Archive for August, 2012

I am sure those of you from Ipoh could instantly recognize this street. This is Hume Street. Some locals refer it as “Coffin Street.” There are a few funeral parlors and casket shops along this street on the left side of this picture.

My childhood home was nearby, less than a minute of walking. From my window I got to see how Hungry Ghost Festival was celebrated in these funeral parlors with much pomp and gaiety each year. For a few nights in a row, prayers were chanted to lessen the sufferings of departed souls. Hell bank notes, paper clothes and accessories were burnt for them. Vegetarian foods were offered too.

A large paper effigy of the scary and fierce-looking Yama or the Lord of Hell and a ship to carry these departed souls were placed in the middle of the street, right in front of these funeral parlors. The climax of the month-long festival was the burning of the paper items and the sending off of the departed souls back to their world. It was like a big bonfire in the middle of Hume Street, illuminating the areas around it.

Have you watched a ceremony called “Thiu For” or jumping over the fire before? It was an interesting rite carried out by Taoist priests called “Nam Moh Lou.” They consumed a mouthful of whisky and spit this into a pile of burning fire before leaping over it. In their hands, were lists of names of deceased people to be liberated from their sufferings. This act symbolized the priests descending into the deepest level of hell (Level 18) to save the dead, just like what Mu Lian had done for his wicked mother in the classical Buddhist story “Mu Lian saved his mother.”

I think this ceremony is getting very rare these days. I wonder if they are still conducting them at Hume Street. Anyone knows or has seen them too?

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Go take a look at the Chinese lunar calendar.

Today, if my grandma is still around, she would say something like, “Don’t go out at night this whole month,” and my mom would add in her favorite line, “Don’t go swimming too!”

You see, the Chinese seventh month or the month of the hungry ghost is here again. During this whole month, it is believed that the gate of hell will be opened so that all spirits could roam the human’s realm freely, either to take revenge, to feast on food or simply for a visit to loved ones.

When we were young, family elders would remind us not to go out at night, especially to dark and quiet spots for fear of encountering evil spirits lurking in nooks and corners. You might fall sick if you encounter them, grandma used to say.

It was believed that those who were drowned in the swimming or mining pools would come back to look for “replacements” for their watery graves. Thus, it is very dangerous to play in deep water for fear you might get drowned much more easily than on normal days.

According to my mom, when you heard someone calling your name at night but you could not see anyone, don’t answer. Chances are, some naughty spirits are up to some mischief.

And if you suddenly smell some fragrance, run for your life! Spirits are following on your heels. Female spirits loved to lure their male victims using this method, so beware guys!

Never wear red when you go out at night during this month. Red is the favorite color of the wandering spirits and they would follow you home should you don this color.

But have you ever heard that hungry ghosts love to roam eating stalls, especially those where the food were exposed for the human customers to choose? Stalls selling roasted chickens or pork are clear favorites, I think!  🙂 It was said some people could actually see these spirits eating the food with their long tongues! Whatever, it sounds scary, right?

Now, how does the festival of hungry ghosts came about? This is what grandma told me when I was a young girl.

Long ago, in ancient China, lived a young man called Mu Lian. He was the son of a rich but wicked woman. While Mu Lian has a very pure and compassionate heart, his mother was just the opposite – evil, greedy and snobbish.

One day, Mu Lian decided to leave home to seek refuge in Buddhism. He wanted to become a Buddhist monk. When his mother heard this, she flew into a rage. What a useless son, she scolded him. She wanted him to become a businessman and earned more money so that she could continue to live a luxurious life but Mu Lian got his heart set on his chosen path. In a bid to get even with her son, Mu Lian’s mother slipped in some dog meat into the food she offered to some monks who came begging at her doorstep. Mu Lian left some money with her and instructed her to donate generously among the poor and needy; instead she wasted them away on some luxurious items.

Years had passed and one day, Mu Lian came home from the monastery to visit his mother. Unknowingly to him, she had died from an illness a year ago. In his deep meditation, Mu Lian saw the spirit of his mother. She was undergoing tortures in the deepest level of hell for her past misdeeds. He saw her bloated belly and roasted throat. She was very hungry and was trying to eat but whatever food that reaches her tongue got burnt by fire. Nothing got to her stomach. In the end, she became a hungry ghost.

Seeing the pain his mother was in, Mu Lian decided to relieve her sufferings. Again, he meditated and in his clairvoyance state, the Lord Buddha appeared before him. Mu Lian was instructed to offer as much prayers and food to the monks, the poor and the needy as he could. He did this for many years and many people benefited from his kind acts.

After some years, Mu Lian’s accumulated good deeds became merits and his mother was forgiven. First, she was released from the deepest level of hell (level 18) and was reborn as a dog. Subsequently, she became a fairy and all her sufferings ceased. Mu Lian became a distinguished disciple of the Lord Buddha and the practice of offering prayers and food became a yearly affair during the seventh month.

