Skyscraper cities of China

On our fourth morning in Beijing our guide Musa told us we were headed for a free foot massage. There was no such item in our itinerary but his announcement cheered us. Nothing like a traditional Chinese rubdown to soothe aching muscles and sore feet unused to so much tramping around in this huge city. And for free too!

We arrived at the massage place and as we walked towards the massage room we saw pictures of the current and former Prime Ministers of Malaysia along the corridor. We were in good company!

The armchairs in the room were arranged theatre style. Enter the massage people with basins of water, oils and other trappings of their trade. Feet were immersed in the water which was warm and fragrant and the rubbing and kneading began.

Enter Pak Johnny, a sleek, elegant young Indonesian who greeted us warmly. His face, creased with a smile, he proceeded to describe the wonderful qualities of traditional Chinese medicine. He dwelt at length on the caterpillar-shaped “miracle” fungus cordycep which, he said, had been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many years to cure all kinds of diseases.

He concluded his talk, smiled more widely, and left the room followed by the massage people. A herd of Chinese (Manadarin speaking) doctors with their interpreters who came in next took us separately into small rooms.

My husband Samad was made to lie down on a bed. Dr Mo who attended to him rubbed some oil on his stomach producing angry red welts. You have many diseases in your body, Dr Mo said. Samad leapt out of the bed in a hurry, not caring to know  what those diseases might be, and we rejoined the others in the main room.

With a shock we noticed that Md Nor had purchased an assortment of medication that filled a huge carry bag and had spent a whopping RM30,000 (USD7,500) for them.

Had he let his guard down? Or had he been charmed by the smiling Indonesian? We knew he had knee problems and had contemplated knee replacement surgery. “I’m doing this because I’m deeply concerned about my health” he told us. His dear wife Rokiah understood immediately.

Samad and young Rookie were enticed to part with RM5,000 (USD1,250) each for various medicines. The other five ladies in our group strongly resisted Pak Johnny’s charms and held on tightly to their credit cards.


Our group in front of a mosque. From left, Kaziah, Rokiah, Md Nor, Rookie, Ani, Marina (writer), Maznah, Musa, our guide, and Samad

I first visited New York City as a graduate student and was dazzled by its soaring skyscrapers. Fast forward many years and I found myself gaping at the skyscrapers in Beijing. They stretched mile after mile, like William Wordsworth golden daffodils, in never-ending lines.


Skyscrapers of Beijing.

If they’d been built to house Beijing’s 21 million people (estimated 2016 population) that would reflect sensible urban planning.

The world’s leading architects have had a hand in designing bold and interesting structures like the Olympic stadium which is shaped like a bird’s nest. Collosal but less attractive is the CCTV Headquarters building. The Zun building to be completed in 2018 will rise to 108 stories.

I found Beijing’s roads equally impressive. Their smooth, glossy surfaces prompted Md Nor to wonder whether they’d been scrubbed and polished till they shone!


Roads are smooth in Beijing.

I can recall an altogether different kind of road in Cambodia. A good many years ago we were going to the temple complex, Angkor Wat, and our guide kept apologizing for what he called the “jumping” road to the temple. It was indeed bumpy and pitted with pot-holes.

After a long, smooth ride we found ourselves at the Badaling Gate. We had arrived at the Great Wall of China! The country’s most revered national symbol and one of the greatest wonders of the world. It stretches more than thirteen thousand miles from east to west and has a history exceeding 2000 years.

Musa regaled us with stories about its history. One bears retelling, that of Meng Jiangnu. Her husband Fah Qiliang was caught by the federal officials and sent to work at the Great Wall. Receiving no news from him after many years, she went to look for him. She arrived at the Wall and was told her husband had died. Stricken with grief she burst into tears and howled. Legend has it that her howling caused a part of the wall to collapse. She threw herself on the rubble and died.

As we scrambled up the Wall I thought of that young couple and of the many thousands more like them, common folk, whose lives had been claimed by the Wall.

We took a good hour to climb two sections of the Wall. From there we had a breathtaking view of the Wall snaking away across the faraway hills.


Samad standing in front of the first section of the Great Wall that we climbed.

Kaziah climbed effortlessly. As did the sisters Ani and Rookie. I clutched the handrail tightly all the way up. Maznah was an elegant figure stepping up leisurely in a long skirt.

We were astonished to suddenly see Md Nor bounding up the steps wielding his walking stick like a magic wand! If he was in agony he didn’t show it. He caught up with us and flashed a dazzling smile, as if to say, I did it!


We did it! (From top – Md Nor, Ani, Rookie and Marina. Kaziah, our lead climber, and Maznah are not in the picture).


Samad and Rokiah, decided to give the climb a miss. The uneven width and height of the steps deterred them. Not so long ago Samad had braved temperatures well below zero to climb 17,600 feet to the Everest Base Camp. He made it into the Malaysia Book of Records that year (1997) as the oldest man to reach the Base Camp.

Musa told us in ancient times the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven. His residence was off limits. Hence its name, the Forbidden City. And what a residence it was, with 980 buildings, 9999 rooms, 200,000 eunuchs, and a countless number of concubines.

In 1924, according to an observer, the last 1,500 eunuchs were told to leave, “carrying their belongings in sacks and crying piteously in high pitched voices”.

We’d seen the Forbidden City in the splendid film, “The Last Emperor”. Now we were going to view it in the flesh so to speak. And it did not disappoint. The enormous palace complex was indeed magnificent.


In front of the Forbidden City.

We walked through the Gate of Heavenly Peace across the Tiananmen Square, said to be the world’s largest public square, to the main entrance of the Forbidden City, the Meridian Gate. We entered this massive portal, joining hordes of people, and walked to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, eventually taking a peek at the opulent Dragon Throne. Carved and richly lacquered and decorated with 13 dragons, it stood on a platform with seven steps, befitting the Son of Heaven.


Inside the Forbidden City


The opulent Dragon Throne.

Musa insisted we not leave Beijing without checking out its famed jade and pearl centers. The promoters at these centers showed us in great detail how to tell the difference between a genuine piece of jade and a fake jade and between a lustrous real pearl and a fake one. We browsed through roomfuls of exquisite jewelry but were not inclined to buy.

The Chinese passion for tea is reflected in the many tea shops all over the city. At a place called Dr Tea we were shown how best to use the different kinds of tea they produced. Jasmine tea can relieve a headache while Oolong tea helps with blood circulation. To protect the liver and kidneys we were advised to drink ginseng tea regularly. White tea helps cure a cough and cold. I settled for black tea which soothes the stomach.

At the Bamboo Centre a lively young lady called Jessica gave us an engaging presentation on the many different kinds of things made from bamboo fibre. After she was done we found ourselves piling our shopping baskets with kitchen scourers, wash cloths, tea towels, laundry aids, and towels soft as silk.

Friends of mine who have visited China said they were disappointed with the food there. We, on the other hand, couldn’t have enough of it. Credit goes to Musa for choosing the best Muslim halal restaurants in the city. Top of our list were the spicy beef and chicken dishes cooked Sichuan style blending chillies and peppercorns. The dishes came garnished with exotic vegetables like bamboo shoots. Others came with green and red peppers, or aubergines or asparagus. Our other favourites were prawn kebabs, hand-cut beef and mutton slices and stir-fried lamb coated with sesame seeds. The steamed buns were light and airy. We savoured Peking Duck, the famous Beijing dish, with its thin, crisp skin.



Food! Glorious food!

A six-hour ride in a high speed train took us to Shanghai, a modern, cosmopolitan city with many different architectural styles.

The former French Concession reminded us of Paris, with its European villas built along streets lined with trees. We drove around the former British Concession, the first area on the Bund or waterfront, to have Western style architecture and imagined we were in London. The British had arrived there in the late 18th Century to trade in opium. They were quickly followed by the French and Americans.

The Bund which stretches along the bank of the Huangpu River has an amazing collection of classical and modern buildings. From the waterfront we could see Pudong with its forest of skyscrapers, islands in the sky. Formerly farmland Pudong is today a flourishing business and financial hub.


At the Bund, Shanghai.

