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Wat Chetawan – A Beautiful Thai-Buddhist Temple in Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Buddhism is a major religion in Malaysia, with around 20% of the population subscribing to the belief. As most devotees here are of Malaysian Chinese descent, many Buddhist temples in the country incorporate Chinese elements in their design and architecture, and tend to also include Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folklore influences.

Thai-Buddhist temples are much rarer, especially in the south of Peninsula Malaysia (there are more up north, due to their close proximity with Thailand). In Selangor, as far as I know, there is only one major Thai-Buddhist temple : Wat Chetawan in Section 10, Petaling Jaya. Tucked in a quiet suburban area, the temple is located just next to a church, and has over 60 years of history.

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The idea to have a Thai Buddhist temple was first conceived in 1956 by a group of Thai sanghas (monks). The proposal was well received by the Selangor government, who awarded the group two acres of land to build the temple. The project was also backed by the local community and sponsors. As a mark of the friendship between our young nation (Malaya gained independence in 1957) and Thailand, the late King of Thailand himself, Bhumibol Adulyadej, donated to the temple and officiated its opening when it was completed in 1962.

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Over the years, the temple has undergone a few expansions, and today includes several shrines, monks quarters, a columbarium, and even a ‘herbal sauna’ where you can go to relieve aches and pains (the concept reminds me of the Thai massages you can get at Wat Pho in Bangkok).

The main shrine is located up a short flight of stairs flanked by two multi-headed nagas, known as Phaya Naga (lord of the nagas). Nagas are mythical serpents in Buddhist, Hinduism and Jainism, but they hold special reverence in Thai culture as patrons of water and medicine, so you will often see nagas ‘guarding’ the entrances to many Thai Buddhist temples. A popular myth is that nagas dwell in the Mekong, and were even involved in the creation of the mighty river itself.

Video for those who are lazy to read (subscribe if you haven’t already!) :

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Before coming to the main shrine, you’ll pass by a pavilion housing a Phra Phrom (Four-Faced Buddha). Phra Phrom is a unique deity that is often associated with Thailand, and whose origins are believed to be Hindu (it is believed to be a representation of the Hindu god, Brahma). Thailand was once part of the mighty Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in the region, and it is not at all surprising to see a blend of different cultures.

The Phra Phrom shrine here is decorated with colourful glass and mirrors, with offerings laid out in front of each altar. There are also small elephant statues surrounding it, as elephants are seen as symbols of good luck and fortune, as well as being the national animal of Thailand.

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The main shrine looks resplendent in shades of yellow and gold, with gilded windows and a curving roof topped with chofas (a decorative ornament at the corners, made to look like a tall, thin bird, or a horn).

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Two apsonsi flank the stairs leading up to the prayer hall. Apsonsi are mythical beings from Thai mythology, depicted as half woman on top, and half lion on the bottom. They are said to guard Himavanta, a legendary forest in the Himalayas that is full of magical creatures. Apsonsi aren’t the only chimeras in Thai mythology: there are also kinnaras – half-bird and half human celestials that are believed to be excellent singers, dancers and poets.

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After removing my shoes, I stepped into the spacious prayer hall. There was a row of golden Buddhas on one side, each holding a pot. Devotees can drop their donations to the temple into the pots.

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The Buddha statue in the main prayer hall was clad in bright saffron robes and seated tranquilly on a golden, intricately-carved dias studded with shiny pieces of glass and stones. The workmanship is a marvel to look at. Offered up a donation and prayer for good health for the fam and I – and an end to this pandemic.

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Coincidentally, a monk was offering blessings, so I joined the session. While chanting prayers, he sprinkled devotees with holy water. You can get bottled holy water as well to take home.

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Aside from the main prayer hall, there is also the Bhrama Pavilion, which houses a few other Buddhas and statues of former temple abbots.

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You can grab some free books on Buddhism in this area. The books are usually printed by religious organisations, and even devotees with their own money, as the spread of dharma (Buddha’s teachings) is believed to help gain good karma.

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As I mentioned earlier, the Buddhism in Malaysia usually has a Chinese influence, and this is no exception at Wat Chetawan. So amidst the elephants, roof spires and Thai-centric architecture, you’ll also find traditional Chinese influences: like this shrine to Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) which is distinctively Chinese – think tiled orange roof, topped by a pagoda and dragons. Next to it is another shrine housing the Matreiya Buddha (commonly known as the Laughing Buddha – a Chinese semi-historical figure-turned deity).

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You can light a pineapple-shaped or lotus-shaped prayer candle. Why pineapples? Well, I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s because in Chinese culture, pineapples are seen as symbols of good luck and fortune, because they are called ‘ong lai’, which is a homonym for ‘wealth/prosperity comes’. As for lotuses, lotus flowers are a common motif in Buddhism – since they grow and bloom in mud, they represent purity, rising from murky waters.

