Malaysian politics and Bata slippers

It has been a crazy few weeks in Malaysian politics. All sorts of things have happened that I never thought would happen. Honestly, fact is stranger than fiction. If it were a book, it would be worthy of a Shakespearean play. People would not believe that the events were from real life.

As a Malaysian living overseas, I can understand why non-Malaysians may be puzzled by what’s going on in Malaysia. Malaysia held elections on the 9th of May, and for the first time in its 60 year history, there is a change of government in Malaysia. There is a new old prime minister in Malaysia. He is Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, old because at 92 years old (turning 93 on the 10th of July), he is the world’s oldest elected leader of a country. And ‘old’ also because he was the former prime minister of Malaysia, from 1981 – 2003, serving under a different party.

It has been a crazy time in Malaysian politics.

What has this all got to do with shoes? Tun Mahathir was photographed recently wearing a pair of Bata slippers. The photo went viral. The Bata Company then posted on social media calling these slippers the hottest accessory this Ramadan (Muslim month), making the Malaysian prime minister an unlikely fashion icon.

The prime minister of Malaysia wears this US$3 pair of Bata slippers.

These Bata slippers retail for RM11.99 (about US$3).  I call them ‘Ah Pek’ style slippers, or ‘grandfather slippers’ because to me, it is a style common among old men in Malaysia. To me, Bata is a brand associated with school shoes. I can almost guarantee that anyone who has ever been to school in Malaysia will have worn a pair of white Bata school shoes.

As a child, I thought that Bata was a Malaysian brand, because ‘bata’ means ‘stone’ or ‘brick’ in Malay. Bata is a very old shoe brand, but it is not a Malaysian brand. The Bat’a Shoe Company was started in 1894 by 3 siblings – Tomáš, Anna and Antonín Bat’a, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). The Bat’a siblings were the eighth generation of a family of shoemakers and cobblers. Today, the Bata company is based in Switzerland.

Shih Yen, and just about every Malaysian school student, wears a pair of white Bata school shoes.

It is currently the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is a time of worship, reflection and self-restraint where Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. The photo of the prime minister of Malaysia wearing a simple and inexpensive pair of slippers shows a man who is frugal and humble. Additionally, the pair of slippers that Tun Mahathir was wearing had an insole design from 4 years ago, so his slippers are not new either. It goes down well with the people, as it is in stark contrast to the excesses of the old government. Ramadan will end in mid-June when the new moon will usher in the month of Syawal, and Muslims celebrate Aidilfitri.

Some have called this time a new dawn for Malaysia. I agree. I am optimistic for the future of Malaysia. And I can’t remember the last time that I was so happy and proud to be Malaysian.

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A Malaysian cobbler

The word ‘cobbler’ is such an old-fashioned word. A cobbler is a person who repairs shoes, and it also seems an old-fashioned profession. With an increasingly disposable/consumer society and with increasing labour costs, these days it is becoming cheaper and easier to throw things away rather than to try and repair them.

In Malaysia though, cobblers are still very cheap. For example, gluing back a shoe’s soles costs about 30 US cents, and you can also bargain with the cobbler. Malaysian cobblers are much cheaper than cobblers in first world countries because in Malaysia, cobblers don’t work out of a proper shop. In general, you can find cobblers sitting on the footpath.

A Malaysian cobbler. It’s common to find cobblers working on the footpath in Malaysia.

As I was going home to Malaysia, I purposely brought with me 2 pairs of footwear to be repaired. I love both pairs of footwear, or I wouldn’t have bothered to get them mended. One was a simple glue-on job, but the other was more complicated, the soles of my sneakers having cracked on both shoes. I wore the sneakers with cracked soles on the flight home and hoped that they would survive the long plane ride. I brought with me only those 2 pairs of footwear, and I knew if I couldn’t get them repaired, I would have to buy some new shoes.

Shih Yen’s Hello Kitty sneakers with the cracked soles.

I found the cobbler in the Atria shopping area of Damansara Jaya, near the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. There’s more than one cobbler working in this area. I call my cobbler by his title of Tuan Haji. He brings the tools of his trade in a suitcase and sets up a stall on the footpath outside a closed shop.

The cobbler working on the simple glue-on job.

The cobbler working on the Hello Kitty sneakers with the cracked soles.

The cobbler did my glue-on job immediately while I waited. He even provided me with a pair of spare slippers to wear as I waited. The sneaker repair was completed on the same day. He glued together my cracked soles and then stitched all along the sides of my sneakers. The cost (after a bit bargaining) was RM 18 (less than US$5). I am happy with his workmanship and I’m confident that my sneakers can last at least a few more months.

Shih Yen’s sneakers after repair; the cracked sole had been glued and stitched up all around.

