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Saturday, March 14, 2009

James Hoover's Sola Topi

A Wolseley Hat (many variations are available in eBay)

Harry S. Truman's hat

This hat is an exhibit of the Methodist Board of Archive and History in Sibu. The late Rev. James Hoover who served in Sibu for more than 35 years wore a similar safari or sola topi as a protection from the sun. His solar hat or pith helmet was brought over from the United States as it was a proper and popular tropical attire then. Most foreign missionaries would have worn one. It was also worn by Harry S. Truman and many others in the 1920's.

Besides the late Rev James Hoover many other Chinese businessmen and Foochow community leaders also developed a liking for this kind of hat. According to Sibu Oral Tradition the father of Tan Sri Dr. Wong Soon Kai was even given a nick name "Bah Tou Bing" referring to his interest in sporting such a white helmet. Although honestly I have never seen a photo of this remarkable man wearing a helmet.
Bah Tou Bing is the Foochow term for this hat. My own grandfather also worn one and he kept it very well for a long time even after it became sort of out of fashion in Sibu.

Today a more adventurous version is worn by hunters in Africa and parts of Asia. The Philippines has several companies manufacturing it as a tourist souvenir. Recently I also bought one for old times' sake.

The pith helmet (also known as the safari helmet, sun helmet, topee, sola topee, salacot or topi) is a lightweight helmet made of cork or pith, typically from the sola (Indian swamp growth, Aeschynomene aspera or A. paludosa) or a similar plant [1], with a cloth cover, designed to shade the wearer's head from the sun. Pith helmets were once much worn by Westerners in the tropics; today they are most frequently used in Vietnam.[citation needed] (The forms solar topee and solar topi are folk etymology—the name comes from sola, and is not etymologically connected with the sun in any way.)
In British history the British Royal Marines wore "Wolseley" helmets. While crude forms of pith helmets had existed as early as the 1840s, it was around 1870 that the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe's tropical colonies. The Franco-Prussian War had popularized the German Pickelhaube, which may have influenced the definitive design of the pith helmet.

British diplomats in tropical postings, Governors General, Governors and colonial officials continued to wear the traditional white helmets as part of their ceremonial white uniforms until the practice died out during the 1970s and '80s. The ceremonies marking the end of British rule in Hong Kong in 1997 were probably the last occasion on which this style of headdress was seen as a symbol of Empire.

The wild game hunter character Van Pelt wore a spiked pith helmet in Jumanji.

Source: Wikipedia.

(NB I may have to further check the word "sola" which might not be related to solar at all...stay tuned)

I Wanna Party Like It's 1999: My Year at "Film School"

I just watched The Talented Mr. Ripley for the first time in years; however, this is probably the sixth or seventh time I've seen the film. It's an American classic, and was the best film of 1999; a great year for film, no doubt. Thinking back on 1999 I smile. I was a senior in high school and every film felt like it was the greatest thing ever. Looking back on that year in film, I can see why it was so important to me personally, but do any of those films hold up? That's why I sat through another sitting of The Talented Mr. Ripley. In a year that had Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, The Limey, American Movie, Rushmore, Election, Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, and tons more (I'll list 'em all eventually) it's hard, nay, near impossible to name one film better than all of the titles I just listed. But I remember being a senior in my film class singing the praises of Anthony Minghella's film. I hadn't seen anything so methodical, so chilling. It reminded me of the Hitchcock films we were studying in class. It also made me realize what an amazing actor Matt Damon is. Why do I bring all of this up about a string of films released a decade ago? More thoughts after the jump...

(Yup. I used to think this was the coolest movie ever. Just look at the symbolism!)

I still think 1999 is the greatest year in movies that I've ever experienced. I'll never forget seeing American Beauty four times in theater (I don't think much of the film now, but as a senior in high school who was taking film classes, it was the coolest thing ever. The bag is a metaphor! Haha) or seeing my one and only Stanley Kubrick film upon it's original release (Eyes Wide Shut). You also had the The Matrix, which I was the only kid in school who didn't think it was anything special (same goes for my initial reaction to Fight Club) and two spectacles that had totally different budgets: the low budget indie hit Blair Witch Project and the much anticipated Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. There was also my introduction to the art houses in Portland (I had been a film nerd long before renting Bergman and the like from the public library, but now I was sharing this with a community of fellow film buffs), and saw for the first time Bicycle Thieves at the Hollywood Theater. I also saw my first Dardenne Brothers film (Rosetta) and Almodovar film (All About My Mother). My eyes had been opened to what film can offer, and that is why 1999 is such an important and memorable year for me personally.

("You tell him I'm coming!" One of the best lines of 1999 from The Limey.)

