Thursday, February 26, 2009

Colour the Garden

Living in an evergreen tropical climate one's eyes is constantly washed by the refreshing and healing colours of green. Often times when I enter a room or an office my eyes are naturally attracted to live plants that would indicate to me that there is live, growth or stability in the living or work place I am part of. Green is easy on the eye.

Still, we do need colours in our lives just as we need them to add vitality, appeal, sparkle and warmth to the garden. The green wash is considered a 'cool colour' and it is the hot or warm colours that we need to paint the garden to make it look vibrant and invigorating. After about a year since we started digging and experimenting with our garden in Kuching, some positive results are showing up. My focus today is flowers of the red hue( fully saturated). Add a little white and the redness dissolves into more pink values (tints) and here I have planted a couple of species like the heliconia 'sassy pink', pink hibiscus and pink frangipani that hopefully would tickle my senses ( see inset above).

The green wash of the small lawn, palm leaves and shrubbery at the front garden gives out much oxygen and freshness. Besides the the overall greeness, I have added darker values of red ( shades ) to the lower storey plants, thus the dark red or maroon leaves of the irisine. Even the wild banana leaves are variegated with blood red shades of colour.

Pink Hibiscus

In order to enjoy the garden early my strategy was to complete the front garden first. The side garden and the back garden would evolve later. Presently I plant all sorts of species at the back garden as 'advance nursery' which would provide me with the required quantities and heights of the plants upon transplanting . This method is cost saving because you get to propagate the plants yourself instead of purchasing them which is not cheap considering the quantities involved later.

Above, I use a lot of the highly variegated coleus species ( darker shades of red) as under storey plants for the side garden which is slowly emerging.
Having spent a good morning walk about at my garden , I was delighted to make fresh cuttings of the frangipani, hibiscus and heliconia that make their starring performances today. As a test to my kambatik garden concept, I would put it that in our rich tropical diversity, one should be able to move out of the house and within minutes make a simple composition for the table. I attempted it just now and pleased to call this composition 'My Pink Lady'. For more fast compositions of floral arrangements from the kambatik garden please browse here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Small Dose of Japan

One of the great things about staying in Kuching is the stimulation one gets from its many unending cultural events and happenings. Being the cultural capital of Sarawak it is the centre of many international shows and exhibitions. I saw one today when I returned books which I borrowed from the State Library ( Pustaka Negeri Sarawak ) at Petra Jaya which coincidentally was the venue of an exhibition featuring Japanese pottery. The exhibition was organised by the Japan Foundation. A total of 71 exhibits were on display by living artists and contemporary potters from Japan. I was amazed by the novelty of the creations in terms of shape, colour and innovative production methods that displayed much enhancement from its traditional roots and saw many that showcased newer creative forms that surpassed the border of functionalism to pure art ( Art for Art's sake?). In the picture inset above, the light bluish vase on the left with dimension 46x48.5x23 cm i.e Height x Width x Depth , showing curvaceous linear motifs with a spattered slip decor is the work of Simizu Ichiji , 1953- ). The slightly taller piece at the centre is the work of Ichino Masahiko ( 1961 - ) and is entitled ' Sound of the Wind' ( 60x37x34cm). On the far right is a unique vessel that resembled a huge seed to me with a slit through it end to end. This is a good example of the contemporariness of the works on show. The vessel ( 29x91x35.5 cm) of linear motif is the work of Ichino Masahiko too.
The white porcelain piece to the right has a bent and angular shape, very much like origami to me. What strikes me regarding the centre piece was the unconventional texture and colour of the thin glazed vessel. To get a good idea of the relative size of the pieces above, compare them with the one on the left which is the work of Sakai Hiroshi ( 1960 - ) . The very light blue colour vase is glazed and measures 44x45x45 cm.
Overall I was impressed by these ceramic artists who managed to successfully free themselves from the fetters of tradition and in the process able to create individualistic ceramic wares that are adapted to modern lifestyles.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Forgotten Handkerchiefs

