Riding my bike down to the store
Middle of the day, in the middle of the heat
Who’s got the strength to tap rubber
Nothing left to say
If I could, I’d be a school teacher
Down in Kuala Pilah
Apo Nak Dikato
by Blues Gang
Poi pokan naik basika
Tongah haghi tongah paneh
Apo dayo motong gotah
Apo nak dikato
Kalau boleh nak jadi cikgu sekolah
Kek Kolo Pilah
Fields of paddy, buffalos all over
Water from the well is so darn cold
Quiet as can be, not a soul around
Nothing left to say
If I could, I’d have some commotion
Like in Tampin town
Sawah leba kobau banyak
Air pigi sojuk sekali
Sunyi sopi takdo oghang
Apo nak dikato
Kalau boleh nak bising-bising
Macam pokan Tampin
Cooking up dinner. Village rice
Coconut milk and chili peppers
Don’t have a rice thresher no more
Nothing left to say
Lots of folks got factory jobs
Down Seremban way
Tanak nasik bogheh kampong
Masak lomak cili (lado) api
Mesen padi takdo lai
Apo nak dikato
Ramai oghang dah kojo kilang
Kek pokan Seghomban
Kemang Bay, Four Mile road
Where everybody splashes and plays
Come the weekend sure is packed
Nothing left to say
The sea just keeps getting saltier
Down in Port Dickson town
Verse 1 repeats.
Batu Ompek Toluk Komang
Tompek oghang mandi mando
Aghi minggu ponoh sosak
Apo nak dikato
Air laut bertambah masin
Kek pokan Port Dickson
A banana leaf wrapped and held with [tooltip text=”coconut rachis” trigger=”hover”]lidis[/tooltip] could hold just about anything. In this case, it holds tapioca root, ubi kayu, that has … crossed over. Normally a dense, bland, starchy tuber considered poverty food or at best home cooking, it is transformed into a pillowy soft sweetness soaking in a fiery liqueur: tapai ubi.
The sweetness of tapai comes from the yeast
Honey from the bee is sweeter by far
Without faith a man is at loss
Like standing deadwood waiting to fall
Manis tapai kerana ragi
Lebih manis madu lebah
Tanpa iman manusia rugi
Bak kayu buruk menunggu rebah
Tapai refers to anything fermented with yeast. Cooked rice can become tapai nasi, popular in Sarawak. Glutinous rice, uncooked, becomes tapai pulut, the first step in the production of tuak or rice liquor. Muslims needn’t worry: although C2H6O is chemically present in the tapai, it does not intoxicate even in massive amounts and therefore is not khamr. Discerning the halal and eating it is not something our forefathers needed a chem lab for.
The first pantun suggests the tapai is cooked in the leaf, and I assumed it was, till early one morning at Satok market I found my dealer taking tapai ubi from a large plastic tub under the table. The banana leaf was just marketing! You gotta admit though, a banana leaf is classy packaging. Better that than a little plastic baggie, certainly, and environmentally friendly besides. Sanitary? Well I’m still standing here, ain’t I? Other leaves are also used, like young coconut leaves for tapai nasi, or less commonly, the unidentified swamp leaf below.
The yellow stuff is young coconut shoots.
A nifty little package
Tapai nasi in some sort of keladi leaf
Tapai won’t cook without the yeast, or ragi, a dry crumbly substance sprinkled on top. I’m unsure what species of creature it is or where it comes from and I decline to enquire further. The last pantun suggests mysterious and distant origins and I’ll leave it at that.
Prostrate daily five times in full.
Ambil parang di bawah tangga
Kalaulah tumpul asah di batu
Agarlah iman tetap terjaga
Laksanakan solat yang lima waktu
Gardening in the tropics is a constant battle against the jungle. Being properly armed means carrying a machete. From Brazil to the Congo to the island of Borneo, farmers wield some form of long, sturdy knife for slashing and hacking back the relentless encroaching green. The Malaysian machete is the parang.
Although less well known than the princely kris, the parang is a beautifully designed instrument, preferred throughout the tropics. Special features stand out:
The handle and blade are well balanced opposing curves, forming the shape of an “S”.
The parang is hammered by hand in workshops from superior steel rather than stamped out of sheet metal .