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You can also find statues of characters like Son Wukong from Journey to the West – a classic 16th century Chinese novel based on the pilgrimage of Tang Xuanzang (he’s a real life monk who spent 20 years travelling from China to India to get sacred Buddhist texts).

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Even if you’re not a devotee, Wat Chetawan is a good place to visit for its beautiful architecture and rich culture. If you come on a weekday, when it’s less crowded, the surroundings are actually quite tranquil and conducive for meditation – or just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Entry is free, and there are some parking spaces within the compound.

WAT CHETAWAN THAI BUDDHIST TEMPLE

No.24, Jalan Pantai 9/7, Seksyen 10 Petaling Jaya, 46000 Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Open daily from 9AM to 5PM

PS: I hope you liked this post! Please consider supporting my blog via my Patreon, so I can make more. Or buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal @erisgoesto.

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Attractions in Jenjarom, Selangor – Ban Siew Keng Temple

It has been months since I last traveled anywhere other than a mall for groceries (due to the COVID situation in Malaysia) – but since travel restrictions have recently been eased, the fam and I decided to go on a quick day trip to Jenjarom over the weekend.

Tucked between Banting and Klang, about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, Jenjarom is a mid-sized town with a population of about 30,000. The town grew from a Chinese new village – settlements that the British set up during the height of the communist insurgency in Malaya so they could keep an eye on the local Chinese population – which is why a majority of the current Jenjarom residents is Malaysian Chinese, of Hokkien descent. In the 1990s, when youth unemployment soared, the area became infamous for gangsterism and other social ills such as prostitution and gambling.

Thankfully, these days, the town is better known for its tourism, especially from the Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen temple, a massive temple-cum-attraction by the Taiwan-based Fo Guang Shan monastic order. Chinese New Year is a good time to visit, as the temple holds a grand celebration every year, complete with stunning decorations. (I visited in 2017; read about it here.)

Although FGS gets more tourists, there’s actually another temple within town that is worth a visit. Enter Ban Siew Keng, which is located just a stone’s throw away from FGS.

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The story goes that there used to be four small Chinese temples in Jenjarom, each dedicated to a deity. It was costly and difficult to have four celebrations for each deity, so in the 1950s, the villagers pooled their money and resources to build a temple to house all the deities under one roof. Thus, Ban Siew Keng was born. The original building was a simple wooden structure, but it has since been renovated into the grand structure that we see today. The temple grounds have also expanded to include parking spaces, a food court, and a small but well kept park.

Video here if you’re lazy to scroll:

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Even the furnace for burning offerings is beautifully decorated!

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Stone steps leading up to the main shrine, complete with dragon carvings and the customary foo dogs guarding the entrance.
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Ban Siew Keng’s architecture is typical of many Chinese temples, in that it mixes elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confuciusnism, as well as those of Chinese culture. Think red lanterns, dragons coiled around stone pillars and scenes of Taoist gods like the 8 Immortals hand painted on the walls, fierce-looking ‘door gods’ (they’re deities that guard the temple against evil spirits).

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The design here actually reminds me of Thean Hou Gong temple in Kuala Lumpur, especially the combination of red pillars and green roof tiles with blue and gold dragon motifs. Like Thean Hou temple, Ban Siew Keng also has a ‘dome’ on the ceiling above the altar, with a dragon at its centre surrounded with beautiful carvings.

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I also like the open space they have in the middle of the temple, which resembles the courtyards you find in old Chinese mansions. This allows for plenty of natural sunlight to filter in, so the space feels bright and airy. Despite the sweltering heat outside, the temple is quite cool, thanks to the lofty ceiling and marble floors.

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Scenes of gods and deities in heaven are painted all around the interior of the temple.
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The main altar is a spectacular piece of work, intricately carved and painted over in gold and red.

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The caretaker said it was okay to take a closer look, so I went right up to the front of the altar. Although it was mentioned that the temple was built to house four deities, there are actually five at the altar, including a Buddha. I recognised one as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy in Taoism and Buddhism. The caretaker mentioned the name of the principal deity, but I forgot coz he told it to me in Mandarin and y’all know my Mandarin sucks, lol. 😛 There are two sets of statues on display. I’m guessing the smaller ones are from the original temples, as they look a bit weathered.

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Aside from the four main deities + Buddha, there are other deities as well, housed next to the main altar.
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In the old days, fortune tellers would setup their shop either within or outside the temple. You would get a ‘cheem’, or fortune stick, by shaking it from a wooden container until one fell out, then take the stick to the fortune teller to have your fortune interpreted. These days, temples use these contraptions where all you have to do is bunch up your sticks and drop them into the hole at the centre – the one that sticks up is your fortune. You then look for the slot corresponding to the number on your stick, and voila! Fortune.

Unfortunately, the fortunes at this temple are written in Chinese, unlike the ones at Thean Hou temple where you also get an English translation. So once again, my banana-ness proved to be a disadvantage.

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You can get a wishing ribbon to toss over the branches of the tree outside. This is more a cultural rather than a religious thing; in the old days, people would write down their wishes on ribbons and if you manage to snag it over a tree, your wish would come true, that sort of thing.

