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Friday, May 29, 2015

The coin: A gift from grandpa

The coin: A gift from grandpa

 An incredible tale as recounted by K. N. Song

It was a recurring dream; a nebulous dream that subsequently became more vivid.

In her dream she saw her grandpa carrying a sackful of coins,   scattering fistful of them, as he trudged along a road. She did not pay much heed to the dream, dismissing it as a product of a troubled mind or of over-eating.

Her mother had passed away when she was still a baby and as her father was working in a different state, the task of raising her and her four older siblings were left to her grandparent and an aunty. As the youngest in the family , her grandpa began to shower her with love and attention. Her older cousins can still remember her grandpa taking her for morning rides before cycling to his orchard in Machap.

 The old man would place his grand child in a bamboo basket, strapped to the rear carrier of his dilapidated bicycle and as the bicycle bounced along the pebble-strewn dirt track, she would squeal with delight and he would smile tenderly at her. When she was older her grandpa would take her to his orchard during the fruit season and he would pick the choicest durians which were hidden among the tall grass. His face would light up, as he watched her little fingers dig into the creamy flesh and slowly savoured it.   

Her grandpa had migrated from China at a very early age and later married a local girl, a peranakan, and soon learned to speak the baba patois. He started work as an ox-cart driver, but with the advent of motor vehicles he decided to become a cab driver.

When he finally, retired from driving a cab, he spent the rest of his years in tending to his orchard. At night, especially when there was a full moon  he loved to sit  on a bench in the front porch of the wooden house. The village children would gather round him and he would regale them with tales of his travels. Most of his tales revolved around ghosts, spirits and the supernatural, as he lived during the period when the country was still covered with dense forest, country roads were just dirt tracks and flickering oil lamps glowed from within isolated wooden houses. His young listeners would listen in rapt silence, mesmerised by the interesting stories.
However, there were stories he kept from his eager audience; stories he would only reveal to his loved ones.

 One such tales was the story of a coin which he recounted to his youngest granddaughter.

“When I was working as a cab driver I had a good Malay friend, a fellow cab driver. When we went on long trip, he would be my travelling companion. On one of these trips, he turned to me and suddenly asked,
“Have you seen a Chinese coin?”
“No,” I replied, wondering at the rather weird question.
We drove along in brief silence and then through the corner of my eyes, I watched as he began to rub his empty palms in a rotary rubbing action. After a while he asked me to open one of my palms and he placed a small object in it. A burning sensation shot through the middle of my palm and I let go of the object which fell with a clink to the uncarpeted car floorboard. Later when I stopped to retrieve it, I found it was a coin; a coin embossed with Chinese characters and looked like it had just being freshly minted. I noticed there was an identical coin in his palm.  He asked me to keep the coin I had retrieved and to take good care of it. He told me the coin would bring me good luck and may come in handy someday.”

Photos of the original coin, Courtesy of K N Song

The miraculous feat did not come as a surprise to her grandpa. Remembering another incident, he continued with his story:

"Once we were travelling along a deserted road when my friend suddenly rolled down the windscreen and taking some money from his pocket, his earnings for the day, he threw them out of the car. I watched in amazement as the money drifted through the evening air, as if following a guided flight path. Perhaps, noticing the perplexed look on my face, he said,

“Don’t worry, I’m sending the money home for safe-keeping

Besides, the miraculous feats which he had personally witnessed, he had heard other incredible stories about his friend's extraordinary abilities. The villagers knew him as a holy man who was endowed with supernatural powers and he was popularly referred to as  keramat hidup or living saint. 

It was told that one day he  boarded a bus and when he could not come out with the fare the bus conductor ordered him to get off the bus. With a calm demeanour he left his seat and the moment he stepped out off the bus, the engine sputtered and died. The bus driver tried to re-start the bus, but all was in vain.  A few passengers who recognised the holy man advised the conductor to invite the ousted passenger back into the bus. The conductor offered a profuse apology and after he was comfortably seated, the engine  sputtered, gave an apologetic cough and came to life.

