Darkness blanketed almost everything before us, save for the incandescence of an electric bulb escaping through the gaps of shut windows from the house on our far left. In its compound stood an imposing tree, its immense trunk and thick foliage was veiled in a shroud of black. Even in daytime, it always invoked a sense of unease in me. Towards our right, a fence of rusty zinc sheets hammered together towered over us.
The trail wound its way around houses built haphazardly. Construction debris, sand and gravel were dumped discriminatingly to fill up indents in the ground and also to prevent puddles from forming during the rainy seasons. It was the same narrow scraggy trail my mother had traversed many times every day. This time, it was different, though. There was urgency in her steps.
A few paces ahead, our next door neighbour led the way with a torch light in hand. She was a few years old than my mother. I was later taught to address her as tua ee, eldest aunt in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, although we were not related in any way. My mother and tua ee spoke little along the way. When they did, it was in hushed tones.
I could feel the thumping of my mother’s heart as I rested on her shoulder. Even in the coolness of the night breeze, her blouse was damp with perspiration. I was too exhausted to be bothered, my energy sapped by numerous episodes of diarrhea and vomiting earlier in the day.
From the narrow trail, we emerged into a wide open space and a crossroad. Before us, it sloped down towards Jalan Balik Pulau. The houses on both sides of the incline were mostly unlit. A solitary street lamp illuminated the road in the distance. My mother and tua ee made their way down one careful step after another. Certain parts of the trail were steep and slippery. A wrong footing could send all of us tumbling down.
Just as we were crossing the road at the foot of the slope, the whirring sound of an approaching vehicle broke the silence of the night. My mother and tua ee quickly ran and hid behind some cars that were parked nearby. They both crouched there, listening intently to the roar of the engine that grew louder and louder.
Google Earth image of Ayer Itam town and the route my mother and tua ee
took during the 1967 Penang Hartal.
Red – route that my mother and tua ee took
Blue – route of the lorry
A – the house we stayed in
B – the house tue ee lived in
C – the house with the big tree
D – open space and crossroad
E – car park where my mother and tua ee hid from the approaching lorry
F – Beng Chim Garden kopitiam
G – block of shophouses opposite the Ayer Itam bus terminal
H – Ayer Itam police station
J – Ayer Itam wet market
I peeked out from between cars and saw the headlights of a lorry as it passed by. My mother shushed me. The lorry turned the corner and disappeared down the road. It all became eerily silent again. Except for the illumination of street lamps, there was no sign of life in the entire town of Ayer Itam.
When all was clear, my mother and tua ee quickly crossed the road and ducked into a side lane between a kopitiam and a tailoring shop. Walking as fast as their legs could carry them, and me, they appeared at the other side of town opposite the bus terminal.
The shadows in the five foot way provided some cover for the short distance to the balai (police station). The policemen were surprised to see us. He scolded my mother and tua ee for breaking curfew and said that we could have been shot if we were caught en route. My mother explained that I was ill and needed to go to the hospital. The policeman made a phone call and then asked us to wait.
When a police jeep arrived, we were ushered into the back. Two policemen climbed in to accompany us. There were road blocks along the way. We were stopped several times. The people manning the checkpoints would shine their torches at our faces and then waved the vehicle on.
I remember my mother carrying me down from the back of the jeep at the main entrance of the Penang General Hospital. I still remember the dimly lit corridors and the wooden benches. I also remember the nauseating odour. I remember the nurses moving about in the darkness. My mother held me in her arms the entire night after I was treated. The next moring, after curfew was lifted, my father, who was away the night before, came to pick us up.
Three decades later, I asked my mother about that incident. All the while, I thought that it was the curfew during the May 13 riots in 1969. She could still remember clearly the harrowing experience that she and tua ee went through that fateful night. According to her, it was during the currency and coin riots. She did not elaborate about the causes and consequences of the events though. I had no idea when that happened and what transpired until recently when I read about the Penang Hartal of 1967.
In November 24 of that year, following the devaluation of the Malayan currency a few days earlier, businesses were closed as a sign of protest. It turned violent and racial when the different ethnic communties clashed and lives were lost. Curfew was imposed in Penang island and several districts in the mainland. Malay and Iban soldiers were sent to quell the violence.
I was just fifteen months old in November 1967. Although my memory of those times are sparse, every now and then, I would have occasional flashbacks of that night, like hiding behind the cars, the time in the balai and the dark corridors of the Penang General Hospital.
The toddler in me then could not comprehend the danger that my mother and tua ee put themselves through. As I reflect back now, I am thankful that my mother and tue ee risked their lives to seek medical attention for me. Thank you! They have both passed on. There is no way for me to express my gratitude except to share the story of their bravery here.
In the late sixties and early seventies, we stayed in a rented room near the Kek Lok Si Temple in Ayer Itam. The room was one of three in a wooden house with a big compound. There were three windows but only one was opened. It looked out into the compound. “Bar lay”, a raised wooden platform, occupied two thirds on the left side of the room. Mengkuang and straw mats lined the platform. Items that were seldom used were kept in carton boxes underneath.