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The park outside is small but good for a short stroll. You can take photos with the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Guess what my sign is?

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So if you’re coming to Jenjarom for a daytrip, do stop by Ban Siew Keng! FGS is a great place to visit and it’s much larger, but I think Ban Siew Keng has its own charm, and a very interesting history. It stands as a monument to the resilience of Jenjarom’s people, and how they’ve made a life for themselves from a small Chinese new village to the town it is today.

BAN SIEW KENG TEMPLE

Lot 5623, Jalan Sungai Buaya,Sungai Jarom, 42600 Jenjarom, Kuala Langat,  Selangor.

*No opening hours listed.

Getting there

Your best bet is by car, as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of public transport to Jenjarom. According to Moovit, the Wawasan Putera bus 730 stops at Jenjarom between Banting and Klang, and its 734 bus travels the route between Pasar Seni in Kuala Lumpur and Banting, with a stop in Jenjarom.

If you like this content, consider supporting me on Patreon. You can also buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal. Happy travels!

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Hungry Ghost Festival: When The Gates of Hell Open

Come straight home from college after class. Don’t loiter around until late at night.” 

Don’t stare and point at people by the road.” 

Wash your feet properly after coming home.” 

Back when I was younger, these were just some of the things my mother used to caution me about whenever the Hungry Ghost Festival approached. Celebrated in many parts of Asia, predominantly among Chinese communities, the festival proper falls on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the lunisolar calendar (August 22 this year) – but the entire 7th month is generally known as Ghost Month.

During this time, ghosts and spirits are believed to wander the earthly realm, so the living pay homage to their ancestors as well as lost spirits by burning offerings, as a form of merit making. The practice can be traced to the ancient Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but over the years, has evolved to absorb elements of Taoism and Buddhism as well.

Like many young people, I used to think superstitions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival were a load of baloney – but I guess with age comes the wisdom of hindsight, and an understanding of how cultural beliefs are tied to our identity and our place in the world. These are practices that have been passed down through the generations, sometimes for thousands of years – and in a rapidly modernising world, there’s something to be said about keeping them alive, even though you might not believe in them per se.

While my family is not particularly traditional, we do observe some superstitions and practices which I think are quite fascinating, especially to people of other cultures. There are also differences between how it is celebrated and observed among Chinese diasporas around the world, such as in Malaysia, where I am from. So without further ado, here are some interesting facts and trivia about the Hungry Ghost Festival! 

OFFERINGS

During the Ghost Month, the gates of Hell are opened and spirits roam the earthly plane. Among them are ancestors whom the living forgot to pay tribute to, those who died without a proper send-off, and lost spirits. Because of this, they are ‘hungry’; hence the importance of providing them with food and entertainment so that they won’t cause harm or mischief.

ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Filial piety is an extremely important part of Chinese culture, so even after their death, you are expected to honour your ancestors with offerings of food, drink and material goods. It is common for people to burn paper effigies of items like houses, cars, servants, clothes and hell bank notes, in the belief that these can be enjoyed by the deceased in the afterlife.

There are also people who make offerings for lost souls: those who have no one to pray for them, or victims of suicide, murder or accidents. Aside from accumulating good karma, it is believed that it will appease these angry spirits and prevent them from harming the living. Prayers for lost souls are usually held at temples, or by the road – so if you see people huddling over a fire in the evenings with bowls of food and joss sticks, it is best not to point and stare because you might risk offending wandering spirits.

PAPER EFFIGIES

Paper effigies are an inseparable part of the Hungry Ghost Festival – but if you think they’re just rough, crudely shaped pieces of paper, then you’d be wrong. While I won’t deny that some are printed with machines, there are still effigy makers who make it the traditional way by hand. They are often commissioned to create items such as mansions, life-sized effigies of guardians, servants and deities, vehicles, even ‘designer’ clothes. These master craftsmen are artists in their own right, often creating incredibly intricate pieces that take months to complete. It’s crazy when you think about the amount of time and effort that goes into each piece, only to have them go up in flames in seconds.

Paper effigies are burnt in the belief that the deceased will receive them in the afterlife. As you can see, there can be some pretty quirky items – like gold watches, mobile phones and even dentures! Photo: Jorge Láscar from Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I took part in a paper effigy burning ceremony was when I was eight or nine, and I vividly recall the beautiful patterns on the paper samfoo (traditional Chinese clothing for women, usually with floral patterns) that was meant for my late grandmother. Over the years, paper effigies have become more and more creative (?), with items like mobile phones (what service provider do they use in hell, I wonder?), SIM cards, laptops and the like. My colleagues in Singapore even shared a photo of paper durians with me recently. Now, I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea of my grandparents operating mobile phones and texting each other in the afterlife, but it’s certainly a unique part of the celebration.

