On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Snapshots to the Past

Abdullah Dong (pronounced Tung) bin Sulaiman, came to Kuala Trengganu during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III — al-Marhum Haji — in the early years of the twentieth century. (see, Hui Hui and Other People). In Kuala Trengganu he opened a shop that sold everything from shellac to rice to salt and books and Hari Raya cards. He was assisted in this venture by fellow emigrant Haji Hassan Liu bin Salleh, known widely as Pök Chang Siput.

Soon the shop trimmed its stock and specialised only in stationery, magazines and books. It became the sole agent in Trengganu for the Utusan Melayu and the Straits Times (later New Straits Times). In Trengganu, Abdullah Dong became known as Pök Löh Yunang, and the shop, Abdullah Al-Yunani, became Kedai Pök Löh Yunang, the famous purveyor of books and religious kitabs.

I am fortunate to have been sent this photo of Pök Löh in his shop by Encik Yahaya bin Mohd. Nor, his grandson. Encik Yahaya used to help in the shop in the days when he was still in shorts. He says that in the early days, some of the Hari Raya cards sold there were printed in the back of the shop.
Pak Loh Yunang in shop
Pök Löh in his bookshop

As a very young schoolboy I remember going there one Saturday morning to enquire about a book. It wasn't the very young Encik Yahaya I spoke to then, but a much older lad by the name of Shukor who told me that they no longer had the book in stock. "That was my elder brother who died last year," Encik Yahaya says.

Thanks to Encik Yahaya, I also now know that Pök Chang Siput had no connection at all with snails (siput), but was a masterchef known by his Chinese appellation of 'sifu' (master); so sifu became siput in Trengganuspeak.

Another man who arrived with Pök Löh, Ali Zhang bin Idris, became Pök Ali Yunang. Pök Ali was the man I described in my earlier blog as the alchemist. He had a shop in Jalan Kampung Daik where he sold roots and poultices and Chinese herbs, and also kept a stock of hardware goods, and sparklers for the end of Ramadhan. Pök Ali's ointment — Minyök Pök Ali — was much sought after for pains and aches.

Another bookseller from this remarkable group of Yunani pioneers in Kuala Trengganu was Abdullah's brother Pök Daud (Daud Dong) who specialised in religious books in his shop, also in Kedai Payang. Among his kitabs Pök Daud (Pök Ok) also kept an array of kris (made, probably, in Ladang), seeds, and brassware (most certainly from the brassworkers of Tanjong).

Encik Yahaya also very kindly sent me another interesting photo ("that I saved from my Mother's house, before the termites moved in") from the heyday of the Yunani brothers. This one was taken probably in the early 1940s, and shows a delegation of Chinese Muslims (mostly in white coat) being taken by Pök Löh to visit the Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah at the Istana, though I'm uncertain which one. I'd hazard a guess and say that it was the Istana Kolam, though I haven't come across any records of fire damage to any of its out houses. (If you look closely in the background, you'll see, as Encik Yahaya points out, that the roof on the left has been gutted).
Chinese delegation with Sultan
Chinese Muslim delegation with the Sultan.
Click HERE for bigger image.

In this picture, Sultan Sulaiman is seated in the centre. Standing 4th from left is Tengku Ismail, his brother, who later became Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah. Pök Löh Yunang is seated second from left. I'd be grateful if anyone could shed further light on this photograph.

The Yunanis came to our part of the world via Indonesia and Singapore, then settled in Trengganu. From there they have spread even further: Pök Ali's grandson is now an Imam in a mosque in Sydney, Australia, and many are settled now in Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the peninsula.

Pök Löh died in Makkah circa 1954.

A young Yunani boy I used to know at school told me that they received cakes from relatives in Hong Kong during Chinese festivities. As it is now time for that, I wish my Chinese readers many happy cakes and a happy new year.

Gong Xi Fa Chai!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Best Foot Forward

"Anak ttuöh!" is the shibboleth of a Trengganu mum, a prayer and an admonition, a note of exasperation as well as aspiration. The double 't' here is the possessive shaddah, so ttuöh is the standardspeak bertuah, blessed with good fortune.

A child born in Trengganu is first held by the ankle and dipped in irony before he or she is left to wade in deeper water along the shore. A child who gets his work half-done, then hides away in a game of to or dashes out to throw the wök is anök ttuöh. "Mana gi anak ttuöh tu, dah tembör lesak!" Frida Kahlo: Love Embrace of the UniverseWhere is that blessed child, he's completely disappeared from sight! Then, "Molek sunggoh pe'el budök tu!" ("What a well-behaved child!"), of a lad who's whining and throwing things in a tantrum. "Anak ttuöh sunggoh!" To curse a child or to call him names is the taboo of a good mother, for a mother's talk is masin, laced with salt, a potent ingredient that may make the words come true. Anak ttuöh, someday the prayer may be answered, and the child will grow up a lucky lad.

A mother's prayer, and every mother-in-law's wish, is to bring into the family someone who is jjuruh, well brought up and well behaved. A jjuruh person is tertib terning, with decorum and a sense of place. [Tertib, Ar. = order, decorum], and an undesirable person, cantankerous by nature and probably spits in the flower pot, is one who is dak jjuruh haröh, nanör even, and waballaghö to boot. Nanör is a fascinating word that takes in many turns; a person lacking in direction is certainly nanör if he does this and that, and climbs trees and makes girls weep, and waballaghö is mock Arabic, for someone who neglects his prayers and walks, at dusk, in the direction of the billiard table while the muezzin makes his call from the Masjid. Such person does not play by the book, in fact, he's out of it, dök masok bok. He's lere (uncaring, neglectful), maknga (for which, ditto), and dak tahu ppala ekör (lost the plot). And that's just one step below celika or biuk, i.e. using a ruse or excuse to evade work.

