Monthly Archives: December 2015

Reflections Of My Light …

Back in the old days, in addition to white painted strips on roads to demarcate traffic lanes, there were also embedded into the road surfaces reflective devices called Cats’ Eyes.

Each set had a metal casing, in which sat a depressible body that had two “eye” reflectors facing front and two facing back.   These “eyes” shone brightly against the headlights of oncoming vehicles at night.   In places where a driver was not familiar with the roads on a dark night, these little strings of bright lights were a real blessing to moving ahead safely.

If a vehicle ran over any one of these, there would be a muffled “thum-thum” sound, corresponding to the instances when the front and rear wheels, respectively, hit the Cats’ Eyes.  No damage, as it would spring back into position.  No meowing sound, of course!

Silence Is Olden

Up until  the early 1960s, electric trolley buses served several routes in the city of Georgetown.   The photo above shows two examples — a single-deck type and a double-decker — at the junction of Hill Railway Road and Ayer Itam Road.   Penang Lang called them “Dian Chia” (电车kereta eletrik)

The most salient feature of these buses was Silence – very little noise was heard except for the soft purring of the motors when moving off.    Each bus was powered by electricity drawn from a network of overhead cables, via a pair of “trolley” contact arms.  

One big problem was the contact arms often tripped and fell off, especially at junctions.  When that happened, the bus conductor had to get down and use a specially made pole to restore the trolley arms back into position.   And the buses could not overtake one another, except at specially constructed “bypass” areas.

Of Scholars & Undertakers…

And the Twain did meet … 秀才遇到棺材

Mention the name Carnarvon Street (or “lam chan na” – 烂田仔, in Chinese, meaning “poor quality swampy fields”) and am sure the old folks of Penang will remember that was the go-to place for Books/Stationery and, Coffins !     The street was lined on both sides with maybe a dozen bookshops and  casket shops.

In my secondary school days, this street was my favourite haunt – of course I went only to buy books and stationery, not those fabulous “longevity lumber” or “big houses” (Chinese euphemism for coffin).    Well, I moved out of Penang in 1984 to Singapore,  so had no chance to patronize the latter business.

Since then I have not undertaken a trip back to this place.  There must have been a lot of changes.  People still die, but am not sure if people still read as much.

Winter Serenade – in C Major …

Well, I mean ‘C’ as in ‘ Carbohydrate.

A long time tradition of the Chinese, celebrating the Winter Solstice – around 22 December each year, with this pure Carbo knockout punch, a.k.a ‘tang yuan’ or 汤圆.

In the past, this was an exciting event for kids especially, where family members gathered around the dining table, to make balls of hydrated glutinous rice flour by rolling a lump with their palms.  A certain % of  the balls were colored with red, yellow, green, etc.  (I have not seen blue ones, though).

An important requirement was to make 12 pieces extra large, in white only.  We called these “the mother of balls”.

These rice balls were then boiled in water, and then thrown into a big pot of sugary syrup, ready to be eaten.  Sometimes, brown sugar was used, with some ginger thrown in.

Good Tin Came on Three’s

Throw back to the  heyday of Tin as one of the two major exports of Malaya/Malaysia.   Along Dato Keramat Road, Penang stood the Eastern Smelting Company, where tin ore from the peninsular mainland was smelted and cast into ingots for export.

And running in and out of the gates of this smelting factory were trailer trucks with quaint, yellow 3-wheel prime movers.  Loaded with perhaps a couple of hundred refined  pieces of Tin ingots, these trucks made their way to the docks alongside Weld Quay.   I cannot remember clearly now the actual routes they used, but these Scammel Scarab three-wheelers impressed quite lasting tracks on my young mind then, and even to this day.

Eastern Smelting has melted into history now, and all the Scarabs scrapped, save one pitiful specimen in a deplorable state at the Penang Museum.

It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Kereta

When the batteries of our cars decided to take an unscheduled break, the much beloved Automobiles became obnoxious Auto-No-Mobiles.

Back in those days of manual transmission, we would resort to doing a push start.   How many of us still remember how to do this ?

Firstly, we needed to mount a charm offensive and sweet-talk some friends or neighbors or in dire cases, even strangers passing by, into showcasing their awesome muscle power.

There was a certain procedure to learn and master.  An unskilled driver could leave the pushers falling flat on their faces !   Other instances could see the car doing a kangaroo dance routine.  After a few tries, it usually worked.

Not sure if this could be done with Auto Transmission.

Haiz, perhaps they should bring back the “Encore” hand-crank !

The Silence Of The ‘M’

In the year 1978 thereabout, Mitsubishi came out screaming loudly about their Silent Shafts (what irony) Technology that it supposedly patented for use in their new Galant Sigma model.   The Silent Shafts were a long awaited solution that could cancel out all secondary engine vibrations (never mind if you do not understand the mechanics of these terms), and thus provided extra passenger comfort.  Does anyone remember that ? Was it that good ?

Being the nerdy techie that I was (and still am), I was quietly besotted by this new thingy and secretly wished I could buy one. But there came along so many other financial obligations that I had to settle for a second-hand Mazda 323 and …. the rest was The Silence of My Dreams.

The body was “huge” for a 1.6 Litre engine ( I think there was an upscale 2.0L version)

Encore For Bad Performance

Up till the mid-1960s or so, all motorcars and even trucks came equipped with a quaint piece of accessory, called a hand-crank – to be used as a standby in cases of battery let-down (not uncommon).