A similar incident occurred when he was travelling on board a train. When he failed to produce his ticket, the train conductor ordered him to leave the carriage. The moment he alighted the train refused to start until he was invited back into the carriage.

The years rolled by and after his friend left his job they lost contact of each other. Then one day her grandpa fell gravely ill from suspected poisoning. He sought treatment from both western and traditional practitioners, but met with little success. He became increasingly weak and emaciated and was  losing hope of finding a cure, when he remembered about the coin_ the coin his good friend had given him in a cab long ago. Recalling his friend's advice and instructions he used the coin to perform the necessary ritual and concoction. After a few treatments he grew increasingly stronger and eventually recovered from his illness. As predicted by his friend, the coin not only brought him good luck, but had miraculously saved his life.

  One day, before he passed on, he called his granddaughter to his bedside, handed her a coin and told her to take good care of it.

As soon as she opened her eyes, she thought about the dream, and she wondered about its significance. What was grandpa trying to tell her.

She slowly sat up in bed and tried to recall the recent events in her life. Things had not being going too well with her lately. She was suffering from nagging health problems and there were days when a sense of vague apprehension and uneasiness would grip her. Then it dawned on her the recurring dream about her grandpa  and her problems started on the day she gave away the coin to her elder brother. Realising her mistake, she persuaded her brother to return the coin and as soon as she regained possession of the coin, she was no longer haunted by the vision of her grandpa carrying the sackful of coins. The feeling of uneasiness too disappeared and her health began to improve. 

The moment I stepped into the cocktail lounge, my cousin greeted me and introduced me to her new acquaintance and then asked,
"Do you still write in the blog?" 
"Yes, if I can find something interesting to write," I answered.
"I have a story about a coin which you may like," she told me.
Then above the hushed voices of the other wedding guests who were chatting amicably in small groups, she told us the story about a coin.
After she finished recounting her story I knew I had to write and share her story. It was not only a story about the supernatural, but also about the special bond between a grandpa and a granddaughter that transcends all boundaries of time, place and belief. It was a story about true friendship that transcends colours and creeds.

Listen to Al Grant sings, "Grandpa's little girl".

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A beautiful encounter  

Gifts from a stranger

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Penang 1960 to 1980: Down memory lane

Penang 1960 to 1980: Down memory lane

By C S Wan

The journey

Back in the  1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when our children were still young, during the long school vacation, we would drive to Penang to visit my in-laws.
Back then there were no Federal highways and so we had to use the single-lane road with its twists and turns, steep inclines and bumps.

The road to Penang in the early 1960s

 Although there were few cars on the road, a non-stop journey would take more than eight hours. The long and tedious journey, however, was compensated by the captivating rustic scenery along the way. The terrain of forest-clad hills, interspersed with rubber plantations, would give way to flat, fertile paddy fields that stretched towards the distant horizon. At intervals we would pass through small towns, many with just a row of pre-war shop-houses.
Usually, around noon we would reach the small town of Bidor in Perak, just in time for lunch at one of our favourite restaurants which served wantan mee and char siew rice. A stop at Bidor would not be complete without purchasing its well- known chicken biscuits and perhaps driven by herd instinct, we joined the throng of tourists waiting to purchase this delicacy.
As the car headed northwards and crawled up the steep gradient, we would catch glimpses of verdant landscape dotted with isolated karst hills.

A karst hill along the road to Ipoh
Photo (2015) courtesy of Lenny 

 The sight never failed to fascinate and capture my imagination, as I thought about the caves and tunnels that may lay hidden deep within the bowels of the hills. Suddenly, a karst hill that resembled a lion’s head loomed in front of us and we knew we had arrived in Ipoh.

