Monday, January 30, 2012

A life as hard but as sweet as sugarcane

TODAY is one of the most important days of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration for the Hokkien community. The eighth day of the first lunar month is celebrated just as grandly as the eve of the first day. Some people call it the Hokkien New Year.

At the stroke of midnight, the ceremony begins - today it is marked by blasts of firecrackers although this had never been a mandatory feature.

The Hokkien give thanks to the Jade Emperor or "Thnee Kong" for the blessings of the past year and ask for a smooth year.

It is said that if the children were to stay up and offer prayers to the Jade Emperor, the parents would be blessed with a long and healthy life. This belief, I think, is deeply rooted in the practice of filial piety.

The sugarcane is high on the list of items sought by the Hokkien on this day.

A pair of freshly harvested plants, complete with stalk, roots and leaves, can fetch many times its regular price, and this is the time the sugarcane planters make a killing. If you are wondering where the term "sweet harvest" came from, wonder no more.

According to popular folklore, a cruel king once ruled the Hokkien in ancient China. The tyrant ordered an ethnic cleansing, but the Hokkien got wind of it and sought refuge in the sugarcane fields, from which they emerged on the eighth day, unharmed by the departed army.

I was, however, told a different tale by my elders when I asked about the significance of the sugarcane when I was a kid.

Their story is more realistic, I think.

Sugarcane plants symbolise life and the resilient spirit in every one of us, they told me.

You will detect some truth in this if you observe the sugarcane plant closely. The plant may look slender but its roots are strong. The stem is tough but flexible enough to bend with and not be easily broken by the wind.

If you have ever chewed on the sugarcane, you will recall that you had to strip the bark with your teeth before you could take a bite of the crunchy stem. You also had to work your way through one tough node after another in order to savour the sweet juices.

All of these reflect the cycles of life and the hardship and ease, my elders said.

One will appreciate life's sweet rewards if we have tasted the hardship.

Of course, you can argue that these days, you do not have to work up a sweat to satisfy a sugarcane juice craving. Mechanical crushers and juicers have taken the load off your jaws.

But you don't need me to tell you that things gained without any work are likely to be lost just as effortlessly.

"Easy come, easy go" can be a hard lesson to learn - and all too often, learnt too late.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Looking to the Dragon for prosperity

IF you are wondering why the Water Dragon has not knocked on your front door and inundating you with a flood of prosperity yet, don't worry.

Someone on the Internet told me that the Year of the Dragon would only arrive 12 days from today, on Feb 4.

Don't ask me how come; I don't know.

I have yet to learn to read the Chinese calendar, let alone figure out how Chinese geomancy works.

But I am sure you already know what the Year of the Dragon holds for you.

This time of the year, there is plenty of information that will keep you positively charged to face the year with glowing promises of prosperity and success, or get you worried sick about the impending troubles coming your way. Don't buy your talismans yet.

During the last Dragon Year, many people I know had good fortune.

One chap had a windfall at the gaming outlet. He invested his winnings in stocks and made even more.

Another, a lady who was then single, met the love of her life and settled down. She will be happily celebrating the 12th anniversary of her marriage sometime in April.

One childless couple was blessed with a Dragon son that year. The 12-year-old is today a brilliant fellow as all dragon sons can be, but let's hope that when he is successful in later life, he will also be a filial child.

Not everyone is fortunate, however. One fellow was so worried about the dark predictions he read in the papers that he religiously carried out the soothsayers' recommendations to dispel his impending bad luck.

When I visited him at the end of that year, he was busy clearing his home of the collection of feng shui paraphernalia for that year.

I asked if they worked and he admitted that he didn't know. He was relieved that none of the ill winds the fortunetellers had forecast blew his way, but the good things they predicted also did not materialise.

I then asked if he was a hard-core believer in the stars. He replied that he was not -- he was only playing it safe, just in case.

And if prosperity were indicated in his stars, he said, he would not mind spending a little more to usher in some good luck.

I am sure we have at one time or the other let our guard down during festive times like this.

A fondness for reading into the future is healthy fun but we are courting unnecessary distress if we let it influence our lives.

There are as many experts these days as there are conflicting views on how the year will turn out. Magic stones are in plenty too.

