The Spirit of Craftsmanship


Many a time we hear people tired or burnt-out complaining about not having their children do their type of  work, or whenever opportunity arises, they will switch to another task to make better money. All these are understandable for the fact that one must get reward for one’s effort, and if you labor hard, you should be rewarded handsomely. But we should also note that money seeking is not the only reason for our work. What is the point of making a lot of money if there is no meaning in what you do? We also remember that we are giving our lives to our work so it is only right that it should be rewarding. It is also true that there is no meaning in what you do if you can’t get a good monetary reward for it.

So is there an ideal profession that can bring both, monetary reward and spiritual fulfilment? One that can help you make good money at the same time giving you endless enjoyment and delight of your trade?


A Good Craftsman?

Today, many young people have not heard about the spirit of craftsmanship? And why artisans can spend days and even years working on a piece of craft to reach perfection? Working is not just labor, it also learning, innovating and continuos creation and regeneration of one’s craft until it becomes an art form.  Whatever the craft is, the spirit and values of getting to perfection is called craftsmanship; In my travels, I am very happy to note, returning to the fine art of Craftsmanship is slowly returning to mainstream.

Greetings at Narita Airport — Yes, what greets visitors at arrival at the Narita Airport in Japan is no longer the beautiful sceneries of the four seasons or the advancement of Japanese industries or technology; but pictures of fine craftsmanship in making bricks, tiles, lacquer and other traditional Japanese products. Japan is one nation that has always put its tradition as part, if not a central part of its modern life; and Japanese culture celebrates their master craftsmen. Recently, the emphasis to return to fine craftsmanship is on the rise. I see an entire magazine devoted to various types of crafts that young people can take up as their lifelong vocation.

Although the other urban centres in Asia is  still slow to resonate this theme, but there are pockets of interest and it is good to note young people are becoming aware of and interested in this. In this discussion; I would like to share some thoughts on why good craftsmanship will provide a sustainable lifestyle, a lifestyle that generations can continue and be proud of.

  1. Success takes generations: All the world’s great craft are not developed overnight; many have long traditions and the knowledge and skill have passed from generation to generation. Look at the Italian Caffe Florian ( 300 years old), the Belgum Beer hose Hoegaarden ( founded in 1445), El Celler in Span that is still faithful to the memory of different generations of the family’s ancestors dedicated to feeding people. There is a certain mission is getting a good job done; and not just having a transient profession to make ends meet and put food on the table.
  2. Exploiting a region’s comparative advantage: One of the success factors to great craftsmanship is not only the presence of some great people, but the environment must also co-operate. Take Cheng Mai in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia for example, there exists villages and villagers who are have great hand-skills in making various crafts. So when western designers get there to work with them, they can exploit the human resource of the area as well as the abundance of local materials.
  3. Find out your vocation: There are young people who do not continue with their higher education after secondary school, and they go out to the work world to find out what indeed suits them. Many could adopt a craft or a skill set, be it of the type in STEM ( Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths), Culinary ( Cooking and food design) or other soft art form ( Music, Dance, Martial Arts, Fitness); after some years of apprenticeship, they realise the importance of academic theory and knowledge for them to go on to higher levels, then they go back to school. This time in school, they are very sure of what they are coming for and why are they spending their time there. They made better students, of course.
  4. Perfecting it with excellence: All great craftsmen have one habit and goal every time, every time when they do their task; perfection. You must have heard of the Michelin Three Star Sushi Master Jiro Ono in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan (, who knows exactly how many grains of rice in one piece of sushi and how long it takes him to do the sushi. It is no wonder he is called the Sushi God. So deep knowledge of the craft was developed and mastered over time, and one has the patience and tenacity to repeat day after day the same task with higher and higher level of excellence. We are happy to hear about the Michelin Star Wanton Noodle, Porridge and Chicken Rice shops in Hongkong and Singapore.  All these have carried a traditional craft and have made great commercial success of them.

If you observe how great craftsman and craftswomen work, they are preoccupied with keeping up with good standards and perfecting their craft for the ultimate enjoyment of their audience. Naturally an appreciative audience will pay good price for the product or service. At the end of the day, one does not only have a respectable financial reward, but has built a sustainable business or craft to be passed on to the family or apprentice for generations to follow.

It is harder to find this spirit in new immigrant nations or cities; more of this traditional crafts are to be found in more traditions rich villages and regions of the bigger nations around the world.  Immigrant cities around the world need more of the return to traditional crafts and art forms.




Moon Cakes for 1.2 billion people: How Big is the Business?

Every year on the 15th day of the eight month in the Lunar Calendar, with the Moon at this fullest, 1.2 billion people of the Chinese world celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival with moon cakes.

These small round cakes, rich with a flaky crust and a sweet filling, usually made of lotus paste, have been around for 700 years. The shape resembles the full moon; it is a must delicacy for the festival that celebrates the Moon and the many legend attached to it. These rich dense cakes have high calories; are not meant to be eaten as desserts; many of them are not intended for personal consumption but to be sent as thank you gifts to relatives, clients, friends and supporters. The branding of the Moon cakes is a symbol of status and respect in modern China.

