Growing Up In Trengganu

Monday, August 30, 2004

Jalang-Jalang Makang Ikang

Many thanks to those who've written in to say hello, and to S who wrote an interpretation of my recurring childhood dream (Morning Chiaroscuro). My Growing Up In Trengganu series drew special interest, especially from people who remember some of the things I recall. My Brain Hurts.To AO who asked about the Kedai Yamada, (Growing Up In Trengganu #28401) the name wasn't my mother's invention. I remember her telling us that just before the Japanese Occupation, the shop was actually owned by one Mr Yamada. And my father used to speak of another Japanese person in Trengganu who was a food vendor, but soon as the Japanese administration came in, he became the Postmaster. I'm not suggesting anything about Yamada-san of course, he could've been an honest broker, but from accounts I heard (and am trying to remember), some Japanese forward soldiers were in Trengganu before the Occupation, playing seemingly innocent roles. I was very young when the stories were told, and now my brain aches to remember.

I was last in Trengganu more than 15 years ago, and the last I saw of the Abdullah al-Yunani, it had metamorphosed into another, and the name on the doorway was of someone who'd married into the family. The Yunanis, as I said, were long time Chinese-Muslim residents of Trengganu. As the name shows, they came from Yunnan, and later became Trengganuers in both language and culture, give or take a few slices of the celebratory cake during Chinese New Year. They had roots in Trengganu too in a most literal way for, just two doors away from the Abdullah al-Yunani was another shop, Ali al-Yunani. Ali was a Chinese herbalist and had jars and jars in his shop of herbs and roots and things that fascinated me so . I have an image still of Pak Ali, standing in the doorway, wearing his Muslim skullcap and Chinese trousers (just like Pak Awang), and wagging the strands of greying beard on his chin as he spoke to passers-by. He would've been the one person in Trengganu who could've transmuted metal to gold.

I'd like to record my thanks here to Sangkelate who drew my attention to a very interesting blogsite that also dabbles in matters Trengganu (though he spells it Terengganu, in the modern way). You may want to go there too, to read accounts from someone who was there when I was still a twinkle in my dad's eye: it's called — in true Trengganu style — Di Bawah Rang Ikang, and a fine site it is too.

Senyung sikik gok! as we used to say in Trengganu; just smile, smile a little.

Note: The Trengganu that I grew up in lived on ikang, fish. Our neighbours were mostly fishermen or kerepok makers, and everyday, around us, was the smell of fish. This was before off-shore petroleum, palm oil, and lumber. So, if you're wondering what the blog-title means, it's simply, Walking and eating fish, and I know you're sniggering, some of you posh orang luar people out there.

August 30, 2004

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #28401

My father, God rest his soul, was a reading man who made straight for the Abdullah al-Yunani from the Masjid Abidin soon as he'd finished the 'Isha' prayer. The Abdullah al-Yunani was the sole distributor of newspapers when family businesses still held sway and the Yunanis were a prominent Chinese-Muslim family in Kuala Trengganu. It stood in a street of textile merchants and photo studios, and next door to it was a shop that my mother always referred to as Kedai Yamada (Yamada's shop) even though the man in it was as far removed from Yamada-san as the mangosteen from a pineapple. He was in fact, of Indian origin, and went by the name of Mr Fernandez. Mr Fernandez kept clocks and watches in his shop that was out of bounds to little boys who couldn't tell the time of day.

Father would wait patiently every evening outside the Abdullah al-Yunani for the arrival of the Pahang Mail, the lorry service that brought goods to Kuala Trengganu from Kuantan in Pahang, or Kuala Lumpur on the other side of the world. That was how newspapers were delivered to us in those days, at the fall of night, after the Isha' prayers, when folks on the other side had discarded their daily rag and were settling down to their evening meal. Outside the Abdullah al-Yunani people would be chatting and waiting for their first glimpse of the day's headlines while the types were being set, and the presses rolled in Kuala Lumpur for the another day's pages, another day's paper.

Trengganu coin issued by the Hiap Hin Kong Kongsi. The Malay inscription in Jawi script says 'Ini Jurubahasa Punya', indicating that it was issued by the local Chinese interpreter.Sometimes when I followed father to the Mosque I'd be standing there too with him, in my kain pelikat and baju Melayu, sometimes in windy, monsoony weather, waiting for the day's delivery. While waiting for the lorry to arrive I'd creep into the shop to look at the stock of books and comics and the old kitabs that the Abdullah al-Yunani was famous for. Kitabs as I knew them, were Muslim books, written in the Arabic language and script, or sometimes they were Malay books written in Jawi-Arabic characters. I remember some, like the Taj-ul-Mulk, which contained invocations and recipes for poultices, and the book of Tibb which was the Materia Medica of the local Muslim bomoh.

