Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"If the cucumbers are free, why should we eat satay?"

It's a tradition in my family (or perhaps in many other Malay families) that the first salary of one's first job is to be spent on a special meal for our nearest and dearest.

My mother was the first woman in her family to go to university, and after she graduated she got a job in television broadcasting. With her first month's wages she brought some of her brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces to eat satay.
'Aku teringat yang Mustakim tanya, "Berapa harganya?" Aku kata, bergantung pada berapa cucuk yang kita makan. Tapi aku kata, timunnya free. [Mus]takim kata, "Yuk, makan timun aje." Kelakar habis dia masa tu.'
[I recall Mustakim (the only brother) asking, "How much does [the satay] cost?" I told him, it depends on how many sticks we eat. But, I said, the cucumbers are for free. He then said, "Let's eat only cucumbers then." He was really very funny then.]

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Malay childhood home in Jalan Tampoi

This is the first of a series of posts about my mother's childhood in kampong Singapore

My mother's childhood home was in one of the Malay settlements of Singapore: Kampong Glam. It was a large area of land, big enough for a bungalow-type home with several additional attachments.
Her house was a rumah papan, a two-storey house made of wood. With a kolong or void deck below, it had the appearance of three storeys. You entered the compound through a large metal gate, with patterns. It was a beautiful gate, my mother said. The veranda and front porch were made of brick, including the steps you had to climb to enter the house.

There was a large garden round the front, and extended to one side of the house, dotted with five or six low coconut trees. These trees grew enough coconuts for any of the children to drink coconut water whenever they felt like it. In the front garden there also grew a mango tree and a rambutan tree (that unfortunately never bore any fruit). They all played within the household compound; there was enough space for these free spirits to run back and forth to their hearts' content.

At the back of the house were several attachments. My mother's oldest sister lived in a three-room attachment with her family of eight children. The second oldest sister got two rooms for her family of six. There were separate toilets for bathing and for nature's calls - the latter consisted of a hole over a large metal pot (that was later collected by the "nightsoil" men, aka ah pek taik).

There was no plumbing; water had to be collected from a main pipe. All the nine siblings were supposed to take turns doing it, but there were eight girls and only one boy (who was born second last). So sometimes the girls paid off boys in the neighbourhood to collect water for them. The children used a wheelbarrow-like vehicle that someone cobbled together; this three-wheeled contraption made it easier to carry home several litres of water.

One year in the 50s, there was a big flood and waters rose to almost the height of the first floor of their wooden house. It was the evening of Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) and the villagers were just starting to boil their ketupat (rice cakes in woven coconut leaves). Somehow someone managed to get hold of an ambeng, or a wooden platform not unlike a bed frame, and to the relief of all the children anticipating the biggest celebration of the year, the boiling of the ketupat and other dishes could go on - flood or no flood!

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