Saturday, January 23, 2016

Into the Valley: Albatross

When adults evade problems, a girl has no choice but to confront them ...:
Underneath the frivolous outfit, she shoulders heavy responsibilties

Revised Blurb: 

A poignant story of gratitude, compassion and entrapment. Three adolescents --- Moon, Mat and Betty --- desperately sought escape from their tumultuous lives. The end of a disastrous affair forced Moon to move out and head for the city, leaving Betty stranded and saddled with Mat's heroin addiction. Her effort to get Mat into Rehab turned into a noose that bound her to a stifling relationship to an author who was more Albatross than Svengali.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Gold Standard of the Seventies

Those were the days when Malaysian beauties were content with Japanese beasts

Like the passenger who missed her train ride, I felt that I always arrived at the station just as my coach was leaving. The Malays' term for it is ketinggalan kereta api.

My career in journalism began at the end of its Golden Age when A. Samad Ismail was arrested in mid '76. Though I was spared  of profanities and news copies being hurled around the newsroom, I missed the opportunity of being under the tutelage of one of the greatest Malay journalists who had ever paced the editorial floor of the NSTP building. 

My college education commenced three years after the Universities and Colleges Act was introduced in '74. The Orientation Week was tame compared to the notorious Shampoo & Wash and the Panty Raids of yesteryears. Gone were the decadent Freshie Queen pageants, Varsity Balls and Screaming Contests. No more fiery oratory at the Speakers' Corner. No trace at all of protest demonstrations and defiant sit-ins. 

The early '70s were the worst of times. They were the best of times. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A new beginning

KL, December ‘65
I felt like I had been guarding my luggage for ages before I caught sight of a kuning langsat nymphet fluttering in through the haloed entrance (or was it the arched exit of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station?) like a capricious illusion created by the morning mist.
The yellow-skinned young lady looked around the station platform and waved frantically as soon as she saw Mak circumnavigating our bags and boxes. Mak and I frowned and blinked. And frowned and blinked.

It was hard to reconcile the image of this pretty lass in her black, shiny, tight sarong which split in the center up to her knee caps and her soft, pink chiffon blouse which ended just above the V-shaped creases which followed the shape of her now flat tummy with the picture of the miserable, pregnant teen in her drab blue a baju kurung when we first saw her sitting on that white iron swing in the garden of the Home for Wayward Girls on Jalan Rimau.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Angry Young Man

