The march of commercialism is slowly changing the traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. Food that used to be served only during festivals are now readily available long before the occasion or even throughout the year. When I was a kid, Mum would make kuih bahulu just before Chinese New Year together with kuih kapit and kuih bangkit. Walk into any major shopping complex on any given day now and one would be greeted by stalls selling kuih bahulu freshly baked from the oven with the unmistakeable saliva-inducing aroma.
Festivals have lost some of their glamour not only because delicacies associated with them are no longer exclusive. It is the lack of busyness, anticipation and preparations leading up to the festival. The air of festivity was already felt weeks prior to the day proper but not as much anymore now. The once-a-year rite of changing the curtains to the ones used exclusively for the Chinese New Year; the making of paper cuttings to paste on gifts to friends and relatives, mostly on cookie containers and mandarin oranges; the spring cleaning on a day selected to be auspicious for this activity with bamboo stalks fastened to a long bamboo pole; the overflowing of groceries in the larder, especially items like dried shiitake mushrooms, fish maw, canned mushrooms and baby corns; some of these have disappeared completely from my life.
On one part, I lament at the loss of anticipation and excitement for the impending festive season I had experienced as a kid. On the other, I am glad to be still able to experience some of these traditions with Wuan and her side of the family. It is a good thing that Wuan still maintains some of these practices like sprucing up the house with auspicious decorative items, making sure that we shop for clothes to wear on Chinese New Year and generally trying to infect me with the excitement as the day draws nearer. For the past couple of years since we got married, I have been celebrating the the Chinese New Year, especially the “tuen nin fun” (reunion dinner) and “hoi nin fun” (new year lunch), in her hometown with her family. I am glad for these little blessings that still exist in my life. They are all I have left and I am going to savour these moments for as long as I can.
Long-tailed macaque of Penang Botanic Gardens.
My cousin Ah Huat is a few years older than me. He was a head taller and scrawny, and tanned from running around the kampung under the hot sun most of the time. We lived just a five-minute walk apart, near to the Ayer Itam market and Kek Lok Si Temple.
Ah Huat’s mother is Mum’s second sister. I call her Jee Ee. When Mum’s chores for the day were done, she would take me on the short walk to Jee Ee’s place. While the two ladies chit chatted, I would follow Ah Huat as he went traipsing with the other kids in the neighbourhood looking for adventures to while the day away.
Dad invited him to go with us to Penang Botanic Gardens one day. Dad parked the car at the usual spot opposite the Cactus House. Ah Huat and I scampered all over the slope the moment we got out from the car. Our squeals could be heard across the lush vale as we quickly worked out a sweat with all that running.
Dad and Mum hiked up a short distance to their favourite place under some shady trees and made themselves comfortable. From where they sat, they had a vantage point of the undulating terrain and its surroundings. There were not many people that day. Ah Huat and I had a free run of the entire slope.
A troop of monkeys appeared from out of nowhere. Their noisy chatter broke the serenity and caught our attention. One of them jumped onto the car bonnet and began playing with one of the windscreen wipers. Dad cautiously approached the car and tried to shoo it away.
The monkey stood on fours and bared its fangs. Dad started clapping loudly and then waved his hands to scare the monkey off. We watched in horror as suddenly, without warning, the monkey yanked loose one of the wiper blades and ran off with it. Ah Huat, who was nearest to the car, raced down from the slope and went after the monkey who had by then made its way across the road towards the river.
The rest of the troop scattered upon seeing Ah Huat charging towards them. I was close behind Ah Huat with Dad fast catching up. A few monkeys together with the one with the blade scuttered up a tall tree, away from our reach and raising a ruckus as they peered down at us from the branches they were perching on.
Dad grabbed some broken branches from the ground and hurled them at the monkeys with the hope that the blade would be thrown back at us in retaliation. The monkeys were too high up. They continued to peer down at us, occasionally waving the blade and screeching noisily, seemingly mocking Dad’s futile effort.
After what felt like a very long time with Dad trying everything he could think of to make the monkey throw the wiper blade down, he gave up. My neck was already aching from looking straight up. We walked back to the car, stealing back glances, hoping against hope, that the monkey would somehow throw the blade down.
The windscreen looked odd with the blade missing from the wiper arm. Dad checked the remaining blade to make sure it was properly secured. There was nothing else we could do. The thieving monkey spoilt the day for us. As Dad drove off, I stole a last glance at the monkeys on the tree. The culprit was still holding on to the blade.
The grassy slope at Penang Botanic Gardens where I used to scamper around as a kid.
The raw smell of grass – not freshly mowed but one that rises up from the trampling of small feet running all over – always reminds me of the Penang Botanic Gardens. I was five or six then. Dad drove all the way in and parked opposite the Cactus House. On the left was a field that gently sloped upwards from the road. An indentation was dug out from the edge of the slope to make it level with the road. A couple of garden benches occupied that space with their backs facing the steep grass wall that rose up to the field behind them.
I loved scampering all over the slope, chasing after or being chased by imaginary friends. Running up needed some effort but running down was the tricky one. I had to pace my little self else I ran too fast and could not stop when I reached the indent and tumbled over. Dad and Mum sat on the grass and watched me from a distance as I slowly wore myself out from all that activity. Sometimes, if we remembered to bring a beach ball, I would be chasing after it as it rolled down the grassy slope.
When I was totally drenched in sweat and breathless from all that running, Mum called out for me to stop. She was mindful to bring an extra pair of tee shirt and a bottle of water and left them in the car. She made me change out of the soggy shirt that stuck limply to my body. Then she made me drink from the glass cordial bottle that she filled with plain water. I sat with them afterwards, still catching my breath and picking out the pesky love grass seeds that had hooked onto my socks.
The sun was already obscured behind the tall trees. Branches swayed under the evening breeze. My nostrils were filled with the green smell of grass. I blew my nose but it still clung fast. Daylight was fading. It was time to leave. Mum ushered me into the car. The moment the car engine sprung to life, the overpowering smell of petrol choked my olfactory senses, killing all traces of grassiness in my nose but not the memory of the few hours of fun I had there that evening.