Penang”s urban poor


A Tale Of Two Women, on page 134, is about Penang’s urban poor facing evictions because of the repel of the rent control act in 2000. As a desperate last resort a delegation led by Ong Boon Keong petitioned UNESCO’s supremo Richard Engelhardt who would decide on George Town’s world heritage  status, but alas to no avail A Tale of Two Women                                                       Cheah Siew Chee, 80

A Tale of Two Women was first published in The Nation (Bangkok) on Apr 10, 2000; Malaysiankini on Apr 12, 2000; and Star daily (Malay- sia) on July 20 in 2000.


Grandmas Cheah Siew Chee, 80, and Ameena Amnal, 70, have a lot in common although they originally come from different parts of the world. One is from Hui Ann, China’s Fujian province and the other from Satang Kolong, Madras, India.

They have not been back to their native villages which they left more than half a century ago. Both came to Penang to join their husbands when they were young.

Now at the autumn of their life, they are largely forgotten – living in squalor in the inner city of George Town. Despite their age and poverty, both grandmas are healthy and cheerful – a reminder to many modern-day city folks the many virtue of hard labour and a frugal life.

Beneath their humble appearance lies the strength of human spirits and courage. “I worked in construction sites all my life since I arrived, until my legs were no longer able to bear the heavy load,” said Cheah cheerfully.

She was forced to retire five years ago at the age of 74, when she fell and broke a leg while clearing debris at a construction site in Macalister Road. The women of Hui Ann, Fujian Province, used to be a familiar sight in the country. Known for their colourful dress, tenacity and hard work, they were ubiquitous in the construction sites decked out in their distinguished red headdress and coarse blue cotton samfoo.

In the days when machinery was few and giant cranes unheard off, building materials and earth were moved by hands. Hui Ann women mostly did this heavy work – shuffling earth and heavy loads on their shoulders they toiled ceaselessly. It would be unimaginable for the building industries to be without them. Today few remember them.

We hear success stories of immigrants stepping ashore from crowded hold of junks and steamers with nothing and becoming rich overnight. The late tycoon, Datuk Loh Boon Siew came from Hui Ann and started life in his adopted country as a lowly coolie. How he rose to be one of the richest men in Malaysia is well documented.

Grandma Cheah embodies the long-suffering woman from a period when prejudice was still strong, and women’s rights unheard of. Half a century ago, she boarded a junk and sailed to Malaya to join her husband in Penang. Cheah said she was 32 when she arrived. She was married at the age of 16 into the Koay clan. Three months after the wedding her husband came to Malaya and she was left behind in China to take care of her blind father-in-law.

“I was abandoned and left with my in-laws. I didn’t see my husband again until 16 years later when I came to join him in Penang.”

For today’s modern women, it must be unthinkable, how she endured the lonely years living with her in-laws in feudal China. In Penang reunited after the long lapse, the couple stayed in a former horse stable in Noordin Street paying a monthly rental of RM13.50. Since the repeal of the rent control in 2000, the rental has increased to RM62.

The leaking roof is patched with wooden boards. The mews have 12 tiny cubicles on the ground floor and 12 on the top floor. There is no bathroom and the two broken down toilets are shared by 24 households.

The common passageway is where they cook and take their bath (wearing sarongs) from taps fixed by the residents. There is no water supply, the residents had to construct the water pipes themselves, she said.

She worked at construction sites for RM5 a day until 74, an age when many of us would have gone to meet our maker. Her husband died a year ago, aged 82. Her only son who is a daily-paid labourer has moved out to a low-cost flat with his wife, leaving their two sons aged 9 and 7 in her care.

Last month on International Women’s Day, Cheah was honoured by the Malaysian Local Democracy Initiative (Melodi), a human rights NGO, as the unsung hero of the country. She was given the Penang Builder Award, which reads “In recognition of women’s contributions to the country who was neglected by society.”

Perhaps her biggest triumph is her abundant human spirit and cheerful bearing which has seen her through thick and thin. “It is an inspiration to all who have seen her,” says a young neighbour.

She says the Koay clan’s ancestors (of her late husband) were Muslims. “That’s why when we die, we cannot take pork anymore,” (meaning they cannot use pork to pray to their ancestors). Another surprise, like Muslim village doors in rural China, the door of her cubicle is painted green, the only one in Noordin Street.

