Published in the Star on 29th September 2007, this article is special to me because it talks, in parts, about my maternal grandfather Ang Tooi Cheng – or Ah Kong, as we children called him.
Grandpa is the tall, slim gentleman in white in the middle
Ah Kong was well known in his part of the world, not just because he ran a rubber business, but because he was a live wire of a man who had a hearty laugh and an even bigger heart
I’ve copied the full text here because the old link to the article doesn’t work anymore.
What is Karai? On paper, it’s the name of a one-street town 43 km away from Ipoh. But in the larger scheme of life, there is more than meets the eye. Alexandra Wong takes you on a tour of her maternal hometown through pasar pagi and memory lane.
Last night, Mum announced out of the blue, “Tomorrow we are going to deliver mooncakes to your maternal uncle and auntie in Karai.”
I love road trips, but there was one other reason to be excited. Tuesday was pasar pagi day in Karai!
Upon arrival, Mum hurriedly hauled tupperwares of mooncakes into the house. I would usually trail behind and make small talk first with my relatives, but the siren call of the pasar pagi proved too strong for me.
Snatches of memories drifted through my mind as I navigated through the maze of stalls.
There were about 40 or so stalls, beginning from Cross Street (Karai’s main artery), which spread over into adjoining lanes before tapering off into kampongs. With less than 500 households, Karai is not a big town. From the crowd that came out in force today, you could tell that the morning market was a big deal.
It was easy to see why. The morning market sold an amazing assortment of things, from dried salted fish to lastics to umbrellas to freshly ground coffee. It was a buffet of sight and smell for the senses, all dispensed with a generous dose of humour.
When I stopped to aim my camera phone at a vegetable stall-holder, he sang out, “Aiyo, amoi ambil gambar ah? Esok keluar Berita Harian. Bagi semua orang bising oh! ” (Lass, taking pictures? Tomorrow coming out in Berita Harian. make sure you inform everyone oh!)
Small townies are no Luddites, no sirree.
I stared to walk away, giggling at his remarks, when Mr Vegetable Stall Owner’s neighbour decided to join in the fun.”Esok masuk surat khabar Nan Yang Siang Pau. Lelaki misteri oh!” he hollered good-naturedly, pointing at his friend.(Tomorrow enter Chinese paper Nan Yang Siang Pau. Mystery man oh!)
When I began writing this, I intended it to be an affectionate look at the town I spent many childhood weekends at. Halfway through, I realize Karai is a lot more than that. My maternal hometown has shaped my outlook and character in more ways than I imagined.
A question I always get is, “Why are you so enamoured of small towns?”
When city slicker friends read my stories about Sungai Petani lah, Seremban lah, Kerteh lah, they laugh at me for being insular and call me parochial.
“You should write about something glitzier like, say, the opening of The Pavilion, not some obscure 1000-strong population hamlet that almost unfailingly elicits a “Karai where?”
I had the same mindset once.
As a kid, whenever visits to Karai came up, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the car, a la a trussed-up kidnap victim in the boot.
One was simple vanity. I had a whole battalion of eagle-eyed aunties, who were more efficacious than any weighing scales. One critical sweep of their rim-framed glasses and they could tell me with deadly accuracy, “Ah Yun, have you been eating a lot?”
My other beef was rubber.
You see, my grandpa ran a rubber business. Every morning, the rubber tappers delivered fresh supplies of latex and deposited them at the front of the house. If you pinched your nostrils, the fresh latex might just pass off for an especially humongous block of Bleu Cheese, while the machinated ones might be mistaken for giant cuttlefish curls from afar, but the resemblance stopped there.
We would go in the morning freshly showered and sweet-smelling, and by the time we reached home after sundown, our clothes and hair would stink to the high heavens.
Vanity-deflating once-overs and rubbery reek aside, there were some things that would be permanently lodged in my memory. Like my Grandpa, for instance, five foot nine inches of wiry frame and a booming voice that could rival Pavarotti on a good day.
The one thing I could remember with crystal clarity, was how he seemed to have friends everywhere. I suspect it had much to do with his larger-than-life personality as well as his flair for languages. He could speak fluent Chinese, Malay and Tamil. The affinity for languages was passed down to my uncles too.
In fact, many of their Malay and Indian friends were trilingual. And because everybody was so tanned from working outdoors, it was sometimes impossible to tell which race was which, not that it mattered in the small towns. They had better things to do, like making an honest living.
On our way out of Karai, an idea occurred to me. “Mum, do you know where I can get the statistics of the population of Karai? Maybe I can do a write up about small towns.”
Mum suggested the local municipal. So our next unlikely detour was The Sungai Siput Municipal Council, which Karai is parked under.
Turned out that the officer in charge used to stay in Karai too, when he was young.
“Karai used to be quite an important town in the old days,” he recalled. “You know the river that runs through it? People used to take boats and trade actively. And the train station, which has since been closed down, was also very active. The train still passes through it but doesn’t make a pit stop any more.”
The town where my mother was born, one which I had never felt much attachment for, suddenly assumed greater significance in the bigger scheme of things.
After exchanging more notes on Karai, the officer sent me off with the promise, “I will try to hook you up with some of the 80 and 90 year old folks. They can tell you a lot more stories than young people like me.”
Dad had once said, “We have a lot of things to learn from the small town folks. They are happier because they lead a simple life, free from stress and worry.”
At this stage in my life, I would gladly be called a small town girl.