On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Words That Don't Mean

A departing Indonesian said something to us that made me turn to an English woman for help. She had credentials aplenty – English literature and Southeast Asian studies, and a house in Lombok where she’d lived for many years. To top it all, she worked among Indonesians in this metropolis. I thought I’d heard a familiar cry from the old Tanjong in Kuala Trengganu, in the market. “Did I hear him right?” I asked, “did he really say mari-mari before he went jalan-jalan?”

“Ah well he did,” she said, “it’s quite a common expression in Indonesia, probably of Sumatran origin.”

Mari-mari meaning “come, come!” is the familiar cry of market traders, but why did he say it as he was leaving?

The answer to that is typically Eastern, it’s a courteous statement dressed in an invitation. “I’m going now,” the Indonesian was saying, “do come with me if you want.” But of course no one was expected to follow him home.

“Do women say it too?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s used by everyone,” the English lady said.

So it’s just like the time when you open your packed lunch in front of the office crowd. You turn to everyone to say, "Makan...makan!" ("!"), then everyone says no, no honestly, thank you before you can comfortably begin to tuck in on your own. These are words that strike a pose but don't mean anything beyond their social import, they are the grease that makes our wheel turn.

Meetings and departures are peculiar rituals in most cultures. “How do you do?” raises the question of “what?” but it is seldom necessary to think of it like that. As it is merely ritualistic without being interrogative, most people will simply hurl the question back: “Oh, how do you do?”. But if the question then turns to “How’s your wife?” some may want to retort, “Compared to what?”

But never, never ask a Saudi man that, or your tarbouch will be knocked into a cocked hat.

“Have you eaten?” some Chinese hosts would ask, as would some Malays. The idea is to show concern over the welfare of your friend or guest. In some Indonesian islands they go one better, “Dah mandi?” is the polite concern. “Have you had a bath?” In Trengganu we are often quite cereberal and take it straight to the head. ”Guane gamök?” we ask of passing friends, “What do you think?” Of what? A better translation is perhaps “What do you make of it?” which opens it wide for the receipient: himself, the world, the day so far, the price of chicken.

To Gamök is to appraise, often by tactile means, by taking the appraised object and handling it, in your hand. The phrase dök tegamök is a useful all-purpose phrase to express distaste, an embarrassment induced by even thinking of it, or a conduct that is unbecoming though not wrong. I suppose here the mere thought of taking it — a thing, an idea, a proposal — in your real or metaphorical hand is unthinkable, outright embarrassing. ”La, ba’ape yang mung dök nniköh denge budök tu?” Well, why didn’t you marry her then?

”Hisy, aku dök tegamok eh, dia muda jjetik.” “No, I can’t do that— , she’s much too young!” In other words, I can’t handle that. So, in a sense that is now almost frogotten, gamök is a touchy-feely word.

Often someone known is met with just a one-word greeting, ”Guane!” (How?). And the stock answer to that is not how your are, or that your tummy’s upset, or your toenail’s ingrown and your ducks have stopped saying quack, but probably ”Dak guane-e, ggitulah.” (The extra 'e' in guane-e is merely there for balance). “What else can I say, it is ever thus.”

As children we used to say to leaving adults, "Nök ikut, nök ikut!" ("I wanna come, I wanna come!"), and often we were left behind dok gelepör gelenyong, nnangih wek-wek! bawling and throwing a tantrum. Is the Indonesian "Mari, mari!" connected to that, as a nod to past regrets, but secure in the knowledge that now there's no fear of the person you're addressing it to taking it up and tagging along?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Letter of Gold

A Trengganu letter is kept in Letter-Heading Berlin's Museum für Völkerkunde, written in ink and emblazoned in gold, and is quite a remarkable piece of work by any standard of decorative letter-writing. It came from the court of Sultan Ahmad Shah ibn Sultan Zain al-Abidin who ruled Trengganu for 18 years from 1808, and was addressed to the Dutch Governor General of Batavia, Baron van der Capellen. It is one of the most beautiful letters extant from a potentate of the Malay world.

