Friday, January 20, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year of the Dragon!

Come Monday, we will celebrate the new lunar year of the dragon. School will be closed for the entire week and E has also taken extra days off work to be free for the week. This year, like in past years, we are celebrating Chinese New Year modestly. We exchange food hampers with immediate family, get together for the reunion dinner, give the kids angpows, visit my parents on the second day and meet up with a small group of friends where possible.

I didn't do any special spring cleaning of the house. Neither have we put up any decorations so far! We're even slower in getting into the CNY spirit this year compared to last year. At least last year, we took out whatever little decor items we had in storage and hung them around the house. This year, we didn't buy any and have been too lazy to dig the old ones out of storage. Today, my mum gave me two cardboard cutout dragon motif decor pieces so I shall put them up tomorrow morning. Otherwise, it will be obsolete next year. Two days ago, I went on an express shopping trip to get some new clothes for ACE as a symbolic act of having something new.

It is customary to have as much as possible things that are new in the house and on ourselves -- out with the old, in with the new for a good, fresh start to the new year. Back in the day, the entire house will be washed inside and outside, repainted, old cushion covers, curtains, sheets replaced with new ones, and several sets of new clothes including pyjamas, undergarments, shoes, accessories will be bought or tailored. The kitchen will be bustling and emanating with various aromatic odours of festive dishes and other goodies like cookies, cakes and 'nian gao'. And it is common understanding that all homes are open to visitors so we can just go to our family's and friends' houses anytime we wish.

These days, everything is commercialised from spring cleaning (hired cleaners from cleaning agencies), to new clothes (so many choices from boutiques and departmental stores), to cookies and nian gao (no need to make your own, you can buy them from just about anyone/anywhere). And open houses are 'organised' with invitations for guests to come on a certain day at specified times.

Aah, I could go on and on comparing the CNY I experienced as a child compared to the one C has been experiencing but I guess we've only got ourselves to blame for not carrying on the same practices. It's also partly due to the fact that times have changed.

Whatever it is, we just need to remember that it's not so much the activities of the festival but the spirit of it and more importantly that it's spent with family and friends. And C is definitely getting into the spirit so to speak, as portrayed in this dialogue I had with her a few moments ago:

Me to C who had been watching TV all evening: It looks like you're not going to get any homework done today!
C: Come on, I gotta celebrate....
Me, puzzled: Celebrate what??
C: Chinese New Year!!

So here's wishing one and all a new year of good health, wealth and prosperity, as how it's typically worded for this festive occasion.

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Xin Nian Kuai Le! Wan Shi Ru Yi!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I bought a ukelele

In the past year, C had been asking for guitar and vocal lessons. We, however, have not granted this request as we felt that she will be biting off more than she can chew. As it is, with long school hours, homework, piano and drum lessons, and Bahasa Malaysia tuition (I've yet to find a new teacher as the previous teacher was no longer suitable), there's hardly time left to play, exercise or do anything else. So any other type of lessons that involve attending formal classes, and the additional costs of fees and driving to and fro for it is out of the question.

I had thought that a compromise would be to get a cheap guitar or ukelele (it's more suitable in size and easier to learn) and let her learn it on her own. The thought had been left idling in the back of my mind until recently when I chanced upon a Groupon offer for a cheap made-in-China ukelele (yeah, we always associate 'cheap' with China right? haha). So we made a spontaneous decision to buy it.

One of C's favourite colours is pink, so we chose a pink one.

Although I subscribe to Groupon and it's email alerts of its offers, I'm usually very disciplined in not buying anything and everything just because it's cheap, although they could be things that I need (like a nice holiday and spa visit) or things that are nice to have (like jewelry, handbags, meals at restaurants, manicures). Lack of spare cash is the main deterrent besides having to travel some distance at times to the outlets to collect the things. Luckily, the ukelele was sold by this music studio that's close by my house and for RM69, it is an item that is educational and lasting, unlike a one-time manicure or meal.

So we now have a ukelele in addition to a few other musical instruments at home. We can learn how to play it through websites and by watching YouTube videos. And when I find a book like 'Ukelele for Dummies', we could learn from there too. YouTube is a convenient place to learn how to do many things, from riding a bike, fixing a leaky tap, cooking a dish, to playing music. One must, however, be smart to know when it is alright to learn through videos and when it is better to learn hands-on through proper teachers.

