Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The new face of batik

In Malaysia, batik culture is not bound by tradition like in other countries. Here, designers can design what they like — something stylish and classy that will appeal to the international market.

Aaron George and Raymond Von Jolly designed the dress being worn by Corinne Adrienne (below, right)
THE idea of attending a batik exhibition is enough to induce a yawn from me. Think batik, think “aunty” and “uncle”. But when publicist Bill Bora, 39, called to announce that he was organising one at The Weld, I was intrigued.

After all, the man is known for his Midas touch.

“I promise you, no baju kurung, no sarung, no pareo. It’s batik with a difference,” Bora assured. “Just come and see lah.”

So here I am at the Batik Showcase 2006, and who should I meet but actress Corinne Adrienne (of Spinning Gasing fame), 29, twirling around in a Von Jolly evening dress.

“Check out the flow. Don’t I look like a goddess?” she gushes.

And there’s no reason why Corinne should not look like one. The Von Jolly uncle-and-nephew designer team of Raymond V. Jolly and Aaron George know their batik – they bagged the grand prize in the fashion category of the 2005 Piala Seri Endon, the premier batik competition in the country.

For Corinne’s number, the duo opted for soft, dreamy chiffon with georgette lining. A daring neckline allows a peek at Corinne’s cleavage and a left slit down the hem shows off a bit of leg. It’s just the right outfit for a glam queen to strut her stuff on the red carpet!

“With batik, you must be imaginative,” says Raymond, 53.

Michael Shu, 30, who has been working with batik for five years, adds, “You can never get two pieces that are exactly the same. When drying batik fabric, even the time of day can affect the colours. The hot sun will make the colours turn out brighter. If you dry it during sunset, the colours will be muted.”

Anything but dowdy

Never let Kareem Said Khadaied, 50, hear that you think batik is dowdy. The head designer of Khadani, a batik design house, is deeply passionate about his art and will defend it to his last breath.

“The first thing you must know is that batik is a methodology, not a design. The word originates from Indonesia. It means ‘dropping wax onto cloth’. This methodology is found throughout the Malay archipelago, China, Japan and Australia. Malaysian hand-drawn batik originally comes from Japan.

“If you study Western textile design, you’ll find that a lot of these were influenced by batik. Prints produced by hand in Indonesia were taken by the Dutch to Holland and copied by European designers,” he explains.

But why is the use of batik on the wane?

“Now in Malaysia, there seems to be a massive confusion as to what is batik. There is a lot of promotion for the use of batik but no clear definition as to what it’s all about.

“The problem was that the synergy between the fashion designers and the textile manufacturers was not there until Piala Seri Endon came about. Most of the textile designers do not have a strong tailoring background. We stuck to the basics like sarong, baju kurung and pareos because we did not have the expertise.”

Just then, a stir of excitement interrupts him. Actress-singer Ziana Zain makes an entrance in a Khoon Hooi creation using one of Khalid Shamsuddin Arshad’s batik designs. Khalid, like Kareem, is one of the old timers in the batik industry.

“That’s Khalid’s work. You don’t have to tell me that. You see, it takes a man like Khoon Hooi to bring it out. That’s what I mean about achieving synergy with the fashion designers and the textile manufacturers,” Kareem says excitedly.

And it is no doubt a stunning piece. The green, long-sleeved chiffon gown is awash with gold renjis (splatter) to give it the illusion of texture, while the skirt has colourful butterfly motifs to add to its allure.

Kareem Said Khadaied next to a Ranting dress;

A new era

Khalid, 48, doesn’t doubt that designers like Khoon Hooi will bring about a revival in batik.

“The possibilities are endless. From evening dresses to curtains – all batik needs is fashion designers doing something with it. It’s just a matter of colour schemes and placement of patterns,” he says.

Sharing his optimism is Sharifah Maheran Barakbah of Barakaff, 58, another fashion textile designer with over 30 years of experience. Her collection, which includes fabrics like crinkled chiffon, silk and satin, are mostly of the contemporary floral kind for the middle and upmarket segments.

“Yes, we may be orang lama (veterans) in the industry but we must be up to date with market trends,” she says.

Farah Fazila of Innai.
Kartini Illias, 47, who began her own range of ready-to-wear batik in 1999 thinks it’s important to be contemporary.

“To expand to the global market we must make that point at home first. We have to make our people perceive batik in a different way,” she asserts.

But old habits die hard. Some traditionalists have raised fear that batik will lose its “Malaysianness”.

“The thing is to open up and be liberated. Sometimes we over-react and focus too much on the nitty-gritty instead of looking at the big picture. That applies to a whole lot of things, not only fashion.

“To me, our batik culture is not as bound by tradition as batik in the neighbouring countries. Theirs go back hundreds of years and batik has to be of a certain design because it has cultural ties.

“But we are free to do what we like with ours – something stylish and classy that will appeal to the international market,” she argues.

Farah Fazila, 22, of Innai, a batik boutique, is one of the designers working hard to make that change happen.

“Even when I was a teenager, I loved batik. My friends would tease me about looking like a makcik (aunty) but I have always found it trendy. At Innai, I am working to make batik appeal to the youngsters. Just think of batik with jeans,” she says. W

  • Round 2 judging for Piala Seri Endon 2006 will take place on Dec 9 and Dec 10 at Berjaya Times Square. The final results will be announced on Dec 17.

    Shopping info: Innai (03) 7728 3184, Khalid Batik (03) 6250 7448, Barakaff (03) 5510 5748, I.Kartini (03) 2382 2833, Von Jolly (03) 7958 6162, Khadani (03) 6138 8312.

  • Published in The Star, Weekender, Saturday October 7, 2006

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Pineapple fibre frocks

    Even those indifferent to fashion will be curious about a gown made from pineapple fibre.

    Designers: Aaron George (standing) and Raymond Jolly.
    Von Jolly Gallery
    Bangsar Baru
    103, Jalan Telawi
    Kuala Lumpur
    Tel: 012-2678233/019-2456241

    All gowns are made of soft chiffon, velvety silk and delicate georgettes, right? And so when Sarawakian designers Raymond Jolly, 53, and Aaron George, 29, of Von Jolly say they are launching a three-piece collection made of pineapple fibre, I think my leg is being pulled.

    “You’re kidding, right?” I shoot back, incredulous.

    They assure me they aren’t.

    But seeing is believing, so I make for the Von Jolly Gallery in Bangsar to verify this strange dress with my own eyes.

    But the designer team of uncle and nephew decide to prolong the suspense and take me for teh tarik at Devi’s Corner. It is important, they insist, that I first be made to understand that their latest line is not a fruity idea.

    And so, over some tea, I learn that this fabric, made of pineapple fibre, is actually tepina, which is 50% silk and 50% pina (pineapple fibre).

    Raymond and Aaron say they stumbled upon the fabric during a holiday to an “Asian island”. But instead of waxing lyrical, the two started, oddly enough, to lambast the tepina as a “rogue fabric with incorrigible characteristics”.

    “It has a low thread count, so we have to use lining. It is also rough in texture,” says Raymond.

    Aaron nods and complains about its unsuitability for batik, saying the colour spread can only be controlled to a certain degree.

    So why choose the tepina, I ask.

    The pineapple batik dresses. — VON JOLLY
    “Our collections have always featured the soft and flowing look. For our new collection, we wanted to have structure. The tepina affords us this luxury,” says Aaron.