GETAI

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Chinese opera was the main form of entertainment during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but these have since been replaced with more modern performances. Photo: grungemann/Flickr

In the old days, villages and towns would host large open-air stages, and a troupe would put on a show in the evenings. The benches at the front were always left empty, as they were meant for unseen guests. Over the years, traditional opera fell out of popularity, but the practice of hosting entertainment for the dead did not – instead, it evolved into Getai, or literally ‘song stage’. I’m not sure how it is celebrated in China as I wasn’t able to find references on the net, but in Malaysia and Singapore they are quirky, lively affairs.

Tents are set up in fields or commercial spaces (where I live, there’s one every year in front of a food court). There would be live auctions and a dinner (proceeds usually go to charity). Sometimes there are still traditional opera performances, but you’ll also get stand-up comedy, entertainers singing pop songs or oldies, and even women dressed in skimpy clothing dancing to modern numbers. This aspect might seem blasphemous to some, but I find it very unique because it goes to show how adaptable Chinese culture can be – you gotta move with the times. In Singapore, where 76% of the population is ethnic Chinese, the getai culture is even bigger; shows are broadcast on national TV.

SUPERSTITION

Every culture has superstitions, but the Chinese in particular have many. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to cut my nails or whistle at night, because it might attract bad spirits. In retrospect, I think there was a hint of logic behind them: electricity (and nail clippers) did not exist in the old days, so it was dangerous to cut your nails in the dark. Also whistling at night would disturb the peace. But because we often parrot what our elders tell us, we continue handing these superstitions down even in modern times when we can turn on the light with the flip of a switch.
As for Ghost Month, here are just some of the common beliefs:

  1. Don’t stay out late. – Night is when the spirits are at their strongest, so to avoid anything untoward, avoid staying out after dark.
  2. Don’t go swimming – Angry water spirits might try to drown you.
  3. Don’t swear – you don’t know when a spirit might be lurking around and feel offended.
  4. Don’t wear red – apparently spirits are attracted to the colour red, and might follow you home.
  5. Wash your feet when you get home – to get rid of unwanted bad energy.
  6. Don’t hang your clothes out at night – you might just have an extra guest coming into your house when you collect them
  7. Don’t tap someone on the shoulder – it is believed that a person has three ‘lights’ – one on their head and one on each shoulder, which ward off evil spirits. By tapping them, you’re essentially extinguishing the light.
  8. Avoid killing insects – the Chinese have a belief that spirits might be reincarnated as insects like butterflies and moths. They could be visiting relatives, so if you just smacked that moth flat, you might have killed grandma.
  9. Be wary of offerings. – Sometimes people leave offerings out by the side of the road (especially in Malaysia) so it’s best to keep an eye out. You wouldn’t like it if someone stepped all over your food now, would you?
  10. Don’t take photos – The idea of photographs and how they can capture spirits is not unique to Chinese culture. So it’s best not to snap any, especially of offerings. I’m sure you’ve watched Shutter.

As the world grows ever modernised and practices that are deemed old-fashioned and superstitious are abandoned by the younger generation, it is heartening to see that The Hungry Ghost Festival still has its proponents. It’s a case study of how culture is fluid and ever changing; where tradition is valued but also adapts to the times.

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How To Gain Weight: CNY Edition

Happy Chinese New Year!

This year’s festivities are much more subdued due to the pandemic, but I still had an enjoyable time bonding (and eating!) with the family over the weekend. To save on the hassle of preparing an elaborate meal for our reunion dinner night, we decided to have hotpot/barbecue out on the porch. We bought most of the ingredients in advance so we wouldn’t have to rush to the market on the few days leading up to CNY.

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Aside from the quintessential pork belly slices (you can get these from the local butcher nicely packed), our hotpot ‘buffet’ also had all the other essentials: chicken and fish slices, pork balls and fish balls, needle mushrooms, squid, seafood cheese tofu, fried beancurd sheets, and for carbs, udon noodles. Moomins opened a celebratory can of mini abalones – they’re especially cheap this year due to a dip in demand.

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We bought a 2-in-1 BBQ/hotpot stove from Lazada, just for this.

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The soup base we used was from Hai Di Lao. We bought the shrimp flavour thinking it would be mild, but it was actually quite spicy. It also had preserved vegetables, which gave it a sour tang. Personally, I prefer something milkier and sweeter, so I will probably go for another flavour the next time around.

I know processed foods aren’t the healthiest, but seafood cheese tofu and bursting pork balls (above) are my favourites whenever I have hotpot. Seafood cheese tofu is usually made from surimi, so the texture is bouncy, and it has bits of creamy cheese within; while bursting pork balls are so called because there is hot soup in the centre, so caution should be taken whenever you bite into them so the juices within don’t spill everywhere and burn your tongue.

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My parents weren’t keen on the pork belly slices, so my brother and I ate most of them. I can safely say that I ate my fill lol. I prefer mine cooked in the hotpot, because they tend to get crispy and hard on the grill (I like mine to be soft so you can taste the texture of the fat and lean meat). Dip them in some soy sauce and chilli, and voila! Magic. We rarely have hotpot at home, so this was a very satisfying experience.

