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Across the sea Tag

Feature photo - Capal maker-0447

In his father’s footsteps

The late Haji Hashim Hassan was a famous Kepala Batas capal (sandal) maker, and he was adamant that his sons follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t that they could continue his legacy, but so they’d acquire a skill and never go hungry. But his elder son Amrul Hidayat had other plans – he wanted to be an artist, perhaps even a rock star. His father wasn’t convinced he was all that talented. He was not even impressed when Amrul studied microbiology at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. “My father said he would give me a degree in shoemaking in two years,” recalls Amrul, 36, who quit university to apprentice with the old master. He recites conversations with his father vividly and fondly, some of which are in Hokkien, as they both spoke it fluently. Their most heated arguments were in Hokkien, says Amrul who is known as Ah Loon in Kepala Batas town where he grew up in his father’s shop on Jalan Perak. They didn’t see eye to eye on many things, and clashed over everything from using machines to Amrul taking over his father’s business. But even though his father passed away in 2008, all Amrul’s stories circle back to ‘the old man’. Though initially the reluctant heir to his father’s capal-making heritage, he is now a proud custodian of the traditional craft. “Capal is not just another sandal, or footwear. It is part of Malay culture, part of the Malay costume. It goes with the baju Melayu, samping and songkok. The proper footwear for the Malay traditional attire is not kasut sepatu, or shoes, not your Bally. “Capal is worn with the baju Melayu for formal functions, even at the palace,” asserts Amrul who now specialises in high-end custom-made leather capal. His customers include former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, ministers, politicians and celebrities. Some customers are also from families that have patronised Capal Jago for generations, from during Amrul’s late father’s time. “All the leather is imported, so it’s more expensive now to make a full leather capal which can cost up to RM600. “Capal makers now also use mock leather to cater to the retail market, so we can make affordable capal for adults and children,” Amirul says. The invaluable skill his father passed to him – that distinguishes him from other shoemakers – is the skill to fit the buckle that sits on the intersection of the capal’s T-strap. If done right, the wearer will have a snug comfortable pair of capal. “He taught me like how he was taught. I was expected to try on my own, and then show him, then try again. I had to be self-motivated. He didn’t spoon feed me. If I wanted to learn fast, I had to practise hard and keep at it till I was satisfied I had mastered a step,” recalls Amrul whose father learnt to make capal from a Minangkabau shoemaker from Palembang, Indonesia. During Amrul’s father’s youth, Seberang Perai Utara was a centre for Islamic studies. Ulamas came from all over, including Palembang, to teach and...

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Remembering a rich past

Siti Khairiah Mohamad Yatim and her husband Roslan Haji Talib live in Kota Aur, which locals call Kota Ok. They have opened their homes to visitors, happy to have them experience the Malay village life in a most picturesque setting. Together with 14 other families, Siti Khairiah has run a homestay programme in her village for five years now. They host guests from all over Malaysia and the world. Villagers are friendly to foreigners and strangers cycling down their village lanes, and join in the laughter when these visitors’ padi-planting sessions turn into mud fights. Siti Khairiah and her neighbours conduct cooking and handicraft classes, and even stage traditional Malay weddings for their guests. They also take them on excursions to nearby attractions such as the Balai Bisik Fish Market in Kuala Muda. But they would like for people to remember Kota Aur for much more than its traditions and hospitality. Siti Khairiah hopes more people will come to know that Kota Aur was once the capital of the ancient Langkasuka civilisation, a Hindu-Buddhist-Malay kingdom which existed from the second to the 15th century. Villagers have long listened to their elders recounting Kota Aur’s glorious past, aware of the archeological findings on their village grounds. Just down the road from Siti Khairiah’s house are the ruins of three old temples. “The red stones that were used to build these temples are the same as those used in the Bujang Basin in Kedah. A team of archeologists from Universiti Sains Malaysia took samples from the ruins on our road to examine. “We hope the site will be excavated and Kota Aur will be recognised as a world heritage site,” says Siti Khairiah. For now, Siti Khairiah and the other homestay hosts are happy to tell visitors about Kota Aur’s history, continuing the oral history tradition that has ensured its rich past is never forgotten....

