Flushed with praise


Sign at Ladies room in
Universal Studios Osaka, Japan
One of the things I miss most about leaving Japan must be their well-equipped, ultra-clean Western-style toilets that come with bidets or what they call, washlets.  I’m so impressed that the public toilets in train stations, tourist sites and the malls are so well maintained that I will not hesitate to take a toilet break whenever our group made a stop in our tour.  Tourists who have experienced the Japanese hi-tech toilets will agree with me that they are the ultimate of toilet sophistication. 

The Japanese, who are fastidious about personal cleanliness, have created additional features to the Western toilet to provide a range of services at the touch of a button.  This control panel is attached to the side of the toilet seat or on a wireless control panel mounted to the wall.  

Foreign tourists may not be familiar with these hi-tech toilets but don’t worry because the features with instructions are indicated in English and Japanese as well as by Braille for the visually impaired!



A right-hand control panel attached to a Western-style
toilet in the Ladies room
While some sophisticated toilets may have special features like automatic lid opening, blow dryer and massage options, the standard features are water jet adjustments and automatic flushing.  

I did however, get a shock the first time I sat on a warmed seat because it felt almost scalding when I least expected the seat to be warm.  Now I find the seat heating feature very comforting especially on a cold winter’s day when I come into the toilet from sub-zero temperature!



A wireless control panel is mounted to the wall
of the toilet cubicle
For the first time in my visit to a public toilet, I was in no hurry to leave because the use of a Japanese hi-tech toilet usually runs automatically in a step-by-step function.  Many toilets feature pressure sensitive seats that automatically start water running for a few seconds before it stops and the bidet function can be activated.  I must also confess that I spent longer time in the toilet because I was taking photos and reading all the notices to get better acquainted with the many interesting features of the hi-tech Japanese toilet.



A device that emits the sound of
running water!
In my visit to another public toilet, I was at first quite alarmed to hear the artificial sound of running water in the privacy of my cubicle but soon realised that the sound was from a device mounted on the wall.  

The sound went on and on until I was done and I followed the instruction on that device which read, “In order to flush, please cover the window below with your hand.”  There was no button-pressing or lever-pumping to flush but when I placed my hand over the window with a tiny blinking light, the toilet flushed and the artificial sound of running water ceased. 

Amused by this experience, I did not hesitate to ask Hiro-san, (our Japanese guide who was always patiently waiting for me to leave the comfort of the public toilet!) about that strange sound of running water in the toilet.  He smiled and explained it very simply with, “Japanese people, very embarrassed” and I understood that this artificial sound is the Japanese way to disguise any embarrassing noises in bodily functions and stop others from hearing it!


Four toilet-roll holders that are consistently refilled
ensure that toilet users never run out of toilet paper!
Tourists who have used Japanese public toilets will agree with me that they are spick and span – looks, smells and feels clean – the epitome of toilet sophistication that reflects a refined society.  

There is much to learn from Japanese toilet etiquette both as users as well as for those who design and maintain the equipment and the environment for public use.  I can’t say that I’ve ever been anywhere that I enjoyed visiting their toilets as much as I did of the entire tour experience!



A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 19 June 2014

New at Science Centre

Climb into this open mouth to start your
journey in the Human Body Experience!
Visitors to the Science Centre Singapore (SCS) can look forward to three new exhibits in addition to the 14 exhibition galleries with more than 1,000 exhibits and an outdoor exhibition space that showcases the Waterworks exhibition, Ecogarden and Kinetic Garden as well as the Omni-Theatre, Singapore’s only dome-shaped, 5-storey high IMAX theatre.  

The Human Body Experience (HBX) is a unique larger-than-life 3D interactive journey for visitors to experience an endoscopic view of body functions in an exciting maze of tunnels from the throat to the intestines.  KidsSTOP, Singapore’s first Children’s Science Centre will give kids aged from 18 months to 8 years old their first taste of science while climbing enthusiasts can enjoy The Cliff, the latest sport climbing facility with the Vertigo Climbing System, installed next to Snow City.

The HBX is an interactive, fun experience for all ages designed to stimulate various senses including touch, sound, sight and the sensation of actually being processed by the human organs.  


That's me just about to slide down the throat!

This exhibition is a collaborative effort between the SCS and Australian based Newman Entertainment International, a company that has been entertaining millions of visitors throughout Australia since the 1960s.  

It is the first international project for Newman and the HBX is specially created for SCS with the aim of encouraging families to bond and inspire children to develop an interest in science and biology through a fun-filled experience.




Touch the vocal chords inside the throat and discover
the different pitches that gives you the ability to
talk, sing and make sounds!
Climb in from an open mouth and slide down the throat for a unique sensory experience while audio-visual narration by Professor X will help to educate and interact with you throughout your incredible journey.  Designed with sculptured representations of body parts complete with special effects, the HBX shows the inner workings of the throat, lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, digestive system through to the small and large intestines.  Your exciting journey in the 1,000 sq meter exhibit includes experiences with strobe lighting, mist spray, confined spaces, unsteady surfaces, tactile sculptures, optical illusions, holograms, audio, 3D video and touch pads that closely resemble the inside of a human body. 


