Icy challenges

For two decades now, an award-winning Malaysian chef artist has braved freezing temperatures to compete in ice and snow sculpture competitions.

FOUR years ago, Malaysian chef artist John Yong and two other people – a Malaysian and a Lithuanian – had a harrowing experience in Salekhard, Russia.

They had decided to stay back to complete their ice sculptures when busloads of others started to leave. When finally they walked back to their hotel, an hour away, they encountered bad weather. The trio had to trudge through knee-high snow, as wind and more snow assailed them.

“It was really scary,” recalls Yong, 47, a Harbin silver medallist, with a shudder. “Never again.”

Yong says nowadays he would leave when it was time to go.

“It was 10pm when we decided to head back to our hotel. The wind was so strong and bitterly cold. A child could easily be blown away by the strong Siberian wind. We bowed our heads to protect our eyes as we trekked back. As we had no goggles, our eyes were bloodshot red and painful.”

This wasn’t his only dangerous encounter with the cold. Another time, Yong nearly lost a finger to frostbite.

“I didn’t know how to close the wound on my ring finger. Fortunately, I had helpful advice to bandage the wound so that it could heal properly,” says Yong, the chief kitchen artist of Kuala Lumpur’s five-star Crown Plaza Mutiara Hotel.

In his early years as a winter competitor, Yong’s biggest headaches were clothing and weather.

“I was unaccustomed to working with thick gloves. Going to the washroom was also inconvenient in thick winter clothing. But what scares me most to this day is the wind. It can be piercingly cold, and our eyes can hurt terribly without proper goggles,” he says.

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that participating in ice and snow sculpture competitions is a breeze.

“It’s sheer hard work,” says Yong. First, you have to battle the elements, then you have to beat your rivals.

This year is Yong’s 19th time participating as a member of the Malaysian national team at the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan. Among his many career milestones, the two achievements that stand out are the Prime Minister’s Golden Hand Trophy and Most Outstanding Artist award he won at Culinaire Malaysia in 1993.

In 2002, Yong led a team of six in presenting Classical Dining Table, the biggest ice-carving sculpture recorded in the Malaysia Book Of Records. It took eight hours to finish.

At Culinaire Malaysia 1990, Yong won two silvers (for ice-carving and sugar-carving) at his first national-level competition organised by the Malaysian Association of Hotels. He is also pretty pleased with A Fleeing Hobo, a butter sculpture he created in 1995.

“It was about an old man holding a pie and running frantically away from a dog that was chasing and nipping at his butt,” Yong explains.

A Ray Of Light Is What We Need In Life, a yam sculpture he created for the Culinaire Malaysia 1993, was his smallest submission ever. He used only one yam, and carved it as a cave. In it, sat a carved image of an old man who was reading and sipping tea. A hole made at the top of the yam allowed a ray of light to filter into the cave.

Yong was extremely happy with the carving, which earned him a Gold with Distinction Award.

The versatile Yong also creates big sculptures. And stacking ice blocks manually in the freezing cold is no mean feat.

“It could be -35°C, and we have to stack up smaller ice blocks 0.40m wide, 0.91m high and 0.2m thick to a specified measurement of 2.7m by 3m . It’s tough to lift each ice block, what more when you have a team member who’s small-sized,” he says.

Sometimes, one just has to ask burly competitors to help, he adds. Also, although this doesn’t happen often, there is also the danger of snow sculptures collapsing.

“Once, a spectator was slightly injured when a sculpture came down. Another time, a competitor had just walked away from a snow sculpture in Sapporo when it collapsed. What a close shave!” recalls Yong.

“For winter ice-carving competitions, the ice blocks are cut from frozen rivers. The texture of these ice blocks is very hard compared to man-made ice blocks in tropical countries. We ensure our tools are sharp at all times,” explains Yong.

The texture of compact snow blocks is softer. Holes, small stones and twigs are normally found in them. Yong says snow sculptures are easier to handle and less risky than ice.

“The ideal temperaure for snow carvings is -10°C and below. Above this temperature, the snow sculpture will melt and can easily collapse,” Yong says.

