On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Little Old Town

Walter William Skeat, an anthropologist who visited Kuala Trengganu in 1899, was impressed by Sultan Zainal Abidin III's urbane humour. From his library the Sultan produced Wood's Natural History to pick out 'some of the beasts we were discussing'. And then, looking out at Kuala Trengganu, Skeat said, it was 'a hive of industry'.

The capital was composed of many kampungs and the shops
“were well-supplied with bread, light beer, soda, cheroots and similar European wares, as well as with an extensive assortment of Malay goods and, above all, Chinese and Indian articles. The streets, except around the istana, were ill-kept and destitute of drains. Yet even here the local talent for craftsmanship showed itself clearly in the well-built bridges across the creeks. We also saw a few wooden lamp-posts, which must have been unique among the east coast states at the time of our visit.”
Skeat would have seen Kuala Trengganu very much as it was seen below, in a photo taken nine years before his visit and published in the Illustrated London News.Kuala Trengganu, 1890In 1846, during the reign of the illustrious Sultan Baginda Omar, an anonymous visitor gave a description of Kuala Trengganu that wasn't far removed from the photo that we see above. Looking from the river, the visitor said, the town of Tringanu
“has a very pretty appearance...the houses line the south bank for a couple of miles and are built very close, on piles; in the back ground are two hillocks, on one of which the standard of Tringanu is hoisted on great occasions, and behind the hills is a forest of cocoanut trees; on the north bank there are a few isolated houses , built in groves of cocoanuts.”
The Kuala Trengganu of the picture above was the Trengganu of Sultan Zainal Abidin III, and of Tok Ku Paloh, one of Trengganu's many scholar-saints. Hugh Cliffford, then British Resident in Pahang, met the man and was apprehensive about the rabble-rousing speeches that he directed at the natives. Tok Ku Paloh was, in other words, a totally unreasonable character who was dead against British rule. This 'saint', he said (and you can almost sense the sneer here), 'lives secluded in the retirement of a shady, sleep-steeped village.' He was 'powerful, magnetic...a little, shrivelled, glassy-headed man from out of whose deep-sunken eyes there glares a soul of a fanatic.'

Looking at the photo now, more than a hundred years later, I think I can still recognise the houses and the boats in the water, but is that really Bukit Putri in the background with what looks like the fortress above? Are we looking from Pantai Teluk, or is this a view form the river? What do you think?

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Friday, February 22, 2008

17. How to...Ccamèk

It is a well-known fact that ccamèk is an intrusive, hand-in-someone-else's-handbag word. You cannot do it to yourself and risk losing your sight, but it is an obsessive, intrusive act nevertheless. More people are destroyed by ccamèk acts than by self-indulgence, because ccamèk reveals more about the person so possessed than about the object of his or her intrusion. A ccamèk never has enough within his reach.

Unlike a busybody who intervenes often, a ccamèk has a smaller and safer remit: being just a tinkering lass or lad. A ccamèk touches a leaf and cries ouch! and gets told off for not keeping his hands in his pockets. Here he — let's say it's a boy — is normally young in age, and the person telling him off is an adult bothered. ”Yang tangang mung ccamèk to ba'ape?” he'd probably be asked, in between his bawling noise. “Why can't you just keep your hands somewhere safe?” A busybody is normally of maturer age, but besides this age difference, there is often an element of malice aforethought in a busybody that a ccamèk has not. A busybody would poke into the rose bush to see who's doing what and with whom on the other side. For a ccamèk touching the bush is the state of the art.

Tangang and ccamèk go hand in hand like Neil Diamond and Sweet Caroline (“Touching you, touching me...”) but the affliction can be expressed without the touch. An unexpected comment, an unsolicited word, saying things out of turn, causing much anger or hurt, are ccamèk acts. Mulok ccamèk, in other words. It results in sobs or fisticuffs, a fist sandwich into the mouth, a chilli to genyèh the offending lips. Now gènyèh and tènyèh are shoving words: gènyèh a chilli into a face, tènyèh a face into the crowd. Like ccamèk they both reach out.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Land of Our Grandfather

In a way, it was grandfather who laid the foundationTok Wan to the Madrasah Sultan Zain al 'Abidin, next door to the first school that I went to, Sekolah Melayu Ladang. I was not yet then of schooling age, but Father had a friend who was a teacher, so he got me a place in Sekölöh Ladang in a class that was an outhouse parallel to the road. Not being on the school's register I had my own privileges, like going to school in my own time of day, but even this privilege did not shield me from the 'dresser' in white who came to school to give us all a BCG jab on the shoulder, where I carry a scar to this day.