You are swallowed alive as you enter
this portal!
“We are all curious about our body and how we function but other than x-rays and graphical illustrations, many will not have a chance to really see and understand what goes on inside the body,” said Chief Executive SCS, Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, who explained that the HBX is a unique exhibition that combines education and entertainment with a multi-sensory encounter with science. 

Creative Director of Newman Entertainment International, Marc Newman, said the HBX is unique because it was conceptualized like a theme park where you climb in through an open mouth, slide down the throat, crawl through the veins and arteries, and squelch as you bounce inside the stomach.  “The display is very realistic and children will be thrilled with the adventure it offers,” he added.

At KidsSTOP, Singapore’s first Children’s Science Centre where kids aged between 18 months and 8 years can have their first taste of science through purposeful play in a safe and guided environment.  Exhibits and galleries that integrate the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education approach are designed to foster parent-child bonding through interactive activities that let children learn through activity, play and exploration.  


Facade of Kids Stop, Singapore's first
Children's Science Centre
Housed within the Omni-Theatre building, KidsSTOP has dedicated edutainment facilities including a mock-up supermarket and kitchen, The Big Dream Climber, a lofty 9-meter climbing structure and the Giant J, a 7-meter slide for kids to experience a free-fall sensation before sliding to safety!  Website: www.kidsstop.edu.sg

The Cliff, the latest sport climbing facility to be built in Singapore using the international Vertigo Climbing System, offers a combination of Lead and Speed walls for climbing enthusiasts.  Jointly managed by Snow City and Nphibian Outdoor Consultants, this facility provides basic and intensive courses by trained and professional climbers as well as workshops and certified courses by a team of qualified instructors from the Singapore Mountaineering Foundation.  It is also an ideal destination for groups and families who can combine climbing fun with a sub-zero experience of snow play in the adjacent Snow City.  Website: www.snowcity.com.sg

Enjoy the thrill to be dropped from the "Giant J" a 7-meter slide and experience
a free-fall sensation before sliding to safety!
The Cliff, designed with the Vertigo Climbing System, is the latest sport climbing
facility installed at Science Centre Singapore
That's me squeezing out from the small intestines - with a little help from my friends!
Notice this guy's white knuckles [Right] as he heaved hard to help me squeeze through - Whew!

The HBX exhibition is held in the Science Centre Singapore, Hall B from 10am to 6pm daily for 2 years from June 2014.  Tickets are priced at S$20 for adults and S$15 for children (aged 3 to 12) including admission to SCS.  For more info, visit website: www.science.edu.sg

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 23 June 2014


Daddy dearest


My dad - photo taken in early 1950s
Many readers tell me that they enjoy reading my “grandfather stories” and are thrilled by the nostalgia in old photos which I garnered from my dad’s collection.  A picture truly tells a thousand words because it not only lends credibility to my nostalgia stories but also depicts interesting scenes, food and fashion from a bygone era.  Dad’s shots of our family gives me a precious glimpse into our growing-up years and where we were at various stages of our lives. 

Besides his sturdy VW Beetle, the only sophisticated piece of equipment that dad owned back then, was his trusted camera.  I’m thrilled to discover that dad’s ancient camera still holds a place of pride in the cupboard and compared to our digital models, it feels so heavy in my hand.  When I carefully opened its leather case and examined it, I saw that it is a Franka Solida III, a classic post-war camera marked “Made in Germany US Zone” that was manufactured around 1954.
 


Ms Sarah Shirtliff
 
I fondly recall how dad used to unscrew the camera that was securely fastened inside its leather case and the way he carefully installed the 12 exposures-per-roll of film.  This was the classic camera that captured all the precious moments since my parents’ dating days because we have many photos of our family enjoying JB’s iconic Istana Gardens and Lido Beach.  Dad also has a handy tripod stand for group shots and I can remember how he used to set the self-timer and rushed to join us in the group as he told us to smile and look into the camera!

At the birth of each of his four children, dad used his camera to chart our lives with photos that are carefully organised in our individual albums.  Thanks to dad – each of us, from my eldest sister to my younger brother, has our own collection of baby photos through our childhood.  One page even lists our personal and family info with significant dates recorded for the appearance of the first tooth as well as the name of the midwife who helped mum with the delivery.

I have many memories growing up in our Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at Jalan Ngee Heng, Johor Baru, shared with cousins, uncles and aunts but when I heard classmates talk about their maternal and paternal grandparents, I realised that I have only met mum’s parents but not dad’s.  It was much later that I discovered that dad does not have any family because he was brought up by God’s grace in the care of missionaries, George and Elizabeth Wilson in the Elim Gospel Hall orphanage, known as the Elim Home.  He was born in Selangor and was probably aged 3 when his father brought him to a missionary from New Zealand, Miss Sarah Shirtliff, in Kuala Lumpur and she later sent him to the Wilsons in the Ipoh Elim Home. 