Musa pointed out the three tallest and most distinctive of Pudong’s skyscrapers. That is the “bottle opener” he said, smiling, alluding to the nickname given to the Shanghai World Financial Centre. The Shanghai Tower soared upwards in a spiral. The Jinmao is probably the most attractive of the three. Another that caught our eye was the curious, pot-bellied Oriental Pearl TV Tower. I imagined myself in a high speed elevator zooming up to the top of one of these giant buildings for spetacular views of Shanghai.


Pudong’s forest of skyscrapers.

Our last day had arrived. We spent it shopping and filling every available space in our suitcases with our purchases – yards of fine silk, shawls, silk scarves, dried fruit and nuts and souvenirs including adorable Panda soft toys for our grandkids.

Our last stop that day was at a specialty store selling silk bed linen with matching duvets. We loved the gorgeous colors and patterns and the soft rustle of the silk in our hands and were sorely tempted to buy. Sadly there was just no way we could squeeze anything more in our bulging suitcases. Well, maybe next time.

When we got home I happily ticked off Beijing and Shanghai from my bucket list.

(Photographs by Samad Yahaya)




Hello London!

Six days before we were to meet our son Aris and his friend Sarah in London I received a WhatsApp photo from him captioned, “Uh! Oh!” He was in a pair of crutches flashing a smile. 
Following a furious exchange of messages I learned he had fractured his left ankle while playing ice-hockey. His ankle bones showed a 5mm separation and he needed surgery. Samad and I were saddened that he had to abandon our family reunion in London.

 Our London Airport taxi deposited us at 21 Maur Road in Fulham. I rang the bell, the door flew open, and there they were – our daughter Aida, Aida’s girls, Lilly (10) and Nora (8)  and Sarah, with welcoming smiles on their faces. We exchanged hugs and kisses. A little later, Aida’s husband Brad appeared. He’d been waiting at the nearby Parson’s Green tube station to help us with our bags. Dear, thoughtful Brad.

Lilly and Nora quickly overcame their shyness and insisted on a house tour. They tripped lightly up the wooden steps of the 3-story house while I scrabbled to keep pace with them.

This is your bedroom! said Lilly with a theatrical flourish that instantly won my heart. The room was large and bright and overlooked the street below.

The five-bedroom house Aida had secured through Air BNB was located in the upmarket borough of Fulham. I loved the way it opened onto the hallway to the spacious open plan living area painted white, in contrast to the dark wood floors. The sleek kitchen with its modern amenities faced a long wooden dining table. The paved outdoor garden had a little waterfall.

There was space aplenty for Lilly, the New Hampshire Junior Olympics level 3 gymnast, to perform her strenuous tumbles and twirls and Nora her balletic leaps.

Aida, Brad and Sarah raided the nearby Dalcha Indian restaurant and we enjoyed their specialty dishes for dinner. That was when Lilly first got hooked on chicken tandoori, so soft and moist it melted off the bone. She asked for Tandoori at every Indian meal after that. It was chicken curry all the way for Nora.

Breakfast had hardly begun the following day when Samad jauntily set off for a bit of exploring. As we were to learn later, he’d covered a fair distance before he tripped and sprawled on the pavement. Groaning in pain he clutched his injured right leg, unable to move. He attracted a large crowd. Some people helped him up and led him to the nearby Hive coffee shop where a lady sat him down at a table and offered him a cup of capucino. After half-an-hour he felt better and limped back to the house. Declining to see a doctor he decided to rest and watch some television. But he couldn’t turn the set on.

This house is too hi-tech for me, he concluded huffily. He’d also been put off by the odd arrangement of the living-room dimmer lights. But what really got him was the alarm system, how you had to dash to the alarm board, after opening the front door, to switch it off before it triggered and disturbed the whole neighbourhood.

Aida and her family had arrived ahead of us and had watched the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, taken the hop-on-hop-off bus to Big Ben, seen the London Dungeon show, strolled along Oxford Street and enjoyed Indian food at Brick Lane’s Chillies Restaurant.

A high point for them was the Hairy Goat Mystery Photography Tour. Tour Leader Corinna took them on an exhausting 3-hour walk around the Bank and Monument area showing them hidden gems from a photographer’s perspective. They were astonished to see their reflections in a little ashtray. After visiting a Christopher Wren church they strolled in Leadenhall Market where many of the exterior shots of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley was filmed, including the blue door (see picture below) that led to the Leaky Cauldron in the movie. Needless to say the girls had a rollicking good time.


This blue door was used as the entrance into the leaky cauldron in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”.

The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe).


Aida and her daughter Lilly’s reflection in an ashtray.

(The above five photos courtesy of Aida Maher)

When shall we go see Les Miserables? Lilly asked. The day arrived soon enough and we all trotted to the Queen’s Theatre. I was able to put the absent Aris’s ticket to good use.

The Apollo Theatre right next to the Queen’s was showing “The Audience”, with Kristen Scott Thomas, a play that imagined weekly meetings between the Queen and eight of her Prime Ministers. Samad, an ardent fan of stories about the British Royal family, leaped at the opportunity to see it.

Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is probably one of theatrical history’s most celebrated musicals. It enthralled us all and the girls couldn’t stop singing their favourite songs from it when we got home – “Master of the House”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Look Down”, and “Bring Him Home”.


Brad, Nora, Aida, Sarah, Lilly and me.

Sarah made a trip to Oxford, not to contemplate its famous “dreaming spires” nor to cross its Bridge of Sighs. But to meet up with Prof. Hugo Slim, the independent reviewer of her PhD thesis, “Rethinking Humanitarian Accountability : Implementation of Reproductive Health Services in Complex Emergencies”. He had loved her thesis and given it top marks. Sarah spent a good part of the day with him. Intellectual brilliance aside the Prof was a Hugh Grant look-alike, albeit a slightly older version of the actor. She returned from Oxford with a glow on her face!

While Sarah went to Oxford, we took a long train ride to Barking in East London to visit Samad’s brother Ismail. In a tragic turn of events Ismail suffered a stroke six years ago that confined him to a wheel chair but mercifully left his speech and mental capability intact, including his sparkling sense of humour. His wife Hamidah works at the Brunei Students Department so a caregiver attends to him every afternoon. We were warmly received by the family which includes their lovely daughters Rozanna and Suraya. Ever the generous host, Hamidah’s table groaned with delicious food. We couldn’t have enough of her lamb briyani.


Nora, Samad, Lily, Brad, Aida, Ismail, me and Hamidah.



Ismail and Hamidah.


Hamidah, Suraya and Aida.

While the rest of us ate and chatted, Aida kept her eyes glued to the TV set, excitedly awaiting the arrival of Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, daughter of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. We had to depart Barking before the baby arrived but Aida happily saw her cradled in her mother’s arms on the TV in her hotel room.

Sadly, Aida and her family left to return to New Hampshire the following day and Sarah flew to Germany to visit her grandmother. Left to our own devices, Samad and I watched a couple of movies, shopped for gifts and exhausted ourselves stomping around London’s busy streets.

After going round in circles, we eventually found a train that took us to Brick Lane or Banglatown, the heart of London’s Bangladesh community. The Jamme Masjid or Great London Mosque was there. It was difficult to imagine even the skinniest muezzin creeping into its tall thin minaret to give the call to prayer.DSC01309.JPG

Curry houses lined both sides of the long street and people in traditional clothes were everywhere.

We spotted the Chillies Restaurant Aida had raved about. Samad found its combination lamb, chicken and shrimp briyani “amazing” while I savoured every bit of my fish Jalfrezi.

We spent our last few days in London catching up with a few friends. We had lunch with Zaharah Othman and her husband Wan Hulaimi at TukDin, a Malay restaurant near Paddington Square. Zaharah and Wan have lived more years in London than in Malaysia. A former Mass Communications student of mine at the MARA Institute of Technology she has done me proud as a successful writer and journalist. But she insists I not forget she’s now a grandmother. And a glamorous one she is too!

Raja Amilia, Zaharah and me.


Happily another former Mass Communications student of mine, Raja Amilia, was also able to join us for lunch. She was holidaying in London with her three children.

