The Man behind the House

Tin, a silvery metal that is non-corrosive and non-toxic, was ideally suited for the food canning industry and its great demand in America and Britain spawned an industry that saw thousands of Chinese coming to Malaya with the hopes of leaving poverty behind.  Many died in malarial swamps and many more were exploited by unscrupulous employers and agents.  But many millionaires were also born and success stories like Yap Ah Loy and Loke Yew made it into the history books and onto road signs.

Chan Wing was one of the millionaires born in the heydays of the tin mining industry.  Reticent in public with a preference to stay in the background, Chan Wing may well have been forgotten if not for the house he built.  The Big House, as it was called then, has an interesting history of its own culminating as the abode for kings.

Chan Wing (1933).  Taken from the book "From Poor Migrant to Millionaire" by Chan King Nui

Chan Wing (1933). Taken from the book “From Poor Migrant to Millionaire” by Chan King Nui

Chan Wing’s was a typical rags to riches story.  Born to poverty in China in 1873, he was the fourth son among six boys and two girls.  With a father that squandered his money, time and energy on opium, it fell on their mother to provide for the family.  The family lived at subsistence level and school was a luxury that they could ill-afford.

An opportunity to better their lot came with the arrival of agents to their village with stories about a land called Nanyang and a metal called tin around which tales of great riches were spun.  Fourteen year old Chan Wing and his younger brother, Loong, were dispatched to this fabled land with the hopes and dreams of the whole family riding on them.  While Loong would return home a year later ridden with malaria and unable to cope with the harsh working conditions in the tin-mines, Chan Wing would go on to make their wildest dreams come true.  But this dream had its roots in tears and sorrow as the only way the family was able to raise the money to send Chan Wing and Loong to Malaya was by selling the youngest son, who was still a babe in arms.  Their mother was devastated but did not stand in the way.

On arrival in Malaya, the brothers got jobs at a tin mine in Sungai Besi but Chan Wing would change jobs many times including being a shopkeeper for two of Loke Yew’s shops in Sungai Besi.  At the age of 24, he joined forces with four of his clansmen to form a ‘kongsi’ (syndicate) to mine for tin ore next to the tin rich Sungai Besi Mine.  A European group and at least two other Chinese kongsi had previously mined on this plot of land with no success.  The kongsi formed by Chan Wing and friends operated for 9 months without finding any ore.  Savings dwindled and hopes plummeted but they dug deeper and their perseverance paid off when Chan Wing saw a darkish patch in one of the boxes of sand that he was washing.  The kongsi had struck very big as the place was subsequently found to be littered in tin and the rest, as they say, is history.

With the years of scrimping and saving behind him and money no longer a major concern, Chan Wing’s attention turned to marriage and he requested his mother to find a bride for him.  Low Ming Ching, simple, pleasant, timid and barely sixteen, would become the first in a line of wives to come.

Chan Wing would go on to venture into other businesses including banking (he sat on the board of Kwong Yik Bank), rice and rubber.  He became a respected and accepted member in Malayan society and now had an important decision to make – where to make his permanent home.

At the time of Chan Wing’s birth, China was under the rule of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912).  This was not the rule of the majority Han Chinese but the dynasty was founded by the Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan, a Manchu tribe from northeastern China which usurped power from the Ming emperor.   The Manchu had a unique hairstyle where the hair on the front of the head until the temples were shaved off every ten days and the rest braided into a long pigtail.  This pigtail is also known as a ‘queue’.  During the Qing Dynasty, the Manchus imposed this hairstyle on the Han Chinese and cutting off the queue was considered an act of treason.  Chan Wing took the decision to live permanently in Malaya and as an act of defiance against the Manchu government, he cut off his queue.

Meanwhile, his family had grown into 8 wives with 21 children living at different locations.  Chan Wing bought 13 acres of land and commissioned Swan and Maclaren to design a house that will bring his whole family under one roof and in 1929, the family moved into what would become known as The Big House.  It might have been the biggest house in Malaya at that time, but for the family it was not big enough.  As his daugher Chan King Nui recalls in her book ‘From Poor Migrant to Millionaire’, although the mothers had a room each, the children had to share rooms – four to a room.  The number of children by now had swelled to 25.  Chan Wing and his family stayed at the Big House until 1941 when war came to Malaya.

Chan Wing got separated from his family during the war and he stayed out the war in Australia while his family was evacuated to India where his twenty-sixth and last child, a boy, was born.  He reunited with his family when they returned to Malaya after the war but was diagnosed with cancer and in spite of the best treatment succumbed to his illness in 1947 at the age of 74.

