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Japanese Festival – Nihon Matsuri 2022 @ Stadium Bukit Jalil, KL

The past two years have been tough for businesses, especially those involving events. But with restrictions now lifted and most sectors essentially back to ‘normal’, events are back in full swing. In fact, like the ‘revenge shopping’ phenomena (where people splurge to make up for not being able to spend during the pandemic), I think we’re having ‘revenge attending’, where crowds are flocking back to events after months of repressing their need for social activities.

I’m still cautious about going to crowded places (not just because of COVID, but also because I don’t like people in general. LOL). But there was a “Nihon Matsuri” (Japanese festival) happening in town that the Hubs expressed interest in attending after seeing banners of it along the highway. It didn’t look like a very big scale event (unlike Bon Odori three weeks ago, which saw a 50,000-strong turnout), and it was going to be held in an open-air space ie the carpark at Stadium Bukit Jalil, so we thought we’d check it out over the weekend.

The event, organized by local events and comms company Trumpet International, was held over five days from July 27 to July 31. We went on the second last day, which was a Saturday night. In retrospect, I think this was a bad choice, because although it was an open-air venue and it was not ‘packed’ in that sense, there was still a massive weekend crowd. There was also a RM10 entry fee. For the price, I think it would have been nice if they had given us a complimentary bottle of mineral water or a cheap fan or something, at least.

So what was there to see at the festival?

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The first thing we saw at the entrance was a series of torii, or traditional archways found at Shinto temples, complete with ‘blooming’ cherry blossoms, as well as Japanese-style lanterns. It looked great for photography, but since there were so many people queueing up to go in, it was difficult to get a good shot without people in the frame.

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An Instagram-bf hard at work capturing his partner’s photo
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The organisers had spaced everything far apart so there was lots of room for people to mill about, which helped with crowd control in some areas. When I wasn’t comfortable with an area because there were too many people clustered there, I at least had the option to move to another space, which would have been difficult in a closed setting.

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Standing alone in a corner was a makeshift sushi bar, serving omakase for RM349+ per pax.

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The plebs, on the other hand, had the choice of regular tarpaulin booths selling street snacks such as Sushi, tempura, takoyaki, bento, and grilled meat on skewers. The queues were extremely long, and I think most of them ran out of food by 9PM even though new visitors were still coming in.

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The festival’s central area featured cherry blossom ‘trees’ decorated with fairy lights, and raised wooden platforms for dining, giving the place a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) feel.

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Photo wall featuring a mix of traditional Japanese artwork and modern pop art.

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Another popular photo fixture featured rows of white lanterns. Japanese lanterns tend to be capsule-shaped compared to Chinese lanterns, which are usually spherical.

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There was a booth offering yukata rental services, and I saw many ladies walking around in beautiful, colourful dresses. There was also the occasional cosplayer.

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Ema (wooden plaque) board where visitors could hang up their wishes!
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We came at a good time and managed to catch two performances. The first was a Kendo performance with swords. It was meant to be a meditative performance, so there was no music. I think the idea was to showcase the beauty and grace in each movement, as the practitioners sliced through the air with their swords, sometimes swift, at times steady.

The second performance we watched was a Taiko performance. They even inserted some modern theatrical elements into it, playing out a storyline between the students and the master on the large drum.

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One more Instagrammable spot before leaving was the exit tunnel, which had hundreds of colourful paper wishes hanging from the ceiling.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, but I definitely feel that they could have had more booths to justify the RM10 entry fee. There were about 20 food booths at most, and each had an almost hour-long queue; and there were only 2-3 game booths (which were all obviously crowded). Still, it was a nice activity to wile away time over the weekend, and we got to experience a slice of Japanese culture as well.

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

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Tian Hock Kung – The Snake Temple of Klang

I’ve always had a fascination with temples—and being raised a Buddhist (the faith of which a majority of Malaysian Chinese people profess to), I’ve been to my fair share of unique places of worship in Malaysia. Among them are:

But just when I think I’ve seen it all, my backyard surprises me with a hidden gem — Tian Hock Kung, also dubbed the “Snake Temple of Klang”. I chanced upon some pictures online while doing research; there wasn’t a lot of info available in English, but it was enough to pique my inner travel journalist. So I decided to drag the Hubs, a fellow person of culture, on an impromptu adventure to seek out the place.

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Once the capital of Selangor, Klang is one of the region’s oldest cities, known for its colonial buildings and rich heritage sites. It has a huge Hokkien Chinese population, and as such, there are dozens of beautiful Chinese temples within the city, some of which are over a hundred years old.