Wan Hulaimi, Zaharah’s husband, who goes by the pseudonym Awang Goneng, has written three books, two on Trengganu and one on Selangor. I found his, “Growing Up in Trengganu”, a collection of memories of his colorful kampong childhood, a delight to read. It is peppered with “Trengganuspeak” which I found really hard to grasp and it eluded me all the way to the end of the book.

We next met up with Mariam and her husband Keith who live in a lovely tree lined road just off the Shepherd’s Bush called Hammersmith Grove. Mariam has long made London her home. We gladly accepted her lunch invitation and headed to their home in the company of Ismail’s wife Hamidah and her daughters.

Hamidah, me, Keith, Samad, Mariam and Rozanna.


Mariam and me.

Mariam’s daughter Suriati or Suri for short is a remarkable young lady. She owns and runs an elegant Bed and Breakfast, Holland Park House, which is doing a brisk business. She plays the guitar and piano, composes songs and sings weekly at Genie’s Hollands Restaurant and Wine Bar at Portland Road close to where she lives.

Suriati singing at Genie’s Hollands Restaurant.

Suriati with her pianist Ebonard Lysander.

Her gem of a first album, “Untold Story” featuring her original compositions plus a couple of Jazz standards has been described as “Beach Jazz” because of it’s easy listening quality. She’s now working on her second album.

In the plane heading home I thought how splendid it would be for Suri to entertain audiences in Kuala Lumpur. And I made up my mind to find a way to help her seek entry into the KL music scene.

The Masjid Mouse

Whenever my little granddaughter Safiya speaks English, I’m reminded of her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Jane Palmer who is from Norfolk, England. Safiya will enunciate her words clearly and precisely, in the manner of her Grandma Jane.

One day Safiya took me completely by surprise by reciting a long poem she had learned by heart. She did it without faltering once, remarkable considering she is only four years old and could not have understood some of the difficult words. The following is Safiya’s favourite poem.

The Masjid Mouse

Oh, have you seen the Masjid Mouse
That dwells in Merry Lane?
The cheeky, cheery Masjid Mouse
The runabout-while-laughing mouse
Who dances in the rain?

The Masjid Mouse he has a house
Inside a minaret
Because his roof is high and dry
Above the rainclouds of the sky
His home is never wet.

I saw him once upon a horse
That drew a handsome gig.
He wore a crown of golden gorse
And ate a pie with apple sauce
While cutting quite a jig.

One day the Masjid Mouse set sail
As master of a brig.
Backwards he’d sail in shine and gail,
A silver spoon was his taffrail,
His sail a surgeon’s wig.

The King and Queen were sorely vexed
To hear of all his capers.
His Majesty inquired, “What next?”
And found his soldiers quite perplexed.
The Queen she had the vapors.

The Masy Mouse he loves to sing
And play upon a drum.
With London mice and mice of Tring
With mice of Paris and Peking
He’ll laugh and sing and hum.

But when the Masjid Mouse comes home,
One thing he’ll not delay,
For howsoever far he’ll roam
He has a place beneath the dome,
Where he will stand to pray.

By TJ Winter. Also known as Abdul Hakim Murad, Winter is a British convert to Islam who is widely respected as a researcher, writer and teacher. He was educated at Cambridge and Al-Azhar, two of the world’s top universities.

Sent from my iPad


Sleep eluded Samad one night. It was not as if he had something on his mind, like an unkind remark someone had made that perturbed him enough to keep him awake.

He was hot and feverish the following morning. Panadol did little to arrest his fever. That evening he threw up several times. Time to have this checked out I thought.

There was a huge crowd at the Damansara Specialist Hospital Emergency. “Luar biasa!” (extraordinary night) remarked the check-in counter nurse. She took his temperature and blood pressure readings before leading him to a bed in the adjoining area, a room so cold Samad shivered and pleaded for extra blankets.

It may be a viral infection, observed the Emergency doctor, when she finally appeared. She gave him a jab, prescribed some medication and sent him home.

Tired and listless Samad lay in bed the following two days sleeping fitfully. When he started throwing up again I called Dr Zainuddin, his regular doctor at the hospital. Bring him in without delay, he said.

A blood test confirmed my worst fears. Samad had dengue. He had a platelet count of 112.

The Ebola epidemic has hogged world headlines but dengue has infected more than 500 million worldwide. In Malaysia the disease, caused by the Aedes mosquito, has become a serious killer. The statistics are alarming. There was a 200 percent increase in cases and deaths this past year despite vigorous campaigns to get people to eliminate areas of stagnant water where the mosquito breeds.

As I listened to Dr Zainuddin a slow dread built up inside me. We are fighting a losing battle with dengue, he said. There is no cure and research to develop a vaccine for it has made negligible progress.

We secured Room 537, Mesra Medical Ward on the fifth floor after waiting close to four hours.

Samad had scored a first. In his 78 years this was the first time that he’d found himself admitted to a hospital as a patient.

Requiring intravenous hydration he winced as a nurse repeatedly attempted and eventually succeeded in locating a vein in his wrist in which to insert a branula for the drip. From then on he slept shackled to the drip machine.

I drove home to get some things for our hospital stay, returned to find Samad asleep and crashed on the sofa next to his bed.

Early the next morning the punishing routine of extracting blood began. Samad had to endure painful blood extractions daily, often twice a day. He probably holds a record of sorts for having deep, well-concealed arm veins. The procedure began with the nurse palpating a vein to assess its elasticity, anchoring it, pulling taut the skin around it and having Samad clench his fist. When things went wrong Samad would flinch or become belligerent and send the nurse scurrying out.

I heard a loud gasp one night, woke up, eyes gummy with sleep, to find Samad awash with blood. His clothes, pillow and a corner of his bed were soaked and a pool of blood had gathered on the floor. 

 Is a branula inclined to do that, leak blood profusely? What if Samad had not woken up? Would he have bled severely? I was merely told that Samad had jolted his hand and dislodged the branula.

Samad’s platelet count continued to drop, from 112 to 95 to 45 and then to 39. With growing panic I coaxed him to drink some of the papaya leaf extract, said to be able to counteract the disease, served with his breakfast. He took a sip of the bitter green liquid, shuddered and spat it out.

He had no desire for food, declining the wholesome hospital meals and opting instead for bits of watermelon, papaya and guava.

I was immensely grateful that Samad was spared the worst symptoms of the disease, persistent vomiting, bleeding and severe muscle and joint pains causing dengue to earn the name breakbone fever.

Our son Amir and family dropped in to find Samad confused and disoriented, unable to recall recent events including the people who had visited him. Amir remembered how his sister Aida had had temporary memory loss after being thrown off a horse.

Dad’s woozy? Amir’s kid brother Aris who called from California was bewildered.

Do you miss your gym? Amir ventured to ask him, referring to the house gym where he had delighted in spending long hours exerting himself every day. What gym? Where? Samad had no memory of it. He wanted to know why Aris had not visited him and there was little we could do to convince him Aris was many miles away.

Disturbing though it was Amir discerned a comical side to his father’s wooziness and couldn’t resist a chuckle or two.

When Dr Zainuddin stopped his sleeping pills Samad quickly regained his memory.

On the sixth day came the long-awaited news. His platelet level had gone up to 78. Intravenous hydration was discontinued, putting an end to the noisy dragging of the drip machine to the washroom day and night. His fever subsided. He asked for ice-cream and donuts.

We received more good news the following day. His platelet count had shot up to 119 which made it 90 percent of normal. Samad was discharged the same day. 

 Samad rapidly regained his appetite and began enjoying his favourite foods, wild mushroom soup, shrimp spaghetti aglio olio and pizza margherita. Spicy noodles were next followed by fat juicy steaks.

With the return of his appetite came the desire to exercise. He had missed his beloved gym, his weights, workout station and row of cardio-vascular machines. He felt alert and energetic and in no time at all was exerting himself with all his old vigor and passion.

It was not long before the dreadful infection he had suffered and all the pain he had endured became a distant memory.

