On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eid Mubarak - Eid al Adha

May you be blessed with His bounty on this wonderful day. Selamat Hari Raya Haji to all my readers.

The Lord Laughs Last

In the deep, dark crevasse of Trengganu history is a letter that got me baffled for a while. It has, in fact, baffled many people too, some of them historians, by the tone of its supplication. Or is it an assertion – of rights, of obeisance, of authority on the slide?

Many people now forget that in the interim between Japanese invasion and British return was a period of administration by Siam of the four northern Malay States Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu. They were handed to Thailand in return for their cooperation in paving the way for a Japanese invasion of the peninsula. From 1943-1945 Trengganu was effectively Thai, using Thai-issued stamps for its postal service and having Thai-speaking Malay dignitaries in the day-to-day administration.

That control was also asserted in other ways, using that mystical symbolism of cannons form instance. The Malays have always had attachments to these heavyweight weapons, giving them names and mystical significance. On Bukit Puteri were several, with names like Sri Jamlur, Sri Buih, Sri Johor, Laila Majnun and then there was a pair - little and large - one said to have begotten the other: the mother Che Selamah and the daughter Che Safiah. You can probably still see them on Bukit Puteri, but many were taken away to Thailand during this brief administration. The point may have been that a state deprived of its mystical symbolism had lost everything, but of course I am only guessing.

In 1945, after the Japanese surrender, the British came back to reassert their claim, and for a while, Trengganu, like other states were under British Military Administration (BMA). Thai stamps were withdrawn and new ones, with the BMA overprint, were sold at the post office.

In this interregnum between Thai and colonial rule as before the war, a man in the village of Ladang in Kuala Trengganu took out his typewriter and thumped out a note to D. Headley, a man he knew as the Lieutenant Commander and Chief Commander Civil Affairs, Trengganu.

If Headley had an imposing title, the man had a higher one. He was ‘Lord of Thailand’ residing in Kuala Trengganu, in ‘Ladang School’s Vllge’, which I take to be Kampung Ladang Sekolah in ordinary parlance. I knew the place well as I went to school there, two schools in fact, one alongside the other. This Lord of Thailand revealed himself as Tengku Abdullah Osman.

The purpose of this letter was baffling as I could not fathom what he was trying to convey to Mr Headley, and I suspect Mr Headley too would not have been able to make head or tail of his mission. It was polite in tone, full of Malay style salutations, too full in fact as to create a haze over the content. I even suspected that it was originally written in Malay and then translated – very literally – by someone else with a Malay-English dictionary at hand.

It spoke, probably of two comrades in arms (“Brother-Army”) who died (as I gathered from the phrase “Death corpse”), and the letter writer, in all earnestness, prayed that they be despatched to “Soul-Heaven”. And he also – I think – wanted the British army to dress in mourning for two days or perhaps in “two days time” after his letter.

Some people have guessed from the desperate note that this was a former Thai local dignitary seeking to ingratiate himself to the new overlords. And I thought they could well have been right for it is not unusual for old coat-hangers to seek new apparels.

And then, last week in Facebook, my friend Wan M Yusoff posted about his meeting with his ‘favourite storyteller’ in Kuala Trengganu, Pak Wan Abas, a man long in the tooth but with a very clear mind still for events in the past. I asked Wan Yusoff to record his conversation(s) for future generations. And then, there was this throwaway line in his post: “I did not know that Trengganu was under Thai rule during the Japanese occupation.”

Yes, Trengganu was indeed ruled by Siam, I commented, and to prove that I attached a picture of Thai-issued stamps with the ‘Trengganu’ postmark [see below]. And then, I added, there was something strange: when the British came back, a man who styled himself ‘Lord of Thailand’ wrote a letter to one Mr Headley with content that I found hard to understand. Could he ask Pak Wan Abas if he knew who this Tengku Abdullah Osman of ‘Ladang School’s Vllge’ was?

