On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More GUiT News

One night, many years ago, as I sat in the front part of our house, the surung as it was called, I heard strange noises and cryptic conversation. I wrote about it in GUiT, under the title “Dee Dee Dit - Dah Dah”, and the man with who was having this strange talk with Father amid the blaring cacophony was Pakcik Lockman, who appeared in GUiT on page 113.

Father, a Morse Code man in the Telegraph Office in Kuala Trengganu, was conversing with Pakcik (Uncle) Lockman in dots and dashes in the front room. These were heady days of technological innovation, when the blanket and smoke, and distant drums, and the cleft stick and carrier pigeons had all given way to copper wires and electricity, and telegraphy was tapped out in Morse to distant time-zones and places afar. I wrote:
”That night a friend of Father’s named Lockman was preparing to sit for his radio ham examination, and he needed Father to brush up his dots and dashes. Dee-dee-dit, dah-dah, dee-dit."
And then, to my great surprise, the past linked back to the present, and it came in an email. And this is how it began:
“...about a month ago I was in Kuala Lumpur. Before returning to Kuantan, my place for the last 48 years I had a brief visit to [my] brother R. Zainal. We had a short discussion about you and how you came to know about me and that I was preparing for my radio HAM examination. I told him that there were only two persons that knew about this. Ripeng, a police wireless operator and Wan Ali (at this time we still did not know that you are the son of 'Ayoh Wang' the man who always smiled when he spoke). My brother couldn’t remember your father. He remembered jovial Wan Daud, Wan Hussain, Wan Jaafar my neighbour, 'Wei Ayoh Ngoh Meroh' his classmate and a few others.”

It was signed simply, 'Pok Mang'.

Pok Mang was of course Pak Cik Lockman, Pok Mangor Raden Lockman bin Raden Saleh to give his full name. In a further email he sent me a black and white photograph of himself looking very much like a matinee star, from his days in Kuala Trengganu, taken, as he said, by Wan Mohamed bin Dato’ Perba, a photographer “who was staying near your house [near] Pasar Tanjong.”

Since the publication of GUiT (now into its 3rd printing) I have had many weird and wonderful experiences, been reunited with many old friends and made many new ones, and heard from quite a few people who told me how GUiT had touched them. But to be able to hear one’s own story once again, this time from one of its protagonists from times past, is a strange experience and a most satisfying one. So I would like to thank Pak Mang for having made contact. He is, I am pleased to say, still hamming it, and is most probably, at 85, “the oldest man [in Malaysia] still active in HAM radio” as he put it. And he’s sent me a cutting to show that from a recent newspaper. Raden LockmanAnd I wish him well.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Fleet Footed Sashimi

Mother was at the well when this happened, perhaps the highest leap she’d made in her short career. She was about to have a bath (perhaps a shower is more apt, considering that she was about to throw water on her person with the aid of a timba) when a Japanese soldier appeared in our fenced compound, sword in hand and eyes determinedly set on a fleet-footed fowl.

This would have been in the early forties, when Yamada-San was a trader in Kedai Payang and Father was working in the Post Office on Padang Malaya, under a Japanese Postmaster.

Our house in Tanjong was fenced by what we called the pagör sasök, woven from pieces of split bamboo, into rafts measuring roughly five feet square. I say ‘rafts’ advisedly as these sasök were made — well, during my time at least — by Wang Mang, in one corner of Pantai Telok that abutted with the back end of the Pasar Tanjong, the Tanjong market. Wang Mang would have had bamboo brought to him from God knows where, and he’d soak them in the brackish water of the Teluk, the bay area, for a couple of weeks maybe. The smell that emanated from the water-logged bamboo, and the mud of the Teluk and the mounds of droppings of waving crabs and the nasty ddukang fish and all that skimmed in that murky plain and its body of water was something rotten and sour and — to me — quite bambooey.

When the bamboo was fully pickled and matured, according to the judgment of Wang Mang (or his predecessor in those wartime days), he’d split each stem into three or four parts and then weave the parts from maybe ten or so bamboos into a broad raft that he’d stand against a wall or a tree nearby until it is ready and dry. Our compound must have been fenced in by probably twenty of those bamboo rafts, and on the wooden door frame in front of our house that faced the back of the spice vendors’ shops hung two doors of corrugated metal.