During the Japanese Occupation (1942 – 1945), the Big House became the residence of the Japanese Governor and after the war, it was commandeered by the British.  In 1950, the Selangor state government rented it from the owners and it became the palace of the Sultan of Selangor until 1957 when the federal government bought the property from the owners.  It was renovated and extended to become Istana Negara, the official residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king of Malaysia).  In Dec 2011, Istana Negara moved to its new location at Jalan Duta and the Istana Negara Lama, as the property is now called, has been turned over to the Department of Museums, Malaysia.

Most of the information on Chan Wing in this article comes from the book ‘From Poor Migrant to Millionaire’, written by Chan King Nui; one of Chan Wing’s daughters.

School Programme – Special Needs School, Puchong

On 17 April, 24 students from the Special Needs School in Puchong participated in a school trip to Muzium Negara and ten museum volunteers were at hand to make this a fun trip for them.

The students, aged between 7 and 12, were divided into three groups and were led through Galleries A, B and C by the volunteers.  The students were engaged throughout and gave the volunteers their focused attention.  Upon completing the tour of the galleries, they assembled at Dataran Muzium and took part in a few traditional games, namely the baling tin, gerek buluh and sepak buluh ayam.

Playing the Gerek Buluh

Playing the Gerek Buluh

This picture shows the children playing the Gerek Buluh.  In this game, a wheel is attached to a long bamboo handle and the participants are required to roll the wheel to the opposite side and hand it over to their partners who will then take over in a relay.  The winner is, and no marks for guessing, the team that is first to reach the finish line.

The children had the most fun in this game.  Although some of them had difficulty controlling the wheel and went zig-zag instead of going in a straight line, they all managed to hold on to the bamboo and finish the game.

Below are pictures of the children touring the galleries.  Kudos to volunteers Cay, Mique, Karen, Fafa, Miju, Vallie, Zakaria, Sarah, Serena and Colin for taking the time out and making it a fun day for the students.




1 Year Birthday Celebration

The MV Book Club turned one last month (March) and we celebrated it by discussing IQ84 by Haruki Murakami.

IQ84 and 1 year celebration

This is a long novel divided into three parts with 1,318 pages but most of us managed to finish reading it before the meeting and came prepared with our opinions, prejudices and interpretations.

The discussion was led by Reiko who cleverly counteracted the various viewpoints with alternative opinions thus providing us with a perspective of the book that had more shades than what we envisioned in the first read.

Personally, I was disappointed with the book chiefly because the hype around it had raised my expectations.  Fully expecting to love the book, I started reading it with high hopes and I did enjoy the beginning but the story fizzled out in the end and so did my interest in Murakami.  I like books with a supernatural bent but will pick a Clive Barker over a Murakami.

Our birthday ‘buffet’ was made up of freshly baked madeleines, courtesy of Marie who liked the reference to Proust in IQ84 and Dutch cookies from Kokkie.  Add a card and candles from Lena and we were ready for our birthday song.  Ironically, the first book we read was Shantaram which is close to a 1,000 pages and we started our 2nd year with another long book.  Maybe we should make this our tradition thus reading only one long book a year.

We are reading two books this coming Thursday (18th April): “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “The Female Cell” by Rumaizah Abu Bakar, a fellow volunteer with MV.  I have read both books but will save my comments for the meeting.


The 3,000 year old Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz is the Iranian New Year and though it is celebrated worldwide, it is relatively unknown in Malaysia.  Hence, we learned a lot when museum volunteer Jaleh Chegini gave a presentation on this festival on March 26; just a few days after this year’s Nowruz.

Nowruz, which is steeped in tradition, is celebrated at the time of the vernal equinox or the first day of spring which falls around 21 March.  This is the time when sunlight is evenly divided between the northern and southern hemispheres.  The start of the New Year is very precisely timed and Iranians celebrate Nowruz at the precise time of the arrival of spring, regardless if this is at midnight, 10am or 4am!

Jaleh in traditional Iranian costume

Jaleh in traditional Iranian costume

Preparations start a few weeks before the festival.  Iranians start by ‘shaking the house’ during which they literally clean every spot in their homes.  The phrase ‘spring cleaning’ is believed to have originated in this Iranian tradition.  During this time, Iranians would also buy new clothes and furniture as well as make donations to charity.

Fire Jumping, is celebrated on the night of the last Wednesday of the old year.  Small bonfires are lit in the streets and people jump over the flames while shouting “May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine.”   The flames symbolically take away all the unpleasantness of the previous year.