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Laying a strong foundation

Pokok Sena’s heritage of religious studies began in 1929 with the arrival of renowned Islamic scholar Tuan Hussein Kedah (1863-1936). “My grandfather was born in Titi Gajah, Kedah. He was an ulama and evangelist who spread Islam by teaching religious studies. He went from place to place to teach. He’d stay for a few years in one place and then move on to the next. “Before he reached Pokok Sena, he had taught at six places. This was his last stop,” relates Tuan Hussein’s 73-year-old grandson Haji Abdullah Haji Ahmad. The first person Tuan Hussein befriended in Pokok Sena was Mansor Ismail’s ancestor. He told him he needed a big plot of land to build his school. “So, they went looking along Jalan Siram and even Jalan Raja Uda in Butterworth. The plots there were too small. He finally found a 10ha piece of land in Pokok Sena. But it was owned by Chinese who reared pigs there. “It wasn’t just one farm, but many farms and hundreds of pigs. The kampung folk were not too happy,” continues Mansor, relating a story told to them by their elders. After Tuan Hussein bought the land, it started raining. “It rained continuously for a week. All the animal waste, and everything else, was swept away by the water. The black sand turned white,” relates Haji Abdullah. Initially, Tuan Hussein taught informally, with students sitting around him as he lectured on Islam and expounded on passages in the scriptures. But in 1934, Tuan Hussein decided to build a long house that could accommodate 60 students and drew up a schedule for his lessons. That model laid the foundation for a more systematic way of learning and teaching Islam and his madrasah drew students from near and far. It transformed Pokok Sena from a quiet village into a centre of Islamic studies. He passed away not long after that, and his son Haji Ahmad Hussein carried on his mission. Haji Ahmad was a learned Islamic scholar who studied in Mecca and was Penang’s Kadi Besar from 1965-1974. He passed away in 1978.   Open minds “We were raised in a religious environment. I, too, studied in the school my grandfather started,” says Haji Abdullah who is the ninth of Haji Ahmad’s 16 children. In 1959, he continued his secondary school education at the renowned Madrasatul Mashoor Al-Islamiah in George Town, “where Komtar now stands,” says Haji Ahmad who learnt Arabic and English. “We had religious studies in the morning and did academic subjects in the afternoon,” recalls Haji Abdullah, who would leave Pokok Sena at 6am and return home only at 9pm on schooldays. After Form Five, he continued at the Teachers Training College in Kuala Lumpur and went on to teach religious studies in several schools in Penang. His last posting before retirement was at the Penang Islamic Religious Council where he took charge of religious studies. His generation has continued to uphold their ancestors’ legacy of spreading and strengthening the Islamic faith through education, but in tandem with changing times. There are now 450 students at Madrasah Khairiah Islamiah, with...

