Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Lost Breed

P’ai Tang P’ai Siah
The cry rang through our street – p’ai tang p’ai siah ('broken copper, broken tin') - signalling the arrival of the roving
tinsmith. This was Mum's story of a time way before my existence.

She would hail the old man, for two of her pails and one pot suffered leaks. Yes, those were the days when pails were made up of aluminium, for then ‘plastic’, even the term, hadn’t existed in Malaya (before Malaysia) yet.

Aluminium pails were far too expensive to throw away just because of a leak (or two), hence the p'ai tang p'ai siah man played an important role in keeping household expenses down.

After assessing the conditions of the leaks he made a quote which gave rise to some hard bargaining with my mother. Usually the cost for sealing up a small leak was about 10 cents - this was the cents of the Straits dollar, and not yet the sen of today. Where more than a tiny hole was involved, there would invariably be a discount.

It would have been the rare trader who could out-bargain a determined Penang housewife. Kiamsiap (‘thriftiness’ or you want to be more critical of Penangites and literal, ‘stinginess’) was not only a characteristic of, but an art form practised by Penangites of yester-years.

Once the negotiation was satisfactorily concluded, he began his repair work by filing off the leaking spots before he soldered up the holes. The pails and pots would be good for a few more years.

Having completed his task, he packed up his tools and left, immediately resuming his trade cry - p’ai tang p’ai siah - a tradesman who played an important role in the lives of village housewives, though not quite like but still not unlike the archetypical (Chinese) heroic 'wandering swordsman', a sort of saviour to the leaking pails and pots of Penang poorer class ladies.

Bua Kar-Toh
Bua kar-toh ('sharpen scissors') was the trade call of the man who, like the p’ai tang p’ai siah man, travelled around the villages, offering his service of sharpening scissors and knives. My mother had her knives sharpened once every six months and the scissors annually.

The poor old tradesman carried on his back a rather heavy looking rotating disc-shaped
whetstone with its stand, as he ventured around the village, from village to village and in some cases, even into urban areas.

The contraption had a foot pedal like those of typical
old sewing machines. To rotate the whetstone, the trader applied gentle but firm rhythmic rocking action on the pedal with one foot – down, up, down, up, down, up ........

Once the whetstone was rotating, he wetted it with water from a small glass bottle (remember, no plastic was yet available in Malaya), and proceeded to sharpen the cutting implements. It was very seldom he would receive more than a dollar for doing up a couple of knives and a pair of scissors. But he enabled housewives to have effective tools to perform their domestic cutting needs.

Por Kau Ee
This was another wandering tradesman, whose skills were the repair of damaged cane chairs. Where the
back and seats or even arms and legs of cane chairs had torn or worn cane webbing, he would choose the correct matching cane strip to mend the tears so skilfully one could hardly see the original damage. Once his task was completed, he heaved the basket carrying his tools and cane material of all descriptions onto his back, and continued his wandering, offering his service by crying out por kau ee ('mend chairs').

The Lost Breed
These tradesmen were all elderly people who thrived in an earlier era, but by the time I was a kid, they were already a dying breed, made extinct by the discovery and introduction of new material and technology. The only one that had some relevance for a while longer was probably the por kau ee man but I doubt any still ply this trade today.

When I hear such stories from my mum, I feel as if we have, through progress and modernity, torn a few pages from the history book of our cultural heritage. I bemoan the 'lost breed' of tradesmen.

Request: if any reader has photos of these or other traditional tradesmen, I would appreciate a copy which I will proudly publish here with full acknowledgement. Thanks