On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Friday, April 29, 2005

Hard Kor Player

To have street-cred you must have kor.

A kor is a throwing object which is used in a game. Name a game. Well, as one of you have pointed out, ggeng. There's no mystery to ggeng actually, as it features prominently in the children's calendar of many cultures; it's hopscotch. To hop, like a Scotch (presumably) or to play the ggeng, you'll need a kor to throw into the squares. So you look around for the most balanced piece of discarded porcelain, a chip off an old Ming if you're lucky, trim its corners till it's nicely rounded, then take the sharpness off its edge so that when you keep the kor in your pocket it'll not cut into your delicate areas.

A kor could have come from the sea, from the land where the kor trees grow. In its sodden, unpolished, tangled-in-seaweed state it's called buah ipir or buah gomok, and they come drifting in from the sea as ebony coloured flat seeds the size of a baby's palm. The seed has a tough, white kernel, and needs a lot to be done before it becomes a kor. A good many things come drifting to us from the sea in Trengganu: the spaghetti length rumput jjuluk that I've blogged about, the tune of the nobat, and kor. All, with the exception of the lilt of the nobat come drifting to us in the months of the musim gelora when the waves roll up in turbulent shapes and the sea spirits speak in a deafening roar. Folk don't venture out to sea these monsoon months, the sea comes to us and washes things ashore.

The buah gomok is taken home and polished with spit and Kiwi. Its kernel is sometimes left intact to give weight to the kor but often it is picked out bit by bit with a sharp stick, or cleared out in devious ways. (For a short look at the craft of kor see Long's contribution in Comments below, along with other memories on games that children play(ed) in Trengganu).

The game of wak is indeed toh or tol which basically is hide-and-seek. Wak has the added ingredient of a kor made from a milk can that's filled with pebbles, then sealed like a wedge by flattening its open rim together with a fist-sized stone, with great childish effort as to make the bibir jjueh, till the lips are pursed in concentrated intensity. This kor is the object that is thrown as far as possible when the game is played, and a person on the search team goes to retrieve it, maybe from behind a rok, a bush, then places it within a circle that's been drawn in the game area. The object is to go and catch all the players from the other side by a cot,i.e. by touching him or her, or by naming him or her on sight. For the other side, the object is to creep back quietly, then get hold of the kor and rattle it furiously in the air. Then the game is played again, hiders and catchers taking their positions status quo ante.

A game is an arduous thing and is normally played after school, near ggarib, time of the first solat (prayers)of the evening that comes soon after sunset. The object is to finish the game before bathing time at the well, then home for prayers and dinner. It's better to be a hider than searcher, but some players are born searchers, never managing to go to the one up position, much against their desire. Some just give up, returning home instead of going to retrieve the kor, leaving their tormentors hiding forever in the rak or behind the jambang, the outside toilet. Sometimes the hiders themselves collude to play a dirty trick on the searchers, and go home instead of into hiding, leaving the kor carrier on the lurch. [But see also, buah ggarek in comments below.]

A person or team that cannot play to better their position time and again is called lepek. To be a lepek is an onerous thing, and a shameful thing, for the name sticks even beyond play. To school even, at recess time, you're taunted for being a lepek, carrying the flag of defeat, of a wimp stuck in a rut, and a playground non-performer. Hence the taunting note in the verse that d'arkampo has brought back to us:
Pek pek li
watakok lang
Lepek sekali
In other words, once a lepek always a lepek. The opening lines to the verse is, I think, mock Arabic. We were influenced in those days by what we learned at Qur'an classes and in religious instruction, and Arabic permeated our lives, even if we spoke little of the language. The way we used to sing it was : Pek li/Watakollang... The ellision between the nonsense words watakok and lang (watakollang) gave it an Arabic flavour, as did pek li which sounds to me like the Arabic fe'li, which means 'actual', 'de facto', 'real'; from the word fi'il, activity or behaviour. We use pe'el in Trengganuspeak, to describe someone's behaviour, as in "Isy, pe'el budok ning hudoh ssunggoh!" ("This kid's behaviour is, oh my goodness!").

I don't know where kor came from, but I suspect it came from Yemeni shores, with the Sayyids on those dhows. We had many in Trengganu of such pedigree, and I can just imagine their little kids playing their little games with the locals, and producing their little kor. Except that it wouldn't have been kor that we were yet to know, but kurah, a globe, a little ball. "Apa tu?" "Ini kurah ana." "Oh, kor!"

It may not be as fanciful as you may think. Some Trengganuers probably remember our bola sekalad, our name for the tennis ball. What's sekalad? Why, from sakhlat of course, which exists both in Arabic and Persian for a woolen cloth, the texture of the tennis ball.

Then there's sakhlat ainul bana' but that's another story...

I can't thank you enough for all your wonderful comments, bringing back all those fun and games from memory, some I've forgotten, some I'm delighted to have rekindled. Those kids' verses especially are a gem. Thank you all, you wonderful people!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

How To Wak

The past may be another country, but there you know many people. The comfort of sharing makes pals of perfect strangers; you meet someone unknown to you in a strange place, then you begin to talk: and you know such and such and so and so, and you feel part of a camaraderie already of a shared experience. This is how I felt when you wrote in about your fun and games and familiarity with places and people that I've written about, we're not strangers but friends from a familiar shore.

So thank you for your comments that jogged my memory. I forgot to mention wak for instance, a game that was played by hurling a stone-filled milk can that's sealed flat at its opening so it's shaped like a wedge. The person doing the wak runs after the clanking can and puts it in a designated place, then looks for people to catch among the players. But you've all gone into hiding already. I think you stealthily come back to jangle the wakcan in the air to proclaim victory as that other person went about looking for you.

The tin of condensed milk tin played quite a big role in our life for a small can. When I first set foot on the shores of Blighty, they were quite amused to know to what extent condensed milk sustained our daily lives. There it's only thought about when going out on a picnic, or when Boy Scouts and the Girls that Guide them go on a jamboree somewhere in the wild. But in Trengganu, as elsewhere in the peninsula, condensed milk put the cream in our teh tarik so to speak, and you could judge the role played by an item from the names given to it in different roles. The round can that stood no more than three inches tall was called the po' (one of many Trengganu words that end in a glottal stop.) "Pegi Awang tulong beli susu se po'?" Son, could you please go and buy me a can of milk?

Once the can was emptied, the po' became a cetong which could be used for bailing out a leaky boat, for scooping water from the ppayang (Ok-lah, you posh people, tempayan), the earthen jar at the foot of the steps of a kampung house, or recycled as container for take-away teh tarik from a mamak stall. So the lore among teh tarikers, to open the can by cutting around its top, but leaving about an inch of it uncut so that the lid would stay as a flap on the cylinder. The cutting was done with an opener that punched a hole in the top-middle, from where the opener swivelled to cut the can open around its rim. Now when the can was refilled with teh tarik a string was pushed through the bottom of the hole so it's un-knotted end popped out on the other, the flap was closed, and the happy customers walked away with the piping hot teh tarik, dangling it in the milk can that was held daintily by its string between thumb and index finger.

