Monday, May 31, 2010

It's costly to tell others where to eat cheap, tasty food

A FRIEND with whom I shared the discovery of a place where local oysters were going for a song, jokingly told me not to write about it.
He said I could do the oyster collectors a favour and put a better roof on their dilapidated huts, but I would be depriving people like him of cheap local oysters -- an indulgence that would cost an arm and a leg at city hotels.

My friend reminded me of the tale of the mee udang stall a food writer discovered in a coastal town in Perak.

She wrote about it and subsequently, a TV station did a documentary on the place. A year later, when she visited it again, she could hardly find a place to sit. When she finally got to the menu, prices had almost doubled. The quality, however, was not as she remembered it.

Much to her amusement, the number of "original" mee udang operators had also increased. She wondered if she had any part in spoiling the market for locals now that vehicles with yellow plates were robbing locals of parking spaces there.

Some years ago, I visited a noodle shop on the outskirts of Port Dickson after reading about it on the Internet.

The humble mum-and-pop operation beneath a fig tree was then known among locals for its handmade noodles, and the prices were in keeping with the general economy of the small town.

Years later, when I returned to the same spot, the operators had moved across the street. The stall was now a fully air-conditioned restaurant and it was packed with customers. I had to station myself by a table of diners to grab a seat for my family when the group got up to leave.

The waitress who came to take our orders was not only well-dressed, she was also well-versed in salesmanship and persistently recommended other dishes she claimed to be famous, supporting her claims by pointing to the clippings of stories which appeared in newspapers and magazines plastered on the walls. I had to oblige or risk looking like a cheapskate if I only ordered the noodles for which the place was famous.

When we left, I whispered to my wife that the noodle had lost its original taste. She said my taste buds could have been be fooled by the nostalgia of eating under the tree. Food always tasted better as we remembered it, she said.

However, she did not argue when I pointed out that the price had gone up in tandem with the decor, ambience and number of waitresses there.

In a few weeks, I'll be hoping my favourite coffee shop in Chukai, Terengganu, still serves that lip-smacking kopi peng (iced black coffee) and roti paong (Terengganu's famous home baked bread).

The shop was a wooden shack when I took my wife there 19 years ago. Seven years ago, it occupied a spanking new building and the crowd was spilling onto the road.

This time, I will be introducing the coffee shop to a friend who found it on a food blog.

A wise person said that the discovery of a new dish might do more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.

For the moment, I think I would be happy not to share with everyone where they can get fresh local oysters for RM2 each.

No, I am not worried about their prices going up - I just don't want to be responsible for sending the local species to extinction should the pen prove to be mightier than the fork.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't ignore wisdom of builders of yore

HOW are you coping with the warm and humid nights these days?

Friends of mine who live on the upper floors of condo blocks were glad it rained over the past few evenings.

One chap, who stays on the top floor, confessed that he managed to get a good night's sleep because his air conditioner was on from dusk to dawn.

Of course, he also mentioned the nightmare that comes with his monthly electricity bill.

I suppose, if you are living in the city, air conditioner use is unavoidable. You need them just as much as you need your satellite television or Internet access.

On warm nights, I miss the cool comfort of the timber houses I grew up in when my family stayed in Kuala Terengganu in the 1970s.

Our house was built on cengal stilts and roofed with atap bata -- quarter-inch thick pentagon-shaped tiles made of sun-baked or fired clay.

Atap bata was preferable to atap nipah (palm frond roofing) because it needed less maintenance, was cleaner and did not harbour pests such as centipedes, scorpions and poisonous spiders. And, it kept the house cool most of the time.

But houses, in those days, did not depend entirely on clay-tile roofing to stay cool. Our house stood on stilts which kept it high above floodwaters during the monsoon season.

The raised construction also made the house airy and gave us a kolong (Malay term for the area beneath the house). It could be used as a garage, tool shed or drying area when it rained continuously.

The stilts were not planted into the ground but sat on foot-high granite blocks.

The builders did that to prevent moisture from weakening the hardwood and fend off termite attacks. White ant trails on granite could be spotted easily and removed.

The smaller houses in our village were also easy to move. It only took 50 or so adults to move house, literally.

If you have slept on mengkuang mats in a raised timber house, you would agree there is little need for air conditioners.