    “It is a unique fabric, possessing a beautiful shine. You can see this after it has been ironed. Under heat, the fibres will expand and give the dress the illusion of volume,” chimes in Raymond.

    The exoticness of tepina is also another plus factor.

    “It is not commonly used here, so it will give the wearer an exclusive feel. Of course, the question will arise as to why we didn’t use something local, like the pua kumbu (tapestries from Sarawak), which is equally exotic. But we had to consider the practical aspects.

    “The tepina, which has already been through a colour adherence process, can withstand washing with minimal colour run. Subject the pua kumbu to the same treatment and you can write off the whole piece as a kitchen rag,” explains Raymond.

    “The theme of this new collection is based on the lively atmosphere of a wedding. The design philosophy is best described as eclectic, a juxtaposition of the elite, the luxurious and the refined,” says Aaron.

    They show me their grandest piece, a long, panelled gown with puff sleeves, an orchid patterned affair in red and orange done in the batik style. This number, says Raymond, is marked for a red-carpet night but it will have to wait till the right woman comes along.

    “The wearer has to have height to carry off this number,” says Raymond, who reveals that Erra Fazira was supposed to have worn it for a live event but it was too big for the slim actress and needed adjustment.

    “Alterations are no problem but it takes time. The event was scheduled for noon the next day and she only came in the day before at 4pm. We had to decline because there would be no time for fittings,” he explains regretfully.

    The rest of the collection comprises a flouncy, knee-length dress with a flirty off-shoulder cut and a men’s jacket.

    “Not a very big collection, is it?” I am on the verge of saying when I remember the wedding theme: the stunning gown would be for the bride, the matching jacket for the groom, and the knee-length dress for the bridesmaid.

    It makes sense.

    And the price tag?

    The Von Jolly team charges no less than RM2,000 for each piece. Tepina may be a “rogue material” but it’s not cheap, is it?

    A touch of glamour

    The pineapple batik dresses. — VON JOLLY
    Fashion designers have always aligned themselves with celebrities to push their creations to the forefront, and in this regard, the Von Jolly duo are no different.

    Since they began collaborating in 2005, the uncle and nephew have won the grand prize in the fashion category of the Piala Seri Indon batik design competition and have dressed celebrities like Sazzy Falak, Wan Zaleha Radzi and Asha Gill.

    Batik is a theme that is present in each of their creations.

    “When Sazzy Falak hosted Anugerah Era in September 2006, we had to come up with an outfit that blended in with their Denim and Leather theme. So we created a denim gown with a batik motif for that Malaysian touch. This is a reverse technique where we had to paint ethnic designs on the denim after the gown was made,” recalls Raymond.

    Their efforts paid off because Sazzy was voted the Best Dressed Woman by EH! Magazine in one of their 2007 issues.

    Dressing Asha, says Aaron, was a breeze because of her perfect figure. Asha wore a Von Jolly chiffon gown at the TAG Heuer India Polo Event on Nov 30, 2006 in New Delhi.

    “Asha liked the gown Wan Zaleha wore to a function at Starhill, Kuala Lumpur, so she gave us a free hand with the design. We opted for big floral prints because we knew she would be able to carry it off,” recalls Aaron.

    “As for Wan Zaleha, she wore our Summer 2007 range, which carries a Greek goddess theme, at a TAG Heuer event on Nov 16, 2006. She is petite, but has a mannequin’s figure, so we played with drapes and flows to give her a fuller figure. For this, we used our signature colours of purple and olive.”

    Raymond, who formerly worked in Shell’s logistics and planning department, says affiliations with celebrities are just part of the big picture.

    “The challenge for a designer is not in dressing a model but in making the average-looking woman look stunning. Models are perfect but normal women come in all sizes and shapes, so it’s important for your creations to have a good sense of proportion,” he explains.

    “The haute couture line is a competitive business but we have devised a business package that ensures exclusivity is maintained, from the production of the fabric to the completion of the dress.

    “Then it is a matter of getting good clients and doing the best for them. Word of mouth will eventually travel and the client base will grow from there,” adds Raymond.

    How is this different from another designer’s approach?

    “The others may get their fabrics from Euro Moda or Gulati’s, but our forte is batik. All our fabrics are hand-painted batik designed by us. We see to it that the end result comes out as expected – refined and very, very exclusive,” says Aaron.

    Published in The Star, Saturday March 17, 2007

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    Arabian Tales

    Arab perfumes for a change

    THERE is nothing like a whiff of perfume to salve the tired soul, so Raghda Emad, 19, of Oud Al Anood (“The House of Good Smells”, in Arabic), believes.

    “Arab people like to smell good,” says Raghda.

    Raghda, an Iraqi who came to Malaysia when she was just three years old, says her family’s love affair with perfumes started nine years ago when her father, Emad Abdul Razak, 48, a former ship captain, decided to open a perfume factory in Kajang nine years ago. Today, the family-run business has four retail outlets.

    A good wood perfume is black.
    “My father is the nose for Oud Al Anood. He spent three years searching for fragrant wood in South-East Asia and experimenting with perfumemaking in our home kitchen.

    Even before that, everyone in my family was into perfumes.

    “My mother always wore a flowery scent called Amirah, which means “princess” in Arabic, while my father prefers the strong smells of fragrant wood. For me, it’s the soft smells of vanilla,” she says.

    The young perfumer’s training in the trade began when she started helping out in her father’s factory at age 14.

    Elaborate perfume bottles.
    “I had to open each and every bottle and sniff the contents. Perfume comes in three categories: strong, medium and soft. The strong smells are usually from wood like gaharu, while the mediums are from flowers like rose and jasmine. Vanilla is one example of a soft smell,” she explains.

    The shop carries 50 types of scents.

    “Everything we use in our perfume oils is natural. There is no alcohol, which means that Muslims can use them during their prayers.”

    According to Raghda, they carry two types of perfumes: wood oils and perfume blends of flowers and spices.

    “All the wood oils are processed in our factory. The process requires cooking the wood to extract the oil. You can tell a good wood perfume by its colour, which should be black. They are so thick that it is impossible to put them in spray bottles.

    “There is no such thing as a good wood oil going bad as they have no expiry date. In fact, the longer you keep it, the better.

    Arabian favourites include canned sheep head, brains and feet, and non-alcoholic beer. — Starpix by SAMUEL ONG & GLENN GUAN
    We have a 12ml bottle of 20-year-old wood oil worth RM3,000,” she says.

    Raghda says chemically made perfumes have a distinct smell of alcohol and don’t usually last. Some people are allergic to them.

    “A good perfume, when applied properly can, last a whole day. Even if you were to dab a little behind your ears, it should carry you through for at least four hours,” she claims.

    Oud Al Anood is just next to Hotel Malaysia in Jalan Bukit Bintang. For enquiries, call 012-2154601 (Emad Abdul Razak). Prices start at RM30.

    Dine at Aladdin’s

    I AM not pulling your leg. I really met Aladdin recently. No, not the character from the Arabian Nights but a real-life person in Jalan Berangan, off Jalan Bukit Bintang, a spot now dubbed Arab Street.

    His name is Aladdin H. Salih (pic), or Ala for short, and he is a 51-year-old Iraqi. Ala is the owner of Sahara Tent, Malaysian Tourism Board’s Best Middle Eastern Restaurant in 2001 and KL Halal Food Guide’s in 2004.