Haji Firuz

Haji Firuz

Before the arrival of Nowruz, a man dressed in red with face covered in soot takes to the streets dancing and singing and proclaiming that Nowruz is approaching.  This is Haji Firuz, the herald of Nowruz.  Haji Firuz has a side-kick, Uncle Nowruz, who is the Iranian version of Santa Claus.  Similar to Santa, Uncle Nowruz is also an old man with a white beard who brings gifts and good luck to people.

Another interesting tradition carried out before the arrival of Nowruz is similar to Halloween.  Kids in the neighbourhood would drop by in disguise and announce their presence by hitting a metal pot with a metal spoon.  This is called ‘pot hitting‘ and would earn them a treat from the house owner.

20130326_101222Preparing the Haft-Seen table is, perhaps, the most important tradition of Nowruz.  Iranians will sit around the table with friends and family while waiting for Nowruz to arrive.  Jaleh prepared a table for us which is shown on the right.  Nowruz has its traditions in Zoroastrianism, a religion that was prevalent in present day Iran around 3,000 years ago.  The table was called Haft-Chin and it had seven items on it symbolising seven elements in the universe.  Since the advent of Islam, the table is now known as Haft-Seen, or the seven ‘S’s and there are seven key items on it each starting with the letter ‘S’.  One of the items, sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish), is perhaps the only item that is common to both tables.

Nowruz is celebrated for 12 days during which time, schools and many offices are closed.  Visiting friends and family is the main activity.  The 13th day of Nowruz is considered to be bad luck as it is associated with the number 13.  To avoid the bad luck, people go outdoors on picnics and this day is called Sizdah Bedar meaning ‘getting rid of the 13‘.  On this day, some girls would tie the leaves of their sabzeh dish before throwing it away.  While doing so, they express their wish to get married before the next Sizdah Bedar.

Jaleh had also arranged for us to try out some Iranian food which she had ordered from an Iranian restaurant.

20130326_112819From far, this dish looks familiar and Malaysians may be forgiven for dismissing it as ice-kacang.  But this dessert, called faloodeh, is not made from shaved ice but from frozen vermicelli topped with rose syrup.  A tinge of lime juice is added giving it a zesty taste.  Apart from faloodeh, we also tried out an aubergine dish which was served with flat bread.  Only one word, ‘yummy’.  Wish all focus events would end with a treat!

Museum Volunteers – 7th Graduation Ceremony

16 March 2013

Trainee docents in batches 16, 17 and 18 started their docent training program in Sept 2012 and after months of hard work, 54 trainees graduated in a ceremony held at the auditorium of Jabatan Muzium Malaysia bringing the total number of volunteers to 180. It was a year of ‘firsts’ with a record number of 20 Malaysian and 18 Japanese volunteers graduating.  Other volunteers came from France, the UK, Poland, Singapore, Australia and Korea.


Karen Loh – President of MV

In her welcome speech, Karen was confident that all the new graduates are ready to guide as they have been equipped with more than enough knowledge to conduct a proper tour of the national museum.  Karen also thanked all the course leaders for their time and dedication and having prepared the new docents so well.

Karen then stressed on commitment and reminded the docents that they have committed to 2 years of active service as a volunteer.  Most volunteers are committed and active but there have been cases of trainees leaving as soon as the training program is over.  Karen was confident that none of the new graduating docents would do that, unless beyond their control.

Karen’s speech was followed by speeches from representatives of the graduating batches 16, 17 and 18.  First up were Arfah Hani Abdullah and Anne Lemetter from batch 16 with a funny sketch and an interesting speech.  Then Sharifah Seri Lailah and Kenji Sato, from batches 17 and 18 respectively, had the audience riveted as they recounted their experiences as a trainee.



Zanita Anuar, Director of Innovation Unit, gave a speech next and thanked all museum volunteers for their dedication and hard work.  The speeches were followed by presentation of awards to the graduates.


Graduating batch 16

Graduating batch 17

Graduating batch 17

Graduating batch 18

Graduating batch 18

The trainers were not forgotten and were called on-stage and each presented with a beautiful piece of silk batik.  The trainers were : Batch 16 – Asma, Marie & Hayley; Batch 17 – Cze Yan, Justin, Jane, William and Karen; Batch 18 – Mr. Masayuki, Mr. Shigenori, Ms Naomi, Ms  Yui Togo, Ms  Yui Isaka, Ms Hiroko Shibata and Ms Junko Mori.

Trainers of batches 16, 17 and 18

Trainers of batches 16, 17 and 18

Refreshments were served after the graduation ceremony.  Enjoy the pictures below.

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Master of Ceremonies - Stuart

Master of Ceremonies – Stuart


Fiza – From Jabatan Muzium

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Pre-Historic Skeletons in Lenggong Valley

Earlier this month, on Saturday 2 March 2013, museum volunteers were held spell-bound by Shaiful Idzwan who gave a talk to the volunteers on archaeology in Malaysia with focus on pre-historic skeletons in Lenggong Valley.