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Seeking Spirituality

Kalsom Bee is 70 years old. Until 10 years ago, all she did was “work and raise my two children.” When her husband passed away, she decided it was finally time to do what she wanted. “I wanted to study religion … to learn what I never had time to learn before,” says Kalsom, who enrolled at a sekolah pondok, which literally means a ‘school of huts’. ‘Pondok’ comes from the Arab word ‘fuduqun’ which means hotel or accommodation for travellers. In this tradition of Islamic learning that originates from Pattani in Southern Thailand, students seeking to learn from an ulama would live in small huts near a mosque or a madrasah or the ulama’s house. They would attend lectures and sermons, and memorise scriptures. “Sini, hari-hari masuk ilmu (here, I learn every day). It’s peaceful,” says Kalsom who lives in a hut just outside the surau. Sekolah Pondok Warga Mas Pokok Sena, where Kalsom now studies Islam, is a continuation of that sekolah pondok tradition. It’s part of the Madrasah Khairiah Islamiah which was started by the renowned ulama Tuan Hussein Mohd Nasir in 1924 who is also known as Tuan Hussein Kedah. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the northern states of Kedah, Penang and Perak were centres of Islamic learning. In Penang, the centre of Islamic studies was in Seberang Perai, rather than on the island with its strong British presence. Penang was also the port where Muslims from all over South-East Asia would embark on their ships to Mecca to perform their haj. Pilgrims and others seeking to acquire and deepen their Islamic knowledge and understanding would come from as far as Acheh and Cambodia to study at madrasahs in Seberang Perai. There were many reputable madrasah, established by renowned ulama, such as Daeratul Maarif Wataniah in Kepala Batas and Al-Masriyah in Bukit Mertajam. Graduates from these schools went on to study at renowned universities in the Middle East like Al-Azhar and became influential Islamic scholars. These religious teachers would teach anyone willing to learn, regardless of age and origin. “Anyone can take religious classes as long as they are able,” says Sekolah Pondok Warga Mas Pokok Sena caretaker Mansor Ismail. But in the compound of about 40 huts, only three traditional wooden huts remain as the rest had been demolished and replaced with prefabricated cabins. Each hut accommodates only one, and has a living area and a kitchen. “They look more like chalets now,” says Mansor in jest. He relates how one Friday afternoon in 2007, four strangers came and offered to refurbish and rebuild the huts for free. It turned out that the project to upgrade the huts was sponsored by former Tasek Gelugor Member of Parliament Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop. “The huts were in a bad state. Many were infested with termites and in disrepair. They were built a long time ago,” recalls the 66-year-old Mansor, who has been caring for the women at the madrasah for 20 years now. He took over the job from his late father. Their sekolah pondok is not...

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trademen’s tale

Ng Her Chiah now runs the family business but leaves the talking to his father and uncle. After all, they know the trade best. Ng Sun Seng, 68, and his brother Soon Heng, 63, are now retired but they have spent 50 years making and selling bird cages. They learnt the rattan craft from their father, built their business and reputation as bird-cage specialists, and have now passed it all on to a third generation. Their shop, Ee Seng, on Jalan Padang Kelab in Kepala Batas’ Pekan Lama, or the old town, is nondescript but well-known among bird enthusiasts who flock here for cages and other paraphernalia. They stock everything from multivitamins for birds to camouflage face nettings, to bird-cage covers. Customers – some of whom have become old friends – linger at the shop to chat about birds. “When people who keep birds meet, they don’t usually run out of things to talk about,” says Sun Seng who used to travel near and far to enter his birds in singing competitions. His face still lights up when he recalls how enraptured he was by the melodious songs of his prized birds.In the early days, the brothers were making and selling all kinds of rattan products. But they gradually turned their passion for keeping birds into a business, delving into the craft and trade of bird cages. Sun Seng and Soon Heng remember cycling into the villages around Kepala Batas in the 1960s to collect bird cages made by local craftsmen. “In the 1970s, we started buying raw materials and machines for the villagers to make cages for us. Then, we’d go and collect the finished products. “At first, we went on motorbikes. But there was a time when we made our rounds in a lorry because there were so many cages to collect,’’ recounts Soon Heng. There used to be up to 100 villagers making the bird cages. Now, there are only about 10 such craftsmen left in Kepala Batas. Locally-made rattan cages are not as common as bamboo ones from China these days. Craftsmanship and time are required to make rattan cages as it’s harder to measure and drill rattan for an even spacing between the bars. Supply of good quality rattan is also depleting. Her Chiah brings out two cages for comparison, pointing out the precision and attention to detail on a finely-crafted cage and the crudeness of the other. “It takes skill to make sure the space between the bars is even because that affects the structure and stability of the bird cage,” he says. Building a bird cage, Sun Seng explains, is like building a house. Different birds require different cages. The Murai Batu (stone magpie) has a long tail, so their cage is bigger. A well-constructed bird cage will retain its shape and can last longer, and more importantly will assure owners their precious pets are living in comfort. “In the old days, bird enthusiasts were more superstitious. They’d count the bars while reciting a chant, and if it ended on an inauspi-cious note, they believed...