Wan Yusoff visited the ailing Pak Wan Abas again. And what laughter it brought me on a very wet Saturday afternoon in London, and in Kuala Trengganu, in the home of the venerable story-telling gentleman as Wan Yusoff broached the question. History and a man who we had always regarded as a figure of fun was having the last laugh on us and I - like a madman – could no longer control laughter spewing from my mouth with the tea that I was enjoying by myself in the Great Court of the British Museum. We were communicating in real time through the medium of FB.

Things that had been torn apart were now falling back in place. It brought us back to childhood times, to Kampung Ladang, and to a man I often wrote about in my blogs as Ku Löh Nayar, the deranged townsman. As Ku is the Trengganu dimunitive for Tengku, and Löh, the shortened Abdullah, there you have him before your eyes and in your mind, the Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman was none other than our Ku Löh Nayar, the disturbed man who terrified us for almost our entire Trengganu schooldays, a local character and the eminently unhinged.

His letter to Mr Headley is now in the safekeeping of the National Archives of Australia, indexed under the item ‘Letter of congratulations of Tengku Abdullah Osman 21 October 1945’.

All this happened during the short reign of Sultan Ali who was installed Sultan when his father, Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah of the Istana Kolam died. Sultan Ali was later removed from the throne by the British perhaps because he was put on the throne by the Japanese or maybe there were other reasons that we are not yet privy to. [See his latter day attempt at recognition and recompense in the New Straits Times,Feb 28, 1995; above, right column]

Thank you Pak Wan Abas, may Allah preserve you, and to Wan M Yusoff for helping to solve this long (and hilarious) mystery. Thank you to the blogger Le Minh Khai for having brought this letter to my attention.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Drawn From memory

Readers of both Growing Up in Trengganu and A Map of Trengganu will have noticed a pen drawing of the author atop his bio-data. It was drawn by my good friend Lat (Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid) from memory, and the last time I saw him before he drew that must have been years upon donkey's ears ago.

There is this line that I always pull when Lat and I are together. We're both writing a book together where Datuk Lat will be doing the text and I'll be drawing the pictures. In reality the joke is on me for the Datuk is not only a widely read man and an able writer but also a very amusing raconteur.

We had a reunion last Monday and then on Tuesday. The Monday meeting also brought Cheryl Dorall, respected fellow journalist, former Malay Mail columnist and distinguished former editor of the Sunday Star. They, my mate Kak Teh and myself made the former New Straits Times old timers' combo at the Holiday Villa in Londra. We were also joined by Mohamad Jefri, Holiday Villa's manager.

The picture above shows how successful Datuk Lat was when drawing from memory. Thank you, Sir!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Good Ship Hari raya

Ramadan sails away ever so swiftly, even before the nekbat's gone dry in the cupboard of neglect and the hasidöh pulls out in slippery tendons of rope, and we are up to our eyeballs in bubor lambok with its limp tendrils of pucuk paku and the sprinkling of budu.

We are now going a-sailing, the seafaring people on the shore of Ujung Tanjong in Kuala Trengganu for it has always been in us, wind blasted souls encrusted with salt to the core, brine and brackish water in the Pantai Teluk with skeletons of abandoned boats that came back and could take the journey no more to Senggora; ikang belukang and tiny crabs peering out from the mud, pincer-waving to one and all.

We have made this frame from thin bamboo, stolen probably from the bamboo hedge of the Sekölöh Paya Bunga, glossy paper from Indian shops, red and green and blue, and streamers entwined from crepe paper and gaps in the ship patched up - so as not to strain the budget - with old copies of the Straits Times and Utusan Melayu.

They call it tujuh likor, a word that has long vanished from our everyday tongue. What is likor? And why seven of them in this lengthening month of puasa? It is time for ships standing in the front yard of our houses and bamboo cannons blasting away carbide fumes and deafening the cries of mothers and excited children and the voice of Pök Lèh from the surau.

Ramadan has been a-sailing so quickly but never too quickly for a child. The night is flickering with lights and shadows and paraffin and whiffs of carbide in the air. Rushed is the iftar, rushed is the prayers of children of prayerful people for this is the night of the beginning of the month of Shawwal.

