Designing For Good

I wrote this article below for a friend, Ann who runs the Penan Women Project in Sarawak. I don’t write articles per se as I truly have no time but once in a while, I get into my “yes, I’ll write one for you” mode.

krista goon nic sim
With Ann (far left) at a friend’s birthday party in 2017.

How I know her is one convoluted story.

Nic was her online friend when she was studying in the US back in the mid-90s. They both hit it off as they were both into art and design and yes, both were Kuchingites!

I knew Ann’s brother through his blog called Cooking Engineer which I used to read a lot as he was a funny Kuchingite who was working in the US yet hankered for Sarawak food! (Eddie even tried to grow “mani chai” in his apartment once.) It was only when Ann came home to Kuching in 2005 that we all met up for the first time in a Mardi Gras-inspired party at her house. Her brother, Eddie a.k.a Cooking Engineer flew home with lots of liquor and I think he even cooked us a jambalaya!

Anyway, Ann settled back in Sarawak after getting married and having her twins and she used her design skills for a truly good cause. I wrote this for her to be used in Happenings, a Sarawak-based magazine, but she felt that it was too much of highlight on her. I beg to differ so that’s why I’m featuring her article that I wrote right here on my blog. Note: We sponsored her a website for the good work that she is doing with the Penan women so if you want to help a real social enterprise, visit her website.

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Ann Wong would have never believed it if someone told her that one day, she would be using her graphic design degree to help the Penan people of her home state, Sarawak.

Ann lived for 10 years in the US before deciding to come home to Sarawak with her cats in tow. An animal lover and one with a huge passion for everything design, Ann had settled down to married life in Miri where her husband, Winston, was stationed in the oil and gas industry. Soon, her twins came along and she fell into a natural routine of being a homemaker.

Fortuitously, she also met Shida Mojet, another woman who was also at that time living in Miri (Shida’s husband was also working in Miri). The indefatigable Shida, a Kedahan from Peninsular Malaysia, had started a community project to help the Penan women who were skilled weavers.

Shida felt a calling to help the Penan women after she had visited the many destitute, not to mention, unreachable villages in the years that she had been living in Brunei and Miri.  

Eventually, Shida established the Miri Women Weaving Association (MWWA), a registered association in 2016 to help more of these nomadic and semi-nomadic Penans in Limbang and Miri divisions through a structured production and sale of the Penans’ woven baskets and bags.

Shida’s aim was simple – through the association, she wanted to assist the Penans to generate a sustainable income and help their children get an education. The Penan Women Project (PWP) is the association’s project to achieve this aim.

The first sum of money they raised through the sale of woven products totaled RM10,774 and with this first optimistic kick-off, Shida knew she had tapped into something amazing. Wherever they went to sell their bags and baskets, hoards of excited urban women would be enchanted by the woven bags and more so when they heard the story of how the proceeds went back into a fund for buying weaving supplies for the Penan as well as helping them with food and other household needs.

Shida passed the baton to Ann as her family was relocating to The Netherlands, seeing how Ann herself was slowly but surely using her design degree to create unique designs for the Penans to weave.

The traditional designs were familiar enough to Sarawakians but Ann believed that to reach out to more people and to raise the value and perception of the bags as mere ‘market bags’, the Penan women needed to weave stylish, contemporary bags with colours and designs that appealed to the urban buyers.

At their first meeting together, Ann and Shida had an 8-hour coffee session! They were deliriously excited about helping more Penan women weavers and taking the age-old craft of weaving to the next level.

Today, the Penan Women Project has 60 weavers from Long Nen, Long Kevok and Long Latek. Its products have expanded beyond baskets and bags – they now include clutches, knick-knack holders, name card holders and more – designs dreamt up by Ann when she is not busy taking care of her school-going twins.

The designs are unique and each product is an improvement over the next as Ann works tirelessly with her weavers like Juanita (see Juanita and Nelly’s stories below) to ensure the bags and baskets are of the highest quality possible. Ann also has had to make executive decisions about where the Penan bags are to be sold in order to differentiate and position the bags strongly in the urban market.

The Penan bags and other products are made with polypropylene material in lieu of rattan and mengkuang as they are easier to obtain. The polypropylene makes the bags washable and durable, making them sturdy enough for a beach outing and still look chic at any high tea event.

Yet, what you see today are bags that have travelled a great distance. Ann drops off the polypropylene material at the remote villages where the Penan women live – the villages are an eight-hour drive from Ulu Baram. As she drops off the material, she also buys the finished products – the bags and baskets – and pays the weavers upfront before hauling the products back to her house.

One of the rooms in her Kuching house has been turned into a store room for these products before they are sent to selected partners and retailers such as Klein & Fine (Penang), Verdant Hill (KL), Wonderboom, The Pullman Hotel and Poppies (Kuching).

What is clear is that a potent combination of graphic knowledge, an ability to understand the urban customer’s ever-changing needs and the passion to ensure that the Penan legacy lives on through a sustainable product that’s much more sophisticated than the traditional weave appeals to the repeat buyers and ardent supporters of PWP.

Ann says, “It’s not easy. It took me 3 years to get the Penan women to understand what we need from them in terms of a product. We need to remind them all the time to follow the design. Each time I give them an order, I always monitor their weaving.”

Last year, Ann began to give the weavers specially made wooden boxes as she found that the bag sizes would vary from weaver to weaver. “This made our marketing efforts challenging due to the different bag sizes. So I thought, let’s give the weavers each a box that we call an insert so that they can easily measure if their woven bags were a standard size!”  

Other innovative approaches over the years include providing the weavers with colour charts and samples so that they understood what PWP wanted in terms of colour schemes and patterns.

“Once the bags are woven, we check each bag for quality. While it’s easy to say they’re handcrafted we also need to ensure we meet customers’ expectations of quality when the bags are sold,” Ann says.

For Ann and PWP, the most challenging aspect is still marketing and retail. “The Penan women still need us to help them on these two fronts as they’re still learning. But I am heartened that they now can tie the labels onto the bags they’ve made and price the bags. We make the pricing transparent so that they know how much they are making per bag when we sell them at the retailers we’ve identified or at the pop-up charity sale bazaars that we take part in. It’s all part of the process for them to learn about business.”

The guiding and teaching of the 60 Penan women weavers is an ongoing task.

“If I compare the bag quality from the early years, I can see that our work back then was unrefined. This is where I am most proud of as throughout the years PWP has enabled the weavers to not only earn an income for themselves but also refine their handicraft, bringing it to a level of excellent craftsmanship and design. Today’s bags are of such a high quality and we even have each Penan woman weave a little signature detail into the product – it’s not noticeable but it’s there if you look close enough,” Ann notes thoughtfully.

With so much going for PWP and the Penan women, the next foray for PWP is venturing into e-commerce as Ann knows it is the doorway to untapped markets and customers.

Juanita’s Story.

Juanita is currently a leader within her own Penan women group. She is in her late 40s and is married with 5 children.

““I joined PWP in 2017 and as soon as I did, I started to see real money coming in. In the past, I wove products like baskets and sent them to Miri to be sold. Or sometimes I would take a table and sell my products but I never made much profit after deducting table rent and my transport out to the city. But with PWP, I began to see that I could help myself as well as other Penan women. With the money I made, I could go back to the kampung and buy school uniforms for my own children. As a leader of my weaving group, there are many challenges and I try my best to help them. I always remind them that we need to talk about problems openly so that we can solve them so that we can make better products for PWP. Of course, there are times when I can’t solve a problem and that’s when I need to call Ann but I can see that through PWP, our Penan women can earn money for their families.”  

Nelly’s Story.