A wise man once said that if a man takes no heed of the future, he would find distress near at hand.

Believe me, living the present sensibly and productively is just as important.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Monday, January 16, 2012

A fish by any other name would sound just as sweet

I WONDER if the leatherjacket fish (koay bak hoo in Hokkien or jebong in Malay) has ever been served in the Lunar New Year reunion dinner.

My wife says she has heard of the garoupa, red snapper and threadfin being served, but she has yet to hear of the leatherjacket making an appearance on the reunion dinner table.

For those with pockets as deep as the South China Sea, the star attraction at the dinner table is the white pomfret (tau tay chneo in Hokkien or bawal tambak in Malay). Some years back, demand for the fish during the Lunar New Year drove the price to over RM100 a kg before it had to be capped.

If you are wondering why the pomfret is the preferred fish on the dinner table, it is because its name in Cantonese sounds similar to an auspicious word that means prosperity.

And if you have gone on to ponder why fish is such an important dish on the reunion dinner table, I can only repeat for your edification what was quoted to me in Mandarin: "Nien nien you yue".

By some twists in the tone and inflections of the words, the Chinese idiom, which translates to mean "surpluses every year", becomes "fish every year".

The reason why people do not serve the leatherjacket during the reunion dinners, my wife reasons, is because of its ugliness. If you have seen leatherjacket divested of its skin, you would know what I mean.

I argue that the fish is tasty, so much so that it is also called the chicken fish - because it tastes just like chicken!

If steamed, the flesh is easily stripped from the main bone without pulling off the tiny bones that may choke you.

That is one reason why it is among the best fish to feed the kids.

But the reason I thought of the leatherjacket for the reunion dinner was simply logic.

Last week, the fish was still selling at RM15 a kilo at the Pasar Tani near my home.

The fishmonger even offered to lower the price if I took the kilo-and-a-half fish that had been lying in his ice tray since 6am.

His garoupas were already selling at RM38 a kilo - and the price is still rising - while the threadfin was priced at RM35 a kilo.

Why did I not see the white pomfret? Your guess is as good as mine. It may be that it was too expensive. It could be the fishmongers were holding on to the stock to sell it at a much higher price later next week.

Of course, some will tell you that the bad weather - or even the floods in Thailand - has reduced the catch. Take that with a pinch of salt.

During the last Dragon year 12 years ago, orchard owners in Sungai Buloh made a killing when the loong kat, or dragon lime, was introduced. The golden citrus plants with longish fruits fetched almost four times the price of the common lime or limau kasturi.

A chap I know paid almost RM188 for a pot of waist-height dragon lime plant bursting with fruits.

It symbolised abundance, he told me, before promptly putting the plant in an auspicious corner of his house.

By the fourth day of the Chinese New Year, the fruits were falling all over the floor and attracting an abundance of ants. A month later, the lime plant withered and died. The chap's wife later told me that it was such a waste of money.

I don't know if the dragon lime will be less expensive this year, but I know that there will surely be another another festive fad, claiming good luck and prosperity, dreamed up by marketing geniuses.

I also hope you will not be blinded by the glowing promises and get caught up in the buying frenzy. You might want to remind yourself as you dig deep into your wallet that the festive celebration is only the start of a long year ahead - which you should be financially prepared for.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Malacca should do something about its jams

MALACCA city is bursting at the seams with visitors these days.

Come weekends, public holiday or school breaks, even Malaccans dread driving into the city centre for fear of being caught in jams.

Friends of mine who live near the tourist belts, who had once wished Malacca to be as vibrant as KL, now regret that their wish has been granted.

They miss the days when they could sleep in late on Sundays and not be awakened by the din, and not having to fight with outsiders for parking space at their doorstep.

If you are a regular visitor to Malacca, as I have been for over two decades, you will be able to tell if the streets in the city centre are congested or not before you even get there. If you arrive by the North South Expressway, the traffic situation at Ayer Keroh toll plaza is a good indicator.

If all payment booths are open and there are still long queues, you can bet that there will be congestion down town.

Just drive past the toll gates, then, observe traffic on the Ayer Keroh highway, the main thoroughfare leading into town.

If traffic here is slow moving and long queues are building up at the traffic lights, you should try to avoid driving into the city centre if you don't want to be caught in jams.