In addition to those monumental moments (for me anyway) it was just a wonderful year for film. You had the following directors, some new, some old masters, making interesting movies, some of these directors being: Anthony Minghella, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar, The Dardenne's, Milos Foreman, George Lucas, Spike Jonze, M. Night Shyamalin, Paul Schrader, Frank Darabont, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, Kevin Smith, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Robert Rodriguez, Todd Solondz, Neil Jordan, Brad Bird, Albert Brooks, Darren Aronofsky, Antonia Bird, Ang Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Tom Tykwer, Wes Anderson, Carlos Saura, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, Tim Roth, and David Mamet (whew!) just to name a few. Now some of these may have technically been released in 1998, but Portland or Salem didn't get them until 1999.

That's a hell of a list of directors making films all released in the same year. Some of those films were awful, others okay, some just plain interesting, and others masterpieces. But I remember them all so distinctly, because I was seeing everything that was released then. I was so into film and wanted to see every new film that looked interesting or played at the local art house theater (I spent a lot of money at Salem Cinema) I couldn't contain myself. One of our assignments for class was to construct a top ten list of the years best films. I couldn't do it. There were too many worthy choices (now I would probably change my mind), but I obliged and constructed a top ten list. And seeing how I am a pack rat, I actually found the list in my box of old English papers. It's an interesting list. It reads as follows:

Top 10 Films of 1999:

10. Bowfinger
9. Cookie's Fortune
8. The Faculty
7. American Movie
6. October Sky
5. Being John Malkovich
4. Bringing Out the Dead
3. American Beauty
2. Tie - Three Kings/Magnolia
1. The Talented Mr. Ripley

It's funny, even as a 17 year old I still cheated the whole 'ranking' thing and put an extra movie in there. I also noticed on my list several films crossed out, the one's I can make out are: Existenz, The Iron Giant, The Blair Witch Project, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Boy's Don't Cry, Run Lola Run, Election, Ravenous, Eyes Wide Shut, Rosetta, Rushmore, and Tango. I also see Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford on that list! Wow, I forgot about that film. I need to re-watch that. Obviously it must have been a hard decision to narrow this list down to ten. And I love the fact that in true adolescent, wannabe film snob form, I throw American Beauty so high on the list, but also stay true to my horror lovin' adolescent ways I put The Faculty in my top 10. Also, in pretentious art house-teen form I make sure to write the names of foreign films on the paper I turn into my teacher. Ha! It's funny to think how cool I thought I was simply because I chose to see films with subtitles. Oh well. Now that I think of it....I'm surprised I didn't give any love to Renny Harlin's masterpiece Deep Blue Sea. You know, keep my status as an everyman that my peers can relate to...

(Don't look so tired Nic, Wicker Man is still six years away)

Obviously looking at the list now there are some huge omissions, but it's interesting to see where my mind was at then. You can also see how influenced I was by the art house films. I did see Being John Malkovich twice in the theater. I still think it's a great film. Also, Bowfinger is kind of a forgotten Steve Martin classic. The sad thing that was the last truly hilarious film he wrote and acted in. And this isn't even taking into account films like The Thin Red Line or Gods and Monsters, two films I absolutely adore, that technically came out in 1998, but I didn't get a chance to see until '99.

The purpose of this very self-indulgent trip down memory lane is to take a look back, film by film, at the films that shaped my most memorable year as a film-goer. Obviously this isn't on par with the first time I saw Cries and Whispers or 8 1/2 or Touch of Evil, but this is something beyond those first steps I took as a lover of film. I remember distinctly sitting in my room studying Chaplin and Keaton and anything else I could get my hands on from the public library, but 1999 was so different, because where the former are essentials and you read about them in books published by famous film critics, it was the case with these films in 1999 that I was a film critic for the first time, sharing these first-time experiences with everyone else. Nothing had been written yet about Paul Thomas Anderson (at least not to the extent that there is now) and I felt like I was the only voice in the room singing the praises of Bringing Out the Dead while trying to deflect the overpraise for films like The Matrix or Fight Club.

So I'm going to journey back ten years and take a look at some of these films again and re-evaluate my initial thoughts, and see which films still hold up as quaint little surprises (films like Bowfinger, Cookie's Fortune, American Movie), which films don't hold up at all (American Beauty, The Sixth Sense), or the ones that still remain masterpieces (Bringing Out the Dead, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley). I think this will be a fun little trip down memory lane as I look back on what I think is the greatest year in film that I've experienced. I'll be throwing these up randomly every other day, trying to mix them in enough so that I don't forget to write too much on the blog. I'm also working on an Argento piece (I swear Troy I'll get it finished so you can add to it) and some other thoughts on random films. But I thought this would be more fun to write about at the moment...

(1999 makes me smile too, Melora. From the final scene of Magnolia.)

