When Fate Intervened…

This is a story of how two people met.
And sorry. It’s not a love story.
It’s about being friends but it’s also about turning friendship into something more.
It was such a surprise to have her write about our little relationship. We’ve often joked that people would hardly believe how we met and that my aunt actually met her before I did.
And like all Penang folks, we begin with food and we end with food. We always have food in some form or another.
OK, enough tantalizing. It’s such a warm, fuzzy read because she’s an excellent writer, the sort I’d want if only she weren’t bonded to that oil and gas company.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Wei Vern and how we go a funny, little way back.

Rebuilding An Oasis in Love Lane

Penang is shaping up nicely indeed, if going by the lovely restored buildings of character each day. Just last Sunday, we were at the old Oasis Hotel on 23, Love Lane.
Love Lane is a quaint old name, conjuring all sorts of imaginative visuals – why Love Lane? (It’s good alliteration too…rolls off the tongue in one long loop!). Did secret love trysts happen here? Was it named after someone called Love?
Love Lane reminds me of my maternal grandparents who used to live in a rented room (room, mind you, not even a house) on 76, Love Lane. Like a movie, I can remember as a child of 4 or 5 being in this little room which functioned as a bedroom and dining room. I can still recall the amalgam of smells of that room. Like a whiff of everything – food, old people’s minyak urut, old newsprint and Tiger plasters. I cannot recall exactly but the people who rented rooms in that building shared their bathrooms and kitchen. I can imagine the morning rush!
Anyway, Love Lane also connects to Convent Light Street and St Xavier’s. These are the schools my mom and dad studied at, respectively. Apparently that is how most girls met their future husbands. (Why are all convents situated near boys’ schools? I studied in a co-ed school so I really can’t understand why boys and girls can’t just study together instead of separated?)
Almost Missed It
We almost couldn’t tour the old Oasis Hotel as Nic forgot to RSVP Sook Foong of PHT. Luckily some who RSVPed did not turn up so we quickly joined the PHT tour. As the boutique hotel of 10 rooms is not yet open to the public(it opens on 1 December), joining PHT has its privileges! We were taken on a private tour of this new premises, restored and perhaps looking even better than it was looking before!
Dr Gywnn led us to gape at the wonderful work that has been done on this building. It certainly looked painstaking and arduous, going by the ruins it was in when the current owner bought it in 2008. Back then, this building was an old backpackers’ hostel called Oasis Hotel and owned by the Tan family (who now runs the famous Rainforest Bakery on Chulia Street).
No Photos Please
Despite most PHT members coming armed with cameras, we weren’t allowed to snap any photos. It was a pity as the restored hotel is absolutely beautiful. It abounds with nostalgia. Hence, you won’t see any photos here. But I am sure you will soon see them as the hotel prepares to be launched next month.
You can of course follow their restoration blog where they’ve chronicled every detail which went into making this building a pride of George Town again. This is truly a helpful and immensely detailed blog, useful for people who are looking to restore old buildings and wanting to know what work goes into it.
It helps that the rooms are impeccably decorated with classic teak furniture and lots of local artwork. It seems that finally the owner has a place for his art pieces and furniture he’s collected over the years. I for one am glad that there isn’t any ugly or cheap furniture. You may spot one or two IKEA items. The best piece of furniture has to be the Planter’s Lazy Chair on the verandahs -a lounge chair where one could lie back and have a ‘stengah’ or two!
The new hotel is also wheel-chair friendly so disabled guests can also enjoy this little boutique hotel.
While working/digging the old hotel, workers found shards of old crockery. These are cleverly used as decor pieces around the hotel. An old horse shoe or two was also found, giving some information that there used to be a horse stable at the back. Even the Chinese doors when sanded off their paint revealed some Chinese couplets!
A Touch of Charm and Then Some
I love old buildings like these – high ceilings, lots of wooden louvred windows complete with sheer cotton curtains with deep green borders fluttering in the breeze. The only modern items would be the Sony iPOD dock and Sony TVs in each room. Other than that, it simply reeks old world charm all around.
The upper floors are made of real wood, not the laminated floorboards we know today. Walking barefooted on real wood floors is divine.
We never did find out how much accommodation per night costs here but we hope it will be affordable enough that locals can try out a night or two. I was bemused when one of the staff commented that Nic and I could stay in their “Secret Room” with the Spectacular Bath for our honeymoon. Nice try but I’ve been married for a decade already. Too bad. Otherwise I would book it for our honeymoon!
Until then, I’m satisfied that I know what is behind the Chinese gate.
I could say this place could be called The House No One Loved, Look At It Now….fabulous!

That Quest For Tau Sar Pneah!

Living in Penang for the past decade and more makes me quite Penangite in the sense that I do not truly appreciate the little things Penang are famous for.

Lor bak, Singapore style.  From Food Republic, Vivo City.
Lor bak, Singapore style. From Food Republic, Vivo City.