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

The Abandonment
I’d been my Baba’s and Siddi’s Blue-eyed Boy as far as I could remember. When I was eight, I completed all thirty juzu’ of the Qur’an three times over. When I was twelve, I made Baba’s sad eyes glisten with tears of joy when I was announced the Over-All Best Student of Sekolah Rendah Melayu Johor Baru.
Just ten months before that historic accomplishment, Baba’s had shed tears when Ummi fled with the Scotsman she met at the JB Lake Club. Baba knew that he shouldn’t have followed his heart and disobeyed Sitti’s wishes when he married that Perempuan Habshi (Abyssinian Woman) twenty-two years ago in 1942. Ummi had stolen his heart the moment he laid eyes on her at his cousin’s wedding reception. She was the singer with the famed Tanjong Puteri Quartet.
Ummi was sixteen and Baba was twenty-three. They had special nicknames for each other. She called him Skar, her special acronym for Syed Karim, and he called her Gyp, short for Gypsy. She thought he’d always be her fair-skinned and light-eyed Lawrence of Arabia. He knew she’d always be the husky-voiced, dusky-skinned, dark-eyed Gypsy Jezebel with that untamed curly locks. But twenty years, and four children later, he wasn’t the Lean and Hungry Machine that she fell in love with. All the scars from sailing the choppy waters of the Johor Straits and the South China Sea for antiques and curios were now covered by unsightly rolls of Folds and Flabs.
Gyp couldn’t help but yearn for the Young Skar. She longed for the Youthful Body and the Adventurous Spirit. Instead, she had to slip into the covers and lie down next to an Old, Gunny Sack, night after night. Staring at the ceiling next to a Broken Spirit, chipped away by frequent setbacks in running Arjuna Antique & Curios Shop.
An old friend alerted her of a vacancy as a Resident Singer at the JB Lake Club. The extra income would help shore up his dwindling profits. Gyp had written down a long list of ‘The Children’s Needs’. Syed Muchtar needed to pay the fees for his third attempt at the Senior Cambridge Examinations. Sharifah Hana needed the fees for her typing and short-hand classes. As a mother, she couldn’t just sit by and twiddle her thumb while her eldest son and daughter toil away as delivery boy and sales girl at their Baba’s ailing Antique & Curios Shop. They needed the paper qualification and the skills to ‘go out into the real world’. The two younger ones – that bright spark and full-of-potential Syed Muhammad needed pocket money for his books and Boys Scouts’ uniform and activities, and the not-so-bright and not-so-promising Sharifah Maimunah needed hers for her Girl Scouts’.
With a heavy heart, Skar let his vivacious wife be the Resident Singer for the JB Lake Club. Things were great for the first year. There was more than enough money for ‘The Children’s ‘Needs’ and everyone was happy. But dark clouds gathered in the second year of Gyp’s contract with the Lake Club when a certain Scotsman started to patronize the Club’s Bar and Lounge. He had lost his blonde blue-eyed wife and still-born baby prior to his posting to Malaysia and was still drowning his sorrows in Vodka and Bacardi. During his inebriated evenings spent at the Club, he was intoxicated by Gyp’s sultry voice and sensual charms.
“Heck, like how old are these Oriental Ladies anyway? They don’t look a day over twenty-two!”
As she regaled her guests, Gyp saw her escape hatch from Old Gunny Sack while she perched precariously on the high stool of the normally deserted bar. Robert McLeod was his name. A young widower at thirty-four. Three years difference is no gap at all. Tall, muscular, blonde and blue-eyed. Such a sight for sore eyes. And a thick wallet to boot!
As she sat at the bar next to him in her black lame evening dress, a glass of pink Baby Champ delicately balanced between her gloved slender fingers, Gyp talked Bob (they had gotten to first name basis by then) into applying for a transfer to KL.
“That’s where you’d want to be. And that’s where you should be. Where the bright, neon lights are. Not in this dingy, damp watering hole!”
“You think so? You really think so? I’m thinking of doing that. Yes, I’m going do just that!” He said, peering at her through his light, blonde eye lashes.
