Friday 30 January 2009

Mama Mia and Hairspray Moments

It was one of those unplanned gatherings; a phone call here, an sms there and a holler everywhere but about twenty of us turned up. The condition was simple; no husbands allowed. It was an all girls affair with sons under ten only to be allowed in attendance.

The occasion was simple; a friend wanted a haircut, another wanted a trim and many wanted the extra blow dry, but there were several reasons for the reluctance to visit the hairstylist. One, the credit crunch had dictated that we do not spend more than necessary for anything as trivial, two, a student at a local hairdressing school wanted models to practice her skills on and earn a little pocket money. Three, a mass hairdressing session with like-minded friends was not an occasion to be missed. It was to be an evening being pampered, grooming ourselves while enjoying Laksa Kedah and roti canai, quite unheard of in any hairdressing salon in this British capital.

So, there we were in the lounge-cum-hairdressing salon at a friend’s house somewhere in North London. The haircuts produced oohs and aahs with a lot of silly jokes and banters flying about. It was a casual and a relaxing few hours when we let our hair down, so to speak, but as the evening drew to a close, it transcended into a stocktaking session, with reminiscence and nostalgia taking over the banters.

Most of us in that lounge had known each other for more than two decades since we made this city our home. Away from the extended family, these are our sisters and aunts with whom we have shared our joys and sorrows as we met each other and made this journey together in this foreign land.

It wasn’t by design that we remain here this long. Work had dictated that we extended our initial three-year stint here and before we realised it, almost three decades had passed. Looking at my ‘sisters’ in that room, I knew they had their reasons to be here and they have marked their presence here and contributed to the society that we live in. They have their own niche.

While for some it was a matter of a natural progression; after studies and straight on to getting work offers kind of thing, for others it wasn’t as smooth sailing. There was one who took matters in her own hands when all around her collapsed, her marriage included. She came here in the seventies and saved enough money working in nursing homes, to send for her children to join her here. Being away from probing eyes and getting the breathing space she needed, she gathered enough strength to rebuild her own life and start her own roaring business.

Another sister lost her husband when both came to study here. She was a young bride left on her own in a city that could be cold and lonely. But she found solace in this small community of ours. Being left on her own gave her that energy that she didn’t know she had.

Others had their own stories to tell about how they made their journey here; some with blessings of the families back home while some were somewhat alienated because of their choice in marriage partners. We looked back on our respective journeys, sharing the trials and tribulations, joys and celebrations as the hair on our head began to dry and the curls began to take effect. Most of us had indeed come a long way.

Our children have grown up together and are now etching their own niche in this community, straddling across two cultures. We now look on as they embark on their own journey, having held their hands this far.

(PS This is a recycled/rehashed piece. Brain on strike.)

Friday 23 January 2009

Of Durian Runtuh and Gong Xi Fa Cai!!

Rest in Peace

I went to wish Chris and family Gong Xi Fa Cai but he wasnt there. His wife has lost her fight with the dreaded cancer. She died two days ago. Rest in peace, Mrs Chris and our sincere condolence to the family.

The car had barely stopped when my nostrils began to pick up something familiar in the air and following the scent, I burst into Chris’s shop searching for the object of my desire. “Where is it?” I asked without looking at the shop owner reading his daily behind the counter. He pointed to a basket near the door and there it was sitting all majestic and inviting. “How much,” I asked, my eyes transfixed on the king of all fruits, while Chris kept on reading his daily. “£23 for the whole fruit,” he said nonchalantly as if it was the cheapest thing on offer in his shop that day.

That made me turn and square up to him. Chris hails from Ipoh and is our local oriental supermarket offering everything from kicap cap kipas to penyapu lidi . My mental calculation told me that that fruit cost around RM 150.00, and with that amount of money I could probably buy a lorryload back home. But I told myself this is not back home and I badly needed durian.

“Whaat??!” I tried my haggling tactics and Chris relented by offering to half the price if I were to share and eat it in the shop with him. My other half knew better than to interfere and stayed as far away as possible reading ingredients on packets of instant noodles.

So, that was that. I was to pay £12 and Chris would cut open the fruit for us. I certainly didn’t regret it. I had two portions and admitted defeat for my conscience was telling me that my son waiting at home would love some too. I told Chris to pack the rest up for me and like a good customer, I was going to pay up when Chris said: “Never mind laaa, I belanja you!!”

We’ve known Chris for a long time and although sometimes we’d buy our stuff elsewhere in Chinatown or Loong Foong on the way to Wembley or Wing Yip in Neasdon, it is to Chris that we go to if we’re desperate for noodles to warm our cold afternoons. It was with Chris too that I had my joget lambak at the national day celebrations in Brickendonbury last summer.