Tian Hock Kung is tucked in a quiet locality next to the Klang River, a few minutes drive from the city centre. There are no signs along the way pointing to the temple and the building is hidden from the main road by foliage, but it’s not that difficult to find (you can Waze there, or look out for Klinik Kesihatan Sungai Berthek, which is just next to it).

Even though it was a weekend, and most temples would have seen at least some visitors, it was so quiet that we thought the place was not open to visitors. But since the gate was open, we ventured in cautiously. No caretaker was present; we were greeted only by a skinny black and white dog, ie the informal temple guardian.

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On the outside, Tian Hock Kung looks like an ordinary Chinese temple, with all the elements — curved orange roofs, lots of red, typical Chinese motifs. But as you walk closer, you’ll see why they call it Snake Temple.

In place of dragons or phoenixes, which are common motifs that represent auspiciousness and prosperity, you’ll find dozens of life-like snake statues and carvings; coiled around pillars in menacing poses and perched atop roofs.

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Even for someone without ophidophobia (fear of snakes), looking at the figures can trigger a feeling of uneasiness — even though they are clearly not alive. I think it stems from a primal sort of fear : a NatGeo article suggests that fear of snakes may be hardwired, a remnant from a time when being wary of dangerous animals gave humans an evolutionary advantage. Even though only one in five snakes are venomous (a smaller number are fatal to humans), and snakes are generally shy creatures that would run away from people rather than attack them, I think the natural reaction for many of us towards snakes is to get the hell away from them, lol.

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A large green snake figure surrounded by flowers and plants on a giant wheeled float.

There is also, perhaps, another reason why we fear snakes. Their appearance and slithering movements seem cold and alien; far removed from mammals like ourselves, and so unlike cuddly, furry animals such as dogs and cats.

PS: For those unaware, a majority of the Malaysian Chinese population subscribe to an amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, the latter two which incorporates many elements of traditional Chinese folklore and pagan practices of ancestor worship. Tian Hock Kung is primarily a Taoist temple, but it has a Guanyin statue as well, which is worshipped in both Buddhism as a bodhisattva, and Taoism as a deity/god.

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So why does this temple have so many representations of snakes?

Since I couldn’t find a caretaker to answer my questions, I can only rely on info I found online (most of these are written in Mandarin, which I can’t read lol and had to Google translate— so excuse me if I get some things wrong in translation).

The deities worshipped here are three sworn brothers, and like many Taoist deities, they are based on real historical figures. They are Zhang Gong Sheng Jun, Xiao Gong Sheng Jun, and Hong Gong Sheng Jun. You will find their statues inside the temple, with the main deity sporting a green face.

I’m not 100% sure which brother it is (I think it’s Zhang Gong Sheng Jun) but the god has an affinity for snakes and was known for defeating a thousand-year old snake demon. He also carries a magical weapon that used to be a snake which he subdued. You can read about the legend here.

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The interior of the temple is quite spacious, and the ceiling features an octagonal window with a Yin Yang motif — the primary symbol of Taoism — surrounded by other Taoist symbols that represent the different Immortals, such as the fan, gourd, iron crutch, and flute. In the centre of the room are several small but intricately carved wooden shrines with wooden seats on them (I’ve seen this before and I think they’re used to carry the deity statues out on religious parades). During our visit, there were also large stacks of paper offerings, sorted into neat bundles.

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Of course, it won’t be a Snake Temple without at least one resident snake — a huge albino python in a cage in the corner. Apparently snakes used to come here from time to time (on their own). According to a China Press article, in 2011, a six-foot-long python climbed into the temple and made a cozy nook for itself behind the altar, just before the deity’s birthday celebration. However, the snakes don’t come anymore, likely due to the surrounding neighbourhood’s development.

PS2: The northern state of Penang, another Chinese majority place, also has a snake temple, but instead of being in cages, the snakes roam freely around the temple. The history behind that temple is super interesting too, but I haven’t visited, and that would be a story for another time.

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Wall paintings. I think they tell the story of the deities worshipped at this temple.
Not being able to read Chinese characters is a real bummer. :c
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The main altar has been designed to look like a cave, complete with stalactites and outcroppings. There are three nooks, each housing one deity. The main one, as mentioned, has a green face, with a dragon on its back, and many smaller deities at the base. There are also large snakes with glowing LED eyes on each side of the central altar.

Unlike Buddhist statues, which often have serene, calm expressions, Taoist gods can appear quite….intimidating. In Cantonese, we call it having a strong sat hei, or ‘killing’ aura — ie a fierce disposition which is meant to scare away evil. You need not fear if you’re not an evil-doer, but those with evil in their hearts, beware.

