Folk who Live on the Shore

Dec 07, 2009

A Malaysian author remembers the people who lived where the land met the sea, before Trengganu became Terengganu.

The coastal edge of our part of town laid flat against the sea's edge, with strong winds blowing in our face for most of the hot season and then the long blasts of the monsoon gale during the end of year, that brought in lashes of spray and the roar of the sea in turmoil. Bukit Putri stood like a paperweight over the thin green of Padang Malaya, and distant coconut trees in Tanjong Mengabang waved and curled in the blowing wind, as the market of Kedai Payang became just a blur in the pouring rain, oblivious to the flashing beacon on the hilltop that winked to ships at sea.

Sometimes our tall house swayed a little in the incoming storm, when the nipah roof over our kitchen became entangled in the swoop of the wind to let in lightning flashes from the rumbling sky. We were all at the brink, a part known to us as Ujong Tanjong, the edge of land and the beginning of the sea. On calm days, folk stopped at the coffee shed of Köhéng and then later, Wang Ndok's, on the calm edge of the lagoon that stood between us and the shore. On calm days, Che Ngöh Buloh sank his feet in the brackish mud, to make rafts of sasök split bamboo that were widely used in Tanjong as fencing material. Bamboo and mud and heaps of dark grit left by mud skippers in this playground of the ikang ddukang (belukang to posh folk from Western shores), a fish with a sharp needle standing proud on its dorsal; fish and bamboo and skippers and mud all worked together to give this part a peculiar pong that became the stenchmark of these bamboo weavers.

We had many artisans in our Tanjong, but Wang Ndok was our artist who, one calm night just after Hari Raya, stood on the stage specially built on oil barrels on the shore and surprised us all with his performance of a modern homespun melodrama. Later in life, soon after Köhéng had put all his thick tea cups and saucers into a box and into storage, Wang Ndok surprised us all again by exorcising the thespian spirit from his body and filled into the gap a penchant for tèh. He sold tèh tarik and pulut lepa and beleda set in little glasses, and kopi-oh and Milo in a steaming mix of condensed milk and sugar in his shed of corrugated iron on the shore.

This was the back-end of Tanjong Pasar, which is no more, where our kinsman Kör played marathon matches of dam (draughts) with friends and complete strangers on the low veranda of his house, and stopped only when the cockerels came out to crow and the fishermen were pushing their boats out into the red glow of dawn at sea. His younger brother Mat returned from there long before I became aware of anything, and then he was out there not as a fisherman but as a man of the merchant navy. Much later in life, when he was still gadding about in the khaki shorts of his maritime life, he came to live under the front stairs of our house, a corner that he shared with uncle Retnam, lime pickle-maker extraordinaire and retired linesman from Father's Telecoms Office near Jalan Banggol.

... when I was taken on a tour there by Cikgu Wan Chik, my school teacher from Sekoloh Ladang, I saw sad faces and derelict houses, and a society uncared for.

Che Ngöh and Kör and Mat and Retnam and Köhéng have long left us, and recently I heard that Wang Ndok too has been taken from this mortal coil. But bits of Tanjong are still there, flapping in the wind that is now blowing less fiercely, but still pinned to the earth, nevertheless, by the weight of Bukit Putri. A large chunk of Ujong Pasir had dropped into the sea aeons ago, and recently, when I was taken on a tour there by Cikgu Wan Chik, my school teacher from Sekoloh Ladang, I saw sad faces and derelict houses, and a society uncared for.

The Trengganu (now Terengganu) government that is flush with oil funds has no plans to improve their lot or keep them there and let them thrive where Wang Ndok once trod the boards, where Che Ngöh Buloh made his pagör sasök and Köhéng poured out cups and cups of tea. Where Mat the sailor came home to shore, where Pök kept his hardware shop, where Kör played dam till folk with goods came from the ulu.

They are even now awaiting the hour to pull down these houses and break down these folks on the shore and then move them all as far away as possible from the sea; and then let in Starbucks and megamalls and car parks and the rumble of 4WDs and tourists in their silly hats that will frighten away the ghouls that are still clinging to the ghostly roots of ancient trees.


This post was originally published on Kecek-Kecek.