A child who pulls a face and jumps up and down the sofa and continues to do so in spite of an adult's words is just söngör, and söngör is sometimes rectifed by harsher words, or by the belt; but nanör requires a different kind of act. Come here, a wizened man may say to a nanör lad, "aku nök ciuk sikik." Ciuk is from the standardspeak tiup, to blow gently on a cup of tea that's piping hot, or, in this case, on a wayward child, after chanting some invocatory words.

Happy is a man who is full of tama'ninöh which again is an Arabic loan word that meant 'calmness' and 'equanimity'. In Malay it has taken a wider meaning: he is a man who knows the 'order of things', savoir-faire even.

As language is the mirror of a culture, Trengganuspeak is never short of behaviour words. Tekök, babir, kerah keng all describe stubbornness; löklak, selör-bölör, cakduh are degrees of carelessness and haste; and ccamek is the intrusive person who interferes where he or she shouldn't. Mulok ccamek is a person who speaks out of turn; a tangang ccamek lad is one who doesn't know what to do with his hands as he touches this and he touches that, a bit of nanör in his blood.

But who is a tebölah? I've often asked. Is he a clumsy clot, or a nauseous lad? Or is he just a little göng, but not a lot? Well, a göng is a small hill that stands out in a land that's mostly flat. So, presumably, a göng person is a show off, a bit soft in the head, maybe, and enjoys sticking out in the crowd. Perhaps a göng started on the agah, that got blown, for some reason, into agah bbalong. Agah is punching above your weight while knowing full well that you're just a scrawny lad, and so I guess the appellation bbalong is given to an agah person gone utterly mad.

This is not to say that there's no room for a bit of pride in your things or work. Sometimes you're glowing with joy about a new shirt, or your new kasut jongwek so you strut about in broad daylight. "Ning bukang apa, nök buat ek je!" is a harmless act. "I'm just showing off a bit!". Until you meet your match in someone who's out wearing his kasut berek, the office boy in your pejabak (office). Now, that's agah for you, caught in the act.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Born In The Bottle

You know, said an emailer, that Trengganu pioneerd the first human fertilisation in vitro? So I batted an eyelid, as I do at times like that. Just hear this about Mat Ming, he (he?) wrote:
Mat Ming ttonjor,
beranok ddalang botol
Timbul tenggelang,
Terus masok gol.
Now, what do you make of that? he asks, doesn't that sound to you like in vitro?

Well yes, the botol or balang would have been the test-tube, wouldn't it? Well I never.

So Mat Ming was our — the world's — first in vitro child, but that still doesn't explain the ttonjo. A bump on the head; forceps, surely? But no, he went on, timbul tenggelang bobbing up and down, in the test-tube of course, and straight into the goal — terus masok gol — the egg was fertilised, and Mat Ming was borng, er born.

Mat Ming grew up, sought fame, got it at Panggong Sultana. It was — maybe still is — Panggong Mat Ming to the cognoscenti.

As for the bump, well, he may have walked under a low bendo (ledge) when he was a little bigger.

Thank you anonymous emailer.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Eating Your Words

There are ways to eat as there are chairs for cats to scratch. Rice comes on a plate or or laid flat on the apor of a banana leaf, or wrapped in the conical kelosong or laid out in a small punnet shaped from the daun pisang the way of our beloved tepong pelita, though the punnet now, in step with time, is pinned over the folds with a stapler, no longer the toothpick sticks cut from the spine of a coconut leaf. The tapér (standardspeak, tapai) comes wrapped in taper leaf, though its substance is the ubi kayu — nothing to do with the leaf at all — that grows quietly in the earth. Taper is an ancient food that is sometimes made from fermented rice, swimming in its own juice of sweetness and alcohol enough to make even the lebai's head swim in a daze. Teetotalism and taper are poor bed-mates, though I'll be chastised for saying that.

I learnt early how eating became a part of us when, as soon the flooring was done in our refurbished surau, the chairman of works, Ayah Wang mamat, dropped everything and said to Father, his treasury head, "Ning muak sepuloh bekah! ("This will take ten trays"). The area he was looking at was a wide expanse of floor, freshly planed, and leading smoothly to the mihrab. This was a prayer place, and Ayah Wang was already looking not only to the solats but also to the holidays and festivities of the mawlid and the kenduri and the bekwah, and when our South Indian shop keepers would come and brighten up our place with their qasidah. There'd be nasi minyak (ghee rice) stirred in thick cauldrons that Ayah Wang shaped out in his shed from brass. There'd be be people from neighbouring kampongs, children going from place to place, and dignified oldsters sitting six to a tray in the surau, and ten trays all filled laid out into a mighty space.

The children filled up the outer apron and bickered quietly under watchful eyes; and that was how we ate, and how we sat on days like that.