Four Days in Saigon

Samad and I were resting in our hotel room when we heard persistent knocking on our door. It was Bahari searching for Rohani, his wife. She wasn’t in her room.

I was startled to see Bahari looking rattled. He was shaking slightly and beads of sweat covered his brow. He’d followed Md Nor for a body massage at a place nearby and had found himself in a tiny, dimly-lit, windowless room. While immersing his feet in a basin of water, he felt the onset of a panic attack and rushed out.

Bahari admitted that dark, cramped and confining places filled him with dread. On several occasions he’d entered a parking lot only to beat a hasty retreat. Bahari suffers from claustrophobia. Md Nor who doesn’t, returned looking decidedly chipper, determined to indulge in more body massages.


Standing from left – Kaziah, Rokiah, Marina (blog writer), Rohani, Rohaini or Ani, Syed Haron, Mohd Nor. Front – Bahari. Not in picture is Samad who took all the photographs.

If Md Nor’s severe knee problems caused him great discomfort, he was not one to run around complaining about them. His wife Rokiah was deeply concerned that he’d had to put off knee replacement surgery to fly with us to Saigon. When we wanted to visit the famed Ben Thanh Market, he insisted we go there on foot. We got lost and had to constantly ask people for directions. After an exhaustive walk we reached it only to find it closed for the day.

That night, Md Nor, obviously in pain, went for a two-hour massage. We waited for him to join us for dinner at the hotel but Reception failed to give him Rokiah’s message. Then Bahari went looking for him but he proved elusive. When he finally appeared we’d finished eating. He opted to go dinner-less, a small sacrifice, he said, in exchange for his satiating marathon massage.

We depended on Kaziah to organize our one-day trip to the Mekong Delta. During our 2-hour bus ride our guide Tony told us many things. He explained how, despite being colonized by the French until 1954, French names had all but disappeared in Vietnam. Cap St James became Vung Tau, Tourane was renamed Danang, the street Rue Catinat in Saigon was replaced by Tu Du. After Reunification it took on a name which I thought had a lovely lilt to it, Dong Koi. I had Samad take a photo of me standing beneath that street name.

DSC00919 Tony told us about “Uncle Ho” as Ho Chi Minh was fondly known. For many years he trudged all over Vietnam (I’m reminded of Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip around South America), to learn about the Vietnamese people and of their hardships under their colonial masters. Sadly he died six years before his dream of seeing his country free and unified was realized.

The Coconut Monk of Ben Tre Province was reputed to have eaten nothing but coconuts for three years. It was probably while he sat on a stone and meditated for another three years that he was moved to found a new religion. It incorporated both Buddhism and Christianity and used the cross and Buddhist symbols.

Kaziah suddenly turned to us from her corner of the bus. Smiling radiantly she said she’d just heard that her grandson was on the way! So the young and glamorous Kaziah would soon be a grandmother!

The Mekong River, one of the world’s great rivers, flows through a number of countries, from Tibet through China and Laos, along the Thai border and through Cambodia and Vietnam before entering the South China Sea. The fertile Delta is Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, producing a massive amount of rice. DSC00992

As we made our way to Unicorn Island on a motorized traditional boat we passed numerous clumps of water hyacinth, a free-floating plant. According to Tony, the Delta was a hot bed for Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War. They would traverse the Delta hidden beneath the hyacinth leaves but many became the target of enemy fire.

On Unicorn island we saw a magnificent pagoda and several Buddhas, a giant laughing Buddha, a large sleeping one and several others resting on lotus flowers.




Samad, our photographer, is seated first left.

DSC00945 In the web of waterways that is the Mekong Delta, boats, houses, restaurants and even markets float upon the rivers and canals. We eventually left the motorized boats to find ourselves riding three each in wooden sampans which took us along narrow canals lined by thickly growing palms. DSC00980DSC00966Rohani and I grabbed our sampan’s spare oars and soon we were merrily rowing along with the skipper. We could see Md Nor ahead of us similarly occupied. Kaziah and Syed Haron and his wife Rohaini or Ani as we are inclined to call her, were too far in front and out of sight.

At various stops along the way we sampled and purchased wild honey, coconut candy and Vietnamese coffee. DSC00969 At a tea-stop we were entertained by a group of traditional musicians and three young singers wearing graceful, flowing ao dai. Their performance was charming.

I was tempted to urge the hugely talented Syed Haron, to think up a little song in memory of our Delta trip. Syed is a celebrity. He has composed more than 200 songs one of which, “Warisan” (Legacy) which he wrote in 1980, has been particularly loved and repeatedly played at Malaysia’s official functions. Most recently, it was selected as the theme song for our nation’s 57th birthday. He was even invited to meet the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

How can I ever forget the time when Rohani, Samad and I had the temerity to persuade Syed to teach us to play the piano. He took it up in earnest, developing beautiful charts and chord tables to help us. Alas! He quickly discovered our musical skills were sadly wanting. The lessons ceased soon after.

Back to the traditional musicians and singers. In the middle of their performance they unexpectedly gave us an English song, that well-loved ditty, “When You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands”. Ani got us to exercise our vocal chords and sing along with them:

When you’re happy and you know it clap your hands (Clap! Clap!) (Repeat)

When you’re happy and you know it, your face will always show it

When you’re happy and you know it clap your hands (Clap! Clap!)

Lunch which was served on another island consisted of noodles, soup, fried rice, fried spring rolls and fresh, do-it-yourself rolls. For the latter you cut up pieces of crispy fried tilapia fish and spread it with an assortment of vegetables on paper-thin skin and then you roll it. The rolls are eaten with a hot sauce. There was red and white dragon fruit for desert. A fully satisfying meal.

DSC00988DSC00975 A friend of mine described Vietnamese food as “brilliant”. Famed as they are for their cuisine, the Vietnamese can also turn out excellent Malaysian food. The fish curry with ladies’ fingers we had at our hotel was better than many I’ve tasted.

The fare at the Kampong Melayu (Malay Village) restaurant located outside one corner of Ben ThanhMarket seemed to get better with every meal. So we would go there whenever it was time to eat.


It was always unnerving taking a taxi to anywhere in this city of nine million people. There were more motorcycles (exceeding three million) than spaces for them on the city’s clogged arteries.

After arriving at Saigon Square one day we wandered around for a bit before pausing to rest our legs by the roadside and to enjoy cool coconut water and its juicy fruit, courtesy of Md Nor. DSC00905Rohani spotted a tailor shop opposite the road we were on. Just what she and Md Nor wanted. They trotted across to it with Bahari hauling a suitcase filled with linen, silk and cotton materials.

Rohani had astonished me by checking-in four large suitcases for a four-night stay in Saigon. She was, in truth, just being pragmatic. One can get low-cost, high quality tailoring here.

The next moment we all found ourselves inside the shop and being greeted by a smiling lady who assured Rohani and Md Nor she would have their clothes ready for them the following day. We ran into young Kala, a lawyer from Singapore. She was a repeat customer who was fully satisfied with the cost and quality of the workmanship there.

Kaziah fervently wanted to be home in Malaysia when the little one arrived and left very early on the morning after our Mekong Delta trip. As it turned out, her timing was perfect. She got to the hospital just in time to give her approval for a Caesarian section to be performed on her daughter-in-law. She was overjoyed to be able to welcome Baby Rayyan Rizal to this world!

That same afternoon Syed Haron, who works as the Registrar of UNIRAZAK, the University of Tun Abdul Razak, and Ani, an Associate Professor at the University of Malaya, left for home as they had to go to work the following day. So the six of us were left to our own devices.

I loved the intricately woven designs and exquisite play of colors of the traditional tote bags Rokiah had purchased at Ben Thanh Market so I braved the narrow, crowded aisles and the people clamouring to sell all manner of things, so determined was I to get the same tote for myself. Blissfully I found it, and Rokiah and Rohani ended up adding more totes to their collection. DSC01015

A day before our departure Rohani opened her suitcases to discover many more pieces of materials and resolved to have them sewn before returning home. She persuaded the hotel owner, who made a brief appearance that day, to recommend a reputable tailor. Shortly thereafter, the tailor appeared at our hotel and met up with Rohani.

