Of Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices

I wrote the below on 8 March but only published this today.

All photos below were taken by Hau Chern, who also took part of the photos for the Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices exhibition. I was waiting for his photos to include with this post.

Look out for Part 2 for the interview I did with Mak Lan of the famous Lidiana nasi campur in Tanjung Bungah.

—-

I worked on my birthday which was 2 days ago. I don’t normally do this because each year I try to give myself a break and a pampering session. After all, I work pretty much all the time even if I am nowhere near a computer.

Well, it was for a good cause.

I was preparing and revising some 100+ slides for today’s International Women’s Day celebration. Mariam had roped me and 3 others into this mini photo exhibition of hers in early January. I thought it’d be fun to try out a project. I am crazy like that. I like challenging myself. Yep, the madness of me.

A photo exhibition of 5 women food vendors of Penang

A photo exhibition of 5 women food vendors of Penang

When we first got together like a merry band that we were, we had no clue what we were going to do. We talked about it and finally settled on women food vendors.

Given that we were all working (with the exception of Mariam who is a retiree), it was crazy juggling our timelines.

We had to factor in Chinese New Year (and that all of us would be away or busy), the availability of the women hawkers we wanted to interview and photograph and of course, our team’s schedules (one team member had some major upheavals in his life while all this was happening but he was such a team player and did his best and another team member went MIA for a bit).

We did pull this off even with budget constraints. (Yay to resourcefulness!)

visitors to our unseen faces unheard voices exhibition at whiteaways arcade, beach street

People who turned up to view the slide show

What was supposed to be a super mini photo exhibition turned out to be quite an interesting project – something which we all learnt from.

We focused on women because of International Women’s Day and also at the same time, food because Penang is a food haven.

But how many times do you truly appreciate the hawker who makes and serves the food you love so much? (As an aside, you must read my curry mee vendor who died but that is a different story. Still, that incident reminds me that we should never take our food vendors for granted.)

What do you know of your favourite hawker?

What is her story?

Do you know her as much as you know her food?

Well, that is what our photo exhibition titled “Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices” tried to capture in its totality. Remember, we had limited money to print up the photos. So we turned the rest into a slideshow, to explain more of the story that these 5 women were telling us.

Everything came together excellently despite the paltry funding we had. That’s how I came to work my butt off on my birthday when I should’ve been having a facial or a pedicure or a foot massage.

Bah, the things I do.

But the reaction of today’s audience to the slideshow and the photos reinforced my belief that our work did mean something. Of course, many became utterly hungry after watching the slideshow – after seeing huge bowls of curry mee, nasi campur, Hokkien mee, vadey and more, who wouldn’t? Some told me they were going to try out the food.

post it note messages

The encouraging comments penned by the public

I think the title’s apt, thanks to Jana. These women food vendors finally had their stories told. I always believe that each one of us has an interesting story to tell. And we assisted them in telling their stories of resilience. The life of a hawker is unbearably tough but these women are stoic, accept their circumstances and do the best they can. Do they want any help from the Government? No. Do they want any perks? Not really. They do what they can with what they have.

The "unseen faces, unheard voices" team - from left: me, Jana, Hau Chern, Mariam and Sandra

The “unseen faces, unheard voices” team – from left: me, Jana, Hau Chern, Mariam and Sandra

I made sure I was at the exhibition today, mainly because I wanted to gauge the reaction of the people who visited and viewed the slideshow. Many were positive with their comments which they wrote on Post-It notes and stuck to the comment board.

One lady even told us that we should make this into a coffee table book, highlighting even more women hawkers.

Krista Goon and Nic Sim and Janarthani Arumugam

I’ve known Jana since I was in Standard 3. We’ve done school projects and debates together. This time, we did a photo exhibition.

Jeya, the vadey lady attended today’s exhibition with her daughter, Sandra. She was pleased to be the subject of an exhibition and as a thank you gesture, she brought piping hot vadey for everyone.

