I am currently reading Shirley Lim’s “Among the White Moonfaces: Memoirs of an Asian American Woman“. This biography by the Malaysian-born, California-based award winning feminist-author and poet, traces the writer’s painfully honest narration of her early days of growing up in Malacca. Reading her journal has, in many ways, helped bridge my own difficult affinity with Malacca.
My parents are from Malacca; it is their kampong. My father, from Kampong Tujuh in Gajah Berang; and my mother, in the heart of Malacca town, a row of flats with no name, known commonly only as the 9-storey flat, along Jalan Bendahara. Malacca is home as well to my grandparents; and scores of uncles, aunts, cousins and relatives.
Many of my earliest recollections of early childhood revolve memories of Malacca. My father’s home in Kampong Tujuh is a dilapidated wooden-house, with zinc roof that flaps noisily at the sudden gust of fierce winds; surrounded amply by a garden, wide enough to rear chickens, ducks and turkeys; and a space for planting local fruit trees. At the edge of the garden grounds, a moat-like ditch, filled with smelly drain water, marks the boundary of the property.
The villagers of Kampong Tujuh are a potpourri of Chinese and Indian, both living side by side to each other. It is not as we find these days, where races huddled in particular vicinity: be it in a village, settlement, neighbourhood or township. For example, next to my father’s ancestral home lives this Indian family, who I come to understand, are relatives. The Indian man married a Chinese lady, my father’s cousin. Their children are relatively of the same age as I am, and whom I have come to regard as distant cousins.
I remember many a time, during the long school holidays; I roamed freely across the wide open paddy-fields, alongside my Indian cousins. We explored the nooks of the Indian temple, located in the middle of the kampong; played soldiers beneath the tall lalang grass and jumping into the drains to catch tadpoles.
Other times, I was at the 9-storey flat, where a predominantly Chinese community resides. There, I joined my Chinese cousins, who spoke no English, but converse only Hokkien and Mandarin. Life in the flats was different, there were limited space to run, jump and play. But instead, the industrious children found out that wide spaces were provided vertically. And so it was, we played the mother of all hide-and-seek, hiding from anywhere within the corners of the 9 floors of the building.
But in many ways, I find it hard to regard Malacca as my hometown. It is not. I was not born there. Neither did I grow up there. I was a city boy, making those occasional visits only during the school holidays and the Chinese New Year breaks. I find no real kin-association to the kampong. Unlike the author Shirley Lim, my generation bears a distinct identity concern: – that of a non-belonging to the ancestral village.
Perhaps, Shirley Lim’s generation, together with that of my parents, had to grapple with identity issues with the ancestral motherland (China); whom they as the 2nd generation of migrants, have to find their heart-absent causal link to the country that they have no real bond to, except that of the forefathers.
Similarly, my early bond with Malacca, and that of my uncles, aunts and cousins, has been half-heartedly wanting. I was unable to converse in Mandarin; I never went to Chinese school as my cousins. I was not hardy as my Indian cousins; I was always the last in a race, the first to be found in the game of hide-and-seek. I was, I felt, looked upon in disdain, as a sort of a squashy city-boy. In many ways, when I am in KL, I feel a sense of belonging to Malacca; but in Malacca, I am amply reminded that I am not.
Perhaps that is why, in later years, I took it upon myself to leave behind this legacy. Malacca is a small kampong to me, I tell myself; I am slated for bigger things in life. Slowly, but surely, the town fades like an outgoing tide, tucked away from me, existing only in prints of black & white family photos.
But it is not to be.
I will come to learn, in later years, that Kampong Tujuh is no longer known as that; it has been christened to a more distinguished label of the Chitty Settlement; that my Indian cousins are not just Indians, they are Chitty, a distinctive group of Indian Peranakans; that the temple which I have played at so often, and where I had once had my head dotted during a religious ceremony, was the famous 186-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple; that some of the odd uncles and aunts that spoke no Chinese are actually babas & nyonyas; that the 9-storey flat is actually famous, worth a write-up once in a newspaper article of a local daily: – a hilarious write-up about how the depressed have committed suicide by jumping off the building, creating a sort of “record” in the country; that the ugly post office building we have to drive across to reach the Coronation Park is actually the Stadthuys; that the unassuming Jalan Hang Jebat is now the famous Jonker Street; and that the reeking pong of the belacan has got a mention in Wikipedia.
I also learned that it is hard to turn your back on your past. A legacy is hard to ignore, it follows you through, like a friendly shadow, not visible within the evening sky; and when you think it is no longer there, it springs out on you in the noon reflection, reminding you of its unwavering existence.
And it is this leaping shadow that I have come to expect now and then; yesterday, in the form of the celebrations for the handing over of the letter of recognition of Malacca as a World Heritage Site. It is hard not to acknowledge the festivities of a nature, so close to heart.
Just a month or so ago, I had to attend the wedding of one of the Chitty cousins I had raced with along the paddy-fields of Kampong Tujuh some three decades ago. Nadarajan, or Rajan as we still call him, is now the secretary for the Malacca Chitty Cultural Association; married the traditional Chitty way with a three-week elaborate and colourful ceremony carried out in Kampong Chitty, Gajah Berang.
It was a wedding festivity like no other: – the Chitty couple; more than half of the relatives are Chinese; serenaded by a band headed by an Indian crooner ala Tom Jones, with matching wigs and platform shoes; held in a hall of a Buddhist Association; with the guests partying to Malay Joget towards the end of the ceremony.
Yes, it is easy to dismiss one’s heritage; and it is easy to laugh at the news of Shahrukh Khan’s Datukship debacle. But it is not easy to turn my back on Malacca, the place that I knew then; and the place that it is now: – a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and a place that I am proud of.