Category Archives: My Scribbles

You hit the right spot!

“It hurts at this spot, right?” the Malay assistant at the hair salon asked as she pressed her fingers on my shoulder. She seemed to have a knack for identifying problem spots. Her skillful kneads got rid of all the culprit aches.

No, I wasn’t at a massage session at a spa but at a hair salon in Kuala Lumpur. I realized she had spent a good 15 minutes giving me a shoulder massage. No wonder the hair stylist had said earlier on that a wash and blow would take an hour. This is one of the things that I like about hair salons in Malaysia and China – they give you a thorough and relaxing experience – something that you can’t get in Singapore.

That hair salon wasn’t a high end one either. In fact, it was a home-based salon. Basic, yet meets its needs.

I had spotted the signage on the ground floor earlier on when I was along Jalan Imbi.

There is a whole block of old flat in the area. Huge, drab, grey boxes they are. A flight of steep stairs zipping up its  side. Capped off by the balconies, jutting out proudly of each front room – the main highlight.

A wall of metal grills wrap round these balconies. The grills are minimalist at their best. Small metallic squares skewered on vertical metal rods. They showcase the local architectural design of the 1960s.

Some creative owners had added a ledge on top of the wall so they could place potted plants on them. Geometric shapes like trapeze or simply patterns of S-shaped curves are embroidered onto these ledges.

Besides making the balcony higher, some functional owners had added awnings, probably to prevent the rain from coming in.  Given the heavy monsoon rains coupled with strong winds over here, it is a practical necessity. The ultimate is those who cage up their entire balcony, building additional metal grills on the second top half of the balcony, all the way to the ceiling.  These owners obviously favour living in mid-air cages.

Before retro became chic, I had long fallen in love with the balconies of these old flats. These balconies are also the windows to each household’s lives. They tell the stories of their inhabitants.

Do they hang their laundry in the balcony? Or do they have chairs and a table there? Potted plants on the ledge? Or old junk thrown out there?

After admiring these unique windows to each unit’s lives, I then climbed up the steep stairs in the rather dark stairwell.  Such stairs are common in these old flats. When I press the doorbell, I realized that the proprietor had created another entrance to the flat.  The door to the hair salon was on the right, perpendicular to the original entrance to the flat. It was a wooden framed door with a fan-shaped pattern at the top and four rows by three columns of squares filled with glass panels.

The left entrance was locked by a retractable metal gate.  The retractable parts looked like two rows of giant X-shaped metal arms at the top and bottom. This type of gate is typical in many old houses of that era. I noticed three rows of small rectangular openings at the top of the wall, each one extended from the gate to the ceiling. Wow! These old houses think of everything!

Before stepping in, I managed to steal a glance of the other side of the flat on the far left through the gates. A very long corridor connecting the first half of the flat with the second surprised me.

When the door opened, I was ushered to a row of chairs on the right, for waiting customers. The hall area housed the hair salon.  There were 6 salon chairs in there with all the usual equipment like steamers and heaters. In fact, it looked like any other hair salons in town.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. When I was finally seated on the salon chair, I happened to turn my head to the left and a door from the salon leading to the area near the original entrance, caught my eye. I wondered if customers are allowed to use the washroom. Then I could take a look at how the flat looks like.

The assistant gave me a good hair shampoo and led me to the hair washing area, in the front room.  As I lay there with my eyes closed, I was very curious what was in the balcony.  Towels from the salon drying on racks? Pots of flowers?

I opened my eyes a little but all I saw through my eyelashes was the louvres of the windows and the door towards the balcony.

“Did you colour your hair?” the Malay assistant asked in Malay.

I was jolted out of my thoughts.

“Yes, I did.”

“Oh, I thought you didn’t. It looks so natural,” She smiled.

I was glad I could still speak some basic Malay though hardly fluent at all. And I’ve forgotten many words by now, not having spoken it for ages. Hmn, I should really brush up on it.

