Malaysian politics: why I am a fence-sitter.

Despite my physical absence from Malaysia, I’ve stayed abreast with social and political developments in the country through my almost daily interactions with friends there, courtesy of that wonderful technological behemoth known as facebook, indulging in private and not-so-private chats, and reading of news from various sites such as and malaysiakini. The one thing I’ve noticed is that Malaysians are as cheerfully optimistic as ever, despite the tense political climate and horrendous crime rate. I have friends on either side of the fence – some supporters of government, others supporters of the opposition – both sounding equally ebullient about the future. Both believe that change is possible, with the other faction out of the picture.

A writer friend of mine recently asked me to comment on a piece he wrote about Lynas, the Aussie-owned company intent on operating a rare earths processing plant in Gebeng, just outside of Kuantan, a seaside town I spent 3 years of my childhood in. Even though we’ve become great mates, enjoying many a good-natured verbal sparring session, I couldn’t very well agree with his support of the Lynas plant because I know the town, I know the Malaysian culture of “tidak-apa”, which translates into “Never mind if I fuck this up”, governing the mind-set of officials overseeing the roll-out, the foreign company that can just pack up and leave if anything goes wrong, unaccountable for any mess left behind.

I want to agree with my friend, that everything will improve under the current government but just can’t. I want to share in the hope of my other friends who see change in PKR, but can’t either. One story haunts me.

A fellow Malaysian migrant once related this story. She said, “A friend of ours said he is going into politics. I asked him which party. He said, ‘Does it matter?’ Either is also  fine.”

It killed my belief that people go into politics to serve others.

“We need a sizeable opposition to maintain the balance of power,” I said to my writer friend. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This is true regardless of whether it is Malaysia or Australia or anywhere in the world we are talking about. It is in human nature to be self-serving.

“The lure of stupendous amounts of cash from having a public position is just too great,” I told my writer friend. “The only politician I respect is Michael Chong, even though I don’t care for MCA, because he helps people. A politician is meant to represent the interests of the people who elect him or her but everyone forgets this once they come into power.”

My writer friend laughed at me and said, “What you see is on the surface. Michael Chong is not respected, he is feared. He is an underworld boss.”

“Mahathir said he’d abolish ISA (the Internal Security Act) if he came into power. He didn’t during his extremely long tenure as PM. Pak Lah, his successor, said the same thing. He too didn’t. Let’s not even talk about Najib. It’s all the same regardless of who leads. That’s why I don’t care for politics. I don’t care for democracy either because the multitude vote thinking of themselves, what monetary benefits they can derive from a particular policy, irrespective of whether this is good for the country.”

“Now  I just think of Malaysia as a fun place to visit, to see family and friends. What I know about the country upsets me. I don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils. I refuse to choose at all. And now, living in Australia, I don’t have to.”

My writer friend said, “By the way, Obama implemented a law similar to the ISA. He reinstated it, so yeah, the majority is just too stupid to know anything about politics.”

“That’s taking a step backward,” I said.

I’d like to see the ISA abolished in Malaysia. It was enacted to protect Malaya against the threat of communism. What need is there for it now?

My writer friend laughed at me again. “But people love Obama. That’s why I don’t want to get into politics.”

“People love Kim Kardashian too and she’s a self-promoting skank.”

Well folks, this is our collective wisdom. I pray to God I die before we wind up like Private Joe Bowers in Luke Wilson’s movie “Idiocracy”. For those of you who’ve never seen it, I’ve included a nice movie trailer from youtube.


Oh, here’s another video from the movie: the message is, if smart, you better reproduce if you don’t want the world to be run by idiots.





Old people living on their own.

In the past, it was almost unheard of for old Chinese to be living by themselves. Today, with many of my generation living abroad, those of our parents’ generation have to contend with the reality of growing old alone. We’d like to be there for them in their old age, it’s just that our own lives lie hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres away. The availability of cheap call plans and the advent of new technology enabling virtual face-to-face meetings may make it easier to stay in touch, but when it comes to communicating about difficulty or disease, nothing takes the place of being there in person to provide the necessary reassurance that everything will be all right.

Do we young ‘uns, thousands of miles away, definitely know everything will be all right? How can we be sure when we aren’t there to ask all the questions? To probe to our hearts’ delight? This matter was brought home over the weekend when my mother called to ask for my husband’s opinion on a serious health issue. Because I don’t want to compromise my mother’s privacy any further, all I can say is that it is a potentially life-threatening health issue. Because His Royal Highness was on-call, I was their go-between, relaying the health concerns of one to the other, the answers from those questions, as accurately as I remembered them, back to their asker.

All the while I was wondering, “Is what I’m doing enough? Should I take the next flight back to Malaysia to see her?”

Flights to Malaysia aren’t all that cheap from Brisbane. For the 3 of us to go home this school holidays, we’ve had to fork out $1200 each, flying a hodge podge of budget airlines to and from the Gold Coast, an hour away from where we live. In Melbourne, you can occasionally get flights to Malaysia or Singapore for $500+. If you’re prepared to pay $1200, you’d be flying a major carrier direct to Malaysia during the high season. That’s my only gripe about living in Queensland; the airfares to see my increasingly aged parents are prohibitive. Of course, if I really had to, there is no question that I would go.

Fortunately, unlike my father-in-law whose wish it was to die in his sleep at 70 (he’s now 74), who takes scant interest in his own health,  both my parents are positively health nuts. Before I hear of any new health-giving product over here, they’ve not only researched and sampled it, but if good, have probably stocked up on it and are promoting it to anyone who will listen. Take for example Kinotakara.

You say, “Kino taka what?”

It’s a Japanese invention in the form of a pad you apply to clean feet, composed of “tree vinegar” and other active substances, to draw out toxins from the body. My parents were enthusing about it 8 years ago. This morning, trying to get a replacement for my sinus-cleansing Neti Pot, which mysteriously lost its cover, I saw a half-size version of it at my local health food store. That’s today – over 8 years later!

