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Thursday, December 10, 2009

kolo the pup

The Star
Wednesday December 9, 2009
Story and illustration by WAN CHWEE SENG

About a stray that came to stay.

THEY moved in, unnoticed. Then early one morning through the half-obscured mass of vegetation we saw them – a young couple and a little boy of about four playing happily in the garden. It was only then that my wife and I realised a family had move into the vacant house next door. The sound of their muffled voices and spontaneous laughter wafted across the balmy morning air.
The sight and sound were a welcome change in this relatively quiet neighbourhood where children played within high walls or within the confines of their houses. Our hearts warmed as we recalled those days long ago when our own children, now grown-ups, used to play freely in the garden.

Siew Leng with our children, Anita, Lenny and Andrew

Andeww and Lenny
Their shouts and laughter would ring and resonate across the neighbourhood and occasionally we would be startled by a sonic boom as a soccer ball went crashing against the side of our new Mazda.

We were glad and hoped that the silence of the neighbourhood would once again be filled with a child’s voice. Our wish was soon granted.
“Hai, hai,” the voice of a mother reprimanding her child would often break the silence of the day.
Early one morning while weeding in the garden, a flurry of hands attracted my attention. I caught sight of my neighbour’s son motioning to me and pointing excitedly at some unseen object in the drain.
I walked over and craned my neck to find out the cause of the excitement. The boy was soon talking rapidly to me in a language which was alien to my ears.
“Snail,” the mother said with a coy smile. I nodded and smiled.
“I’m Masayo and this is my son Taka. We just come from Kyoto, Japan,” she introduced herself haltingly in English.
Then it suddenly dawned on me that the litany of reprimands I used to hear was in reality the mother responding “Yes, yes” in Japanese to her inquisitive child’s endless questions.
One evening the faint barking of a dog caught my attention. Across the hedge I could see little Taka walking unsteadily down the driveway with a scrawny puppy following closely at his heels. Kolo, the puppy, was a stray which was found wandering at a factory site.
Taka’s father brought it home as a playmate for Taka. The pair could often be seen playing happily in the garden. Kolo, however, had the habit of finding his way into our garden. Taka’s father had taken meticulous pain to patch the holes in the hedge. However, Kolo had the uncanny ability to search for hidden holes and find his way into our garden. Masayo would often apologetically get permission to fetch Kolo from our garden and sometimes my wife and I would help to fetch Kolo and hand it to her over the hedge.
When the family went on short vacations to Japan, a caretaker would feed Kolo, but we would often find the puppy resting comfortably on our front patio and so we helped to care for the puppy. Masayo’s family was appreciative of our concern for their puppy and never failed to bring small gifts when they returned from Japan.

With proper care and nourishment, Kolo grew into a plump puppy, with a sleek brown coat, bright brown eyes and long, floppy ears. As he matured and grew in strength, so did our friendship. Ours was a friendship born out of the mutual concern and care for a stray.

The writer, Taka, and Siew Leng with Kolo

Kolo with Masayo and Taka
One day when we were relaxing on the patio, we saw Masayo, little Taka and their dog, Kolo, at our front gate. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Masayo informed us that they were going back to Japan.
“You don’t like to stay here?” I inquired.
“We like here, very much, but Taka has to go to school in Japan,” she replied in a voice tinged with sadness.
“Would you like to keep Kolo?” she asked. “If not we have to put him to sleep,” she said in an emotion-choked voice. Behind her thick glasses I noticed sheen of moisture in her eyes.

We agreed to take in Kolo as we could not imagine having him put away. A few days before their departure, I took snapshots of Kolo with little Taka and Masayo.

Taka with Kolo, his playmate
Kolo took instantly to us. In fact, he had always been part of the family. Whenever we came back from work, he was always there to greet us at the front gate. However, there were times when I would find him sleeping on the patio with a faraway look in his eyes and I wondered if he was thinking about Taka, his playmate.

One day when we came back from work, Kolo was not there to greet us. Instead we found him sprawled on the patio. His slow, laboured breathing and the doleful look in his eyes told us there was something seriously wrong with him. We bundled him into the car and rushed him to the vet.
The young cempedak tree
After examining him, the vet informed us that Kolo had been poisoned. The vet tried his best to save Kolo, but he could not be saved. We all felt sad at his passing, but felt sadder at the thought of a stray who had been saved by someone from a distant land only to see its life snuffed out by a heartless person from within our own community. Kolo was put to rest under the cool shade of a spreading cempedak tree.

