My Interview With Mak Lan of Lidiana

I interviewed Mak Lan of Lidiana’s in Tanjung Bungah for the 8 March International Women’s Day exhibition.

This is the full interview which I wrote up as a feature story, well, for myself. I did journalism in USM but I never worked for any newspapers so in a way, this is my way of keeping my chops lean and working. Enjoy!

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Lidiana nasi campur Tanjung Bungah
My friend & photographer taking photos of Mak Lan

“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I started due to poverty. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.” 

The interview with Kak Lall Bee binti Ibrahim starts this way. And despite my valiant attempts to speak to her in Malay, she smiles and says she can speak English. And so the rest of the interview happens in English, a language that she’s comfortable with. 

“You know, there is this young Chinese boy who comes and talks to me every day. He is so amazed that a 60 plus year old Malay woman can speak English so well!” She laughs. Her eyes gleam impishly. 

nasi campur with ulam Penang
Nasi campur with fresh herbs and ulam

Kak Lall has come a long way from the days of being a divorcee with 3 children – 2 girls and a boy. 

“It’s a different kind of feeling when you’re a divorcee. It’s different than being a widow.” Her eyes soften as she says this. 

Today, she drives an SUV with the number plate PLA II. She cheekily remarks that the number plate spells “La ll” – her name. 

It is far removed from the days she started with a tri-wheel push cart, selling her nasi campur,  by candle light from 6am to 6pm everyday to ensure she had money for her siblings and her children. 

And she had 16 siblings to feed. These were the two simple reasons that made her start her nasi campur business. And in the early days, it wasn’t the bustling stall with workers busy frying chicken or dishing out piping hot nasi tomato. 

Malay style stir fried vegetables
Malay style stir fried vegetables at Lidiana

It was a simple push cart with some 10 dishes she’d cook with the help of her aunt. She’d set up her stall opposite the old Tanjung Bungah bus stand. She’d also sell by candle light. 

“I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to get my business started. Every month I’d pay him RM20 in interest. Back then, RM100 was a lot of money!” she exclaims. Pointing to the fried and sambal-stuffed, plump ikan terubok (one of her bestseller dishes), she said that when she started her business 36 years ago, ikan terubok was only 10 sen each. Nowadays fresh ikan terubok costs RM60 per kilo. 

fried ikan terubok
Fried ikan terubok, a bestseller at Lidiana

Kak Lall says she managed to pay back her chettiar loan in 4 months. 

In the early 80s, it was rare to eat out. Tanjung Bungah was a quiet stretch, unlike today where it is peppered with hotels, apartments and restaurants. She often struggled to sell her dishes. Things improved considerably when the hotels started opening up, starting with the Rasa Sayang Hotel. Her customers comprised hotel employees as well as the Chinese who lived around the area. 

Later she’d move to where the now “tsunami flats” were.  

Back then, she’d open her stall from 6am to 6pm, making a meagre RM40 a day. She’d go to the wholesale market at midnight, buying fresh produce like fish and vegetables. She’d come home, sleep a few hours and wake up at 3am to prepare her dishes with her aunt’s help. 

When the food court (where she is now based) was built and opened, she decided to rent a proper space at RM100 per month. 

At this humble and nondescript Medan Selera, she recounted that her business in the first year was bad as her regular customers couldn’t find her. 

Over time, they discovered her stall and business resumed its brisk pace. Until today, the majority of her customers are Chinese who live around the Tanjung Bungah area. Each Raya, she invites all her best Chinese customers to her open house to thank them for their support. 

She has so many Chinese customers eating at her stall that many out of town people have asked if the stall was started by a Chinese. 

Kak Lall laughs and believes that her dishes are of quality and with plenty of good variety. That’s the reason why her customers return again and again. Although she isn’t hands-on in the kitchen now (her daughter Nordiana has taken over from her mom), she still visits the stall every day to check on the quality of the food. 

“My specialities are my kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. You know, a few months ago, a TV crew from the UK came to film me making kerabu mempelam. Their chef wanted to learn how it’s done.” Kak Lall points at the black chicken, a dish of sticky, sweet and savoury chicken slow cooked for 5 hours. If the food is not cooked well, she sends the food back to the kitchen. 

“I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here, at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s hard to pass time!” 