With each tinkling of her dainty champagne glass against his sturdy Vodka tumbler, with each trail of her light laughter against his gruff guffaw, his resolve to take her away with him to the capital city grew stronger.                  
Baba was stunned to find his beloved Gyp gone when he returned home on February 14th, 1964. He simply couldn’t believe that, after twenty-two years of what he thought was a happy marriage, she could just pack up all her newer clothes, shoes, handbags and stuff into her big Baby Blue Samsonite hard-shell suitcase and leave with Bob in his cream-colored Volvo 124 to KL while everyone else was away at the shop and school. 
As he slumped himself on the leather Ottoman he ordered from Cairo and sighed:
“How am I going to break the news to your brother and sisters?”
How would I know, Baba? I just turned twelve. I thought you were The Most Loving Couple in JB. I’d never, ever thought that Ummi could just walk out on you … on us all!
“Abang Tar’s World of Football, Training and Body-Building, Motivational Pep Talk, Readers Digest, National Geographic and Psychology Today, would be shattered,” Baba continued. “Do you think he’ll be able to pick up the pieces and recover from this scandal?”
You should know him better, Baba! You’re his father! The voice in my head screamed.
“Kak Hana would be devastated … Who’s going to remind her now that Her Face is Her Fortune, that Good Girls Go to Heaven but Fair, Pretty Girls Go Everywhere?” Baba smiled wryly. “Do you think she’ll blame her Baba for not being Man Enough to keep her Ummi from the clutches of a brawny Scottie?”
Again and again he was looking for answers that I didn’t have. Or, perhaps, he wasn’t. He was just voicing his thoughts aloud. But I was filled with hate and rage for Ummi. I wanted Baba to get up and bring her back home!
“You can’t just sit there, Baba. You’ve to track her down and drag her home. Make her repent for her sins!”
But Baba’s butt was glued to the Ottoman. His face was still resting on his palms. And his eyes fixed on the Tree of Life motif on the Persian carpet Siddi bought from Isfahan, long before I was born. I promised myself then that I wouldn’t forgive him if he didn’t redeem his reputation as a Cuckolded Husband. Suami Dayus … Such a vile word on my tongue!
But he just shook his head and rambled on.
“Sherry … carefree, little Sherry … would be wondering if she had been a Horrid Little Girl that her Ummi, like the mother in Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup, decided to just leave her for good. Will she blame herself for this?”
I couldn’t stand another second of this soliloquy. I got up, clutched my school satchel and walked to my room. I locked the door and sat at the edge of my bed. Silent tears of anger --- of frustration --- welled up at the corner of my eyes.
It turned out that my siblings reacted differently to Ummi’s departure. Abang Tar grew more sullen and withdrawn. Kak Hana bolted off to Singapore like an angry mare. When she was tracked down at her best friend’s place in Opera Estate, Baba had to comply with the Family Court’s ruling that she be sent to the Home for Wayward Girls.
I threw myself into my studies and Scouts and excelled beyond everybody’s expectation. I had to prove to Ummi that her ditching us didn’t bother me one bit!
And Sherry, Knuckle Head Sherry, struggled on with her homework and her Qur’an reading classes. Sometimes, at the silent dinner table, she’d wonder aloud if Ummi will ever come home.
Abang Tar finally surrendered after his fourth attempt at the Senior Cambridge Examinations. He fell behind in his training and had to forsake his chance to play with the Youth Football Team. He left Baba’s business and settled for a job as a police constable with the PDRM --- Polis DiRaja Malaysia. Kak Hana gave her baby up for adoption and moved to KL, where a rich relative found her a sales job at a cosmetic counter in Robinson’s. I was selected into the Science Stream and continued to shine. And stupid Sherry had to deal with puberty problems with help from her dim-witted friends.
Five years had passed since Ummi left. Baba’s body and spirit grew weaker by the day. Ummi, on the other hand, went on with her new life with alacrity, promptly getting a proxy divorce from the Qadi’s office at Jalan Othman, Petaling Jaya, and marrying the newly converted Bob at the same office three months and ten days later. Nine months later, she delivered his child at thirty-nine.