The cempedak tree is now gnarled and its bare branches throw grid shadows on an unmarked grave.

The gnarled cempedak tree with bare branches

A car toots. Tiny feet patter down the driveway towards a waiting SUV.
“Bye, ma!” Yes, another family has moved into the vacant house next door. The voice triggers a memory and I recall the day when another kid had walked down the same driveway with a stray, a stray who found its way into our homes and right into our hearts.

How much is that doggie in the window _ Patti Page

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lost orchard

Wednesday October 28, 2009

Lost orchard

Story and illustration by WAN CHWEE SENG

Beneath the Durian Tunggal lake lies a lostorchard and its submerged dreams.

I SAW it once, many years ago. Now as the car rounds the corner, I see it again – the vast expanse of the Durian Tunggal lake. As I bring the car to a halt, I see its grey, shimmering water. However, I am here not to admire its beauty, but rather to reflect on what lies below it. Deep below this stretch of water I know there is an orchard, an orchard that was once my grandpa’s pride and joy.

The grey shimmering water

My mind races back to the early 1950s when as scrawny schoolboys, my cousin and I visited grandpa’s orchard at Machap , which was about 16km from our house. Grandpa had started earlier that morning, traversing the long and hilly terrain, on his rickety bicycle. Grandpa was 79 years old, but he could outpace many a younger man. We did not have the courage nor the stamina to cycle with him and so we went by bus.
A rambutan tree in the orchard
As the bus screeched to a halt at our destination, we saw grandpa standing next to a small wooden hut built on raised stilts which he had constructed single-handedly. Following a dirt track, we soon found ourselves surrounded by a variety of fruit trees planted whimsically in disorganised harmony.
Sentul and durian trees towered over smaller rambutan trees and the lesser known pulasan and nam-nam trees. We wandered aimlessly, picking and savouring the fresh and succulent fruits. 

A pulasan tree
Pulasan fruits

Overhead, the morning air was filled with the chirping of birds and in the distance came the shrill cry of monkeys. There was a rustling of leaves as a huge monitor lizard waddled languidly and disappeared into a thick undergrowth.

The croaking of frogs caught our attention and soon our bare feet were squelching the squishy, soggy ground that led to the the edge of a rush-covered stream that snaked its way along the foot of a steep gradient.

A moss-covered tree trunk straddled the narrow, clear stream.
A tree trunk straddled the stream

 We were tempted to cross it but then we remembered grandpa’s words: “Don’t cross the stream, as I saw a communist’s flag recently on the branch of a tree.”

The Emergency was still on and Machap  was declared a “black area”. So there we stood staring anxiously at the forest-clad hill, expecting armed men to emerge any moment from among its dark shadows.
Suddenly, something stirred among the nearby rushes. Two black heads broke the surface of the water. And two baby otters with round, liquid eyes gazed innocently at us.
Unperturbed by our intrusion, they frolicked in the water before vanishing among the tall rushes. That magic moment will always be etched in my memory.
The fragrance of freshly baked tapioca that wafted through the afternoon air made our stomachs growl and we hurried towards grandpa’s hut. Grandpa was busy heaping hot ashes and burning coal onto freshly dug tapioca.
Sitting under the shade of a fruit tree, we tucked into the simple yet delicious fare while grandpa regaled us with interesting tales of his stay in that remote place.
Fanned by the cool breeze, my young mind started to wander and I began to visualise grandpa sitting all alone in his makeshift hut while he listened to the howling cold night wind knifing through the flimsy walls of the hut and to the sound of the wild boars foraging his vegetable plots. Was he ever scared?
While grandpa took his afternoon nap, we crept quietly to the roadside with bundles of rambutans in our hands. We thought we could help him sell some of the rambutans to passers-by. We waited and waited. Not a single vehicle went by. Darkness crept across the countryside and as we looked at the darkening sky, we noticed it was filled with dark flying objects that resembled Bram Stoker’s vampires.

“Flying foxes!” My cousin pointed excitedly at the dark mass that was heading
straight for grandpa's orchard.

Flying foxes heading towards the orchard

Flying foxes feasting on the ripe fruits
 As we neared the hut, the branches of a nearby tree started to shake as if it had been hit by a sudden gust of wind. Flying foxes had already begun to feast on the ripe rambutans.