Lidiana has about 30 dishes and more laid out in typical nasi campur style. A good many were stir-fried vegetables and ulam (fresh basil, fresh mint, cucumbers). Her nasi campur stall now opens from 7am right till 9pm daily (except Sunday). Her employees start to prepare and cook at 4.30am in order to open for the breakfast crowd at 7am. 

Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah
Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah

What is striking is that the dishes are cooked in small batches, ensuring as Kak Lall says, quality and freshness. As we talk, her employee (and this is quite interesting – her employees are all women) scoops up a batch of fried chicken from a hot kuali. Dishes are replenished quickly. Kak Lall tells me there is a particular Australian gentleman who buys and eats 8 pieces of this fried chicken from her stall daily! 

Lidiana, the name of her business, comes from the names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. At the moment, the business is run by her daughter and her son-in-law. Her grandson, she says, is interested in the business. A lanky teen, he was seen discussing what to buy and how much with his grandmother, as a catering order from a Chinese customer comes in. 

“Prawns are expensive these days but my Chinese customers still want to order prawns.” When I told her that Chinese love prawns for their symbolism, she nods. 

Despite the rise in fresh ingredients, Lidiana’s has never raised its prices. 

“You know how expensive red chillis are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK, give and take some.  It’s nonsense when people say you can’t make money in the food business.” 

Many of her KL and Johor customers have no problem hopping on a flight to Penang just to eat at Lidiana. As her food prices are reasonable, many of them would even tip her employees saying that they would never be able to get such good food at such prices in their own cities. Lidiana is packed during school holidays with customers lining up beyond the gate of the food court. On Fridays, Lidiana serves a special dish – nasi tomato and dalca. 

I also note that she’s an astute business woman. As the food court gets unbearably warm during noon, Kak Lall invests in cooler fans and places these strategically at her stall so that her customers can eat comfortably.  

lidiana tanjung bungah nasi campur
Lidiana’s is open 6 days a week and is Tanjung Bungah’s best place for nasi campur

She reveals that her mother was a good cook and her sisters also have their own food business in Tanjung Tokong and in town. 

Lidiana also does catering and special side orders if advance time is given. Some dishes are not on the menu but can be ordered by special request such as crabs. 

“I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination,” Kak Lall says. She also says that the food business is a good business to run because of the cashflow. 

She claims she had little education but upon probing, I found out that she had studied in Convent Pulau Tikus up to Form Three. Her eyes grow a bit misty as she talks about how race relations have gone badly. An elderly Chinese lady, clearly a customer, comes by and pats her back. Kak Lall seems fond of all her regulars, whispering to me that the lady was a widow of a rich towkay. She comes by regularly to eat at Lidiana. 

“You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year,” Kak Lall says. All the Chinese patrons who grew up with her food would come with their families. 

“Many people tell me, it’s hard and tiring running a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one woman show when I started. I did the marketing and cooking and setting up stall. I had to drive to the wholesale market at midnight, and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in day out.”

“A woman can succeed because she has responsibilities. I’ve seen men who run food businesses. Once they get a bit of money, they tend to spend it all either on gambling or other activities. Over time they’ll spend all their money and then stop running the business.” 

“In life, one must struggle against all odds, yet you have to be honest and live up to your own expectations.” 

I ask her about travel. This feisty lady has travelled for her umrah, and happily recounted that she’s visited Israel, Turkey, Jordan and China. She thinks she wants to visit India and Syria. A moment later, she shakes her head, “Syria is too dangerous now to visit. Maybe India is better!”

As the fourth child in the family, she was considered one of the elder siblings. When her sisters were about to marry, she’d always help out with the marriage expenses, noting sensibly that a woman should never start her married life with debts! 

In retrospect, Kak Lall’s determination seems to stem from her divorce. 

At the end of our interview, she pauses a while, collecting her thoughts. Finally she says, “I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It is not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.” 

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Lidiana is at No. 5, Arked Tanjung Bunga, 11200 Tanjung Bunga, Penang. They open everyday, Monday to Saturday, 7am till 9pm (closed on Sunday). They do catering for private events too (please call Mak Lan’s daughter, Nordiana at 016 415 8686 for enquiries). 

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.

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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!