006Shaiful started the talk by discussing some of the famous pre-historic sites in Malaysia including Guar Kepar in Penang, Gua Cha in Kelantan, Lenggong in Perak and Niah in Sarawak.  He also talked about the log coffin burials in Kinabatangan, Sabah; a 2,000 year old practice by the Orang Sungai which is still on-going today.  Log burials are unique to Kinabatangan and in this type of burial, the coffin itself is not buried but placed in the cave – on the floor for ordinary people and on a specially erected wooded platform for people of higher status.  Shaiful has hands-on experience at Kinabatangan as he is researching this for his PhD.

Saiful related an interesting anecdote on the former Deputy Director of Museums in Malaya, Gale Sieveking.  Sieveking took up the post in 1953 and was responsible for the first systematic excavation of Gua Cha in which over 30 human remains were uncovered from both the Hoabinhian and Neolithic levels.  He returned to England in 1956 and after his demise in 2007, his family discovered skeletons from Gua Cha under his bed.  Jabatan Muzium was notified which repatriated the skeletons to Malaysia.  Although an amusing anecdote, it also testifies to the passion archaeologists have for their subjects.

Saiful then turned his focus to Lenggong Valley which obtained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2012.  He talked about Gua Kajang, a natural limestone tunnel which is large enough to ride a horse through.  The site is dated to around 7,000 to 11,000 year ago and some charred bones were found here indicating the presence of fire; although it is uncertain if this was a natural fire or man-made.

Perak Man and Gua Gunung Runtuh, in which this skeleton was found, were given due attention as was Gua Kelawar in which the Perak Woman was found.  Another interesting site at Lenggong Valley is Gua Harimau in which 12 prehistoric skeletons were uncovered making it the largest burial site in Lenggong.  Perhaps the most exciting site at Lenggong Valley at the moment is Bukit Bunuh, the site of a meteorite impact 1.83 million years ago.  The high temperatures and pressure of the meteorite impact transformed rocks at the impact site into suevite and a handaxe made of chert was found buried in the suevite rocks, making this handaxe more than 1.83 million years old and the oldest stone tool to be found outside Africa.

Karen presenting Saiful with a token of appreciation with Mariana looking on.

Karen presenting Saiful with a token of appreciation with Mariana looking on.

Shaiful Idzwan Shahidan holds a Masters in Field Archaeology and Masters in Applied Ethics (Archaeological Ethics).  He is currently a Research Officer and ASTS Fellow at the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, USM.  He has over 7 years of experience in archaeology and has conducted archaeological research at a number of locations in Malaysia including at Lenggong Valley (Perak), BujangValley (Kedah) and Kinabatangan Valley (Sabah).  He was a member of the expert committee for the preparation of Nomination Dossier for the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. He was also part of the Joint Malaysian and Australian Archaeological Site Survey team for possible World War II burial sites in Parit Sulong, Johor and worked with the Penang Islamic Department on the relocation of ancient graves.

We were indeed honoured to have Shaiful with us.

French Language Week in Malaysia

18 – 24 March 2013

The Museum Volunteers has own program for the French Language Week which is currently on-going in Malaysia.

Every morning from Monday 18th to Thursday 21st March (between 9.00 am to 12.30 pFrench language weekm), schools children from all over Malaysia who are studying French will be participating in a special programme being organised by the French speaking volunteers of MV.  At least 250 school children are expected to participate in this programme.  The volunteers will focus on five artifacts and the history and stories behind these will be explained to the students. This year, the focus will be on Hang Tuah, Flor de la Mar, Perak Man, tin and rubber.  In addition, the French embassy team has prepared games for the children.  The entire programme will be carried out in French.

On Thursday night, there is a special program called “Nuit au Musée” that is “Night at the Museum”.  The Ambassadors of embassies who participate in this French Language Week are invited to the museum together with the french speaking community. Guests will arrive at 7.00 pm and they will be served with drinks and finger food.  The visitors will then be entertained with a Silat demonstration and are encouraged to participate in the demonstration.  They will then be invited into Gallery B of the museum to attend a talk titled “La découverte de l’esprit malais au travers du Keris”.  After the talk, which will be conducted in French, visitors  are welcome to discuss with the guides present on the link between different traditional values and some chosen artifacts.

During these four intense days new graduates, who just graduated on 16th March 2013,   will have the opportunity to share their new knowledge as well as meet and handle their first visitors.  It is a fun packed week ahead!

