Growing Up In Trengganu

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #37056

Written entirely in the Trengganu tongue.

Wala pong di Teganung dulu takdok banyok tepak nak gi, maklong saje lah, dulu mane ade panggong wayang canggih macang le ning. Komputer pong takdok, ape lagi mainang-mainang laing hak ade le ning tu.

Tapi orang Teganung adelah jugok benda-benda nak buat tiak-taik hari. Budok-budok dak lah nde poteng, nde poteng ke hulu ke hilir tiak-tiak hari, sebab ade bende yang boleh buak. Ada yang pegi panjak bukik — bukik Puteri (Tteri), biasanya — ada yang pegi jjalang di tepi Pata Teluk atau tepi lauk Hujung Tanjung. Di Pata Teluk tu kenalah jage-jage sikik sebab banyok ikang belukang. Kalu ppijok ikang belukang ni sakit bedo'oh, sapa tubek air mate, sebab bise sunggoh duri dia. Satu lagi, kalu jjalang di Pata Hujung Tanjung, kena bbaik sikik sebab banyok orang naka yang pegi dudok ccakong ssitu, selok kaing je, terus buak kerje, buak dok pulok tu. Bila kita ppijok baru sedor apa yang dia buak tu: kalau penyu ttelor, orang pong ttelor jugok. Satu hari saya jjalang ttepi lauk dengang sorang kawang, tibe-tibe dia jjerit, mmaki besor panjang. Rupanya dia ppijok benda tu, dah nak buak guane, sebab di pata tu rama sunggoh orang hak dok jjuruh.

Gete Teganung. Batu dia ada ddalang kocek Wé.Atas Bukit Tteri ada loceng besar sebutir, nama dia Geta. Barangkali Genta kok, tapi kami panggil Gete. Gete ning bbunyilah bulang Puasa — teng! teng! — waktu bbuka denge waktu sahur. Saya kenallah budok yang puko Gete ni, name die Wé, orang panggil Wé Puko Gete. Wé ni berani sungguh sebak dia buleh naik bukit tu ssorang je, dalang gelak gelemak, dak takut setarang. Di atah Bukit Tteri tu dia buak keluar batu Gete tu dari kocek dia, dia pasang ke Gete, dan bile sapa mase dia pukul kuak-kuak sapa habis reng. Teng! Teng!

Pada masa tu Bukit Tteri ni bukang nye ceroh, takdok lapu setabok ssitu. Tamboh lagi, atas Bukit tu ada kubor, bedil beranok, tepak Tuang Puteri duduk, macang-macang. Bila gelak dang sunyi tu seria jugok. Budak-budak, kalu naik ssitu, bbunying sikik je, tupa ke, ayang hutang ke, habih tembor lari, kecik ppale. Sebenarnya takdok hatu pong ssitu, sebak Wé kite ni masih ada lagi le ning, sihak walafiak, molek-molek ade. Saya rasa dia dudok ccokoh di Tanjong lagi le ning.

Satu masa saya dengor Mufti Teganung dak benor orang puko Gete sebak kate dia macang orang ugama Keristiang. Jadi Gete pong dak bbunyi lah. Cuma yang dengor nye bedil dari Bukit Besor je. Bedil tu bbunyi, dung! dung! waktu ggarib dua tiga kali, waktu sahur dua tiga kali. Dung! Dung! bising bbangor, habis kkejuk kelecak barat orang-orang Bukit Besor.

Nati satu hari saye cerita pulok pasa bedil beranok.

September 30th, 2004

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #29036

It's been a week of topsy-turvy. I saw a pontianak, but only on celluloid, and she turned out to be a real banshee. Why don't pontianaks fly properly, I wonder. The one I saw came down vertical and went for the jugular; but I'm happy that this Malaysian film's raked in 3 awards in Estapona, Spain, and another in Tokyo. Respect, as they say in hip-hop circles. Since seeing this banshee I've not wronged ladies nor trod their painted toes. I can't bear to think what they'd come back as if wronged by me.

There weren't many pontianaks in Trengganu, but pelesits seemed to roam quite free. Pelesits were creatures apart and were kept mostly by some crones of the community. I remember my mother telling me one day that so and so had a pelesit handy. Only a few days ago I met a Captain with the Malaysian airlines who said that when he was growing up in Trengganu he'd lived in a house in Hiliran with his parents and brothers and a few other things that did the bump thing in the nocturnal hour.

Istana Maziah, 1920s.