    Unlike his fictional namesake, this Aladdin hasn’t a genie for a sidekick, but it has not stopped him from working his magic on his restaurant. Decorated with traditional Bedouin covers, borders and ornate Middle Eastern pieces, Sahara Tent is not unlike the cave in Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves.

    “Everything about food I learnt from the women,” laughs Ala.

    “During a trip to Malaysia, I realised there was no proper service for the Arab tourist. I saw the potential when no-one did. The location was not considered by many as the right choice as it was considered a ‘red light’ area and the abandoned playground was a haunt for drug addicts. Nevertheless, I went ahead,” he recalls.

    Today, Ala’s place is the main draw of Arab Street with its fountains and Moorish arches. The abandoned playground is now nicely lit with fairy lights.

    “People say Arab food is like Indian food. In fact, Arab food is nothing like Indian food,” he says.

    Middle Eastern cuisine is somewhere between the subtle flavours of Europe and the hot and spicy notes of Asia. In our menu, there is a mixture of all the favourite dishes from the Arab lands,” he says.

    Some of the favourites include Babylon Chicken, which is de-boned whole chicken stuffed with basmati rice, pistachios and raisins. It takes two hours to prepare, and is redolent with cinnamon. Another dish Ala recommends is the Whole Roasted Lamb, which is marinated with black lemons, cardamom and cinnamon.

    The saffron rice is another specialty, and Ala says it is reserved for special occasions as the spices used can cost up to RM300 for just 100g.

    “At Sahara Tent, we blend the saffron to a very fine powder, then add a little sugar and warm water to make a reddish paste. This is then refrigerated, and when the rice is ready, we put a few spoonful of the mixture into it. The result is a beautiful colour and a wonderful smell,” says Ala.

    The restaurant also boasts a traditional Yemeni dish called Mandi – chicken or lamb with rice cooked in an earthen pot in a special stove.

    The stove, which has a depth of 1.83m, is coated with sand, stone and salt. Firewood is used to heat up the stove for two hours. The basmati rice is put under running water for an hour, then mixed in the pot with meat marinated with cardamom, saffron and raisins. The earthen pot is sealed tight with a wet cloth and left to cook for two hours.

    Sahara Tent has Arab-speaking staff at every station and there are curtained booths where veiled women can dine in private.

    “It is very inconvenient for Arab females to dine in public as they have to lift their veils. So we allocated these booths where women serve the food. It’s our way of showing respect to the culture,” concludes Ala. W

    For reservations, call 03-21448310 or pop by at 87, Jalan Berangan, Off Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

    Shisha lifestyle

    Jalan Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur should be renamed Shisha Street, judging from the number of shisha vendors you will find in the area.

    According to Mahmoud Jamil Mohammad, 26 (right), a vendor who plies his trade near Waffle Stop beside Lot 10, shisha, or water pipe, is very much a part of Arab culture.

    “The Arab world cannot do without the shisha, even the ladies. Anyone who has the time and wants to relax, goes for the shisha and most coffee shops and restaurants in the Middle East have it,” he says.

    A shisha session can last 1½ hours, and Mahmoud keeps his regulars happy by regaling them with his tales. He never tires of telling people that he went into the shisha business five years ago because he got of bored staying home and watching TV.

    To light a shisha, hot coals are placed on an aluminium foil covering a small earthen receptacle which holds the maasel or dried preserved fruit mixed with honey.

    The smoker inhales through the shisha’s long hose, passing the heat and smoke through the long stainless steel body of the shisha. It is a smooth draw, as everything passing through the water in the glass base is filtered and cooled down.

    For hygienic purposes, a disposable plastic nozzle is used as a mouthpiece and after each session, the shisha is washed and the glass base refilled.

    Customers can choose from nine different flavours like vanilla and cappuccino. He claims that the maasel he uses for his shisha contains no tobacco.

    A doctor I talked to says the effects of shisha smoking have yet to be researched thoroughly.

    “There is no guarantee that prolonged exposure to it will not affect the lungs. As it is, shisha comes in many varieties and some do contain tobacco. Thus the health risk will also depend on what the smoker is burning.

    “In order to ascertain the health risk connected to shisha smoking, we’d have to find out what kind of chemicals are in the shisha. Then we will be able to tell how these substances will affect the smoker. One may say that it is just preserved fruit and honey, but compare that to the haze, which is only smoke from burnt wood.

    “In the end, all forms of smoking are harmful, no matter if they are cigarettes or shisha. The safest thing you can inhale is fresh air,” says the physician.

    Published in The Star, Saturday 24, June 2006.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Colours of Deepavali

    A rangoli artist seeks to bring joy through his colourful works.

    HIS colourful rangoli are about the only things that can compete with Mohan Maruthamutu’s dazzling smile. Just like his jovial and energetic nature, Mohan’s vividly hued rangolis pretty much reflect the Deepavali mood. This 30-year-old’s artful rice grain scatterings are currently on display on the floors of Sogo, Mid Valley and other well-known shopping complexes and hotels in the city.

    Yet, Mohan’s journey in life has not been an easy one. Having stopped school at age 12 due to lack of finances, the sixth child of seven siblings shares one of the most distinct memories in his teenage years. It was that of experiencing a total feeling of calm as he sat on a temple floor to arrange stray turmeric-dyed rice grains that had fallen of an altar.

    “You must understand that I did not purposely seek to become a rangoli artist. It came to me. There I was, sitting on the floor and seeing the rice grains, my hand just reached out to them.

    Artistic mastery: Mohan Maruthamutu creates his colourful rangoli without any chalk markings

    “There was no conscious planning on my part when I formed those rice grains into patterns. Now that I recall, it is rather uncanny how I took to rangoli art,” reveals Mohan who speaks Tamil and fluent Bahasa Malaysia.

    Though it did not cross his mind then, the added years of maturity have convinced Mohan that divine intervention bestowed upon him the blessing of artistic skill. This is evident because he finds it very hard to draw images of any kind with a pencil and paper but when it comes to making rangoli of peacocks, lotuses and other intricate free-form patterns, it is a different matter altogether.

    “All my rangoli patterns are done freehand. I do not need chalk markings,” he says.

    The interest towards rangoli art could not have come at a timelier moment as Mohan, who was then 15, was still trying to come to terms with his father’s death.

    Mohan’s father, a City Hall gardener, died after falling from a flight of stairs. His mother, a cleaner, was left to fend for the family and for some time, Mohan and his siblings were on the verge of poverty.

    Centre of attention: The main subject of a rangoli is usually set in the middle. This one has a lotus motif.

    It was during those difficult years that Mohan, a former pupil of the Cheras Tamil School, used the rangoli as a form of expression.

    Rangoli drawing absorbs you entirely. There is no place in your mind for other thoughts because you need to focus your concentration on forming the patterns. Interestingly, a rangoli may have a beginning but there is no ending. You could continue with one pattern after another for the same circle. The only constraint will perhaps be space or until you run out of rice grains,” says Mohan.

    Naturally, Mohan’s talents as a rangoli artist soon caught the attention of the temple’s devotees. At the age of 16, Mohan got his first paid commission to do a peacock rangoli for his friend’s brother’s wedding. From then on, his reputation grew by word of mouth.