On our last day in Saigon Samad and I had some time on our hands so we decided to browse the art reproduction galleries Saigon is famous for. People who’ve acquired a deep knowledge of art would scoff at such reproductions but that did not deter us.

We found a place called the Thanh Hoa Art Gallery which had a large collection of masterpieces reproduced by the many talented artists of Vietnam. Samad was particularly interested in a work by the Impressionist painter Renoir. He happily came away from the Gallery with not one but two works by Renoir.

DSC01017 At the appointed time on our day of departure, Rokiah, Md Nor, Samad and I assembled at the hotel lobby. Rohani and Bahari appeared soon after, looking perturbed. The tailor had failed to deliver Rohani’s clothes. Then, just as we were about to board our taxi, in he walked with a huge bundle in his arms – her sewn clothes! Rohani found it impossible to conceal the huge smile that lit up her face!

The Mysterious End of Flight MH 653 (Abu Bakar Merican Remembered)


A brightly painted wooden doll, demure faced, dressed in a long, shapeless gown was what my brother Abu brought back for me from Russia. As Deputy Director General of Malaysia’s Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, he’d spent two months there as Malaysia’s representative to the Group Fellowship Study Tour.

I’d never had a doll like that. It produced, as if by sleight of hand, six other similar dolls, each decreasing in size. The last was a little bitty baby. Seven dolls in one! All six dolls could be neatly nested back into their mother. How I cherished my bewitching babushka doll.


One night we found Mother’s outdoor laundry tub crawling with prawns. Abu wanted to study their breeding habits. Then a gigantic salt-water aquarium with a dazzling variety of marine fish appeared in our house. Eyes shining, Abu recounted their names and habits to my kid sister Faridah and I.

Abu took us by surprise in many ways. He built a cabinet to house Mother’s battered treadle Singer sewing machine. The rich gleam of its polished wood matched the glow on her face when she saw it. He then delighted her by giving her rusty old Frigidaire refrigerator a shiny new coat of paint. Little did I expect his talents to include designing fine jewelry. He crafted an elegant tiara with glittery rows of gemstones which I proudly wore for my wedding.

Abu fixed faulty doors, loose hinges and electrical fittings gone awry. I recall my husband Samad feeling dejected having smashed his speedboat’s perspex front screen when mooring it at the Port Klang Yacht Club. Abu quickly had a new screen installed.


Abu married Azizah, the granddaughter of a wealthy Arab from Hadramaut, Yemen, a charming, bright-eyed girl with thick wavy hair and a fair complexion which was much admired. Her grandmother, Tok Bibi, was Mother’s first cousin. Azizah’s family affectionately called her Chik, short for Kechik meaning “little one”. DSC00823

For weeks Abu toiled in his workshop at the back of his house building a decorative lamp for his new bride. Its slim neck was joined to a bulbous body made of a lustrous metallic substance. It glowed cheerfully in a corner of their living room.You are the only one owning such a lamp, he teased her with a smile.

In addition to playing the piano Abu loved strumming his acoustic guitar or plucking it with a plectrum which he did with great skill and dexterity. Chik was taken aback when he built a Hawaiian guitar. He would lay it flat on his lap to play it, moving a steel bar up and down. As his technique improved he produced wondrously smooth glissando effects. Chik told me his “Rhapsody in Blue” was unforgettable.


Ten years after they were married, a beautiful boy they named Azmil arrived. Abu doted on his son. When he turned four, Abu would sit him on the piano stool and show him how to move his tiny fingers on the keys. Azmil had inherited his father’s musical talent. He learned fast. Abu taught his son to fly radio-controlled planes, placing the radio transmitter in his tiny hand. Azmil whooped with joy whenever he got a plane to circle overhead. He crashed many planes but Abu lovingly restored each one of them.

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He astonished Chik yet again when he announced his intention of building an electronic organ. It was hugely more challenging than making a Hawaiian guitar but Abu persevered. He scoured the music shops and began collecting parts for it. When he attended a six-month course on the Fundamentals of Electronic Engineering at the International Center for Advanced Vocational Training in Turin, Italy, he found most of what he needed and returned home to work on it in earnest. He meticulously put together piece by intricate piece and integrated all the required features including tone generation, amplification, loud speakers, pedal board and a host of other features. I recall it resembled an upright piano but Abu produced an intricate pattern of sounds from it. He was a one-man band.


When Abu was required to attend a meeting in Manila, Chik got his clothes ready. She brushed his jacket and laid out the shirt and tie he would wear on the plane.

Two days before he was scheduled to take off, his boss, Ungku Ubaidilah, Director General of Fisheries requested that Abu meet the Minister of Agriculture, Dato’ Ali Haji Ahmad in Penang and accompany him to Kuala Lumpur as he was unable to do it himself. So Abu flew to Penang instead.

On December 4, 1977, shortly before boarding his plane in Penang, Abu called Chik to say he’d be back early that night. He chatted with Azmil and affectionately wished him goodnight. Malaysia Airlines or MAS’s flight MH 653 with 97 passengers and 7 crew members left Penang at 7.21pm for Kuala Lumpur. According to what was later revealed, as it started its descent at Kuala Lumpur’s Subang airport, the captain G K Ganjoor reported an “unidentified hijacker” on board. Minutes after that he radioed, “We are now proceeding to Singapore”. But they never reached Singapore. A series of gunshots were heard in the last few minutes of the cockpit voice recorder. The plane went down in the swampy ground at Tanjong Kupang in Johore at 8.36pm. It was a burning wreckage. There were no survivors.

It was MAS’s first fatal air crash. The circumstances in which the hijacking and the crash occurred remain unsolved.

In the dead of night my cousin Ahmad Merican, MAS’s Public Affairs Manager, called us with the tragic news. The unthinkable had happened. Our beloved Abu, Mother’s darling son was no more. But the news made no sense to us. It took a while for us to absorb it. Our thoughts went to Chik and seven-year-old Azmil who in an instant had become fatherless. How to break the news to them?

We were to learn later that Azmil had been fretful that night, crying ceaselessly and refusing to go to bed. Chik took him upstairs and stayed with him until he slept. Tired herself with questions about Abu’s delayed plane running through her mind, she fell asleep too.

At 5am that morning Father, my sister Faridah and I rang Chik’s doorbell. She greeted us sleepily but her usual bright smile instantly faded when she heard what had happened. We thought she bore the news remarkably well but we knew she was numb with shock. The pain and grief would come later. We took turns to hug her.

A few weeks after the crash, Father, Chik, Azmil and I flew to Tanjong Kupang and joined the other bereaved families for the mass funeral. The dismembered parts of the victims had been collected and placed in seven coffins draped with white cloth. The tears flowed freely. It was too much for Chik to bear. A doctor sedated her and led her to a room to rest.

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She was later taken to the nearby police station. There among the tattered personal effects of the victims she recovered Abu’s mud-spattered wallet with his smiling photo inside.

Chik suffered terribly. Is there an end to such grief? But she learned to cope with her pain and anguish over the years.

More recently MAS has had two further air disasters. MH 370 was thought to have disappeared over the Indian Ocean on March 8 this year. A few months after that, on July 8, MH 17 was shot down over the Ukraine. The tragedies have caused great sorrow to the relatives and friends of the victims. The families of the passengers of MH 370 have waited six months for answers as they know nothing about how the plane disappeared or where it landed. But Chik and the other loved ones of those who had boarded MH 653 have been waiting for answers for 37 years.



When I entered the University of Malaya (UM), then in Singapore, as a freshman in October 1953, Abu Bakar Merican bin Basha Merican, known to me later as “Bakar” and to most members of his family as “Abu” and even only as “Uu”, was already a second year engineering student there. As was then customary in UM, a freshman was a victim of “ragging” by the senior students for a few weeks as a “freshie”. When I first arrived by taxi at about 5 p.m. at the UM hostel compound at Dunearn Road, my hostel block, I learned later, was just opposite Bakar’s block. I was lucky because there were no seniors around at the time. There was only the house-keeper who gave me the key of my hostel room.