Now you know the significance of this month, don’t you?

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Before my Dad became a scissors sharpener, he was first and foremost, a tau foo fah maker, just like his own father who came from China to Malaya more than a hundred years ago. Together, they have made some of the smoothest tau foo fah I have ever eaten.

In those days, life as a tau foo fah maker was no fun. Without sophisticated tools like the electronic blender or boiler, everything from A to Z have to be done by hands. You will need as many helpers as possible – all the wives and children have to chip in to help in the production. There were no illegal immigrants at that time like what we have now. Work started mostly in the middle of the night and ended the next morning.

With this in mind, my Dad decided that none of his children should take over his trade. Instead, he sent us all to school and made us studied hard. In the end, he did not teach any of us how to make those smooth and delicious tau foo fah. It was a skill he took with him to the grave.

“How can you claim you’re the daughter of a tau foo fah maker when you knew next to nothing about making tau foo fah?” my husband challenged me one day.

It was none of my fault but there was a dying curiosity to know something about my roots. I thought it won’t hurt to learn it. So when we came across an advertisement in the Chinese newspaper that a lady is offering lessons on how to make tau foo fah, I signed up for it, just for the fun and to satisfy my curiosity.

That was how I met Madam Tan last year. She was a lady in her early sixties who stays in Cheras, near Kuala Lumpur. She used to make and sell tau foo fah in her early days but had since retired and now spend her time giving lessons from her house.

The first thing I noticed about this friendly lady was her left hand. There were some visible scars all over it.

“Auntie, are you a left-hander?” I asked her as she began grinding the soya beans with the blender using her left hand. It was the first day of my lessons  with her.

“Yes, I was born a left-hander but I was not allowed to use it in my early life. It was only after I got married at 16 that I could use it openly,” she told me, without any bitterness in her voice.

“Who did not allow you to use it and why?” I asked since I have a daughter who is left-handed too.

“It was bad enough to be born as a girl in a very poor family but to be born as a left-handed girl into a poor family, it was a double tragedy,” she said softly.

She continued telling her sad story as she blended the beans effortlessly with her left hand.

“You know, my father was a bean curd maker. We were poor and the family was big. No schooling for us. Instead, all of us have to help him made bean curd. As a left-handed person, a heavy task like grinding the soya beans using the traditional stone mortar became a nightmare for me because the handles for this tool was designed for a right-handed person,” she said.

“So how you managed to do it?” I asked her.

“Well, my father forced me to use the right hand. He would beat me with a big stick whenever he caught me using the left hand. Can you see the scars on my left hand? They came from all the beatings I have to endure in my early years,” she explained while showing me her scars.

“Oh, my goodness!” I can’t help feeling disgusted with her sufferings.

“He said my using the left hand would slow down the whole process of making the bean curds. To punish me for this, he would cut down on my food ratio and I was left hungry for the rest of the day,” Madam Tan said.

“How can he treat you like that, it’s not fair!” I cried.

“Yes, life is not fair for those who were born as left-handers. We were considered to be the bearer of bad luck. When I was born, my father lost some money on gambling and he blamed it on me, and that was why he disliked me from the beginning.”

She went on, “When he caught me using the left hand to pick up food, he would bring the cane or stick hard on my hands. In the end, I ate most of my meals alone in the bedroom, far away from his sight, otherwise I could not eat in peace.”

Madam Tan told me it got so bad that she thought of running away from home or even commit suicide because she could not tolerate her father’s beatings or punishments any more; all because she used her left-hand and not her right one.

“My father used to said a left-hander would not survive in a right-hander’s world. That was why he was so harsh in training me to use my right hand. I knew what he did for me was for my own good but it was so painful and devastating for my emotional well-being.”

In the end, Madam Tan ran away from home in Segamat, Johore and went to work in Singapore as a stall helper. There, she met her husband and they got married. She was only 16 and he was 21. She admitted it was because she wanted to escape from her abusive father.

Years later, Madam Tan and her husband came back to Kuala Lumpur and operated their own tau foo fah stall until she retired a decade ago. She was the first and only left-handed person I have ever met who have to endure so much pain simply for being born as a left-handed person, and it was not her fault at all. It was so unfair.

On the way home I though how lucky Alexandra was and this encounter made me even more protective of my daughter’s right to live life as a left-hander. I am determined she will grew up as a happy left-hander.

And as for the tau foo fah, yes, I did made them on my son’s birthday a few days ago and they were quickly snapped up by his friends.

“Yummy, simply delicious and smooth, from whom did you learned to make this?” one of the boys asked me as he dug into his fourth bowl.

“From an auntie who used her left-hand!” I told him laughingly.

She is amazing, isn’t she?