My father is the eldest son of the family and our grandma lives with us throughout her old age; so the entire family and its extended members would send packs of moon cakes during the festival, a gesture to say “you are on my mind,” and an expression of respect to family and elders. I have grown up with an abundance of these round cakes; plus my father would buy some cute piggy cakes caged in plastic baskets; tasted just like those western ginger bread-men bread to add fun to the festival for the children.

Moon Cakes are big business, the bakeries would only have to work for a month leading up to the festival; and the revenue and profit will last them for the entire year. So when 1.2 billion people celebrate this festival with moon cakes, how big indeed is the business?

Moon Cake, Moon Cake, who is the fairest of them all?

First of all, retailers, bakeries and hotels churn out their own holiday pastries; bearing their own specialty. One may think that often times the flavour of the moon cake is all-important and they influence buying decisions. But in today’s affluent cities in Asia; presentation and creative concept have been the most differentiating factor in the choice of which brand of moon cakes to buy. For example last year in my annual pilgrimage to the Moon Cake sales exhibition in a shopping mall in downtown Kuala Lumpur; I bought the ones from Inter-Continental Hotel because they have an innovative LV bag  to keep the cakes; I bought them and still keep the bag. Today I went to the same fair in Kuala Lumpur to see if I would be surprised.

The same Mid Valley Mega Mall is a bit crowded; and the decoration of the setting is not as elegant as last year, there are general signs of fatigue in Malaysian retail promotions because there are just too many festivals in this multi racial country.  There were some 15 brands of Moon Cakes competing for customers. A lawyer who is there to buy them as gifts to his clients was undecided; he was looking at the Concord Hotel store. We stroke up a conversation. He observed, “ Buying moon cakes today is not about the cakes; the bank gives me business so I present moon cakes to the staff at different departments. Those girls in the office fight over the moon cake gift boxes, I asked them how is the moon cake,” he shrugged his shoulder, “ these women. Go gaga over the gift boxes, but nobody seem to have much to say about the moon cakes; I wonder they actually ate them.”

photo (2)

This year my winner is the Concord Hotel (pic 2) The creative team of the hotel packed moon cakes into a nice wooden gift box, with a laser cut classical Chinese design on four sides (so good to use classical designs as they are elegant and costs nothing because they are do old that they are already in the public domain). The gift box is actually designed to be a light box! The package design is beautiful, classically elegant — and the box will be used as a table lamp or light box after it served the duty of its first life as a gift box” Concord Hotel was doing roaring business while the other stalls looked on; in the marketing of Moon Cakes, again it has brought out the truth of good design gives the product its competitive edge!

Classical Shangri-La

Shangri-La is one of Asia’s pioneer and top sellers of luxury moon cakes. Shangri-La’s design is always classical and China Chic. This year it uses a box with embroidered motifs, one can tell the Shangri-La stamp on it; it is quintessentially elegant China Chic. Normal moon cakes by street shop will go for USD3; but for these well packaged moon cakes with a cultural story; each moon cake can sell for as much as USD8-10. Now you believe why I said, “Culture is good business,” Infuse culture into the moon cakes, and you can sell triple the price! The competition is not in the quality of the moon cake, but also in the depth and elegance of the culture the packaging communicates.

Luxury hotels are doing well; chains like the Mandarin Oriental, St. Regis and Hilton have all become experts at catering to the tastes and desires of affluent Chinese in mainland China and the urban cities in Greater China, for whom moon cake season is all about gift-giving and status. For Asia’s Chinese jet-setting crowd, nothing sends good wishes for parent, client or colleague’s prosperity like handing over a box of exquisitely packaged moon-cakes of exotic flavour, from a five star hotel.

Moon Cakes – A Multi Million Business

According to report in EdAge[i], Shangri-La’s moon cake sales already top USD$35 million in 2010, “ Hong Kong based Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts chain, is known as the Rolls Royce of Asia’s moon cake. Shangri-La has turned moon cakes into a valuable marketing tool and a sweet source of revenue. Much of that moon cake revenue comes from the hotel’s properties in Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, as well as Hong Kong and China.

According to EdAge, the Shangri-La, owned by Malaysian-Chinese businessman Robert Kwok, has cornered the moon cake market through its canny understanding of Chinese culture and a solid distribution network. Shangri-La has over 30 properties in Greater China, covering just about every first and second-tier city in the mainland. Starting in August, the lobbies of hotels from Beihai to Zhongshan are filled with locals placing orders for boxes of moon cakes. Frequent patrons also know that Shangri-La’s fine cuisine Chinese restaurant, “Shang Palace” is one of the best around the region.

Mid Autumn festival brings a busy sale season; for he chain’s flagship Island Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong, the sales can reached over 10,000 in each season. The Gift hampers with eight moon cakes usually will have fine Chinese tea, home-made X.O. sauce, pistachios, honey, bamboo pith, chocolates and a bottle of Champagne – all for a price of USD $256.

It is learnt that the hotel puts enormous energy into its moon cake business. Each hotel decides which flavorrs it will offer based on local taste preferences; and each hotel will launch individual promotion campaigns.

