Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sounds of the Battle Drums, mid '64

Courtesy of

Though our wooden house was the one that was drab
On a row of charming stage houses built on posts
But my seven year old heart leapt
When I sighted its facade
From the window of the dusty bus
As it descended down the hill
And when it stopped in front of the house
Where they shot box-office Malay films

I alighted and crossed the busy main road
And turned into the dirt lane on the right
No 38 Peace Street was the third
Its ground was just as bald
Save for the hibiscus hedge
And the tall guava tree on its left
Yet the red concrete steps
Led to the wooden bench
Perched on the narrow veranda
A favourite hang-out to sight passing vendors

As I took off my shoes and socks and washed my feet
With water ladled from the ceramic vessel
The familiar scent of the calamansi wafted
And the sight of the lush, green hill
And its cool, natural spring
Soothed my smarting eyes
And cleared them of prickly sand

I sat at the top of the stairs
And watched the neighbourhood boys
Pushing and shoving and scooping
The spouting water to quench their thirst
A just reward for a friendly football match

After they left
It was so quiet
No one was about
That I just gawked
At the passing bullock cart
No sibling to hitch a ride with on its back
And prompted the cow herder to halt
And chase us with a crooked stick

Just yesterday
We were shaken by a tussle
Between Yat and Mal
Over a taste of her popsicle
Bought from the Sun Sun Ice Cream vendor
With coins retrieved between the floors
A sudden jerk caught her off balanced
She had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance
A hairline crack on her shoulder bone
And a fracture on the elbow joint

Hence Mal was missing in action
Though he had been a rescuer once
On that fateful evening last rainy season
When I slipped and fell into the swollen drain
Its swift currents had me almost drowned
But after I showered and changed
Into a Sam Foo top and pants
I caught a glimpse of the lead actor on his scooter
That cured me of my trauma and set my heart aflutter

On that hushed afternoon
I looked out for Alias and his Ma’s epok-epok
Fried dumplings filled with spicy bean sprouts
Or Mamak the travelling porridge vendor
Balancing two rows of rattan baskets
Filled with tiffins of beans, barley and tuber gruels
On the wooden staff resting on his shoulders

My tummy growled
When I heard the ‘toot, toot’ sound
Of the Bhai Roti’s horn
An invitation to check out his treasure chest
Crammed with all sorts of sweet and savoury breads
The best was the steamed white loaf with thick blobs of kaya spread
But that was nothing like Aunt Mahani’s flying saucer hot baps
Which I helped to sell around the village to earn coins in my pockets

My eyes trailed as his bicycle turned the bend towards the barren knoll
That served as the boundary between the Foot Hills and the Pig Farm
A favourite location for fighting scenes in Malay epic films
Also the setting of the battle drums during the recent turmoil
And the site of the Ruling Party Amity Corps’ camps
To ensure the rival groups laid down their arms

It was like a blood stain on the island’s bleached history
But the turning point for the Malay community’s destiny
From the Silat aficionados’ surge against the agent provocateurs’ taunts
To the raging torrent among the ranks of the Maulid procession
To the state of emergency declared after the fatal clashes, deaths and detentions
To the extended periods of curfew filled with conflicts and doubts
And the final fall-out which led to the departure of intellectuals and patriots  

Courtesy of

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Snake Charmer, Loktang, Pekji and Weil Weil

The Circus, Ice Skating Shows and Musicals
Were not within our family budget in the '60s
But there were many free entertainment options
Which Ma had lined up for us 

There was the Snake Charmer, and his Apprentice
Beckoning us to the roots of the Banyan Tree
On Beach Road’s grassy banks
With the sound of his wind instrument
And the contents of his wicker baskets
Under the cool shade
His assistant uncovered the lid
And a cobra uncoiled itself
And danced to the tune of the flute   
A couple more slithered on the turf
As people reached for their pockets
When the coins had piled up
The reptiles were kept
A new act unravelled
The magician transformed into an Oracle
And his aide was blindfolded
As he responded to questions
From the astounded audience
When the boy finally fainted
We knew it was time to be disbanded

Ma’s idea of punishment for misconduct
Was to send us to watch the Lok-tang
As she got into a trance
By the forked road next to our fence
Dressed in light blue tunic and pants
The medium was hired to chase demons
Lurking behind the willow strands
She summoned Guan Dong with a swish, swish of her Guan Blade
She dazzled the crowd with her Spiked Ball Mallet
And took our breaths away with a ‘Sealing of Mouth’ ritual
Where she used long, brass needles to poke a hole in her face
And sealed it by sliding hot, burning coal iron on her cheeks!