Dad with his brother, Wai Thin Fook [Right]
 
When I saw a photo of Sarah Shirtliff among our old photos, I was curious enough to make a Google search and discovered that she was one of the pioneers of Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, Kuala Lumpur.  In 1898, five missionaries from Brethren assemblies in New Zealand left for Malaya, four of them single women – Sarah Shirtliff and Elizabeth Dron from Nelson and Miss Davies and Miss Reeve from Palmerston North.  Shirtliff started a ministry to leprosy patients near Kuala Lumpur and while she spent a few years in India, she was in Malaya until 1947. 


 
Our family visiting Uncle Thin Fook's family
in Ipoh during the 1960s
 
Elizabeth Dron was a teacher in a very isolated area in Penang until she married British missionary, George Wilson in 1902.  George and Elizabeth Wilson went on to establish Elim Gospel Hall at Jalan Chung Thye Phin in Ipoh and started the orphanage with a girls’ home through the goodwill of Bessie MacClay and a separate boy’s home for orphans and borders from destitute families in and around Ipoh.  The Wilsons could not afford to send the children to school so they were given basic education in reading and writing in English and Chinese language. 

In the early years, many children who came to live in the Home never knew their family names so Wilson put the children into groups of five and gave them surnames and names to let them have a sense of family.  For instance, a group of two boys and three girls were given the surname, “Wai” which I believe, is the first half of “Wai-son” the Chinese version of his name, Wilson.  This probably explains the mystery of why my dad is named Loh Thin Loke even though his features do not resemble the Chinese and why my siblings and I are often mistaken for non-Chinese!

A visit to Haw Par Villa, Singapore with Uncle Thin Fook's
family when they holidayed with us in JB during the 1960s
 
It appears that dad’s family was the Wilsons and the children whom he grew up with but the bond he shared with another boy, Wai Thin Fook, was as close as brothers.  Dad told us that even though the Wilsons maintained a strict code of conduct for the children, he and his brother were up to all kinds of mischief and because Wilson had no patience with any disobedience, punishment was often harsh.  In 2003 when we visited Elim Gospel Hall at their 90th anniversary celebration, dad showed us a tiny dark room under the staircase in his former dormitory – the place where boys or girls were locked in as the ultimate disciplinary action meted out by Wilson!

 
Dad showing us the little dark room under the stairs when
we visited Elim Gospel Hall in 2003
 
When their families were young, dad and his brother had an arrangement to meet for holidays with either family visiting Ipoh or Johor Baru in alternate years but if they were unable to come, uncle never failed to send us a parcel for Christmas filled with Ipoh specialties like juicy pomelo from Tambun and tins of Menglembu groundnuts. 
 
A collection of photos of our holidays together taken by dad’s classic camera at Haw Par Villa Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore, the beach in Morib and at Cameron Highlands, records fond mementoes with dad’s side of the family.  Our regular family holidays are the foundation of the strong bonds that dad established in our family and it continues to bind us together wherever we are.  Happy Father’s Day daddy!

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 18 June 2014

Old buildings, new lives

Façade of Hilltop Private School at Jalan Hassan Alatas
 
The rhyme, “Make new friends but keep the old.  One is silver, the other is gold,” comes to mind when I think of Johor Baru’s rapidly changing skyline.  Previously a popular picture of Johor Baru used in travel brochures was a view from the causeway that featured a few tall buildings clustered to the left of the checkpoint.  In December 2008, the view from the causeway changed when arrivals from Singapore were diverted to the Customs Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in the Sultan Iskandar Building.  Drivers also welcomed the expressway that replaced the temporary winding racetrack-like route that links the causeway directly to the CIQ.

This staircase in Hilltop School reminded
me of the stairs in grandfather's old house!
 
Towering new buildings are coming up along our Southern coastline and construction is still in progress for the rebuilding of the former Komplex Tun Abdul Razak or Komtar.  Nearby, construction of more high-rise buildings along Jalan Wong Ah Fook is also in progress at the spots that were once occupied by Rex and Lido cinemas and the former Bangunan Azizah.  When all the buildings are completed, this end of Jalan Wong Ah Fook will have a brand new persona.  And while I welcome modern development and changes for the better, I’m also keen for old buildings to be preserved and to see how their owners are adapting them for current use.

This is not a new concept because since 1940, Hilltop Private School has adapted an old mansion at Jalan Hassan Alatas, for use as a pre-school.  The double-storey mansion is designed with servant’s quarters and annex buildings that the school has creatively put to good use as classrooms, music and activity areas.  I had the chance to tour the school premises when I was there for their festive and fund-raising events and I recall climbing up the sturdy wooden stairs that reminded me of similar stairs in my grandfather’s old house.  I know many Johoreans fondly remember spending happy pre-school years here and later when they had families of their own, their children and even their grandchildren also attended this school!

Façade of the Sri Ara Private Schools at Jalan Straits View
 
An old mansion at 23 Jalan Straits View, Johor Baru was also adapted for use as a school when the Sri Ara Private Schools opened there in 2007.  Students of various nationalities including Japanese, Australian, Indian and Pakistani from expatriate families in JB as well as locals who prefer to study in the English medium attend their Primary and Secondary schools in a choice of the Malaysian or Cambridge school syllabus.  When I was invited to their annual fund-raising events, I saw how the school was housed in the interesting mansion while the playing field was turned into a carnival ground for the event. 

