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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.

No End To Learning

The Star
Monday August 27, 2007

No End To Learning

For one retiree, the pursuit of perfection brings much joy.

WE ARE retirees, my wife and I.
Most mornings we sit on the patio and sip steaming black coffee while taking in the splendour of the garden with its profusion of colours and verdant foliage. We love to feel the caress of the gentle breeze on our faces and listen to the cooing of the spotted doves.

The patio with a water feature

One day, a dove floated down on lazy wings and came to rest on a tree branch, right next to two others of its kind. The two doves were unruffled by this sudden intrusion as they are man-made doves made from white cement and malleable wires.

'Doves' and 'squirrels' on a man-made treeAdd caption

For in this garden, nature and art mingle and blend with each other; the organic and inorganic co-exist in harmony.

The front garden

I vividly recall the day I made my first model of a crane. I pulled out a tool box from underneath a stack of old newspapers and brushed away the wisp of cobwebs and thin layer of dust off its cover. I then rummaged through the paraphernalia of broken doorknobs, unused sockets, chipped screwdrivers and rusty nails until I finally managed to fish out a wire cutter and a pair of pliers which I needed for my craft.
I unhooked a coil of wire from the wall, and gave it a hefty bang as I tried to dislodge the long abandoned nest of a mud-dumper. The wire was stretched out on the floor of the living room and cut into four equal lengths. The wires were then bent into the shape of a crane and secured tightly at the proper places with thin wires.
After an hour, with my fingers all sore and etched with fine red lines because of the bending and twisting of wires, I finally completed the framework of a crane. I placed it on the table and stepped back to survey the “masterpiece” with a sense of satisfaction. It was the perfect shape and size.
Then I carefully filled in the framework with white cement. As I progressively filled it in, the crane too, began to grow fatter. Using a discarded plastic knife, I sculpted the wings and tails. Finally, the crane was completed.
An obese and overweight crane balancing precariously on one leg glared back at me.
Unperturbed, I had it carried and placed amidst a clump of blooming heliconias. So it stood, half obscured by the thick and verdant foliage, its defects not clearly visible.
Having learnt from my initial mistakes, the framework for my next project – a model of a snipe – was much smaller and slimmer. I also stuffed old newspapers into the framework to lighten its body.

I recalled my art lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia telling us that a piece of sculpture should be viewed from all angles. With the aid of a dumb-waiter, I was able to do this.

At last, I managed to create a snipe of the right shape and size. It is now a familiar feature on the front patio

'Flamingos' amongst the heliconias

Our garden is now dotted with models of animals. An eagle is perched high on the branch of a man-made tree, keeping a wary eye on the main gate. Below the tree, amongst a clump of heliconias, two flamingos forage for food while snipes peep from a tangled mass of green vegetation. Squirrels sit squatly on the trunk of another tree. A white mousedeer stands atop a tree stump while its companion grazes, unperturbed, among the cosmos and periwinkles.
The weather-beaten crane
The crane is now weather-beaten and moss-covered. However, it still stands steadily, even majestically, on its one leg. It looks disdainfully at two new arrivals below, as if to say,"Look! I was here long before you."

Some of the animals have found their way into other gardens. They are all modest gifts from a retiree, gifts which I hope will bring the recipients much joy and help brighten their days.
Some friends and relatives have approached me for my advice, and they too have succeeded in making models of birds. Others have gone home with obese or misshapen versions. Be they perfect or not, I have always encouraged my friends to proudly display their works in their gardens.
As I found out for myself, the pursuit of perfection, and not necessarily perfection itself, can be a lasting source of joy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bonds that last a lifetime

Startwo Monday 24th November 2008



Memories of life in a small village, burn bright through the years.