Leaning In, Leaning Out

I would have never read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book if it were not for YB Chong Eng. Honestly. Even though I am a big fan of books, I always have too much to read, too little time and too much planning.

Sheryl Sandberg Lean In Book
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Book

As it is, I am always reading at least 3 books at any given time. A lot of people say they don’t have time to read. I say, you DON’T make time to read. Not having time is just a stupid excuse. And I hear this from educated people.

Can you stop watching so much of TV? (Anyway these days Astro keeps playing re-runs so I’d rather turn off the TV than watch another episode of some travel programme that’s spliced from previous programmes. Yes Astro, this is a hint. And stop bloody segmenting your channels. Soon, there’d be nothing left to watch. And that RM2 hike in subscription is magnificent. Simply magnificent. Since I have terminated my subscription to The Star and Flavours, perhaps one day Astro’s going to go too.)

Read more

What Women Really Want

You just can’t escape it.

Whether you’re doing it or not, you will be bombarded with Valentine’s Day messages, greetings and “what you are doing to celebrate this occasion with your dearly beloved?”

And yes, it is happening tomorrow. And yes, despite protests from PAS about why celebrating this is bad for the people of the Muslim faith and etc., young people will still celebrate it so stop being so naggy will you? If they haven’t realized it yet, the more older people try to “advise” (seen as “nagging”), the more young people WILL NOT follow. After all, weren’t we all young and rebellious once? (The funniest piece I heard was if you must go on a romantic date, have a chaperon! Oh dear god. If a date has a chaperon, it’s not a date. It’s a Jom Heboh Carnival event complete with free balloons!)

Anyway, it’s one thing to look forward to when I was a young thing but it’s totally different thing when I’ve been married for 10 years.

A number of my gal pals who are married don’t think much about celebrating St Valentine’s – I mean, with the kids and all, it’ll be a logistical nightmare just trying to get the kids to the mom-in-law’s and getting a reservation at a romantic restaurant. Plus in Penang, parking can be just as frustrating!

As with most festivities in Malaysia, we love celebrating with food. Be it a CNY reunion dinner or Valentine’s or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, it’s really a fleece party when you decide to join the masses.

It isn’t really romantic when you’re jostling for romance in a restaurant that consists of 30 other couples right?

And men (read husbands, fiance, boyfriends, soon-to-be boyfriends) often get worried that if they don’t do something special for their women, they will not hear the end of it.

So pity them fellas. If they have understanding partners, it’s fine but yes, there are some women who clearly love to be feted and romanced on 14 February. Perhaps they have a reason for this.

But here’s what I think women really want – we want Attention from our mates/spouses/boyfriends more than the bling-bling, the roses, the gifts, the perfume, the gadgets.

We want men to listen to us when we speak. Not the puppy-eyes sort of listening but deep listening.

We want men to know when a woman needs help or a hug and offer what’s appropriate.

We want men to give a hand when the household chores are overwhelming and we just don’t want to spend our Saturdays and Sundays just cleaning or mopping or ironing.

We want men to still hold our hands when we go for a quiet walk or hold our hands when we’re watching a movie in the cinema.

We want men to tell us if our cooking’s good because that represents gratitude and attention and that will make any cook happy.

We want men to surprise us with a kind and gentle word when we’re discouraged and need it most.

Of course it won’t be fair to expect these of our men if we women do not do the same for our men. Most good husbands and boyfriends are humans too – they are sensitive just like us. They deserve praise when they do a good job and they need a hug or even a little time out when they are down. (I found that knowing your spouse’s love language does a great job of fulfilling their needs. If you want to know more, take the love language assessment. While you’re there, you can also assess yourself and what your love language is. I found it quite helpful knowing myself at a deeper level. Actually you can read more about your own love language – there are five – and find out which ones are the ones you identify strongly with.)

Unlike us with our sisterhood (women are mostly relational and we often have a great support system of good gal pals to talk to), men may find it hard to open up to another man. Men may bottle emotions up inside and even have a hard time describing what it is they feel.

So guys, stop thinking in terms of material gifts if you’re really out of ideas. (I said out of ideas, I don’t mean cheap or stingy.)

The best gift you can give to the woman in your life is the gift of Attention because every woman, whether she is 19 or 90, would love feeling special and loved.

Dress up the Attention and shower her with this every day of the year.

That would really make a great Valentine’s.