The Dockyard
After my devastating results in March ’70, I’d been back and forth between PJ and JB, working at the dockyards and quitting whenever I needed a break.
Finally, when Abang Tar’s bloated body was fished out the water tank in March ‘72, I simply couldn’t bear to be in JB with Baba and his relatives who had callously let Abang Tar to wander aimlessly in life and ended up working as a menial laborer at a laundry shop.
Once Abang Muchtar was interred six feet underground, I hopped on the train to KL. I swore that I’ll never to return. I was angry that Baba let his health deteriorate and ignore Abang Tar’s pain. I was angry with Abang Im for being preoccupied with his Nyawa and neglecting his Best Buddy. I was angry at all my relatives who could have done something to stop the slippery slope into depression and despair. The anger festered like a boil that had to be assuaged, first by weed, then by acid, and in the end … speed.         
Someone, somewhere had to pay attention to my pain. Save me from my path of self-destruction!
Someone, somewhere had to have a conscience … to feel the pangs of guilt, to apologize and compensate me for all my sorrows and disappointments!
As the train sped through the night, the lyrics of The Marmalade’s Reflections of My Life played on my mind, over and over again.
All my sorrows,
Sad tomorrows,
Take me back,
To my own home ...

From A&W to Woodstock

Joni Mitchell, singer and composer of the song Woodstock (1969)

Anne’s Mum was worried that Sherry was mixing with the Wrong Crowd. She asked her daughter to arrange for Double Dates with Decent Boys. And if Anne had to work on weekends, Betty would be the Substitute Blind Date for the Poor, Unsuspecting Boy. ‘Cos instead of getting a slim and confident eighteen year-old, he would end up with a plump and awkward fifteen year-old.
But Freddy Danker wasn’t A Shallow Cad. He wasn’t like the Other Superficial Band Boys who ogled at Girls’ Boobs & Bottoms. The Good, Church-going Christian Boy that he was, he looked beyond the Skin & Flesh and appreciated the Beautiful Person inside.
He and his twin, Roy Danker, were Anne's rich cousins on her mother’s side. Their Mum, Anne's Mum’s sister, had just 'expired' a few months ago. The concerned aunt that she was, Anne’s Mum thought that dating would help The Twins get over their mother’s demise.
The Twins had just received their Independence Keys when they turned twenty-one prior to their mother’s recent 'expiration'. They had followed their Dad's footsteps and formed their own band - La Liberacion, a household name in the disco circuit. Freddy was the keyboardist and Roy, why of course, he was the vocalist.
True to their status as Pop Princes, Freddy and Roy picked Sherry and Betty up in their red Alfa Romeo sports car. Freddy jumped out of the driver's seat and opened the car door for Sherry and Betty to sit on the back seat. For the first time in their lives, Sherry and Betty felt they were treated like Proper Little Ladies. Both Freddy and Roy were Super Squeaky Clean – all the way - from the top of their poufs to the tips of their white boots.
After a few wholesome Saturday outings, Mak returned from one of her regular excursions and puts a HALT to All This Nonsense.
"Just who do you think you are now? Elvis Presley's gurlpren?" She asked, arms akimbo.
"No lah, Mak, Freddy and me are only friends. His Mum just died. He needs to cheer himself up. So, he takes me to A&W and bowling. Just that!"
"Iya lah, now it's root beer and bowling. Then, to chers!"
"No lah. Why would he take me to church for?"
"To drink holy water. So you'll pray to Jijes!"
"You don't even know him. How could you accuse him of trying to convert me?"
"Dah, dah. Jangan mengada-ngada. Enough. Don’t be cheeky. I won't hear any more of this. You stay home and study hard for your MCE next year. Don't be gallivanting with that Freddy ever again. Or that Wild Sherry, for that matter! Do you hear me?"
"Yes, Mak. I heard you."
"Unless you want a taste of sambal in your mouth?"
"No, Mak. No pounded chillies, please, no."
But Mak went off to Kuantan again and left me alone at the flat with the university students.
Sherry told me, “You’ve to get out. It’s not safe to stay at home with the tenants too much. You might be giving them ideas.”
“What ideas?”
“The wrong ideas!”
“What wrong ideas?”
Alah … you know lah. Do I have to spell it out?”
“Please spell it out, Sherry.”
“It never crossed your mind that Jamil might get fresh with you?”
“No. Never. Why should he? He’s, like, dating all the kakaks in the blocks and terrace houses behind. And Abdul Hayy is always around. And when any one of them is home, I lock myself up in the front room and read.”
“I know about him dating all the silly kakaks who think they’ve snared a university student. And I know that Abdul Hayy is an Angel without wings who never look at girls. But you can’t lock yourself up in your room all the time. You’ve got to get out sometimes!”
“What about Anne? Can’t she go out with you?”
“Anne and her Mum have given up on me. I told them I’m not ready to go steady with Roy. Now, the Sour Plum Girl have set up a double date for me and her brother Faisal and his college mate to go Ipoh.”
“College mate? Ipoh?”
“Yes! One of those Budak-Budak Kolet Kuala Kangsar. They’re in Form Six. About my age. It’s just a three hour trip to see the Malaysian Woodstock.”
“And three hours back? How long is the concert? What if Mak comes home when I’m away?”
Aiyoh! Just say you slept over at Anne’s place or the JB girls lah! Why are you so straight?”
“You want me to be crooked then?”
“No lah, once in a while you’ve to tell white lies ... Come on, let’s not waste time. Just get ready and go!”
We had heard of Kak Hana talking about Abang Shid being a Budak Kolet MCKK … Malay College Kuala Kangsar, the Eaton of the East, a prestigious residential school for selected Anak-anak Orang Kaya, rich men’s sons. Boy, were we surprised to see that they looked just like the Jay Be Blues Band Boys, with their shoulder-length, stripe bell-bottoms, tie-dye t-shirts, tong headbands and Peace Pendants. Mak would have fainted if she saw them. Even the other Budak-budak Universiti, the University Kids, were dressed like Hippies. If she had shook her head when she first saw the Beatles' Mop Tops in the Sixties, she would have been flabbergasted to see MCKK boys with their Hippies' Locks in the Seventies. Such a far cry from Jambul Elvis Presley of the Fifties!
All the way to Ipoh and back, the boys and Sherry were humming Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock.
We're stardust,
We're golden,
We've got to get ourselves,