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Building bird cages

Mohamad Noor Abduh’s workshop is his front porch at Kampung Permatang Pak Elong, near Kepala Batas. A table fan provides some relief from the afternoon heat as the 59-year-old craftsman deftly slices and bends rattan rails to make bird cages. These days, his work is not so back-breaking because he can buy processed rattan that he only needs to dry in the sun. He uses a machine to bend and sand the rattan strips. “In the old days, we did everything from scratch. We had to strip and steam the rattan so that it’d be pliable to bend. But now, we can buy them all processed,” says Mohd Noor who learnt his craft from his late father, while still in his teens. But the most important tool in making a rattan bird cage is a simple one – a piece of wood with two nails. It’s the most basic measuring tool but absolutely essential in marking the holes to drill for the bird cage’s bars, or bilah in Malay. “If the spacing is not the same throughout, the cage will not be evenly balanced. It’ll be senget (crooked) and will not sit nicely,” explains Mohd Noor as he deftly pushes bilah after bilah through tiny holes he has drilled on the rings of the cage. It all seems quite effortless to Mohd Noor; slicing, marking, bending, drilling and hammering the rattan as the bird cage takes shape. But these are skills honed from 45 years of practice and dedication to his craft. “I can usually make two big cages, or four small ones, in day. The big ones will have 94 bilah and the small ones 66 bilah.” “I make different cages for different birds. Some are easier to make. I can make three cages for murai (magpie) in a day, but I have stopped making cages for Merbah Jambul (red-whiskered bulbul) because it’s harder to do,” he says, adding that they also need to pay attention to details like where to place the door or how many perches to place in the cage to accommodate the different birds’ traits. Mohd Noor is among the last of the bird cage makers in Seberang Perai. It’s a unique tradition – elsewhere in the world, bird cages are not usually made from rattan. Bamboo or metal bird cages are more common. “Ini remeh kerjanya, (it is finicky work) and my children didn’t want to learn. They’d rather work in the factories or with the government,” he says. Only bird enthusiasts will truly appreciate Mohd Noor’s precision and artistry.   “His workmanship is so fine. The bird cages have perfect symmetry; they are balanced. After this generation of bird cage makers passes on, there will be no one to continue this art form,” says retired business-man Ng Sun Seng who has retailed bird cages from Mohd Noor, and before that from his late father, for many decades. Their ties run deep and Mohd Noor’s elderly mother was delighted to see Ng, whom she calls Ah Seng. “He used to come around all the time. Now, my...