Ipoh town in the 1960s

 We would often break journey at Ipoh and put up the night at Tjien Tho’s house.  I remember our two young kids love playing with their two older children and Tjien Tho and his wife, Irene, would treat us to Ipoh’s iconic local food.
Early the next morning we would continue our journey to Penang and as we passed through Parit Buntar, Nibong Tebal and Simpang Empat, the sight would evoke sentimental memories for my wife, as she used to serve in these places during her nursing days and when undergoing her midwifery course. The hilly terrain soon gave way to flat landscape of paddy fields and mangrove swamps fringed with irrigation canals filled with dark, brackish water. The sight and scent of loamy earth that mingled with the smell of salt-laden sea air were clear indications we were in the proximity of the Butterworth ferry terminal.
As soon as the ferry docked, I guided the car up the ramp to the ferry’s lower deck and as the ferry chugged its way across the placid water of Penang Strait, we caught sight of seagulls circling and squalling above small fishing boats dwarfed by giant liners, tankers and merchant ships. 

A ferry at the Penang terminal
Photo credit: Travel2penang.wordpress.com

Standing against the starboard, we watched as the shoreline of the mainland began to fade in the distance while Penang Island loomed ahead. The hazy outline of buildings that shimmered in the distance was soon replaced by distinct concrete structures. Then above the raucous calls of the seagulls, the clatter of metals and the sudden shudder of the ferry heralded our arrival at the ferry terminal at Weld Quay.  

The house at Burmah Road

After a short drive from the ferry terminal, we arrived at my in-law's house. The double storey terrace house is located just a stone’s throw from the Union Primary School and overlooks a row of shop-houses. A stately tree with spreading branches that stood in front of the house provided shade from the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun.
I remember the house had an air well where Rose kept her pets and plants. Colourful budgerigars chirped and chattered amicably in a cage, graceful gold fish drifted back and forth in an aquarium, and a collection of potted cacti lined the wall. Rose would tend them with love and tender care and her caring and compassionate nature was not limited to her plants and pets, but extended to her friends and the less fortunate.

Rose and  Siew Leng
Photo taken at Charlie Chin Studio in 1960

 Beside the driveway, under a durian tree, there was a metal chair swing and on fine day I would sit there and watch the world go by. I let my eyes follow the itinerant Indian cake seller as he sauntered along the road, balancing a basket filled with nyonya cakes on his head. I watched, transfixed, as a trishaw pedlar expertly dodged and weaved his way through the maze of cars, bicycles, carts and pedestrians.  In front of the Union Primary School, an apom (pancake) vendor could be seen scooping sweet corn from a can and spreading them onto a soft, fluffy apom to which he would later add sliced banana.

An apom seller at Burmah Road

 As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cacophony of noises were drowned by the sound of tik tok, tik tok as an assistant to a wantan seller, clacked his bamboo clappers.
The tantalising aroma of char kuay teow wafted through the afternoon air, as a helper from a nearby coffee shop approached the house bearing plates of sizzling hot char kuay teow.  We were soon picking several strands of the flat noodles, mixed with generous amount of Chinese sausage, prawns and cockles with our chopsticks and letting the aromatic flavour linger in our mouths. After we had cleaned our plates with genuine satisfaction, the empty plates were left on the gate pillars for the helper to collect at his leisure.

 Foodie Trail

The weekends would see the start of a non-stop eating session. Usually, the day would begin with a lively discussion among the sisters and spouses as to which eateries or hawker stalls served the best Penang asam laksa, char kway teow, loh bak, cendol, hokkien mee  and other Penang local delights and after having reached a consensus  we would all head for the chosen outlet. However, we found out everyone was keen to take us to his or her favourite food outlet and so morning would find us eating murtabak with Nan and Hong Aik at a food stall  in Pulau Tikus and this would be followed with a trip to Air Itam with Lu for our lunch of Penang asam laksa and then in the evening Rose and Robert would entertain us with a sumptuous dinner at Eden Seafood Restaurant. The next day we would be taken to different food outlets at different locations to sample the best local cuisine on the island. I remember, after one of the foodie trails we were driving home with our bellies practically bursting at the seams when Robert called out , 
" That stall sells the best bubur gandum , in Penang. You must try it."
The car glided to a halt, next to a push cart and before we knew it, he had already ordered the irresistible sweet dessert.

