My father, God rest his soul, was a reading man who made straight for the Abdullah al-Yunani from the Masjid Abidin soon as he’d finished the ‘Isha’ prayer. The Abdullah al-Yunani was the sole distributor of newspapers when family businesses still held sway and the Yunanis were a prominent Chinese-Muslim family in Kuala Trengganu. It stood in a street of textile merchants and photo studios, and next door to it was a shop that my mother always referred to as Kedai Yamada (Yamada’s shop) even though the man in it was as far removed from Yamada-san as the mangosteen from a pineapple. He was in fact, of Indian origin, and went by the name of Mr Fernandez. Mr Fernandez kept clocks and watches in his shop that was out of bounds to little boys who couldn’t tell the time of day.
Father would wait patiently every evening outside the Abdullah al-Yunani for the arrival of the Pahang Mail, the lorry service that brought goods to Kuala Trengganu from Kuantan in Pahang, or Kuala Lumpur on the other side of the world. That was how newspapers were delivered to us in those days, at the fall of night, after the Isha’ prayers, when folks on the other side had discarded their daily rag and were settling down to their evening meal. Outside the Abdullah al-Yunani people would be chatting and waiting for their first glimpse of the day’s headlines while the types were being set, and the presses rolled in Kuala Lumpur for the another day’s pages, another day’s paper.
Sometimes when I followed father to the Mosque I’d be standing there too with him, in my kain pelikat and baju Melayu, sometimes in windy, monsoony weather, waiting for the day’s delivery. While waiting for the lorry to arrive I’d creep into the shop to look at the stock of books and comics and the old kitabs that the Abdullah al-Yunani was famous for. Kitabs as I knew them, were Muslim books, written in the Arabic language and script, or sometimes they were Malay books written in Jawi-Arabic characters. I remember some, like the Taj-ul-Mulk, which contained invocations and recipes for poultices, and the book of Tibb which was the Materia Medica of the local Muslim bomoh.
But in daylight, when father was at work, I’d walk further up the road to Kampung China, the Chinatown of Kuala Trengganu. I had a friend there right by the Chinese butcher, and a school-teacher who lived across the road; but my constant delight was the Chee Seek store. The Chee Seek was as precious as the Abdullah al-Yunani, but represented a different spectrum of our reading matter. It stocked Chinese books, of course, and it stocked comics, and the US Reader’s Digest which was heftier and jazzier than the British edition, and it had a little surprise in the back of the store.
Cramped behind the stacks and the shelves and the magazines that dangled from the overhead wires was a little business run by a middle-aged portly Chinese lady called Mak Mek. She could’ve been Chee Seek’s mum, or his only daughter, or an aunt or mother-in-law, but she was the quintessential Chinese Earth Mother lady dressed in batik sarong and baju kebaya, whose deft hands manufactured the ceranang and the keropok lekor chinoise that was different in texture and looks from the ones made by the Malays on the shore. The keropok lekor was the specialty of the Malays of Trengganu, but only the Chinese made them from shark meat or ikan yu. The ceranang, I forgot to say, was a salad of blanched kangkong, (water glorybind), deep-fried tofu and diced hard-boiled eggs, doused with a creamy peanut sauce flavoured with dollops of the hottest chili.
Mak Mek’s husband Pak Awang was seldom there as she tended to her customers in this tiny store that was open by secret arrangement with local officers at the Town Hall. Pak Awang was a roving ambassador, a wheeler dealer, a Taoist man in Chinese trousers who roamed the streets on some special errands or urgent matter. He was a medicine man (bomoh,) and a soothsayer, perhaps even a necromancer. I saw him once at the house of a neighbour, exchanging homilies with the man of the house while his wife and sons were busily crushing fish for the day’s kerepok lekor. He spoke fluent Trengganu Malay, which is as foreign to out of state persons as Swedish is to a Swahili speaker. Once I heard Pak Awang say to this neighbourhood kerepok lekor man that for a house to receive maximum blessings it must be facing the Kaabah in Makkah.
The Chinese have a long history in Trengganu, dating back to the time of Zheng He (Cheng Ho), the eunuch Muslim admiral, who visited Trengganu in the 15th century, or even earlier. In the 19th century, prominent members of Trengganu Chinese families were given special dispensations to issue coins in return for services to the local Sultan, but this was abolished by the British when they took control of the state’s coffers.
August 28, 2004