On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fallen Off the Back of A Car

A man who calls himself Raja Muda sent me his observations on our moving times (New Straits and our post-modernist era). What a sad twist of irony if what he foretells comes true: when bits and pieces of the old Masjid Raja in Chendering will turn up in a Sunday market in the boot of a car. Our reality has become a sad self-devouring monster, of men with huge wads of cash paying themselves and their contractors huge sums to demolish our old parts and rebuilding anew, in the style of the old parts that we’ve just mown down. But in Kuala Terengganu the monster has itself become a monstrosity when we’ve demolished the warisan of Datuk Amar and built on the desecrated ground an Ottoman style market for the buying and selling of our treasures.

I know the old Kampung Datuk well. A man lived there who was the funniest man I knew in Kuala Trengganu. He could do magic tricks and draw pictures with a scrawl and a scratch and a dash with some wavy lines here and there and together they morphed into a smiling crocodile. He tore bits of paper and woof! they merged again into its original whole. One night he came to our house and I gave him a piece of savoury akök that had gone funny. He took one bite and left the rest on the side of his plate and smiled. I only discovered the truth when I took a bite from mine and spat it all out in a ptooi! and how we laughed over it all. Pak Mat or Pak Awang was a descendant of the Datuk Amar, Trengganu’s Man of Oob (see GUiT p. 285) and he, like the Pied Piper had a group of the Masjid Abidin’s children in his trail. He rattled off one day what sounded to me like a long tirade in the sing-song style of Trengganu Hokkien and then admitted that it was just a long litany of Chinese shop names he’d committed to memory. Father called him Che Awang King George because — I thought — he bore an uncanny resemblence to King George V, but recently I met the son-in-law of one of Pak Awang’s schoolmates and he had another story to tell. You can see Pak Awang, by the way, as the young lad standing behind the right edge of the board in the farewell photo of the Sekolah Arab Bukit Jambul (GUiT, p. 96). There was the Victory Clinic in Kampung Datuk, built in the old Trengganu ‘Gedung’ style of bricks and mortar, and there was a narrow lane that led up to the residential quarter that reminded me of the kasbah in Algiers.

All that is gone now of course. They could have preserved some of the interesting aspects of Kampung Datuk if they had wanted to, but heritage is a troublesome place, far easier to demolish the whole and then pour out fresh mortar to build anew – in an old mock-heritage style. But here’s the extract from that letter from Raja Muda:
”I've not read the NST for a while since I think the new management is bastardising the paper. The story of the demolition is not without its irony, since under the ECER plan, they're giving KT the moniker of Bandar Warisan Pesisir Air. The architects are already drawing up huge air-conditioned complexes with faux singgora tile roofs and carvings.

“The real warisan is being edged out, the old houses, and perhaps soon the original people to make way for the glossy, gleaming sanitised vision these people have. All I can say is, I will be vigilant, lest pieces of the mosque appear in a car boot in this part of the world. What we cannot save in totality, I guess we must rescue in bits and pieces. Just as the Zaaba book or the old sheaves of Utusan Melayu someone throws away, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Perhaps pieces of old Terengganu will find a loving home elsewhere.”
Anonymous [see Comments, below] is right of course. The old now demolished car-booted Masjid Raja of Chendering was the favourite mosque of the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, grandfather to the present Yang Di Pertuan Agong. Tuanku Ismail very rarely made an appearance at the Masjid Abidin in Kuala Trengganu on Fridays because he preferred the old Masjid Raja. (Perhaps that's how the Mosque got its name). I saw him at the Masjid Abidin once though, when I was going to the marja’ house after the afternoon 'asr prayer. I saw him looking at some Chinese workers working on the unfinished mausoleum that — many years later — became his place of burial.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Heritage Is Just Some Dead Wood

We are one by one tearing down our precious heritage – the latest act of vandalism was in Chendering of the lovelorn song, a picnic area for us town-born kids, and home of the Masjid Raja. The last was the subject of this latest mindless act: the Masjid was pulled down by a demolition squad sent in by the authorities, just as the Istana Kolam was, in recent times, when officialdom sent in the hackers and the wreckers and took yet another bit of our past. They will re-build Chendering beach too into a mile-wide 'heritage' pedestrian McMall to keep up with the times if they can find purchasers for the load of sand that’s scattered about, but you just wait, just as they had to sell an old piece of Masjid Raja because there were no takers - was the Trengganu Museum asked? - when it was just lying there amid broken bits of old rubble and shattered bits of carvings and glass, and the tearful remains of old Trengganu, they too will sell Chendering beach to the highest bidder to make way for concrete.