That episode with the durian left me wanting for more. So one day, coming back from Malaysia Hall, we stopped by at Oriental City in Queensway. Oriental City used to be in Colindale in north London, and we used to go there in summer to enjoy the satay and karoke in the summer sun, while taking in the delicious smell of the durian from the stall nearby. That was where Siti Nurhaliza sang before her Royal Albert Hall debut, and where the Alleycats delighted their fans who came from as far as Liverpool.

The owners, Ronald and his wife Phoebe, had recently relocated their supermarket in Queensway, much to our delight, for it is certainly nearer. So, at Oriental City I followed my nose again and that led me to Ronald, who hails from Singapore. There, the durian was ready peeled and you know what you’re getting. So, I chose one packet with 4 slices and that cost £6.64. But once again, I was determined to buy this as I had read online, how to cook pulut. That was to be our breakfast. Ronald told me it was good value for money and at the counter, he told me, “Just pay for the pulut, I belanja you the durian!” Now talk about durian runtuh! Twice in two days!

Chris’ and Ronald’s Oriental City have made life so much easier for us these days. I remember the first Oriental supermarket, Cheongleen in Tower Street, in Leceister Square. That must be one of the first few Oriental supermarkets in London. Even then, thirty years ago, you’d never get lemon grass or daun pandan or curry powder, or durian for that matter. We got our serai powder in Harrods. Not that I knew what to do with it in those days.

Most big towns in the UK have their Chinatowns and the biggest must certainly be in Manchester. There’s another big one in Liverpool too. I remember one winter taking a break from filming the Pak Cik sailors in Liverpool, we went to have lunch in one of the Chinese restaurants. It is not surprising that the Chinatown there, like the ones in Manchester and London, are populated by Chinese from Malaysia. After lunch, we went back to find the cameraman’s car broken into. And as we wandered around looking for the culprits, a middle aged Chinese woman told me in thick Scouse accent that the area was certainly not safe. I asked her where she came from and she simply said: Ipoh mali.

Anyway, coming back to Chris and Ronald in London, I am reminded of my childhood friends growing up in the sleepy town of Yan and also in Alor Setar. We grew up in a small town with Chinese and Indian neighbours, a close-knit community who didn’t care about race or colour of the skin. Just the other evening at Malaysia Hall, I found an old friend from Sultan Abdul Hamid College. A true Malaysian you’ll never find. Come snow, rain or shine, Richard Ooi is always in his batik. He proudly drives a Proton. While waiting for the husband we chatted about those good old days in Alor Setar and the big reunion recently that we both missed. Suffice to say, when I went to pay for my meal, I was told it had been settled.

I cannot end this Chinese New Year piece without mentioning a a certain special friend who had been truly kind to me. He was the one who introduced me to the world of fashion, taking me to London Fashion Weeks and sharing great moments in his life with me. He introduced me to names in the fashion world and celebrities such as Jermaine Jackson, Debra Messing and Natalie Imbruglia.

Once as we were going to an event where he was to receive an honorary doctorate, he told me to change into a more decent pair of HIS shoes, muttering something under his breathe “Haiya, you journalists, so cheapskate,” casting a glance at my worn out shoes. And suffice to say, that translated into – “Haiya, I belanja you that pair of shoes laaa!”

So, to all these wonderful and generous friends, who proved that it is possible for us to live together and be friends, I wish you a very Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year. And to my online cyberfriends too (Ilene, Judy, Alice, Argus, Lilian, Argus, Pey, Yang May Ooi, Lydia Xeus and Kenny Mah, Danial Ma and Uncle Lee and to Masterwordsmith who sadly has had to leave blogosphere) who have accepted Kak Teh as Kak Teh or perhaps as Margaret Chan – GONG XI FA CAI!!!!

Some related items:
Memoirs of Margaret Chan
A Date With Messing
And Jackson Makes Five

Tuesday 20 January 2009

The Streets of London

During the giddy days of courtship not much thought was given to what life had in store for me as a newly wed in a new country. All that mattered then was I was going to be with him and we could be surviving on fresh air and love for that matter and it would be fine. If there were ever any moments of doubts, his favourite song “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell would drift back to reassure me:

“So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind …”

But, oh, moments of loneliness were aplenty and even Ralph McTell and his delicious rendition couldn’t do anything about it. When he went off to work in the mornings, I’d be left alone to explore London – the London which I only knew from his letters, from the news items that I read in the local papers and from cousins and uncles and aunts who had been here. Indeed, I did have two uncles and their families here and a cousin way out in Kent. But London can be a lonely place.