From a distance they look like long handkerchiefs hanging from the tips of branches. That was what intrigued me when I drove along this stretch of road at BDC housing estate this morning . To my knowledge this is the only locality in Sarawak where this species is planted as a roadside tree. Though it is native to Malaysia one hardly find it planted in other towns of Sarawak besides Kuching. This tree is called Yellow Saraca ( Saraca thaipingensis) on account of its bunchy clusters of bright yellow flowers. The young leaves are pale purplish pink and become more white as they age and finally turn dark green upon maturing.
Have people forgotten this tree like they have forgotten the use of handkerchiefs with today's 'throw-away' culture? It would be sad if they do because this tree is most suitable for small gardens and even smaller roads. They grow very slowly and would attain their maximum height of 20 m within 20 years. Furthermore they are very attractive to birds and bees. There is a close relative of this plant called the Ashoka Tree ( Saraca asoca ) which is native to India. It was under the Ashoka tree that Buddha was born and therefore the tree is considered sacred among adherents of the Buddhist faith.

Peculiar to Saraca is the emergence of flowers on the tree's older branches. I watched a bee visiting the blooms and saw too that the branch was being shared by ferns and pigeon orchids . A tiny white flower of the pigeon orchid is seen on the upper right hand corner of the picture. The flowers of the Yellow Saraca give out a strong fragrance especially at night. We may have tissue papers in the car or our bag as substitute for handkerchiefs but if we lose the Saraca we only have our ignorance to blame.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Indoor Beauties

I always love to have indoor plants in my living or dining room space. They provide much life and naturalness to the ambience. This enduring penchant of bringing nature indoors have made me want to share some good examples of proven plants. However since I am in the tropics I could only speak of a few of my favourite tropical plants species that fit the bill.

I choose indoor plants to meet these criteria. First they should look neat, anything less will have to be brought outside for major repairs or change. Plants with a lot of leaves drop should be avoided. Secondly they should be hardy like not being susceptible to fungus or insect attacks , like dim or poor light and depending on the species can withstand little watering or over watering. Thirdly they should be able to stay indoors between 1-2 weeks . There are many that can meet the criteria mentioned. A few in mind are the corn plant ( Draceana fragrans'Massangeana' ), ferns like the familiar Bird's nest fern ( Asplenium nidus) , Bamboo species like the 'Japanese bamboo', Lady Palm ( Rhapis), Yucca, Aureum ( Epipremnum pinnata), Goose foot ( Syngonium podophyllum) and the Mother-in-law's tongue ( Sansevieria trisfasciata) . However to me nothing beats the Diffenbachias for their robustness and attractive large oval leaves with occasional creamy stripes and blotches.

In the centre of the picture above is one of my favourite indoor plant called the Monstera deliciosa, which has large evergreen, glossy and perforated leaves. The arrow shaped leaves towards the left belongs to the Arum family. The handsome and striking white creamy foliage plant at the centre is Diffenbachia 'Rudolph Roehrs' which can grow to about a meter high and is distinguished by the green midrib as well as green edges on its leaves. Next to it with creamy white bands which resemble tiger stripes is called Dieffenbachia 'Amoena'.

The above selection are primarily of the Diffenbachia or Dumb cane species. Here they are taken outdoors to expose them to more light and for hardening purposes. A little bit of education is necessary to enjoy these highly decorative foliage because its sap when mistakenly swallowed can cause the tongue to swell thus rendering speech impossible. I am quite allergic to its sap especially when I transfer them into a larger pot or when I need to cut them for propagation purposes and in the process may get the sap smeared on my hands or skin . The irritation may take about three to four hours to disappear. Nevertheless they are very hardy i.e. not subjected to insect attacks, last at least a week indoors and can withstand over watering.
A little care and lots of love is just what these beauties require to do their magic indoors.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spinning Tops and Songkok Boys

There were spinning tops on display at the Kuching Waterfront amphitheatre area today. I asked one of the participants, "Why call one of them 'Gasing Pedada'?" Gasing is the Malay word for spinning top. He showed me that the gasing was in the shape of 'buah pedada' i.e. the pedada fruit, hence the name 'gasing pedada'. Hmm.never thought of that. On the table were a good collection of spinning tops created by the various ethnic groups throughout Malaysia.
Watch carefully at one that is still spinning on the chair towards the centre of the picture.
I asked him," How long can a spinning top spin? To my surprise he said that a good player of a Kelantanese spinning top can make it spin for two and a half hours. That I never knew.

