Thursday, May 27, 2010

Taipei Chinese Orchestra celebrating 30-year milestone with “Farewell to My Concubine”

By Nancy T. Lu
The Taipei Chinese Orchestra has come a long way. Three decades at Taiwan’s music scene do not come easy. “Farewell To My Concubine,” a concert at the Zhongshan Hall in Taipei on May 29, will celebrate the TCO’s 30th anniversary by bringing together acclaimed international artists in an exciting program which will creatively combine musical elements from the East and the West.

The tragic love story of King of Western Chu and warrior named Xiang Yu and his beloved concubine Yu Ji during the final days of the Qin Dynasty about 2,200 years ago has traditionally been told through the Chinese opera with legendary Mei Lan-fang leading a line of talents in interpreting the role of the concubine. Composer and TCO director Chung Yiu-kwong, in fact, found inspiration in Mei Lan-fang’s reprisal of the famous Beijing opera role when he was writing“Farewell to My Concubine: a Double Concerto for Jinghu and Cello, accompanied by the Chinese Orchestra.”

Xiang Yu and Yu Ji will come to life through the bowed solo instruments of cello and jinghu. Chung seeks to be different in telling the story through music by going deep into the emotions of Xiang Yu as he watches the sword dance of his beloved while he contemplates his loss of the battle to unite China against Liu Bang, the eventual first emperor of the Han Dynasty.

Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who has collaborated with composer Tan Dun for 20 years, is making his Taipei debut at the concert. For the cellist, it has always been a challenge to be a part of music from a culture different from his. He expressed the hope that once the playing of the notes begins, the instruments will disappear and only the music will remain.

Aside from playing “Farewell to My Concubine,” he will also perform Finnish composer Uuno Klami’s “The Cheremission Fantasy” (arranged by Lo Leung-fai for the Chinese orchestra). The Stravinsky-influenced composition is said to absorb the mood of the folk melodies and rhythmic patterns of the Cheremis people in the northern reaches of the Volga River.

Jiang Ke-mei remarked that the jinghu, which she will play to dramatically emote the feelings of the concubine Yu Ji, has the widest music range among the bowed huchin instruments. The notes coaxed out of the jinghu are particularly gentle and exquisite, according to her.

The jinghu traditionally steps in to fill the gentle requirement of the Chinese opera. Beijing opera evolved and developed from the jinghu, she pointed out. Carrying on a dialogue with a cello (or cellist) will be a new experience for jinghu artist Jiang though.

As conductor of Enjott Schneider’s “Earth & Fire” in the concert, Shao En said after the first rehearsal that the composer’s understanding of Chinese music instruments is "truly impressive." His "use of tone colors" is "full of imagination." The music orchestration is beautiful. The orchestra is able to play comfortably to bring out the best possible sounds, he added.

Schneider explained that he has five books on the range of Chinese music instruments for his reference. Besides, he has been listening to Chinese music for 20 years and has acquired quite a collection of CDs. He even went to YouTube to check out the music played by the TCO. Schneider has composed many film music, working with Shanghai musicians over the years.

Berlin-based Chinese musician and avant-garde sheng player Wu Wei will be the soloist of Schneider’s piece. His expertise in a Chinese musical instrument with a history of 4,000 years has led to collaborations with Kent Nagano and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as well as Heiko Matthias Foester and the Munich Orchestra, among others, over the years. He has also participated in crossover activities, getting involved in the projects of Gunter Grass and Michael Lentz, Jean-Jacques Lemetre of Theatre du Soleil as well as dancers Miho Iwata and Lin I-fen, among others.

The concert program on Saturday, May 29, will likewise feature Huun-Huur-Tu, an ensemble of four performers including a throat singer from Tuva on the border of Mongolia and Russia. They will perform a song from Todja called “Odugen Taiga.” The herdsman’s song is about the place “where he grew up and where the scent of pine enveloped his body.”

