Monday, March 26, 2012

Treat living with kindness and respect

THE Chinese are celebrating Qingming on April 4 this year. Also known as "Tomb Sweeping" Day, the annual festival honours the departed. It the time when families turn up at cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones and offer prayers, food and other items deemed useful to the dead.

Decades ago when the Qingming was less commercialised, prayer offerings comprised simple stuff such as paper houses, figurines, horses, and clothes. The most important items were paper "gold" and "silver" ingots (known as kim and geen respectively in Hokkien ) which were considered currency for the Netherworld, to be burned as offerings at the graves.

During the run-up to the festival, which is celebrated 10 days before and after the actual date, families got together to fold the paper ingots with sheets of gold and silver joss paper. The art was dutifully handed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, although boys also got to learn it.

Depending on the wealth of the kin, usually at least a gunny sack each of the "gold" and "silver" ingots had to be offered to the dead annually.

The act of folding the ingots not only allowed family members to strengthen ties with one another but it also symbolised filial piety for departed family members.

These days, I am not sure how many people know how to fold paper gold and silver ingots. These prayer items are seldom sold because Hell Bank notes of various denominations have taken over the role of legal tender in the Netherworld.

The convenience of modern living has also opened up a whole new world for the dead. Manufacturers have come up with every imaginable product for the dead that have been inspired by real life stuff and it is big business, come Qingming and the Hungry Ghosts festival.

Last year, paper iPhones and iPads were very much sought after, just as replicas of LCD television sets and satellite dishes were the previous.

This year, umbrellas are popular. One vendor of prayer items said, because of the wet spells here of late, the kith and kin of the departed are sending over paper umbrellas in case the weather over there is equally bad.

At the creative extreme, flattering replicas of luxury cars of famous German marques have been spotted. Superbikes, too, have found buyers, and so have mountain bikes.

And, if local products are not good enough for the dead, vendors here look overseas.

Last week, a news report featured a shop in Penang selling imported paper bicycles costing over RM100 each for Qingming. Apparently locally made ones were of poor quality, hence the vendor had to import them from China.

How the vendor knew which bicycles were suitable for the Netherworld, I am not sure. But according to the report, there were buyers for the imported bicycles. This goes to show how much some people were prepared to pay in the name of filial piety.

Many years ago when my grandmother was still alive, I asked her opinion of people who burn truckloads of replica items for their departed during Qingming.

She said something that we can all reflect on: "Treat the living with kindness and respect, for when they are gone, no amount of tears or generosity will make any difference to them."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sweet memories of candies of yesteryear

THREE decades ago, few imported candies were sold in the village sundry store or kedai runcit.

Only locally-made brands like Hudson, Hacks, and Trebor were available.

The cherry-red Hudson and the black Hacks were considered sweets for grown-ups, taken as cough relievers or breath fresheners by smokers, while the minty Trebor found a following in children where Spearmint gums were not available.

In Terengganu, where I grew up, a child's daily life was made sweeter with the traditional sagun, which was a mix of fried coconut shavings mixed with white sugar.

Wrapped in coloured paper cones, they were sold for five or 10 cents.

A crunchy substitute for candies, sagun had to be munched slowly or one risked choking on the bits because the dry stuff had the tendency to make its way into the windpipe.

In the 1970s, when my family moved to KL, I was introduced to the Khok-Khok Th'ng or white molasses candy with bits of peanuts and sesame seeds.

Its name came from the clanking of two metal chisels used to chip off bits of the candy from a granite-like slab in a tray mounted on the seller's tricycle.

These candy pieces were hard as a rock, not very sweet, and were cheap.

Ten cents could get you 10 to 12 pieces, each the size of an adult's thumb and took a long time to finish even if you chewed on them.

Another popular candy was the Beh Geh Koh or malt candy in Hokkien. Unlike the Khok-Khok Th'ng, the Beh Geh Koh was translucent, yellowish, and sticky.

The candy could be found during religious festivals. They were mounted on satay sticks for five cents a piece.

The sticks of candy were works of art. Experienced sellers could shape the pliable Beh Geh Koh into almost any form, be it a fish, bird, figurine or even a rose with its petals in full bloom.

More common at that time, however, was the cotton candy.

Whenever a fun fair or circus came to town, you could bet that the cotton candy peddler was not far away. In the villages, sometimes, a peddler on bicycle would drop by once a fortnight.

Carrying a hand-cranked cotton candy machine at the back of his bicycle, he would announced his arrival with the noisy ring of his bicycle's bell.

Cotton candies were originally white, later pink dye was used to make the candy more appealing.

The candy was extremely sweet and could give you a toothache if the bits got into a cavity in your tooth.

Eating it was not as interesting as watching the candy peddler weave the sugar strands into a cocoon the size of a rugby ball, which would melt with a lick.

Homemade candies too were common, usually prepared for occasions like weddings and festivals, as well as for snacks.

Most families knew how to make coconut and ginger candies. Ginger candy, I remember, was used as a home remedy to relieve stomach gas after an oily meal.

You can still find some of these traditional sweets in smaller towns.

With changing times and the call for less sugar in our diet, some of the traditional candies are no longer available and modern sugar-free candies have replaced them, although not necessarily a healthier alternative.