TOOT! toot! A maid rushes out to open the front gate. Children tumble out of the car, their bodies bent double by the weight of their engorged school bags.
Toot! The maid is reminded to close the gate.
Toot! There is a long blare of the horn as the maid is given a final reminder to lock the door before the mother rushes off to send another child for piano lesson.
I watch fascinated at the drama unfolding before my eyes. I give a long sigh, as I realise the stressful and hectic lives of today’s young generation.
Things were so different in my days. Our days were carefree and life moved at a leisurely pace.
It was the mid-50s. After Father passed away, we returned to our hometown and stayed with our grandparent in the small village of Batu Berendam, Malacca. The place where we lived was a peranakan enclave where the residents spoke the Baba patois – Malay with a smattering of Hokkien.
I vividly remember the wooden house with its palm-thatched roof, hard-beaten earthen floor and a central pillar made from a whole circular tree trunk. The doors stood open from morning to dusk, and friends and neighbours moved freely in and out of the house.
In those days, we did not wake up to the musical chimes of an alarm clock. We woke up to the sound of the first cock crow. Mother would wake up at five in the morning to prepare breakfast that would sustain us until we returned from school. Our school bags were light and our pockets much lighter. Our mostly hand-down textbooks hardly changed with the years.
In the pre-dawn darkness, we would trudge along a dirt track flanked by tall lalang and towering coconut trees to wait for the school bus under the shade of a durian tree.
On dull, grey mornings when there was insufficient light, we carried torches made from coconut leaves to light our way and keep at bay the snakes that might lurk in the tall grass.
When there was a downpour we zigzagged our way along the muddy path with banana leaves held high over our heads.

Banana leaves for umbrellas

Lunch was a simple meal of white rice, with a pinch of sambal belacan, a dish of home-grown vegetables and a generous topping of spicy gravy. At lunchtime, my cousins and friends from the neighbouring houses would sometimes gather under a rubber tree behind my grandparent’s house.

Sharing our food
Sitting on a big rock, we shared our food, picking tasty morsels from other plates.
Above us, the wind rustled the russet leaves of a wintering rubber tree while below us, our bare feet crackled the thick carpet of dried, fallen leaves. Eating in the rustic ambience while sharing food with cousins and friends not only helped to whet our appetites, but foster a bond that would last into adulthood.
“Cekek darah budak-budak ini! Dah petang belum mandi lagi,”( You can swallow blood with these children! It’s already evening and they haven’t taken their bath) a feminine voice grumbled to herself.
We quickly stripped to the waists, grabbed our towels and descended stealthily down the slope to the well under a starfruit tree. We did not have the luxury of body-wash with its various fragrance, toothpaste or the 2-in-1 shampoo. Each of us carried a small piece of the all-in-one soap – the hard, oblong soap which was cut to the desired length and used for bathing, laundry, dish-washing and general cleaning.
In those days there was no television or computer so we spent much of our time roaming the neighbourhood with our heads full of schemes.
We played with toy guns made from hollowed bamboo stems. The “bullets” were wild berries which we inserted into the hollow bamboo and popped out with another smaller bamboo stick.

A 'bamboo gun' and wild berries for 'bullets'

We ventured into waist-high grass to search for fallen betel nut leaves. Sitting on the broad fronds of the leaves and being pulled by our playmates, we raced each other down gentle grassy banks. Our boisterous laughter would echo in the late afternoon air as we rolled and tumbled down the slopes.

Our 'car'

Sssh! An index finger pressed firmly against his pouting lips, a cousin waved us out of the back door. Buckets in hand, we tip-toed quietly out of the house and headed for the irrigation canal that ran along the abandoned railway track. Having dammed both ends of the canal, we bailed out the water. Ankle-deep in mud, we made a grab for the carps, catfish and eels that thrashed and wriggled in its muddy shallows.
Stung by a catfish
We were always on the lookout for the catfish which had to be handled with care because of its nasty sting. I recall the time when a cousin came yelling from a nearby pond after he was stung by a catfish.

That particular morning, we emerged unscathed from the catfish, but we were not spared from the leeches that clung stubbornly to our legs. We either let them have their fill of our blood until they dropped like soaked black beans to the ground or forcefully peeled them from our skin.

Before heading home with ou catch, we stopped to pick the edible ferns that grew at the fringe of the mangrove swamp.

