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Archive for December, 2011

Feeling exhausted after spending the whole day sprucing up Dad’s house in Ipoh for the coming Chinese New Year, I took a warm bath and slept soundly on the night of December 22nd. It rained the whole day, so it was cold and wet outside.

Hours later,  a loud cough from downstairs woke me up from my sleep. For a few seconds, I thought I was dreaming but I could easily recognise that voice. It was my Dad’s. He often cough loudly to rid himself of phlegm. And when he cough, the sound was so loud it would fill the whole house.

Then it came again. Soon another one followed; altogether, there were five coughs; each louder than the previous one. 

My heart beats faster. I nervously reached out for the little alarm clock on the side table. It was 4:12 a.m. on the morning of December 23rd.

As I sank my head onto the pillow again and pull the blanket over my head, I heard another sound. This time it came from the tin box where we used to keep biscuits. Someone was opening the lid of the tin box and then closed it back firmly. Dad always used to do that. He loved to eat cream crackers after taking his medication. This was to reduce the bitter taste on his tongue.

I think Dad was back in the house that morning. He was doing the things he would normally do – coughing and eating biscuits, while everyone was still asleep upstairs.

Moments later, I heard footsteps mounting the staircase that led to the bedrooms. I could hear the clinking sound of keys.

My palms began to sweat. The sound paused at the doorstep. Then it was total silence. Nothing happened anymore after this.

After what seemed like an eternity, the sky finally brighten up a bit. I got up since I could not sleep again. As I looked out from the window, I could see a smiling moon in the eastern sky. It’s crescent resembled a smiling lip. I stood there to watch it until it disappeared into the horizon.

“Mommy, I heard Grandpa’s coughing early this morning. He coughed loudly a few times, just like when he was still around,” Nicholas disclosed to me excitedly as he came down from his bedroom.

I was downstairs, brushing my teeth. “Yes, I heard it too. I thought I do not want to frighten you by not saying anything but it seemed that you were also awoken by his coughing,” I replied calmly.

“I also heard someone opened and closed the tin box where Grandpa kept his biscuits,” Nicholas continued. “Then I woke up Alexandra. We could hear the sound of keys, like he was closing the door before he goes to sleep each night, ” he said. 

The thing is, Dad was no longer in this world; yet that morning both my children and I heard those sounds again and very clearly too. They were familiar sounds to us.

The next day, which was Christmas eve, we went to Paradise Memorial Park in nearby Tanjung Rambutan. We went straight to my parent’s niche.

Opening the metal door that revealed their urns, I said jokingly, “Dad, did you come back last night? We heard you coughing several times, then someone opened the tin box and the clinking of keys, it was you, wasn’t it?”

Hardly had I finished speaking, a little brownish moth flew from nowhere and adhered itself to the glass panel. It stayed there for about half an hour. When we told Dad and Mom that we are leaving, the little moth smacked Nicholas’s head before taking off swiftly into the air.

I could feel his presence; it was so overwhelming that I broke down and sobbed. I still missed my Dad a lot.

That night I paid a visit to my third aunt. She was Dad’s youngest sister and his only surviving sibling from the same mother. She looked like Dad, her features, her voice and her mannerism. When I saw her, it was like seeing my Dad again. Just like her elder brother, third aunt loved me and we were closed.

I told her what we heard the night before and the little moth we saw at his niche the next morning.

“That must be your Dad coming home! Do you know that departed souls appeared to us as insects like moths, butterflies and grasshoppers?” she said.

Yes, Grandma and Mom used to tell me about this too.

“Well, at least the older generation like me still believed in this,  maybe he knew you are back, so he dropped by to see you and the children,” she laughed.

I loved to think he came back to see us that morning, and have some crackers too….

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Dad moved with Mom into a modest double-storey terrace house in Taman Bercham Baru after his retirement. It was to be our family home from then on even until now.

It was an airy place, even more so since it was a corner house. From the windows upstairs, we could see the beautiful blue limestone hills called Korbu Range in the nearby district of Tanjung Rambutan. On days after a downpour, thick white mists covered the hills the whole day; the air was very fresh and crispy. Ipoh was truly a very beautiful place to have a rest.

When the taxi pulled up at Dad’s front gate, he was already standing there. I can see he was far from being sick, just having a minor flu, I think. In fact he was smiling broadly with open arms, ready to embrace his grandchildren. In his usual booming voice, Dad was calling out, “Hey, you’re finally back; come in quickly, Grandfather missed you all so very much!”