Nelly is a Penan weaver from Ba Purao. She is 24 years old and already has 2 children, a boy who is 6 and a girl who is 7. She dropped out of school when she was in Form 2. Nelly was a full-time housewife but now she earns a good income from weaving bags for PWP. In the past 2 years that her husband has been jobless, she has been the main breadwinner for her family. Nelly is smart and conversant in English and Bahasa Malaysia so she often helps Ann with translation when Ann speaks to the other Penan women. Nelly has also come a long way because PWP also sponsored her driving lessons, enabling Nelly to drive. This is important as Nelly needs to send the village children who are sick to the nearby clinic. “I am happy that I am able to make a living for myself without needing to depend on my husband. I also enjoy weaving and in the past, we were always in financial difficulties. Since I started making bags for PWP, I have become more financially stable. I really hope PWP continues because it helps us, Penan women, a lot.”


My Hawaiian Sojourn Into The Unknown

Although I’m not a Christian, I had a fantastic piece of news on Good Friday yesterday.

When I checked my email, I got an email from the East West Centre that I have been accepted for a 12-day Asia Pacific women’s leadership programme in Honolulu, Hawaii and the best part of all, on a scholarship!

“This 12-day immersive, leadership and professional development seminar is designed for innovative women entrepreneurs from Asia, the Pacific, and the United States to enhance their leadership skills and entrepreneurial capacity; experientially explore innovative entrepreneurship, leadership, and community examples; build a sense of self-efficacy; and expand national and regional networks.”

I thought I had wished so hard that I actually got the scholarship! But seriously, jokes aside, I had envisioned myself getting this when I was writing up my resume and application. Talk about mental vision board!

Nic also told me that I would get it.

So did my besties, Jana and Tammy. They encouraged me and said, if anyone deserved to get this scholarship and go to Hawaii and learn amongst other accomplished women from the Asia Pacific region, it would be me and the body of work I have done in the past decade. (Key lesson: always give first without condition and plants seeds of kindness along the way. The good stuff does come back to you!)

And I’m also happy to say that I’ll be representing Malaysia (I must ask the organiser who else is from Malaysia) and I will soon be part of the growing alumnae of 185 women from 34 countries who have participated in the Changing Faces Seminar.

It helped that I had endorsement letters from two powerful and influential women.

And that’s the power of the ask.

I’ve learned over the years that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And what’s the harm of asking? The worse they could say was no. But these two women said yes. It also helped that I have worked with them in the past and they had seen the quality of my (pro bono/community) work, tenacity (haha, I’m always like a dog with a bone and a never-say-die attitude) and optimism.

When I got the email, I almost cried in joy. The first person I told was of course my husband, Nic. He said the same thing – “I knew you’d get it!” – as Jana.

Then I called Jana.

And she was like, “I knew you’d get it! You’re a true feminist at heart and your work shows it.”

Of course, I had to message the people who helped me with the endorsement letters (the East West Centre needed endorsement letters on letterheads). I always update the people around me especially those who are helping me. They need to know the status of their contribution too. By doing so, people feel appreciated and these small touches go a long way in the future (especially if you need their help again).

When I sent off my application on 2 April, I felt a flood of relief too.

While the requirements and paperwork weren’t difficult, it did take some strategic planning. I had to rework my resume to fit 2 pages (they said they wouldn’t read anything beyond 2 pages). On top of that, I had to get 2 endorsement letters on letterhead. And finally, explain in a 3-pager why I believed I was qualified for this programme and what I intend to do after I attended the programme.

The 3-pager was interesting as the questions reminded me of an interview (which was exactly what it was). It also asked for a solid commitment of what I planned to do after the 12 days. I was thinking of a million things I could do but I settled on a podcast on entrepreneurship. Now that I’ve publicly announced it here on my blog and wrote about it in my application, I have no choice but to jump right in to do it!

I also told my best friends that regardless of the outcome, I enjoyed the exercise of writing down what I have done, what I believe are my strengths and why I am most suited for the scholarship. I had the option of submitting my application and agreeing to pay my way for the 12 days but I raised the bar on myself.

I told myself that I would use my body of work to help me get a full scholarship. If I couldn’t, at least I knew I lost out to a more accomplished Malaysian woman. If I got it, I would get it on my own merit. I know, I can be stubborn.

I also wanted to prove that I am not the typical entrepreneur.

I guess I have never been the typical entrepreneur because my interests in the community and women’s issues (particularly empowerment and entrepreneurship) are so strongly ingrained.

Just two days ago, a friend in the arts called me and said that when he thought of me, he thought immediately of women entrepreneurship!

That’s what I call relevant branding.

But aside from women entrepreneurship, I wrote in my application about my community involvement with the setting up of a book adoption centre in 2016.

Nic and I are proud and amazed at how the centre has grown (and the money it has generated for charity).

The secondhand books get a new life and new owners (and this fits right in with the Tzu Chi concept of reusing), Tzu Chi Penang gets monetary contributions to further fuel their charity work in Penang and our volunteers get to do the kind of community work that they love.

Our tiny project has grown to a 30-volunteer strong team who go on duty each Friday, Saturday and Sunday and has been featured and written up by the media. The fact that Tzu Chi Taiwan has recognised that this model is something they want to replicate and encourage in other Tzu Chi recycling locations globally is truly heartening.

I’ve never done stuff that I’ve never believed in. So I’ve done the things that stirred my interests – enabling women in business and later, saving books. What’s more, I have discovered that tiny ideas can become avenues for others to serve as well.

I am thrilled that my crazy ideas have served me well and done what I felt to be right at certain times in my life. And I’ve never done them for money although the results can be tied back to money or quantifiable.

I believe community projects benefit from an entrepreneurship point of view as we would generate more funds to help the ones who most need help.

Self-sustenance is one of my tenets for projects. I never believe that we should have any deficits or loss when running projects, community or not. Each project must start off envisioned like a business and managed like a business. Like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats methodology, I believe we should all have an Entrepreneurship Hat with a Marketing Hat!

If I don’t get excited and my sense of impetuousness doesn’t quiver, it’s not for me.

When a friend sent the link to the Changing Faces seminar via WhatsApp in a group chat, I clicked the link and read the page and I instantly knew I wanted to be in this programme. I would be able to learn so much from other women from other countries and the networking would be incredible.

Those points flashed across my mind.

And I wanted it.

And I also did the 10-10-10 method based on Suzy Welch’s book to help me with my decision – Should I apply? If I didn’t, would I regret this decision in the next 10 days, 10 months and 10 years?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not doing. Procrastination is always the culprit. It’s easy to say “forget about it” as the application warranted lots of writing. Or that I couldn’t take time away from business – it was after all a 12 day programme. And I don’t even have a US visa ready.

But I knew if I didn’t try applying, I would regret this.

Last year, I won a ticket to an international conference in Melbourne as I participated in a contest via Twitter but I had to let go of the chance to go as it was too last minute and I had many plans lined up. I felt dismal that I had to let go of such a good opportunity but I had to.

I’m trying to live my life by getting out of my own comfort zone and having as many colourful experiences as I can. And I am also cultivating upwards and outside of my regular routine so I get to learn much more so that I can use the key learning in my business, my community and my life.

I also want to do the uncomfortable (not necessarily the unpleasant) so that I keep myself curious about life. I volunteered to partake as a trainer in a series of workshops for grassroots women who were appointed by the Penang State Government to run community projects. I spent 4 weekends with other fellow trainers conducting these women leadership workshops in March and early April.

It was fulfilling but more than that, I learnt about grassroot problems. I discovered that women in urban and rural areas pinpointed problems unique to them and not all were what I had assumed. Some openly spoke family issues, others spoke about certain types of social problems that they wanted to tackle.