Edible ferns
As we crept back home in the gathering darkness, a slightly-built figure standing with arms akimbo could be seen in the distance.
“Mak,” whispered a voice. The tip of a rattan cane could be seen peeping from behind her back. We fervently hoped the abundant catch and bundles of ferns would help placate her anger.
Dusk. The babies were hurriedly bundled into the house. The older children were ushered in. We were warned not to venture out. It was not the fear of kidnappers that kept us in, but the fear of malevolent spirits which we were told would lure naughty children away from their homes.
The different ghosts the adults told us were more than we could count on our little fingers. As we peered through the half-opened windows and watched the darkness creep across the countryside, our fertile imagination took flight.
Darkness cloaked the village. The windows were shuttered. The flimsy doors were finally secured with wooden bars. Break-ins were a rarity, but chicken thefts were common.
On dark, rainy nights we would sometimes wake up at the sound of squawking and fluttering of wings. Afraid to venture into the dark night, we would just give a shout to scare away the chicken thief or civet cat.
At night we studied under the pale, flickering light of oil lamps. There was no music to keep us company nor were we distracted by the blare of television. Only the muffled, incessant chirps of crickets and the occasional belching sound of frogs from the nearby pond filled the night air.
At 10pm, the lights were dimmed. We retreated to the sparsely furnished bedroom and slept on mengkuang mats spread out on a wooden platform.
Years have passed. We all have our own houses. But on festive occasions we still return to our ancestral home in Batu Berendam to rekindle old ties and strengthen family bonds.
The wooden house where we grew up is now a brick building. The many fruit trees which provided us with succulent fruits and the rubber tree where we used to gather for lunch have all been uprooted. In their place stand rows of stereotype brick buildings.
Pale lights still flicker through tinted windows, but they are lights from the television picture tubes. The lights of oil lamps have long been extinguished and the oil lamps are things of the past.
Like the oil lamps, the village of my youth is just a distant memory.

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A Bag of Memories

Sunday February 3, 2009

A bag of memories By C.S. WAN

Some truths withstand the test of time. But, sometimes, it is simply time to let go and move on.

CHINESE New Year is just around the corner, and it is time again for the annual spring clean.
From underneath a ceiling-high pile of boxes in the storeroom, my wife drags out an old, battered bag.
It is bursting with children’s clothes. The sight rekindles memories of my mother and her words of wisdom.
“Siew Leng, remember to always keep some children’s clothes. They may come in handy in time of war.”

After decades of peace and prosperity, today's generation may find it hard to grasp Mother's concerns but she brought up five children through the turbulent years of the Japanese Occupation.

Mother with my sisters
Long after the suffering ended, the spectre of war continued to haunt her, and the hardship and misery she had to endure through those seemingly long years were indelibly etched in her memory. 
She remembered how her children had only a few pieces of rags which had been washed and scrubbed to tatters.
The slightest tear was quickly patched up with precious pieces of discarded cloth. When she ran out of sewing thread, she had to use fibres which she meticulously extracted from the pineapple leaves.
In a dilapidated kitchen, a pot of tapioca, balancing precariously on raised bricks, simmered over a slow fire. Mother would occasionally squat down to fan the fire.
Each time she got up from her squatting position, she felt an excruciating pain shoot up her legs, which had swollen to twice their normal size. She did not know the cause but Father said it could be due to vitamin deficiency as all we had were mostly tapioca and sweet potatoes.

As she hovered over the stove, Mother would recall how things had been so different during the pre-war years. 
Father at his office desk
Father was then a clerk in the Forest Department in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, and so had a steady income.
The children were well dressed, there was always plenty of food on the table and Amah was always there to help her with the household chores.
One morning, Father returned unexpectedly from work early and told Mother that Japanese soldiers had landed in Kota Baru.

Map showing the Japanese landing points
Hurriedly, we all squeezed into a waiting taxi, along with just one suitcase, and were driven to our maternal grandparent’s house in Malacca.
Father stayed behind to finish off some work. When news of the Japanese army's rapid advance down the Peninsula filtered to Kuala Pilah, he too decided to leave for Malacca. However, no car or taxi was available by then.