New flavors have helped tradition flourish

While there is much creativity going into the packaging of the moon cakes; the chefs are not letting the designers have all the limelight. The origin of moon cakes dates back centuries when early Chinese offered sacrifices to the sun in spring and the moon in autumn. The holiday has been officially celebrated since the Song Dynasty in 420, and folk stories tell of Ming revolutionaries who used moon cakes to carry secret messages in their bid to overthrow Mongolian rulers during the Yuan dynasty. In the late 1300s, following 97 years of Mongolian rule in Northern China (the Yuan Dynasty), Han Chinese rebels cooked up a last-ditch effort to drive out the invaders.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the rebels distributed hundreds of moon cakes to local families under the pretense of celebrating the holiday and the longevity of Mongolian rule. The Mongolians didn’t eat moon cakes, so they didn’t get the memo hidden inside the cakes: Kill the Mongols on the 15th of the eighth lunar month. On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, thousands of villagers rose up to chase the invaders out of China. The rebel leader, Zhu Yuan Zhang, became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty

Traditional moon cakes are imprinted with the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” and stuffed with red lotus seed paste, red bean paste or black sesame paste alongside a salted egg yolk that symbolizes the full moon. Today the cakes are imprinted with the logo of the establishment making them.

Growing affluence and yearning for diversity have prompted and inspire bakers to cater to the culinary curiosity of modern consumers with creative ingredients. Gourmet moon cakes can cost hundreds of dollars for limited-edition packages flavored with dried scallops, goose liver, red wine, beef with scallions, seaweed, truffles with bacon, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, marshmallows, bird’s nest, ginger and many other exotic ingredients including that quintessentially Malaysian king of fruits, the creamy and rich MaoshanWang (猫山王) durian.

New flavours have helped the moon cake tradition flourish as China’s society modernises and integrate with the world. Most consumers today find the old-fashioned kind, which are chewy and dense, about as desirable as the unwanted fruitcake many Americans exchange at Christmas. Inventive flavours and eye-catching packaging have helped the treats remain fashionable in a culture that seems to change by the hour. A nice innovation in the recent years is the snow skin series, which uses a rice flour skin, chilled and refrigerated and not baked. The snow skin moon cakes, first started in Hongkong have now become a big hit with consumers, especially young women.

Yang Yue Bing (洋月饼)or Western Moon Cakes.

Western retailers are becoming Chinese as well. The two most active ones are Starbucks and ice cream brand Haagen-Dazs. The “Yang Yue Bing“ ( 洋月饼) or Western Moon Cakes produces moon cakes made of macadamia nut, chocolate and cookies & cream ice cream with a mango sorbet “yolk” in the case of Haagen-Dazs, and Starbucks uses green tea and chocolate as flavours. Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel teamed up with Lindt to produce a line of chocolate moon cakes in four flavors, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy.

It was reported that Haagen-Dazs could sell up 1.5 million boxes in a peak year. In China, moon cakes are first sold by vouchers; and people are presented with the voucher so they go to the shops to redeem their box of moon cakes.

Now in the weeks before and after Mid Sept, pastry shops, supermarkets and hotel restaurants in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan are battling over consumer taste buds with different plans to win favor. Some are baking classic Cantonese-style moon cakes, with a glazed, toasted exterior, and lotus paste and whole egg yolk interior, while others rely on quirky modern twists–using fillings of imported cheese and cherries, champagne custard or spicy beef while exchanging the pastry skins for shells of chocolate, jelly or rice cake. Bakeries made moon cakes for the popular kid personality of Hello Kitty and Doremen too.

How big is the business?

Industry analyst estimated that as many as 250,000-300,000 tons of moon cakes were sold in China, producing an estimated revenue of $1.4 to 2 billion for bakeries, hotels and manufacturers. In Beijing alone, moon cake sales in the three-month purchasing season from July to September generated $20 million in revenue. Gifting is a key reason for the size and scale of the moon cake business.

As the festival approaches, the reception lobbies of corporations become inundated with colourful packages of moon cakes. Companies in China too give away Moon cake vouchers to the staff during the moon cake festival as part of staff welfare. Many restaurants are innovating and inviting Yang Shifu (western chefs) to lend a hand; they western pastry chefs to produce new taste for moon cakes. Moon cakes filled with dried Japanese scallops and New Zealand cheese. this Beijing brand Wei Duo Mei sold over 60,000 moon cakes that season.

This year, Wei Duo Mei is selling out of its buttery, blueberry-filled French moon cakes. More than one-third of its cakes at Wei Duo Mei are non traditional, and the gold and crimson sets sell for $15 to $40. Tai Pan Bread & Cakes, a bakery chain with 40 branches in Hong Kong, has enjoyed a loyal clientele since it’s opening in the 1980s in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay. It’s well known as the first to create a moon cake made with a rice cake skin, in 1980. It still sells the popular award winning Snowy Moon Cake, and the innovation has spread to other cities in Greater China.

Conclusion: The last question we asked is whether the Chinese Moon Cake can go international, and can become popular with non-Chinese around the world. We can watch that in more Chinese populated cities in western countries and see if this delicacy does have a world market?


Written on Sept 5 2014 Kuala Lumpur. Sept 8 is the Mid Autumn Festival for 2014.



University and School Canteen food need not be boring anymore!


University and College Buildings can be fun and inspiring; School Canteens should serve the safest and delicious food in beautiful and inspirational settings;

Who said that Canteens should only be used for eating, students should linger and stay there to discuss and do homework or study throughout the day.

Yes, goodbye to boring school buildings and school food. Now bring in the most delicious food to school canteens; create a setting parents could drop by to have meals with their children and talk about their day.