Fun in the sun

When the mornings were fine, Hong Aik would take the children for a swim at Batu Ferringhi. Those days, virtually the whole stretch of beach was available to the general public and there were access routes to the beach as it was not blocked by the  line of hotels which occupy most of the beach front today.

The lovely stretch of sandy beach

 The children would swim or play in the shallow water while Hong Aik kept a watchful eyes on them.

Andrew and Lenny playing in the shallow water

Anita enjoying the water

 Sometimes, Hong Aik and I would race along the beach to a huge rock while the kids trail behind us. Exhausted, we would take a leisurely walk along the beach and helped the . children pick shells or dig for lala ( soft clams) in the soft, wet sand.

Taking a break

 The children also loved building sandcastles at the edge of the water and   from our vantage point, under a tree, we would watch them jump and scream in delight as the receding water washed away their lovely sandcastles. That magic moment remains with me to this very day.

Capturing the magic moment

I also remember Hong Aik and Rose taking us to a secluded stream somewhere along the road to Balik Pulau. As we stood on a wooden bridge that straddle the stream, I could see its clear, pristine water cascading and gurgling over smooth rocks and pebbles while tall trees and lush greenery lined both banks.

With Rose and Hong Aik on a wooden bridge

 Small freshwater fish darted between rocks and protruding roots. Knee-deep in its cool water the children tried to catch the fish which were just flashes of silver in the dappled shadows of over-hanging branches. 

With Lenny in knee-deep water

Andrew wading in the cool water

Andrew carrying his catch while others look on


Our stay in Penang was not limited to sampling the delectable and infinite array of hawker food, but we were also taken on regular trips to visit places of interest and among the most memorable were the visits to the Kek Lok Si temple in Air Itam, the butterfly farm in Teluk Bahang and Penang Hill.

Kek Lok Si temple in Air Itam

Rose and Siew Leng in front of a Buddhist temple.
The Kek Lok Si temple is reputed to be the largest in South East Asia.

Anita, Andrew and Lenny at the Kek Lok Si temple.
In the background is the seven-storey pagoda, one of the temple complex
main attractions.

Rose in the sprawling temple courtyard which is
dotted with beautiful flowering plants

Rose standing under an archway adorned with a plethora of lanterns

Butterfly farm at Teluk Bahang

At the entrance to the butterfly farm
From L to R: Wan, Siew Leng, Rose, Ah Leong

With Lenny at the entrance of the Butterfly Farm

The beautiful landscaped garden with stream, mini-waterfall
and lush greenery

On a bridge that straddled the stream

Butterflies flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar

Rekindling memories

In June of 2014, our young friend, Bee Choo after treating us to another Penang's  delicacy, took us for a drive round the city; a drive that evoked a montage of nostalgic memories.
She drove slowly along Gurney Drive, letting us  search for familiar landmarks, but what greeted our eyes was a vastly different scene. Where food courts and hawker stalls once stood, the place was now occupied by contemporary high-rise buildings.

Gurney Drive in 2014

 Across the road, I remember, there was a sandy beach lined with casuarina trees, where our children used to collect shells, but it was sadly missing. As we passed Northam Road we noticed most of the old mansions had been converted to modern eateries while others had been demolished and replaced with towering condominiums and today only the memories of their once glorious  past are left for us to fantasise. When we turned into Burmah Road, we told Bee Choo to stop at the row of houses before the Seven Days Adventist Church, as we wanted to have a look at the old house where we used to stay. However, we could not locate the house, as the whole row of houses had been converted into commercial buildings. 

The old house is now a commercial building

Is this the house?

