On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Then, Suddenly, I Remember...

Today, many years ago, I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was big on Ralph then, sage of self-reliance, impressive looking American (in those days when Americans were still impressive), and I was still in my early days at secondary school. I still am in my early days at school, so today I picked up an old copy of the Review section of the Guardian newspaper and read the cover story on Ralph Waldo.

It was many years ago today that a voice asked me, "Buku apa tu?". I heard it again today, as I flipped through the essay by Harold Bloom. Don't like Bloom much now, not since discovering he's a Strausser fellow-traveller, devotee of the cold-hearted, weirdo, unhinged thinker behind the present Neocon marauders. But Ralph Waldo, I can still lend him an ear.

So back to school. I was sitting at a bench in the school canteen, looking through a book I'd just borrowed from the library, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was probably feeling a bit apprehensive then, as I felt on most school games days. When I looked up I saw a straight-haired senior in the uniform of the Boy Scouts, black horn-rimmed glasses, looking at me. "Buku apa tu?" He picked it up, flipped through it, he probably shook his head, probably nooded in approval. I can't remember.

And then I remember he was known as Ku Ali, the senior chap who stood out in school, his vivacity spreading forth as he rode on his bicycle.

And then I remember now, that was Pok Ku!

Astounded by that sudden flash, I shot him an email (which I'm sure he'll not mind if I reproduce here):
Dear Pok Ku,

Something amazing happened today. I was reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson when a strange memory flashed back. I was astounded. I began to look at it closely and the person in it took better shape, voice, straight hair, black-rimmed glasses, boy scout's uniform, bicycle, Sultan Sulaiman Secondary.

I had just joined the school then. I think one afternoon, perhaps during those dreaded school games practises. I'd just borrowed a book from the library, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was sitting at the bench in the school canteen and reading it when a senior came and asked me, "Buku apa tu?"

He was someone I knew as Ku Ali. He was a bubbly character, a person I looked up to. You, right?

I only got the name of the teacher wrong, T.P.C****** instead of Mr N*****, who had brown-rimmed glasses (tortoise shell?). One day Mr Lau K*** B*** was briefing us all on the cross country run. "You must drink solt water," he was telling the assembly. What? Solt? Oh, Mr N***** burst out, "Salt!" All that happened in my early days at the school. And there was a boy named Lau K*** B* (also my senior).

But I remember you well, the voice, the face and all. You probably knew my cousin, N** M******* (the one who was knocked down by the Tok Peraih in one of my Growing Up pieces).

Strange how that one got dislodged from the crevasses of memory.

I probably can hear you now singing the Goong gang goolie goolie watcha, ging gang goo, ging gang goo...

-Awang G
And Pok Ku's probably still singing now, adult numbers most probably, no more the ging gang goolie-goolie whatever. You can hear him here

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Notes & Queries

Since writing about Trengganu's pinas or perahu besar and Bachok, the coconut tree feller, I've had repsonses from people who know more about Pulau Duyong than I do, and who knew Bachok even better. As I've mentioned before, there are many similarities between Trengganuspeak and some dialects spoken in or around the Sulawesi area in the Nusantara. Once, while discussing this with an academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London I was told that Trengganuspeak shared its penchant for replacing the 'an' ending with the nasal 'ng' sound, for example, bulang for the standardspeak bulan, with people from a place called Tukul Besi in Sulawesi.

I'm told now by a correspondent that the Bugis went to Trengganu in force during the time of Daing Perani and Daing Merewah, when Trengganu had strong links with Riau. The Bugis of course settled in great numbers in Riau-Lingga and the Malay peninsula in their disapora, soon after the arrival of the Dutch to the Nusantara. In Selangor they played a pivotal role in the Sultanate, as they did in many other places too in peninsular Malaysia. Sultan Mahmud, the second Sultan of Selangor of Bugis descent in fact led the fiercest resistance against the Dutch following their capture of Melaka. The Dutch made inroads into Selangor and set up a near-impregnable fortress on Bukit Melawati in Kuala Selangor, but Sultan Mahmud and his men (some from Pahang) scaled the hill one night and engaged them in a fierce battle which came to be known as Perang satu malam, the overnight battle, that continued till dawn when the Dutch were finally driven back to Melaka.

I've also been told that Bachok, contrary to what I heard, never made it back to the Ujung Panjang of his birth. Towards the end of his life he expressed his desire to return many times, to see once again the land of his origin, but his body belonged to Kuala Trengganu where he was buried, his wish unfulfilled.

Pak Leh Perancis is another name I have been given that may also have connections with Martin Perrot, the man who made the pinas synonymous with Trengganu and famous in the archipelago. Duyong boatmakers are still today making boats without resort to nails. I remember what they used to caulk the boats, a sticky, putty like thing called, in typical Trengganuspeak fashion, ggala. If you find that difficult to pronounce, then try it in the original Sanskrit, gala or the standardspeak version, gegala, or gala-gala. I don't remember what went into it, sadly for myself and for my radiator which is leaking right now, but I remember among the things that went into it as it bubbled in the pot were pieces of jute strings that probably gave it the resilience and fibre. Which leaves me one question still - why did M. Perrot journey out to Trengganu in the 1840s? Do you know? If you do, I'd like to hear from you.

My earlier blog, Songs in My Head, in which I recounted my early meeting with the Qasidah Burda, and how it came back to me in Oxford two weeks ago brought some of the most moving responses from many unexpected quarters. I never expected Kecek-Kecek to be read by more than a handful of people who were born in or have been to Trengganu, so I left our Imam Pak Leh's ditty as it was, and it brought a few mails asking for a translation.

I mentioned the nashid before in an earlier piece of Growing Up... and I give it here now, the full version as I remember it, and the translation:
"Ingat, ingat, serta fikir sehari-hari,
Kamu duduk dalam kubur seorang diri;
Rumah besar, kampung luas, itu ia,
Semua itu, tinggal juga akan dia...

"Remember and think you of this daily,
That in your grave you will lie so lonely,
Your house and estate so widely laid,
Will all be left behind once you're dead."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #132,570

The big boats arrived Trengganu sailing ship depicted in old stamp issued by Thai authorities.from Thailand with bags of salt or tiles from Senggora. These were the perahu besar of Trengganu, or the perahu bedar often seen moored in the teluk or the inlet just by the shore near our home. We had a friend named Wang Kaleh — whose real name I believe was Wan Salleh — whose father sailed these coastal waters. His name was Wang Mang — again, perhaps Wan Osman in his identity card — so he was widely known as Wang Mang Perahu Besar.