We tried to chase them away. They rose momentarily above the tree top and then settled down to resume their feast.
Dusk had sponged the last ray from the evening sky when we finally boarded the bus home. As the bus pulled away, we caught sight of grandpa raking and heaping leaves onto a smouldering wood fire. He was preparing for another night in the wild.
Then one day grandpa stopped going to his orchard. We heard he had sold his orchard. He did not tell us why and we did not ask any question. He spent most of his time doing household chores and often he could be seen sitting forlornly on a long bench with a faraway look in his eyes.
Was he thinking about his orchard and its wild denizens? Grandpa’s health started to deteriorate and he soon passed away. Then only did we learn that his orchard had been acquired by the Government for the construction of the Durian Tunggal lake.
I do not know how long I have been sitting in the car. I suddenly realise that darkness has set in. I gaze up, half-expecting to see the sky fill with flying foxes. 
There is none.

A solitary stork is winging its way towards a distant wilderness

A solitary stork is winging its way westward towards a distant wilderness. I, too, decide to head for home. I have to tell my family about grandpa’s lost orchard or rather our lost orchard

Friday, October 9, 2009

Caressed by dad's floral magic

NSTP Saturday,April15,2000


Caressed by dad's floral magic


A garden of life, a place where art and nature combine. For ANDREW WAN, warmth and familiarity are to be found at his father's house in Bukit Baru, Malacca.

We live hectic lives in the city, where every minute buzzes with the opportunity to get ahead in life or career and every heartbeat has to face up to stress of noise or choice. And thus, like a plant which sprouts new buds with each season, we too need to be rejuvenated sometimes.My way is simple and effective-I return to my parent's home in Bukit Baru , Malacca. I return to the house and my little Eden.

My little Eden

I remember it as a simple garden. It was an orchard back in the 70s, dotted with varieties of mango, ciku and rambutan trees. The mango tree had an especially dominant presence, and they provided much shade and climbing opportunity during my juvenile years.

Playing with my brother, Lenny, under the mango tree

Even back then, my dad had started to work his magic on our garden. We had row after row of orchids, which filled both the front and backyard with their unique vibrant colour.

Orchids once filled the garden

Later, he indulged in roses which in bloom, filled every heart with wonder.
My sister, Anita and brother in the garden

The garden was part of nature and subject to change. As the seasons passed, there was always something new, added on, or lost from the garden. We the children grew up too.I left home for further education and it was only occasionally when I was back for the holidays, that I paid any attention to the garden. Perhaps Dad too was busy with those comings and goings to indulge in it. The orchids now grew in scant patches and one by one the mango trees and rose bushes disappeared, leaving the bare carpet grass in the sun.

The untended garden

Then Dad retired from his job as a lecturer. For the garden it was a rebirth, a second bloom! Now, he would translate his inborn talent and life-long interest into a new life for the garden. Using malleable wires and white cement, he fashioned animals that appear to come alive and born to this Eden,to nestle, perch or just wallow in the green surroundings. Dad even constructed a mini waterfall from recycled materials.

'Animals' in the garden

The garden was now both art and nature, in combination and in harmony.Painted rocks blend in with natural pebbles. Living plants clambered on concrete branches. Both ceramic and organic animals mingled with one another.

Nowadays when I come home from vacation, I can no longer ignore the garden as I walk up the driveway.
The driveway
It has become part and parcel of Dad's life, of our lives. Daily I sit on the front porch enjoying the caress of the fresh breeze that blows in from the garden, relishing the gurgle of water that trickles down the mossy stone of the waterfall. I listen to the singing of the magpies, doves and the deep-throated calls of the greater coucal.

The mini waterfall

And I think how the life of the garden, running in parallel with our lives, has touched us once again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Finding our way home

Finding our way home

Story by
Wan Chwee Seng
Photos courtesy of Joon 

I used to reminisce and dream about it. Whenever my six siblings and I gather on festive occasions at our ancestral house our conversation would invariably gravitate towards it, "One day we must visit our childhood home in Kuala Pilah," we would say wishfully. Busy with our lives, sixty years slipped by unnoticed. The trip remained an unfulfilled dream. Then early one morning the phone rang and my brother's voice at the other end of the line inquired, " Do you like to make a day trip to Kuala Pilah, tomorrow?"
"Sure," I said without hesitation.
On the morning of 30th December 2008 my brother, youngest sister and I accompanied by my wife and niece, Joon, made the much-awaited trip. After more than sixty years we wondered if the old house was still stamding.
Leaving Tampin town we soon found ourselves on a winding road flanked mostly by forest-clad hills and interspersed with palm and rubber plantations. At intervals we passed through small towns with a few row of shop houses.
As the car hummed its way towards our destination, my brother regaled us with tales of his schooldays. He recalled the time when he and the other members of the school relay team traveled along the winding and hilly terrain of Bukit Putus in a convertible with the principal, a white man, at the wheel. Because of its strategic location, Bukit Putus was then a favourite spot for communist ambushes during the Emergency. A white man driving a convertible was a veritable sitting duck. However, as innocent schoolboys my brother and his friends were oblivious to the danger and thus able to enjoy the cool evening drive.