Peranakan beaded slippers in Penang, Malaysia

Last month, I wrote about Chinese clogs in the state of Penang in Malaysia. This month, I am still staying in Penang, but this time I am writing about a type of footwear called Peranakan beaded slippers. Actually, these slippers are also known by many other names, such as nyonya slippers, ‘kasut manik’ in Malay, or ‘manik aey’ in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien. They may be spelt ‘manik’ or ‘manek’, which means ‘beads’ in Malay. I am calling them Peranakan beaded slippers because in my opinion, this is the most straight forward English term.

Peranakan is a Malay word that comes from the root word ‘anak’, which means ‘child’. Peranakan refers to someone born from the marriage between a native person and a foreigner. Originally, Peranakan was used to refer to the descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Malay archipelago. But technically, the term Peranakan can refer to anyone born in the Malay archipelago as a result of an intermarriage with a local. These are the countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. Peranakan is still most commonly applied to Chinese people who have assimilated and adopted the Malay language and culture. Peranakan men are known as Baba while the women are called Nyonya. After writing that, I realized that people who are not from the region may have no idea how to pronounce the word ‘nyonya’. The closest I can describe it is that it is pronounced ‘neo-knee-ya’. Just say it really fast.

The Peranakans have a unique culture, a mix of Malay and Chinese, which seems to be slowly disappearing. Their language is a mix of Malay and Chinese. Their cuisine is famous. Known as Peranakan or Nyonya food, it is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine. It existed way before the term ‘fusion food’ became fashionable.

The traditional dress of Peranakan women is the ‘baju kebaya’. If you don’t know what this looks like, female flight attendants on all the major national airlines in the Malay archipelago wear a modern version of the ‘baju kebaya’ as their uniform. These are the female flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Royal Brunei Airlines.

Shih Yen wears a vintage Nyonya kebaya with hand embroidery on the edges. This kebaya has no buttons, but is pinned with a kerosang.

At her graduation ceremony, Shih Yen wears a vintage Nyonya kebaya with hand embroidery on the edges. This kebaya has no buttons, but is pinned with a kerosang.

Close up of Shih Yen's kerosang or kebaya pin.

Close up of Shih Yen’s kerosang or kebaya brooch.

The traditional ‘baju kebaya’ consists of a sheer blouse with a batik sarong. The traditional kebaya blouse was always beautifully embroidered, especially all around the edges. The traditional kebaya blouse had no buttons. Instead, a 3-piece linked brooch was used to fasten it down the front. This brooch is called a ‘kerosang’ or ‘kerongsang’. There is a type of kebaya called the nyonya kebaya, worn mostly by Peranakan women of Chinese ancestry, especially in the Straits settlements. The Straits settlements are Malacca and Penang in Malaysia, and Singapore.The proper footwear when wearing a nyonya kebaya is Peranakan beaded slippers. There are two styles of Peranakan beaded slippers – covered or peep toe. These beaded slippers are handmade and time consuming to make. A design is first cross stitched onto the slippers, and then beaded over with very tiny glass beads called ‘manik potong’. Traditionally, nyonya women were proud of their cooking, embroidery and beadwork. A nyonya’s wedding day was an opportunity for her to show off her hand embroidery in her baju kebaya, and beadwork in her slippers.

Peranakan communities are found in Penang, Malaysia, so in this post, I will write about where you can buy Peranakan beaded slippers in Penang. One shop that sells these beaded slippers is Eng Ong Heong Trading on the eastern end of Jalan Burma, or Burma Road. I wrote about this shop last month, as it also sells Chinese clogs. This shop sells many things apart from Chinese clogs and Peranakan beaded slippers. This shop also sells Chinese prayer materials and retro things, like kerosene lamps, tiffin carriers and nyonya baskets. Nyonya baskets are tiered baskets, usually in a black and red colour, and are used for carrying food.

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Peranakan beaded slippers sold at Eng Ong Heong Trading in Penang. The beaded slippers shown here are all in a peep toe style.

Another shop in Penang that specializes in Peranakan beaded slippers is Hong Kong Shoe Store. Originally located on Muntri Street, it is now on Kimberley Street. This shop is famous also for being the place where famed shoe designer Jimmy Choo started out as an apprentice. Other than Peranakan beaded slippers, this store makes beautiful bespoke shoes. Mr Wong, the shoemaker at Hong Kong Shoe Store, can custom make shoes to any design, and to fit any size or shape. He learned the craft from his father, the late Mr Wong Sam Chai. The prices at this shop are also very reasonable.

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at 20 Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

Chinese clogs (木屐) in Penang, Malaysia

When I write a blog post, I never really know which posts will be popular. There are some posts that are popular, which surprise me. One of my most popular post is on Chinese clogs, which I wrote about back in January 2012. People are very interested in this type of footwear, and I have received many comments and messages about Chinese clogs. This is surprising to me because I feel that Chinese clogs are a slightly old-fashioned type of footwear, something that my grandmother would wear. But it seems retro is cool these days, so I am again writing about Chinese clogs.

