I like the “back-to-front” learning technique!


I have been introducing this back-to-front learning technique to all my students this week, with great results.

We start by learning the last bar, then add the penultimate one, going to the end each time. We repeat this several times before including the next (preceding) bar.

The students get to see the benefit of repeating small phrases, and experiencing for themselves how learning a piece of music is not difficult if you take small steps.

I’m very happy with the results and will keep checking if my students are enjoying learning this way. Several of them accomplished much more in the one lesson this week, than we would previously have achieved in three, I believe!

Will post more later!

Handbags and grit: the Tawau ladies

Mike and I went to Tawau to visit my brother Alvin and sister-in-law Debby, who spoiled us with food and shopping and loving company.


I had the pleasure of meeting Debby’s group of friends. Now, these are very well-dressed women with a taste for expensive handbags, and I confess I had some apprehension about spending a day with what I thought were ladies who lunch. But I was happily mistaken; these women had real grit, and this post is about their entrepreneurship. Don’t judge a book by its cover, especially if it’s branded Prada or Chanel.

The Tawau Ladies

The Tawau Ladies

L to R: Debby, Audrey, Judy, Christy and Jean

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
― Maya Angelou

Small towns can be unforgiving. Life can deal a girl a bad hand and she’ll find herself on the wrong side of the Socially Acceptable wall. But challenge will awaken the warrior inside. On that note, meet AUDREY SIM.

Audrey Sim smallAudrey has a fashion boutique in the Fajar district of Tawau, also called Audrey. And Audrey’s favourite movie icon of all time is …. Audrey Hepburn!

“I loved to watch her movies, her style, the dresses she wore. For sure I would call my boutique Audrey, after her.”

Audrey started out in a partnership with another girlfriend.

“It was difficult in the beginning. I didn’t know much about fashion apart from what I like to wear for myself. But this was so different. You are buying for other people. You have to go out there, to Hong Kong, to Taiwan, go to the wholesaler, walk and walk a lot. In the beginning you don’t know the areas, you get lost, it’s very tiring. Then you also are not familiar with the merchandise. Sometimes you buy stock, come home and find that the cutting is not so good. Oh my God! What a mistake!”

There’s no gain without gamble, and Audrey has to buy all her stock upfront.

“I made many mistakes over the years!” She said.

But Audrey got smarter.

“This will be my 21st year in this business. I know that because my son is 21 this year. Now when I shop I have my customers in mind. I have regular clientele and I know what kind of clothes they like, I know what they will want to wear. The wholesalers always try to push the latest fashions onto me, but I know when the local people here will not like to wear it.”

Audrey explained the difference between buying clothes from a boutique compared to a department store.

“Whatever I buy, whether it is a dress or a top, I will only buy one or two items, in different sizes. This means someone who buys a dress from me will not go to a function and meet someone else wearing the same dress. This is the difference between buying from a boutique or a department chain.”

But this can cause problems with the wholesaler.

“The wholesaler will always want you to buy in bulk, but my market in Tawau is small, and I have to negotiate hard to buy the items I want at reasonable rates.”

She has endured, and after twenty odd years Audrey has a comfortable house in the suburbs and her son is in Europe. The ladies come to her shop, have some coffee and spend a few hours in the world of beautiful dresses.

“They can forget their worries for a few hours, try dresses, and feel nice. They can come to my shop and be Audrey Hepburn for a little while.”

Now there’s a nice thought. Audrey’s Boutique is in the Fajar area of Tawau. Telephone number +60 12 818 8078

Well, if that was Audrey Hepburn, this is Marlene Dietrich.

JUDY YU is magnificent. She has a resonant, contralto voice, perfect for giving direction. She co-owns a hotel and manages a Japanese restaurant.

Judy Yu 3

If Judy wasn’t in hospitality she could have been a boss of anything – I see her in a black pin-striped suit, trails of cigarette smoke matching her husky, authoritative voice. She’s a matriarch.

“I’m from Johor, but I’ve been in Tawau over 30 years. At first I came over here temporarily, I had some marriage problem and my brothers were here. But the temporary break became a full break and I’ve been here ever since.”

Judy entered the hotel business as a housekeeping supervisor.

“I was a trained nurse, and the Marco Polo hotel wanted ex-nurses to be housekeeping supervisors. Nurses know all about hygiene, and how to make beds. This was just nice for me, and a stepping stone to be in the hotel line.”

Later, Judy bought a hotel with some partners.

“It’s called Grace Inn. Grace because we were 11 Christian business people. I was the manager there, and one of the shareholders. Over time, the shareholders had problems with each other. Not because of the business but because of church matters, lah. So me and my brother bought up their shares, one by one. Now there are three of us left; me, my brother and one other.”