I knew Dad was not sick at all, it was just his way to trick us home earlier. He was lonely and he longed to see his daughter and her children again. He only wanted human’s companionship, that’s all.

Getting into the house and putting down our things, I noticed it was in a complete mess. I can’t blame him. A house without a woman is always a big mess. You can’t expect men to keep the house clean and neat, can you? They are hopeless in this department.

We got down to clear up the place. I cleared up the interior while the children pulled up all the scrubs in the garden. Hours later, the entire house was clean and neat again like it was when Mom was still around.

While the children sat down with Dad to watch video tapes, I cooked dinner for us. Dad loved to play Chinese New Year tapes even though it was not Chinese New Year yet. He knew Alexandra loved to watch little girls singing New Year songs, so he bought “Sei Chin Kam” or “Four Little Girls” for her to listen again and again until she can even sing the songs herself!

At night, after our baths and dinner, Dad and I sat down to chat and catch up with each other while the children played with their toys until it was time to sleep. Dad and I have lots and lots of things to talk about. He, with his health and I, with the children’s schooling. We also talked about many things which years later, became my blog’s topics.

My children do look forward to going back to Ipoh. That was the time when their maternal grandfather pampered them with the delicious food Ipoh was famous for. To start the day, we had dim sum packed from Sun Kok Kee Dim Sum Restaurant, just behind Dad’s house. I usually buy a few varieties each day so that we could get to taste different dim sum every morning. Har kau, siew mai, loh mai kai, Hong Kong chee cheong fun and century eggs porridge are among the fares we would love to eat again and again each morning.

Some mornings we would go for fish ball noodles with yeong liew. These are pieces of bitter gourd, lady’s fingers, eggplants or bean curds stuffed with mackerel fish paste and fried until golden brown. I loved the moments when Dad, the children and I sat down to eat a hearty breakfast together. Those are truly memorable moments I would not be able to forget.

After breakfast, Dad would watch cartoons on TV with the children while I walked to the wet market near the primary school. Here, lots and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats flooded the stalls. Marketing in Ipoh is cheaper and easier than in Kuala Lumpur; fifty dollars could get you many things to carry back home.

Having come back from the market, I put the foods away into the refrigerator and do some laundry. I normally spend an hour or two teaching my children to read storybooks and do some revision with them before I started to cook lunch.

When I am back in Ipoh, Dad will get to eat all his favorite dishes which Mom used to cook for him. Although it was not as tasty as Mom’s, but it was almost there. He loved chicken’s legs stewed with mushrooms in oyster sauce, tilapia fish steamed with bean curd in taucheong sauce and lotus root soup with pork’s ribs. I loved to see Dad enjoying a warm home-cooked meal. It was as if Mom was still around. It is good to see him having a robust appetite.

The children normally spend their evenings catching spiders or ants in the garden or cycling around the neighborhood. I gave them some pocket money and they went to the grocery shops behind to buy sweets, biscuits, ice-cream or jellies. Sometimes we had rojak and ais batu campur at the eating stalls in the village nearby.

On the way home, we would stop at the children’s playground where we could run free and wild. We played on seesaws, swings and glides. Feeling tired, we went home to take a bath and after this, the children had afternoon naps while I read some books on the sofa.

In the evening, I cooked dinner again and we sat down for a meal around 7 p.m. After dinner, I did some studying with the children before we gathered to watch a movie. On every Wednesday night, I took the children to the local night market called ‘pasar malam’ to buy whatever they fancy. We usually went to sleep by 11 p.m. when it was dark and quiet outside with the occasional dog’s howling from the distance.

I also arranged with the Ipoh General Hospital to set quarterly appointments for Dad during school holidays so that I could take him to see the doctor whenever I was back in Ipoh. He needed these checkups and treatments as he was suffering from hypertension and prostate cancer. Dad wanted me to convey his condition to the doctor since he speaks neither English nor Bahasa Malaysia.

That was how we spend our holidays in Ipoh from the year 2004 when the children started schooling in Kuala Lumpur until 2007 when Dad passed on. He looked forward very much to us going back to Ipoh for the school holidays and it became a routine for him to feign sickness so that we could go back earlier.

In order to accommodate to his wishes, I have to personally declared school holidays started a week earlier for my children compared with the rest of the students in the country.