Nowadays of course, this is no longer de rigeur, as teh tarik is now taken away in a plastic bag that's knotted at the top with a rubber band, with a ridiculous straw sticking out from this ruched centre. You see them dangling nowadays from some very odd places — tree branches, bicycle handlebars, and rearview mirrors. If you want to know where the rot started in our lives, it started from here.

I shall continue tomorrow on those wonderful verses that you've plucked for me from your yesteryear. I've forgotten most of them and was delighted to have them back by your kind favour, they kept me amused when I was in bed recovering from a very bad cold.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Song & Games

We played galah panjang and to [= hide and seek; rhymes with 'row'] and petik mata on sunny days and fair. On rainy days we had enjut, enjut semut or made mud pies, or sat under the house, darkening sheets of glass on a candle flame, then drew figures or wrote titles in the layers of soot on glass, and projected them onto a white sheet with a battery powered torch, in a 'theatre' built from mother's sarongs wrapped around the legs of a table.

We lived in a tall house that stored many surplus bits of furniture and battered pieces of luggage, and myriad articles of unknown provenance in the space below. When father retired from work he returned with mother to the house and also gave shelter to a man who worked as labourer in his former place of work in Kuala Trengganu. I remember the man as Retnam who made a cosy corner for himself in the space beneath our house and, when the mood took him, he'd make out-of-this-world lime pickle from a recipe remembered from South India.
Detail from Children's Games by Bruegel

When I went back to the house I could still see the debris of our past, down to the broken shards of glass from which we projected our home-made stills. There was an old oil lamp that came from the surau with which our house lived cheek by jowl, and the old henna tree still stood there, and remnants of chengal wood leftovers from when the house was built by workmen from Besut, perhaps at the turn of the century.

And the voices of those old games that we played came back to me when I saw children rolling metal wheels detached from some old bikes, guiding them with sticks, and cursing as they rolled out of steer. The kids were still playing galah panjang though, a game much like the Indian kabbadi, with two teams trying to break into each other's hold at opposite ends of lines drawn in the sand. Petik mata was perhaps by then a dying art, as it involved the skill of flicking up a stick that was lying on the ground, but also of hitting it as far as it could fly. Those were skills acquired from years of practise, and kids were beginning to lose patience for that when there was a television set flickering in the corner. So, needless to say, that was the end too of the soot-stained sheets of glass projected from the darkened space beneath a table.
Detail from Children's Games by Bruegel

We stopped play in our day by announcing cot-ko, whose origin puzzles me, but it meant let's rest awhile. Of the games that we knew, it appeared to me that the kids had stopped play forever.

As I looked out from the wooden staircase of our house into what used to be the old market opposite us, I saw again in my mind a group of children parading behind a makeshift banner of batik lepas and singing a raucous song as they wove their way between the shops. These were children known to us as budak pasar, rough and tough market boys who spent their mornings and afternoons among the fish, and the in-between hours devising as much jollity as they could muster. The song they sang came distinctly back to my ears:
Anaklah ikan lah ikan
di makan ikan,
Di mana tuan lah tuan,
Di celah gigi.
It was the universal story of a small fish eaten up by a big fish, but as I watched them from the surung of our house those years ago, the way they were repeating the verse with such spiritedness that was almost hypnotic, I watched them enthralled.

Songs and poetry are a major part of growing up because children abide by what makes sense to them. In language, rhythm comes before logic or grammar, and singing makes words last forever. A lot of what we sang as children in Trengganu were nonce words heaped upon the nonsensical, it was the rhythm and the peculiarity of the words that made them special, and I remember them even now. Take this one for instance, as baffling as can be, even for Trengganuspeakers :
Patendu patending
lalak kumang bing
bulu ketang masing
maliking ccongak.
This may have been part of a longer recitation in a game, but even now, the only words that make sense to me in a sentence are bulu ketang masing, the salty hair of a crab. What kind of fly is lalak kumang bing? And what manner of pose is maliking ccongak?

And what manner of man was Mak Ming (Trengganuspeak for Muhammad Amin)? Was he born in vitro? Read this to yourself aloud:
Mak Ming ttonjo
beranak ddalang boto
timbul tenggelam
terus masuk go
And this amused me greatly, not least because I knew and have referred to pinang gatal in my blogs a couple of times. It's the little red fruit of a palm tree that gave an itch when smeared on the skin. Then of course the image of Gog and Magog (jook mak jook) walking along the beach and the cruel children's humour about a famous film star made this evocative and memorable. Thanks to Anonymous for giving us this doggerel:
Jook-mak-jook Jjalang tepi pata;
Ttemung P Ramlee muka kerutuk,
Boh obak pinang gatal.

Illustration: Detail from Bruegel's 'Children's Games'.

Take 2: Pantai Teluk

Pantai Teluk
Pantai Teluk, as was.

My brother, who's been back to Kuala Trengganu more times since we left than I've had hot bengkang, read my memory of Pantai Teluk and saw fit to write me a mild reproach. I myself did think that the photograph of Pantai Teluk that I used with the blog was too idyllic for a place that smelt of decaying crustacea and mud, but I took it in good faith, as it was labelled 'Tanjung Teluk'. Perhaps it was taken from an angle that I'd missed, I thought. Pantai Teluk it certainly is not, he says, with a certainty that only brothers have. I print below the rest of his email, which represents another take on the Teluk:
"Judging from the motor-penambang tied to the shore, it looks more like Duyung Kechil. Furthermore there is a lighthouse on the background, that is Pulau Api Lat or Pulau Wan Embong. The good old Pantai Teluk was also a picturesque sight in the evenings especially at night when the beach was lit by the full moon. Many artists came to paint the scenery of the market with the Teluk as a backdrop, on market days, when I was a small boy. I used to run along the Teluk — on one end was the pengkalan rakit buluh, where the buluh was used by a guy by the name of Che Ngah, to make pagar terasak. Not far from it was the place where they made atap nipah; and right on the inner end of the Teluk, was the boatyard where fishing boats were made. Smack right in the middle of the Teluk was the boat grave yard, some skeletal remains were said to be of boats bombed by Japs! Perahu Besar Wan Kamang, father to [our friend] Wan Salleh, used to be tied in the middle of the Teluk as well when he was not plying to Senggora or Mersing. So many activities in such a small Teluk.

"You forgot about the mud-skippers running in the muddy waters; water smelling of dirty mud and so polluted with oil slicks and other wastes. But indifferent to all these I used to walk barefooted in the water, and enjoyed having my feet getting stuck in the mud, and the sound they made as they were pulled out, only to sink deep again. The wind on the shores of Ujung Tanjung is something difficult to describe. [Our friend] Cha once slept in the wakaf for one whole day. I had sent him out to buy something for us for a kenduri we were having that night. He didn't come back until 'Isha [about 8.00pm]. When asked, he explained that he had slept in the wakaf almost the whole day.