In that time, my parents have bought themselves several of Dr. Lamar’s Actimo Water Energizing Units. What does it do? It makes hexagonal water by use of a high-powered magnetic field. And you thought Sheldon from Big Bang Theory was weird. They even presented one to me on the birth of Amanda, which I’ll be hauling along to Perth.

Along the way, they’ve been alkalising their bodies, exploring the Pritikin diet, swallowing vitamins by the handful and having full blood tests done yearly. If they weren’t so proactive about their health, I’d have more concerns about them growing old by themselves.

My mother routinely chides me, not just about being fat (my BMI is 19, hello?), but on eating out all the time. She likes to say, “People (as in my husband) come out with money, you come out with life.” Meaning: he pays with his wallet, I pay with my lifespan. Truth be told, up until last weekend, they probably had more worries about my health than I do of theirs.

Their latest life-improving gadget of interest is this machine that passes electric currents through the body. According to my mother, it’s given my father back tonnes of black hair. Well, I’ll have to see this for myself.  All the same, I wish they’d eat more and pad their frames out a bit. Every time I see them, they just look so skeletal.

“We have to take care of our joints,” said my mother, who lost a lot of weight recently, adding to my worry.

Why does she think being skinny is such a good thing when you need some fat reserves in case you get sick? 

Due to the seriousness of my mother’s health issue, I called my brother in Melbourne for a pow-wow. It’s as much as we can do with him having his end-of-year MBA exams and me waiting for Amanda to finish up her school term. He agrees with me that our mother losing weight is not good, but said, “Your ideas of weight are extreme too.”

Extreme? Need I remind anyone that my BMI is in the healthy range? What’s unhealthy is someone getting sunburned from the sun filtering through your chest, standing behind you. As the only son, my brother is lucky that I take an above average interest in our parents’ well-being. If not, he’d be left to cater to what few needs they currently have, all by himself.

“It’s a good thing you’re moving to Perth, unrelated to this,” he said.

He too knows of the cheap flights to Asia from Perth. I saw an advertised fare for Tiger at $350 return just weeks ago.

“I plan to go home a few more times next year. They are always advertising cheap fares anyway.”

“It’s ok if you’re a housewife. Everybody else has things to do.”

Things to do or not, we will all have to find the means and time to go back if need be. After all, we only have the one set of parents. When they don’t ask you for any upkeep and are as determined to be as healthy as mine, the least you can do is be there when they really need you.




Asian Beauty Secrets Part 2.

As promised, I am back with the next instalment of Asian Beauty Secrets. Before I proceed, let me point out that many Asian beauty practises centre on improving inner health, so as to improve outward appearance; Westerners find this concept perplexing, preferring to treat what they can see. For instance, if a Westerner had a pimple, he or she would raid the bathroom cabinet for benzoyl peroxide to dry out the offending spot.

While Asians do know of and use benzoyl peroxide, our mothers will tell us to drink MORE water and offer up a plethora of herbal tonics and soups by which to cleanse our bodies of accumulated toxins. Many Asian beauticians I’ve asked, attribute the increase in skin ailments among our young to a) poor diet (too much instant noodles, deep fried food etc)  b) increased pollution and stress c) a Western diet (containing plenty of red meat and dairy).

Without further ado, let me get on to today’s featured ethnicity:


Now, I may not be an Indian, but I’ve been lucky enough to sample a couple of their beauty treatments. It all started when I was living in Darwin, some 6 years ago. I was riding the bus into town with some of my new Indian friends when one said, “Your daughter’s nose looks like a pig’s.”

This is in reference to how you can see up her nostrils. Most Chinese tend to have noses like this, however, most Indians will NOT dare tell you yours looks like a pig’s; especially if they are new to town and you have taken it upon yourself to show them around. Anyhow, I remained remarkably calm, at what most would take to be an insult.

I said, “That’s just how our noses are. In time, hers might grow longer to be like mine.”

“We have special treatments to beautify our noses,” said the same woman.

“Oh, what are they?”

“We start when they are babies. Using a clean hand, we insert one thumb into the mouth and gently push,” she indicated to the roof of the mouth, “We also pull the nose bridge.”

My father used to do the same for me as a child. He called it plonking. “Come, let’s plonk your nose,” he would say. You can see the results for yourself. Then again, it could be genetics as everyone on my mother’s side has sharp noses.

“To make the eyes bigger, we put Kajul around the rim of the baby’s eyes,” the woman continued.

“Kajul. What’s that?”

“You take a clean stainless steel knife and hold it above a candle. Kajul will appear.”

Ah, the earliest form of eyeliner. But on babies?

“If you apply it to the rim of babies’ eyes, their eyes will become bigger and brighter,” she said.

“Can I do that for Amanda?”

“You can try, but she’s a bit too old already.”

Amanda was then close to two years old. I’ve heard that Indians also trim their babies eyelashes so that they grow back longer and thicker. I can’t vouch for this practise as I’ve never tried it and as an adult into eyelash-growing serums, unlikely to try it.

From young, many also have coconut oil applied to their hair and lashes to promote luxuriant growth. I’ve tried a blend of coconut oil and herbs from my friendly Indian and Sri Lankan grocer in Glen Waverley and perhaps, due to inconsistent usage, did not see any results. To try it, all you need to do is apply the oil before bedtime, then wash it out in the shower the next morning. If you attempt to walk around with it on, you’ll only end up looking like a greasy monkey.

On my last visit to Melbourne, where my brother lives surrounded by Indians, I bought Shikakai powder to invigorate my scalp, so as to have lovely, thick tresses. Shikakai is a natural astringent that clears dirt and dandruff accumulated on the scalp, strengthens hair roots and promotes growth. And at $2.90 a box why wouldn’t you get it?

Again, it’s one of those things you do before hopping into the shower. You mix the powder with water to form a paste and plaster the mixture in your hair. For best results, wait a couple of hours before washing out. Avoid getting any in your eyes and mouth.

If you have greys, you might like to try Henna, a natural dye. This too comes in a box, which you mix into a paste and leave in your hair to do its work.