When I visited different cities in Malaysia this few years, I was surprised to see many Malays being employed in different business establishments owned by the Chinese. This is especially prevalent in coffee shops, where I thought non-Halal food items would be a problem for them. But I must be wrong as I see many Malays working in these coffee shops.

This is rather surprising given the worsened race relations in Malaysia in recent years. So it seems race relations are not that bad after all and it could be just the politicians who are making it up for their own political gain. Or is it a matter of survival that triumphs over religious inconveniences? Or we should all take a leaf from the grassroots for religious harmony – they just find a way of working together, in spite of whatever differences.

That’s ironical really, for I’ve never seen Malays working at Chinese businesses in the past, when relations between the races were good. This is indeed an interesting phenomenon.

“Is this right for you or do you want it to be harder?” the Malay assistant asked if she was using the right amount of strength to scratch and massage my scalp.

“Yes, it is. Thanks.”

After I was whisked back to my seat at the main hall and had my hair towelled dried, the Malay assistant started on my shoulder massage. She would have continued if she didn’t have to help the hair stylist with preparations for another customer’s hair colour. She deftly mixed the colours and wrapped the customer’s coloured hair with those plastic wrap that one uses for covering food.

I see that they work in perfect rhythm, she handing the utensil-in-need to the hair stylist at just the right time. Like a chef’s assistant who can anticipate what the chef needs at the next step in their dance of creation. Indeed, it’s important to have an able assistant.

While waiting for the hair stylist to attend to me, I overheard her talking to the customer who was colouring her hair.

“So how’s Ho Jie? I heard she had a stroke.”

“Oh, she’s better now. I think she should be up and running soon.”

That’s what I like about such neighbourhood shops, everyone knows everyone and are friends with each other.

When the hair stylist finally came over, I had to ask her about the layout of the unusual flat.

“I see a super long corridor connecting the first half of the flat with the second. Seems you have a huge flat here.”

“Yeah, it is. You know, these old flats are really deep. The second half behind has 2 other rooms, a small dining area and a kitchen. There are 2 toilets and a dry kitchen in the corridor. In fact this front section also has 2 rooms besides a main hall. I had broken down the walls of one of the rooms to maximize space.”

“Wow! Amazing! Very practical layout too.”  OMG! This is even bigger than I thought!

“Ya, many have 2 families staying under one roof.”

“Seemed to be custom-made for that, isn’t it?”

I love this salon, it has so much character. I will definitely be back.

I don’t mind staying at this type of apartment too and renting the other half out. The long corridor act as a bridge. It serves the dual function of being both a link and a buffer, affording both privacy and separation at the same time. Whenever I wish to chat with someone, I could go over to the front of the house and speak to the tenant. If not, I could have my own space at the back of the house.

It reminded me of the dual key concept apartment of recent years, except this doesn’t come with a separate entrance.  It shows that back in the 60’s the developer already had this concept in mind. Ideas from this era aren’t as new as we thought.

Perhaps I should buy an apartment like this and create a dual entrance on my own. Something to dream about…

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These Arms are for your Hair

His macho looks and muscled arm makes him seem more at home at a construction site than a hair salon. But that’s exactly where I met him. In fact, he is a hairdresser. I was surprised and intrigued at the same time. I would have to wait to find out more though.

When I stepped into this family-run, neighbourhood hair salon, I was expecting middle-age aunties to serve me. Granted there were two such aunties but they were cashiers and managers, not hair-dressers. The men are the hair-stylists here.

I arrived at the salon at 11pm but it was still doing thriving business, like many hair salons inGuangzhouand mainlandChina. I requested for a hair wash and was promptly whisked upstairs by a young girl. As I settled into the reclining seat at the wash area, a young man in his twenties came bounding up the stairs. He had thought it was his turn to do my hair. When he realized the girl had volunteered for it, he beamed and exclaimed, “You’re the best!” before disappearing again.

