On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Friday, November 30, 2007

Music of Decay

Last night I dreamt I went back to the old tamarind tree in the bend of Jalan Kolam, and this is what I saw:
Istana KolamBroken bits of gamelan tunes blew in with occasional sweeps of the wind, sad lamentation of times past reaching out to the here and now, Pök Mat Nöbat in his younger days, stooping in his later years to re-beat the tunes on the gamelan Trengganu; it was there that the first notes of the Trengganu state anthem were sung before the Sultan Sulaiman, by students picked from the nearby Sekolah Paya Bunga; the scholar-saint Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong was summoned there when the peasants took up arms in the ulu (but it is not clear if the man did go); and here the gamelan instruments were lost and found, and then revived when Pök Mat was summoned from the side of his cauldron of nasi minyök in his shed and shop, with his coterie of ageing courtiers, to channel the music that was playing in their heads for so long once more, back into the gamelan glockenspiel. How this fine old istana went into neglect and disrepair remains a mystery.

Like the face of clocks, floppy, curled and clinging to the ledge and branch of a dead tree in Dali's Persistence of Time, melancholy hangs here in deep shadows and its movements watched by ghostly eyes peering through dusty panes of closed windows — at patches gone grey in the earth and grass untrimmed and gone to seed in the soil; distant leaves of the keladi fringing this sad, haunting decay. "What does it all mean?" someone asked of Magritte, of his paintings that were hard to fathom. "It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable," replied the old master.

This is the sad end-note to the Istana Kolam, one of the surviving istana of wood in Kuala Trengganu, in Kampung Kolam. I used to see its balai through a gap in the fence in the bend of the road when we walked from Kampung Tanjong to the Masjid Putih, past the huge, ghostly tamarind tree, past the house of Mr Isaacs of the Grammar School, past the quaint old-style house of Pak Long who made ma'ajun (a pastille of herbs and stuff for the weary male), and then the shop of a kindly man named Babu of the Paul family on the right side of the road, and a huge house stood across from there, at the junction of two roads, home of Che Mat Riau, another illustrious character of Kuala Trengganu.
Istana Kolam
Old Istana, better days...
The balai was even then quite bereft of soul, the istana in sad neglect, and grass was growing wild and children were at play wherever children played when they were left to roam free. To my regret, I never ventured into its grounds, fearing ghosts past and peering eyes from dark corners. Behind the istana was a vast, old burial ground of unknown people.Ceiling roseIt is sadder still now, for even the above is no more. A friend once wrote to me to say that he saw bits and parts of the Istana Kolam laid out in a car boot sale. Now, another friend has sent me this picture of what appears to be the 'ceiling rose' [see picture, above] in the old istana. What light that shone from there is probably now dimmed out in some ghostly corner, snuggling with the spirits and the sounds of old Trengganu.

Now they are planning to re-build the Istana Kolam in another place, in Duyung probably. Duyung is a farway place across the water with its own niche and history, but it is here that the old istana should be rebuilt as a heritage centre. The authorities should reclaim this land, and rebuild it here, and return the Istana Kolam to its own soil.

See also:
Singing for the Sultan
Music in the Rubble
Man at the Istana

GUiT News
GUiT at the Singapore Writers Festival
GUiT will be launched by Monsoon Books at the Singapore Book Publishers Association Book Launch at the Writers Festival, 7th December, 6 pm, in the Earshot Café/Bookshop on the ground floor of The Arts House. I hope to be there to read a few lines from GUiT and sign a few copies. See you there!

Read reviews of GUiT by Tunku Halim, Lydia Teh, Elviza, Tengku Ali Bustaman (Pok Ku).

Probsthain BookshopIf you are in London, Growing Up in Trengganu is now available from Stanfords, the travel bookshop in Long Acre, Covent Garden and from Probsthain's @ Great Russell St., WC1 (opp. the British Museum; see picture, left) and at their branch in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS (London University).