"The attached photo [see above] is the Pantai Teluk of the late 60s, in low tide. Of course the sight was much better in the mornings or late evenings at high tide. However ugly it looks when we kkenang to Pantai Teluk, it is still a treasured memory, as the composer Munur Nurretin Selcuk wrote, of another place, in the song "Aziz Istanbul", "though faces have changed the street and sound remain, dear Istanbul." "

(In order of appearance)

pengkalan rakit buluh:
Bamboo was transported by river to the bamboo-fence makers of Tanjong. They were bound together into a raft, then floated downstream, to Pantai Teluk. The pengkalan rakit buluh was the gathering point of these rafts. The smell of soggy bamboo in the water added to the gaiety of the Teluk.


pagar terasak:
Bamboo split into thin pieces, then woven into six-by-five (approx.) rectangular sections, used for fencing.

atap nipah
Roofing material made form leaves of the nipah palm.

Perahu besar
Malay sailing junks that sailed the waters of the South China Sea.

This Arabic word conveys the sense of being 'open to public use'. In the East Coast of peninsular Malaysia, the word has taken the meaning of public shelters found along roadsides, in padi fields, or on the coast. They are open, roofed, wooden platforms where the people go to take refuge from the sun or rain. They serve as community centres, and are popular places for a game of dam (draughts).

Feast. A kenduri usually starts with the chanting of the zikr or prayer, and ends with a burp.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Balik Kampung

In a sense the kampung is the womb of the Malay body and mind. The mentally damaged curl up in a foetal position, the insecure and the uncertain go back to the security of their mums, it's one thing or a mother, but the Malays always go back to their kampung.

I was talking to a sage person about the plight of young people who grow up in towns. In his day, he said, it was unusual to hear a Malay person saying that he or she was from Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya or Shah Alam. The Malays were always from some kampung, hence the stock opening line when meeting a new person, "Kampung di mana?" Where is your kampung?

Nowadays it would be extremely presumptuous, churlish even, to ask a person you've just met that same question, especially if he or she is young. The young lad or lass may be brash and uncertain, but chances are he or she grew up in a big mansion with Doric columns, awoken in early evening by the gentle purring of a magnificent car with a sleek engine, and bathed and dressed by compliant servants. He or she may be still uncertain for all that, but as townsfolk they can be as brash as they can.

Not too long ago the kampung was the country, but now it is becoming another country. The Malays have lost their home, they no longer have a kampung, said my sage friend.

The way I remember Kuala Trengganu it was very much a kampung, even if it was right in the middle of town. If this was an anomaly, it was one that ought to have been preserved. But folk thought differently, and so it was in the nineties that some of my people woke up in their fine house in the middle of town to an order for evacuation. The state government was planning to modernise Kuala Trengganu, and they must have seen that all these folk who had lived there most of their lives, and many who were born there even, where stumbling blocks to modernisation. There was a massive programme of evacuation in the old town, houses were demolished, people uprooted, families torn up, and then they began to move in: the bulldozers, mechanical rollers, house-builders, and town planners. Parts of Kuala Trengganu today are just masses of shop houses. Many parts of the old Kuala Trengganu, the old houses, the communities, and especially the folk, were moved along to places like Chabang Tiga, Wakaf Tapai, and some have even moved back to the old capital of Kuala Berang.

And they started to build the hotels, and the motels and other forms of recreation that they think tourists dream about as soon as they go past the transit lounge

I remember my uncle's magnificent wooden house — it may not have been, but to a young boy, any tenement that could house more than two families, with a concrete frontage of steps and car port, was magnificent — it stood next door to the Masjid Abidin, and that was our first stop on Hari Raya (Id day) once the prayers at the mosque were done. It had a spacious lounge with deep sofas, and what impressed me most were two hefty volumes on his overhead bookshelf, the Malay-English Dictionary of R.O.Winstedt. As it is now, so it was then; Winstedt dictionaries have a way of transporting you to a world that was beyond your own. Its base was basically rural, and the language captures the Malay essence. I think it was Winstedt who gave this definition of an 'express train' that was distinctly kampung. They were, he said, kereta api sombong. I remember reading that and giggling by the picture that it conjured in my mind, of a market-trader kampung lady carrying a bundle of things on her head, wrapped up in a bright sarong. She was hailing a passing train that would've taken her to town, except that it wouldn't stop. It was, of course, an express train. "kereta api sombong!" ("Proud train!") she'd mutter beneath her breath as she spat out residues of betel-nut and sireh leaves she'd been chewing all morning.

The house that my uncle and auntie lived in was transported in piles of beams and slats of wood to another place, out of town, and there it was rebuilt in a sad community of displaced folk while that part of Kuala Trengganu that was left as an open field braced itself for a brave new town. My uncle died soon after that, his wife, my auntie, followed suit, and I hope the two Winstedt volumes are well-cared for somewhere safe to mourn quietly the loss of a town.

Kuala Trengganu wasn't much to speak of by the standards of peninsular capital towns. But it had what most didn't have, or had lost as they moved along: a thriving community that lived and breathed the air of the place, and who gave back to it something vibrant. We had our own paung maker, roti canai kneader, nasi dagang sellers by the score. There was Mak Teh 'Spring' who made rojak of green papaya, Pak Lah Yunang who sold newspapers and kitabs and secular books all laid out on the table. There was Che Mat Nobat, to whom they turned when they found old gamelan instruments in an old Istana in Kampung Kolam, and he remembered the tunes still in his head which probably played along as he made his famous beluda and his equally famous nasi minyak. Beluda (which I've written about) was a type of Trengganu scone, and nasi minyak needs no introduction.

These were people that made you glad that you were part of the town. But as my uncle and auntie moved on to another place, lock, stock and house, so did hundreds of others, all ordered to uproot and disperse. Nowadays, I'm told, the old Masjid Abidin finds it difficult to form even two safs of the faithful at ordinary prayer times. The community is now no longer of people, but of shops. And that is a sad thing to happen to a town, when it is forcibly moved from being a civic community into just a shopping place. The Trengganu government then, which was rolling in petroleum cash, never found it attractive to retain the people that helped build the town, the butcher, baker and the brassware maker. Other civic minded communities would have devised a housing programme for them in the centre of town, subsidised housing perhaps, but that was far too visionary, and visions are found only in dreams.

And that is the trouble once we've moved out of the kampungs, — physically or mentally — we stop dreaming.

* * *

Thank you all for your comments re my two recent blogs about yearning and remembering. 'Anonymous' gave me this poignant advice, in the Minang dialect, from a grandfather to a grandson who's about to leave the kampung for the town.
Ingat posan atok, ingat baik-baik yo,
Jangan tinggal solat, kecuali terlupo,
Jangan bergaduh kecuali dalam bahayo,
Jangan mencurik kecuali terpakso.
(and of course to make it livelier,)
Jangan pulang kampoeng kecuali dah kayo.
I'm no expert in the Minang dialect, but until someone else comes with a better translation, we'll have to make do with mine:
Remember my child what granpa's saying:
Unless you forget do not stop your praying,
Do not pick a fight unless it's for your saving,
Don't take what ain't yours without matters compelling,
(and the modern addition:)
Don't come home till you're worth more than a shilling.
And another 'Anonymous' contributor rightly cited R. Azmi on passing time and severe longings. "Kkenang is thus a serious disease. What is the penawar or antidote?" she asks (why do I think it's a she?). Well, you got me stumped there. I've looked in Tajul Muluk but can't find any suitable remedy. Perhaps my distinguished friends Pok Ku or Atok can give this poor person some penawar rindu?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

An Inlet By The Sea

Pantai Teluk doesn't exist any more, or at least the name has vanished. It was an inlet of tranquil water that was sheltered from the lashing waves by a sandbar that ran until it dissipated in the harbour. From there you could stand and look at the narrow strip that met the sea from the downward roll of Padang Malaya, you would have heard the traffic coasting along the road that held the edge of Kuala Trengganu, enjoyed the view of the Post Office and the Istana, the Chartered Bank, and of course, the Bukit Putri on the other side of the water.