Where we were, there were indeed a lot of Malaysians and a lot more Arabs, rich Arabs. We arrived at a time when Arabs carried wads of notes in one hand and the tasbih in the other. You held the door open for them as they arrived back to the apartments with maids in tow carrying in their shoppings from Harrods and Selfridges and you’re tipped £10! Such was the flow of money from the oil fields.

My mother need not have worried about me not meeting other Malaysians in London. Before Margaret Thatcher’s increase in foreign students’ fees and Malaysia’s retaliation to buy British last, Malaysians were everywhere; certainly in Oxford Street, Portobello Market and Knightsbridge. On Sundays, among those hecklers at Speaker’s Corner, you were bound to find a few Malaysians.

Those you don't see, made their presence known in other creative ways. Once, while waiting for the District Line train I read some very entertaining graffiti on the wall. I nearly jumped out of my shoes when I saw some familiar angry words in Malay, referring to parts, which will not be mentioned here, belonging to our mothers. I sometimes wonder about this Freudian tendency to link mothers to certain parts of the body. In any language, in any culture, anger and swear words find their way to the mother’s anatomy.

Anyway, keeping true to his promise to take me by the hand and show me the streets of London, I then found myself in the seedy area of Soho, an area where no respectable person would want to be seen when the sun goes down for the skirts and other things were bound to go up. But we were there in the name of getting to know London. Looking at the skimpily clad belles outside certain doors, I wondered when they’d succumb to pneumonia. Tired of Soho we then decided to go for the much talked about movie at the time – Ai No Corrida – Nagisa Oshima’s brilliant piece of work that would have put him in Freud’s good books. It was a love story, but not without sacrifice, one that is X rated, but with a message and one which had every male in the hall crossing their legs and cringing in sympathy with the male antagonist.

Suffice to say, I looked coyly away as any new bride would, and we decided to leave the cinema while it was still dark as the credits rolled, so no one would see us and cast aspersions on our reputation. Being found in Soho was bad enough, but being discovered watching Ai No Corrrida?? Oh no! Anyway, our attempt for a quick exit was hastened by a voice, so loud and clear behind us: “Celaka betui, dia potong binatang tu pulak!”

Like teenagers about to be pounced upon at a blue movie, we giggled and scrambled out of the cinema into the cold night air.

For someone whose overseas trips consisted only of Penang and Singapore, London was indeed an eye opener. There were many things that puzzled and at the same time amazed me. I was in awe of the patience with which people queue. They queue everywhere and God help those who attempt to jump queues. The same goes to buying fruits or vegetables. You just point and indicate how much you want. After learning from my mistakes never to pick and prod a fruit, as my mother would to a mackeral at a market, I then indicated with my two fingers that I wanted two pounds of oranges. The face of the initially friendly stallholder suddenly froze and he icily barked: “Same to you!” Apparently, I had unwittingly given him the two-finger salute.

What amazed me most about the people here was that, they all seemed to be attached to each other at the lips. What we only watched on TV or on the movie screens back home, here they do it freely everywhere; in the tube, by the roadside, at cafes, standing in queues, smooching and exploring each others’ throats. I thought it must surely be a good way to share body heat. At first, I must admit I didn’t know where to look and took to reading adverts on the walls or menus in the cafes.

As time went by, I too became quite an expert in telling the political affiliation of a person, by the newspapers that he or she read in the tube. People hardly talked to each other. Instead, they delved into their reading material with such seriousness if only to avoid eye contact or conversation with the person seated next to them. Only once a while, you’d hear a person breaking the ice with what else, the weather! “Awful weather, isn’t it?” To which you just reply, “Yes, isn’t it” and go back to your Times or The Guardian.

It took a lot of adjusting; not just to the weather, the people and the food, but also to the person who had just become my husband. The novelty of becoming a lady of leisure soon wore out, and I was itching to work again. Getting a job, when unemployment was hitting 2 million, was certainly not an easy task. And to my despair, getting pregnant wasn't that easy as well.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Notes from Under The Duvet

Like a defeated and wounded soul, I crawled under my duvet, willing the doom and gloom to go away. It had been a few days hibernating but common sense eventually prevailed as I realised not much would change had I gone out marching and screaming in the streets. Nor would I achieve anything by lying comatose under the duvet contemplating the cracks in the ceiling.

Yes, I have been quite affected by recent events in Gaza, not helped by stories of job cuts and recession nearer home. But life has to go on and today – I will brave the freezing temperatures and start work in the cold wide world again.