    As to whether rangoli are magical in nature, Mohan prefers to see them as symbols of impermanence and illusion.

    He has heard the older generation proclaiming that rangoli can prevent evil spirits from entering the household, but Mohan personally opines that rangoli possess the power to bring joy.

    He believes that due to their fragile nature, rangoli are a metaphoric representation that sees each person and physical object from the perspective of eternity as a brief, disturbed drop of water in a vast ocean.

    Technique is everything: The trick is to allow the grains to trickle from the palm in a smooth flow.

    Reflecting on his own personal experience, Mohan, who works as a dispatch rider for a motor spare parts shop, sees this in his own life.

    Though life has been hard, the present is a far cry from his poverty-stricken teenage years and today, this dutiful son can afford to tell his mother, Kalimah, 57, to rest. Mohan is also the proud owner of a new home.

    His only concern at the moment is his mother’s heart condition. She had to undergo an angioplasty recently. Still, Mohan, who has been a vegetarian for the past 13 years, is confident that she will have many happy years to come.

    Having the advantage of youth, Mohan is naturally enthusiastic about his future as a rangoli artist.

    “I dream of starting a company specialising in rangoli creation. The only thing is to lay down a standard procedure of operation so that quality is preserved and that is something that I will have to work out,” he says.

    To deepen his knowledge of the art, he is planning a trip to India for an intensive rangoli course.

    “Like a painting, rangoli drawings require that the artist learn the finer points of shading, texturing and toning. My goal is to achieve a realistic image of people with the rangoli method of rice scattering,” he explains.

    Mohan’s advice to the beginner is to adopt the correct hand position, which is to shape it like a funnel so that the rice grains can trickle from the palm.

    The rice grains, he says, can be coloured by soaking them into a solution of poster paints or food dyes.

    Doing the proper rangoli can also be an easy affair, he assures. One method is to lay a stencil on the floor and then follow the lines, filling in the spaces as you would with a colouring book. He also recommends applying glue to a surface beforehand. This is the fastest way to make a rangoli and he has seen some novices pour a surplus of rice on top of the pattern before sweeping the extra grains away, he says.

    For this Deepavali, Mohan has four stencils for our readers. Photocopy to enlarge and have fun making them.

    > Mohan can be reached at 016-6176765

    Lighting up his life

    A business born in desperate times is now proving lucrative for lantern maker.

    WHEN it comes to making lanterns, Khoo King Eng, 36, says: “Everyone can do it. It’s just like making a birthday card.”

    To prove his point, the father of two demonstrates by bending a metal wire around the outline of a seahorse. It is an easy task as the shape has been outlined with nails hammered into a piece wood.

    This is how we do it: Khoo King Eng bending a metal wire around a nail outline to create a bunny-shaped lantern as his son, Yu Fun, five, looks on.

    Khoo makes two of these frames and then solders the two sides onto another strip of wire which already sports a coil in the middle. This is the candle holder, which also forms the base of the seahorse structure.

    Translucent coloured paper is then placed across the frame, pulled taut and then glued.

    Lastly, Khoo’s wife, Tan Sueh Mei, 33, a former art student, paints in the eyes and other details with sure, swift strokes. For ease of transportation and storage, the lanterns are then pressed flat.

    “Lanterns were a common subject in our school art projects. Even today, there is no lack of lantern makers in states like Perak and Pulau Pinang, who treat it as a cottage industry,” says Tan.

    The Khoos ventured into lantern making five years ago after they found that they did not have the money to import ready-made lanterns from China.

    Lanterns galore: Khoo’s shop in Petaling Street stocks a huge selection of lanterns and other decorative items including those imported from China.

    Given that they now have a 10-year business dealing in seasonal decorative items that had grown into a chain of 15 shops from Johor to Kuala Lumpur, this was hard to believe.

    The Khoos, however, had a reason for their cash flow problem. Their son, Yu Fun, now five, was born with a congenital heart defect. When Yu Fun was only two days old, he had to undergo corrective heart surgery.

    “When my wife and I embarked on our lantern-making venture, we were on the verge of bankruptcy.

    “We had just let go of the 14 shops because we had no time to manage them. We were that focused on Yu Fen. The only reason that we had hung on to the shop in Petaling Street was because it was closest to the hospital,” recalls Khoo.

    Describing his foray into lantern making as a last-ditch attempt to save his floundering business and raise money for his son’s medical bills, Khoo says he took a crash course in making lanterns four months before the Mid-Autumn Festival that year.

    “It took me close to a thousand tries before my staff and I got the production process right,” Khoo recalls.

    Somehow, Khoo’s efforts paid off with his first run of 20 designs selling 5,000 units. Today, while other lantern makers usually see orders coming in about six months in advance, Khoo gets bookings a year ahead. Thus, he makes lanterns all year round.

    Looking at how the lanterns have become an important part of his retail business, it is no surprise that Khoo now regards them as symbols of luck and perseverance.

    “Remembering those early days of our lantern-making activities reminds me of the lowest point in our lives. We did not have enough money for Yu Fen’s medical bills and my relatives could not help us,” Khoo reveals.

    “In fact, they even advised us to give up on Yu Fen, which was something I could not accept. So, in the end, it was sheer determination that spurred me to produce those lanterns.”

    Talking of the time when he and his wife used to work 14-hour days while dealing with the emotional and physical toll of caring for a sick child, Khoo says that there was just no time to entertain depression.

    “Instead of resorting to drink or drugs for relief, we went headlong into making lanterns,” smiles Khoo who also handmakes Christmas and Chinese New Year decorations for his seasonal decorative items shop.

    Design-wise, says Khoo, lanterns come in all shapes – from all the animals in the Chinese zodiac to modern marvels like aeroplanes and motorcars. Cartoon characters are also not left out and keen consultations with his children help Khoo to keep in touch with the current trends where animated personalities are concerned.

    “There are some years when traditional shapes like fish, dragons and pigs will sell very well but at other times, there is a trend for cute cartoon characters. I try to predict what will be the hot items and incorporate them into my designs.”

    While the bulk of Khoo’s production still consists of lanterns made with lead wire frames and translucent paper, he also accepts orders for shop decorations. The latest is for a red 3.65m balloon lantern for a dried waxed meat retail chain.

    He also has as a prototype a series of red brocade lanterns with electric bulb illumination for the traditional Chinese wedding chamber.

    “Lanterns have always played a central role in Chinese culture. Not only is their presence felt during the Lantern Festival but in the olden times, Chinese households would have giant lanterns hanging at the entrance with the surname of the family emblazoned in them. You can also see them at weddings, funerals, during Chinese New Year and as decorations during major festivals,” Khoo points out.

    Citing that the materials for lantern making can range from paper to silk, Khoo says that the only limit is one’s imagination.

    Still, his methods are considered modern in comparison to the olden times when lantern frames where made from thin strips of bamboo.

    “You are talking of an art form that dates back to 230BC, when lanterns were made from rice paper,” he says.

    Khoo surmises that the origin of the Chinese lantern was probably tied to the basic need for portable illumination. The soft glow of a lantern was definitely seen as a better alternative (and safer) than carrying a blazing torch.

    It also did not escape attention that a lit lantern also bears resemblance to the full moon. Consequently, the lantern became a popular means of decoration and a source of illumination during the full moon festival.

    Just like any item that has entrenched itself into the history of human civilisation, the Chinese lantern would evolve with the times.