Behind you was another world: the sea-eaten remains of an old boat sticking proud from the loam, an empty tongkang barge standing still, a perahu bedar of the Trengganu merchant sailors, sails rolled up, maybe after a long journey from Sengora. On the sandbar meeting the sea the sand was white, but in this inner calm was a different earth, dark and clayey in consistency, smelling of the teluk and breeding its own family of coastal creatures — the ikang belukang, a riverine type of cat fish, was most feared, for it carried a nail-like sting on its back, and you stepped on it, as I once did, at your peril. But mostly its other inhabitants ran shy from you, an interloper. They were little crabs with over-sized claws, that waved enticingly, then scattered away to their respective bolt holes as you drew near. The dark, slimy shore on this side was pockmarked with little holes. We sometimes scooped them out, hole and creature, and kept the captives in a bottle.
Tanjung Teluk, a calm inland water of Kuala Trengganu
Tanjung Teluk, a calm inland water, in the Pantai Teluk area.

This was an area of dead boats decorated with long service medals of barnacles, of beachcombers gathering driftwood, and fishermen dabbing a fresh coat of paint on a fishing payang pulled ashore. If it was a Friday morning there'd be many fishermen stretching their legs along the coast, exchanging fishermen's banter, and perhaps taking time off too in the shades of trees while other village folk sauntered off to Friday prayers. Going out to sea for the Friday catch was unthinkable, though some did, in violation of this, in the past. And they were turned into monkeys. This was the first rule we learned, in case later in life, we opted for a life at sea.

There were not many trees though on the sands around the teluk, except for the unfussy coconuts that grew almost everywhere. And then there was a low tree with branches well spread out, and much sought after by retiring fisherfolk for its deep shade, and by the coastal goats that chewed on its broad-leaved canopy.

The Pantai Teluk also served the Tanjong market as its tradesmen's entrance, where boats from the ulu were parked, and tough, no-nonsense men from upriver, skins darkened by the sun, jumped ashore with bundles of firewood and portions of fermented tapai wrapped in pouches of broad leaves and hung together in a cluster. Their women brought fruits plucked from the jungle, ngekke, perah, pulasan, salak, and strips of petai beans, and jering for eating as a vegetable side-dish with rice and fish, and maybe a bit of belara which my blogging friend Pok Ku described as fish preserved to an alarming, gooey consistency.

On a morning when the market was at its peak, the Pantai Teluk would have dazzled, batik patterns and loads of fruits in primary colours, the shawls of women coming out for their daily needs clashing with the red and green and blue sheets of plastic stretched out above the stalls to keep out the heat of day. There were voices from the ulu and the chatter of the Kuala people. Medicine peddlers in full flow, extolling the powers of their concoctions of herbs, an Indian magician 'slitting' the throat of his turbaned son, beggars in full voice drawing attention to their physical afflictions, the gaggle and cackle of street theatre.

Wan M, who grew up just a stone's throw from there, wrote in to tell me that Pantai Teluk is no more, and even if there's anything left, it goes now by another name, Pantai Taman Selera. Taman Selera was an idea thought up in the 1970s when the market was dead, to transform the area into a gluttons' square. But I suspect that Pantai Teluk would have died too from the acts of men, in the construction of a dam upriver. The Teluk now is a diminishing remain of its former glory, eaten up by the changing flow of the water that has deposited a mound of sand in the rivermouth and extended the coast of Seberang Takir.

A journalist friend from a national newspaper once gave his bright idea to the then Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Trengganu on how to unblock the harbour: blow it with explosives, he told the man. I can't imagine what that could have done, but I expect the big noise would have rattled the boat-skeletons in the Pantai Teluk a little, and woken up the barnacles.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Forgetting to Remember

Kkenang is a difficult word to pronounce for non Trengganuspeakers as it is difficult to grapple. I chose it on the basis of melancholy grounded in memory, for whatever reason people remember. If it's a longing, then it's certainly with a sense of loss, and much that's been relegated to the past have been lost. Yet they keep coming back, in spirit at least, in acts, or sounds, or smells. That is why the first sentence in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the time of Cholera strikes a chord. "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

I wrote about kkenang after reading Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul which to me, is not so much on Istanbul or the author's growing up, but an essay on melancholy. But melancholy is not the exclusive preserve of any culture, it imbues many. Kkenang in Trengganuspeak has a certain resonance, and, to me, it conveys best the idea of longing and loss which teringat seems to lack. But you may disagree.

I am grateful to those who have reminded me of that other meaning of kkenang, approval. This is of course berkenan in standardspeak, as opposed to terkenang; but in Trengganuspeak they have become more than just homophonic, Key to the Fields by Magrittethey have been so truncated as to become identical in form if not in meaning. As things are often remembered with feeling — of value, yearning or regret — so remembering is often accompanied with rejoicing or reproach, more often the latter. Pamuk's was with a certain sense of loss and regret at the direction the present is taking. Modernist thoughts so overcame Turkey of the Kemalists that they used to gather, amused and detached, as bystanders as wooden Ottoman houses burnt to the ground, perhaps by arsonist-modernists. I am pleased that many share my feelings about what we've lost by our deliberate acts.

We in Trengganu especially are a remembering people, but often we forget. Whereas in other cultures a message is given by the parents or friends to 'be safe' or 'take care' before a journey however near or far, in Trengganu parents were wont to say, "Ingak ingak ya!" Remember. Someone who's gone beyond beyond the pale is often reproached with that ominous phrase, "Ha, dak ingak ke?" What is it that you've forgotten, what is it that you ought to have remembered?

Remembrance is in this sense not only historic but also forward looking — you remember the past, present and future. A person who's lost, in Trengganuspeak, is "Orang tak sedar diri," a person who's lost a sense of himself; someone who forgets, a person who doesn't remember. Si Tenggang of the Malay folklore was one such, but he did not forget, he did a deliberate act of obliteration.

And there's so much to remember: my Maker, myself, my society, my people. My place — insignificant though it is — under the bright and starry sky. In this sense, tak sedar diri contains a strange irony; of forgetting who you are, and of being interested solely in yourself. This is the root of greed, the kindling spirit of those who are inconsiderate, the forgetful who destroy for immediate short-term gratification, hacking at trees while muttering damn, damn the people. It is a sad thing to note, but we see this everywhere.