Our animated conversation were interrupted by the shout of "Tuanku Muhammad School!" 
Tuanku Muhammad School

We had arrived in Kuala Pilah. We made a brief stop over at the school where we received our early education. As we set eyes on the school and its surrounding they brought back fond memories of our school days. Then it was time to search for our childhood home.The car was soon making its slow descent down the narrow bitumen road leading to the Residential Area.
Residential Area Kuala Pilah

 "That's the area behind our old house," my brother said, as he pointed out to us the once familiar landmark. The sight that met our eyes was greeted with sighs of resignation and look of disappointment. The whole area appeared as if it had been flattened by an earthquake. Broken concrete and twisted irons lay in scattered heaps.
"Take the next turning to the left," my brother instructed Joon. A decrepit and abandoned house stood at the corner of the road. I recognised it as the place where the bachelor teachers used to stay. The bamboo hedge where we used to source for our 'hockey sticks' and hunted for fighting spiders was sadly missing. Two more abandoned buildings came ino view, but there was no sign of our childhood home.
Then we noticed three houses with curtained windows. Our hope soared. We cruised the narrow road to locate our childhood home. Suddenly, we had come to a cul-de sac . Joon made a U-turn. Then something jogged my memory. " Look for 246 B, " I said excitedly.

246 B Residential Area

Tired, myopic eyes scanned the small number plates posted over the doors of the three houses. 'There!" someone shouted. We were excited and thrilled at finding our childhood home as it was one of the only three houses that was still occupied. But as we took in the sight we were overcome with mixed emotion. It brought back pleasant memories, but we were stricken with disappointment and felt a tinge of sadness as we noticed its dilapidated condition. .
As Joon brought the car to a halt on the road shoulder, I noticed a slight movement behind the curtains. I approached the house and an old worried face peered anxiously from behind a hastily drawn curtain.

I approached the house

"Auntie, we used to stay in this house, a long time ago. May we take some photos?"

"Sure, my daughter has just gone to the temple across the field."
The playing field

A young woman and her daughter soon hurried across the field and we told her about the purpose of our visit. As others chatted with the occupant of the house, I took in my surroundings

Talking to the present occupant of the hou

I noticed the verandah where we used to sit and enjoy the cool night breeze and watch the flickering fireflies was now partially covered with welded wire mesh. No wonder we had failed to locate the house on our first attempt. Across the field the low brick buildings of the labourers' quarters had been demolished. Gone too were the houses on the slope behind the old hospital. The Ulu Muar Club where my father used to spend many a happy evenings with his friends was now covered with a tangled mass of vegetation.

The Ulu Muar Club. Across the narrow lane was the tennis court.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Deva,. Devamp37@gmail.com

All that is left of the Ulu Muar Club
Photo courtesy of Mr. Deva

 The clump of tembusu trees where hundreds of birds came to roost at dusk had all been uprooted. The well manicured lawn in front of the house where we used to play 'rounders' and the field where we played hockey and soccer were now covered with ankle-high grass.
I strolled to the side lane where we used to play tops, marbles and the game of kaunda kaundi. Untended, it was now overgrown with trees and shrubs.

The side lane

Everywhere there were signs of neglect and disrepair. As I stood there looking at the rather disconsolating scene , voices from the past floated eerily across the still morning air. I heard once again the incessant chant, of 'kaunda-kaundi, kaunda-kaundi 'as a boy raced breathlessly towards the home base. I heard the boisterous laughter of childhood friends as they chased a tennis ball with home-made hockey sticks.

"Seen enough?" Joon's voice from under a mango tree inquired.

Without realising it, we had been standing for hours on the sun-drenched lawn, soaking in the sunlight and the memories of our childhood home.

Notes: In 2010, three of my sisters took a trip to Kuala Pilah to see our childhood home. They came back sad and disappointed as all that was left of our childhood home was the concrete steps.

Daniel O'Donnell _ My lovely island home

Related article

In Days Past

Kluang: A trip down memory lane

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In days past

The Star
Monday May12, 2008

In days past

Memories of an enchanted childhood
can only grow fonder with age.

