Elena Kua is a freelance editor-writer in Malaysia. Her work has appeared in Newfound Journal.
Sometimes I doubt that it’s my father I’m trying to save. What I’m really trying to save, I think, is one particular memory: Batu Pahat in the 1940s and ’50s, my father’s hometown in the southernmost state of Malaysia. I’m already coming to terms with his losing a grip on other things. It isn’t Alzheimer’s—or isn’t a full-blown disease yet—but it’s too early to know exactly what we’re dealing with unless he relents and sees a doctor. He finds it laborious to match names to faces; he forgets what he ate before; the dishes of green and yellow served for dinner elude him as to what they are called. Even as these memories slip like windblown dust off a cliff—a cliff he walks inexorably towards—the Batu Pahat of my father’s childhood remains chiseled on stone face. It will remain, I hope, long after he leaves this earth, a marker of long sunny days and cool breeze licking the face.
In reality, though, Batu Pahat itself is slipping away. The sleepy rural town I knew from yearly family pilgrimages in the 1990s and early 2000s has since boomed into Johor’s “Northern Shopping Paradise,” and I find myself mourning for an eroded Old World charm I never knew.
The general store owned by the Kua family in Batu Pahat always had a giant kettle of coffee ready for the pouring. Customers and family friends lounged around a heavy marble-topped table with mugs of coffee and the daily paper. When the kettle ran dry, they ordered one of the children—my skinny-legged father or his cousins—to scuttle to another store for coffee powder. Throughout the day, my father refueled himself on caffeine. He drank much more coffee than water, like it was gasoline to his engine.
During the day, Dad hung around the store or played in the field or slipped off to swim somewhere off-limits. At night, he and the rest of the Kua clan slept in rooms above the store, children lying side-by-side like a box of cozy cigar rolls.
Folks were always coming and going. They wanted rice, sugar, soap, cigarettes—the essentials—and biscuits, F&N orange drinks, and ammunition. The Kuas sold rice wholesale. There were bags of it piled at the back of the shop with crates upon crates of F&N bottles. Dad snuck biscuits into his pocket. Or cash from the money jar. He’d pop into the back and open an F&N bottle, drink it partway, and return it to the center of a crate with the lid snapped back on. There were hundreds of bottles; who would miss one?
Not so with the ammunition, though, which the Kuas stocked for wild game hunters and plantation owners. By law, every bullet had to be accounted for. Customers who wanted to buy more were required to bring the expended shells of previous bullets. These local residents, including Grandpa, hunted wild boars and flying foxes in the jungles around town; Grandma made pork floss from the wild boar Grandpa shot. The Kuas’ was the only other store besides Frank Tan’s licensed to sell ammunition. Obtaining that license took a good reputation, connections with the higher-ups, and a secure strong-room that had been inspected and approved by the police. The Kuas’ strong-room sat at the back of the store, locked at all times.
Also at the back of the store was its sole bathroom, terrifyingly dark at night—no light bulb. Dad thought a ghostly hand might reach up between the stair gaps and seize his legs on the way to the loo. He enlisted a cousin to escort him on these nocturnal business trips. The cousin sat on the staircase and exchanged jokes while, in the bathroom, Dad squatted on a platform with a hole in the center.
A waste bucket sat directly beneath. In the late evenings, a night soil carrier came around and yanked the bucket out through a metal hatch in the shop wall and emptied it into a tong, a metal canister three feet high. The soil carrier had two tongs, balanced on the ends of a pole. He sold the waste as fertilizer to farmers.
The upper-floor bedrooms housed several units of the Kua clan: the store was run by Grandpa and a handful of brothers. Dad addressed them as Fourth Uncle, Seventh Uncle, and Eighth Uncle. He called Grandpa not “Father” or “Dad” but “Fifth Uncle.” Grandpa was the fifth of thirteen siblings.
Living together meant that Dad’s best friends were cousins instead siblings, as the children roved together in gangs of the same age. Living as a collective also meant that an errant child could be disciplined by any uncle or aunt. A whole troop of cousins were sometimes punished for the crime of one, to ensure they caught the lesson quick or to prove the uncles and aunts didn’t play favorites.
