an indian hair-itage

kamahl stairs
kamahl soft focus

“those are not haircuts, i don’t even know what to call them,” elam seliam says with a shake of his head and a wry smile, referring to the unisex hair salons that today’s youngsters like to frequent. the 54-year-old indian barber holds firm to the belief that a good cut, neat trim and a clean shave are what make the man and at his 36-year-old saloon in taman tun dr ismail, he delivers just that to a loyal stable of customers who have stayed with him through the decades.

elam comes from a long lineage of barbers and growing up, he always knew that he too would someday make it his calling. he saw barbering as an elegant profession and admits that he was also enticed by the crisp white jackets that barbers traditionally wore. “they looked so smart in them,” says elam. “and the customers were such refined gentlemen.”

after completing his ‘o’ levels (now known as spm) in 1973, he trained at his father’s saloon in batu road (today’s jalan tunku abdul rahman) for about a year and stayed on to gain experience for two more before venturing out. he and his older brother elam poorranan set up kamahl hair cutting saloon in 1978, in taman tun dr ismail. the name was a tribute to a popular indian singer in australia at the time. while kamahl himself never set foot in the shop, his family members used to frequent elam’s father’s saloon.

the location was an easy choice for the brothers, who grew up in a nearby chinese village nicknamed cowboy town that was located where glomac damansara now stands. houses then were wooden shoplots that hosted small businesses downstairs while families occupied the upper levels. we were among the earliest establishments in taman tun and the first indian barber shop here for a long time,” elam recalls. “the only other surviving business that i remember from that time is restoran ismail. the wet market didn’t open until about 10 years later.”

he saw barbering as an elegant profession and admits that he was also enticed by the crisp white jackets that barbers traditionally wore

kamahl, in fact, was originally located in the same row as the restaurant and stayed there for a good 29 years until the rental went up beyond their means, in 2007. his brother was also running another saloon nearby at the time, so elam decided that he would set up his own. after resting for a few months, he re-opened kamahl in the current location.

b y poh remembers that period well. he had been frequenting kamahl at the old premise for as long as he could recall and was taken by surprise when it closed down. “he didn’t even inform his customers, i was so angry!” says poh, but with a twinkle in his eyes as he settles into one of three vintage barber chairs that elam inherited from his father, for his regular trim. “i went around trying other barbers but was not satisfied.” as luck would have it, one day poh chanced upon a flyer that elam had distributed around the area – pasted on a tree. the rest is happy history as the two resumed their barber-client relationship.

kamahl by poh
kamahl tools

the previous kamahl was not only bigger and busier, poh recalls, but also “much neater!” elam responds with a smile, explaining that he had to settle for a first floor unit as rental for ground floor lots are too high. he transported everything from the old shop to this second address but with less space to move around, things became understandably cluttered.

mirrors are embellished with stickers while rows of pink bay rum and yellow ice eau de cologne, contained in recycled liquor bottles, sit above. the tables are covered with a myriad barbering tools and hairstyling accessories – everything from scissors to blades and old-school talcum powders (remember cuticura and holiday on ice?).

like the walls flanking the entrance and staircase that leads to the saloon, painted barber’s poles pop out against a rich turquoise background. altogether, it’s colourful and chaotic but is not without its charm. not that it matters to his customers, mostly malay and chinese men in their 40s or older who have been frequenting his saloon for years, and include prolific personalities and public figures. many have become friends. in fact, as poh tells it, “i always call ahead before coming for a cut because this fellow has many friends so he has many appointments.”

poh also remembers that back at the old shop, elam barely had to lift a finger himself as he had a stable of “about 20 staff” to tend to customers; elam says he only had five staff, all from india and they have since returned to their home countries. today, he works with just one employee.

on average, it takes elam about 30 minutes to complete a haircut. working in silence but letting his hands do all the talking, he takes his time to ensure that every bit of unwanted hair is trimmed or shave and the side cut – the hairline behind the ears – are neat. this is the traditional indian barber style, he says, which is about doing everything properly and with an attention to detail.

kamahl soft verti
kamahl leather paddle
kamahl neck twist
kamahl talc


elam usually finishes by applying a splash of cologne to the forehead or running it through the hair and also pats it on the back of the neck. then, holding a towel in both hands, he cradles the customer’s head gently and carefully but swiftly gives their neck a twist in each direction.

