Growing Up In Trengganu

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #43275

Our cousin Dah was one day knocked sideways by a Tok Peraih travelling at speed from Kedai Payang to a place in Ladang.

Kedai Payang — if you know Trengganu — is almost in the town centre, and Ladang some fifteen minutes away, maybe faster, seeing as how the Tok Peraih flew. Tok Peraihs were sinewy men often found under a conical terendak hat, and they rode Home are the fishermen, home from the sea. Payang fishing boats moored in Kampung Batin, Kuala Trengganu. The town of KT faintly visible in the background. Source:Dr Mat bin Zakaria, with thanks.sturdy bikes with a rack in the back on which was placed a rectangular cane basket filled with the latest fruits of the sea. We'd all skated or slipped in the fishmarkets of Kuala Trengganu, but cousin Dah was the only family member I knew who'd had the fish market come crashing on her.

The peraihs were middlemen who waited all day in the coffee shops then sprang to life in late afternoon when the payang boats came back to shore. They were tough cookies and hard bargainers, and wore baggy khaki shorts with draped over batik sarongs, rolled up to the knee, with the seams pulled up and tucked into the wiastband. On cooler days they'd discard the terendak and wrap their heads in a band of long material quite in the way of the Kelantanese semutar. By five o'clock, at peraih speed, the fish would be in the Ladang market opposite my old Malay school — the kembong, and selar kuning, and ikan keras ekor, ikan jebong and the occasional ttuke, probably cousin to the skate or pari — the sea smell wafting to the roundabout later made famous by the Trengganu turtle.

As it happened, cousin Dah was crossing the road when the Tok Peraih came at breakneck speed on his way to an important customer. She fell to the road in shock, but was otherwise unhurt, and her pride smelt of fish that day. The Tok Peraih merely shook his head in disbelief and continued on his urgent journey, while his one free hand pressed even more agitatedly on the rubber bulb of his handle-bar horn that went phat-phat! all the way.

Late afternoon was peraih time in the streets of coastal Kuala Trengganu, when these fish couriers pedalled fast and furious to their customer-retailers in Ladang, Pasir Panjang or Chabang Tiga, that bustling market at the intersection of roads that took us to deeper parts of Trengganu.

This occasion of cousin Dah and the middleman was one that I savoured with much hilarity — only after discovering that she was physically unscathed, of course — because the peraihs were busy and sturdy men who were only visible at speed, and there wasn't one that I knew. You only saw them dismounted among the market stallholders, and that was after their business was done, as they walked about with their sarong skirts lifted like stage curtains half-drawn when the show was nearly over. And then they'd disperse and disappear till the butt end of the following business day, with their bicycle horns going phat-phat! phat-phat! warning people like Dah of their pace of travel.

Home are the fishermen, home from the sea.I remember Ladang not only because Dah came to grief with a basket of fish near there on that fateful day. At peraih speed, it was a good few minutes still from Ladang that she met the flying wheel: Payang fishing boats moored in Kampung Batin, Kuala Trengganu. The town of KT faintly visible in the background. Source:Dr Mat bin Zakaria, with thanks.">a place near the bend known to us as Tanjong Mengabang, in a landscape of coastal shacks and smart houses, and coconut trees all the way to the sea. Tanjong Mengabang had a peculiar hum about it, and a funny breeze that blew in a certain chill.

When Mother told me stories of Trengganu past, she often spoke of Pak Mat Mengamok, who one day went berserk after some matrimonial crisis and went on a killing spree. Pak Mat was buried there she said, among the coconut trees of Tanjung Mengabang, and funnily enough, it was near the house of another Pak Mat, a telecoms linesman in his daytime job, who was often at our house during weekends for some bits of carpentry. My father was a telephone operator at the Kuala Trengganu exchange in those days, and Pak Mat was the man who put those copper lines on poles that went for as long as you could see; so they shared a certain camaraderie.

It was near Pak Mat's house that cousin Dah had her piscatorial day, but it wasn't something that he remembered clearly. Just over three years ago, when I saw my father for the last time, we were chatting in the front of the house in Kuala Lumpur when a car drove into the driveway and out from the passenger side came a rheumy eyed man so full of smile. This was Pak Mat of years ago, who used to perch on poles among the copper wires, but now he was walking very slowly.