The Kuas outlawed, for instance, swimming in the river. Since the riverbank lay right across the street from their store, far too exposed, Dad opted for swimming in the monsoon drain. This, too, was forbidden. The drains were gigantic, about twelve feet across and at least four feet deep. Almost every monsoon season, young and old died from misstepping into the torrent of an overflowing drain. But in dry seasons, the drainwater rose only two or three feet high. When the water was about three feet high, Dad and his cousins biked to the outskirts of town where the drainwater wasn’t as dirty because it hadn’t passed through town and picked up waste yet. Further downstream were orange peels, dead chickens, and floating excrement.
When they found a good spot, Dad jumped off his bike, stripped bare, and splashed. His hair was crew-cut short, and everything dried so quickly in the sun and wind that, by the time he had pedaled home, he looked as clean and fresh and brown as ever.
Lately, Dad seems subdued, almost melancholy. He’s acquired a frozen shoulder this year and still gets hit by a bout or two of vertigo. So, he walks quietly, slowly, around the house.
He perks up if table talk turns to history or theology like his engine’s revved to start. If the engine’s kept humming, he’ll offer famous names, dates, theories, and even dominate the conversation. But if we begin to talk about people we know, the engine sputters. His words falter, and he places a hand to his temple and squeezes his eyes shut, as if this might help him grasp at wisps of knowledge that may no longer be there. It doesn’t help that Mum, my sister, and I conduct table talk the way people play table tennis. The ball, light and airy, shoots back and forth and back and forth, and poor Dad can’t keep up, so he stays quiet.
I’ve seen the old family store, now empty and dilapidated. A ficus tree has grown into one of the brick walls, shattering it in increments. In the evenings, it is more despondent than ever, waiting on the abandoned corner of a shop-row by the Riverside. On the upper floor where Dad and his cousins once slept, tall windows betray rooms’ vacant souls. Window shutters that were once bright-blue are missing or ajar on broken hinges, like a row of weary eyelids.
Across the street from Dad’s old house is a zinc-and-tarp-roofed marketplace on the banks of Batu Pahat River. As a child, I loved Dad leading me to the riverbank while a duck hawker set to preparing our dinner. Dad showed me decrepit rusty boathouses bobbing on the water. Some were half-beached into a thicket of grass. There were ruins of huts built on stilts over the river. I imagined boat adventures, gobbling luncheon meat from a tin can, and hiding in smugglers’ caves. We came to the Riverside every time we came to town, like a ritual. For me, it was the ritual of eating soft stewed duck I never found back in the capital. With duck-gravy drenched rice, I had orange juice and otak-otak, a spicy fish cake wrapped in coconut leaves that had been charred crispy over a grill. Not until I was a teen did Dad point out his old house across the street. Perhaps he assumed he had told me before. Only then did I realize the ritual wasn’t just mine but his as well.
What did my father see when he looked up at those windows?
Perhaps he remembered leaning out of the windows at high tide, when the Batu Pahat River overflowed its grassy banks and waves lapped at the store’s doorstep. Giant bluish prawns flopped on the flooded road. He’d fling a fishing line from a window while, below, children splashed among the thrashing fish. Some folks had planted poisonous tubers further upriver that made the fish groggy and easy to catch with bare hands.
Something sinister also crept downriver. Rumors of fighting. In 1946, when Dad was three, the first post-war racial riot was anticipated to strike Batu Pahat. Town residents patrolled the riverbanks in event of an attack by boat. Each patrolman carried a thick stick and a trash can lid in case he needed to sound the alarm. Though originally established by Malays, Batu Pahat was now populated mainly by the Chinese. Malays and Indians made up the new minority, with many Malay villagers living on the outskirts. (The town council, however, consisted largely of Malay officers and a few English-educated Indians, appointed by the British administration and overseen by a British District Officer.) The Chinese who had settled in Batu Pahat were descended from China’s southern provinces, particularly Fujian and Guangdong, bringing with them the Hokkien and Teochew dialects. Migrant laborers, they worked in plantations, iron mines, and retail. Eventually, they dominated the banking industry and enjoyed enviable success in business.