Nearer the Pantai lived a boy who was my junior at school who had funny eyes, what the Malays called mata sabun, not soapy, but vaguely blue in colour. He was rumoured to be of some remote European descent, probably a Perancis man who landed on shore a long time ago with his baguette and baggage. It seemed an unlikely story but an interesting one nevertheless, so I sometimes called him Cher Perancis, which gave him a little smile.

Quite recently, after some serendipitous discovery Perahu Besar of Trengganu. Source: Surau Ladang.comabout the pinas boats of Trengganu, Cher came back to me in a different way. The pinas, as I discovered, came to Trengganu from the French and German pinasse, which meant a medium-sized sailing boat. In the 1840s, a certain Frenchman by the name of Martin Perrot came ashore in Kuala Trengganu and married a local girl. When his name reached the Sultan of that time, Sultan Baginda Omar (1839-1876), he was summoned to the palace and ordered to design a royal schooner to match any western vessel. And so began the journey of the pinasse or pinas in Trengganu waters.

The big boat of Wang Mang, I'd venture to say, must've been a descendant of the pinasse that sent Trengganu men sailing far and wide in the archipelago. Wang Mang brought goods home, mostly from Thailand, bags of rice or crystallised salt in bulging bags woven from pandan leaf, and maybe even the ghost's hair seaweeds that we soaked overnight in water and ate in a sauce of chilli and sugar and vinegar, the kerabu sereh. I never found out what he took with him on his outward journey though I sometimes wished that he'd take his son Wang Kaleh away from us, if only for a while.

Kuala Trengganu was as Trengganu sailing ship depicted in old stamp issued by Thai authorities.isolated as any town could be in peninsular Malaysia, but as the sea was wide open to us, we were never short of seafaring people. The Hong Ho ship came bobbing up and down in the distant waves and dropped anchor within sight of shore. The tongkang barges rowed out to them and came back laden with bales and bags for local traders. A gunboat once came ashore and filled the streets with immaculately turned out Pakistani sailors; and long before that — when those sailors were still kids at school — a lone sailor was washed ashore and felt the same tingling that Monsieur Perrot felt many years before. So, like M. Perrot, he stayed to marry a local girl.

For some reason we gave him the name Bachok, though he wasn't of Kelantan stock but from Sulawesi across a wider stretch of water than the Jerteh river. From the stories I heard, Bachok was blown in by the North East monsoon when he went sailing one Sulawesi day, and the next coast he saw was Kuala Trengganu. I remember Bachok who was attired in the way of the workmen of Kuala Trengganu, in thick khaki shorts that reached his knees, and a batik sarong over it, its hem pulled up and tucked into the top of the sarong that was bound around the waist. When the ships came in, men who could carry a pikul bag of rice on their backs would walk back and forth around the waterfront, cigarettes stuck to lips and billhooks at the ready. But Bachok wasn't like that: he walked with a sharp golok or machette and earned his keep by clambering up coconut trees and chopping them down piece by piece as he clambered down the trees.

One day I watched in awe as he cleared three coconut trees from the corner of the market that was in front of our house. The first rule of Bachok climbing was never to follow the local custom of hacking footholds into the trunk; he simply moved up, gripping the tree with hands and feet until he reached the very top. Once there he'd throw down the coconuts one by one, then the leaves would come shooting down, then the part we'd be waiting for, the heart of palm which was soft and edible. After that he'd slide down a yard and chop down the first log of trunk that he'd throw down with a big thud after issuing a warning to passers by. He'd go down another yard and do the same, and then the same again until he was back on firm ground with the once tall tree just a stump below his knee. Bachok was one of the two Sulawesi people who made me eager to reach manhood; the other was Maria Menado.

Like most people who Trengganu sailing ship depicted in old stamp issued by Thai authorities.grew up by the sea, I never learnt to swim at all. But we were acutely aware of the sea, its powers and dangers, and our vocabulary and ways of seeing were influenced accordingly. When we made too much noise in the house, mother would say that we sounded like the noise of 'wakang pecoh,' noises that were made, presumably, by shipwrecked sailors. For a long time I thought that the wakang of Trengganuspeak was a corruption of wangkang, a Chinese ship perhaps, like the one that Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) sailed to Ulu Teresat in the early history of Trengganu. But recently I discovered how wrong I was when the word padewakang came my way. It's a Sulawesi word for a sea-going vessel. My mother's wakang must have originated from there.

It could've also been the vessel that Bachok came in when the monsoon winds blew him ashore all those years ago. If indeed it was, he must've thought about it in his journey back, for I heard that Bachok, in his twilight years, began to yearn for his early life and decided to return to his native shore.

And as for Cher, well he did have a certain je ne sais quois...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Where Are They Now?

Thank you Mek Jarroh (see, comments, below) for bringing back ke'ang. I think that's how it should be, not Kek Ang, as 'keks' are reserved for exotic treats, like kuih kek which, as you know, is eaten when wearing a baju kot, preferably in a perahu bot.

My memory is hazy about ke'ang though, it seems to conjure up images of dry pop corn, compacted and held together by something sweet and syrupy, probably nnisang (standardspeak, manisan), coconut sugar. Do you remember that? Slabs of it, about an inch thick and cut into squares and stacked in a deep square metal tin with a round lid on its top. Would that be ke'ang or another?

There are many cakes of Trengganu that are now probably forgotten. I still have a friend in Kuala Lumpur who makes asam gumpal, which is sago dumplings filled with bean paste. The dumplings float in a white coconuty sauce that's between sweet and savoury. Then there's ggenang, penganang, bepang, beluda, beronok, perut ayang, tepung kapor, kkoleh, cik abas demang, kkusu, where are they now?

Someone should resurrect them from the er, bowels of memory, put them back on the map, and let us rejoice once again in the sweetness and savoury taste of Trengganu. But that's not all: there was a lady in Tanjong known as Mok Teh Spreng who made rojak from green papaya. The papaya she shaved with a special tool that produced long threads of the only slightly yellowing fruit which she piled on your plate, and then she poured her sauce onto it, with an aroma that would've made you drool. The sauce was made from grilled fish, pounded to a paste, then mixed with chilly and vinegar. The cognoscenti would ask Mok Teh for fried keropok, no, not the lekor, but those thin, sun-dried pieces fried in hot coconut oil, or, would you believe it, hot sand from the Trengganu shore. Now, the crisp keropok was used also as a scoop for the rojak sauce, and then eaten in one mouthful, sauce, scoop and all. Spreng, by the way, is Trengganuspeak for 'spring', that which gives the bounce in the chassis of heavyweight people. Mok Teh was like that, and she sat and watched you eat, like a sumo wrestler, as she bounced and shaved the flesh of the green papaya.

