|Kampong houses reminiscent of those in Kaki Bukit in 1960s|
The years in Kampung Melayu Kaki Bukit (Malay Kampong at the Foothills) must have been the most cherished in Mak’s life, apart from the stints at Bukit Tinggi and Ipoh. I must have been about five years old when we moved from Lorong K to No 38, Jalan Damai, Singapura 14. Abang Hatta was in his final year at Victoria School, Kak Eka was enrolled in evening classes (in shorthand and typing) and working at the same tailoring shop as Mak, Jamal was in primary four at the Malay School in Still Road and Yat in primary one at the school in Jalan Eunos.
(Bapak had enrolled Jamal in a Malay school, in spite of Mak’s objection. Malay schools like Sang Nila Utama flourished and Malay language teachers were in high demand in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was compulsory then for all police and army officers to take National Language lessons. Malay was rightly implemented as the National Language, according to the Constitution of Singapore, until the 1970s when its usage in official matters declined and Malay parents were dissuaded from sending their children to Malay schools)
Compared to the debilitating communal houses and depressing atmosphere in Kebun Ubi, the environment in Kaki Bukit was scenic and refreshing. And it was a huge relief from the crammed rented units near the Central area. The simple, wooden house that we occupied was the fourth or fifth on the row of charming rumah panggongs (traditional Malay kampong houses built on posts) off the main road which slid down from the steep hill and ended at the bus terminal far into the horizon. Ustaz Jalal had built or bought that house and agreed to rent it out to Bapak (at a very low rate, I presumed).
That part of Jalan Damai, where our house was situated, faced the back of the hill which was overgrown with lush, green grass. There was an air pancor (water spout) halfway up the hill, where the neighbourhood children and passing labourers scooped its gushing water to wash their sweaty faces on hot afternoons. A shallow, dusty ditch separated our house from the orange dirt road which ran parallel to the padang. Once in a while, we would catch a glimpse of Yusoff Latiff (a young, handsome movie star) who whizzed by on his scooter to or from movie locations, either at one of the big houses along the road or the stretch of barren, rocky terrain that served as a buffer between Kaki Bukit and Chai Chee. On most days, we would hail the boy who sells epok-epok (vegetarian curry puffs), the mamak who sells different types of bubur (sweet porridge made from beans, barley or tubers) placed in a pile of baskets balanced by a plank which rested on his shoulders, the stout Benggali bread vendor or the grumpy Sun Sun ice cream seller, who shouted their wares, sounded their horns or bells in the afternoons and evenings. On rare afternoons when we ran out of ideas for games, we would hitch a ride on the bullock cart of the Sikh cow herder, who would then stop and chase us with a stick. One evening during the monsoon season, I slipped and fell into the dirt ditch. Its water had overflowed and its currents swept and almost drowned me had Jamal not dived in and rescued me. Not long after that, it was reinforced with a row of uniform V-shaped, concrete ducts.
Rough hedges of tea bushes hugged the edge of the wide dirt drain in front and the narrow one on the left, which marked the boundary between our plot and that of our affable neighbour. Wak Seman Benjol (a permanent bump on his right forehead earned him that nick name) lived with his wife, Wak Limah, who used to sell cakar ayam (small, rounded, caramelised sweet potato hash browns) from home. After Jamal was circumcised, Mak heeded Wak Seman’s advice to feed him two boiled eggs in the mornings but that proved disastrous, when the pus on his wound worsened.
When Mak told him, “Wak, nananya makin teruk bila saya kasi makan telor.”
(Uncle, the pus got worse when I fed him eggs.)
“Siapa suruh kau kasi dia makan telor?”
(Who asked you to feed him eggs? he retorted.)
There was no drain separating our piece of land with that of our neighbours’ on the right. There were only scattered, waist-high hedges of hibiscus plants. Mak Cik Mani and her family were originally from Melaka. Her stern looks concealed a very kind heart. She had to be the main breadwinner when her husband left the police force after he had a stroke. Pak Cik Yasin was detached, spending most of his time praying or looking out the front window with a rosary in his right hand after the stroke had left his left side impaired. Mak Cik Mani’s crinkled-faced, octogenarian mother, who we all called Nek, could not see eye to eye with her son-in-law, so she chose to spend most of her time chewing pounded betel leaves and telling ghost stories on the amben (wide, wooden bench) under their house. They had six children - Kak Hasnah and Patong (or Doll) were already married and lived elsewhere, Pipit (a 17 year old, nicknamed ‘sparrow’ for her love of ‘chirping’), Mamat (Mohamed, a 16 year old, who filled his every waking moment with youthful pursuits such as gasing spinning and kite slicing with fierce intensity), Enchah (Habsah, their studious, sensible daughter who was my best pal) and Yon (Haron, their youngest son, whom Jamal loved to tease as my suitor).
Enchah and I spent many hours climbing trees for their shade, their red round ‘cherries’ or their small, hard red saga seeds to be sewn into tiny pouches of batu selembat (which can be substituted with sand). When our siblings and other neighbours’ children were around, we would break into groups and played teng-teng (hopscotch), Nenek-nenek (Old Grandmother), masak-masak (mock cooking) and kahwin-kahwin (mock wedding). On quiet afternoons, we would lay on the amben under the tall jambu batu (guava) tree, listening to Pipit’s tales of romantic escapades. The guava tree also provided shade for my mother’s makeshift warong (foodstall), where Mak occasionally sold her nasi sambal goreng (rice served with spicy mixed beans and offals), nasi rawon (rice with beef in black sauce made from buah keluak) and lontong (rice cubes with creamy mixed vegetables soup and topped with sambal, serunding and bergedil). Mak Cik Mani was more steadfast in purveying her white and yellow steamed putu piring with gula melaka fillings, stacked on top of grated coconut and round pieces of banana leaf. Whenever I needed to earn my own pocket money, I would take a basketful of those hot piping flour cakes wrapped in banana leaves and old newspapers and walked around the village with Enchah, shouting “Putu piring”. With the 15 sen duit dalal (sales commission), I splurged on tikam-tikam (a mini wheel of fortune) which got me a pink cincin buah kana (a metal ring with a fake stone in the shape of an olive), pink cotton candies, gula tarik (hard, white candy sprinkled with sesame seeds) and ais krim potong (blocks of ice cream wafers).