    They can be elaborate pieces of art with detailed paintings. Some also feature complicated mechanisms with rotating parts powered by nothing more than the simple principle of hot air circulation.

    The invention of batteries and LED lights also turned the soft glowing orbs into gizmos with blinking lights and sound effects. This type of lantern is still considered by many customers as a safer option for younger children.

    While many fanciful legends have been woven about the Chinese lantern, Khoo presumes that the actual significance has more to do with reminding young people about tradition.

    Logically, the invention of electricity should have eliminated the need for candle lanterns. However, lighting one on a romantic Mid-Autumn evening does bring to mind how mankind has progressed. There is also the therapeutic effect of watching the soft glow of a lit lantern.

    Business wise, this spells good news for Khoo who has become a major supplier for Chinatown. And since he also does wholesale trade, he considers those imported from China as his main source of competition.

    “There is no way that we can beat the ­prices of their paper lanterns, which are the bestsellers currently,” says Khoo whose own handmade lanterns are priced between RM8 and RM15.

    Looking forward, Khoo maintains that it will take a lot more than the pricing issue to make him give up his business and he is already thinking of making more elaborate designs with layered tiers and tassels.

    This is where even he would admit that while lanterns may be easy to make, the more elaborate ones will definitely take a longer time in the design process.

    Check out the lanterns made by Khoo at 17, Jalan Hang Lekir, Kuala Lumpur.

    Great place for animal lovers

    Be prepared for some scandalous animal stories when you visit the petting zoo at the Lost World of Tambun in Perak.

    AT the last count, the animal population at the petting zoo of the Lost World of Tambun numbered 4,000, and all are descendants of those at its sister park at Sunway in Petaling Jaya. The only “newbies” are 40 tortoises whose pond is just next to a 10m-high waterfall fed by fresh river water running from the limestone hills of Kinta Valley.

    According to Calvin Ho, the general manager, these tortoises were rescued from a temple in Penang after it was found that they were living in terrible conditions. To compound the problem, the temple authorities found out that poachers were stealing the land reptiles and selling them to restaurants.

    Handle with care: Petting Zoo keeper Nur Azlan Mohd Hussin, 23, ensures that these colourful birds are carefully handled by visitors.

    Concerned that these revered crepusculars were coming to such a bad end, the temple authorities called Ho for help.

    There are plenty of such anecdotes at the 7,432 sq metre “wildlife resort”.

    The visitor will get to meet a cobra which had to be spoon-fed after it hurt its throat, no thanks to rough handling from villagers who had found it lurking in a chicken coop.

    There is also a marmoset named Ron who has since become Ho’s best friend and confidante.

    “There are no dark secrets but he knows quite a lot about what’s going on in my head,” quips the 44-year-old father of two who often starts his day by sitting among these cute furry mammals.

    Then there are the raccoons who reside near the zoo’s entrance. If the animals had a gossip tabloid, the best fodder for it would come from a certain male raccoon here that has acquired quite a reputation for being a highly amorous “playboy”.

    “The fellow mates no less than a couple of times within an hour,” affirms Ho.

    What makes for the contentment and wellbeing of the animals in the Lost World of Tambun is the care they are being given.

    Close interaction: Visitors can have direct contact with the animals.

    According to Ho, the two crucial aspects lie in the conditioning and enrichment programmes devised by the curator and the keepers.

    “The animals in our care are not just fed and expected to eat and sleep. To keep them active and stimulated, the keepers place their food between rocks or on branches. The animals will have to locate the grub with their senses,” says Ho.

    The petting zoo, insists this Penang native, is about simulating the natural habitats of the animals to encourage them to hunt and forage for food. This keeps them alert and ensures their good psychological and emotional well being.

    “The idea is to allow them to live in a habitat that resembles conditions in the wild,” says Ho.

    In simulating the natural habitats of the animals, Ho reveals that first of all, no trees were chopped down during the building of the petting zoo which took four months to complete.

    No effort was spared to preserve the original flora and fauna of the area that’s set within the majestic limestone hills of Ipoh. Even the water for the streams and waterfall is channelled from a river, which means chlorine-free drinking water for the animals. Extra vegetation such as creepers and trees were planted to treat soil erosion.

    Ho attributes the tame disposition of the animals to the constant positive conditioning from the keepers. He eschews the word “train” as he feels that it carries negative connotations like the use of cruel methods.

    “When it comes to animals, the interaction has to be like a relationship, like making friends. Just like people, animals, even among the same species, have different personalities. Some are feisty, others adapt more easily.

    “When it comes to conditioning a bird to feed from a visitor’s hand, for example, this is the result of the interaction that has taken place between the animal and the keeper. It shows the deep relationship and understanding that has deve­loped between the two,” says Ho.

    Exposing the animals to people, even those which have been previously mistreated by humans, will have drawbacks, but Ho feels such situations can be controlled.

    “There are some people who derive plea­sure from seeing animals suffer. It is disgusting to watch and I feel that awareness should be raised through education. However, when we took on the running of the petting zoo, we also made sure that the animals’ keepers are there to supervise the interaction between visitor and the animal,” Ho says.

    So, besides caring for the animals, the keepers also need to have a basic understanding of human behaviour.

    “Sometimes, visitors are goaded by their friends or are pressured to drape a snake around their neck when they are just not ready for that sort of action. In this case, the keepers will size up the visitor to see how they can best experience the human-animal interaction minus the impositions,” says Ho.

    So, what can the visitor expect to experience at this petting zoo, aside from getting to stroke the animals? Well, there is the serpentarium, a glass tunnel which allows the visitor a 360° view of the snakes and reptiles in the zoo’s collection. This will be as close as one can get to the pythons and monitor lizards clinging to the glass on top, below, by the sides and at one’s feet.

    Then there is the boardwalk which winds across the Rock Canopy like a rainforest trail. This set-up brings a visitor to a natural paradise where hornbills, macaques, porcupines, prairie dogs and African goats are left to roam free. At the end of this trail is a platform which offers a breathtaking scenery of the wetlands area where Rajah Brooke butterflies can be seen fluttering among wild boars, squirrels, kingfishers and pangolins.

    High on the adorable meter is the warrens where cute bunnies with their floppy ears can be seen hopping around.

    Children can also do “longkang fishing”, a term coined by Ho, here.

    “There are baby carp swimming in a small stream and children can scoop the little fish into their nets,” says Ho.

    However, Ho reiterates that there is a clear line drawn on using animals for entertainment.

    “The petting zoo is geared towards education, where children can learn about animals and the role they play in the ecosystem. This is crucial because if one link is broken, there will be an imbalance and this will have a negative effect on us in the end,” he says.

    While one may argue that books, audio and visual means are able to perform the task adequately, Ho firmly believes that there is no greater teacher than real-life experience. As to whether the animals are happy, Ho gamely points out that their ability to mate and breed is a sure sign that all is well.

    This can be seen in the aviary where eggs and new hatchlings can be found in the nests.

    The Lost World of Tambun is open from 11am to 6pm on weekdays and 10am to 6pm on weekends. It is closed on Tuesdays. For enquiries call 05- 5428888 or visit its website at www.sunway.com.my.

    The fashion trade’s best kept secret

    Anything and everything that has to do with fashion can be found at an enclave in Jalan Kenanga, better known ‘Ho Ching Yuen’. The only catch is you have to buy in bulk to get the best prices!