“this is to help them relax and loosen their neck muscles, but one must be precise and well trained to do it,” elam explains. “the customer also needs to stay relaxed. if i feel that their neck and muscles are very tense, i won’t do it.”

shaving is done the old-school way: a face brush, first sterilised with dettol, is used to apply shaving cream onto the face before elam gets to work with a small blade. a hot towel, kept warm in a steamer, is used to pat the skin and then to finish, a light dusting of talcum powder is applied to the face.

elam shares an important tip about barbering: “stand tall and firm, keep a straight posture and your hands steady – this is what we call a barber’s class. only then can you do a good job and give a good cut.” elam’s proudest moment was when his late father, who died of colon cancer a few years after kamahl opened, visited his saloon to not only give his blessings but told elam that he had indeed mastered the barber’s class. watch him at work and you will agree.


> kamahl hair dressing saloon is at no 4a 1st floor, jalan tun mohd fuad 2, taman tun dr ismail, kl
tel 012 219 6430 opens 8.45am-8.30pm prices rm12 for a cut, rm10 for a shave or get the combo for rm20

this story first appeared in the malay mail online and crave


dainty feet

third-generation shoemakers wah aik are still making beaded nyonya sandals and bound feet shoes by hand, continuing a family legacy that began over 100 years ago.

wah aik shopfront
wah aik pink
wah aik leather blue

every single coloured bead, each swathe of fabric or leather, the smallest details of shoemaking – nothing escapes the sharp eyes of yeo keng yam, simon and raymond yeo. into their 50s and 60s, the yeo brothers are the grandchildren of the late yeo eng tong, who arrived in melaka from hainan island more than a century ago, armed with skills that he had honed under the tutelage of a master shoemaker. his know-how covered footwear for the armed forces and nurses, men’s leather oxfords and profitably at the time, three-inch golden lotus shoes for women with bound feet.

he opened wah aik shoemaker in what is now known as jonker street and in adapting to local life, also learned to make traditional beaded sandals that the nyonyas wore to complement their form-fitting kebaya. his specialty extended to traditional wedding shoes, leather slip-ons that bore intricate floral patterns embroidered from silver thread. “we can’t make them these days,” says raymond as he picks a pair gingerly from a cabinet that holds a small selection of the antique beauties, “because you can’t even find this type of thread anymore!”

the several pairs that the yeos still have in their possession are precious inheritance from their grandfather and are now part of the prized display at their shop on jalan tokong, several hundred metres from the original premise, which they had to give up in 2000 due to rising rent. “we transported the entire store, lock stock and barrel to this current address. all our families and friends came out to help on moving day,” raymond recalls, pointing out that practically every piece of furniture and all the shoemaking equipment they still use – a sewing machine and wooden shoe moulds among them – were from their grandfather’s time.

wah aik patterns
wah aik making of

in essence then, wah aik is not just a retail outlet but a living museum of melaka fashion from the 19th century. at the time, the practice of binding women’s feet – considered a status and beauty symbol – was very much alive and so it was that the late yeo made many a pair of bound feet shoes. some of his handiwork is now part of the exhibit at the shop, including a couple of models made of silk and one that’s made of grey leather. “back then, the leather versions were more common as they’re sturdy enough for daily wear, whereas the silk ones are worn on special occasions,” says raymond.

the latter have velvet insoles and leather soles, and it is these that the brothers continue to produce today. selling for rm95 a pair and mainly to tourists, they look no different from the ones in the display case except for one feature: the original designs had rounded fronts that reflected the shape of bound feet whereas today’s versions have slim, tapered tips as they’re clearly not meant to be worn but are collectors’ items.

wah aik making of blue
wah aik stuff
wah aik sewing
wah aik tools
wah aik man at work
wah aik red shoe

what has not changed is the process itself; whether it’s the dainty bound feet shoes or delicate beaded nyonya slippers, every component is still executed by hand just as the brothers had been taught by their grandfather and later, their father. that includes cutting the different fabric and leather parts into defined shapes, sewing the parts together, punching the eyelets and for the nyonya shoes, stringing and sewing every single bead. they take customised orders for both types of shoes, offering a selection of patterned silk for the former while the latter comes in a number of designs – flats or heels, slip-ons or with straps – and choice of coloured leather. there is also a variety of beaded patterns to choose from, striking motifs in vibrant palettes, one more elaborate than the last.

