Banking in Yemen

Rich Tea Biscuits

Rich Tea Biscuits

When I started my banking career back in the 1970’s, banking was still seen as a genteel, if somewhat unexciting, occupation and bankers were regarded as decent, honest and well respected members of the community like Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army. A banking crisis was something which happened when you were getting low on Rich Tea biscuits. As for bankers’ bonuses, these meant a month’s extra pay at Christmas, which we regarded as most generous.

Captain Mainwaring, Private Pike and Sergeant Wilson dressed in their  banking attire.

Captain Mainwaring, Private Pike and Sergeant Wilson dressed in their banking attire.

That might have been the case in UK but overseas, the reality was rather different and when I found myself transferred to my bank’s branch in Taiz, Yemen in 1983 I was often faced with situations which were far from routine.

Handling Complaints – English Dog

At the time Yemen was always teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the country had a chronic shortage of foreign currency . There was an official exchange rate for US$ against the Yemeni Rial, which nobody used, and there was the unofficial, black market rate which made dollars much more expensive.

Yemeni 20 Rial banknote 1983

Yemeni 20 Rial banknote 1983

Yemen also had a shortage of local teachers and the Ministry of Education employed hundreds of Egyptian and Sudanese teachers, promising them salaries in US$. Since the Ministry did not have dollars they paid the teachers the Rial equivalent and on salary day the teachers descended on the bank en masse expecting to send their money home at the official exchange rate. One month, since there were no dollars available in the country at the official rate, it was my job, as manager of the branch’s day-to-day operations, to explain to dozens of angry teachers that we were unable to sell them dollars. Heated exchanges ensued. The Sudanese on the whole were more understanding but the Egyptians were most irate. Their ring leader hurled verbal abuse at me and shouted across the banking hall that I was an “Inglizi kalb bin kalb” (an English dog, son of a dog). Charming!

The following month they tried new tactics, and the Ministry of Education sent us a letter, endorsed by the Central Bank of Yemen, instructing us to pay the teachers listed in US$ cash, and enclosing a cheque for the Rial equivalent, using the official exchange rate. Sensing victory, the hordes of teachers massed expectantly in the banking hall, only to be informed by yours truly that unless the Central Bank were able to supply us with US$ at their official rate we would be unable to comply. The usual mayhem ensued and my Egyptian friend this time accused me, at the top of his voice, of being an Israeli spy! Needless to say, the unfortunate teachers never received the dollars from us.

David the Hebrew

Not long after that episode I went round to the house of a junior colleague to drop off some papers. If I was the Sergeant Wilson of the branch, and my boss was the Capt. Mainwaring, this guy was Pike, although he was certainly not a “stupid boy”. He had different interests to me and sometimes had some surprising friends. On this occasion, there were two young Arab men sitting in his living room. They were Palestinian PLO members being trained as pilots by the Yemenis in some ancient MIGs. Now back in those days, before Camp David and Yasser Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize, the PLO was still regarded by many as a terrorist organisation, similar to Al Qaida today; they had done some pretty dastardly deeds and it was rather disconcerting to see a couple of their guys sitting in bank property. I didn’t hang around but on my way out, one of the Palestinians fixed me with his steely eyes and asked accusingly  ” David – that’s a Jewish name isn’t it?”. I stuttered out a reply ” it’s also Welsh, you know, St. David, the patron saint. And it’s an Arabic name too – Daoud”.

MIG 21 in Yemen in the 1980's

Part of a MIG 21 in Yemen in the 1980’s, similar to the type used by the PLO.

Some time afterwards I learned that a PLO pilot had crashed his plane at Taiz airport and died. Poor maintenance? Pilot error? Or maybe sabotage. Perhaps there really were Israeli spies operating in Yemen at that time. But I certainly wasn’t one of them!

The Case of the Shredded Travellers Cheques

Thomas Cook Deutsche Mark Travellers Cheques

Thomas Cook Deutsche Mark Travellers Cheques

I always tried to be conscientious in my banking career but one of my weaknesses was to be too trusting. In general I think it is a virtue to be trusting and unsuspicious of people but in a banking environment, when handling other people’s money, it is a bit of a liability.

