The Commoner And The Common Friends

It is Sunday. A day of rest, I get to sleep in. But, at the back of my mind, I know the chooks will be restless. They will want to get out of their coop and stretch their legs. Flap their wings, sing to the neighbouring kookaburras and excitable parakeets. Instead, I remain in my bed, beneath layers of crumpled moth-loved blankets and decades-old thinning quilt. It may be spring but the unseasonal heat wave conditions earlier in the week have retreated and surrendered to the cold Antarctic winds. The chooks will be more comfortable in their home, I reasoned with myself. My shadow self lost the debate, he too did not look forward to brave the cold. Moth ridden blankets still serve their purpose, there is no need to consign them to the bin, let us be kind to the environment. I did not have to wait for Greta Thunberg to evoke her thunder and lightning at us, the older folk. I have been using the “Save the environment” catchcry for all my life.

But, it is Sunday! He is also late.

“Time to throw away your singlets and undies. They are full of holes.” The shadow self hollered. “Nope, save the environment” I told him.

“Why don’t you update your wardrobe, ba? Sharp long collars are so out. Long before rounded collars were in.” “ Nope, save the environment, son.” I said with much conviction about saving the world.

“Heard of the latest QLED 8K big screen tv?!”, asked my shadow self. “You still spend your free time watching old movies on your old Panasonic Plasma tv!”, he mocked. “Look at the depth and detail 8K offers. Look at the vivid colours. It’s QLED, you know!” My shadow self loves all things modern, high tech and expensive.

“It’s ok. Let’s save the environment.” That was all I said. I did not bother to learn what QLED means.

Three Christmases ago, my son from London suggested it was time to change the carpets downstairs. “How about changing to solid timber flooring? The natural smell of Tassie Oak will be a welcome change.”

“Nope, save the environment, son.” I was quietly thinking more about the money saved than the planet’s well-being.

He pointed out that my house was beginning to welcome visitors with the previously familiar “old person’s smell”. Previously, my parents-in-law lived with us for many years until they passed away. Poh-Poh’s last breath was drained away by the emphysema she got from a lifelong habit of smoking. Gung-gung was forever strong until he broke his hips from a nasty fall. Euthanasia was illegal then, in 2002, and still is in South Australia. He was transferred to a palliative care unit where he passed away peacefully in the wee hours of the next dawn. When one is at that junction of one’s life, the issues are no longer quality of life versus longevity or right to live. It is no longer weighing up the burden of medical treatment versus the benefits of gaining it. It is not even about God’s will or God’s words. I am so glad Gung-gung did not hang around at all. Why endure immense suffering and pain at end of life? He lived a dignified life, it is only right he retained his dignity at death. I will want that for myself also.

Oh, the chooks!! Sorry, girls. I forgot to let you out! It’s 8.35 a.m. now!! “C’mon me ladies. Time for your breakfast.” I am a strict adherent of IF (Intermittent Fasting) but I do not impose it on my girls. They have a habit of lowering their body whenever I stroll by. Squatting low, Reddy’s underside almost touches the ground. She shivers momentarily as if expecting a sexual encounter. All she gets is a gentle pat on her back. “Good girl, Reddy. Did you sleep well, darling?” She has been stooping low at my feet ever since she lowered her guard about me. Always offering herself whenever I enter the chicken run, she wants to be straddled by a male. I should keep a cock for her, but the local council frowns at cockerels in the suburbs. My shadow self hopes she does not feel dejected by my rejection of her advances. I will only pat her back, that is the extent of our friendship. She knows I will never harm her. All my four ladies will never experience a black swan day. They should know this is always their home, till they die a natural death. Yes, with tender palliative care too.

Late in the morning, Chip, a good childhood friend, shared some food pics of his Nyonya dinner with some common friends in Adelaide. The Baba’s and Nyonya’s have a colourful history in Malaysia. The meeting and eventual merger of cultures between the early Chinese migrants and the local Malays enriched not only the cultural fabric of the society there but also impressively created a new type of cuisine. A Baba friend encourages us to keep using “Baba-Nyonya” for the Straits-born Chinese-Malays rather than adopt the more commonly used word for their culture, the Peranakans. Legend has it that in 1459, the emperor of China sent his daughter Hang Li Po to marry the Sultan of Malacca. The nobles and servants who accompanied her married the native Malays and they gave rise to the new class of Straits-born later known as baba-nyonya. Apparently, the term Peranakan is predominantly used by the Indonesians and later exported to Singapore. Last night’s party theme was to celebrate the baba-nyonyas. I imagine the women all went dressed in their best lacy see-through kebaya, with colourful batik sarong and manek slippers. The photo of the nyonya fish curry was mouth-watering but it did not affect my mood considering I was still on IF. But, when Chip sent me the photo of his wife’s Pulut Tai Tai, I couldn’t help but feel like a commoner. They were all our common friends yet I missed out on my favourite snack. Made of fluffy glutinous rice steamed in coconut milk, it is a heavenly dessert especially if you slather it with generous dollops of pandan-flavoured kaya (egg and coconut jam). Commoners miss out on all things exotic in life, including nyonya delicacies, that’s the hierarchical rule. When do ordinary folk without any significant social status get invited to such special parties? That is what I want to know, Chip. Urghhling.