They had a lot to talk about as they'd not seen each other for many years. Then Pak Mat asked about a certain person, my father's friend, who used to be his boss at the Telephone Exchange in Kuala Trengganu. He'd come to Kuala Lumpur with a purpose, he said, because many years ago, the boss gave him 15 ringgit too much in his pay packet, and now he wanted to hand it back before he returned to his Maker.

Like our cousin Dah I had Tanjong Mengabang and the Tok Peraihs come hurtling back to me that day; but most of all, I was close to tears by Pak Mat's honesty.

October 31st, 2004

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #39506

If the sound of burping was to be expected at lunch-time during Ramadhan in Kuala Trengganu, it would've come from those cubicles behind the drapes in the rambunctious cafe next door to the Panggung Mat Min. The Panggung was one of our two local cinemas, officially called the Sultana, a shortlived name soon overtaken by the fame of its own doorkeeper, a man named Mat Min, whose name — in the mouths of the public — soon became the cinema proper.

The sleazy cafe by the Panggung Mak Ming (as we called him in Trengganuspeak) had a frontage on the main road on the edge of our Chinatown. Malay Film PosterIt differed from your common and garden coffee shop by dint of the pelayan ladies who ran hither and thither from table to table with coffee as black as sin and sin maybe, for afters. The word pelayan itself is relatively harmless if you look it up in a Malay dictionary, but in Trengganuspeak then, words were never what they seemed to be, and the pelayan was not just your lady server, just as a bujang woman wasn't your dainty spinster. If an orang bujang were to cross your path you'd quickly avert your eyes if you were mosque going people.

Ramadhan was of course a month of abstinence, but not behind those cafe covers. There were straight-backed chairs in the cafe sleaze, facing one another; with backs so tall that two chairs tête-á-tête, lined against the wall, formed a neat cubicle with the eating table in between and the entrance and exit in the broad gangway in the cafe centre. They were lined on opposite walls, as I remember, with the centre area of the cafe filled with round, marble topped tables, taken up by punters who felt no reason to be lying low. I imagine the cafe owner, on the eve of Ramadhan, scurrying to the dusty storeroom for the drapes to hang across the entrance to his Ramadhan tête-á-tête cubicles.

This sleaze cafe came back to me when I was watching an early instalment of Star Wars, when Hans Solo and friends ventured into the cafe at the edge of the universe, filled with shady types and blubbery people. Sleaze cafe by the Panggong Mat Min was a place like that: I don't think I saw anyone in there that I recognised or knew, they were people that sprang out of a Trengganu that I didn't know, with proclivities to make you gawp away the time of day. In Ramadhan they ate behind the drapes, in other months they sowed wild oats in this lively corner.

The Panggong Mat Min wasn't a favourite, but sometimes we'd hang there to look at the cinema posters. They showed Cathay Kris only over there, because Shaw Brothers productions were the privilege of the Capitol next door. One day, while ogling at the shapeliness of Rose Yatimah, maybe, we heard a loud shriek from the woman at cafe sleaze, then saw a man wearing a smirk for a face, hurrying away from her. "Cekor ***** dapat pitis samah!" she said, mocking a short chase that ended in a smile. It was quite a daring thing to say in the open air of Kuala Trengganu, but the pelayan were that kind of people.

Cekor was then — as now — an act of daring, the grabbing of something succulent, like meat, and pitis samah was worth fifty cents in those Trengganu days. I shall spare you the asterisks, dear reader, but I went home that day with my little head thinking of the wonders of nature.

October 20th, 2004

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #39472

The ice blocks came a-rasping especially in those parched days when Ramadhan came to visit us. In the Trengganu of those days the fridge wasn't a commonplace of the home, so we stood in the wide space in front of Bhiku's coffee shop as the ice blocks arrived when the shadows were lengthening and the day was coming to a close.