Back into the garden.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Party Girl Sis

Image result for the cellar disco petaling jaya 1970
The resident band at the Cellar
 For me, attending school was like a prison sentence that I couldn’t wait to be released from. My last day at Assunta (Secondary Girls’ School) put an end to my five-day school week purgatory in that dowdy short-sleeved white shirt and midi brown pleated skirt, and that suffocating strip of brown tie on Mondays.  
With school over, I was free to wear my tailored clothes that I paid for from scrimping on Chik Rabiah’s catering budget. Now that I had the whole day free, I started looking for a proper job that could buy me ready-made outfits from Lin Ho, customized shoes and matching handbags from that shop in Petaling Street, just like Kak Hana before she left for England, Biba make-up from that pretty cosmetic counter girl on Batu Road, and perhaps – just perhaps - sun glasses and accessories from Robinson’s like Ummi’s and Kak Hana’s.
“But you need to enroll for typing and short-hand classes like I did before I got my job at the travel agency,” Kak Hana told me point blank.
Underneath that cloyingly sweet façade and tone of voice, she could be cruel and sadistic. Well, I wasn’t going to let her burst my bubble. I was determined to get that Cover Girl Look that I scrutinized daily on Seventeen, Elle and Cosmopolitan.
“So, when can I enroll? Should I ask Baba to pay for my fees?” I asked, undeterred by her skepticism. I will NOT resign to staring at the splatters of burst bubbles around me.         
“Well, most people enroll in January. So, you’ve six to seven weeks to save up for the fees. You know that Baba’s business is down since he’s not well, don’t you? And forget Ummi. She’ll expect Abang Tar and Mat to provide for you,” she said, obviously having the upper hand.
“So, what am I going to do ‘til January? The university students are on term break now. I won’t be getting any money from Chik Rabiah when there are no students to cook for,” I wailed in despair.
“You can help mind Rara. You’re better at taking care of her than Nana. She’s so kampungan! I don’t want my baby to end up talking like a village girl! I’ll ask Abang Shid to give you some pocket money for the typing class in January.”
“Oh, sure … I can do that in the meantime …” I said.  “Thanks, Kak!”
I felt a surge of genuine gratitude. Who else could I turn to now that Baba’s unwell and Abang Tar’s jobless? Mat? His pay at the dockyard was just enough to cover his own expenses.
Now, Kak Hana can be very, very nice if you go along with all her wishes. She set aside a pile of her cast-offs – almost new cotton and voile dresses that I had to tuck in two sizes smaller – to get me excited about baby-sitting Rara. Sure, she had two helpers – Busu to cook and clean, and her niece, Nana, to mind Rara. And Chik Rabiah spent weeks at her place to teach Busu to cook Johorian food and to take care of Rara on Nana’s off-days.
Kak Hana had been going to JB often to see Baba and she took Nana along with her. I guessed that was why she needed me to babysit Rara. Anyway, staying at their sea-side government quarters in Kuantan was almost like being on a summer holiday in the South of France or the Mediterranean … like those fashion shoots and travel stories that I only read about in Jackie and Teen Beat.
Abang Shid’s status as an officer got them membership at the Beach Club. At the Club, I could sit for hours by the pool and ordered whatever Rara, and I, chose to eat. I normally ordered sandwiches, cakes and fruit juices. I figured I could always get Sotong Kangkong, Fried Kuetiau and Lin Chee Kang at the hawker stalls in State and Section 14. And the Yong Tau Fu and Dim Sum at Ampang and Petaling Street were unbeatable.
Having Rara tagging me everywhere like my own little shadow was a small price to pay for my elevated life in Abang Shid’s and Kak Hana’s big bungalow. Abang Shid was happy to see Rara, who used to knock her head against walls and floors when she didn’t get her way, showing her sunny disposition whenever she was around me.
I reckoned Kak Hana’s life was just like Ummi’s. The big bungalow, the beautiful garden, the Peugeot 504, the boutique dresses, the hairstyle by Leo Bernard, the servants, the holidays in Singapore. Like all those lucky housewives and society ladies in Her World and Australian Women’s Weekly that I stumbled upon - on her coffee, kitchen and pool-side tables - the few times that I was at her house.  
I entertained the thought that, maybe, who knows, I would have a life like theirs too … not if, but when, I meet the Right Guy. A Good Provider who would protect me from a Hard Life, like Chik Rabiah’s. Poor Chik Rabiah … strung along, for years and years, without a proper divorce! Had to raise her daughter all by herself, rescued Kak Hana from her quandary, took Mat and I into her home and, goodness me, even asked Kak Hana to set Chot and me up. In spite of her acerbic tongue, she really had our best interests at heart.
To Chik Rabiah, Chot was Mr Perfect. A Dream Husband. He might not have come from a high-class family but he was brainy enough to get a scholarship to study Accountancy in the UK. Just like Abang Shid. Hmm … just the mention of his name filled me with shame and regret. Little did Chik Rabiah or anyone else, at that time, suspected that Abang Shid and I had our own Little Secret. Oh, how I hated myself for having to sneak around with my own sister’s husband! But she was the one who two-timed him in the first place.  
“Do you think I’m a fool to believe that those frequent visits to JB are to see your Baba?”
Abang Shid said one evening after I’ve tucked Rara to bed.
“What are they for … then? With Nana as chaperone and all!”
I wondered aloud, both perplexed and bewildered, and at the same time annoyed that he should question my sister’s fidelity.
“You knew about her old flame, Husni, didn’t you?”
His voice ruffled in the stillness of the night.
Rara turned in her sleep. I put my index finger on my mouth, as a reflex.
“I was eleven then …” I stuttered.
“But old enough to know about the birds and the bees. No?” he insisted. His gaze was sharp and intense. There was pain in his eyes.
“Yes … I guess … over the years … I did put two and two together …” my voice tailed off as my throat tightened. I felt suffocated by the tense atmosphere in the bedroom.
My head started to plead. Please don’t drag me into your marital spat. I’m only seventeen. I wouldn’t know what goes on in the mind of my twenty-five year old sister. Leave me out of this. I just want to earn some pocket money for my typing class in January.