The counterpart of Mok Teh was a man who was also large in stature who sold fried kerepok lekor from the verendah of his house near a place called Kampung Aur. He was Pok Awang Hitam, and his fame was the chilli sauce that you dipped your keropok in. And then, when it was the season, a Mok Som not far from there sold crisp, crunchy, green mangosteens on a stick, eaten with garam lada, red chilli and salt pounded together into a paste. This was a rare treat, and no other state in the Federation I think, was aware that green mangosteens were edible. Or maybe it was too much work to make them saleable. Before she impaled them on a stick, Mok Som's little girls had to slice off the top and bottom of the unripe mangosteens, then soak them awhile in water, before peeling the rest of the skin with a sharp knife. It was the sap, you see, that was the bother.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Songs In My Head

For many years a song had been singing in my head in words that I couldn't fathom. I remember by it the Tamil shopkeepers of Kuala Trengganu who put it there in the first place, by their early closing and their congregating at our surau to sing to their hearts' content. They cooked a special meal of ghee rice in a huge brass pot, portions of which were scooped into newspaper pages lined with plastic sheets, then wrapped up and piled into neat stacks. They then brought out the sweets, whorls of syrup-filled thin jelebi tubes, and balls of ladoo that got me hooked for life.

After the dusk prayer was over and the supplications said, our Imam Pak Leh would withdraw to a corner on this one occasion of the year to make room for these keepers of our grocery shops, our spice retailers and our cloth merchants in their freshly ironed shirts, and sarongs of pure white, or the pulicat type woven in their native Madras. They wore woolen Afghan hats, or simply wrapped kerchiefs around their heads, and then they sang (as I heard it):
"Maula ya salli wasal
lim daiman nabada,
'Ala habibika khai
ril khalqi kullihimi"
It was a tune that haunted me and spun endlessly in my head, and I've carried it with me all my life. I didn't know what it meant except that it was sung by our Tamil neighbours during the celebration of maulid, the birthday of the Prophet.
Old handwritten copy of Qasida Burda manuscript

It was a joyous occasion for us, as the Tamils were big on the maulid and lavish with their feasts. And they did this not once but twice a year, the second one developing over a week, which they devoted to a Saint from their native land, named Meeran Sahib Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid Badshah of Nagore, born more than five hundred years ago. For this they decorated our surau with buntings and gonfalons of bright colours, and for us in that corner of town who'd never ventured further than Kampung China, Nagore in Tamil Nadu had come alive.

During quiet periods before the annual maulids when the Tamil Indian members of our community were back in their trades, our Imam Pak Leh led the young girls of our surau in their lyrical turn, their voices, trilling behind the deep bass of our Pak Leh, drifted up to our house, through the window of our dining room that looked down on the surau in voices that haunt me still:
"Ingat, ingat serta fikir,
sehari, hari,
Kamu duduk, dalam kubur
Seorang diri..."
Those are my soundtracks of Kuala Trengganu when I look back to those years, songs of the Tamil maulideers and Pak Leh leading the girls with his nasyhid, while men, being men, were all gathered in the open verendah of the surau, hoicking it out or smoking thin cigarettes of black tobacco threads wrapped in thin dried leaves.
Old handwritten copy of Qasida Burda manuscript

Many years later, last week in fact, I travelled to Oxford to the house of an erudite Malaysian living there to share his learning, and also to seek his counsel on something that I've been interested in of late, the Moroccan Arabic script. We chatted, and looked at his collection of medieval Morroccan manuscripts, then rose for the mid-afternoon prayer which he led. Soon as we finished, he broke into a chant that found me holding back my tears. I saw again those shopkeepers and their kerchiefed heads, the ladoos and the rice, and Pak Leh; and I heard again those words (as my learned friend sang it):
Qasida Burdah refrain
"Maula ya salli wasallim daiman abada,
'Ala habibika khairil khalqi kullihimi"

The song that'd been singing in my head all these years, I was told by our Malaysian scholar, was the Qasidah of the Prophet's mantle — the Qasida Burda — composed by Imam Sharafuddin Muhammad Al-Busiri more than seven hundred years ago after he dreamt that the Prophet had placed his mantle around him in his sleep. Al-Busiri was then suffering from paralysis and had prayed to God for recovery before nodding off to sleep. When he awoke, he was fully recovered, so he wrote the 160 verse qasida in honour of the Prophet and in thankfulness to God.

In the bus with the Qasida Burda playing again and again in refrain in my head, I thought of Pak Leh and his song of darkness and loneliness that held me with an even greater grip in this almost empty bus heading home. And I realised again with an intensity that nearly hurt, that in a sense, we're all going there, journeying ever homeward.

Photo: Old manuscript copy of the Qasida Burda.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Abdullah's Lost Tale

Hikayat AbdullahScene: Market in Trengganu

Enter: Abdullah bin Abdul Qadir Munshi (for it is he).

Abdullah: Apa itu benda boleh bagi tau sama Nana?

Mek Som: Tu budu, ning beledi. Budu ddalang beledi. Ddalang cetong pong ada jugok.

Abdullah: Tuan Raffles tentu tak suka itu, baunya menjolok hidung saya. Tuan Farquhar pula mesti marah kalau di bawa ke Residensi dia. Tu apa nasi yang banyak daun tu?

Mek Som: Ning lah nasik ulang.

Abdullah: Oh, nasi ulang ya, makan berulang-ulang begitu?

Mek Som: Yang kita dok makang sokmo, tulah orang kata, nasik ulang.

Abdullah: Yang itu apa pula, diikat dan dibungkus daun tu, makanan apa?

Mek Som: Ning bukang nnatang makanang. Ning damar, buak suloh bila jjalang malang nnari. Kalu mung lapor nok makang le le, ambek lah ssagong ni, tuang ddalang mulok.

Abdullah: Ah, orang Trengganu, ganjil sebutannya. Tuan menjadi Tuang. Tetapi kenapa pula Tuan di dalam mulut? Teringat saya satu lagu Melayu yang baru saya ajar kepada Tuan Raffles:
Anak la ikan la ikan
Di makan ikan
Di mana Tuan la Tuan
Di celah gigi....

Mek Som: Ha, ambek ni, mung nak makang selalu.

Abdullah: Tidak perlu, saya masih ada sedikit keju di hotel kami.

On his return to Singapura, Abdullah wrote:
"Ada pun orang Trengganu itu tiada had gelojohnya, makannya tidak berhenti. Di pasar Trengganu terdapat nasi yang digaul dengan daun-daun kayu dari hutan rimba, dimakan berkali-kali, setiap masa. Nasi Ulang, kata mereka, sebab dimakan berulang kali, tidak kira masa. Bila Tuan Raffles mendengar tentang hal ini, sudahlah mereka berjalan dengan membawa dua keris, mereka makan juga tiada hadnya, makan berulang-berulang kali. Begitulah katanya Tuan Raffles. "Abdullah," katanya kepada saya pula semasa kami sedang makan roti mentega di berandanya waktu pagi, "kita mesti mengajar orang-orang Trengganu ini supaya tidak gelojoh."