As an aside, I am sometimes taken aback by some people’s reactions. I spoke to a 40-something engineer about these women hawkers and he said, “Why is it always about women, women and women?”

I replied carefully, keeping my voice even, “Because it is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating women’s work and efforts”. This outburst was so uncalled for that I was a bit pissed. What’s wrong with celebrating women? Then again, some men have a chip on their shoulder. They may be jealous of the attention that we women get. They get upset that there’s no worldwide celebration of International Men’s Day.

Jeya, vadey seller

Jeya, second from left, in front of her photo. She came with her family to view the slideshow.

On another note, I met an 80-something gentleman who, after watching the slideshow, advised me to interview the woman who sells spices and curry paste in the Pulau Tikus market (apparently her business allowed her to send her two children overseas for their education). He also said that we should also record an interview with Jimmy Choo’s mentor, an old man who used to run a shop in Muntri Street but has now relocated to Kimberly Street. His elegant wife pulled me aside to inform me that the shoemaker’s custom shoe price is getting higher and higher each year!

The exhibition and slideshow is still going on at LUMA Gallery, Whiteaways Arcade until 31 March. On 1 April, we’ll put up the slideshow online so you can view it too.

Never mind, I’ll put it at the end of this post so you can view it. After all it’s only a couple of days before 1 April. I might forget!

whiteaways arcade, george town, penang

We’ve decided to add on a few more women food vendors plus I managed to get some photographers interested to help us with Phase 2 of the project. A foreign artist was also enamoured by the kuay teow th’ng couple – so much that she wants to paint them as a mural somewhere in George Town!

Honestly, I am satisfied that this pilot project touched so many Penangites in so many ways. It’s not just about the food we crave but also knowing the stories of hardship and toil of the common man and woman makes us appreciate our food heritage more.

unseen faces unheard voices exhibition penang

Here I am talking to people and getting their feedback on the exhibition

I don’t know where this project will lead us but I am sure we will continue recording these stories. Part of what makes Penang unique is our mixed bag of stories intertwined with our favourite food. I believe honest stories like these are far better than pretend critiques of food! (Most people don’t critique anyway – otherwise they won’t get called back for another food review!)

If you’re a storyteller or a photographer or just eager to help in any way, join us in documenting our food heritage!

Nic of Redbox Studio

Yes, I got Nic to help me out too on the exhibition day. That’s what husbands are for, right?

If you’d like to participate in this project, please write to Mariam at ufuvpenang@gmail.com

We need people who can speak the local language, ask questions, write, create slides, take photos and more.

Enjoy the slideshow below! And leave me some comments too – I’d want to hear what you think!

Cinema, Coffee & Sinful Desserts

Over the past few years (and way before Georgetown was declared a UNESCO Heritage site), many people have been intrigued and more than fascinated with old Georgetown.

There’s a wealth of history and nostalgia in every crack and pore of these crusty, musty buildings we call pre-war shophouses. Many have a link to their past when they come across these buildings. Many love the quaintness, the charm and the memories which have somehow brought them to Penang. Some aren’t even Penangites.

We got to know Kopi Cine from a friend.

Ann had come from Langkawi but she was gushing about these row of shophouses in Stewart Lane and Armenian Street which had been turned into retail shops, guest house and cafe. It helped that she knew the owner of these business ventures. It helped too that Nic and I too have met the highly successful yet no-nonsense lady proprietor some time ago on one of our trips to Langkawi.

We decided to check Kopi Cine out one night.

It’s not Kopi Cine as kopi orang cina. It’s Cine of Cinema. Its Chinese name says, Kah Fei Dian Ying which means Coffee and Cinema. A mouthful and one that will certainly cause little ego fights about its pronunciation.

Kopi Cine is owned by the same people who own Bon Ton in Langkawi. Bon Ton is classy, elegant and sophisticated, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining or staying there.