Inside the amphitheatre a free variety show performed by the primary school children of SRK Buyong were watched by about four hundred members of the public and foreign tourists. The school kids were dressed in Malay traditional costume. The young Malay boys wore the typical Malay headress for men called the 'Songkok'. The songkok is worn when attending traditional functions like weddings, funeral , prayers or in certain official functions where the royalties are present. The girls on the other hand wore the 'tudung' as headress.
It was a marvellous show of talent by the young school children and was happy to have encountered them in their best costumes performing the 'zapin' dance.

A Malay 'Zapin' Dance Formation

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kuching Reservoir Park

Kuching Reservoir Park today.

Today I went to visit Kuching Reservoir Park which is located at Pearse Road , a 10 minutes walking distance from Kuching City centre. There is a vivid and memorable story that I would like to share here of the park which I painted in mixed media ( water colour, felt pen and crayons) way back in 1982. This painting , now 27 years old is still in my custody and will be displayed at my 2nd solo exhibition scheduled in October this year in Kuching. As I see it today the very colourful ixora shrubs that nestled below the two trees are gone.

'Kuching Reservoir Park' in mixed media, circa 1982, 22x29 cm, Artist Collection.
Gone too is the rich collection of water lily plants that floated in abundance in the pond. The side of the ponds where the two trees stood were protected by 'belian' timber planks and posts. Today however the embankment is protected by stone pitching. After 27 years the trees have really grown up and pleased to see today that the municipal council have tagged the names of the trees on the tree trunks ( viz 'Bintagor Laut' and 'Penanga Laut'). The Japanese bridge still retain its red colour but the railing that is seen at the far background is no more there. The railings were fixed on top of the reservoir wall then to allow visitors to have a higher view of the ponds. In recent years the dam wall was demolished and thus the red railing. The dam was erected more than 100 years ago to store water and filter them for the consumption of Kuching town population. Today it merely functions as a public park.

What captivated me then was the interplay of the sun's rays against the juxtaposition of colours of the liles, water, leaves, flowers and the red railings. Despite the lack of flowering shrubs around the place now, this is being compensated by the lush greenery. When I walked through the park this morning the cheerful twittering and flight of birds were plenty and the shouts of children followed every where they ran . I felt very happy today to have recorded the park 27 years ago in a painting as testimony of me being there. "I was here".

( Click here to see more of my paintings done many, many years ago)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Satok's Night Hawkers Food Centre

'Satay' - barbecued and spicly marionetted fine slices of chicken or beef as seen above is one of the most saleable dishes .
Life is Kuching is convenient. At night there are many hawkers centre throughout the city that open business around 6.oo pm and close before 1.00 am. I went to one at Jalan Satok, which is a major banking and retail centre during the day but bustling with about 50 hawkers stalls at night in one particular car parking location called the Satok Night Hawkers Food Centre . Here you can find all sorts of hawkers food from noodles ( mee), smoked or barbecued chicken, fish, meat, etc and various soup like vegetable soup or the hot and spicy 'tom yam' ( Thai dish) soup. Burgers and hot dogs are also available too. Drinks are from a variety of choices like fresh tropical fruit juices, a rich assortment of hot and cold drinks however alcohol is not served.

The Satok hawkers food centre of about 50 stalls opens nightly.
One of the beauty of eating street hawkers food is its richness of types and tastes that can be enjoyed at a markedly lower price than in restaurants. The open air ambience and colourful neon lights and occasional TV screens and loud music add much fun and character to the place. I find it a good place to dine casually, meet friends over dinner or late super . The more frequent you visit the place the more familiar you become with the chef and the operator of the stall which in most cases is the owner of the business thus giving you his or her best service. Overall I would give Satok night hawkers food centre a B rating, all things considered.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Raw Fish Menu