Malacca's traffic bane can be attributed to poorly timed traffic lights and narrow streets, I believe.

I have noticed that the waiting times at some junctions are exceptionally long, even though traffic from the side roads is sparse.

Examples are the Ayer Keroh Highway-Melaka International Trade Centre and the Jalan Tun Abdul Razak-Tesco junctions.

In town, jams usually start just before the Stadthuys at the two-lane road flanked by the old shop houses.

It continues into the tourist belt around the Clock Tower before the traffic is split by the Melaka Raya and Jonker Walk areas.

The jams in the city centre, however, are not caused by traffic lights but by drivers slowing down to avoid pedestrians who share the narrow streets made narrower by cars parked on one side.

In some areas, five-foot-ways are non-existent simply because of the way the quaint buildings were constructed during the days when horse carriages ruled the streets.

Even with most roads made into one-way streets to smoothen traffic flow, they were not built for today's huge vehicles such as MPVs, vans and tour buses.

With more and more tourist-centric businesses coming up in the city centre, more visitor traffic can be expected.

Heeren Street is fast turning into an arts enclave while Jonker Street has already established itself as a craft and antiques centre.

Some of the neighbouring streets are also becoming synonymous with backpackers as old houses there are turned into budget hotels.

Shouldn't the authorities consider introducing car-less days on weekends and public holidays, including certain hours of the day during school breaks?

Tourist spots in the city centre are not far from each other and there is no reason visitors to Malacca cannot park at the fringe of city and then take public transport into the city centre.

If trishaws are insufficient to meet the demand for transport, maybe electric trams can provide shuttle services as well.

Even cycling can be encouraged. Motorised traffic should be reduced to curb jams and pollution which is detrimental to the age-old buildings.

The town planners did right in moving the Government agencies from the city centre a decade ago.

Now, if only they could manage the jams before they drive away the tourists.

Monday, January 2, 2012

How did your year go? Mine went in a flash.

HAPPY New Year! How did your year go? Mine went in a flash.

I suppose working in a newspaper has something to do with it.

When you are chasing deadlines daily, working on days when ordinary people don't work, and always consciously a day ahead and preparing the following day's edition today, you lose track of time easily.

Some people say if you enjoy what you are doing, then you lose track of time easily.

If that is true, then journalists must have the most enjoyable job in the world - otherwise how else can you explain that we are always wishing for more hours in our days so that we won't bust the deadline?

"How will this year turn out?" a news vendor asked me last Friday.

Will the general election be held? Will property prices take a dive?

Is there going to be a global recession?

Should one buy gold or silver or keep one's money in the bank instead?

I should know, he said, since I worked in the newspaper business.

I said I don't.

If I could foretell the future, I would be better off setting up a table in Chinatown and tell fortunes.

It's less stressful and possibly more lucrative, considering the number of gullible people around these days.

I am guessing that you have school-going children or if your first child is starting school on Wednesday, this year will pass by even faster than you can imagine.

Between sending your children to school and rushing them home in time for tuition each day, you will wish you have more than hours to your day.

Before you know it, it will be the end of the year and you will be worrying whether you have saved enough to get them new stationery or uniforms, now that books are free.

And if your children are already in secondary school, or ready for college in a few years, you will not have time to admire the dials on your watch because you will be wondering where to make the extra ringgit today so that you will have enough to put them through higher education, especially if you know that they will not be getting help elsewhere.

Someone told me long ago that the speed with which life passes you by is relative to the depth of your pockets. I agree.

If you don't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or how to put dinner on your table this evening, time will pass at a slower pace because you will have more time to think about other things than making ends meet.

Of course, the wealthy will not agree and claim that they too have their woes.

At least, we - the have-lesses and have-nots - can sleep more soundly at night with less to worry about if the banks run away with our money or the global economic downturn will turn our cash into ash.

Life's fair, I think, if we consider that we are all equally given 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and not a second less.

How our lives turn out tomorrow will be determined by how we choose to use our entitlement.

We can gripe at the grimness we see around us and be immobilised by all the uncertainties they bring. Or we can go out there and treat the falling sky like a cosy blanket.

Even if time stood still for us, some of us we will still find it insufficient and still find things to complain about.