The girl who washed my hair was an eighteen year-old vivacious teenager, chatty and attentive at the same time. While washing my hair, she asked if the water temperature and pressure exerted was to my liking. She then commented that I was very tall and has such long neck. She sounded like a junior at high school, admiring a senior dreamily. How could I not be flattered? “But you’re very thin! “Well, yes, in fact, too thin,” I said. “How I wish I could transfer some of my flesh to you, “she sighed. “I wish you could too. That would be the perfect solution, isn’t it?” I chuckled. And I meant it. I am desperately trying to put on weight but without success. “Do you always knock off this late?” “Sometimes, but today I went shopping.”  (Yes, I was pretending to be a native. So far I had been convincing enough thanks to my pseudoGuangzhouaccent.)

After the initial chat, perhaps sensing that I wanted to relax, she let me escape to my land of fantasy. Leaving her to work her way through my scalp, I entered into a state of bliss. At that moment, I really understood why a visit to a hair salon could help one de-stress.

When she was done, I was ushered downstairs. While waiting for my turn, I observed the macho hairdresser patiently sculpt the hair of a lady, his sinewy arms guiding the hair with grace. His was definitely a masculine kind of grace unlike the usual effeminate gentleness of gay hairdressers. I wonder how he ended up being a hairdresser. Of course, his manly ways and muscular physique does not mean he’s not gay either. I guess we’re basically used to the effeminate type of gay hair stylist found in salons. The rest are straight men who are almost never muscular and not very good stylist either. Somehow this is more or less true anywhere in the world. That’s what makes this hair stylist’s combination so unique.

Understandably, I perked up my ears to listen in on his conversation. While advising his customer on what to do with her hair for the following day, he was chatting with the two aunties in the shop at the same time. They commented on how dirty his suitcase was and he told them he had made it grubby on purpose so as not to attract the attention of potential thieves. They chuckled uncontrollably at this. I couldn’t suppress a smile either.

“Hey, the konnyaku jelly you bought fromHong Kongtaste superb! The ones over here in MainlandChinajust aren’t as nice.”

“Have more then.”

“Join us for supper later on. We’ve got something to discuss with you. …Oh, but you’ve got that suitcase of yours…inconvenient, I know.”

“It’s OK. I can leave the suitcase here and collect it tomorrow.”

That piqued my curiosity, I wondered what they were going to discuss after they close for the night. Plans to renovate the shop or how to improve business or personal matters? My imagination ran wild too. Somehow the informal Cantonese expression for ‘discuss’, ‘jum’, has an air of conspiracy surrounding it.

When he finally moved on to serve me, he greeted me and got on with the job. We didn’t end up chatting much, so couldn’t find out more about him. I had let nature take its course instead of trying to force a conversation. So, I turned to observation instead.

He blew dry and styled my hair with both sensitivity and a briskness that indicated practicality. His was the manly type of sensitivity, very much different from a gay man’s sensitivity. After my hair was blown till it was half dried, he took out the de rigueur round brush from his kit and carefully wrapped my hair around the contour of the brush before styling it; giving my hair that lift which one only gets at the hair salon. In fact, he did a much better job than the young hairstylist from a bigger, chain salon the night before. His experience shone through in his deft hands and seemingly effortless styling. His muscled arm, toiled away with an artist’s grace.

Further away, the young girl who had washed my hair earlier on was now having her hair washed by another girl, who seemed a year or two older than her. They were fooling around and in the excitement; the girl washing the hair had accidentally splashed water onto the younger girl. She quickly proffered an apology in surprisingly, English, instead of her native Cantonese; “Oh, I’m so sorry!” to the squeals’ of laughter from the ‘victim.’ I wasn’t sure if she was laughing at her deliberate attempt to speak in English or was secretly delighted at having water squirted onto her. In any case, they both looked like they were having fun. I, as a spectator, enjoyed the scene too. And this is something which I would definitely not have witness at a chain salon. And mind you, a wash and blow here cost half the price of those at a chain salon. You can be sure I’ll be back the next time I visitGuangzhou. Meanwhile, I’ll keep guessing what they had discussed that night after calling it a day.