The blade is wedge-like, with a thick back edge giving it excellent heft and a powerful stroke.
A good parang can replace an axe for tree-felling, as in the pantun:
In the cut lies the art of felling
The parang blade afterward is ground
There are limits in the art of ruling
Cross the line and protest resounds.
Adat merambah ada tebasnya
Sudah menebas parang diasah
Adat memerintah ada batasnya
Melewati batas orang membantah
An ordinary parang from the hardware store is finished by inserting a hot tang (puting) into a plastic handle (hulu) and sold as a naked blade. You can even buy the blades and plastic handles separately. Relatively lower cost parangs like the one pictured below are exported around the tropics from no-nonsense workshops like this one. The blades can come loose over time, but they are easy to repair. I’ve had the parang below for more than ten years, and I’ve had to reset the handle twice. Just jam an old plastic shopping bag – or as much of one as will fit – into the slot. Heat the tang over the gas stove till red hot. Insert the tang into the slot. The plastic will sizzle and fume, so do it outside. Once it has cooled it’s as good as new.
The discerning villager will prefer a more elegant tool. At Hari Raya Korban time, all the men show up with gorgeous heirloom parangs with a wooden sheath (sarong) and wooden handle, secured by a metal band at the hilt. Artisanal parangs like these are not available at the hardware store. In my area, a retired gentlemen produces them right in his driveway. The blades are fashioned from truck leaf springs. A variety of tropical hardwoods are worked into the handles and sheaths. Lime and other fruit trees are popular woods for the handles.
The most demanding way to make the sheath is to dig out a solid block of wood with an awl or pick. I’ve never seen one made this way, but the old guys talk about it. Another option is to saw a strip on one edge and dig in from there. I met an old craftsman in Sungai Pergam, Bagan Datoh, who still made some that way, the advantage being the sheath remains an entire piece of wood. It’s a whole lot easier to just cut the block in half and glue the two peices back together afterward. In the picture above, you can see the two sides of the unfinished sheaths held together by a strap. To prevent the two pieces coming apart as the blade is drawn, one piece is slightly deeper than the other, holding a groove that the edge of the blade rests in. Interestingly, there is no attempt to shape the sheath to fit on a belt. Instead, people will simply knot a nylon cord around the sheath and use the cord as a belt. It seems a poor match for such a handsome weapon, but it does get the job done.
Take a care when you fish for mackerel
A parang-fish doesn’t cut your hand
Take care when playing humble
Be not a slave to any man
Baik-baik mengail tenggiri
Takut terkena ikan parang
Baik-baik merendah diri
Jangan menjadi hamba orang
Anyone interested in ordering a handmade parang can send me a private message.
[dropcap background=”yes”]H[/dropcap]ari Raya Eidil Fitri without lemang is like thanksgiving without a turkey. Like so much of traditional village life, lemang is made from just four components: coconut, rice, bananas and bamboo. Sticky rice mixed with coconut milk is poured into the hollow bamboo shaft lined with banana leaf, and then roasted over an open fire of [tooltip text=”Coconut shells” trigger=”hover”]tempurung[/tooltip]. That’s fine if you live in the villages, but what is the modern Malaysian city-dweller to do? The fire pit and especially the thick smoke don’t mix well with rowhouse living.
Introducing Hajjah Maznah’s Steamed Lemang: Perfect for Your Urban Lifestyle.
Hajjah Maznah, my mother-in-law, is a self-reliant entrepreneur of the first order. Unwilling to do without fresh homemade lemang despite living in a cramped and crowded housing estate, and sensing an unmet need in the market, she commissioned an aluminum kettle to her specification, propped it up on blocks on her front patio and fired up her propane tank. This holiday season, I tagged along on the day before Raya as she made a batch of superb steamed lemang from scratch. By the end of the day, half of the batch was ready to feed her 24 grandchildren in the morning, and the other half was sold among the neighbors at a tidy profit. Click on the coconuts to launch a fully annotated slide show of the process.
[su_spoiler style=”fancy” title=”I Don’t Get It.”]
[_su_spoiler title=”Nassy.LeMac?” style=”simple”]Nasi Lemak is a traditional Malaysian breakfast of rice cooked in coconut milk, served with chili sauce and various toppings.