Recently, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) called for the ban on luminous lollipops that were widely sold on the island.

The fluorescent candies were believed to contain toxic chemicals which made them glow.

CAP was worried about the health hazard.

Although I have yet to find luminous lollipops in Klang Valley, I was surprised to see popping candies at a shop in a shopping centre recently.

These crackling sweets first arrived on our shores in the 1980s.

The candy grains pop like mini firecrackers when put in the mouth as they come into contact with saliva.

Parents at the time had also expressed their concerns about little children choking on them.

But it seems that the popping candies survived two decades to crackle another day.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cunning fish caught by dozens

SOMETHING fishy is going on in the depths of Lake Titiwangsa. A foreign species of fish is fast populating the lake. I found out about it a few weeks ago while visiting the park.

At that time, a fishing event organised by a group of lure casting anglers was in progress. I thought nothing of the event until I saw what most anglers were reeling up. A foreign species of fish, known as the peacock bass, or ikan raja in Malay (Wong Tai Yue in Cantonese), were hitting the lures by the dozens.

During another fishing competition held the same lake five years ago, I did not remember seeing this fish being hooked up. At that time, however, I have also read reports of the peacock bass having been released into the wild.

Peacock basses became popular during the Flowerhorn cichlid craze about a decade ago and were kept as ornamental aquarium fish. However, their popularity did not last and owners were soon dumping them into the wild. The species had swamped the disused mining pools and lakes in Perak, particularly in Gopeng.

Local anglers had, at that time, raised their concerns over the release of this fast breeding South American gamefish into our waterways. Heated debates were exchanged in online fishing forums as to whether the predatory peacock bass would decimate the population of local species.

The number of peacock bass I saw being landed at Lake Titiwangsa recently gave me the impression that their population in Lake Titiwangsa is growing. One angler I met that morning told me he was landing a peacock bass at every alternate cast made just after sunrise.

Although I have read that this fish is a very cunning and not easily caught on rod and line, what I saw in the collection tank that day spelt worry.

Either there were too many peacock bass around or the anglers were bass experts. I hope it is not the former, and pray that the tilapia, grass carps, sepat (spotted gourami) and puyu (climbing perch) which were abundant in the 1970s and 80s in the lake have not been wiped out.

The fear of foreign fish decimating indigenous species is not unfounded. If you recall, some years back in North America, the appearance of giant snakehead (toman) sparked fears that the fish would lead to the extinction of local species there.

A chance discovery of the species sparked nationwide fears and even inspired a Hollywood horror movie. Notices were put up by game authorities to kill the fish on sight.

Some waterways had to be poisoned to remove the snakehead population.

While it is unlikely that the peacock bass in our waters (especially in urban lakes) will suffer a similar fate, its population here has to be kept under control, a fish lover tells me.

One way, he says, is to keep the peacock bass's natural predators (one of which is the toman) in respectable numbers. The other is by culling through game fishing.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The mysteries of brand worship

THERE is a craze for vinyl bags with leather trimmings among the womenfolk. School girls and college-going ones are smitten over colourful bags, I was told, but I did not find out about it until I heard teenagers talking passionately about their latest acquisitions. I could not make out what type of bag they meant but it sounded something like "Long Cheng".

When my wife told me that it was a hot favourite among teenagers, including my daughter and her schoolmates, I decided to find out more.

When I was at a shopping complex recently, and had time on my hands, I popped into a bag shop and asked for a Long Cheng. The 70-something Ah Pek who was keeping watch at the shop at lunch time was as perplexed as I was. He said the shop sold all sorts of bags from China but he had never heard of a Long Cheng.

The mystery was solved when the Filipina shop assistant came back from lunch. The name struck a chord with her. The mysterious Long Cheng, it turns out, is actually the Longchamp. Since they did not carry the brand she directed me to another shop.

According to the Wikipedia, Longchamp was set up by Frenchman Jean Cassegrain in 1948. The company produced leather coverings for pipes and other products for smokers.

In the 1950s, its business expanded to include small leather goods.

Two decades later, Longchamp opened boutiques in Hong Kong and Japan, and won fame for its lightweight travel goods. In the mid-90s, Longchamp introduced its Le Pliage line of foldable travel bags made of vinyl and leather trim which became a hit with women worldwide.

Today, Longchamp is known for its designs and has a loyal following. As to how it came to our shores, your guess is as good as mine, but the blogs of Longchamp diehards will give you some idea why this foldable bag is hugely popular.

I remember a time when we had a similar love affair with another French brand - Louis Vuitton. In the 1970s and mid-1980s ownership of the dark brown designer leather bags, wallets and travel luggage imprinted with the golden LV insignia meant you had arrived.

Those who could only afford across-the-border excursions made do with LV wannabes.

I recall finding a very genuine-looking wannabe LV bag once. It could have fooled anyone if not for the LW imprint. When I asked the chap who sold the stuff in Petaling Street what the imprint LW stood for, he said: "Looi Wui-tong -- from Seri Kembangan."

In the case of the Longchamp, an authentic bag costs anything from RM300 upwards. Even wannabes don't come cheap.

I am no expert in Longchamps but the look-alikes I have seen appear to be convincing enough to fool just about anybody but devoted brand worshippers.

I hope those totting the fake ones do not attract more than just brand-envy.