Oh, I said, I know the house because my cousin lived there when it was still painted yellow, and there was a lady who never looked you in the eye who used to do the chores for the wife that he'd just wed. This was before the Captain grew up in the house of course, and what's interesting about elderly ladies who didn't look you in the eye was that in Trengganu they were believed to be harbouring little companions beside themselves to do the chores. And of the many things I heard when I too was little was that this lady had kept a pelesit which she was anxious to be rid of. Pelesits came to you in many ways but I shall not bore you with that right now.

Do you think that was the same thing that was bothering us? The Capt asked. Funny you asked, but I don't know.

I've not seen ghouls but many fools on my way to where I'm now. All the ghouls I've seen are made on celluloid, and the fools they go where wise men fear. There weren't many ghosts in the Trengganu that I grew up in and the ones I knew I never saw. This pelesit of the little lady was the whispering type that kept whispering this and that to her ear. That's from what my cousin told my mother one day. My cousin was a religious man who spent many a year in the al-Azhar of Cairo, so he must've exorcised the little lady of her trouble. Funny that the little fellow chose to stay on to visit the man who'd one day fly our national carrier.

There was another ghost that we heard of vaguely but never got to know as we were never allowed to roam about in the bewitching hour. That was the hantu kangkang of the gateway to the Istana Maziah in the Kuala Trengganu harbour. The Istana Maziah was the ceremonial palace that sat in the back of a sloping span of green that was known to us as Padang Malaya, but later it became the Padang Maziah. It had a couple of flaming trees of the forest — the delonix regia — as I remember, and a row of tall palm-like trees that we called the pinang gatal. The pinang gatal was a handy tree for pranksters who were so enamoured of the fruits they bore. They were small pellet-like seeds covered in soft reddish skins that made your friend itch badly if you rubbed one hard enough on his exposed parts. Well, you wouldn't do it on your enemy, would you, or on a total stranger. So there we were, returning from a day in Padang Malaya, cheering and jeering while a friend scratched and scratched the back of his neck, which was the favourite spot for an attack with the pinang gatal..

But back to the ghost of the Palace gateway now, the hantu kangkang of the late hour. To do the kangkang on the palace gate was a feat even for ghosts, as it involved the parking of one foot on a foothold on one side of the gate and another on the other, a span of at least four or five yards I dare say. It was said too that the hantu kangkang came out at midnight and bestrode the gate in this curious and rude way for no reason that I know.

One day someone came and told my mother that so and so the pelesit keeper had died, but my mother, a woman who never missed a funeral, simply made don't know as we English speakers used to say in Trengganu. You just don't go to the funeral of a pelesit keeper.

September 28th, 2004

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #51732

The dah-dah-dum man peddled apam balik in the far end of the market, close to the smelly bay. The apam bailk was a thick pancake in a roundish brass tray, put to heat on a coal fire. The dah-dah-dum man sprinkled sugar, raisins and sweetcorn into the simmering goo as the sweet smell wafted over the heads of children passing through. By the dah-dah-dum man was a huge cauldron made of hefty metal, it rose about knee-level, and in it he'd pour his apam balik ingredients: flour maybe, some yellowing material, an egg or two perhaps. He'd stir it and beat it with a stiff brush specially made from lengths of thin rattan — eight or ten pieces together — folded midway in two. Just under the folded loop he'd wrap a length of twine to hold the bundle together, then he'd place his striring hand there, and he'd stir and stir and sang his merry song, dah-dah-dum, dah-dah-dum, dah-dah-dum. Mother came home one day and told us of that, and so he became, to us, the dah-dah-dum man of the Tanjong Market.

There was more to this jolly man in mother's amusing story. One day, said mother, as she was moving about the shops, the dah-dah-dum man was stirring and singing and stirring, when a billy goat took an interest in his cauldron of liquid goo. But the dah-dah-dah man continued stirring as he fixed the billy goat in his sight. When the goat finally approached to sample the raw and sweetly stuff, the dah-dah-dum man swung his hand aloft and beat it with a whack! With his stirring bundle of sticks, of course, that dripped liquid apam balik onto the Billy's hairy coat. Then back he went, unperturbed, to his stirring job of work, dah-dah-dum, dah-dah-dum, goat beater beating the apam balik mix.