Tera-Thai Fine Restaurant at Jalan Abdul Samad
 
Throughout the city, many old buildings have been successfully adapted for use as chic cafes and restaurants.  A traditional wooden house built on stilts at No. 31, Jalan Abdul Samad is owned by an entrepreneur couple – Thai husband and Malay wife – who originally bought the property for their home. 
 
But as the building was being refurbished, the architecture was so reminiscent of structures in the husband’s homeland that they decided to use it for a restaurant that specialises in Thai cuisine. 

 
A section of Tera-Thai restaurant
 
Since my first dining experience at Tera-Thai Fine Dine Restaurant in 2009, I have returned many times, not just for the food but because I appreciate the rustic beauty of the building.  Imagine my surprise and delight when a reader wrote to tell me that the building that houses the restaurant now was once their family home and he shared with me, an interesting anecdote about his grandfather who was a familiar figure in that neighbourhood! 

Another former family home at No. 1, Jalan Yusuf Taha that is successfully turned into one of JB’s leading Indian fine-dining restaurants, is Chakra.  Housed in a 74-year old double-storey bungalow, the restaurant can be seen from the Inner Ring Road and is accessible from the parallel slip road as you drive in from Jalan Yahya Awal.  I’m told that this family home once hosted Indian celebrities and now it remains a popular dining destination for politicians and dignitaries as well as Johor royalty.  There is an upstairs dining hall as well as private dining rooms downstairs and an alfresco terrace that’s perfect for tandoori parties. 

The original beams and structure
inside EightLido are carefully preserved
 
Along the coast road, No. 8 Jalan Skudai has become one of JB’s landmark destinations for dining and entertainment since it opened in 2011.  Situated on a hillock that overlooks JB’s renowned Lido Beach, EightLido is a trendy club housed within a 99-year old Spanish casa. 
 
Refurbished with just a few modern improvements, the original beams and structure of the sprawling hacienda remains largely intact and adds to the charm and ambience of one of the most happening nightspots in our city.  Created as a destination that exceeds the standards of clubs in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, EightLido is a popular venue for private events, garden weddings as well as live music entertainment that featured a host of guest artistes.

I’m excited to see an increasing number of enlightened entrepreneurs who can visualise the huge potential of old buildings in JB and have invested their resources to transform them with new ideas. 
 
 
 
Façade of One63 European Bistro & Bar at Jalan Ngee Heng
 
The vision and commitment of these entrepreneurs are absolutely mind-boggling as can be seen in the trendy cafes and charming restaurants designed within old shops.  I hope more enterprising people will follow the excellent examples set by entrepreneurs who opened Faculty of Caffeine (Jalan Trus), Maco Vintage Café (Jalan Tan Hiok Nee) and One63 European Bistro & Bar (Jalan Ngee Heng).

As Johor Baru is being transformed into a modern metropolis, we must do everything to preserve our city’s character and one of the ways is by giving old buildings new lives.  While modern malls may contribute to the economy, heritage buildings have earned their right to remain as the heart and soul of our city.  Just as we make new friends and keep the old, our city must preserve old buildings while constructing new ones because, “One is silver, the other is gold.”

A version of this article was published in The Iskandarian, Issue 22 in June 2014
 

United Sikhs' humanitarian walk

United Sikhs walking along Jalan Trus, Johor Baru
 
Every year members of the Sikh community will meet in Malacca in memory of Sikh missionary, Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji, in what is considered the largest gathering of Sikhs in South East Asia.  This year’s event started with a Goodwill Walk from Singapore to Malacca that was organised by UNITED SIKHS to create awareness and goodwill in our multi-racial community and raise funds for humanitarian aid as well as to share their solidarity with the crew, passengers and families involved with flight MH 370.  The walk started from the Gurdwara or Sikh Temple at Silat Road, Singapore on May 17, passed through Johor Baru, Pontian, Batu Pahat and Muar in Johor before ending in Malacca on May 24.
 
Rishiwant Singh [Left] with David Atthowe braving the
wet weather in their walk in Singapore to the causeway
 
The United Sikhs is a Non-Governmental Organization affiliated to the United Nations that recognises the human race as one and has undertaken numerous humanitarian missions worldwide since the 2004 Asian tsunami, with their most recent relief mission in Panay Island, the Philippines, in the wake of typhoon Haiyan.  Goodwill Walk 2014 was led by Rishiwant Singh, popularly known as the Flying Singh, a RTM radio and TV personality, who is also the Humanitarian Aid Coordinator for the Asia Pacific Region of the United Sikhs.  



 
The Goodwill Walkers with the Sikh community
in Pontian, Johor, who hosted their stay there
 
“This was a real test of faith and a great challenge for me as I have never participated in such an event, let alone organise one.  But as I took each step, it breathed a new sense of motivation and inspired me to take the next step, and this kept me going,” said Rishiwant who was among the five participants who completed the entire 300km walk. 

“I must admit that the thought of giving up did cross my mind as I walked 10 hours a day under the blazing sun and through thunderstorms for 8 days from Singapore to Malacca.  But when we passed every kampong and were greeted by villagers of different races and ages, I was very encouraged especially when some of them joined us to walk a few kilometers.  It lifted my spirits and suddenly, I found the energy to carry on,” he added.