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By the time we finished dinner and the washing up it was nearly 10pm. We had initially planned to have our yee sang right after, but everyone was too full, so we watched Bad Genius on Netflix and waited for midnight.

Instead of the usual salmon yee sang, we got a fruits version this year. My cousin and his girlfriend are doing it as a part-time business, so it was our way of showing support (I also sent two sets to friends). It was basically a fruit salad consisting of green and red grapes, strawberries, mandarin oranges, carrots, pomegranates and dragonfruit (we didn’t add this in because it was too soft and watery), plus toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds. In place of plum sauce was honey.

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All in all, good, albeit on the sour side despite the addition of honey.

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After all that feasting on reunion dinner night, our first day of CNY was tamer affair. Traditionally, many families will observe a vegetarian meal after the extravagance of the previous night – we had a simple meal of udon and mock meat with fried egg for lunch. Also spent the afternoon playing mahjong. Everyone was rusty, because we only do this once a year lol.

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I received a nice surprise on the morning of Day 2: my friend H sent me a CNY package!

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Went out in the afternoon with Pops to Moon Palace Restaurant, to pick up our order of poon choi. For my non-Chinese readers, it’s basically a Cantonese dish comprised of a pot filled with luxurious seafood and meat items, which are then poured over with a rich sauce. Due to the large portions, it is meant to be shared, and you’ll often see it at festive occasions like Chinese New Year and weddings. I’ve only had poon choi once or twice during food reviews, never with the fam, so it was a first for all of us.

Our poon choi came with abalone, dried oysters stuffed with fat choi (a type of cyanobacteria with the appearance of human hair – it sounds gross lol but tastes like seaweed), roast duck, poached chicken, brocolli, huge shiitake mushrooms, abalone mushrooms, prawns, yam, scallops and roast pork. The oyster sauce that was to be poured over coagulated slightly from the cold, but otherwise everything was excellent. I especially liked the abalone mushrooms: they were thick and juicy. It’s no wonder people use them in making imitation meat – the texture is very similar.

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And finally, to round up our 2nd day, another round of yee sang; this time vegetarian.

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Bonus: Air-dried clay Mandarin Oranges my brother made for fun.

While this CNY lacks the cheer and pomp of yesteryears, I think I actually enjoyed it more. The weekend was spent bonding with the fam, playing Divinity 2: Original Sin, embroidering (new hobby!), and just eating. Like a lot. I think between Pops, the brother and I, we finished five cans of snacks and a dozen canned drinks. Also, I got no exercise in at all, so it’s not surprising that I gained 2kg.

It’s back to the grind tomorrow, and I’ll be getting back into my workout routine as well.

Hope you all had a good celebration!

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This “App” Calls Out Auspicious Sayings For Chinese New Year – So You Don’t Have To

Chinese New Year is just around the corner (the first day falls on 12 February), but with the pandemic still raging in many parts of Southeast Asia, celebrations will definitely be more subdued. In Singapore, for example, gatherings will be limited to eight people, no CNY company dinners are allowed, and shouting during lo hei (the act of tossing yusheng, a ‘fish salad’ often served in Malaysia and Singapore during CNY) is also discouraged. Understandable, since no one wants Fourth Uncle’s spit flying all over the place (even before the pandemic, but I guess back then it was… tolerated). Here in Malaysia, the government has yet to announce an extension of our Movement Control Order, but it seems likely to be extended for another two weeks.

I wrote a piece recently about how certain traditions and practices might be observed differently this year, including e-hongbao and online shopping for clothes – and now we can add one more to the list: an app that calls out auspicious sayings like ‘HUAT AH’ (prosperity/good luck) and BU BU GAO XIN (steps to success). If you think about it, it’s actually quite a brilliant solution for lo hei – since saliva is more likely to fall into food what with all the shouting and yelling of auspicious phrases. Also, since many people won’t have the luxury of visiting their relatives, the app is a fun way to liven up the atmosphere – minus the worry of spreading COVID-19.

Created by a kind soul going by the pseudonym DJ Beng, the ‘app’ (they’re calling it an app but it’s really more of a web page, since it only works on Google Chrome) contains 15 auspicious sayings, which you can tap on for the desired phrase. Some of these include the customary “Nian Nian You Yu” (Luck every year) and Huat Ah. There’s also a separate tab for toasting, ie Yamseng. What I find really cute is that the longer you press the “yamm” button, the longer the audio plays: the effect is really reminiscent of actual toasting during Chinese gatherings, where everyone tries to shout yammmmm as long as possible. The audio even includes the typical ‘out-of-breath’ effect you get from people trying to sustain their shouts, so it sounds very realistic!

Best of all? There are both Mandarin and Cantonese options for the lohei. For Cantonese speakers like myself, this is a joy. Canto is being eroded these days in favour of Mandarin, and it’s always nice to see your own language being celebrated.