A Tale Of Two Womwn Part II

A Tale of Two Women                                                             Ameena Amnal, 70

If not for the fact that the house [she is staying in with her extended family] could collapse and in all likelihood bury some of them, no one could have known that Ameenal Amnal, 70, exists at all. Muda Lane is a short, narrow street of pre-war residential shop houses in a mixed neighbourhood of Chinese, Tamil and Muslim families.

There is a toddy shop, Chinese kongsi (clan) house, and Muslim shops. Ameenal’s dwelling is conspicuous for the facade of the upper floor is broken and patched by decaying boards. It is quite a shock to step into the house. The top floor has collapsed completely, corrugated sheets have replaced the roof and large cracks appeared on the walls.

Ameenal says the house has been in this condition for more than 10 years. First the roof collapsed and the family could not afford the RM2,000 to replace it with asbestos sheets. Then the floorboards of the first floor and staircase came crashing down.

The family lived in three cubicles of plywood and plastic sheets on the ground floor. One cubicle is occupied by her married daughter and her husband, one by her 12-year-old granddaughter, (according to Muslim custom) while she sleeps in the third with the two unmarried sons and the 11-month-old grandson. Another son sleeps on a plank board outside her cubicle.

Blue plastic sheets on the top floor and the cubicle keep the rain and falling debris away. Initially she paid RM70.40 rental monthly, but over the past 20 years the rent was raised and stood at RM112 last year. Beginning this year (2000), the rent was raised to RM900 despite the fact that the place is not fit for human habitation. She says the landlord has given her until April to pay up or face eviction. The family cannot afford it as all the working sons and daughters are earning less than RM500 each.

has been staying in the house since she came from India 45 years ago and the house has deteriorated year by year. She was married at 20 and soon after her husband left for Penang to work as a stevedore (dock labourer). Five years later, the husband came back to India and brought her to Penang. Her husband died 20 years ago and she has not been back to India at all.

Since her arrival from India she has been working as a domestic help in an Indian restaurant. She cleans the house, serves food and does all menial work without a break until five years ago when age has caught up with her. She earns RM250 a month, she says.

Dressed in her colourful sari and shawls, she cuddles and carries her 11-month-old grandson everywhere she goes despite her advanced years. Still robust and healthy and surrounded by her extended family, the smiling Ameenal is unperturbed about her housing problem, come April when she faces eviction. “I hope government will give us a low-cost flat in River Road where we only pay RM100 per month,” she says cheerfully.

Authors note: two years later, the roof of Ameenal’s house collapsed killing her grandson. Ong Boon Keong, head of SOS (Save Our Selves) called a press conference to highlight the plight of the poor and the author’s story. This was reported in the Kwong Hwa Chinese Daily: February 21, 2002

april-21-2002-international-conference-on-historical-penang1-1024x685Champion of the urban poor, Ong Boon Keong, with the inner city’s residents facing eviction, handing a petition to Unesco’s Richard Engelhardt –  George Town, 21  April 2002 



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Escape from Slavery


On Page 286: ‘Little Heroine’ tells the saga of an Akha girl’s escape from slavery and her struggle to go to school  

In Opium Country              Akha tribesman smoking opium in the Golden Triangle, circa 1980.


Little Heroine

The Saga of an Akha girl’s escape from ‘slavery’, struggle to go to school, fight for dignity and justice


The Akhas one of the most exploited and marginalised              



Author’s note: In 2001 I was the researcher and interpreter for Reader’s Digest writer doing a regional drug story. We spent quite some time in Mae Sai and I had a good chat with this incredible Akha girl. What I heard blew me away.

The border town of Mae Sai, the northern-most point of the country is by far the most notorious and mind-boggling of all Thailand. It is the gateway for all the worst of human flotsam pouring from Burma into Thailand – opium, heroin, amphetamines, border raids, refugees, child prostitutes and human trafficking, to name a few. For a small frontier town it has the most number of brothels per square area.

The flood of amphetamine has become so serious of late that an all out war was declared and its eradication has become national top priority, says Sompop Jantraka, head of Daughters Education Programme, an NGO in Mae Sai dedicated to preventing and saving young girls being sold into prostitution.

Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sompop was named one of Asia’s 25 heroes by Time magazine in April this year (2002). [Time magazine issue Apr 23, 2002]

To underscore the effectiveness of his NGO, the police in Mae Sai asked for two women counselors from the DEP to help in the police rehabilitation center.