My sisters-in-laws now have their own homes and the place has been rented out, but the memory of the old house and especially their occupants will live on in our hearts. Age and distance have made it difficult for us to visit my sis-in laws annually, but they are always in our thoughts and deep in our hearts we know we will be eternally grateful to them for their love, care, kindness and compassion.

Listen to Isla Grant and Daniel O'Donnell as they sing " Down Memory Lane"


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Enstek: A trip to a perfect hideaway

Enstek: A trip to a perfect hideaway

By C S Wan

I first heard it in Melaka _ at a food court in Limbongan to be precise.

Limbongan, Melaka: Where it began

Over our breakfast of lempeng, Hanafi recounted the incident while Rashid chimed in at appropriate points, to provide some hilarious details.
It was a tale about Hanafi’s attempt to capture some monkeys which had been making frequent forays into his farm. Instead of using traditional traps fashioned from hollowed-out coconuts, he thought it would be more humane to trap them within an enclosure constructed from zincs and plywood.

The zinc enclosure

One morning, Hanafi and his friends were relaxing at the balcony when the silence of the place was broken by a loud thud and rumble from within the enclosure.

Dah kena,” Hanafi shouted as they rushed towards the railing of the balcony. The enclosure began to shake and rattle violently and moments later a monkey emerged from the enclosure. With a facade of calm composure, it sat on the edge of the enclosure with a ripe banana in its hand. It began to peel the banana with deliberate slowness, pausing to cast taunting glances at the onlookers.Then it proceeded to eat the banana, slowly, unhurried; relishing every single bite.  Fully satiated, it glanced at the onlookers and in a final act of derision tossed the banana peel back into the enclosure before scurrying and disappearing into the woods.

A monkey snapped to attention as the Major approached
Caption and photo courtesy of Merli

On a cool, cloudy Saturday morning as the car hummed its way towards Enstek for a house-warming party, I tried to suppress a smile as I recalled the incident. Chatting and laughing, we were enjoying the leisurely drive, when we suddenly caught sight of a signboard with the words ‘ Nilai Pajam’.

“Doesn’t look familiar,” Peter said, as he slowed down the car and brought it to a halt at a road shoulder. 

We decided to proceed and a few metres ahead a signboard boldly announced the exit road to Sepang and KLIA. We realised we had missed the correct turning but we were not unduly worried as the detour and the little adventure, provided a welcome break from the monotony of our mundane existence. A short distance ahead we turned into the road leading to Bandar Bukit Makhota and not wanting to make further exploration we made a U-turn at the toll plaza and were soon on the road to Nilai. As we drove through Nilai Town, excited voices were calling attention to once familiar landmarks and this was followed by moments of marked quietude as we passed through less familiar territory.

“Enstek!” A voice from the rear seat, called out.
Peter guided the car towards the indicated direction and we found ourselves on a narrow and virtually deserted road.
A muffled ringtone sounded from the car's rear seat and all ears strained to listen to the conversation.
“Where are you now?”
 The concerned voice told us we were already late for our rendezvous.
“We’re on a narrow road with a mosque to our left.”
“ Can you see the name of the mosque?”
Blurry eyes began to peer and strain at the writings on a notice board, but all the efforts were in vain. An awkward silence that ensued was an unspoken acknowledgement of our predicament.  A comforting voice at the other end of the line said,

“ I think I know where you are. Just wait for us there.”

A black sedan soon appeared and  being grandly escorted to our destination by two prominent figures, I began to relax and soak up the view of the countryside.

The twists and turns in the road soon gave way to hilly terrain with narrow road flanked by towering trees and undergrowth. Then as the car crawled up a gentle gradient, a grand house loomed before us. 

As we stepped into the compound, our host, Hanafi, greeted us warmly and guided us to our table. A sumptuous buffet was already laid out on a long table and among the wide variety of local delights were home-grown vegetables and venison from his farm.