So, it could be three weeks for my children while it was two for other Malaysian students during the first and second school terms; eight weeks for my children while it was seven for the rest during the third school term. My children always gained an extra week of school holidays, thanks to their maternal grandfather who could not wait to see them.

Dad became gloomy and reclusive when the holidays were over and it was time for his grandchildren to go back to Kuala Lumpur to start school again. He had to wait for the next school holidays to come and he started to count the days in the calendar.

With Dad gone for a few years now and the children grown up, these routines became memories; they made me feel very nostalgic at times like now.

Our bags were packed and we will be leaving for home soon……

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There is another two weeks of holidays before school starts again. How time flies!

This is also the time of the year when parents will start shopping for things like school uniforms, school shoes, school bags and stationery. I think I will do mine this weekend when my son comes back from his camping trip in another state. You know, Scouts often goes camping during year-end holidays.

I had just checked out my kid’s schoolbags. They were  worn out, beyond repair and badly needed replacements. It is time to get new ones.

Today’s school kids carry bigger school bags compared to what I used to carry when I was a school kid some forty years ago.

Do you believe that I am still keeping the little rattan basket my Mom got for me when I started school in 1971? Yes, it was still with me, after forty years! So when I took it out from the store-room yesterday, dusted it and then shown it to my daughter, she laughed and was like, “You really carried this thing to school?” She could not stop laughing at the piece of relic I was holding in front of her.

“Yes, why not, in fact many school girls at that time carried these rattan baskets too, not only your Mommy,” I laughed back.

I am not sure what the boys during my time used as their school bags because I went to an all-girls school; but I remembered many of my classmates carried these rattan baskets too. I think it must be trendy then! In the early 1970s, I mean!

Small and fragile this rattan basket may looked but don’t let its appearance fool you. It was very durable and it had served me well throughout my entire six years of primary school. I put my books and there are not many though, the pencil-case and water tumble all inside this vulnerable looking thing. I think the only shortcoming of this rattan basket was that the contents can be easily spill out or they may get wet if I was caught in the rain.

By the way, when I proceeded to secondary school, it was trendy to carry the green canvas sling bag but in seven years, I had changed about three bags. That proved one thing, that rattan is more durable than canvas! None of the canvas bags survived today, unlike the humble little rattan basket that amused my daughter so greatly.

Just take a look at the school bags today’s kids are carrying to school. With their big and heavy bags, they looked like they are going away on a long vacation or they are going to migrate to another country for good.

I have seen children as young as seven or eight years old, lugging very big and heavy bags on their young backs and climbing up the stairs to reach their classrooms each morning when I sent my kids to school. My heart really went out for them. I wondered what will happen to their spinal bones when they grew up, after carrying such heavy burdens every day for so many years. Will they end up as hunchbacks?

A few years ago, I saw with my own eyes, how a little boy fell down from the bus that stopped in front of the school gate. He was alighting from the stairs but his school bag was too heavy, as a result, he toppled onto the road and was pinned down by his own school bag. He was like a little turtle with a big and heavy shell. The school’s traffic warden came over and lifted him up to his feet.

Why can’t the adults, I mean the people in charge of our children’s education, do something about this problem? Why are they closing their eyes and keeping silent on this issue? Does it mean the more books you bring to school, the more knowledge you will acquire? And does it mean that just because most kids today goes to school in buses or cars, it is alright for them to carry big and heavy bags, is it? How about those who still walk to school, like my kids?

I remembered I used to bring a few books to school and yet I did learn a lot of things. Geography, Mathematics and English one day and then History, Science and Bahasa Malaysia on the next day, so what’s the problem? But no, our kids now have to bring the text books and activity books for all subjects every day, and in the end, they needed a big bag to accommodate all the books. I have read somewhere that our kid’s school bags weighs something between 7 to 10 kg with all their books in!

My daughter was once punished by her teacher to squat and pull her own ears one hundred times as she forgot to bring a text-book when she was in Year Two. Since that incident, she brought all her books to school every day whether the teacher requires it or not on that particular day. You will never know what other books they wanted to use on any given day, it all depends on the teacher’s mood.

So while most kids continue to lug big and heavy bags every day, I came up with a way to counter this. I divided my kids’ books and put them into two small bags, one for the text books and the other, for the activity and exercise books. That way, they can carry one bag on their backs and another, in one of their hands, thus spreading out the burden instead of converging them all into one spot, sparing their young and still growing spinal bones of such unnecessary burdens.