There are many ukelele artists and bands but they are probably known only to those who are uniquely interested in it. They are not as popular compared to the mainstream popular singers and bands that top the charts.  One of them was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, a Hawaiian ukelele singer, and in more recent times, our Malaysian songbird Zee Avi, who has broken through the international scene, has given the instrument a bit more exposure to Malaysians.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ipoh - An Adventure of Sorts

After a gastronomic thrill on the northern island dubbed as the Pearl of the Orient, we headed back south to a town in a neighbouring state known for its tin mining in the past, limestone hills and caves, 'white' coffee and pretty lasses (they say it's because of the fresh spring waters there!?). Ipoh has always been a town we bypassed on the way to Penang. Come to think of it, if not for E having relatives there, I'd probably not have visited it at all. This year, ACE made a record number of three visits to Ipoh - once in August for his cousin's wedding, once in early December for his uncle's 80th birthday, and recently, this food and cave-visiting trip with my parents and younger brother's family that I'm writing about here.

While there are places to see in Ipoh, although not as many compared to Penang, our main intention of visiting this town was to taste the good Chinese food it's well known for. Ipoh is a smaller town compared to Penang and you need not drive too far to get to any good eating spot. We spent two nights in Ipoh going to a few good Chinese restaurants, coffee shops and Ipoh's dim sum 'landmark', a place named Foh San, which is perpetually crowded on weekdays and weekends. We also did not leave out Ipoh's famous chicken dishes - the beansprout chicken noodles and salt-baked chicken. We also bought some Tambun pomelos and 'heong peng'.

Other than our foodie and cave adventures, we took an unexpected drive to Menglembu, about half hour's drive from Ipoh town. What happened was that our car got hit from the back as we were waiting to exit a junction and after a short discussion with the 'lady in the blue car', we tailed her to her home in the 'groundnut territory' (Menglembu is famous for its groundnuts) to collect compensation for the damage she inadvertently caused as she didn't have enough cash on her when it happened. It's a good thing that no one was hurt and other than exterior damage, our car could still take us around for another day and home safely.

Roast pork knuckle - note the size of the bone!

Steamed cod

Pan fried freshwater prawns

Some of the dim sum we had at Foh San

'Chee cheong fun' and fried radish cake

Self service at Foh San, too many, too greedy...


A long row of shops selling pomelos

Groundnut sculpture at roundabout in Menglembu!

Ipoh is located in the part of Peninsular Malaysia that is saturated with limestone hills and a number of the caves in those hills have become Chinese (Taoist/Buddhist) temples. They are also tourist and outdoor adventure seekers' attractions. We first visited Sam Poh Tong and the one next to it (Ling Sen Tong). These two temples are very well decorated with colourful temple adornments, statues and figurines of religious deities, plus a reasonably nice landscaped garden. Then on our way out of Ipoh to KL, we dropped by the Kek Look Tong cave temple which had a much nicer natural cave formation. These visits were C's first ever experience of caves, where she got to see real stalagmites and stalactites. We could have taken her to see Batu Caves, the other famous Hindu cave temple which is closer to home but we've not gotten around to that (the 272 steps to climb is somewhat a deterrent!).

Front view and entrance to Ling Seng Tong

Coils of incense

Inside Kek Look Tong

Altars inside Kek Look Tong

Cave opening to 'backyard' garden

The 'backyard' garden

After Kek Look Tong, we headed back into town as it was lunchtime. We savoured some coffee shop fare and finally with a full stomach, we headed for home. Halfway into our journey, we stopped at the Bukit Gantang rest stop which has many shops selling local fruits like guavas, sweet corn, mangosteens, and our favourite, the King of Fruits! We ate some of course!

Back home in KL, we went to pick up Rusty who had been in boarding for a whole week. The poor 'boy' displayed mixed feelings upon seeing me -- excited to see a familiar face yet moody because we left him out of our holiday. All the way home in the car, he was just lying down sulking....