He had no choice but to make the long journey on foot. He joined the stream of evacuees pouring down the road to Singapore.

Stream of evacuees heading towards Singapore

Spurred on by the thought of his wife and five young children, he finally made it to Tampin, a trek of more than 60km (40 miles in those days). The soles of his feet were raw with burst blisters. From Tampin, he managed to hire a taxi to Malacca.
The next few months he began the laborious and unfamiliar task of converting a vacant lot into a vegetable garden. Father also scoured the nearby jungle for edible shoots and mushrooms. Mother then used her culinary skill to concoct delectable dishes out of these simple raw materials.
During the hasty evacuation, most of the cooking utensils and cookeries had been left behind. Mother had to make use of improvised cooking utensils. Coconut-shells were crafted into bowls and ladles. One day Father stumbled upon an alloy cup used for collecting latex at the foot of a rubber tree. It was cleaned and scrubbed and it became 
our favourite drinking cup.

A latex cup
One evening, at meal time, Mother prepared tapioca lempeng (pancake) for her family. Each of us was given our small share of the pancake. She was busy tidying up the kitchen when she felt a gentle tug at her sarung. She looked down and saw her eldest son holding an empty plate.
“Nya, can I have another piece?”
Gazing at the innocent and doleful eyes, she took the last remaining piece of lempeng and placed it carefully in the empty plate. That night she went to bed tired and hungry. But the sight of her son sleeping peacefully and soundly compensated for the gnawing pain in her stomach.
One of my earliest childhood memory of the Japanese Occupation is that of an elderly Japanese officer. At dusk, he would sometime stroll from his quarters behind our house and sit on a long wooden bench at the front porch.

One evening he sat stoically at his usual place and watched the barefooted children play with a toy car – a rusty milk can that was dragged along pebbles-strewn compound. He listened to the sound of their happy laughter that rang and reverberated through the still evening air.
Father noticed him taking out a faded family photo from a worn and tattered wallet. He gazed forlornly at the photo.

'He gazed forlornly at the photo
Tears started to well up in his eyes. The sight and sound had, perhaps, evoked fond memories of his loved ones back in Japan. 
It was 1946. The Second World War finally ended. Father returned to Kuala Pilah with his family and resumed work as a clerk in the Forest Department.
With a relatively good income again, he pampered his children with imported biscuits and chocolates and showered them with little luxuries. Perhaps the guilt of not being unable to provide the best for his wife and children during the war still haunted him.

As for the alloy cup, he brought it along with him to Kuala Pilah. He placed it among the more expensive ceramic cups. Perhaps, it was a memento to remind him of the the hardship during the Occupation.
Father passed away suddenly, and we moved back to Malacca. The alloy cup was left behind, unfortunately.
Otherwise, I am sure the much dented alloy cup would have a pride of place among the other souvenirs in our living room.

My wife looked at the old clothes spread out on the floor. All these years she had gone through the whole rigmarole of unpacking, packing and storing the bag in the same old place.  Now, as she held a dress against the light that filtered through the frosted glass window she noticed it was already stained yellow with age. They were stained and the children had long outgrown them. Perhaps the time had come to get rid of them. 

"The clothes were stained yellow with age
As she placed the clothes in the garbage bag she silently prayed that war would never rear its ugly head again.

You may also like to read about a young Japanese couple who was
our immediate neighbours.

Click below link.

Kolo the pup

Two dollars and fifty cents

The Star


Monday 11 February 2008

Two dollars and fifty cents

Reminiscing about the strength of the human spirit.