"Maka saya pun berceritalah pula kepada Tuan Raffles perihal mereka yang bukan sahaja dari segi tabiat mereka makan Nasi berulang, tetapi mereka juga makan sejenis debu yang dinamakan ssagung, dan bagaimana saya sendiri disuruh memakannya selalu. Di mana saja terdapat orang Trengganu itulah kerja mereka, makan selalu, tak kira ssagung, budu, atau sejenis kuih yang mereka panggil hati sokma."

Monday, February 14, 2005

Walking With Ghosts

Mek Jarroh, in the late sixties, walked from Ladang to Gong Kapas, via the Chinese cemetery, and a paya. (see Comments, Growing Up in Trengganu #179523a ). That was some journey!

I remember the Chinese Cemetery which, I think, had a long and winding road running through it, called Jalan Wailis. No, Wailis wasn't some expatriate figure but Trengganuspeak for Wireless, the Neanderthal Man of our present day WiFi. My Father was a Wireless man who used to tell me how he cycled back from work in the dead of night, through the dark, long road that ran through the cemeteries, Hindu, then Chinese, then Muslim, before finally seeing the dim street lights of Jalan Paya Bunga. The person who built the Wireless Station there in necropolis, then made it work round the clock, had a great sense of humour!

For a while Father worked in the annexe of the General Post Office on the edge of Padang Malaya (Maziah), as a telephone, then telegraph, operator. These were days when Trengganu Telephone numbers were four digits, and every call had to go through the operator. I remember a phrase that Father said whenever I think of that, and it's Kelantanese, "buak gelak mato." One day, one very important person in Trengganu made a telephone call to another very important person in Kota Baru, and, as it turned out, the latter owed the former some money. In their conversation, the Kelantan dignitary asked his Trengganu counterpart if he'd received the $2.50 sent to him through a mutual friend. The Trengganu man replied, "No." And so the expression from the Kelantan man, "Ambo, duo ria pong demo tu buak gelak mato!" Buak gelak mato is the act of making the eye not see, but the closest English expression to it, I suppose, is 'sleight of hand'. "It's only two rial for goodness sake, for such a sleight of hand!" And we laughed and laughed not because the story was exceptionally funny, but because we knew the identity of those people who borrowed of each other a measly sum that a fisherman would've got in the pawn shop for his tackle.

When Father moved to a new Telegraph Office opposite the old bus station, I had the task, soon as I got back from school, to deliver a bottle of hot Nescafe to his place of work. It was quite a feat pedalling a small bike while trying to balance a hot bottle of drink on the handle bar. But still I was thankful that I wasn't yet of cycling age when he was working at Jalan Wailis in those wee hours.

The paya marshes of Kuala Trengganu were wild and wondrous, with frogs a-croaking and water lilies, and long reeds that sprang out from under the water. Many types of fish, and leeches galore, lived beneath the floating mats of broad leaves, and grasses that tagged into each other and wove themselves into a wide, green, raft over the water. I never saw the like again once we left Kuala Trengganu.

Lorong Mok Pe was a short walk from our Primary School, that I remember, because Pok Mang, the old school gardener, lived around there. One day I went to his house with a friend to pick up some picture books that he'd collected from somewhere. On the way out the friend walked hastily from the junction where Lorong Mok Pe met the main road, then told us a little tale, that on some nights, at that junction, would stand a mystery lady who'd look at you and give a smile if you looked into her blood-shot eyes.

For the most part Kuala Trengganu was very dark in the nights, and some roads were even darker. Not far from that junction, turning right to the foot of the hills was a spot where people were shot summarily by executioners of the Triple Star (Bintang Tiga) Communist forces when they came out to town immediately the Japanese Occupation ended. There my father lost his friend Ali who, he said, was charged with collaboration with the Japanese.

Walking further along Jalan Cherong Lanjut, with the barren hills on your left, there was hardly a lamp post in sight except for the flickering lights from houses to your right and the occasional headlights that glared into your eyes. We had an outing there one night with our class teacher, walking bravely in the dark, listening to her explaining the meaning of 'given the sack' while I looked forward to seeing bright lights again on the other side. It's a funny phrase to remember from a walk in the dark a long time ago, but strong feelings make you remember strange things, and weird tales.

Thank you Mek Jarroh, for your memory.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Grammatical Vigilanteism

My friend, a strict grammarian, chided me for coining the phrase 'rhyming intensifier' to describe those delightful words like lentang pukang (see comments below). That's not a term in grammar, he said sternly, that's from linguistics. "But I see that aplenty in books on Malay grammar nowadays," I protested. Well, he replied, that's because many writers nowadays cannot distinguish their grammar from their linguistics.

"Put these intensifiers in the back of your mind," he advised, "use the correct word, 'adverb'.

So there you are, first rule of grammar: never intensify an adverb.

And I also remember raising somewhere the word 'jikidang' which I found in Trengganu to describe the Rukun Tetangga vigilantes, and I said it was borrowed from the Japanese. I'm right in that I'm pleased to say, but, and here's a but: speaking to a Japanese speaker today, I learnt that it's actually 'jikedan', not 'jikidang'.

I know, I told her, I've been through this with James Bong.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My Cousin Chen

I learnt with great sadness today the passing of my cousin Chen after a long illness.

Chen left Malaysia before I was born, but he was always in my mind during my childhood years in Trengganu as he was always sending us figs, and zabibs (raisins) and apricot paste folded into a mat (Qamr al-din) from Egypt. But what stuck to my mind most, before I even met him, was a picture we received of him on a camel standing in Giza, before a pyramid. When I myself was at the Giza many, many years later, I gave the camel a miss; one man in the family on a camel was just about enough.

I admired Chen greatly for his courage, venturing out to Egypt when sea-travel was a hazard and the Pyramids, in another world, another place. He went with a group of brave Trengganu lads, one of whom later became a minister in the Federal Government. Chen was a product of the Sultan Zainal Abidin Arabic School, and his venturing out to Egypt was to continue our family tradition of Arabic learning, an area in which I am sadly wanting.

When Chen came back to Trengganu after many years abroad, I remember I had a towel wrapped around my waist, as I was about to have a bath at the family well. Undaunted, I went out to his car to meet him for the first time, and thereby establishing a Trengganu tradition in the eyes of his Egyptian fiancée of Trengganu folk wandering out in a towel wrap-around at first contact with foreign women. That was the first time I saw Chen too, and I was greatly impressed.