Young Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: far right, RD writer and Sompop, bavk to camera, and police officers interviewing teenage girls

Young Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: far right, RD writer Marc Lerner and Sompop, back to camera, and police officers interviewing teenage girls at Mae Sai Rehab Center


“We are happy to provide our counselors to help the woman addicts and we have asked the police to provide us with two officers to help us in our fight against woman and child trafficking,” says Sompop.

Of the two counselors helping the police is a tribal girl, Thanayaporn Lecheku, who would in all probability be the heroine of Asia if not the world. Diminutive and unassuming, like most of her mountain folks, her demeanor belies the steel inside her that has been forged by years of hardship and struggle she has endured.


Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: Our heroine Thanayaporn is the diminutive girl standing 2nd right

Girls Rehab Center, Maesai: Our heroine Thanayaporn is the diminutive girl standing 2nd right with Somphob and RD’s Marc Lerner in the middle, July 2002

Thanayaporn’s story is the more remarkable as she is an Akha, the poorest and most marginalized of Thailand’s minority mountain tribes. Struggling against all odds she has not only got herself educated and become one of the best counselors, she would also become one of the first Akha woman graduates. At twenty-one, she is now a first year university student majoring in arts and public administration.

Speaking to this writer 2001 in Mae Sai, Thanyaporn said humbly, “I come from a family of nine brother and sisters. I am the middle child. Home is in Pa Daeng Luang, a remote mountain village 40 km from the district town of Mae Suay (110 km from Mae Sai).

“My father is an opium and heroin addict. He also takes amphetamine. I was nine years old and in primary two of the village school when my father said he is going to sell me and my younger sister. There are too many children and not enough to eat, he said. I was very angry and ran away from home with another girl from the village.

“We walked the whole day to Mae Sai with just the clothes we wore. From Mae Sai we hopped on the buses from village to village and came to Chiang Rai, the provincial capital.  The conductors let us ride free as they know we have nothing. We beg for food and leftovers along the way. 

“From Chiang Rai we hid under the seats of the tour bus and came to Bangkok. Near Bangkok the bus conductor discovered us but let us ride assuming we were Akha beggars coming to Bangkok.

“We wondered around Bangkok huge bus station not knowing where to go. A man picked us up and brought us to a temple in Ayuthaya. The temple has a big hostel for orphans, street kids and runaways like us. There were more than 100 kids, the boys and girls separated into different hostels. The abbot and monks feed the kids and send us to school.

“I stayed in the ‘wat’ for nearly seven years until I was 16 and had studied up to secondary two. I became worried and afraid and decided to come home because some of the girls in the temple had become pregnant after being raped by the monks.

“I had been away and not seen my family for so long. I wonder how my family members were getting on. My friend came back first and I wrote a letter to my father asking him whether he still has intention to sell my sisters, and if he has I shall never come home. The letter was hand carried by my friend and read to my father as he is illiterate.   

“My father said no and asked me to return home. Reaching home, he asked me where I had been for so long and I said I went to school and study. He retorted what use were all the years of studies when you can’t feed the family. A girl must work (in the field), that is the only way to get food and money. And can you stay unmarried until 17?  he challenged.

“I replied the only way to get more money enough to feed the whole family is to get good jobs and we must be educated. If not you will be a poorly paid laborer. There is no hurry to get married; a girl has to be educated first.

“I had to prove it, so I left for Chiang Rai and work in a shop making pillows. The pay was 2,500 baht per month with board and lodging provided. I worked for two months and came home and gave all the 5,000 baht to my father. He was surprised as he had never seen so much money before. I told him he must send the rest of my sisters to school and he agreed.

“At that time the DEP came to the village and announced that they will provide free education and all support to any girls who wish to go to school. I was very happy and immediately took the offer.

“The DEP programme also provide vocational and leadership training, work and academic studies. I continued my education and today I am a first year university student.

“I have proven to my father that I could not only stay unmarried till 17 but I could still be unmarried at 21. (Traditionally tribal girls get married at 15, 16 and by 17 they would have several children already) He has agreed to all my suggestions now and allowed all my younger sisters to continue school.”

I asked Thanayaporn whether she has used her life story in counseling the girls at the rehab center. She said not exactly her life story, but often the girls complained and bemoaned that their parents have neglected them, not give them enough money to spend and buy clothes.