Later Father found another friend among the teaching staff of the Madrasah Sultan Zain al 'Abidin, the Arabic school next door, so needless to say, he found me a place there too, under the watchful eye of Ustaz Lob, and a man who, as rumour had it, fell off a camel during his Middle Eastern university days who went by the name of Ustaz Yahya. I was useless in Arabic, and even more clueless when it came to reading the texts. But I remember one line from their Arabic reader, “Thahaba fellahin...” [The peasants went...], they went to a place somewhere in Egypt, but I can't remember where, and I remember marching in the mornings in the quadrangle, and quaking when the mudir (headmaster) Sheikh Mahmud Bakarrafie' appeared in his black songkok and his chosen colour of white from neck to toe. I also remember the Saturday afternoon cinema club of Ustaz Imbab, then — and for a long time — the town's finest calligrapher. I surreptitiously quit going to the afternoon Arabic school when my 'real' school in the morning, the Sultan Sulaiman Primary School, sapped more energy from me than I could get from my early morning roti bata; but it wasn't a year before Father found out, but when he did he simply looked at me more in sorrow than in anger, knowing that I was not cut out to be an Arabic scholar.

What I didn't know then was that when I stepped into the Sekölöh Arab and marched in pairs on its quadrangle, I was stepping on land that once belonged to Tok Wan, my grandfather. Tok Wan was a man of many parts — a scholar, a traveller, a magistrate, court registrar, and District Officer. Among his many teachers when he had travelled the length and breadth of Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu to seek instruction were Tuan Haji Abdullah of Losong and Tuan Haji Muhammad Shafi'ei of Kampung Nyiur Kembar. Tok Wan @ ground breaking ceremony MSZA
Tok Wan [standing, walking stick in hand, extreme left], at the ground breaking ceremony for the Madrasah Sultan Zain al- Abidin, Ladang. He appears to be addressing the crowd. Standing directly opp. him, looking down, is Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah.

Grandfather had given his land in Ladang for the Arabic School as a way, perhaps, of returning what he had owed to Kuala Trengganu. Madrasah Sultan Zain al 'Abidin in Ladang is of course the grandfather of all those educational institutions in Trengganu that now bear the name of Kusza.

I remember very little of grandfather even though we saw him in Besut most school holidays. He was an aloof man who suffered no fools, and he had constant visitors coming to see him in his house in Kampung Raja. My brother recently wrote to say that he remembers Tok Wan having visitors who stayed long into the night to hear his take on the kitabs or to read a qasidah with him, perhaps the burda. I remember listening to him in bed, as he led the family in dawn prayer when we went there, and the sound of spray from his lips when he gave his singing birds their early morning shower. And then I used to watch him sit by the window as the day got brighter, when he read his Utusan Melayu. He had a collection of krises and badiks in the house, and other things that I find hard to relate to him: a couple of peti nyanyi and assorted music on vinyl, though I never saw him wind up the gramophone or talk about the vinyl records or hum a tune of R.Azmi. Looking back now I don't think they were his at all.

Tok Wan was born on 21 December 1885 in Pasir Putih, Kelantan. His mother was born in Kampong Atas Tol in Trengganu, into a family that had settled there to escape Siamese persecution in Patani. When the then Sultan of Trengganu took an interest in the woman who was later to be Tok Wan's mother (she was, apparently, an attractive lady) the family once again packed their belongings and sought refuge in Pasir Putih. There the woman that had caught the Sultan's eye was married to Wan Ibrahim, Tok Wan's father.

*One film they screened was “Hawk of the Wilderness”, it played for many weeks, in many chapters.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Memories of Grandfather

Grandfather (Tok Wan) had singing birds, Tok Wan a hand-rolled leaf cigarette between his lips and wisps of thin blue smoke rising in curls around his ears; in his head he probably held more stories of his life than there was news in his daily Utusan Melayu.

We had Tok Wan standing in an unidentified place in a huge portrait on our Tanjong wall — a black and white portrait under a patina of dust of many years. In the Besut of his base, there was another Tok Wan up on the wall, standing in a clearing that backed up to some lush undergrowth, expressionless as he was in our Tanjong portrait, but there were hints here that at some point in time someone had tried to colour the shrubs in green and yellow and the red of the Besut kesumba. In his white dress uniform of the Trengganu civil service he stood more aloof than the character that we knew, but his expressionless face must have concealed many stories from an itinerant past, and events that must have shaped many distinct pictures in his mind's eye.

Tok Wan had been a travelling man, as I've come to know, and unsurprisingly, a peripatetic scholar who had accumulated many kitabs in his bookcases, and in the drawers of his table. This trait he must have passed on to Father, whose cartloads of kitab my family members recently rescued from the anai-anai of Kuala Terengganu. In his lifetime Tok Wan had followed a zigzagging student's path from Besut to Kota Baru to Kuala Trengganu, then to the Patani of his ancestors, and then to Kota Baru and then back to Patani and then back again to Kota Baru. On Sunday 15th Nov 1908, nine days after Id ul Fitr, he hung his songkok and opted for a more sedentary life as clerk to the Shari'ah court in Kota Baru. It was the beginning of his long and chequered career.