Over the years, I’ve had a couple of Indian facials and let me tell you, lots of scrubbing usually takes place. If ever they ask you if you want to be fairer, say NO, as the product usually contains bleach, which irritates skin. Masks they like to use includes those made from cucumber, oatmeal and yogurt (for dry skin), turmeric and yoghurt (to brighten skin), fuller’s earth and water (for oily skin), lemon juice and egg whites (to lighten dark marks).

As mentioned in a previous post, Indians also consume Safi to detoxify themselves when plagued with pimples, whilst simultaneously reducing or omitting chilli from their curries.

Of course no sharing of Indian beauty secrets would be complete without a mention of Neem, Indian’s favourite “heal all” plant. Its cosmetic uses range from curing pimples to being an additive in toothpaste. I once bought a bottle to try but it smelled so pungent, I hardly got through more than a quarter before tossing it. In terms  of pungency, it’s right up there with New Zealand’s Manuka Oil. Taking a whiff of it, my mother referred to Manuka Oil as “passion killer”, which gives you an idea what Neem smells like.

For more Asian Beauty Secrets, join me in the third instalment of this series as I divulge the beauty practises of Malays, Indonesians and Koreans next.





A fantastic start to the day.

I know I’m supposed to bring you Asian Beauty Secrets Part 2, but the events of the day give great cause for celebration. And celebrate I must, since it’s not everyday I manage to help someone find a job they can excel at. Before I go on any further, do know that I intend to continue sharing Asian Beauty Secrets in my next post. So be patient, and let me revel in this bit of good news.

Months ago, when His Royal Highness was looking for next year’s job, a friend offered to ask her contacts at the Mater for me. I was immensely moved by her willingness to help, even if I already knew that she wouldn’t be able to since the position sought by His Royal Highness is a very specialised one, there being only 20 of those in the country, for many people are in the position to help others, but not everyone is willing to.

Remembering this, and because I regularly translate for X anyway, I agreed to help her approach a company specialising in embroidery near our school. Only I thought the company she wanted specialised in floral arrangement. Such is the limitations of my Mandarin that I thought X wanted a job as a florist (ca hua) when she wanted one as a machinist (shiew hua). So there I was, standing beside her, wondering inwardly why there are no flowers to be seen, whilst asking the Indian guy manning the counter if they need florists when the shop signage clearly says they do embroidery!

Understandably, the Indian guy looked at me as though I was quite mad.

“Ask him anyway, if they want to hire someone,” said X to me, her eyes pleading.

“But are you looking to hire someone?” I relayed X’s message to the Indian guy.

Yes, but does she speak English?

The obvious answer was No, if not what was I doing there?

Look, we all come from third world countries where many can’t speak English,” I said to him. “My friend here is a very hard worker. She can do anything and needs a job.”

“Is she Chinese?” He looked uncertainly at me.

“Yes, she is. But she will work hard.”

“We have Chinese working for us. Can she speak Cantonese or Mandarin? Let me go call my boss to speak to you.”

His boss, an old Aussie dude came out. At this point I still thought X wanted to do floral arrangement, so I became worried when the old Aussie dude asked, “Does she operate machines?”

I was thinking, “What does flowers have to do with machines?”

I relayed the old Aussie dude’s message to X and she said, “I can do anything. Tell him I can do anything.”

“Why don’t you show her the machines?” I said to him. “She says she can do anything.”

He led us to the back of the shop and what do you know? X’s protege from her days of working in China was there!

To my relief, she rushed over to us and said to the old Aussie dude, “That’s my teacher. She’s number one. She can operate any machine.”

The two of them began to prattle away in Mandarin, excited by their sudden reunion.

X brought out several exercise books from a bag she had with her. “Tell him these are my records,” she said to me. “I can even demonstrate to him now.”

I relayed this message to the old Aussie dude.

“It’s not necessary,” he said. “If Y (X’s protege), says she’s good, then she’s good. Y is our best worker.”

“Yes, Chinese are all super industrious and ultra reliable,” I said to him. Not to mention HIGHLY SKILLED for the amount of wages they command. “All the same, she’s happy to demonstrate her ability to you.”

“If Y says she can, then she can,” he said with toothy smile.

Y looked over at us and said, “She’s my teacher. Number one.”

Excellent. Everything was going swimmingly well, including the bit lost in translation at the beginning. I definitely know the Mandarin word for embroidery now. The old Aussie dude and I went back out to the office to thrash out some of the details to X’s employment.

“We had another Chinese here before.”

“Was she no good?” I asked, slightly worried for X, even though I had seen other Chinese inside the factory.

“Oh, she was great machinist, but relied on Y to translate everything for her. Y was occasionally not confident of her translating abilities. That other lady left with her husband. So why do you speak English so well?”

I was ashamed to admit my English and Malay are superior to my Mandarin or Cantonese. After all, when all is said and done, I am a Chinese person.

“I’ve been here for over 14 years,” I said.

“So have many,” he said, “You even have all the colloquial expressions.”

That, I am especially proud of. I have all the colloquialisms down pat for every region of every country I’ve ever lived in. As a matter of fact, my vowels are broadening to resemble most Aussies by the day. Some say I sound more American. “America colonised my country via the television,” I tell them.

“You’re a lot more assimilated than they are. Why is that so?” he asked.

I make the effort. I went to uni here. I’ve a Commerce degree so at the very least, I should sound educated. Otherwise I’d be an embarrassment to Adelaide University.”

How anyone can get an Australian degree without a decent command of English astounds me; yet many do. Case in point: the plagiarising Journalism-school graduate who kept haranguing me with her supposed intellectual ability and great career achievements on in BROKEN English.

“The Chinese here are very hard workers,” said the old Aussie dude. “When they had their moon festival, I expected the lot of them to get sloshed. I know locals would, if it was a big celebration.”

“Past a certain age, Chinese don’t get themselves drunk. We celebrate our festivities by spending time with family.” Making a round with my thumbs and third fingers to indicate a moon cake, I said, “And the amount of cake we eat is at the most one eighth of that.”

I’m considered greedy because I have two eights out of every round of Moon cake.

“So what do you do?”