“Just this small little matter and you’re all complaining; you’re having too good a life and have not ‘eaten’ hardship,” She counseled them. “Do you know my father has not given me, not a single baht all my life! “ And Thanayaporn told them how she worked and gave money to support her family.

The little Akha girl who ran away from home to escape ‘slavery’ and to get an education, has become an important part and effective counselor in the police war to eradicate drug addiction among the youth of Thaialnd. She has also convinced her tribal folks how important it is to their fight against ignorance, poverty, and corruption.

Last year when she came back to the village to apply for her ID card, the headman demanded 20, 000 baht instead of the official 20 baht. Together with the DEP chief, they made a report to the police and today the headman and his henchmen are in jail for corruption and abuse of power. Thanayaporn is now famous in her village and her name has become a symbol of hope and a better future for the impoverished hill tribe.


Bridge spanning the Mae Sai river, dividing Mae Sai town from Burma's Tachileck, 18 Jul 2002: closed and sealed for 2 moths already when Burma accused Thailand of aiding Shan rebels attacking Burmese forces. Trafficking of women from China and drugs from Burma flow through here.

Bridge spanning the Mae Sai river, dividing Mae Sai town from Burma’s Tachileck, 18 Jul 2002: closed and sealed for 2 moths already when Burma accused Thailand of aiding Shan rebels attacking Burmese forces. Trafficking of women from China and drugs from Burma flow through here.


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Khaw Sim Bee: Rajah of Ranong



Book by Kim Gooi

    On page 308 :  The Legendary Rajah of Ranong


Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century - photo by Kim Gooi copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000

 Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at    Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century – photo by Kim Gooi   copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000   –  Khaw Sim Bee/Phya Rasadanupradit is seen in pith helmet standing second row third from left




  Author’s note: First published in Bangkok ‘The Sunday Nation’ – Sad Tale Of Beauty Felled – on May 28, 2000;  Malaysiakini on 11 May 2001 and Penang Club magazine in 2002.

They came like thieves to steal and rob with lightning speed in a well-planned move laced with political intrigue and cunning. Metropole Hotel, formerly Asdang House, was one of Penang’s most prominent historical-heritage buildings. It was knocked down and reduced to rubble on early Christmas 1993, while the city slept after a night of good cheers and celebration.

Within minutes, one of Malaysia’s finest heritage buildings with historical ties to Thailand was destroyed and with it a part of history of the region. The New Straits Times reported: “Many people are finding out that the building (after its demolition) has an interesting history and that the list of recent owners is also very interesting. Built at the turn of the century, it belonged to the Khaw (Na Ranong) clan. Here receptions were held for the King and Queen of Thailand. Members of the Thai Royal family also stayed at Asdang House”.

The building which stood on 6,581 square meters of land was symbolic of the Sino-Thai relationship during the early part of the century, the paper said.

Asdang House was more than a Thai embassy to British-held Malaya. Together with Chakrabongse house, it was an extension of the Thai Royal Palace to its southern-most zone of control at a time when the British colonialists were making inroads into the region, and eyeing Phuket’s rich mineral deposits. It was the symbol of sSiam’s successful resistance against colonialism when the rest of the region had fallen victim.

In 1897, when King Chulalongkorn visited Europe, he stopped over at Chakrabongse House where he was received by the household of the Sultan of Kedah, at that time a vassal state of Siam. When King Prajadhipok visited Penang in 1929, he stayed at Asdang House.

Asdang House was built over a hundred years ago, together with Chakrabongse House, by Phya Rasadanupradit of Ranong, also known as Khaw Sim Bee, the legendary Sino-Thai appointed by King Chulalongkorn as governor of the southern west-coast provinces of Siam, stretching from Ranong to Trang.

Rasadanupradit was instrumental in developing the region and successfully thwarted British advances in the south. He outwitted the British by bringing the first rubber seed from British Malaya and planting it in Trang. Today the rubber association of Trang is not above throwing a dinner to members of the Penang-branch of the Na Ranong clan when they come a calling.

To speed up development he brought Chartered Bank to Phuket, the only foreign bank to be allowed there. Other than rubber, he also introduced cashew nut to the south. Born in Ranong, his father sent him to China for further education when he was a young boy. For his vision and loyalty to the King of Siam, he was the first civilian to be honoured with two statues that still stand today in Trang and Phuket.

The achievements of the clan were indeed outstanding and remarkable. The founding father Phya Damrong Sucharit Mahasomphakdi (Khaw Soo Chiang) was a headman and leader of the “Small Knife Society”, an anti-Manchu revolutionary group from Fujian province.