AS THE strains of the soulful melody waft across the silence of the sitting room, it rekindles the nostalgic memory of my childhood house. More than 50 years have lapsed since I last saw the house, but it still remains vivid in my mind.
Our house at Residential Area in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, was a typical colonial-style house that stood on concrete stilts with white wooden walls and red-tiled roof. The front opened out towards a spacious lawn.
A narrow bitumen road ran in front of the lawn and beyond it was a playing field. A narrow lane ran beside the house. The playing field, the front lawn, the lane and the space beneath the house were the playgrounds of my youth.
In the early days of my childhood, the space beneath the house was my favourite haunt. Here, my brother, sisters and I spent many hours playing in its cool shade. We would blow at the fine loose soil that carpeted the ground to expose the grey beetles hidden just below the surface.
We hunted for tiny holes in the ground. Using the long stem of a grass, we would wet one end of the stem with the tip of the tongue and carefully thread it down the narrow hole. We waited patiently for the slight movement in the stem and then yanked it out. A big, black ant, still clinging to the stem, would lie dazed and disorientated on the ground. We would examine the ant before letting it crawl back into its nest.
During the weekends, morning would often find us playing masak-masak beneath the house. My younger sisters would “cook” in pots and pans which were discarded tins and my brother and I did the “marketing”. We would pull out the wild plants and pick flowers that grew beside the drain and occasionally pinch the leaves of the vegetables that clung to the fence of our neighbour’s garden.
The lane beside the house was the meeting place of our neighbourhood teenage gang whose members were all Indians, with the exception of my brother and I.

When the hockey season arrived, we would converge on the playing field armed with hockey sticks of various shapes and sizes. The sticks were home-made, specifically designed and tailored to our personal requirements.
They were mostly sourced from the bushes which fringed the residential area. Any branch which had the slightest semblance of a hockey stick would quickly fall victim to our knives. Our hockey balls were used tennis balls donated by kind members from the nearby Ulu Muar Club.
Sometimes someone would turn up without a hockey stick. With a jab of the thumb, he would be directed to the nearby teachers’ quarters. The poor boy would creep stealthily towards the bamboo hedge which surrounded the quarters. He would uproot a whole bamboo plant and return with a “hockey stick” that resembled a primitive club from the Middle Ages. The fast receding hedge bore testimony to its frequent use.
When the weather was bad or there were not enough members for outdoor activities, we would assemble under the shade of the drumsticks tree and swap empty cigarette boxes or play with our fighting spiders.

We kept the fighting spiders in match-boxes or other small containers with holes for ventilation. We hunted for them among the leafy hedges around the neighbourhood or among the bushes.
Only the male spiders which had dark green rumps were sought after because of their fighting qualities. The spiders were let to fight on the flat surface of a match-box. We watched as the spiders clawed and bit each other in a bout for supremacy. The vanquished would turn tail and flee or squirm in defeat. Both victor and loser would be returned to their respective match-boxes to be fed and readied to fight another day.

A fighting spider
Late one evening after a school game, I decided to hunt for the spiders among the bushes which lined the now deserted dirt track that led to our house. Under the fast fading light, I turned over leaf after leaf in search of the elusive spider among the tangled mass of vegetation.
Something made me look up. And there strung across the branches of a tree and against a backdrop of indistinct, dark green foliage was a huge spider web. In the middle of it was an enormous, black hairy spider. Its tiny, ominous eyes glared down at me. I stood transfixed with fear. Then I took to my heels. The incident put an abrupt end to my spider-hunting days.Like most small towns, night was a time of peace and quiet. We would often sit in the living room close to the veranda and feel the caress of the gentle breeze that blew from the playing field. We listened to the chirping of crickets and the staccato calls of the distant nightjars.

My sisters would play with their dolls which were two tightly rolled pieces of cloth, shaped into a cross and secured with thread. The dolls’ dresses were fashioned from remnants of cloth. Meanwhile, my brother and I played with our toy cars made from discarded shoe-boxes. Mother knitted while Father read.
The soft sound of music from the old Grundig radio would drift across the small living room into the darkness of the lawn. Father would pause from his reading to sing and tap to the tunes of Springtime in the Rockies, Carolina Moon, Red River Valley and other hits of the 1950s. We sang or hummed along with him.
The darkness over the lawn would suddenly be punctuated with tiny flickering lights.

 "Fireflies!" We shouted excitedly.
We grabbed the nearest glass containers, rushed onto the lawn, and caught the fire-flies that flitted about in the darkness. In the comfort of the living room we watched them glow in the containers until the glow grew dimmer and dimmer and darkness reigned again. Then we released them into the cool night air.