Here I quote the Design of the Nanyang Technological Learning Hub by Thomas Heatherwick Studio:

Design concept: “ It was clear that since the advent of the internet and low cost computers that there has been a distinct shift in how students approach educational facilities. University buildings have ceased to be the only site where students are able to source educational texts, and have become unappealing spaces with endless corridors, no natural daylight and only hints of other people’s presence.”

Thomas Hetherwick’s studio  was to redefine the aspiration of a university building, and to once again make it an essential part of the tertiary education experience. Within this new context the purpose of a university is to foster togetherness and sociability, so that students can meet their fellow entrepreneurs, scientists or colleagues in a space that encourages collaboration.

The hub’s form is dictated by its function, and brings together 56 tutorial rooms into a structure without conventional corridors, which have traditionally created social separation and isolation. The learning hub is porous- students can enter from 360 degrees around into a large central space which links all the separate towers together. Each tower is made up of a stack of classrooms which build up gradually, with gardens on selected floors.

Another inspiration for the hub was a wish to break down the traditional square forward-facing classrooms with a clear front and hierarchy, and move to a corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis.

In this model, students work together around shared tables, with teacher as facilitator and partner in the voyage of learning, rather than ‘master’ executing a top-down model of pedagogy.

Each of these tutorial rooms faces the large shared central space, allowing students to continually feel connected to all the other activities going on in the building.”

The learning hub was awarded the BCA Green Mark Platinum Award for sustainability by the Singaporean government in 2013. The award is a benchmarking scheme which incorporates internationally recognised best practices in environmental design and performance.

The GOOGLE CAFÉ and IKEA Restaurants

Everyone knows by now how well done and a soulful place the Google Café is. Food and feasting is not just about filling the stomach, having a meal is a very community affair, people relaxed and are at their best mood to communicate after a meal – hence the Café or Canteen should be maximized to promote communication among staff and visitors, yes, visitors should be encouraged to visit and have meetings at the Company Café.

The IKEA Café is another cosy place where people don’t go to IKEA to buy or look at furniture but to meet friends at the IKEA Café to have a meal, an ice cream or just have a cup of coffee!

By the way I have also said time and again, only the best local food should be served at the Airport restaurants; governments should subsidised local food vendors to promote their fair at the local airports. Imagine your sense of satisfaction when you can still get a good coffee and a good meal after all the rush to the airport through the traffic congestion; and still have a good meal before you board the plane! Nothing beats this more in forging favourable memories of the the visitor!


演讲发表在2013 年马中企业家大会 ( 十二月一日,马来西亚吉隆坡)

在全球化的大背景下中国的崛起创造了对新教育的需要; 东盟各城市人民对现代国际教育对他们新一代的未来有更高的期待,越来越多的家长希望在孩子的教育方面能够有更多的选择, 也希望新时代的国际教育能全面的与世界接轨。公办教育的不足和其未能及时满足企业和各国快速发展下对新型人才的需求,为民办教育创造了契机。











一位在国际企业叱咤风云数十载的高管很感慨的説,我一生中最遗撼的事是我的女兒嫁外國人。我說其实三十年前你己种下因,今天是一个必然的果。这位在MNC 工作的知名人士,在北京8年,女兒送去美國学校,由公司埋单。这个女儿从小就跟一群金头发蓝眼睛的外国孩子一起玩一起长大,所受的也是西方的教育,因此她已经在思想和文化上成为一个西方人了。





在世界70亿人口中,这两250万的精英应该是最国际化的一个小众,但是值得提醒的是,他们是西方文化的产物。十年前,在国际学校里的学生,百分之八十 (80%)是外国人,百分之二十(20%)是本地人,今天这个比例正好相反,百分之二十(20%)是外国人,百分之八十(80%)是本地人,尤其是在亚洲。全世界6000所的国际学校,亚洲占了一半,以下的原因造成本地人对国际教育/国际学校的强大需求:

  1. 过去二三十年来,亚洲人快速的创造财富,使到亚洲家庭可以负担国际学校的学费。(看图一,图二)
  2. 本土教育的不足,过度考试导向的体制和未能与国际接轨让很多有能力的家家庭另作选择。
  3. 全球化造就了人才的流动性,也有越来越多的精英家庭希望能够在未来的就业出路和居住所在地有更多的弹性和选择,因此投资孩子的国际教育是未雨绸缪和增加孩子国际流动性的一个准备。

图(一) 各国财富的分配        图(二)2012 -2013 全球亿万富豪比例变化


                 在西方经济和文化独领风骚的时代,以西方教育为核心是可以理解的,但是在中国经济和文化迅速崛起的今天,世界的发展中心重回亚洲的时候,很多精英的父母也关注他们是否应该继续让孩子们受国际(西方)的教育。他们在想; 因为他们将在亚洲,一些甚至会在中国生活和工作,而他们的孩子将要和中国人打交道,他们应该让接孩子们更多的接受中国文化,让他们能说一口流利的普通话,具有与中国人交往的能力?