“Like loads of people, I have a blog.” I felt it immodest to tell him that I actually can write. “It’s about helping Westerners understand Easterners, vice versa.”

“Oh that’s good. It’s very kind of you to help your friend.”

X who rejoined us said, ” Tell him I’m happy to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, after Christmas.”

I relayed her message to him. “So are you going to hire her?” I asked him.

“Of course! Most definitely. I feel like it’s my lucky day to have you walk in here. We are short of two people to operate the machines and few know how to man the more complex  ones.”

So it was settled: the old Aussie dude was overjoyed to have found someone to work his 6 headed beast at the back (nothing to X, since she can work machines with 15 heads), X was overjoyed to have found work, thereby securing a livelihood for her family in the event her husband loses his job, and I was overjoyed to have been the instrument, albeit a flawed one, that allowed all this to happen. And I learnt 3 new Mandarin phrases to boot! What a thoroughly delightful start to the day!

Asian Beauty Secrets (Part 1)

Our beauty practises aren’t really a secret if you spend enough time with us, however, if you don’t, here they are according to ethnicity:


While Westerners take the view that beauty is to be improved on from the outside, Chinese nourish the inside to improve on the outside. We believe that good health is imperative to ensuring youthfulness, and good health can only maintained or promoted through proper nutrition. Westerners’ idea of nutrition involves measuring proteins, carbohydrates, fibre, trace minerals in foods. Ours is about procuring the health benefits  inherent in foods, observing the balance of heat, cold, moisture, wind and dryness in the body. None of this makes sense to the Western mind, but makes plenty of sense to us.

We eat according to the seasons, not because of the lack or availability of ingredients, but because doing so confers health benefits. For instance, Aussies love their BBQ lamb chops in summer. Most Chinese who follow a traditional diet, will contend that lamb should only be eaten in winter because it is a “heaty food”, in that it warms your body. Barbequing it will only add to its heatiness. Too much heat in the body will cause pimples, rashes and a host of other skin ailments; not to mention cause your nose to bleed.

Accordingly, we wait until winter to consume lamb chops, mutton stews, snake curries etc…the basic rule of thumb is that the more gamey a meat is, the more heaty it will be. Cooling foods counteract heatiness, but can also only be consumed in moderation. They include melons, most green vegetables, most root vegetables. That’s why in summer we boil things like winter melon soup, and in winter, body-warming tonics like ginseng.

We increase our intake of lard during the cold seasons to warm the body, and have more steamed foods and boiled soups in summer. In fact, many Cantonese consume soup at least once a day. Anita Yuen, a famous Hong Kong actress of the 90s, credits soup as being the reason why she doesn’t need to wear foundation unlike most actresses. Soup is to the Cantonese diet what kimchi is to the Korean, or Sauerkraut is to Bavarians. If I were to follow the recipe book given to me by my mother on soups, I’d be able to go half a year without seeing the same soup twice. That’s how many we have.

Westerners look at our broths and see meat-flavoured water. In our minds, that’s pure nourishment there. We divide them into quick boil (30 minutes or less, less nourishing) and long boil (minimum cooking time of 2.5 hours, the longer the better, premium stuff). I once met this woman who swam from mainland China to Hong Kong to join her husband. Her complain wasn’t about the guards at her back or the treacherous waters she had to cross, it was that, to quote her, “There wasn’t even a mouthful of soup to drink.”

Indeed, our broths are gold to us. Our mothers often tell us, “Even you don’t want to eat anything else, at least drink your soup. There’s 4 hours in there.”

We invite special guests in for a bowl of soup. Our women seduce men with soup. In addition to soups for the hot and cold seasons, we have soups to increase fertility, special soups for during pregnancy, more special soups for post-pregnancy, plus a myriad of watery gems for 101 bodily complaints. Hokkiens like His Royal Highness, and Hakkas like my father, consume soup less frequently, but even they have a special soup for the Chinese New Year.

So as to get you started on your soup journey, here are a couple of easy ones to try:

  • To increase moisture in skin boil 1 cup pre-soaked Soy beans + I kg pork bones + 10 rice-bowls of water + 15 red dates + 1 TBSP goji berry (yes, this is how we consume it, not with chocolate by the handfuls) + half teaspoon of salt.
  • To increase milk supply boil 1 cut pawpaw + 1 kg pork bones + 10 rice-bowls of water + 6 honey dates (can use red dates if you don’t have any), 1 TBSP goji berry + 2 TBSP bitter almonds (optional) + half teaspoon of salt.
  • To decrease heatiness boil 1 cut up winter melon + 1 kg pork bones + 10 rice bowls of water + 15 red dates + half teaspoon of salt.
  • To warm the body boil 1 small free-range chicken + 10 rice bowls of water + 5  or 6 thin slices of Korean ginseng + half teaspoon of salt.

Put the lot on high, then allow to simmer  for at least 2.5 hours once it comes to the boil. To reduce the stench of meat, which most Chinese can’t stand, and to remove scum from your soup altogether, you parboil the bones first then you add it to a clean pot of water, along with the other ingredients. Alternatively, you can add in 1 or 2 very thin slices of old ginger. I prefer to parboil the bones because the resulting soups are much clearer. You can substitute the pork bones with chicken bones, although it will produce a different flavour. If making a fish soup, I will add ginger to remove the smell of fish. For my non-Chinese readers, I’ve especially added the video below to give you an idea of what it is you’re attempting to make.

To know what Indians, Malays and Indonesians do to stay youthful and vibrant, join me on my next post.






Will Brisbane flood again?

I was going to make today’s post about beauty practices from around Asia but the bucketing rains all weekend have caused me to ponder whether another flood is in store for us, Brisbanites. The astrological chart I cast before purchasing my apartment says it is safe, but what about the rest of Brisbane? Rest assured, I will get down to fulfilling your curiosity about the weird and wonderful beauty practises Asians indulge in the very next post. For now, let us consider the rains.

It does usually pour at this time of the year but Saturday’s storm was so fierce, both my balconies turned into shallow swimming pools. I estimate there was roughly 4 to 5 cm of water in both, even though I live on the third floor! At one point, the accompanying winds were so strong His Royal Highness had to use our wrought-iron chairs to prevent our outdoor cupboard from toppling over. Before this, the very sturdy thing, holding everything from a laminator to empty Mac boxes, had never showed signs of falling down.