Funnily enough, when I shared photos of the workshops, a male friend was piqued enough to call and ask if he could do the same too. He felt that there must be more to life than the work he was doing in the corporate sector. He felt he needed to put some meaning and purpose into his life.

And that brings me back to the idea that if we all tried to do something in our own community, no matter how small, we could impact a lot of people if people believe in our mission and participate in our dream.

Would I ever imagine WomenBizSENSE as it is now, a thriving organization with a healthy bank balance and run by capable women? I could never have done so on my own. But enough people believed in the dream that Jo and I started and now we have brought together so many women in business and connected so many businesses up that it’s becoming quite surreal! Each year as we celebrate our anniversary, I am always so grateful that other women have joined us in our dream. Our culture has been of women advocating for other women and in this, we are unique. Even as I no longer helm the organisation, I’m still very much involved as an adviser and Jo and I have always had the same goal – to raise women up as leaders.

But I can’t expect others to challenge themselves to do this if I didn’t walk my talk or take action.

I’m excited with my Hawaii adventure as I know I will be meeting amazing women from whom I will discover more wisdom and experiences. I also know that each step I take, I have many more women cheering me on and many more women that I can help and impact.

One year from now, how will I be transformed? How will I be impacted?

It should be an interesting way to discover what I am capable of.

The Inevitable Question of Questions

It was past midnight that I ordered a Grab to get to Happy Garden where my cousin lived. I needed to bunk a night with her before heading home to Banting.
I don’t know how I looked in my orange kebaya blouse (I had removed the kerongsang) and my Uniqlo jeans (yes, those super comfy jeans that don’t need zipping) but I hoped I didn’t look like some GRO off shift. After all, I was hailing a Grab from Le Meridien Sentral.
My thoughts raced to those horror midnight ride stories so I was rather relieved when I got into the car and the guy started chatting with me. He didn’t seem creepy though it was 12.30am.  And I made sure I sat at the back. In the past, I used to sit right next to the driver, at the passenger side but I figured it is not too smart a move if the driver tries to do something funny.
Inevitably, he asked me what I was doing and where I was from.
I told him that I’m from Penang and I was at Le Meridien to attend a USM alumni gathering/dinner. And of course, he had to ask about kids.
For me, this is the question that most people ask me harmlessly and expect me to say, “Two kids – a boy and a girl.”
I said I don’t have kids.
Dead silence follows this in most conversations.
The other person is usually thinking – oh gosh, what do I say to her?
When I say this, I always prime myself for the reaction. Malaysians generally assume if you’re married, you must have kids. It’s a given.
In the darkened car, I couldn’t see the guy’s reaction but he followed up with a mumbled and muffled sorry.
I reassured him I am in no way embarrassed or depressed about not having kids, to which he brightened up a bit and resumed his chattiness. He started telling me he had 4 kids and soon, he shared that his sister had difficulty getting pregnant despite multiple checkups. As a Muslim, he said he felt sorry for his sister and her husband as they really wanted children.
I can understand her predicament. It’s not easy when everyone tells you, no, demands that you have kids the moment you tie the knot. And when you don’t, there’s something awfully wrong with you.
Just last week, I was again talking to a newfound friend – a friendly Malay girl from KL – and she asked that question again.
And when I said I have no kids, I saw her flustered face and her quick, embarrassed “sorry, sorry”. I was so inclined to pat her hands and say, there, there. Why should you be sorry that I have no kids?
And lest you think it’s only the Malay-Muslim community that’s hung up about kids, no, it’s not.
When we were chatting during our USM coursemates’ gathering over the superbly delicious buffet dinner (amidst some fantastic North Indian curried mutton and briyani actually), Karen decided to survey some of our friends why they decided to turn up last minute to the dinner.
Karen, me and two other friends had banded together to organise this dinner but in typical Malaysian fashion, many of our ex-coursemates had to wait till the last minute to RSVP which made our arrangements difficult.
So when a few last minute folks turned up, Karen couldn’t help but ask outright – “What made you decide to attend tonight’s dinner?”
One of the answers came from a friend who is a researcher and academician. She pointed out that she decided to come because of Nir who had flown back all the way from Germany to be at this dinner. She felt if someone took the effort, she would make the effort too. And we had friends who had flown in specially from Hong Kong and China too.
That was a good response.
A little later, she said that she believed she would attend because we were all OK and open about our lives. For instance, about either being single or not having kids.
And I had earlier remarked to Karen, sometimes we are 44 but we act like we’re still 24!
Class reunions are not supposed to be shaming episodes about who is successful or who is not. I know some people who stay away from class reunions because they believe they are not good enough or high enough on the corporate ladder.
Many of my USM friends are accomplished in their own right. They’re successful where they are and I’m super proud of them.
But sometimes the stigma of being single or not having children (perhaps to some it’s a shame, to others it’s a badge of honour) prevents people from seeing that there are other things in life that people can be contented with.
Once many years ago, two friends had a long lunch with me and they asked me if I had considered adopting. I said no.
I’m perfectly fine, thank you. I am happy if you have kids. Just because I don’t have any doesn’t make me hate kids. I love my nephew and niece and take every chance I get to go home and cook for them. Vincent and Vinnie love me for my egg mayo sandwiches and all manner of Cantonese food that I cook for them.
I will sound rather selfish saying this but I relish my freedom. Of course many have asked me, “Don’t you miss being a mum?” And I think, you don’t miss what you have.
I don’t really crave being a mother if that’s what most women want to be. I am also fine if you want to be the best mother you can be to your kids. Most of my friends are excellent mothers – I’m surrounded by nurturing women who think mothering is the best job in the world.
I am such an anomaly that people don’t know how to decipher me.
Perhaps sometimes I should lie when people ask me if I have kids. I should nod and smile and chatter on about my two kids – a boy and a girl. I can probably bring out photos of my nephew and niece to add to the drama. It’s a lot easier than having to explain why I chose not to.
Perhaps I should pacify everyone by saying, yes I tried but nothing happened and I think God has a bigger plan for me. I think people just want me to say that I tried and shrug it off as God’s will.
Funnily, people frame the world accordingly and make up their own reasons.
Once when Nic said that we don’t have kids, the other person quickly responded, “You mean, not yet right?” Whatever floats your boat, people.
I’m not crazy and neither is Nic. We both feel that there’s a lot we want to do in life and perhaps God is being kind to us by not giving us kids.
I laugh when I think of a possible kid that we would have – a kid that takes after Nic and all his idiosyncrasies and rebelliousness?
Oh God. I would be busy getting called to the principal’s office to explain why my kid is such a motor mouth with attitude.
Now that would be the death of me!
 

The Joy of Making One's Own Soap

I started learning how to make soap from Soap Cart about a year or more ago. I have always been fascinated by the idea of making soap so I signed up for Soap Cart’s class one day.
When I told Nic that I was going to a soap-making class, he said that soap is so affordable. Why do I need to make my own?
I like making things with my hands. I like learning how to make things. And soap was something that I felt like doing at that time.
And I am stubborn. I never listen to my husband anyway. (This is what happens to girls who are brought up in households with strong mothers. My late mum never bothered much with dad’s opinions. She just went ahead to do what she pleased. I guess I am more similar to my mum than I’d like to believe!)
So I did. I found it incredibly fun to take sodium hydroxide (a caustic alkaline) and mix it with oils and make soap. It was both science and art. And the end result is something I could use.
The basic idea for soaps is to take sodium hydroxide and mix it with either water or milk. Once the sodium crystals have melted, the solution can be added into oils of your choice such as olive oil, palm oil or coconut oil. Then all you have to do is whip the whole thing until it thickens like pudding. Once it comes to ‘trace’ (when you drizzle the batter on the surface of the batter and the strands seem to stick to the surface), your soap is ready to be poured into moulds.
I found a loaf silicone mould from Mr DIY (that’s my kind of store for all types of knick-knacks and useless made-in-China household gadgets but I love going there) and have been using this mould since. It’s actually a mould for cake but silicone is so easy to unmould, compared to the harder plastic moulds. I think I bought it for RM12.

olive oil soap batter in mould
Olive oil soap hardening in the silicone mould. It takes about a day to harden.

