(A memoir of a Singaporean family who migrated to Malaysia in the wake of the 1964 July riots)
Scene 1 – Tanjong Pagar, 8 PM, December 2 1965
Finally, it was time to board the Senandong Malam, the night coach to Kuala Lumpur. The station master had blown the whistle for the third time and flagged down the red triangle cloth as a signal of departure. I stood behind Mak, Kak Aida, Jamal and Yat on the narrow aisle between the bare seats. Abang Hatta, my eldest brother, had stayed behind since he was already 21 and was working in the police force. I could see Mak’s tears streaking down her face as she asked him to take good care of himself. Leaving him alone in Singapore was one of the hardest decisions in Mak’s life, one that she regretted until her dying day. But events that unfolded forced her to leave the island republic where she was born and had spent the first 40 years of her life.
There were the violent race riots during the Prophet’s Birthday procession in July last year and, later in December, there was the family crisis that had smeared ‘charcoal on her face’. The villagers had prepared themselves for armed clashes and we heard the sounds of Chinese drum beats that went on for several nights from the neighboring village of Chai Chee. There were general feelings of unease even after the clamp down on conflicts and the reduced curfew hours. As if to hasten my mother's decision to migrate, something happened that made it uncomfortable for both my mother and eldest sister to continue living in the village. It required little effort on my Siddi's (paternal grandfather) part to convince her to move and start a new life in Kuala Lumpur, not far from Klang, where he worked as a senior religious official.
My vision was blurred as I pressed my face against the train window and waved good bye to my mother’s brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces (Wak Som, Wak Enah, Wak Yok, Wak Aman, Mak Munah, Wak Aeng, Pak Cik Pom, Abang Amzah, Kak Pet, Kak Imah, Tutut) and our neighbours who had sent us off.
As the dusty brown and yellow coaches snaked its way out of the station and headed north, the last nine years of my childhood in Kampung Melayu Kaki Bukit (Malay Kampung at the Foothills) flashed before me – the traditional Malay kampong house at 38 Jalan Damai which faced the ‘padang’ (field) at the back of the hill. I pictured the ‘air pancor’ (water spout) halfway up the hill, where the neighbors’ children and I scooped its gushing water to wash our sweaty faces on hot afternoons. The dirt ditch that separated our house from the orange dirt road that ran parallel to the ‘padang’, where Benggali bread vendors, Chinese ice cream sellers, Sikh cow herders and Malay movie stars passed by. That old dirt drain, whose waters had swelled one monsoon season and whose currents had swept and almost drowned me - had recently been reinforced with uniform V-shaped, concrete ducts.
The dirt bridge that led to our compound with its rough hedges of tea bushes that hugged the big dirt drain in front and the little one on the left that marked the boundary of our plot and that of our affable neighbor’s – Pak Seman ‘Benjol’ (a permanent bump on his right forehead earned him that nick name) and his wife Mak Limah who supplemented her husband’s income by selling ‘cakar ayam’ (small, rounded, caramelised sweet potato hatches) from home.
There was no drain separating our land and our neighbours’ on the right – Mak Cik Mani (short for Mahani, the stern-faced yet kind breadwinner of her family), Pak Cik Man (her reserved husband, who spent his time looking out the window with a rosary in his right hand, after his recovery from a stroke), Nek (her story-telling octogenarian mother), Pipit (her eldest daughter, nicknamed ‘sparrow’ for her love of ‘chirping’), Mamat (Mohamed, who filled his every waking hour with youthful pursuits like gasing spinning and kite slicing with such fierce intensity), Enchah (Habsah, her studious, sensible daughter who was my best pal) and Yon (Haron, her youngest son, whom my second brother loved to tease as my suitor) – only scattered, waist-high hedges of hibiscus plants and a tall guava (jambu batu) tree, which shaded the ‘amben’ (low, wide bench) where Enchah and I spent many lazy afternoons listening to Pipit’s tales of romantic escapades.