But his breath was hot on my neck. My hair stood on ends. And I felt a strange, sensual awakening deep inside me. That irresistible arousal that seared like a flame within the inner recesses of the heroines in Denise Robbins’s torrid romance novels.
Oh! I wish I hadn’t allowed compassion and vulnerability get the better of me!
But what’s done is done. It cannot be undone. No amount of blame and shame and remorse could redeem me as the Traitor and Home-Wrecker. I had to bear the brunt of the fall-out while Abang Shid got away with a light slap on his wrist. He was, after all, a man. And a man was supposed to be weak in the face of temptation. Hogwash!!            
Never mind that he had used me when Kak Hana rekindled her affair with her old flame in JB. Never mind that he had promised to marry me and have his baby in London. Never mind that Kak Hana only came back to cut her losses. She must have figured out that a bird in hand is better than one in Someone Else’s Bush. And, suddenly, Abang Shid was the Helpless Husband who fell into the clutches of the Temptress. Me!!
God only knew how I survived those Dark Days After the Scandal was discovered. If it hadn’t been for Anne Danker’s family, I would have just walked up Bukit Gasing and hurled myself down. Everyone, everyone … Ummi, Chik Rabiah too, cursed me for being the Scourge that brought problems to a Happy Marriage.
“All marriages have their ups and downs. Do you have to be the Third Person to drive a wedge between your sister and brother-in-law?”
Ummi reprimanded me. That was rich … coming from a woman who abandoned her husband and children for a younger, richer foreigner!
“You should have gotten them to reconcile. Instead, you dreamt of taking her place. With all the men in this world that you could’ve an affair with, you had to steal your own sister’s husband!”
Chik Rabiah was outraged. But, of course, her loyalty was with them. They were the embodiment of family stability – responsible husband, trophy wife, animated child. They would be the ones that she could fall back on during hard times. How could I, an unemployed eighteen-year old, be of help to her and her daughter?
I swallowed the bitter pill. Betty helped me to pack my bags and walked me to the Dankers’ single-story terrace house, across the street from the block behind hers. Anne had found me a job as a telephone operator at Jaya Puri which helped pay for room, bus fare, meals and off-the-peg office attire from Lin Ho.
When I had some extra from my third month’s salary, I took Betty to shop at Petaling Street to pick up some cheap bargains – long suede pants, long-sleeve knit top, fake leather fringe bolero, denim bell bottoms and an African Dashiki Poncho. I bought myself an orange floral chiffon see-through blouse, a purple satin studded hot pants, sheer-sucker bare-back tops and Girl Biker faux leather skirts.
“I saw you reading about the Red Indians and the Negroes in America, so I guess you’d want to dress like them. Though these aren’t real suede and leather lah!”
“They’re not Red Indians and Negroes! They’re Native Americans and Blacks, Sherry,” Betty corrected me. “But it’s really kind of you to buy me all these clothes when you could’ve just spent it all on yourself.”
In the mornings, while I waited for Bas Jalan Barat to work, I got to know Nuwal who lived two streets behind. She was constantly sucking on sour plums that I gave her a secret nickname, Budak Asamboi. The Sour Plum Girl then introduced me to her next-door neighbors - the JB Sisters – Nona, Dona, Noni, Hani, Nani and Pon, and the Kuantan Sisters - Mawar and Lis. They were The Party Girls of Jalan 17/2.
Jalan 17/2 was one funky street. It’s motto, at that time, was "Let's Party". Mawar’s and Lis’ mother was a childhood friend of Nuwal’s mother. They were school teachers who invited ‘business-minded’ housewives like the JB Sisters’ mother to their Tuppaware Party on Sunday afternoons and talked about opportunities to earn pocket money by selling colorful plastic containers, Holiday Magic cosmetics and Corning Ware dinner sets.  
But it wasn’t all work and business. On Saturday nights, they were out wining and dining at Officers’ Functions or boozing and dancing at the Army Messes. Che’Gu Timah and Che’Gu Rose … they were modern and open-minded mums … not frumpy and prudish like Chik Rabiah. They let their daughters invite friends to Dark and Smoky House Parties where Chik Rabiah would show up, screeching and dragging Betty away. Poor Betty! What luck to have a mother like that! She’d never learn to dance or have boyfriends. She’d never grow up to be part of the Young, Swinging Couples like Abang Shid and Kak Hana who danced the nights away at Dazzling Discos in KL, JB and Singapore. She’d forever be their kids’ baby-sitter.
The Asamboi Girl, Mawar and Lis and the JB Sisters … they all had groovy boyfriends who were musicians or Band Boys. There was this band that they were mad about … The Jay Be Blues. Those boys lived above the motorcycle shop by the roundabout up the hill. It was at one of their Blues Parties that I met their singer, Joe Blues.
Joe Blues’ Favorite Number was Yellow River by this UK group called Christie and he taught me to do the Bump and the Hustle. He took me to Sunday tea dances at The Cellar, and when he was ‘loaded’, to discotheques at the Glass Bubble, Time Tunnel, Tomorrow, The Cave and Tin Mine. I loved moving my body the dance floor. It made me forget about Baba’s illness, Ummi’s selfishness, Kak Hana’s falseness, Abang Shid’s betrayal.
But being Joe’s Steady Girlfriend stifled me. Whenever we weren’t dancing, he’d want to neck. So, I would persuade Betty to go out with us whenever Chik Rabiah was away in Kuantan or Singapore.  Anyways, that girl need to get out of that musty flat and learn to be a Groovy Chick.
But Mat confronted us at the stairs one night and told me to leave her alone.
“She’s too young to be taught the Facts of Life. If you want to be a Wild Party Girl, that’s your choice. Don’t be a bad influence on other people’s daughter!”
Wow! That was rich of him to preach to me like that. Like he was an Ustaz or sumthin’. Betty told me that she had seen him burning and sniffing some white stuff in the back room. But she was afraid that her mother would freak out if she were to tell her. Sure, he’d want her to stay home. Like Kak Hana, he’d just want her to remain Dek Gemok, Fat Lil Sis, the family helper who washed and ironed his clothes, cooked his Maggi Mee and made his coffee when he came home from jammin’ at 3 o’clock in the mornin’.         
Betty deserved better than that. She deserved to have her own life. To meet other young people and have fun. To dance away her loneliness at tea dances and trendy discos.

