Wednesday 25 January 2006

Memoirs of Margaret Chan

Margaret Chan – yes, that’s what my friends used to call me. They decided that I had been mistaken for a Chinese too many times that I needed a Chinese name. They taught me how to say, “Wa emsi Teng Lang. Wa Honna Lang”. I don’t know how these words are spelt but they are Hokkien for “I am not Chinese. I am a Malay.” So, when that didn’t work, they named me Margaret Chan and I masqueraded as Margaret Chan when it suited me and I acquired quite an impressive volume of Chinese words –enough to carry a conversation.

I believe Margaret Chan was concieved in my mind when I was a mere toddler. People used to comment to Mak, “Laaa, anak sapa ni? Lain sangat. Anak nyonya mana?” And Mak used to play along and say, “Aha, anak Ah Nui kedai depan tu...dia suruh bela!” So, for a long while, especially when I felt slighted and entertained thoughts of running away from home after a quarrel with Kak Cik or when Mak favoured Lilah more, I really thought I was Ah Nui’s offspring.

Ah Nui helped her mum in that small shop by the big brick house across the road. It’s near enough for Mak to trust me to go and buy little things like matches and salt or sugar. I’d always take the opportunity to play ‘tikam’ and I remember having to stand on my toes to reach over the counter to pay her. And what a messy counter it was – full of buku tiga lima, old Chinese movie magazines and jars of asams and Hacks and Kiss Me. I always wondered how Ah Nui and her old mum knew where everything was among the clutter.

I didn’t have many friends then apart from visiting cousins, not even among those little girls whose mothers chased after them with their bowls of steaming porridge every evening. But I remember a regular visitor – a Chinese boy – a bit older than me, I think. He used to come to the house to escape the wrath of his mother. From the whisperings Mak had with Tok, I gathered that his mother was suffering from what I now know as post natal depression – but I heard Mak described it as gila meriyan. And I remember trembling with excitement hiding with him under the huge platform that Pak made in the kitchen, or in that small room under the stairs. Nowadays whenever I went home, I’d remember the boy whose name I never knew whenever I looked under the pangkin or in that small room that we now store old shoes. I never knew what happened to him or whether his mother ever recovered.

Anyway, when Pak got the transfer to Yan, we lived in front of Ah Gek’s house and Ah Gek had her nieces with her. One of them, Hooi Yong, was a classmate of mine. Very clever girl and we’d play hide and seek or do our homework together. But most of the time, she had to help Ah Gek, especially during Chinese New year, to sew up the hems or make kueh kapit. And sometimes, Poh Choo would join us. Thus my knowledge of Hokkien increased and at Chinese new year do’s where we all donned our brand new dresses with stiff petticoats underneath, no one was none the wiser about my ethnic origins. Poh Choo and Hooi Yong with their slightly darker skin looked more Malay than me.

Margaret Chan then moved back to Alor Star when Mak went to Mekah and acquired some new friends in the big house that Pak rented out to a Chinese contractor and his family. Thus besides learning the tulang belud from Tok, I also learnt how to play Chinese checkers with his two daughters who went to Keat Hwa. It was the year the song Pu Yau was a hit and I’d belt out the song with such emotions in the bathroom when Tok was having her afternoon nap.

Then, the big brick house across the road had a new occupant. Gaik Hong came to live with her grandparents and since then our friendship grew. At noon, when I waited under the big tree for the school bus, Gaik Hong would ask her trishaw man, Ah Chang to stop and give me a lift. We were like sisters going every where together. Almost every year when I go back, we’d have a reunion and last year, Gaik Hong made it to the party looking as lovely as ever. There were so many others from the primary school of SNC. Some of us proceeded to do our Form Six at Sultan Abdul Hamid College – our first direct contact with the boys whom we only used to see cycling the opposite direction to their school. Again, friends like Teng Boo, Wah Long, Hong Choo remained friends until now and four years ago we celebrated our 30th Anniversary.
Reunion of SNC friends Posted by Picasa

At ITM the Margaret Chan side of me didn’t quite lose her identity, nor forget her Hokkien for she found her soul mate in Fatimah Abu Bakar who at that time was more well versed in Hokkien than in Malay. And my dressing too alternated between the kebaya and cheongsam tops. Such was my split personality. I wasn’t complaining then and am not complaining now.