Mother had an eye for comedies like that whenever she'd gad about. She walked with face covered in a long and broad headcloth, quite in the manner of the chador nowadays worn by women of Iran. She was in Makkah in her teens with her parents whom we never met, but little details of Makkah life sprang up in our daily lives. Clumsiness in our household work? We became, to her, the Orang Judah, the rough and ready labourers of the Jeddah port who must've spilled things in their daily, labouring wake. Sometimes when we grew careless with the sarong around our waist, we'd be the dhow Arabs who were ever displaying their wares. Mother's Hajj visit must've been filled traumas like that. She must've seen many things, many troublesome sights.

But mother never bought the dah-dah-dum apam balik, nor the comestibles sold by the stallholders who came out in the night. She cast no aspersions on anyone, but she wanted things to be right, by her own rigorous marks. If unsure, she wouldn't patronise a food shop, because she'd want to know if the shopowner was an observer of the solat.

I'd sometimes slip out in the night to look at the rows of lights dancing around the wicks of the oil burning lamps, in the stalls that were heaving with this presentation of Trengganu delights: cakes, and fried noodles, and specially prepared rice. There was nasi ulam, and nasi dagang, hati sukma and lompat tikam, and beronok and Cik Abas demam, puteri mandi and perut ayam, and piles of fried noodles thick and thin, and hasidah; savouries galore and sweetmeat. They came piping hot on wide, flowery trays, soon after dusk. Then, as their quantities began to diminish with the night, the lights of the kerosene lamps — the pelita ayam as they were called — were also beginning to fade, and slowly the vendors would pull away, back to the kampung, into the deep of night.

September 16th, 2004

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #50742

Delonix regia. Flame of the Forest. Source:floridata.comIn front of our house stood a Flamboyant tree, also known as the Flame of the Forest. It was a barren tree that never flamed for us, but goats loved to feast on its bipinnate leaves. One day men came with tools and spades and dug a deep, wide trench just a few feet form the tree, so we braced ourselves for a suprise.

I looked down from our window to see men working hard, nailing together planks to line its sides, and then another wall of planks within, with a gap of some six inches in between. When the cement mixer arrived, they laid a hard floor on the trench bed, then poured molten concrete into the gaps between wood and wood. When it set all around, the planks were stripped, and the trench was a wide, open tank, an impermeable layer of concrete in its bottom and on the sides. They came back and covered the top again in thick cement, leaving two square openings in that, covered by two heavy slabs that lifted by two stout metal rings.

The lorries arrived again and men laid underground pipes to another site four or five yards from the vault, just by the main road, and back to back with the fish market. There, a narrow concrete structure soon rose, some sixteen feet long. In it were cubicles, covered by wooden doors. And behind these doors were holes in the ground, with footpads for the squatting position, and an overhead tank with a chain that pulled and flushed the detritus along the pipes that were now laid in the ground, to the innards of the concrete tank by the tree that never flamed for us.

Delonix regia. Flame of the Forest. Source:floridata.comA good day for folks with loose bowels, but a very bad day for us. Our house now overlooked a septic tank, and the fish market had an additional whiff, all wrapped in tarffic noise. About a mile from us, towards the roundabout which later housed an erstaz greenback turtle, they'd already built another jamban, — the toilet — of a more period build; mostly corrugated iron sheets, I think, standing there, squat by the roadside, and they painted it a ghastly green. Folk soon began to call the locality by its jamban. They called the place Jamban Hijau, Place of the Green Convenience. We were slightly more fortunate, our place name remained intact, noise and nose notwithstanding.

So there it stood, our public jamban, mute, I'd rather not say, because oftentimes there came from within, a loud report. And it became a public monument, a privy and private place, unkempt and uncared for by the fisherfolk, by all the passers by who were caught short, and by users of the fish market. I shall not venture into its interior for fear you're still enjoying a snack.

That then was a stinking gesture by the Town Council for visitors to our parts. It wasn't for the folks of the neighbourhood, of course, for we had our own private places which I shall not talk about just now as you may still be munching a repast. But suffice it to say that for most of us it was an outhouse, normally placed in the back of the premises. Ours was a large, tall, family house built on hefty wooden stilts, probably twenty of them, standing some ten feet apart. We had to walk between them, with torch in hand if the call of nature came after dark, to go to the back for some business. For a small child it was a terrifying walk, then a quick dash back again after that, to the upstairs comfort of the house, relieved that there was no chance meeting with ghouls or ghosts that lurked behind each pillar and post.

Ghosts, as you know, lived in the depths of darkness, and had their own special scents to counteract the stench of the outhouse. But better the latter than roses in the dark, was our uppermost thought, as we ran, and ran back to the house. But once upstairs, as the clock struck one, there came a swishing, swishing noise, and an overwhelming aroma that made us giggle in the dark. It was the unmistakable hour of the night soil man.