For more events during the French Language Week, please visit

Museum tours… in French

Museum Volunteers are in the news again.  This time NST (17 Feb 2013) published an article on guiding at Muzium Negara by French expatriates’ wives.  The article below can also be read at the NST site:

Museum tours… in French

French expatriate wives sign up as museum guides to satiate their fascination with local history and culture, writes Aneeta Sundararaj

(From left) Nathalie, Marie-Clarisse and Dany have their personal favourite exhibit at the National Museum.

(From left) Nathalie, Marie-Clarisse and Dany have their personal favourite exhibit at the National Museum.

LIKE most Malaysians, you’ve probably visited the National Museum twice in your life — as a child with your parents and as an adult with your children.

“I’ve heard many Malaysians say that,” says 60-year-old Dany Pico, a French-speaking volunteer at the museum.

While Dany leads the way to Gallery A, another volunteer, Marie-Clarisse Le Heron, 35, says: “When I first arrived, I thought there was no history in this country. I couldn’t see it. In Europe, you see it immediately. We have castles and buildings. In France, we have Versailles, of course. Here, when you get off the plane, buildings are new. Roads are new. Even the palace is new. Everything is new.”

The mother of two rolls her eyes and adds: “And everyone in Malaysia is interested in makan and shopping.”

According to 44-year-old Nathalie Moulin, another problem for French-speaking visitors is that many of the books on Malaysian history are in English. Reading in English can be painful for the French.

She says the scarcity of French books on Malaysian history is partly because the country was never a French colony. “We know more about Vietnam than we do about Malaysia,” she says.

Despite the challenges, all three expatriate wives were determined to find out something about local history. With time on their hands, they became members of a non-profit, non-political and non-religious group of volunteers at the museum.

Laurence Maille, who joins the group at the entrance of the first gallery, explains that volunteers come under the auspices of the Department Of Museums. They aim to promote public awareness of museums, thereby, building an understanding of the history and culture of the country.

“We undergo training, you know,” says Dany. After about six months, new “graduates” become volunteer guides at the museum. “If you look in Lonely Planet, you’ll see this service is listed there,” she adds.

For French-speaking families and visitors, this group of volunteers conducts free one-hour guided tours every Tuesday and Thursday, at 10am.
Relating to history

Once the tour of the museum is underway, it soon becomes obvious that each one’s favourite exhibit somehow relates to their personal histories. For instance, Nathalie, a former banker, says her favourite section is the spice trade, the emergence of Malacca as a leading entrepot and the commentary about the commercial value of spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric.

Having studied anthropology, it is no surprise that Marie-Clarisse has a penchant for the star of the museum, Perak Man. Believed to be more than 10,000 years old, this exhibit is the intact remains of a man, discovered in Perak. Dany explains: “I think he was an old man. Scientists have also discovered that he was crippled. Still, he was well looked after and that tells me that, even then, people cared for their elders.”

She hurries along and points to a jar that contains ash. “I love this,” she says. “Can you believe this is ash from a volcano?”

The volcano she speaks of is Toba in Sumatra, which last erupted some 70,000-75,000 years ago. The ash fell as far as the Lenggong Valley.

All four women are drawn to the Baba Nyonya exhibits and show enormous interest in the history of the Peranakan people. “I believe that the period of the Baba Nyonya was the highest point of expansion when everyone was open-minded,” says Laurence. “There was inter-marriage without religious restrictions. It was probably after the English arrived, when they needed to carry out a census, that the people were put into various groups.”

Another of Dany’s favourites is a bronze statue of Avalokitesvara. A National Heritage artefact, it weighs 63kg. “It was found in a tin mine in Perak,” she says. “People ask why it has so many hands. I used to say that it was because Avalokitesvara had so much work to do.”

Now, however, she understands that each hand represents a mudra, a gesture from Buddha. “I learnt this from one of the visitors. See the one with the hand pointing down?” That, she says, depicts Buddha seeking the grace of Mother Earth to bear witness to the truth of his words and the moment of his enlightenment.

Marie Clarisse adds: “Yes, I used to think that everyone wore the tengkolok. But, someone told me it’s worn maybe just at weddings.”

One practice that fascinates Dany is that some Malaysians still chew betelnut, which is why she loves the collection of betelnut boxes in the museum.

As the tour ends, Laurence points out two exhibits on agriculture which brings the tour a full circle to the locals’ passion for food — an enormous depiction of a farmer planting paddy and a gigantic coconut tree. Smiling, she says: “With rice and coconut, you can make a basic nasi lemak.”

Museum Volunteers – A welcome sight

The Star newspaper interviewed 4 museum volunteers guides and the interview was published as a center-spread on 4 Feb 2013.  This article is copied below.  You can also read the article at the following.