Rishiwant Singh [Right] distributing blue ribbons to
a stall holder long the route to Muar in Johor
 
At 6am when they started to walk from Silat Road, Singapore on May 17, the five participants – Rishiwant, Amanpreet Kaur, Dya Singh, Vikram Singh and David Atthowe – were joined by 30 members of the Young Sikhs Association (YSA). 
 
Just two hours into their walk, the skies opened and it rained quite heavily for the rest of their 25km walk to the causeway.  They had planned to walk across the causeway but as they did not have permission to do so, the participants were ferried into Johor Baru by transport.


 
Singapore Consul-General in JB, Ian Mak [Right] was
among the Goodwill Walkers from Muar to Malacca
 
As Rishiwant and the Goodwill Walkers journeyed from Singapore to Malacca, hundreds from the communities they passed, joined in the walk for up to 10 hours per day.  The 8-day-7-night grueling walk was not planned in a direct route between the two cities because they aimed to meet and interact with the local people along the way.  On their daily treks through Johor Baru, Pontian, Batu Pahat and Muar, the participants distributed blue ribbons printed with Pray for MH370 to share their solidarity with the crew, passengers and families involved with this incident and encouraged people to continue to pray for them.
 

The Goodwill Walkers were given a rousing welcome into
Malacca by the Sri Dasmesh Drum & Pipe Band
 
Every day, the first 2 hours of the walk was always in the dark so torches and headlights were used to light the way for the participants.  They experienced the morning cool that turned into blazing sunlight, witnessed beautiful sunrises and enjoyed rustic scenery as they walked through villages and passed farms.  Just outside Parit Jawa, the participants saw some children playing basketball who welcomed them to join in the game and later when they walked into Parit Jawa, they saw a lovely sunset – the perfect end to their day!


 
 
David Atthowe completed the entire walk from
Singapore to Malacca!
Every night the local Gurdwara hosted the participants with meals and accommodation before they set out on the next leg of their walk the following morning.  The event was made possible with generous sponsors and donors who provided practical, moral and material support including medical attention from the Bains Physio team who accompanied the participants from JB and gave first-aid for blisters, sprains and other minor injuries sustained during the walk.  Among the sponsors was MAS who provided 2 return tickets from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur for two celebrity participants, musicians Dya Singh and Vikram Singh, formerly known as Vic Briggs. 
 

 
[L to R] Head of Gerak Sikh Malaysia Datuk Amarjit Singh
Gill, Vikram Singh aka Vic Briggs, Dya Singh,
representative of Malacca Chief Minister Adun Bemban,
Dato' Ng Choon Koon and Surj Singh, one half of
Goldkartz, a Bhangra duo, celebrating the end of the walk!
 
At almost age 70, Briggs, was one of the oldest and most glamorous participants because he was the lead guitarist of The Animals, the 60s rock band that recorded a hit song in, House of the Rising Sun. 
 
While Eaahar Singh, aged 2 and a half, must have been the youngest participant, the youngest student who completed about 55km from Muar to Malacca was Standard 6 student, Sarasvati Kaur from SRJKC Chung Hwa 1B who will turn 12 on her birthday on June 10.
 
 
Among the participants were [L to R] Gavin Ang, Ian Mak
and Jeevan Singh
In the final leg of the walk into Malacca city, participants were buoyed up by the rhythm of bagpipes and drums from the Sri Dasmesh Drum & Pipe Band and a Dhol band as they were warmly welcomed into the Gurdwara by throngs of people.  Among the participants who joined this sector of the Goodwill Walk were the representative of Malacca Chief Minister Adun for Bemban Dato’ Ng Choon Koon, Singapore Consul-General in JB, Ian Mak, Singapore Consul in JB, Gavin Ang and First Secretary in Singapore High Commission, KL, Jeevan Singh. 
 
Almost RM50,000 worth of funds was raised through participant registrations, donations and sale of Goodwill Walk 2014 T-shirts that will be channeled to the Gurpuri Foundation which cares for orphans and children in need here and to other United Sikhs humanitarian projects worldwide.  For more info, visit: www.unitedsikhs.org

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 10 June 2014


Celebrating 102

Traditional Chinese peach buns, a symbol of longevity
eaten during grand birthday celebration for the elderly
 
It was just two years ago when we celebrated our grandmother’s 100th birthday and she was featured in the cover story as The Real Champion (NST 20 May 2012).  As we planned the grand celebration that was to be held in Kuala Lumpur, I remember working on the story and liaising with Life & Times Associate Editor, Theresa Manavalan, about the photography.  She was quick to assign a photographer to take some shots of grandma so I contacted my aunt Polly whom grandma is staying with in Subang Jaya to prepare grandma for the photo shoot.
 
I explained to Manavalan about the timing for the photography because our aged grandma has her good days and bad days, and was usually more alert in the morning.  It was quite a challenge to manage this because even though we agreed on the appointment, the photographer mistook the address for Petaling Jaya and went on a search before we communicated again and he finally arrived but totally missed the arranged time.  However, on that particular afternoon grandma was amazingly alert and the photographer managed to capture a few interesting shots of her.