These last few days, taking refuge in the bedroom, I found solace in several books that took me to pre-war, pre independence Malaya, and one about life in the docks of Liverpool in the early nineteenth century. I read and digested the written words like I had never done before and finished four books, including The Hindi Bindi Club!! That I consider an achievement, especially when I only picked up the books since the beginning of the year. And I do intend to cultivate this newfound hobby.

But sometimes, as the words got blurry, the mind began to wander and I began to reflect on life. These last few days, the two youngest came crawling into bed and under the duvet with me. It has been some time since the last time they did that. Once we’re done with fighting over the duvet and kicking off cold feet, all of us settled down to our favourite books. No more reading to them Thomas the Tank Engine or My Little Pony. Nona devoured “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” while Taufiq continued his revision in preparation for his coming exams. The hubby? Well, he is probably tucked under a warm duvet in a bed all to himself in Geneva after a long day at work.

The day he left for Geneva, we decided that we should go with him to Gatwick, just to see him off, just to take that train journey and enjoy a bit of almond croissant and piping hot tea. It was snowing ever so slightly the morning he left, and the south London that whizzed past , looked like it had been sprayed with silver dust overnight.
It was Sunday morning when we took the 0847 from Victoria and had a whole coach to ourselves. And by the time he arrived Geneva, we were already back in the house, enjoying prawn noodles.

I had taken to doing some work in the comforts of the bedroom as well – long cables and wires trailing from downstairs to my laptop just above the duvet. This had caused not a little worry among the children and hubby – who before departure had made me promise to do some exercise, take vitamins and avoid fried stuff, to which I duly nodded like any obedient wife would.

So two days ago, to lure me out of my den, son number one brought back a surprise – a Wii Fit Balance Board, which I must admit I took to, like a duck to water. After several step exercises ,a jogging session with my friendly female instructor, I am now suffering from cramps. It is quite rewarding to be told that “Kak Teh, you are doing well today!” It is certainly better than jogging on the frozen ground through the park.

Melancholy is fast seeping in again as I watched the two older ones packing for their trip to Malaysia today. Gone were the days when they tagged along with us. Now they want to explore the country themselves, get to meet and know relatives without us, protective and anxious parents hissing “Salam!” and “Cium tangan!” or “Tunduk!” when they meet older relatives.

The house is suddenly quiet after Hafiz closed the door behind him, pulling his luggage and disappeared in the fog. Rehana leaves much later today and I now await the return of my husband before I made treks to work.

Kak Teh's other duvet moments:

Snowflakes and P Ramlee on Easter

Thursday 8 January 2009

An Appeal to help Mercy Malaysia to help the children of Gaza

Salam all,
A small request from me. To everyone who clicks on this page, please stop to say a prayer - Al Fatehah or any other prayers - to the people of Gaza. Terima kasih.

I have not been able to update my blog for obvious reasons. Nothing that came to mind was appropriate. There's so much sadness and grief coming from Gaza where children and innocent people are being killed. Many are suffering and as I write this the number of victims and casualties is increasing.

This morning, I woke up to an email from a blogger friend Elviza Michele- with a simple request. I gladly paste it below. And please convey the message to people you know:

"Mercy Malaysia has, on 30th December 2008, formed an Emergency Response Assessment Team to face the humanitarian crisis in Gaza strip. The team has been promptly dispatched to Egypt led by President, Datuk Dr. Jemilah Mahmood and Exco Member Norazam Ab. Samah.

The air strike and ground offensive on Gaza - as reported by AlJazeera - have killed more than 700 Palestinians, 219 of which are children. More than 3000 have been wounded.

Therefore, Mercy Malaysia appeals to generous Malaysians to send it cash donations. Contributions will support Mercy Malaysia to procure emergency surgical kits, medicines and hospital equipments to help the hospitals in Gaza.

  • Cheque is to be made payable to “MERCY MALAYSIA” and addressed to Mercy Malaysia, Level 2, Podium Block, City Point, Kompleks Dayabumi, Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, 50050 Kuala Lumpur.
  • Cash donations can be made via on-line transmission or deposit at CIMB Bank Account No: 1424-000-6561053.
  • Donation form can be downloaded from here.
  • Further enquiries are to be directed to +603-22733999 or

Let us make a difference by whatever little we have. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your generosity."

Al Fatehah.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Friday 2 January 2009

Today I remember Hari

Nine years ago today, on 2nd January, Harinder Veriah, a prominent Malaysian lawyer died in Hong Kong. I met her very, very briefly, but I had come to know her more and more over these last few years. The story below appeared in the NST today.