Besides his taste for calligraphy and decorative illuminations, Sultan Ahmad can also be remembered as the father to Sultan Baginda Omar, a man of rectitude whose simple life prompted one English visitor to remark on his unremarkable clothes [see my earlier blog, In the Eye of the Beholder]. Omar was the man who journeyed through civil war and tribulations, yet returned from exile in Daik to become one of the more remarkable Sultans to have sat on the Trengganu throne.

This beautiful letter, penned at Sultan Ahmad's behest by an anonymous calligrapher, was dated 18 Rejab 1239 (19 March 1824).It was partly a letter of introduction and a request for assistance for the Sultan's trader subjects, Juragan Wan Man, Wan Salleh bin Wan Abdul Rahim, Uthman and Abdul Samad who were journeying on a trader junk (kuci) to Betawi (Batavia) and then to Semarang.

The boat was laden with Trengganu things, dagangan wangkang Seal of Sultan Ahmadas the letter said, a phrase I'm tempted to translate as 'junk trade', but for all its fulsome style and embroidered note, the Sultan was, as regards his cargo, modest in description: sedikit-sedikit 'ala kadarnya, he said, i.e. inasmuch as we could muster. 'Ala kadar is of course a phrase of Arabic origin that is still widely used in Trengganuspeak as a polite understatement. "Ala, takdök apa, ala kadör je!" is often said by the lady of the house to a guest as soon as tray loads of comsetibles are laid out on the table.

The Sultan used the word kinci here to describe his ‘junk’. I take it that this is similar to the perahu kuci (sekuci) that our Mother used to speak about. In fact, in the Tanjong of our day, there was also a Wan Man (Wang Mang) who sailed the perahu besar (perahu kuci) to Senggora and beyond.
Surat Trengganu, detail
Detail from the Trengganu Letter, transcribed below.

”Shahdan daripada itu adalah kita Menyatakan kepada Tuan General akan hal kici (kinci) kita itu maka ada kita muatkan dagangan wangkang sedikit-sedikit ala kadarnya maka hendak pun kita menyuruh kepada segala kantur [g-n-t-u-r?] yang lain membawa dagangan wangkang itu menjadi larangan dengan sabda itulah maka kita menyuruhkan juragan Man dan Wan Saleh bin Wan Abdul Rahim dan Uthman dan Abdul Samad itu datang mendapatkan Tuan General ke Betawi maka telah harablah kita Tuan Jeneral menolong suruhan kita itu daripada sebarang hal ehwalnya di dalam negeri Betawi itu dan lagi jikalau menjadi kebenaran kepada Tuan Jeneral serta dengan penolong Tuan Jeneral akan kita melainkan minta Tuan Jeneral menyuruh akan dia lalu ke Semarang kici kita itu serta dengan tanda Tuan Jeneral sekali adanya maka sekelian perkara yang tersebut itu telah sangatlah harap kita akan Tuan Jeneral menolong jua adanya dan lagi akan hal Tuan Jeneral pun jikalau ada kesukaan dan keridaan maka janganlah kiranya berputusan bersuruhan datang ke TRengganu berniaga berjual beli sedikit dan barang apa yang dimaksudkan oleh Tuan Jeneral barang yang ada di dalam negeri Trengganu itu boleh Tuan Jeneral menyatakan di dalam Surat dengan seboleh bolehnya kita tolong ikhtiarkan maka suatu pun tiada hadiah kita akan Tuan Jeneral akan dalil tulus dan ikhlas kita hanyalah keris panjang sebilah dan lembing sepasang dan kain besar sepasang dan gading sepasang tiadalah dengan sepertinya adalah seumpama bunga setangkai adanya TAMAT.”