“Lunch time! Daydreaming again?” A voice from the kitchen jolts me out of my reminiscences and I return to the present.
Through bleary eyes I looked around me. My grandchildren’s Barbie dolls lie scattered all over the floor. A remote control car is wedged between the door and wall. Over the whirring sound of a food processor, a DVD player is blaring: “Those were the days, Oh yes those were the days” (Those Were the Days, My Friend, sung by Mary Hopkins).
Yes, sometimes it is nice to relive the happy memories of our childhood, but we should also learn to live with the reality of the present. Having put pen to paper, we will carry on with our lives, having been assured that those memories will be with us forever.

A video on "In days past"

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: Memories of a Small Town

The Star


Memories of a small town
Story and illustration by WAN CHWEE SENG

Back in the 1960s, Rantau Panjang in Kelantan was only accessible by rail. But life in this remote town has its moments too.

RANTAU PANJANG January 1962: It was the beginning of another new year, with new resolutions. At the start of each school year, the teachers would be issued with new record books. The moment we received the books we would savour the feel of the crisp, smooth papers between our fingers and take in the freshness of new paper.
Having been rejuvenated after the long school break, we silently pledged to tackle the laborious task of writing lesson plans and notes with a renewed sense of purpose and vigour. Rulers were brought out from unlikely places and old pencils sharpened to a point. Margins were drawn to measured precision; lesson plans and notes were written in minute details and in our best handwriting.
Night would find us peering and squinting at the writings under the pale and flickering light of oil lamps, for electricity had yet to make its appearance in this far-flung corner of the country. However, like the wicks of the oil lamps which grew shorter with each passing day, our writings too decreased in length. The flourish of the handwritings became mere scrawls and by year-end, most of the record books displayed blank pages. Barring the shortcomings, we carried on our work diligently and the class lessons proceeded smoothly.
The town of Rantau Panjang had little to offer in terms of entertainment, except for the occasional performance of dikir barat and wayang kulit by visiting troupes. So much of our time was occupied in playing games, coaching the pupils and providing extra classes on certain weekends.
We received few visitors, as the town was only accessible by rail. The few who braved the long and uncomfortable journey usually made a brief stopover before proceeding to the border town of Sungai Golok. Newspapers and mail, too, arrived in the late afternoon, and often on the last train.
Every evening when the last train pulled into the station, slowly rolled out and vanished into the gathering darkness, an eerie gloom descended upon the place. We felt as if our only physical link with the outside world had been severed. We were gripped by a deepening sense of despair, a feeling of being forgotten and forsaken.
One morning, the headmaster burst excitedly into my classroom and asked me to see him in his office. I wondered about the cause of the excitement. The moment I stepped into his office, he said: “Wan, I want you to collect all the teachers’ record books.”
“Why?” I inquired, puzzled by the sudden decision.
“The inspectors of schools are going to visit the school,” said the headmaster.
“But, we have not written for some time,” I said.
Seeing the look of concern on my face, he said: “Don’t worry, lah. Just collect the books.”
The teachers were duly informed of the headmaster’s instruction. The record books were quickly hunted and retrieved from their hidden “archives”. The fine dust that had blanketed the covers was quickly brushed off and the books were stacked high on the headmaster’s table.
We waited, and waited for the anticipated visit. The appointed day came and went. Yet, there was no sign of the inspectors. Our wait was in vain. Then one day the headmaster informed us that the inspectors of schools would not be coming. Somehow they had missed the obscure town of Rantau Panjang and landed in the brightly-lit Siamese town of Sungai Golok, either by accident or design.
Sometime later, I happened to be in the headmaster’s office and noticed the pile of record books was no longer in sight. I casually asked him: “HM, how were you going to explain to the inspectors had they asked you about the record books?”
A slight smile played on his lips.
“Easy lah, I would tell them there was a big flood and all the record books were swept away.”
During my five years in Rantau Panjang, there was neither any official visits from the inspectors of schools nor any major flood. However, a year after I left Rantau Panjang for Malacca, I was informed that the town of Rantau Panjang and the neighbouring villages were hit by a major flood. Water rose shoulder-high; houses and property were damaged, and belongings were swept away by the floodwater. I presumed any evidence of the uncompleted record books too would have been swept away by the floodwaters.
Conscience eventually had the last laugh. The lingering guilt of uncompleted record books still comes to haunt me in my dreams.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rantau Panjang - Sungai Golok: Bridge over Sungai Golok