Kopi Cine is also a bit of hunt for people who’ve never ventured down the funky-smelling lanes and alleys of old Penang (for want of a better word, funky means anything that smells awkwardly disturbing but you just cannot place yourself to describe the vulgarity).

It’s on Stewart Lane, a narrow strip of road that’s more residential than touristy. This is the road just before the Goddess of Mercy Temple and certainly it is not your backpacker Chulia Street pub-drinking place.

The night we were there, we overheard a young girl asking, “Where’s the aircond dining section?”

If there’s any indication of what place you might step into, be forewarned – there’s no aircond dining section in Kopi Cine. It’s pure hot cond – it’s au naturel air which we call breeze. It’s open to the street and with its bright lights, it’s a beacon on a dark, silent street devoid of tourists.

The cafe is narrow with a dark wood bar running down on side and a few tables down the other side. It’s like those European cafes where its appeal lies in its cosiness. You get to doodle on the table too with Buncho crayons as you wait for your meals. You may also take home the white mahjong paper with your doodles if you so please.

Kopi Cine opens from 9am till 11pm and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts and lots of alcohol. (If you so please and have the budget for a bottle of bubbly, yes, you can get that here too! In fact their wine list is extensive, considering it’s in Stewart Lane. The wine list looks like something out of E&O’s wine menu!)

Food selections are limited but whatever we ordered that night, we actually loved it.

I ordered a Middle Eastern platter of Mezze which is good for vegetarians (not that I am one but sometimes I like to think I’m eating healthy!). The Mezze came with a good 8 quarters of soft pita, hummus, eggplant dip, dukka and salsa. If you like comfort food, you’ll find the hummus and eggplant dip highly satisfactory.

Nic’s order of BBQ Chicken Tikka was tender and juicy and he also had enough pita to mop up the side of cucumber salad, raita and spicy dip. Ann’s lamb sausages with mashed potato was a hearty meal.

We couldn’t leave without attempting dessert, stuffed as we were. Bon Ton is famous for its desserts and who could pass up a chance to try its homemade gula melaka ice cream? Plus, as Ann revealed, the desserts were less pricey compared to Langkawi.

My apple and guave crumble came in a tiny Chinese tea cup with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream on the side. It didn’t look like a lot but it was sweet and filling. Ann’s steamed apple pudding with gula melaka ice cream was a delight. I especially loved the intense sweetness of the gula melaka resonating in the mouth. As its ice creams are homemade, it was also sheer pleasure digging into Nic’s layered ice cream cake smothered in chocolate sauce.

Of course don’t expect Kopi Cine to be your regular cheap eat.

It’s not.

It’s not when it has champagne on its menu.

It’s not when you realize it’s really like 32 The Mansion but tricked down to look rickety and rundown. I guess shabby chic is the order of the day. (And to recreate this look, here’s a hint: you can get most of the decor featured from SSF in Anson Road.)

The Reading Room is next door but the books aren’t for sale. A 60s Chinese movie plays silently, projected on the uneven walls at the back. Upstairs is the Stewart Lane Residences where you get to stay and experience the ambience of the forgotten Penang. Like some arthouse movie where nostalgia rings deep.

Yup, returning to your roots is in vogue again.

Exploring Penang On Foot

This post is a bit overdue. But it is an example of what Nic and I love about Penang. There’s much to see, explore, appreciate and love.

Visiting art galleries is something we do when we’re free. It’s great to check in on the latest artists, especially up and coming ones. I still nag Nic about going back to his art. He really ought to. He does very well when he paints. And I am most certainly NOT saying this because he is my spouse. I say this because I’m going to be a very Rich Woman in my twilight years because I get to pick and keep the best art pieces in his collection ;-). LOL.