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Do you know that August 13th of each year was designated as “Left-handers Day?”

This day was chosen to promote awareness of the inconveniences faced by left-handers in a predominantly right-handed world. It celebrates their uniqueness and difference. Indeed, these people, also called “southpaws” are very special because only 10% of the world’s population uses their left hands. While right-handed people uses the left sides of their brains, left-handed people uses the right-sides of theirs. There was a joke that only left-handed people are in their right mind!

When my daughter Alexandra was a little baby, I noticed that she reached out to grab her milk bottle, pacifier, rattle or toys using her little left hand. She would suck her little left thumb only. I knew at once she was inclined to the left although there was no left-hander in our family, none that we knew of.

Her paternal grandmother made a big fuss over this. “Why don’t you teach her to use her right hand instead? Force her to change while she is still young!”

Of course I would not do such a thing. I like to let Mother Nature take its course. If Alexandra was born a left-hander, so be it!

There is nothing wrong and so it was not an issue for me. As a mother, it was my duty to protect her right to be born a left-hander and to help her in whatever way possible.

Most tools are designed for the right-handers from the pencil sharpener to the computer mouse but over time, my daughter got used to them and she could use them just as any right-hander would.

Of course she was very clumsy and awkward when it comes to using the brooms, door-knobs, can-openers or scissors but with patience and practices, nothing could stop my girl from leading a normal life.

But when it comes to certain tasks like holding a pencil, a comb or a pair of chopsticks, it is strictly her left hand and not her right one.

Her handwriting was neat and beautiful and she could write with speed too.

She could comb and tie up her hair neatly on her own.

And she could pick up food gracefully with the chopsticks.

I am proud that she could proved her paternal grandmother’s fears as baseless. I am very confident she would do very well in a right-handed world.

The only problem we faced was to buy certain tools that are specially designed for such people. I have difficulties buying her a gift on her special day.

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“Wow, look at that belly of yours, I think you’re carrying a baby jumbo!” my best friend said as she teased my bulged stomach.

At nine months pregnant,  I looked like a bloated penguin or an inflated balloon. I could not see my own feet anymore and everyday, it was a struggle to walk or breathe.

I was on the verge of busting. Nicholas finally came to ease my burden on August 12th.

“Are you ready to breastfeed your baby?” the nurse asked me as soon as I opened my eyes after a grueling labor that eventually ended with an emergency Caesarian.

“Yes, bring him to me quick,” I was very eager to meet him after going through so much pain the previous night.

And boy, was I truly shocked! He was not the baby jumbo all of us had anticipated. He does not have chubby cheeks or fat little limbs. He was, well, simply a mass of bones and muscles, a little bit bigger than a month-old pup.

For a moment, I could not comprehend this at all or believe my eyes. What had happened to my baby, I thought sadly.

Did I hang posters of chubby babies in my bedroom wall? Yes, I have done that from day one when I found out I was pregnant.

Did I get good prenatal care? Yes, I went to see one of the best gynecologist in town.

Did I eat correctly? Yes, I ate well-balanced diets religiously every day.

Did I get enough rest? Yes, I slept like a hog on most days.

So why was the baby in my arms so teeny-weeny? What went wrong?

Disappointment overwhelmed my head for a brief second but maternal love emerged stronger. From the pure exhaustion and excruciating pain after a difficult labor sprang a very deep love for this little helpless being. Instinctively, I wrapped him closer, tighter and lovingly in my tired arms. In my eyes, this was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.

Nicholas’ birth, understandably, did not generate any excitement or enthusiasm among our relatives or friends. No one was keen on such a skinny fellow. He does not have rosy chubby cheeks for anyone to pinch. He was not a plump baby you would love to feast your eyes on. In short, no one bother to give him a second glance, other than his dotting father or my supportive parents. They were always on my side, through thick and thin.

It was rather difficult to get a babysitter who is willing to take him in when it was time for me to go back to work. “No, no, no, taking care of such a skinny baby will spoil my professional reputation as a babysitter, other parents might think I am not efficient!” one of them said this straight into my face. I was aghast. What an ignorant woman!

I have to search high and low, begged on my knees, literally, before one of them finally relented. She told me it was not because she fancied my baby but she was in desperate need of the money I offered her.

Wherever we went, Nicholas never failed to attract hostile and curious stares from strangers on the streets, the shopping malls or even at the eating stalls. They all looked at him as if he was an alien from another planet, all because he was smaller than other babies and skinnier than the rest.

Being a first time mother, I was so very naive and these stares from strangers really got unto my nerves. I was terribly uncomfortable and could get upset easily when I saw people looking at us like that. I was dying to know why my baby was so small and skinny, so unlike other babies. He seems to grow so slowly despite me breastfeeding and giving him all the best we could possibly gave. What’s wrong with him, I kept asking myself this question and I was so desperate to find out. Soon, it became an obsession for me and it consumed my entire sanity.