Cold air seeping through the timber floorboards is enough to get you to slumber land quickly, save for nights when rude awakenings came in the form of mosquitoes.

A friend who lived in a colonial-style brick house told me that the bricks kept his house as cool as a cave during the day. At night, the walls lost the heat built up during the day just as fast because the house had plenty of air vents.

The kitchen was airy and well-lit because its walls were made of vented bricks that provided ventilation and allowed natural light to come in.

Studying some of the features of old houses and buildings, one can't help but wonder if the builders of yesteryear knew their jobs better. If building technology was the yardstick, they certainly couldn't have been more skilled. Nor, did they have access to better materials.

Workplaces and homes may be more technologically equipped today but it usually doesn't take much more than switching off the electricity to leave us hot under the collar.

Perhaps we can look to the construction work of builders in the past and learn something from them, such as utilitarian commonsense.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Like heritage buildings, old trees need protection, too

THE maker of concrete products next to our condo killed the neighbourhood banyan tree recently. The tree, which had provided shade to his workers when he first started business was removed to create more space for him to sun the concrete slabs, V-drains and culverts he was churning out.

I first noticed the tree that stood a stone's throw away on the western side of our condo when we first moved in more than a decade ago.

No one knew when the tree was planted. Some said it was there as long as they could remember. It could be over 20 years old then, judging from the circumference of the trunk being about 10 men's arms' length.

The tree was listing towards our condo at the time.

A few residents suggested that the tree be removed, lest it was uprooted during a thunderstorm and damaged our common property.

Fortunately, no one took the suggestion seriously.

The tree must have heard them, for in the years that followed, the air roots that hung closest to the ground on the listing side planted themselves and turned into small trunks.

Eventually they joined the main trunk, propped up the foliage, and made the tree even sturdier.

But the old banyan was no match for the tree cutters and within a few weeks, all evidence of its existence was gone.

A crane was used to haul the tree cutters up to the treetop. Armed with chainsaws, they cut their way down. And when they reached the trunk and the chainsaws failed, they doused the living trunk with petrol and burned it from the top.

Finally when the tree was no longer there, some residents began to mourn their loss -- not of the tree, ironically, but of the shade its foliage provided in the afternoons for their cars.

One man asked me if it was legal to cut a tree of that size. I said I didn't know.

A friend living in Australia who wanted to build a medical complex in Brisbane a couple of years ago could not do so because of an old tree on his land. The building plan involved trimming part of the tree's surface roots. The authorities refused to approve the plan until the tree was relocated. Unharmed.

My friend spent thousands of dollars to get a specialist to dig up the old tree and move it to a safe location.

Only after the site inspector was satisfied that the tree was growing again was the plan approved. I wonder if our local authorities would do the same.

Last year, when Jalan Genting Kelang and Jalan Gombak were widened, rows of angsana trees were cut.

These trees were planted more than a decade ago during a beautification plan.

Now that the road widening is almost done, I wonder when the new trees will be planted -- and if the planners have thought about giving enough space to the trees so that when they need to widen the roads again in 10 years, they will be spared.

Old-timers would remember the giant raintrees of Jalan Ampang back in the 70s or the flame of the forest (or Semarak Api) trees along Jalan Gurney and some parts of Sentul.

How many of them are still around today? I wonder where the city's oldest tree is today.

I know that the rubber trees that once lined Jalan Ampang are now gone -- save for a couple along Jalan Hulu Kelang that were probably spared because the city's tour guides needed them for their "rubber plantation" tour to show how rubber is tapped.

Heritage Acts protect old buildings from being demolished but do we have laws that keep old trees from being destroyed?

And if there is any such law, perhaps it should be enforced.

Unlike losing old buildings, when we lose an old tree, we lose more than just our heritage.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Life of ease and convenience in the urban jungle

JUST as we were about to step into a restaurant in Malacca for dinner recently, a flock of low-flying swiftlets across the road caught my attention. Some flew only inches off the ground, unafraid of the traffic.

My daughters were curious to know why the birds were behaving that way. The birds were feeding, I said. And if we were lucky, we would soon find out what they had eaten.

In the restaurant, I requested a table away from the fluorescent lamps. When the peanuts and tea came, the "visitors" I was expecting also arrived. Some patrons who were seated beneath the lamps had their dinner interrupted by flying insects, which eventually found their way to our table.