[I shall translate this later.-AG]

Pics, from top:
1. Letter Header, in Arabic, "Al-Shams, wa al-qamar, wa al-nujum", By the sun and the moon and the stars.
2. Seal of Sultan Ahmad: Al wathiq biLlah, (Trusting in Allah) Sultan Ahmad ibni Sultan Zainal Abidin, sanat (year) 123?.

Images from the Trengganu Letter taken, with thanks, from The Legacy of the Malay Letters, by Annabel Gallop (with Malay translation by Zaharah Othman), a joint publication of the British Library and the Arkib Negara.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Reflections On A Can

The cetong is much bandied in Trengganu and often thrown about. Once a rattling stone — or two for good measure — is dropped to the bottom of its cylindrical chamber, its open mouth is knocked until one side collapses onto the other and seamed like sealed lips, and the cetong then becomes wedge-shaped. Then it is thrown about and rattled to remonstrate or jubilate in a game of wök. But I must pause here to tell you the nature of wök: it is a game involving a group of enthusiasts and the lone keeper of the cetong, filled and sealed into shape, who has to retrieve it, often from the depths of the bush or rök where it had been thrown by the most robust among the playing crowd. The retriever-keeper places the rattling wök into a circle drawn in the sand before he goes hither and thither in search of the crowd, exposing himself to the danger of such a one creeping in from behind his back to grab and rattle the cetong in sheer delight. And then the game begins again as it started, with the outwitted person scrambling again into the bush for the cetong while his co-players scramble far and wide.

The cetong is a teng is a pök and is a measure of things besides. In ordinary life it is just the container of cylindrical metal that measures roughly the size of a mug. I suppose this was how our teng came about, from the 'tin' that contained the condensed milk. We have the cupak and the leng for measures of rice, but it is the pok that often gets the credit. "Berapa pok nök masök malang ni weh?" How many poks shall I cook tonight?

So pok, or, strictly speaking, po' (for like so many Trengganu and standardspeak words ending in 'k', it ends a-hanging in a glottal stop) is a tin can is a popular measure. Ambek beras se po' gök, malang ning kita tanö', Get me a po' of rice please, we'll be a cookin' tonight. I have translated gök here as a request — please — but it is not exactly that. Gök is a gentle prodding word, yet spoken in a more business-like tone it can have a get-off-your-a*se effect: "Gi gök sikik, tengok anök mung tu!" "Oh for goodness' sake get a move on and see how your son/daughter's getting on!" But here's a gök in the subjunctive mood: "Kalu makang kkambing gök, habihlah mung!" [Clue: "if-goat-eat-this-you-finished"]. And goats do sometimes drink from the pök that's left at the bottom of the steps. That's the pök for scooping water from the tempayan (clay jar) to wash your feet before entering a house; in another word, it is a cetong of a pök.

Pök is a handy thing and a useful — if mysterious — word. Condensed milk comes in the pök, and as one particular brand had the teapot emblazoned on it, it's tempting to guess that it was this 'pot' that begot our pök. But this is a supposition that falls flat when you see that there were other equally famous brands among the milk-swirling crowd — there was the up-market cap junjung (Milkmaid), and the cap api (torch) and the cap pitis (coins) to name but a few in the shops. Pök emptied of its contents was recycled as a takeaway carrier for your hot-drinks from the teh tarik shops. The milk can filled or emptied was still a pök, but a cetong, as far as I can remember, was the shell that had been emptied of milk. As condensed milk came to Trengganu in standard sized cans (i.e. roughly the size and shape of your mug), it isn't surprising then that the pö' or pök became a standard of measure with throwing object specifications approved by the elders of wök.

No wök craftsman of my day would ask for a teng, as teng though made of 'tin', was of indeterminate size. There was teng minyök gah (the kerosene tin) that was roughly the size of twenty bricks in a foot-square stack; and there was teng that was square and flat, and other tengs were oddly shaped. There were bigger tengs that became the leger (drum) and yet others still that were called the kupi. Kupi were generally used for storage at home, or for catching water that dripped from a leak. They once held baby's milk, or instant coffee, or chocolate treats; and the one we used for our sewing things once had biscuits in it, made by someone called Jacob.