On those tremulous evenings, steam wafted from the entrance of the Kua store. The Kuas made cauldrons of hot porridge to feed night patrolmen. Before retiring on those nights, as well as on rationing days, the Kuas secured their front door with twenty planks that fit into twenty vertical grooves. Across these planks, they slid two heavy horizontal bars. It took ages to lock up before bed and to let customers in the next morning.
It was such a bother to unbolt the door that the Kuas threw open their upper-floor windows and lowered a basket of money by rope. In exchange, they hauled up breakfast and supper from hawkers walking the streets. Come evening, the Chinese wan tan mee seller struck a pair of bamboo sticks to announce his passing by, and the Kuas hauled up his thin, sauce-drenched noodles with red slices of pork. In the morning, a turbaned Indian man walked by with a wide, shallow basket on his head, and they bought his roti, a floppy flatbread.
In the late morning arrived the duck noodle seller Pak Nang, whose name means “Somebody Else” in the Teochew dialect. When Pak Nang was older, his son took over the pushcart, and townfolk cheekily called him Pak Nang eh Kia, “Somebody Else’s Son.” Many hawkers carried their stores with them, like Pak Nang did with his pushcart which ferried a charcoal-powered stove and a sloshing pail of water for doing the dishes.
When Dad wasn’t in the store chugging down coffee, he gambled against street peddlers—the beef-ball-soup seller, the tangerine seller, and the ice-cream seller.
The ais krim potong seller, who carried a Wheel of Fortune contraption on his cart, hailed Dad over to play for popsicles or bars of ice-cream sandwiched in wafers. For an extra ten sen, Dad could yank a lever to set the Wheel’s arrow spinning furiously across hand-painted numbers. If the arrow fell on a zero, Dad lost his money. If it fell on a number, Dad won that many ice-cream sandwiches or popsicles. After a game or two, Dad indulged in sticky, wet, glistening ice balls—the iconic artifact of his generation, now extinct in mine. They were made of shaved ice, molded into spheres and sometimes stuffed with red beans, then drenched in syrup and condensed milk. The syrup was tricolored: rose-red, pandan-green, and sugar-brown. Dad cupped a tricolor ice ball in his hands and suck at the dribbling, melting goodness. Never mind that the peddler who spun that ice ball had also rubbed his fingers on grubby ringgit notes without washing his hands.
Eating an ice ball was messy. And heavenly. And so cold that Dad kept switching hands because it stung his fingers.
Back in the store, Dad loved watching the uncles and aunts gamble at mahjong. Their marble tiles slid and clicked across the round table for hours. The adults didn’t like Dad and the cousins hovering over their shoulders, so they ordered them off constantly to fetch coffee. They didn’t want the kids giving their hand away.
Children weren’t officially allowed to gamble at mahjong or cards, so Dad and his cousins flocked hungrily to the cart-pushing, pole-toting peddlers who doubled up as mobile street casinos. I can imagine Dad dancing on his toes and rubbing his hands together, savoring the golden seconds which luck takes to unfold.
Dad, once keen on games of all kinds, taught me the basics of play: This is how you hold your breath underwater, this is how you mount a bike, how you serve in badminton, how you flick the ball in table tennis, how you open in chess by controlling the board’s center. But he never taught me mahjong or poker. Not even blackjack—it was his elderly Twelfth Aunty that did, when she journeyed from Batu Pahat to our home in the capital, beckoning me to bring real coins for betting.
At family reunions, I’ve tried teaching Dad the new-fangled board games my brothers like, but I think he prefers old classics like Rummikub. Besides, he seems ever more tired these days. He prefers to sit in front of the TV, which doesn’t demand anything of him. Even speaking is an effort.
I wonder if I should be dusting off the Rummikub box more often and getting Dad away from that TV, which his brain has been snoozing in front of for the last ten years.
