1150513 P1150412P1150444P1150565The choices for street food were plenty. Between my partner and I we had the must have Penang street food – the Char Koay Tow, Asam Laksa and Jiu Hu Eng Chai (blanched cuttlefish with “kang kong” or water convolvulus).  P1150538 P1150535 P1150530P1150625

 

Chinese New Year 2014 at Richmond

It was only 3 weeks ago that we celebrated the end of 2013 and ushered the beginning of 2014. Not long from now, 12 days to be exact on the 31st January 2014, marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year. This is also celebrated by the Vietnamese around the world, known as Tet.

In Melbourne, the festival kicked off this weekend in Richmond, the first suburb to traditionally start the festival. The other suburbs – Box Hill, Springvale and Footscray will host the festival in the coming weekends. Melbourne CBD Chinatown and Crown Promenade are the ultimate venues for the biggest show of all – with a street parade of lion and dragon dances in the CBD, and stage performances and fireworks at the Crown Promenade.

This is my third year in Melbourne for the Chinese New Year festivals, and my third time to the Victoria Street Lunar New Year in Richmond, predominantly a Vietnamese suburb. The number of food stalls have increased in numbers from the previous two years – there were a few new ones – including a non-Asian stall selling American Buffalo Wings and the usual Vietnamese street foods like the grilled beef with betel leaves, vietnamese spring rolls, grilled calamari, grilled meat on skewers, pan fried radish cakes, fresh sugarcane juice and coconut juice.P1150033 P1140950

The highlight for me at the Victoria Street Lunar festival was the acrobatic lion dance performance and people watching. This year lion dance routine was different from last year and it didn’t disappoint the crowd, with a finale of exploding firecrackers strung from 3 very high poles.P1150017 P1150014 P1150012 P1140979

If there was a best traditional costume competition, I would have given that to the three Chinese deities “Fu Lu Shou“, signifying an abundance of good life –  fortune (Fu), prosperity (Lu) and longevity (Shou). These deities are mostly placed in the family living and dining room.

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Some of the women and men were wearing their traditional Vietnamese national costume, “Ao Dai“, pronounced as “au yai”. The material is usually make from silk fabric with bright colours.  P1140982P1140959

…our own version of “wolverine” sideburn.P1140990

This year is the “Year of the Horse“. The prediction is that it is going to be a good and better year than the Snake Year.

I am looking forward to the other festivals in the next 2 weekends.P1140960 P1140965 P1140969

Watch the lion dance video here.