The photo above shows Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen and Chinese jinghu player Jiang Ke-mei rehearsing with the Taipei Chinese Orchestra under the baton of Chung Yiu-kwong at the Zhonghshan Hall in Taipei.

For ticket information, call tel. (02)33939888.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Original soloists return to play "Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” and “Yellow River Piano Concerto”

By Nancy T. Lu

The Taipei Chinese Orchestra (TCO) is bringing together in a very special program considered a high point of the Taipei Traditional Arts Festival Yu Li-na, the original violinist of the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” and Yin Cheng-zong, the pianist during the world premiere of the “Yellow River Piano Concerto.” Both Chinese musicians rose to fame during the Cultural Revolution in China.

These two compositions well-loved not only by the people in China but also by ethnic Chinese all over the world will be in the repertoire of the TCO under conductor Shao En at the Zhongshan Hall in Taipei at 7:30 p.m. on May 22 and at 2:30 p.m. on May 23.

In recent years, even international music artists of great renown have taken to performing these concertos in their concerts.

Yu was only 18 back in 1959 when she went up the stage of the Lanxin Theater in Shanghai to perform the violin solo part of the music composed by Chen Gang and He Zhan-hao. Her beautiful fiddling of the music which was the embodiment of China in transition turned her into an overnight sensation. A taped rehearsal of the piece became a commercial recording.

“At the end of my performance, I was initially greeted with complete silence from the audience,” recalled the visiting Yu. “I got really very tense and nervous, not knowing how I stood in their eyes. An earlier concert flop by another artist left me rather apprehensive about public acceptance. But then came the applause.”

Yu remembered wearing a white blouse and black skirt on this occasion. Her schoolgirl look included white socks and black flat shoes, too.

Yu prepared lengthily for this performance. The piece written by two students was not easy to interpret, she said.

“The composition was not part of academic music training,” said Yu. “I had to learn erhu and I had to study Chinese opera to get ready to play this new piece.”

Yu refused to comment directly about foreigners’ attempts to play “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto.” She had this to say though: “Just like Chinese musicians seeking to perform Bach and Mozart are required to have a grasp of the composers’ cultural backgrounds, foreign musicians need to study traditional Chinese art and culture first before attempting to play the music.”

Yu has not kept track of the exact number of times she has played “Butterfly Lovers Concerto.” As of last year, she had performed it for half a century. At age 70 this year, she announced: “This will be my last performance before the Taiwan audience I have decided to completely bow out of the concert stage end of this year.”

After she retires as concert violinist, she will probably play the music only to demonstrate her point while teaching her music students, she reckoned. Her teaching profession has kept her growing as a musician, according to Yu.

Yin Cheng-zong, for his part, got on a cart, leaving Gulangyu in Xiamen back in 1954 to find his future. He traveled for five days, harboring constant fear of getting bombed because cross-strait relations then were very tense and critical.

Gulangyu, which at one point was site of 14 consulates, acquired the reputation of the cradle of Chinese pianists, because foreigners who moved in then brought pianos. Yin, a native of Gulangyu, claimed to have learned music by singing in church until he was 16. There was no music conservatory to get formal music education.

Yin later had the opportunity to study music in St. Petersburg, Russia. He took lessons not just in piano but also in conducting and music composition.

Western classical music was banned in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Yin as a pianist was concerned about the disappearance of the piano in China. On May 23, 1967, he – fresh from his music training abroad – decided to move a small piano with help from friends to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Wearing the uniform of a Red Guard then, he played revolutionary songs for three days. His listeners grew from 300 to 2,000. Yin received about 1,000 letters as a result of what he did. His act even caught the eye of Jiang Qing or Madame Mao.

Music in those days served to fire patriotic fervor. Yin would always be remembered for his leading involvement in rearranging Xian Xinghai’s “Yellow River Cantata” originally written as an expression of defiance against Japanese invaders into the “Yellow River Piano Concerto” for a premiere performance in 1969. Right there with him in this collective effort ordered by Madame Mao of creating the four-movement concerto promoting nationalism were Chu Wang-hua, Liu Zhuang, Sheng Li-hong, Shi Shu-cheng and Xu Feixing. The inclusion of “East Is Red” in the concerto – said to push the musical instruments to a climax – caused the concerto’s performance to be regarded as very controversial. It was even banned in Hongkong, for example, in those days.