Our destination today is Buntal, a fishing village some 3o minutes drive from Kuching city. It's becoming popular as an escapade for fresh fishes especially among the Kuching folks who seldom have the opportunity to buy fishes directly out of the fishermen boats. Well, we were able to buy fishes at source today. No middlemen. On the tables were huge live river crabs neatly tied to keep them in check. Big and small fishes were sold by the village ladies ( while husbands do the fishing) and the prices were much cheaper compared to what you can buy in Kuching city.
A plate of 'Umai' displayed in our garden before the disappearing act.
Well, back from Buntal we were all excited to have the simplest dish of fresh fishes for lunch called 'Umai '. It's a Bintulu Melanau word for raw fish menu , really no cooking needed. I would assume it to be something quite similar to the Japanese 'sushi'. The menu is as follows: Slice fresh fishes into small pieces, mix them with a condiment of chillies, ginger, lime, large onions, salted vegetables and salt and serve it after 30 minutes. From my experience I find that chilling it for about half and hour would be wonderful to the taste buds. Serve raw.

On the way out of the village one could see many makeshift road side stalls selling smoked fishes. I dropped by one to sample a few on the hot barbecue stove. The smoked fishes are mainly small fishes that fit neatly into the organic wrapper made of our local mangrove palm leaves called the 'nipah' ( nypa fruticans).
On the stove too were smoked fish liver and smoked fish roe all sold at RM1 per packet. For my 'ikan pais' -the term the villagers here call smoked fishes I paid RM1 and was glad to savour two small fishes in it on the spot. It tasted good.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Small Town Park

On the way to the Malaysian-Indonesian border recently I had the chance to drop by at the thriving town of Serian, a 25 minutes drive from Kuching city. Within a tight space of not more than 2 acres I noticed some amount of Federal funding has been spent on the landscaping and public amenities for the town's populace. I am happy to note the use of elephant ears( Alocasia ) in the planting detail giving the place a unique touch of the strange yet refreshing image of the wild into the typically sterile concrete jungle of small towns in Sarawak today as they race to catch up with the only two cities in Sarawak i.e. Kuching and Miri.

This open space is partially covered by a unique structure that I guess can be used for many functions like open air performances, official gatherings etc. But in my travels throughout Sarawak most of these open park amenities are hardly used because of budgetry constraints. We may have the funds to build physical infrastructure but lack much in 'filling the content' to these cultural spaces. The long walkways coloured red above intersect the park and I thought was practical since an attempt to overgrow it with two climbing plants species have started and may take sometime for the plants to crawl over the walkway superstructure.

This was the surprise . Handrails made of stainless steel seen at the edge of the park.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rural Sarawak

This morning we took to the road to a small town at the Malaysian-Indonesian border crossing.
The hour long journey through low-lying Kuching terrain gradually turned into sharp turns and steep climbs as we neared the second leg of the journey. The border town ,Tebedu sits on Malaysian soil and I noticed two physical projects that were underway that could give this town an economic boost, mainly a Custom, Immigration and Quarantine Complex and an Inland Port. However just by the look of it, I think the facilities will only be up and away probably another 3-4 years down the road.
What captivated me throughout the journey was the 'ruralness' of the economic landscape. The paddy or rice fields were starting to be harvested on plots largely owned by subsistence farmers.
I stopped to take a picture of two women busily harvesting the ripe paddy stalks. In Sarawak paddy is hardly grown on a commercial scale and very little mechanisation is used in its operation from tilling to harvesting. As such though Sarawak is under-populated and with a vast land size, it has for decades been importing rice from other neighbouring countries of South East Asia, principally Vietnam and Thailand which have proven to be much more advanced in technology and producing competitively new improved clones especially of fragrant qualities.

Another unresolved issue in the productivity of paddy or rice in Sarawak is the problem of land tenure. Most of the land farmed by the farmers are owned by the state which does not award private ownership even though the families has been working on the land since their great great grandfathers. This issue of very fragmented and untitled land tenure constitutes a tricky political issue and many natives are upset over this unresolved problem lately. In many instances the government will grab the land from the farmers at will or with the tiniest of compensation ( akin to a pepper corn) which ultimately make the natives landless or homeless.
Consequently the younger generation migrate to urban areas and being unemployed create much urban social problems , unrest and urban squalor.