When I first started making soap, I was much too nervous. I feared that my soap batter wouldn’t emulsify. I feared that I wasn’t precise enough with my measurements. And I got nervous when my soap wouldn’t unmould properly after a day.
I believe all these are newbie issues. I took soap-making too seriously. I felt that I had to be perfect at every step of the way.
And after many times making soap, I figured out a faster way.
I didn’t have to beat the soap batter continuously. I would now whip it a bit, leave the batter for 15 minutes, come back and whip it a bit and repeat this process over an hour. When I leave the soap batter, it thickens slowly on its own. It was such a refreshing way to learn that some things need time.
And if my soap couldn’t slip out of the mould after a day, I just popped everything into the freezer for 30 minutes. After that, the soap slides out easily! No more pushing and pulling the silicone mould like crazy. Sometimes it’s like life. No point forcing things along. And at times, you need to ‘freeze’ some stuff in life too. Deal with it later.
curing olive oil soap
Sliced up olive oil soap bars. They need to be “cured” for 60 days at least. The longer you cure your soap, the better it is. Curing means letting the water evaporate off from the soap. 

Of course, the soap needs to be sliced and cured.
I am a rather boring soap maker.
I only make 2 types of soaps – pure coconut oil soap which is superb for washing oily hands and pots and pan; and olive oil soap which is an incredibly moisturising soap for the face and body. All without fragrance/essential oils. Just plain Jane soaps. Both soap recipes came from Soap Cart and I’ve stuck to them religiously.
The olive oil soap needs a curing time of 60 days minimum but even the soap sceptic of a husband now raves about the olive oil soap.
It has helped him reduce the oiliness on his face and even moisturises his skin, leaving it supple. The soap contains olive oil, coconut oil and palm oil in different ratios as well as fresh milk.
If you ask me why I make soap when I can easily buy them off the shelves, I say I like knowing what goes into my soaps. I also appreciate the effort that goes into my own soaps and they’re pure and good for me.
Homemade soaps that are cured properly lasts a long time, unlike commercial soaps. They don’t soften or melt that fast in the shower. And when I make a batch of soap, they last me a year!

Berkhidmat Untuk Negara

You know that song we used to hear on RTM a long time ago? That Francesca Peters song called Setia? If you’re not that old, watch this.
Anyway, I wanted to say that yes, this year, I am volunteering as a polling agent and counting agent (PACA) for the upcoming general election.
I thought I wouldn’t, after what happened in May 2013.
After such devastating results, everyone felt depleted. A friend said she heard the results in Germany and started crying.
Everyone cried.
It was like we had nothing more to go on. Like all our energies were given to this one time, this one opportunity and it fell flat.
But I think what makes us humans is hope.
We hope for a better tomorrow.
And even though I said I wouldn’t become a PACA in GE14, I have decided to step up.
I have decided that if it is meant to be, it is up to me.
Maybe you’re thinking – silly gal. You’re only one PACA. Yes, but have you read the story of that boy who just helped throw starfish back into the ocean? He couldn’t help all the starfish but he helped as many as he could.
And I can get my friends to join me. Never underestimate the power of influence among friends.
And honestly, what would you do anyway on election day, after you’ve cast your vote?
Stay home? Binge? Hang out?
Why not be in the thick of the action and help out? We may not be the main players or the big ones but we can do our part. If everyone did a little here and there, we would have a much better nation.
And if you’re unsure what goes on in the voting centre, read my blog post from 2013 when I was a PACA. I was a complete newbie and yet I did it. So can you.
Don’t give in to your excuses or fear. Your country, my country, our country is far more important.
Some 30 years from now, your grandkids will ask you: what did you do on the election day of GE14, the most important milestone for Malaysia?
Are you going to say, well, I napped after I cast my vote?
Or that you were part of the history in the making, no matter what history it would be.
I’ve always been political starting with reading Aliran magazines when I was 16 (thanks to my dad). And there is nothing wrong with wanting a better country.
I always tell others, our country is amazing but we have leaders who are not. And if there’s something to change, we must change it. Of course, everyone tells me it’s gonna be dirty this time (when is it ever not?).
So if there’s one thing to do this GE, please sign up as a PACA and go for trainings. It’s the least you could do for your motherland.
This is really “berkhidmat untuk negara”. Not a crappy tagline in some Government letter.
 
If you want to do your duty for Malaysia, please sign up as a PACA. Get your friends and families. Anyone above 21 can be a PACA. There are trainings going on weekly so you never need to be afraid of not knowing what to do.
The worst attitude is that “other people can be PACA” and give a tonne of excuses like you’re away, not free etc. It’s only 1 day in 5 years that you get into the action and if you’re a polling agent, maybe the most 2 hours of duty. If I, a complete newbie, can do it in 2013, you can do it too.
Email: p52bbpaca@gmail.com or call 019 443 2088 or 04 641 3088. This is for the Bayan Baru area but if you prefer to be in town or elsewhere on Penang, do let them know when you call them. I am sure PKR shares resources like PACA with DAP and the rest.

Leadership & Lessons From My Curry Leaf Tree

krista goon
From left, Anita who was a speaker and Gina, my friend and client and me.

This week has been very eventful. I started it by attending a John Maxwell conference on leadership at G Hotel and these days, leadership is a big topic. It’s classic. It’s evergreen. Leadership never goes out of style.
I had debated with myself whether I should go. After all, I had been reading his books for a while now. His books were insightful and full of good reminders that the key to leadership is always self-leadership.
john maxwell seminar penang
With friends at the John Maxwell conference.

I have been struggling with this for a while too.
Leadership isn’t always about a position or a title. I remember attending Robin Sharma’s workshop years and years ago in KL and he kept hammering this point over and over. All of us can lead even if we’re not the CEO or the COO. Even the tea lady can be a leader if she decided to do so.
john maxwell seminar penang
The ticket wasn’t cheap but sometimes we have to invest in ourselves especially these days.

