Thus began the annual ritual of mass migration of Chinese folks back to their "ancestral" homes to celebrate the Chinese/Lunar New Year. The highways were clogged with fossil fuel-fired vehicles lugging full loads of human passengers plus luggage and the requisite mandarin oranges, biscuits, goodies and other yummy stuff.
To cut a long story short we left Subang at 2.30PM on Saturday afternoon, and arrived at Ipoh at 6.30PM. Four hours for a journey that normally takes two hours. But not too bad, considering that the northbound traffic was very heavy. Very heavy. Some people reported taking up to 8 hours to get to their far flung destinations. The incredibly slow stretches of the North-South Highway were between Damansara and Tanjung Malim. It was a good thing we took the Guthrie Corridor Expressway, which saved us at least one hour in the jam, as we joined at Rawang and bypassed a huge chunk of the jam.
It turns out that a major cause of the traffic slowdown was people stopping at the rest areas which were already packed beyond capacity. I don't know how urgent their call of nature was, but I just couldn't understand why people insisted on trying to enter the rest areas when there was clearly no more space! An even more incredible thing happened at the Rawang rest area. Drivers parked on the emergency lane, and people got out and walked to the rest area. Some drivers even did angle parking on the emergency lane, as if they were parking in front of their neighbourhood shops. As the "parking lots" were already full, I then witnessed the most incredible thing. Right there on our world-class highway, which has a speed limit of 110 km/h, this driver in front of me just stopped in the left lane to wait for another guy further in front who was reversing out of his "parking lot" on the emergency lane. I couldn't believe it. THIS was the cause of the 2 hour bumper-to-bumper crawl!!! Immediately after the Rawang rest area, the traffic shot up to more than 100 km/h... but slowed down again at the next rest area... next year the police should seriously consider shutting down the rest reas, and advising travellers to carry pee bags and packed food. I saw a police helicopter flying around at Rawang, but I doubt they could anything to improve the situation.
The traffic situation was pretty bad all the way up to the Selangor-Perak state border. Thereafter it improved tremendously, despite the rain as we approached Simpang Pulai. This got us talking about the wonky weather these days, and global warming. It was uncharacteristically cool at Chinese New Year this year. I tell you, the global climate is going crazy. And it's all our fault. But thank God the sky was overcast throughout the journey, or we would have been sweltering.
Arrival at 10, Jalan Tiga, Housing Trust, brings back memories, fond and not-so-fond. It's great to be "home", at least for a while. The house is more than 40 years old, but still going strong. My uncle recently installed an air-conditioner in living room so it was much more comfortable this year, as long as we didn't mind the extra energy and fossil fuel we were consuming (and CO2 emitting) and conveniently disregarded the irony that air-conds cool the room inside but cause global warming outside. The old rusty, crusty water piping was also recently changed, so we finally had properly flowing water after enduring years of slow trickles from the tap.
"Reunion" Dinner in Ipoh was a small-scale affair with just four families gathered, as some had not returned yet, and others had their own dinners elsewhere. As usual, too much yummy food, cooked by the ladies. After dinner, everyone had an early night. The TV shows were not entertaining enough, or perhaps I am growing old...
Sunday... First Day of New Year (Chor Yat)
I went to church, 8AM service. This is another "ritual" whenever the New Year falls on a weekend (but this year I went alone as the others were still nicely tucked in bed). Elim Gospel Hall is a church steeped with history. The British, Australian and New Zealander missionaries were the pioneers bringing the Gospel to foreign lands such as Malaya and building up churches like Elim. That's where my dad grew up. That's where my grandfather served as an elder. Some things have changed. The old wooden buildings are gradually being replaced by new concrete structures. But I hope the rich legacy remains. I was a bit surprised that they had drums for the Sunday worship service. Hmmm, very nice. And we sang a lot of lovely songs too. Songs of praise and worship to our Living God, and songs of encouragement to one another. The sermon was preached by Michael Fun, an Elim "old boy" now residing in KL. He spoke on the significance of the family and generations worshiping God, quoting from Psalms and Deuteronomy, as the New Year theme revolves much around the family. After the service, I went around to greet the old friends and uncles and aunties, who knew me when I was still a little boy. I saw some new faces too, but perhaps that is due to my memory loss...