Another interesting thing I discovered today is the use of live plant for post to hold the pepper vines. Sarawak is among the top producers of pepper in the world. Sarawak pepper is now processed into a variety of products like sweets, perfume and of course the pepper flavouring chefs all over the world sprinkle steaks with, viz black, green or white varieties. Pepper growing demands intensive care and thus is carried out largely as a family concern like the small pepper plot in the above picture.
Note: The front posts are of hard round timber while the background posts in the picture are of the live plant.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wild Fern Vegetables

The edible 'true fern' - Paku Benar ( Athyrium esculentum) synonym:Diplazium esculenthum

Just the other day while on the way out of the Jong's Crocodle farm road, I had fun collecting the young fronds of the edible fern called locally as 'Paku Benar' which directly translated means true fern. There are many varieties of ferns in Sarawak but truly the ones that I like are three, viz the 'midin' ( stenochlaena palustris), 'paku uban' (Nephrolepsis falcata) and the 'paku benar' (Athyrium esculentum ) . This pinnate-leaved fern grows wild along roadsides, open spaces and sometimes shady areas that are swampy or near rivers and water courses. They can reach a maximum of 1-1.5 m high and thus is easy to pluck. At any local jungle produce market throughout Sarawak one can buy them at RM1-2 a bundle depending on size and locality.

These ferns are so prevalent in Sarawak that nobody will attempt to grow them on a commercial scale . There are everywhere for the picking. There are three ways I eat this fern. First you can stir fry it . The next method is my favourite i.e. as a salad by just immersing it into boiling water and then dipping into the many traditional sauce available like 'budu','cencaluk' or 'belacan'( shrimp paste ). Thirdly it can be cooked in coconut milk. It is found that the fern is a good source of phosphorous, iron and vitamin B.

I have not planted them at my farm in Bintulu yet because there is the alternative 'midin' fern that grows in wild abundance there. To find out more about the 'midin' at my eco-farm in Bintulu, follow this link

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Colour Outside

From my walkaround Kuching city the other day, I was stunned by the daring show of colours that adorned the exterior of many of Kuching's well preserved historical shophouses. Some of the shophouses were built during the White Rajah or the Brooke's era ( 19th century) but able to stand the test of time. Their makeovers in modern splashes of colours are admirable giving the street much needed lustre and appeal.
The red colour is much liked by the Chinese and as such their temples are painted 'pagoda red'.
The blood red colour of the shophouse above caught my retina in an instant and clicked it went.

The Chinese Museum at the Kuching Waterfront area in rosy pink.

One of the many uses of colour is in branding and I thought the above does well to the identity of the shophouse and the company's name.
Mention of colours I always remember Claude Monet the impressionist painter, whose paintings especially the later ones were just colours in fleeting impressions. He was a master in the choices of colours that one critic ( I cannot remember his name immediately) commented that Monet is just colours , " But what an eye!".

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ethnic By Design

Kuching Waterfront Ethnic Pavement Design

Today I took an afternoon off to pay another visit to the Kuching Waterfront area, prompted by a relatively cloudy day and a weather condition that has improved greatly since two days ago by the absence of rain. To my mind this is an indication that the rainy monsoon season is at its tail end.
What fascinated me today was the design at the waterfront pavement. It's indeed uniquely Sarawak in style which reminded me of a sprouting fern I took a picture in Bintulu last month.

Sarawak is a land of diverse ethnic identities. There are 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak, besides the Malays, Melanaus, Chinese and a very small minority of Indians. Among the ethnic groups it is the Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs and Kelabits that have a very rich and developed art in design work which are applied on fabric, handicraft items, totem poles, shields, doors, arches and weaponry.
The motifs are inspired from many sources that are deeply interwined in their 'world view' of the natural phenomena as well as that of the supernatural kind.

Motifs can be inspired from animal life ranging from the small lizard to the big crocodile. In between them , designs could well feature the squirrels, tree shrews, deer, bird's legs or birds in flight. From plant life are created in very stylised techniques images of bamboo shoots, leaves, flowers, lianas, creepers and various flowers. From the human form to the supernatural world are figures depicting mythical fore fathers, warriors, medicine men, chiefs or just plain mortals.