Grandma and her birthday cake
baked by my niece, Amanda
 
It was my privilege to share grandma’s story to encourage readers about caring for the elderly and giving them the time and attention they need in their advanced age.  While we are busy with our careers, family and the hectic pace of modern lifestyle, we hardly spare a thought for them and very often, our seniors are relegated to the background.  Some of us hardly know our older relatives because there is no interaction with them but through my conversations with grandma, I learnt a great deal about local personalities and got a glimpse of life in JB in bygone days.

 
Grandma Mak Cheng Hai may have been just a homemaker but she had a wealth of wisdom and was a fountain of information.  After all she brought up a family of 11 children and looked after a bunch of school-going grandchildren while she did the marketing, cooking and hand-washed laundry for the whole household.  To go to school more conveniently while our parents were based in Masai, my siblings and I lived with our grandparents in their home at Jalan Ngee Heng for several years.

All the children were assigned household chores and I learnt to manage my time to complete my chores and homework to be free during our designated play time and even watch a bit of television.  In those early days of black & white TVs, it was a treat to watch cartoons and comedies in the evening but after dinner, it was grandma’s turn to watch Chinese movies.  On school nights we ought to be in bed but I remember sneaking down the staircase to watch the shows from the steps and if grandma did not send us back to bed, we could enjoy the movie till the very end!

Our dear 102-year old grandma is still able
to drink from a cup by herself!
 
Ah Kong would leave the children’s discipline to grandma and I remember she had a range of thick and thin canes that hung within handy reach at the side of a cupboard.  Grandma’s word was always final and nobody dared to disobey or risk facing her wrath and reprimand.  She was also the powerful family matriarch whom everyone consulted for advice on any major decision and she earned their respect for giving wise counsel. 

Looking back, I can understand the tremendous stress grandma had when she ran the entire household almost single-handedly to ensure that we had food on the table, clean clothes to wear and the house kept clean.  At that time, Ah Kong and our uncles used to train every evening on the badminton court in our compound and the laundry was always full of their wet and heavy T-shirts.  My sisters and I took turns to fold the heaps of sun-dried laundry so we learnt to recognize the identity markings on similar sports shorts and white T-shirts for each of them. 

 
Weekly market days were always the busiest when grandma arrived home on a trishaw and the rider would help to unload her rattan baskets while we, the children were assign various tasks like plucking vegetables and peeling prawns.  A great deal of food was required to feed such a large number of people so our tasks always seemed endless as we plucked through a mountain of bean-sprouts or smelly small prawns.  But grandma took her responsibilities in her stride and often boiled delicious soups and created innovative dishes to whet our appetites.


Grandma [Left] and grandfather [Right] with
their son, Uncle Dato' Billie Ng, holding the
Thomas Cup when it went on tour in JB, with
Tan Sri Khir Johori in 1967
 
Even in her advanced age, grandma remains in general good health – free from heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes – and I’m often asked, “What’s her secret?”  I don’t have any pat answers because grandma lived an active life as she supported her family in their personal, career and sports pursuits.  Now with her eyesight and memory fading, she may sit in silence but she continues to be loved and cherished and on her good days, she may be coaxed to recite the names of her children and even count from 1 to 99, not only in English but also in Malay!

Grandma’s 102nd birthday on the 28th day of the 4th lunar month was celebrated a day in advance which coincided with the live telecast of the 2014 Thomas Cup finals and she joined the family as they watched the game that grandma used to play in her youth. 

Her son Dato’ Billie Ng was a member the 1967 Malaysian team that brought home the prestigious trophy and I remember that it came to JB on a nationwide tour.  Besides the players and officials, not many people can claim that they ever had a close encounter with the Thomas Cup but our 102-year old grandma certainly can because she did.  Happy 102nd birthday dear grandma!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 29 May 2014

Homestay Advantage

Johor Baru has long been considered a border town where most travellers pass through en route to cities in the north or to Singapore in the south.  This trend has changed because travellers are now planning to come to Johor Baru, not just for a visit but to stay and enjoy the attractions here.  As Nusajaya is being developed with local and international investments, Johor is welcoming not just tourists but professionals who are working with the companies in Iskandar Malaysia.  New businesses, hospitals and universities are also attracting employees from other states and abroad, and very often their families join them here for extended stays.


Façade of My Homestay Larkin, Larkin Jaya, at twilight
A range of hotels in the city may offer overnight, short or long term stays but many who plan their trips to JB in groups or for longer stays find it more comfortable and economical to opt for homestays.  I was prompted to look beyond hotels when a friend in Kuala Lumpur asked me for homestay options here when she was planning to bring her family of 15 for a holiday to enjoy Legoland Malaysia and other attractions.  A Google search in websites like www.ibilik.my and www.mudah.my, turned up lists of homestay choices but I decided to check out the homestays in two apartments, a terrace house and a bungalow, in and around JB.