  1. 在中国本土和海外中国人越来越希望孩子们能够接受双语(中英文)教育。中国的需求强大;在中国,有接近1000国际高中课程项目在进行中,数以万计的中国学生放弃中国的高考,参加剑桥A水平,IB和AP课程学习和考试。美国国土安全部透露在2005-06学年只有65个中国学生就读美国私立高中在。在2010-11年度,这个数字已经由增加到6,725个学生,100培的增长。 这些说明中国家长希望自己的孩子能到世界顶尖大学完成高等教育。
  2. 西方家庭里有一方配偶是来自亚洲或者中国的,也希望孩子们不要放弃亚洲文化(配偶是华人的更不希望孩子放弃有五千年历史的中华文化)。中文国际学校的崛起和中国的崛起,海外中国人的增加,海外华侨对回归原乡文化的愿望等多种因素综合;为中文国际学校创造市场。
  3. 有远见的外国家庭; 虽然这个数字在今天仍然是少数,但那些与亚洲有密切关系的外国人明白让 孩子掌握亚洲或中国文化的是的战略意义。今天,有超过30万的外国人在中国学习,其中80%是在中国学习汉语和文化的。这个数字正在增加,而且越来越多的人在认真努力学习汉语。随着时日的推进,这个全球精英群体也将为中国的国际学校创造市场。








































  成长的市场 东亚 中国,香港,南韩,东南亚,越南,泰国,新加坡,马来西亚  
    南亚 印度,巴基斯坦  
    西亚 阿联酋,埃及,卡塔尔,沙特阿拉伯  


  1. 教育精神必须全面国际化,与现代化教学和世界形势接轨,
  2. 课程的设置必须反映当下的世界状况和充分的利用最新的科技,
  3. 师资方面,教师必须能掌握流利的双语和有跨文化知识与经验,
  4. 学校的硬体设计也必须与时俱进,充分的融入现代设计以配合美学、体育、科技等的综合需要和为创意教学创造条件。
  5. 投资资金必须充裕,一所高水准的国际学校大约需要投资马币一个亿(美金三千四百万34M),其中百分之八十用在硬件,百分之二十在软件和营运。一般来说,一所国际学校课招收一千五百个学生,学费平均一年四万马币,三到五年可以达到收支平衡,十年回收。

Reposition Jonker Street

I spoke at the :”Driving Economic Growth from Heritage” Forum organized by the Melaka Junior Chamber of Commerce; went around Jonker Street today and took a new set of photos for Geographer Cafe and for Jonker Street.

马六甲:《从老街看经济》-full speech on Nov 15 2013.



Jonker Street is a historic street located in the heritage area of old town Melaka that in the last 13 years has become a “must stop” for visitors and tourists. Back then the Street was earmarked to develop into a kind of “cultural walk,” to offer products and experience with a deeper and richer cultural content.  For strange reason the municipal authorities has announced closure of the street citing unruly traffic situation as the reason for closure.

Since Jonker Street was earmarked to be a “Cultural Walk” 13 years ago, I have visited the street several times. In fact the street was featured in my book “Culture Is Good Business” and Geographer Cafe, one of the landmarks on the street barely got started when I wrote the book; I took the inside cover photograph with the Cafe as a backdrop. At that time, I joked with the Cafe operator Peter Tseng, ” Peter you jolly make sure you succeed because Geographer Cafe must stand testimony to my theory ” Culture Is Good Business.”

Peter did a good job. His dedication paid off. Geographer Cafe became profitable on its 7th year and is now one of the most popular spot along Jonker Street. Geographer Cafe has not only become an interesting backdrop for famous product shots such as shooting the new Toyota or scenes for the Hongkong movie, ” Summer Holidays (夏日抹抹茶),” Peter has painstakingly invited many artists to perform at the Cafe,  this space has also become a gathering place for old friends as well as visitors, young and old to drop by to have a drink.

What has Jonker Street got to do with Geographer Cafe? And why am I concerned about the closure of Jonker Walk?

Geographer Cafe is a fine example of conviction and perseverance. 13 years ago and before Melaka town was declared World Heritage Site, it was difficult to make a business case to run a Cafe in very uncertain economic climate and unreliable stream of visitors. Peter Tseng and his partners persisted; and the Cafe prospered with Melaka resurging as a lesiure spot for richer Singaporeans out for a weekend break and for tourists from abroad.

Initially It was more of the partners believing in creating a wholesome place for them to meet friends and have friends meet their friends, in a relaxed atmosphere with character. They preserved the old shop house, make sure that all the “things” that they grew up with are scattered around; old books, old records, songs, calligraphy; they added the internet but still the place very much retained its character. There is music for most of the evenings; a bit of East and West, Chinese songs, Jazz and kind of easy going western pop; not a rowdy bar where people just click glasses and drown themselves in alcohol.  Geographer Cafe was meant to showcase “culture,” not just come by to have a plate of nasi lemak or a beer; but slow down, relax and reflect a little about life. Peter and company wanted a more “intellectual” place; and at the “Geographer” Cafe, you will hear conversations on world politics, travel, history and art.

Peter put a lot of effort into the food of Geographer. He introduced Tempeh ( snack made with fermented soybeans), a native food from Indonesia – very local, indeed not easy to find in other restaurants around town. The Geographer Cafe Nasi Lemak is one of its kind; served with bean sprouts and unpolished rice, boiled peanuts — following the rules of healthy cooking. The Curry Ramen is an all time favorite; it is vegetarian, they sun-dried the freshly made noodle from organic flour, infusing natural vitamin E in the process. The  Santan-less curry is made from carefully blending walnut, cashew nut and pine seeds — this means that the true essence is in the curry and one must take in every bit of it.