TI-N-N-NG! TO-N-N-NG! The strident chimes of the gate bell break the silence of the still, somnolent afternoon air. Stirred from my siesta, I peer warily through the half-opened window.
I catch sight of a teenage boy standing outside the gate in the scorching heat. When I am within earshot he says, “Uncle, please help buy a packet of ballpoint pens. I’m trying to raise money for my college fees.”
“How much?” I inquire.
“Only two ringgit and fifty sen.”
Perhaps, I am gullible but the imploring look in his eyes is more eloquent than his words. I dig into my pocket and draw out a RM5 bill which I hand to him. He thanks me profusely as I wave and wish him the very best of luck in his study.
“Only two ringgit and fifty sen.” Those softly-spoken words and the doleful look in his eyes somehow stir the memory of long forgotten incidents that had lain dormant all these years.
My thoughts flash back to my school days in the 1950s. Back then we used the Straits dollars and two dollars and fifty cents was big money then. Two dollars and fifty cents could mean the difference between acquiring an education and being a permanent school dropout. You see, two dollars and fifty cents was the amount of school fees that we had to pay promptly at the beginning of each month. Failure to do so would result in three reminders and then our names could be struck off the class register.
There was of course the limited “free places” reserved for the underprivileged pupils who performed well in school. These pupils were exempt from paying school fees but they had to be consistent in their studies or they would have to forfeit their places.
One afternoon I came back from school, full of excitement, and informed Father that I had been offered a free place. He congratulated me. Then he said, “I think you shouldn’t accept it. You know, you may deprive another less fortunate kid of an education.”
At first, I could not understand his decision. We were not rich. Mother was a homemaker and Father was a clerk with five school-going children. However, knowing his caring and compassionate nature, I declined the offer.
One morning, when I was in Form Three, Father suffered a stroke and passed away suddenly. Mother was left to raise eight children. Not entitled to any pension benefits and having to rely solely on Father’s gratuity, she had to eke out a living. Now, Mother allowed us to apply for a free place. My sister and I managed to get places which helped to ease our financial burden and see all of us through school. Soon, I went off to college and became a teacher.
If Mother and other less fortunate parents had to grapple with the problem of paying school fees before, now as a teacher I was faced with a different kind of problem.
Teachers in charge of the various Forms were assigned the task of collecting school fees, which we recorded diligently in the class register. We had to ensure that fees were paid promptly at the beginning of each month. Parents who defaulted on their payment could see their child’s name struck off the register.
Ah Meng, a student in my class, was a victim of such a system. I remember him well because he was an exceptionally bright student who would always come out top in class. One day, after term break, Ah Meng failed to attend class. His rubber tapper parents could not afford the fees and other school expenses. I felt sad and helpless.
Poverty had deprived a bright boy of an education.
I also vividly remember a Malay warden whose son was in my Remove Class. The boy was a pleasant and particularly bright pupil. At the beginning of each month, his father would never fail to come to my class. Long before his arrival, I could hear the squeak of his old bicycle, the crunching of wheels on pebbles and the screeching of brakes as he parked beside the classroom. With a broad grin on his face and bowing his head in his familiar humble and respectful way, he would extend his arms in greeting even before he reached the teacher’s table.
“Cikgu, I can’t pay now. I’ll pay later,” he would whisper apologetically.
It had become a monthly ritual, and I would smile and nod knowingly. I knew he would somehow find a way to pay the school fees.
He just required a little extra time. I would concoct excuses to allow him the necessary extension or come out with the needed advances. After Remove Class, I only met the warden on a few occasions and then I heard his son had got through his Form Five with flying colours. He left the school and I too left the school to further my studies.
One morning, I saw splashed across the front page of a local daily, “Trainee pilot killed in crash”.There was a familiar ring to the name of the victim. The pilot hailed from Malacca and his father was a warden.
My suspicions were confirmed. He was my ex-student. I felt a lump in my throat. I felt sad at the thought of a boy who had such a bright future before him. I felt sadder at the memory of a father who had to struggle to pay for his son’s education. I knew this man had pinned his hopes on his son to see him through his old age. Fate, however, had dealt him a cruel blow.
The sun has long gone down behind the line of trees; the evening shadows have lengthened.A young boy is still lugging a bag filled with ballpoint pens in the gathering darkness. I wonder if he has collected enough money for his fees. I think about my mother, about Ah Meng’s parents, the warden and others like them who, even though saddled with poverty, had done their best to ensure that their children received a good education. They were all self-reliant, had a sense of responsibility and fortitude of spirit.
Then I think about the thousands of study loan defaulters and I shake my head in disbelief.