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More paper offerings, these in the shape of clothes.
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Why pineapples? Pineapples are symbols of prosperity and good luck — the Hokkien word for pineapple ‘ong lai’, sounds like ‘prosperity comes’.
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The entire time we were roaming around and taking photos, there was not a soul in sight. I would have liked to speak to the caretaker to understand more about the place, but it was also a positive experience in a way, as I could take my time exploring without having to worry about bothering anyone.

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While on my way to the toilet, I chanced upon an area that was almost hidden from sight, adjacent to the main building. Peeking in, I saw that it was a shrine to the Taoist god of the underworld, Yanluo Wang. The entrance was designed to look like the gates of Hell, flanked by Hell’s guardians in Chinese mythology, Ox-Head and Horse-Face. As the name suggests, they have the bodies of men, but the head of an ox and the face of a horse. They are believed to escort newly deceased souls to face Yan Wang’s judgement, where they will subsequently be sent to the different levels of hell for punishment, based on their earthly crimes, or sent on to heavenly realms if they’ve been good people. Trivia: Japanese mythology has similar beliefs, where they are known as Gozu and Mezu.

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If what the temple committee wanted to achieve was to evoke a sense of fear and apprehension, then they certainly succeeded. The shrine was located lower than ground level, so visitors would have to descend steps to get closer (I did not because no way, Jose), and it was also bathed in an eerie blue light.

Instead, I respectfully (call me superstitious if you like, better safe than sorry!) asked for permission to take photos (the husband, a Christian, looked at me with a funny expression at what must seem to him absurd; ie me talking to the air, lol).

There were baskets of paper offerings lined up on one side of the shrine, a small table and chair on the other with some teapots (for mediums to channel the gods, perhaps?) on the other. Like at the main shrine, Yanluo Wang’s shrine was made to look like a cave, with the deity elevated on an outcropping, flanked by his assistants, the Black and White Guards (Heibai Wuchang). Taoism is heavy on balance, and like the concept of Yin and Yang, the Hei Bai Wuchang represent rewarding the good, and punishing the evil.

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Before leaving, I paid a visit to the Na Tuk Kong shrine within the temple’s compound. You might be wondering why there’s a dome resembling a mosque, and why the deity within seems to be wearing traditional Malay clothes. Well, when the Chinese migrated to Malaya centuries ago, they brought their folk worship beliefs with them; that is, paying respects to the local guardians and spirits they may encounter in this new land. Malays probably have another word for it — penunggu.

Klang’s Snake Temple is an interesting look into the Malaysian Chinese community’s way of life, culture, and beliefs. It’s a unique mixture of adherence to long held traditions passed down through hundreds, perhaps thousands of years – combined with new influences shaped by centuries of migration and assimilation. Definitely one of the more unique temples around!

TIAN HOCK KUNG (KLANG SNAKE TEMPLE 巴生天福宫)

Lot 3115 & 3116, Jalan Siakap, Jln Tepi Sungai, Taman Teluk Pulai, 41100 Klang, Selangor

Opening hours: 9AM – 11PM (daily)

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

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Pulau Ketam Day Trip 2022 — Selangor’s Unique “Crab Island”

If a foreign friend was traveling to Malaysia for the first time, where would you recommend they visit?

Perhaps Melaka for its rich history, Penang for its art and food, Langkawi for its gorgeous beaches, or Sabah and Sarawak for beautiful nature. Not forgetting Kuala Lumpur—the bustling metropolis and the heart of the Malaysian economy—with its eclectic mix of skyscrapers, glitzy malls, colonial shophouses, and chic cafes; a true melting pot of the region’s culture and influences.

Pulau Ketam, however, is probably not the first place that comes to mind. That should change — because it’s an excellent spot for visitors seeking something truly immersive and local. Doubly so for the Malaysians who have yet to pay this place a visit! You might be surprised at the unique experiences you can find in your own backyard.

Here’s a video for the lazy-to-read people. Also to give you a ‘feel’ of how it’s like on the island!

Located off the coast of Port Klang in Selangor, Pulau Ketam (or Crab Island) is a fishing village established in the 1880s by Teochew and Hokkien Chinese immigrants. The settlement, built on mudflats surrounded by mangroves, is known for its quaint homes and elevated pathways built over stilts, which gives them the appearance of floating over water during high tide. What started as a small fishing village soon grew; today, the island hosts some 1,000 homes.

In the past, the main industry in Pulau Ketam was fishing, but tourism now contributes a major part to the local economy as well. Visitors to the place are mostly Malaysians; the few times I have been here, I have not seen many foreign tourists. All the more reason to put it on your itinerary !

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GETTING THERE

Since there are no roads connecting the island to the mainland, villagers have their own boats in lieu of cars whenever they need to travel for supplies. As for visitors, the only way to access Pulau Ketam is via ferry from the South Port Terminal in Port Klang. If you’re driving, you can park your car at the Asa Niaga Habour City compound, next to the terminal.