You can have a go for yourself at djbeng.com/lohei.html. Note: It only works on the Google Chrome browser on your phone.

*Cover image: Getty Images

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Easy 4-Step Bakkwa Puffs

Bakkwa (also known as rougan) is the Chinese version of jerky, consisting of flattened pieces of dried meat seasoned with sugar, salt and spices. It is very popular among the Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore, and although you can get it all year round, it is most commonly eaten during the Lunar New Year. We also prepare it differently here; ie cooking the meat over charcoal so it gets imbued with a nice, smoky flavour.

Bak kwa

Photo: Alpha, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been much of a bakkwa fan. I don’t hate it – if I was visiting someone during the festive season and they offered me a slice, I wouldn’t say no – but I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to buy it. I’m sure many people would beg to differ though: apparently the line for the Lim Chee Guan brand of bak kwa in Singapore can stretch up to three hours!

Recently, my colleagues were tasked with making a video on ‘unique ways to prepare bakkwa’, and on my part, I had to come up with a recipe. All the good ones like pasta, fried rice and what not had already been taken. Not being much of a cook myself, I initially thought of just frying it as an omelet and calling it a day, but then my mom suggested I use it as filling for pastry, and bake it with cheese. Brilliant, Moomins!

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Closest place to my house selling bak kwa is Oloiya in Bandar Puteri Puchong. Thankfully, Malaysians are a bit saner than Singaporeans (or maybe it’s coz COVID cases are in the four digits daily these days so people are kiasi?) , so there was no three hour queue.

Oloiya sells chicken and pork bakkwa in 100, 300 and 500 g portions. Unlike pre-pandemic times, they no longer display stacks of meat out in the open, probably for hygiene purposes. Instead, everything is vacuum packed and sealed. No tasters as well. It takes away from the traditional shopping experience, but hey – safety first.

I couldn’t visualise how much each portion was because everything was already packed into plastic, so I ordered the middle option (300g – RM35). It turned out to be quite a lot, as there were six pieces inside.

Aside from traditional chicken and pork, Oloiya has items like “Blooming Beauty Pork” (basically dried bacon strips), pork / chicken floss, and snack-sized bakkwa (called Bak-Off. I’m surprised this name got approved for the market lol). For those who are looking for gifts, Oloiya also offers nicely packed gift boxes with options for personalised engraving.

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Anyway enough promo: on to the bakkwa puffs.

Ingredients:

  • 3 pieces store-bought filo pastry (if you’re feeling hardworking, you can make your own – but I don’t have a recipe for that lol)
  • 1 piece bakkwa, cut into thin strips
  • 1 slice cheese
  • 1 egg, beaten (for eggwash)

Method:

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  • Fill half of the filo pastry with bakkwa and top with cheese. Make sure there is enough space at the edges to fold.
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  • Fold pastry into triangles and seal the edges with a fork.
  • Brush egg wash on top of pastry for colour.
  • Pre-heat oven. Set to 180C. Bake for 20 minutes. (PS: If it doesn’t look brown enough, either bake for another 10 minutes, or set the oven to a higher temperature.)
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And there you have it. A creative way to enjoy your bakkwa!

If you think about it, you’re basically making a sandwich of sorts. I mean, you can’t really go wrong with meat + cheese + pastry combo. The pastry gives it a nice and crispy exterior, and the bakkwa’s sweet and salty flavour goes great with cheese. The texture also softens a bit during the baking process, so you actually get meat that is more moist.

What are some of the creative ways you eat your bakkwa? Or do you enjoy it as it is? Let me know if you’re planning to try this recipe, and how it turned out for you! 🙂

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Celebrating Chinese New Year In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year, is set to fall on 12 February this year. It marks the beginning of a new year according to the traditional lunar calendar, and heralds the arrival of spring. 

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a pretty big thing, since people of Chinese descent make up more than 20% of the population (about 6 million people). If this was any other year, CNY decor in malls would have already been up right after Christmas. There’d be cookie displays flooding bakery shelves; Padini/Uniqlo would be packed with shoppers buying new clothes on sale, and we’d all be subjected to the torture of loud, repetitive dong dong chiang music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week across all TV and radio channels. 

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Unfortunately, we are in the middle of a pandemic – and like all the other people who made sacrifices last year for Christmas, Deepavali and Hari Raya, it is now our turn to give up the freedom that we often take for granted: the ability to travel home to see our loved ones.

On 13 January 2021, the Malaysian government implemented a second targeted Movement Control Order (MCO), restricting travel to and from red zone states. Workers in non-essential services are required to work from home, travel is restricted to a 10 kilometre radius to buy groceries and essentials, and eateries are only allowed to run on a take-away/delivery basis. Of course, celebrations of any kind are no longer allowed, as are things like weddings and other events. (Adding to the whole hullabaloo is the national Emergency which was declared by our King because of political in-fighting, but that’s for another entry lol.) 