The authorities who planned Jonker Walk must have wished that there are more Geographer Cafes -like  Cultural entrepreneurs who are passionate about innovating and deepening one’s experience; be it food, drinks, music or dance. People who show expressions of higher culture and may be “better taste.”  To realise this, we must also consider the other side of the scene along the walk, what about the visitors–what do they come for and what price are they willing to pay for their experience there?

I supposed when Jonker Street opened; the authorities wanted the street that showcase culture, at that time in the middle of China Town in Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur. At that time,  there is a  Cultural Street of bookshops, art galleries, tea rooms where the young generation of Malaysian Chinese intellectuals wanted and intended as a cultural hub. But when Jonker Street, it quickly became a night market ( Pasar Malam) style pedestrian night hangout. All kinds of petty stuffs, including many made in China products were sold there. A lot of food offering as well. The shop owners complained as the petty traders offered food at cheaper prices than the shops which has to pay higher rental.

Peter was then concerned and asked me to comment. I shrugged my shoulders; “well, pasar malam is also culture, it is the local style of life. ” I did’t meant to be sarcastic;  it is hard to force things down peoples’ throat; people go for things they are familiar; and if their vision can only see the ordinary, objects of higher cultural standing would have no appeal to them, and therefore no market.  If the street attracts the locals and locals want cheap ordinary day stuffs; well and good. Can there be an alternative site to keep the night market, yet to reposition and refine Joker Street?

Was it a mistake to allow traders of pasar malam ware? Did the night market traders drove away the more upmarket cultural traders?  Estimates put business volume of the 200 traders at the night market at around RM5m a year;  this amount of local GDP generates some RM3.5m in net revenue to the traders.  If the market is relocated to a more conducive location; and Joker Walk begin to regain the valuable weekends to do business,  perhaps more GDP can be created. The presence of these petty retail traders have been contentious with the shop owners who have found it difficult to conduct business during the weekends. Temporary closure may put the street to a test; how would the traffic over the weekend to Jonker Walk change?  The current rethinking involving the street may be an opportunity to reposition.

A Cultural Walk must be sustainable; the shops and traders must do well. The traders and their ware provide the backdrop to the cultural scene, and nobody pays them to make a scenery for the visitors; the show must be paid for by the business they can made. The key about a Cultural Walk is the experience; and it shouldn’t be a choice of “either or.” With proper guidance, we can persuade traders to go about their trade in a more aesthetic way; you can still sell ordinary ware but in an interesting manner, look at the shops along the streets of Paris, it is such a visual delight !

At one time, the planners of a Cultural District in Shanghai asked me, how to change the “content” of their neighbourhood; I said the only way to do is to “change blood’ i.e if you want the place to display a different character, you must have a different group of people populated there. The character of the place is about its people, and the shops, restaurants, bars and the things and styles of things they sell matches with the population. We see that in many of the world’s streets known for their character. And it takes time; sometimes this is done organically, sometimes with a bit of planning and incentive; and often times, both approaches working together can help to bring about a new appearance.

Now we look at Jonker Walk 13 years after, I believe it must have become a more vibrant pasar malam, and traffic jam must have become unbearable for the local municipal to want to close the night market.  The questions one can  ask:

1. If the night market has become popular, and locals and visitors love them, and traders are making business, why not? People may be coming to enjoy the relaxed and free night market atmosphere? If the hygiene standard and display can be further improved, the authorities can come up with competition and other ways to incentivise to bring about a more visually pleasing scene.

2. If it has to stay as a “Malaysian-style night market,” can we build upon it? How can we make it more interesting and have a richer variety and depth with incentives from the authorities? Can there be more music, more street performances, add more activities to the night scene in additional to the abundance of food and snacks on offer? Can we have anything else besides food and souvenirs?

3. Can we upgrade? Can we do fine dining with Nasi lemak and Chicken rice. I supposed in Taipei’s Shilin Night Market (士林夜市; pinyinShìlín Yèshì), you can have seafood served on Wedgewood in a street stall/shop decorated with crystal chandeliers; can we infuse more “culture” into the products and/or the experience. Can we see more thematic spaces, be there bars, shops and restaurants; and more young energy in innovation and entrepreneurship?

Culture is for the locals, and by and large organic. Visitors come to see what the locals look like and what they do; in other words, their lifestyle. What we see is what we get; it is not up to the authorities to like what they see, it is what the market ( i.e. the people) like that will sustain the energy of the place. The authorities can help by nurturing and upgrading in a gradual way…….it does look like 13th years later, much more work lies ahead; the story is not about Jonker Walk alone; it is about the larger Malaysian Cultural Scene and this has to do with the entire socio-cultural eco-system of the nation.

The popularity of the night market perhaps creates an opportunity to reposition Jonker Walk; open a new district for the existing market and allow it to continue to flourish. In the meantime, more thoughts go to nurturing a truly “cultural street” in a very expensive Heritage Street that should showcase more of history, culture and the arts. There is more “value”in this than what a low priced retail market can generate.