The Fat Fly on the Wall
In the dim lights, I watched the round studded chandelier whirled, casting mosaic bits of white light, and the music from the band boomed from the dance floor.
To be really honest, I was content to let Sherry be the Life of the Party and the Undisputed Dancing Queen. There was never competition any between us. And there will never be. I accepted her as an outgoing, fun loving person. And Sherry regarded me as a bookworm who needed to get out of my shell.
I smiled as I gazed at Sherry’s tan, slender limbs shimmer under her see-through orange chiffon blouse and her purple satin studded hot pants. It didn’t matter how many plates of fried kuetiau she consumed, she’d still be slim and trim.
I pulled my long-sleeve, cheese-cloth jacket over my black five ringgit halter top to hide my burgeoning bulges. I leaned against the wall, crossed my arms and my legs. My red clogs peeked under my flared, matching Oxford pants. If only I could shed some pounds!
Mak had made a big deal of me wearing halter and crisscross tops that I never leave home without a jacket. She mocked at me when I had my faux leather Midi skirt on.
“Are you going to expose your Toilet Post Legs to the whole world?”
And Sherry’s brother, Mat Flat who fancied he was Jimi Hendrix, had mercilessly teased me about my short hair, round face, thick glasses and excess weight. He had merrily called me Dek Gemok.
He was lucky not to pile up the pounds. Perhaps that was why he took that white stuff. To keep his weight down? I wondered.
Under the flabs and folds, I consoled myself, It’s safer to be Bessy Bunter. To be left alone in dark corners than to have boys ask me to dance. What next after that? Out on dates that’d got me into a hot soup when Mak’s home.”
Anyways, there are tons of Slim and Sexy Girls around. They were all eager to dance and be out on dates. No boy gave me a second glance, let alone ask me for a dance.
Imagine if they had asked? I mean, the Fast Numbers were alright. It was the Slow Numbers that scared the beejeebers out of me. When Boys pressed their bodies hard against Girls and Girls played dumb and endured it. Or the witty ones would crack a joke, sumthin’ like Mae West’s famous one-liner, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Eeuw!!