A picture of Saturday's (17/11/12) storm in Brisbane, Queensland.

Usually you can see the words “Cellarbration” in the distance and catch glimpses of Musgrave Park. This was all I saw on Saturday.

On Sunday, we even had HAIL in the evening, to accompany the downpour and thunder. I sat at this new pizza place called the Burrow, in Mollison Street, with His Royal Highness and Amanda, thankful for cover as the skies belted down on us five minutes into dinner.

A picture of the hail coming down in Brisbane on Sunday (18/11/12).

Can you see the hail? It’s the tiny white dots in the picture.

A picture of Amanda preparing for the storm outside.

The weather was foul outside. Inside, Amanda, sporting her new hair-cut, was preparing for the storm.

The experts say we are facing a wet weather pattern (La Nina) and that rains of this kind, which precipitated the flood of January 2011, are due to global warming. I sincerely hope we won’t see a return of the floods anytime soon, since most of my suburb, which houses Brisbane’s famed Cultural Precinct, is in a flood plain. During the height of Saturday’s storm, the management of my building asked residents to remove cars from the basement; we didn’t because where can you remove your cars to when other cars have already taken up the spots on higher ground?

Jackie Trad, our new MP for South Brisbane, is chairing a community meeting soon to discuss emergency action in the event of another flood. I’d share with you the details except it appears that His Royal Highness, in his eagerness to rid our house of thrash, in preparation of our exodus West, has thrown away the mail, with it any info I might have.

Walking home from school today, I saw council workers on most street corners cutting down fallen trees and branches. There were so many curb-closures to enable this work to be carried out, I had to walk in a roundabout fashion home, instead of taking my normal route.

While my apartment itself is definitely high enough to avoid future flooding, unfortunately the basement, where all electrical systems for the building is found, is not. It’s a common situation for most Brisbane apartments built before January 2011. According to the developer for a new project in South Brisbane I met yesterday while surveying a possible new home for myself on my return from the West, flood-proof architecture is now the new buzz-word in building. It’s more imperative for large scale projects like apartment buildings since damage usually runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To meet this cost, which may or may not be covered by insurance, even when insurance is taken out to cover such an event, owners are slapped with a special levy for repairs. Owners of units in my apartment for instance, had to pay an average of $5500 each, on top of our annual $7200 body corporate fees and $1500 in rates, to fix the flood damage. You’d appreciate that for many people, $14200 before any mortgage repayments is a lot of money; that’s what many single people living in the city, or small families living in the suburbs, pay in rent for a whole year.

With apartment buildings, flood-proofing includes putting electrical systems on higher floors or the roof instead of the basement and using the first few stories as car parking. Same goes for houses. Some quarters propose we raise all Queenslanders in flood plains above the flood levels of 2011, while others say this is pointless since many will be tempted to build under the raised house in order to have more living space; the normal reason why most Queenslanders are raised anyway.

Regardless of the Newman government’s plans to flood proof Queensland, I do so wish our coming summer to be a pleasant one; if not so that we may enjoy our beaches, then at least to avoid hip-pain from being slugged with another special levy.


The truth about great skin.

Recently I had a facial at Chanel. It was one of those deals where you pay $70 dollars to receive 75 minutes worth of pampering. Your $70 is redeemable against products bought on the day. The only reason I knew about this deal was because they gave me a call when their Myer counter in Queens Street was revamped and I’m on their customer database.
I arrived at the appointed time with not a smidgen of make-up on for I wasn’t going to go through the hassle of face-painting, only to have everything taken off. I was met by a well-made-up therapist, who politely ushered me into their treatment room. There I laid down on the usual “therapy” table. The therapist placed a blanket on me, so as to keep me warm and comfortable.
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “It’s not too cold.”
The air-conditioning must have been coming out of discreet vents in the room for I didn’t feel any cold air, like you do with a conventional air-conditioning unit, jetting down on me.
“I’m going to inspect your face now and then do a thorough clean, followed by a scrub and a mask.”
“Ok.” Everything sounded above board. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.
“You have amazing skin,” she said, pressing my face, turning my head slightly left then right. “What do you use?”
“Oh, nothing special. Moo Goo face wash, which I might discontinue since my latest bottle has been irritating my eyes.”
“They do change the formulas to things sometimes.”
Well, I wish they wouldn’t. Now I might switch to another brand.”
“How about scrubs? Do you scrub?”
“No. I don’t mask either.”
The last time I had a facial was over 8 years ago. I was pregnant; my skin was super oily. The last time I masked was 8, maybe 10 months ago.”
“So what do you use then?”
“Sunscreen, it’s very important.” I tell this to all my friends who ask, but everyone seems to think I’m withholding some secret formula. “I wear sunscreen 365 days a year, rain, hail or shine.”
Indeed, I’m the poster girl for sunscreen in a land where the afternoon sun can cook an egg on the hood of a car. It’s strange that in this same land, most think of sunscreen as something to be worn only and particularly to the beach. We have entire walls of sunscreen products in most pharmacies in Malaysia and Singapore, but no more than 1 shelve full here. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find more than 10 brands at any one time. There are more self-tanning formulas available. Because of government regulation, the maximum SPF a manufacturer may claim a product to have, with testing, is 30.
“What brand do you use?” She was now massaging cream into my face.
“I usually use Loreal, but I’m out of that so I’ve been using La Roche Posay and Mischa.”
“50 PA+++ for Mischa, the highest possible amount of UVA and UVB protection.”
People only look at the SPF, but that just tells you how long you can be in the sun without burning. It doesn’t tell you how much of a tan you are going to get, sun damage.
The fact that your skin’s colour has deepened means you’ve sustained skin damage. Even dark-skinned people like Indians and Africans, can get sun damage.
“Do you use other products?”
I burst out laughing. “Nope. You’re probably wondering what you can sell to this woman since she doesn’t use anything.”
“No, it’s just good for you to come in for a pampering session,” she said in the same cheery tone I had heard throughout.
With most beauty places, you get pressured into buying things, but not here at Chanel. Perhaps it’s also because I know my stuff: I had my skin typified with the help of Leslie Baumann’s Skin Type Solution (a book about skin types) years ago, and have read books from Paula Begoun, the Cosmetic Cop, about the lies spun by the beauty industry, so I’m no pig ripe for slaughter.
“If at all I’m going to spend up big, it’d be to get Broadband light laser therapy, the next generation of IPL.” Yes, sirree, not creams and potions because nice though they are, don’t deliver the results you expect. “What I place my trust in is a good broad spectrum sunscreen and Hyaluronic acid serum.”
Hyaluronic acid serum plumps up the skin, attracting water from the air to it. I’ve bought other serums, composed of Vitamins and herbs but this produces immediate results. Friends and family also know I swear by Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Gel for everything from spots to, in my case, rashes induced by some facial products.
Friends, especially Aussie ones, often say to me, “It must be good genes though.”
Perhaps it is, but most Asian women are sun-phobic anyway. There are many who come to school carrying umbrellas to shield their faces. One of my Taiwanese friends even has a “school shirt” – a long-sleeved shirt she wears to shield her arms and neck from the sun when making the school rounds. I always wear a hat in the afternoons.
In Malaysia, the Malays and the Peranakan like their bedak sejuk, to cool down the skin. The Chinese call it “Sui Fan”. Obviously you can’t go around in it without looking like Caspar the friendly ghost. Made from fermented rice, it’s mixed with water and applied to the face as a paste. Many Chinese also like to put cucumber slices on their face to make a mask. This is reputed to be Gong Li’s secret to looking perpetually youthful and vibrant. Apparently Ashwarya Rai Bachan, a Bollywood Superstar, subscribes to it too.
The Burmese use Thanaka, made from the branches of the Sandalwood tree. They wear theirs all over the body, even in the day time. The Indians use Multani Mitti or fuller’s earth to draw out excess oil and supposed impurities. I’ve tried it before and it is effective, if very drying. Do remember to moisturise afterwards and/or mix it with yogurt to use. If Indians have zits, they drink a blood-purifier named Safi which is found in most Indian and Sri Lankan grocery stores in Australia. I’ve had two bottles of Safi in the past; it tastes really bitter. I’ve always thought Indians and Chilli inseparable but when they have zits, they reduce their chilli intake. Some omit chilli from their curries altogether.
For more beauty tips from around Asia, watch out for my next post.