My first posting was to Penang and I lodged in Green Garden with Aunty Lucy, a stern looking lady with a no nonsence look about her. But I took to her instantly. Her small terrace house was spotless and she adopted me like a daughter she never had. Mak came all the way from Alor Star and was horrified to see me living in a house with a big altar in the front room. But seeing how Aunty Lucy took care of me, she didn't mind one bit. In the evenings I’d accompany Aunty Lucy to her temple nearby and late, late at night, together with Frieda and Uncle Boey from across the road, we’d drive along the esplanade and stop for some rojak or laksa Penang. Sometimes, when I stayed back during the weekends, I’d read stories to Darren, a young blind boy who visited Aunt Lucy. It is sad that now I have lost touch with Aunty Lucy and the Chinese family that adopted me during my stint in Penang.

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Chinese New Year at Leicester Square

Yesterday I was in China Town, Leicester Square and was delighted to see the transformation in preparation for the festive period this weekend. There were lanterns and lanterns everywhere and of course the smell of oranges that for me will always remind me of Chinese New Year celebrations with my friends back home.

To all my Chinese friends, Hooi Yong, Poh Choo, Ek Ti, Adeline, Mui Ngoh, Bee Em, Ngoot Chooi, Wah Long, Kee Wan, Hong Chu and Teng Boo, Julie, Siew Phaik – Xong Xi Fa Cai....Ang Pau Gia Lai..hehe! And yes to Caroline and Annabel too if you are reading this.

And not forgetting my newfound cyber friends – Lydia, Mumsgather and Lilian – have a wonderful time with the family on this wonderful day!

Happy times with Aunty Lucy, Frieda & Uncle BoeyPosted by Picasa

And last but not least – Aunty Lucy and Frieda and Uncle Boey, where ever you are, thank you for adopting me.

Knowing all of you has indeed enriched my life.

And of course, my little friend under the stairs – keep well.

Sunday 22 January 2006

The national laureate

For someone who is blessed with the gift to churn words and produce bestsellers, he seemed to be at a loss to describe my first piece for his perusal. “Your Malay is quite, er, quite....,” and I waited for what must have seemed like a few minutes before he found a suitable word to spare my feelings,”....BAD!”.

That must have been about twenty odd years ago and of course I readily agreed with the verdict. Afterall he was the editor and by then author of several books including Salina. So, who was I to argue?

Dato Samad Said or Pak Samad, remained a firm friend and a motivator, never forgetting to ask me “When is that book coming?” every time we meet and sending me his latest books by way of encouraging me to write.

Therefore I was really pleased to read of the launch of his collection of poems by the Prime Minister last week. I had received the book much earlier with his familiar scribble, "Cenderahati untuk Zaharah Othman (& keluarga) yang rajin belajar" a reference to my pursuing an MA in Traditional Malay Literature at a very late stage in my life.
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And it does seem timely that I mentioned in my last entry about the trip on the P&O with a sasterawan negara – for it was with him that we spent seven hours at sea from Harwich to Hook of Holland.

The friendship with the national laureate became even closer when he married a childhood friend of mine – a great friend from those days in Yan but somehow we lost touch for while when we came to London. But during one of my trips home, I met up with Pak Samad again – at Subang Airport. He too was leaving for Europe - the result was the coffee table book Warkah dari Eropah. In that book you can see a very young and slim Kak Teh.

I am truly intrigued by his discipline – writing everything down, his thoughts, his feelings, at the end of the day. He seemed to have such an insatiable appetite for books and interests in authors and places. My husband took him to see several writers including Ishiguro while he was in London.

During our meetings he‘d take me to my favourite place to eat – Little Penang, after which we’d sit and have coffee at Deli France. I was greatly encouraged to see school children approaching him, telling him how much they appreciate his books. I am encouraged because there are children who are reading quality books and apreciating them.
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During my last trip back, I had a lengthy interview with him on his writing. We sat in his lounge surrounded by books, books and more books fighting for space on bookshelves, in boxes and on the floor. And more in the kitchen. Not unlike my own house, actually.

He showed me books for children, teenagers, by authors local and foreign, all the different genres and style.