Gan, SL, Wan, Peter, Koot
Photo courtesy of KC

Jee, May, KGH
Photo courtesy of Ben

'Are they from the same batch ?'
Caption and photo courtesy of Rashid

Tn. Fadzil and wife
Photo courtesy of Ben

A token of appreciation
Photo courtesy of KC
Audrey, Harry
Photo courtesen

Mrs Koot, Audrey, Ben
Photo courtesy of KC

While we were savouring the delectable fare and sipping fruit cordial specially concocted by Ben, Hanafi appeared at our table bearing two casseroles filled with rendang. Out of earshot of the other guests, he whispered,

“This is rendang ayam kampong, specially for the cikgus,”

Shortly, afterwards, he approached our table with a bowl of tapai. I was intrigue at the sight of the tapai as it was the first time I was seeing tapai wrapped in rubber tree leaves.The tapai appeared, magically disappeared, and then reappeared from the table and within minutes only the empty leaves were left to bear testimony to its popularity.

Tapai daun getah

...satu tangkai ada tiga tapai
Captions and photos courtesy of Rashid

Just when I thought, we had eaten our fill, Hanafi had another surprise for us. 
" Sambal telur itik," he announced.

“Where is the monkey enclosure?” I asked Rashid as he came to our table.
“We can see it from the balcony. We’ll go there after our meal," he replied.

A while later we were following closely behind Rashid as he led us to the balcony. From the wide, open balcony I found myself looking, admiring and appreciating the panoramic view that stretched below us.

The panoramic view from the balcony

Half-obscured by a tree with bare branches, I could see the zinc enclosure used for trapping the monkey. In front of the enclosure a  solitary, stationary 'tiger' lay stretched on the ground, keeping an eternal watch for intruders and predators.

A 'tiger' keeping a vigilant look

 Just beyond the zinc enclosure, under the grid shadows of towering trees, the murky shapes of deer could be seen grazing in a fenced-in area.

"Behind the deer pen there is a river," Rashid told us.

Obscured by grassy embankment and trees with dense canopy, the unseen river and what lay beyond it lent a touch of mystery to the place.

While we were content to view the farm from the balcony, unknown to us, the more adventurous and physically fit 'youngsters' had trekked across the uneven ground to get a closer look at the animals. 

'What are they up to?'
Caption and photo courtesy of Rashid

Deer grazing in fenced-in area
Photo courtesy of Jee

Another view of the deer enclosure
Photo courtesy of Rashid

A close-up view of the deer
Photo courtesy of Teo

Pond teeming with red tilapia. Get ready your fishing rods.
Photos courtesy of Rashid

A gaggle of geese to keep away intruders
Photo courtesy of Rashid

As I caught sight of a brick barbecue pit, immediately below us, my mind began to conjure up images of tantalizing meat sizzling over coal fire and mouth-watering pizza being baked to a crisp golden brown. 

'Next trip, we will use this place to bake our own pizza'
Caption and photo courtesy of Rashid

As I paused to take another look at the view, I began to picture the occupants of the house waking up to the crow of roosters and being greeted by a cacophony of animal sounds radiating from creatures in the wood and those in the cages: the shrill shriek of monkeys, the chirp of the early birds, the cluck of chickens foraging for food, and the honk of geese keeping away intruders. 

'A drill sergeant' stands guard over the property
Photo courtesy of Hanafi

I could also visualize the residents waking up early to catch  the first glimmer of golden light peeking above the line of tall tree tops.

Glimmer of lights over the tree tops
Photo courtesy of Hanafi

The sun was already high up in the sky when we finally finished viewing and inspecting the farm. As some of us had other prior engagements, thanking the hosts for the fine food and hospitality, we took our leave.

One for the album before we head for home
Photo courtesy of Ben

As I picked my way gingerly to the car, in my heart, I knew Hanafi had chosen the right place to build his dream home. Within a few minutes drive from the nearest town and concealed from the road by stately trees with thick foliage, it was the perfect hideaway for escaping from the hustle and bustle of city life.