Posts filed under Memories

Grandfather’s Generous Spirit

Filed in Family, Memories

As the patriarch of the shop, he never turned anyone away who needed a meal or a temporary roof over their heads. But his generosity extended beyond the neighbourhood and was remembered by a particular young man from over the seas.

One day in the mid 1980s (I don’t have the exact date but it would have been before I went to study in England because we were still living in the family’s Chinese medicine shop), an elderly Asian man walked into our shop. He turned out to be Japanese, but with the help of a pen and piece of paper, and the fact that written Japanese was similar enough to Chinese for my parents to understand him, he wrote out the purpose of his visit.

During the Japanese Occupation, he’d been with the military patrol and assigned to our neighbourhood. Everytime he was on duty, my grandfather would invite him to eat in the shop. He never forgot my grandfather and many years later, on a visit to Malaysia, he found his way to the old neighbourhood and the shop. By then, grandfather had been dead more than 20 years, but this elderly man and my parents continued to keep in touch, mainly through annual greeting cards. Even after we moved from the neighbourhood, the annual exchange of cards continued.

One day sometime in the early 1990s, out of the blue, a taxi drove up to the gate of our new home in the suburbs. It was the ex Japanese soldier, this time armed with the new address that he gave the taxi driver who managed to find the house.

The annual exchange of cards continued after that second visit, but after a few years, they stopped. And four years ago, in 2005, my father left us. I wonder where this ex-Japanese soldier is now. He was much older than my father so perhaps he, too, had gone to the other side.

Note – there are many holes in this story, including the dates of his two visits, and particularly his name. I will need to look through my diaries for the information, but for now, the need to tell this particular story is strong so the details will have to wait. There is also a picture of him with my father in the shop, which I cannot find for now; all this will be added later on.

Cool Guy

Filed in Books, Memories

Actually, he wasn’t just a cool guy. He was a cool guy who was the CEO of the multinational conglomerate I joined in 1993. He bought books for the library that the company had at the head office for its employees. For a time, the library was one of my job responsibilities, as I oversaw its running and worked with the librarian (yes, we actually employed a full-time librarian just to run the library).

It was one of my responsibilities to look through book catalogs and make recommendations on books to buy. But I wasn’t the only one doing it. Occasionally, we would get a call from the CEO’s office to go and collect a package the CEO had brought back for the library from his recent overseas travels. After the first time it happened, I was soon looking forward to such calls as I knew it meant new additions to the company library.

He didn’t buy just books, and definitely not corporate books. He bought FICTION. The most memorable package he gave us happened just after Toni Morrison was announced winner of the 1993 Nobel Literature Prize. He gave us the entire Toni Morrison collection up to the time of the Prize – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved – all of them hardcovers. Through his influence, we later added Jazz to the library when it was published. No, wait, his gift might have included Jazz, since that book was published the year Morrison won. In fact, I remember it was listed in her bibliography at the time of the Prize. But I digress.

The company library held a motley collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction. It was an initiative started by the employees’ sports club, and initially included book donations from its members, and later embraced by the company.

The fiction included a good selection of good writers, including Margaret Atwood and John Steinbeck. I remember Atwood especially – it was from the library that I borrowed Cat’s Eye (a book that still haunts me even to today) and The Robber Bride.

But perhaps the most unusual writer to feature in the company library was Jeanette Winterson. I remember borrowing Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. There was even a Winterson book purchased during my tenure as executive-in-charge of the library that I even wrote a review for the staff newsletter. I think it was Written on the Body, which was published in 1992. Well, in any case, it was the one which had this author’s photo.

Unfortunately, a few years later, the company decided to close the library (the reason, I think, was lack of space). All the while, the library had been managed by the department I was in, but because of the impending closure, the head of another department (the one related to employees) decided it came under his department, and gave permission for employees to choose books from the library for themselves. His staff had first dips. I managed to get Atwood’s Surfacing. I hope the ones who took the other Atwood, as well as Morrison, Steinbeck and Winterson, books are cherishing them.

The employees with children had the best picks – the library had a very good children’s section. At one point, we even had a monthly children’s story-telling Saturday and brought in a kindergarten teacher to read to the employees’ children invited for the occasion.

I have fond memories of the company library, especially of the cool guy who added books to it. I hope, through his generosity, some of the employees got to read more than just the pulp fiction they were usually used to.

Thank you, sir.

An out-of-body-experience

Filed in Family, Memories

In my mind, I hold this image from my childhood. In it, a young girl sleeps on the floor of a bedroom, her knees bruised and bright red. At the doorway of the bedroom, an elderly woman sits, feasting on the bright yellow fruit of a spikey, thorny fruit in front of her.

Wait. There’s an earlier image to this. The young girl and elderly woman are at a fruit stall piled high with that spikey, thorny fruit. The woman is choosing the fruit that she will be feasting on in a while. The girl is all excited and eager to help. Suddenly, the girl trips and falls onto the pile of fruits. The woman and the stall-owner help her up. Her knees are badly bruised and slightly bleeding from the contact with the spikes on the fruits. A little red lotion is applied to soothe and disinfect the bruises.

That incident did happen, and that young girl was me. That elderly woman was my nanny, and she did spend many afternoons enjoying a durian (the spikey, thorny fruit) that she would buy from the fruit stall that was located just in front of the family’s second Chinese medicine shop at 464, Batu Road, Kuala Lumpur.

The first scene is the one I remember the most, while the earlier scene would come to mind shortly after.

I see both scenes in my mind like I am just an on-looker, when in fact, I was the young girl in both scenes. How is that possible? I was telling this story to See Ming last night, and asked her the same question. Her reply – out-of-body experience.