In business, I have had to lead alongside Nic. While he takes care of the strategy, design and what-not, I usually take care of the communications which include everything from emails to what we say on our Facebook, website and WhatsApp. It also includes designing programmes, following up with potential partners and collaborators and ensuring things are done and on time.
In the community, Nic leads as the chairman of our residents’ committee. He ended up being voted in as the chairman because we were once so upset that the previous committee wanted to cut down trees within our resident compound.
I have a curry leaf tree that’s 12 feet tall in my garden. I grew it from a sapling when I moved into my ground floor apartment. So imagine our indignation when a bunch of hired workers came around one morning and started looking at our tree. They were speaking in Tamil and wondering why they were asked to cut down a perfectly healthy tree!
We stopped them. And after we stopped them, Nic and I went around knocking on residents’ doors and asking them to join us at the upcoming AGM to protest such crazy decisions. That was the start of our crusade to keep our tree. The reason given was that our tree might fall during a storm and damage cars. This does not hold water as our tree is far away from the secondary car park lot.
So that was really how we ended up being the overzealous couple who walked up flights of stairs in each block and knocking on doors and talking to people! We just wanted them to attend the AGM with us (because each AGM, there will never be enough quorum and residents all shy away from attending and voicing what they thought!).
When the AGM rolled around, there was such a huge turnout of residents that we even shocked ourselves.
And we asked the then committee why in the world would anyone want to cut down perfectly healthy trees? I shall spare you the illogical answer.
Long story short, my tree is still standing. (Yay!) But not the shrubs and plants of other residents. One lady had her soursop tree chopped down; another had her fir tree lopped off! (This is also why I am so glad I work from home and I stopped the men from hacking my tree. We have to speak up when it matters.)
It is always a storm that makes us want to take up a strong position. A strong position can turn into leadership. A strong position can also transform how things are done.
In a way, my curry leaf tree propelled Nic to the chairmanship! In the past, no one knew who the chairman was (he was so afraid that other residents would come knocking on his door!). In the past, we had no communication with each other as residents.
I said to Nic that things have got to change when he agreed to become chairman. For one, we started a Facebook group and later, a WhatsApp chat group.
It has been 2 years since he held the position. And I think things have become so much better and I don’t think I’m biased.
Neighbours know each other better now and we’re more open and transparent about communications (yes, me being the communications freak). We started having residents’ gatherings – a catered buffet is a great way to get people to come out of their apartments and start saying hello to one another.
One elderly lady said that it was such a lovely way to bring together people who would normally never even know each other’s names!
So that’s leadership for you. It doesn’t need to come clothed in regal robes. It just needs someone to say, “I’m going to step up and do my best.”
It’s hard, of course. It’s hard when residents come knocking on our glass doors at 3am and 5am and 10pm. It’s hard when people get upset that they cannot park 3 of their cars inside the compound. It’s hard when people write poison letters and circulate them (and I thought only politicians get ‘surat layang’) saying nasty things about Nic when he is doing work that no one wants to do, on a voluntary basis.
He had to wake up at 3am once when water pipes burst and water came cascading down the stairs like a waterfall. He woke up at 5am once when two elderly men on their way out to their morning walk found an unconscious man on the road inside the apartment compound! He also had to go to Komtar’s Lembaga Rayuan 6 times just to attend the hearing as a representative of our apartments – we were protesting the use of our residential roads by a developer.
I had to a miss an important appointment just this week too because of Nic’s role. We were just about to go out for a quick lunch and my appointment when my neighbour came to call for Nic. It was a little after 2pm and a ground floor apartment unit was on fire! Luckily many people came around to help and we called the fire engines and the police.
apartment after a fire
What’s left of the apartment after the fire

I expected nasty flames (like the movies) but this was a lot of smoke and heat. By the time the firemen came and put out the fire, I had already missed my appointment! Dang.
And I was hungry as hell.
(Later, we went and grabbed McD and decided to spend whatever’s left of the day at a friend’s tea shop. All in a day’s work…NOT!)
chinese tea shop penang
Decided to get some pu-erh tea!

So leadership is a tough calling.
I underwent all that jazz when I was called upon to be the president of WomenBizSENSE. I had to expel a member a few years ago because she was simply not fit to be in our association. I had to sit down with her and tell her why our association could no longer have her as a member. That’s as bad as firing people (which I have also done before, and I fired someone much older than me which is unpleasant by all accounts).
Then again, I’ve also squared up to a hefty guy with a beer belly and looked him in the eye when his friends said they would like to fight with Nic. Being female can be a strength at times. He’d probably hit a guy but to hit a woman? That’s got to be lower than low. So I stood in front of him and dared him to. But I also had hit ‘record’ on the audio of my phone so that I had audio evidence just in case.
Most people think of leadership as countless photo opps with the creme de la creme of society, rubbing shoulders with the popular.
It’s really not.
It’s about facing the heat, the brickbats, the complaints, the grouses, the shit that hits the fan sort of thing. The stuff that everyone runs away from but the stuff that you have to do because you’re the leader.
Leadership is about doing all the challenging things that are full of consequences. It’s having to be brave when everyone else isn’t or doesn’t want to.
And sometimes, it starts with something as simple as wanting to prevent my curry leaf tree from being chopped down.

