On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Saturday, July 29, 2006

2. How to...Kuör

Golfers, like Glen Miller, know the swing, but they do not know the art of kuör. In 1836 when Abdullah Munshi took a peek at Kuala Trengganu, alarm bells rang in his head when he saw knife and spear brandishing men walking up and down the Kampung Laut thoroughfare, which was near the latter Jalan Pantai. It scared the s**t out of him and filled he was with much trembling when he hastened back to report to Tuan Raffles. This was nothing to us, and no one — as far as we know — got hurt from it, for this was just the art of kuör . As evidence shows, you could, if you would, kuör with almost anything: a long stick, a smudged spatula, a piece of driftwood or a bit of broken broom handle. But for best effect, it is better to kuör with something menacing, like a long kris or a spear adorned with a knotted bandana.

There is evidence to show that the kuör went beyond 1836 and was there to fascinate Admiral Cheng Ho when he came with the monsoon winds to Trengganu and sailed steadily upriver. Kuör is waving with menace with an element that is almost lakadaisical. But that is downgrading kuör to a leisurely art, for kuör is that and a little bit more. It is difficult to judge the intention of a kuörer, whether he means hurt or is merely swatting a fly, but woe betide the person who thinks that the kuör is incapable of serious thought for kuör can be a pleasure per se (which is kuör properly so called) or a prelude to some serious damage to dentistry (the opponent’s normally) or the areas lying below the navel.

The essence of kuör is in the beholder much as brandishing is useless if done in camera. But there’s a difference between a person who’s doing the kuör and a man who’s merely brandishing a stick, say, for in the latter the stick is a mere protrusion but in the kuör is transference of kinetic energy from the doer’s mind to the paraphernalia, moving and swishing ever so slightly, or in full motion as it were.

It’s bad form to kuör in front of elders, and/or especially your mother-in-law, even if it’s just your roti kaya, waved to climax an exciting story. Kuör if you can, to keep your opponents safely at bay, but the opposite of kuör is lik, which is a form of evasive action, and he who successfully liks a kuör will live to fight another day.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Air And Space Law

Kite flying was no hazard in our day, save for some cut fingers and the dangers of a stray diver falling sharp-end first onto our heads. The wa as we called the kite, was a temperemental object built around two delicately honed bamboo sticks, bound in the shape of a cross, the tulang belakang being sturdier than the cross-piece bahu shoulder. The secret apparently lay in the art of timba (standradspeak, timbal) where, with a bit of string, a deft hand and a paring knife, and not to mention a sharp eye, equilibrium was found just where the string is able to hold the stick level.

Needless to say, this was a Friday afternoon activity done in the lambong, after a meal of chicken curry and maybe, as it’s Friday, nasi minyok and acor. There was a mood of relaxation as the sun beamed from an angle on a Friday, when the Tanjong market quietened from the bustle before the noon prayer, and the Bangsawan di Udara pouring forth its heroics from the power of our steam radio. A gentle breeze blew in from ujong Tanjong which now is sadly buried under the depths of the Kuala. This was the kite-lifting breeze that made spirits soar and brought crest-fallen faces to many a child as of all the kites that I knew most were characterised by their reluctance to fly. Head-cooling wind as father used to say, though not in reference to kites but to the soothing effect of standing in the wind on a hot day with head just shorn and doused with the juice of a limau.

Though Kelantan is better known for their kites, Trengganu too had had its heyday. In the 1920s, in the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah, one Noel Rees,* an education officer in the colonial service in Trengganu quoted from Proclamation No. 17 of the Government of Trengganu (translated into English, he said, by the British Adviser):
”Be it known unto all men that owing to the danger of injury to persons using the public road, on or after the date of this proclamation, the practice of flying kites, large or small, with tails or without, is strictly forbidden in this town of Kuala Trengganu. Any person found disobeying this proclamation may have his kite confiscated by the police and taken to the police station.”
These were no mean kites that Rees had seen, ‘beautifully coloured and in all shapes and sizes’ requiring ‘two persons to get them off the ground’.