But in daylight, when father was at work, I'd walk further up the road to Kampung China, the Chinatown of Kuala Trengganu. I had a friend there right by the Chinese butcher, and a school-teacher who lived across the road; but my constant delight was the Chee Seek store. The Chee Seek was as precious as the Abdullah al-Yunani, but represented a different spectrum of our reading matter. It stocked Chinese books, of course, and it stocked comics, and the US Reader's Digest which was heftier and jazzier than the British edition, and it had a little surprise in the back of the store.

Cramped behind the stacks and the shelves and the magazines that dangled from the overhead wires was a little business run by a middle-aged portly Chinese lady called Mak Mek. She could've been Chee Seek's mum, or his only daughter, or an aunt or mother-in-law, but she was the quintessential Chinese Earth Mother lady dressed in batik sarong and baju kebaya, whose deft hands manufactured the ceranang and the keropok lekor chinoise that was different in texture and looks from the ones made by the Malays on the shore. The keropok lekor was the specialty of the Malays of Trengganu, but only the Chinese made them from shark meat or ikan yu. The ceranang, I forgot to say, was a salad of blanched kangkong, (water glorybind), deep-fried tofu and diced hard-boiled eggs, doused with a creamy peanut sauce flavoured with dollops of the hottest chili.

Mak Mek's husband Pak Awang was seldom there as she tended to her customers in this tiny store that was open by secret arrangement with local officers at the Town Hall. Pak Awang was a roving ambassador, a wheeler dealer, a Taoist man in Chinese trousers who roamed the streets on some special errands or urgent matter. He was a medicine man (bomoh,) and a soothsayer, perhaps even a necromancer. I saw him once at the house of a neighbour, exchanging homilies with the man of the house while his wife and sons were busily crushing fish for the day's kerepok lekor. He spoke fluent Trengganu Malay, which is as foreign to out of state persons as Swedish is to a Swahili speaker. Once I heard Pak Awang say to this neighbourhood kerepok lekor man that for a house to receive maximum blessings it must be facing the Kaabah in Makkah.

The Chinese have a long history in Trengganu, dating back to the time of Zheng He (Cheng Ho), the eunuch Muslim admiral, who visited Trengganu in the 15th century, or even earlier. In the 19th century, prominent members of Trengganu Chinese families were given special dispensations to issue coins in return for services to the local Sultan, but this was abolished by the British when they took control of the state's coffers.

August 28, 2004

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Morning Chiaroscuro

Morning at Sungai Besar, Selangor, Malaysia

I took this picture in Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia, at about 10.15 in the morning. We were waiting for a boat to take us to a kelong about 6 nautical miles out at sea. The river, Sungai Besar I think, was quiet, there was a solitary bird perched on a branch, and the opposite bank looked unfriendly and inaccessible. It wasn't too early, but the morning was gentle, still: the sun wasn't yet too bright, there were scaly clouds in the sky, and shafts of light were coming through in a most wonderful way. If you look closely at the sky you'll probably see some of that in the picture.

When I was a child I had a recurring dream of waking up early morning in a house by the sea in Kuala Trengganu. It was always very early, as the weak grey light was just coming into the house through the open front door which I couldn't see as there was a screen between it and me. But I could see the light coming in from the sides of the screen into the room, slowly lifting the remaining darkness of the previous night. It filled me with extreme melancholy, sitting in that semi-darkness,looking at a burgeoning day.

Looking at this picture now I feel a bit of that old melancholy creeping out from the cervasse of memory. Funny how the past can suddenly appear in a picture that was taken years later.

A kelong, by the way, is an off-shore structure built by fishermen to house fishtraps, and was built from tree-stems or bamboo. I was half-expecting to see that when the boat came to take us out to sea, but as we approached this structure at sea I realised that it was not made of wood but concrete, and was poised out there like an oil rig standing proud in a rough sea. This kelong actually called itself a Resort, with dorms and suites for people who fancy a few days out there listening to the ocean waves. The people I saw there were mostly fishing enthusiasts, with rods and all, and they looked very happy.

August 22, 2004