[_su_spoiler title=”And?” style=”simple”]
That’s the whole joke, friend.
The heart over the body rules all; if it oppresses, every part falls.
Hati kerajaan di dalam tubuh,
jikalau zalim segala anggota pun roboh.
Whenever jealousy has been sown, shoot forth a multitude of arrows.
Apabila dengki sudah bertanah,
datanglah daripadanya beberapa anak panah.
In cursing and praising pause first to think; it is there that many sink.
Mengumpat dan memuji hendaklah pikir,
di situlah banyak orang yang tergelincir.
When in anger, act not upon it; that is how to lose your wits.
Pekerjaan marah jangan dibela,
nanti hilang akal di kepala.
The smallest lie or abuse of trust is like a mouth dripping of pus.
Jika sedikitpun berbuat bohong,
boleh diumpamakan mulutnya itu pekong.
It is a sign of a man most cursed who considers not his honor first.
Tanda orang yang amat celaka,
aib dirinya tiada ia sangka.
To miserliness do not give leave; it is stronger than a pack of thieves.
Bakhil jangan diberi singgah,
itupun perampok yang amat gagah.
Whosoever has reached to greatness should behave in a way free of coarseness.
Barang siapa yang sudah besar,
janganlah kelakuannya membuat kasar.
Those who love to speak filth have a spittoon and not a mouth.
Barang siapa perkataan kotor,
mulutnya itu umpama ketur.
Yet our own faults we cannot know if not to us by others shown.
Di mana tahu salah diri,
jika tidak orang lain yang berperi.
Gurindam Dua Belas is a 19th century Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift). I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast weekend featured the most exciting Malaysian cultural event I’ve heard of in a long time: a flash mob of people wearing sarongs descended on the LRT lines in Kuala Lumpur. I would have joined in solidarity from Kuching, but, alas, we have no trains. We have Jalan Keretapi, but the train, tracks and station are all missing in action. No matter.
Well should Malaysians be proud of their sarongs. It is local technology that has spread around the world, from Yemen to Fiji. I had first encountered the sarong in Sri Lanka, where it is the household garment of choice for the Sri Lankan man. Upon arrival as a uhhh foreign exchange student, I was instructed to cut my unacceptably feminine shoulder-length hair. Next I was told to trade in my trousers for a sarong. Savor the irony.
Sri Lankans are no strangers to cloth wraps. The lungis, veshtis, dhotis of the subcontinent are all lengths of cloth worn around the waist, as is the izar of the Arabs, worn by Our Master Muhammad, peace be upon him. The key distinction, which affects the way it is tied, worn and looks, is the sarong is stitched to create a hoop or sheath of cloth. The Malay word sarung can also mean the sheath of a sword or any other thin wrapping or skin of an object. Malays brought the word and presumably the innovation itself to Sri Lanka, where a small community of ethnic Malays still exists to this day. Sarong has now entered English as well, making it another Malay Contribution to English, for the record.
Despite gifting this word to the rest of the world, in Malaysia the word is rarely used nowadays. Instead the term kain batik is used for the ladies, who get stunning floral ones, and kain palikat (pelikat/plikat/plaikat) for the men, who get dull plaid ones. I wondered about that term: palikat. No one could tell me what it meant. But it dawned on me one day. I had been searching for a nice cotton sarong. Thin, breathable, cool, like the ones I wore in Lanka. All I could find were 100% synthetic materials. They certainly looked sharp, they didn’t fade despite the sun, and they dried quickly despite the humidity. But it wasn’t what I wanted. When I found one that felt a bit more like a soft, natural fabric, the store owner told me it was a polyester-cotton blend: a poly-cot. Polycot. Palikat. The word Kain palikat replaced sarong because synthetic fiber blends were enthusiastically adopted by Malaysians as superior to cotton fabrics. You heard it here first, folks. Fanciful etymology? True unearthed origin of the word? Preposterous rubbish? I stand by my theory until a better one comes along.
Preposterous Rubbish! Preposterous Rubbish it is! Saudara Jordan (who knows from sarongs) quickly pointed to the five-hundred-year-old writings of a Portugeuse traveler to the region, one Castenheda. This Castenheda records that Tamil-speaking traders at that time were importing great volumes of cloth for sarongs, originating from the seaport of Paleakat, “a region of Thondai Mandalam which is made up of the south eastern districts of Andra and the north eastern districts of Tamilnadu” according to Dr. S.Jayabarathi. That corresponds with the present-day town of Pulicat, up the coast from Chennai (Madras). I’m convinced though quietly disappointed . Truly, the fabric of life in Malaysia is woven of threads from all over the world.