Berkah Budget Guest House, Bandar Baru Uda

I’m familiar with Bandar Baru Uda (BBU) and enjoy visiting Plaza Angsana especially for handicraft and trade fairs held in the adjacent event area.  BBU is a short drive from the city and the owner of Berkah Budget Guest House, Siti Faridah S A Rahman has given me landmarks to guide me to her apartment on the Ground floor of block D.  My trusted Google Map is very useful as it guided me through the large residential area, directly to Jalan Padi Mas 5/5 where I easily spotted the blocks of walk-up apartments.

Dining area and siting room at Berkah Budget Guest House
At a glance I can see how the owner has put in much effort to make the cosy 5-bedded homestay more comfortable for guests.  The floors are covered in linoleum and furniture is neatly grouped in a snug arrangement.  Since she started operating the homestay two years ago, Siti Faridah has hosted guests from as far as Egypt and families from other states who come to JB to attend student convocations at nearby Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).  Other guests are mostly families who come to attend weddings and engagements and businessmen who may stay for up to a month to participate in trade fairs held in Plaza Angsana.

Kitchen with tea and coffee making facilities;
See the jars filled with sachets to make quick hot drinks?
“I’m very fortunate to have hosted some very nice people,” said Siti Faridah about her guests who have kept the apartment occupied and given it a homely feel.  “The most costly expense in operating a homestay is the laundry prices,” she added with a smile.  She said check-in time is 2pm and check-out is at 12 noon but if there was no booking on the following day, guests may extend their stay up to 4pm.  The rate per night stay is RM250 while long-stay guests can enjoy attractive and affordable packages.

Comfort Factor:

Master bedroom, compact but comfortable
Families who travel with the elderly will find this ground floor apartment to their advantage as the unit is just a few steps from the road.  A water-heater installed in the master bathroom, washing machine, refrigerator, microwave oven, rice cooker and toaster are some of the electrical appliances provided.  In addition to crockery and cutlery, guests also have the convenience to make a quick warm drink because tea and coffee making facilities is also provided.  I guess she also provided dishwashing liquid to encourage guests to keep the kitchen equipment clean!

After a day out, guests can come home to a cosy apartment and relax by watching television which is installed with Astro B.yond TV channels.  The homestay situated within an established residential area is another advantage because it is walking distance to restaurants and nearby shopping destination, Plaza Angsana.  Driving is a breeze because BBU is conveniently linked to the city, Nusajaya and UTM in Skudai by a network of expressways.

Johor LegoStay, Gelang Patah

Next, I’m off to Gelang Patah and once again, Google Map served me well because a smooth drive from the city via the Kota Iskandar Expressway brings me directly to the front of the towering Nusa Perdana Apartments.  I ask the security guard for directions because I arranged to meet owner, Lester Wong, at the lobby of block D.  I walk through the club house that has a convenience store and restaurant, pass the swimming pool and playground to meet Wong and we hop into the elevator to ride up to level 10.

Sitting room [Left] and dining area at Johor LegoStay
Wong and his wife, Carmen, are no strangers to homestays as they have been operating homestays in Malacca since 2009.  With his finger on the pulse of development in Nusajaya, Wong planned to provide alternative accommodation to travellers here before they started Johor LegoStay, their first homestay in the Nusa Perdana Apartments.  They timed the start of their homestay in July 2012 to coincide with the opening of Legoland Malaysia theme park and have happily hosted travellers from around the world including Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Australia, Austria, Indonesia, Singapore and Middle East nations.  

There are also single beds with pull-out bed below!
“When guests say thanks for a very comfortable and enjoyable stay, it’s worth it,” said Wong who makes it a point to do maintenance checks in the apartment before guest arrivals.  He is delighted that many guests are repeats because this trend speaks well for their positive experiences with Johor LegoStay.  While most guests are groups and families who come to enjoy theme parks like Legoland Malaysia and Sanrio Hello Kitty Town, other guests include professionals who are working on projects with companies in Iskandar Malaysia.  Check-in time is 12 noon and check-out is 10am with maximum 1 hour extension but if the unit is available, Wong will inform the guests and let them check-in earlier.

Comfort Factor:

The apartment's kitchen
Wong said the 4-bedroom apartment was renovated and fitted with PVC laminated floors for guests’ comfort and offered at the rate is RM379 per night but is negotiable for longer stays.  He said guests can make their own sleeping arrangements for up to 10 people and extra mattresses that come with pillow, sheet and comforter will be provided upon request at a separate charge.  There is a bathroom water heater, LCD TV installed with Astro cable TV, air-conditioning in the sitting room and three bedrooms as well as the convenience of Wifi!

He noticed that guests usually spend their entire day outside and may buy food back for snacks and supper.  This works out well for everyone because even though the apartment has a built-in kitchen range, microwave oven, crockery and cutlery, he said no cooking is allowed.  Some places of interest are listed in Wong’s website: www.johorlegostay.com as a guide for guests to explore JB and nearby Gelang Patah for them to savour fresh seafood and local specialties or enjoy the Sunday morning market and the night market on Tuesdays. 