This is beradong as we say in Trengganuspeak, food all laid onto the plates, in fold-rimmed copper trays, soaked in tamarind juice and rubbed with ash till the yellow begins to gleam, and laid in rows on the wall to wall kain seperah. Seperah is a loan word from the Turkish sofra for dining table, but we just borrowed the word to give meaning to the cloth now spread on the floor to sit on, and to catch the drips and crumbs from what we ate.

In company we ate quietly to accusations of doing the polok which is hard to explain when your cheeks are all filled and puffed up, which is what really polok is. The handmaiden of polok is kemang which is not altogether an active word: it simply states that the food remains in your cheek, and is stewing there quietly in your spit. Kemang though can be practised as an art, as when you have a marble-sized boiled sweet that you want to keep sweetly secreted in your mouth. One sizeable pat on your back from a friendly lad, and your kemang turns into a choke or ccekek as you would say it if you could, but you're too busy gasping and in the state of belöhök.

In private you may eat as you please and whatever you like. You may pua' (a word that ends in a nasal note) your rice or puek your residues to your side. You may want to drink from a cup, but as you do not have a cup, you may want to feel free to togok your Cola from its can as you sit and asök. You'll have to listen to the chiding mother telling you of her son's plight to get the sense of this word, "Dok asök jjugök lah dari takdi, dah dak sakit perok ba'ape?" He's been stuffing himself all this time, are you surprised he's got a tummy-ache?

These are makangspeak, or eating words. In derision, makang is downgraded into ranggöh which is one step above the more contemptible kedaröh. Sometimes it's emphasised as bahang kedaröh, an expression of extreme disapproval, and often laced too with a curse; though bahang itself is sometimes used to describe an eating experience that's thoroughly enjoyed, "Takdi aku bahang rojök, sedak sunggoh!" I had that rojak just now, it's so good! Bahang and tibang are identical twins in eating as in lascivious works.

All very well if you have your food and frolic, but left only with crumbs on the plate, you may have to resort to ggedik. This ggedik is a cadging word, a child's ruse, normaly prefaced with, "Mitok sikik gok!" ("Gimme a bit!"). And then the ptooooi! sound comes thundering back, as your prey spits into his ice or his kkoleh or nekbak, and then what can you do about that?

There is, I think, a word for it, as you're left there, spirit flagging, mulok nnelleh and all that. It's that uncertain feeling of kelak-kelak.

apor:Food laid out on a banana-leaf, unwrapped.
bekwah= Feast in remembrance of a dead person.
daun pisang= banana leaf.
kelak-kelak= An unfulfilled state because your desire's unattainable or out of reach.
kenduri= Feast
mawlid= Birthday of the Prophet [Ar.]
mulok nnelleh= Drooling.
puek= Spit out.
tepong pelita= A Malay sweet, made from coconut milk, sugar, and flavourings.
solat= Prayer [Ar.]
surau: A prayer house, smaller than a mosque.
ubi kayu= tapioca
lebai= A pious person.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Beautiful Game

The following football commentary has been transcribed from an old wax cylinder recording found in the archives of the Radio Malaya Siarang Daeroh Teganu. Mice have gnawed through parts of the wax, only the last bit of the recording is salvagable. The game is played at the old Padang Puleh (now the Stadium Paya Bunga), with Mamat Ppala Kerah in the gatekeeper position. The commentator is believed to be a bright young Radio Malaya recruit from Kampung Paya Tok Ber. Trengganu are playing Kelantan to a goalless draw until —

"...Mang Paka köseng böla ke Jusoh, Jusoh tendang ddepang go, Mang jerembe masuk, tendang böla masuk terus bbawah galang, goli jereba tapi dak dapat. Go! Go! Napöknye repri dak beri. Penyököng Teganu bbising bbangör panggil nama repri. "Repri Bölör!" "Repri Bölör!"

"Kelatang dapak balek böla, Jusoh köseng ke Semail Böpeng, Semail ke Yaakob Berik...Yaakob gete böla keliling Busu Che Wel, Busu kejör sapa ttengoh padang, peteh kaki Yaakob, Yaakob jatoh jerebak atah ruput. Busu tendang böla ke bira padang sebelah kiri, Mang Paka belari ke go Kelatang denge böla tapi dak sapa dua ela pemaing Kelatang Mamat Kangkong segök perok Mang, jatoh ssitu jugök, teletang dak ggerök sebetör. Repri gi tengök, orang Teganung sörök wowa-wowa, ada yang kata "Pawa! Pawa!" Mang dudok atas padang, perok se'eh, tapi dia bangung mmaing balik. Penyököng Teganung ssörök "Yay! Yay!" Penyököng Kelatang sörök balah, "Laing kali té demo tu parök sikik!" bunyi suara Kelatang dari belakang go.

"Repri dah tengök jang, Teganu lawang Kelatang, masih kösöng-kösöng. Pasukang Teganung mmaing sepuloh örang je, Endut kena keluör takdi sebak ssetök kkarung, Pak Soh Cenering Bömö Teganu dok bbaca mulok bök-bek, bök-bek belakang go, lawang Bömö Kelatang dök tengöh ikat semuta belakang go sebelöh nung. Bömö lawang bömö, Teganu lawang Kelatang, böla sebutir bulat ggete.