What determines RACE: genes or mental orientation?

Many years ago, before I ever dreamt of becoming a full-time writer, I met the father of a friend, who was and still is a published expert on the underbelly of Chinese society: Chinese triads. Never having met a writer up till then, I asked, rather innocently, “And how many books have you written?”

He looked at me as though I’d said something insulting, then returned with a whole stack.

“Here,” he said, handing them to me, “Twenty one at last count.”

I turned them over one by one and marvelled at how this white man could have such in-depth insight into Chineseness when many Chinese, lack the cognisance of what sets them apart from everyone else. Offering me tea, he and I went on to have a very animated chat about my home town of Ipoh, entirely in Cantonese. I was embarrassed to admit it at the time, but this white man’s understanding of Chineseness and his grasp of Cantonese was better than mine! It made me question whether race is a matter of genes or mental orientation; whether it is predetermined or can be changed later in life?

It isn’t just that he was utterly fluent in a Chinese dialect. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former Prime Minister can be said to be utterly fluent in Mandarin, but he displays NONE of the insight this writer did into the Chinese psyche. If he does, the former wouldn’t have advised Hillary Clinton to use aggression on China should the giant refuse to come to the table, for that, to China, where he was an Australian diplomat for several years, and to Chinese people in general, is tantamount to you eating at my house, then asking someone to rob me!

Years after that meeting with the writer, I met another white man as enthusiastic as he about all things Chinese. This other white man was His Royal Highness’ former lecturer at university, married to a woman from His Royal Highness’ hometown. She, a Chinese, rolled her eyes as he waxed lyrically about how wonderful Chinese people and Chinese culture are.

“You know, he enjoys nothing better than going to my mother’s house to stay,” she told me.

“What do you do there?” I asked him.

Oh, I like to wake up and go to the stalls in my singlet and shorts, order a char kuay teow and a kopi O’. Then I will have a walk around the lake and read the papers at my mother-in-law’s.”

To me he sounded just like a regular Chinese Ah Pek – an old Chinese gentleman. For those of you who’ve never happened across one, they all congregate at coffee shops in Malaysia, usually after their morning walks, some bringing their prized birds in cages.

“Yes, and he looks like an old Ah Pek too,” said one of my friends who knows him. “In his singlet and shorts, he’s the white version of an Ah Pek.”

More recently I came across the work of Lisa See, an American author who, until I saw her picture, had thought she was Chinese. Her bio says she comes from a Chinese-American family but looking at her, all light haired and aquiline-featured, I could not see any Chinese.

Yet Lisa See’s work is unmistakably Chinese; as Chinese as that of Amy Tan or any other western-based Chinese writer, featuring nothing but Chinese culture and Chinese characters. Even the covers of her books, aimed at a western audience, features Chinese faces totally at odds with her own Caucasian one.

Hence, I absolutely disagree with those who claim that race is determined by DNA. Judging from my own experience, it’s not determined by acculturation either.

I was brought up eating regular Chinese food – stir fried greens, steamed meats and clear broth-like soups – yet always hankered after the taste of chilli heat and spice. I liked the ornateness of Indian jewellery long before I discovered my Peranakan roots, or laid eyes on the elaborate Chinois-baroque designs of Peranakan jewellery. In recent years, I have been eating sambal belacan, far hotter than what either of my parents can stand, with almost every meal. I’ve even started learning the patois, which I practise with Peranakan friends on-line, when I manage to have a conversation with them. Most tellingly, I have an above average interest in preserving the culture of my ancestors, the one they left China with 400 years ago, instead of today’s Mao-desecrated, time-poor, heavily-watered down version – a thoroughly Peranakan trait.  