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Grassroots Leader

Muhammad A’fif Osman has always known he has an auspicious name to live up to. It was given to him by a most respected ulama in Kepala Batas, Datuk Haji Ahmad Badawi Abdullah Fahim, the father of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (whom everyone fondly calls Pak Lah). “My name was meant for Pak Lah’s daughter Nori who was born in the same year as me. But it was a male name, so they couldn’t give her that name. She was born in January and I was born in March. Instead, Haji Ahmad Badawi gave the name A’fif to me,” recounts the 40-year-old engineer. His name A’fif means bermaruah dan bermertabat – to be righteous and esteemed – and it was deemed an even more blessed name because it was bestowed by a learned Islamic scholar. In A’fif’s village of Kampung Permatang Bertam, near Kepala Batas, Pak Lah’s family is respected and revered. His grandfather, Syeikh Abdullah Fahim, was a wali, a holy man and a renowned authority on Islam. He was also gifted in ilmu falak (astronomy). The Islamic scholar – who locals called Tok Guru or Pak Him – also established the Madrasah Daeratul Maarif al-Wataniah in Kelapa Batas in 1926. Syeikh Abdullah Fahim was born in Mecca and was the Penang Mufti in the 1950s. Politicians and leaders sought the advice of the learned man in their fight for independence from British rule. Before he left for London to negotiate with the British, Tunku Abdul Rahman met up with Syeikh Abdullah Fahim to discuss the date for Merdeka. He told Tunku that Aug 31, 1957 was the most auspicious date to declare independence, and that the most auspicious date after that would be Aug 31, 1962. “It was in this house that Tunku met Pak Him to decide on the date of Merdeka. It was also said that the date 31 was chosen because it meant the three races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – would make one country. So, 31 was the chosen day,” says A’fif who took us to the historical Umno house that still stands on Jalan Perak. He also points out Madrasah Daeratul Maarif al-Wataniah, which now teaches both academic and Islamic studies. Behind the school is the compound where Pak Lah and his brother Tahir’s houses are … “they only fenced it up when Pak Lah became the deputy prime minister.” “We grew up listening to stories of Pak Him. There was one about a businessman who overcharged him ...

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The Royal Australian Air Force

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was easy to tell the Royal Australian Air Force personnel (RAAF) from the tourists in Penang. The RAAF officers had a ‘uniform’ even when they were off-duty. “We wore tailored shorts, collared shirts and knee-length socks. Everyone had a moustache. It was expected that we’d dress more formally than casual,” recalls RAAF Air Vice-Marshal Bill Henman, who was posted to Butterworth for two years in 1984. He was 23 years old then, at the start of his RAAF career. At that time, there was still a huge presence of RAAF personnel at the air base in Teluk Air Tawar, Butterworth. The Australian air force had been stationed in Butterworth since the 1950s, and formally took over the air base from the British in 1958, after Malaya’s independence. It was used in the fight against the communist insurgency in the 1950s and during the confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s. The base was formally transferred to the Malaysian government in 1970 but two RAAF fighter squadrons remained in Butterworth until 1988. After that, the RAAF’s presence was very much scaled down. They are still present at the RMAF base today under a five-country military defence pact. Older Butterworth residents will remember the Australian community. Their heyday was in the 1970s when the number of RAAF personnel and their families grew to almost 5000 people. Some lived at the base, which had its own hospital, school, shops, sporting and yachting clubs and other recreational facilities. The air base employed locals, up to 1,000 at its peak.   Part of the community The Australian airmen and their families were well-liked by the local community, and there were shops and services that catered to them. Housing estates near the RAAF base, such as Robina Park, were occupied mainly by the Australians. On weekends, young servicemen like Henman would take the ferry to George Town, where the clubs and bars were. “We’d take the trishaw and go to Chulia Street and Campbell Street. Hong Kong Bar was a popular watering hole,” recalls Henman, who came back for his second permanent stint in Butterworth in July 2014 as Commander of the operations here. The connection and affection that the RAAF alumni and their families have for their Penang posting are documented in their Facebook page, RAAF Butterworth Base. Amid the posts of nostalgic photographs and recollections are several requests for recipes of Malaysian food that veteran RAAF airmen miss.   Radio R double A FB Penangites will readily agree that their fondest collective memory of the RAAF is the radio station that ran from 1960 to 1988. “This is Radio R double A FB!” was the call sign – that’s Radio RAAF Butterworth for the uninitiated. The ‘Party Time’ programme every Saturday night introduced Penang teens to the latest hits of the era. The radio station was run entirely by volunteers from RAAF and their families, and they played different genres of music and kept the Australians updated on news from home. Today, there are only about 150 RAAF personnel and their families at...