"Tiga minit je lagi, böla buleh ke Slemang Kerabu Sere pemaing baru Kelatang, köseng ke Mamat. Mamat tendang habis reng, kasut bot dia ccabuk kelecak barat jatuh lluar kawasang penalti. Back Teganu Wang Mamud tendang balik böla separuh padang, dapat ke Awang Tera. Awang Tera gete masuk ddalang kawasang Kelatang, dia tendang kkiri dapak ke Mang Paka. Mang jembe masuk ddepang gol, back Kelatang Deramang jembe dia, dia negllik, dapak masuk lagi, dia tendang terus, goli Kelatang junga ke kiri tapa dak sapa.....GO!

"Buah ggarek! Mang Paka masok buah ggarek untuk Teganu! Repri tiup wesel, habis döh! Teganu 1, Kelatang kösöng!"

"Mang Paka passes the ball to Jusoh, Jusoh sends it to the front of the goal; Mang rushes in, kicks the ball into the goal, beneath the bar. Goal! Goal! The referee says no. Trengganu supporters called out his name. "Referee Bolor!" "Referee Bolor!" [bolor, Tr. = shortsighted; blind]

"Kelantan gets the ball back, Jusoh to Semail, Semail to Yaakob...Yaakob dribbles around Busu, Busu follows him to the middle of the field, trips Yaakob, Yaakob's down. Busu kicks the ball to the side, left, Mang Paka rushes to the goal area with the ball but not two yards from there Kelantan player Mamat butts him in the belly, he is now flat on the field, lying still. The referee goes to have a look, Trengganu supporters are now booing, some saying "Foul!Foul!" Mang sits up, he's winded, but he gets up to play. Trengganu supporters are cheering. Kelantang supporters are responding. "Next time hit him good and proper!" came a Kelantanese voice from behind the goal.

The referee's looking at his watch, it's Trengganu versus Kelantan, still a goalless draw. Trengganu are down to ten men, Endut having to leave the field because of a cramp, Pak Soh Cenering, the Trengganu shaman is muttering words behind the goal, pitching hismelf against the shaman for the Kelantan side, now adjusting his headgear, the ball is round as ever.

Three minutes to go, the new Kelantan player Slemang Kerabu Sere gets the ball, passes it to Mamat. Mamat kicks with all his might, his boot flies in the air, lands outside the penalty area. Trengganu fullback Wang Mamud sends it back midfield, taken by Awang Tera. Awang Tera dribbles it into the Kelantan area, he sends it to the left, taken by Mang Paka. Mang moves swiftly with the ball to the goal, Kelantan fullback Deramang rushes towards him, he evades, he goes in further, kicks it, Kelantan golaie reaches out to the left but is unable to reach the ball...GOAL!

It's the closing ball, Mang Paka gets the closing ball for Trengganu! The referee blows the whistle, it's all over! Trengganu 1, Kelantan 0!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Romancing the Work

If you pick up an ancient copy of the Utusan Melayu and pull back momentarily as your eyes water in the dusts of time, your attention may be caught by the 'earpiece' lying to the left of the masthead, with its gleaming face of a comely lady urging you to partake of some sticky stuff called ma'ajun; and this ma'ajun, if memory serves, is either the "Tupai Melompat" ("leaping squirrel") or "Kamar Ajaib" ("Magical Moon"). Ma'ajun or makjong in Trengganuspeak, means 'paste', and as a concoction and a word it is a loan from Arabic.

Magical Moon and its sister Squirrel came from the town of Marang by-the-sea just outside Kuala Trengganu, but its most remarkable product wasn't ma'ajun but pocket-sized romances from the publishing house of H.C. Mohamad b. Abdul Rahman (Cik Mat Marang), and its most famous writer was a man much forgotten now who went by the name of Pak Sako. His real name was Ishak Haji Mohammad.

Ishak had a promising start in life as a magistrate; but then the Bohemian nature in him took over, and he opted for a life of greater freedom, as a writer and journalist. Unlike other people of his generation he was unimpressed by wealth and the pomp of office, so not surprisingly, with Ahmad Boestamam he started the Partai Sosialis Rakyat Malaya. He left a more enduring mark in Malay literary circles with his novels, poetry and journalism; but his most famous work was a novella called, alliteratively, Anak Mat Lela Gila. It was quite the most remarkable book that I picked up from the bookshop of Pak Lah Yunang and which I read in the surung of our house in Kuala Trengganu. I remember getting the impression that whilst the first half was written by a man of great skill, the second half seemed to have been written by a man who was growing impatient with the book. He was paid $200 for it by Annies Printing Works in Johor Baru, the highest ever paid to a Malay writer at that time.

Ma'ajun and romance sat side by side in those days for the H.C. who produced those aromatic men and women's paste was also the same Encik Mohammad who brought our Ishak "Pak Sako" Hj Muhammad to Kuala Trengganu, to write a series of 'penny novels' for his production/publishing house, the H.C. Mohamad of Marang and in the earpiece of the Utusan. I am told that the series spun around a rickshaw puller, and could have been — for all I know — the adventures of our teksi man Cik Kaleh (see Blogs, passim)in roman à clef. The ma'ajun, as I suspected, was fuel for the men and women living the lifestyle of the romance novellas, to inject vigour into their lives, and so it was that literature of sorts got mired with the paste of life in our little town on the east coast.

It must've been a lucrative trade for our Encik Mohammad as he was able to keep the film star Latifah Omar smiling for a long time in his 'earpiece' advertisements that endorsed his products in the Utusan.