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Baby Spectator

The baby’s cherubic smile stood out from the spectators of sports enthusiasts. While Mummy is focused on the game of water polo, little one teases with his twinkling eyes, seducing the girls sitting behind him, from the brawny 6-pack abs players. The girls in turn made funny faces to humour him. He rewards them with his winsome smile. Occasionally, he gives the players a nonchalant glance. Mummy fusses over him in between games and fielding business calls on the mobile phone, feeding or burping him. Tired of all the excitement around him, he sometimes nods off into slumber land, blissfully unaware that his crooked smile while asleep distracts the girls from the game. Bewitched, one of the girls steals a shot of him with her camera. When the little prince awakes from his beauty sleep refreshed, Mummy quickly takes snapshots of him for the memories. Years from now, she would say, “Hey that was you as a baby at the Asian Games in 2010!”

To me, this was the true highlight of that afternoon’s game. Sorry, guys, I know your hunky 6-pack abs bodies are to-die-for but the baby stole my heart. : p

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That Little Shop on the Hill

Perched atop the slopes of Hollywood Road just at the entrance of Aberdeen Street is a little gift shop.

Cute, tiny faces of pigs, bears and assorted animals look up at you from the window display beckoning you to go into this miniscule wonderland. As you push open the door, sunflowers beam at you at the foot. A huge monkey grins at you when you look up – what a plush cushion that makes 🙂

Just then I spotted the perfect gift that I was looking for – a pair of salt and pepper shakers in the form of cows.

“Is that for someone who is born in the Year of the Ox?” the shop owner enquired.

I turn around to see a young lady with long hair smiling at me. Simply dressed in a long-sleeve top and jeans, I realized she was naturally attractive.

“Exactly,” I grinned.

“I knew it. Most people only look for cow-shaped ornaments when they need gifts for those born in the Year of the Ox.”

“Really?” I asked, somewhat amused.

“Hey you look so fit? Do you exercise a lot?”

“Haha. Actually, I’m trying to put on weight.” By now I was used to everyone commenting on the state of my weight.

“Really? Why?”

“Yeah, I’ve some stomach problem lately. Besides, stress plays a big part too.”

“Oh, yes it does. You know what I lost 10 pounds in over just a week last year when I had a big fight with my husband.”

“10 pounds within a week? Wow, that’s drastic!” Frankly, I thought it sounded like an exaggeration but it was not impossible either.

“It’s true. You know, because of the financial crisis and all. It got so bad that in the end I told myself to take it easy, that even if it ends in divorce, so be it. Then, slowly I got better.”

“Ya, we really need to take it easy. But easier said than done, unfortunately,” I chuckled.

“You’re telling me. In a place like Hong Kong, it’s impossible to be stress free!” She laughed.

“What time do you close?”


“No off days?”


“Wow, that’s long hours!”

“Well, that’s normal in Hong Kong, right?”

“Haha. Yup. It can’t be help, I guess,” I quipped. “You know, I really like the stuff in your shop.”

“Then do drop by more often. Do you stay around here?”

“No, in Mongkok area,” I was secretly pleased that my pseudo Hong Kong accent has passed without being detected. Though I have always spoken fluent Cantonese, mastering the Hong Kong accent is another matter. In any case, I wasn’t exactly lying as I was currently residing in a hotel in the Mongkok area 😛

“Oh, still do come by whenever you can.”


I love having such conversations with “real people” in a foreign city. Nothing beats having an insight into how “normal” people live.  Looks like city-folks the world over share similar woes and worries.

Sometimes when I am picking out gifts I would often wonder how the lady boss of this little shop on the hill is doing. I would definitely return on my next trip to Hong Kong. I had to leave the shop reluctantly without buying those cute tissue box covers and well, in fact almost everything else, as I had run out of luggage space after my shopping spree!