Latest News:
In Kuala Terengganu GUiT is now available @ the shop formerly known as Keda Pök Löh Yunang (now Alam Akademik, 12 Jalan Bandar, Kuala Terengganu).
In Kuala Lumpur: Kinokuniya, Times bookshops, and MPH.
Elsewhere: You may place your order on-line from
Kinokuniya or MPH
"A beautiful book, very well written and with its vignettes of life it tells so much about the Malays - far more than one can get from academic studies."
— Frederick Lees,
author, Fool's Gold; The Arthuriad; The Rape of Rye; etc.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Under the Weather

Looking out of the window now in these northern climes, to fallen autumn leaves on wet ground and the day in haze through rain-smeared window panes; spray-filled air under a massive, dull dome of clouds, I am reminded of the season of jo'ong.

Jo'ong made no burdens on our idle minds if there was the right food for thought. Normally it was ubi kayu in a pot of water with a dollop of salt, left to boil until the starch in the tapioca softened and its centre core took the cooked tapioca sheen of pearl and its thin spindle in the centre could be pulled or spat out. From the steaming pot it is taken out and laid onto a plate, beside a heap of sugar or coconut shavings mixed with salt. Mother sometimes threw a cooking banana (raja embong or bakaran) into the fire that was boiling some other noon-time dish in the belanga earthen pot. From out of our market-facing window we could see the upstream people (li. orang darat) running in the thin threads of rain that broke into splatters on their samir, a stiff cape made from dried leaves of the pandan, but for comfort in the weather they carried with them teh tarik piping-hot, in thuribles made from emptied condensed milk cans that had a ring of raffia attached as finger handle to their tops. Jo'ong was sad as it sounds, it was the monsoon, darkened sky, gusts of wind, and rain for weeks on end.

Rain came from everywhere, but in monsoon days the sea beat lashes of waves that foamed in the mouth, like mad dogs roaring and rolling on the sand. Bits of our Tanjong would be eaten by the sea, houses sometimes fell off the edge, water was our life and death, bloated cows washed down the river by mighty floods upstream, sometimes dead people came to rest in our Teluk, grey from days of being soaked in the flood. There were tree trunks and broken boats, and roots and waterlogged grass and tendrils and the buah gomok, a dark flat seed the size of a baby's palm, fallen from mighty trees somewhere in the interior, deep and hidden, parts that we only dreamt about on still, dark nights.

Kuala Trengganu had more people during on a monsoon day than when it was bright. The fishermen were snuggled in their bright sarongs on their veranda at home, kerepok makers were loitering about in search of work, sailors came ashore for fear from being thrashed about en route to Senggora, and Wang Kamang, our perahu besar man was among us, grounded by the winds and rain, ambling about in the kampung, this man who was seasoned by years on the ocean waves, his life showing in his rolling gait.

Sometimes the sun peeked out and the fresh brightness in the air cheered us a lot. Umbrellas of green waxed green paper were kept aside, trishaw pullers pulled back their rain-sheltering hoods, even the puddles were glittering and merry along the road side. Beneath our tall house were lines of damp washing that had hung there for days; Mother looked out of the window to the market to see if there was fish to be had to break the monotony of green leaves and blanched banana spadix (jantung pisang) dipped in belacan, or the occasional chicken that we occasionally culled from the cackling gok (coop) among the tall stilts beneath our house. Father came home from work in a thin plastic raincoat that came with a peaked cap, and then he folded them — hat and coat — into a rectangular plastic bag once shelter is reached. On the way to school, in the covered teksi (trishaw) of Pöaut;k Mat I heard the croaking of frogs as we passed the rain-lashed view of the marshland along Jalan Paya Bunga oppoiste the padi field now barren in the rain, on the edge of the village under the trees.

Our headmaster Mr Wee Biau Leng used a referee's whistle to attract attention, but in this rain-soaked weather it sounded dull and damp. We walked into class, socks drenched and hair dripping with rain and Brylcreem.

GUiT News

The Travel BookshopIf you are in London, Growing Up in Trengganu is now available from Stanford's, the travel bookshop in Long Acre, Covent Garden.

In Malaysia, it is available at Kinokuniya KLCC, Times bookshops, and MPH. In Kuala Terengganu, at the Popular Bookshop and maybe even at the Pok Loh Yunang bookshop in Kedai Payang.

"A beautiful book, very well written and with its vignettes of life it tells so much about the Malays - far more than one can get from academic studies."
— Frederick Lees,
author, Fool's Gold; The Arthuriad; The Rape of Rye; etc.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

GUiT Night

Good People!