Ishak was born in Pahang, but he had deeper connections with Kuala Trengganu than his rickshaw travelling works of fiction. When in town he was often seen at the bookshop of Encik Mat Dek (see, Growing Up In Trengganu #193,742), and he also had many socialist fellow-travellers in the state. When in Kuala Lumpur he kept in touch with the Trengganu crowd in the Restoran Encik Muda (the famous Encik Muda Satay of Kuala Trengganu) in Princes Road (later Jalan Raja Muda), not far from another institution in the Malay book-publishing trade, the Pustaka Antara, a publisher and a bustling book shop.

From the British Library S.E.Asia catalogue:
Budak Beca, by Ishak b. Haji Muhammad; Marang, Trengganu: H. C. Mohamad bin A. Rahman, 1957; 98p, 19cm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Game of the Name

Children are denied beautiful names in many cultures, to protect them from the attention of ugly beings. This practice, I understand, is still very much alive in some Polynesian islands, where the Malays sailed or paddled to during the great flood of many millennia ago that sank the landmass and created the Nusantara that is our place.

In Kuala Trengganu we had a bus driver named Encik Burok, who was not an ugly man, but as a baby and child his parents must've felt secure because they believed they'd kept him safe from the attention of those undesirables. But other names I remember are just Trengganu pure and simple, like Mbong or Semek or my own, Goneng, which goes with Awang, and together they conjure a little boy, head shorn. But am I really bald like a coot? Well, that's a secret that shall always remain under my hat.

What surprised me about Encik Burok our bus driver was that he was 'Burok', not 'Hudoh', the preferred Trengganu word for ugliness. Burok was more commonly used to describe a state of deterioration, decomposition, and if used at all for something unattractive, it was not a person that was burok but his or her behaviour, as in "Isy, burok sungoh pe'el budok ni!" What a badly behaved lad or lass!

Just off the coast, opposite the Kelab Cosmo, was an old rock that jutted out from the sea. It looked old, and crumbly and rusty, and so the name that lent itself to the place, Batu Burok. The burok here does not describe the rock's ugliness but its crumbly, dilapidated state. In the pasar of Tanjong, ikang burok wasn't an ugly fish, but fish with red eyes, actively deteriorating, that the fishmonger was keen to dump on the unsuspecting crowd.

Trengganu also had other fascinating names, like Jusoh or Slemang, or Mamud (that gave rise to Pak ("uncle") Soh, Pak Mang and Pak Mud), but these are our common Arabic names, given the local twist. Another one is Chang, which is Hassan in Trengganuspeak, that came back to me recently when I received a very interesting email from Encik Yahaya bin Mohd Noor about the Orang Yunang that I wrote about. Encik Yahaya is the grandchild of Pak Lah Yunang, the famous bookseller near the Clock Tower in Kedai Payang, and while thanking me for blogging about his family, he was also kind enough to point out a few 'minor' errors in my research. I shall gladly publish them as soon as he's got them all written out.

It was while recalling all those Yunangs of Kuala Trengganu that I remembered Pak Chang, a man I heard about, but never met. Pak Chang, said Encik Yahaya, was his father's cousin; and it was then that I remembered another thing about Pak Chang: he was also called Pak Chang Siput.

In Trengganu, almost everyone had a sobriquet (Fr. = 'tap under the chin'), a nickname. The origins of some of these nicknames were quite obvious, as in Mat Ttande (for a man with a prominent birthmark on his face), or Kor Tonjeng. For others, like Mat Habib, a retired merchant seaman of Tanjong, you'd have to know the story of his exploits to know how he acquired the Arabic tag. Then there was Cher Hantu Kucing, and Pak Lah Tut, and Mat Ppala Kerah, and our neighbour Wang Dabling. Wang Dabling was affectionately called Ayah Loh, but one day he was reading from an old biscuit tin and kept repeating to himself its town of origin, "Dabling! Dabling!" ("Dublin! Dublin!"). Soon, in our house, he was known simply as "Leng".

But across the road, opposite the famous Kedai Pak Loh, was a little unpaved lane that led to a little house on the right. You walked up a few steps to be able to sit on its verendah, that was always open, and there — most afternoons — sat a woman who bounced up and down as she scraped crisp flesh from a green papaya. She was generously endowed with adipose tissues, and because of the wobbly movements that resulted as she bobbed up and down while doing her work, she was known to all as Mak Teh Spring. And, God bless her, she made the best rojok betek (green papaya rojak) in the whole town.

'Rojak Betek' Note: I've found lttle reference on the net to rojak betek, but as I remember it, it was green papaya scraped with a special scraper consisting of sharp-edged little round tubes arranged horizontally on one end of the scraping stick. The product was a heap of crisp, long, thin green-papaya flesh on the plate. It's this work that caused all those delightful tremors on the person of Mak Teh. She'd pour a special sauce onto the heap; this was made from vinegar, pounded grilled fish, ground red chilli, sugar to counteract the sharpness of the acid, and a little of Mak Teh's magic. The sauce of the rojak was scooped out from the plate with curled pieces of fried keropok keping, then chewed in the mouth to the distant sound of what was unmistakably singing mermaids. I think Mak Teh charged 15 sen a plate for this delight.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

'Id al-Adha

Hajis came out in their finery, takbir reverberating in the air, the Lay Sing photo Studio inundated with callers wanting to hire a camera for the day. It was smack in front of the Masjid Putih after all. Hari Raya Haji came unlike the other, suddenly, right in the middle of a working week, not after a month of puasa. But in Trengganu the Hari Raya Haji was special, as joyous as the the other, but in a different way.