Chen took a little interest in politics, but mostly he was an academician. He taught briefly at the Sultan Zainal Abidin, then moved on to a University in Kuala Lumpur. Then, on his retirement, he left for Brunei where he taught for a few years. While there he was so badly jolted in a serious road accident that the bulk of his memory went. He was still a humorous man when I saw him last July, making jokes — as he was fond of — by word association. He was a learned man with a doctorate from al-Azhar University, who wore his knowledge lightly, and was always good fun.

When Chen got married to his Egyptian wife, a man who did odd jobs for us asked me, "Bini dia Hindustan?" I didn't know whether to sing or dance. But something else was yet to come. His wife learnt to speak Malay, and it was Trengganuspeak that she chose. When I met her last July, while Chen was ambling between remembrance and forgetfulness, his wife continued the conversation in Trengganuspeak. I was much assured by that, a part of Trengganu had spread its vines in the mind of a daughter of Misr.

I shall miss Chen very much for his learning, his humour, and his easy-going style that I valued.

May Allah rest him in peace and make his abode in Jannah. al-Fatihah.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Stressed Up Words

Gigi ggogeh, gguling-galok, ddener-pe, are all stressd words that typify Trengganuspeak (or Kelantanspeak too, for that matter). They highlight the use of what's known as the shaddah in Arabic, the stressed consonants, giving you a feel of the vertical take-off. In Malaysia, the shaddah is more commonly known as the sabdu, which may be shaddah spoken in a hurry, a corruption of it. In a circular way, my Kamus Bahasa Melayu defines sabdu with a little arrow pointing to tasydid. When I go to tasydid, I find another little arrow pointing to sabdu. Pi mai, pi mai... as they say in Kedah. Bila gi ssining dia suruh gi di nung, bila gi di nung dia suruh balik ssining pulok. When I come here they ask me to go there, when I go there they ask me to come back.

The sabdu is a word connected with the tajwid, the proper recitation of the Qur'an, and has little relevance to Standardspeak. But in Trengganuspeak you can't walk without stumbling on the sabdu or the tasydid and you have to give it due attention because it can change the meaning of a word. Gocoh as we saw before, is a one sided fight, but when it's ggocoh it becomes two-sided. Likewise, jalang and jjalang, one's a noun, the other's a verb. So that's shaddah, sabdu or tashdid, which is in fact related to shaddah. One is the stress on the consonant (shaddah) and the other's a word with the shaddah (tashdid).

An early book of Malay Grammar used by Dutch traders.In Trengganuspeak the shaddah is sometimes used to make a verb, as in jjalang (walk), as opposed to jalang (road). But mostly it's used to shorten words, normally those beginning with the prefix ber attached to them in Standardspeak. Here again, jjalang is berjalan in standardspeak, while jalang is someone you don't speak about, well, not in polite company outside Trengganu anyway. The stress also sometimes tells you that there's a preposition amiss, the di word. If you ask someone, Mana Mok mung? ("Where's your Mum?"), and the answer is "Ddunngung," then you know that she's in Dungun (Di Dungun). "Duana mung beli nnatang ning?" ("Where did you buy this thingymathing?"). "Bbesut." But to the question: "Nak gi duane tu wei?" ("Where're you going to?"). The answer could be, "Ppasor." ("To the market.").

This though, doesn't work all the time. You can't for instance, say Sselangor, or Ssingapura, or Ssumatra, or Pperlih; and what they've done to us to deserve that I don't know.

So the shaddah is used to indicate a verb, which is generally true; but safer by far to say that it indicates that the word has been compacted, because it can appear in ppisang, which is not a banana but another buah (fruit) that hangs from the branches of a big tree, is yellow in colour, and has stones the size of pebbles. My guess is that it was pisang-pisang in its earlier life. And if, in your childhood days, you've played to nnusuk, hide and seek, you'd have been told by your team-mates to nnusuk mmolek, hide yourself well. That's menusuk (hide) and molek-molek (well), a verb and an adverb, both having the sabdu or shaddah.

I was inclined to think, as I said before, that this device is found only in Trengganu and Kelantan, until I found this lovely sentence from a Bugis toloq. The toloq is a wonderful Bugis literary genre which embodies many literary conventions. Here's an opening line that caught my eye: ala maressaq otaé ala kkédéq pabbojaé" which is translated as, "faster than betel can be chewed, in the twinkling of an eye." It's kkédéq with the shaddah that caught my eye, because we do that in Trengganu too, kkedik mata, when you sit there blinking. Eh, budok ni dak tido lagi, dok kkedik mata!"

Dok bbaik, gi mmolek!

Photo:An early book of Malay Grammar, used by Dutch traders.

ddener-pe = Said of something that's wet and messy; also said of a spoilt, moanful child.
gigi ggogeh = Wobbly tooth.
gguling-galok = To roll about on the floor playfully.
Dok bbaik, gi mmolek = Live in peace, mind how you go.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Accounting For Taste

In the old Padang Malaya in Kuala Trengganu, under the shade of a flame of the forest tree, sat a man named Ku Awang who sold air serbat, a word which sounds very suspiciously close to the Arabic sharba, to drink. It could have come to us from those Yemeni folk who travelled down to spread the Word and paused awhile to quench their thirst. Ku Awang's serbat I was told, contained halia or ginger, and sugar for sure, and maybe a shred of pandan too.

Sometimes, encouraged by the crowd that stopped by to squat and drink, Ku Awang would upgrade his menu items to include another. It was a mixture of many things, including Horlicks and Milo, and a teaspoon of what could've been Nescafe. I used to watch him scoop out the powders from various cans and mix them all into a paste with condensed milk, before adding in the boiling water. As the drink slid down his customers' throat it must've given them quite a feel, of milk, cocoa and sugar, and malt and instant coffee. I don't think he became the talk of the town for that though, for when I saw him again coming down the street, he was still known as Ku Awang Air Serbat, not as the man who invented the Neshormilocafe.

I tried to define the taste of Ku Awang's recipe when I read that the Japanese, sometime ago, had to invent a word to describe the taste of AjiNoMoto, which is monosodium glutamate to you and me. All along I'd thought that MSG merely enhanced your taste-buds besides making you very thirsty, but how wrong I was, as I'd missed the taste of umami, which is described as 'savoury'. Umami they say is the reaction of your taste buds to food with 'savoury, broth-like, meaty' quality. The Chinese know it as the Xien Wei taste of glutamate, and budu it's said, is umami.

Now it strikes me as something circular when a taste's described as 'savoury', which itself floats in waters uncharted. What's 'savoury'? I once asked an English person, and I was told that it was anything that wasn't sweet or bitter, and that was good enough for me for chips and morsels of meat that flitted 'twixt lips and plate of my everyday meal. Then the word 'spicy' was added, and I could live with that too, but the reality is that savoury means many things to many people. So 'budu' is umami is savoury as I can recall, with a salty, fishy, sound-of-nobat quality.