Enchah and I were very close although we later attended different schools – I was at Telok Kurau West (Integrated) Primary School, an English medium school, while Enchah was a student at Sekolah Menengah Still Road, a Malay medium school. I remembered we were not on talking terms only once, when Mak Cik Mani had accidentally given a toxic solution instead of vanilla essence, which caused Mak to be so upset that she hurled her red and green coconut candies to the ground just outside our kitchen for Mak Cik Mani to see.
Our kitchen, like most Malay kampong ones, was a half-concrete half-wooden part of the house built on the ground at the back of the plain wooden house on posts. Welcoming the guests in front was the red-painted, concrete stairway and a small veranda with its smoothly finished wooden bench. The kitchen was rather large, with ample space for a small cemented area to wash fish, meat and vegetables, a small aluminium-plated tungku (charcoal stove made from clay), steel and formica dining table and chairs, a beige pandan mat and kapok mattress to lie on for short naps or afternoon siestas on the far right next to the window. At the end of the kitchen, a door led to a bathroom with a kolah (a concrete, waist-high pool to retain water for showering and ablution) and a tempayan (a medium size porcelain water vessel). And I should not forget to mention the creepy bawah kolong (the cellar under the stairs). One night when I was thirsty, Mak went down to get me a glass of water while I waited at the top of the stairs on the main house with its larger and smaller bedrooms on the right and left. I thought I saw my second brother dashed out from the dark cellar, so I called, “Mal!” but the figure just vanished into thin air. Since that incident, I dared not go down to the kitchen at night.
The kitchen held both pleasant and unpleasant memories. Jamal, Yat and I would wait with bated breath for Mak’s telor masak kicap (eggs in soya sauce), ikan masak tauco (fish in fermented soya), ikan masak singgang (fish soup), sambal goreng, daging masak rawon or lontong on better days or lempeng kelapa (coconut pancakes), sayur masak bening (watery vegetable soup), or bubur nasi (rice porridge) with anchovies on lean days. There was a period of exceptionally lean days, when we just had bubur ragi (gruel with margarine and sugar) and water biscuits or unsalted cream crackers with chunks of Cheddar cheese donated by the USAID or the American Peace Corps. Once in a blue moon, when Mak was invited to weddings, we would get to taste nasi minyak (ghee rice), chicken bamia (middle-eastern dish) and hard-boiled eggs which the hosts had packed for us. Special treats such as murtabak (Middle-Eastern bread with mince meat fillings) or briyani from Islamic Restaurant in Arab Street were few and far between, such as during Siddi’s rare visits.
Wak Enah, Mak’s eldest sister, was like a fairy godmother to us whenever she appeared at the kitchen door (womenfolk and children entered through the kitchen door then) bearing pricy imported fruits and delicious desserts – red and green globes of juicy grapes, shiny crunchy apples and tangy oranges, moist marble cakes and wobbly green and red jellies – which Mak could not afford to buy or prepare. Whenever Mak craved for the Mi Rebus Jawa (noodles in thick mutton gravy) and Satay (skewered meat drowned in peanut sauce) at Joo Chiat Road, she would take one of us and an expensive piece of jewellery or batik sarong to hock at the pawn shop in front before tucking in at the back lane. When Abang Hatta started work as a police constable, he would buy cake remnants from the bakery on his way home which we devoured in a jiffy.
Bapak spent very little time with us at Kaki Bukit. He was always away for some business ventures and, when they folded, he would return in a foul mood. We had grown accustomed to his absence and felt awkward whenever he was around. Mak had assumed the role of breadwinner and decision maker, laying down the house rules for us, which she forgot to relinquish whenever Bapak was home. We dreaded mealtimes, whenever Bapak took his place at the head of the table. Not only we were not supposed to help ourselves before him, but we had to be extremely careful not to ruffle his feathers. One evening, when we were all seated and waiting at the dining table to tuck into Mak’s steaming fish ball soup, Mak said,
“Please use the ladle, not your own spoon, to scoop the soup to your plate.”
That had Bapak all riled up. He flew into a rage, got up and thumped the table:
“I’m the head of the family! Why do you have to tell me what to do? Why can’t I use my own spoon if I want to? Am I a leper that you’re all afraid that I’ll spread my germs?”
We hung our heads, frozen in our seats and prayed silently for the storm to subside. Bapak’s fury had become unpredictable. It can be triggered by any slight from any one of us. One day, when a hot water flask that he flung at Kak Eka’s direction missed her, some of the scalding water spilled on my thighs. And I winced when he bent three copper coins with a pair of pliers and twisted Jamal’s arms behind his back for failing to buy him cigarettes with those three cents. Whenever I heard Bapak’s footsteps on the wooden planks of the main house, my heart sank and I escaped to play outside.
* This is a revised version of the entry on 'Tanjong Pagar'.