The Discomfort of The Edge

I wrote this piece for a book project that is soon to be published. When I met Vern last week, she asked me when my next (promised) blog post is coming up. I had a few lined up but when I saw this, I believe this is worth sharing. At least to kickstart 2018.
****
I’ve always believed that you can only grow when you are pushed to the edge and feel extremely uncomfortable. If I look back at the incidents that shaped my life, I’ve usually had to face discomfort, fears and doubts.
And I haven’t always been a risk taker. I haven’t always been brave, optimistic, confident or assertive.
In fact, I grew up introverted and shy. Whenever my parents’ friends visited, I’ll be the first to run and hide in my room. When people spoke to me, I couldn’t even make eye contact and I had to brave myself to speak up.
It wasn’t for a lack of ideas – I was a bookworm since I was 6 – but I was self-conscious.
Everyone says they were shy as children but I was more so with my short sightedness, awful hair and skinny frame. I hated being in the spotlight even though I often was, as my dad was the school’s discipline teacher. In fact, I was just another mediocre girl in school!
When I was 10 years old, I decided to put some effort into my school work after almost failing my Math test. I had cringed when I showed dad my Math results and wished the earth would swallow me up then and there.
The acute embarrassment and discomfort made me promise myself never to be caught in such a situation again. I started to systematically organize information so that I didn’t have to memorize facts like the rest of my friends. I came up with my own system of writing notes. With my own mind maps, I could recall vast amounts of information and I could write, explain and expound my points of view. When I discovered I could be good at my studies and ace exams, I felt confidence seeping into my life.
Admittedly, when we’re more confident, we start to explore other areas of life. When I started getting A’s, I felt more capable and I started braving myself to do other things in school – I disliked public speaking but I signed up for the school debate team. When my best friends and I started representing our school in inter-district debates and started to win, I found myself relishing the idea of standing up and speaking in front of an audience.
Interestingly, sports was still an area that I feared. With that little spot of confidence that I had, I tried out for the school hockey team. I wasn’t good at it and I despised running around in the scorching sun but I wanted to give myself a chance to see if I could do well in it. And so it is with many things in my life.
That’s how I ended up in business. I always tell friends that I have never even considered being an entrepreneur – I was always going to climb the corporate ladder. But life has an odd way of turning inside out.
When I was bored with my corporate communications career, I returned to my alma mater, USM, to do my Master’s degree. But sitting still has never been my strong point. I ended up helping my husband in his web design business (which eventually became mine as I became his business partner).
Initially, I had no idea what web design was. I had no design nor programming knowledge but I am an optimist. Whatever I didn’t know, I read. I googled things up. I figured it out on my own. I started becoming interested in all things web design and I learnt how to market our business.
A friend said that she could see I was passionate about marketing. I said I had to learn how to market because I had to sell our web design services and I had to be faster and smarter so that I could help our clients.
That’s the same “can do” attitude that I had when I co-founded a women entrepreneur association called WomenBizSENSE with Josephine Yoong back in 2006. We both laugh now when we think about our naivete but it is precisely our naivete that enabled us to start something that has endured until today.
We had both been looking for a women entrepreneur group to join but we didn’t find one that suited our inclinations! Instead of bemoaning the fact that all the interesting women’s groups were in KL, we decided we’d start one based on the criteria that we wanted.
On many levels, it has been challenging. I was its president for 4 years and in that span of time, I’ve had to lead a disciplinary committee, manage conflict within the organisation and engage in the most unpleasant tasks (such as removing a member from our organisation due to integrity issues). Again, it’s being pushed to the edge that makes me stronger and more resourceful!
When my mentees come to me, I often throw them this question – “What’s the worst that could happen if you made this decision?” If the consequences aren’t going to be deadly, just take the leap. You’ll learn to swim when you hit the deep end.
Many of us will always have doubts about ourselves. We fear what others will think of us. We want people to be happy with us but sometimes, this fear holds us back from doing what we truly are meant to do.
When I quit my corporate communications job, my dad was worried about me. He had never known anyone to quit a well-paying job only to leap into the unknown (he had always been a teacher and being in business was as risky as not having a job!). If I didn’t take the risk back then, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now (or have the adventures that I have had!).
Inevitably, I try to be the voice of courage for my mentees and constantly push them to excel beyond what they think they are capable of. I was so proud of Janice, my mentee when she managed to connect her CEO to someone from The Star. The Star then invited her CEO to speak at their business event and she was the catalyst that made this happen. This wouldn’t have happened if Janice didn’t push herself.
The previous Janice would have thought, who am I to bring together my CEO with The Star? I encouraged her to think bigger and ask, what if good things happen as a result of the introduction? And good things did happen. And her CEO now looks at her in a totally different light. He realises that Janice is not just any ordinary employee.
Too often, we don’t have enough cheerleaders and we don’t believe in ourselves. And too many people are pessimistic (think Eeyore the blue, sad donkey in Winnie The Pooh) and think of all the ways things can go wrong which is why many people often have dreams but don’t go after them.
All of us have this ability to go beyond who we are today. Sometimes we need someone by our side to keep pushing us forward and to keep reminding us when we get lazy or slow down.
I was fortunate that I had many mentors in my life. Mrs Prema, my English language teacher when I was in Form 1, believed in me and told me to continue excelling in English. Mr Raju, my English tuition teacher, encouraged me to write more.
Mr Kana, my Math teacher, was tough love but he rooted for me even though I thought Math was the death of me in Form 3.
My dad, who quietly encouraged my writing and essays throughout my teenage years and who even helped me type up my stories for contest submissions!
My best friends, Tammy and Jana, who thought I was the smartest and funniest girl in class when I felt otherwise.
My late mum, who always thought her eldest daughter could do anything even when I vacillated between wanting to study law (no doubt influenced by LA Law on TV) and wanting to be a copywriter (no one knew what it entailed!).
It takes a village of cheerleaders to help you realize your potential. I had been fortunate because I had the right people around me.
But what if all you have are critics and naysayers? What if you had an Eeyore in your life?
I had a Geography teacher in Form 1 called Mrs Teoh who disliked me intensely. Do you know how devastating it is to find out your teacher disliked you as a teenager? But I used her dislike of me to prove that I could do so much more.
There is nothing like hate to spur me on. The more someone says I can’t do something, the more I’d take it on as a challenge and prove the person wrong.
Until today, I keep challenging myself.
I have always wanted to publish a book. I put my persistence to the test in 2016 when I co-authored a book with my husband on web design and marketing (what a long way from not knowing anything about web design to writing a book on this topic!).
This year, I want to write another book – one that’s non-fiction but one that’s about advice and strategies for people like my mentees. I also want to start a podcast. I have many personal projects lined up and I need to carve out time to do them all.
I also took on mentees despite having a busy schedule because I know how important it is to encourage women and help them fulfil their potential and then get them to pay this forward by imbuing others with this confidence.
I also started a project of saving books and creating opportunities for people to do charity because I felt that there must be a way to prevent books from going to the landfill. I do all these things because I like seeing how far I can go, how creative I can be and how resourceful I can become.
And of course, I also took on the task of producing a book together with Emi and Josephine (we hope it gets published by March this year) – we volunteered our personal time to interview and write stories of women leaders because we believe Asian women have their own perspectives on “leaning in”. We met up and spoke to a number of fantastic women leaders in Penang. Their stories are inspiring as well as emotional.
Was it a tough project? Yes. Was it agonizing? For sure.
The discomfort is real but each time I face my fears, my fear monster shrinks a little bit more.
In my life, the more I do, the more I know I can do. I just need to try my best. Not all things work in my favour (if it did, I’d be invincible or Wonder Woman, both of which I am certainly not). I am terrible at some things – I can’t moderate a forum if I don’t have a rapport with the panellists, I am hopeless at logic puzzles, I can’t sew a straight line and I am bad at following up.
But I stopped bashing myself and what I am bad at, I either get help or eliminate them from my life. Plus it always helps to have a sense of humour.
Marianne Williamson says it best (and I love this paragraph – it always lifts me up!):
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
And now go out and do that badass thing that you do so well.

Good Intentions, Damn Unwilling

I had good intentions. I really did.
I wanted to write a lot about my Taiwan trip and look where that got me.
I wanted to do so much more and tell you all the exciting things I did in Taipei but I decided to write this first and then do a backtrack later to the Taipei/Alishan Mountain/Chiayi posts when I am freer (OK, now that last bit sounded too much like a joke!).
Has it been that many months since I blogged?
I feel guilty!
And I’m a writer. Writing is in my blood.
But I think it’s because I’m a writer that I stopped blogging for a long while.
Heck, I even stopped going for my facial and just resumed last week and my facial therapist was like, “The last time you were here for your facial was February!”
Luckily she didn’t reprimand me as my skin, despite 10 months plus of so-called disregard and wear and tear, seemed quite all right. I didn’t make that up. Elly the therapist told me so. She sounded utterly surprised that my skin was still supple after 10 months of not doing proper cleansing and masque.
Well, I still adhered to my Human Nature Malaysia jojoba moisturiser nightly. I still adhered to my facial gua-sa (not as regularly as I should be doing it and I even have a reminder in my iPhone!). I also discovered argan oil on a jaunt to one of the shops in George Town and have been using it for my facial spots.
I also am still using this jar of gooey moisturiser (Cosrx’s Advanced Snail 92 All in One Cream) from Korea courtesy of my cousin. This gooey cream is made from snail secretion. Don’t ask me why I slather this on my skin at night but I do and I feel superbly moisturised.
And I have one more secret to share – konjac facial sponge.
You can get this anywhere but I found the most reasonably priced ones are sold in Daiso but not all Daiso sell them so you have to look around. I use it on my face and the buffing motion helps to smoothen skin. Maybe that’s why. (By the way, don’t worry about clicking the links in my blog post. They link to real blogs with information, not some affiliate page.)
So yeah, as I was saying, as a writer, I write daily. Just not on this blog. I write so much daily that sometimes I get quite fed up with writing!
That is why it’s like pulling molars if I have to sit down after a long day’s work and type away at the blog.
And then there’s Instagram and Facebook. I find myself posting more often on these 2 platforms as I’m doing it on my phone while waiting for people or entertaining myself. After all the hashtags and captioning over there, I suddenly find myself too lazy to say the same darn things on the blog.
It’s like the moment has come and gone.
(Or maybe I have too many moments that I can’t seem to catch up with!)
Hence, the long silence. Interminably long.
I’m going to try Marsha’s method. That woman whom I have known since 2001 or so (yeah we go way back when the Internet was just a mere toddler in Malaysia) is a blogger unsurpassed. She is a full-time writer and yet manages to put up post after post almost daily! I salute her.
She’s a mom of 2 sons and has a full-time writing career while doing yoga, housekeeping and more. If this busy woman can blog so often, who am I not to emulate her?
So I will endeavour to blog a little each week and maybe blog in the early part of the day when I am fresh and preppy. Not at the end of the day when life is practically sucked out of me.
While I go and prep myself for 2018 and at least a weekly blog post, tell me if you’re blogging and what keeps you chugging.

Tasting Taiwan's Night Market – Part 2

Sorry for the inexplicable long silence.