Then another English person came my way via some distant shore to ask the number of words there is in Malay to describe taste. It was merely rhetorical really, as all he wanted to do was talk about his long-stay in Bangkok and the number of words available in Thai to describe the taste of their food. He mentioned six or eight, I think, which started me counting the number of ways in Trengganuspeak or standard Malay to describe the taste of our daily meal. So far I've come up with eleven that are worthy of consideration, a lot better than the four that are considered primary, if you don't count umami that is, as I am now wont to do.

First we have the basic four, masin, masam, manis, and pahit, — salty, sour, sweet and bitter — or in Trengganuspeak, masing, masang, manih, pahik. And then I counted seven more — and it's about now that I wander into the 'Here Be Dragons' area in my Map of Taste — for I have pedas, pedar, tengit, maung, lemak and hanyir. And for good measure, I've got tawar too, which isn't a taste at all, I hear you say.

You will also tell me that pedas, the heat of chilli, isn't a taste either, as it's a sensation that assaults not your taste-buds but your trigeminals. And maybe I'll agree with you on that, but who now will say that the 'taste' of chili isn't a rasa? But you'll probably accept maung which Winstedt describes as bitter and smelling musty, while to Haji Zainal Abidin Safarwan it's something with taste and smell that induce nausea. The maung that I remember is a raw vegetable taste that's not pleasant at all, so I'll go very quickly now to something more palatable, and that's lemak, which in English is perhaps best described as a 'rich' flavour but which plays a more important role than that in Malay, in Trengganu and elsewhere.

Lemak you'll agree with me is the taste of coconut milk, and ghee and butter, and some bananas, and teh tarik under a shady tree. In other words, it's not just a description, but a taste per se. Then there's pedar (or pedor in Trengganu) which is a problem for me as it's been said to be rancid and pungent and bitter. Pedor to me is quite revolting like gall or bile and needn't be rancid at all. It may be just my memory here as once I saw a man produce a shrivelled thing in the market to prove the efficacy of some medicine he was selling, and he said it was pedu beruang, the internal organ of a bear. And he said it tasted pedor.

But can you taste without your smell? Tengit and hanyir appear to be two qualities that can be both savoured and smelt. Tengit is the rancid smell (and taste) of cooking fat that's gone off, and hanyir in Kuala Trengganu is everywhere, being a town by the sea. It's the fishy taste of budu and kerepok lekor, and the smell of the fish-monger if he sits too close to you in a Kedai Payang café.

So that's the taste of life, and you'll hear most of them everyday, varying perhaps only in their quality, for in Trenggganuspeak they can take on the added intensifiers of manis lleting, masang pperik, masing ppekak, pahik llepang, pedah nnaha, and tawor hebber. Then you'll know that they're more than just what they are normally.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Empire of the Sauce

If you grope into the pekasam, so goes a Malay saying, you must dip your entire arm's length. What is pekasam? Winstedt says it's fish, shellfish or meat pickled in brine along with bamboo-shoots; whilst my friend Hj Zainal Abidin Safarwan says, without bothering to explain, it's tetungap, tempoyak, kenas. I know that tempoyak is fermented durian, which isn't my favourite dip, but I had to go back to Winstedt to find that tetungap is fish preserved in salt, and kenas, a pickle of shellfish. And then I had to go back to them both again because I remembered something called ikang belara, which seemed to me to be fish, either smoked or wet-salted. And there my trail ended as they're both silent on the subject of that.

If you're a regular visitor to this place you'll know that I'm referring to Winstedt's handy little volume, the unabridged Malay-English dictionary, and Haji Zainal Abidin's voluminous Kamus Besar Bahasa Melayu. Of the two, Winstedt's is the more scholarly work, with word etymology thrown into it, though not always hitting its target.

When I looked into the deep, dark mysteries of budu yesterday I didn't realise that I was dipping into murkier depths. Anasalwa (see comments below, or visit her interesting blog, Funnyaccent) seems to suggest that budu may have originated in Vietnam; while Atok (also see comments below, or the interesting records in his Kitab) has been helpful with his Malaysian budu regulations should I plan to set up a factory in my backyard.

Well, it's difficult to speculate on food origins without starting a fight. I am aware that fish sauce is found throughout South-east Asia under various names: budu in Trengganu and Kelantan, nampla in Thailand, and nuoc mam in Vietnam. Fish, in fact, has been sauced worldwide, dating back to even ancient times when Apicius the Roman recommended garum or garon or liquamen in his recipes, and these were fish-based sauce. It's only in Southeast Asia that the fermenting of fish has survived with such gusto and aroma, so we're back to where we started, where did it all begin for us?

In Vietnam, layers of anchovy and salt and anchovy and salt are placed in a wooden vat till they fill it to the top. Then it is sealed under pressure and left to ferment for about the same period of time as the budu was left to mature under the house of Wang Mamat. But in Vietnam the brownish liquid is released from a spigot at the base of the vat and maybe poured in again until it is properly matured. Nampla is done in much the same way, but the budu's a thicker and darker stuff. In Thailand, budu is found in the Muslim south, while in Vietnam I'm surprised it's there at all living side by side with their nuoc mam sauce.

Now that it's come to this, maybe I'll have to resort to some looking back and consider that Pattani in Southern Thailand and Kelantan and Trengganu were all once parts of the Langkasuka kingdom, and so the similarity in food must've been one outcome of this union. And then Vietnam of course was once ruled by the Chams, people of Nusantara origin who ruled them for a thousand years. In the 14th century they had a king named Che Man ( Jaya Simhavarman ), and I knew many Che Mans in Trengganu when I was there, but I doubt if they were descended from these brave sailors who had their Kingdom in Central Vietnam betwen Da Nang and Phan Thiet in their deep, glorious past.

Now that, I guess, is how history connects with the budu sauce, and it's up to you now to think if it moved upwards with the Chams when they sailed north and stayed a thousand years, or came down with them when the Vietnamese bested them in war in about 1470 and sent them scrambling back again down south, to Cambodia and homeward to Patani, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thank you Anasalwa and Atok for your voice.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Budu Spell

Before we move into budu proper and dip our fingers into the sauce, let's first dispel a few myths. Budu does not come from berudu, or, as we call them in Trengganu, anak bbudu which has the shaddah or the sabdu in it, and that's the double consonanted start which, in Trengganu, normally indicates a shortened word. Budu detractors have always judged budu by their sight, and are quick to make the accusation that it's made from wiggly tadpoles from what they see swimming in it; but it's budu we're talking about, not bbudu, for in the market, if you ask for the latter they'll probably ask you to get them yourself from the pond, or go take a long jump in the lake.
From little whitebaits does the budu grow.