Museum Volunteers – A welcome sight

They come from different backgrounds and nationalities, but their love for history, culture and heritage brings them together for a good cause.

LAST year, the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur received over 500,000 visitors comprising Malaysians and tourists from all over the world.

With the constant stream of visitors, the presence of docents or volunteers who help out at the museum is a welcome sight.

These volunteers provide an hour’s guided tour for free in English, French, Japanese, Malay and Mandarin on selected days of the week, while tours in other languages are available on request.

Among the crowd, you can spot a volunteer from their black vest with the National Museum logo, guiding a tour or manning the front desk at the entrance of the museum.

The museum volunteers are made up of a group of Malaysians and expatriates from various countries. These history enthusiasts have been working relentlessly behind the scenes and in the front line to ensure that visitors enjoy their outing.

Stuart Wakefield, who has made Malaysia his temporary home, has been a museum volunteer for the past two years.

Stuart Wakefield, who has made Malaysia his temporary home, has been a museum volunteer for the past two years.

When retiree Stuart Wakefield arrived in Kuala Lumpur with his wife under the MM2H (Malaysia My Second Home) programme in 2010, he had plenty of time on his hands. Wakefield, who made a living managing contracts for the operation of helicopters, met an expat who volunteered at the National Museum.

 “She told me that the best thing she had done in Malaysia was to get involved as a museum volunteer, so I got involved, too!” says Wakefield, 69.

Wakefield, who hails from Tetbury in England, had lived in various cities around the world before he decided to settle down in Malaysia.

Asked if he had done volunteer work previously, he quips: “I’m not a serial volunteer, if that’s what you mean!”

Back home in England, Wakefield had served as a volunteer for several years, looking after children who were going to be sent to prison. His job was to ensure that these children, aged 16 and below, received fair treatment.

Wakefield, who serves as secretary and sits on the National Museum volunteers committee, is one of the few male volunteers.

“It is very interesting working with so many women.  If men led, it would be a very formal setting where it is all about rules. These women will disagree, then debate and without taking a vote, they seem to come to a consensus easily,” he points out.

Apart from guiding a tour once a month, Wakefield does just about everything: answer e-mail messages, handle visits from schoolchildren, and organise talks and training for volunteers, check captions (in English) for artifacts in the museum.

“The challenge lies in finding ways to get visitors interested and involved during a tour. It’s about understanding what the visitor wants and giving them something that matters,” Wakefield explains.

So, how does a tour begin?

“Before I start, I usually find out if there is a historian among the visitors. If there is, I will ask him or her to leave!” he says in jest. “Seriously, if I know there is a Malaysian among the visitors, I am kept on my toes as they are likely to know if I have gotten my facts wrong!”

Wakefield had the honour of leading a tour for the Fijian President in 2010.

“When I turned up that day, I had no idea that I was about to take the President of Fiji around the museum and it was amusing to see how flustered everyone at the museum was. I managed to engage the President during the 90-minute tour,” he recalls.

Wakefield is accustomed to working with heads of states and dignitaries, prior to his retirement. “They just want to be treated like normal people; you cannot afford to be over-awed.”

As a trainer, Wakefield basically provides volunteer trainees with tips gleaned from his experience.

“People are entitled to the best possible tour and we are here to enhance their experience. Whilst I do give a list of tips to the trainees, I often find that I break these rules!” he says with a laugh.

Each group that he leads requires a different type of tour and script. Wakefield fondly remembers a delegation of Danish students who were studying the export market and trade.

“I gave them a full tour of the history of trade and that provided them with a vital link of the countries some 3,000 years ago,” he says.

“Anyone who would like to come in as a volunteer needs to find out as much as possible what the commitment entails, and what they need to do. If leading a guided tour is not for you, you can always discuss with the committee and they can recommend something that you’ll enjoy doing,” he says.

Unfortunately for the museum, Wakefield will be leaving Malaysia soon to return to England to spend more time with his grandchildren.

“I will miss my role as a museum volunteer when I leave,” says Wakefield who has committed his two years in Malaysia to volunteering at the museum.

All abuzz over the past

ully involved: Museum volunteer Reiko Sato (left) does a lot of research to prepare for the guided tours that she gives visitors

Fully involved: Museum volunteer Reiko Sato (left) does a lot of research to prepare for the guided tours that she gives visitors

When Reiko Sato, 44, shows up as volunteer guide for Japanese tourists, she is always well received.

“Japanese tourists love the fact that a fellow native is leading the tour as they appreciate having a guide who speaks their language,” says Sato, in perfect English.