When I entered my room I found that the other occupant was Osman Sham who was with me at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) doing a Form VI course to enter the UM. He warned me that to go out of our room as a “freshie” we had to wear a necktie and “obey orders” given by the “seniors” as long as the orders were humane. We were not to give in to orders that were not respectful like being asked to strip naked. Ragging would go on for just about three weeks, he told me, so it was quite alright to enjoy university life and behave like a humble “freshie”.

Once I was out of my room I was first met by a senior who, noticing my necktie, started asking questions in a boss-like manner and finally asked me to do a floor-dipping exercise as many times as possible. It was an exercise I was regularly doing so that was no problem at all. But it was when other seniors arrived at the scene and started to order me to do more floor-dips that a Malay senior came by and pulled me away from the crowd under the pretence of wanting to ask me to carry some bags for him. He brought me to the opposite side of my block to his room. It was then that I learnt that his name was Abu Bakar Merican. He asked me to call him just “Bakar” and not “Senior Gentleman” like I was asked to call the other seniors. In his room there was a guitar with an electric guitar pickup and a home-made hawaiian guitar. I knew right away that he was a musician.

Having won the first prize in a singing competition at MCKK as a Form Vl student in1952, it took little time for me and Bakar to start a musical session in his room. This session drew a small crowd which included another freshie, Zainuddin Hashim, who was another MCKK Form VI student who entered the UM together with me. Zainuddin had a voice like Bing Crosby which made me call him “Bingo”. Bingo played the guitar and became my partner in duet singing at MCKK. We used to sing duets together in Bakar’s room and at freshies’ night performances at the hostel block enclosure. At the end of the freshies ragging period we also sang together on the UM stage. We first sang “South Of The Border” which was really liked by the audience of seniors. After applauding our singing they asked for more. We were then invited to join the UM Choir Group by the choir leader, under the choir orchestra bandleader Paul Abisheganaden.

While enjoying musical sessions and being close to Bakar during my first year at UM, I noticed that he was also interested in constructing electronic gadgets like making audio amplifiers and radio sets. He had a radio set he had made with its audio enlarged by an audio amplifier which he had also made himself in his hostel room. This was in addition to the hawaiian guitar I mentioned earlier which needed the audio amplifier for a loud sound amplification. He told me he had also made a car radio set for his father in Penang. This interested me because although I attended the arts course at UM, my personal interest was in electrical things except that I did not know how to go about learning or constructing anything electrical and electronic.

One day I passed by the workshop room of the Engineering Department. On its notice board I saw, “Learn How To Construct Your Own Radio”. A date was given and since it fell on a Saturday afternoon I was able to attend the session.To my surprise it was conducted by the Radio Club of the Engineering Department whose President then was Teoh Chye Poh. It’s Secretary was Abu Bakar Merican. I paid $9.00 for the electronic parts needed to construct a one-valve regenerative radio set and listened to the instructions given by Chye Poh and Bakar on the proper way to wind the coil and how to solder the various electronic parts together. That was how I learnt to read an electronic diagram and to know the various names of the electronic components that would be beyond most arts students.

During the final term holidays that soon followed, I soldered the various parts of the one-valve regenerative radio set at home. Unfortunately it did not work. Disappointed I went to the Dunearn Road hostel, knowing that Bakar was not going back to Penang for the holidays. Bakar was in his hostel room with Chye Poh and I asked them why my one-valve set did not work. They started touching the various components with the battery connected but without success. Finally Chye Poh reversed the two wires to the reception coil and to our surprise the radio worked! That proved that my first attempt at making a radio set was okay except that the reception coil was reversely connected. What I remember to this day was what Bakar said, patting me on my shoulder, “Congratulations! You have just made your own first radio set!” He was right; I was really proud of that fact!

Bakar’s neighbour’s room-mate had a book called “Radio For Boys” which was lent to me. It had many diagrams and instructions on how to construct a one-valve set, a two-valve set, a three-valve set, all run on battery power, and a simple five-valve superheterodyne (superhet) set run on electrically energised power supply. During my second year at UM my hostel room was right next to Bakar’s and with his guidance I was able to construct the various radio sets right to the superhet set. But before graduating to the construction of all these radio sets, Bakar and I found out that the one-valve regenerative set was capable of being modified to function as a simple transmitter set by increasing the level of its regenerative output. That made it a simple Morse Code transmitter by cutting on-and-off its power supply to provide the dot-and-dash function as a transmitter. In fact by inserting a carbon microphone at the input section of the one valve set, even a voice transmission was capable of being produced. Bakar and had our fun at doing a bit of two-way communication with our one-valve sets, using only short antenna lines. Transmission by using long antenna lines would be detected by the communication authority. That would have put us in trouble as it was illegal to transmit without a licence.

Unfortunately Bingo was not back at UM for the second year course as he had joined the police force as a police inspector. However, a few of the new freshies were musically inclined like Ariff Ahmad, Daud Hamzah, Philip Chee and another Abu Bakar. Together with them we formed a small music band with Bakar playing the strumming guitar, Ariff the melody guitar, Daud the big violin-shaped bass, Abu Bakar the drums, Philip Chee the piano and me the hand percussion instruments. I had won the first prize in the Radio Malaya “Bakat Baru” competition in March 1954 and was one of the singers of this group. We performed at our hostel ground and on stage for certain functions together with singers like Ahmad Sabki and the lady singers Adibah Amin and Fung Chui Lin. Once Radio Malaya even invited our group to perform at one of its “University On The Air” programs.

When we all left UM, our music group naturally broke up. I joined Radio Malaya in 1957 as a Programme Assistant and Bakar the Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture. We seldom met. I continued with my interest in electronics, building sophisticated audio amplifiers, purchasing a professional communication radio receiver, constructing a tranmitter and a 1,000 watt transmitting amplifier after obtaining a licence in operating an amateur radio transmitting station. I managed to pass the amateur radio examination (RAE) in December 1961, getting a call sign 9M2RI. I tried to encourage Bakar to be involved in it too, but he was not interested in the hobby.

Meanwhile Ariff Ahmad and Daud Hamzah joined me at Radio Malaya as Broadcasting Assistants. Ariff joined the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and later took up a university course in music. He obtained a PhD degree from an American University. Unfortunately he passed away, after Daud Hamzah and Abu Bakar, the drummer of our UM music group had passed on. Philip Chee was in Singapore and was out of touch with us in Kuala Lumpur.

While in Kuala Lumpur, I once visited Bakar’s house. I discovered that his activities in the Fisheries Department had made him interested in keeping an aquarium of marine fish which was more difficult to maintain than keeping a fresh water aquarium. I learned a lot from him about the problems involved and soon built my own marine aquarium, getting marine fish and the seawater and sand from the 4th mile in Port Dickson. I even caught a baby octopus, which was not tame at first, but soon began to be friendly once I learned to feed it by dangling a dead prawn in front of it.

Another influence Bakar had on me was in the area of constructing musical instruments. He had made a hawaiian guitar for himself and for his colleague, Dol Ramli, who later became the Director of Broadcasting in Malaysia. One of my sons was interested in playing the modern bass electric guitar and had asked me to buy one for himself. I decided to construct one instead of buying it for about RM700. I purchased only the commercial fingering section for RM150 but constructed the body and the electrical sound control unit by myself. When it was completed, I gave it to my son who enjoyed playing it with his friends. I then went further to build an electric guitar on the same principle of buying the fingering section for RM150 and building the body like those sold in the shops and building the electrical sound system myself. After this was successfully completed I was encouraged to build another electric guitar, a simple one with a very light body just big enough to fit in the electrical sound system on it.

I then went even further. Being interested in playing the violin as a 10 year old kid, I had much earlier on made a violin using the coconut shell as the violin’s sound box and the fibres of the pineapple leaf, instead of a horse’s tail hair, for the bow of the violin. With new knowledge in building the bass guitar and the two electrical guitars, I decided to build an electric violin without the normal big sound box needed to produce the musical sound. The sound box was made from a small piece of hard wood to fit in the electrical parts for the string sound pick-up, and the fingering board was another piece of hard wood with the string tuning system at its edge fitted with the metal tuning gears used for the mandolin. This violin was very much like the one used by a famous violinist, Vanessa Mae. Vanessa used it around the year 1995, but I made mine in 1985.