The terminal can be quite warm, and crowded on busy days, but there is a canteen where you can order drinks and finger food, as well as stalls selling snacks. There are several ferry operators here, so once you step into the terminal you’ll be greeted by touts yelling out prices.

We went for the Alibaba Cruise (RM20 – return tickets, RM12 – one way) which is slightly cheaper than a speedboat. Regretted this decision, as even though they have scheduled departure times, they still waited for the boat to be full before they left the port. We waited more than 45 minutes on the boat, which was supposed to leave at 11.30AM, but only left around 12.15PM. -_-

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Either way, off to Pulau Ketam we go!

The ride takes about 30 to 40 minutes. If your boat has a deck on top, I suggest sitting there so you get a nice view of the mangroves. But maybe not in the afternoon because the weather can get extremely hot.

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WHAT TO DO ON PULAU KETAM

I last came here in 2016 and made a blog post about my trip (read it here) – so you can check the post out if you want a gist. This time around, I’m going to share more photos and commentary, because on my previous trip I didn’t really get to explore as much as I wanted to.

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Walk along the pier and enjoy the breeze. If you come in the afternoon, when the tide is low, you’ll see hundreds of tiny crabs and mudskippers crawling around in the mud (hence the name Crab Island).

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A new addition since my visit in 2016 – colourful signage and some nautical/ocean-inspired art installations. You’ll also find some interesting murals scattered around the island.

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Houses on Pulau Ketam are built on stilts measuring around 1 to 10 metres above the water. Most of the structures are made of either wood or concrete, as are the walkways that form an intricate maze connecting the many different parts of the village. Because of how narrow the streets are, there are no large vehicles, only motorbikes and bicycles. You can rent a bike to get around the island, but I prefer exploring on foot, since you can really take your time to soak in the sights.

Take note that most of the bikes are electric. Since they don’t produce a lot of noise, you have to be aware of your surroundings while making your way through the alleyways!

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Despite it’s remote location, Pulau Ketam is well equipped with all sorts of facilities. They have their own police station and volunteer fire brigade, 3 primary schools and a secondary school, a post office, and even a Maybank (so don’t worry if you’re strapped for cash – there’s an ATM machine within).

The internet and call quality is probably better than what I get at home (thanks for the ‘coverage’, Digi!), and they also have a constant supply of electricity and water from the mainland. You might still find a couple of homes with a rainwater harvesting system, which is what they used before a direct water supply was installed in 1991.

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Mini post office and souvenir shop.
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Pulau Ketam’s Jalan Besar (main street) bustles with activity, flanked by seafood restaurants, snack stalls and souvenir shops. It was high time for lunch, so we popped into one called Restoran Kim Hoe.

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Very Chinese decor. Bright red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, red fans, auspicious paper cutouts, red chairs and round tables, all the trimmings.
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It was just the Hubs and me and we didn’t want to overstuff ourselves, so we went for fried squid and kam heong style bamboo clams to go with our rice. The squid was fresh and springy, the batter deep fried to crunchy perfection. There was some seasoning in the batter so it wasn’t bland, and the chilli sauce complemented it well too.

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Bamboo clams get their name from their long, cylindrical shells. I think they taste like a meatier cross between oysters and Live Venus clams (what we call in Malaysia and Singapore as ‘lala’).

Because shellfish tends to have a briny, ‘fishy’ smell, they are usually cooked with strong spices such as curry and kam heong. FYI, kam heong is Cantonese for ‘golden and fragrant’ – a fitting name for an aromatic, rich sauce made from dried shrimps, curry powder, shallots, and garlic. Here’s another fun tidbit: kamheong is a Malaysian Chinese creation! Chinese immigrants here took influences from their Malay and Indian neighbours (hence the curry powder, dried shrimps, and other spices), added it into their own cooking, and voila.

The version at Restoran Kim Hoe is tasty. The clams were not cleaned thoroughy so there was a bit of sand left in them, but I understand that it’s difficult to get the sand out entirely sometimes. Otherwise, an excellent dish!

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Having had our tummies filled, it was time to explore the streets.
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Chinese immigrant communities back in the day were deeply religious and had strong beliefs in gods and the supernatural. More so for a fishing village, as they were dependent on the sea and nature for a living. As such, you’ll still find many temples scattered across the settlement. The one right after main street is probably the most photographed/popular, but if you wander deeper, you’ll find other temples too. Although small in size, the temples are colourful and richly adorned – great for photography.

