Story and photo by LEE TAI WAH
WHEN I was 12, we moved to Kamunting, about 4km north of Taiping, Perak. It was your typical Chinese village of wooden houses with zinc or attap frond-thatched roofs built close together.
The village’s Phui Choy Chinese Primary School has a football field and a basketball court – it was here that I learned to play basketball. My team was called Blue Stars and we would travel to nearby places like Taiping, Aulong, Pokok Assam and Trong for friendly matches.
At the other end of the village, behind Lorong Tiga, was a disused mining pond with waist-deep water overgrown with lotuses and tall grass. We used to catch fighting fish here as well as harvest a type of large clam with dark coloured shells that were about 20cm long and 10cm wide. We would grope for the hard shells with our feet and then dive into the muddy water to gather them. These clams were quite tasty and we could earn some pocket money by selling them.
|Nostalgia: The old cherry tree is still standing in front of Mr Ong's shop in Kamunting, but his Hillman is no more.|
Most of the villagers were either rubber tappers or workers on the tin dredgers. However, there were a few richer households which could afford a television set, a novelty back then, and you could identify these houses by the people crowded around the front door and windows when the TV was on.
Back then, too, almost all of us used bicycles. There were a few motorcycles around, like the Triumph, Norton and BSA, but only one car in the whole village – a black Hillman saloon owned by Mr Ong, the proprietor of a sundry shop in Lorong Dua. The car would be parked right in front of the shop beneath the outspread branches of a cherry tree.
I can vouch that Mr Ong was the most popular man in the village then, even more popular than our headman, Mr Tan, and it was all because of the Hillman. You see, all the villagers borrowed his car for weddings, funerals and any occasion that required transportation, like sending someone to the hospital in Taiping. Mr Ong was kind and amiable and never refused us when we asked; but he would refuse payment, so most of us felt that an angpow was in order.
The Hillman was never locked so sometimes, deep in the night when everyone was asleep, Peng Lai and I would steal into it and pretend to drive it. We would zoom around sharp bends and tight corners at breakneck speed, with the roar of the engine and the screech of brakes coming from our throats.
Back then, there was nothing much for us to do. We had no money so we could not watch movies or eat at the Casual Market in Taiping, known for its hawker food. So the group of us – Peng Lai, Mahadevan, Din and I – would spend our free time playing football and basketball and at night we would raid the fruit trees in the village for rambutans, guava, wax apples and jackfruit.
Peng Lai, three years younger than me, stayed in Lorong Satu and was my closest friend. Mahadevan, nicknamed Maca and the joker in our pack, was from Kampung Pinang and spoke fluent Hokkien. Din was the son of the policeman stationed in our village whom everyone addressed as “Datuk” but called Tor Pui Mata (the fat policeman) behind his back.
The policeman was a big man with an even bigger voice and he would diligently go on his rounds on a big bicycle night and day. But as far as I can remember, he never ever arrested anyone from our village simply because his booming voice would roar from afar whenever he spotted anyone of us up to mischief, so we had time to run away.
One night, after a “drive” in the Hillman, I was up in a jackfruit tree searching for ripe fruit to harvest, with Peng Lai keeping watch below. Just as I was about to pluck the chosen fruit, Peng Lai whispered urgently: “Tor Pui Mata is coming!”
I looked down and saw him turning into our road. It was too late to escape, so I kept still and prayed that he would simply ride by. To my horror, he stopped beneath the tree and asked Peng Lai whether he had seen me, Panjang Tailor’s son.
When my terrified friend said no, the policeman started advising him not to mix with me because I was a bad guy. He continued his tirade on how bad I was – always stealing fruits and getting into fights - and vowed to put me in the lockup if he were to catch me. He ranted for a good five minutes to a dumbstruck Peng Lai before going on his way, while I stayed frozen up in the tree.
On hindsight, I think he saw me but decided to give me a long lecture, indirectly, instead. Whatever his reason for doing so, I can only say: “Thank you, Datuk.”
One afternoon after school, I saw my gang crowded around the Hillman together with Corporal Chan, a soldier from a nearby army camp who lived in our village.
Peng Lai was blowing a bugle; he was holding it with one hand while grabbing his buttocks with the other. After he had finished and passed the bugle to another boy, I pulled him to one side and asked about his technique.
He explained that the corporal had told him that in order to blow the bugle loud and well, he has to block the anus with his hand! I collapsed with laughter and Peng Lai, who was at first puzzled and then abashed, ended up laughing too. When we left, the other boys were still waiting to blow the bugle, Corporal Chan’s way.
Time passed quickly. Din decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and left to join the police force. After his training in Kuala Lumpur, he became a probationary inspector and came back to visit the Kamunting Police Station dressed in uniform, forcing his father to salute him and call him “Tuan”. Mischievous Din later confided in me that his father warned him never to do that again.
Then the Kamunting Industrial Estate was estabished and Peng Lai and Maca, together with a large number of the young men from our village, found jobs in the factories there. The people had a little more money to spend and soon, almost all the villagers had TV sets in their homes.
Around this time, too, the Honda Cub motorcycle was introduced to Malaysia. As it was cheap, it became hugely popular and the ubiquitous bicycles soon gave way to these kap chais (as they were fondly called).
Later on, cars like the Volkswagen, Mini Minor and Honda Civic began appearing on our roads and these were quickly followed by Japanese cars like the Datsun, Toyota and Mitsubishi.
When I visited Kamunting village recently, the narrow roads were jammed with cars and motorcycles but at Lorong Dua, the shaded area below the cherry tree in front of Mr Ong’s sundry shop was empty. His Hillman was no more.
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