Some years back, there were talks from the Education Ministry of providing each child with a locker in the school but talks remained talks and the idea eventually evaporated into thin air …..satu habuk pun tarak, as one of my favorite blogger puts it. Simply translated into English…not a speck of dust!

So now you can understand my frustrations as a concerned mom, can’t you?

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“Look up at the sky, could you see the color of the moon was different tonight?” my paternal grandma Yim Mun asked, pointing to the night sky one night long ago.

As a young child playing with some kids from the neighborhood just outside Dad’s shop that night, I  stopped in the middle of our ‘Hide and Seek’ game to gaze hard at the sky.

The moon would normally appeared in silvery white to us. But on that special night, it was reddish-brown with a tinge of orange hue. Of course I was curious and could not understand why it was so different from the moon we normally saw.

“Why was the moon like this, Grandma?” I remembered asking her.

Grandma was a superstitious woman. She was well-versed in classical Chinese texts and could read the “Tung Shing 通勝” or Chinese almanac. Celestial phenomenons like the solar or lunar eclipses were well documented in this book.

“According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the Heavenly Dog was trying to eat the moon and the moon bled; thus you can see the reddish-brown color on the surface of the moon,” Grandma explained.

“To chase the Heavenly Dog away, the people in the olden days came out from their homes and made a lot of noises to frighten the dog away. People bang on pots and pans, set off firecrackers or even fired cannons into the air to chase the dog,” she said.

I was awed by her explanation and was overcame by a sense of fear, that if the moon was indeed eaten up by the dog, we would lose it.

Of course that was many years ago when I was a naive little girl and now I knew better.

A lunar eclipse happened when the earth passed between the moon and the sun. And that was exactly what happened just now, December 10th 2011, a few hours after sunset.

My family and I watched it from the verandah and tried to capture some photos of this rare event but unfortunately, my camera was not powerful enough to capture it clearly. It lasted about fifty minutes before things returned to normal again.

Some people gathered on the street below to watch it too and recorded it with their mobiles. There was an air of excitement.

Of course I told my children what my Grandma told me about the lunar eclipse when I was a little girl and how I was taken in by her story. They laughed and told me the scientific explanation of a lunar eclipse, thanks to the science subject which they had already studied in their primary school days.  Children are indeed smarter now.

Did you watch the lunar eclipse too?

Note:  The older generation today still refers a lunar eclipse as “Tin Kow Sik Yuet” which was translated as “Heavenly Dog Eats the Moon.”

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I’m not feeling too well; can you come home quickly and take me to the doctor’s?” Dad asked me on the phone, sounding quite sick.

I can even hear him coughing and whooping away at the other end. My heart missed a beat.

I am scared of a call like this, especially when it came very early in the morning or very late at night. It made me worried for him.

You see, my Dad lived in Ipoh while I stayed some two hundred kilometers away in Kuala Lumpur. It will take a while for me to reach him even if I were to get on the road at once. I can’t travel as freely as I would like to. I have two school going children to tie me down.

But he was my dad and I can’t say no. I have never said ‘no’ to him before. In the end I have to say, “Yes, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

There is another week to go before a school holiday is due to start. I wanted my children to complete their school term before I take them back to Ipoh to visit their grandfather but when a call like this came, I’ll have to change my plan.

“Grandfather is not feeling well. He wanted me to take him see the doctor.  Let’s go back to Mommy’s hometown tomorrow morning,” I declared, much to their delight.

I immediately packed our things, and there were many things to pack when you travel with young children; their clothes, their toiletries, their toys and their books. It was like we are moving to another country to stay- we have something like four baggages!

We usually travel by Sri Maju express bus from Puduraya Bus Station to Ipoh, taking the earliest bus at 8 a.m. so that we could reach Ipoh in the afternoon. I tried to reach home before sunset as Dad was no longer staying in town but far away from it.

After exchanging lots of kisses and hugs with their daddy, the children quickly climbed into the bus with me following from behind. We got into our seats and put the baggages in the proper compartments.

As the bus pulled out from the station, both Nicholas and Alexandra waved to their daddy who was smiling and waving back. He lip read to us, ” Have a safe and smooth journey!”