The last time we had an MCO was back in March 2020, and it lasted for two months. Although the current MCO has only been announced for the next two weeks, many people are foreseeing an extension, at least for a further two weeks. With thousands of cases daily in Malaysia (at the time of this writing, there have been over 100 deaths in the last two weeks), most (sane) people understand that this is necessary to break the infection chain and ensure public health and safety. 

Since no events are allowed and travel is restricted, many of us will have to make do with a quiet celebration at home this year. While we won’t be able to observe certain traditions, I think that technology has allowed us to adapt (and innovate) in ways that would not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago – and we can use that to make CNY 2021 a memorable one. 

Reunion Dinner 

The reunion dinner on the eve of CNY is an integral part of CNY celebrations – some even consider it to be even more important than New Year’s Day.Traditionally, it’s when everyone gathers to feast and wish for a prosperous year ahead, whilst enjoying dishes with auspicious meanings (usually fish, pork, prawn and chicken – since back in the days meat was difficult to come by and would only be eaten on special occasions).

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Fam reunion dinner from 2018

The food for reunion dinners used to be prepared at home by the women folk. More than just preparing a meal, it was a way for people to bond. When my grandparents were still alive, the kitchen on CNY eve was a battlefield, and my grandma commandeered it like a general: slicing, dicing and supervising her helpers (my aunties). I kind of missed that after she passed away. In the last few years, eating out has become a trend, since nobody wants to go through the hassle of cooking and washing up for 20 people. Now that there are once again dine-in restrictions at restaurants, perhaps it’s time we went back to the drawing board and rediscover what it means to cook, and eat, together. 

For those who aren’t able to attend the reunion dinner night, I think it would be a good idea to set up some sort of Skype or Zoom call with family, so that you’d still be able to ‘eat’ together –  sort of like what I did with the hubs for our anniversary last year. It won’t replace being there in person, but in these unprecedented times, we have to make do with what we can – and it will hopefully stave off some of the loneliness that people who live away from home will undoubtedly feel during the festive season. 

Ang Pau Mali

Another tradition synonymous with CNY is the giving of red packets (ang pau) containing money to unmarried members of the family. As a kid, I was always super excited to receive ang paus (RM100 was a lot of money for a kid in the 90s). Funny thing though: at the end of each visit, the money would go to my mom, who’d keep it for ‘investment’…. And I’d never see it again lol. (Just kidding, I love you mom.) 

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Now that I’m married, I’ll no longer be on the receiving end, sadly. Under normal circumstances, it’s understandable not to give an angpau if you’re not visiting a particular relative. Unfortunately for married folk, the emergence of e-wallet apps and e-angpaus means that some of us won’t be able to wriggle out of it with the in absentia excuse: your nephews and nieces will probably say, “Aiya auntie, send it through e-angpau lah!” 

In With The New 

People usually buy new things for CNY (especially clothes), as it signifies a fresh start. Many clothing retailers are not able to open their brick and mortar shops, so more have gone online to provide for their customers. You can also find nice clothes on platforms like Shopee and Lazada for super cheap.

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There are pros and cons to shopping online. While it’s certainly more convenient and safer (no hour-long queue to get into the changing room, no fighting with another auntie for the same shirt you both have your eyes on at the sale rack), it can also be challenging for people with unusual body shapes/sizes, since they can’t see or feel the material/ cutting prior to their purchase. (Like yours truly. I have huge… shoulders. winkwink.) If you’re going to buy stuff online, best do it early to avoid disappointment, in case your item comes late in the mail. 

Chinese New Year foods in Malaysia

*Photo: evelynquek, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Buying gift hampers for associates, or cookies / treats for friends and family is another long standing CNY practice, and again, online shopping makes it convenient to have your items shipped directly to the doorstep of your recipient. As for treats for personal consumption, if you have the time, it might be a good idea to try your hand at baking/making your own. If you’re enterprising, you can even make a larger batch to sell and earn some extra money on the side. 

Cleaning / Decorating the House

People often underestimate the importance of decorating one’s personal space to elevate the mood. I believe it’s crucial; not to show off, but to re-centre yourself and your frame of mind. It’s one of the reasons why I wear office clothes even while working from home, because it kicks my mind into ‘work mode’. Lounging in pyjamas all day is comfy, but it also makes me more inclined to go roll around on the bed every 10 minutes. Similarly, just because no one is visiting for CNY doesn’t mean your house shouldn’t be clean and tidy.  

Unfortunately, technology has not yet evolved to the point where I’m able to kick back with a nice cup of coffee and a book, while my robot assistant does everything for me. So, manual labour it is.

CNY in 2021 will certainly be different, but if you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom. Traditions are meant to be kept and preserved, but if that isn’t possible due to circumstances beyond our control, then perhaps it’s time to innovate some new traditions. 

That being said, McD’s Prosperity Burger is back on the menu. 

Some things just never change. 