It’s like his mind is falling asleep, slowly, gently, into a bed of snow. I want to shout, “You have to stay awake! Or you’ll never wake again.” I don’t know if he’d hear me. When something crashes into his reverie—like his many close shaves with other drivers—I think it should jolt him back to the world but it doesn’t. He’s on cruise control, driving steadily into a fog.
I wonder what these waking dreams of his are. Do his thoughts wander to some lost, beloved place?
Business dwindled. The store closed. Dad went to live in a long, narrow single-story house on the outskirts of town. The house I would grow up visiting every Chinese New Year’s Day.
The house was built on low ground, twenty yards from the concrete road. To compensate for its low altitude—a definite liability in the monsoon season—it had raised foundations. As a child, I thought Grandpa’s porch roof so wonderfully high. Up there was where the family hung their clothes to flap in the breeze. In the yard stood a rambutan tree of sprawling canopy, lovely for shade but home to a swarm of mosquitoes. Beyond the yard were the attap roofs and fruit trees of Malay neighbors.
Post-store-closure, the Kua clan dispersed into separate homes, though these rested in the intimate proximity of adjoining courtyards. In this little complex, the Kuas tended bougainvillea, cacti, and other potted flora, and visited each other daily. They shared a badminton court until Small Uncle and Fourth Uncle quarreled. Fourth Uncle built a stone wall between their houses, right across the badminton court. I don’t know what they quarreled over, but Small Uncle’s children might have had something to do with it. Their noise and pitter-patter aggravated Fourth Uncle’s nerves. They tramped around his garden, which he kept meticulously neat. He thought them ill-disciplined and a menace to his fish pond and flowers. Behind his back, Dad and the cousins nicknamed him “The Terror” and called his stone wall “The Great Wall of China.” Even so, they were genuinely afraid of him.
Of all the uncles in that compound, only Fifth Uncle—my Grandpa—still lived when I was born. Grandpa was a gentle, stooped man with a large Adam’s apple and a deep velvet baritone. He loved to sing. Dad says Grandpa was so good a singer that during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in the early 1940s, Japanese soldiers roped him in to entertain their officers.
I can still hear him and Dad crooning in their twin baritones:
Roll back the curtain
of memory now and then
Show me where you brought me from
and where I could have been—
Remember, I’m human, and humans forget
So, remind me, remind me, dear Lord.
It was Grandpa we visited two or three times a year in Batu Pahat until he died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm when I was sixteen.
Only after Grandpa’s passing did I suddenly want to know all about him, so I pressed Dad for details. Now, as Dad turns seventy-one, I am seized by a need to find out all he knows before it is lost for good.
He’s a reticent man on the subject of his personal life, but Batu Pahat is the one thing he’ll talk about. It surprises me how animated and quickly he talks when he’s waxing nostalgic. And how much he remembers of a long-gone world.
He’ll tell the same Batu Pahat stories again and again like a tape on loop: how frightening it was to visit the bathroom at night, how he swam in the forbidden monsoon drain, how Fourth Uncle was “The Terror.” He forgets he’s told it before, either a year ago or a minute ago. Dad’s telling and re-telling of tales once chipped away at my patience, but now I see that it’s also left me a legacy, an engraving.
After Grandpa passed, we undertook the trip to Batu Pahat only once a year. It takes three hours by car from the capital, Kuala Lumpur—a long distance by Malaysian standards. The drive always had me fidgeting, especially when my father began to play at overtaking other drivers on winding stretches. Close shaves with roaring trucks nearly gave my mother a heart attack as we sped through the land of oil palm plantations. These lonely roads stained red by clay earth on truck tires were punctuated only by utility poles and very few signs. That marked the entry to sleepy-town. But it was not to remain sleeping for long.
The pilgrimage culminated in stewed duck, eating by the river, and, if it was Chinese New Year’s week, red-paper packets of money. But Batu Pahat also meant no computers (much less the Internet) and no friends my age, for the relatives had mostly migrated.