The journey home to visit Dad was a challenge. My children were talkative and boisterous, they refused to keep quiet or sit still even though they are going on a long distance trip. While everyone in the bus goes to sleep once the bus entered the North South highway at the Damansara exit, they were wide awake, eating potato chips or chewing gums, chatting and playing with each other. When they won’t sleep, I can’t either. Just to prevent them from running up and down the bus aisle really tired me out.

“Mommy, I wanted to urinate now or Mommy, I ‘m feeling nauseating,” are moments I dreaded most when we are somewhere between some unknown towns like Sungkai or Trolak. The bus won’t stop for us. As time went by, I trained myself to handle such emergencies with calmness.

After a brief stop at Tapah to relieve ourselves and to top up on their snacks, the most beautiful scenery unfolds before our eyes. Breathtaking blue hills and unspoilt green virgin forests run parallel on both sides. My eyes could not have enough of them. After about three hours and passing many small towns like Bidor, Kampar and Gopeng, we were almost home.

Nearing Ipoh, my children could recognize the beautiful blue limestone hills dotting the Gua Tempurung and Simpang Pulai stretch of the highway. Jumping excitedly from their seats near the window, they would shout in unison and on top of their voices, “Mommy, we are finally in Grandfather’s Ipoh! Look at those little hills; they’re like turtle’s shells!” they pointed with their little fingers towards the hills.

I laughed with relief. Yes, we had finally reached home.

When the bus past by Jalan Kampar, I will never fail to point out my former school, the Methodist Girls’ School or MGS, to my children.

“That was Mommy’s school!” and before long, they could recognize that as well.

“Mommy, we’re hungry, where are we going to have lunch?” the boisterous pair asked.

“At one of my favorite place and Mommy will take you there now!”

“Yeah!”

After getting down at that you-know-who’s old mansion opposite Shen Jai High School on Jalan Bendahara, we walked along Jalan Chamberlain, passing landmarks such as the former Majestic Cinema and the Post Office. Further up was the former Rex Cinema. On we walked towards Jalan Anderson where we had lunch at one of my favorite eating place, Restaurant Lok Wee Koi, opposite the present day Kamdar Store.

With some luck, we managed to secure a table for three and sat down to order some of Ipoh’s famous hawker’s foods for lunch. We had fried kuay teow with eggs and cockles, chee cheong fun in mushroom sauce, hor yee, which is flat rice noodle with fish cakes and fish balls and kai see hor fun or flat rice noodle with chicken shreds and prawns. We also had the caramel eggs custard and soda with ice-cream.

With still some space in our stomachs, we gulped down a bowl of tau foo fah and a drink called ‘Michael Jackson’ which is actually soya milk and glass jelly at the corner stall along Theater Street. Oh wait, I remember that stall was called “Funny Mountain Tau Foo Fah!” What a name! And can you believe it that people actually queued up; and the line spilled into the road, waiting to have a taste of these desserts? Some ate from their parked cars along the side of the street.

Satisfied with the contents in our stomachs, we walked back to the former Rex Cinema where I called up Mr. Cheng, our regular taxi driver whom my children nicknamed Uncle 4019 (the number plate of his taxi).

“Hey, Uncle 4019, this is the scissors sharpener’s daughter back from Kuala Lumpur. Can you take us to my dad’s house in Bercham?”

“Sure, I’ll be there in minutes!” he laughed back.

True to his reputation as Ipoh’s most punctual taxi’s driver, Mr. Cheng appeared in front of us almost immediately. Passengers and baggage all got in and when the taxi got past Hume Street, we never fail to catch a glimpse of the infamous funeral parlors and caskets shops along the street, also known as “Coffin Street.”

For my children who are from a metropolitan city called Kuala Lumpur, this is a rare sight for them to marvel at and to form some curious questions in their little heads.

“Wow, there are many funeral parlors in the same row. Do many people die on the same day in Ipoh?” my son asked and I was short of an answer.

Uncle 4019 just laughed and drove on, stopping by the traffic light opposite 188 Hugh Low Street.

“That’s your childhood’s home, Mommy!” Alexandra pointed to me. I smiled and nodded.

“Yes dear, it’s the home I once knew,” and I turned to have a look at the building where I grew up in. It looked old and abandoned but still as dignified as ever.

Then the traffic lights turned green…..

Now we’re on the way to Dad’s house in the suburb where a simple and rustic life awaits us…..

To be continued…….

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