Sarungs are good enough – in fact awesome – for lounging aound the house. Malay women, strictly in the privacy of their homes, will often tie a kain batik under the arms for a one-piece house dress. Malay men will also wear them to the mosque or to religious functions in the neighborhood, with a shirt of course. But they fall short of what is needed for occasions of high formality. For weddings, high holidays, royal ceremonies and the like, there is the songket:
When holding thread to stitch a songket
Back and forth stitch threads of gold
When you recall a small favor done
Be not concerned to ask in return
Ada benang kain disongket
Benang emas ikat berbelas
Apa dikenang budi sedikit
Bukan cemas minta dibalas
As the pantun mentions, the songket is a sarong woven through with golden or silver threads. The result is magnificent. It is worn differently from the ordinary sarong, above the ankles, typically just below the knees. Matched with traditional Malay shirts and trousers in complementary tones, it makes a striking outfit. I wore one at my wedding, and never since that I can recall. Guys who like looking good will wear them every Friday for congregational prayer, but I lack the necessary swagger.
And now, we conclude with the utterly ridiculous Sarong Song by Anuar Zain Ft. Ellina. Sisqo, watch out!
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarongs can be used so many ways
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong, Sarong! Wear them here and there
Sarongs are such special clothes
They let the air in all around
Wear over your head with such ease
Mothers, sling your child, it’s a breeze
To rest at home they are divine
At wedding days they really shine
Sarong Sarong! Don’t you let
Your eyes rest on that rip!
Malaysia has a peerage system comparable in some respects to what is practiced in the UK, whereby Malaysians of common origins can be conferred a non-hereditary title of honor by the monarch. Like in the UK, this is given out to exceptional artists, athletes, statesmen, men of learning, and to the exceptionally wealthy. It gets complicated because a number of different states have their own sultanate, and the elected National Monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, appoints Governors for those states that do not have hereditary sultans.
This means that every state in the union is able to designate titles of distinction independently. Moreover, there is a graded heirarchy of titles available to be awarded, starting with Datuk (or Datu or Dato’ depending on the state) and moving on to Datuk Seri, Tan Sri, Pehin Sri and Tun. Four or five ranks multiplied by 13 states equals a rather large array of distinguished individuals throughout the country.
Just as the wife of a Duke becomes a Duchess, so do the wives of Datuks become Datins by virtue of marriage, irregardless of what merit they may or may not possess on their own. Take Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his lovely wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor: Datuk and Datin.
But what about the woman who has distinguished herself by her outstanding talents or contribution to the nation? In what must be considered an egalitarian aspect of national culture, women of distinction are also awarded the same title of Datuk, Datuk Seri or even Tan Sri: witness the truly exceptional Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, considered among the best Central Bank Governors in the world, the first female Central Bank Governor in Asia, shortlisted for president of the International Monetary Fund after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.
If women can be datuks, then datuks can marry datuks. This happens; for example, the Malaysian Nightingale, Datuk Siti Norhaliza, and her spouse, the noted businessman Datuk Khalid Muhammad Jiwa: Datuk and Datuk.
The third option: a woman earning Datuk while married to an average schmoe. The husband in this situation is left titleless. It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? I’ve thought about it. Oh yes, I’ve thought about it. See, I myself have been blessed to marry an uncommonly talented woman, and it is not beyond my ability to dream that after a couple more decades of loyal service to God, King and Country, she may one day achieve national recognition in her field and be conferred a datukship. Amin, Ya Rabb!
That should make us: Datuk danPendatang.
Cue Datuk Siti Nurhaliza: Two Different Worlds
Update: Since the title carries a significant amount of prestige in Malaysian society, the temptation to fake your credentials is strong. There are those who succumb. Perhaps you’ve met a dubious datuk doing dirty deeds. Check his credentials before you fawn, with the official government registry of meritorious individuals. If the deeds are dirty but the datukship is legit, I’m afraid I can’t help you.