Children loved Raya most, but there was plenty for the adults to do. This was a day of sacrifice, gathering in the outdoor, meat given to the poor. But we took home some too, and today was like no other. By mid afternoon we were already feeling dozy.

But the takbir, it was the takbir that made Hari Raya, and that's what we remember.

Selamat Hari Raya to you, Hajis, Hajjahs and all...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Dok Leh Dok Lok

While ruminating on the Zen of Dok recently, the ''o' sounds in Trengganuspeak became problematic. It became more acute when SS61 introduced dok rok in his comments (where the 'dok' differed from the one in the topic of discussion). There are at least two 'o' sounds in Trengganuspeak, the 'oh' as in our dok (short for duduk, previously spelt dudok in standardspeak), and the 'o' sound that approximates to the English word 'or', as in ok (withstand) and lok (neglect). Seasoned Trengganuspeakers know where to switch the sounds, but it can be confusing even for veterans, as in Pok Ok's predicament below. In the past I've written dak where I meant dök, but this brought another confusion with dak (the 'ah' sound as in kertas dak that Mat Sprong found in the bins near Pejabak Jang Besor). To make a clear distinction in Pak Ok's plight I have used the 'o' umlaut (ö) for the 'or' sound, and will do so in future, where necessary, to distinguish the sounds.
Dok Tengöh Dök

Pak Ok kaki kecök
Dia dok wak dök
Tahang tu dok ök

Cari Mak Jeng Bbatu Burok
Nak mitök tulong urok
Bila ttemung tepak dudok
Dia pulök takdök setabok

Jjalanglah dia cakting-cakting
Cari bining keliling pusing
Nak mitök tulong urok keting
Jjalang ddalang panah ddering

Pak Ok jerloh ddalang lökang
Sakit pong naik sapa ppingang
Adoh! Adoh! dia ngerrang
Ba'pelah nasibku ni sunggoh malang

Bila bini balik jengök
Tengök dia tengöh ggösök
Dia terus suka selök
Sapa dök buleh ök
Guane gamok?

PS The pun in the last stanza unintended.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Growing Up In Trengganu #193,742

On the foothill facing the rivermouth was a cluster of houses, and not far from it, a coffee shop that begot Kuala Trengganu's best player of chess. Next door to it, a quaint little place that was a newsvendor and a bookshop, run by an interesting man with thick glasses and a Hitlerian moustache. He often wore one of those old-fashioned songkoks that stood tall on the head, that became the target for turbulent ustazs at our local school of Arabic — the Madrasah (later Kolej) Sultan Zainal Abidin — that produced many local stalwarts: Dato' Wan Abdul Kadir, Trengganu's first minister in the Federal government, scholars like Dr Wan Hussein Azmi and the Mufti Dato' Wan Manan from Duyung across the river, and our own Menteri Besar and later ambassador to the Arabs, Dato' Wan Mukhtar Ahmad.

At the Sultan Zainal Abidin, everyone wore long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, in spotless white, and of course, the regulation songkok. Every morning before class there were columns of white marching on the stony earth, as if on parade, and once a week there was public speaking, and there were classes on tajwid where persistent mistakes would be rewarded by the clenched fist of the beturbaned and sunglassed ustaz, falling hard on the songkok, pushing its rim down to the line just below your brows. Trengganu had a word for this, your songkok was said to be kerlok. There'd be much merriment when this happened, gaggles of laughter from the class as the victim muttered softly beneath his breath, "Oh drats, I thought he was fast asleep behind his shades!"

The besepctacled man at the foothill who spotted that interesting moustache was known to us as Che Mat Dok Dek; to others who knew him well, he was just Mat Dek. He was a very private man who probably concealed much aspiration and hope; to young passers-by he was just a strange man who squinted at you from behind his thick bottle-base specs as he sat behind his dangling rows of Mastika and Qalam and the Suara Jabatan Ugama Johor, that were his array of majallahs. He also stocked the Utusans Zaman and Melayu and maybe even the Kanak-Kanak, but as business was slow in this neck of wood, you could buy from him Monday's issues of the aforesaid even if you called late in the week. Quite a bit later in this shop's progress, Cik Mat would sometimes padlock his door and go for an hour's drive in his car with a stranger sitting nervously in the driving seat. He became, I think, one of the early driving instructors when cars began to appear on our roads.

There's disgareement among locals as to the beginning of the sobriquet in Cik Mat's name: some say it came from the first words he learnt in his English class, the 'this' and 'that', and so dok-dek; some say he was a fluent Tamil speaker, and to Trengganu ears, Tamil sounded very much like that. Our uncle who crossed over from Seberang Takir of each morning used to hold discourses in his shop, on this and that, the man was just his friend Mat Dek, and I never asked him why this was so, an opportunity that I sadly missed.

From behind the shop, in the cluster of houses by the hill, came another character named Ustaz Ali, whose son it was who became very adept at chess in that coffee shop next door to the Driving School cum newsagents shop. Ustaz Ali had connections with the Datuk Amar family who lived in the shadow of the Bukit Putri, in a cluster eponymously known as Kampung Datuk. I never found out in which establishment it was that this Encik Ali was ustaz but as we often rolled down on our side on the slope of Padang Malaya on days when political rallies were held, I think I saw him a few times in the company of Dato' Onn Jaafar of the Parti Negara when he used our town as his base for politics.

