He was well chiselled without any visible body fat, and well-tanned, as dark as the indigenous rainforest dwellers of early Malaya. His sinewy hands, deformed from arthritis, and spindly legs with small but pronounced calf muscles were great indicators of someone who had lived an arduous life. I was no more than six years old, but I could feel his suffering as he struggled to power his trishaw along Penang Road with his overworked legs. He would have been mistaken to celebrate silently when my mother hollered at him from the roadside. Lucky day, a lightweight customer, he would have misled himself. She was slightly gaunt, her emaciation understandable. During those days, it was not uncommon for people to be grossly underweight from poor nourishment, hard work and little rest. It was only after she had negotiated a very reasonable fare with him, when I popped out of the shady spot. The rickshaw rider would have cursed silently when he realised the extra burden he had to bear from carrying me and the heavy cane basket next to me that was overladen with the morning’s shopping of meat, freshly caught seafood, fruits and vegetables. A twenty cent fare seemed reasonable from the Chowrasta market to upper Penang Road just a block short of the E & O Hotel. But, I could hear his strained heavy breathing and the noticeably slower speed as he passed the Odeon cinema. “Just a few more blocks, you may cycle slowly. We won’t mind if you take your time.” Those thoughts played in my mind as I silently urged him to complete his task. “After that, you can enjoy a hard earned rest and maybe go back home to your family.” At the time I did not realise these rickshaw riders lived in a commune with no families to go home to. When Ma and I got off the motorless vehicle, the rider even helped unload our shopping for us. Ma was struggling to find the right change. So, I looked up and took a good look at the man. “Thank you, that was hard work” I said. He was wiping the back of his neck and face with a damp grey cotton towel that was a beautiful stark white before his shift began that day. Beads of sweat kept forming on his forehead no matter how he wiped them off. “No, thank you” he said whilst gesturing to Ma. His smile revealed his lack of dental hygiene, two or maybe three missing teeth a telltale sign a visit to a dentist was long overdue.
Yung Jie, who was more a family member than a maid, efficiently and quietly unpacked the morning’s shopping. I was like a fly attracted to a plate of fried noodles. She tried to shoo me away but I hovered close by and observed her while she sort and put away the day’s food supplies. What caught my attention was the amount of recycling that was going on, not that I was aware of what that meant. Almost everything dry was wrapped in old newspaper, whereas wet or moist stuff such as freshly pounded curry paste and sambal were wrapped in banana leaves. No singlet plastic bags were used then; they were not patented in the U.S. until 1965 and did not appear in Asia till much later. The big culprits were the guys from Mobil Chemicals; they aggressively pushed the use of plastic shopping bags in the early 1980’s. People were naturally eco-friendly before the Americans ruled the world. Chooks and ducks were bought alive, their feet and wings tied up in string; not “processed” – a nice word for slaughtered, de-feathered and gutted – and packed in polystyrene foam. We did not have a refrigerator then. Come to think of it, we only had a Rediffusion set to entertain the whole household, a network of radio waves that blared mostly Cantonese songs and audio stories. We did not care about high-definition speakers amplified by the state-of-the-art German amplifiers and boom boxes that pollute the streets. Our shophouse had electric gadgets most others did not have, a telephone set and a ceiling fan. I was too young to ask why there were no ceiling fans upstairs, we had to make do with paper fans on hot sticky nights. There were hardly any electrical gadgets in the neighbourhood. There were no microwave ovens, convection ovens, dishwashers, or washing machines. Desk computers, mobile phones, battery chargers and internet modems did not exist for another twenty years. The whole neighbourhood of 13 houses shared a small square TV set which was owned by a Filipino family across the road from us. After I was caught mimicking others laughing at a I Love Lucy show – they knew I didn’t understand a word of English – I stopped joining them when the TV was played. Instead, for my nightly entertainment, I peeped at the house opposite from the upstairs window louvres. I still remember the disappointment I felt on nights when there was no amorous kissing between the gorgeous Filipino girl and her boyfriend. I was awfully jealous of her boyfriend, he was a really handsome lad who rode a really handsome Honda motorcycle. Everyone else either walked everywhere or rode their bicycles. Our carbon footprint amounted to literally that, a footprint size you could say. Unlike today. Folks today want to own everything that’s electric or electronic, and those needed to be upgraded almost annually. They fly overseas for a schoolies week whereas people hardly flew at all during the 1960’s. My eldest sister was one of the early ones to fly overseas to further her music education. An air ticket to London apparently cost well over $2,500, which was a lot of money then. A link house was worth under $7,000. It is unimaginable today to cough up a third of the value of our house in order to take a plane trip. Air travel was rare and therefore was an occasion to have a throng of well wishers at the airport to bid someone farewell. Today, taking a flight is more common than catching a bus for many of us. Do we even think twice about the damage jet fuel does to our environment?
It is encouraging to read about the enthusiasm school kids today have to combat global warming and climate change. The protests led by young Greta Thunberg have created loud decibels all over the globe and hopefully, the world’s leaders will begin to take notice. She berated world leaders at the UN climate summit last month, with a scathing speech. “HOW DARE YOU?” she accused the adults in the room for their failure to tackle the emissions of greenhouse gases. But, it riles me when these kids blame only us for the damage done to the environment. Surely, they do realise they are equally as responsible if not more? They do not ride man-powered rickshaws from the shops and most of them do not walk or cycle to school. Do they wrap their shopping with used newspaper and banana leaves or do they still pick up from grocery store shelves cooking oil and mineral water in plastic bottles? How about not charging their hand phones and tablets for a week? Can they avoid using polystyrene foam packaging and plastic toothbrushes and say no to air travel? Are they not avid online shoppers who rely on fast, efficient transport systems that use cargo planes which spew the air with ozone damaging CO2? Aeroplanes are by far the worst contributors of carbon dioxide amongst all transportation modes. Burning aviation fuel releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide directly into the upper atmosphere where they linger longer and cause more damage than in lower altitudes. Will these protesters refrain from turning on the air-conditioners at home and in their cars? When it gets freezing cold in winter, will they say “How dare you” to their parents when they switch on their home heating system? Whilst they are enjoying the pleasant conditions in the shopping complexes, movie theatres and restaurants, will they yell out “How dare you” and demand the lighting and cooling systems be switched off? And oh, don’t you dare use shower gels, shampoos, moisturisers and perfumes; all we had was soap. Shower gels are usually petroleum based and contain harmful ingredients that are carcinogenic and bad for the environment. Perfumes are particularly toxic to the environment due to the hundreds of synthetic chemicals that evaporate into the air. Phthalates ( industrial chemicals ) in these products are a great risk to aquatic life and plants, and also pose a major health risk to us. Will they decline a nice rib-eye steak or grilled wagyu? Say no to milk and cheese? After all, the meat and dairy industry will soon surpass the oil industry as the world’s biggest polluters. “Say no to cheeseburgers” should be their catch-cry. Animal agriculture contribute over half of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases. “How dare you eat meat?” is a better question to ask urghhlings. Please stop pointing your finger at us, do the right thing, and don’t let your cow fart. Cycle to where you need to go, and recycle as much as you can.