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Quiet Sanctuary in Hong Kong – Chi Lin Nunnery

An island of calm in the frenzied world of Hong Kong – Chi Lin Nunnery

 If you think that Hong Kong is only a concrete jungle filled with skyscrapers and shopping malls, there is a place you can escape to for a little peace. This quiet sanctuary away from the madding crowd is a relaxing respite from bustling Hong Kong.

 Tucked away just a short walk from Diamond Hill MTR (subway) station, Chi Lin Nunnery exudes Zen-like calmness. It has undergone many reincarnations since its inception a hundred years ago – from a wealthy merchant’s villa in the earlier century to a free community school, to a Buddhist school to a home for the elderly and finally, to the present day temple. Chen Qi, the original owner, was a devout Buddhist who had sold his mansion at a budget to 2 monks for the spread of Buddhism. This building certainly bears witness to the development history of Buddhism in Hong Kong.

 Modelled after China’s Tang Dynasty style architecture, its clean cut lines and neutral colours are unlike the usual Chinese temples’ often garish colours and outlandish designs. Built without using a single nail, this whole structure comprising 228,000 pieces of timber is held together using a complex interlocking system involving wooden dowels and brackets – a technique dating back to the ancient Tang Dynasty. This architecture wonder has soaring ceilings held up by 28 columns, measuring 18 feet each. The ceilings support roofs with traditionally-made clay tiles that weigh 176 tonnes.

 Besides artistic aspirations, the nunnery also had to meet stringent structural and safety requirements that include fire safety (especially given its wooden structure), the ability to withstand severe typhoon as well as protection against termites and insects. A perfect marriage of ancient technique and modern technology, this gem of Chinese monastic architecture also manifest the unity of structure and art.

 The overall layout is based on the Chinese philosophy of harmony between Heaven and Earth with an emphasis on nature. The spirit of Buddhism is reflected in its many structures – the seven-storey pagoda representing Buddhist teachings on moral values and the importance of repaying gratitude while the grand main hall and sutra room reminds one of Buddhist wisdom and practice.

 If you think that its touch of Zen reminds you of those temples in Japan, well you are not far off the mark. Buddhism reached the height of its influence in China during the Tang dynasty so it probably spread to Japan then along with its architectural design.

 The nunnery also incorporates classic Chinese courtyard-style influence into its design. Winding corridors and lotus ponds bear testaments to this. Naturally, no Chinese building is complete without the ancient art of ‘wind and water’ – the ubiquitous Feng Shui or geomancy. 

 In accordance to the principle of Feng Shui, the building faces south towards the sea with its back to the mountain. The facing is said to bring abundance and strong mountain backing ensures having a provider of strength and good energy. Besides having auspicious facing, the nunnery is also flanked by the Mountain of Compassionate Clouds on the left and the Lion Rock on the right.

 Covering a space of 30,000 square meters, it took 11 painstaking years and multi-million dollars to reconstruct the building which reopened in 2000. Yellow cedar wood was imported from Canada and carved in China by skilled artisans. They were then reconstructed in Hong Kong like a giant piece of jigsaw puzzle. The main hall was modeled after the Foguang Monastery in Shanxi Province, China while the double-eave Hall of Celestial Kings is designed after the 11-century Phoenix Hall outside Kyoto, Japan.

 Housing 16 Buddhist halls, Zen-style rock gardens and lotus ponds, landmarks include the magnificent Ten Thousand Buddhas pagoda as well as the pair of symmetrical Bell and Drum Tower at the entrance. Statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism some 2,500 years ago is suitably housed in the main hall. Statues of the Goddess of Mercy or Guanyin and the God of Medicine as well as other bodhisattvas are also present in the nunnery. They are beautifully crafted from gold, clay, wood and stone. Besides statues, the Patriarch Hall features many tablets with imprinted wisdom of many Chinese sages.