It is the early hour of Thursday morn. We have just got in and eaten a portable kebab (is there any other?) picked up on the way home after a signing session at a Malaysian-owned hotel in the heart of London (yes folks, London's got a heart!). Late night yesterday we signed twenty copies of the book, and then, in the heat of the thing, we signed five more. They were all Terengganu (as is) people and friends, and we were indeed honoured by them all. What a way to end the day before we were kebab-ed into another.

I'd like to thank all you good people who have reported from the shops and made enquiries here and there, and thanks especially to Iskandarsyah for the most amusing report from the front-line on the GUiT guerrilla warfare on the front lawn of a Malaysian bookseller. My friend A.H from Damansara Heights went to his Times bookshop for a copy of GUiT, and of course he could not find GUiT there, so he bought a book by Salleh Joned instead. Never mind, A.H., old S.J's a mate of mine and I'm pleased to be indirectly contributing to his coffers.

For all your kind words and support here and there: thank you, thank you! But I must mention drbubbles whose remark touched me greatly:
"I believe GUiT is never much about Terengganu. It transcends geographical barriers or even regional culture."
I would like to respond to all your inputs someday but for the meantime please accept my grateful thanks: I love you all. (Please see below for more comments by you good people.)

Thank you for all your invites for talks, I shall see what I can do provided you're within 300-mile radius of Hyde Park Corner. And to the kind person who asked yesterday, yes, we might do another get-together in London soon, and please ask your friends to email us if they'd like to come too. At the moment we still have more orders than we have books in the UK, but with a bit of luck we'll have a dozen or more copies within the next few days. But if you're within 300 miles of KL and are still looking for my humble book, please do speak to your bookseller.

COVER NOTE: Many people have asked about that splendid looking house under those coconut trees on the cover of GUiT. Well, I've had more than one confirmation that the photograph was taken in what used to be Kampong Paya (Trengganuspeak, Ppaya) in Marang, Trengganu. The latest to come in with such confirmation is my friend the talented Trengganu artist Chang Fee Ming, and he should know for it was Marang that inspired him in the early days of his career. Thank you Fee Ming, and thank you to Encik Hadi for telling me that your in-laws used to live just a few doors away from there. Kampung Paya is, alas, no more.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Shipping News

Dear Readers,

Although I have said it many times before I shall show you now my appreciation once again: thank you very, very much for your support. My book Growing Up in Trengganu has climbed to a modest 10th position in the MPH Malaysian Non-Fiction list, and many enquiries have reached us here in London from all over, from people who could not get it in their bookshops. An eco-tour operator from Trengganu emailed to ask where to buy 5 copies, a friend on his way back to London who wanted to buy several copies was directed by a KL bookseller to their Putrajaya outlet where they had 3 copies on the shelf, but Putrajaya being further to some than Trengganu, the friend decided to chance it at the KLIA bookshop on his day of departure, and of course he was disappointed. He was told sniffily by the bookseller at our gleaming new international gateway, "We don't stock books by local authors, no siree we do not!"

We kept a small stock here after enquiries came from France, Germany and those United States, but now — as you can see from the sidebar — we too are out of stock. But even if we aren't we cannot, unfortunately, ship to the United States as the cost is too prohibitive, so I shall have to ask my dear friends over there to cease and desist until Amazon (hopefully) receives their stock. Someone from Johor Baru said she couldn't obtain copies there, and last week a sales assistant at a branch of MPH (we shall not say where, but not in KL) said he'd not heard of the title even if it was No. 10 on their Malaysian Non-Fiction list. Because of the reluctance of bookshops to stock an obscure title by an obscure author about an even more obscure state in the Malaysian peninsula, Growing Up in Trengganu has probably chalked up more enquiries than sales, and I shall accept that as an honourable distinction. But if you're tired of enquiring from the outside and would like to see the book in your shop instead, please contact the publisher Monsoon Books and tell them where you'd like to see it stocked.

Meanwhile, the latest sad note comes from the glorious house of MPH yet again (this check was made on 7 November, so please don't take it as an abiding truth):
"This item is currently out of stock. We will endeavour to deliver it as soon as possible..."
Perhaps we should all turn to eBay now and try our luck.

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