Malaysia: Making a house a temporary home

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
The residence’s comfortably appointed main reception rooms have three sitting areas (one just visible to left), a double-sided fireplace, a soaring stone chimney and a great view of the backyard. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The residence’s comfortably appointed main reception rooms have three sitting areas (one just visible to left), a double-sided fireplace, a soaring stone chimney and a great view of the backyard. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

A guest book, along with official photos and other trappings of a diplomatic residence, are all there.
But there are also ducks — in profusion. One, a carved, joyously coloured fellow, nestles on a stair. Another is a handsome metallic specimen from Egypt; with several colleagues, he commands the dining room’s wooden mantel. There are more, including a crystal duck from Croatia, in a glass cabinet.
“I’m a collector,” says Aminahtun Karim Shaharudin, Malaysia’s high commissioner and the owner of all these non-quacking folks. “I collect bells and ducks wherever we go.”
The collections — some of the small, painted handbells are exquisite — lend a personal accent to the already warm ambience of the official residence in Rockcliffe that the high commissioner shares with her husband, Shah Ghani, and three of their four grown children.
“We pride ourselves on making a house a home,” says Ghani, a communications strategist by profession. “We try to do that everywhere we go.”
The house itself is a beauty. Built in 1930 and clocking in at almost 8,611 square feet, the residence has been owned by the Malaysian government since the late 1970s, a few years after the 1957 establishment of its high commission in Ottawa. A tall cedar hedge conceals the home from passers-by and from Ashbury College across the street.

Shah Ghani and High Commissioner Aminahtun Karim Shaharudin have enjoyed their three years in Ottawa. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Shah Ghani and High Commissioner Aminahtun Karim Shaharudin have enjoyed their three years in Ottawa. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Inside, the main reception area comprises separate sitting spaces, each generously sized, but surprisingly intimate. A two-sided fireplace, with a log burning on the damp February day we visit, divides the area in half, the stonework soaring to the peaked ceiling high above.
The glowing hardwood floors are made of merbau from an Asian-Pacific rainforest, while pot lights add to the contemporary design of the reception area. Tall windows and patio doors leading to the backyard flood the space with daylight.
The high commissioner and her spouse have peppered the reception area with some of their own prized possessions, including what they call the Cleopatra. A settee made of carved wood and tan fabric, it looks exactly like the kind of thing upon which the Queen of the Nile — impervious to the withering of age and staleness of custom — might recline.
“It’s a piece I like,” says the high commissioner. “The wood must be 130 years old. We’ve had it for 20 years.”

This loon is part of the high commissioner’s collection of waterbirds, which include a crystal duck from Croatia and several wooden ducks from around the world. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

This loon is part of the high commissioner’s collection of waterbirds, which include a crystal duck from Croatia and several wooden ducks from around the world. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Paintings by Ghani, who is overly modest when he says, “I just do it part-time,” also hang here and there. One is a Canadian landscape of snow and fir trees, a vista he describes as “vast and empty and cool. I will always remember Canada like that.”
The personal touch also enriches a spot just above the reception space. There, in concealed pots, the high commissioner has cultivated a riot of greenery and coleus.
Her love of gardening, she says, “comes from my late mom. When I walk into a room and see plants, it’s calming. I can’t imagine life without plants. I think it’s fascinating that Canada has four seasons and still has such beautiful plants.”
Hard to say what Rio thinks of all this business about plants and other beloved objects. He’s the family’s large white and orange cat who wanders in at one point, checks us out and vanishes just as silently.
“We adopted him when we were [posted to] Ukraine,” Ghani says. “He’s the boss.”
Elsewhere on the main floor, where a set of stairs lead to the family’s private second-storey quarters, is a dining room watched over by its own flotilla of ducks. Although the long table seats 20, the space, with its subtly striped wallpaper and windows with their muntin-bar-framed panes is, like the adjoining reception area, welcoming.
When the high commissioner entertains, the menu might include such Malaysian dishes as satay chicken with peanut sauce and condiments, along with noodles in curry and coconut-filled dumplings in coconut milk and palm sugar.
The high commissioner is quick to point out that her chef, Safura Tawil, won the 2016 Embassy Chef Challenge.

These shrimp fritters are served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

These shrimp fritters are served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Guests invited to dinner here not only enjoy Malaysia’s national dishes, but also learn about the country, thanks to a bowl of what appear to be toasted acorns, but turn out to be seeds from rubber trees. Mixed with them are the small red seeds of saga trees native to the country.
“When the kids were small, we used to go out and collect them. I like to display them,” she says, once again infusing her home and conversation with the kind of personal detail that eases connection between strangers while educating someone about her country.
Karim Shaharudin is retiring in October after almost three years in her current posting. She and her husband will return to Malaysia with fond memories of Canada, and especially Ottawa, where they were also posted from 1988 to 1991.
On their first posting, Ottawa was less culturally diverse. “It’s so much easier to get halal food here now,” Ghani says.
The memories they take home will include weekend trips to favourite spots such as Manotick and farmers’ markets.
Says the high commissioner, “I tell young diplomats: ‘When you’re in a country, [visiting such places is] the best way to get to know it.’”

The dining room seats 20 and, while the chandelier strikes a formal, elegant note, the softly striped wallpaper adds warmth. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The dining room seats 20 and, while the chandelier strikes a formal, elegant note, the softly striped wallpaper adds warmth. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The high commissioner, a self-confessed collector, has picked up these decorative eggs on her travels and during postings, including one in Ukraine and another in Nepal. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The high commissioner, a self-confessed collector, has picked up these decorative eggs on her travels and during postings, including one in Ukraine and another in Nepal. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Patrick Langston is an Ottawa writer.

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