This crank would be inserted  through a slot in front of the vehicle, to engage the engine.  Using sheer muscle power, several rotations of this tool had to be quickly effected to coax the engine to fire up.   Usually several tries were needed.    It looked like a dangerous job, but I believe there was a safety ratchet mechanism built into the engine front.

The local term for this action was “eng kor” which I thought sounded pretty close to the word “encore” – what a way to salute a bad performance.   Linguistic purists may lambast me …. but let’s get moving first.  We can argue later, till the cars come home.

Fly-By-Night Encounters

Up until the mid 1960s, there was no public lighting in our kampong.  It was pitch black after about 8pm at night.   The main road was about half-a-mile to our house.  We had to use a torchlight to find our way through.

So,when we had to come home late in the night, it was rather scary……maybe there were bad guys lying in wait, or unfriendly dogs running around…”  

But one of the more eerie sounds we often heard while our hearts went boom-bang-a-bang were the sudden “hoot-hoot-hoot” calls from somewhere above our heads.   Experience told us they came from the “cat-headed birds” – but we dared not look up….the thought of seeing two glowing eyes against a sinister silhouette already sent a chill up our spines.

That they were known as “Burung Hantu” in Malay did not help.

Big, Strong and Boxy

Those were the heydays of the Volvo Cars….starting from the 144…240…244 …264 – all embodying the trademark features of  unmistakable Viking precision engineering and supreme obsession with safety.

I had the experience of driving one of my cousin’s 240GL back in the early 80s.   A bit sluggish though, but the low-frequency soft growling sound that reflected back from the road during acceleration felt like real power – raw and refined at the same time.  It had power steering but the Swedes had deliberately made it a bit on the heavy side.

Alas, changing consumer tastes, stricter environmental regulations and economic considerations took a heavy toll on Volvo Cars, and in 2009, the company landed in the hands of Geely Auto – a PRC company.

The classical Volvo design has vaporized;  latter-day models are indistinguishable from the myriads of “me-and-you-lookalikes” and also-rans.

Killing Me Softly With His Salt

Aarrhhh !   Snails – those detestable slimy creatures.    In the kampong where I spent my childhood, these were everywhere.  Not contented with the freedom they had roaming in the open, they often made stealthy incursions into the house – leaving behind tell-tale tracks that shimmered against light.

Such flagrant violations of sovereignty of home space had to be decisively dealt with.

Upon sighting of these trails, we would track down the invaders and catch them, and put them into a pail.   Found guilty, they were sentenced to chemical execution using a handful of Sodium Chloride.   I thought I heard them sing, “Killing Me Softly With His Salt”…as they fizzled out and finally dissolved away.  Justice melodiously meted out!

But they never learned – and more kept coming, alas.  Very geram, so needed more garam.

D.O.M. Leave Mums Without It

As far back as I can recall,  in Chinese homes, mums during confinement were “required” to keep themselves from all “wind & dampness”, and that demanded the best of the traditional goodness from Europe – the much venerated (or should I say, vaunted)  D.O.M. Benedictine herbal liquor.

A small cupful after dinner was almost mandatory.   All my female relatives who had children have experienced these “drinking sessions”.  The strange thing is : why do they trust this Western brew so much – can anybody explain ?

Anyway, it is not cheap.   But it does taste nice !

Cobbler Cobbler Mend My Shoes

Get it done by half-past two.  Recall that nursery rhyme  ?

When was the last time you had your shoes mended by a cobbler ?  I have not done that for a long long time.

In my years of growing up, a pair of shoes would be worn till the front started to gape like a hungry crocodile, or holes started to appear in the soles.   Then off we went in search of a cobbler to patch it up, perhaps with a pair of new soles.  It would have undergone several new leases of life before it finally got discarded.

It is a very different world today, as shoes morphed from “footwear” to “fashion statements”, with especially the younger womenfolk vying to outdo Imelda Marcos.  They (I mean the shoes! ) get thrown out long before they get worn out.   

Old Brooms Swept Clean

Since the day when I came into planet Earth till the time I emigrated to Singapore, the family had relied on 2 types of totally “green” tools for keeping the home clean.

The Straw Broom was used to sweep the floor, remove dust, sand particles and little pieces of junk that had been accidentally dropped on the floor.

The other was the Penyapu Lidi – mainly used to sweep dead leaves away in the fenced compound around the house.   Also deployed in the kitchen for clearing away water after washing.

Have not used either type for the last 20 years, ever since they were deemed “sapu-non- grata” in face of the vacuum cleaner.  Haiz….my contribution to global warming.

Confinement Made Oily

In the days of old, the fragment aroma of sesame seed oil in the air meant that a stork had arrived somewhere in the vicinity.  Since time immemorial, Chinese customs imposed strict regulations on Do’s and Don’ts for mothers in confinement month.

Diet was to be free of all the “windy” stuff and sesame seed oil was to be used for cooking meals for the mother.   And at that time, the one and only sesame seed oil – they call it “Teel Seed Oil” – of renown was from the legendary – 159 years old now – manufacturer – Ghee Hiang of Penang.   Nothing else would suffice.

Yes, as kids we love all the stuff fried with this sesame seed oil especially one type of “phong piah” stuffed with egg batter and then deep fried.    It was heaty – eating too much of that could cause sore throats.