To all those who've inserted their comments to my previous blog on this or who have responded privately by email, my heartfelt thanks. You have all given me much to think about. Time indeed for muhasabah, to do a hisab, a calculation, an audit, and for taking stock.

Painting: Magritte's Key to Fields.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Sense of Longing

Malaysians, well, Malays most certainly, are constantly overcome by a certain longing in their stories, in the quatrains — pantun — that are props in their daily lives, and in their ways of seeing. This is the unsurprising fact, though, surprisingly, I cannot find a word in standard or Trengganuspeak that can be directly translated as melancholy. The Welsh have it in hiraeth and the Turks have it in hüzün, but the nearest to it I can think of in Trengganuspeak is kkenang, which is from the standardspeak terkenang, a longing for the past that is tinged with sadness and loss. A feeling that is embellished with sayu. Now, sayu is a very Malay sentiment that grabs longing by the throat. It comes a-dancing with that most traditional of Malay songs, Tudung Periuk. Many understand it nowadays as 'nostalgia' but it is stronger than that.
Memory No. 6 by Anwar Dan
Memory No. 6 by Malaysian Artist Anwar Dan.
By kind permission.

Kkenang again is an ambiguous word in Trengganu. One can say, on seeing someone, "Kkenang pulok pada tok dia," ("Reminds me of his/her grandfather/mother."), perhaps because of a facial resemblance. Or, to lament a fate or death, "Dah nak wak guane, dok kkenang je lah..." ("What's there left but memories..."). Those are melancholy moments writ large. Then, kkenang can also be an affliction. Kkenang beruk is someone — a child normally — who takes after a baboon. How so? By the mother being unkind to the animal when she was pregnant perhaps, or by some other methods of transference that cannot be explained in the normal, rational way. But even this kkenang has an element of memory in it, a memory that's become embedded in a physical being, that's to be avoided.

But why, for a people that's so overcome by a sense of loss and longing, that we sometimes do acts that surprise even ourselves? It always surprises me whenever I see public acts that bring about nothing more than destruction, not just in Trengganu but also elsewhere. Who, for instance, thought up the idea of building a hideous LRT station to obscure perhaps the most iconic landmark in Kuala Lumpur, the Masjid Jame'? Who in Kuala Trengganu thought to build a hotel on the bank of the Kastam Lama to obscure a historic river, and what is potentially one of the most beautiful sites in the town itself?

Perhaps these are acts of dissociation with the past that's deliberate, expressions of some wish to break free and re-design anew in whatever image is deemed appropriate at the moment. An easy leap from the ancient to the modern, and to be reborn like Si Tenggang who disowned — broke free — from his own orang asli mother for the life of a successful seafaring gentleman-about-town. If that is so, then it is patently misguided. To kkenang is not to go back, but to remember and learn and be blessed, then to look ahead and be guided.

I'm reminded of Si Tenggang when a kind visitor recently mentioned his name in connection with the Batu Belah — the cleft stone — of Kuala Brang. The Batu Belah may or may not have connections with Si Tenggang, but hearken unto him. He is not just a folklore from the past, he is a parable for our times.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jokong and Jokoh

In my blog yesterday I made a mistake that only a few noticed. Yes, it's jokong and jokoh. In my rush and with things tussling in my mind begging for inclusion, I mixed up the two. It was jokoh of course, not jokong.

So I am grateful for a very informative email from WAR, which I translate below:
"The pitis (coinage) of Terengganu was not JOKONG but JOKOH. Jokong was used excluisvely for gold coinage -— emas jongkong, similar to the Chinese coins called TAEL etc. [Jongkong normally meant 'ingots']. The mas jokong was rarely used in Terengganu, most were of foreign origin, probably China. The reason could have been that these jokongs were of very high value.

"During the reign of Zainal Abidin III, most of the coins used were struck from tin. The denominations used were:

* Kepeng or pitis
* The new Kepeng Baru ( = 10 pitis),
* Keneri (= 3 kepeng baru),
* Kupang (=4 keneri),
* Amas (= 4 kupang) [some were called mas kupang, the gold kupang.]
* Ringgit (= 2 amas)

"Jokoh were unofficial issue (Private Currency). They were circulated in gambling houses and among the Chinese community, and were issued by:

* The Kapitan China
* Interpreter to the Sultan Zainal Abidin,
* Scribes to the Sultan.

"All jokohs had the same value and the issue limit set for the Interpreter and the Scribe was 40,000 pieces per year (to the value of 1000 Ringgit).

"The Sultan granted rights to issue in lieu of salaries. The same rights were also given to the wives of the Sultan. Two of them, Tengku Puteri bt. Tg. Muhammad Said Lingga and Che Kalsom, were each allowed to issue a total of 96000 (=700 ringgit) pieces per month."

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Kapitan China and the Admiral

Whenever I walked up the main street of Kampung China in Kuala Trengganu to a bookshop there to look at the latest comic books or magazines, I could do a roll-call of friends I'd meet along the way. There was YCK, a little lad from Batu Rakit who lived in a shophouse on the bridge with some relatives, TPS who lived in a house that looked like a temple, with pigeons brooding in the forecourt, and GWB whose father was a car dealer further up the road, and KSF in her father's corner studio and photoshop.
Image hosted by
'Chinatown' by Trengganu artist Chang Fee Ming
By kind permission.

Kampung China was a bustling world compared to the quiet of our own corner near the Pantai Teluk, and even though the air in front of our house was abuzz with the noise of petty traders and wayfarers and lorries carrying fresh deliveries of goods, in the afternoon it became almost still, as the centre of commerce shifted back to the Kedai Payang area that was close to Kampung China. Kampung China meant essentially, Chinese Village, not town, so perhaps it portrayed the town as it was described by an English traveller in the 18th century, that it consisted of groups of houses, one cluster quite distant from another, in a sprawling area known as the Kuala or mouth of the river.

The Chinese — teng lang — of Kuala Trengganu The jurubahasa jokong, Trengganu have a long history. They came in their junks from way back in the 18th century, maybe earlier, bringing goods with them and then taking local goods back to China. They settled and became cultivators, and would have also been part of the even older settlement if speculation is correct that the Fo-lo-lan, referred to by the Chinese chronicler Chou Ch'u-fei in Ling-wai Tai-ta in 1178 was indeed Kuala Brang upstream of the Trengganu river. To the Chinese, Trengganu was variously Ting Ko Nou, Ting Ko Lou and Ting Kia Lou.

There is said to be a well in Kampung China known as the Low Tiey Well, Coin issued by the Chinese interpreter of Kuala Trengganu.reputedly owned by the Chinese translator (Low Tiey) Lim Keng Hoon in 1875. Translators served the Sultan as well as their own community, as Kapitan China. These jurubahasa as they were known, were not paid by the state, but were given powers instead to issue their own token coins, known as jokoh. One prominent Kapitan China was Wee Sin Hee, whose father Wee Kiat Kheng arrived in Trengganu from the Fuxian province in the 18th century. Sin Hee served as translator to Sultan Zainal Abidin III (1881 - 1918) and became a very successful trader who built many of the historic shophouses of Kuala Trengganu. In his Pelayaran (travels) in 1836, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi named another Kapitan in Kuala Trengganu, one Lim Eng Huat.