When the bank finally decided to close down in Yemen we had to dispose of a lot of stuff, including a large stock of unissued Thomas Cook travellers cheques. We were instructed to shred them. We had two paper shredders in the branch, both useless, capable of shredding only one piece of paper at a time and prone to jamming and overheating. Shredding these stacks of Sterling, US Dollar and Deutsche Mark travellers cheques was taking forever. My boss took half and got his ferrash (messenger) to feed them one by one into the shredder in his office while he carried on working. Likewise, my  ferrash shredded the other half in my office, in my presence, but I guess not in my line of sight the whole time.  Mistake! Having these valuable cheques in his hands must have been too much temptation for one of these impoverished ferrashes. Some months later my manager called me to say that some of those travellers cheques had just been cashed in Germany even though he and I had certified that they had already been destroyed. Whoops! A bit of a black mark on both of our files but fortunately our employer was forgiving of our lapse.

Yemen certainly left an impression on me. On the whole it was an interesting experience. Could have done with some of those Rich Tea biscuits though.

Bulk cash withdrawal, Yemeni style. The bank sold off this safe (empty!) to a customer at the time of closing down the branch

Bulk cash withdrawal, Yemeni style. The bank sold off this safe (empty!) to a customer at the time of closing down the branch

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Darkie Toothpaste and Other Offensive Products

When I visited Han Chin Pet Soo recently there was a display of a 1960’s room which included a tube of Darkie toothpaste, along with a very unpleasant looking toothbrush.

Darkie ToothpasteI remember this product from my early days in Hong Kong. It was made by Hawley & Hazel and was one of the top-selling toothpaste brands in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. After Hawley & Hazel was acquired by US giant Colgate Palmolive in 1985 the name was changed to Darlie and the character in the top hat was given a makeover.

Darlie toothpaste

Darlie remains a market leader in this region. Interestingly its name in Chinese still translates as Black Man Toothpaste.

This got me to wondering what other brands and products have had to be withdrawn or modified due to changing attitudes.

Golden Shred Golly Advert

Growing up in Britain, our jam and marmalade jars used to be decorated with a gollywog character and if you collected enough labels from these jam jars you could send away for enamelled gollywog badges which were highly collectable. Golliwogs had been used to advertise these products since 1910 but by the 1980’s the ‘wog’ suffix, a racial slur against dark-skinned people, was dropped and the character became just Golly.

Racial minorities and others in Britain continued to regard Golly as a demeaning depiction of blacks and the manufacturers shelved Golly completely in 2001.


The description of this boot polish seems shocking to modern eyes. It is hardly surprising that Kiwi renamed this colour ‘Dark Tan’.

More recently, in 1999, the crayon manufacturer Crayola dropped the colour Indian Red from its range and renamed it Chestnut. They feared that people would mistakenly associate it with Red Indians (a term now deemed politically incorrect) whereas in fact it referred to a red clay found in India.

Indian Red Chestnut crayons

When I was a kid, a programme that was often on TV in our house and at my Grandma’s was The Black & White Minstrel Show featuring men with blacked-up faces doing corny old song and dance routines.  This show was accused of being racist and was finally axed by the BBC in 1978, after a run of 20 years.

The Black & White Minstrel Show

During the early years the show was broadcast in black and white. The black face make-up was actually red because black did not film well.

Gender equality has made great strides over recent decades. This Delmonte ketchup advert from 1953 would no not go down well in this day and age!

1953 Delmonte Advert

Yet it seems we still have a long way to go in this regard. These washing instructions printed on a sports shirt were reported in the press just this week. They say ‘Give this jersey to your woman – it’s her job’.

sexist washing instructions


Smoking is another area where public opinion has shifted (for the better).

Ronald Reagan Endorsing Chesterfield Cigarettes

A youthful Ronald Reagan endorsing cigarettes. When he later became President he banned smoking on aircraft, but only for domestic flights of less than 2 hours.


In my youth I was exposed to a lot of cigarette advertising. Marlboro told me their ciggies would make me rugged and tough and a good horseman. Consulate Menthols were apparently like breathing fresh mountain air and Craven A were recommended by doctors to prevent sore throats.

Consulate Cigarettes - Cool as a mountain stream


Craven A Cigarette advert

Luckily I could not stand the smell of cigarettes and never took up the vile habit.