After the brief catching up and greetings, I rushed back to Number 10, Jalan Tiga for the family New Year "service". All the other KL folks had made their way to Ipoh early that morning. I really thank God for this tradition among the Lee clan. I think it has been going on for more than 20 years. It is a time where the extended family gathers to worship our Mighty God, give thanks for the year past and commit the year ahead to our Lord Jesus Christ. My youngest (4th) uncle is the de facto chairman and song leader (although he says he wants to retire). We started with a hilarious ice breaker game called "I am Ah Chong". Then uncles and aunts took turns to read from Psalm 145. We sang a few songs and hymns. Cousin Evan presented a solo rendition of "When You Believe" on the saxophone, which we all decided would become a permanent annual feature. Then we had Holy Communion. Which means that Sunday I had it twice in less than three hours. :) Then we had a time of sharing and testimonies. It was slow at first, but in the end four of us voiced our thanksgiving to God and shared a bit of things planned for this year. My doctor-pastor uncle from Kuantan gave a mini sermon of exhortation for the family. We ended with prayers for the family, especially for my 3-year old nephew Jonathan (my cousin's son) who has been fighting cancer for the past eight months. It is nothing short of a miracle that he has recovered so well thus far.
Of course, the ang pow handover ceremony then took place. It was a madhouse as relatives went around greeting one another and searching for their ang pow recipients. Some received the ang pow with the standard remark "This is your last one ah!" As for me, people have given up hope already. So I just get the ang pow, no strings attached. Haha. Just kidding. Another nice tradition we have is the ang pow offering. Every year, we'll set up a collection box and the newly rich ang pow recipients will give an offering for various causes. This year we decided it would be the Jonathan Fund. Then came the photo session, with cramming and squeezing in the hall in order to fit everyone in the picture. Smile!
Family portrait (minus the photographer and one or two others)
We left after about two hours. Back to Housing Trust. The games had already begun when I got back. The family is active in the games department, and every year we'll have some sort of competition. In the past we've had badminton, captainball, rounders and bowling. It used to be the uncles' families versus the aunts' families. But as time went on, the older bones and muscles began to ache and became less competitive. Also, the balance of power between the two teams shifted as the cousins on the uncles' team are younger and therefore now faster than the 30-something cousins on the aunts' team who used to have a upper hand. But excuses aside, the spirit of having a good time together still remains. It's great to see the kids grow up. Just a few years ago they were tumbling around in the grass, now they're in their teens and beyond. Now the next generation of kiddies are emerging. It's amazing that in just five years they'll be hitting their teens. Makes me feel pretty old, actually. ;P
When I walked over to the field behind the house, the captainball game was already in progress. It wasn't uncles against aunts. It was white shirts versus coloured shirts. It just so happened that the teams were nicely balanced. I was wearing a red shirt, so guess which team I joined. In the end my team lost, but it was a good fight. After captainball some went back, but most stayed on for frisbee, or batting a few rounds of rounders, or throwing the American football. We reorganised after someone suggested a football match. It was 4 on 4, with the chairs as goalposts. I'm not a football player, but that Ipoh field is a really excellent pitch. I guess it's more than 40 years of grass that makes it so luxuriant. I played barefoot, and stubbed my toe on the ball early on. But then I got into the groove and started to regain whatever little dribbling and kicking skills I ever had. Again, it was a close match. Both teams making quick attacks and maximising the field. Unfortunately I didn't score, but I made three defence-splitting passes which resulted in goals. The first two were to Evan, who rammed home the ball. The last goal was incredible, worthy of the World Cup, in my humble opinion. I received the ball about midfield, and took it to the right. I saw a direct opportunity to shoot from outside, but that was quickly narrowed by the defender. Then I spied super striker cousin KingYi making a run down the middle. So I chipped in a pass over the defender and hoped for the best. I don't know how I did it, but the ball sailed across and super striker headed it right into the goal while charging in at full throttle. Too bad we weren't both wearing Brazil jerseys. I could just imagine the stadium erupting in a roar. That ended the match at 4-3. Then we went home for the abovementioned spaghetti dinner. Received a "Happy New Year" call from my brother Aun in freezing Amherst, Massachusetts. He was calling through Skype to my mobile phone. Ah, the wonders of technology.