If you ask me when was the last time I had a plate of sinfully oily char kueh teow, I’d have to think a bit. I cannot recall. I don’t normally eat char kueh teow. It’s more like I don’t crave it that much. That goes for quite a number of Penang hawker food like chee cheong fun, Hokkien mee, laksa (assam laksa to you KL people) and curry mee.
In fact, eating out can be quite a chore.
Nic and I have to really think hard if we want to eat out.
Most times, we eat in because I much prefer to cook (yes, for some strange reason, I like cooking and I like knowing what I put into my food).
It helps that Nic is always the eager guinea pig – I think he secretly enjoys my little kitchen adventures! But he won’t admit it. Oh men are like that. They’d rather have a tooth extracted than heap praise on their wives. But then again, I shan’t be judgemental. I’ve only seen this hesitance to praise of the men in my family – my uncles, my dad and of course, my husband.
So the only time we ever go out is when friends from abroad or out of state come for a visit. Then we have to figure out the hawker food for them as non-Penangites are very focused when they come to Penang – like Soh Peng said, “Give me hawker food. I don’t care for any Western cuisine.”
Penangites are the opposite. We’d rather tuck into Western/Italian/Japanese/Korean than plain old hawker fare. Maybe we have had too much of the same thing.
While on a flight to Penang sometime ago, another friend told me that she spied a Singaporean woman seated in front of her checking a long list of must-eat food in Penang! But that is really what Singaporeans come here for. Our lipsmacking food. (Which really, does taste much better than any old Singaporean fare. No wonder they go mad here over our Penang food. And they go “cheap, cheap”!)
Over the Hari Raya Haji weekend, Soh Peng came to stay. On the last day, hours before she took her flight home to Singapore, we went in search of Penang’s famous snack – tau sar pneah. These round little biscuit snacks are usually bought by visitors to Penang. Most locals I know never touch this biscuit. We’re that bored of our famous little biscuit.
You see, we didn’t want to buy the biscuits on Friday when she arrived. We figured the biscuits would be fresher if she bought them on the day she left. Funnily we forgot that the rest of the world (KL and Singapore people) were on the island for the three-day weekend too.
We thought we’d buy at Him Heang on Burmah Road. Wrong move! The shop was packed with tourists that Monday morning. I had this feeling that we were a bit too late. There was no more tau sar pneah! People were buying biscuits like there was no tomorrow. The next batch of tau sar pneah was arriving at 3pm but who wants to wait till then?
(Him Heang has its tale of notoriety. In the good old days, they will never entertain walk-ins for their biscuits if you did not pre-order. Yup, they were that snooty. But snootiness attracts more customers because it must mean very tasty biscuits or else why would they be so snooty? Just as we would patronize a restaurant if we see it full of people. You never want to go into an empty restaurant would you? Reminds me of that super famous, super fine butter cake sold in the morning market at OUG. My KL friend lined up patiently for this cake (so we could get a taste of it) and yes, it was superb. The things we do for food!)
Singapore famous chui kuih snack
Singapore famous chui kuih snack

With dejection on our faces, we went in search of Ghee Hiang. At least Ghee Hiang has 2 outlets nearby. I am sure we could get at least something! I thought I was being smart. We tumbled into the car and zoomed off before any tourist could figure out why.
The Ghee Hiang bungalow on Anson Road is normally very quiet. Their compound is spacious and most times, only one or two cars are parked. That day, it was full of cars. All with outstation number plates. Errgh. Not a good sign. On regular days, you can park leisurely, walk out of your car and get into the shop, pay for your bisucits and get out in less than 10 minutes.
That day, we eyeballed a long line of people! The compound was maxed out with cars and even one or two bulky tourist vans. Soh Peng decided to line up.
Ahead of her were about 7 people. She said that a riot almost broke out when the first woman in the line asked the Ghee Hiang staff for 30 boxes of tau sar pneah! The person behind this lady wasn’t too happy because he might not get any the way she was ordering.
We didn’t stay on to hear the bickering as I told Soh Peng that we could try our luck at the drive-by outlet of Ghee Hiang’s on Burmah Road. Ghee Hiang is smart in that way – they opened an outlet just a few hundred yards BEFORE you reached Him Heang. No doubt this was to waylay unsuspecting tourists to buy from THEM before they could buy at Him Heang. Damn sneaky! After all, it was a one-way traffic road and you would see their shop first.
So we went around to this Ghee Hiang outlet.
Oooh, no one at all! No line, no busy people (it was just a window counter where you walked up and made your order).
Unfortunately, no line meant that they too had sold out their tau sar pneah!
I was at this point rather clueless on what we could do next. All the island’s tau sar pneah were bought up by crazy car-loads of tourists. Who eats 30 boxes of tau sar pneah anyway?
Soh Peng finally decided that we could try Chowrasta market.
This was getting to be quite strange.
(Earlier, we crossed the road to Apom Guan on Burmah Road near Union Primary School because she had a craving for apom with bananas. We stood to wait at Ah Guan’s stall as he was busy making lots of apom. A well-dressed lady stood nearby too. So did a man. Ah, 2 people before us. Still manageable! Luckily I asked Ah Guan because he said that he was just at 100 pieces of apom and the lady had ordered 200 pieces of apom! OHMYGOD. What the heck would she need 200 pieces of apom for? With that, we just turned tail and left.)
Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different
Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different

And so we got to Chowrasta. For sure they will have Him Heang or Ghee Hiang. The first stall we came to did have Him Heang but in a box of 16 pieces, not 32 pieces. The woman who manned the stall convinced us to try out a non-branded tau sar pneah called Chuan Toe. Eventually Soh Peng decided to buy the non-branded tau sar pneah because she had no choice. She was flying back in less than 3 hours and she had to have her tau sar pneah!
I have not seen such madness over a snack like this for a long time. It amazes me the lengths people go to for their food.
Many people also feel that Him Heang and Ghee Hiang are over-rated and commercialized. That maybe so but these are old-time brands people associate with. It’s tough for people to switch brands especially if nostalgia and good memories are woven into this association.
In my next post, I’d tell you about one non-branded tau sar pneah biscuit which we found – made fresh and tastes just as good, if not better (according to my tau sar pneah fan of a husband).
Singapore style fried prawn noodles
Singapore style fried prawn noodles

PS: Why show photos of food from Singapore? It just shows that I don’t have photos of food in Penang. LOL. Just in case you’re wondering if the photos are wrong. They’re not. They showcase hawker food. Just not hawker food in Penang. 😉