Because, what is racial identity, if not the ability to differentiate oneself from others based on unique cultural traits? Who are we, in an increasingly homogenous world, without these traits?


Where is home?

After several years abroad, an old university mate of mine is moving back to Malaysia. She’s very much a deep thinker, whose view of life mirrors my own, so I hope she won’t mind me sharing with you her insight on perpetual homelessness.

No, she doesn’t live on the streets and neither do I – in fact, she’s done very well for herself professionally – it’s just that we are part of that generation of Malaysian-born  Chinese whose parents strongly encouraged us to leave Malaysia. Fed up with the crime, the corruption, the bigoted rhetoric permeating politics, along with the persecutory policies resulting from them, our parents wanted us to leave for somewhere where we would be accepted, appreciated, given equal opportunity to succeed, equal say, equal rights.

And leave in droves we have; many to Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US. In the last fifteen years, some of us Malaysian-born Chinese, have even returned to the motherland, where, as my old university mate says, “It’s not home for us either. Our forefathers severed their ties when they left China. Perhaps Malaysia, for all its flaws, is as close as we’ll ever get to having a home.”

For all those who can’t tell one Chinese from another Chinese, let me explain: Chinese migration happened in waves. My forefathers came to Malaysia over 400 years ago. They married local women to spawn a Sino-subset known as the Peranakan who, until my grandparents’ generation, only married within their own community because the races from which they descended, Chinese far more often than Malays, rejected them. Until independence, Malays accorded Peranakan the kind of respect it did not accord other Chinese. Subsequent Chinese migrants to the Malayan Peninsula found that although the mainlanders were more than happy to received monies from them to fight the Japanese, the Kuomintang, what-have-you, they were forever sundered from mainlanders psychologically by the very act of having moved abroad.

As another friend points out, “It doesn’t matter whether we came at the beginning or towards the end. We are all considered betrayers of the great cause.

Since Mao all but eradicated Chinese culture, the very essence of what distinguishes us from other races, I have no idea what this great cause is, but suffice to say, I don’t think it involves helping us traitors find a permanent home. Ironically, mainlanders have been arriving in increasing numbers to Malacca, to learn from Peranakan the ways of old.

But this is not a post about us versus them; mainlanders versus overseas Chinese. It’s about finding a place we can call home. Although I’ve lived in Australia for the past 14 years and have no trace of my Malaysian accent left, I still refer to visiting Malaysia as “going home.” I especially feel a gush of national pride when, flying Malaysian Airlines, the pilot announces, “Selamat kembali.” As in, welcome home.

“But we’re already home,” insists Amanda, whose only memory of Malaysia is the mosquito-bites she sustained on her last visit there.

For her, Australia is home. She was born on Australia Day, in Australia, and has an Australian name, Amanda. The way she thinks and acts is completely Australian.

“You can’t get more Aussie than that,” I say, joking with locals.

Occasionally, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Ashima Ganguli in her novel The Namesake, it feels like I have a stranger in my house, eating my food, sleeping in my bed. Each time I finish packing to move, I look around the cavernous house which has been my shelter for however long, and can’t shake that feeling that it wasn’t home, merely an illusion of one.

But we’ll always have this feeling,” says my old university mate. “Being the children of Chinese migrants, it’ll never completely go away.

“Yes, I know what you mean,” say I. “I thought in time it would, but it hasn’t.” I proceed to tell her about my sister-in-law’s psychological analysis of me. My SIL was a psychologist back in Indonesia, now studying to have her qualifications recognised in Australia.

She made me draw a tree, which I did, with all the joyful abandon of a child. When I had finished, she said, “You’ve a type A personality, prefer the big picture to the details, and you are homeless.”

Point 1 and 2, I was expecting, but point 3, caught me totally unaware. “Is this what that feeling is?” I asked myself at the time.

I looked down at my paper rendition of a tree. I had no idea it said so much.

“How do you feel about going back? I ask my old university mate.

“It is time. I was worried at first but am now excited since I’ve made up my mind to go.”

“Aren’t you afraid to return to a country you can scarcely recognise?”

It’s not just the flyovers or the shopping malls which have sprouted every which way you  look, it’s the people. I reckon Malaysians, as a people, are starting to question the bigoted policies and the politicians who enact these bigoted policies. They’re becoming more civic-minded and if community reports of theft and burglaries on facebook are any indication, more willing to look out for one another. Malays are beginning to see that we Chinese are not the enemy, that meritocracy is not just good for us, but them too.

Be that as it may, it’ll be years before I decide to return, if at all I do return. The thing about nostalgia is that it causes you to see what you want to see; it’s a hankering after the past that manifests itself as you being more of what you left behind than those left  behind.

“You go first,” I tell my university mate. “You go first. If it is any good, I’ll come after you. If not, you can always move to stay near me in Australia.”

I love Australia. The country and its people have given me everything my country of birth could not, except the feeling of belonging. Perhaps one day, that will come too.






The talk: a story of generational differences.

Every generation feels at odds with the ones before and the ones after. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I finally had to have “the talk” with Amanda. Born 26 years after me, her world is very different to that which I grew up in. Number of years aside, she’s being raised in the liberal West, whereas, until coming here some 14 years ago, all I knew was the conservative East.

What happened to prompt “the talk” was that she kept asking to use the computer. We were at the hospital, waiting for His Royal Highness to attend to a spate of new cases, when she asked me why had I not brought the white Mac (mine) down from the car.

“I use the white computer for work, Amanda.” If this were my mother speaking to me, it would suffice as an explanation.

“But I wanted to use it.” She saw herself as having equal rights to me, an adult. Equal say.

“But it might get lost or stolen here.”

“But I want to watch my videos!” She had packed a couple for our trip to the hospital without consulting me.

“How about reading the storybook you brought?” I suggested. “It’s about Barbie too.”

She proceeded to launch into a host of arguments for use of the computer, which, perhaps in her seven year old mind, sounded reasonable. Her father returned to the doctor’s room to take us out to dinner and after dinner, she resumed her calculated campaign of relentless whining to use my computer.