The “Yellow River Piano Concerto” has a history of at least four decades. Yin first played it in Taiwan in 1991. The music has often been played in 53 countries, he said. He himself has performed it at least 1,000 times. The Chinese people's spirit in the concerto today is different from what it used to be, he remarked.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ju Percussion drumming up new excitement about “Mulan” with Guoguang Opera Company

By Nancy T. Lu

"Mulan” in the hands of creative and innovative Taiwanese artists promises never a dull moment. The story of the legendary heroine who disguises herself as a male and replaces her aging and ailing father, reporting to the battlefront in answer to the Chinese Emperor’s call to war of defense against the invading Huns, has been told frequently on the Chinese opera stage. But the Ju Percussion Group is drumming up this time new excitement about this familiar tale of the daughter celebrated for her filial piety in a crossover collaboration production with the Guoguang Opera Company at the National Theater in Taipei on May 21, 22 and 23.

Get ready for a spectacular mix of tap dance, Beijing opera and, of course, percussion music on a multi-level theater stage. Even the orchestra pit is put to use. Excellent percussionists are pounding out heady beats on traditional Chinese drums from there.

Composer Hung Chien-hui has rewritten entirely the music for the 90-minute opera performance, making percussion instruments dramatically speak out the moods and emotions as the scenario unfolds. A total of 20 musicians from Ju Percussion Group and Ju Percussion 2 are prepared to strike out the upbeat tell-tale rhythmic notes on a range of musical instruments, including wooden boxes, tin cans and bottles, with score sheets all taken out of sight.

Creative costume design by Chen Wan-li draws inspiration and taps elements from traditional Chinese papercut. Laser technology helps realize the intricate design patterns.

Mulan must shift from simple country lass to brave male warrior in the plot. Gender roles require defining through the wardrobe differences put in the spotlight. The square shape is reserved generally for the male and the round form ties in with the female look. The male wears cold and subdued shades while the female gets dressed in warm and attention-getting hues. Twenty-eight different costumes complete with headgears and accessories have been created for the entire cast. Percussionists, too, unravel different faces of Mulan through their designed looks. Austronesian tribal influences lend interesting shapes and details to the whole wardrobe, too.

For ticket information, call tel. (02)3393-9888.

All pictures were taken by Nancy T. Lu during a dress rehearsal.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Summer is here and it is a beautiful season for young love, says choreographer Lin Wen-chung

By Nancy T. Lu

Summer is here and it is a season for love. So live love. But be prepared for both the magic and the pain. The lyrics and melodies of music selected for the new dance choreography called “Small Songs” say it all. The interpretative dance itself, however, expresses everything even more eloquently. Dance moves sometimes go abstract though. Expect fireworks (worth NT$2,000 at each performance).

If you are young, you will easily relate to the love expressed through body language in “Small Songs.” If you are not so young anymore, you will feel young and ready for romance once more. Or, you will simply fall into nostalgic and beautiful reminiscences of love many summers ago.

Choreographer Lin Wen-chung of WC Dance Company is sharing his own love-related experiences and making a statement virtually denying that love is a folly of the young through the dance concert, “Small Songs.”

The 35-year-old Lin danced for seven years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in the United States before he decided to return to Taiwan to start his own modern dance company. He steps into the limelight in at least two segments to show his refined and beautiful style and form. Emotions are poured out with amazing grace.

The body language of six dancers, including Lin himself, says it all. Love can be about couples. Menage a trois – three’s company – that, too, is possible. Moments range from giddy to bewitching. The young company dancers show affection in saccharine detail, sometimes suggesting the conduct of loving canine pets. Contact improvisation puts everything to work gracefully and smoothly on the stage.