“Most of the Japanese tourists are amazed that the history of Malaysia goes back a long way and there is a connection between our two countries from as early as the 15th century,” says the homemaker and mother of two teenage girls.

Sato, who was born in Osaka, used to live in Johor Baru. In 2010, Sato and her husband – who works for a Japanese company in KL – returned to Malaysia for the second time.

Like Wakefield, Sato had a Japanese friend who was a museum volunteer; she was introduced to the group during a coffee session in June 2010.

“I’m fond of meeting and talking with people, and I’m interested in history, so becoming a museum volunteer really appealed to me,” says Sato.

According to Sato, some volunteers prefer a fixed script when they are guiding a tour, but she prefers to improvise along the way.

“I research on various topics and read books to keep improving. Also, it depends on the group of tourists, whether they are elderly, residents or couples with young kids. I customise the tour according to their interests,” Sato says.

Aside from meeting people, Sato says the nicest thing about volunteering is when visitors tell her that they found the tour interesting and informative.

“There are 26 Japanese volunteer guides. This year, we have 18 trainees so there will be a total of 44 members under the Japanese group,” says Sato.

Mariana Isa is an architect on weekdays and a museum volunteer on weekends.

Mariana Isa is an architect on weekdays and a museum volunteer on weekends.

“Volunteering is really good therapy for me!” says Mariana Isa, 32, who volunteers at the National Museum on Saturdays.

“There is so much negativity in the news. Leading a tour gives me a chance to say good things about my country. It’s my way of contributing to society. At the same time, it reminds me about the good things that we have,” says Mariana, an architect.

“Since young I’ve always wanted to be a guide at a museum, so when I saw the ad in the papers, I signed up in 2008,” says Mariana who returned to KL in 2008 after studying in the United States and England.

“The challenge in guiding is to present Malaysian history and culture in a more interesting format so that visitors will have a memorable experience,” says Marina, who majored in historic buildings and holds a masters in conservation of historic buildings.

Through talks by experts, the volunteers learn new things all the time. Marina says the tours are never stagnant and the script evolves along the way.

“Volunteering as a guide has helped build my confidence in talking with people. It’s great meeting tourists from around the world who are interested in Malaysia; their feedback helps open up my mind,” says Marina, who is on the Malaysian Institute of Architects heritage committee.

“I was telling a group about our nine kings who each take turns to be the King of Malaysia and how they make decisions through a council. This Arab visitor commented that it’s such a good system and pointed out that they only have one king and they cannot get rid of him!” she recalls with a laugh.

Mariana fondly remembers a group of elderly Italian women who were so impressed and grateful for her guiding that they offered her tips. It is the policy of the museum volunteers to decline tips, so Mariana refused and thanked them.

“They are so used to tipping in their country so they were shocked that I wouldn’t accept their tip! They all hugged me and asked me to visit them in Italy,” she says.

In another incident, Mariana was taking a group of Japanese tourists around when she felt awkward at the gallery that displayed the colonial period.

“I didn’t want to offend the Japanese visitors so I didn’t use my usual story about the Japanese Occupation during WWII. Sensing that they weren’t keen on hearing about this, I sped things up and moved on to the independence period!” she says.

Being a volunteer also gives them access to unusual opportunities such as a visit to the House of Parliament that Mariana proposed for the volunteers in 2009.

“It was a fascinating experience because we have foreigners and locals among the volunteers. The foreigners could follow the session through headphones which translated what was going on,” she says.

Through researching for her volunteer work, Mariana has enjoyed discovering things like why the kijang (barking deer) is included in the Malaysian currency; she has learned that there is a reason and history behind it.

According to Mariana, the legendary Kelantanese Queen Cik Siti Wan Kembang, who ruled during the 14th century, had her favourite pet, a barking deer, immortalised on her royal gold coins.

The “Kijang Emas” motif from these ancient Kelantan gold coins became the official logo of Bank Negara Malaysia.

“In the olden days, the Malays believed that every metal has its own spirit so the spirit of gold is the deer, and so the barking deer appears on our currency until today,” she says with delight.

Her parting advice for interested parties?

“Be prepared to read a lot and do a lot of research. Being a guide helps build up your knowledge, and you learn to appreciate your country more,” adds Mariana.

A Passion for Artifacts

Karen Loh, president of the museum volunteers at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

Karen Loh, president of the museum volunteers at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

SHIPWRECK antiques are things that Karen Loh is not only familiar with, they have become her life’s pursuit. Her interest in these artifacts and wreckage has led her to an unexpected path in volunteer work.

Noting that the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur had a gallery that featured shipwreck artifacts, Loh decided to get involved in some way.