A two-door wardrobe and two smaller cabinets stood on top of the platform. Our clothes and other important documents were kept inside these cabinets. The platform doubled up as our bed too. Mum would roll out the cotton-filled mattress when we were about to turn in for the night. After that, she would string up the four edges of the “bang ta” (mosquito netting) and we would crawl inside to sleep.
There was another small cupboard on the floor with a metal oscillating fan on top. We had our meals on a round foldable table which she cooked over a gas stove in the kitchen at the back of the house. Rice was cooked in an electric cooker in the room. Two formica chairs rested on the wall beside the table. That was for guests who visited us ocassionally. I know Mum had a sewing machine that she used to make pillow cases, bedsheets and pajamas, but I cannot remember where in the room she placed it.
Mum sought permission from the landlady to rear chicken, and sometimes ducks, too, on one corner of the compound where she built an enclosure. Just outside the enclosure, banana trees grow on fertile blackened soil. These were from burning garden debris – dried leaves, twigs and branches pruned from trees in the compound. She built the enclusore and coop by herself mostly, from putting up the chicken wire fence to building the rickety coop for the birds to rest in the evenings. The coop had a place for the birds to perch inside.
She also made the trough for the feed by sawing planks to size and nailing them together. The birds were fed with a mixture of corn kernels, oat groats, chopped green vegetables, mashed steamed fishes and finely ground chicken feed. The green vegetables and fishes were discards that the grocer would sell at a very cheap price. Sometimes, when she was tilling the soil and found earthworms, she would chop them up as well and fed them the poultry. The birds drank a lot. Mum filled up discarded glazed saucers with tap water for them.
The birds were fed twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. If there was leftover rice, they were added into the chicken feed as well. Once in a while, when Mum was busy with other chores, she would get me to feed them. It was not something I liked. The enclosure was full of chicken droppings. The yet to be neutered cockerels would sometimes attack me when I got too close to them.
The grains were bought from the sundry shops around the market, the ground chicken feed from the small livestock supply store beside the bridge over the Ayer Itam River opposite Swee Wah Mini Market. The medicine for livestock inside the store were arranged on shelves and made it smell like a hospital. The chicken feed were pre-packed in brown paper bags. She would buy two or three packets whenever she dropped by at the store. Otherwise, she would get them from the sundry shops that sold them loose and by weight.
The locals call the area around the bridge “keow thau teng” meaning the place above the bridge head. Underneath the bridge, on both banks, garbage from the market and houses along the river created an eyesore. There were animal carcasses, too. At the other end, on the same side as Swee Wah Mini Market, there were stalls selling curry noodles, hokkien mee and delicious Nyonya kuihs. I liked the kuih talam best for its sweet and salty taste, and pandan fragrance. On the opposite, there was a small stall selling uniforms, stationery and such. What I remember most about this stall is the bak hu (pork floss) that was kept in a huge glass jar. I would pester Mum to buy some for me everytime we passed the stall.
In the morning, vendors displayed chicken and ducklings in open top wood cartons on both sides of the walkway on the bridge. Mum would be at the market by seven when it was at its busiest. She squatted by the boxes, looked for the healthier birds, gently held those little yellow fluff balls and turn them over to determine their gender. I would squat beside her and tried to grab the chicken with my small hands. She would stop me. She said the chicken would die if I were to drop them.
The chicken cost 30 sen each, ducklings slightly more expensive. She usually bought ten at one go. The selected chicken were put in flat bottom paper bags made from newspaper. They would be struggling and chirping away inside. Mum would put the paper bags in her “chai na” and continue with her marketing. The “chai na” was a weaved bamboo basket, cylindrical with an arched handle. It was used mostly for carrying groceries from the market. These have since been replaced by plastic ones like those found in supermarkets.
The poultry were kept for festive seasons like the Chinese New Year and Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice Festival). There were more hens than cockerels. The hens were for meat and eggs. The cockerels were neutered to make them grow fat. They were called “eam kay”. When the cockerels matured, Mum took them to her father, my Ah Kong, for neutering. They would balloon up afterwards and slaughtered for extra special occasions like the birthday of an elder in the family.
The neutered rooster, called a capon, was also prized for its fat. “Eam kay eu”, as it is known, was removed and placed in a glass bottle before the carcass was washed to prevent contamination. It would then be preserved in salt and used as a lubricant to remove splinters in the skin. The few times I had stubborn splinters embedded in my hand, Mum would wrap the wound in the salted fat for a few minutes. The splinter could then be removed with little effort.
Mum slaughtered the chicken herself. She would slit the bird’s throat and let the blood drip into a bowl. The carcass was then soaked in a pail of boiling water. This made it easier for the feathers to be plucked out. Most of the entrails would be discarded except for the gizzard. It was supposed to be a delicacy – steamed, sliced, dipped in soya sauce and eaten just like that. I never liked the gizzard for its unusual taste and texture.