“Would you die if you don’t use the computer for 1 night?” I snapped, knowing the obvious answer.

“No, but I just want to use it.”

I decided it was time for “the talk.” This is the talk my mother had with me as a child, which many other mothers have had at some point, with their children. It’s about giving the child, a very much egocentric creature, some perspective of his or her situation, since they don’t have the benefit of years.

“You know, you’re always asking about what I did as a child…well, I’ll tell you today. ”

She sat up straight, her eyes shining as though I’d just announced she could have the computer.

“You are now seven and three quarter years old; I’ll say close to eight. I’ll tell you what life was like for me as an 8 year old. As you know, I have 2 older sisters and 1 younger brother; I was a middle child,” I singled out a middle finger on one hand to illustrate my point. “So my mother didn’t have a lot of time for me. Unlike you, life did not revolve around me. I would wake up in the morning, brush my teeth on my own, wash my face, have my breakfast and because kids at that age have their classes in the afternoon in Malaysia, would continue sitting at the dining table to do 5 pages of English, 5 pages of Maths, 5 pages of Malay from workbooks my mother had bought for me. My mother used to buy a whole stack at the beginning of each term.”

I distinctly remember her selecting them from a whole heap at this bookstore in PJ’s SS2.

“Unlike you, who I have to prod repeatedly to do 2 pages of weekly homework, I sat there doing all 15 pages, each and every single weekday, by myself. There were no rewards for finishing, only finishing itself. Then I would go and play the piano for an hour or two – usually and an hour because I didn’t like it – without my mother sitting there either. Afterwards, she’d tell me how lazy I was to only practise for 1 hour.”

“When did you get to play?” asked Amanda.

“After that, I’d have a shower to get ready for school. Unlike me waiting for you dawdle each day, I had to hurry up because my school bus only horned twice before taking off to pick up other kids.”

“You mean there are school buses?”

There are no school buses here, only buses hired by schools to fetch children to and from excursions. Up until the mid-80s, Malaysian school buses used to be black and white or blue and white. Perhaps due to American influence, all our buses became orange.

“Yes, there were school buses and if I missed my school bus, my mother would be very cross with me. I’d have to walk to school – a long, long, way from where we lived.”

“How far away was school?”

“Further than from here to Sunnybank.” Sunnybank is a Chinese enclave some 15 minutes away by car. We go there at least once a week to have food and do grocery shopping.

“And when did you play?”

“Well, school finished some time before 6 in the evening. I’d get home, have dinner, do my homework, brush my teeth, then go straight to bed. My mother never tucked me in bed, read me stories or listened to me read. She never kissed or cuddled me like I do you all the time and I most definitely never slept in her bed.”

I slept on my own from birth, whereas at almost 8, Amanda still sleeps with me. The only time I have ANY physical contact with my mother, even now as an adult, is when I greet her at the airport or farewell her there. I may be wrong, but it’s the same for most Chinese of my generation. This hugging and kissing is an entirely foreign concept to us.

At this, Amanda began sobbing.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, somewhat annoyed since I hadn’t said anything upsetting so far.

I’m just crying for mama.”

“I’m not crying for me. Why are you crying for me?” I asked, bewildered.

“It just sounds terrible. When did you get to play?”

See, all this continuous talk of play is very much Aussie. At her age, I never talked or thought of play even half as much.

“My life at 8, is very different to yours. I wasn’t forever having play dates (the only people I played with outside of school were related to me), going to museums and libraries, going to see shows, going to have cake and coffee at cafes or going on holidays…”

My mother would say to me, “You think my life was as good as yours? We all had chores. The older ones had to mind the younger ones and help with the cooking and cleaning. You think we could just turn on the television and shake our legs in front of it?”

I said, “I didn’t have a computer until I was 15.”

Those early computers were very dear. All you could do with them was make colourful patterns using Lotus 1,2,3 – the little I learnt anyway. My favourite programme was Dr. Sbaitso, an early artificial intelligence programme built for MS DOS-based personal computers. I liked putting questions about “love” to Dr. Sbaitso and every time he would say in his awkward American voice, “I’m in love with the math-coprosessor.”

Amanda had since stopped crying and was regarding me with eyes as big as marbles.

“Most people didn’t have computers then, or handphones or this idea that it is necessary to have either. You don’t miss what you’ve never had.” Perhaps the reason why people in impoverished countries can be as cheerful as they are, despite the lack of good and amenities we in better off countries take for granted. They have no reference point.

“There was no TV during school days, only limited TV on the weekends, although I tried to catch snatches of Cantonese dramas when no one was looking. My mother would give me two tight slaps if I misbehaved, so I tried not to misbehave.”

“You mean your mother slapped you?” Amanda asked with disbelief.

We’re not allowed to smack children in this country.

“Yes, not all the time, but if I was very naughty…I was lucky.”

“Lucky?” Her eyes were now the size of saucers.

“My sisters got belted and caned until their legs bled. So yes, I was lucky only to get a few slaps.”

“Why were they belted and you only slapped?” Even she knows there is a big difference.

“Because I had my father to protect me. Life is very different when you have two parents instead of one.” I understood it even then: I was indeed very lucky.

“Lucky,” Amanda muttered to herself quietly.

“And I bet you will forget this talk in a few days time and we might have to have it again. But yes, I was lucky. I am lucky. You are luckier than I am. This year, in addition to play-dates, trips to the museum, art galleries, the beach, having cake and babycinos, you’ve been to New Zealand to ski, to the Gold Coast several times for the weekend, up to Hervey Bay to spend a weekend with Maia, Bella and GraceCairns to see Auntie Frances, down to Sydney for another weekend…soon, you’ll get to go back to Malaysia to see Grandma and Grandpa…What can you complain about? What do you have to complain about? Don’t you see how lucky you are?

She smiled at me, got off her chair and came over to give me a hug.

“That’s because I have mama and papa,” she said.

“Right you are. So do you want to shorten our lives by irritating either of us?”

She shook her head.

As I had predicted, she badgered me for the computer again a couple of days later.