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.


Shoes in animated movies

I like writing, but I’m bad at promoting stuff after it gets published. So I’m going to do some quick promo of my latest publication. My most recent publication is in an anthology about the question of race in the USA. My story is about a Chicana (Mexican-American female) living in San Francisco. My story covers Mexican themes like food, the 15th birthday party and the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). You can read more about Dia de los Muertos in this post. The book was released last year around Dia de los Muertos. You can buy the book (available in print and e-book) here.

This month’s blog post is about shoes in animation, and there is a connection to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Late last year, a Mexican friend told me that I must go watch the Disney animation Coco. I vaguely knew that Coco was about the Day of the Dead, but when I watched it, I love that it was about a family of shoemakers. That came as a pleasant surprise and it was not something I knew about prior to watching the movie. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is one where the family is making shoes.

This scene below seems very Mexican to me, where the grandmother assaults a Mariachi singer with a sandal. The sandal, also called la chancla in Spanish, is sometimes used as an assault weapon or to discipline children.


In my opinion, the Japanese are the best at making animated movies. There’s even a genre called anime that is specifically related to Japanese animation. ‘Garden of Words’ (Kotonoha no Niwa) is one of my favourite animated movies with shoes in it. It is a love story that starts in the rain. One rainy day in Tokyo, a student decides to skip school to draw in a garden. He is a shoemaker, and in the garden he meets an older woman. He ends up making shoes for her. I think it’s a beautiful love story; you can see the trailer here.


One final animated movie involving shoes is the Disney classic Cinderella, from 1950. I think every English speaker will be familiar with the Cinderella story and the animated movie. Here is the ending to that movie.

Roald Dahl and the BFG’s shoes

For my last post of 2016, I wrote about footwear in children’s literature. While I was happy with the topic, I was not happy with the writing, as the post was written in a rush at the last minute. So I have decided to revisit the topic this month. Specifically, I am looking at the footwear of the Big, Friendly Giant (BFG), the titular character in Roald Dahl’s book ‘The BFG’.

Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990) was one of the most famous children’s writers in English. His book ‘The Witches’ won the 1983 Whitbread Award, and ‘Matilda’ won the Children’s Book Award. Many of his books, including ‘The BFG’, have been made into movies.

In ‘The BFG’ the main character, the BFG, catches and collects dreams with a net and bottles them in glass jars. He then uses a long trumpet-like thing to blow the dreams through children’s windows to give them nice and happy dreams.

Roald Dahl had a long partnership with artist Quentin Blake who illustrated almost all of his children’s books. The only other such longstanding partnership I can think of in English children’s literature is with author Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt. In 2013, Quentin Blake was knighted for his services to illustration, making him Sir Quentin Blake. Quentin Blake’s favourite Roald Dahl book is ‘The BFG’, for which he drew double the number of pictures that he had been originally asked for.


Book cover of ‘The BFG’ from 1982, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In the book, the BFG’s footwear is described like this:

“On his bare feet he was wearing a pair of ridiculous sandals that for some reason had holes cut along each side, with a large hole at the end where his toes stuck out.”

From this description, Quentin Blake wasn’t sure what the BFG’s footwear should look like. So Roald Dahl sent him one of his own sandals in the post, and that was what Quentin Blake ended up drawing.


A photo of Roald Dahl on the back of the 1982 book cover. Dahl is wearing his BFG sandals.

In fact, the BFG character was a lot like Roald Dahl himself. Dahl was very tall, like a giant. He was almost 6 feet 6 inches tall, or almost 2 metres tall. Dahl would also sometimes pretend to be the BFG, propping a ladder against his house and pushing a bamboo cane through his children’s windows to blow happy dreams inside.

Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake made a perfect partnership of words and pictures. In the words of the BFG, the result is ‘gloriumptious!’

The Mexican Day of the Dead and Mexican sandals

In conjunction with the Mexican Day of the Dead, I am writing about something Mexican this month. This post is divided into two parts – the first part is about Dia de los muertos (Day of the dead) and how it compares with Chinese traditions; and the second part is about huaraches, a traditional type of Mexican footwear.