When the Wayang Pekji set up stage
On the vacant lot next to the Central cinema
We would be tossing and turning in our beds
Or searching for the rojak man in our pyjamas
Lured by the vigorous slicing of cucumber, pineapple and turnip
Tossed and drenched in shrimp paste and peanut bits
In a yellow glazed bowl
Each handful scooped into a banana leaf boat
With a toothpick anchored at its stern
We elbowed our way among the throng of sweaty spectators
And tuned out the opera actors’ piercing notes
Along with their sharp movements, costumes and make-up
If there was still money in our pockets
We would head for the ‘tikam tikam’ to try our luck
A peanut flake biscuit in a cellophane wrap
Which was ripped apart to reveal a card
Which said "Try again", so better to trudge back to bed!

If Ma saw no signs of repentance after the Lok-tang encounter
She would not hesitate to send us to watch the Kavadi carriers
With bow-shaped wooden contraptions on their shoulders
Hooks and spikes poked and pulled the skins on their bodies and faces
As they dedicated their vows to their god Murugan
The devotees meandered on the streets in a trance
They chanted 'Weil, weil' on this day of Thaipusam
With friends and family members who cheered and sang
To the fast beats of the loud music and drums 

* Rojak - Spicy fruit salad
** Tikam-tikam - A game of chance

Monday, August 25, 2014

Anak Merdeka, ‘57

Outram Jail, circa 1950s
Kandang Kerbau Hospital, circa 1950s

I was the baby of the family
There were Pa, Ma, Mal, Yat and me
I was born on the eve of Independence
At this maternity hospital called the Oxen Pen
Along with the birth of a new nation
Made up of the FMS and the Straits Settlements
After four and a half centuries of foreign domination

When Ma was heavy with me
Pa was incarcerated into the Penitentiary
Framed for supplying fire arms to the Radical Lefties
That shook the sensibilities of my grandfather, the Selangor Mufti
Who arrived in Singapore in his maroon Mercedes
Driven by his private chauffeur, my third Ami 
Siddi’s presence lent credence to his eldest son’s defence
And swayed the court verdict to a prison sentence    

Ma worked her bones to feed and shelter her family
And buy Pa his pack of Players when she visited him monthly
Her loyalty to her husband was admirable
In spite of her brothers and sisters’ disapproval
They were all the support system that she had
Her mother had died of miscarriage when she was eight
And her father expired when she was a young bride

When I turned six
Pa was released
He moved us from the one-bedroom barrack next to the cinema Central
To his godfather’s two-bedroom house in the village at the Foot Hills
But there was no decent job for a sworn enemy
And he can’t feed his family with fervent pleas
So across the border, and into the interior, he set off with his buddies
To clear acres of land and grow some paddy

When the field of grains turned golden
It was the start of the harvesting season
Pa took us to visit
And witness what all the months of toil had yielded   

Alas, he ran out of funds to pay the villagers
Whom he hired as daily harvesters
When they refused to show up for work
Pa and his buddies could only watch
As tracts and tracts of paddy stalks began to rot

Anak Merdeka - Independence Child
FMS - Federated Malay States
Mufti - Grand Cleric
Ami - Paternal Uncle 
Siddi - Paternal Grandfather
Paddy - Rice Grains

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Our Little Flash House on Saint's Hill

Photo: An excerpt from the second chapter of Bet of the Foothills
The Little Flash House on the Hill
After a month of holding our breaths
In a small rented unit at the rear of a stage house 
By the brook in the valley 
Which served as a natural boundary
To the football field ...
Up on the hill yonder
Ma found a trusty builder  
Who constructed a one bedroom structure
A hundred metres from the gurgling stream 
Which flowed from the lonely tin mine  
Izuan Shah Yani Iman
Off Grid House
    After a month of holding our breaths