Endurance pays. The hotel is in the Fajar area. “At the time we bought the hotel, nobody wanted to be in this area. But it’s a prime area now, and the hotel would fetch quite a lump sum of money.”

The Japanese restaurant Tsunami was set up three years ago.

Judy Yu - Copy

“The restaurant was not my idea. I was actually quite happy with what I have; I’m a grandmother and all that, already semi-retired. But my brother got this idea from a friend, how about opening a Japanese restaurant. The initial investment was not that much. At that time my father’s plantation was sold, we got a bit of money, so why not invest. If you keep the cash, it’s likely to be used up. So my brother oversees the whole place, and we shareholders try as much as possible to bring people to the restaurant, and do some PR for the place.”

Not bad for a grandmother with a taste for Chanel handbags.

TSUNAMI Restaurant +60 89 713752

Here we all are at Maxim’s restaurant, at a dinner hosted by Alvin and Debby.
L to R: Debby, Susan, me, Judy, Carol, Audrey, Christy, Jean

Tawau ladies out for a dinner

Thank you to my bro, and the ladies of Tawau. See you again soon, I hope.

Sabah holiday 2015: Happy chickens, reluctant farmers

TUARAN, Sabah.

Want the healthiest, happiest, free-range organic chickens in Sabah? Meet Anna and John, the reluctant chicken farmers.

“They’re intelligent, you know,” Anna said. “We raise them as chicks, they recognise you, you feel their little hearts beating, they know you are bringing food to them.”


We walked through a coop and Anna bent down, picked up an egg. “Still warm! This is life!” She sighed.

Old Man Rooster
Old Man Rooster

Here’s one of the old-time roosters on their chicken farm, one who definitely knows his role and how to go about it. But not all the roosters get the point! “Some of the roosters become excited, but they are confused and just don’t know how to impregnate a hen!” That’s a shame. Sounds like the old-timer isn’t sharing any tips.

Similarly, those hens who get lucky don’t have the brooding instinct, and their eggs are incubated.

The only chickens who aren’t like that are kampong (village) chickens (ayam kampong). “These are wild birds,” Anna said. “They roam completely free, running around the kampong. They mate, the hens sit on their eggs and hatch their own chicks. They live the way nature intended them to live.”

Kampong chickens are much smaller and leaner than supermarket ones, and the Chinese in particular like them for superior taste and tender, lean meat.

“I once put about ten of them in a large coop, but these birds are just too wild! They fought each other overnight and the next day half of them were dead. I never did that again,” said Anna.

She then arranged a small but regular supply of kampong chickens, but the moment they came in they were snapped up. She couldn’t keep any stock, and started to feel bad about it too.

“There are not many kampong chicken left, soon they might be extinct! I don’t want to be part of that.”

Here was the solution – the Silkie chicken!

a silkie chicken
a silkie chicken

more silkie chickens

Silkie chickens are the next best thing to kampong chicken, and are in high demand from restaurants. Anna showed me their black skins underneath all that white fluff, they have feathery legs and even have five toes!

It must be pretty boring being a chicken, right? So I try and vary their diet. They get corn, beans, some other suitable veggie for chickens, a bit of bread. I know they don’t live very long but I hope at least they are happy while they are with me.
Anna Tam

Here are the hens whose sole purpose is to lay eggs for sale.

Chickens whose eggs are for sale
Chickens whose eggs are for sale

“We sell all our organic eggs very quickly,” Anna said. “We used to keep back a few for ourselves, but the demand is so high we sell them all now.” At the moment they sell for 80 Malaysian cents an egg, and Anna and John do home delivery.

The lovely organic eggs aren’t the only thing John and Anna don’t eat.

“After we raised all these chickens like our babies, I wasn’t able to eat them,” John said.

But Anna will occasionally cook a chicken, and John will have some chicken soup.

Anna described the first time she brought home a chicken to kill and cook. “I picked it up, and it just knew. It started squarking wildly and defecating all over me. By the time we had cooked it… no appetite.”

“Since then, we believe they are intelligent and we are very strict about how they are killed. We come in the morning, choose the birds, they go straight to the slaughterhouse and are killed right away. Other businesses don’t do that! They might line up thousands, waiting all day. The chickens must know what is happening and they can see their friends across the other side all dead. I think they must all be mad by the time it’s their turn.”

“And when we choose our chickens for slaughter, the ones left behind don’t make noise for ten minutes,” said John.

This farm is a small test site, to learn about the business before scaling up operations. I think the chickens have a pretty good life as chickens go! I’m not sure about Anna and John :). Better get your chickens from them now!

