Growing Up In Trengganu

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Growing Up In Trengganu, #306

At some point in her life, my mother must've looked up to the rafters and decided that something was amiss. She ordered the best lempok that ever was stirred on this planet earth, put the whole big clump in a metal pot, and hung it up there from a beam. This was a traditional Trengganu house which we lived in, and like other traditional Malay houses, did not have a ceiling. So a view of the rafters, with the strutting beams, and the Singgora tiles that made the roof was clearly visible to a child lying below on a mengkuang mat. In some houses, a few tiles would be taken and replaced by a sheet of clear glass so that a beam of light would shine through into the house at any time of day. I remember waking up at night to the silvery glow of the moon shining through the skylight, an eerie thought considering what we we'd been regaled daily with stories of ghostly forms emerging in the night with legs straddling from beam to beam.

This encapsulates for me the essence of my Trengganu childhood: lempok in the pot, pane in the sky. Sweetness and light.

This is light from the past, sweetness of old. The lempok was stirring stuff, made from fresh durians thrown in a thick mass in a Trengganu brass pot, flesh and stone, and stirred and stirred with bonding and sweetening ingredients, and coconut milk perhaps - to a beautiful crust. The resulting paste bore the thread of dreams, unlike the erstaz goo wrapped in cellophane, now masquerading as 'durian cake'.

Mother had neither the patience, nor the skill nor the manpower to make sweetmeat herself. She'd order her lempok from Batu Rakit, then the world centre for duriany cococtions, and her Rokok Arab from a lady living behind the walls of the Istana Maziah, this dream so perfect its maker had to be confined within the walls of a royal palace. The Istana Maziah was an istana like in olden times, with an imposing front, and a colony of royals, and servers and hangers on living in the back, on the foot of an old Bukit - the Bukit Puteri - Hill of the Princess. It was - and still is, probably - a ceremonial palace, entered through an arch of old Malay design - the Pintu Gerbang - which, as word had it, had a little apparition straddling its legs from one side of the arch to the other, long after the sun had sunk below the horizon. Trengganu apparitions had a predilection for things like that.

Our Nasi Dagang came from only one woman called Mak Som who plied her trade at the crack of dawn and was already packing up to go by 7 o'clock, when her rivals were just about to break even.

I'm reminded now of the Bukit Puteri as it's Ramadhan, a time when some Trengganuers will wax lyrical about its purpose; the Hill I mean. Atop this hill is an old bell, cast by Trengganu makers from sturdiest brass. It hangs on a strut in a shelter-house made from bricks, a mysterious place built perhaps by some old Sultans as a spot to while away an afternoon while watching the Perahu Besar, the Trengganu junks, sailing in, laden with salt, and Singgora tiles, and exotica from old Siam. Beneath this brickwork is a dark, deep cellar, from which has emerged many legends. But back to the bell - the Trengganu Genta - which was struck every day during Ramadhan at iftar time, the breaking of fast. And then again and again just before dawn in a fit of boisterous chimes to mark the beginning of a day of fast.

My father used to take me to the Masjid Abidin - the White Mosque - after iftar, a little boy lining up in the back row with other little boys for the tarawih prayer of many raka'ats performed only during Ramadhan. The repetitive movements of the prayer was exhausting for a little boy, but the atmosphere was bewildering, and a valuable experience for imbibing the spirit of Ramadhan.

One night, after prayers, I met the man who struck the genta in the jama'ah (congregation), who insisted that my friends and I should see his place of work, an offer that was both cruel and kind. The footpath up the hill was unlit, and it cut through many wild bushes from which lurked many dark creatures of our imagination, and the quiet places of repose of people who died in the distant past. When we finally reached the 'bell' and the brickwork resting place with legends emerging from its darkest pit, Kuala Trengganu glowed brightly in the distant and there we stood, silently, apprehensively in the dark. The ringer shone his torch at the bell and then looked over to the other side. "That's an old arch to the Istana," he said, "and from beneath it hangs, every night..."

"Oh do shut up!" we all said.

Far below at the foot of the hill, behind the istana, I saw a tiny light flickering from the window of a little house. And I was sure it was Mak Nah, making her famous Rokok Arab and other scrumptious native cakes.

October 29, 2003


  • Hi there,

    I was just surfing and came across your blog. Reading it reminds me of my early days in K.T. I remember my childhood days in Jalan Banggol and later in Pulau Kambing.BTW are u still continuing with your blogging? I'm now in Melaka but still go back once or twice a year. On and off, I still use Ganuspeak to confound my Malay colleagues. BTW, I am Yong. Cheerio and bye for now.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:06 PM  

  • Hi Yong,

    Thanks for stopping by. I now blog here:

    You're welcome to visit.

    By Anonymous Awang Goneng, at 4:53 PM  

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