Delonix regia. Flame of the Forest. Source:floridata.comThe night soil man wore a pith helmet, and carried a little tank in the back of his bicycle, into which he'd empty the slops. And the slops came in the bucket that lay beneath the hole in the floor of the outhouse. Poor, little night soil man as he went swish, swish, with his brush of coconut leaf spines, pouring water into the bucket to make it clean for users who would fill it up again for another time.

The night soil man, with a little torch in his helmet, then moved again as mysteriously as he came, sometimes muttering a little something to himself, decrying the residents of the house for inconsiderate use. And he left, and he muttered, and we'd be pinching our noses.

September 14th, 2004

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Trengganu Redux

A few people revelled in my being thrown into the kolah, albeit a long time ago. [Growing Up in Trengganu #38952]. A fellow blogger phoned in from Lancaster to say that in Kelantan it's called the kolah too; and another asked me to translate the little ditty of Pak Leh that I used to hear.

Pak Leh was an itinerant Imam who moved from one surau to another on a weekly rota and probably sang his doleful tune wherever he went. I heard it many times, as he taught it to female members of his congregation who sang it out loud while waiting for the 'isha prayer, the last one in the day. This is how it'd translate —
Remember o remember and think it daily
You will in your grave be lying so lonely
Your big house and your estate's vast spread
Will all leave you once you're in the ground dead

I have also realised that the man in the blog that I'd placed in Kuala Lumpur, the one who made asam gumpal that's simply wicked, to use today's parlance, isn't Pak Leh's son, but a fellow villager. So I've now taken him out of the story, but he'll probably return someday, in another, with his asam gumpal still intact, still piping hot in a sea of coconut milk and everyday ingredients concocted in a secret family recipe.

Kuala Trengganu was a village, and we were all villagers. The area I lived in was a kampung, and my kith and kin lived in other kampungs in this little, big kampung by the sea. There was once a turtle on a mini roundabout perhaps a mile and a bit from the shop of Abdullah al-Yunani (yes, many remember it as Kedai Pak Loh Yunang), now I'm told it's been replaced by a replica of the Batu Bersurat, the Trengganu Inscribed Stone, as a reminder of Trengganu's history and introduction to Islam many centuries ago. If only the chengal could talk, it'd tell us many tales.

And it'd be able to tell us if Trengganu was indeed Taring Anu in the beginning of history.

September 8, 2004

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Growing In Trengganu

When I was still a weedy lad, trying to grow up, a chengal tree was quietly growing old in the forests of Trengganu. The chengal, or the Neobalanocarpus heimii, is a hefty, resistant, hardwood tree that grows in Malaysia as well as in India, Malaysia's biggest chengal tree.Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, and is a much revered tree in Terengganu where it is used in house-construction and boat-making.

The Trengganu chengal, believed to be 1,300 years old, is in the district of Dungun, and now ranks with the Jomon Sugi in Japan and the Giant Sequoia in California as one of the giant wonders of nature. It stands 65m tall; requiring 13 people linking hands spread out if the state of Terengganu (as it is now spelt) were to pass a law requiring citizens to be thankful and proud and go and hug this tree daily. They'd also be under the watchful eyes of the guards of the Pasir Raja Forest Reserve who now think that this is undoubtedly the biggest chengal tree in Malaysia if not the world. The forest reserve is located in the romantically named Gunung Mandi Angin — Mountain Bathed by the Wind — in Terengganu. The tree was discovered by forester Omar Mohammad in 1999.

"This is a big tree, "he said," rubbing his aching neck, "if this were to be felled, it'd require 27 lorries to transport the timber, and it'd be worth RM1 million."

But perish the thought, because that's not what he's got, for our old chengal tree.

Giant Terengganu Alocasia, biggest in the peninsula. Source:, while everything else was still and quiet, and the old chengal tree was dozing dreamily, came a great flapping noise from the forest of the Mountain bathed in the Windy-dee-dee. It's the flapping noise of elephants' ears, no a tree, also called Elephant's Ears, or the Giant Alocasia of Terengganu (as it is now spelt).

Another Forestry officer spotted something so big and quickly informed the Museum Board (strange people they answer to, these foresters of Terengganu) who soon sent not one but 150 researchers to examine these great, big flapping leaves of Gunung Mandi Angin.

Soon a pronouncement was made, and Terengganu (as it now is) was well on the way again to another record. The biggest Alocasia plants in the Malaysian peninsula.