Dillenia Homestay, Taman Bukit Indah

Rahman Hashim and his wife, Halwa, gave me directions to Dillenia Homestay at Jalan Indah 10/14 located near the Bukit Indah Aeon mall and in a few minutes I’m in front of their terrace house.  Taman Bukit Indah is a suburb situated between JB city and the theme park attractions in Nusajaya, planned with residential, recreational and commercial facilities.  Rahman said the unusual peaks in the building façade of their one and a half-storey house often surprises guests who curiously ask, “Am I going to stay here?”  And Rahman proudly replies, “What you see is what you get!”

The sitting room at Dillenia Homestay, Taman Bukit Indah
I step into the hall and my eyes are drawn to the staircase on my right which is bathed in natural light streaming in through a tall glass window.  The glow showed up the spotless white tiles and the furniture’s contrasting colours in a very welcoming way and I can understand why this 3-room homestay is a popular choice with repeat guests.  With well-appointed furnishings and the master bedroom in a cosy upstairs loft, this truly feels like a home away from home.  While most guests are families from north and east Malaysia who are keen to visit the theme parks here, they have also hosted tourists and business travellers from Indonesia, Brunei and Turkey. 

Rahman said that some regulars place their booking for their next visit as soon as they check-out but he feels that it is only fair to accept reservations just 2 months in advance.  He said check-in time is 2pm and check-out is 12 noon so that there is sufficient time do housekeeping before the next check-in.  The rates per night stay are RM230 for weekdays, RM250 for weekends and Public Holidays and RM300 for school holidays.  Discounts apply for stays of more than 2 nights and rates are negotiable for long-term stays.

Comfort Factor:

Spacious master bedroom in the upstairs loft
Self-drive guests will appreciate the spacious car porch which can accommodate 2 cars with the third car parked across their own driveway.  Rahman said a plus point for drivers is the convenience of nearby motor workshops in the event of any mechanical problems.  The adjacent shopping hub offers a range of restaurants and shopping for daily necessities as well as laundry services.  Public transport is also convenient with taxis available on call.  And in the unfortunate event of a medical emergency, guests may seek medical care from clinics and a nearby hospital.


The kitchen at Dillenia Homestay
Air-conditioning is available in the master bedroom and because the house is designed with a high ceiling, the good circulation keeps the downstairs rooms, equipped with fans, comfortably cool.  The homestay comes with three Queen-size beds but extra sets of mattresses complete with sheets, pillows and comforters are available upon request at a separate charge.  To minimize accidents, an induction cooker is provided for light cooking.  Rahman said one of the Frequently Asked Questions from guests who may have had bad experiences is, “Does your homestay look the same as in the photos?” and he confidently assures them that the homestay is just as it looks in the photos! Website: http://homestaylegolandjohorbahru.com

My Homestay Larkin, Taman Larkin Jaya

As I head to Jalan Raja Udang in a light drizzle, I remember that the roads in Taman Larkin Jaya are named after birds.  The gates to My Homestay Larkin are wide open to welcome me and as I park in the 6-car porch, I see two ladies inside who must be Maimunah Isa and her daughter, Farhanah Mohamad Fikray.  Maimunah apologised for looking untidy because she was busy with housekeeping to prepare for their next guests.  Since the homestay opened almost 3 years ago, they have been busy with regular bookings and repeat guests who clearly prefer to stay here.

Spacious hall with stairs [Right] to the loft upstairs
With natural light pouring in through the tall windows to give the bungalow a bright and cheerful ambiance, my first impression is this homestay’s spaciousness.  The single-level house and bedrooms with attached bathrooms are a plus point for families with the elderly who may have mobility problems.  Maimunah said they maintain the check-in time at 2pm and check-out at 12 noon because she will need at least two and a half hours to do the housekeeping before the next check-in.  The rate per night stay is RM350 and discounts apply for stays of more than 2 nights.

“Our elderly guests set the tone for courtesy with us,” said Maimunah who is grateful for having hosted very nice people.  Their guests are usually families who come from north and east Malaysia to attend weddings, university convocations and family reunions during Hari Raya while corporate guests will come for job training or work projects.  She is glad that guests have been mindful of the peaceful neighbourhood and have never been a nuisance even while they hold outdoor activities or linger on the verandah. 

Comfort Factor:

Natural light cheers up each spacious room
Each room in the 4-room bungalow is furnished with Queen-size beds and extra mattresses are available upon request at a separate charge.  Three rooms are air-conditioned and the TV is installed with Astro cable TV.  The kitchen is equipped with a gas stove, rice cooker, refrigerator, cooking utensils as well as crockery and cutlery for 12.  Even as the spacious sitting room is as large as a multi-purpose hall I’m delighted to discover that they made an upstairs loft for a prayer room complete with an adjacent ablution room and this loft can also be used as a dormitory for young people. 


The cosy dining room with kitchen [Right]
Maimunah said some guests who came to attend an engagement here wanted to place their bookings a year in advance so that they can use this homestay again when they come to attend the wedding!  Whilst this is very encouraging, she feels it is better to accept bookings only 3 months in advance.  Meanwhile she is taking homestay hospitality to new heights by catering meals for her guests’ convenience.  Since she lives just across the road from the homestay, Maimunah is able to provide meal packages that include a local breakfast, a packed lunch (for takeaway) and a more leisurely buffet dinner. 


A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 29 May 2014