The guava tree had also provided the 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 sambal, serunding and bergedil). Mak Cik Mani was more steadfast in purveying her white and yellow steamed ‘putu piring’ with ‘gula melaka’ fillings. I had earned my pocket money from selling those hot piping flour cakes wrapped in banana leaves by going around the village with Enchah after school. With the 15 sen ‘duit jajan’ (sales commission), I had splurged on ‘tikam-tikam’ (a mini wheel of fortune) which got me a pink ‘cincin buah kana’ (a ring with a fake stone in the shape of an olive), pink cotton candies, ‘gula tarik’ (hard, white treacle) and ‘ais krim potong’ (blocks of wafer ice cream bars). Enchah and I were very close although we attended different schools and different levels – I was a standard three pupil at Telok Kurau West Integrated Primary School, an English medium school, while Enchah was a Secondary One student at Sekolah Menengah Still Road, a Malay medium secondary school. I remembered we were not on talking terms only once, when Mak Cik Mani had accidentally given a toxic fragrance, which upset Mak so that she hurled her red and green coconut candies to the ground just outside the kitchen for Mak Cik Mani to see.
Our kitchen, like most Malay kampong ones, was a half-cement half-wooden part of the house which was built on the ground at the back of the oil varnished brownish black 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 corner to wash fish, meat and vegetables, a small aluminium-plated charcoal stove, a steel and formica dining table and mismatched chairs, a pandanus mat and kapok mattress to lie down for afternoon siestas, an indoor bathroom with its ‘tempayan’ (porcelain water vessel) and ‘kolah’ (concrete pool to retain water from the tap), and the creepy ‘bawah kolong’ or space under the stairs. I recalled one night a few years ago when I was thirsty and Mak went down to get a glass of water while I waited at the top of the stairs that led to the main house with its larger and smaller bedrooms on the right and left. I thought I saw my second brother Jamal dashing out from the dark cell and called out his name but the figure just vanished into thin air. Since that incident, I dared not venture down to the kitchen at night.
The kitchen held both pleasant and unpleasant memories. Jamal, Yat and I could not wait to lap up Mak’s hot chicken broths, spicy fish curries or ‘asam pedas’ (hot and spicy gravy), beef ‘rendang’ or the golden, honey-combed ‘baulu suri’ (traditional Malay sponge cake) on those rare, rare occasions or just plain gruel with margarine and sugar on the usual lean days. (Abang Hatta and Kak Aida were already working in the city, so they only returned in the evenings). Once in a blue moon, when Mak returned from wedding invitations, we would get to taste ghee rice or ‘briyani’ and hard-boiled eggs that the hosts had packed for us. Special treats like ‘murtabak’ (Middle-Eastern bread with meat fillings) from Islamic Restaurant in Arab Street were few and far between, like when Wak Enah, Mak’s eldest sister, appeared through the kitchen door (which most womenfolk and children did then) along with 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 - that Mak could not afford to buy or prepare. When Abang Hatta started work as a police constable, he bought cake remnants from the bakery on his way home that we devoured in a jiffy.
And then there were the days and nights that we dreaded - whenever Bapak took his place at the head of the table. Not only we were not supposed to help ourselves before him, but we have to be extremely careful not to ruffle his feathers. Mealtimes with Bapak were tense and sombre affairs. One evening, we were all seated and waiting at the dining table to tuck into Mak’s steaming fish ball soup when Mak said to Bapak, “Please use the ladle, not your own spoon, to scoop the soup to your plate,” Bapak suddenly flew into a rage, got up and thumped the table. “I’m the head of the family! Why do I have to use the ladle? Why can’t I use my own spoon? Are you afraid that I’ll spread my germs?” Whack! Mak raised her palm to cool her burning cheek. We just hung our head and squirmed in fear and prayed silently for his temper to cool. Bapak’s fury was 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 Aida missed her, some of the scalding water spilled on my thighs. And the time when he bent three copper coins with a pair of pliers and twisted Jamal’s arms for failing to buy him cigarettes with those three cents, I just cringed. Whenever I heard Bapak’s footsteps on the wooden planks of the main house, my heart would sink and I would quickly leave the kitchen to escape outside.