He came to Ranong via Penang during the time of King Rama IV. The area was under constant Burmese threat. Phya Damrong drove off the Burmese pirates and built a wall to protect Ranong, said his great, great grandson, Khaw Cheng Poon in Penang. He became the first Rajah of Ranong by appointment of the King of Siam.

On a subsequent visit to Ranong, King Chulalongkorn commented favorably on the development and praised the comfort and quality of the family mansion. Running a fleet of ships, he was able to bring in goods and coolies from British Penang and opened up the area for development.

In addition to being lord of the southern west-coast provinces of old Siam, the Khaw clan controlled a big chunk of mercantile, mining and shipping activities of the region from Penang. “They were the richest in the region, holding wealth and power,” said Khaw Cheng Poon, the great-grandson.

To enhance the prestige of Siam at a time when the British were treating everyone as second class citizens, Phya Rasadanupradit donated a piece of prime real estate at the esplanade to the public. Called Ranong Ground, the football-size field was meant for public recreation, added Khaw. Alas, Ranong Ground has completely disappeared. Few people now know it ever existed. Today it is the site of Dewan Sri Pinang (State Conference Hall).

As many prosperous Chinese immigrant families were to do, the Khaw family built large, European style houses and entertained lavishly. Clustered along the exclusive shoreline of Northam Road, with names reminiscent of baronial villas like Brooklodge, Nova Scotia (later renamed Asdang House), and the Exeter, the Khaw houses were a reflection of the family success and its place in the world.

Chakrabongse and Asdang house were the setting of numerous parties and receptions especially for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok. Named after sons of King Chulalongkorn, the two houses were built back to back, with Chakrabongse house facing the sea and Asdang House facing the road.

Chakrabongse House was described in glowing terms by Penang Gazette at its house warming by the Prince Chakrabongse in 1904: “Mr Khaw Sim Bee has taste and very thorough notions of comfort. Standing on the brink of the sea, with its verandahs opening on lovely view of the harbour and purple heights of Kedah beyond, the position of the new house could scarcely be surpassed in Penang.

“Its snowy whiteness backed by the dark green of palms and flanked with tennis courts will render it the home beautiful indeed. The floors have marble in the halls and on the verandahs. The dinning and drawing rooms are large enough for huge gatherings, and the latter might easily accommodate four or five sets of Lancers.”

During World War II, the houses were appropriated by the Japanese military forces. After the war they were returned. Phya Rasadanupradit’s only son in Penang, Khaw Joo Chye, inherited Chakrabongse House.

It was said that the widow of Joo Chye was tired of the sea, and sold the house for RM150,000 in 1960. She built another bungalow across the road so that she could watch the traffic in her old age, said the grandson. Soon, Chakrabongse House was demolished to make way for luxurious family flats.

The fate of Asdang House

Asdang House was inherited by Phya Rasada’s nephew, Khaw Joo Tok. After World War II, Joo Tok sold it to a car dealer who resold it to a Hainanese restaurant owner who turned it into the Metropole Hotel. It was later sold to a group of politicians of the Gerakan Party controlling Penang.

In 1993 it was designated a heritage building by the Penang Municipal Council. Among the listed owners of the Metropole was the president of the Council who was also the chairman of the Penang Gerakan.

A series of shady deals unfolded: Metropole was allegedly declassified from category I to II, meaning it could be torn down as long as the facade was kept. It was then sold to a RM2 or 20-Baht (paid-up capital) company called Dolphin Square Private Limited for RM9.5 million. On Christmas day it was obliterated in a lightning operation and the debris carted away.

People smelled something fishy and a storm ensued. The hue and cry and the wrath of the people filled the papers, and provided live ammunition to the political opposition.

“How can a RM2 (20 baht) company buy a RM9.5 million house in a designated heritage area, if it is not assured that it could be knocked down for development?” asked opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. “Which bank is going to finance the deal if it is not assured of a quick return?”

The state government’s damage control went into full swing. On Jan 3, 1993, the city council ordered the owner to rebuild the house to its original form in six months. Failing to comply would result in a maximum fine of RM10,000 and an additional fine of RM500 for each day’s delay. The Chief Minister lauded the council for its swift action.