Today is the 1st of November, which is Dia de los angelitos (Day of the little angels) in Mexico. Deceased children and babies are known as angelitos (little angels), and on the 1st of November, the spirits of dead children are believed to return. Dia de los angelitos is followed by Dia de los muertos (Day of the dead) on the 2nd of November. Spirits of dead adults are believed to return home on this day. Dia de los muertos is an important day in Mexico and is a public holiday. To prepare for this day, Mexicans clean and decorate the family tombs. They bring offerings and flowers, especially marigolds, to the tombs, because marigolds are believed to guide the spirits to their altars. Mexicans also bring food, such as a deceased loved one’s favourite food. Mexican families will have parties or picnics overnight in the graveyard, while waiting for their departed loved ones to return.

An example of an altar for Day of the Dead

An example of a Mexican altar for Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

Other activities for Dia de los muertos celebrations include parades and building altars to the dead. These altars can be built at home or at public places, like schools. On this day, Mexicans also write funny poems featuring death, and put on theatre productions of Don Juan Tenorio. Skulls and skeletons are common symbols of the Mexican Day of the Dead. There are special food associated with Day of the Dead, like chocolate or sugar skulls, used as offerings. There is also Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a kind of sweet bun, usually baked with bones made from dough on top. In more recent years, people dress up with skull masks or in make-up resembling a skull. Prior to learning more about the Day of the Dead, I always thought of images of skulls or skeletons as something scary and frightening. But I have since learned that for Mexicans, these images do not carry the same connotations. A lot of people get confused, but this celebration is not connected with Halloween. It is a happy festival where Mexicans remember their loved ones and when their departed family members come home.

Sugar skulls for Mexican Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jim

Sugar skulls for Mexican Day of the Dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for Day of the dead.

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

In skull make-up for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

In skull make-up for Day of the dead (Photo by Leonardo Nava Jiménez).

It’s natural that when you come across something new, you will try and connect it with something you already know. When I first heard about Dia de los muertos, I thought it was a lot like two Chinese festivals: Ching Ming (also spelt Qing Ming), and also the Chinese ghost festival. I have since learned that while there are similarities, there are also differences.

Ching Ming (清明, literally ‘clear bright’) is a Chinese festival that occurs at the start of April. Similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, on or around this day, Chinese people honour their dead ancestors. Chinese people visit and clean the graves of their ancestors, and bring offerings of food and tea or wine. Chinese people also pray to their ancestors at altars at home. While Mexicans will build altars for Day of the Dead, altars in Chinese homes are fixed and permanent.

Another Chinese festival is the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is on the 15th night of the 7th month in the Chinese calendar. On this day, similar to Day of the Dead, it is believed that ghosts and spirits will visit the living. For this day, Chinese people will give food offerings and burn incense. It is also common for Chinese people to burn joss paper money and burn paper versions of things, like a paper house or a paper car. By burning these paper versions, Chinese people believe that the departed spirits can use these things in the afterlife.

Chinese people burn joss paper for their departed loved ones to use in the afterlife. This joss paper money features the Lord of Hell who judges the souls of the departed.

A $500000000000 hell bank note for use in the after life. Here 'hell' means the 'afterlife'.

Chinese people burn joss paper for their departed loved ones to use. This is a $500000000000 hell bank note for use in the afterlife. Here, ‘hell’ means the ‘afterlife’.

It seems that the Mexican and Chinese festivals share many similarities, but what I think is a major difference between the two is the feeling of these festivals. The Mexican celebration is a happy one whereas the Chinese festivals are more serious and solemn, almost an obligation towards the family. There are also many taboos associated with the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Even the entire 7th month is considered inauspicious and some Chinese people will avoid doing things like moving house and getting married during that month. Chinese people also won’t have parties overnight in graveyards like the Mexicans. Somehow I can’t help feeling that the Mexicans have a good attitude towards death and have a sense of humour about death.

This is supposed to be a blog about footwear, so I’m meant to be writing about shoes (I just got a bit side tracked writing about other things that interested me). After a very long-winded introduction, I am actually writing about traditional Mexican sandals, called huaraches. There is also a type of Mexican food called huarache, which takes its name from the sandals. Huarache (the food) is made up of a dough base with meat, vegetable and cheese toppings. This food is called huarache because the dough takes the shape of a huarache (the sandal).

The word ‘huarache’ comes from a Mexican indigenous language, and it means ‘sandal’. This footwear is believed to be hundreds of years old, and first worn by Mexican farmers and peasants. Huaraches are a very simple form of footwear, originally made of leather with leather straps. Traditionally, huaraches had uppers made from woven leather straps. The most basic design of a huarache is of a thick sole with 3 holes made in the sole for straps that tie to the wearer’s ankles. Huaraches can be made with soles out of recycled car tyres.