"I've not seen the Alocasia grow this tall," said Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Mohammad of Malaysia's National University. "They're normally about 1m high."

The Terengganu Alocasias are more than 2.4 m tall, a growth attributed to the fertile soil of the Mount of the Windy-dee-dee.

September 7, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #38952

One day, caught in a mood of merriment, I was thrown into a kolah in our neighbourhood madrasah or surau. A surau is a devotional place, much smaller than a mosque, and in the kampungs of Trengganu it served as more than a prayer hall. It was the centre of activity, the meeting place of young and old, and was, more often than not, built of wood, with a prayer chamber and a narrow ante-chamber in the rear where old folk would sit outside prayer times to doze off, or to chat about the price of fish, or merely to nod and gape at all and sundry. The youth of the village would gather there too for a puff of the rokok daun taken and rolled from the pouches of the old, and the rokok daun, if you must know, is a tough dry leaf, rolled into a long thin smoke after it's been filled with a string of tobacco.

Like most Malay houses, our surau was built on stilts, raised some five feet above the ground, and in the ante-chamber, the floor planks were nailed with gaps in between, about half an inch maybe, so they could spit through them easily. To engage in the solat or Muslim prayer one had to be pure in body and soul, hence the pre-prayer ablution, with plenty of water; and before making supplications to one's Maker, the mouth, like the heart, had to be be pure and true. So there'd be hemming and hoiking in the back chamber just before the start of prayer, by men spitting out impurities from their mouths, of some tiny bits of curried chicken, or the ikan singgang, stuck between their teeth, or a pleasant after-taste lingering still in their throats of the gulai. Before finally going in for prayers, all these sediments were spat out through the gaps in the floor. The ones who chewed betel nuts were the most accomplished in this endeavour, of course, for their spits were of the brightest hue.

I've mentioned the ablution, so I must turn now to the kolah. which every little surau had in those days. It was an open topped water-tank, normally quadrandgular in shape, though they could also be shaped like a square. The four sides, built up to the level of an adult's waist, were of concrete, and from what I remember, the kolah was always placed by the steps of the surau.

Our kolah was medium-sized, about four feet deep, and had interesting mosses and lichens lurking beneath the surface of the water. Worshippers would dip their hands and arms into it, and wash their face, and then scoop the water in a large tin can to wash their feet before finally going up to the surau. My father always warned me about using the kolah, which, he said, contained the remnants of sleep from the eyes of early-morning worshippers. I never could make out if he was saying this in jest or for real, but I always, always religiously avoided the kolah outside a surau.

So it was for my thoughts perhaps that I was one day thrown in there with a great big splash and a lot of joy from bystanders and passers-by. They were two big boys, who threw me in, so there wasn't much I could do but walk home with my clothes thoroughly drenched, and little expectation of similar merriment from my mother or father. But unbeknown to me, my father was watching the proceedings — and my humiliation — from a window which looked down on the surau, and he'd already prepared some encapsulated wisdom for his returning son from the water. "Familiarity breeds contempt," he said to me, from on high. Well, I was a little lad then, and he was looking down at me and talking about those lads who'd chucked me into the kolah of our little surau.

Those words of his jolted me more than my unexpected meeting with the aqua surau, remnants of worshippers' sleep, green moss, and all. I don't hear the expression much any more, but whenever I see it or hear it uttered, I'm reminded of my dear, late father and the surau.

Our surau was a merry place and a lively centre. It had a large communal well where gathered the lads and lasses of the village and their mothers and fathers every day at dusk for the communal shower. In the surau was a grand geduk or beduk, an elongated drum covered taut with cow-hide at its business end, and left open in the other. It was hung horizontally in the back chamber of the prayer hall, by the stairs, and at prayer time, someone would hit the drum so hard in a prescribed rhythm so that the faithful would all come to prayer.

Pak Leh was Imam of our surau, a pious man of quiet authority; who passed on last year at an age that must've been close to ninety. Sometimes, from between the thunderous sounds of the old geduk and of men hoicking and retching through the gaps in the floor, I can still hear the voice of Pak Leh, sending up to our house the lilt of that melancholic tune that he'd perhaps devised himself from inside that old surau. It was a reminder of fleeting time, and our mortality, and it's playing in my head right now —
Ingat, ingat, serta fikir sehari hari
Kamu duduk dalam kubur seorang diri;
Rumah besar, kampung luas, itu ia
Akan tinggal itu juga akan dia...

September 7, 2004