For years, I would recount the incident as the reason why I went off liking durian. Durian is a fruit you not only like or dislike, but do so with an intense passion. Usually, it’s foreigners who dislike it, put off by its smell which stops them from venturing further to discover the taste that is the exact opposite of the smell.

I grew up loving durian. I am, after all, Malaysian. But I actually went off my love for durians much later than the bruised knees incident. I think one day, I just woke up and didn’t love it anymore. It had nothing to do with the bruised knees. But linking the two incidents together just made for a great story (not that I’m a great, or even good, story teller), so over time, they became related – I went off durians because I fell on a pile of them as a child. Over time, I might’ve come to believe this, too, except I have an elephant’s memory that would not let me forget. And so this is my confession – falling on a pile of durians as a child did not make me stop eating them.

The loudest night of Chinese New Year

Filed in Memories

That would be last night, the 8th night of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebrations. I don’t remember hearing anything last night, but then I live on the 7th floor of a 16-storey apartment building, and the balcony doors were closed. Even then, it probably wasn’t as loud as what I remember from my childhood.

Traditionally, the 8th night was when firecrackers were let off – not a bang here or a bang there, but a rip of continuous crackling “pop-pop-pop” from a chain of firecrackers, followed by a momentary silence and then, the loudest heart-stopping “boom” ever.

Firecrackers are what I would call the “heart and soul” of Chinese New Year, and it was a sad day when firecrackers were banned in Malaysia in the early 1990s. Before that, there were no restrictions to where and when throughout the 15-day festivities.

I wasn’t a fan of firecrackers. As a kid, I remember going with my sister to visit our 3rd uncle on the first morning and both of us almost running through the streets with fingers in our ears, trying to dodge firecrackers being let off near us. It was meant to be fun, to light up a string of firecrackers, throw it in someone’s path and watch them jump in surprise. But it got more and more dangerous, often resulting in injuries, and I think that was what eventually led to the banning, which included its manufacture, import, sale, purchase, possession and use. Unfortunately, the ban often led to self-made firecrackers which were less safe than commercially available ones. But I’m digressing.

For me, my most vivid childhood memories of firecrackers were tied to the 8th night of Chinese New Year. This was the night when more firecrackers were set off than any of the other 15 days. At the time, I only knew that was the night we had many relatives gathered at the family medicine shop, there was an altar outside the front entrance with lots of burning joss sticks and candles, food offerings, and the centrepiece, a whole roasted suckling pig. The highlight of the night would be after the offerings were made and the pig would be carved up and portions given to every family present. And in the background, the firecrackers would be going off. The next morning, the street would be a carpet of red from the shredded firecracker paper.

There was one year my father had an unofficial competition going with the shop across the street to see who had the most chains of firecrackers to burn. Father was very organised, he had two structures built and a hoisting system to haul the firecrackers into place, which would then be set off on an alternating basis – as one chain was burning on one structure, a new chain would be hauled up the other structure and lit up as soon as the final “boom” from the first chain was heard so there would not be any pause in the noise.

Where was I when all that was going on? Upstairs in the living room, with cotton wool in both ears. I’m sure I went downstairs to have a look but was probably cautioned not to go too near in case any of the sparks flew too near. Sometime that night, I saw father rushing into the shop and later learned that one of the structures had collapsed. I don’t remember what happened after that, whether the fallen structure was hoisted back in place or the noise-making continued on just the remaining structure. There was, however, another image I remember from that night – the shop owner from across the street holding on to a lit firecracker chain and trying to twirl it around as it burned. Till today, I still think it was very brave of him to be so near holding and touching “live” firecrackers.

The 8th night of Chinese New Year actually has its own name, and it’s called “Bai Tien Gong” (meaning “praying to the heavenly god”). “Bai Tien Gong” is actually observed by the Hokkien community (Chinese people speaking the Hokkien dialect), and it marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations for them. What happened was that many, many years ago, during a civil upheaval in China, the Hokkiens went into hiding and when they emerged after the invaders had left, they found that it was already the 9th day of the Chinese New Year, and also the birthday of the “heavenly god”. So the 9th day – or the 8th night going into the new day at midnight – became the Hokkien Chinese New Year.

Now, my family is not Hokkien, but my father observed the Hokkien Chinese New Year, more for the food and the noise made by the firecrackers, and for the opportunity it gave for the family to get together. We haven’t observed this night for many years, not just because firecrackers were banned in the early 1990s – I think we stopped long before that – but also because first, my brother, and then I, embraced Christianity, and my parents decided to do away with the “old” ways.

These days, there are electric firecracker decorations that light up but do not really go off – after all, they are just decorations. For old times’ sake, here’s a video I found off YouTube of a 28-metre long chain of firecrackers that had to be laid flat on the ground.

Shades of May 13 … NOT

Filed in Food, Memories, News

Last night, amidst the quiet celebration as I stayed up waiting for the results (thanks to the Malaysiakini site), I heard rumours of riots in Klang. My first reaction was curfew? And then … oh no, I have no food in the house! I was online with a friend, and told him we didn’t have a problem with food during the May 13 curfew because our shop (we lived upstairs) was between two sundry shops (as they were called in those days) and got supplies from them. That was one of the better memories from that time.

Speaking of Malaysiakini, I’d called my sister to tell her the good news each time I saw them on Malaysiakini, and her reaction was “are you sure or not?” She had a point. The results on Malaysiakini were mostly unofficial. But it took the longest time for the TV stations to post the official results. And it seemed to me they were only posting BN victories.

If it weren’t for Malaysiakini, we would’ve been kept waiting for the results much longer. Thank goodness for alternative news sources.