Fights happen. Are those suggestions of karate moves? So the pairs of dancers break up, resulting in partners avoiding each other. But such is life even among those once sworn to love each other without fear of death or sacrifice as articulated in the familiar song from the box office hit Taiwanese movie, “Cape No. 7.”

A Spanish song reaches out and zeroes in on the passion of love. But love can be the tongue-tied kind sometimes, according to Lin. The choreographer taps Kun opera music as well as an operatic aria to emote love in different ways in his dance creation. Even classical music finds a place in the choreography, which sometimes calls to mind a ballet presentation. Dance moves bring in techniques from East and West. Variety spices up the performance in the intimate Wenshan Theater.

The love story also has a chapter about heartbreak. The French song about lost love inspires the choreography showing two persons going their separate ways. The need to embark on a solo flight emerges in one segment. A solo dance finds the lonely heart turning inward. The Taipei-based Lin himself carries on a long-distance love relationship with his wife, who lives and works in Hong Kong.

The Chinese title of the choreography translates to literally mean “love songs.” As Lin put it, “I have always been very fond of love songs. However, I have tried to be more abstract in my choreography when the lyrics of the songs are explicit in meaning. Through the use of love songs, I hope to draw the public in Taiwan closer to modern dance.”

“Small Songs” – which was originally commissioned by the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center in Taipei last year– is about sexuality and the city (it can be Taipei, Taichung or Kaohsiung) as told in seven segments. The dancers are dressed in black and white although in changing combinations throughout the choreography. They move with precision mostly on a square platform, making it look like a marital bed sometimes.

The stage backdrop resembles a huge mirror, which captures surreal images of the dancers throughout the performance.

“Small Songs” featuring the WC Dance Company will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on May 14 and 15 as well as at 2:30 p.m. on May 15 and 16 at the Wenshan Theater in Taipei; at 7:30 p.m. on June 2 at the Zhongxing Hall in Taichung; as well as at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on June 12 at the Zuoying Senior High School Dance Theater in Kaohsiung. For inquiries, call tel. (02)2533-9875. Or send email to

Wenshan Theater at 32 Jingwen Street in Taipei can be reached by taking the MRTS Tamshui-Xindian Line. Get off at Jingmei Station along Roosevelt Road and head for Exit No. 1. The Wenshan Theater is to the left immediately next door.

The picture above was taken by Nancy T. Lu.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Diplomats steal show with their music-making at swinging TIWC charity gala dinner event

By Nancy T. Lu

Easygoing moments filled with music made up part of life away from the office desks at the American Institute in Taiwan for AIT Deputy Director Eric Madison and AIT Public Affairs Section Chief and Spokesman Thomas Mark Hodges along with Dave Rank, Denise Shepherd, Gonzalo Saldias, Alan Tousignant and Scott Riswold, all of AIT or the de facto U.S. Embassy.

This was a big revelation to the members of the Taipei International Women’s Club after their friends from the AIT agreed to show their gift for music-making during their off hours by performing at the TIWC’s charity gala dinner at the Grand Formosa Regent Hotel in Taipei on April 30. They did it only to support a good cause. Their entertainment program, in fact, turned the well-attended fund-raising event into an unforgettable swinging affair.

The male-dominated happening only proved that the gentlemen from the diplomatic community remained ever-gallant and committed when approached by women for support in a meaningful endeavor.

Madison graciously accepted the invitation to do a very rare public duet, karaoke style, with Kingdom of Swaziland Ambassador Njbuliso Gwebu. Their rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Road” even earned a high score of 96. They reportedly began practicing together two weeks earlier.

Madison started off with a solo number, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” concluding with a score of 65. Gwebu for her part did “When I Need You,” getting a score of 74 for her effort.
Earlier, the fun-loving AIT band called Mad Cows got into a hot rock music act, exciting the TIWC members and guests with their thythmic sounds into rushing to the dance floor.