although the brothers make it look effortless, observe them at work and it’s evident just how laborious every step of the shoemaking process is and how precise they need to be. with the bound feet shoes, there is the added challenge of having to shape the upper by hands as there is no mould for it.

every component is still executed by hand just as the brothers had been taught by their grandfather and later, their father
wah aik newspaper clips
wah aik shoes in drawer
wah aik silver thread shoes

the yeo brothers took over the family business some 30 years ago and are intent on keeping it going for as long as they can. their next generation has, to date, not expressed any interest in taking over and even their location is not secure; the landlord may be selling off the unit soon, which means that wah aik may have to up and move again. but if they do, you can be assured that they will keep the shop’s furnishings and displays as is.


> wah aik shoemaker melaka no 56 jalan tokong, melaka, malaysia tel +606 284 9726/+606 317 1901 opens 9.30am-5.30am daily


this story first appeared in the edge review

a hundred years of healing


the claypots are well-seasoned, their bottoms blackened by the intense fire they sit atop daily. strong heat is required to bring out the essence of the herbs that boil within, a process that takes 45 minutes to an hour and results in a bitter – but not foul – tea that’s rich in cooling properties. each individual portion of the brackish liquid is sieved and stored in colourful flasks so that when customers come a calling, they can enjoy the tea warm (trust us, a cooled bitter tea is twice as hard to swallow).

this ‘fever tea’ is the signature of poh woh thong, a third generation family-run herbal tea shop in ipoh that began life as a chinese medicine shop. “i’m not trained as a physician and so i couldn’t keep it on as an apothecary,” said francis kan, a former advertising executive in kl who retired 18 years ago and returned to ipoh to take over the reins of pwt with other family members. “so i focused on the ‘fever tea’ and turned pwt into a herbal tea shop instead.”

francis' grandfather had begun the tea nearly 120 years ago and there’s a choice of diuretic and non-diuretic versions; the former detoxifies and rids your body of wastes. back then, pwt only sold the prepared blend by the packets and customers would need to boil the tea themselves. the pre-packaged tea is still available, wrapped in plain white paper with pwt’s name printed in chinese letters in red, dietary advice and instructions (in malay and chinese) on how to cook the herbs: start with four bowls of water in a pot, throw in the herbs and let it simmer until the water reduces to one bowl’s worth.

if that sounds like too much work, then just make your way to pwt and drink the freshly boiled tonic on the spot or have it as takeaway. it’s packed with such potent cooling, healing properties that francis promises that if you feel that you’re about to fall sick, one serving of this is all you need to get back on your feet.

at the shop, the tea is served with a piece of chinese olive to counter the bitterness a which, on a scale of 1 to 10, we would rate a 6. it’s not as vile as most bitter teas we’ve tried and in fact, has a ‘golden’ flavour that’s a sign of the good quality and adequate amount of herbs. we tried the tea after two weeks of feasting on curries and fried foods and so were on the verge of a heaty outbreak. the day after downing it, we could feel the build-up subsiding, just as francis promised. not that we had much doubts to begin with, after all you can’t go wrong with century-old wisdom and medicinal know-how.

besides fever tea, pwt also sells other chinese herbal teas such as chrysanthemum, mulberry, sugar cane water chestnut as well as traditional desserts like guai ling gou with homemade fructose, jelly, honeydew and mango sago pudding.


71 jalan theatre, ipoh, perak opens 9.30am-9pm, mon-fri; 9.30am-6pm, sat tel +605 241 5604; poh woh thong’s pre-packed fever tea are also sold at selected minimarkets in ipoh

history on a plate


one of kl’s longest surviving hainanese kopitiams, yut kee is legendary for its food and well-loved for its atmospheric settings. but you won’t get to enjoy the latter for much longer; the landlord is taking back this corner lot and turning it, as well as the neighbouring shop, into a budget hotel. The new yut kee is being built, thankfully just behind the current premise, and you can get a glimpse of it through the kitchen in the back.

the food will likely remain the same even after they shift base but the existing atmospheric ambience will certainly be lost, having developed organically over 86 years, its vintage well reflected in the green and beige mosaic floor tiles, simplistic menu board, antiquated power switches and marble table tops. it won’t take much stretch of the imagination to transport one to the malaya of yore; there’s something cinematic about yut kee, as if a sepia-tone air envelops the surrounds and rises above the din from the guests’ chatter that typically fills the air anytime of the day.