Hari’s legacy

by Zaharah Othman

NINE years ago today, at the start of the new millennium, life for promising young Malaysian lawyer Harinder Veriah ended in Hong Kong.

Hari, as Harinder is called, had just turned 33. She left behind a 16-month-old son, a devastated husband and a legacy that touched many lives.

I went to meet her husband, journalist and writer Martin Jacques, in his apartment in northwest London, to talk about her legacy.

It had been too raw and too painful, I gathered, to talk about it when we last met four years ago. Four years on, nothing much has changed but many things have happened.

As expected, it was an intense and emotional few hours with Jacques as he relived the moments when his wife of only a few years was snatched away from him after an epileptic attack.

It was as if it was only yesterday; the pain obvious in his voice, betrayed in sentences left hanging and etched on his face as the man whose work is with words struggled to find them to express the loss that he feels every moment of his waking hours.

At times when it looked as if he could not go on, the session was salvaged by the soothing rendition of a piano piece drifting in from the living room where Ravi, now 10, was practising his music.

Ravi has unwittingly become his father’s saviour, best friend and companion — the one obvious legacy from Hari. Or in Jacques’ words, the best gift from Hari, the love of his life, the reason for his continued existence.

It was in Tioman in 1993 that Jacques met Hari, the daughter of Malaysian left-wing politician, the late Karam Singh.

It was a meeting that was to change the course of their lives, the beginning of a love story so brief yet sweet and intense.

What began on the idyllic tropical island continued in London when Hari came to join Jacques and continued her Law studies. Later, as an employee of Lovells, one of the top City law firms, they moved to Hong Kong.

It was ideal. Hari worked in its office there while Jacques worked on his book. But fate intervened just as they were celebrating the millennium. Hari was so ill that her birthday cake had to be brought in to her.

She was taken to Ruttonjee hospital where she died on Jan 2, 2000, but not before uttering words to her husband, that not only confirmed Jacques’ suspicions that she was victimised because of her skin colour, but also words that made headlines and highlighted the issue of racism in Hong Kong.

Jacques was determined to challenge the courts to establish that it was not epilepsy that killed his wife.

During the first inquest in Hong Kong, he repeated what Hari, on her deathbed told him: “I am bottom of the pile here. I am Indian. Everyone else here is Chinese.”

Hari’s case and Jacques’ crusade finally saw the introduction of anti-racism laws in Hong Kong.

“This is one legacy, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Hari paid with her life,” said Jacques, the anger which he had tamed over the years surfacing again.

Determined not to let Hari die in vain, Jacques with a partner from Lovells, Graham Huntley, set up the Harinder Veriah Trust in 2002, which enables young Malaysian lawyers “from non-privileged backgrounds to work for two years at the London office of Lovells”.

The first recipient, Murali Ramakrishnan, started in January 2004. This year will see the third and last recipient to benefit from the Harinder Veriah Trust. A reception for the Trust was hosted by Cherie Blair at 10 Downing Street, an event which saw baju Melayu and songkok.

Closer to home and perhaps closer to Hari’s heart is the financial aid, meals, books and tuition that a group of students from Assunta Primary School Two are receiving.

What is known as HVT II started in mid-2005, where needy students, regardless of race and background, are given help for the advancement of their education.

Hari was a former student of Assunta, and helping this project is Hari’s elder sister Jasvinder Kaur and friends including Shariza Noordin.

“I think this is what Hari would have wanted: to help children regardless of race,” said Jacques.

He had just completed the book on China, whose progress was interrupted after Hari’s death.

Coincidentally, it will be launched in June at the same time when the trial on Hari’s case is supposed to start in Hong Kong.

For the past nine years since Hari’s death, Jacques’ life revolves around Ravi; overseeing his studies, piano and violin lessons and Mandarin.

All these are conducted with the presence of Hari in their everyday conversation and in every decision that they make.

And for the past nine years, since Ravi could speak, Jacques had compiled everything that Ravi had uttered about his mummy.

“There are 7,000 words which he has said about Hari,” said Jacques, who still remembers days and dates vividly.

It was a Tuesday night, when Ravi was just 16 months 10 days old, that he mustered all his courage to tell his son that his mother had died.

Ravi was hardly three years old, and sitting on the toilet seat when he remembered that he fed the ducks with his mummy.

Hari still lives in every room in their spacious apartment in Northwest London. Her pictures adorn the mantelpiece and her favourite wooden furniture stands in the living room where Ravi plays the piano.

But it is in Ravi with his mop of black hair and impish wide smile that we see the legacy of Hari.

Kak Teh also remembers Hari here:
My Diwali Story

More stories here on Harinder Veriah Trust