Cigarette advertising is no more (in Western countries) and it is only a matter of time before cigarettes are classified as dangerous drugs and banned completely. Tobacco companies won’t mind because they have already shifted their attention to the much larger markets of China, Indonesia, Vietnam and other less developed countries.

I am sure there are many other examples of brands and advertising that have had to be dropped or amended due to shifting public opinions or political correctness. Let me know if you know of any good ones.


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Ipoh’s Limestone Mountains Turning to Dust

Ipoh Postcard 1970Ipoh is one of Malaysia’s most attractive towns. It has expanded enormously since this postcard photo was taken 45 years ago but it still has a pleasant feel to it with wide tree-lined avenues, grand historic buildings and friendly people.

Limestone hills south of IpohBest of all, Ipoh is ringed with scenic hills and studded with distinctive limestone karst towers, many of which contain caves and cave temples. The limestone filters and purifies the city’s water supply which in turn waters the fruit and vegetable farms and is said to enhance the flavour of the area’s famed cuisine.

Ipoh's limestone hills seen from afar.

Ipoh is sometimes called Little Guilin, referring to the Chinese region famed for its spectacular hills, pictured below (source:Wikipedia).

20090503_6305_GuilinGiven the tourism value of this scenery you would think that Ipoh’s local government would do all in its power to preserve and protect these 400 million year old hills, especially since Perak Tourism has just launched a campaign to promote the state as an eco-tourism destination. So it is rather surprising and disturbing that a number of the area’s mountains are being quarried and turned into cement and marble like this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

And this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

These are not isolated cases as this Google satellite image of  Simpang Pulai shows:

Google image showing quarrying activity at Simpang Pulai

The French cement giant Lafarge (which has a local Malaysian subsidiary) attracts a lot of negative media coverage for its quarrying of Ipoh’s eco-sensitive areas but it is far from the only company involved. Of course the world needs cement but there must be other, less conspicuous sources. Lafarge’s website says its goal is to create a better world by providing cement to build hospitals, schools and so on, but is it essential to demolish Ipoh’s most distinctive geographical features in the process?  How would the French public react if an Asian company were to start digging up the French Alps?

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Ipoh Revisited

I was in Ipoh last week to explore a few sights which I had missed on previous trips.

Han Chin Pet Soo

The first stop was Han Chin Pet Soo, an interesting exhibition in the beautifully restored Hakka Miner’s Club building at No.3 Jalan Bijeh Timah. All sorts of mischievous comings and goings took place in this club during the heydays of Ipoh’s tin boom. Miners spent their spare cash and free time on the ‘Four Evils'; gambling, opium, prostitutes and secret societies (triads), all of which are described in some detail at Han Chin Pet Soo. I have posted a full write-up on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Big Johns Music Shack, Ipoh

Big Johns Music Shack, Second Concubine Lane, Ipoh

The narrow alley opposite Han Chin Pet Soo is Panglima Lane, or Second Concubine Lane which I have written about before on this blog. Since my first visit in 2011, some of the crumbling shophouses have collapsed completely but I was pleased to see that there has been some effort to regenerate the street, including a new retro-style bar called Big John’s Music Shack which I gather has been opened by a Brit – good for him!

Plan B, Ipoh

Talking of regeneration, around the corner at No.75 Jalan Panglima, is an architectural innovation where the designers have incorporated remnants of ruined and overgrown shophouses into a stylish modern development housing a restaurant, some arty and other shops (one even sells made-in-Ipoh handicrafts) and a cosy barbers. The restaurant (if not the whole development)  is called Plan B and describes itself as ‘edgy Aussie meets NY deli’.

FMS Bar & Restaurant, Ipoh

FMS Bar & Restaurant – Still Closed After All These Years

Next, I strolled past the FMS Bar & Restaurant  to see if there has been any progress in reopening this famous old watering hole since my last visit. Unfortunately there hasn’t. Looks like I’m never going to be able to enjoy a stengah in this place.


The former Majestic Station Hotel above Ipoh Station is reflected in the Great War Memorial.

In a similar vein, I walked along to Ipoh’s beautiful railway station to see what, if anything, is happening with the former Majestic Station Hotel premises which closed down just after my first visit in 2011. Again there doesn’t seem to have been any progress in finding a new role for the upper floor of this iconic building.