My friends from among the Chinese community in Kuala Trengganu spoke in Trengganuspeak with us, and a brand of Hokkien at home that was coloured by the local vocabulary. They'd been arriving and settling among us from time immemorial, scores at a time maybe, but the biggest number of Chinese people came to Trengganu not as settlers but with their most famous Admiral Zheng He on a mission of goodwill in the 15th century. According to Chinese records, the Admiral sailed with 62 vessels and 20,000 men to Southeast Asia, and among the many places he visited was Kuala Brang in Hulu Trengganu.

I used to sit with friends at dusk near Pantai Teluk to watch ships coming in, the Hong Ho or some other, and it was a great moment of awe when we saw the lights in the ship and the crew waving to us on shore. I can't imagine even now what a jaw-dropping moment it would have been for a boy — son of a sea gypsy maybe — sitting in the same place in the 15th century, as 62 vessels, or even if half that, sailed in from China, bedecked with flags and banners fluttering in the air. And there on deck, in the robe of the Imperial Admiral, the man Zheng He himself, taking his bearing from the Bukit Putri, then checking his map for the journey ahead to Fo-lo-lan or Kuala Brang, further up the Trengganu river.

Coin Notes:
Top: Obverse of Jokoh coin issued by the Hiap Hin Kongsi of Kuala Trengganu.
Bottom: Reverse of the Jokoh coin. Jawi inscription reads, "Ini Jurubahasa punya" (Issued by the interpreter).

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Lightness of Being

Trengganu on the mind brought response from people who remember Trengganuers out of kilter. I wrote about Pak lah Tut, Che Omar and his consort Che Puan, and a few men in the mosque who were generally quite harmless people. Pak Lah Tut was the most fearsome of all for wielding a hefty staff, but I never saw him raise it against anyone in anger. The staff was mainly to propel him in the crowded markets of Kuala Trengganu.

But I'm surprised because I missed out on Ustaz Leh and Datuk Kuala Brang. The Datuk was a uniformed General, more an eccentric than a nutter. And Ustaz Leh was a mystery — he wandered around dressed only in his sarong pelikat, and gave long, amusing talks as he displayed his collection of magical roots and herbs. He was much sought after for his knowledge and humour, but something must've got unhinged somewhere that ended his career. I suspect he was a religious teacher before he decided to shed his everyday clothes to wander around in what we in Trengganu called kaing ssahang, an old sarong that you wore to bathe at the well.

The following email I received from a Trengganuspeaker continues the story —
"During every royal festivity Padang Malaya would be decked with fairy lights. They weren't as impressive as they are now, but the effect they had on much of the population of Trengganu then was magical. Electricity then was the privilege of the few, and most people were still using kerosene lamps. The people of Kuala Brang were specially impressed by these lights. To them, the lights going on and off were caused by ceh and mbaoh, i.e. they were lit (ceh or cucuh) then blown out (mbaoh or hembus). "Molek sungguh lapu-lapu tu weh; ceh mbaoh, ceh mbaoh, macang bitang llangait je," they would say. "How beautiful those lights, going on and off, on and off, just like the stars in heaven."

"The most interesting character from Kuala Brang was Datuk Kuala Brang who strutted around the Tanjung market like a General. He was fully equipped with a General's hat, frogging, and the swagger stick held under his arm. One day he went to ther shop of Sulong Jam (a watch repairer) to show a photograph of Queen Elizabeth to Pak Long's customers. I happened to be there then, so I asked him, "Who's this?". "Kueng Elijabehlah, bineng akao". he replied. "This is Queen Elizabeth, my wife." I asked him again, "Guana pulok dia bining Datuk, Queen tu dok di Inglang!" How could she be your wife, the Queen's in England." He snapped back at me, "These kids nowadays, what do you know? I'm also the King of England." ("Haih budak-buak neng. Akao neng raja Inglang jugak"). I was lucky he didn't take a swipe on my head with his stick.

"Pak Lah Tut, when he'd finished with his duties at the Tanjung market, would move on to Kedai Payang. One afternoon, as he was crossing the Padang Malaya, Ustaz Leh was lecturing a crowd while purveying his medicinal roots. When he saw Pak Lah, he stopped mid-sentence and shouted out at Pak Lah, "Did you make much money today, Pak Lah?" ("Banyak boleh ari ning Pak Lah?" ). "There weren't many people today, I got a pittance," Pak Lah replied. ("Orang dak ramai hari ning, boleh siket je".) On hearing that, Usatz Leh walked across to Pak Lah and handed him one ringgit (serial). "Take this Pak Lah, we must help each other," he said"
I wrote about the curious insect called Cik Ru that burrowed underneath the houses of Trengganu sometime ago, but as I didn't get any response to it, I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't imagined it all. So imagine my delight when joninho added this comment:
"[Y]our story of cik ru made my mind drift to the memories when I was a small kid. I used to live in Dungun and my house was a kind of traditional house on stilts with 'atap genting'. From singora u said eh? The soil was sandy since we lived not very far from the beach. We had plenty of Cik Ru below our house but we called it by another name, Cik Mek. Initially I didn't have the clue what Cik Ru was but ur description of its habitat of inverted cone shaped hole gave it away."
You can read the rest of the Cik Ru comment below.

Note on Datukspeak:
The Datuk Kuala Brang, as his name says, was from the upstream town of Kuala Brang, site of the ancient capital of Trengganu. Kualabrangsepak is difficult to the uninitiated, as it's Trengganuspeak with bells, fairy lights and all.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #793,132

My grandfather, as I remember him, was intolerant of lactose as he was of many fools. He lived in a very large house in Kampung Raja in a street named after Haji Omar, a famous religious scholar of Besut, Trengganu. It was a long straight road, untarred and unpeopled; not that Kampung Raja was underpopulated, but they seemed always to be engaged elsewhere for most part of the day. It was one of those rural roads, that ran straight bare lines close to the edge on either side, then a long straight row in the middle, growing tufts of grass, and small, resilient weeds or wild plants with bright flowers.

Bare tracks shorn down to the earth by tyres of cars, lorries or the mini bus that rolled along there by night or day. Cyclists appeared and disappeared again into nowhere, sometimes drones of conversation reached my ears, from passers by, when I was somewhere in the jambu tree. The house shielded from from the road by a long hedge, and a couple of cashew trees with their pear-shaped leaves with veins that stood out prominently. Palmyra Palms, known in Besut as Tal trees.There were straight trees with silvery bark that peeled off with papery consistency, that rose straight up on the side of the compound that rolled ever so slightly. I think my grandfather referred to that as the beris side, even though the beris land was commonly found by the sea, with sandy soil of the whitest purity. On a normal day, with the butterflies flitting about and my grandfather's pet birds cooing occasionally, and the soft morning light glinting off the green of the trees, the countryside gave the most wonderful sight and feel. Then a motorbike would rip past from the other end of the road, putting everything into momentary cacophony.