you can tell the regulars from the occasional customer; they’re the ones who are not bothered by the queue outside because they know that the staff, clad in bright green polo t-shirts bearing the kopitiam’s name, won’t make you wait long for a table. they’re the ones who don’t need to scan the menu or ponder over what to order, and more tellingly, they don’t over order. condensed milk-sweetened kopi kaw and a slice of buttery marble cake. toast with butter and kaya. half-boiled eggs with splashes of kicap and dashings of pepper. chicken chop swimming in a brown gravy. roti babi, unctuous and comforting, and best enjoyed with a few drops of lea & perrins. hailam fried bihun, a masterpiece of excellent wok hei paired with a flawless sambal. and on sundays, roast pork with apple sauce.


the food can be inconsistent though; we bit into soggy butter cake once. the kopi is not always kaw enough, the kaya could sometimes do with more yolks. even the eggs, on a rare bad day, can be overdone. so no, yut kee’s food is not without its flaws but it is also hardly terrible. what is consistent is the friendly, efficient service of the well-trained staff under the watchful eyes of the very hands-on second and third generation owners. at least one of them is around to man the cashier and oversee things at all times.

that, perhaps, is the key to yut kee’s constant (and still rising) popularity through the decades – the simple fact that it started as a family business and is still run as one, lending a homey touch to everything from service to food and the general atmosphere. and you’ll always want to go back, even if the food may not always be the best because really, there’s no place like home.


kedai makanan yut kee 35 jalan dang wangi, kl tel +603 2298 8108 opens 8am-6pm, tue-sun; closed mon note yut kee is expected to move out of its current premises by mar 2014


a palace by the sea

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one man, a vision, an almost two decade-long commitment to a dream... terrapuri represents all that, and more. occupying a plot of land at the end of idyllic pantai penarik, terrapuri is so discreet - walled up like a fort - that people have driven past and missed it, not expecting anything more than a sleepy fishing village and a rickety jetty from where boats take visitors on fireflies tours along sungai penarik. the story goes that a local man, who had read about terrapuri in an inflight magazine while flying home to kuala terengganu, hopped into a taxi upon landing and directed the driver to help him locate the resort, because he simply did not believe that it existed there and that he, as a local, did not know about it.

dreams and destiny

terrapuri had very quiet beginnings - it had existed for close to two decades only in the mind of alex lee, founder and owner of ping anchorage travel & tours, the biggest tour operator in the east coast. as a young boy growing up in terengganu, alex had always admired the beautiful, intricate architecture of the traditional kampung houses that used to be everywhere. he also saw how they were being demolished to make way for modern housing. it's imperative that someone should keep the heritage alive, alex thought to himself, and that someone was him.

the self-taught entrepreneur left school at a young age and by 19 was running his own guest house (converted from his grandfather's sundry shop) near the marang jetty where tourists would board ferries to the nearby resort islands of redang and lang tengah. he may not have seen much of the world himself then, but through the guests travelling through, alex learnt all about what travellers want. from there he began sowing the seeds for his tour agency and when he had the money, he began to buy up the old wooden houses that families were abandoning. the structures were carefully taken apart and each piece dutifully marked to indicate their original placement. the wooden pieces were then kept in an open space, but protected by zinc coverage. few, if any, could understand what alex could possibly want with old houses broken down into lego-like pieces; most simply thought he was being eccentric or downright crazy. but what others didn't, or couldn't, see then was a vision that had already formed in alex's head: that of a heritage village, which would showcase the traditional malay architecture of terengganu and give visitors a glimpse into the days of yore while admiring the elaborate carvings and woodwork of old-time artisans. 


after nearly two decades, alex felt ready to realise this vision - and make those who called him crazy eat their words - but one important thing stood in his way: he did not have a suitable location to build his dream village cum boutique resort. until one fine day, while driving along pantai penarik, a 'for sale' sign by the road caught his attention. sitting on a quiet stretch with plenty of coconut trees - standing tall but bent towards the south china sea and looking towards the resort islands, lining up along the crescent beach - the land was perfect. alex got out of his car, grabbed the signboard and stuffed it into his car boot so on one else would see it. there was nothing more that could stand in the way of him realising his half a lifelong dream. 