From the hill also came another man whom I met often when Father took me to the Masjid, but I knew him better than that as he also worked in a little grocery shop that opened its doors beneath our house on the edge of the Tanjong market. The man was known variously as Che Awang or Che Mat, a talented elder of the Masjid who always looked as if he was suppressing an amusing memory that was just lurking in his head. On most days he'd be in his Malay baju top and his kain pelikat, and on his head sat a well-worn songkok that grew a brownish band around its bottom edge. Che Awang/Che Mat was also known as Che Awang King George for his resemblence to the English monarch George V that Father once showed me on an old note; and he was a good doppelganger indeed. Che Awang was the only Trengganu person I knew who could do magic tricks, and sometimes he'd speak in a strange tongue that he said was the Thai language, but I couldn't say if it was real or made up. Sometimes when the mood took him he'd rattle out a string of words in a sing-song tone that sounded very much like an exotic tongue, but one day he told me that it was just a string of Chinese shop names in town that had got stuck in his head. He had a weird sense of humour and great talent, and he walked very briskly, stopping sometimes at a place you'd least expect, to give it a long, curious look. Once he told me of a vacancy that arose in the Masjid as minder of the royal graves, that required being there at night, in a compartment of the Masjid.

"Why don't you apply for it?" I innocently asked.

"Nok mitok takut boleh*," he replied.

There were old houses in Kampung Datuk, and even brick ones and the remains of what looked like an old fort. Datuk Amar was said to have been part of the entourage that came over from Johor to be part of our Royal House. He was a scholar in his own right, and sometimes he'd sit on the wakah (wakaf) near the surau that faced the river in Kampung Datuk, to catch Yemeni sailors who'd just landed so he could practise his Arabic.

* "I'd like to but I might get the job."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Zen of Dok

Boredom is an English word, and even then, a recent one. The noun bore came aboard in the second half of the 18th century, and it was only in 1823 that Lord Byron* divided the world between the bores and the bored.

In Trengganuspeak — and I daresay in standardspeak too — we've been bored for as many years as the arm is long, but only in the sense of bosang (standardspeak, bosan) to mean "I've had enough" of something, a noise maybe, or someone's constant nagging. But the idea of being bored by having nothing to do is a new one, imported from the Western fixation with instant gratification, and the need to do something when nothing is being done, or to be moved by some manufactured outward stimuli because the moon, the sun, the shade, the trees and the chirping of birds aren't enough. Suddenly bosan becomes an intransitive verb, a reason in itself.

This obsession with external stimuli has given rise to many weird and unwonderful things, like the blaring video player in an express bus trundling down the motorway from Kuala Lumpur to Kemaman in the quiet of night, television sets blasting out in shopping malls and even in hospitals, and recently — in Londra — one public library I went to had games blasting out from PCs when everything should've been still and quiet. It was to attract the kids, and irony of ironies, in the world of books that was the only way they could think of to keep them stimulated.

In Trengganu, dok ssaja was used to describe someone sitting quietly on the side looking at passers-by or just chilling out. One better than dok ssaja was dok mmetek, which was still not work but just adjusting the picture frames on the wall, putting the finishing touch to the icing on a cake, patching up a torn sleeve or doing some other 'unimportant' work. But suka mmetek was the love of intricate work: embroidery, needlework or designing a kuih tat. All these were within the ambit of dok ssaja in the after-hours, when boredom wasn't yet a word.

Hedonism's probably put paid to all that. Dak leh dok ddiang is often said of children, but adults too may suffer this predilection and an itch for something that rocks. Dok ssaja is more than just its opposite, it is meaningful rest from busy-ness, when the mind's set free to roam or rest, then hands may move, but without deadline, no set purpose. It was in moments like this, I suppose, that the idea struck and shapes like birds, and prawns and even the simplest cube were woven from palas leaves, then filled with rice and boiled into ketupat.

There are many varieties of dok in Trengganu: dok mmikir (thinking) or dok mmenung (brooding), dok ngitta (just looking out of the window, but no, not the more deliberate voyeuristic act), dok cokkoh (just being there, sitting proud), dok nneter (hovering in a place, with intent or without), and dok ggedik (shaking your legs).

Then there's another kind of dok, wedged between other people or close to someone else, dok sseper, which is probably the cousin of dok ccetek; while dok nnusuk is to be in hiding, the opposite of that.

Dok is the diminution of standardspeak's duduk, to be doing something or to be seated and doing the not-doing (which is the real zen of dok). Someone I once saw pacing up and down said, when asked, that he was in the act of dok, "Dok tengoh serabuk perok," his stomach all knotted up, worried sick.

Dok mmolek, advises the sage, live quietly, in harmony, in peace.

*"Society is now one polished horde, formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored."
— Byron, Don Juan, 1823

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year And Old Umbrellas

It was appropriate that we ended the year sharing stories on the wakah but in the Trengganu that I grew up, the new year meant little to us except for those tear-away calendars that were given by the shops (usually attached to a piece of hard board adorned with the shop's name and a pouting Hong Kong film actress), and the more classy ones that showed a whole month and kept the days in little boxes that were marked out with not just the date and day but also Hari Raya, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Thaipusam, Deepavali and Wesak days, and race meets in Penang and Ipoh and the Selangor Turf Club (where the KLCC towers now stand).