Places we ate and bought food at in Ipoh:

Soon Fatt Restaurant
Mun Choong Restaurant
Kong Heng coffeeshop
Skyway Cafe hawker centre
Coffeeshop opposite Lou Wong chicken beansprout noodle
Cowan Street Chicken Beansprout Noodle
Row of shoplots selling Tambun pomelo and heong peng 
Aun Kheng Lim salt baked chicken

Rusty, on a 'happier' day after a trip to the groomers

(A big 'thank you' to my dear and loving parents for sponsoring this Penang/Ipoh family holiday. We rarely get to holiday together given how our lifestyles are in this day and age!)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Penang - a 'new' revisit

In the late 80s and early 90s, I lived in Penang for four years. Those were GREAT years despite having to share a room with five other girls in the first year, one in the second, and another two in the third and fourth years. I walked miles uphill and downhill at times unless I managed to get a ride as pillion on a friend's motorbike. Life was relatively simple and restricted to limited number of clothes (mostly t-shirts and jeans) which I had to handwash myself, three simple meals a day plus tea/supper at times when I had the time and company, lectures, projects, tutorials, extra-curricular activities, trips to the library to study and 'lepak', and visiting the lab at strange hours like 3am and 6am to tend to the bacterial colonies I was cultivating....ooh, I could go on and on about those glorious days. I'd give this present life to re-live those four years!

Penang was haphazard and dirty then, as it had been for many, many years. I had re-visited Penang as a visitor numerous times since I left in 1992 and recently on 26 December 2011, I went there again. We spent three nights at a newly-opened budget inn on Macalister Road. The streets of Penang are much nicer to walk on now with less rubbish strewn about or clogging up drains. The weather is still uniquely Penang, when it's hot in general elsewhere outside the island, it feels much hotter there. And there seems to be a more orderly feel. The Prangin Road bus terminal looks brighter without its walls coated with the black soot from bus/vehicle fumes and the air seems more breathable. However, I forgot to check if the Yellow Bus company is still operating there! I believe the opposition party has been making a difference ever since they took control of that state.

We made a spontaneous decision at Butterworth to take the ferry across. While the queue was long, we finally got our car onto the ferry and got out for some 'fresh' sea air and take in the view during the 20-minute ride. Unfortunately, the sea air was tainted with the ferry's diesel fumes, but C got to experience for the first time riding on a ferry with our car onboard (her first ferry ride was in August to Pangkor Island).

The ramp for cars to get onto the ferry

Oncoming ferry similar to the one we took, lower deck for vehicles, upper deck for passengers

On the island, we ate to our hearts content and devoured seafood, local hawker fare, Thai food, durians, restaurant and foodcourt fare. We also became tourists and visited the Tropical Spice Garden, Bukit Genting and the Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion (also known as the Blue Mansion).

The Spice Garden was an easy and good introduction to the many different species of tropical plants, some used as garnishes and spices in cooking.

Pandanus sp. by a pond

Bukit Genting is a novelty place for a hilltop view of the south-western coast of the island. The roads uphil and downhill are paved/tarred but rather uneven, narrow, and windy (especially downhill). On the way to Bukit Genting, we did a half round-island drive, stopping at Balik Pulau for some good durians.

The Blue Mansion tour was very interesting with the house guide giving a detailed story behind this mansion -- how this 17-year-old Hakka young man came from China and became a celebrated entrepreneur among the Dutch and British, the special feng shui features of his mansion and how the mansion was restored. The colourful story and exhibits were good enough that it managed to hold C's attention for a whole hour....haha....

This picture does not do justice to the actual grandeur of the mansion

From another angle, photography is not allowed inside 
We also visited a mega aquarium store on Burma Road, CTY Aquarium, touted to be the largest live fish store in Southeast Asia...Besides, fish, they also have birds, cats, dogs, rodents, reptiles and pet supplies.

After checking out of the hotel on the last day, we stopped at the famous Ghee Hiang 'tau sar pneah' place and got some of their goodies before heading for Ipoh, this time via the Penang Bridge.

The places we ate at in Penang (not in chronological order):
Ocean Green seafood restaurant
New World Park foodcourt
First Avenue mall foodcourt
McDonald's (ugh...) at Prangin Mall
End of the World seafood restaurant
Sisters char kway teow and yam cake on Macalister Road
Durian Cap Kaki, Balik Pulau
Bukit Genting Thai food restaurant
Song River cafe kopitiam on Gurney Drive
Cendol stall on Penang Road

Other local fruits at Durian Cap Kaki

Thai-style stuffed crabs at Bukit Genting

Garlic steamed prawns at Ocean Green

Sisters char kway teow and yam cake

Lala (clams) in herbal soup at End of the World

Ice kacang at New World Park

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy New Year 2012

This new year wish is slightly belated considering that we're into the eighth day of 2012! Nevertheless, it's better late than never I guess, just like it's better late than never to re-visit this blog that's been neglected for over two weeks.