The night was young. Dave Rank, Denise Shepherd and Gonzalo Saldias (doing the vocals), Alan Tousignant (on the guitar), Scott Riswold (at the drums), and Thomas Mark Hodges (playing bass) were just warming up before unbelieving eyes and ears.
“Stray Cat Strut” was their opening piece. And then they moved into the more dramatic “Secret Agent Man,” followed by “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” By the time they got to “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the crowd was totally convinced of their amazing music talent. They were good enough for the professional stage.

Then came vocalist Rank’s climactic announcement about switching from English songs to a Mandarin tune. Wu Bai’s “You Are My Flower” got performed in flawless Mandarin, bringing everyone to a new high.

Move over, Wu Bai. Such thought crossed the minds of a few who were familiar with the hit song. The original Taiwanese singer should have seen Rank, squinting his eyes and putting on shades while going through his routine in the stage limelight.

The excellent entertainers called Mad Cows had another song to offer - “Play That Funky Music.” Then Rank started asking Mayumi Hu, TIWC 2nd vice president and English-language emcee of the event: “Should I stay or should I go?”

The question turned out to be the title of the final song for the evening. Carlson Huang of Radio Taiwan International was there too as Chinese-language co-emcee of the very special program.

At one point Gonzalo Saldias emerged a cool balladeer from AIT, serenading the board members called to the stage for special citation after a year of service with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Connie Pong, TIWC president, handed out certificates and gifts to the following: Swaziland Ambassador Njbuliso Gwebu, 1st vice president; Mayumi Hu, second vice president; Anne Yung, treasurer; Jin Lee Fang, membership; Lily Assana, hospitality; Caroline Chou, Chinese public relations; Sophia Lu, social service; and Peckhee Lim, publicity.

This year’s TIWC led by Connie Pong, the president, took the education of poor Taiwanese students for special cause in their fund-raising efforts. The TIWC is presently supporting the meals and transportation allowances of 16 students. Pong presented NT$160,000 to Nanhu Senior High School and NT$200,000 to the TIWC Education Fund during the program.

The readiness to encourage and support the TIWC in meaningful charity work prompted the special participation of the talents from the diplomatic community in the gala dinner performance.

Nicaraguan Ambassador William Tapia stepped forward to sing Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way” completely in Japanese. Wong Kai Jiun from the Singapore Trade Office in Taipei impressed the audience with his voice and singing style when his turn to vocalize “You’ve Got a Friend” came.

DJ Chicano was there also to contribute more excitement to the swinging party. Professional ballroom dancing by Cassia Chang and Harrison Lee alternated with high-energy hip-hop performances by two very young groups of dancers from Nanhu Senior High School in Taipei. This very school is where the poor student beneficiaries of TIWC’s funding and priority support come from.

The TIWC also supports the Lin Kun-Ti Foundation through various hospital projects and handicapped students’ assistance in colleges and other domains. Then there is the TIWC Education Foundation, which offers scholarships to financially-strapped post-secondary school students with outstanding potential for leadership and with promise of using their talents for the benefit of the society. Friends of TIWC have meanwhile been contributing to two funds: Dr. Lilian Chao Education Fund, which awards prizes to the winners of an annual English speech contest, and Lily Chow Memorial Fund for handicapped students.

The TIWC members in the last year raised money also for those who suffered the devastating effects of Typhoon Morakot, donating NT$100,000 to the Ministry of the Interior to help the victims rebuild their lives. The TIWC likewise collected NT$50,000 for the victims of the deadly earthquake of 7.0 magnitude in Haiti, channeling donation to survivors through the Embassy of Haiti in Taiwan.

Generous donors, including Cecilia Koo of the National Women’s League and Eclat Hotel, contributed prizes worth a total of over NT$200,000 to a raffle draw on April 30. Many of the embassies and trade offices also gave prizes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Snow in April and May brings about youthful euphoria in Taiwan's Hakka communities

By Nancy T. Lu

“April snow” or “May snow,” depending on when the floral encounter takes place, sets the stage for romance or perhaps reminiscence of a once blossoming summer love. Magic is in the air, bringing back youthful euphoria. This is something to be experienced in many places where Hakka communities are found in Taiwan. Clusters of tung blossoms on trees covering hillsides drop to the ground to create fantastic floral beds, sometimes on roads stretching as far as the eyes can see.