    WHO could have guessed that the largest wholesale fashion hub of the nation is tucked between the Sri Selangor flats in Jalan San Peng and the fire station in Jalan Hang Tuah in Kuala Lumpur? With close to 400 shops selling fashion merchandise and paraphernalia – adult and children’s garments, mannequins, hangers, wigs, shoes, bags, costume jewellery, belts and sexy lingerie – anyone who trades in the business or wants to set up store is likely to find what he needs here.

    The Jalan Kenanga area – better known as “Ho Ching Yuen” – is a well kept secret because only those who are in the trade and purchase in bulk have access to the shops here.

    Datuk Ang Say Tee had come to Jalan Kenanga from Pontian in 1988 and had seen its potential to be a fashion wholesale city.

    This place is strictly a wholesale concern. So while the price tag on an item may wow you at RM15, remember that you’d have to purchase at least a three to a dozen pieces of the same design in different colours and sizes.

    Understandably, this may prove challenging for shoppers in general, but friends and families have been known to shop in a group to take advantage of the bulk sale price.

    On the bright side, there are often bargain racks displayed outside the shops. These items, which are actually remnants of a tail-end stock, are sold on per piece basis but buyers beware: there is a “no trying and no return” policy.

    “The ‘wholesale only’ policy is to protect our market. It would not augur well with the retailers if we, too, start selling on a per piece basis as we would be competing with them directly,” says Datuk Ang Say Tee, 52, executive chairman of the Sin Ang Lee Group and president of Malaysia Garments Wholesale Merchants Association.

    Because the wholesalers here cater mainly for retailers selling clothes and other fashion items that are on the mid to lower end of the price range, Ho Ching Yuen is perceived as an area for cheap fashion. Jimmy Chan, 40, secretary of the same association, says that if a buyer wants quality goods, he must be willing to pay the price.

    He says that 20% of the shops at Jalan Kenanga, like Ashley in Lorong Meranti, do cater to a higher end market and there are also wholesalers like Emono with in-house designers on their payroll who come up with new collections every season.

    All shades: Latest fashion offerings in every style and and colour at the fashion hub.

    “Anything can be of good quality provided the buyer is willing to invest in better quality materials and workmanship.We have buyers from Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand coming to Jalan Kenanga. Buyers from these regions already have wholesale suppliers who were established long before we were. Do you think they would come here if our goods are inferior?” says Jimmy.

    Where prices are concerned, be assured that they are friendly on the wallet here.

    At U-Bees Collection, for example, a dress will only cost about RM33; blouses, RM24; and T-shirts, not more than RM20.

    Some places will even let their stocks go for as low as RM15. For menswear, Emono, which produces its own exclusive designs, sells long-sleeved poly-cotton shirts at about RM30 and denim and lycra trousers for between RM30 and RM40.

    For shoes, a place called E-Collection offers a reasonably nice pair for RM20 to RM40. Leather boots are at least RM60 per pair.

    The wholesale code dictates that one has to buy at least three pieces of a single design and if there are different colours, no fewer than six pieces. For shoes, one has to buy all the sizes (from size 35 to 40). With leather shoes, one has to buy no fewer than four pairs. With menswear, expect to negotiate for no fewer than eight pieces of shirts and 12 pairs of trousers.

    The Top, which has been in business for 18 years, stocks racks, hangers and mannequins for boutiques. Prices range from as low as RM7 to as high as RM1,000 and the rule of thumb is the lighter the mannequin is, the heftier the price tag. Hangers are sold on a per dozen basis, with the cheapest being no more than 35sen.

    The wholesale prices allow for a mark up margin by the retailers for 30% to 50%. Should the wholesalers sell their goods to customers at a cheaper price, it would kill the retail business. This, in turn, would have a negative impact on the business in the area.

    Term of sales include cash and credit card. For extended credit terms, a retailer needs to have been in business for at least one year with a wholesaler to be able to qualify.

    Shoes galore: You have to buy all the sizes for each design.

    “The extension of credit is a very delicate matter. I remember a time when I was very insistent in dealing only in cash during the economic crisis in the 80s. This was what kept me afloat then,” says Ang.

    “But sometimes, it also depends on the individual. When I first started and was buying stock in Indonesia, one supplier actually asked to look at my face when I asked the company for credit terms. He agreed after having a good look at me,” he adds with a chuckle. But despite the fast rule on wholesale dealings, some shopkeepers are “flexible”.

    Yap Kuan Fak, 51, a sales assistant who has been working in the area for 23 years, attributes this to the intense competition in the business. “In the 90s, business was good; when China started its ‘open door’ policy, there was brisk trade because the wholesalers could bypass the middlemen and deal directly with the factories. “The downside came when others wanted a share of the pie. Hence, from about 100 shops, we now have 400; you can figure out how intense the competition is,” he adds.

    Chan is confident that Jalan Kenanga will one day become an international fashion hub. Not bad for a place which was once a vegetable farm and “named after” Ho Ching, a farmer here.

    “Of course, business habits will have to change so that we can advance. In future, wholesalers will have to educate themselves on changing fashion trends, establish their own identities with their own signature designs and come up with better marketing strategies to remain competitive. To merely stock up without thinking of the evolving tastes of the consumer will not take us very far,” he says.

    Ang adds that the fashion industry is one business that will never die “because it is typical of human nature to want to look good”.

    “In the end, it is worthwhile to remember that for a business to thrive, it depends on the person who runs it,” says Ang, who has branched into property development.

    Buyer Suhaida Haron, 32, a boutique owner in Sunway Pyramid, is happy with what Ho Ching Yuen has to offer.

    “It would be very time-consuming if I had to fly to Thailand all the time,” says Suhaida who usually spends the whole day here when she is on a buying spree.

    And yes, buyers are known to walk from shop to shop in search of the best pieces and the best prices with lunch breaks in between.

    Being a thriving business district, there are plenty of coffee shops and hawker stalls selling all sorts of delectable chow in the area. Of note is the coffee shop on Jalan Kenanga that serves wan tan noodles, fried kuay teow and economy rice.

    As a business enclave, Ho Ching Yuen is also set for an upheaval of sorts as its tenants eagerly await the completion of Kenanga Wholesale City, a RM880mil, 22-storey complex off Jalan Loke Yew which is scheduled to be fully operational by 2011.

    Currently, the wholesalers have an average transaction of about RM2bil annually, of which 30% are from exports and 70% from the local market. Many harbour hopes that their business transactions will double within a year once this new complex becomes a destination for international buyers.

    Quick Shopping Guide to Jalan Kenanga

    Teeny bopper: I Fashion, 2, Lot 2.03, Lorong Merbau, 03-9221 3568.

    Menswear: Emono, 17-1, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9221 3880.

    Goth and Cosplay: Get On Clothing, 1-G-7, MGW Fashion Square, Lorong Meranti, 03-9222 1894.

    Sexy lingerie: U-Bees Collection, 18, Jalan Kenanga, 03-9222 6818.

    Casual wear: The One, 5G, Lorong Merbau.

    Baju kurung: Sin Ang Lee, Ground Floor, MGW Fashion Square, Lorong Meranti, 03-9223 2339.

    Children’s wear: Tahtah, 4, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9221 9482.

    Wigs: Anmani Wigs, 27B, Jalan Merlimau, 03-9223 9088.