Not satisfied with just this violin, I made another simpler electric violin, using just one piece of hard wood as its fingering section, right from one tip as the string tuning section, to the other end where the four strings GDAE were attached. The only other piece of hard wood used was for the small, almost round, board needed to hold the violin to the player’s chin and shoulder. This made the electric violin look like just a small piece of wood with four strings attached to it. It was therefore very simple to carry around without the need for a violin box. Every one stared at this funny looking violin whenever I brought it with me under my armpit!

News of the deaths of many of my friends, including some members of my close and distant families, somehow did not affect me very much as I always had the feeling that they were being recalled by God’s grace. But when the news came on radio and TV that a commercial aeroplane crashed in Johor in 1977 killing all of its passengers and crew members, my eyes were really full of tears. This was because one of its passengers was Abu Bakar Merican.

Batu Caves

Lilly swiftly did the math. If her mother (Aida) first went to Batu Caves when she was eight and she revisits the Caves at 41, then her first visit was made 33 years ago.

Lilly’s good at Math. More than good. She was voted Class Mathematician in 2nd Grade. Now in 3rd Grade she’s top in her class in the subject.

A gymnastics devotee, she’s made it to the Junior Olympic Team program in New Hampshire, USA. Lilly, 9, and Nora, 7, are both budding pianists. Dainty little Nora is an equestrienne who delights in decking herself out in jodhpurs, boots, garters, show shirt, blazer, show gloves and helmet – the whole works – for horse shows.

But I digress, which I do too easily when dwelling on the subject of my grandkids who live abroad and don’t visit frequently enough.

During their last vacation here, we took the girls and their parents to Batu Caves, a massive limestone hill located about eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As we approached the Caves, Lilly was the first to spot the towering golden statue that loomed progressively more magnificent as we neared it. I told the girls that was the world’s tallest structure of Lord Murugan, one of the holiest of the Hindu deities – 140 feet tall and made of 250 tons of steel bars, 1,550 cubic meters of concrete and 300 liters of gold paint. The numbers impressed our little mathematician. Awesome! she said.


We parked the car and headed towards Lord Murugan who stood guard at the base of a very steep 272-step staircase that led to the Caves. Samad and I felt intimidated by it but, refusing to be outdone, we started our climb, maintaining a more sedate pace than Aida and her family and the other tourists who had come from many parts of the world. Resting points along the way provided welcome relief and beautiful views of the city.

Nora squealed excitedly when she saw the numerous furry monkeys that greeted us on our way up. She was particularly attracted to the babies that clung tenaciously to their mothers as they raced up the staircase railings. The girls happily gave them the many bananas they’d brought and watched amazed as the monkeys deftly peeled the skins before gobbling them up. Pieces of coconut flesh, bread, biscuits and peanuts offered by the other tourists were as swiftly consumed. The poor things are starving! Lilly said.




We’d heard of fierce monkeys who barred their teeth or hissed angrily or harassed unsuspecting tourists who had concealed food in their pockets. I’m reminded of the time Samad and I went mountain trekking in Nepal. We were exploring a serene river-side temple when an angry monkey bit my leg, taking me completely by surprise. I spent a couple of months in agony, not knowing whether I would be infected with the dreaded rabies virus. But back to the Batu Caves monkeys. We found them entirely entertaining and thoroughly enjoyed our encounters with them.



We finally made it to the top and saw magnificent cave formations, the largest and best known being the Temple or Cathedral Cave. Lilly and Nora gazed in wonder at its high vaulted ceiling. It housed ornate Hindu shrines. The way the light filtered through to the cave made it breathtakingly beautiful. The cave is dedicated to Lord Murugan. A much smaller version than his golden self stood in the cave attracting acts of devotion among the many Hindu worshippers.

On the way down we saw the barred entrance of the second main attraction of Batu Caves, the Dark Cave reputed to have two kilometers of strikingly beautiful rock formations and animals found nowhere else.

Thirty-three years ago we probably took little Aida, the girls’ mother, to the Dark Cave. She must have seen something in there that terrified her. She gasped in fear and clutched my hand tightly, urging me to run out of the cave.

The Dark Cave is the home of the world’s rarest spider, the Trapdoor. When they hear about it the girls clamored to see it but we had to disappoint them as special arrangements had to be made before we could enter the Dark Cave.

But more joy awaited the girls after we got down. Pigeons! The square at the base of the caves was teeming with them. And there was such a variety – white ones, grey ones, speckled ones and others with blue-grey feathers.




Armed with bird seed bought from the nearby stalls the girls giggled nervously as they had pigeons eating out of their hands, tip-toeing up to their elbows and even perching on their heads.

A monkey sneaked up to Nora and startled her as it filched a packet of bird seed she was holding. Only a very greedy monkey would do that, she wailed. Not greedy, Nora. Hungry, Lilly assured her.

What did the girls like best about the trip? Lilly gave me a wide smile before saying, the mischievous monkeys! And Nora? The friendly little pigeons!

It was just as well that we didn’t take the girls to visit Batu Caves during the Thaipusam festival (in January or February) when among the thousands of devotees would be those with their tongues, cheeks and bodies impaled with skewers and hooks as they carry out their acts of penitence and devotion to Lord Murugan. A gruesome sight indeed for anybody but something that would strike terror in the girls’ hearts, probably akin to the fear their eight year old mother felt 33 years ago when she ran out of the Dark Cave.

The Runaway Bridegroom

Someone has only to mention 466-B Ayer Itam Road, Penang, the house where I was born, and I will experience a rush of memories : Idaham, my eldest brother, vigorously beating eggs with a fork and scrambling them with sliced onion and chili for a most appetizing breakfast.

Badlil drying dehusked coconut shells and mangosteen skins in the sun to supplement firewood for cooking. My big sister Zurina, sweeping, scrubbing, straightening up the house or sewing pretty dresses for my kid sister Faridah and I. Mustapha, the gregarious one, dressing up to the nines for a night out with his friends.

Abu was a tease. When I was yet a wee girl, I unintentionally swallowed a sizeable mangosteen seed. He looked at me gravely, shook his head and said a mangosteen tree would most surely sprout from my stomach. I was terrified and subjected my stomach to the most careful scrutiny. After several weeks had passed I was hugely relieved to find nothing shooting forth from it.

Mother’s only brother, Mamak Hassan, had an endearing personality. An avid small game hunter, he thrilled me with stories about his jungle exploits. He told me about his beloved pet tiger cub which would follow him companionably all over his house. He always wore thick leather gloves when playing with it. Clever, that, I thought. I don’t recall what eventually happened to it.

I remember he brought Mother a mouse deer to be skinned and was scolded for what she described as his senseless killing of helpless little animals. But she smiled at his proposition : that she consider marrying one of her sons to the lovely daughter of his dear friend, a senior government official. It would be a fine match he assured her. He pointed out that Father and Mother were prominent members of the community. Father had distinguished himself as an English teacher at the Penang Free school, the country’s premier school. And were they not invited each year to attend the Penang Governor’s birthday party?

Although Mother’s sons were all of marriageable age, Idaham and Mustapha had made plans to further their studies in England. Abu had secured a place at the University of Singapore. Mother decided that Badlil, who had a well paid job with an international company, Cable and Wireless in Singapore, was the perfect candidate.

Mamak Hassan arranged a meeting with his friend. My parents were most warmly received. And they were won over by the grace and beauty of his friend’s daughter. Mamak Hassan had chosen well indeed.

When a date was set for the wedding, Mother presented the bride-to-be with an exquisite gold necklace.

Following Badlil’s return from Singapore preparations for the wedding were finalized. The bridal bed with its tasseled beige bedcover sparkled with beads and sequins. As did the matching pillows and cushions. Carpets were rolled out and laid in the living room at one end of which stood the elaborately decorated bridal dais. Tables and chairs were arranged under a large tent in the garden and a wide variety of food ordered for the wedding dinner.

My parents had personally called upon all their guests to invite them for the wedding.

