Monday, December 19, 2011

The black and white of wearing school shoes

IN the old days, school uniforms made of cotton had to be starched before they were ironed, and school shoes had to be polished with shoe whitener. Before the bottled shoe whitener came along, which was during the late 1970s, shoe whites were made of lime.

These lime cakes sold for 20 sen a piece, were round in shape and slightly less than the size of your palm.

To use it, just add a little water into the lime cake and wait for the whitener to turn soft and creamy. Then, using a piece of clean damp cloth, a brush or a foam pad, you pick up a little bit of the creamy lime and brush it onto the shoes that had just been washed, before putting them out to dry.

There were two drawbacks of using this lime-based shoe white. One of them was that if the shoes were not dried well, they will turn yellow and smell like rotten fish. If your shoes got wet, the lime polish would turn grimy and smelly, as well.

The biggest drawback of using this shoe polish was that the lime ate into the canvas fibres. Instead of the soles running out first, the canvas tore, and usually happened where the canvas joined the rubber.

Gaping shoes were a common sight, especially among those who could not afford new shoes before the school term ended.

There were no fancy branded shoes for school-going children until much later.

The only brand I remember was the green-soled Badminton Master produced by Bata.

Our national badminton players made the Badminton Master famous in the 1970s, I think.

I have forgotten how much they cost but I recall that only my schoolmates who lived in brick houses were able to afford them at the start of each school year.

The rest of us had to settle for the green-soled look-alikes of little known brands like "555" or "Flying Man".

Unlike the real Badminton Master, look-alikes seldom lasted as long. If the soles did not give way, the canvas would tear. The soles also had little traction so you had to be extra careful when stepping into the toilet.

Teachers and discipline masters those days were less forgiving when it came to looking neat. If your shoe laces were untied or the shoes soiled or your pair looked like they have been chewed by a dog, you would be sent to the headmaster's office to explain.

Sometimes, you would also be asked to sign a tiny black book of "offences" that bore greatly on your year-end report card.

If you were lucky, your parents would not be called up to explain why you did not have clean shoes.

These days, teachers are not so strict with school shoes as long as they are white. And in some schools, a teacher told me, the students' shoes were more expensive than their teachers.

Instead of being a part of the dress code, the school shoes of these well-heeled students have become fashion statement instead.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When the Northern Winds blew

AS recent as 30 years ago - those above 40 would be able to recall - the loveliest time in the city was during the end of the year. The skies were cloudless and blue, and the mornings chilling and fresh. The afternoons were hot but the wind blew all day long.

Clothes hung out to dry at sunrise could be collected by mid-morning. You could even expect the thick blankets and curtains put on the clothesline at noon to be dry by four in the afternoon, all crisp and dry, thanks to the wind.

The Hokkien called the winds that blew during this time of the year Pak Hong (Northern Winds) because they came from the North. Some of us called them Kuay Nee Hong - the New Year winds because they heralded the coming of the new year.

The winds usually blew from late October right through February. The winds were cold and dry. Someone told me this was because they came from the wintry regions in China but I don't know if that is true.

While the windy days were welcomed, they also signalled the appearance of seasonal ills such as coughs, colds and nosebleeds. The most dreaded was what the Hokkien nicknamed Pak Jit Sau, the 100-day Cough.

For those who had caught the persistent cough, a barrage of antibiotics, syrups and home remedies failed to alleviate the itchiness in the throat. The cough gave one nightmares - not because it was serious but because it deprived one of sleep as it gets worse at night.

One just had to bear with it until it went away on its own, which it usually did in a month or two. With the cough gone as mysteriously as it had arrived, one is left fearful of taking cold drinks and morning baths for a long time.

I have not felt the chilly year-end winds for years now, let alone see the clear, sunny skies. I consider myself lucky if there isn't a haze these days. The past four weeks, instead of looking up at cerulean blue skies, I only see the Payne's grey colour of rain clouds which sometimes begin trooping in as early as sunrise.

Each evening, being caught in traffic snarls brought about by the rain has become routine. By the time I reach home and have geared up for my evening walk, the rain would come again.

One evening last week, despite the drizzle, I decided to take my chances. I thought it would stop by the time I clocked the first kilometre. It didn't.

Instead, the drizzle grew into a shower that lasted almost an hour. Lucky for me, I had brought my handphone with me. I called my wife to rescue me from the bus stop. And wouldn't you know it, just as I was getting into the car, the rain suddenly stopped.

I suppose my daily frustration with the inclement weather these days is nothing compared with that of my friend, Ah Yeow, who operates a rice and drinks stall in Sentul. The rains must be affecting his livelihood while they are merely disrupting my routine.

For people like him, whose income depended on good weather, the rains always mean hardship in the days ahead. With the Lunar New Year just six weeks away, all they can do is pray that the Northern Winds will start blowing again.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review procedures to prevent gas leak fires

IN the mid-1990s, a door-to-door salesman came to my condo to sell me a metered gas regulator.

The palm-sized device was made of brass and simple to operate. It looked like the common gas regulator, except that it had a small meter which shows the amount of gas left in the tank.

The metered regulator cost RM90, almost eight times more than the regular ones. I bought one for two reasons - it had an automatic shutdown feature which cuts off supply from the tank if there were a leak and lets me know how much gas is left so that I know when to order a new tank.

I hated having to keep a spare tank at home all the time. My fear of a gas leak was as great as running out of gas halfway through cooking my favourite bak kut teh.

But it was a necessary nightmare, before I stumbled upon the metered regulator.

I was even more impressed when the salesman told me that the metered regulator came with a RM1 million liability-insurance and was guaranteed to last five years.

Mine lasted me nine years but, when I went looking for a new one, I was told that it was no longer produced. Apparently, the price was too high for its time and the company had folded.

Last week, when I read that a blast had damaged a restaurant on the ground floor at Maju Junction, my thoughts went back to the metered regulator and gas safety. The blast is the second, involving a food outlet, which is believed to be due to a gas leak.

On Sept 28, the Empire Shopping Gallery in Subang Jaya made the headlines when a gas explosion destroyed a restaurant and injured four people.

The complex has since reopened and, according to reports, eateries there have been fitted with a brand new gas line, backed up by a state-of-the-art gas sensor that runs round-the-clock.

Although no one was hurt in the latest blast, I think the authorities should review current procedures for ensuring the safety of the eateries operating in enclosed premises, especially those that see high pedestrian traffic.

Are regular safety inspections, not just health checks, carried out at such eateries before their business licenses are renewed annually?

In case of a fire, especially at eateries in the older shopping complexes, are the kitchen areas shielded to protect people - at least for the duration needed to evacuate everyone?

Apart from regular smoke detectors and sprinklers, should all eateries in old shopping complexes be equipped with gas leak detection systems?

It also gives me the jitters when I see fast-food outlets operating within a shouting distance of petrol stations.

There is no telling what can happen if an eatery near an underground petrol bunker catches fire, as a result of human carelessness or a faulty stove.