“Iread everything, even teenage novels and I read five books at a time,” he said, adding that at any one time he has several ideas for several books in his head.

What was very valuable during the interview which I recorded on video, was his scribblings in his notebooks – story plans, profiles of characters, how the stories develop.... everything is then written down by hand. No, no computer for him.

During this meeting, away from the noisy crowd at Little Penang, I had the opportunity to ask him about Salina, a best seller that has been translated into several languages, including French.

It is, I believe the best book ever written in Malay, and a book that has been written very much like a movie. His description of Kampong Kambing in post war Singapore comes to live – you can even smell the stench coming from the communal bathroom and at the same time hear the rendition of Arya Mala from the equally smelly toilet, while Si Bulat, the village imp, runs naked chasing the goats. All the while, the friendly banter between Kurupaya Samy and Salina in the background.

When I did Salina with my student, it was the first time that I had ever read it and cried and never wanted the book to end as it was so beautifully written. I sent Pak Samad an email to tell him so and received this : Saya menulis Salina semasa saya berumur 23 tahun, Zaharah membaca Salina semasa saya berumur 68 tahun.”

Enough said. Ah yes, Pak Samad, I also read Warkah Untuk Salmi Manja some years back and I think it is beautiful. However, I couldn't finish Hujan Pagi.

Pak Samad’s second trip to Europe coincided with our planned visit to Holland. Thus, it turned out to be a very interesting journey, first by train from Liverpool street to Harwich and then on the P& O to Hook of Holland. We had earlier booked a cabin – what with six children (two are friend’s children) with nasi lemak and sandwiches to last the seven hour passage.

Pak Samad was accompanied by the then Prof Latif Bakar who was documenting the author’s visit to Europe. So, all of us were crammed in that one cabin, downing the nasi lemak with sambal ikan bilis. Thankfully, the sea was calm or else....

We entertained the children with songs like Chan Ma li Chan, and Rasa Sayang eh as well as “Why You So Like That ah?” ...It was tedious but at least the songs, the games and quiz kept the children entertained.

It will not be long before I see the national laureate again and most probably at Little Penang eating my favourite prawn noodles. But I really do not know what answer to give him when he asks yet again...."When is THAT book coming?"

Wednesday 18 January 2006

Come sail with me

Reading the comments for this entry I realised how interesting it would be to compile accounts from pilgrims who went to do the Haj by ship all those years. Even those who were in the last batch to go by sea must still be around to share their experience with us. A book project would be ideal. A radio documentary would be awesome! All I remember of my Mak’s first trip by sea (she later went twice by plane), was her stories about how those who died during the passage were just bundled off and lowered into the water. There were stories about how the sharks would snap the bodies. I supposed this is why I am so afraid of the vast volume of water – especially being out there where you can’t actually see any land. Or perhaps it was the dark memories of that night on the beach of Kuala Yan, when bodies of fishermen were washed ashore after a storm.

I have had my fair share of sailing from being on rafts to hovercrafts and the P& O – the QE2 not included of course! It wasn’t as if I have always been scared of the water. It used to be fun, foolhardy even. I had even contemplated being on the boat to accompany Dato’ Malik when he did the 17 hour swim across the channel. In fact, I had already bought my sensible shoes, flask and sea sick tablets for what was to be a very bumpy ride. But in the end, and thankfully, I opted for the wait by the Dover beach for his return. He jokingly said “Kalau Kak Teh tak pi, Malik tak berenang!” Yes, what a headline that would have made! I had actually accompanied him on a much smaller boat during his trial run in Lake Zurich – all of 11 hours!! But more of that later!

In the good old days when bridges still required a few heads to make them stable and safe ( so we were told!), we used to look forward to the visit to our other Grandma’s house in Suka Menanti. Why it was named such, I don’t know. Must research more on this.

Anyway, if my memory serves me right, there were even times when Tok Jam would actually fetch us in her rakit or raft. We could see her welcoming smile from a distance as she confidently paddled the raft ashore. Unlike the perahu, we didn’t have to pay anything of course, and unlike the perahus, we couldn’t sit as we’d all be drenched! It was all so breathtakingly exciting as we watched other children bathing, women beating their washings on slabs of stones, people ‘doing their business’ behind some trees. In fact, everything a girl needed for the inclusion in her homework for the ‘news’ book. (Of course it never occurded to me then that one day I’d be covering the Cross Channel swim, eh?)