Budu does not swim about or see the light of day when it's growing up, but stays in a deep tempayan claypot beneath a house. I know this for a fact as many times I've stumbled on a tempayan or two of budu when hiding under the house of our neighbour Wang Mamak. Wang Mamak was not a mamak in the true sense of the word, but was born Wan Muhammad. He became Wang Mamak in Trengganuspeak, or Ayoh Wang as he was known to us. In the daytime Wang Mamak made keropok in bubbly cauldrons in his front yard. But quietly he was a budu practitioner, in the deep, dark quiet underneath his house. There, unknown to most of us, he placed his tempayans and filled them up with glittering slivers of ikan bilis, or the whitebait of the family stolephorus. Then he filled it up with salt water, twice the amount of the fish, and then maybe he'd hum to them a lullaby as he put them all to sleep.

In this dark space beneath his house which sat on stilts taller than an adult and a bit, the budu tossed and turned in their fermentating sleep in their tempayan maybe for another six months or so, unless if they're stumbled upon by people like me who hid underneath Ayoh Wang's house when playing the game of to nnusuk or hide and seek. In such event the slumbering budu would just heave a little sigh and then go back to sleep once more.

When the budu is mature it gives out a brownish liqueur at the top, and just when it is so, Ayoh Wang Mamak would pour it out into a pot then boil it up, before sending it out to his budu seller. Good budu has a colour of its own, not the reddish stuff that's benefited from artificial aid that you see nowadays in the shops. It has in it the whiff of something long forgotten, maybe an animal that's been long dead. There are fish aroma indices for all this, you know, and someone has even come out with the startling knowledge that budu has a pH of 5.97, but I shan't worry you with such trivia.

There's lactic acid bacteria aplenty lurking in budu and microorganisms incognito. The salt in budu is higher than most (8.66% compared to 5.82% in kicap) but as you're not going to drink it in a cup or use it to clean your car, I think you can safely put that to rest in the back of your head as you take your choice of budu. Some makers, hoping to liven-up the stuff, put tamarind sauce into their pot, others sweeten it up with coconut sugar, but the robust budu unadulterated put the spirit in our Megat Panji Alam to meet the Malaccan interloper in Pahang who wanted to take his Tun Teja.

The spirit of budu didn't die with our Megat but still lives on until today. When the bubur lambuk is bubbling in the pot towards the end of the puasa day in Ramadhan, a dollop of budu is added in to give it a fine body. My grandfather, if he knew that budu was on the table, would give orders to pluck the shoots of the cashew. Freshly grilled fish, and cashew shoots, go well with budu that's been garnished with shallots, and served with a squeeze of the lemon, and red chillies crushed into the budu until it takes on a pungent flavour.

Nobody quite knows how the budu originated or how it came to be, except that it's been with us from a long time ago. The microbes that make the budu may have been passed on in the secret handshake of budu makers, in a long lineage of Budumasonry. But of one thing we're certain though, that the budu wasn't carved in the Trengganu Stone, nor mentioned in the annals of old Melaka. And all that's left for me to say is that in Turkey they have something on their table called Kadin Budu which is translated as 'lady's thigh meatballs'; and that's unlike any budu that you or I know.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Words By Association

In our house we kept the clarified butter, minyok sapi to you and me, in a molor. I don't know how they made minyok sapi in Trengganu, but it came to the market in clear bottles, bunged with bits of old newspaper. It smelt heavenly, and was nothing like the ghee that you get nowadays in that fat green can that has the initials QBB. Ghee is a Hindi word as you know, which is said to have come, in turn, from the Sanskrit ghri, meaning to sprinkle.

But where do you sprinkle ghee? In Trengganu our ghee wasn't as thick as QBB's, but finer, with a more delicate texture; and paler too. During the monsoon months the ghee hibernated in the bottle, that's what Mother said, "Minyok sapi doh tido." so it had to be coaxed back to life by placing the bottle near the kitchen fire. Then we sprinkled it on steaming rice fresh from the pot, then mixed and mixed it thoroughly with our fingers before mixing in the garam lada. Garam lada was a simple concoction of fresh red chillies pounded to bits with a spoonful perhaps of sea-salt crystals. You didn't need an accompaniment for that, the salt from the sea, the hotness of the chili and the rich creaminess of the ghee all acted in concert to rouse your taste buds into a celebratory awakening just after a dull day at school. But a good accompaniment, if one was needed, would have been the ikang kembong, the local mackerel, brought in fresh from the market and dripping still with the briny sea, and grilled slowly over the glowing embers of the coconut husk fire.

It was the molor that brought me here in the first place, but I got waylaid as it reminded me of the minyok sapi. Molor was a round porcelain jar the size of a small cooking pot, and it had straight vertical sides with ears sticking out from opposite ends at the top. They jut out only slightly, so you held them daintily to transfer the molor from one place to another. And its lid had a low ridged handle sticking out from its centre which you held firmly between your thumb and index finger. It was white with blue floral patterns, and came probably from Japan or China. I was curious about this molor on which Winstedt is silent, and which no other dictionaries seem to know. So I Googled it once hoping for a trip to some auction house or a factory outlet in present day China, but no, the only credible answer I got was Molor the tyrant ruler in Star Trek who ruled Qo'noS 1500 years ago in Klingon traditional history. Surely not that I said, putting the lid back on again.

Our molor had a chip on its lid anyhow, the result, probably, of an act that rhymes with it: selor bolor. This is awkward behaviour that results in breakages and unhappiness and toes being trod, and accidents here and there. In Kuala Lumpur you see those irritating rhymes in china shops that say, "Nice to handle, nice to hold; If you break it, consider it sold." In Trengganu I think, we can put it better: Kalu mung selor bolor, mung pakse kena bayor.

But where does that take us with the bekwoh of yesterday? Nowhere, I regret to say. Penyu Mutasi (see comments, below) thinks its origin was in the massive pot that we brought out during times of feasts, Atok thinks it came from the English 'big work' and ended in bekwoh, while my kamus thinks it's from kenduri arwah. I myself am inclined towards the kawoh way. Just imagine two men talking about a big feast. "How many guests?" one asks. "Oh," replies the other, "maybe forty, maybe fifty people." "Ah," comes back the other man,"ni kena berkawah ni." You'll need a massive pot for this. This would have been repeated again and again, wherever a feast was mentioned. "Ah, ni kena bekawoh ni!" And so the birth of bekawoh; bekwoh, in another word.