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I love the detailing here! Aside from dragons, which are a common motif in Chinese temples, you can also see that they have crabs, as well as other sea creatures like shrimps, squid, octopi, and fish.
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An empty wooden altar in the hall next to the temple with phoenix, dragon, and cloud motifs.
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A shrine dedicated to the Thousand Hand Guanyin.
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Since most of the villagers built their own homes, no two houses on Pulau Ketam are the same and each boasts unique features. They’re mostly single storey, but there are some grander double storey homes as well. They’re also painted in various colourful shades. No two homes next to each other have the same colour – I wonder if they discussed beforehand like “Hey, I’m going to paint my house yellow, so maybe you can take blue instead?” xD

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Instead of cars, villagers have boats parked next to piers in front of their homes.
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Keep your eyes peeled for interesting murals. I like this creative piece – if you look more closely, you’ll find that the yellow guy on the left has an Ultraman tattoo on his belly drawn in the style of a Chinese deity!

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Many homes on Pulau Ketam leave their doors unlocked during the day – something almost impossible to see in the big city. But I guess if you’re stuck on an island (with their own police station to boot), it’s going to be pretty hard to run anywhere unless you have your own boat…

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A local Datuk Gong shrine.

Fun fact: a lot of people don’t know this, but the deity/spirit that the Malaysian Chinese here worship as Datuk Gong is actually – wait for it – Malay! That’s why you’ll often see the figure within these shrines dressed in traditional Malay clothing, such as a songkok and sarong.

The story goes that when Chinese immigrants came to Malaya, they brought their folk worship beliefs with them (specifically the worship of Tudi, or the god of the earth/the local deity of whatever land they’ve settled in). It was believed that the Chinese back then blended it with the animisme that some Malays practiced in ancient times, before they embraced Islam – hence why Datuk Gong has the appearance of a Malay personage.

This belief is also prevalent in other Nusantara Chinese communities, such as in Indonesia and Singapore.

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Someone’s hall in front of their house, complete with rocking chair to wile away the hours.
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More colourful homes. Some of these have been renovated and turned into homestays, but the more traditional ones are still made of wood.
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Another temple.
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A Taoist temple with a hexagonal window featuring the Yinyang symbol. There were a few very old, weathered looking statues within. Unfortunately the temple was not open during our visit.
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A clan association building.

Clan associations were the OG social networks – a place where people could mingle, and where they could go to for support, especially financially. In the 1800s, when many Chinese emigrated overseas in search for a better life, they often travelled long distances and arrived on distant shores with nothing but the clothes on their back. Clan associations were founded as a way to offer a support network for its members, and to build camaraderie and a spirit of kinship in a place far from home.

The associations would pool together resources to help solve problems that their members might face, such as securing a loan so start a business, buying land for burial, or building temples. They also facilitated personal and business introductions, and acted as important links to their homelands back in China. Some of these clan associations became very wealthy and powerful, such as the Khoo clan in Penang.

Today, clan associations are dying off because the roles they used to fulfill have been taken over by modern institutions such as banks or business associations. Also, many Malaysian Chinese communities no longer have any links to China. Their role, if any, has evolved to focus more on culture, education, and social service.

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A villager’s garden, filled with gorgeous blooms.
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Pulau Ketam is not very big, and you can probably explore everything within the day. We were done by 3.30PM, caught the next ferry back, and reached Port Klang by 5PM.

To be honest, nothing much has changed (aside from the addition of a couple more homestays?) – but that’s the beauty of living in a village like this. Seasons change, but the essence of the place – it’s quaint charm, the friendliness of the locals – remain constant. Personally, I love the story behind how Pulau Ketam came to be, as it’s a testament to the resilience of the Chinese immigrant community in Malaysia, most of whom came to Malaya with nothing, and built a life for themselves here.

There are a couple of things to remember while planning a trip here:

  • Bring a hat or sunscreen, as the weather gets super hot. Maybe because they don’t really have trees to shade the place, or because they’re located in an intertidal zone.
  • Most places operate with cash, but some have upgraded to accept e-wallets too.
  • Please remember these are actual homes and that there are people living in them, so be respectful.
  • The last ferry from Pulau Ketam leaves at 6PM on weekends, and 5PM on weekdays. While chatting with a local, she told me that some tourists forget this, miss the last boat, and are forced to spend the night on the island lol. Be mindful of the time!

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

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Think Thailand 2022 — Malaysia’s Largest Thai Festival @ Tropicana Gardens Mall, PJ

The Hubs and I recently paid a visit to Think Thailand — Malaysia’s Largest Thai Festival — which was held from 26 May to 6 June 2022 at Tropicana Gardens Mall in Petaling Jaya. Organized by the Thai embassy in collaboration with several major Thai companies as well as SMEs, the festival featured over 50 booths showcasing the best Thailand has to offer, from food and drinks, to products and services. There were also scheduled performances and cooking demonstrations throughout the 12-day event.