Juvenile Crocodiles at Jong's Crocodile Farm .( pix)
The crocodile being a living ancient relic of the carnivorous dinosaur family has an important place in the lives of the natives because there are creatures that are to be avoided and not killed for fear that once killed more will return. Whether there are of the saltwater or freshwater types they don't follow specifically their territorial boundaries. Therefore you may find the biggest of the reptilian crocs i.e. the salt water crocodile(Crocodylus porous) trapped in your fishing net somewhere upriver. There are hundreds of stories in Sarawak referring to the terror days ( some years) when some huge ones prey on humans along the many river systems of Sarawak. And while Sarawak is known as ' The Land of Rivers' it is also the playground of fearsome crocs, the most well known being named ' Bujang Senang' which loosely translated means ' The Easy Going Bachelor'.

Designs on 'Sape'- a local musical instrument having only four strings.
The above designs on the 'Sape' are symmetrical, repetitive and intricate and thus traditional.
They are unlike the design on the Kuching waterfront pavement which twirls and turns in a flowing and asymmetrical fashion and therefore more modern or contemporary in outlook. It is interesting to point out that the full length of the waterfront( about half a km) is tiled using this 'flowing pattern' resembling a long river that meanders, bends and joins other tributaries on its destined journey towards the open sea , crocodiles apart.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

High Tea With The Crocs

Just 10 minutes drive from where I am staying is Jong's crocodile farm. Today I decided to spend my high tea with the crocs. At around 3.00 pm daily the crocodiles are fed. The feeding time is great show for visitors and tourists who are charged RM 10 per entry ( adults). Besides watching crocodiles other animals and birds are kept for additional interest like monkeys, bear cat, pheasants and peacocks, eagles, phytons, iguanas, fishes and peking ducks. The farm covers an area of 25 acres and there are about 500 crododiles here bred successfully in captivity after many years of trial and error. The farm is a private undertaking.

The main course on the menu is raw chicken meat served in chunks and whole pieces. From above the hut one man throws chunks of meat to many quarrelsome crocs below and for the adventurous ones a whole chicken meat is lowered by means of a pulley to the center of the pond for the taking. I saw a few tried this difficult challenge and were successful to the applause of spectators.
"I got an eye on you".
Below is success in the making.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

High and Thrifty

While having a rest at this summer house 0n the Kuching waterfront area, I looked up and saw this rain tree ( Samanea saman) being clustered by ferns on its main branches. It reminded me of a picture I took sometime ago of an epiphytic orchid that bloomed on a rain tree in Bintulu as shown below.
The pigeon orchid ( Dendrobium cruminatum) has a peculiar habit of flowering after sudden thunderstorms which is believed to create a rapid fall in the temperature and thus stimulate the orchid plant to produce flowers. The tiny flowers look like white doves in flight, hence the name pigeon orchids.

This rain tree does have character. It looks ancient and inviting to many epiphytes. Sometimes called 'air plants' they survive on trees having chosen a location that is indeed fine living, though not that affluent. Because though there is less competition with other species on the ground below, they need to be very thrifty to survive at the 'penthouse' level. Some have developed abilities to reduce the evaporation of water thus making economy a way of survival.

A closer view of the ferns blanketing the rain tree branches

Epiphytes can come in the form of aroids like the broad -leaved scindapsus aureus or epipremium pinnatum 'Aureum' plant above. This plant has adhesive aerial roots that trail up the trees to great heights. Thus if I were to plant them in pots as an indoor plant I would have to hold the plant to a wooden stick to keep it upright. The epipremium has a wonderful foliage that is often variegated . The longer leaves fern above is that of the bird's nest fern ( Asplenium nidus)

In Bintulu I have this stag horn fern ( Platycerium superbum) atop a lengthy small tree vying for filtered light and great humidity of the environment upstairs. They grow to extra length of about 2 m and often the sheer weight makes it fall off the tree which makes it easy to collect.