Krista Goon
Adele and me when I spoke at the Penang Women Chamber of Commerce CNY lunch

It gets harder and harder to blog when my time is so consumed by a zillion other things – mentoring, for instance (although I have officially completed my 6-month mentoring sessions with Adele and Janice).
gratitude note
A note from my mentee, Adele.

Also, business projects. When I say business projects, most people think it’s doing stuff for clients. Errr. Not exactly. I’m doing stuff for myself. Nic is tweaking his game for entrepreneurs while I’m creating some courses and follow-up products that can help our clients more. We still maintain and manage websites for clients but these days, we’re also focusing on creating more training materials for people who want to learn how to do it on their own.
I’m also working on a book with two other friends along the theme of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and that’s practically driving me up the wall – you wouldn’t believe the rounds of readings and edits and going back and forth with the women we’ve interviewed.
cathedral of holy spirit penang
Plus in between, I get pitched to speak. Nic and I did one for 200 Catholic students at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on 24 June, sharing about a community project Nic and I initiated called TSN Book Adoption Centre.
cathedral of holy spirit penang catholic mission day
The 200 uni students from Sabah and Sarawak.

Before that, I did one for my WomenBizSENSE meeting on 23 June where I taught the 40 ladies how to use time-saving apps and software for business.
catholic students mission day 2017 penang
I call this interfaith. I’m a Buddhist and I get to talk to Catholic students about what it means to serve your community. Start with a small, do-able project. Don’t try to conquer the world.

 
I’ve one coming up on 19 July – it’s one I’ve agreed to do for a new co-working space called Scoopoint along Weld Quay regarding women entrepreneurship. But speaking is something that I like to do as part of my repertoire as each speaking engagement allows me to find new ways to present and improve my ability to present.
Yeah, so those things take up my time. And in between, I want to read my fiction and business books. I want to go home to Banting and see my dad and sister and niece and nephew more.
OK, but today, I decided to make good on my promise. More on my Taiwan travels! (If you missed Part 1, here it is.)
taiwan night market game machine
So the evening we checked into our small but clean boutique hotel, we had a quick shower and went in search of the night market! The famed night markets of Taipei.
The nearest one to us was the Ningxia night market. I was excited because I was thinking of all the tasty snacks and street food awaiting us. It was 20 minutes of walking.
When you’re travelling, every kerb and corner shop looks interesting. We passed a women’s only gym which looked really hip (all that see-through glass makes the gals exercise with more effort as passers-by can see what they’re doing).
Taiwanese night markets often are a combination of entertainment (street magicians), gambling (games of chance for adults and kids!), snacks (grilled beef/squid/chicken, deep-fried everything from stinky tofu to chicken, pastries, fruits, sausages etc.), electronic gadgets and fashion.
taiwan night market game stall
Kitschy 80s game stall that attracts people to try their luck at winning.

 
In a seedier section of another night market that we passed by near Lung Shan Temple, it had shops where you could eat snake (cobra anyone?), drink snake bile, buy lingerie and drink alcohol. All businesses related to the supposed virility circle. I find it strange that we still need to kill hapless snakes just to satisfy some strange tradition (yes, that Chinese tradition that I do not agree with!).
Anyway, Ningxia was an introduction to the Taipei night market scene. Kids were seated in front of stalls playing games of chance. Mostly the machines were China-made. If there were no machine, it was a simple stall set-up with balloons that you had to burst in order to win a prize. Similar to our tikam-tikam. When we were browsing about, a few people were engaged in trying to get themselves a prize (which could be some soft toy). I think humans just like to win. The feeling of success is what we want, not so much the prize (which is why so many ‘Toyland’ shops are popping up in Queensbay Mall – sometimes these toys are so cheap and ugly and yet people still buy lots of tokens to get a chance to win one!).
As we had spent the whole day travelling (our flying schedule had started at 6am that morning but we had been at the Penang airport since 2am and the airport chairs aren’t the best for sleeping!), we took it easy. I was more eager to try some food than gamble to get a soft toy that is (poorly) made in China.
grilled wild boar sausage taiwan night market
Anything grilled is good. Taiwan’s grilled meats are top of the list.

The grilled wild boar sausage was good as it was piping hot and you could slather a few different sauces. The next place we stopped by was a “zhu zhar” stall with typical hawker style seating. They were frying up lots of stuff – beef koay teow, beef slices and soupy mee sua. The Taiwanese love their beefy dishes. We sat down on tiny stools at a metal table and ordered a soup. It was a dismal bowl of beef slices in ginger soup. The beef slices were tender but too miserly. The soup tasted good but maybe I was hungry. We shared the soup and decided we’d call for another dish.
Just then a local couple plopped themselves down in front of us. The table-sharing concept is common in Asian countries since space is limited and personal space isn’t quite as important, unlike Western countries.
They ordered stir fried beef slices. When their dish came, the guy was disgruntled. He started to mumble about how small the portion was. He started grumbling louder and even called the stall owner over to ask “Is this stir fried beef? So few beef slices! We’re not tourists you know. We’re local people.” He was getting pissed as the minutes ticked on. This was uncomfortable as we were like a foot away from him and his girlfriend (she too was mumbling away).
I was so glad to get away once we finished our food and decided to go away in search of other more filling snacks!
famous rice ball stall in taipei
As we strolled along, we saw this long line of people. Whenever you see a long line, you know the food’s good. And the long line of people were mostly locals. Patiently, they stood in line edging themselves nearer to a guy who was packing rice ball snacks. He should be famous going by the various newspaper clippings he had stuck onto his other stall (strangely he operated from a push cart on the road). I didn’t want to wait in line – I wasn’t that desperately hungry then.
famous rice ball stall ning xia night market
Apparently, “ku zhao wei” or tradtional taste is a big thing in Taiwan.

We walked along the shops and realized Taipei is very much Japanese-influenced. Historically, the Japanese came to Taiwan and stayed for 50 years until 1945. But unlike Malaya that was conquered and under Japanese rule, the Taiwanese generally like the Japanese. They are surprisingly positive and fondly open about the Japanese and their memories of Japanese in Taiwan. Hence, we saw lots of local sushi and sashimi shops (though I’m a bit wary of their fish and how fresh the fish is!) where locals would just sit and eat and down some beer.
rice ball snack vendor taipei taiwan
This is the rice ball snack guy. Nonstop business on a week day night.

When we had enough of walking, we headed back to City Suites Beimen. I never really have a fixed itinerary when we travel. We do what we feel like doing which is often the reason for many interesting surprises.
The interesting part is coming up – I didn’t know I had booked us into an artsy enclave and one that was walking distance to the wharf!
traditional chinese herbal tea taiwan
A herbal tea stall at the night market. The seller wasn’t friendly at all. Talk about brusque!

Travelling in Taiwan – Part 1

nic sim & krista goon
Nic and I at Jinguashi, a gold mining town up in the mountains.

I just got back from a lovely 10 days in Taiwan. I enjoyed every bit of my trip, even those days up in freezing cold Alishan mountains when I was in three layers of clothes and still felt the fingers of cold creeping up on me.

I admit it, I am a tropical gal. While I like spring weather (and it was spring weather, almost in Taipei when we landed on 29 March), I also love my sunshiny mornings. Those “throw open your window and feel the sun blazing” times were rare in Taipei; it was mostly grey and gloomy even at 10am!

The good thing was the gentle cold of 19 Celcius which made walking about a pleasant experience. Nic and I clocked each more than 10,000 steps a day (as faithfully recorded by my Apple app) and I actually lost some weight when I got back to Penang! All that walking daily did me good. So I did prove some people wrong. They told me I’d be eating so much street food that I’d come home 5 kg heavier.