On occassions when we had to take the perahus, we had to share of course with other passengers, with their chicken and shopping and naughty children trying to literally rock the boat! We used to be brave enough to dip our hands in the water as the boatman pushed his oars effortlessly across.

It must have been a few years later that Mak went to Mekah by sea and many an unpleasant stories were recounted. And so it must have been with these memories that when I was posted to Penang ( before the days of the bridge) I dreaded having to take the ferries across. I’d be lamenting hard and long every weekend before I could pluck the courage. And it was only a half an hour ride if I am not mistaken. But I used to sit on the bench and cry! If not for the image of Mak waiting for my return on the old iron swing, crab sambal all ready and steaming under the tudung saji, I would have happily remained with Aunty Lucy in Penang.

At the end of my stint in Penang, I had had enough of ferry rides – enough to make me sea sick even at the thought of it. The next one was on the Red Funnel ferry to the Isle of Wight – a lovely little island with its quaint villages of thatched cottages. The first trip was uneventful but during the second trip, we had a lovely surprise as there was The Tall Ships Races – all kinds of ships in all kinds of shapes and sizes and oh so so colourful – they were beautiful and I dared go out on the deck to watch and took some not very good pictures.

This passage across the Solent was okay – especially on a good day and nothing compared to the ride on the Hovercraft which I made with a friend to Calais for a day trip.

We said our goodbyes to our husbands at the train station and took the train to Dover. In the morning, there was no inkling of the turbulent at sea but not long after that it became a nightmare. I remember seeing the sea level tilting up and down from the pothole, oblivious to the other passengers throwing up all around me. Many a times we were thrown off our seats. And this, dear reader, was just right after the Zeebrugge PO ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster which took 193 lives. I thought we were never going to see our husbands again. The trip back was on the P&O as all Hovercrafts were cancelled. Still, we had to hold on firmly to our coffee cups which kept sliding down the table. It was horrible.

I think I have to stop now as I am getting sea sick just writing about it. Will soon continue with more stories – especially the 11 hour boat ride on Lake Zurich with Dt Malik Mydin, and the wonderful seven hour trip on the P&O with six small children and one Sastrawan Negara all in one cabin heading towards Hook Van Holland.

Friday 13 January 2006

Russia in Ice @ Trafalgar Square

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This is just a preview of what's to come this week-end. Be prepared for a Russian invasion of Trafalgar Square this Saturday as there will be a Russian Winter Festival. I was on my way to work when I spotted this wonderful sculpture in ice and that was in the morning when it was still cold but by evening, it was already melting, what with spotlights in different colours training on it, changing the shades much to the delight of passers by.

So, this Saturday, if you are not doing anything , please head towards Trafalgar Square. I know someone will be there - blogger Pu1pu3 who is in town for a meeting. After meeting her at Benjys along the Strand and before the promised koayteow at Mawar Restaurant and a meeting with blogger Ewok, I took her to see the sculpture and how much more beautiful it is at night!

The Royal Jester aka Pu1pu3, visiting the sculpture of St Basil's Cathedral in Trafalgar Square Posted by Picasa

Monday 9 January 2006

The year Mak went to Mekah

The year Mak went to perform her Haj was the year of rites of passage for me and my siblings. The night before she left, I remember sitting on the bench outside the bungalow in Penang that Pak rented for three days, feeling the cold wind from the sea, on my face. And I remember with sadness that Mak would be gone in that big ship that would take her out into the vast unfriendly ocean for months and months. Before her Haj, the furthest ‘oversea’ land Mak had been to was Singapore, to visit her brother – Pak Lang. And that was with family members. And now, she was travelling alone – with just some friends from the surau and it will be the longest we had ever been separated from her. It was heartbreaking.

I remember the family photograph that we took the morning she left. I was wearing the batik pinafore that Ah Gek made for raya. So was Kak Cik but my eyes were swollen because I cried so much. Mak was wearing, what I thought was a jubbah that was way too big for her.