Here’s what went down during our visit!

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Live cooking demo in session
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Thailand is known for its abundance of snacks. We saw a few that looked familiar, but also many new ones.

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Sweet basil seed drinks are popular in Thailand, with purported benefits such as helping to cool the body. They come in a variety of flavours, including pomegranate, honey, grape, orange, and more. We got a few bottles to try. Maybe it’s because our taste buds are spoiled by sugary drinks, but these tasted very mild. They were refreshing though!

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Traditional Thai clothing on display. Visitors were welcome to try them on and take photos as a souvenir, for a price.
Fun fact: traditional Thai clothing is called ‘chut thai’ — literally ‘Thai outfit’.
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There was an outdoor area as well with an open-air dining area, with booths selling street food such as som tam (salad), grilled meats, and beer. The stalls were divided into halal and non-halal sections. Food was a bit pricey, but I liked the atmosphere as it reminded me of the street food vibe you get in Thailand — the smells of food from the grill, smoke from the cooking, animated conversations wafting across the warm tropical air.

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My must-get while exploring Thai night markets — iced tea! Thai milk tea has a distinctively orange colour as they use orange blossom water, which is water distilled from the essence of flowers from orange trees. Some vendors substitute it with food colouring. There was also green tea, which is different from Japanese green tea, as it is mixed with milk and sugar.
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Staff preparing somtam, or Thai papaya salad.
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Stalls selling Thai beer like Singha and Chang.
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Chicken skewers fresh from the grill
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Thailand’s iconic Tomyum Mama noodles
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Deep fried baby crabs
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We had a great time checking out the stalls, and returned with a few packets of snacks in tow: a crispy baked rice cracker snack with salted egg and chilli squid flavour, as well as a crispy enoki mushroom snack that featured very fine, deep fried strands of mushroom that served as an excellent condiment with rice.

I’m happy to see that events are being held again after two years. Hopefully this is a sign of a better economy to come!

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We Watched a Star Wars Wayang Kulit Show @ Jaya One, PJ

It was a celebration of all things Star Wars at Jaya One recently, as “This is the May – Nar Shaddaa Day” – organized by the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club (SWMFC) – held its first fan event after a two-year hiatus.

May, of course, is Star Wars month (May the 4th be with you!); and the event saw dozens of cosplayers, dressed to the nines in their best Star Wars outfits. There were also booths selling exclusive Star Wars merchandise, art exhibitions, games, puppet making workshops, and performances.

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I’m not a big Star Wars fan (I keep mixing up my Wookies and Ewoks), but I’ve seen the films, and I think the original Star Wars story was brilliant for its time, and yet to be paralleled in the world of science fiction and futuristic fantasy.

My main reason for coming here was actually to watch the Star Wars Wayang Kulit performance (more on that later!), but since we had some time before the performance, the Hubs and I explored the main concourse, where most of the booths were set up. There were some pretty nifty things on display, including limited edition toys, props, and collectors items from overseas.

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Among the cosplayers were troopers, Mandalorians, a Queen Amidala, a Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, some of them armed with lightsabers. Speaking of lightsabers, there was a booth from a toy company selling custom lightsabers with interchangeable colours!
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Loved these Star Wars themed earrings!
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The highlight of the event for me was the Fusion Wayang Kulit show, a unique performance featuring traditional Malaysian puppetry (wayang kulit) fused with modern pop culture elements; in this case, Star Wars. It was held at the PJ Live Arts centre next to Jaya One’s main building. The puppets are made from leather, propped on sticks, and moved by the puppet master behind a screen.

Fusion Wayang Kulit was founded by Tintoy Chua and Take Huat in 2012, aimed at revitalizing the dying art by incorporating modern elements into it. The pair approached Kelantanese wayang kulit master (Tok Dhalang) Pak Dain for their project, taking meticulous care to ensure the roots of the plays are respected while giving it a breath of fresh air. The rest, as they say, is history. Fusion Wayang Kulit has since performed not just locally, but overseas. It was even acknowledged by LucasFilm and featured in the official Star Wars magazine!

Pak Dain himself performed the show. There were two parts: the traditional story which is an adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana, and the modern part which had characters and a story inspired by Star Wars.

To be honest, while I found the traditional puppets beautiful, the story was difficult for me to follow as it was presented in Kelantanese Malay (a dialect that is very different from standard Malay).

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There was a break in between the two sessions, where we were introduced to the concept behind Fusion Wayang Kulit, and how they designed the characters for the ‘new’ story. They’re all based on traditional characters, so “Sang Kala Veda” (Darth Vader) is based on the villain, while Puteri Leia is based on Rama’s wife, basically the heroine of the story.