See also:
How to Wak

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fair Weather and Fowl

In the health of chickens are our times measured. In these times of mass-driven mania and waste aplenty, when farms are turned into factories, and weather cocks are spinning wildly in the unseasonal winds, is it surprising then that our birds are feeling, er, under the weather?Weather Cock
We had not farms in Kuala Trengganu, but front yards, littered with dedök or the hampas of the sago or nyiur, and chickens or ducks pecking in their pecking order. And then a housewife appeared from somwehere with her hair still jerebek (unkempt) to scatter rice that'd gone off in the pot in the night, as she made a song and dance in her steps and her kur, kur, kurrrr! and her deee, di-di-di, dee-dee!. The latter, as you know, is duckspeak in Trengganu, for come hither, come hither, come hither, in tones of ululation that rose higher and higher. [See earlier blog, Talking to Animals] Only women and pre-pubescents were good at that, while men opted for the lower calls of the hens and the cockerels. These were days before the tight trousers, mind, when sarongs were the mode casual. All men, and boys, slipped into their sarongs at the start of day and walked with timba in hand and tooth-brush in the other to the community well. The feel of the sarong was, as our Pök Wang Mamat used to say, "lega macang sura" (spacious as the prayer hall).

Chickens were a precious possession in (or under) Trengganu homes, for the eggs, for the pot, or for the bits that dropped out of their backs that were collected and passed on as manure. Chilli plants thus fed were pedah nnaha it was said, very hot, but the hottest chillies then came from Marang because Marangers were hot-tempered people. Lada Marang (the chillies of Marang) was something you doffed your songkoks to in the pasars of Kuala Trengganu. But we must now go back to our chickens in the yard now waiting impatiently for their first meal of the day.

So you kur and you kur and it was all very quiet, so you twisted your sarong first this way then that, then you heard a feather drop and you shook and scratched your head a little. With unease, your fellow front-yard feeder was giving you a knowing look in his eye. It was Pök ******, the village chicken thief. It would've been the hard times, it could've been the weather, but a rise in chicken stealing was indicative of the state of the local economy. And our Pök ******, guilty or not, was like a straw in the wind of our financial weather.

They came out in Trengganu in all miens and manner. There was a man who sometimes walked past our patch from the direction of Ladang who was always greeted with hoots and calls. He seemed to enjoy all that as he waved and smiled to acknowledge the calls as he continued his exaggerated amble, the only man perhaps who could have raised a call in the right pitch to rouse the ducks of Kuala Trengganu. He was J, but sometimes called 'Che Awang Che Mek', to indicate his gender ambiguity. There was Mek Boong, the ibu ayang (mother hen) whose deeds were not staple for talk in polite company, and then there were the ayang bapök (cockerels) who were lads who passed the night in idle talk that often led to ungoodly acts, and then slept away the remains of night, not at home, but on a flat slab, atop a box, or in the empty stalls around the pasar. Late risers they were who blinked and scratched in the morning light as men were emerging from their coffee shop ports of call after they'd done their dawn prayer. If someone known was met in that state, the post-prandial person would greet him with words that often went, "Hor, mung ning macang ayang bapök!"*, which was a disapproving message wrapped in a hello.

The expression used for a sickly person was macang ayang ketek ttunga, like a chicken bitten by the ttunga. For a long time I puzzled about this beast or mite, and then I discovered in Winstedt** that ttunga was tungau in standardspeak, a mite with the posh half-Japanese name of Trombicula akamushi that infested both man and fowl and was also probably a typhus carrier.

* "Well, well, you're just like the cockerel!"
** The Winstedt mentioned here is his "Unabridged Malay-English Dictionary", 2nd ed., 1957; Marican & Sons, Singapore.
Picture Credit: Weather cock from "Brilliant Wind" by Irene Junkuhn. Photohosting by Photobucket.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Growing Up In Trengganu #293, 116

During the break from the rain, as gusting winds lifted sodden paper scraps along the breadth of Jalan Pantai, when clouds of charcoal grey reflected in the puddles, our little town was steeped in melancholy.