I had been faithfully chronicling how we spent each week of the school holidays right up to Christmas, which was the penultimate week. On the final week, on Boxing Day, we took off for a six-day holiday up north, hitting Penang first for three nights, then Ipoh for another two. We had earlier planned to leave home as early as 6.30am to visit the Taiping Zoo enroute to Penang but the plan got ditched when C came down with a suspected ear infection on Christmas Eve.

She complained of earache and the slightest, lightest touch of her earlobe got her wincing in pain. The general practitioner could not see anything when he looked inside her ear canal and glibly said it could be an infection. I suggested he use his otoscope to take a look and he gave me a 'I-am-the-doctor-not-you' look, reluctantly used the instrument and proclaimed his earlier finding. He prescribed a five-day course of antibiotic, no eardrops or painkiller. Reluctantly but to be on the safe side, I heeded the doctor's advice and fed her the antibiotics.

When we arrived at Penang, we decided to see another GP there for a second opinion as there didn't seem to be any improvement after three days. This doctor used his otoscope immediately and said she had impacted earwax which was causing the pain and pressure she was feeling. Some earwax removal drops and two days later, she felt much better. So what's the conclusion here about doctors? Some are probably just too complacent and maybe arrogant that they forget to do their job properly. So C had to finish her unnecessary course of antibiotic just because the first doctor was 'blind' despite using the otoscope. How is it that one doctor could see impacted earwax and another said there's 'nothing'?

The rest of the last week of the holidays were filled with visiting places and eating to our hearts' content in Penang and Ipoh. More about that in another post next time.

This week, after the New Year holiday, school resumed on Wednesday. Caitlin is now in Year 4, with new teachers and two new subjects to learn. Compulsory co-curriculum activities are also included into their timetable starting this year but school hours remain the same, i.e. from 7.45am to 2.35pm.

Outside school, there are also changes to her extra activities i.e. piano, drum and BM tuition. These are the only additional classes she has and I think they're already taking up too much time, leaving her little time to play or excercise. We're trying out a new piano teacher for individual lessons in addition to the Yamaha group music course she's been taking for five years now.

We are considering stopping the Yamaha course when it ends in March if she finds the individual lesson more suitable. The current purpose of her learning the piano is to learn music and enjoy it. Taking exams and collecting certs (*see footnote below) is not the priority at the moment. The Yamaha course is a good one. Even the new individual lesson teacher acknowledges that. However, the syllabus is demanding and requires the student to focus in class and practise in order to keep up with the fast pace. The individual lesson teacher will be teaching her more theory and playing techniques while helping her to continue developing other areas such as hearing, accompanying, transposition etc.

As for drum lessons, we will need to find a new teacher. In the past two months, her current teacher had taken an unexpected break without giving any concrete reason other than not feeling well. Two days ago, lesson resumed but it didn't work out. The teacher ended the class after 15 minutes (the class is 30-minutes long) and my request for a reason was met with apology after apology and no answer to my request. Clearly, he didn't look well physically to me. He was not his usual self and certainly not in the right mental and emotional condition to teach. So unfortunately, I decided we couldn't be with him anymore after 4.5 years. Caitlin did like him as a teacher as he was fun and was the first real life drummer she got to know so to speak. I hope and pray he will get well from whatever sickness he is suffering from.

Here's a picture of one of my favourite fruits that we ate when we were in Penang:

The King of Fruits! Yummmmm....

* taking exams and collecting certs was what I did during my time, when the student and parents relied mainly on the teacher to decide the path of the student's music education, mainly because we didn't know better. It was the era where piano lessons were the rage; almost every household who could afford music lessons for their children would have a piano (never mind if it's a used one) and send the kids for lessons. If not piano, then it'd have been the violin or ballet.

(I'm writing this footnote in case some sensitive parents who read this may feel offended that I'm branding them as achievement-oriented-cert-chasing parents. Most times, I write my thoughts based on my own experience without any intention to imply or place judgment on others. After all, every child is unique).