Wakey wakey at 9 o'clock. I was the last to get up, as I was feeling very in tune with the year of the pig. The Yi siblings had to get up earlier to start preparing the lunch, coz we were gonna go bowling at 10:30, leaving not much time. The cutting and slicing went on in the kitchen, until we all had to leave for Ipoh Parade to hit the bowling alleys. We were the first customers through the door. We took six lanes. Five persons per lane. Well, one lane was specially for the kids. The guard rails on that lane were raised, so that the "longkang" would be blocked and all balls would make their way to the pins. It was cute to watch the little kids "bowl" the balls that were probably almost a quarter of their weight.
The adults had erratic performance. My lane did really badly. My first game was a lowest ever personal score of 65, I am embarrassed to say. I started out by cleaning the drain on both sides -- first frame zero. I actually made it through two games without a single strike. Even my 12-year old cousin sister hit two strikes. Unbelievable. In fact, my team did not get a single strike among the five of us. One of the viscissitudes of life. Or we just suck at bowling. At least my second game was better. I started with two spares, but then I hit a plateau. I got another six frames of nine points each, but always missing the spare or strike by one pin. I ended with 95. Our team score improved from 333 in the first game to 421 in the second game. OK la. As long as we didn't compare with the other lanes where cousin and uncle were each scoring around 150.
Then it was back to home for lunch of "smoked" porridge with tons of toppings and sushi rolls with stinging wasabe. Yummm.
In the afternoon I went out with a bunch of Ipoh folks, some of whom are now working in KL and whom I got to know through the AF camp. There was Nicole, Ming2, Nadin, Dominic, Wan Lung and Soon Li. We hung out at Old Town Kopitiam, which is a higher class version of the original Nam Heong Ipoh white coffee shop. Then we went to visit the elder of Kledang Community Chapel at his home. Collected some ang pow in the process. Had superb carrot cake made by wife of aforementioned church elder. Met up with some more Ipoh folk who are now residing and working in KL. Ipoh seems to be an exporter of labour and talent. Then I rushed back to Housing Trust to help out in the barbecue, as mentioned earlier. The fire took a while to start, but it was a good fire. Hot but not flaming. One of the tricks of the meat was slicing it really thin (done by the butcher). That made a difference, as it cooked fast and did not char. Even the beef was sweet and tender. Awesome.
Tuesday... Third Day of New Year
Woke up at the unearthly hour of 6:00AM to go climb Kledang Hill. I decided at dinner the night before to join my aunts and mom to ascend the hills on the western flank of Ipoh. Local boy cousin Peter was our guide as we took the Kong Tau San ("Bald Head Hill") trail, so named because it is "bald", i.e. no trees along the trail, which is because it follows the electricity transmission line up the hill. There are other trails, but Kong Tau San is the shortest. We started from the base of the hill at 7:15. There were already a lot of other hikers doing their rounds. Some were already on their way down while we were barely starting up! We didn't intend to go right to the top of Kledang Hill, but just to the midpoint called "Hill View" where the hikers usually turn back. (There's a road that goes all the way to the top where there's telecom transmission towers, but that hike would have taken too much time.) The trail is steep at certain points, but it gets you up there faster than other trails. There's exercise bars, benches and pavilions set up at the midpoint, which I estimate to be about 400m high. I heard that the recreational facilities and steps were built entirely by volunteers.
The view from Kledang Hill was spectacular. It wasn't just the panoramic scenery, but the way the light and clouds interacted. The first rays of the rising sun followed us up the face of the hill. Slowly the sky turned from black to dark blue to orange-pink to yellow and then to light blue in the full morning bright. In the distance, the clouds blanketed Ipoh like a layer of cotton. Later the clouds rolled in and shrouded the lower part of the hill where we were climbing, creating a misty look. Very nice. Bumped into Nicole and Ming2 at the midpoint rest stop. After soaking in the Ipoh scenery we went back down following the hill road and continued soaking in the scenery and breathing the fresher-than-KL air. Along the way up we also came across a group of people firing long strings of fire crackers in some sort of a New Year religious ceremony. That goes to show the spiritual significance of high places, just like in Israel in Old Testament times when they defied God and built idolatrous altars on their mountains.