Here’s Anna and one of her hens. Sorry about the glare.

Anna and a hen
Anna and a hen

Here is some information from them.

Small free range chicken farm in Tuaran (tel: 012-828 2623)

We run a small farm in Tuaran breeding free range chicken for our own consumption with some sold to organic shops and to friends.

Our chickens are:
– free from hormones
– fed with corn, bread, bean and veggie
– bred over 3 months

Our products include:
1. Meat chicken, RM22/kg
2. Bald chicken, RM22/kg
3. Kampung chicken, RM26/kg
4. Silky/ black chicken, RM23/no (purebred with 5-7 claws, skin, meat and bones all in black)
(Slaughter house charges RM2/ chicken for slaughtering and cleaning)
5. Free range chicken egg and silky chicken egg RM0.8/no (normal size), RM1/no (large size)

Sabah holiday 2015: Kota Kinabalu – 1

I write this in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I would like to cite a senior politician in Sabah who said to me this week:

Sabah is a special place. Here, people of different races and religions mix together, eat together, and intermarry. We celebrate each other’s festivals and we live in harmony.

I’m on holiday in SABAH, birthplace of my parents and a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Its verdent soil has supported my family since the 1880s when my great-grandparents arrived by boat to KUDAT from China. They were the first batch of Hakka-speaking Chinese Basel Christians brought to Borneo to clear the lands of jungle, for the British.

Kudat, the Northern-most point of Borneo
Kudat, the northernmost point of Borneo. Photo courtesy of Yen Phin Lee.

In time, my ancestors became plantation owners themselves: rubber, timber, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, oil palm. This led to other lines of work: building railroads, owning trading conglomerates; eventually entering medicine, law, accountancy. My dad was a journalist and press officer to the last Governor of British North Borneo, William Goode. Some of my relatives still own plantations today.

So I cannot come here without feeling love for the soil which has taken care of us for all these years.

All places have their local flavours and Sabah is no exception. When I lived there (2008-12) I particularly loved being able to buy produce from markets. It was a world away from loading up the trolley at a Tesco’s in London, which was my previous grocery shop reality. In fairness, these days my life is less pressured and I do have the time to mooch around my local butcher.

Still, hubby Mike was in Kudat recently and he and mates checked out the day’s catch, Eskies at hand. How neat is this?

Kudat fish catch

Kudat fish catch 2

When I first came to Sabah I thought their desserts were bizarre – made from veggies! Sweet corn, red kidney beans, all sweetened with a base of gula melaka (palm sugar). Now I love them all, Ais kacang, cendol and grass jelly. I don’t think these are specific to Sabah though, it’s more of an Asian dessert thing.

Red bean with shaved ice by Alfred Chong
Red bean with shaved ice by Alfred Chong

This is red bean and shaved iced. I had it at ZenQ in Lintas. I think this chain is Taiwanese, and they have outlets in Australia.

A “wet fry” is a lovely expression – sounds like a contradiction in terms – to describe noodles (many types) which have been stir-fried in a wok, and a thin gravy is added before serving to moisten the dish. The ingredients are not cooked in the liquid at all, but charred in the wok for that particular burnt flavour. If you are one of those die-hard fans of cast iron cookware, then for you, every new dish cooked in the chef’s wok will be infinitesimally graced by the flavour of the dishes preceding it, retained in the memory of that cast iron. Here, that’s called “wok mei” or the wok’s fragrance. And don’t wash the wok in detergent or you’ll strip it of all its oils! I guess all that could be received in a few ways… this is mee basah, wet-fried noodles.

mee basah

On the first day of my holiday in the capital city Kota Kinabalu, pianist Ian Baxter and guitarist Ronald James were having an impromptu jam in One Resto, a bar belonging to Sabahan Fred SK Lee, in Karamunsing Capital. This was the last night of Ronald’s holiday in Sabah, and he was on a plane to Sydney the next day. Ronald taught three generations of Sabahans to play music and headed the RTM (Radio Television Malaysia) Sabah kombo for a decade. Ian’s just completed his PhD in Ethnomusicology (specifically studying the music of the Orang Sungai people) and is returning to Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), where he previously headed the Music Department. I was stoked at the chance to hear them, together with guest singer Suhaimi. Their song selection was a smattering of all things, some bossa jazz, songs by the Shadows, Cream, Deep Purple, The Eagles, with one of the latter dedicated to me and Mike :) Thanks guys!

Ronald Ian and Suhaimi

Music and food, might as well start as we mean to go on! Something about Webcamp KK coming up in the next post.