    In a small rented unit at the rear of a stage house
By the brook in the valley
Which served as a natural boundary
To the school football field.
Up on the hill yonder
Ma found a trusty builder  
Who constructed a one bedroom structure
A hundred metres from the gurgling stream
Which flowed from the abandoned tin mine
On a TOL* patch of land
The builders pulled the weeds and levelled the earth with bags of sand
Then they marked the sections – the family area, the only bedroom, the narrow kitchen and the ‘sky roof’ bathroom
And poured sacks of cement
Mixed them with water and spread as floor
Next they assembled and erected the wooden frames, posts and walls
And finally, a silver zinc roof as its crown
Voila, we have our very own little ‘flash’ house in a wink!
When clean water gushed from the pump
Ma bought a huge porcelain water pot
With a fierce dragon
Draped around its circumference
We carried plastic tubs and pails
To wash our grubby faces and limbs
As the sun set
We got ready for supper and bed
Ma lit the wicks of the kerosene lamps which brightened the living room
And cast long shadows into the bedroom and beyond
When dawn broke
Ma warned us of the slippery moulds near the old well
In the common backyard
Mid way to the wooden steps down the slope
To the ‘tiny hut’ over the clear water of the rushing stream 
Where crafty shrimps hid behind huge boulders  
And dodged our hand-held flimsy nets
While we ignored the quarrels from the Bawean** barracks across the bank
Along with the mutterings from the Nyonya*** ‘dulang’ washers, head-bowed and covered with layers of rough cloths and straw hats  
We got to know our new neighbours
They were from different states -
Kak Ani, Abang Man and their son Din hailed from Betel Nut Island,
Kak Shimah, husband and sons moved west from Turtle Beach,
Pak Hekam sailed from the Land Below the Wind,
And Mak Fauzi ferried from across the Straits.
On most mornings, we would hear the ‘knock, knock’ on our front door
Followed by a hearty call “O, Bet!”
From Din, Kak Ani’s toddler,
With a pacifier in his mouth and a ‘stinky pillow’ in his arm
Mid mornings, Ma and Mak Fauzi would chat for hours
About safe hair dyes, Minangkabau dishes and the Japanese Occupation
Pak Hekam made sure nobody slips and falls
By cleaning the mildew from around the well
And we would all rush to the rescue
Kak Shimah’s husband
Whenever he struggled with his seizures.
Then came the fierce monsoon season
And the brutal tropical storm which brought our walls down
T’was sad to leave our little flash house on the hill
Plus the neighbours’ idiosyncrasies
For the cold flat
By the industrial zone of Section 13

* TOL - Temporary Occupational Licence
** Bawean - an ethnic group from an island about 150 km from Surabaya, off the coast of Java
*** Nyonya - a broad term used to refer to Chinese women


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Across the Causeway

Farewell Shot With the Clan 
I remember
It was December ‘65
School holidays
Ma sprang a surprise:
Siddi said it’s best we shift to KL”
What seemed like a few short days
She threw most of our stuff into some suitcases

And when the Fateful Day came
Yat and I put on our new stripe dresses with the Peter Pan collars
And pulled on the bright, white socks tucked into the brown Mary Janes
“Don’t forget the white hankies and zipped shiny purses for purchases”

When Ma heard the ‘Beep, beep’ sound of the horn
And sighted the taxi without the permit   
With its engine running
And emitting smoke
On the dusty road
She said,
“Hurry up, girls, we don’t have the red carpet and the Rolls Royce at our disposal”

No sooner than the doors were slammed
It raced to the FMS Railway Station at the Cape of Fence
Sending us and our baggage flying for defence
Neighbours and uncles and aunties and cousins and friends
Were already there to say
Selamat Jalan!

Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM)

I tagged along
As Mal and Yat paced the platform
Trying to catch the sight of the Station Master in uniform
On the side of the grimy red engine
Were written the words Senandong Malam
The Rhythm of the Night was the night train's name
Which will transport us to our destination

As we passed by the shells of the cream and dark brown coaches
We thought of dust-covered vanilla ice cream blocks on thick chocolate wafers
No doubt thrown on the tracks by the grumpy Sun Sun Ice Cream Seller

The restaurant car was deep in the belly of the train
With shiny long tables and metal benches
And cooks-waiters in white aprons behind steel counters.

At the last few carriages, the writing Muatan Busuk Segera had us baffled
What indeed were these Perishables
That must be instantly loaded
At the tail of the iron centipede
Before they rot and stank and caused a stampede?

Soon the first ‘phritt’ was heard
T’was time to trace our steps back
We kissed our uncles’ and aunts’ hands
Hugged our cousins and friends

By the second ‘phriitt, phriitt’
We had to get our feet on the three short steps
Unless Ma let us pull some stunts
We daren’t jump on rolling wagons!

Our eyes in tears
Our cheeks wet
We jammed the stairs
Our bodies jerked
As the train made a sudden start
When the third ‘phriiittt, phriiittt, phriiittt!!!’
Trilled from the Station Master’s whistle
And his tiny, green flag was unfurled. 

We leant on the thin rubber padding 
With blood red vinyl covering
What passed as benches
On third class coaches
Our arms rested on the open window ledge
The glass was heavy and thick  
And the steel shutters slid down
Like guillotines!

The yellow lights were kind
But the ‘whrrr, whrrr, whrrr’ of the small ceiling fans
Kept yanking our eyelids up
Dozing off was really hard
When so many were milling about
And the ‘clacketty, clack, clacketty, clack’ as the ticket collector made his rounds
Punching holes into thick paper stubs
    Making sure no free riders were aboard