Monthly Archives: January 2016

Mid-Sea Rendezvous

No romantic frolicking but an economic activity borne out of necessity.

In the days before the deep-water wharves were constructed along the shores of Butterworth, wooden boats — called tongkang — would line up alongside cargo ships (from various nations) in the waters of Penang Harbour.   Using shipboard cranes, goods of all kinds were transferred from the tongkangs onto the ship, and vice-versa. 

There were many ships at anchor each with its attendant tongkang flotilla.   So, the cross-harbour ferries usually had to do some deft zig-zagging amidst them to ensure crossing in one piece (and still floating).  As a kid, it was a thrill to watch these cargo ships at close quarters from a ferry.

Some fascinating memories to share.

For better or for worse, the advent of containerization has practically sunk this mode of cargo transport for ports around the world.

All Kinds Of Medicine Remind Me Of This

At 454, Penang Road there used to stand a modest iconic “heritage” of the medical kind. “Howe Cheang” was its name.  From the time I knew my ABC’s — a good 6 decades ago — I became familiar with this name.  Yes, it was the “Go-To” place for all kinds of western medicine.   You named it, they had it.

As a kid I was not always in good health.  Poor as my parents were, they always took me across from Butterworth to visit clinics in Penang.  Often, the clinics did not stock certain medicine, and the doctors would write a prescription to buy them at this shop.  But unlike the more “atas” Boon Pharmacy at the other end of Penang Road, a prescription was not always needed.  Just had to show them the money!

Interestingly, Howe Cheang was also a sales agent for Keretapi Tanah Melayu.

Of 5 Lamps and 6 Roads

Penang Lang, do you know where this place is ?   The Hokkien folks called it “Gor Phar Teng” – 五葩灯, while I understand the Malay brethren called it Simpang Enam.   The English name was Magazine Circus.

Apparently, there was a roundabout, where the 6 roads , viz., Gladstone Road, Brick Kiln Road, Magazine Road, Dato Keramat Road, Macalister Road and Penang Road converged. Recently, I found an old photo of this roundabout, and I thought I could make out the 5 lamp posts which gave this place its quaint name.  Any disagreement ?

Alas, today Gladstone Road is no more, having been erased from the map in the 1980s to make way for the Komtar Complex.   I did not realize that until today.  Haiz, I have been away for far too long. And those guys there did a lot of things behind my back. LOL.

Pokok Punya Susu, Getah Dapat Nama, Towkay Jadi Kaya

In its heyday, Rubber was king of the Malayan/Malaysian economy, co-ruling with its earthy counterpart, Tin.   Plantation owners were bouncing happily with riches, that flowed via the sweat and tears of many a poor rubber tapper.

Each morning while it was still dark, teams of hardy tappers were out in force. Armed with a lamp on the forehead and a tapping knife in hand each, they carefully shaved a sliver of bark from each tree, causing white liquid latex to ooze out and flow down into a collecting cup.

Hours later, a second tour of duty was launched, to empty the brimming cups into a big canister, which would then be brought to the collection centre for processing into rubber sheets.    Wages were paid on the net weight of latex delivered.

Metik2 Bulu Ayam, Lama2 Jadi Bogel

In the past, when we wanted to cook chicken, we would buy one fully-clothed (-feathered, excuse me) live specimen from the market, and then take it home for slaughter.   I will spare my readers the gory details.

Once victim had fully given up the ghost, we submerged it in a big pot of boiling water, for several minutes.  (Not too long, else the skin would peel off as well).  After that, it was hauled out, and the process of feather-plucking would commence.

It was tedious, but as kids, we had plenty of fun.  The big feathers came off first, then the tiny ones, which sometimes required a pair of pincers.

Nowadays, automated machines could render the dead fowl completely naked in a minute or two.   Careful, don’t fall inside one !

Empty Vessels Made Most Sound

Obviously, these vessels could make a huge din – a lot of sound when struck empty. More remarkably, because they had been made most sound – strong, durable and even water-tight — by skillful craftsmen of old.

In small towns and even kampongs throughout the country, one could find at least a couple of tinsmiths – whose imaginative minds and deft hands could fashion anything out of sheet metal. They made bath tubs, pails, coffee pots, scoops, funnels, etc.

Sheets of galvanized iron, aluminium, copper and brass were cut into shapes for ‘development’ followed by folding, bending and rolling, plus rivetting and soldering.

Alas, the advent of cheap plastics and big factories has practically silenced this time-honoured industry.  And with that, all the heritage craftsmanship is largely lost.

Gone Be The Wind ?

The Chinese description for this age-old classic Minyak Angin actually says, “carminative oil” or flatulence-relieving oil. 驱风油

Yea, I remember starting using this wonder love potion (was not No.9, to be sure) since my very young days, not so much for colic, but always for relief of nasal passages during bouts of flu and cold.  Those were the days, when Mum taught me to tie one corner of a handkerchief into a knot and then drip several drops of this oil into it – used for sniffing at intervals.

Photo shows the old bottle, with a cork stopper, tipped with a tin-alloy spout and a screw-on cap.  Yes, the stuff is 96 years old now, and Ipoh folks should be proud of it.

Itch Goes Without Scratching

It goes without saying, where there is an itch, scratch it.  But too much scratching will cause skin damage and possibly infection.

In the past, there was one highly-cherished antidote in the family’s medicine kit.  An unassuming short squat bottle with a totally unglamorous aluminium cap.  It went by the very Hokkienish name of Saw Hong Choon.    The pale translucent ointment inside was specially effective against those agitative “mini Grand Canyons” in between the toes.   Oh what relief !

Recently I had occasion to recall this treasure, and went to a medicine shop to enquire.   Lo and behold, it is still on sale, half a century after I first used it.

Saw Near And Yet Saw Far

My late Mum came back one day from the now-heritage class World Optical Co.,(at Leith Street, Penang)  with a funny pair of spectacles.    These had a semi-oval patch on each glass.  She said, “Now I can see near, I can see far”.   I thought that was cool….until..

The Day of Reckoning had been creeping up on me surreptitiously and then it dawned on me suddenly that I had crossed into The Other Side Of Mid-life.   My optician said, “Uncle, your eyes are flowery now”.   The fact that I was 4-eyes was bad enough – what, 6 eyes ?

Happily, by that time, progressive multi-focal technology had arrived.

R.S.S. Rubber

Your favorite Bak Kwa ?   Or perhaps the name of Singapore Navy’s latest high-tech naval vessel with bounce-around capability ?

Nah, RSS stands for Ribbed Smoke Sheet.  This was the most common form of rubber that was exported from Malaysia.    After the latex collected from rubber trees had coagulated,  it was passed through multiple rollers to squeeze out the excess water, and then the sheets were dried and finally “cured” by smoking them in a giant kiln.

The finished sheets were usually formed into bales for export.  Those were the heydays of the rubber industry.

Our youngsters may not know them.  But I used to see lots of these in the past.