Chinese clogs (木屐), or ‘mu ji’ in Mandarin, literally translates as wooden clogs. My family calls them ‘cha kiak’ as this is the pronunciation of ‘Chinese clogs’ (木屐) in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien that we speak. Chinese clogs is a very old type of footwear. Apparently, Chinese clogs pre-date the Japanese ‘geta’ or Japanese wooden slipper. Chinese clogs are unisex, worn by both men and women. But clogs with straight sides are meant for men, whereas clogs with sides that curve inwards as if the clog has a waist, are for women. The clogs are made from wood, and are surprisingly comfortable to wear despite the flat, hard wood surface. Because of the elevated sole, the clogs keep the wearer’s feet clean and dry. There is no left or right side to a Chinese clog; you can wear them on either foot. Traditionally two pairs of clogs, usually painted red, form part of a dowry for a Chinese bride.

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Painted clogs. This pair is featured next to a live fish. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ (鱼) sounds the same as 余 the Chinese word for ‘plentiful’, so fish are a Chinese symbol of abundance, surplus and plenty.

Chinese clogs remind me of my childhood because they were commonly worn at my grandmother’s place. We wore regular unpainted clogs. I wore Chinese clogs as a child when I visited my grandmother and the clacking noise the clogs made on the floor reminds me of times spent at my grandmother’s shop. My paternal side of the family come from Hainan Island, and in Malaysia, we ran coffee shops, a very traditional Hainanese profession.

Chinese clogs (木屐) or 'cha kiak' from my grandmother's home

Plain, unpainted Chinese clogs (木屐) from my grandmother’s home.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother's coffee shop.

This photo reminds me of my childhood at my grandmother’s coffee shop.

My father’s side of the family live in Penang, on the mainland side of the island state. It was a working class area, a bit rough, and when my father was young, gangs used to ask for protection money from the family’s coffee shop. The money was supposedly to ‘protect’ the shop, but if you didn’t pay up, it was the gangsters who would come and trash the shop. There were many gangs back then, with names like ‘see kang’ (four holes), ‘khong pek’ (08) and ‘ang hwa’ (red flowers). My aunt told me that back then even gangsters wore Chinese clogs. I find this funny because I don’t think of clogs as a tough guy gangster footwear. Rather, I associate them with something my grandmother would wear. Though I suppose one could use the wooden clog as a weapon, if you really wanted to. These days, the gangsters have moved into the loan shark business, rather than extorting money.

One of the questions that I get asked is ‘Where can I buy Chinese clogs?’ This is a hard question to answer because this is footwear that you would normally buy at the market or at a small sundry shop, which are becoming increasingly rare these days. But now I know of a shop in Penang which sells Chinese clogs. It is called Eng Ong Heong Trading on the Eastern end of Jalan Burma, or Burma Road. This shop sells many things apart from footwear. This shop sells Chinese prayer products, retro stuff, as well as traditional footwear like Chinese clogs and nyonya slippers (more on that in a future post).

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can't miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

If you want to buy Chinese clogs in Penang, you can’t miss the entrance of Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road, with its gigantic clog in front of the shop.

Chinese clogs are made by hand, but this is now a dying art as the traditional clog has to compete with modern footwear and the perception that clogs are old-fashioned and noisy footwear. There are very few skilled Chinese clogmakers these days, and clogmaking is a vanishing trade, going the way of TV repair men (remember them?).

An example of a Chinese clogmaker's workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

An example of a Chinese clogmaker’s workshop, where clogs are made by hand.

These days, clogs are more often sold as a souvenir item for tourists, rather than as actual footwear. You can also buy key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, if you feel that buying an actual clog is too much of a commitment.

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Souvenir key chains and fridge magnets in the shape of Chinese clogs, also sold at Eng Ong Heong Trading on Burma Road in Penang.

 

Shoes that I have lost

Last month I wrote about shoes that I have loved. Just like with people that you have loved and lost, I also remember the shoes that I have lost. Apologies for the poor quality of the photos; these were the best photos I could find of my shoes that have been lost.

I remember 3 pairs of shoes that I have lost. All losses happened in Malaysia. I was 4 years old the first time I remember lost footwear. I don’t remember the loss itself (I was only 4 years old!), but I do remember the footwear. It was a pair of red slippers, a gift from my aunt. They were bright red thonged flip flops. What I remember most about them was that there were two red apples on each thong. I loved these slippers. According to my aunt, I lost them on a car journey. After stopping at a park, I got back in the car without my red slippers. When the loss was discovered, my mother drove back to the park, but the red slippers were gone.