Northeast view of Ipoh... Gunung Korbu is somewhere in the background
Southeast view of Ipoh
Along the road back out to the carpark down at the foothill we came across a troop of monkeys eating jackfruit that had been donated by some kind souls. Well, we too decided to get our own breakfast. So off to Menglembu town we went. The "chee cheong fun" shop was closed, so we went to the noodle shop. Had "liew fun" noodles with stuffed tofu and stuff. Plus white coffee.
That afternoon, I made my annual inspection of the Tanjung Rambutan stream. It's a recreational area, along the upper reaches of the Kinta River. My late dad used to take us there for a dip in the cool waters during my *ahem* younger days. The stream then was crystal clear, with rocks and boulders and a gurgling, swift flowing stream of water running through. But since the construction of the Simpang Pulai-Kg. Raja highway and the dam upstream (for water supply to Ipoh city), the river has become silted up. There's no more rocks and boulders. The deep channels are now smothered with sand and silt, and the river has become shallow and wide. The water is murky at best, and muddy at worst. The price of development. Opportunity cost that can't be avoided? Inevitable external cost? Why can't we have our cake and eat it?
I thought of dropping by my grandparents' grave at the Tambun Christian Cemetery on the way back, but I was running out of time so I went straight back for a quick frisbee session and shot a few basketballs. Then queued for the only bathroom in the house to bathe before heading for a scrumptious restaurant dinner at Sunway City, Tambun. Food was pretty good. Prawns in salted egg yolk and butter sauce. Loaded with fat and cholesterol but super tasty. I just whacked them, shell and all.
Singapore-based cousin and his wife and mom-in-law left Ipoh at 10PM, after the dinner. I heard they arrived in the Lion City at 6AM. Just in time to go back to work... they were hoping to get back by 3AM+, but the traffic was just crazy.
After dinner I went over to a Nasmir mamak near Tesco for drinks with my former university mates, Alvin and Andrew. Andrew, whom I hadn't met in more than 5 years, has been pastoring with his father in the local church they planted. JeeSeng joined us later. So, there we were, four guys yakking about church, politics, church politics, prophetic gifts, SMART tunnel, and just filling in the blanks of the past few years, etc. We didn't have time to get to the topic of girls, in case you were wondering. ;)
On the way home from the supper, my left front tyre picked up a nasty screw. I heard some sort of flapping noise coming from under the car after passing by Elim Gospel Hall on Jalan Chung Thye Pin. The car ride felt a bit bumpy too. So I stopped and got out to check. I didn't see anything stuck to the underside of the car, so I drove on, but the tyre still felt very bumpy. So I stopped again and inspected the tyre and found the thick fat screw embedded in the tyre with its bolt end sticking out. I was aghast. Those were new tyres. How could this happen?! I drove home slowly and decided to just leave it to be fixed the next day. I knew that the air would not leak that fast since the screw was plugging the hole. In fact I wasn't even sure if the screw had punctured through the tyre. But anyway, I definitely couldn't drive back to KL without getting it fixed.
Wednesday... Fourth Day of New Year
Another lazy day. Woke up late coz I came back late and slept late, after the extra delay caused by the screwed tyre. Did I have breakfast? Can't remember. Called cousin Peter for recommendations for tyre repair shops. There is one opposite MGS. OK. Des also called his cousin for recommendations and was also referred to shops in the same area. After lunch I drove over slowly to the shop and got the tyre fixed for six bucks. We discovered that the screw did puncture through the tyre, but since it was on the tread area, it could be easily patched. If it had hit the sidewall, the tyre would have had to be replaced. Ouch! Thank God it was a minor problem.
Finally left Ipoh at 4:30PM. Arrived in PJ at 7:30. Slower than normal but bearable.
That ends my chronicle. Till next year... God bless you!
Endangered species spotted in Ipoh! - Panthera tigris altaica