At every house party, tea dance or disco, they would play this favorite Slow Dance Number … Whiter Shade of Pale by this band with a strange name … Procol Harum. They said that it was named after a pedigree cat. But it evoked anything but pedigree behavior. I had seen too many flushed faces glued to each other, their eyes heavy in lust, the bodies pressed hard against each other while they inched to its sluggish refrain. No, I didn’t see couples swept to “the safe shores like Vestal Virgins”. More like drowned by its melancholy. Even more shameless and suggestive was that sexy French number, Je ‘taime. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Heli Hostess



Sherry met Pierre, her knight in shining armor, after a string of heartthrobs. Before Pierre, there were Hal the Brat, Nyoman the Artist, Zul the ITM Student, Joe the Band Boy, Shid the A***H***, Paul the Piglet and Richie Rich.
Hal was her first squeeze – blonde, blue-eyed, half-Caucasian Love Child of a distant relative on her mother’s side. Hal’s mother was a short, ugly Witch who had an affair with the manager of the Raffles Hotel. Before she could pack her bags to leave her cuckolded husband, the White Man died in her arms of a heart attack. The henpecked  man almost jumped into Mac Ritchie Resevoir when he saw the fair, freckled face of the baby that he knew wasn’t his.
That whirlwind romance with Hal was in ’69, five years after Ummi left with her Drunken Mat Salleh. Just what’s with Ummi? She and her libido! Why can’t she just be a good wife to Baba?
But Hal’s hot-headedness was too much to bear. Just like the daughter in the Sound of Music, she was only fifteen going on sixteen and horror stories about Hal's mother frightened her. When Betty’s cousin from the old flats introduced her Nyoman the Artist, she dropped Hal like a hot potato.
Nyoman was on a short visit from Bali. He needed a muse and a model. Sherry needed escape from Hal. After several sittings for portraits, he asked her to leave with him to that tropical isle. She pondered on her prospects for a few days. 
Then she told him, “Mas Nyoman, I'm sure Bali is an island paradise … but I’ve to finish my studies first. I’ll visit when I’m done with my Form Five.” 
Yes, she had to complete her schooling. But he was also a Hindu, and she’d never be a Hindu, and that’s why she can’t go to Bali with him.  
After Nyoman left, she decided that fifteen is too young to go steady. She’d just have fun and have Betty tag along to house parties and double dates so she’d have an excuse not to get seriously involved. That was until Joe the vocalist of the Jay Be Blues swept her off her feet with his electric personality.
When she was at Chik Rabiah’s flat, she imagined her life with a Band Boy as a partner. She shuddered when she thought of Jude, the pretty Chinese girl who dropped out of school at sixteen when she was pregnant with Karl’s baby. A week after she delivered the baby, Sherry dragged Betty to their rented room on the first floor of a double-story terrace house near Paramount. It was like a John & Yoko sleep-in, but very basic with just a mattress, a low table and plastic shelves for clothes. Karl was sprawled on the floor and Jude was nursing the baby on the mattress. When they arrived, she yanked down her tie-dye t-shirt over her breasts and pulled her leather mini skirt to cover her thighs. She smiled weakly through her curtain of long straight hair.
When they walked out to the streets, Sherry held back her tears as she hugged Jude and said good-bye. Sherry held on to Betty’s elbow as they walked to the bus stand at Paramount. Jude crossed the road to the makan shops to buy lunch. Six weeks later, she heard that Jude had thrown in the towel, took up a job as a hostess at a lounge and gave the baby up for adoption.
Zul the ITM Student showed up just in time for Sherry to get over Joe. He studied Law and lived in the next block of flats which was turned into a student’s hostel. He was head over heels with her. And she was flattered that someone so handsome and smart, and from a well-known family in Penang, would be smitten by her. But their stars were crossed and their schedules clashed. He had to rush to his lectures and tutorials at the Jalan Othman campus and she had to hunt for jobs.
Sherry knew that Chik Rabiah had watched her string of boyfriends with disdain. Except for Zul the ITM student. But it’d be a few years before he completes his diploma program. And Chik Rabiah was impatient. She’d been to the Club with Kak Hana a few times and taken a liking to Chot, a fellow accountant at Abang Shid’s office. Since then, she’d been bugging Kak Hana to set Sherry and Chot up.
Kak Hana protested, “I really don’t know how to be a matchmaker! What if after I set them up, they don’t like each other?”
“How would you know if you haven’t tried? At least, invite him over for tea so he’ll get to know your sister better. I saw him stealing glances at her at the Club.”
But she hemmed and hawed, and hedged and dodged, and then vanished to JB for days ‘til Chik Rabiah gave up. Chik Rabiah, the help and Sherry were left to manage the big bungalow and see to Abang Shid and Baby Rara’s needs. Many, many months later, when she caught them extending their tongues to exchange sweets, she wailed and wept on Chik Rabiah’s shoulders.  
Chik Rabiah retorted, “What do you expect when you leave a man and a girl night after night together?”
“But how could she do this to me? Her own sister? How could she betray me?”
“You should have seen it coming when you kept going down back and forth, back and forth, to JB!”
“I was worried about my Baba! That was why I went down often!” She protested vehemently.  
Of course, Chik Rabiah saw through her act and knew all along that she was just using her Baba to see that scoundrel of her old flame. Just like her Ummi! Running away from boredom and sneaking around with another bugger! And now, she cried that she was the Betrayed One!
Sherry’s head spinned at the bitter truth that Abang Shid had used her as a rebound, a pawn in a ghastly game of getting even. How I could be so naïve to believe his promises to send me to London and have his child there? How could he go back on his own words? What a darn fool I made of myself!
Strung me along …. led me on … suck my youth … two years of my life down the drain!
And I’m the one who had to live through the humiliation of being accused a Harlot, a Prostitute, a Home Wrecker!
They made up and had another baby. I didn’t even get near a typing class!    
Just as well, Paul the Piglet turned up just at the right time for a vendetta in Cameron Highlands. Even if he had been a monk, and never touched me the whole time, I had to show them that I had gotten over the heartbreak.
People say, that every cloud has a silver lining. And, true enough, the sun shone after the dark clouds passed. Nuwal, the Budak Asamboi, who worked as a croupier at the casino in Genting, told me about an opening as a helicopter hostess.
“I’m sure with your figure and poise, you’ll have no problem getting the job,” she said, scrunching up her broad nose.
“I just hope that the person who interviews me thinks the same!” I giggled as I envisioned bright days ahead.
It was at the coffee house in Genting that I met Richie Rich. His real name was Richard Yap - handsome, overseas graduate with impeccable manners and immaculate dress sense, an heir to a vast fortune. But there was always a snag. As a taikor’s first born son, and the great-great-great grandson of Yap Ah Loy, the third Kapitan Cina of KL, he had to carry his family name. Hence, conversion is out of the question. I might not be a good Muslim, but I wasn’t about to abandon my faith and undergo a church wedding. Even Ummi got her Scotsman to convert, even in name. After two wonderful years together, I had to leave Richard and glue back the pieces of my broken heart.
God was on my side. Pierre Montreux – a solid, steady Frenchman, thirteen years my senior, a receding hairline and a slight paunch compensated by a stable job as the GM of a logistics company – boarded the helicopter to Genting and never took his eyes off me.
He introduced me to fine dining and champagne sipping at The Ship, Le Coq D’Or, The Grill; the Expat Community and Elite Circle at the Selangor Club, and his luxury apartment at Ukay Heights.