The second loss was a pair of Reebok sneakers. They were white with the Reebok stripe in a purple and pink colour. I left them behind on a camping trip in the jungles of Malacca. I’m not sure where I left them. I just know that I had them when I went to camp, but I came home without them. This happened 20 years ago, but I still think about them sometimes. After that loss, I bought another pair of Reebok sneakers, as similar as I could find to the ones I lost, but they were never the same, and could not replace the ones I had lost.

The best photo I could find of the pair of Reebok sneakers I lost.

The best (and also the last) photo I could find of the pair of Reebok sneakers I lost. This photo was taken at the camp in Malacca where I lost them.

Reebok

The purple and pink Reebok sneakers I bought to replace the ones I had lost. They were kind of similar, but not the same as the pair I had lost.

The third time I lost a pair of shoes was due to theft. They were a pair of black lace-up Alain Delon shoes in a suede type of material. As people in Malaysia remove shoes before entering a house, shoes are usually left outside the house. My shoes and socks were in the shoe rack outside the house, and some time in the night, someone came and stole my shoes. The thief was selective, stealing only good men’s shoes (I wore men’s shoes back then because finding women’s shoes to fit me was too hard). The neighbours also lost shoes to the thief. I loved that pair of shoes, and I loved the socks too. I had the shoes for about 4 years and wore them almost every day for 2 of those 4 years, as I wore them to school in New Zealand.

NZ school

The black Alain Delon shoes that was stolen.

At the time of the theft, I was very angry and cursed the thief, but now so many years later, I hope that someone else wore my shoes after me. No matter if they were a pair of forgotten child’s slippers left in a park, or if they found a pair of forgotten Reebok sneakers in the middle of a Malaysian jungle, or wore a stolen pair of black Alain Delon shoes. I hope whoever wore them loved them as much as I did.

Strange sports and boots

There are some sports that sound so bizarre that I think how can they be real? There is a handbag throwing world championship that’s held in Germany. I kid you not. This championship is already in its 4th year. Participants from around the world compete in teams of 4 by throwing a handbag with weights inside. There are different handbag throwing events, such as over-arm throwing, long-distance throwing, freestyle and discus.

On the subject of strange throwing sports, there is also a boot throwing competition. I have always thought that boot throwing competitions are just for fun, but now I know that it is pretty serious. In New Zealand, there are local gumboot throwing competitions, which then allow a contestant to qualify for the nationals. Winning at the nationals then allows the contestant to compete at the World Championships.

This year, the International Boot Throwing Association World Championships will be held on 12 and 13 September in the town of Ascoli Piceno in Italy. The rules of the competition state that the official throwing equipment is a rubber boot, either a left or a right side boot. Women throw a size 38 boot while men throw a size 43 boot. Only five brands of boots are considered to be acceptable throwing equipment for the competition. These are boots by Siili, Duudson, Skellerup, Sulman and Kontio.

redband gumboots

Skellerup gumboots, official throwing equipment for the Boot Throwing Association World Championships.

GOCO boots

Not official throwing equipment for the World Championships, but a pair of Malaysian made rubber boots by GOCO.

School shoes

Late January and early February is back-to-school time in Australia and New Zealand, and the start of a new school year. So, this month I thought I would write about school shoes.

I was educated in Malaysia where all schools have a school uniform, and government schools all have the same uniform across the country. For all my school years in Malaysia, I had to wear short all-white socks with all-white canvas shoes, which were hard to keep clean. After 11 years of being forced to wear white shoes and white socks every school day, I now refuse to wear shoes or socks that are completely white.

school

Shih Yen in primary school, forced to wear white shoes and socks – the fate of all Malaysian school students.

This got me thinking about school shoes in other countries. The only other country where I have been a student is in New Zealand, where different schools each have their own uniform. In New Zealand, I had to wear black shoes to school. I’m guessing most schools that have a uniform will make their students wear black shoes. And there’s nothing wrong with black shoes. It’s basic, it looks smart, and it’s so much easier to keep clean than white. A few schools have brown shoes, and I think if I had to wear brown shoes everyday, I would be depressed. Brown is such a blah, nothing kind of colour.

This brings me to Southland Girls’ High School in Invercargill, a small city in the south of New Zealand. Southland Girls’ is a school with a long history, first founded in 1879. A school uniform was introduced in 1913. I find their school uniform to be very unique because red shoes are part of their uniform. Red shoes were introduced by the principal after World War II, and became uniform by 1954.

The Southland Girls' High School summer uniform with red leather shoes.

The Southland Girls’ High School summer uniform with red leather shoes.

I think red is a funky and cool colour for shoes, but I wonder if I would feel the same way if I had to wear red shoes every day. Would I feel like Dorothy from the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ wearing magic ruby slippers? Or would I feel like a clown, like Ronald McDonald in red shoes? And would it put me off wearing red shoes forever after I have left school?

The Southland Girls' High School winter uniform with red leather shoes.

The Southland Girls’ High School winter uniform with red leather shoes.