There was a fair-sized school opposite the house, on the other side of our hedge, and inside of its own, but I never saw any life there as our visits to Kampung Raja were made during the school break, and when I saw groups of people, it was at the end of a short walk to the pasar by the rolling road that led to the river. And even then, past noon-time, the market would have been deserted except for maybe a score of people who were popping in and out of the shops, and I counted two when I was there — one that was run by a man called Encik Bakar, and another by a family whose daughter went to the Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School in Kuala Trengganu.

The journey to the shops, via the kampung short cut was better for the delights along the way. There were kemunting berries to pick and eat, and a weed that we called pohon malu, the shy prickly plant that closed its leaves when you touched it, and wouldn't open up again until they knew you were safely away. There was temucut everywhere, the long culmed love grass that stood like bottle brush, with seeds that pierced deeply into trouser legs, even to the hems of your shorts, for they rose to those heights, but then we were not very tall. Sometimes we'd walk with our grandfather, a sage of a man with his tuft of grey beard, under a white Haji's tailed turban, limping slightly with age, in his Malay baju and freshly starched sarong that came from Pulicat of India. And there we were, like Pied Piper's children, following in tow, listening to our grandfather's memory of things here and there. Once, mid sentence, he saw a shallow hole dug in his path, probably by children trying to brighten up their day. Grandfather switched channels at once into a long tirade against kids troublesome and unruly.

Grandfather was patriarch of the family, around whom spun our daily activities. A host of uncles and aunties in the kitchen, and grand uncles and cousins once or twice removed converged on the house daily. We laid out a huge spread on the floor at lunch and dinner time, and ate kampong reared chicken and herbs plucked from the hedgerow; and the durian fruit mixed into the budu sauce that was kicked to life with crushed chillies. The shoots of the cashew went with freshly grilled fish, and then there was a funny-tasting fruit that was called something or other, yellow of colour, and pickled and tasted oh so foul. Binjai probably it was called.

On quiet days, tired of exploring the berisPalmyra palm fruit, buah tal dangling over Tok Nyang's house. area or the jambu trees, we'd walk the quiet road past the tal trees. The tal, palmyra palm trees, were high and mighty, with leaves spreading out broader than the coconut tree, but with smaller fruits that delight the cognoscenti. (Tal, I suspect, is the Besut compression of lontar, whose leaves gave writing material to generations of Indonesian scribes, and whose nira fuelled their reverie). We'd stop by the house of Tok Nyang and hear her moan awhile. And at her age and with her skinny body that was bent almost double, she'd every right to do so. But when Tok Nyang made her jackfruit jam and gave it to us in a jar, it was as if the world and the people, and the quiet streets of Besut were all in one happy choir.

I knew little of Besut except for the long straight road of Haji Omar, and the shrubs and hedges and the tal trees. And the massive house of our grandfather that was always busy with kith and kin and other people. At the break of dawn they'd all rise to pray together, with Grandfather as the Imam, and father and mother, and aunties and uncles all standing to prayer in straight parallel rows in the surung of the front of the house that overlooked the beris area. As children we were sometimes allowed to sleep on as the prayers took place; and when I woke up on these days to see the grey light already creeping into the corners, I'd hear a comforting murmur of chants coming from different areas.

At sunrise Grandfather would roll his first cigarette and sit by the window, avoiding the bright ray of light, and he'd look up to hear the cooing of his pet birds, then he'd open his loose-leaf kitab to ponder some theological principles; or he'd make rustling noises as he put on the reading-glasses to read the day's Utusan Melayu.

Top: The Palmyra Palm. Known in Besut as the tal tree.
Bottom: Fruit of the palmyra palm. Besut's Buah Tal, short for Lontar.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Time Then and Now

For a long time, in Trengganu, I believed that we were living in the shadows of people, long gone but still there.

Memory only adds to the eeriness of this connectivity, with time, and distance and people, as if they were all there, floating in mid air. And so were we, floating and drifting, like the snowfall trapped in those cheap plastic bubbles that you pick up in a tourist's shop. You give it a good shake, and place it on the table, to watch the snow flaoting down onto Big Ben, a street scene, or whatever. We are all snowflakes, floating in time's ether.

As I walked with my mother in those days in Kuala Trengganu, she would point vaguely in a direction and say that that was the house of Hakim Wan Mahmud. The Hakim (judge) was embedded in my mind as a real character, living and breathing our contemporary air, and enjoying nasi dagang from our favourite stalls and travelling the roads, albeit in an official car. It was only recently that I discovered that when my mother was telling me all that, the judge must've been dead for at least forty years, and even now, when I begin to look at an event in which the judge featured prominently, I sense a remoteness between him and me as between the dawn of time and now.

But that was how we kept tab on things in Trengganu: my parents kept referring to the event of Pak Mat mengamok as if the Pak Mat who went amok was still in the realm of real people, and when we walked past Kampung Hangus, my mother would point that out to us as if it happened yesterday. I don't know when Pak Mat went amok (in Tanjung Mengabang, by the way), it crtainly happened before my parents were born; and I've only just read that a big fire raged in Kuala Trengganu in August 1883, and that could well have been the time when the Kampung burnt to cinders.

Perhaps it's because we in Trengganu share a polychronic culture that we concatenate time so easily into a chain-link of things near and far, with the far end waving at us remotely, but still very highly visible. Time is just a medium in which we interact with people.

I found Hakim Wan Mahmud just a few days ago while looking at an event that was brewing up in Trengganu over many years but began to take the shape of an open rebellion this month, 77 years ago. And it centred around a man named Haji Abdul Rahman bin Haji Abdul Hamid bin Abdul Kadir, who lived in the village of Beladau, on the Trengganu river. To the people of Trengganu he was — and still is — fondly known as Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong, or Tok Limbong.

Tok Limbong was an itinerant religious teacher, a trader, entrepreneur, and spiritual leader. To many he was a saint and a scholar with many famous students from the Royal House of Trengganu, including Tengku Nik Maimunah of Telemong, (better known as Tengku Nik Haji), sister to the then Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah; Tengku Muhammad (known as Raja Darat), the former Sultan who was deposed and replaced by Sultan Sulaiman; and Tengku Ismail (Sultan Sulaiman's brother) who later succeeded to the throne as Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah. Tok Limbong himself was a student and anointed successor of another famous scholar-saint of Trengganu, Syed Abdul Rahman bin Muhammad al-Idrus, better known as Tok Ku Paluh
Crowd waiting foer the arrival of rebel leaders at the Customs & Excise warehouse in Kuala Trengganu, 1928
Crowd awaiting the arrival of rebel leaders by boat from Telemong, at the Customs & Excise Dept., Kuala Trengganu, 21 May, 1928.