His dress uniform was no doubt worn in the service of Trengganu. He was Registrar of the district court in Besut in 1915 and rose to become magistrate in Kuala Trengganu before moving on to the acting magistrate's post in Kemaman in 1929 (three years before Winstedt went there). From 1931 his career took a different turn — he became District Officer of Batu Rakit and Merang — and it was from there, I think, that he cut a different dash, the gleaming white suit and the fancy hat that we saw in the portraits on the family wall of the family house in Besut, and in his other house in Tanjong, Kuala Trengganu. He became DO of two other Trengganu districts, Kuala Brang and Marang & Mercang, before finally withdrawing from public life in 1937.

In this picture [above]that a family member has sent me from an old newspaper, he takes on a different turn, he is seen with a dress sword, which — I hope — he never drew in anger. We never saw him in this full regalia of dress uniform and embroidered hat, and official collar whenever we visited him in Besut. Tok Wan was, to me, a stern man with a wry humour, with his haji's turban and the Malay baju over his sarung pelikat, and his face and grey moustache became luminous when he sat in the light coming in from the window, as he read his kitab or the Utusan Melayu.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books of the Old School

Many books that I sought in Malaysia have disappeared. I was looking for Za'ba's 'Ilmu Mengarang Melayu' (The art of Malay composition) which is now out of print, and then someone reminded me of an English schoolbook that told in words and pictures, stories of everyday Malaysian characters like the 'Kelentong Man', the street vendor who attracted children's attention by the 'kelentong' sound of his bell. I remember going through the book many, many times, picking it out from my uncle's desultory collection in our Tanjong house. One day in class I stood up and introduced the 'kelentong' man during our English lesson, and was of course laughed out of court by my classmates and our teacher who was not privy to the delights of our street-vendor bell-ringer.

In London I was fortunate to have picked up a very interesting copy of the Canai Bacaan from a second-hand bookshop. I say interesting because as soon as I picked it up, a note fell out from its pages, in the Jawi and Rumi hand of one Encik Abdul Rahman bin Haji Othman, to one 'Tuan Guest', asking for an appointment to be deferred. (If you have your GUiT you'll be able to see this on page 294). And then, recently, in Kuala Terengganu, while talking to Tuan Haji Yacob bin Abdullah al-Yunani, the last surviving son of our Haji Abdullah Tung, better known as Pök Löh Yunang (of the Bookshop fame), he reminded me of another old school text-book, the 'Julung Bacaan'. I only remember this one very vaguely, but would venture to add that it was probably in the 'Bacaan' series of which the 'Canai' was one. Tuan Haji Yacob made me sit up when he said that Abdullah al-Yunani (Keda Pök Löh Yunang), arguably the most famous bookshop in Kuala Trengganu, sold handwritten copies (literally) of the 'Julung Bacaan' in its salad days. The copyist, he said, was his elder brother Muhammad Nor.

When I arrived in KL last December from the Singapore Writer's Festival (where GUiT was launched) I was soon taken to a merry wedding kenduri hosted by father of the bride Encik Yahaya bin Muhammad Nor, son, as you may have guessed, of the scribe who made the Julung Bacaan widely available in Kuala Terengganu when it was not yet a City on the Water and the Monsoon not yet a celebrated Cup, but a fearsome wind that blew. I was fortunate to have met so many members of the al-Yunani family, including our Pizzaman, whose wife is also from the Tung dynasty.

NOTE: En Yahaya Mohd Nor reminds me that Julung Bacaan was the book that introduced many students to Jawi.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

To all my Chinese readers:
New YearHappy New Year!

Light by the Window

I am grateful to my second cousin Khairil Skymmar for the photo below, of the Besut house that I wrote about in GUiT ("Light By the Window", p.96). It is my grandfather's house in Kampong Raja, Besut, that is now still ringing with the cries and shouts of little children, and of my grandfather's voice leading the early morning prayer, of the murmur of adults sitting down to recite the zikr, and of Ayöh Ngöh telling us tales of Pok We. The house may be silent now, but there are noises still coming from afar.

Besut House
The window that my grandfather sat at is in the middle, but it is closed now. There were birds chanting songs from a cage outside the window (see GUiT, p.297, but also p.59) that broke the stillness in the air of Besut, but the birds have all flown now.

And I thank young Khairil for the picture.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

eMail alert

Some people have received emails purportedly coming from me. They normally land in their bulk mailbox, carrying strange, incoherent text in the subject line. Please do not open the mail if you've got one: delete it immediately.