They came wrapped in sawdust and the gunny — guni — sacks made of jute, brought to us, maybe six to eight blocks to a carrier, by a special mode of transport. These were the basikal kaki tiga, pedalled by men, whose three-wheeled transporter worked on the same principle as the rickshaw with the pedaller behind the passenger seat. But on its front the basikal kaki tiga had an open box placed on a low chassis, with the leading side left open, and a metal bar placed on the box edge in front of the pedaller for him to rest his arms as he pedalled, and to turn the vehicle left and right as he journeyed along.

The basikal kaki tiga men were a macho breed with an independent mien, yet to a man they followed an unofficial dress code. They had a batik sarong wrapped around their waist, with the hem raised above the knees; and underneath this flowery delight they wore a pair of khaki shorts. They would be shirtless mostly, or maybe they'd wear a T-shirt top, and then, by dint of some arcane rule, they had a sarong cape draped over their backs, with the two upper corners tied in a knot under their chin. These were batik sarongs of loud patterns, of leaves and flowers and Trengganu made, and there was nothing sissy about that except in the minds of the orang luar of the other coast. When we moved to Kuala Lumpur, much later, my father sometimes slipped out of the house, to the clothesline maybe, wearing the Trengganu batik, and somewhere in our family album there's probably a photograph of him still, doing just that.

But meantime, in front of the Bhiku shop there was already some loud rasping of the saw's teeth, and a sharp thwack! as the ice was sawn and broken into smaller blocks. This is, to me, the sound of Ramadhan in Kuala Trengganu, of an afternoon in the fasting month when crowds began to mill in front of the Bhiku shop for cakes, for rice and sugar to stock up with, and for the mini block or a half of that soothing ice, taken away in a page from some old newspaper, to take home and fracture again into glittery bits that bobbed and floated in a jugful of sweet, milky sirap.

This trade in ice blocks was the business of bigger boys, and the pedal transporter men with their bilhooks for hands. My father told me that those ice blocks came from a factory in Pulau Kambing — Goat's Island — which wasn't an island at all but a semi-industrial linear township on the bank of the Trengganu. A funny place for goats to be, for water to freeze to ice. The little entrepreneurs made their 'fortune' in Ramadhan from those smaller blocks that they bought and resold for a little profit. All you needed was a guni sack and a place in front of the Bhiku shop to lay it out. And then, at the first sound of the rasping and the thwacking of the ice, you rush to grab a block or three to resell on your mat for a small profit.

It was a profitable venture which begot more noise. Profits from the ice trade were used to buy a thing called carbide which, when placed in water in a bamboo cannon and lit, produced a boom that made the old melatah. Melatah is a Malay-Eskimo hysteria triggered by sudden shocks or noise. I know little about the Inuits, but among the Malays, the afflicted seem to be mostly women of a certain age. So boom! went the bamboo cannon, back came a diarrhoea of words from some senior women, taken from their store of unspoken expletives.

Puasa in our household, as in other households, was serious business. My mother would produce a special mould of brass that she'd been keeping in store since Ramadhan last, fill its boat shaped holes with a liquid concoction of flour and sugar and eggs and stuff, and cover them all up with the flat brass lid that's hinged to the top. On the top surface of this lid she'd burn coconut husks dried in the sun for months ahead, and underneath the apparatus she'd light a fire from wood; and the miracle it produced was called akok. Akoks were succulent morsels of golden dreams, moist in the hand and deliciously sweet, with the cloying taste of some distant past, lilting and dancing daintily on tickled taste buds.

There were other delights too in Ramadhan, of course. There was the nekbat, a little something drenched in syrup, and there was my favourite, the hasidah which was stirred and stirred in a cauldron of brass until the ingredients became a sticky, greasy goo of exquisite stuff. The hasidah paste is then placed on a tray or a plate, flattened to a smooth surface, then, using a special pair of tongs with saw-edge teeth, patterns are pinched out on it in ridges and dips. In the dips would be poured crisp flakes of shallots, freshly fried.

Recently we heard the sad news that our cousin Mat Tepek had died. Mat — God rest his soul — was even smaller than us when he had his encounter with the hasidah, which he started to tepek — stick — to the wall of our house. So Tepek he became, and Tepek he died.