The Star
Oct.15th, 2007

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: Bridge over Sungai Golok


ONE morning I stood at the corridor of the double-storey rented house and gazed forlornly at the railway bridge that spanned Sungai Golok.
The bridge with its black iron girders now loomed dark and ominous against the breaking light of dawn.
The river was swollen with the previous night’s rain, its waters a raging torrent that swept away everything in its path. The morning reverie was broken by the sight of a boat laden with goods and passengers making its way under the bridge. The boatman had somehow misjudged the clearance height of the bridge because of the rising water.
The boat’s roof grazed one of the girders of the bridge and the boat keeled over. Goods and passengers were sent rolling and tumbling like ten pins over the side of the boat. They were quickly seized by the swirling water and swept downstream by the swift current.
Fortunately, most of those on board managed to swim to the banks, while others were rescued by the villagers. The morning incident somehow stirred the settled sediment of my memory of the first time I crossed the bridge.
I remember it was exactly a week after my arrival in Rantau Panjang in 1961. I was sipping thick black coffee in a shop when three elderly Chinese men in green uniforms strolled in. One was tall, the other was of medium height and the third man was stocky with a receding hairline.
Ah Kong, the proprietor of the coffee shop, introduced me to the three men who joined me for a drink. They said they were members of the border police force and their main duty was to patrol the Malaysian-Thai border and to help curb the rampant smuggling activities. Then Foo, the stocky man, said: 

“Cikgu, have you been to Golok?"
“No,” I replied.

“Like to go tomorrow morning?”
“Er? yes, but I have no border pass.” I replied hesitantly.
“No, problem,” he said with a broad grin.
The next morning, at the appointed time, Foo appeared at Ah Kong’s coffee shop with two bicycles.
“ Are we going to cycle across?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes,” he answered.
We cycled along the laterite road which had turned into a treacherous stretch after the monsoon rain and was now deeply furrowed by bicycle-wheel marks. When we reached the railway tracks, we dismounted and wheeled our bicycles along the slippery dirt track until we came to the bridge.
Foo waved to the immigration officer manning the post who waved back in acknowledgement. I thought it would be a breeze to cycle across the bridge. However, that thought quickly dissipated when I saw the bridge up close.

Railway tracks ran across the middle of the bridge, with narrow walkways on either side. The walkways consisted of iron strips with gaping holes between them. I pushed and guided the bicycle’s wheels along the strips while trying my best not to step into the holes.

Iron strips with gaping holes

Meanwhile, Foo was pushing his bicycle easily and steadily across the bridge; it was obvious that he had done this many times before. Below us, the river raged. The sight of it made my hands tremble.
We were halfway across the bridge when we heard a distant rumble.
“Hurry up! The train is coming!” yelled Foo.
The rumble grew louder and I could hear the long, shrill blare of the train’s horn.
The chilling sound made my hands tremble more and my legs seemed to buckle. I glanced round and saw that Foo had already reached the big circular pillar of the bridge and was well ensconced on top of it.
The rumble grew louder and the bridge beneath me started to rattle as if it was hit by an earthquake.
I finally made it to the pillar. Foo helped haul up the bicycle. I jumped onto the pillar in the nick of time as the train swept past me with a thunderous roar, sending a gust of wind which hit my face and body and almost threw me off-balance.
After I had regained my composure, we continued our journey across the bridge. I gave a big sigh of relief when we finally made it to the other side. We stopped at a roadside ice-kacang stall; I dug into the cool shaved ice, richly flavoured with thick syrup, to calm my frayed nerves.
We then proceeded to a Chinese restaurant where we shared a plate of char kuay teow. As we tucked into the savoury dish, the harrowing experience of the morning was soon forgotten.
Late that evening, when we went back the way we came, my steps were steadier. I had started out inexperienced and frightened but returned home a more self-assured man. From that short crossing, a friendship was forged. Foo helped me settle and adjust to my new environment and was always there to lend a helping hand.
A few months later, Foo left the border police force to join the Federal Reserve Unit. I lost touch with him for some time.
One day he appeared unexpectedly at my doorsteps. He had retired from the police force by then. He was still stocky and exuberant. But his hairline had receded further and his once sparse black hair now had streaks of white.
We had a drink at Ah Kong’s coffee shop.
“Like to go across?” I whispered out of earshot of the curious customers.
“Er? yes, but I have no border pass,” he replied with a bashful smile.
“No problem,” I assured him.
Later that day, we crossed the same old bridge that he had taken me across years ago. The bridge was a blurred and inconspicuous structure in the gathering darkness. I led the way while he followed with slow and cautious steps. Beneath us, the once raging water was a murky stream that meandered sluggishly between exposed sandbanks towards the distant sea.
We headed for the same restaurant and ordered a plate of fried kuay teow. As we picked at the strands of kuay teow with our chopsticks, we reminisced about the good old times.
Much water has since flowed under the bridge but I will always remember the experience of that first crossing and cherish the memory of the friendship it helped to foster.