On Feb 14, the company was charged in court for demolishing a heritage house without permission and subsequently fined RM50,000. Today (2000), seven years later, the storm has abated but nothing has been done to restore the house. What has happened to the fine accumulated – RM500 a day for each day of non-compliance?

At the site where Asdang House once proudly stood, lies a half finished high-rise building, a pile of ugly grey concrete and rusty steel in a wasteland along Penang’s famous Millionaires’ Row. Ironically it was the economic crisis in 1997 that stopped the construction, not the law of the land nor the wishes of the people.

fall-of- house-part-2


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Worth remembering: Malaysia’s ‘militant’ Islamic groups

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October 28, 2015 · 7:52 pm

Latest version of my book

Just out on August 2015

contact : kimgooi47@gmail.comPoetKengTungCOVERSpread


On Page 244 :  RAINING Bombs In Laos

U.S. secret war and atrocities

lao boy head woundPhonesai, 13, had part of his head blown off and left hand paralyzed in March 1995 when his friend found a bomblet – they started tossing it like a ball, it exploded and killed the friend instantly.

His left leg still hurt and he can’t go to school. His arms and legs become painful when he thinks and he cannot sleep at night.

Ban Lat Houang, Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997


In recent years I have had the chance to witness some of these atrocities and crimes against humanity at close hand and document them. One of the cruelest acts in human history was committed by the US government in Laos, earning the land-locked country the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed place on earth.

Information from the Menonites and Mines Advisory Group (MAG), two NGOs (one American and the other British) helping to clear the mines, claim:  From May 1964 until 1973 end, in an undeclared secret war US warplanes flew round the clock and bombed Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos.

Every eight minutes a planeload of bombs was dropped and it went on for nine years. By the end of the war in 1975, everything in the province were flattened and destroyed. Those who could flee to the forest, survive in caves and tunnels underground. Farmland, orchards and all were totally destroyed; 99.9 percent of the livestock killed.

To ensure continued destruction, killing, maiming and render the land unusable for generations to come, more than a million tiny colourful cluster bombs were dropped. These bombs are particularly nasty and cruel. The delayed-action bomblets (locals called them bombies) – the size of tennis ball and brightly coloured – are made to resemble oranges, guavas, pineapples and other attractive fruits. They are designed for children to pick up and play with. In this manner, groups of children would be injured and maimed for life and become a burden to the family. The objective was to cause long term social and economic destruction to the nation, according to the NGOs.

Because millions of these small bombs were dropped and scattered decades ago, over the years they sunk underground. They have been almost impossible to clear. Until today dozens of children are still killed and injured by the bombs every year. It has rendered building houses and farming the land impossible, without endangering lies.

The Mennonite, an American church group, who are helping Laos to clear the bombs, said it may take a hundred years and still they cannot clear all.

What diabolical minds would invent these evil devices and wrought such destruction on a people, especially the children, for generations and render the land unusable?

“The US government which prides itself as champion of democracy and human-rights has not owned up to its responsibility and admit their wrong–doing,” said Phoumi Thiphavone, governor of Xieng Khouang province, in an interview in January 1995.  He added that bomblets kill an average 20 children each year.

“They have not come forward to help clear the bombs with their resources and advanced technology.” When the Lao government asked the U S for help to clear the bombs, they reply by asking us for permission to fly over and map the region. We were shocked,” said the governor.

[Interview of the governor and reports of the bombings were published by the New Straits Times on March 20, 1995 and an earlier version was published by the Nation Review in Bangkok.]

The US media have been silent, seemingly whitewashing the country’s crime against humanity. A documentary done by a major TV network, 5 years ago, was pulled off the air by pressure from the top, says a Mennonite official. Our documentary with, Claes Bratt, (see photo below) for US TV network was also taken off the air at the last moment in 1998.

A New York Times report posted on line in April 2014, says the annual US spending on removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos increased to USD 12 million a year from $2.5 million a decade ago.  In comparison, the bombing cost US$17 million a day, says Fatima Bhojani of Mother Jones website.


lao girl blinded                                                                                 –  Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997


lao bombie





one arm lao boy In April 1995 Boun Mi, 15, lost and arm when his hoe struck a bomblet while planting rice in the field. He was disappointed when NGO’s told him they could fix him with a new arm; he thought the new limb would function like his old natural arm and not limited to a few functions – Picture shows Swedish producer/director, Claes Bratt, examining the artificial arm.