 This gem of a temple woos one with simple pleasures – wood exuding a hint of fragrance all round, pretty little bonsai trees, artful rockeries in landscaped gardens with manicured shrubs. Besides, its lotus ponds in full bloom are truly magnificent sights to behold.

 So the next time you are in Hong Kong and wish for a spot of peace, don’t forget to head to this charming little oasis. Best of all, admission is free.

Note: First published on on 12 August 2008



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Infernal “Cha Chan Ting”

I remember this café in Hong Kong which was frequented by renovation contractors. And another which was overrun by gangster-looking men. One half expected to see a Tony Leung lookalike mole ala Infernal Affairs to walk in.

 Initially, I had thought they were construction workers – burly men in work clothes covered in cement, dragging their sand-dusted boots. Then, I realized most had the contractible tape measure clipped onto their waist, giving their trade away. Nowhere were we near any blue-collar area but smacked right in the middle of the swanky tourist district of Tsimshatsui. Imagine my surprise when these brawny men began descending in droves into this humble café, known affectionately as “Cha Chan Teng” in Hong Kong. (“Café” in the Cantonese dialect.) This little enclave appears to be a hub of sorts for construction workers, at least in this area.

 Having worked their butts off for the morning, they fervently tucked into hearty meals of mainly rice dishes and other Cha Chan Teng staples. Many with mobile phones clinging onto their ears, busy returning calls to potential and existing clients – giving updates of work done or firing away quotations. Taking a much needed breather, most took a drag on their cigarettes while sipping hot, Hong Kong style milk tea – a thick brew of Ceylon tea with generous amount of evaporated milk and sugar.

 Brute they were not, with impeccable manners; they were careful not to encroach upon your personal space when you share a table with them. (It is common for customers at a “cha chan teng” to share a table during the packed, peak-hours.) Beneath the rough surface, these guys have a charm of their own. Some were even roguishly handsome exuding a dangerous air about them. No wonder some were seen to be whispering sweet nothings into their mobile phones – I’m sure these guys are not short of girl friends.

 The camaraderie among them were obvious, greeting each other with a slap on the back, bantering away and trading the latest prices of tiles, water pipes and other materials. Exchanging trade tips among them, they sneak in an occasional gossip here and there – yes, men do gossip. Seeing these men at play allows one to get a glimpse of another side of these oft misunderstood workers.

 On another fine afternoon, I walked into a café in search of Hong Kong’s famed egg custard tart and milk tea only to find myself walking straight into what seemed like a den for gangsters and informers.  Perhaps plainclothes policemen were among them too.

 Tough looking guys in …huddled together speaking in undertones while throwing occasional sidelong glances at anyone passing by. Exchanging knowing nods at alliances, they sit down to place their regular orders. The air of conspiracy is unmistakable. 

This may look like any Hong Kong café that you and I patronize but lurking among them could be a mole planted by both sides – the police and the triads. As it is, it wasn’t easy to tell the cops from the triads. Is the guy with the flashy tattoo always the bad guy?

 “Yao mo liu do ah?”

 The line between the two worlds seemingly blur as a plainclothes policeman asked his usual informant for news in colloquial Cantonese.  It is akin to the arms of law dipping into the murky waters of crime in an attempt to bring justice to those who deserve it.

 The practice is often seen as a necessary evil in the industry. After all relying on solid investigation is only half the battle. What better way to get information than from the fringes of society?  

 Unfortunately, I did not hear any other more intriguing conversation. Either that or they were all speaking in codes. Besides the air of conspiracy, the café looks surprisingly ‘normal’, unlike the smoke-filled rooms that one often sees in movies.

 Would I return to that café? You bet! I have yet to witness a shoot-out or even a police chase. But first I must be able to locate the café on my next visit for I had stumbled upon it by chance and couldn’t quite recall its exact location. Pray do let me find it again 😛

 It makes one wonder what would happen to policemen should their informers disappear overnight? And do cops need crooks for their existence? If there were no crooks do we still need laws? Is it a demand and supply question? Or one of prevention?

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