The day after this is Hari Raya, oh the day after that perhaps, it all depends on the moon in the sky but oh joy is the night and food on plates, and ketupat and kuah kacang and beleda, the dry, sugar-coated coloured jewels.

Would Hari Raya come every day, would all those past Rayas that have gone lost in the mists of years, would they all come back now, for now is the time for forgiving, for visits to past people all lying in the solace of their earthly beds marked with stones, time for children everywhere to feel a little rich, for a while.

Dear Readers: Selamat Hari Raya. I have been away on a ship and have just come back to shore.

Raya image courtesy of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Letter From America

This very kind letter arrived from America -
Dear and esteemed Awang Goneng,

I am hopeful that you are blessed with good health as much as you have blessed your readers with your prose.

I have not written in a while, but learned you had published your second book a while ago. I purchased it "A Map of Trengganu" and wanted to express my deepest thanks to you. I began the reading and within a few pages already knew that this latest work would bring me moments of happiness as well as melancholy, because as conscious beings, the past will always bring happiness as well as sadness. Sadness in the way that one yearns to relive or go back to a time of innocence as well as a time of remembrance of days past, memories of loved ones who have past one's way - it is the circle of life, so to say. But, I was totally surprised to see your thanks to me about the incense burner! I felt that I was now part of your book and it made me so appreciative of life and sharing with others, like you have shared with your readers.

I hope that God blesses you with a long and healthy life so that I can "selfishly" live from your future works; you are so gifted with words and your story is so transitive, it crosses over into all walks of life. Reading your stories allows me to relive mine. I hope you do well in what ever you do. You are an incredible soul.

Louis Crespo
New York

Thank you, Sir, may God bless you too. A Map of Trengganu is still available from online retailers and from Foyles in London and good bookshops in Malaysia and Singapore. Or from the Pizzaman at large in Malaysia: SMS, 019-3199788 (Karim); email,

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Every Day Rainy Beats

In Kuala Trengganu the monsoon sings a tune that rattles on corrugated roofs that lulls cats to sleep. Fishermen home from the sea for a long snooze on the veranda, awaiting the wife's return with tapioca and stuff. But stuff is for the night, it's the ubi that now lifts the spirit, hissing out warm air in clouds as root turns translucent white. Tapioca and shaved coconut with salt from the sea now roaring mad, once the fisherman's ground, now his dread. Sounds of distant thunder beneath clouds rolling dark. Pedicab pushers sitting under tarpaulins rat-a-tatting with sudden drops, window panes shielding the constant patter, travellers curled in trishaws, sitting behind waterproof sheets, listening to rubber dipping into bumps in the road, sprays of rain squelching beneath lorry tires, and the chatter of rain-soaked trishawman drenched beneath his hat. The patter and the squelch and the bumps and the drones; the jabber and the damp. In a milieu of patter and beats. These are everyday parts, assembled in rhythm and sounds...

Budök budök mmaing wa
Atah jambatang
Lang kangök, lang kangök
dok terbang

Anök-anök dok nnöcak
Ssèmbak rötang
Jatoh ddebök, jatoh ddebök
ddalang lökang

Cik Mbong makang kerepok
ikang tambang
cicöh cuka, cicöh cuka
Awang Hitang

Cik Kalèh göhék tèksi
Ddalang hujang
Lapu lik-lak, lapu lik-lak
Ddalang pikirang

Ddölöh Hasang mamöh daging
Kena tulang
Ggögèh gigi, ggögèh gigi
Dök setarang

Kucing bapök masok dapor
Bahang ikang
Pacör-kecing, pacör kecing
Ddalang ppayang.

Illustration: Fly by Kite by Jayme McGowan. With thanks

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stamping Around the World

Father collected stamps. He put them in a leather valise,
and that was his album. He kept his entire collection in there, stamps still stuck to shreds of envelope paper, used stamps with glueless backs, waiting to be assigned to country pages in an album that he never bought, clusters of mint stamps still clinging to neighbours by their perforated edges, and commemorative envelopes, Queen Elizabeth's coronation, Merdeka day, and some other dates that I don't now remember.