    Shoes: E-Collection, 15, Lorong Merbau, 03-9222 8480.

    Bags: One O One, 12, Lorong Merbau, 03-9222 3322.

    Mannequins and hangers: At The Top, 26, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9222 1628.

    How it all began

    HOW did Jalan Kenanga’s Ho Ching Yuen become such an enclave for the fashion trade? The credit should probably go to the man who had the vision to gather the forces in one area.

    Datuk Ang Say Tee, 52, executive chairman of the Sin Ang Lee Group and president of Malaysia Garments Wholesale Merchants Association, takes us back to 1984.

    “I had the idea of turning Jalan Kenanga into a fashion wholesale centre after visiting South Korea, Taiwan, China and Thailand. In each country, there is an area for the fashion wholesalers to congregate so that it would be easy for buyers to come to them. I thought then: ‘Why not do the same thing for Malaysia?’” recalls Ang.

    The cheap rental and ample parking were plus points in attracting investors, but, to Ang’s dismay, he discovered that the area was notorious for gangster activity. “No one wanted to come. One, because they didn’t think my idea would work; and two, because they feared for their safety,” chuckles Ang.

    It was not hard for Ang to solve the first problem, as he was able to convince the other players that it would be in their best interests to gather in a strategic location to attract buyers. The other issue proved a lot more difficult because the area was under the control of not one, but several triads (kongsi gelap).

    Lee Fook, 77, a retired carpenter who grew up in the area, provides an insight into Ang’s dilemma. “The gangsters fought over territorial rights and were a violent parang-wielding lot. I have a friend whose brother was slashed to death,” he says.

    Chan Weng Tuck, 51, a wholesaler who came to do business in Jalan Kenanga in 1984, recalls how Ang finally confronted the triad members. He says Ang did not fight fire with fire. He resorted to negotiation.

    “There were protection fees to be paid and the sum and terms would depend on the area. Some wanted to be paid annually, some were happy to receive a lump sum.

    “There was a code of honour among the triad members and they kept to their word in ensuring that the businesses were able to operate without hassle,” Chan says.

    As the years went by, gangster activity and protection fees gradually waned and now the place is much safer today, says Yap Kuan Fak, 51, a sales assistant who has been working in the area for 23 years.

    “Age caught up with them so they had to stop fighting. The younger generation realised that they would be on the losing end if they continued the old ways. Also, there is a better system of law enforcement now compared to then,” he says.

    Published in The Star, Sunday 23 August 2009

    Red, red spot

    This is the place to let your hair down while you tease your palate.

    STEP inside Opiumm, and you’ll see red everywhere. From the plush cushions, carpet, walls and a dance pole in the middle of the floor, little is left to the imagination as to what can happen at this restaurant-cum-nightclub when the sun goes down.

    “Yeah, this place is a mix of naughty and cosy,” says Keith Raymond, the 33-year-old owner, cheekily.

    Still, it would be in the best interest of the diners to behave because Raymond’s parents, Jeffrey, 58, and Joyce, 52, have made this place their Friday hang-out since it opened on the second week of April this year.

    Avid foodie: Keith Raymond has a hand in all the recipes at Opiumm. Red, red spot Spectacular: The Nasi Goreng Kampung. This is the place to let your hair down while you tease your palate. Seeing red: The plush interiors of Opiumm.

    “My father is very proud of me because I started all my businesses on my own,” admits Raymond who also has major stakes in a Spanish restaurant and tapas bar called Café Chulo.

    This affable bachelor is a bodykits and motor racing parts specialist when the sun is up. A former student of Help College and the eldest of three siblings, Raymond has been working on car interiors since the age of 17. Though he could have joined his family’s 15-year-old car interior business, this enterprising lad decided to venture into the renovation line at the age of 23 before setting up his own business in car interior furnishings.

    When it comes to the food business, this entrepreneur of Chinese and Eurasian parentage truthfully admits that profit and his obsessive love for food were his main motivators.

    “Just as I am extremely meticulous about the bodykit fittings on a car, I am the same with food,” he says.

    With Raymond, every dish that comes out of his kitchen has to have the right blend of ingredients. Laying claim to having a hand in every recipe in the menus of the two restaurants, Raymond says he was introduced to the art of cooking by his mother and grandmother. In what he terms as his “experiments”, Raymond started off with packets of instant noodles.

    “I make an awesome assam laksa out of instant noodles with canned sardines, chopped cucumbers and cili padi. My other successful experiment was making curry laksa out of the same with sambal, long beans and chicken strips,” he says.

    While the diner at Opiumm will not be privy to Raymond’s superb instant noodle creations, he can take heart in the comforting favourites of a well-planned fusion menu.

    For starters, the salmon canapés are recommended. Pretty, dainty and absolutely scrumptious, these little minarets of smoked salmon resting on dollops of mayonnaise and topped with orange caviar are perfect with cocktails. Jumping to the main dish, it may be overdoing it to heap so much attention on the Nasi Goreng Kampung but it does have the appearance of an attractively appetizing dish. At Opiumm, however, it comes topped with a perfectly fried egg, the yolk still intact, and a garnishing of two large, fleshy mussels.

    Spectacular: The Nasi Goreng Kampung.

    That, coupled with more toppings of fried anchovies and pieces of prawns and squid hidden like treasures within the rice, makes this Asian favourite a winner with the regulars.

    The perfect side dish to go with the rice is the seafood tom yum. Tiger prawns, fish, mussels and squid swim deliciously in this spicy soup. Another worthy mention is the claypot lo shee fun (needle noodles). This hearty and authentic dish which comes in a full-bodied gravy of black sauce is a simple blend of minced chicken, fish cake and seafood.

    “Many of my guests have come back for the claypot loh shee fun. It is that good,” affirms Raymond.

    The satay and the tempura prawns accompanied by a unique mayonnaise and wasabi dip are also worth trying. Ideal as light bites, there seems to be a trend among Opiumm regulars to have them side by side. While most diners pefer beer with the satay and tempura prawns, Raymond strongly recommends a personal favourite of his, a cocktail known as Illusion. Concocted from nips of vodka, coconut rum, melon-flavoured liqueur, Cointreau and pineapple juice, this emerald coloured drink has a soft character that envelops the palate in a comforting embrace.

    But first impressions can be deceiving as many unsuspecting diners have been hard hit after a few rounds.

    Opiumm is located at K-20-1, Jaya One, Section 13/6, Petaling Jaya, Selangor; 03-7960 0277. Operating hours: 6pm till late.

    Published in The Star, Sunday 23, August 2009.

    Sweet autumn delights

    The Chinese have a thriving artistic culture and this is evident in the evolution of mooncakes.

    THE Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is not only a time for moon gazing and romantic lantern walks. It is also a time to indulge in the decadent sweetness of the mooncake. Only available between July and September, these fat, round pastries are filled to the brim with dense delicious fillings. Such is their richness that diners are only able to consume small wedges of these cakes at one time.

    Dr Yam Kah Kean, a senior lecturer in Universiti Malaya who specialises in Chinese philosophy and religions, says that documentation about the mooncake can be traced to the Sung Dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries. When the Chinese immigrated to Malaya in droves during the mid-18th century, they brought this sweet sticky delight along.