A man wears huaraches on a cold winter's day.

A man wears huaraches on a cold winter’s day (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

The Tarahumara Indians, indigenous people from Northern Mexico, are well-known for long distance running. They traditionally ran long distances wearing huaraches as footwear. Here is a short video showing how the Tarahumara make huaraches.

Promotional jandals

My friends and family will tell you that I’m a bit of a sucker for advertising-type promotions. I’ll buy things I don’t need just to get a free gift. There doesn’t even have to be a free gift. Sometimes I’ll buy things just for the chance to win something, or to enter a competition. The most extreme case was when I bought something I didn’t need, to win something that I couldn’t use. Funnily in that case, I actually did win, and I ended up just giving away the prize.

Currently, there is one shop here that has a promotion for V energy drink. Buy any 500ml bottle of V energy drink and get a free pair of jandals. Jandals is a New Zealand term for thonged sandals or flip flops. This term was believed to originate in the 1950s, an amalgamation of the words ‘Japanese’ and ‘sandals’, as the style of these sandals with thongs is similar to traditional Japanese footwear. Personally, I call this type of footwear ‘slippers’, as this is the term that I grew up with. The V promotion kind of made no sense for this time of the year, as it is now winter in the Southern hemisphere, and people will not want to wear jandals in the cold.

The V promotion - Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

The V promotion – Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

As I said, I’m a sucker for promotions. So I bought a bottle of V energy drink, even though I don’t even like the drink. Just so I could get a free pair of slippers that I’m not going to wear now in the winter months. I also don’t really like advertising for V energy drink on my footwear. But apart from that, these slippers are quite soft and comfortable. I just have to wait a few more months for warmer weather to be able to wear them.

Japanese inspired footwear

Last month I wrote about traditional Japanese footwear called geta. This month I thought I would write about modern footwear inspired by the Japanese. This casual footwear has many names and sometimes I’m confused as to what to call this footwear. They can be called sandals, flip flops and thongs. I will call them Japanese slippers as that was the term I grew up with.

When my father was growing up in post World War II Malaya, he wanted a pair of Japanese slippers because all his friends had a pair. But my great-grandfather refused to allow my father to buy a pair of Japanese slippers. Such was the hostility towards the Japanese after the war. I have two sets of grandparents, one set who live in West Malaysia (formerly Malaya) and another set in Sarawak, East Malaysia (formerly known as British Borneo). None of my grandparents had anything good to say about the Japanese occupation of Malaya and British Borneo. There are many things that don’t get taught in history books, but let’s focus on the footwear.

Havaianas is a famous Brazilian brand that makes this type of Japanese slipper. The first Havaiana slipper was produced in 1962 in São Paulo, and the inspiration for Havaianas was the zori, a Japanese straw sandal. Nowadays, Japanese slippers are made of rubber or synthetic materials. This type of Japanese slipper is now truly global and can be found everywhere. It is common footwear all throughout South East Asia. 

In New Zealand, it is now late summer, going into autumn, and it is still warm enough to wear sandals. In New Zealand, the Japanese slipper is called jandals. This is a New Zealand word, and is actually a trademark. The word ‘jandal’ is believed to have come about from joining the word ‘Japanese’ and ‘sandal’.

In New Zealand, this time of the year is when students go back to school and university starts. During orientation week at university, many businesses, clubs and organizations promote themselves to students. During this time, it is common to get free stuff from these companies in their efforts to market themselves. Common freebies are things like coupons, chocolates, sweets, calendars, pens and stationery, coffee and soft drinks. Imagine my surprise when this year I received free Japanese slippers from a student organization. I came across these people on campus, one pushing a wheelbarrow full of black and white slippers. How could I resist free footwear? And more importantly, they had slippers in my size. So I filled out their survey and instantly became the owner of a pair of Japanese slippers with promotional wording on the thongs. The words are ‘Start the journey’ on the right foot and ‘Student life’ (the name of the organization) on the left foot. I applaud this extremely creative marketing tool. Why shouldn’t footwear be used as advertising space?

My free footwear, perfect for the beach

I also came across these handcarved New Zealand jandals called Kiwi Soles. These are Japanese slippers with two colours where the colour of the soles is different from the top. Each pair has been handcarved in New Zealand with unique kiwi designs on them. Japanese slippers are perfect for the beach and casual wear.

Jandals with kiwi designs, hand carved in New Zealand