But let me start in the beginning. Why would someone like me, someone who doesn’t read Mandarin, decide to visit Taipei?

I’d heard a lot about Taiwan from friends. I had wanted to go some years ago but other destinations came up (Bali, HK – multiple times, Phuket – twice, Chiangmai). I didn’t know why but this year, I felt the urge to visit Taiwan. It was quite a last minute trip as we had many projects going on – we had just launched a client’s website, we were rolling out a new system for our Redbox Easyweb clients, we were also having our Marketing Mojo in March and it seemed so many things came up on our schedule.

Yet, I knew more than anything Nic needed this trip. He had been working really hard and he needed the break. He’s not the sort to book holidays. In my family, I’m the one who sorts out flight bookings, hotel bookings, Airbnb bookings and plans the holiday itinerary. I’m the one who goes online diligently to research hotels, places to visit, things to eat, things to explore, MRT routes.

Taoyuan airport
At the Taoyuan airport

For this trip, I booked really late but it worked out fine eventually. A friend asked me to keep my itinerary – she implied that she might want mine the next time she goes to Taipei. I’m not so sure that my itinerary is the sort for most people. You see, Nic and I like the free and easy holiday gallivants – no fixed schedule, go as we please, decide on the morning itself what we’d like to see or do and let the discoveries along the way surprise us.

I never book tours because I despise them and their clockwork timings, the early morning calls, the shuttling from tourist spot to tourist spot. I would feel like a lamb and I would annoy the tourist guide as I like to mull over exhibits (if we’re in a museum) or take my own sweet time to check out stuff other people find intolerable.

So here’s my itinerary – if you have similar travel tastes, this could do for you. The thing is, I try not to be touristy. So we never went to Taipei 101 (oh I can hear your gasps of horror), we never went to Sun Moon Lake (I still don’t know where that place is!) and we never tried the stinky tofu.

29 March, first day

Flew Penang-KL on AirAsia (super early, 6.30am), layover in KLIA2 for 3 hours before we got on the 10.20am flight to Taipei. The flight took 4 hours. I booked AirAsiaGo which meant we got flights and hotel together. I’m not the type to find the lowest price for hotel and flights because I can’t stand over-researching. I am more concerned where my hotel is located and if it’s clean and quiet and most of all, if it is within minutes of the MRT.

However, I only needed the hotel for the first 5 days of my Taipei trip as I would be going to Alishan for 3 days and then back to Taipei (to an Airbnb) till we flew back to Penang. Sometimes I like using AirAsiaGo just for convenience sakes.

When we landed around 2.30pm, I was expecting a long crawl at the immigration/passport control. Surprisingly, the Taiwanese are pretty efficient. Many counters were open and the friendly yet firm immigration officers quickly processed the long queue of foreign visitors in a short time. When the officer hands your passport back to you, she actually smiles.

taoyuan airport
Fresh, bright and welcoming airport!

I loved the Taoyuan airport immediately – it was spacious, welcoming with real orchids and plants (AirAsia lands at Taoyuan airport terminal one – Taoyuan actually means peach garden). The next best thing, high-speed wifi that didn’t need a password! And then, the clean toilets. The toilets didn’t smell like toilets, unlike Malaysian airport toilets. The toilets were bright and sparkling clean.

We saw a huge crowd at the telco counters and decided we’d get a local SIM card too. The thing is, there were 3 different telcos side by side and each one had its own queue. We ultimately decided that we’d go with the longest queue as it seemed the most popular (which proved to be as well as a Malaysian guy told us that Chung Hwa was quite reliable across Taiwan).

The packages offered by all three telcos were similar and later we discovered that Chung Hwa Telecom (the one we chose anyway) had really good coverage even when we were up in the mountains. It was a reasonable deal – NT500 for 10 days of unlimited calls and data use. The telco staff even switched up the SIM for you in super speed.

I had initially wanted to rent a pocket wifi but we couldn’t decide on this till we landed. We would be getting wifi at our hotel and most public places in Taiwan so I figured a SIM card would be better. We needed the number so that our Taiwan friends could reach us (they don’t use WhatsApp, preferring to use Line and WeChat).

I believe pocket wifi is good if you’re travelling in a large group (4 or 6 persons) and want to share wifi but since it was only Nic and me, a SIM card was good enough. He could always share his wifi with me if I needed it. Not having wifi also gave me a much-needed break from WhatsApp!

The next thing was to get our Easycard – the Metro cards with preloaded credit so that we could travel easily on the MRT. It was NT1000 per card with a non-refundable NT100 deposit. The card was great for travel on buses too. We didn’t even finish using up the credit so we got back the rest of our money when we exchanged our Easycards on the day of our departure (conveniently at the Airport Express stop).

We weren’t in a hurry after collecting our luggage so we went in search of food at the airport. Our first meal upon landing was a piping hot bowl of pork balls with noodles at the food court one level below the arrival hall.

taiwanese pork ball noodles
Our first meal in Taiwan – shared, of course!

Nic always taught me this: always eat when you travel. You never know when you’d get to your next stop and if you’re hungry, you’re going to be grumpy. Not fun travelling if you’re grumpy! So even if the airplane food isn’t fine dining, we’d still order and eat in the plane first (as you never know how long the passport control queues are). And when we land, we will look for food first.

We were quite lucky as Joyce, my friend who lives in Taipei, puts it. March 2017 was the month that the airport metro was finally completed and we could now travel from Taoyuan Airport into Taipei (Main Station) in 36 minutes. Since it was just opened, we even had a promotional 50% discount off the NT160 fee. In the past, it was either taxis or buses going to Taipei Main Station which took an hour or so and cost more than NT1000. 

Even with the conversion rate (and our bloody devalued ringgit), it was only RM24 per person for 36 minutes of travel on the airport express metro into the city! How is it that our KLIA express is like RM50 for 28 minutes of travel? Something to think about, isn’t it? 

Going out of Malaysia can be enlightening in many ways. It helps us compare where we are in relation to the rest of the world. I really can’t help but question why is it that our airport express is so expensive? How does this encourage people to use the airport express? 

Taoyuan airport express
Waiting for our express ride into Taipei. Taoyuan is an adjacent district to Taipei.

Upon reaching Taipei Main Station, we opted to grab a taxi to our hotel, City Suites Beimen* on Chang An West Road. Actually our hotel wasn’t that far away. We could’ve walked from the Main Station all the way to the Beimen MRT exit and from there it was only a 10 minute walk to the hotel except that the MRT staff told us that it wasn’t reachable on foot! Very confusing indeed. 

*The hotel was new and clean. It wasn’t a big room and it didn’t have windows (though even if we had, we’d probably be staring at the next building – that’s how buildings are in Taipei. Like back to back). I thought I’d miss having a window but I didn’t. If you’re looking for a contemporary hotel within 10 minutes walk of the MRT station, try this one. The staff are young and polite and try their best to speak in English but we lapsed into Mandarin since we saw them struggling to communicate! 

Anyway, we got into a taxi (called ‘da di’) and there was a bit of jam along the road as a mass protest was going on. The Taiwanese take it in their stride. They’re cool about protests and demos unlike Malaysia. And taxis use the meter so taxi rides are affordable and our short ride was about NT105 (when you get into the taxi, the base price is already NT70). When we reached the hotel, it was already 6pm and getting dark. We decided to shower before we headed out to the Ning Xia night market, some 20 minutes away on foot. 

Since this has been a super long post, I’ll keep the Ning Xia night market for the next post! 

nic sim & krista goon
Excited to be in Taiwan! Pardon the horrible double chin selfie!