There were probably more kite flyers than there were roads in Kuala Trengganu in those days. According to Rees there was only one, with only the occasional bullock cart coming through. I find it hard to believe that Kuala Trengganu even then was a one road and one bullock cart town, though I suspect this would have been what is now Jalan Paya Bunga, conveniently close to the police station, where many kite-bearing men would have been taken in on a breezy afternoon by Pak Mat Mata-Mata. Statement taken from Mok Joh: “Ambe dok jjalang ko’ tepi takdi tiba-tiba wa jereguk jatoh ddebök atah ppala, habih bicuk ddamör!”**

Proclamation 17 had probably gone into desuetude in our day, as I remember kites merrily flying in the air of Padang Malaya of an afternoon, with or without tails. These were kites in friendly flight, tossed into the air by little boys and pulled into the air by another, running against the wind at the other end of those long kite-strings. On shore, where the wind was stronger and the air more competitive, stray kites flew adrift, their string flying their short trails, severed by the gelah of a sharper foe. Gelah was described by Rees as ‘cut glass on the end of a kite to cut the string of the other’ but not ‘on the end’ as I remember but on the string itself, smeared with glue mixed with ground bits of broken bottles and, much as described by Khaled Hosseini in Afghanistan in “The Kite Runner”. In Trengganu we sometimes increased the cutting edge by the addition of finely ground pearl glass of a light bulb.

* Noel Rees, "Tall Tales From Trengganu", Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol.LXIII, Pt. 2, 1990.

** "I was walking along the road just now when this huge kite fell on my head, and I'm all shocked and bruised now!"

Thursday, July 06, 2006

How to...

Beginning a new series:

No. 1. How to...Ök

Both fear and fortitude have given birth to ök which is Trengganuspeak for suffering against or with the odds. It sometimes comes with an element of rectitude, but ök is not always so valiantly clad. My brother once came rushing back from school with an attack of something terrible and had very little to hang on to but ök. Ök sent him writhing the distance home then left him at the gate, letting what it could no longer hold back slip out from inside one trouser leg. It was what we in Trengganu called the snake head which, had he been in his regulation school shorts, would have smeared a yellow trail down his spindly leg, of what he’d eaten and digested.

You have to put on a brave face to ök but as the face under the weight of ök resembles something close to a crumpled paper bag, it is this that sometimes defeats your original purpose as the person to whom you're directing your ök is as most likely to be repelled than attracted by your look. It is often said that ök is the public face of an internal pain, but it is a face that needs the attention of the lissome wench or nubile lass. This is because ök is proof of reliability and old-fashioned manhood, though this can lead to otiose acts. A Billy goat once bit off the Johnny that dangled from a boy named Aming, and he was so in pain that he chose to holler instead of ök. When he came out of the anaesthetic (and after his name had been changed from Aming to Aminöh) (s)he reasoned that it was just as well that he did that as he no longer had the manhood to justify the ök.

In the old days of the outside toilet ök became a necessary skill to learn as the petik mata or the silat pulut for the urge to answer the call could come writhing in the belly in the night as you tossed and turned in the dark. And as there were many spirits and things hanging out in the outside, it was far better for you to ök. But ök sometimes got thrown into the wind as a man named Pök Mud found out as he lay writhing and ökking in the night. When he finally jumped four a time down the stairs, propelled no doubt by a strong backrush and forces that tore down his ök resolve, he broke wind and his ök. Dök rök nök ök, he began to say, nök gi ccakong ddalang rök!" Poetry in motion it must be said, now it's come to that.

If you have to do the ök do it in a public place, not where it's bound to go wasted, like in your own bed in a room with the world unaware of it in the outside tumult. And needless to say, men more than women need to ök as women are made of sterner stuff, and suffer — mostly quietly — in the baroh or the rök.

Baroh: Padi field or marshland.
Rök: Overgrowth, bush.
Petik mata: A game played with a long and a short stick, requiring agility, skill, and the ability to run like mad and hide.
Silat pulut: A form of silat dance often displayed at weddings.

What Pök Mud said:
"I can't hold it back anymore. I must go squat in the bush."