A Fascinating Journey

Penang’s Iconic Nyonya Impresario

Lillian Tong is Penang’s iconic Nyonya impresario and Museum Director of Pinang Peranakan Mansion. She is an author and authority on Penang’s quintessential Straits Chinese community. Her second book, ‘Straits Chinese Embroidery & Beadwork’ was launched by Her Majesty, the Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia. She helms the Penang Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya Association as its President and is also Vice-President of the State Chinese Penang (Baba Nyonya) Association.

The Peranakan Chinese are Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya descended from Chinese men who arrived to Malaya centuries ago. The men, primarily located in the port cities of Penang and Malacca, married the local women of the region; Siamese, Burmese, Bugis, Batavia, and settled in Malaya, later styling themselves as the ‘King’s Chinese’ under British administration. Lillian Tong is a fifth generation Nyonya.

Her passion and portfolio, spun by her interest and involvement in history, anthropology, arts and culture, has seen fruition in promoting and conserving Penang’s history, heritage, people and places, and in particular, the Straits Chinese as Penang’s quintessential community.

This doyenne of Peranakan heritage and culture has appeared in national and international media, highlighting Peranakan Penang. She has also curated Peranakan exhibitions internationally – and recently hosted Princess Siridhorn of Thailand, and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall’s during their visits to Penang.

Besides finding enjoyment in travelling, Lillian also amuses herself in artistic pastimes such as photography, water-color painting, beading kasut manik, acting, writing and ballroom dancing.

Make a date and let Lillian regale you with a vibrant kaleidoscope of stories, perhaps pick up the art of beading a kasot manek over Nyonya kueh – or even stage a Baba Nyonya wedding complete with antiquated ceremonies, dancing nyonyas and Keroncong band!

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Secret World of Geisha

Japan is a patriarchal society where women are often considered subservient to men. Men therefore dominate almost every industry and profession in the country—with one very notable exception.

The Geisha entertainment industry is run exclusively by women, and women who are held in the utmost high regard. Literally translated, the Japanese word “geisha” means “artist”, so as their name would suggest, Geisha are learned professionals in several traditional Japanese arts. As entertainers, however, what matters most is a Geisha’s talent for conversation. A geisha must be witty, companionable and have a strong understanding of current affairs in order to keep guests enjoyed. Geisha are often employed by companies and individuals to impress important clients and VIPs at corporate dinners. Her ability to set the mood and tone of the evening can define the outcome of executive decisions. In this way, Geisha have been silently influencing a male dominated sector in Japan for centuries.

Dinner with a Geisha, or even just drinks with her, is an unforgettable experience. As well as being incredibly enjoyable, it provides guests the chance to ask questions about her lifestyle, which is usually hidden from the public eye. It is also enthusing to observe a woman, in a country so set in its male ways, captivate and silence an entire room of men with an effortless sweep of her kimono sleeve.

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Michelin Star Thai Street Food

Jay Fai, or “Auntie Fai”, is known for her scorching portions of noodles with prawns and crab, cooked over charcoal fires. She is also known nowadays for being awarded a star for her street food in the inaugural 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide for Bangkok. Now 70 years old, Jay Fai was at first not a great cook and had to learn from her younger sister. She opened her restaurant in the 1980s and originally served congee and noodle dishes, building on her mother’s recipes. She then gradually expanded her repertoire, experimenting and developing her own recipes and techniques.

Her restaurant is a simple open kitchen with metal stools that spill out into the street. It gained a steady stream of followers, and has since become one of the most famous street-side restaurants in the city. The restaurant has been famous among food enthusiasts for decades as she can transform very ordinary dishes into masterpieces of local cuisine.

The award resulted in a surge of customers for Jay Fai, who had never heard of the guide before and had to be persuaded to attend the ceremony. Following the announcement, the restaurant became so busy that it had to implement a reservations system. Jay Fai, who has never written down a recipe, has said that she does not intend to pass on the business, as she does not wish her children to pick up the hard work since it has earned enough. Destination Asia Thailand can organize special request programs to visit her street food restaurant.

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Self-taught Star in China

Learn traditional Chinese arts and crafts from a self-taught artist who started in a small backwater village and made it all the way to the international stage. Born in a small village in Shanxi province in the late 1960s, Bai Xiu E grew up in one of the traditional cave houses typical of the Loess Plateau in northern China’s. Her interest in the arts was piqued as a young girl of six after witnessing her grandmother decorate their cave dwelling with paper cuts for Chinese New Year. A determined Bai Xiu E insisted her grandmother teach her, and she eventually mastered the craft. In 2008, her work was seen worldwide after she was invited to perform papercutting as part of the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. For the past ten years, Bai Xiu E has been sharing her experience through teaching various Chinese arts and crafts, including papercutting, Chinese appliqué, traditional cloth Tiger pillows and more.

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