    “The prevalent style of mooncake in the market today is of Cantonese origin with the slightly chewy pastry covering. This is because most of the Chinese immigrants had come from the southern part of China, like Guandong and the Fuzian province, hence the style of baking,” Yam says.

    Mouth-watering varieties: From the traditional to the novel, there are now so many types of mooncakes.

    Of the other varieties of mooncakes, there is the Teochew version which is recognisable by its outer yam covering and pork filling. This uncommon mooncake is delicious when eaten hot off the wok.

    More popular is the northern Chinese style with fillings of pine nuts, almonds and pork ham and is also known locally as the “wedding biscuit”, although it will take on a flatter shape on such an occasion.

    There is also the Shanghai mooncake with a hard biscuit-like covering and a lotus paste and yolk filling.

    To withstand the hardship of a long journey and the test of time, it was obvious that the mooncake was more than just another delectable piece of pastry.

    The bakers saw themselves as sentinels of an ancestral tradition. Yam shares that the first aromatic batch of mooncakes, which have remained largely unchanged for the past 2000 years, was most likely to have pictures of phoenixes or words like “harmony” or “longevity” on the imprint of the skin.

    “The Chinese had a thriving artistic culture and this was evident in the elaborate engravings on the wooden mooncake moulds. Over time, as the immigrants settled and more Chinese bakeries came up, the bakers’ logos began to appear on the pastry coverings. This was how the early bakeries established ‘brand loyalty’ among their customers,” says Yam.

    Lum Tuck Loy, 64, chairman of Selangor Restaurant Keeper’s Association, has studied the mooncake industry during the early post-Merdeka years. The father of six who started making mooncakes at the age of 16 at Yuk Woo Hin, a Chinese restaurant at Petaling Street, recalled that there were only two main types of fillings in the market during the 1960s – lotus paste and red bean.

    “The making of mooncakes in those days was very different from the present. It was a common sight to see the baker clad in a singlet and smoking a cigarette as he kneaded the wheat flour, lye and sugar paste by the roadside. Now, more hygienic conditions prevail. Back then, there was also no such thing as ‘healthy eating’ and a promotional tagline for a mooncake advertisement would run along the lines of: ‘Thin pastry, thick generous filling and luxurious oozes of oil’,” says Lum. In stark contrast to the health-conscious generation of the 1990s, who seem to have declared war on sugar and fats, the mindset was very different in the 60s.

    “Diners loved it when they saw oil oozing out of the yolk, filling and the skin. It was also the general consensus that mooncakes with yolks were tastier than plain ones and it was very common for a premium lotus mooncake to hold up to four yolks to depict the four stages of the full moon!

    Fifty years ago, people would sprinkle extra sugar on their mooncakes when going on a trip to preserve their precious cargo. Clearly, no one then had any issues with cholesterol or sugar levels,” he chuckles.

    Popular: The northern China version of the mooncake is very similar to the ‘wedding biscuit’.

    However, animal fat was never used as it had the tendency to become waxy, Lum stresses. Peanut oil was the ingredient of choice.

    “Right from the beginning, mooncakes were vegetarian, unless stated. The only elements that would remove the mooncake from this category would be the egg wash used for glazing the skins during baking,” he says.

    The mooncake, as its name implies, is no doubt a culinary dedication to the beauty of a moonlit night. Inspect the fillings, use your imagination and you will see the resemblance.

    Recalling the timeline of the emergence of new flavours, the mid-1990s was the era when the mooncake, which was predominantly filled with lotus paste and salted duck yolks, would experience a localised touch with the introduction of pandan, coconut and coffee flavours. Mooncakes with durian filling also came along with the agricultural advancement which enabled durians to fruit all year round.

    In the early 2000s, diners saw the emergence of even more exotic flavours, such as dragon fruit and green tea. It was also a time for the emergence of double flavoured fillings such as black sesame paste with a combination of Japanese omochi, yam, cream tea or tiramisu.

    Touching on the ping peh mooncake (snowy covering made of rice flour and sugar paste which does not require baking), there is a general misconception that it emerged only during the 1980s. According to Lum, it was already present as far back as the 1960s.

    “The ping peh was rather rare in the beginning as it was only made after the bakers had finished with their batch of baked mooncakes for the season. I remember that we only made it one or two days before the festival day and it was only distributed among the workers and close friends,” he says.

    In contrast to the array of shapes, flavours and colours of today, the original ping peh only came in white and was filled with lotus, green bean or red bean paste.

    However, its sudden proliferation in the market during the 1980s may be linked to the advancement of retail-style refrigeration units which made it possible for vendors to stock the ping peh.

    But more endearing than the ping peh are the sweet chewy dough figurines in cute animal shapes. For the Chinese, no childhood memory will be complete without these sweet treats from their elders. Made from the very same dough used for mooncake pastry, these edible animals were made after the bakers found that they had leftover dough. These were quickly transformed into piglets, lions or fishes to make the children happy.

    “The metamorphosis of the simple lotus paste mooncake to the bewildering array of flavours in the market is a reflection of the advancement in culinary, agricultural and food technology. Somehow, the bakers have moved in tandem with the improvements and innovations. This was perhaps motivated by the need to entice a younger market which has acquired a global palate in terms of flavour preferences,” Yam explains.

    Keeping up with the times is no walk in the park for the bakers, however, as research and development can take up to a year before a new flavour can be perfected, says Lum.

    But interestingly, he points out that despite the endless choices available, it is the lotus paste mooncake which tops the best-selling list every season!

    Cute: Animal figures from leftover dough.

    Still, Lum says it pays to give the impression of novelty. Despite its short spell in the market, mooncake revenues can come up to the millions, although Lum has predicted a 20% drop for this year’s sales due to the economic downturn.

    Current prices can range from RM2 at wet markets to RM17 for premium brands. While it was not unusual to see diners coming in queues at the bakers during the 1970s and 1980s, the changing trend in the 1990s when mooncakes made their way to the hypermarket shelves also gave rise to intense competition.

    This made the bakers realise that their mooncakes needed more dressing up.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, mooncakes were generally stacked up to form a roll and wrapped in greaseproof paper. The bakers’ logo was then printed on paper and pasted over the package. This simple but environmentally-sound solution presented several problems. For one, wrapping the mooncakes was a time-consuming job and one had to have some basic knowledge of origami or the oil would leak out.

    Many mooncake makers decided to opt for the convenience of plastic wrapping in the 1970s and then plopping them into steel tins or cardboard boxes.

    The introduction of silica gel in the mid-80s gave the bakers extra confidence that their cakes would not turn mouldy with this method of packaging.

    It is not surprising that mooncake boxes would eventually end up as collectors’ items. A glimpse into one showroom revealed an ebony box with seven silver receptacles resting on yellow silk and a bottom drawer which can be pulled out as a chess board.

    Another creative take is a depiction of scenes on a tin which told the story of how revolutionaries overthrew the Mongol rulers during the Ming dynasty by hiding secret messages within the mooncake.

    Taking it positively, however, Yam says there is a unifying factor lying beneath. “When you see non-Chinese companies coming out with mooncakes it means that there is an effort to foster closer ties within the community they are doing business in. This translates to acceptance and understanding of each other’s beliefs and culture.”

    In the end, says Yam, whatever form the mooncake will take in the future, he is confident that tradition will prevail.

    “The Chinese are very proud of their roots.”

    Published in The Star, Sunday Aug 16 2009