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Datuk’s birthday: FLOWERS and KENDURI


More than a century ago, J.D. Vaughan was Superintendent of Penang Police from 1851 till 1856.  In his book   ‘The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements’,  he wrote: “The Chinese people, nooks, corner of roads, trees, rocks and sundry other places with fays and fairies and goblins damned innumerable, and do them worship to propitiate them. Incense sticks, slip of paper, tinsel ornaments and other gew gaws may be seen at the most out of the way spots showing that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have discovered an evil spirit there-abouts.”

Vaughan may be excused for his unflattering remarks, for like many colonial officials and westerners, they do not take the intangible seriously, unlike the inhabitants of Asia who experience the spirit world as indeed real.

The apparent Chinese indifference towards religious issues has often been seized upon by Westerners as an unerring mark of their want of spiritual profundity and sophistication.

If Vaughan were to look deeper, he would discover that Chinese mind is also practical and unpretentious and capable of the most abstruse speculation. In both philosophy and religion, what it seeks to do is to interpret life in terms of a monistic principle which will enable them to establish a unity between this worldly and other-worldly existence, between human self and nature, and between the material and the spiritual world.

What Vaughan described over a hundred years ago is still very much alive in Penang today. If he were to probe a little he would discover that the ‘shrines innumerable’ were for the worship of Datuk (Keramat), the local deity or guardian spirit of the land (not goblins or evil spirits).  It is indeed ‘damned innumerable’, occupying sundry other places, nooks and corners, trees and rocks all over the island. The worship of Datuk Kong (in Hokkien) is peculiar to Penang, as nowhere else does it in such a scale and intensity.

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Every Thursday night (Malam Jumaat, beginning of the Muslim Sabbath) worshippers light up the shrines with incenses, and offerings. Partaking of pork is taboo among the strict devotees.

Recently I chanced upon a grand celebration of a Datuk Kong in the mixed working/middle class suburb of Rervoir Gardden, close to the hills of Ayer Itam. It was the birthday of Datuk Ayer Puteh. It falls on the 6th of the 6th lunar month. Celebrations began on the 5th and went on for 3 days. In a small field a shed was erected to house the altar and paraphernalia, which had been brought down from the shrine at the foot of the hill about 2 km away. There were a white haji cap, a small Kris, seven colour flags, and offerings of flowers, betelnut and sireh, green coconuts, rokok daun (tobacco/palm leaves), malay sweets and cakes like dodol. Betir, kueh kerai and ketupat.

Uncle Tan, a sinewy old man of 75 brightened up when I approached him for some background history. “There are all together seven Datuks,” he enthused. “They are seven brothers, famous warriors of old. ” The oldest is Datuk Kuning, alias Pengulu Pulau Kechil;  followed by Datuk Panglima Hitam, Datuk Puteh, Datuk Merah, Datuk Hijau, Datuk Kechil and Datuk Bisu, he rattled off as if the spirits were right there in person. Other names that might crop up are Datuk Musa, Datuk Batu Acheh and Datuk Ali, he added matter-of-factly.

I asked Uncle Tan are they really famous warriors before and how they came to be deified and worshiped with such reverence? Uncle Tan looked at me aghast as if saying, what dumb head!

“These Datuks are very important and control the locality, if you pay respect and appease them, they can help you and solve your problems. If you violate and offend them like simply chopping down any trees or leveling the hills, misfortune will befall you. ‘

“Don’t you know so many bulldozers have overturned and accidents occurred to these violators,” Uncle Tan added, looking at me disappointingly.

Earlier on the Datuk had come down from the hill shrine in a grand procession, preceded by flags and banners beating of drums and wailing Java pipes from the Menora troop. Datuk Ayer Puteh came in the form of a medium in a trance. The medium wearing a sarong had very dark complexion, he was bare-chested and had a white sash across his shoulder. He weaved and danced with silat movements ceaselessly as the procession pass the housing estates.

The procession ended at the shed in the field. Opposite the shed stood an open stage for the menora performance from the Penang Siamese Community.

Many years ago, the committee made a mistake by engaging a Chinese opera for the celebration. That night there was a thunderstorm and the stage was blown away. “The Datuk was angry because he could not understand Chinese opera. We can stage Menora or Ronggeng dance for the Datuk,” said Uncle Aw (uncle Blackie, a popular name among the peranakan Hokkiens), 71, who has been a medium for 60 years.