Chip The Chairman

Pheasant For A Peasant

Ty-Phoon, a stellar student in High School, calls himself 大風, inexplicably oblivious to the destructive forces of the “Big Wind”. In regions from Hong Kong to Taiwan and Japan, autumn is notoriously their typhoon season. I did not want to sound inquisitive to ask him why he would voluntarily associate himself with death and destruction, suffice to conclude that at some moment in our lives, our dark side escapes from our deep psyche – our “shadow self”, as Carl Jung called it, and this is his time. A self-described peasant, he shared a photo of his lunch today. A scrumptious plate of rice with shiitake mushroom, long beans and fish curry; I was surprised he called it humble. “Humble?” I asked. He reasoned that due to the recent confusion between austere and frugal, humble seemed a much safer word to choose. “You sound like a self-described peasant who dismisses his meal as paltry when feasting on pheasants.” I could not resist remarking. In the old days, the wealthy landowners threw lavish parties; formal entertainments accompanied by big feasts which invariably included roasted pheasants. On one such occasion called the Feast of the Pheasants, the Duke of Burgundy invited noblemen to a banquet, with the purpose of organising a crusade against the Turks who had overrun Constantinople in 1453. Pheasants were not for the peasants. Ty-Phoon would say I am just blowing up a storm in a teacup. Pheasants today are farmed mostly for sports. These birds are pale cousins of those in the wild. Born and bred in compact surroundings, they are cruelly debeaked to prevent cannibalism from aggressive behaviour brought about by the crowded environment imposed on them. Once these “flight birds” are released into the “wild”, they are easy pickings for the wealthy members of exclusive hunting clubs. They see man as a source of their daily meals rather than their eventual killer. The rest of the farmed birds called the “meat birds”, are destined for posh restaurants and eateries. Either as meat birds or flight birds, these pheasants will inevitably face their black swan day. The friendly farmer who diligently and unfailingly feeds them daily wins their trust but one day, it is the same farmer who will be responsible for their deaths. Unexpected to them but in reality, it was bound to happen.

Many of us have encouraged Ty-Phoon to write his story. It would make a really good read. We have been sharing snippets of our lives since we re-connected recently. I can only say his life stories are, by far, the more interesting. He retorts that the other side is always greener. True, but looking at his lunch, my food is definitely a lot greener.

A humble meal

This is his story. A century ago, three under-nourished men landed on the piers of George Town after a perilous journey across the seas from China. Two brothers and a nephew left their homeland in search for a better life and a more promising future. But with only a rattan basket each, the big blackish type with a tight cover, they arrived in their new world without a plan A or a plan B. At the pier, they sought the only means of transport, the trishaw, to convey them to a bus station which was a short distance away. They figured a bus would take them farthest away from where they were. Most arrivals would settle in the town they arrived at but these men wanted their journey to continue. There were no local maps then, so the three men simply left it to the trishaw pullers to take them to any bus station. They were taken to the The Prangin Canal Bus Terminal. It was no different from any other major bus terminal. There were many different buses going to different parts of the island, how would the newly arrivals know which to pick? The men chose to board the blue Hin Company bus, it was the first one to depart and it looked clean enough. That was how they started their journey northwards. Not knowing where to alight, they paid the fare for the furthest travel, the last stop for that route was the remote village of Telok Bahang. It was at the kopitiam that Ty-Phoon’s future maternal grandpa overheard the men seeking accommodation and employment. Fate would have it that grandpa hired them. At that time, grandpa was the owner of thirty acres of farmland, the majority of which was untouched. The three men were god-sent, grandpa had the land but lacked good hardworking labourers. Before too long, grandpa married off one of his daughters to the eldest of the three men. They impressed him with their tireless work ethic and enthusiasm for learning. She was only 15, and soon would become Ty-Phoon’s mother. The three Chinamen were all Phoons from Guangzhou province. The lucky one who married the 15 year old -was Ty-Phoon’s dear father. Was it Ty-Phoon’s destiny to be born or was it his parents’ destiny to meet and fall in love? Or was that just the random outcome of a chain of events? Fate, what some consider as the power that controls and determines everything that happens. The Phoons may celebrate their fate that the blue bus took them to Telok Bahang but for the pheasants, it would be wrong to think it was fate that got them shot. No, it was the farmer’s plan all along. It wasn’t fate, it was the urghhling.

Ty-Phoon celebrates catching a pheasant