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30 Sen Lok Lok

Amid the onslaught of rising prices, people in Butterworth seek comfort at a lok lok – or skewered food – stall that will not bust their wallets. This stall is known simply as the ‘30sen lok lok’ because the hawker has kept to this price since he set up shop in 1983. Pupils from Kwong Hwa Primary School on Jalan Raja Uda would all know hawker Lee Koon Huat because he has been selling his skewered goodies outside their school for 33 years. “Before, I had 20sen sticks too but they have all been 30sen since 1994,” says Lim. Other lok lok hawkers charge at least 50sen per stick. Lee offers all the usual lok lok fare except for more expensive seafood such as prawn and squid. But regulars know he has a stash of mantis prawns that he keeps for those in the know. The 67-year-old hawker says he can afford not to raise his prices because he is not looking to make a huge profit as all his four children are grown up and independent. They want him to retire and enjoy his golden years, but Lee would rather wheel his pushcart from his home nearby and set up stall every afternoon. He opens at 2pm and usually sells out in about two hours. Customers appreciate Lee maintaining his price at 30sen at a time when price hikes are so rampant. They come non-stop, snapping everything up in no time. Although business is good, Lee does not increase the amount he sells. “We are doing this to pass our days. My wife still makes the chilli sauce at home. When we feel tired, we just won’t open for business that day,” says the affable Lee, whom everyone calls uncle. Even though he has many customers, he is good at remembering their faces. “It’s nice to eat here because we can eat without worrying that it’ll cost a lot. I have been eating this uncle’s lok lok since I was in primary school. His son was my classmate. It may be cheap, but it’s tasty,” says regular Jonas Hong, 40, who was enjoying his lok lok with his wife and son....

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The songkok maker

[gallery link="file" columns="1" size="large" ids="848,849"] As Ramadan approaches, Shahul Hameed Malim will gear up for his busiest days of the year. The Hari Raya season is a peak sales period for the Malay headdress – called songkok – that his family produces. Their company, ABM Zulaikha Sdn Bhd, is the biggest producer of songkok in the country. But there is not a single person making songkok in their factory. “We used to have 10 workers here, but there’s not enough space. So, we changed our method of operations. The workers now work from their homes, and we also outsource the work,” says Shahul who uses his factory space for warehousing instead. In the 1980s, they moved their songkok operations to Mak Mandin, Seberang Perai’s earliest industrial zone, set up in the 1960s. It is now an enclave of medium-sized factories like ABM Zulaikha. Before that, Shahul’s father had a shop on Beach Street in George Town. Then, the company was called Hj Aboobacker Marican & Sons, and Shahul’s father was the biggest importer of velvet in his time. There was a small space in their shop to sell songkok. “All songkok are made of velvet, but the quality of the material varies. My father taught me about velvet and how to work with it. All the songkok makers used to buy their velvet from us. Some still do,” says Shahul, who renamed their company ABM Zulaikha after his father passed away. ABM are his father’s initials and Zulaikha is his mother’s name. Out of 10 siblings, Shahul and his two brothers have carried on their family trade. “These days, it’s harder to get workers who are keen to acquire the skills required to make the traditional headdress. Everyone wants to make fast money, but it takes time to master the skills to make a songkok." “There is an art, seni, to making songkok. It’s about making it with your heart. If you only use your head but not heart, you can’t make a songkok. It’s the right intuition that will make a fine songkok,” says Shahul as he demonstrated the steps to making a songkok. Even though they have modern machines now, each songkok produced is still finished with hand-sewn hem. Shahul pays housewives 50sen a songkok for their fine stitching. “Songkok making is an art,” he reiterates. “We tried out a machine, but we rejected three out of 10 songkok it hemmed. The work was just not fine enough." But Shahul does not always adhere to the old ways. Songkok used to be lined with old newspapers, and before that with old mengkuang matting. At ABM Zulaikha, they have innovated by using straw boards. “I was uneasy about using old newspaper as lining. We wear songkok to pray in the mosque, and we don’t know where these newspapers have been or what’s written on them." With this innovation, they have also been able to make songkok that are more pliable, so wearers can experiment with different styles. Some people prefer the Sultan style, which sits lower and flatter on one’s head, some...