Residents used to simply sweep away the white flowers. But nowadays they leave the flowers on the ground for they know that tourists are willing to travel for miles to take in the breathtaking floral sight. The flowers can be gathered and strung into a garland to crown a female’s dainty head.

The tung tree sometimes goes by the name of pawlonia. It is likewise called the phoenix tree. In Chinese folklore, the phoenix was said to have rested on the tree.

The more common male or staminate flower takes 36 hours to fully blossom from the time of pollination. The flower drops to the ground with all five petals intact. The female or pistillate bloom has bigger petals. It falls to the ground petal by petal. Then a fruit develops, ripens and finally shrivels, dropping to the ground after a total of about 150 days in September.

Back in 2002, the Council for Hakka Affairs saw the tung blossom season as full of tourism potential and embarked on involving local communities to get their act together to make visits to their far-flung areas worthwhile and memorable. Somehow, the hardworking men and women have been rewarded financially over the years for their entrepreneurial talent and skill.

Without a doubt, the picture-taking opportunities in many locations and sites in Miaoli County and Hsinchu County during the yearly tung blossom festival are comparable to what the cherry blossom festival in Japan has to offer.

Leisurely walks along paths cleared for such exercise can start in the townships with a bit of Hakka history and culture. The shops lining the main roads entice passersby with Hakka delicacies. Mealtime calls for sitting down to a hearty meal of typical meat and vegetable dishes. These are washed down with Hakka ground tea containing not just tea leaves but also sesame, peanut and rice.

The fresh side of pork, marinated first in soy sauce and other seasonings, then steamed on a bed of chopped as well as preserved plum vegetables at Hong Zao or Red Jujube Restaurant in Miaoli is worth stopping for lunch. Mei gan kou rou is a most typical Hakka recipe. It is relished with a white bun.

Fancy restaurants, which are accessible to private motorists, sometimes offer strictly vegetarian menus designed to appeal to individuals accustomed to high-end dining in Taipei. As many as 78 dining establishments around Taiwan are said to join the Hakka tung blossom celebration at this time of the year. Sanyi Township has lodging for travelers, too.

About an hour and a half from Taipei is Shishan Tourist Center in Emei, Hsinchu County. The Teng Ping Trail, a 45-minute stretch for the strolling party, starts here.

Those who like to do some walking for good health can actually take their pick of several tung blossom trails in Miaoli. There is even a tunnel for trekking along a railway built in 1905 but is no longer in use.

Xiexin Teahouse close to the Teng Ping Trail has tables out in the terrace for visitors to take in the sight of dropping tung blossoms while feasting on Hakka rice dumpling and peanut powder-covered mochi. Oriental beauty tea is served to help wash down the Hakka delicacies.

Sitting down to sip coffee in the terrace of Shangtian later in the day elsewhere in Miaoli County is relaxing for tourists. The coffee in a setting looking out to the tung tree cluster and the camphor woods is aromatic.

Operators of kilns lure visitors with do-it-yourself activities before the end of the day. An outsider can sit down and paint a ceramic chime, even drawing five-petal tung blossoms on it to bring home as souvenir from Xiao Gu Tao Yi, a ceramic workshop, in the tung blossom-covered countryside. Commercial products like the tea set with “May Snow” theme can also be bought at the site.

Sanyi Township is famous for woodcarving. The Sun Yi Duck Gem Box had for many years a really flourishing business producing handmade wooden ducks for export. Duck hunters in Europe in those days used them to entice the waterfowl. The environmental protection campaign in the 1990s, however, proved a setback for the business. The beautifully carved and painted ducks found a new market among collectors starting in 2002 though.