These were early days of British 'intervention' in Trengganu, when the rural people, shocked by the need to acquire licences to work on land that'd been tilled and worked on for generations by their ancestors. They looked to Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong, a fluent Arabic speaker and Qur'anic scholar, as their leader. He did not fail them: he took a 'Wakil' licence that allowed him to appear in court as a pleader, and fought their case. The judge in the lower court decided for the people. He was Hakim Mahmud, the man my mother spoke about. In despatches back to the Colonial Office there was disquiet on the part of the British colonial officers about this decision as Mahmud was a former student of Haji Abdul Rahman. So they took the case up on appeal to a higher court, where Haji Abdul Rahman once again argued the case and won it for the people, while also running rings around the then police Chief of Trengganu, a man with the delightful name of Cheers.

These were the early and mid 1920s. The dissatisfaction simmered on while Tok Limbong continued to ply the coastal waters in his Perahu Besar the Trengganu junk. In between his trading activities he became a widely respected religious scholar, a man described by the then British Adviser Humphreys thus:
"Haji Drahman is a small, dark, ascetic-looking Malay of about sixty-years. He has a great reputation for sanctity and good works, and great influences — secular as well as religious — among the people of the middle Trengganu river. Unlike most Trengganu 'saints' he is extremely charitable and does not use his influence for his personal profit; he devotes himself to religious teaching, agriculture, and devotional exercises." — Report of the British Adviser, Trengganu, 24 November, 1922.
On 20th April, 1928, the natives, still restless over the imposition of licensing fees on their economic activities, reportedly attempted assault on a Forest Guard and Police Constable in Kuala Brang, and so it simmered, with palace officials to-ing and fro-ing between Kuala Brang and Kuala Trengganu, and the Sultan Sulaiman himself visiting them on 3rd and 4th May, 1928 when he was met by about 3000 disgruntled subjects.

Events came to a head on 21st May, when shots were fired at an armed crowd trying to attack a police station in Telemong, resulting in the death of 11 people, including Lebai Abdul Rahman, the man who led the attack, who was also known as Tok Janggut. Many of the rebels were transported downstream to Kuala Trengganu on the same day, to the Customs & Excise offices in the harbour where police vehicles awaited to take them to the detention centre. They were subsequently tried in the Istana Maziah, and received sentences ranging from 15 years to 5 years, with hard labour, to be served in Singapore.

When all this happened, Tok Limbung was away on business in Beserah, but the British, convinced that he was the power behind it all, urged the Sultan to order his arrest. On hearing this, Haji "Tok Limbong" Abdul Rahman presented himself at the Istana (accompanied by a Palace official called Datuk Pahlawan) soon as he arrived from Beserah, in Pahang. At the Istana Maziah he met the Sultan Sulaiman for the first time.

He was detained at the Kathi's Court (which was then in the grounds of the Istana) pending an order that was signed by the Sultan on 2nd June, 1928 for his removal, first to Singapore to be put under the care of the Straits Settlement Government. On 6th June, he wrote instructions for the sale of his property, proceeds of which to be used in settlement of debts with various people, including his wife. He was taken to Makkah 19th August, 1928, to end his life in the city it had begun, where he, as a boy, had lived under the care of his uncle Tun Muhamad Zain, a descendant of the Trengganu Tuns of Kuala Brang. His family on his father's side came from Patani.

He was to live for another year, spending his time there lecturing at the Great Mosque which houses the Ka'abah. On 16th November 1929, he died, in poverty, in a waqf (trust) house set up by a family charity.

Haji Abdul Rahman Limbung was one of the remarkable men in the history of Trengganu, a saint, scholar, leader, and entrepreneur. He was a slight man, attired in the Malay baju and Chinese-style trousers; he wore a conical Terendak hat and walked on wooden clogs (terompah) made, probably, in his own factory in Trengganu. There are many strange stories about him, still told by the people there, of how he crossed the Trengganu river to meet his teacher Tok Ku Paluh, without a boat, and how he could disappear from one place, and reappear in another. In the report by his contemporary, Humphreys, it was said that he:
"In short, — in the untranslatable Malay expression — kramat, supernatural, thaumaturgic. And his followers have so turned his head with adulation that he now appears to believe in his own magic powers and a 'call' to preach a Tolstoyan doctrine of prayer and agriculture, whose leading tenets are: that the land belongs to the people, that Government claims on it are contrary to Muhammadan law, and that the Government itself is a superfluous vanity."

Friday, April 01, 2005

Times Of Day

Whilst leaning on the ledge on top of the stairs of the surau Haji Mat Kerinci in Tanjong, and looking out to the road on most mornings of the week of my Trengganu days, it hardly escaped notice that there was time and time; and thanks to the early buses that rarely stopped for us, we were late for school on most days.

The morning and the buses moved on, the former with the lengthening of the shadows, the latter packed nearly to the gunwales.When I looked into the old surau thinking whether to turn back home or to wait for the next bus that trundled down, time seemed to move in different ways. There was time that ticked away on the old clock in the surau, and there was time outside that was slipping away with the day. And then I remembered there were two times in Trengganu, the time waktu and the time Malaya.

I don't know how it came to be or how long it had been so, but in Trengganu then prayer times were set to the waktu, which was tautological time, because both 'time and waktu meant much the same thing, and shops and businesses worked according to the time Malaya, which was the time of the country — and it remained so even after we became Malaysia — because that was the standard time that we always knew. So while the country rotated on standard horological principles, the mosques and suraus of Trengganu worked on waktu hours. This meant that the noon prayers were always fixed at around midday, whilst on the ordinary clocks it kept moving throughout the year, from twelve-thirty, to one o'clock to just a few minutes after. That was the constant of our waktu clock, that the mid-day prayer was always near the middle of the day.

This caused confusion, needless to say, to those who were not regulars of the mosques or suraus who happened to peep in for the time of day. Which probably explained why people were often found snoozing in the nearly empty suraus outside prayer hours, because they'd suddenly found that they had time to spare. When out again in broad daylight they'd of course find that a part of their day had moved away, not to mention the people they were appointed to see.

Unbeknownst to hoi polloi, a close watch was kept on the waktu hours by the men in charge of prayer times in mosques, and local musollas and indeed in our local Haji Mat Kerinci. Once in a week or so, the man in the Masjid 'Abidin in the town centre, normally the bilal who shouted out the azan call to prayer, would take out the mosque's astrolabe to measure the sun's altitude, and then he'd set the mosque clock accordingly for the time of the zuhr noon prayer. I'd expect the adjustments would also be made in the satellite suraus or musollas.

The surau Haji Mat Kerinci was an eponymous surau like many suraus in our part of town. Kerinci is a place in South Sumatra, so Haji Mat (Mohammad) of the surau must've hailed from there, and closer to us was the surau Sheikh Abdul Kadir, a religious scholar who came to us from Patani. Further north from there was the surau Haji Mat Lintar, a hafiz with a deep knowledge of the tajwid or the correct recitation of the Qur'an. He had a voice that carried loud and clear to the back rows in the 'Abidin mosque when he led the prayer, hence the lintar in his name, which meant 'thunder'. And between him and us was the Surau Besar, which meant, simply, the big surau.

So with each passing of the hour in a Trengganu day, there were pockets of time zones in those mosques and suraus that were out of synch with the outside world. And that was the waktu that has faded away from us now.