Gunung Lang Recreational Park

Five minutes drive away, but still within city limits, is the attractive Gunung Lang Recreational Park. The main attraction here is a boat ride to see the landscaped gardens across the lake. Since there was a big queue for the boat (very unusual to see crowds in a Malaysian park in the heat of the day) I decided to save that pleasure for another time and I watched people feeding the huge freshwater turtles instead.

Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Ipoh

Loong Thow Ngau Temple, Gunung Lang, Ipoh

Next door to the park, builders were adding the finishing touches to the newly refurbished Loong Thow Ngau Temple which looks as though it might back onto a cave under Gunung Lang.

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar, Jalan Lang, Ipoh

While looking for another cave at Gunung Lang, I came across this Hindu temple called Kuil Sri Raja Muneeswarar at Jalan Lang.

Japanese Garden, Ipoh

Japanese Garden, Ipoh (now looking forlorn).

I had been meaning for some time to visit Ipoh’s Japanese Garden on Jalan Raja Dihilir. It seems I left it too late because it is now padlocked and neglected with its lawns overgrown and koi ponds drained of water. It belongs to the Perak Turf Club who were quoted in the press last year as saying they have not decided what to do with it. Given its prime location, it would not be surprising if it is earmarked for redevelopment.

Gua Tambun Cave Paintings

Gua Tambun Cave Paintings

Next, after some effort, I managed to locate the Gua Tambun Cave Paintings. This Neolithic rock art site is not well publicised but is quite impressive if you like that sort of thing. You can read details and find directions on my Malaysia Traveller website.

Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park

Ipoh is famous for its pomelos and in the suburb of Tambun I popped into the Go Chin Pomelo Nature Park where I was invited to look around their orchard and to sample a few varieties in the shop. The local pomelos are prized for their sweetness but I purchased the sourer Thai-style pomelo which is more to my taste. I also bought star fruit and chikoos (sapodilla).

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

My final stop was the Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, an extraordinary Buddhist Temple with a giant statue of Buddha gazing out from an opening on the eighth floor of a giant pagoda hidden away in a secluded valley.

Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

The Interior of the Pagoda at Enlightened Heart Tibetan Temple, Ipoh

Since this was quite an interesting place I might write about this in more detail in a later blog.

The climb up and down the pagoda concluded a busy and tiring day, which also included a 500km round trip drive. There’s a lot to see in Ipoh. I’ll have to go again soon.

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Singapore Black Magic

Singapore has a reputation for being modern, squeaky clean and orderly and we tend to think of Singaporeans as generally well educated, worldly and sophisticated.

So it came as something of a surprise to come across an interesting shop window in an ordinary Singaporean public housing estate displaying curses, spells, voodoo and other dark arts.

Then again, perhaps it should not be surprising since belief in black magic and the supernatural runs deep in South East Asia.Singapore Black Magic 1

As most of the signage in the shop window was in Chinese it was not clear to me if the shop-keeper, presumably some sort of medicine man, was selling curses or the cures to them (or neither). Surely it cannot be legal to sell curses?

Not sure what the ‘flying needle’ is all about but it has been claimed that an evil bomoh (witch doctor) could cause foreign objects to appear in a victim’s body through an incantation. There was a case reported in the Singaporean media in 2008 of an Indonesian woman who had metal wires growing out of her stomach and chest for 17 years, much to the mystery of her doctors.

Singapore Black Magic 2

The ancient Malay dagger, the kris, is often believed to have magical powers. There is a kris exhibited at Taiping Museum which is said to thirst for blood and will fly out of its sheath on full moons and seek people to kill before returning silently to its sheath. (See The Kris Mystic Weapon of the Malay World by Edward Frey for more details.)

Scorpions, centipedes, snakes, spiders, corpse oil, strands of hair and bits of fingernail are associated with making powerful charms for revenge, love or change of luck.

Love potions are said to be particularly potent. A woman looking to cast a spell over a man might prepare an unsavoury dish called Nasi Kangkang by dripping her sweat and other bodily fluids onto a bowl of steaming white rice, rendering her victim incapable of resisting her charms.