Visiting Galeri Seni Mutiara in Armenian Street

Visiting Galeri Seni Mutiara in Armenian Street

When we visited Galeri Seni Mutiara a few weeks back, it was an exhibition of watercolour pieces by Ong Choon Hoe. From the art, you can glimpse the soul of the artist. This one certainly loved boats and the sea. Every piece seemed to be about fishing boats of Malaysian fishing communities.

Ong Choon Hoe's watercolour piece

Ong Choon Hoe's watercolour piece

Another stopover once we were done with gazing at watercolour art was to this quaint tea house along King Street. I’d found this place when I was involved in a charity treasure hunt a few months ago. (It has now moved to a more happening address; now it’s the same row with the Pitt Street Goddess of Mercy Temple. Look out for a bright green shophouse near the flower/garland stalls).

Nic chatting to the tea master, Mr Oh

Nic chatting to the tea master, Mr Oh

Mr Oh’s little tea house was quirky! Laminate tables and plastic chairs. Cobwebs on the ceiling. Totally old world feel. He brews his medicinal pu-erh tea in his slow cooker. You can have pu-erh tea by the glass jug at RM1.20. He also sells pu-erh tea cakes and pu-erh tea in loose leaf form.

Pu erh tea cakes - the older they are, the pricier they get!

Pu erh tea cakes - the older they are, the pricier they get!

Pu-erh is a warming tea with a signature dark colour unlike most chinese teas. Mr Oh’s master (or sifu) is the original tea master who uses specially concocted pu-erh tea to help people who suffer from illnesses and ailments. He was not shy in telling us that his master helped cure a man who had prostate cancer by getting the man to drink pu-erh tea daily!

A jug of pu erh costs RM1.20

A jug of pu erh costs RM1.20

I know that pu-erh tea is good for slimming (not that I want to grow slimmer!). It’s also a good tea to drink as it is not cooling unlike jasmine tea. Pu-erh tea is great after a meal of oily food. In Chinese dim sum eateries, you can get a type of tea called “Kuk Po” which is a combination of pu-erh tea leaves and chrysanthemum flowers. As pu-erh warms and chrysanthemum cools, marrying both is essentially a Chinese method of ensuring proper yin and yang! Too yin creates health problems like chilly hands and feet while too yang creates an overheated body system. That is why balance is important especially in food!

Nic sipping tea in a quaint tea house.

Nic sipping tea in a quaint tea house.

Mr Oh chats in English and Hokkien so you can drop by anytime for an affordable cup of tea. He probably has some 60s music playing too.

What a strange combination huh!

Why The Rainforest World Music Festival Needs to Change

I’ve been a big fan of the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival for a long time now. I got to know of it in 2002 and even attended for 3 years in a row (2002, 2003 and 2004). In those early days, not even the Penang tour agencies knew what it was.

But then we stopped going.

I did say I loved it. I still do.

I came home and spread the word about this fantastic event happening in the Sarawak Cultural Village, some 40 minutes by car from Kuching city.

Many friends, upon my enthusiastic (OK, mad is more like it) response, would be so envious. I’d come home, rave about the musicians I’d met, the people I’d spoken to, the air in Sarawak, the CDs I bought, the live jamming sessions, the different cultures and languages.

Of course, I’d tell them, “You HAVE to go. It’s one of those things you must do in your lifetime because it’s so much FUN!”

And bless their souls – they did take my advice and go. And they loved it to bits too.

When I am at the Rainforest World Music Festival, I feel I am in another country. It’s not Malaysia any more. It’s laidback, it’s international, it’s cool. It’s also open air, no seats (just bring a mat), informal and come-as-you-wish.

As it’s held in Sarawak (a world totally removed from Peninsular Malaysia), there’s a lot of leeway and freedom. People strut about in bikini tops, Caucasians and locals alike hang out at the beer gardens within the festival grounds.

There’s an insouciant air, irreverent and bohemian.

But the crowd gets bigger and bigger each year, thanks to rabid fans like me. I go and tell everyone because I’m so freaking excited.