I do not send out bulk mail, and I rarely send out emails to anyone except in response to theirs to me. When I do, the subject line will refer to the subject you used in your mail to me, or something that you will instantly recognise.

Please be warned.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Makang Belang Jjalang No. 2

You must be in a different place if you're sitting, not breaking a stick of kayu keramat, but nibbling on Jaffa cake with tea. The contrast is that it is colder here than in monsoon-swept Tanjong Pasar, but then it was wetter in Kuala Lumpur than in the blessed city of Kuala Terengganu.

We are now re-adjusting to our daily life of work, Monsoon Cuppaand it has been more than a month since we launched the Monsoon Cuppa at the Abdullah Al-Yunani bookshop (Keda Pök Löh Yunang) in KT on Christmas Day 2007. Since then GUiT has gone into its 2nd printing and more than five thousand copies have been sold in London, Malaysia and Singapore. It is totally unexpected and I want to thank you all.

I had a great time doing the campus tour that took me to the newly born University Daruliman Malaysia (UDM) in KT, to the Universiti Sains in Penang, and the UIA and UITM in Kuala Lumpur and Shah Alam respectively. The response was tremendous, especially at the UDM when the normally shy students (females mostly) cheered everytime I lapsed into Trengganuspeak. At UIA two students from Bosnia came up to get their GUiT signed and then said something that really touched me. The response was similarly enthusiastic in Penang and in Shah Alam, and I hope I have fired them all with enough enthusiasm to read and then to go on and write their own books: as I repeatedly told them, if I can do it, so can they. But it pained me to see them dip into their own pockets for GUiT, even at a slightly reduced price. We had approached a few corporate bodies and monied institutions to make a bulk purchase for the students at a smaller price than what they paid for their boardroom tables, but corporate and monied people must be extremely busy because none answered our call.

The state of Terengganu did though buy for people who attended the do on the river that was attended by some 300 veterans of Terengganu. They were all very enthusiastic, and answered my call to plan with wisdom and to respect our heritage by standing up themselves to make the same call to the Menteri Besar who was present in the hall. But what troubled me was a YB who said afterwards that “we must get rid of the eyesore” because “eyesore” means different things to a property developer as to people who have lived there for generations and breathe its air and relish its history. And looking at the direction of works you can have a rough idea of where things are going now. But I must record here my thanks to the Terengganu government, especially to its Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, for the support given to us — and which, to their credit, was given without strings — while we were on the GUiT trail. And I want it to be on record too that I have misgivings about the way “planning” is bulldozed so hurriedly in Kuala Terengganu.
* * *
I mentioned kayu keramat that delightful Trengganu stick known to us English speaking lads as 'holywood'. On the West Coast it is called by its Chinese name of charkoi. In Trengganu this deep-fried 'wood' is eaten neat or dipped in sugar, and I've seen folk dunk it in their coffee or tea.Pok DaudHard, week-old kayu keramat has many uses, you can use it to petong at your herb-eating goats, for one, if repeated cries of bok! bok! fail to move them, and then you can leave it aside for the ants to kerik and see them ferry little grains of kayu keramat to the place where ants keep their store. But whatever it is you don't expect the kayu keramat to come calling on you, so imagine my surprise one morning when I woke up in Kuala Terengganu to see our minder Pak Daud outside my cousin Mi's gate with a bag full of keramat (enchantedness) stuffed in a plastic bag hanging from his motorbike handlebar.

My friend Sara Paul could not be at our Kuala Terengganu reunion as she died tragically young, many years ago. The Paul sisters — all Trengganuers to the core — are now scattered, there's one in Penang and a couple in Kuala Lumpur. The latter, to my delight, came to my book-signing at the MPH in Mid Valley, but it is about Mary that I want to tell you now.Mary PaulI was taken to Mary's house by her daughter Marina (a distinguished journalist in that fair isle) and Lily, the grand-daughter of another fine GUiT lady, my Mök Mèk of the ceranang and kerepok lèkor fame behind the Chee Sek bookshop in Kampung China. Penang never rang with Trengganuspeak louder than on the day I met Mary; she reminisced about the wonders of Trengganu and reminded me once again of the many people and places of our old KT, and then, as I was l leaving her I saw a little something that really touched my heart's cockles: there on the gate of Mary's Penang house was stuck a little black and white flag of our Terengganu! ”Kita orang Teganu, mestilah!” she said. But that wasn't all. Her daughter Marina told me that Mary could not just stop thinking of Trengganu but insisted on having it before her in black and white, so she painted their old house in those colours.

I think I heard a little sigh of relief from the adorable Marina that they are no longer living in that little quarter.

GUiT Footnote: You'll be pleased to know that our Mök Mèk is alive and well and is now living with her daughter in Kuala Lumpur. She is all of 102.

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