If you enjoyed reading this post, consider giving me a figurative angpau. Contrary to popular belief, I do not make big moolah from writing – and this will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

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Trying Out Kuala Lumpur’s OG Hokkien Mee: Kim Lian Kee @ Petaling Street / Chinatown KL

Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown has a storied history. Like many Malaysian cities with a rich tin mining heritage, it started off as a pioneer town, with a large Chinese migrant population. Although Malaya was then under British rule, the colonists often appointed overseers from within the respective communities – and in KL, a “Kapitan Cina” administered over the Chinese.

One of these Kapitans, Yap Ah Loy, is attributed to the founding of KL’s Chinatown. After devastating fires, floods and civil war between the Chinese (from the Hakka and Cantonese clans) for control of the tin mining trade, many of the miners and coolies were keen on skipping town. Yap  persuaded them to remain in KL and ply another trade: growing rice and crops. He opened a tapioca mill in Petaling Street, which allowed trade to recover. In Cantonese, Petaling Street is called ‘Chee Cheong Kai’ (starch factory street), a tribute to its beginnings.

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Over the years, Chinatown’s flavour changed (I wrote about this in a previous post, which you can check out here). It became less of a hub for Chinese culture and more of a cheap market for counterfeit goods, managed by foreign workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. This loss of authenticity is the reason why I have not returned to Chinatown for many years – until recently. Times are hard, and the pandemic means that many foreign workers, whether legal or illegal, have been sent home. The street is much quieter now, and most of the stalls are manned by local Chinese again.

Thankfully, one thing that has remained unchanged through the years is food – and Petaling Street is home to many well-established, decades-old institutions, such as a 40-year-old muachi stall, a 2nd generation roast duck kiosk, wantan mee, and of course, Kim Lian Kee. 

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Widely touted as the ‘birthplace’ of Hokkien Mee in Kuala Lumpur, Kim Lian Kee was founded by a Fujianese migrant, Wong Kim Lian in 1927. That makes it close to a 100 years old! The brand has since expanded all over Malaysia, with proper restaurants in malls and commercial areas. At Petaling Street, the ‘original’ hawker stall, which has outdoor seating, sits just across the road from a slightly more upscale-looking resto with air-conditioning. 

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The style of cooking and noodles may have Hokkien roots, but Hokkien Mee was created by the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora – and as such, you will not find it in China. Three places are known for their Hokkien Mee, and they are all slightly different: Penang’s version features thick noodles in a spicy broth made from prawn shells, prawn heads, prawn and pork ribs, served with pork slices, hard boiled eggs, kangkung, bean sprouts, fried shallots, sambal and lard. Singapore’s Hokkien Mee is stir-fried, lighter in colour and comes in a fragrant sauce made from stewing prawn heads, meat, clams and dried fish.

KL’s version, which is what Kim Lian Kee serves, is known as Hokkien char by Penangite Hokkiens, to differentiate it from the soupy one. It is stir-fried in a dark soy sauce together with ingredients such as pork, squid, fish cake, cabbage and lard. A good Hokkien Mee should be cooked over a charcoal fire, and the intense heat (wok hei) helps to seal in all of the flavours.

I had high hopes for KLK’s Hokkien Mee. Unfortunately, while it was decent, I would not say it is the BEST that I’ve ever tasted.  The noodles were nice and had bite, but they also had a strong bitter taste, likely from kan sui (lye, used in making yellow noodles). The yuet kong hor (moonlight kueyteow – raw egg on stir fried kuey teow noodles) was also just… okay. A tad disappointed, as I was expecting more from a place touting itself as the ‘birthplace’ of Hokkien Noodles. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

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Aside from noodles, Kim Lian Kee has an extensive menu offering dai chow dishes like fried rice, fish and meat items, vegetables, tofu, etc. We got a fried rice with shrimp. Again, not bad but nothing wow either. The rice was a little hard. Uncle Roger would have a couple of things to say,

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The best item that we ordered (the bro agrees) was the fried chicken wings. They came in a set of three pieces, freshly fried and still piping hot. The chicken was marinated well and had great flavour, the insides were juicy, and the skin was crispy.

Our meal along with drinks came up to RM68, Considering that we were in a tourist area, I think it is still a fairly reasonable price.

Video below:

KIM LIAN KEE (PETALING STREET) 

92, Jalan Hang Lekir, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur.

Opening hours: 11AM – 11PM (closed Wednesdays)

*The original hawker stall is at No.42, across the road, and is only open at night from 5PM. 

**If you’re looking for awesome Hokkien Mee, I have two other suggestions. One is the Kim Lian Kee branch at Aeon Cheras Selatan, although I haven’t been back in 5 years so the quality may be different now), the other is Aik Yuen Hokkien Mee in Setapak, behind the Tawakal Hospital. The latter is literally a shack and looks dodgy af, but you know those are the kind of places that serve the best food lol.

***PS: I am now on Patreon! You can subscribe here. You can also follow me on other social media channels on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Your support would mean the world to me! 🙂