So there.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Lanjak Entimau Salt Lick (Part One)

Dato Professor Haji Mohammad Majid and I went back to the 70's where we met for the first time over the then new product Cornetto icecream.

I was a freshie and he had come over to visit our residential college famed for beauties. Our college had a boy-girl ratio of 1:4. No he was only looking for friends from Sarawak and in particular Tanjong Lobang School students. Then my friends and I made a return visit to meet up with other Sarawakian students in his First Residential College. My first impression of him as a focussed and intense scholar remains to this day. I am terribly proud of being his friend all these years.

The Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary is definitely a great place to visit once it is more open to ordinary tourists.

A salt lick is a salt deposit that animals regularly lick. In an ecosystem, salt/mineral licks often occur naturally, providing the sodium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc required in the springtime for bone, muscle and other growth in deer and other wildlife, such as moose, elephants, cattle, woodchucks, domestic sheep, fox squirrels, mountain goats and porcupines. Harsh weather exposes salty mineral deposits that draw animals from miles away for a taste of needed nutrients.(Source : Wikipeadia)

Bernama news regularly publish articles about Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Santuary. Recently there was an article about Prof Dr Mohamed Abdul Majid (the leader of last year's June Expedition to the sanctuary) quoting him about a new discovery.

Professor Haji said today the Rhizanthes, a parasitic plant that could be found growing on other plants, has eco-tourism potential.

"We have other rare Rhizanthes in the Peninsula and Sabah but this is a new species," he told reporters after the launch of 'Seminar of Biodiversity of Eastern Lanjak Entimau - Hidden Jewel of Sarawak' by state assistant minister of planning and resources management Mohamad Naroden Majais here.

The expedition attracted 175 scientists from local and foreign institutions, including those from Brunei, Indonesia, Germany and Japan, who were involved in carrying out research on five main aspects of the area situated in the Heart of Borneo Project.

(Source: Bernama)

Most of Lanjak-Entimau remains inaccessible, and the means of entry is limited to difficult longboat journeys up various rivers such as the Lubang Baya, Engkari, Skrang, Ngemah, Poi and Katibas. Entry to the Sanctuary is controlled and limited to several access points only.

Recently I asked Professor Haji for permission to use his photos for my blog. I am really humbled by his generosity.

Professor Haji now a new Dato of the Sarawak State with his Cikgu from Tanjong Lobang School Miri- Datuk Yusuf Hanifah.

Deer having a lick of the salt.

A tangalong

A Mongoose

We have such wonderful resources like these in Sarawak. And I hope that private businesses will not destroy our nature ruthlessly for the sake of huge and easy profits.

Modern Man and wildlife must live a well integrated and balanced life to conserve the earth before it is too late. You and I are all part of that ecosystem. We cannot afford to ignore the rules of nature.

(Thank you Haji!!)

(part two coming up)


Ryan Gagne

The Night Of The Hooter

Dave Goff

Thursday, March 12, 2009

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The Changing Faces of Moi Soung Cafe Sibu

(Photo by Wong Meng Lei. Moi Soung is read from right to left)

The Cafe Moi Soung was started early in the twentieth century by two men who gave the cafe their names : Moi and Soung according to one source. The late Mr. Wong Nien Soung was a powerhouse of Foochow Opera who allowed his coffee shop to be the meeting place for the Foochow Opera group to practise in the early evenings.

Many social and economic changes have been seen right in front of the cafe. But within the cafe the coffee shop culture has also slowly changed . However three of the mainstays of the cafe are the coffee ; tea and the noodles (kampua)which have remained the same in perhaps taste and flavour for more than 50 years!! But porcelain plates have given way to the orange plastic plates. And of course the old coffee cups have given way to glass mugs.

Another remarkable change (perhaps not even the Kang Chu Wong Nai Siong himself could have foreseen) is the figure of the coffee hand (kopi chiw). The coffee hand (in modern terms the bar tender) is the man behind the counter who makes the coffee when it is ordered. It used to be a faithful man who worked for Moi Soung the whole of his life! When he passed on his son took over. Then over the years an Iban man has taken over that important spot. He can quickly make two or three cups of coffee within one or two minutes of your order. This is one remarkable aspect of a Foochow coffee shop. You do not have to wait until your seat is warm before your coffee is at the table served by an older Foochow man who has a ready towel over his right arm.

Foochow boys no longer work for food now in coffee shops like Moi Soung. Their parents used to send them to work in such food outlets so that their labour could be exchanged for "three good meals". The younger generation of Foochows have generally become educated and gone further afield. What I saw in the shop were Indonesian maids who served quickly and heartily.

The old charcoal stove has gone and in its place is the ubiquitous gas stove. It is traditional that the water is always kept piping hot over the stove to maintain the special flavour of the local ground coffee and also to make the service very quick.