Competitors spend up to nine hours each day, with ice or snow sculpture competitions taking place outdoors over four days. In winter competitions, the size of a snow block (3m x 3m x 3m in Sapporo) is double that of an ice block. That’s why in ice-carving, a team comprises only two competitors, while in snow carving, there are three to four members, says Yong.

Yong learnt carving when he was a child and won many prizes in fruit, vegetable. butter, chocolate, wax, ice and snow sculptures. He is also adept in working with sugar, metal, wax, wood and aluminium foil.

In addition, he’s done pencil carvings and miniature clay sculptures, and hopes to one day try his hand at sand-sculpting.

To further hone his carving skills, Yong buys books and magazines on the subject and keeps abreast of the latest carving tools. He is inspired by Junichi Nakamura, one of the best ice sculptors in the world, and hopes to meet him in Alaska next year.

Yong has been invited thrice by the Russian government to participate in a friendship competition, the Cup of Russia on Ice Sculpture (in 2007 and 2008) and the IX International Festival of Ice Sculpture’s The Polar Rhapsody (last year) in Salekhard. Last year, he won third prize at the competition which attracted participants from Latvia, South Korea, the United States, India, Malaysia and five teams from Russia.

“More than 100 teams from foreign countries applied to participate but only 10 teams were selected. Team members had to have been participants and winners of international competitions in Russia or abroad.”

Yong has had his moments of joy and despair.

In 1992, the Malaysian team’s snow sculpture entry for the Sappo-ro festival featured a giant wau (kite) in the background and a dancer astride a horse (the kuda kepang).

“We did not win because the head of the horse collapsed 10 minutes before judging. However, we did our best to salvage our work. Impressed by our perseverance, the judges awarded us the Fighting Spirit Award (comprising a trophy and four individual medals).

There was also the “big letdown” in 2008 in Sapporo.

“Mother’s Love, our snow sculpture, received overwhelmingly good comments from the public and participating teams. The Malaysian team was also tipped to be the champion. However, we were not even in the top five. We were very disappointed.”

Since 1992, Yong has been a “regular” in the Malaysian national team attending the Sapporo Snow Festival. Among the team’s more notable achievements were second place, champion and world grand champion (in 2002).

In 2006, Yong earned the Outstanding Creativity Award for his entry, A Beautiful World at the 20th International Ice Carving Competition in Harbin. It was an ice sculpture of a maiden sitting on a giant leaf, her hands holding a flower, with two doves flying above it.

Other memorable ice sculptures (with the Malaysian team) include The Kenyah Warrior (the Malaysian team was Grand Champion in 2002 in Sapporo), The Mask (which won the Special Skill Award in 2008 in Harbin) and A Night Fairy (which won a Captain Prize of Nikolay Polukarov in 2008 in Salekhard).

Yong – whose hometown is Segamat, Johor – first learnt ice-carving in 1989. In 1992, he took part in his first snow sculpture competition in Japan and represented Malaysia in the national team.

Last year, he partnered 34-year-old Lithuanian Andrius Petkus, whom he had met in Russia, and braved freezing temperatures (as low as -20 °C) at the 25th Harbin International Ice Sculpture Competition. They won a consolation prize for their sculpture, Let’s Fly, featuring Peter Pan.

While the awards are nice, Yong says they are not his primary motivation.

“It’s not about winning,” says Yong. And, it’s not for moolah or glory, either.

“Winning is secondary,” he insists. “My main goal is to learn new skills and techniques and exchange ideas with other participants. Also, I want to meet old friends and make new ones.”

Yong recalls how in 2003 the Malaysian team met a group of senior Japanese women promoting world peace at the competition.

“I suggested they hold placards to promote peace in four languages - Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin and Japanese. Since then, they have been supportive of us. They once gave us bookmarks depicting a Japanese girl in a kimono bearing a message of peace,” says Yong.

Many people, Yong explains, were quite surprised that he and fellow Malaysians could withstand the extreme cold to compete.

“Some friends asked if it was worth it,” he says. And of course, Yong feels it’s been worth every ounce of effort. That’s why he reserves 10 to 14 days’ leave for competitions every year.

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