( Jonker Walk was written as an example of an intended local culture street in the book ” Culture Is Good Business.” published in 2003).

Standard Mandarin Proficiency Now A Competitive Competence

A leading IT company has a team of Chinese speaking support staff in its call centre in Malaysia providing services to the entire Chinese speaking world. Recently the company found that their Chinese speaking team has not been effective in dealing with callers from mainland China. Reason: their staff in KL speak Huayu, and many of the callers from mainland China speak Putonghua; the Huayu speakers understood the questions and queries of the Chinese callers; but when replying, the Chinese callers do not fully understand what the Malaysian Huayu speaker are saying.

The same scene is repeated in the luxury stores in Southeast Asia’s premium shopping malls. Mainland tourists come for these high premium items, and the retailers found their Chinese speaking staff have difficulties getting themselves understood by the Chinese tourists.

Why is this so? Malaysians speak Chinese, don’t they?

Yes, they do. But there are differences between the various streams within the family of Chinese language. In the Greater China area, most people form the impression that the Chinese language spoken is understood by all Chinese. The reality is quite far from the truth.

The family of Chinese Language ( Hanyu) has many derivatives; Putonghua the national language of the People’s Republic of China, Guoyu, the Chinese language used in Taiwan, Huayu, the language of the Chinese ( Huaren) for Malasysia and Singapore. And the Malaysian style Huayu has incorporated dialects ( Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Hainan), English and Bahasa Malaysia.  The text book and language style learnt by the Chinese community in Malaysia belongs to a more formal and written format; not so oral or colloquia; hence harder to comprehend in a dialogue setting. Because Malaysians speak so many tongues; and the Chinese language spoken at home is often mixed with many dialects and other language; few Malaysians are disciplined to use a single language in their daily communication.

Global Hanyu & Culture College did a review and formatted the difference between Huayu and Putonghua with the following features:

1. Intonation; Huayu doesn’t speak with the 4 tones.

2. Pronunciation: Malaysians often make errors in some key pronunciation.

3. Mixed grammer patterns

4. Different regional vocabulary.

Many speakers of Huayu seek help to refine and to get themselves make the shift to standard Putonghua. Many asked how long would it take and what is their chance of success? Before we answer these questions; we must recognised the following condition:

1. A spoken language is like an operating system, like an Apple IOS Versus Android. It is all about habit. When you are used to one system, it is embedded in your brain which controls your tongue; if you want to use another system,  new habits must be developed to replace the old one. Changing habit takes commitment, awareness and effort.

2. In making the shift the right environment helps. An example would be you lose your Apple phone and you are now forced to operate on Android. Left without choice, over a sufficiently long period of time, you would make the switch to the new operating system. So often times, success arise from necessity, not out of choice.

3. You need to be inspired. One has to be inspired by the beauty of the language and are draw to it; wanting to imitate and speak in that way. Just like French, many like the language because it sounds nice, it is musical and seem to show style.

While we recognise that it takes a lot of effort and commitment to achieve fluency in Putonghua; there are people who have managed to do that. Those Malaysian Chinese who have spent time studying in China have done that, immersion does help to break the habit.  Their strategy of success include the following steps:

1. Recognise and understand the differences of the two language,

2. Run through all the key sounds of all the characters and find out your pattern of error

3. Once you know your pattern of error, practise on the correct pronunciation and tone; be highly aware and make it a point to speak right all the time; all the time. Be very discipline not to let yourself slip;

4. Watch Mainland TV, read newspaper and magazine reports from the mainland, now they are widely available on the website — you create your own virtual language environment;

5. Subject yourself to test weekly. Get yourself a mainland Putonghua teacher/mentor; via skype, log on each week to do a test, working your errors down to zero.

6. Continue to learn to speak with the mainland accent; learn to speak culturally and beautifully. Switch to reading all articles from China website and watch Mainland Chinese dramas and TV Serials. This helps to be acclimatise into the Putonghua culture.

Those who have succeeded report that they need between 6 months to a year, depending on how intense your conversion goals are. No matter how difficult it is; just like losing weight, it can be done.

Today standard Mandarin Proficiency has become a competitive advantage. Can Malaysian luxury brand shops up sell mainland tourist, can Malaysia become a Call Center for Greater China will depend on the Standard Mandarin Proficiency of its Chinese speaking population.

A New Music Hall in Penang — for Heng Ee School Musical Potpourri 2016!

I was most delighted to be invited by Headmaster Goh to preview the rehearsal of the Heng Ee School Musical Potpourri 2013, which as on the program of the George Town Festival in Penang last Tuesday. It is quite amazing that a school of 3500 students, a Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK) could do with just RM1m investment in equipments in the last 18 years to have nurtured 6 musical groups ( a choir, harmonica band, Chinese band, Jazz Band, drums group and an orchestra). Largely privately funded and aided by volunteers; the school has built a rich reservoir of musical talents. The 2 and half hour performance was delightful, and I came away feeling very hopeful for the nation’s young people; and of course, feeling thankful to a dedicated headmaster who brought music to the school; and the teachers who tirelessly worked alongside the leadership of Mr Goh.

I felt so pleased with what I saw that I suggested to the headmaster to bring the stage online so that more people can enjoy the performance, In less than 48 hours since we talked about the idea, with the help of Ong and Ron, two young man who learnt how to do live streaming, we staged the event online. The show went online on June 23rd 7pm, with 475 people log on to watch on their computers and/or mobiles!