On the second day, which is the birthday, a kenduri was held in the afternoon. The shed was filled with pots of nasi kunyit, curry chicken, and all kinds of fruits. Before the food were distributed Uncle Aw went into a trance. The Datuk blessed the large crowd with holy water as each came forward kneeling reverently. To those seeking a cure for sickness, he gave pinang and sireh to chew.

On the third night, an air of expectancy pervaded as a large crowd of devotees gathered. The Menora had ended and the troupe were entertaining the crowd with Thai songs and ramvong (folk dance) as a large crowd gathered waiting for the propitious hour. At 11 pm. Uncle Aw sat in front of the altar and went into trance, waving and swaying amidst thick incense (kamenyan) smoke; a cacophony of throbing drums, clashing cymbals and gongs, and wailing java pipes (serunai).

The Datuk swayed and silat-danced as the process:on proceeded with groups of kids holding flags and a huge “Datuk Ayer Puteh” banner leading the way. A large crowd followed with joss sticks, incense urns, and all the paraphernalia of the Datuk. Thick white incense smoke lifted through the dark night, the percussion and pipes intensified, the Datuk swayed and danced with exuberance with each new step as the parade wound through the middle-class housing estate. Residents came out to watch and pray along the dimly lit streets.

Arriving at the shrine at the foot of the hill, the Datuk. leaped into the shrine, the size of a small room, silat danced with renewed intensity while the drums, percussion and pipes reached a crescendo. The Datuk sat down on the floor and slammed his hands on the cement floor,  all was quiet – he spoke: “Datuk banyak suka, semua orang sukahati, makanan pun chukup; Datuk minta Tuhan kasi semua orang selamat. Sila chakap sama semua orang. [Datuk is very happy, every body is enjoying, the food is plenty; I will ask God to bless you all! Please tell everyone.] The message was translated into Hokkien as the crowd clapped and cheered.

“Datuk minta empat ekor,” (give us the lottery numbers)  someone shouted. Speaking all the time in Malay he said, “Wait, we have to pray to God first” (sembayang Tuhan dulu), he reprimanded. “Please bring the papers.” A piece of white paper and a pen were brought forward. “I mean joss paper for praying,” he scolded in a loud angry voice.

When the ‘gold’ joss papers were brought in, he scribbled three words in Jawi on the back and asked the people to bring it outside as gold offering to Tuhan (God). And then the people worshipped and prayed and the ‘gold’ papers were burnt as he instructed.

This done, the Datuk said: “Now bring the paper. On the white piece of paper, which was eagerly brought forward, he wrote a 4-digit number, which was pasted outside the shrine for the eager crowd to bet on race day.

The Datuk asked for anyone with problems to come forward. A man asked whether he would be successful in his new business. The Datuk took his hands and examined his palm and inquired:

“Do you pray to God? The man confessed that he was so busy he has forgotten to pray. The Datuk reprimanded him and ordered that he pray regularly. Then he would be all right, and be careful of the shoulders and the back of the head; don’t let anyone hit you in those areas, he advised.

Another asked whether he would be okay if he proceeds to Singapore for work. The Datuk took his hands and said: “Boleh, hang boleh pi tapi ta’boleh lama. Hang mesti balek sini sebab bini dan keluarga ada sini, hang mesti balek sini.” (You can go but not for long, because your wife and family are here. You must come back)

The consultation over, the medium swayed, gave a jerk and sprang backwards into the arms of a devotee. For a few minutes he lay still. Some water were sprinkled on his face, a guy tapped him on his chest, the medium awoke as if from a long sleep.

It seemed like a current was being switched off, and we were back to the mundane world. Slowly everyone trooped back home in groups… seemingly happy that they had found unity with the spirit world.


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Penang George Town Festival – Konsert Kopitiam (August 2014)


The third Konsert Kopitiam (Coffeeshop Concert) will be held @ Hock Poh Lye (at the corner of China Street / Penang Street) on Friday 15 August from 6-8 PM.

The concert will feature renowned sitarist Hamid Khan & his band, storyteller Himanshu Bhatt, magician Barry ‘The Great Barrini’ Khoo, veteran journalist Kim Gooi and his harmonica, Tamil poet Se Gunalan and Yasmin Bathamanathan


Live potrait0004

A flattering portrait drawn by Malaysia’s foremost artist Abdul Rashid, at Asia cafe


New Straits Times,  Friday August 22, 2014konsert kopitiamNew




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