He wasn't a serious collector like his neighbour Wang Nawang, who lived three houses away from us, in the same row that looked into the market, but further down to the shore. Wang Nawang stuck his stamps with hinges, in pages of an album that probably bore the Stanley Gibbons insignia. We often saw him sit by his window, looking into his stamp collection, in a cloak of sweet smoke emanating from his pipe tobacco. There he sat, pondering over Monaco triangles, and Ifni birds with smug and quizzical looks perched on long necks, and exotic goats and native people. Where in the world is Ifni now?

Looking into Father's bag of philately I found the name S.A.Latif,
stamped in blue ink on the back of an envelope that came from Durban, Natal, in South Africa. Latif must have swapped many stamps with Father as he had many Suid-Afrika issues in his bag, but Father had postcards too from lands that stood beyond the further reaches of my imagination, and a medal issued during the coronation of Queen Elizabth II in 1953, and here and there were delightful snippets of life in San Marino and Nyasaland and Ruanda-Urundi, thumb-nailed into postage stamps that carried in them more than a faint glimmer of sunshine in a foreign country. Ruanda-Urundi, a land with people I imagined to be constantly dancing in unfettered joy, what calamity touched it much, much later.

But for all those sounds conjured in vivid mental pictures and the alliterative lure of foreign lands,Father's interest was basically local. His bag was filled with Federated Malay State issues, tigers confined in serrated edges, aroused from jungle slumber; FMS stamps with the BMA overprint, and Trengganu stamps with overprints of Japanese characters and the occupying power's own issues showing a farmer ploughing the Malayan land as rays of the Japanese sun shone behind his field.
When I too started to collect stamps, I wrote to S.A.Latif in Natal asking if he was ready for further swaps, but Father must have given more than he had pages in his album. “Please do not send me any more stamps as I have more than I need from Malaya,” he wrote back, but he also very kindly enclosed some South Africa stamps, and then I heard form him no more. My collection expanded very slowly with occasional replenishments from Father's promiscuous pile, but occasionally I bought stamps from a dealer named Lee Cheng Puan in Duku Road, Singapore. Lee sent us stamps in little booklets from which we picked and then we sent back the rest with cash for the purchase that amounted to no more than a few dollars.

Emboldened by that
I looked to further shores and found one as I was scouring through TitBits, a magazine that Father occasionally brought home from the Chee Seek store in Kampung China. There were snippets in there of human interest stories, laughter from my favourite cartoonist Clew, Charles Atlas in his leopard skin underwear urging you not to have sand kicked in your eyes by beach bullies. And then, in one corner, were the good people from the London company of Broadway Approvals.

Broadway said they sent stamps out on approval, so I wrote to them, and – to my surprise - they did: in a little booklet came Ifni and Monaco and San Marino and Helvetica and more places you could hurry to by turning the pages. They were all sent for your approval, for you to take your pick, and to send back whatever you didn't want to Broadway Approvals plus a postal order for your purchase. I took what I wanted and sold the rest to my classmates, and the whole collection, as I recall, cost $15.00 which was probably about £1 15s 3d in old money.
The world spun on a different axis in those days when trust was truly global. Which trader would think it wise now to send a collection of stamps halfway around the world to a child in primary school? I found a Broadway Approvals advertisement recently that was almost similar to the one I saw in TitBits and was touched by this tagline in their copy, “But please tell your parents you are answering this advertisement.”

Broadway Approvals, I have a confession to make after all these years: my parents didn't know.

*I have done further research into Broadway Approvals. They were in South London, at 50 Denmark Hill. In 1956 they brought the Micromodel Company, a company credited with the origination of cut-out models of historic buildings and castles. The man behind Broadway Approvals was George Santo. Thank you Mr Santo!

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