Should the man break off from the woman he could be in trouble. The famous author W. Somerset Maugham, who liked to base his novels on real people, in his short story P. & O., wrote of a planter who died of hiccups brought on by a spell cast by his jilted Asian mistress.

Singapore Black Magic 3

Newspapers in this part of the world often contain reports of charlatans and con-men preying on the gullible and superstitious. But who is to say that all this black magic stuff is bogus? These sorcerers are certainly keeping up with the times. There is a dukun in Indonesia who claims to be able to administer a lethal spell via text message. It would be terrible if he dialled a wrong number!

Singapore Black Magic 4

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Reflections of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Marina Bay SandsWe recently spent a couple of nights in this place, the Marina Bay Sands, which describes itself as the most spectacular hotel in Singapore.  It was officially opened in June 2010. It is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp and, in true American style, it is big and bold, with 2561 hotel rooms and suites, a huge casino, a convention and exhibition centre,  a theatre, a museum, an ice rink and a shopping mall complete with its own canal.  The shopping mall also boasts a number of restaurants hosted by celebrity chefs (i.e. overpriced).

Lobby of Tower 2 Marina Bay Sands

Part of the Hotel Lobby Marina Bay Sands

The hotel has a novel design with three curvaceous 55 storey towers topped by a platform shaped like a giant ironing board. This made for a challenging construction project with a hefty price tag of US$5.5 billion making it the world’s second most expensive building (after the Abraj Al Bait in Mecca).

Vanishing Edge Pool at Marina Bay Sands

The ‘ironing board’ supports Skypark, a 2.5 acre roof deck which includes a 150 metre long vanishing edge swimming pool, 57 floors up in the sky.

Vanishing Edge Pool at Marina Bay Sands

There must be 1000 people on this pool and observation deck at any one time of which 99% are either taking photos, posing for photos or both (selfies). I reckon this amounts to about 250,000 new photos uploaded every single day making Marina Bay Sands one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore.

Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands is the 34th largest hotel in the world and uses 36,000 keycards a month. It achieves an occupancy rate approaching 99% despite charging a fortune for its rooms. Our room was ridiculously expensive – definitely not the sort of place that Thrifty Traveller normally frequents!

Room at Marina Bay Sands

It was a nice enough room, comfortable and spacious, but nothing amazing. The view was great though.

View from Marina Bay Sands

The room came with ‘exclusive’ use of The Club where complimentary drinks and small eats were served at tea time and early evening. It could not have been that exclusive as it was packed with people knocking back the free Piper Heidsieck champagne. Rather like an airport business or first class lounge.

The Club at Marina Bay Sands

This kind of ‘mass market luxury’ appeals to some but is not really my cup of tea, though I would not object if an employer was footing the bill.

Flower Dome and Singapore Flyer

Flower Dome and Singapore Flyer

Marina Bay Sands has a good location close to Gardens By the Bay and the Singapore Flyer and with great views over downtown Singapore. And with a big mall next door there is no need to go far.

Shopping Mall at Marina Bay SandsThe hotel (and casino) appeared to be very popular with Chinese tourists (from PRC) and I note from official Singapore visitor numbers that Chinese are now by far the most numerous of all tourists (excluding Singapore’s neighbours, Malaysians and Indonesians, many of whom visit Singapore for employment). Indian tourists are the second most numerous. I guess this is a sign of the times.

We enjoyed our stay at Marina Bay Sands but in the highly unlikely event that I were to splurge again in Singapore I would probably opt for somewhere more sumptuous such as the Ritz Carlton, Shangri-La, Fullerton Bay or even Raffles.

Reflection of Marina Bay Sands

Reflection of Marina Bay Sands

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Olden KL at Nu Sentral Mall

Nu Sentral is a recently completed shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, located adjacent to the capital’s main transport hub, KL Sentral.

To celebrate Chinese New Year, the mall has tried to recreate the atmosphere of old KL with some replica shops staffed by cuddly caricatures.

The result is not very authentic but it’s just a bit of fun. Here are some photos.

Olden KL at Nu Sentral Mall IMG_2456 IMG_2457 IMG_2458 IMG_2460 IMG_2461 IMG_2464 IMG_2465 Olden KL at Nu Sentral Mall

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