This was the kelendar that were torn daily or by the month. And then there was the staid yearly affairs published by the Pejabat Ugama (Religious Affairs Department) that was then, I think, on the road between Padang Puleh (as SSS61 called it) and the kuburs (cemeteries) of Sheikh Ibrahim and Tok Pelam. This wooden office building was always mustard-coloured as I saw it from Pak Mat's teksi on those rare occasions when he pedalled us — me and my school-mates Lim Chee Hian and Tay Huay Cheng — home from SSPS via the Jalan Batu Buruk/Jalan Tanjong intersection that later became the site of the Turtle Roundabout.

Our New Year's day was always sodden and bleak, always in the blast of monsoon winds and drenched by leaks in the dark clouds. There were floods in the trunk roads that connected us to Kemaman and Kuantan (the Jalan Ular stretch being specially treacherous), or on the other side to Jerteh and Besut. In this blustery season in Kuala Trengganu the river took the teh tarik colour of the air ulu that lapped furiously on swollen banks, rushing downwards to the Kuala of our Trengganu with the flotsam and jetsam of upstream life — buah rengas and fallen logs, carcasses and tendrils entangled in broken bits of an old boat.

Ours was a house that overlooked the open market that sat next door to the covered shops, rows and rows of spice vendors and the textile trade, rice dealers and purveyors of novelty goods, and our man Yahya who kept pencils in his shop and hair cream and combs and multifarious other knick-knacks plus the odd terylene shirt. On dull Friday afternoons when shops were closed and the drizzle blew wildly in the incessant gusts, Yahya sat legs folded on the platform in front of his closed shop and played a mournful tune or three on his harmonium, lovingly wrapped in a piece of old cloth with memories of his kampung in the Tanjore district. After playing a few phrases he'd sing some mournful songs, refrains maybe from an old qawwali or some sailor's ditty he learnt as he sat on the deck of the S.S. Rajula or Madras. Occasionally he'd throw a sad look at the huge expanse of concrete block that stood between his shop and our house: the overground part of a huge underground spetic tank that some local council officers ordered to be placed there to impart some humour and aroma into our lives.

I was an adept Jawi writer then even before I learnt anything else at the Sekoloh Ladang, a skill that came from an early exposure to the Utusan Melayu that Father brought home from Abdullah al-Yunani, stationers and newsvendors, purveyor of comic books and kitabs, next door to Kedai Fernandez in the shadow of the clock tower in Kedai Payang. When Yahya wrapped up his old harmonium and kept it under lock and key as he took his annual trip home to his family in Mappulaikuppam in Nanilam, his brother came down to mind the shop, and to write copious letters to the daughter he'd left behind in Kota Baru and which I faithfully wrote (in Jawi) as he dictated. "Anakanda Aminah," he'd invariably start...

The New Year came in very quietly as the old one went, and I saw all this from the chair that I pulled and stood on to look out of the window of our surung, to look out at Kedai Wan Wook when Ayah Wook wasn't yet a Haji and was still selling rice by the sack and by the cupak, when Pak still kept his hardware store next door to that, almost opposite the roti canai shop of a Malabari man called Pak Loh. Pak was a jocular man who was very kind to us kids; he kept nails and nylon ropes and thread for mending fishing nets, and bamboo poles and planks in his backyard; he had fishing tackle and bamboo rods, and for some reason he kept vinegar in an earthen jar in his storeroom so a certain sourness hung in the air of his shop. At five as the radio music from the government P.A. system in kedai Bhiku blared out loud, Pak replaced the wooden slats in front of the shop and put on his loose Malay trousers beneath his sarong and wound the Haji's turban on his head, and then with a Bismillah he'd cycle out to the road (later he bought a Honda Cub) past the goldsmith's shop next door to Kedai Wan Wook, past the hairdresser's next door to that, and then a left turn at the coffee shop in the junction to Kampung Kolam, to arrive in time to chat awhile under the henna tree and catch the maghrib prayer in our white masjid.

From our house we saw many things that marked the coming of the new year as it slipped in through the pouring rain, but what gave us childish delight was seeing women's umbrellas pushed up into a V-shape as their owners clung desperately to the bamboo rods that held them up, as the wind blew sarongs tightly against their bodily shapes, and selendangs unfurled in the wind's might. This sudden upward push to the umbrella was called locoh in Trengganuspeak, and it gave the name to one woman in town who became known to us forever as Cik Wook Payong Locoh.

Mother sometimes referred to the angin tahun baru (the new year's wind) but I think she meant the Chinese new year, not the one that marked the beginning of the month she called Jandawari. Then as we moved up to higher classes in school the incoming years became significant as they marked the beginning of a new session under a new teacher in a new class, and for the whole of the wet and windy December before that we were already going back and forth to friends' houses with the following year's prescribed textbooks, in the hope of buying used ones at half the price.

Those were our New Years in Kuala Trengganu, and I can almost smell it in the air now, dog-eared old books injudiciously annotated by previous owners, crisp new ones from the school bookshop, the smell of ink and virgin paper, High School English Grammar and A Garden Book of Delights, and Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare (shortened and bowdlerised), and there was one named after Jane Rhys and I can't quite remember what Jane Rhys did.

And a New Year full of blessings to you all, whether you're on the wakah or not!