We said our tearful goodbyes, along with hundreds if not thousands of other families at the port and I watched Mak disappear into a sea of white jubbahs heading towards the Bunga Raya which swallowed them into her bowels. And with a final hoot – sailed off into the distance.

I didn’t want to go home cos I knew Mak was not there. I felt the same kind of emptiness I always felt when Mak went to visit Kak in KL or anywhere. But we did – we headed for our home in Yan after which we began a new chapter in our life. We were soon despatched to Alor Star to live with Tok while Lilah, our youngest sister went to stay with Abang Man and family. Pak couldn’t take care of us as he needed care as well. Abang and Nyak were there to look after him in that government bungalow in Jalan Tungku Mahmood.

Kak Cik and I shared the same fear and trepidation at the thought of living with Tok. The very mention of the word Tok would bring shudders – she never needed to live with anyone before and sending off two young girls, never educated in culinary skills to live with her, was like despatching them off to some charm school ready for the kill. The only reason I looked forward to the ‘stint’ with Tok was because we were to be schooled at the St Nicholas Convent. We were very impressed with those boxer pleat blue uniform that convent girls wore. I was to learn about the disciplines much much later.

Tok sewed baju kurungs for a living and sold bunga melur from her garden to an Indian guy who came every morning to collect them. Thus our chores before school would include picking those scented flowers after subuh. Tok would measure them in cupaks. Rumours had it that Tok went several times to Mekah using her ‘duit bunga’!

After school, we were taught the art of cooking – starting with the introduction to the various spices and herbs. Tok was not impressed with our lack of skills and knowledge. I was sent off to the garden to look for daun kesum and never to return until I found it. My hands blistered for days because I had to use the parang to peel the coconuts, crying as I did so – not unlike the anak tiri scenes in Malay movies. We were rewarded then, with trips to Mak Jah’s house down the road whenever there were Malay or Hindi movies on TV.

Tok was not the orge that she was made out to be. We learnt a lot from her – not least the tulang belud for the baju kurungs that she made. She was a tough master to learn from though and a perfectionist. Any imperfections and the air would turn blue. It took me a long time to figure out some of the similies that she used to describe our shoddy work. Anyway, we did learn. And she would reward us with blouses made from cloth remnants – patchwork to make a-go-go blouses, complete with a peek-a-boos around the neck, that were the in thing in those days, worn with tight fitting jeans that Kak bought from Singapore.

We also learnt to make patchwork, again from remnants.

But we looked forward to the weekends to go home to Yan. We soon became experts taking the two hour bus ride to the house with the Jerai as its backdrop. So peaceful, serene and beautiful compared to noisy and rowdy Alor Star. The only excitement in Yan was when the two local drags paraded in their new clothes. The small town would slowly stir to life as people peeked out of their windows, twitched their curtains and made catcalls from behind their net curtains. Or when Indonesian magicians cum medicine men pulled the crowd with their brilliant orations at the square near the market.

Pak and Abang were coping alright under the care of Nyak – someone we adopted during our stint in Yan. Pak complained that Abang made jemput pisang as big as the fist but the house was always full. Abang’s friends would congregate there in his small room and they’d be playing songs by the Beatles on the small record player. On nights when Malay movies were showing on telly, Pak would buy packets of kacang goreng for those people who came to watch. The whole village, it seemed, would turn up.

Lilah, our youngest sister was coping alright too with our cousins down the road. I supposed she too acquired the art of cooking from our aunty who was a caterer of sorts.

The highlight of our visits back would be letters from Mak. They were not really written by her but for her by someone. She was well etc, etc. Letters used to take weeks if not months.

Mak, it would seem, went on the pilgrimage with several missions. Pak had been unwell and from the moment I could speak and was able to go to the shop by myself, I knew that he was taking a kind of tonic with the picture of the tiger on the dark coloured bottles. We were always told to wrap the bottles from Ah Leng’s shop and Ah Leng knew this was the ritual. Why, we didn't know – and we didn't ask. Pak said, the tonic eased his pain in the joints, especially after the accident. Mak wasn't very happy but kept her silence. But everytime we had visitors, like a ritual, we would collect all the bottles and hid them. When there were too many, we’d sell them to the keling botol and made quite a tidy sum for ourselves.