In a gap between the tall bamboo panels that made her fencing, on a raised platform sheltered under nipah fronds, Mök Möh sprinkled a bed of cassava flour into the concaved dip in the thin china lid of a bowl. She pressed the flour gently to assume the shape of the mould, and then, in the dip in the flour, she sprinkled coconut sugar, brown as the fisherman come ashore. She heaped another layer of white over the brown, pressing it tightly into shape with another topping mould, concaved in the above as below. This she removed quickly to reveal the bulging top heap, and then, upturning the bottom dish and tapping it a little, out plopped the compacted shape of the cassava meal, like a mini flying saucer, into a muslin cloth that she now folded into a wrap that would soon lie alongside other wraps in the head of steam in her steamer.

The monsoons imbued us with deep pilu wrapped in bright sarongs that village men slipped into, top end hooded over their heads as their hands grabbed the hem sides below to trap some warmth around their body. Pilu and melancholia were close cousins, but it came in chilly winds sodden by the spray of the roaring sea. In atap houses the rain poured in torrents down the pointed nipah tips, cascading down in a curtain of glistening threads of rainwater. A sudden downpour clattering on corrugated roofs, and clattering as it did continuously, mesmerised already dozy heads into an afternoon of deep slumber.

Sometimes in the lull in the cloud break, as haziness melted in the light, I was sent out with a ringgit note in the pocket, to Mök Möh Merah's stall near the surau of Hajii Mat Kerinchi, across the road from Pak Mat Senani's morning stall of nasi minyak and beluda bread. The continuous lashing down of rain chilled the weather that shrank stomachs and caused hunger to gnaw on our entrails. It was Mök Möh who quickly warmed our hearts' cockles, opening lids and pulling putus from her steamer, peeling off their muslin wraps, shedding them like ectoplasm that she'd just plucked from the air.

Putu mould She made putu ubi from the meal of cassava, she made crumbly putu from finely ground rice flour; and then for the discerning few, she made putu halba that came out piping hot in their fabric wraps, yellow as the fenugreek that she'’d mixed into the rice flour. Before they cooled down she stuck on each a little square mat of banana leaf before placing them on the tray. The mat kept them from sticking to each other when packed together, six putus or seven to the ringgit, in a newspaper parcel that you clutched and hastened home before the coming of the next downpour.

Putu is, I believe, a Tamil word for cakes made from peanuts or rice flour. In Trengganu we have extended our putuspeak to embrace the fenugreek and the cassava, but largely the putu convention is still observed because our putus are still generally flat, and generally crumbly in nature.

For some reason when we travelled to Besut we always came back with stacks and bags of their putu. There were putus the size of twenty sen coins, there were white ones and diamond shaped, and others were made to look like they were the foliage of mythical trees. There were round putus that fitted snugly into your palms, that crumbled and settled immediately in the bottom of your glass of hot Milo. Putus were dunk intolerant by nature and came with patterns passed down from many generations that were carved into their wooden beds of putu moulds. These were the putu beras and putu kacang of Besut, and another that came with the curious name of putu kua.

Mök Möh made discs of moist putu that sulked and curled when left out in the cold. These were steamed putu not baked, that came unadorned with embedded flowers or tendrils.

Picture: Old wooden mould for baked putu.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In the Eye of the Beholder

When the Sultan Baginda Omar boarded the East India Company's patrol ship Phelegethon in Kuala Trengganu harbour on 5th April, 1846 — 160 years ago today — there was uncertainty about the status of the settlement, if it was a town or a village. An entry in the ship's log read: "The town or village of Tringanu has a very pretty appearance from the river."