October 14th, 2004

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #50976

To move onward to Besut after the bustle of Kuala Trengganu the bus had to go down the slope and struggle up the ramp onto the ferry at Bukit Datu. It was a hairy experience, but too late to turn back now, there were scores of other vehicles big and small in the tailback, waiting to pour into the dip for a ride across the swell.

The ferry was a raft built of blocks of wood that took the weight of four or six vehicles, assorted pedestrians and people cycling into the green yonder. It was pulled by a tug across the Trengganu river in one of its most meancing phases, to the bank across, from where our journey would continue. Ferries crossed many rivers in Trengganu then, in Dungun there was a ferry point, and in Kemaman there was one at a place called Geliga. An express bus once slipped its brakes on the deep incline to the ferry over there and dove into the river. I remember that early evening in Kuala Trengganu when our poor cousin from Seberang Takir came back quite dead and sodden with many other unfortunate souls, all laid out in the back of a lorry.

The road to Besut was heat and dust over a long stretch that wound and dipped through dense jungle. In the monsoon months, seen through the condensation in the window, the view became smudgy watercolour, smearings of green against the brooding sky, and the continual swish-swish-swish of the windscreen wipers. Kampung Raja in Besut wasn't sixty miles from Kuala Trengganu, but it seemed a very long way.Pressure Lanterns

We were taken there during school holidays to meet cousins and uncles, aunties and more cousins twice removed, and Toks galore. Toks were older people — grandfather and grandmother, and grand uncles, and anyone else dressed in sarong pelikat, and the Malay baju and the walking stick of senior years. Kampung Raja was dark in the night and long in the the days, but always, always there was a gaggle of people.

My grandfather had a sprawling house in Kampung Raja — village of the ruler — opposite a Malay school. It was as big a house as a child could imagine, with capacity to accommodate a few coachloads of people if the occasion called. But sometimes occasion didn't, and it'd be quieter then, with ladies rustling up things in the back of the house, and my grandfather sitting at his table by the window, poring over some dog-eared kitabs. He kept spotted doves and puffed on cigarettes made from sun-dried leaves filled with strands of tobacco, then rolled into the thin shape of a knitting needle. Kampung Raja was quiet — unsettlingly so — even in the day. There'd be the occasional rumble of a motor car over some distance, or some murmur of conversation from passers by; then the birds, bored by this life of captivity, would lament it so: kur-kur! kur-kur! came their woeful tale. The Malays call them the tekukur.

In the daytime when my cousins were distracted by their own things, I'd walk the ground and stuff myself on jambu or water apple, or star fruit that hung from scrawny trees. Or sometimes I'd walk barefooted across the soft sand in front of the house to the spreading cashew trees — known here as pokok ketereh — by the roadside. The cashews were useless to a growing child, its funny fruit inedible, and its shoots plucked by adults and served at the dining table as an ulam to be eaten with hot sambal or dipped in budu, the dark fish sauce of Trengganu.

At night, when the lampu pam came out, we sat under its bright light to dinner on white sheets spread out across the floor, then the pressure lanterns would hiss the night away, its light fading steadily as time went by. The lampu pam lit many homes and many roadside stalls, with their fabric mantles glowing brightly and miraculously under pressure and kerosene power.

Late into the night when the pressure was dropping and the light turning yellow, we'd gather around Ayah Ngah, my father's brother, and urge him to tell us a story. No, he'd say, he had to go, then he'd relent and tell us a wonderful tale spun out there on the fly, the epic journey of Pak Wé. Pak Wé was an unlikely sarong wearing — batik, of course — baju clad and ketayap topped Trengganu hero, a man who beat the odds and repelled enemies by the power of breaking wind, especially the kentut singgang, Ayah Ngah would say, the force of wind power and Trengganu cookery that turned back many mortals.

When even Pak Wé became tired and the lamp mantle grew even dimmer, Ayah Ngah would rise and pump the lamp again with renewed pressure. Brightness came back to the room, and we knew it was time for sleep and Pak Wé to go.

October 10th, 2004