“I wanted to share my knowledge about shipwrecks and artifacts, and decided to become a museum volunteer. As soon as I became a trainee volunteer, the museum closed the shipwreck antiques gallery!” says Loh, 43. Today, she is president of the museum volunteers under the Department of Museums Malaysia.

Loh’s interest in shipwreck anti-ques grew into a passion over time.

“In 2006, a French woman, together with a few Malaysians, approached Janet Tee, the then deputy director of the National Museum, to start a museum volunteers group,” says Loh, a director with Nanhai Marine Archaeology, a company which specialises in the search for historical shipwrecks, underwater excavations and research into the ships and cargo.

The group started with just 15 members; Loh joined in 2008 under the second batch of volunteers.

“Today we have 180 volunteers – half are Malaysians and the rest are expats from Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and Britain,” she says.

“The Malaysian volunteers are made up of retired civil servants, history teachers and college students, while homemakers make up the majority of the expat volunteers. Besides making good use of their free time, these expats get to learn more about Malaysia,” Loh explains.

She adds that they hold “coffee mornings” in English, French and Japanese to create awareness of museum volunteers and to rope in new ones.

Volunteers are also recruited through advertisements in international schools and clubs, the local media and radio, as well as their blog and Facebook page.

“There is more awareness now compared to the early days, and we are happy that more Malaysians are stepping up. When we started, I was one of only two Malaysian volunteers!” Loh points out.

Museum volunteers are not confined to giving guided tours, says Loh. “A volunteer can be involved in library duties, secretarial work, proof-reading, translation work, or even research and conservation, which has a new team that we started last year.”

Those who work full-time but would like to get involved, can also work from home.

On her own volunteering experience, Loh recalls handling a group of 350 low-performing students a year ago. They came for a tour under the Educational, Welfare and Research Foundation which was set up to improve the social, educational and economic welfare of marginalised Indians, particularly students from poor homes.

The students were introduced to the history of Malacca through a creative presentation and participated through worksheets to answer questions.

Loh dressed up as Hang Li Po, the fourth wife of Malaccan Sultan Mansur Shah, while other volunteers came as Hang Jebat and other popular historical figures.

“We were expecting a challenging bunch but to our surprise, they were very attentive and interested. I felt a big sense of accomplishment to see such positive response,” says Loh. “The joy on the children’s faces was really rewarding to see and I just got sucked into the spirit of volunteerism. If anyone is thinking of joining as a volunteer, please come and see us!”

Culinary Heritage of Malaysia

As Malaysians we think we know a lot about food.  Whether they are Malay, Indian or Chinese dishes, we know them all and love them all.  We are even a little arrogant as a lot of concoctions are truly Malaysian; a fusion of food from different cultures.

Harith Jamaludin giving a talk to museum volunteers

Harith Jamaludin giving a talk to museum volunteers

On 26th Jan 2013, Harith Jamaludin gave a talk to the museum volunteers on Malaysian food and it was a humbling experience to learn that there is a lot about Malaysian cuisine we don’t know.  For example, nasi pattaya does not come from Pattaya, Thailand.  Possibly a local invention?

Harith Jamaludin is the Program Manager for the School of Hospitality & Culinary Arts, Kolej PTPL Sungai Petani. He obtained a Diploma in Food Service Management and Bachelor of Science in Food Service Management from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). Currently based in Sungai Petani, Harith is undergoing his Masters Degree in Gastronomy at the same University.

Harith started the talk by explaining how history influenced Malaysian cuisine.  It was interesting to know that the Malay words ‘ubi’ (potato), ‘keladi’ (yam) and ‘babi’ (pig) are the only food related words not linguistically influenced from elsewhere.  With 143 mouth watering pictures of heritage food and drinks, Harith went through the cooking of the Malays, Indian, Chinese, Orang Asli, natives of Sabah & Sarawak as well as Peranakan and Eurasian cooking.  He also talked about European influenced cooking.  Laksa Johor, for example, uses spaghetti.

Some dishes

Sample herbs, plants and food brought by Harith

Sample herbs, plants and food brought by Harith

Harith also brought along herbs, spices as well as cooked and uncooked food in a show-and-tell.

We got the feel of texture and smells of herbs and plants which we usually only taste in the finished product.

The volunteers also had hands-on experience in making sambal belacan and many tried this with relish.

Lawrence having a go at making sambal belacan with the other volunteers waiting their turn.

Lawrence having a go at making sambal belacan with the other volunteers waiting their turn.

The talk was a good prelude to the New Year potluck.  Appetites whetted by sights and smells of Harith’s presentation, the sumptuous lunch that followed was a good end to the morning.