These are two bowls of steaming hot pork balls soup. Lovely in taste and very special because the meat is specially chopped by hand and pressed without the additional or extra bean curd or tapioca flour.

This is the plate of special kampua or dry noodles with a simple lard and onion sauce. Some salt is added. The noodles are topped with some slivers of thin pork and chopped onions. The kampua is very addictive. Most people like to order a second plate after eating their first plate. Besides the ingredients the secret lies in how the plate of noodles is mixed with chopsticks and a big spoon before it is served. The Foochows call this "buak" or mix well and evenly with chopsticks and spoon.

The Foochows like their noodles to remain long .However if one has to share the plate of noodles with a friend one has to use the chopsticks skilfully to cut the noodles in this way (as shown in the photo). the Foochow word for this "cutting" of the long noodles is to use the chopsticks to "ga" the noodles. Usually when one eats noodles correctly and traditionally one usually just puts a chopstick of noodles into the mouth and then bite off with one's teeth. The Panda Po did it very well in the excellent movie "Kungfu Panda".

The marble tables and the special chairs are all gone now. In their place are the foldable laminated tables and plastic chairs. But the two frontages of the cafe continue to watch the boats coming in from the villages downriver. Perhaps the river boat horns are all gone but the noise of the bustle of the people is still there.

I had images of the traditional match maker and the potential brides and bridegrooms sitting and looking at each other secretly in the coffee shop. I gave a sigh that a great era of river side life and culture has gone. Life changes. People change.

Memories remain while visions dance before me as I ate my lardy kampua with friends. With a chuckle I told Tumi and Meng Lei( my hosts) that more than thirty years ago no one initiated a match for me in this very cafe which remains an important part of my Foochow childhood.

(All other photos by blogger using a simple Sony Cybershot)

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Hercules of Sg. Ma'aw

When we were growing up in Sg. Maaw near Chung Cheng School we admired our uncle Lau Pang Sing very much. He was not only a filial son to his mother my maternal grandmother Lau Lien Tie (Mrs. lau Ka Chui) but also a great cook and a strong man. We called him Ka Tuai or Big Uncle. He was also very extremely communicative and humourous.

We have a very old photo to show how strong he was: Here he was carrying a crate of aerated water over his shoulders with his two sons following behind. The crate had come with the motor launch and most probably it was Sing Hai Huong (New Sea King). The wooden platform is the jetty he built and a huge floating pontoon was at the end there where we used to wash our clothes. It was one of the biggest and best in Ah Nang Chong. People often called it Pang Sing Toh Tau. Two motor launches could berth easily alongside the pontoon which was built on at least six big logs. The pontoon was very well built and lasted for more than 30 years until the waves of the express boats broke it up in the mid 80's.

Just before Chinese New Year I had the opportunity to capture some traditional soft drink crates on film. I was passing by Selangau and one of the shops had these eight crates of Ngo Kiang aerated water. Each wooden crate traditionally would hold 48 of those brown glass bottles of aerated water or Kan Chui or pok chui. If smaller bottles were put into the crates the total number would be 72.

It was just an easy task for my Uncle Pang Sing to throw a crate over his shoulders and carry it up to the house which was about 200 metres from the river to the applause and merriment of the children ( there were about 19 or 20 of us). He was always called upon to carry heavy things by relatives and neighbours. And it was no wonder that he finally worked as wharf labourer in Sibu when times were really difficult during the Communist insurgency.

His filial piety was examplary. Whenever he came home from his work in Sibu or elsewhere he would look for grandmother first. He would ask Aunty Nguk Ling his wife "Where's Neh?" (Neh is the Foochow dialect term for Niang or mother.) Without fail that was the first question he would ask.If she was having her nap he would go to the room to whisper quietly to her that he had brought her the item she had requested before he went to work at the beginning of the week. It could be chicken wings or a slice of pork belly or may be even a bottle of hair oil.

He and Aunty Nguk Ling had trained their children very well and as visiting cousins we learned from them too. Whatever Grandmother loved (be it chicken wings or the belly pork) we would never dare to pick them first at the dinner table. She would always be the one to sit at the table first and have her choice pieces. And then we kids would start eating. These were our table manners.

Uncle Pang Sing had 8 children while Uncle Pang Ping had 7 children still staying with him and my aunt Yung has four small kids. And I would be visiting very often. When we started running on the first floor or upstairs of the house our elders thought that even the wooden floors could split open!! We were like hordes of Mongols riding on horses whenever we ran and played games like Eagle and Mother Hen.

Those were the days when we were young and innocent. But when we children think of those days we would always be grateful that we had a wonderful uncle like Uncle Pang Sing - our Hercules of Sg. Ma'aw.

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