Near the old
CEB (later LLN) building opposite the old bus station with the big sentul tree, they came and turned the earth and built another ‘modern’ building in Kuala Trengganu, the Bangunang Pejabak Ugama. Before it Father’s office looked just like a little bungalow, with an open public counter, behind which Father no longer tinkered with dots and dashes but a newfangled contraption that buzzed in one part of the country then burred in another. The sound of telegrams had changed from the dee-dee-dit-dah-dah of the old Morse Code to the new wonder of teleprinter technology.
Our town too was slowly changing. After doing my lunchtime after-school chore of cycling furiously in the afternoon heat to the Telegraphic bungalow with a hot glass bottle of Father’s post-prandial Nescafe, I’d cross the road to the back of the new bangunang,
into the newest bookshop in Kuala Trengganu. One day I came out from it with a paperback collection of horror stories put together by a man called Herbert van Thal. But mostly I cared little for books, preferring instead the zips and zaps of Beano and Dandy, and the gripping exploits of Battler Britton
or Spy 13 and other war adventures that Father bought in compact comic books from a cluttered bookshop named Chee Seek in Kampung China.
Father was a secret comic book addict, hiding under his calm exterior a penchant for war. He brought home a paperback once, with the grand title “Sink the Bismarck!” which I dropped after one little paragraph at sea, and which I think he did too. But coming home from work he frequently stopped at the town’s mosque before taking a cycling detour over the titiang
(bridge) of Banggol to Kampung China. In the cabinet below his writing desk he kept stacks of Chee Seek-stamped DC comics that took me away to rough terrains on many afternoons, deaf to all the ambient noise for the cries of startled German soldiers (“Donner und blitzen!”), bombs and gunfire. From the Chee Seek bookstore too Father bought the US Reader’s Digest which was thicker and glitzier than its English counterpart edition. It was from here that I got introduced to the condensed O. Henry, Robert Benchley and James Thurber.
Chee Seek was different from other bookshops in Kuala Trengganu. In it were hidden pearls and paperbacks, and magazines dangling from the ceiling on thin wires; and in the back chamber of the shop, hidden from public view, were steaming plates of kerepok lekor
dipped in home-made chili sauce, and a salad dish called ceranang
bathed in a thick sauce of crushed peanuts and coconut milk, and sugar and hot pepper. This was the domain of the matriach Mök Mek, who fed our hungry bodies after we’d feasted our minds in those stacks of printed matter. After Chee Seek if you had money left, you stopped at the row of zinc roofed stalls, at the first one, run by a grumpy man called Sumbu, in that lane that took Jalan Kampung China into the narrow backstreet of Lorong Jjamil. You’d be lucky to find an empty stool or space at a wobbly table, where for twenty cents or so you could scoop into a bowl of the best ais kacang
in town to extinguish the heat of war from the comic books in Chee Seek and douse the fire of Mök Mek’s chillied kerepok lekor
In the heyday of our years there were six bookshops in Kuala Trengganu. There was one in our corner of Tanjong by the surau
of Haji Mat Kerinci where we waited every morning for the appearance of the yellow and red livery of the Trengganu Bus Company. Further down the road, past Padang Malaya, stood a little shop facing the sea, with racks of jawi newspapers and periodicals by its door, behind which sat an eccentric with bottle-bottom glasses and a toothbrush ‘tache, a man called Che Mat Dök Dek for reasons I never knew. When his business folded in later years he packed the books and got rid of the mags and rags and opened his door again as a driving school.
Escaping from the heat one day I walked into a new bookshop in the other end of Lorong Jjamil where it curved into Jalan Banggol. A lady sat scowling at the counter and as soon as I pulled a big, expensive book from the shelf to see if it was as good as those DC comic wars, she threw a remark that exploded around me like a dozen bazookas, “Dök söh ambeklah bok besör tu, bukang nye nök beli!
”* I have abided by this advice ever since.
Father read Qalam
that he sometimes picked up from the Saudara Store, a quaint little ‘bookshop’ near the Masjid Abidin that was owned by his friend Ustaz Su. Qalam
was a hard hitting political-cum-religious magazine that I found very absorbing, and Mastika
then had a writer named Othman Wook who penned spooky stories, the fore-runner to the magazine’s present day obsession with apparations, ghosts and ghouls. When Father finished reading those magazines he’d send them to his friend Mat Jar from the Government Printing Office, and they came back bound in burgundy. Our staple then was the weekly Utusan Kanak-Kanak
that Father picked up with his daily newspaper from the Pök Löh Yunang. I remember reading it (in its Jawi edition) under the light bulb that hung in the rear verendah of our house while waiting for Mother to lay out the dinner table. Sitting there on the floor in the dim light and long shadows, the comic strip adentures in the Utusan
cast a weird and eerie spell. Keda Pök Löh Yunang
was of course our favourite bookstore. It was a bright place, abuzz with people, with religious tomes and kitabs
in its hard to reach shelves and lighter reading material on its tables and even at floor level. There was the ever smiling Pak Yassin who I met for the last time in the shop many years ago, when he took me to the coffee shop in the shadow of the clock tower for tea and satay. I had a vague suspicion then that Kuala Trengganu was the only capital in the world that served satay for breakfast, but that wasn’t what we were out to celebrate. It was for all those those years of the Utusan Kanak-Kanak
and the Beanos
and the Sunny Stories
, and for the good ship Pök Löh Yunang and all the good people who sailed in her.
*"Leave that big one alone. You can't afford it!"
Labels: Abdullah al-Yunani, Bangunan Pejabat Ugama, Bookshops, Mastika, Othman Wook, Pok Loh Yunang, Qalam, Saudara Store, Ustaz Haji Su, Utusan Kanak-Kanak