Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Mama Friend

Sundays at home during my childhood were often spent watching English football with my dad, followed by an afternoon matinee. I remember watching many Indian movies as well. I am not sure why. I think it is because the stories were usually quite easy to follow for a kid: Good Guy versus Bad Guy; Good Guy Saves Village; Good Guy Gets The Girl; Comedic Sidekick Leads Village In Celebration. And of course, the courtship dance around some tree.

When my dad watched football, he would be in his singlet and shorts slumped on the sofa end-to-end as if it were a day bed. Sofas in those days were not soft and fluffy; they were metal structures with long vinly cushion seats and backrests. They had wooden arm rests as well.

Our sofa seat had colorful geometric patterns like those found on bags from Zazzle. Two small pieces of formica wood screwed to the frame acted as armrests (a prime example of 1960s furniture) Often, during these afternoon TV sessions, my dad would send me to the provision shop downstairs to buy Guinness stout to enjoy along with his football. He would get me to buy those Rothman and Benson "555" cigarettes too! - Oftentimes in loose ones from a tin.

On some Sundays, I would sneak away to a mama shop located at the end of a row of terrace houses diagonally across ours. The shop was also at the entrance to Sar Kong, an industrial area. Passing vehicles would often stop by to pick up a newspaper or a pack of cigarettes. The shop was also beside a four-storey Chinese primary school, so there were always students there before-and-after school. But because I usually go there on weekends, it was quieter. I would pitch in to help replenish stores for the following week.

One such main activity involved sealing small packets of kiam sirn tee (Hokkien for sweet/sour tibits) with a candle. We would put a little tidbit into a tiny plastic bag, fold the top over a little to form a crease, and then run the crease against a flame. The plastic melts to form a seal. Besides kiam sirn tee, we also sealed packets of kuti kuti and sugar coated candies of many colours.

Kuti kuti was both a game and a thing. As a thing, they were tiny little plastic creatures (animals typically). As a game, you knocked them against one another with your knuckles to see who'd win. It's played on a flat surface and usually starts off about a hand distance away. Then you nudge the creatures closer and closer to one another. Eventually you take that leap of faith to see if you could send your creature onto the other one. If you do, you win.

As kids we often looked out for kuti kuti that had a whipped-up tail. Or any feature that would give an advantage for a win!

The mama he also sold a kuti kuti that was a favourite of mine. It came in the shape of a 'G' (without the horizontal dash, ends knobbed). What this does is you can actually link the kuti kuti up to form a chain. The more you win, the longer the chain is. It was a source of pride to have a long chain of this kuti kuti sticking out of your shorts pocket or one that hung around your neck.

By Primary Six, I had such a long chain of this that it fitted into a shuttlecock tube and then some. It was my precious thing. But I gave this away to a good friend in secondary school when he went away to study in the UK. I've lost touch with this good friend and still wonder if he understood the significance of that gesture. I heard he got into drugs and was jailed. Maybe that's the reason why he never wrote.

My reward for helping to seal the kiam sirn tee was free-play of tikam tikam. In this game, you pay a small sum (5/10 cents) to peel off a piece of paper from a vanguard board. Unfold this tiny slip, then match the number to the one on the board. If it's there, you'll get a prize. Sometimes you get money. It's a game of luck or chance, why when people say "It's tikam tikam!", they usually mean a 50-50 chance of something coming true. Or that an action had a 50-50 chance of success. I believe "tikam" still means gambling in Malay.

Many games and kids paraphernalia in those days came stapled on a vanguard sheet. Stamps, stickers, toys with sweets, etc. If you wanted something, you just rip it off the sheet. One particular toy was this wheel that you would spin holding a looped string between the middle finger of each hand. This loop passed through the wheel via two pin holes. When you pull on the loop after swinging it around a few times under your chin, the wheel spins. You 'fought' one another with this. The one that breaks is the loser. I couldn't care much about the toy but I liked the sweet that came with it. It was a short paper tube with colored ends. Inside was filled sweetened coconut shavings. You tear one end and have a shot (like in drinking whiskey). It was very flavourful and very addictive!

This mama shop was not really a shop. It's more like a 5-foot way stall with its cupboard of wares set into the wall. The cupboard was often large and glass panelled so you could see the sort of wares the mama was selling - typically sundry goods like talcum powder, razors, etc. Or medicines like Sloan's Liniment, Tiger Balm and Axe-brand Headache Oil. By the way, "mama" was how we used to address Indians. For Singhs, we'd call them Bayi (pronounced ba-yee). A game we used to play whenever a Bayi passed by was "Bayi What Color?" This was in reference to the turban he wore. If you didn't respond quick enough, you would get pinched. Sometimes you get even because a Bayi happened to come by in the other direction!

Besides the cupboard, this mama shop also had low trays of sweets and kiam sirn tee laid out in front. Sweets were often sold in glass or plastic jars. In those days, five or ten cents would get you a handful of sweets. The popular ones were Hacks or Hudson. As a mama helper, I often had free helpings of tidbits.

On the other side of the shop, hanging from a nylon string strung between two pillars and shaded from the sun were the toys and games. There was also a low long board set up between two trestles that we used as a sort of a work space. It was here that we sealed and packed the kiam sirn tee.

The mama in question was a tall skinny man. He had a gaunt kindly face that smiled often, no doubt from welcoming too many children to his sweets haven. Like many Indians then, he wore a white sarong. For a top, it was a short-sleeved shirt with a pocket. He reminded me of Indian barbers at those quintessential Indian barber shops: Always smelling nice and dressed crisply.

At night, this mama would stow his store wares into cupboards beneath the glass panels. Then he would board it all up with long planks that slotted nicely sideways with one another. Some of these planks had a rung through which a long iron rod could be run. This had a swivel latch at the end that was secured by a padlock.

When it came time to retire, he would climb his ladder into the alcove above. This is actually quite common at the time. Alcoves above 5-foot ways could be rented. His obviously came with the shop. For security, he would pull up his ladder as well. I noticed he also had a square peephole that was normally covered in the daytime. With this he could spy on the goings-on along the five-foot way while safely ensconced in his 'home'.

I did not speak Tamil nor the mama Chinese... but we got on fine. One time, he even showed me the letters he wrote home. I was very touched.

Over the years, I would drop by whenever I felt nostalgic. He would smile his pearly smile, shake my hand and give me a bar of Van Houten chocolate for old times sake. But because we couldn't speak with one another it got rather awkward after a while. Like a sand dune being slowly whittled away, the area around Sar Kong similarly changed. The children disappeared when the primary school became defunct. I can imagine the drop in income for this mama gentleman because of that. However, one day, his shop simply disappeared.

That was a bad sign indeed. It marked the peak of the many changes that had taken place along Sims Avenue since I moved away. I knew then that my hometown would never, ever be the same again. The place where I had spent many a languid Sunday sealing kiam sirn tee, buying razors for my dad, playing tikam-tikam, helping sell single-stick cigarettes from a 555 round tin, watching boys play basketball in the school next door, etc. would only be a distant memory. Only green painted-over boards are any indication that a kindly Indian gentleman ever lived there.

Next story: First Blood

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