Mother was berkemban (Trengganuspeak, kkembang), which was the bathing suit of Trengganu women when they were at the well. To berkemban was to be attired in just one piece of sarong, pulled up and tied at armpit level to cover the main body but with shoulders and arms exposed. I do not know if she’d already started to pour water down herself when the Japanese chicken hunter appeared, sword in hand, but it didn’t take long for her to find herself on the other side of the fence, among the community of people at another well, that of the Surau Tok Sheikh Abdul Kadir. The climb from one side to the other was more than five feet high, and for mother in her kkembang it must have been a feat worthy of the sherpas.

I got this story from her many years later, and also from the people on the other side of the fence, around the surau. And I was thinking of this when I read about those armed-to-the-teeth Trengganu men who were walking around with throwing instruments and krises and spears pointing at all and sundry. [see, Arms and the Men (and the Working Women), below]. A sharp instrument pointing in such a menacing way is, in Trengganuspeak, ccadöng. Imagine a brave neighbour, say, asking of one of those men as he stepped out into the air, dressed to the nines and armed to the teeth — a kris or two in the waistband and knife and spear in hand, “Nök gi duane pisa ccadöng, lembing seranggöh tu!”

Now, seranggöh is another thing: it is protruding and dangling but not necessarily menacing, much like the baubles and branches of a Christmas tree.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Arms and the Men (and the working women)

Grandfather had badiks galore and one or two krises, though I never saw him wear any of them beneath the fold in his sarong or carry one or several in his hands when he went out to the shops. In his official photographs as the magistrate of Marang or Kemaman or Batu Rakit he wore a ceremonial sword with his dress uniform, though I was more fearful of the stern look on his face than the weapon in his belt. I never saw the sword in his house though, so it must have been taken, on a short lease, from our local version of the Moss Bros.

Father had a long sword that was his gölök panjang that he never spoke about, and I never saw him wave it in anger or in jest. It was hidden under his four poster bed, and on it were inscriptions in the Jawi script, written in dots, and I think it just said Kuala Trengganu, plus a date. Sometimes he wrapped it in a piece of rag, but when we were moving house, he wrapped it in many pages of a newspaper and sent it (together with our other belongings) to the Pahang Mail Transport Company to be sent to the faraway town of Kuantan where we stayed for a brief period. My late elder brother came home one afternoon when our things were all packed and cleared to say that he’d seen the workers hurling our family gölök like a javelin in the Pahang Mail compound. True to his word, when we saw the gölök again in Kuantan its pointed end had broken off in the form that we in Trengganu would call sumbéng.

When Abdullah Munshi arrived in Kuala Trengganu 170 years ago (in March 1838), he saw men who were not just carrying a mere short knife or the casual kris, but armed to the teeth as they were gadding about in the pasar area of Kampung Laut. "Each man,” said Abdullah, “carrying four or five throwing instruments, and a keris and a long sword; and that's all they do, walking up and down the street carrying their weapons."Armed to the teeth in BaliI thought Abdullah had just strayed into a rough spot of town and thought no more of that especially as it happened to be the market place. Mother used to call these rough elements our budök pasör, the street urchins who lived in our Tanjong market, but even then I never saw them carry a knife or even a stick. The only weapons wielded then in the pasar were by fierce looking men called the orang daging (“meat people”, i.e. butchers) and their instrument of choice was the short straight blade that we called the badik, that they pulled from a wooden scabbard kept beneath their waist band — always in the back, close to their spine — to cut the meat.

And then, while looking through my recently acquired copy (which is, alas, in poor shape) of Howard Malcolm’s “Travels in Hindustan, Malaya, Siam and China”, I found this passage about his visit to the town of Tringano :
” The population is about 40,000. The principal product is tin, of which they gather annually about 600,000 pounds. The men not only wear a krees, like other Malays, but often two, and sometimes a sword also; quarrelling much, and working little. Their women do most of the business, and Chinese work the mines.”
Howard was a missionary do-gooder who went out from his native America in 1835 in search of fresh fields to conquer and fresh natives to convert. He arrived in Calcutta and Hindoostan in September 1836, and in Tringano (which he described as “a champaign country, of low hills, producing a great variety of delicious fruits”) soon after that, just three years before Abdullah.

Who were these men on the wildside, walking with the clanking of metal in their footsteps and scaring the little kids of men and goats? Were they local vigilantes in the employ of the Sultan to keep the peace?

Photo: Armed men in Bali.

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