Abang, as the eldest son, wasn’t doing too well with his studies but would rather while his time by the sea, painting pictures of the sunset. Mak wanted more for her eldest son – her only son then. One son died after birth and another son at the age of three.

Time flew fast, what with perfecting tulang beluds, the forays into Tok’s garden searching and identifying all kinds of ulams, and then Mak retuned. Almost all of her hopes and prayers were answered. Abang got into high school and later to ITM and then studied in Ireland. He was to become DG of a very big organisation. We gradually stopped having to buy those ‘tonics’ in the dark bottles with the tiger on the labels. Alhamdulilah. And most importantly – she brought us back a gift for the family. She brought back another little brother – so fair and cuddly and smelling of the minyak attar. Mak in her big white jubbah had unwittingly fooled us and the authorities that she was only a few months pregnant. She went into labour in Padang Arafah and it was on that sacred land that she gave us our brother – Mohamad Arafah – who until today is known to all as Ajie.

So that was the year that Mak went to Mekah when all her prayers were answered. We now need all our prayers to be answered for her.

Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Adha to all. Maaf zahir dan batin.

Friday 6 January 2006

In cybernation...

Let’s say I’ve been cybernating. Its cold, still very, very cold and I had had enough food over Christmas and New Year to cybernate until there is enough sunshine out there to get out. I had been away from work a week before Christmas and it was only yesterday that I dragged myself out and braved the early morning hailstones to earn myself and the cats a decent meal.

This hiatus and hence the reluctance to update my blog in a way reflect my attempt to cling on to 2005 and stop the march of time. As the countdown began on TV to herald in the new year, I buried myself under the duvet and fell into deep sleep and woke up the following morning as if the new year never came. But who am I kidding, eh? During the last few days of 2005, some people did come over to remind me how fast time has zoomed past us.

For four wonderful days, I was in the company of my loved ones from back home. My niece Anedra and her husband arrived with their entourage, which included her parents (my sister and brother in law), her sister and her two little children to make sure that – hey – these are your grand nephews!! At the earliest opportunity, I pulled little Nasar aside and told him to take it easy when calling out my name in public – Tok Teh doesn’t sound very glamorous, you know.

For four wonderful and fun packed days, we were camped at Holiday Villa London, occupying three family suites although our house was just a stone’s throw away. This was just to ensure that we did not miss a single minute being away from each other.
the cousins Posted by Picasa

These four days were perhaps the longest I had spent with my grand nephews and many a times I caught myself sighing when I had flashbacks of those days not too long ago that I was minding Anedra, changing her nappies and putting her to sleep. I couldn’t wait for the weekends to come so that I could rush back and be with her. Then, all to soon, it was a tearful goodbye at the airport when she left for Kansas when her father went there to further his studies. And more fast forwards later, she was back here in the UK pursuing her own studies AND babysitting my children. She was always available when I had assignments in Germany and in Budapest, I could enjoy a full week away knowing that they were in capable hands. And all too soon, this winter, I was minding her children, changing their nappies and wiping their noses. Where did time go?

Wasn’t it not too long ago that Kak Cik and I were wetting ourselves suppressing our laughter in the middle of the night at her grandmother’s house in Pilah, as we struggled in the dark to change her nappies? Kak Cik had unwittingly plunged the safety pin right into my thigh. There was immediate realisation that there’s a vast difference between real life babies and paper dolls that Kak Cik and I used to play with.
Anedra & Baby N walking tall in Model Village Posted by Picasa

And all too soon too – there I was in a hotel room in Paris, sobbing into the telephone on Anedra’s wedding day because I couldn’t be there on her special day. Again, I was away on assignment.

These last few days, I kept looking at the photographs that we had taken in Stratford, Cotswold and Oxford capturing the fun moments that we had. And there were also those documenting the havoc in our hotel rooms as the cousins enjoyed every precious minute together. And during the last few days too, it dawned on me, and my aching bones that it isn’t easy anymore dashing across the room after a spritely three year old, or answering clever questions from an inquisitive five year old.
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Thank you Anedra for coming over and repackaging all those years in the last four days of 2005.

Uncle Taufiq & Nasar in Cotswold Model VillagePosted by Picasa

I am now officially out of cybernation.