Hands-on dyeing lessons also appeal to city residents who find their way to Hakka communities. They learn to dye blue scarves with white floral patterns.

As many as 400 commercial products packaged beautifully have been developed, introducing the tung blossom as motif or accent, and these have been marketed in 92 outlets in Taipei County, Taoyuan County, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Taichung County, Changhua County, Yunlin County and Nantou County.

Hakka tofu cheese, tung flower fruit jelly, pickled mustard, rice food items, dried persimmons and herb tea called Mesona chenensis have found consumers’ acceptance. Traditional Hakka colors along with the tung blossom have been incorporated into fashion items from textiles to accessories with professional design expertise.

Tung blossoms even flavor pastries baked for selling especially during the tung flower season in April and May. Herbal tea takes the flower’s fragrance.

Motorists can easily drive from Taipei to Miaoli. Itineraries can include enjoying Taian spa and fruit picking in an orchard. One-day and two-day trips are possible.

All photographs were taken by Nancy T. Lu.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cakes ever so colorful and sweet serve as wonderful culinary introduction to Malaysia

By Nancy T. Lu
Kuih or cakes, desserts ever so colorful and sweet on the buffet of a traditional Malaysian culinary celebration, have always made homemakers who love them wonder how they are prepared.

Madame Zawiah Ahmad made a sweet comeback at the International Food Culture Exchange coordinated by Pallas Chen at the Eslite Bookstore Xinyi on April 30 to demonstrate two Nyonya Kuih or cake recipes, namely Kuih Lapis (layered cake) and Kuih Ketayap (pancake wrapped around palm sugar and coconut).

The first recipe required the mixing of the all-purpose flour, rice flour and starch/tapioca flour. Sugar and water were added, Then came the coconut milk and a few drops of vanilla essence.

Dato’ Abdullah Mohd Salleh, president of the Malaysian Friendship and Trade Center in Taipei and de facto Malaysian ambassador, did not just stand watching his wife do the cooking demonstration. He showed that he could also stir the batter properly without fumbling at the task.

Madame Zawiah proceeded to divide the mixed ingredients into two parts. A few drops of red rose essence went into one portion to create a pinkish color. The other part remained white. Brown sugar could be used to create chocolate color batter while pandan leaves could be introduced for a yellow outcome. In short, a beautiful rainbow of colors could end up on the dessert table.

The Malaysian homemaker in the spotlight then poured some pink batter into a tray in a steamer. After five minutes, she poured white batter over the pinkish one. Another round of steaming lasted five minutes. This went on a few times until several layers with alternating colors had been created. Once the final layer had been added, the cake was steamed for 20 to 30 minutes. At last the cake inspired by the Malaysian flag was ready to be sliced and enjoyed.

The Kuih Ketayap recipe called for the preparing of the coconut filling first. Dried coconut, brown sugar as well as water and vanilla essence were the required ingredients. Madame Zawiah melted the brown sugar first. She then introduced the dried coconut. She cooked everything slowly, finally leaving everything to cool off.

As for the thin pancake, ingredients included all-purpose flour, egg, water, salt and green essence. The green batter poured on a non-stick pan should not be overcooked to prevent this slightly brown final wrap from breaking when rolled around the coconut filling, according to Madame Zawiah.

Among those who turned up to watch the cooking demonstration were Margaret Madison, the visiting mother of Deputy Director Eric Madison of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and Isaura Novelo, wife of the Belize ambassador.

The event turned into a most pleasant afternoon tea on the third floor of the Eslite Bookstore Xinyi. Malaysian white coffee was served along with the delicious cakes.

Malaysia as a country endowed with beautiful beaches, great highlands, verdant jungles, modern cities, charming countryside and a spectrum of colorful cultures was presented also on this occasion. Boxes of Malaysian white coffee served as prizes during an.on-the-spot quiz about the Southeast Asian country.

Cooking demonstrations featuring cuisines of countries around the world are held regularly at 3 p.m. on the last Friday of every month. The public is invited.