Two days before the wedding I woke up to the sound of people rushing around and talking in raised voices. I looked for Mother and found her weeping inconsolably. It broke my heart to see her tear-stained face. Father appeared sullen and angry. I asked Zurina what had happened and in a pained voice she told me Badlil, the bridegroom-to-be, had disappeared and was nowhere to be found. Mustapha had raised what he called the red alert.

We had a major crisis on our hands. There was no way we could hush up what had happened. The wedding had to be called off and all arrangements made had to be cancelled.

Though deeply distraught, Mother was able to pull herself together. With Father and Mamak Hassan in tow she hastened to disclose what had happened to the parents of the bride-to-be, expressed her remorse and regret and sought their forgiveness. Then she faced each one of her invited guests and came away, at the end of it all, with her dignity preserved.

A contrite Badlil returned after a week. He had grievously wronged wronged his parents but didn’t foresee the extent of their wrath. The punishment he received was severe. He was most sternly rebuked and then driven out of the house.

Carefree days in Jasin, Melaka

Samad was ten when he left Padang Sebang to live with his father’s new family in Jasin. He had just lost his beloved mother.

An easy, carefree life awaited him. No more rising at dawn to pedal curry puffs made by his mother. No strict grandfather to cane or tie him to a tree for the slightest offense. And no scary body floating in a well. He spent his time after school happily playing with the other boys of the village.


Riding a palm frond

The boys were left to their own devices. Their playground was Nature and they had a prodigious capacity for fun and games. They raced around on palm fronds, sat astride buffaloes, climbed trees to eat rambutans and guavas, hit squirrels, which devoured their fruits, with a slingshot, and flew kites they made using bamboo strips and kite paper. They attached their kites to the popular Anchor brand string. When the spirit moved them, they glued powdered glass to their string. Many an opponent’s kite was thus mercilessly grounded.


Traditional Malaysian kites

They amassed colorful rubber bands to play a game in which they targeted other players’ rubber bands to win, thus enhancing their collection.

The game of "Tick-Tock" was played with two sticks, one longer than the other

The game of “Tick-Tock” was played with two sticks, one longer than the other

“Tick-Tock” was slightly akin to Rounders, played, not with a bat and ball, but with two sticks, the shorter of which is driven firmly into the ground. Samad became adept at hitting it with the longer stick causing it to spiral upwards. He would then hit it hard and send it flying into the distance enabling him to touch “base” several times.

Bicycle rim and stick

Bicycle wheel rim and stick

Trundling a bicycle wheel

Trundling bicycle wheel rims

A favourite game that invariably left them out of breath, required using a stick to vigorously trundle a bicycle wheel, bereft of spokes and rubber tyre, for long distances over the fields.

Boys wouldn’t be boys without resorting to a game that was an approximation of war. They shot each other using bamboo guns. Samad swiftly learned the trick of carefully selecting the correct size of seed from a tree, the name of which now escapes him. When the gun is shot, the seed, compressed by the pumping of the gun handle, will pop before shooting out and hitting the opponent.

Bamboo gun used in the boys' war games

Bamboo gun used in the boys’ war games

It was always with great joy that Samad splashed about in the cool, clear waters of the Jasin river. His dog-stroke improved and he was gradually able to move faster and cover longer distances. He was happily paddling along one day when a powerful current swept him away, taking him completely by surprise. He struggled violently to stay afloat but found himself hurtling down the river at great speed. Lungs bursting, he gasped for air, swallowed a ton of water, and flailed his arms wildly, but to no avail. Just when he thought all was over, he was hurled against the river bank. He threw out his hands, grasped an overhanging plant and clung to it with all his might. He yelled out in pain when a swarm of fire ants bit his hands but he gritted his teeth and held on. He regained his breath and slowly dragged himself up the bank, heaving a huge sigh of relief to find he was alive, and safe!

Not long after his near-drowning experience, back to the river he went. It was as if he couldn’t stay away from it. He learned to dive into the water from a Nipah palm frond, just like his friends. Nipah palm trees grew in abundance along the river banks. Samad would clamber up a tree, stand firmly on a frond, and leap into the river with a big splash. Soon he was having the time of his life, making spectacular dives and impressing his friends. Until one unfortunate day when he slipped and tumbled down, severely scratching his back on the sharp leaves of a low lying frond.

He returned home, got out of his wet clothes, wrapped himself with a towel and was painfully making his way to the bathroom when his father stopped him to ask why he was walking in a most peculiar manner. He was forced to lower his towel. His father’s face turned red when he saw the gash on Samad’s back and, after letting loose a vituperative tirade about boys who behaved irresponsibly, got out his cane and whacked Samad with it.

So Samad went from the frying pan into the fire, or as the Malays would say it, “jatuh tangga, di-timpa tangga” – you fall off a ladder and it lands on you.

From that day on, with his father’s words ringing in his ears, his days were decidedly less wild and carefree.

(All illustrations are photos taken of exhibits at a museum in Melaka)

My mother, the smuggler

My dear mother was small and petite. Before leaving for Perlis, she put on several loose kebaya tops and wrapped herself with layers of sarong sewn from “batek chop”, white cloth imprinted with simple black and white batek designs. In an instant she became fat and pudgy.

I had a fit of giggling. Hee! Hee! I rolled on the floor, then ran to give her a hug but my hands could barely encircle her legs, wee girl that I was then.

My 13 year old brother Mustapha, her travelling companion, had similarly grown fat from wearing many layers of “batek chop”. I ran round the house chanting, Tubby Mustapha! Tubby Mustapha!

My mother had accumulated “batek chop” from several suppliers in her village. For her trip, folded pieces of the batek were stashed in bags filled with clothes, and lay concealed beneath food in large tiffin carriers.

They caught the ferry from Penang to Prai on the mainland before hopping onto the train to Perlis, at the northern tip of the Malay Peninsula. My mother’s train permit stated she was visiting a sick relative.

At Sg. Petani everyone disembarked. Permits were scrutinised and bags examined by customs officials. My mother heaved a big sigh of relief. Her batek lay undetected. The train then chugged to its final destination, the royal town of Arau (where the Raja of Perlis lived), arriving there well after nightfall.

As soon as the train lurched to a stop, my mother and brother, who were in the last carriage, grabbed their belongings, opened the door on the side away from the prying eyes of the customs people and Japanese soldiers, and leapt down onto the undergrowth below. Moments later, my mother’s friend of many years, Mak Tuan, and her sons, met them and led them stealthily past the railway line to the winding kampong road and eventually to her house. Everyone then breathed easy.

Mak Tuan had many contacts with people north of the border, in Thailand. She knew how to cut the best deals so my mother could earn good money for her batek and herself a modest commission.

The serious shortage of food and money during the Japanese occupation had driven my mother to do what she did, so she could help my father, who worked at the Police barracks for a pittance, feed the family.

If smuggling batek into Perlis was fraught with risk, taking the big, bulky Japanese money out under the nose of the authorities posed an even bigger danger. So my mother devised several methods of concealment. She hid money in Mustapha’s canvas shoes, his wide belt with its many compartments, her own belt, beneath the food in the tiffin carriers and below the rice, eggs and dried fish she filled her bags with.

But her smartest move was to enclose money between two mats sewn together, which she rolled up and tucked under her arm.

A year passed before she took the bold step of acquiring an acre of padi land in Perlis which gave her a more plausible reason for visiting Perlis than tending to sick relatives. It yielded additional money, and also rice whenever the padi was harvested.

My eldest brother, 17 year old Idaham, occasionally travelled to Perlis with my mother. One night she returned home without him. Choking back her tears she told us he’d been detained. Customs had found money hidden beneath the rice, eggs, and dried fish in his bag. We were all in shock. Where was he? What would they do to him? Would they ever release him? Questions like these plagued our minds through the night while my mother wept.

The following morning my father hastened to Prai. Following tough negotiations, money exchanged hands, an understanding was reached and Idaham was freed.

My mother made a decision. She was no longer willing to put the lives of her sons, and her own life, in danger. Sadly, she sold her padi land and ceased her smuggling activities.