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: The magic of Syed

The Star
Monday April 23, 2007

The Magic of Syed

Story and illustration

Some characters from our past are so colourful that they live on in our hearts.

KELANTAN. The black handwritten word stood out boldly among the fine print, as I stared at the official letter in my hand. Thus, I was informed of my posting.
Having just returned from Kirkby College, England, after two years of teacher training, I had a week to spend with my family before reporting for work.
I remember boarding the train at Tampin, taking the night train at Gemas and reaching Kota Baru the next morning. A day later, I reported for work at the state education department. I was ushered into the Assistant State Education Officer’s office and was greeted by a kind, elderly Chinese gentleman.
“Young man, you have been assigned to a school in Rantau Panjang.”
“Rantau Panjang! Never heard of it.”
“It’s a nice place. Plenty of good food in the Siamese town across the border.”
Perhaps noticing my innocent and worried look, he said, “Never mind, see me in a year’s time if you’re not happy and I’ll transfer you to another school.”
The next day I boarded the train for Rantau Panjang and was met on arrival by the headmaster. After my luggage was bundled into a waiting trishaw, we headed for a nearby coffee shop.
On entering the shop, I noticed four elderly men seated round a marble top table. After a brief introduction, a dark and wiry old man said to me, “Cikgu, we are all parents of pupils in the school. You are free to cane our children if they’re naughty as long as you don’t break their heads or legs. See us if you have any problem.”
I was thus introduced to the infamous kapak (axe) gang of Rantau Panjang. Under their patronage and protection, I was able to move freely about town even into the wee hours of the morning.
One morning, a month after my arrival, I was in the midst of a lesson when I felt an air of excitement pervading the classroom. Pupils were casting furtive glances at the corridor. There was gentle shuffling of feet and a few raised buttocks. Curious, I glanced through the window and caught sight of a dark, bearded man who was bent double by the weight of an engorged knapsack on his back. A tightly rolled mengkuang mat was slung across one shoulder.
Silap mato,” whispered one boy. No wonder all the excitement, I thought to myself. Which child would not be excited by the visit of the occasional itinerant Indian magician? A few minutes later, I was called to the headmaster’s office.
“Wan, I want you to meet Syed who will be joining our staff.”
There was an air of despondency when I broke the news to the class. However, although there was no magic that day, Syed brought with him a different kind of magic – of joy and laughter – to the school.
Night comes quickly to this remote town. Except for the flickering yellow light of the oil lamps, the whole town would be enveloped in darkness. An eerie silence would descend. Syed, who had just come from the bright lights of the city, would pace the long corridor of the rented house like a caged animal.
Standing in the semi-dark corridor, he would gaze at the brightly-lit night sky across the border. A yearning for the bright light would then stir within him, like a moth in the dark recess of a house that is instinctively drawn to the light of an oil lamp.
One morning in school, after a nocturnal visit to the border town, he was overcome with drowsiness. After he had assigned some work to the class, Syed posted the monitor at the back of the classroom to warn him if he spotted the headmaster approaching the class. Then, he proceeded to place his folded arms on the table and rest his head in the crook of his arms. He was just about to slip into slumber when the monitor shouted, “Sir, sir, headmaster is coming!”
Syed jumped to his feet. Pointing a finger at the nearest boy, he barked, “Yes, you, what’s the answer?”
The poor innocent boy sprang up from his seat with his mouth wide open. There was, of course, no answer, as there had been no question!
Barring that particular incident, I remember Syed as a conscientious teacher whose presence brought fun and laughter in and out of the classroom, adding spice and colour to our otherwise mundane existence.
One day, after the mid-term break, Syed failed to report for duty. Sadly, we were to learn afterwards that he had met with an accident and had passed away. The pupils had lost a good teacher and ourselves, a good friend.
Even now, watching magicians perform their magic tricks on TV somehow stirs the still sediment of my memory. I recall with nostalgia my acquaintance with Syed Ahmad, and the day the “magician” came to Rantau Panjang.