For a repeat of the performance of the Heng Ee School Musical Potpourri 2013, go to 

While I was delighted with the energy and the high quality of the school children’s performance, I find the hall at Dewan Sri Pinang most pathetic. Throughout the concert, the technicians can’t fix the echo problem. While I sat in that hall during the rehearsal, I can tell the quality of the sound system. If you have been to some of the best musical halls around the world, you can tell one from another; and honestly Dewan Sri Pinang is ageing; and the facilities needs upgrade.

What about A New Music Hall for Penang?

Indeed, the heritage town of Penang needs some new avante garte structure. Malaysia’s second largest town needs an injection of life; a new music hall in the company of the Sydney Opera House or the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum would be most inspiring.  The state of the art new music hall would be ideally located in the poorest section of Penang, and if possible by the water!  Siting a jewel in a poor neighbourhood will bring development to the area, and vitalise the place; Penang does need a new music hall; and music festivals generate good economic activities.

The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum has been hailed as the Museum that saved a city; and an provocative new structure which can bring harmonizing music to the population as well as recast Penang as the Jewel of the Orient is an inspiring idea.! The Penang state government can begin by calling a world competition.

Preserve Farmers Market!

Preserving traditional farmers market — represents an impossible dream as farms increasingly are being integrated by large agri-business players and the older generation of farmers/owners are aging and their sons and daughters have studied in universities to become professionals living in urban condominiums.  Yes, authentic farmers markets will be a disappearing sight; most in many places are being replaced with cheap goods fare from China peddled by migrant population or shifting hawkers.

However one must note that most discerning travellers and locals love the sight, sound and smell of the Sunday local farmers market.  The question is how to preserve them?  And what are the experiences around the world?  This post will examine this ( coming).

Examples of existing fresh produce markets:

1. Barcelona: Bouqueria market. An old market which has remake itself successfully; now awarded as  the best market in the world, awarded by the World Markets Congress held in 2005 in Washington DC.  A new addition in 2003 is the market’s Culinary Classroom, where children and adults are taught to cook, and different gastronomic events are organised every day.

2. Melbourne: Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s premier market for over 130 years. This 19th century landmark is a vibrant open-air undercover market, rich in history and enthralling market stories. The bustling market is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and an intrinsic part of Melbourne’s way of life.

3. Tokyo: Tsukiji Wholesale Fish market. Tokyo Central Wholesale Market handled 787,782 tons (2,888 tons a day) of marine products, 748 billion yen (2.8 billion yen a day) total in 1993. Some 450 kinds of fish are received; this figure is unparalleled in the world.   Tsukiji Market, handling 87% of the total amount marine products in Tokyo, is one of the biggest markets in the world.

More on The World’s Top 25 Markets.

National Geographic’s listing of Top 10 Markets

CNN’s Top Ten Listing of Wet Markets



Vice President at Bosideng, China’s largest down jackets Madam Gao observed,” Consumers are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a branded handbag, but the public expects food to be cheap. Everyone knows that the farmers are squeezed by middlemen, they get the least return for the most critial process of food production. It is hard to fathom the logics of this as food is the most important element that sustains a good life; not a branded bag!?

Indeed, developers, cities spent billions to build huge shopping malls for the trading of lifestyle goods that gives the “look and feel” of wellbeing; but food, and for that matter good and high quality food, to be distributed in the cleanest and highest standards are paramount to human life. Food also comes in an array of oolors, shapes, smell and texture; they themselves if presented appropriately and artistically, presents a visual fare.

It is time we give the same, if not more attention to the distribution and handling of food items; and authentic farmers markest are folklore  heritage and a community institution that should be preserved.

From Food to Cooking: The joy of cooking ( Coming)

From Facebook to Culinaria : Which is a true necessity? ( Coming)

Temple Fair for self reliant community support

Annually for 9 days the JiuWangye temple in Ampang New Village is turned into a temple fair where young and old from near and far come and offer their prayers. This fair brings people together and raised fund to support local charities including a dialysis center, a school, old folks home and other community charity. This is an example of Malaysian Chinese self reliant way of keeping their culture and cumminty alive.

For the 2012 Fair, it is estimated that the Temple raised some RM1.2million from donations, leasing of stalls and spaces to various merchandise merchants and food stalls. The temple will apply these funds to support its various community charity.

Xuzhou: Bring about a renaissance in Han Culture?

The northern Jiangsu city of Xuzhou, home to 9 million people located in a region of 100 million spread over the provinces of Jiangsu, Shangdong, Anhui and Henan is setting a new vision with renewed vigor. In a recent Tourism and Trade Promotion Fair this year, I had the opportunity to review a number of projects the city plans to review its position as the origin of Han Culture.

A large scale musical entitled, ” An Ode to Han Style” retold the stories of the glory and  of the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty and the tragedy of the losing general Xiang Yu. Xuzhou is the native place of Grand Han Emperor Liu Bang.

(More to follow)

Han Fu

The Chinese have always felt that they lack a truly Han national costume. The qibao which was popularly thought to be a Chinese dress is actually a foreign import; one that came with the Qi tribes from the north. There are attempts now to revive the costumes popular during the Han dynasty.