The character designs are mind blowing. There’s so much attention to detail and respect for the source material, both new and old. Take Darth Vader’s face – which has been designed with fangs (similar to the villain), yet retains that triangular motif. We were also told that Malaysian wayang kulit is distinctly different from its Indonesian counterpart in terms of looks and design. Malaysian wayang kulit characters usually ride on ‘dragons’ or a platform of sorts (the Javanese version does not have this). So to suit the Star Wars theme, they made Darth Vader’s platform a smaller version of the Executor. Brilliant!

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Pak Dain performed the Star Wars story in standard Malay, which made it much easier to understand. Here Puteri Leia gives R2D2 the Death Star plans. Did I mention how beautiful the puppets are? They look modern yet traditional at the same time. Perfectly embodies the ‘fusion’ theme!

When the show ended, the audience gave a standing ovation. I truly hope that with this modernization of an ancient art form, they can continue to keep it alive and relevant to a new audience.

Sadly, there are not many puppet masters left in Kelantan, where Malaysian wayang kulit originates from. Once popular at family gatherings and other communal events, puppet shows were banned in Kelantan after the Islamic political party PAS came into power in 1990 (they banned it in 1998), as they deemed it “un-Islamic” (they also banned the Mak Yong, a traditional dance, but lifted this ban in 2019, subject to conditions). Now, wayang kulit shows can ONLY be performed at the cultural centre in Kota Bharu. Can’t help but feel like it’s a ‘token’ that they use to attract tourists, rather than a genuine art form celebrated for its historic value and artistry.

But I digress.

Even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, I highly recommend catching the Fusion Wayang Kulit show! Support the local arts, because I don’t think it’s promoted enough by the relevant bodies. To see ordinary Malaysians of different races and beliefs banding together to keep this old art form alive – not backed by any special funding, only driven by a love for the country and its arts – is, to me, the true spirit of Malaysia.

You can learn more about Fusion Wayang Kulit here. They also have a gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

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Book Xcess @ Rex KL

Continuing its trend of bookstores that double as lifestyle destinations, Book Xcess’ newest flagship store in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is set to become the city’s hottest hub for arts and culture. Tucked on the second floor of Rex KL, the store opened in November 2021 and is home to thousands of books. But even non-bibliophiles have a reason to pay a visit, thanks to its cool aesthetics and architecture.

While parts of the space have been renovated, much of the old layout and fixtures from the venue’s days as a theatre have been retained, providing some very cool photo opps for the Gram.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Book Xcess is located on the second floor, where the theatre used to house the first-class seats.
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The store’s entrance houses a section dedicated to children’s books and young adult fiction. The shelves are built with a low overhead clearance, so it feels like you’re entering a maze of sorts.

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Large floor to ceiling windows allow for plenty of natural sunlight to filter in and afford visitors with stunning views of the surroundings.

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KL Tower in the distance juxtaposed against older shoplots with the typical ‘kaki lima’ (five foot walkway) design. This is one of the things I love about KL — it’s eclectic flavour where modernity meets tradition.
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Ascend the staircase — which is intentionally left in a raw and exposed state, with chipped concrete and peeling paint — and you’ll come to the main area, which features rows upon rows of towering shelves, built to resemble a labyrinth, and with books stacked from floor to ceiling. The high ceilings give the space an airy, lofty feel, and it just looks great architecturally. It’s no wonder influencers have been coming here in droves to take photos.

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Exploring the ‘maze’.
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View from the mezzanine. As mentioned, this used to be where the first class seats were located, back when Rex KL was still a theatre. The large movie screen has been removed, but the hall below is still used as an event space.
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Mind your step while exploring the place—since they’ve kept the original floor plan (ie tiered, to accommodate for theatre seating), it’s easy to accidentally stumble down the steps. There are warning signs around, but if you have kids it’s best to be cautious, as the steps are pretty high.

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If you’re coming from the main floor, look out for this little door near the cashier which leads to a stairwell and loops back into another section of the store. There’s a glass walkway here leading through a narrow corridor, which is pretty cool looking.

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Also within this space is Rex KL’s new rooftop bar and restaurant, Shhhbuuulee, which serves small plates alongside sake, high balls, and wines. I came during the day so it wasn’t open, but would love to come back for a visit.

What else is there to do at Rex KL?

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Plenty! Rex KL is one of those creative spaces where you can easily wile away your time, and they also regularly host cool events and exhibitions. There are some good F&B options within too.