rebuilding a palace

from that point on, it was another four years before terrapuri welcomed its first paying guests. while the process of getting there was not without its challenges - it was imperative to find the right tukang (craftsmen) who understand the ancient architecture and could reassemble the houses to their original forms - it also seemed that many things just fell neatly into place, as if they were meant to.

the name terrapuri, for example, is sanskrit for land of the palaces, an appropriate moniker given that, as it happens, most of the 20-odd houses that alex managed to salvage had once belonged to palace officials. correspondingly, the layout of terrapuri is modelled after that of a 17th-century palace but even more tellingly, before the village resort opened, an unexpected guest came knocking on its doors. although terrapuri was still a work-in-progress at the time (though near completion), they welcomed him in and subsequently, he hosted an event there, becoming the village resort's first ever guest. and he was none other than tuanku mizan zainal abidin, the sultan of terengganu and at the time, also the 13th yang di-pertuan agong of malaysia. a rebuilt palace for a current king - if alex needed any assurance that terrapuri would not be a wasted effort, that was it.


terrapuri was planned as a two-phase project; the first was opened in june 2011 with 14 guest villas, a courtyard pavilion and a swimming pool, the only modern addition. all the other structures were restored homes, at least 100 years old (some are as old as 250 years old), faithfully rebuilt down to the rituals traditionally performed by homeowners in the days of yore to bless the occupants of the house. alex and his team did all the necessary homework to find out, from each home owner, exactly what those rituals were - some included planting bottles of blessed oils under the house, others had conducted chants and prayers - and replicated them.

while staying true to the structure and facade, the houses have been given a contemporary uplift within, fitted with all the amenities you can count on a modern-day resort to provide: hot water, a soaking tub, air-conditioning, coffee & tea making facilities, rain shower and a fridge. the furniture though, still harks back to more olden times and then there are the little kampung-style touches, such as mosquito net (after all, you are surrounded by natural settings so yes, they are in abundant and are pretty vicious), sarong and pandanus house slippers. 

each house is named after the kampung in which they were originally located and if they all look the same at a glance, that's because the wood had all been treated and polished to achieve the same silver sheen. one amazing fact about all these houses is that, true to the ancient architectural form known as pasak, not a single nail was used in their construction. instead, the wooden pieces were sawed and shaped to precise measurements so that they would lock into place securely.


in the middle of the village, a cluster of six similar houses have been repurposed into the sesayap courtyard, housing shared facilities for all guests - a reading room, a shop selling local arts and crafts, a dining pavilion - and underneath them were a motley antiques that included musical instruments, kitchen tools and other items you would only expect to see in a museum. breakfast is served on the verandahs of the houses and other meals at sesayap, where makciks from the nearby kampung dish up authentic, homecooked style dishes. another building is the boat house, and that sits outside of the resort, on the beachfront just a dash outside its main gates.

the landscaping offers interesting insights into local history and heritage as well: between sesayap and the pool is a water installation named kisaran semangat (the mill of will), which stacks traditional malay stone food grinders on top of cement columns to varying heights, and let the water cascade gently from each, to represent the cycles of life. it was created by celebrated malaysian watercolour artist and a friend of alex's, fellow terengganu boy, chang fee ming. 

another small but appreciative touch of art is terrapuri's logo, by creative director onn soon - owner/founder of studio mmcmm, the creatives behind the current malaysian currency design - based on the langkasuka concept of gunungan (mountains) to reflect its palatial history, and references mount meru. it also symbolises high society, prosperity and graphically, is a welcome arch. 

full circle

earlier this year, terrapuri launched its second phase, completing the picture with more villas (they now number 20)  and also a spa. alex has plans to introduce more heritage experiences to his guests by having traditional arts performances on the grounds. as it is now, guests of terrapuri can sign up for ping anchorage's extensive list of tours and packages to explore terengganu's rich history, arts and architecture as well as that of neighbouring kelantan. 

for now, first-time guests to terrapuri have enough to feast their senses on from the moment your ride reaches pantai penarik, after passing scenes of bucolic villages and that of a simple lifestyle. walk about the premises studying the architecture and details, soak in the lap pool to take it all in while listening to the soothing gurgles from chang fee ming's installation, feast on local delights and at night, retire into the comforts of a centennial villa in a modern-day palace.

terrapuri kampung mangkuk, setiu, terengganu tel +609 624 5020/631 2081 / Facebook