By C S Wan
Sitting in the warmth of our ancestral house's living room, my siblings and I, reminisce about our childhood days_those happy and carefree days when we knew no boredom. The weekend's mornings were spent in playing games and roaming the quiet neighborhood while nights would find us playing with our home-made toys. Mother either sewed or knitted while father read.
“Do you mean grandpa can read and write?” my niece who had been listening intently to our conversation asked, with a surprise look on her face. I realised then that my children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren hardly know about their grandpa or their great grandpa. Maybe, all that is familiar to them is the portrait of him that hangs from the wooden wall of our ancestral home.
This piece is specially written for them while others are welcome to share the story.
|Our childhood home|
Our childhood home in Kuala Pilah where we stayed in the late forties and early fifties was a typical colonial- styled semi-detached wooden house which stood on concrete stilts. It overlooked a playing field and beyond the field, on a slight gradient, stood the Ulu Muar Club. It was here that my father would spend his weekend’s nights, playing billiard and enjoying his usual setengah, with his friends. Most evenings and weekend’s mornings, he would sit in his low rattan chair at his customary place beside the main door with a newspaper or magazine in his hands. Now and then he would pause to pick up a glass filled with Key brandy diluted with water.
“JB(short for Jim Bong),” a voice boomed from the side lane of the house.
From the veranda we watched as the portly figure of Mr. Ponniah, one of his many friends from the Residential Area, lumbered passed the house and headed towards the Ulu Muar Club. The curt call was a signal for father to get ready. He quickly downed his drink, slipped on his trousers, picked up his billiard cue from behind the door and made his way towards the Club. At night as we all lay awake on the mengkuang mat, the night wind would carry father’s loud and hearty laughter from across the field and knowing that he was fine and enjoying himself we composed ourselves to sleep.
The weekend’s afternoons were usually reserved for his siesta. Lying on a mengkuang mat spread out on the wooden floor he would ask one of us, kids, to pick the few grey hair from his crop of virtually jet black hair. For each single strand of grey hair we were paid a cent and although it does not seem much today, the ten or twenty cents we managed to get then, was sufficient for us to buy a plate of mee and a glass of cold drink from the school canteen. The feel of our gentle fingers ploughing through his hair would lull him to sleep. But, there were days when it would take him time to drift off to sleep. Those were the days when he would tell us about his childhood days.
“You’re all lucky to have parents to look after you,” he told us one afternoon with a doleful look in his eyes.
“I hardly know my mother and would give anything to have a glimpse of her image,” he added.
Father grew up in the small village of Bukit Rambai which is about nine kilometres from Melaka town. His mother passed away when he was still a toddler and so he could not remember much about her . Third sister ( whom we address as Makko kechik) was left with the task of looking after him. Every morning father woke up to the sound of the first cock crow and got ready for school. After a quick wash he would put on a plain cotton Qing fashion clothing and plait his shoulder length hair into a single queue. In the dimly-lit room, he waited, ears straining for the tinkle of cow bells. The moment the sound became audible, he rushed out and waited outside in the pre-dawn darkness. Through the veil of low -hanging mist he watched as a ghostly glow moved closer towards him and the murky shape of an ox-cart loomed through the gloom. The creak and squeak of the the rickety ox- cart were soon joined by the rhythmic pounding of bare feet on the still sodden ground. His bare feet now soled with thick calluses were impervious to the sharp edges of the pebbles that littered the laterite road. Sometimes an ox would give a wicked flick of its tail to ward off the irritating cow flies. Bits of grime and dung would land on his hand and shirt, but he was unperturbed by the little inconvenience as the ox-cart driver provided a welcome companion on the dark and lonely road. On days when the cart was empty, the kind driver would give him a lift to the lumber yard on the outskirts of Malacca Town. From there he would proceed alone to St. Francis Institution at Bandar Hilir.
After school he would often stop at his eldest sister’s house at Tranquerah Road(the house is close to the present Tranquerah police station) where he could seek shelter from the scorching heat of the afternoon sun and have his lunch before proceeding home. His eldest sister had married a wealthy man and was among the first few in Malacca to own a car. The family was known for their kindness and generosity and relatives and friends were always welcomed to share their food. He remembered there were days when he would be late for lunch and find that the table had already been cleared. He would quietly head for the rice pot on the stove. Sometimes all that was left was the hardened browned rice at the bottom of the pot. He would pour a little hot water into the pot to soften the rice and add a bit of sugar to make it palatable. He was grateful for the small blessing as the rice at least helped to ease the gnawing pain in his stomach.
Father told us that grandpa was once relatively well off. A jealous farm hand, however, had made malicious allegation against him and this had resulted in a long legal tussle. Although he was finally exonerated, the unfortunate incident had sapped his energy and left him on the brink of poverty. Though illiterate and poor grandpa placed great importance on education and ensured that all his sons received a good education. Father remembered he was among the nine pupils in his class who got through the Senior Cambridge Examination. Unable to further his studies because of pecuniary difficulty he started work as a clerk in a magistrate court in the remote town of Temerloh, Pahang. After he got married he moved to Kuala Pilah, where we grew up.
|Mother and father in their peranakan's wedding costume|
Having experienced hardship and deprivation during his childhood days, father pampered his children with little luxuries. He lavished them with imported chocolates and biscuits. I remember the day he came back with a wooden crate filled to the brim with local fruits. Mother asked him, “Are you thinking of opening a fruit shop?”
“I want our children to eat to their hearts content. In time of need I don’t want them to gawk at others eat,” he replied.
His generosity extended beyond his family circle. Whenever we returned to our maternal grandpa’s house in Melaka during the school holidays father’s loud and infectious laughter never fail to attract our relatives from the neighboring houses. They would crowd round him to listen to his stories and wait for the ‘ang pow’(red packets filled with money) which father dispensed generously. When he heard a relative had been widowed he quickly sent money for the bereaved family.
Mother would often tell us, “ Your father thinks he can print money.”
I remember the time when the soldiers from either the Australian or British Army who were stationed in Kuala Pilah used to play soccer at the playing field directly in front of our house. During the break, father noticed the soldiers quenching their thirst from the stand pipe at the side of our house.
“Can you prepare some orange drinks for them? ” he asked mother.
After that day, during break time, the soldiers would rush excitedly towards our house knowing that a pail of cold orange drink was ready for them at the stand pipe.
One weekend father was reading the newspaper at his customary place when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed back to eldest auntie’s house in Melaka _ the very same house where he used to have his lunch on his way back from school. In my mind's eyes I can still see him lying on a long wooden settee while we watched helplessly with tears brimming in our eyes. We noticed a faint quiver on his lips.
“ I think he wants to say something. Bring a pencil and paper,” our auntie instructed.
A pencil and paper was placed in his hands, but they slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.
He fell into a coma and that same night he passed away. Father was just a few months short of his retirement.
Untitled to any pension and with hardly any savings, mother was left with the daunting task of raising eight children on his meagre gratuity. The family, especially mother, grieved deeply at his passing. But we felt sadder because relatives who used to flock to the house at the sound of father's voice began to distant themselves from us, as if we were suffering from some contagious disease.