For this month's issue of Time Out Kuala Lumpur Dave and I wrote and photographed a 'keeping traditions alive' sort of article about two Chinese Malaysian brothers named Ho who carry on their father's vegetarian dim sum business. The elder Ho, who passed away just this last January, immigrated to Malaysia from Hong Kong in the 1930s. His sons keep, in one of their workshops, a photograph of him taken way back then - he's clad in white shorts and t-shirt with a black sash, barefoot, holding the shoulder pole-suspended baskets from which he sold his dim sum. The Ho brothers are great guys, fantastically friendly, and this is just the sort of story we love to do. I'll post it after this issue of Time Out is off the shelves.
In the meantime I thought I'd share part of the story that made only a small appearance in the Time Out article. While one of the brothers Ho sells his vegetarian dim sum from a mobile cart (you can usually find him at Imbi Market on Saturday mornings, Pudu Market very early on Tuesdays), the other caters for special functions. On the morning we visited his Ampang Jaya workshop he was cooking for a Buddhist temple ceremony and invited us to come along for the delivery. We'd planned to leave with him, but the temple's devotees invited us to stay.
The temple, which is located in a squatter area (I use the term 'squatter' loosely - both the temple and the residences that surround it have been there for decades) in the midst of a field behind the Cheras police station, is devoted to Kwan Yin; the occasion at hand was Kwan Yin's birthday. When we arrived temple elders - bossy but smiley older women, mostly - were busy setting up the buffet (which consisted primarily of Ho's vegetarian specialties) and the pink paper-covered round tables at which visitors would eat.
Two altars - one vegetarian (opening shot) and inside the temple, and the other non-vegetarian, outside the temple - had been prepared. The non-vegetarian feast would take place that evening. The vegetarian altar sat inside a small alcove whose walls were covered with photographs and memorabilia, many of which relate to Panyu, a village in China's Guangdong province with which the temple and many of its members have clan association.
At one side of the dining area hung paper clothes and shoes for Kwan Yin and the temple god's associates; they would be burned at the end of the evening ceremonies.
Once the ceremony started I was invited to join, and Dave was urged to continue taking photographs. The head of the temple and conductor of ceremonies remained shirtless throughout. Heinvited Kwan Yin to the ceremony, reading from a very old book that belongs to the temple, knocking the altar with a wooden block, pouring beer and offering it to the god, and kowtowing along with devotees.
The ceremony lasted for only about fifteen minutes, after which everyone hastily made for the vegetarian buffet. Some families had purchased a table for 70 ringgit (about U$23),
while others - volunteers, mostly - ate for free. It was still fairly early in the morning so crowds weren't thick; volunteers estimated that the big rush would begin around lunchtime.
The food wasn't the focus of this gathering, but it was nonetheless superb. I'm betting many readers curled their lip a bit when they read the words 'vegetarian dim sum'. We too, are not usually fans of non-meat meat. But the brothers Ho's creations are worthy of appreciation for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that they are vegetarian. Take a look at the 'fake' goose above, made from fucuk (bean curd skin) - it's browned and slightly caramelized, chewy and crunchy at the same time. Eating Ho's meatless meal (there were seven in all) entailed no sacrifice on our parts at all.
There is, unfortunately, a bittersweet side to this story. The birthday ceremony for Kwan Yin that we attended is likely to be this temple's last. Though the elder of the temple's devotees estimate its age at a little over forty years it's set to be demolished to make way for a housing development; construction has been approved and on the day we visited the head of the temple expected to be served notice to vacate any day.
The temple will be relocated, probably to a private house, but it's unlikely to be granted a license. Few new Buddhist temples are in Malaysia, these days. And so while devotees will be able to visit and pray individually, ceremonies open to the public and on the scale of the one that we witnessed will not be allowed. Without a license, they'd be illegal.