Unfortunately, the Sarawak Cultural Village grounds aren’t meant for humongous crowds.

The nearby hotels cannot accommodate the crowds either. And the prices of hotel rooms keep skyrocketing yearly. And it’s alienating the very crowd which helped popularised the festival! In the early days, the crowd was fun, looking for cool music. In fact families came with kids. I could still get a room at the Holiday Inn Damai Beach by calling up my Kuching tour agency. It was a music festival for everyone.

Over the years, I see the party crowds who are into booze are coming in packs. They get drunk, they party like crazy, they are a hazard to other festival goers. Some look like they’ve been on some substances too. They’re NOT there to appreciate the music; they just want music. I bet you they don’t even know who’s playing on the stage!

And let me talk about prices. From those days in 2002 when I could pay less than RM1000 for a 4D/3N at Holiday Inn Damai Beach which included the festival ticket for 3 days, now I have to pay lots more.

I am talking about being a domestic traveller.

I am travelling to Sarawak, another state in Malaysia, dammit. If I have to pay RM2000 plus just to attend a 3-day music festival locally, why don’t I just go to HK or Thailand? Or wait for the Singapore music festival and just take a Jetstar plane down south?

Maybe RWMF just caters to the ang mohs and the Singaporeans.

If it is about the venue, why can’t it be held somewhere centrally in Kuching city? Then the crowd control can be better and there’s no shortage of hotels.

I think RWMF is a great tourism draw but it is losing some of its appeal by alienating the very fans who have raved about it. I am lucky I can get to attend the Penang World Music Festival if I choose not to go for the RWMF.

I just wish Sarawak Tourism Board realizes that lots of die-hard fans are just appalled at the way things are done and the way prices keep going up.

Perhaps we Malaysians aren’t the target audience they want. They’d prefer US Dollars to our measly Ringgit.

More stuff you can get your hands on:

What to prepare if you are going for the RWMF 2009.

If you’re in Kuching, you might as well sample some local food.

If you’re in Penang, try Penang World Music Festival. This year, it is from 20 to 22 November.

Catch Ombak Ombak Studio in Gurney

A quick heads up that Ombak Ombak Studio will be performing at Gurney Plaza this weekend. Lots of things are actually happening this weekend – this dance performance in conjunction with Hari Wanita, then the Pakatan Rakyat gathering on Esplanade and then of course, all these happening because it’s going to be a long weekend (Monday is a public holiday in case you didn’t know!).

Dance by Ombak Ombak Studio

Dance by Ombak Ombak Studio

Emily’s Coming to Penang

I was having a truly satisfying vegetarian lunch with Kat, the manager of Tropical Spice Garden two days ago and she told me about the play “Emily of Emerald Hill” that’s coming to Penang end of March, presented by Ombak Ombak Arts Studio.

I watched this delicious one-woman play (written by Stella Kon) many years ago and I can still remember the beauty of this 2-hour monologue, expertly played by Pearlly Chua.

I’m not even going to try to summarise what it’s about – lots of people have written about this Nyonya woman, her story, her life and how she had to do the things she did in order to keep her family in one piece, even if she did appear to be a domineering tyrant in the eyes of her son and husband. It is tragic but it is also a timeless piece that will leave you completely satisfied.

Anyway, if you want to catch this play, go get your tickets (RM30 or RM50) from Tropical Spicee Garden, one of the many arts supporters of this Peranakan play.

Touted as “everyone’s favourite Nyonya”, Emily of Emerald Hill is playing at Penang’s Wawasan Open University (this used to be the palatial home of Penang philanthropist Yeap Chor Ee) on 28 and 29 March 2009.

If you’re a true blue Nyonya, come dressed in your best Baba Nyonya attire too for a walk down the Peranakan lane! I was telling Kat, perhaps people who come dressed like Emily of Emerald Hill should be given a discount.

Contact Tropical Spice Garden at 04 881 1797 for your tickets.