The gem that has emerged from it all is this glib quote from a man purporting to be the State Religious Affairs Department Commissioner — and I shall give you his name — he is Datuk Shaikh Harun Shaikh Ismail. And this is what he said (as reported by the New Straits Times, but I’m putting back the quotes):
”I am not aware of the history behind Masjid Raja.”
The man has so many titles he should be given another one, but I shall not stoop so low as to name it.
Demolition of Masjid RajaThis brings to mind an old Irish Earl (of Galway?) who burnt down an old ecclesiastical palace. When asked why, his answer was pat: “I thought the Archbishop was inside!” In our case the Religious Commissioner would have said, "I didn't know that History was sitting in there, mate!"

Well, so farewell then Masjid Raja, you were just an old mosque with some unique design features and was the house of Tengku Seriwa Raja Tengku Abdullah who bequeathed it to the people of Chendering for their place of worship. Mosques can be built with a ton of bricks and money from the state coffers and by hefty contractors all ready for the job. The new mosque will accommodate 2,000 people, said our state panjandrum; so two-thousand reasons then why the old Masjid Raja should be demolished.


Photo: New Straits Times

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Baubles and Buffaloes

A bluff man with a spring in his step, and he walked with the sway of someone used to marching in the square. His speech a mixture of local parlance and the tongue that we called ccakak luör. And then his gleaming white baju, crisply starched and laundered, shone in the Trengganu light of the noon-day, and he stopped to chat with us — ever the glint in his eye — in the back of the Masjid Abidin that was our gathering place whenever I followed Father to the midday prayer. And then, hoarse in voice but with the clarity of speech that was not in the character of Trengganuspeak, he jested with us kids, and raised his hand — and I’m not sure now if it was his left or his right — to show the stumps of his fingers.

He was, he said, Pak Omar Kudong, the man who waved his stumped fingers on the steps of the mosque in Kuala Trengganu. The missing bits, he said, were lost in battle with Communist terrorists as he waved them again, the kudong parts, the stumps, with pride. I myself preferred to call him Pak Omar Polis, but not quite Mata-Mata, the old-fashioned word for the uniformed brigade in those funny hats with a little black rambutan on top who guided the traffic and arrested petty criminals. Pak Omar Polis lobbed grenades, shot firearms and got shot at, and went home with digits missing in his fingers.

Then one evening on the old playing field of Paya Bunga we looked up to the stage platform built on some rusty oil barrels to see Pak Omar hamming away with a transparent bottle filled with the golden liquid of teh-o. He was swigging away in gay abandon, and muttering and spluttering something incomprehensible, feigning to be in an alcoholic stupor. I could not believe what our Pak Omar of the Masjid was trying to be, even if he was just play-acting a drunken actor. He was too much the Masjid man to me by then, and he was a hero with stumps for fingers.Buffalo and hyacinth
I think Pak Omar lived in Batas Baru, a police enclave with barracks, and a little patch of green, and a row of shop houses that contained one we knew as Kedai Babu. Babu was a little man of slight build, who was always in his sarong pelikat as he carried out his trade in this backwater of Kuala Trengganu that was part-bucolic and partly humming with the bustle of petty traders: the provision stores, a bicycle shop, a Chinese coffee shop where the locals gathered. At the other end of the road, where it sloped gently down to the padi fields before taking a bend into a little village shaded by trees, was the residential quarter of our school. From this moody gloom under the canopy of hefty merbau trees came the glittering sunlight that made merry on the baubles of stone on the choker and earrings of a formidable cycling lady whom we all knew as Mah Babu.

Batas Baru was another world to us born in the breeze of Tanjong Pantai where no chokered ladies cycled bedecked in stones in the afternoon light or the air filled with the murmur of speech of the police-uniformed orang luar, the outsiders. But this was the world of Pak Omar, and Babu's son Hasan Gemok, and Mr Hamid our school teacher, and water buffaloes that tilled the land and of marshland and dragonflies flitting over water-lilies and purple water hyacinth that hid leeches beneath their shadows.

Recently, soon after GUiT hit the shops, I had a very pleasant surprise when a gentleman — now very senior — whom I wrote about on page 113 as the person who, one night with Father, filled the air of our surung with Morse Code signals, wrote in to tell me what he remembered about Father. And then I asked him in a subsequent eMail about Pak Omar, and he said oh yes, he remembered the man vaguely and if he wasn’t mistaken, the man whom we knew as Pak Omar came to Kuala Trengganu with a group of travelling actors but he stayed on to become a local in Kuala Trengganu.

It brought back to me the night in Paya Bunga, and the amateur dramatics on a now forgotten occasion, and the cold tea swigged from a bottle.

Photo of water buffalo among the water hyacinth from here

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