"Kalkatu," I told my children. "That's what winged termites are known as in Malay."

In the villages where I grew up, the sight of swiftlets, mynahs or bulbuls in a feeding frenzy often marked the presence of the winged termites. Several of the insects would be circling kerosene lamps at dusk, indicating that more were nearby. Neighbours would quickly alert each other of the insects' presence and everyone would get a basin of water, light a candle and plant it in the middle of the basin.

As soon as the house lights were put out, the insects would be drawn to the flame of the solitary candle over the basin of water. Some would crash into the flame but most would land in the water. Once we were sure that all were gone, the water filled with the insects would be emptied far away from the house so that the survivors would not find their way back and build their nests near our homes.

My wife asked why the termites took to the skies. I said that according to my elders, this was because their nest was under threat and they were looking for a new home. This usually meant that rain was coming, or worse, a flood. The insects were looking for safer ground.

Perhaps that was why the Hokkien call them chooi bang, loosely translated to mean "water mosquitoes" as they marked the coming of rain.

In the old days, people developed survival skills by observing natural phenomena.

When the lalang fields started to flower or when the pegaga (Indian pennywort) that usually flourished along riverbanks started to die, village folk I grew up with knew that we would be in for a long dry spell when sore throats and other heat-related ailments would be the norm.

Lalang roots would be dug out, dried and brewed as herbal tea for the hot days ahead. My Malay neighbours would keep the sireh (betel) vine well watered and alive so that their leaves could be used to treat the nosebleeds that frequently came with the heat.

In wells, a puyu (Malaysian perch) or a haruan (snakehead) would be reared as an indicator that the water was safe for drinking -- death of the fish would spell danger.

Today, we don't have to go through such hassles just to get by in life. We no longer need the skills needed by our forefathers.

The push button convenience around us allows us to deal with most of life's daily challenges. And the only thing we need to get by in the urban jungle, it would appear, are our credit cards and mobile phones.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Have lockers in schools so kids can store their books

SO, the experts have identified a relationship between heavy schoolbags and the spinal deformity known as scoliosis.

Common sense should have alerted us to what heavy schoolbags can do to young spines.

Sixteen years ago when my eldest daughter started Year One, I remembered how heavy her bag was.

Fortunately, the headmaster had seen the problem coming much earlier than most of us parents did and instructed his students to leave their textbooks in the drawers of their desks at the end of the school day.

Despite that, I still wanted to buy a bag with wheels for my daughter. But she said no.

She had seen how clumsy such bags were when drawn along uneven pavements. On rainy days, the bags got wet, and the books, too.

The retractable handle not only added more weight, it also hurt the back when the bag was slung over the shoulders.

Back then, I had often told my wife the way to resolve the problem of heavy bags was for education to go paperless.

At a time when netbooks and e-readers were unheard of and laptops were still heavy both in weight and price, e-learning seemed so attractive an alternative. But my wife was skeptical -- not everyone was computer-literate back then, and fewer still could afford laptops, she said.

Today, with netbooks getting cheaper and more powerful, and e-reader prices set for a dive, we are still far away from taking the load off our children's bags.

Although with current technology, we can compress encyclopaedias into thumbdrives, we could still be light years away from being able to remove textbooks from our children's educational staple.

To do so will take a lot of work. The formats of school textbooks would have to be rewritten and made more suitable for use within portable computers.

Schools would need to have basic facilities including more plug points to allow students to recharge the batteries of their computers as they use them in class.

And that's not including figuring out what to do with the textbook publishers once education goes paperless.

Terengganu pioneered e-learning when it gave out laptops to Year Five students over a year ago. I wonder how successful that project has been, and if it can be replicated for city schools as well.

After all, it would be a shame for city folk to boast of access to the latest amenities when our kids still lug heavy bags to schools daily.

Right now, the faster alternative would be to build lockers for students to store their textbooks. It may cost a bit but it is the best short-term solution.

After all, it makes little sense to produce a nation of bright sparks with bad backs.

The only problem with having lockers at school would be funding.

Are parents ready to shoulder the financial burden of paying for the lockers and maintaining them if the schools do not have the financial means to do so?

As it is, even collecting PTA fees from some parents is difficult.