Needless to say, I took him to all the pediatrics in town. Blood and urine tests were done on him so many times but no doctor could give me an answer. All they could ever tell me was three words I feared the most – “failure to thrive.” Yes, those were the three words I hated the most in his early years. And it was driving me crazy.

At home, I fed him with the best foods and supplements and also got him to sleep and sleep but still, he took his own sweet time to grow. Gaining a kg would catapult me to the moon but these gains came so painfully slow. And the hostile and curious stares followed us for years and years to come.

One day, we were having fish ball noodles in Pudu area when several middle-aged ladies sitting at the next table could not bear with their curiosities anymore. One of them finally got up, came over to our table and asked, not out of concern but with a tinge of contempt, “What’s wrong with your son?” I was truly floored down but I found the grace and strength to answer her cheerfully, “There’s nothing wrong with him, anyway, thanks for your concern.” She could not speak another word and withdrew back to her table hastily.

Really, it was no fun being a mom to a very skinny boy who does not seems to grow. I always cried when I looked at him. I always worried for his well-being. Why can’t these busy bodies leave us alone in peace? I hated all these stares and intrusions– they were so cold, so cruel, so contemptuous, and so in-compassionate. These mothers and grandmothers just could not stop being so hard on us both. I began to hate going out and chose to stay at home as much as possible.

When it was time for Nicholas to go to school, some mothers frowned at him when they found out he was sitting and playing together with their children. They used to give him disapproval stares and would pull their children away. The world was definitely not friendly or kind to a small and skinny child, that’s what I found out and had experienced.

Today, fifth-teen years later, I could sit down and write this because I have gotten over my miseries. I am above all these now. It no longer hurt or scare me. I have finally learn to accept our fates and destinies – Nicholas’ and mine. People can stare at him all they wanted and yet, it doesn’t bother me one bit. Being born small and skinny was not a sin or crime. I was so petite myself, so how can I give birth to a bouncy and chubby baby? Now I realized how stupid and naive I was then, how easily people can made me upset. Someone said you need to be stupid first to be wise later and I think it’s true.

Despite a head shorter and a size smaller than other boys his age, Nicholas grew up at long last, very healthy and normal in every sense and have plenty of school buddies now.

I think he was a little gift for me. A gift does not always have to come in big size, does it? Small and petite ones are just as precious and special. Yes, Nicholas will always be a little gift I will cherish in my heart. My little baby boy may be small and tiny but he has amazing talents and big dreams and for this, I am most grateful.

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“Oh, why does it have to rain at this hour?” It was 6 p.m. on the evening of August 4th 2012. I was back in Ipoh for a reunion dinner with my former school-mates at Kinta Riverfront Hotel.

“Don’t let the rain spoil your fun!” my husband tried to cheer me up.

I’ve had my hair done nicely, I was in my favorite little black party dress and dancing shoes; yes, I was ready to have some fun and I won’t let the rain spoil it for me!

When we reached the venue, it was already crowded with people – men and women who once walked the corridors and learned in the classrooms of two premier schools in Ipoh – the Anglo Chinese School and Methodist Girls’ School. We were there that night to bond again and have a good time. It was organized by the Ipoh Anglo Chinese School Alumni Association.

Having found our table, I walked around to look out for friends while my husband got busy with his camera. No, he was not from these schools but nevertheless he came to accompany me.

“Are you xxxxxxx?” I couldn’t hold my excitement when I saw a girl I have not met some thirty years already.

“Yes, and you’re xxxxxxx!” Her eyes lighted up and she broke into a gale of laughter. Before we even knew it, we were both embracing each other tightly. We have found each other again, after all these years!

She and I grew up together; we were classmates and partners from primary to secondary school. We were just speechless….it was so surreal and thrilling to meet childhood friends again. No, I did not only meet one girl that night, I met a few of them and we just clicked together like in those good old days when we were chatty school-girls.

The food was sumptuous and the stage performances by the Strollers 2 were magnificent. We all had a good time, it was a night well-spent.

My friends, my husband and I danced and danced the hours away. We left at around 1 a.m. the next morning.

“I think the night is still young. Why don’t we take a stroll along the quiet streets of Ipoh before going home?” my husband asked.

I thought that was a good idea. We walked around the old town area near the Ipoh Padang and the Brewster Bridge. Some late night revelers were out in the street too, some were simply sitting under the trees near the Ipoh Padang while others were having their supper at road-side stalls along Jalan Laxamana near Foong Seong Building.

We got home in the wee hours of the morning and hit the pillows just as the cocks crowed in the distance. I was tired, but happy.

What a nostalgic night! Till we meet again, my dearest friends…..and I shall be back for more Ipoh food!

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