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Stellar is located at the entrance and serves specialty coffee.
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The Background is RexKL’s collective of eateries and restos. There’s something for every palate, from the plant-based urban ‘warung’ Lauk Pauk, to Ticklish Ribs & Wiches which is every meat lovers dream.
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The Rex Bar is where you go to quench your thirst on artisan craft beers, handmade highball cocktails, experimental drinks as well as local items with a spin, such as sparkling tuak.
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If you can read Chinese, there is another bookstore within Rex KL to check out called Mentor Bookstore. They carry books from indie Taiwanese as well as Malaysian authors, plus titles translated from Western authors.
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Retailers located on the mezzanine and ground floor include DH Paper Art, an indie design studio, and Outsider Bikes, a bike shop offering custom builds.

BOOK XCESS @ REX KL

80, Jalan Sultan, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur, Selangor

Opening hours: 10AM – 10PM

Getting to REX KL

The nearest train station is the Pasar Seni LRT station. From there, Rex KL is a 5 minute walk.

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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Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur: A Public Art Gallery for the People

From the prestigious Balai Seni Visual Negara to smaller, independent spaces like The Refinery Sentul, there is no shortage of art spaces to explore in Kuala Lumpur. The art scene here is an interesting reflection of the city’s diversity — so while you do have higher-end galleries that are by appointment only, there are plenty of public galleries as well.

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One of the latter is Ilham Gallery, which is housed within Ilham Tower in KL, just a stone’s throw away from the Petronas Twin Towers. The gallery is located on the 3rd and 5th floor of the building, and touts itself a “public art gallery committed to supporting the development, understanding and enjoyment of Malaysian modern and contemporary art within a regional and global context.”

Entrance to the gallery is at the side of the building, while the other leads to corporate offices — but don’t worry, as there are plenty of signs to guide you there.

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N and I came here on a weekend afternoon. SOPs are in place, including mandatory mask wearing and social distancing. It was also not crowded, so we could take our time exploring the exhibits without having to worry.

We liked Ilham’s sense of space: the ceiling was high, and exhibits were neatly divided according to sections, making it easy for visitors to look at each without having to double back and forth. The lighting was spot on too: I’ve been to some smaller galleries where the light is too bright, which reduces the impact of the art pieces and can make them look cheap and ‘exposed’.

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Since October 2021, the gallery has been hosting an exhibition titled Kok Yew Puah: Portrait of a Malaysian Artist, featuring works by the titular artist.

Born in Klang, Selangor to a wealthy business family, Puah’s story is unique in that he chose to become an artist twice: first in the 1970s as a bold, hard-edge abstract printmaker fresh from art school in Melbourne; then as a figurative painter in the 1980s and 1990s, where his works captured the gritty, unique visual landscapes of a Malaysia on the cusp of change.

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Puah often used himself as well as his family members and friends in his human portraits, with visual cues to represent the ordinary, everyday Malaysian. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, many of the props he uses in his works are instantly recognizable: take this very interesting blend of people dressed in 90s fashion (the tucked in t-shirt with belted jeans + chunky watch — my dad used to dress like that in the 90s!) juxtaposed against a backdrop of a Hindu temple’s facade.

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‘Two Important Men’ (acrylic on canvas, 1993) and’ Self Portrait In Deep Thought’ (acrylic on canvas, 1993).
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Puah’s works remind me of photos captured on analog cameras — but on canvas. You get scenes of people in cars, smiling and posing as if for a photo, against a backdrop of the signature colonial shophouses found throughout towns and cities in Malaysia. Yet another painting captures a bicycle propped against a wall, with the standard blue and white roadsigns that are ubiquitous around the country and that many Malaysians will know from first glance.

Aside from paintings, also on display are letters, newspaper clippings, as well as personal effects such as photos. Puah died at the relatively young age of 51, and this collection curated more than 20 years later offers a glimpse into the life of an artist who was well beyond his time.

Kok Yew Puah: Portrait of a Malaysian Artist will be running until 3 April 2022.

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Remember to stop by the gift shop before leaving. The shop carries souvenirs made by local artists, from canvas bags to dolls, postcards, art books, miniature figurines, jewellery, and more.

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The back of the shop has a mini exhibition of sorts, featuring vintage studio photos. It was interesting to catch glimpses of important moments captured on film — there are wedding photos, graduation photos, family photos, of people from all walks of life. It makes you wonder about where all these people are today — are they alive or dead? — and what has happened to them in their lives from the time they took these photos until today?

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Ilham Gallery is a great place to soak in arts and culture, and to learn more about the colourful contemporary art scene in Malaysia. Entrance is free.

ILHAM GALLERY

Levels 3 and 5, Ilham Tower, 8, Jln Binjai, Kuala Lumpur, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur

Open Tuesdays – Sundays (11AM – 7PM except Sunday, 11AM – 5PM). Closed Mondays.

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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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.