Can that be so? Well, that's the majority opinion now, never mind if it's only Penyu Mutasi and me. That's how issues are resolved in the kampung at least. Wider opinion is always respected, always used to dispel the Doubting Dianas.
Scene: Marketplace. Enter two ladies.
First lady is eating a pisang kembar, two bananas stuck together like conjoined twins.

First Lady: Eh, Semek, mung dak leh wak ggitu, nati beranok kembor kang!

Second Lady: Hisy, sape kata?

First Lady: Betol tu, orang kate ggitu belaka!
You can't eat that, the First Lady says, you'll end up having twins. Sez who? asks the Doubting Diana. Everyone says that, comes the authoritative reply.

So there you are, kampung life in a nut-shell, where consensus is always the order of the day. Nobody goes against received wisdom, the commonly held view. When it's so blindingly obvious, even the parrot knows: "Pitis sekupang genap, hendak membeli kancah berkerawang, nuri pandai berkata."

This is a standardspeak description of someone who lives beyond his means, with one word that still survives probably only in Trengganuspeak, pitis. He who has only a penny to spend cannot afford a life of luxury, even a parrot is minded to talk. Go read that again: isn't that just beautiful?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Standing On Ceremony

Xena, (see comments below) may well be right about balaisah having its origins in balai and saf ("hall of rows"). Saf is the oft-repeated word as everyone stands up for the sembahyang or solat prayers. "Samakan saf!" Straighten your rows! In everyday Trengganuspeak, saf is pronounced as is, but with a softening of the Arabic fa sound into the more Malay sounding ha or h. Sometimes it is transformed in everydayspeak to mean a group of people, as in "Ni sah dari Kuala Brang," ("This is the group from Kuala Brang") or, if it's a kenduri, a feast, "Sah awal naik atah rumoh," the first batch of arrivals will go upstairs, while the second, perhaps, will fill up the marquees below.

But saf aside, balaisoh could also have originated from madrasah, a small Qur'an school cum prayer hall. Madrasoh as it's called in Trenggganu. Madrasoh...madrasoh...madrasoh...balai soh? We don't know.

I have been chatting with Pok Ku on-line (Pok Ku speaks in technicolor, by the way) where he mentioned the word bekwoh a propos his recent nasi dagang party which was held in a car-wash. Well, there's a long story that, but how appropriate I thought, bekwoh in a karwoh which I imagine to be Trengganuspeak for the place where you wash your kereta, car. There's even a little pun in there, karwoh...kawoh, geddit? As Pok Ku reminded me, bekwoh means a feast, the getting together of a group of people, to eat, mainly. In Trengganu — in Malaysia — we take our eating seriously. I remember how tickled my father was when he, with our neighbour Wan Mamat, inspected our newly refurbished surau with a wider mihrab front area. "Ssining buleh muak pat bekah," Wan Mamat told him. "We can place four trays here." He was thinking of course of the high days and holy days, when trays of food were brought up after the solat and the du'a. It was a beautiful sight in our surau (madrasah) when they rolled out the kain seperah on the floor, as underlay for the trays of food and to catch the drips of acar or kerutuk or kari. Kain is cloth as we all know, but seperah? I often wondered about that, until one day, while walking in Covent Garden, I saw a Turkish Restaurant called "Sofra" which means, in Turkish, dining table. But I think we would've got it through the Arabic sufrah, which is the plural of sufar, dining table. So, kain seperah then, for the tables, sufrah. It's a short way from there to the floor, as in most Malay feasts or in our surau.

I have often wondered about bekwoh as it has some elaborate sounds in it, perhaps of foreign origin. Haji Zainal Abidin Safarwan says in his Kamus Melayu that bekwah is a kenduri arwah, a feast of remembrance, arwah being the Arabic plural for ruh, the soul. You can imagine how the word has become so by a long process of concatenation and simplification into what it is today: buak arwoh...buak arwoh...buak arwoh...bekwoh. In Trengganu though, bekwoh is not always so solemn, often it's a get-together for a reunion, or a happier purpose, often preceded by the du'a selamat, supplication for safety and goodwill.

I have gained much since starting this blog, from my own research, but mostly from you my erudite readers who've offered very helpful, informative, and always entertaining comments in this page or directly to me by email. I thank you all for that and urge you to come back and tell me more. I have to stop my word-compilation for the while I'm afraid, as I've misplaced my note-book of Trengganu words, but I know it's lurking there somewhere. When I find it I'll have a little bekwoh of my own, with spirit uplifted and a feeling of ngelle bong, an expression given me by a classmate from Seberang Takir when he heard the news that he was going to Singapura. I didn't know what that meant, but he looked pretty happy, so I'll say the same now.

Perhaps a visitor or three form Seberang Takir will enlighten us on that.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Tribute To Abu El Hade

You may have wondered about that splendid person in my sidebar Abu El Hade,1893with that magnificent 'tache and the Malay songkok, that purposeful look to a distant place. And I've been asked if he is me. If you've done your MouseOver on the person you'll have found out that he isn't. So now it's time to reveal his true identity.

His name was given as Abu El Hade of Johore, when this portrait was taken in 1893, but I suspect his real name was Abdul Hadi. This picture graced the pages of the London Illustrated News during the time of the Columbian Fair. The caption gave a favourable, if patronising, report of Abu El Hade the Malayan and the reason he was there:
"Johore, or Djohor, a small state occupying the southern part of the Malay or Malacca Peninsula, and one of the most prosperous in the East, made an independent exhibit at the Columbian Fair which was probably the least important in size among the nations exhibiting. Johore is traversed by a railway and exports much long timber. It is governed by a Sultan with the title of Maharajah. The present ruler, Abu Bakar, sent the merchant Abu El Hade to manage his exhibit at Chicago, a duty which he performed with marked credit to himself and to his illustrious master. On the Midway there was a typical Malayan bungalow, or thatched cottage, constructed of the finest native woods. The floor of the cottage, supported by posts, was raised seven feet above the ground, suggestive of the dangers lurking in Malacca from wild beasts and venomous serpents. In the Agricultural building was placed a complete exhibit of the production of rubber, the principal export of the country, timber, rattan and dammar, but the soil and climate are well suited for the growth of sugar cane, rice, tobacco and coffee..."
I have looked often at Abu El Hade and have constructed a biography of him in my head, mostly imaginary; I look back to to the times when he lived and travelled the long distance to Chicago at the behest of his Maharajah, just ten years after the eruption of Krakatoa. I have tried to imagine those little thatched cottages in what the caption-writer referred to as the Malacca peninsula, where lurked "wild beasts and venomous serpents", and I thought of growing up in Trengganu where the only danger that lurked under our house was the inscrutable Cik Ru.

Sometimes in moments of affinity, I read the al-fatihah for Abu El Hade.