The south bank of the Trengganu river was lined with houses 'for a couple of miles', the writer of the ship's journal noted. They were huddled close together, on stilts ('piles'), and in the background, between that and the coconut groves, were two hillocks. One, on which 'the standard of Tringanu is hoisted on great occasions' was no doubt Bukit Putri. This was where Baginda Omar set up his fortification after defeating his nephew Sultan Muhammad Shah I (Marhum Télor) in 1837, but by the time of the Phelegethon's arrival he would have already moved downhill, to a palace built on the site of the palace of the ousted Marhum. There Omar met his subjects, dispensing advice, punishing those who transgressed by strict application of the Shariah law.

On the north bank of the river were only 'a few isolated houses' hidden among coconut groves.

The ship's Captain, Ross, visited the Sultan the previous day, carrying with him a letter from Colonel Butterworth, Governor of the Straits Settlements. That same afternoon Ross received at his ship bullocks, fruits and cakes, I'm not sure from whom, and what cakes, I wonder, were chosen to represent our fledgling little town.

The Sultan arrived at the Phelegethon on his schooner Naga (the Dragon). He appeared to be a humble man, unimpressed by the finery of this world, a quality inspired probably by the humility of his namesake, the Caliph Omar. But the journal writer described him (and his entourage) thus:
"The Rajah is a fine looking man, very plainly dressed in a sarong, white baju and a black velvet jacket slashed with gold thread, very shabby and worn out. His body guard was composed of twelve Malays, armed with krisses, and each man carried a drawn sword in his right hand; they looked like a filthy set of rascals — in dress they do not differ from their rabble. The heir apparent is a fine lad, about 4 years old, and was carried about in the arms of a follower, who kept close by the side of the Raja."
Fifty three years later, in 1899, we have a glimpse of yet another Sultan, Zainal Abidin III, the man who took over from Omar's successor, his nephew Ahmad II, who passed on only after five years on the throne.

It was during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III that the British started active intervention in Trengganu's affairs, and imposed on the Sultan the man Humphreys, Trengganu's first British 'adviser'. Sultan Zainal Abidin benefitted from Baginda Omar's far-sightedness, the period of prosperity continuing under his rule. He was reputedly the man who stopped the extension of the railway line into Trengganu, because, he said, it would open the floodgate to decadence. He was a pious man, but not without a sense of humour.

W.W.Skeat, a British administrator and anthropologist, was granted an audience with Sultan Zainal Abidin on 25th October 1899. He described him thus:
"He appeared to be about 45 years old, with open, not unpleasing features and a slight moustache. He possessed more dignity, and seemd to be more at ease, than the other Sultans whom we had seen. He was dressed in a loose, cream coloured jacket, a sarong and white trousers of the usual pattern. On his head he wore a black songkok, in place of the elaborately folded head-cloth. On entering and again at the end of the interview, he shook hands with us in the European fashion. We conversed seated on bentwood chairs on the dais of the balai. While we were and cheroots were brought to us. The Sultan began by asking our names, and making certain personal enquiries. Then he discussed several general topics, a little remotely perhaps, but he certainly seemed interested in our comments on the wild animals of the districts we had visited...Throughout, though quiet, he showed an original mind and a shrewd sense of humour.

"This was the Sultan, who when asked why he did not provide free rice in his gaol, as the other Sultans did, replied that if that were done in Kuala Trengganu, the entire population would clamour for admission. It was also said that he was once asked why, with all the wealth at his disposal, he did not pay off his debts; to which he answered that so long as he remained indebted, his affairs and his health would be matters of some consequence to his creditors, and he could be sure that they would pray sincerely for his continued survival."
Sultan Zainal Abidin III was in fact 36 years old then. I have always imagined him to be a deeply religious and bookish man (even during the conversation with Skeat he called for Wood's Natural History, to help illuminate their conversation about wild animals), but from his conversation with Skeat I see another side to his character that Skeat failed to appreciate: that he was a man not without a sense of irony, the Trengganu art of nngayor.