Grandpa’s tiny TV set crackled and occasionally drowned in snowy static. If it was Chinese New Year’s Day, which is when the TV channels played crowd-pleasers, I re-watched classic blockbusters like Once Upon a Time in China, featuring kung-fu king Jet Li as the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, marred by fuzzy colored lines across the screen. There was little to do outside, especially when evening drew near and mosquitoes emerged to feed, and especially when I grew older and could no longer amuse myself with leaves and pebbles.
I explored Grandpa’s dust-choked bookshelves. They looked ancient, untouched, abandoned. Dim lighting fell upon the books from a skylight, and the whole corridor bathed in perpetual grey. This corridor ran the length of the house, connecting the dining room on one end with Grandpa’s TV room on the other end. In between were these bookshelves. I was a little scared of the corridor at night, which had not a single lamp. But in the day, I picked out decades-old issues of Reader’s Digest and looked for joke pages and stories about being bitten by sharks. I hunted for Judge Dee detective novels that some uncle or aunt had left behind: mystery murders and clever heists set in Tang-dynasty China.
While time crawled by in Batu Pahat.
The town itself, I thought, had been left behind in the pre-electronic age—almost pre-electric. Men still bicycled to town; children spent hours kicking ball. Folks dozed on recliner chairs or lingered at coffee shops without a glance at the clock.
But just as Dad’s old Batu Pahat was being erased and written over, so was mine. When both Grandpa and Uncle Kia Mien passed away, Dad and the cousins sold the land. They bought two houses in a brand-new neighborhood that had not existed until I had gone to college and returned.
The new houses had bathrooms with electric-powered showers. Grandpa’s old house had only a small faucet, installed above a stone well from which we drew water by bucket. The new houses, bought side-by-side so that Aunty Lena and Aunty Yu Sim could keep each other company, had smooth tiled flooring. No longer would my phobic brother Jonathan be terrified of Grandpa’s hole-pocked cement floor. My mother no longer needed help lifting wet clothes to dry, which meant my skinny arms no longer ached thrusting a forked stick to boost the clothing-draped pole across the beams of Grandpa’s porch roof. In this bright new world we now pegged clothes to a drying rack behind the kitchen while peering at the houses of unknown neighbors.
Within the year, the Kuas’ old plot of land was bought by an aluminum business, which razed the old homes and trees and replaced them with a large warehouse. It was as if Grandpa and the Uncles and their dusty books and flower pots had never existed. Even Fourth Uncle’s Great Wall was demolished.
Today, just a minute’s walk from the new Kua residence, an Internet café has appeared, large as the Goodyear tire shop. But who needs to go looking for the Internet when the Internet has come to us? Aunty Lena has gotten a DSL modem. The broadband connection is sporadic and isn’t the top speed we’re used to at the capital, but it’s brought the whole world to Grandpa’s doorstep.
People say that you never forget how to swim or ride a bike, that these motions are imprinted in our bodies. But the wind gives, and the wind takes away. I find myself wondering if anything endures, like the name of a loved one inscribed on the heart. Or a small etching of home, nested in primordial affection.
Maybe this is what it takes to remember, even if only for a time: A telling and re-telling. A humble engraving. Chipped, smooth, or fading—let it be.
Everything’s slowed down with Dad except the driving. Mum tells him, “You’ve got to drive slower so you can read the signs and think for a moment before asking me, ‘Where now?’”
Mum yells at him on the road, for his own good apparently. He gets confused and anxious and grouchy. I think he feels, for the first time, truly lost and out of the loop. One night, after years of driving the same route to church forty-five minutes from our house, Dad found himself disoriented on the night drive home. Since then, Mum rides with him as often as she can.
But he hasn’t forgotten the way to Batu Pahat.
“ ‘Engraving’ grew out of four pages a college mate suggested cutting out from another essay about my father. ‘Girl," she said. ‘This is great, but it's kinda on a tangent. It deserves a story of its own.’ Back when ‘Engraving’ was just a tangent and headed for the dump, I was grateful for the way Melissa put things so kindly to a girl who had just begun to write. ”