He is most certainly rich in experience at striving to survive at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder. A PhD post graduate from the University of Hard Knocks, his doctoral thesis was “The liminal universe of ‘what-ifs’ in the paradigmatic manifestations of adversity and its unambiguous correlation with forgone opportunities.”
My friend, Knocked-tor Tan Ah Kow PhD, was born into a ‘football-team’ family, where he and 10 siblings could make up a full soccer team, though alas, without any to sit on the reserve bench. There were 7 boys and 4 girls covering an extensive range of age which, if possible to translate into two dimensional length, would have easily spanned a distance from Kangar to Tawau. Such was the fantastic fecundity of Mr and Mrs Tan, their parents.
His dad was a manager of a pre-1950 type of Chinese hotel in Penang, the kind once found in the town area bordered roughly by Cintra Street, Chulia Street, Beach Street and Prangin Road (is it true that it has been re-named Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong?).
The hotel’s typical clientele would be struggling Chinese fishermen and farmers from Kedah and the rural hinterland and their families, assorted salesmen, visiting mechanics and bay-kor-eoh sinseh (Chinese medicine man).
In its more ‘luxurious’ rooms, antiquated ceiling fans rotated reluctantly, groaning out their creaks and whines as they stirred the hot humid fetid air around in the room, unless the sole window was opened, whence then it would mix the fetid air within with whatever the outside offered, sometimes the garlic-heavy aroma of koay teow th’ng, sometimes the strong oily fume of fried eu char koay and sometimes the stench of stuff best not mentioned.
40 x 20 cm ‘Good Morning’ towels hung on the aluminium support of brown stained basins. They were once white, with only the letterings of its ‘Good Morning’ brand printed in red. Years of usage and laundry made them assume various hues, shades and textures, hinting at untold and perhaps even salacious stories.
The clients weren’t the discriminating types; they merely wanted the first half of the normal Malaysian expectation for purchased goods, namely the ‘cheapest’ – the other half of the expectation, ‘the best’ would of course be a bonus but not a critical requirement.
Mosquitoes were ignored in the night or combated with personal supplies of ‘Goldfish’ repellent coils, whilst bed bugs were cursed at in the morning. Checkout times were flexible, negotiable and late exits tolerated. Cigarette burn marks even on the mattresses were usually ignored by the established customers, but creatively masked by worried inexperienced guests. The only taboo was filching the ‘Good Morning’ towels.
As the years went by, with our society in general blessed by growing affluence and, consequently, increasing sophisticated expectations, even the traditional customers of these Chinese hotels harboured desires for modernity in their homes away from home. ‘Good Morning’ towels were no longer de rigueur, viewed derisively as good only for swiping the sweaty armpits of labourers. The creaking and whining ceiling fans surrendered their roles to individual units of humming Carrier air-conditioning.
Ironically, modern palatial hotels such as the Singapore Raffles Hotel have since resurrected ceiling fans but more as decorative pieces to capture the nostalgia of the British colonial era for their mainly western guests than as functional ones, as evident by the centralised air-conditioning in these hotels.
Alas, in the face of the invasion of modern amenities, the pre-1950 era Chinese hotels were left far far behind, unable or unwilling to innovate and adapt to compete with the new style boarding. Gradually but inevitably they lost their customers, becoming obsolete as accommodation for travellers who wanted cheap but modern lodging. But trust the ever enterprising owners to find other ‘use’ for the rooms – let’s not go there!
The end result rendered many of their staff and indeed managers redundant by the early 70’s. It spelt the end of an era for such Chinese institutions.
In those days when modern industrial relations and the associated management's spins were yet unknown, there was no politically correct euphemism for redundant employees such as ‘manning rationalisation’, ‘increased productivity gains’, or even the harsh ‘retrenchment’. Redundant staffs were just sacked, full stop!
And so Ah Kow’s dad, our dear Ah Chek (Uncle), who until then was provided with free accommodation by the hotel for years, suddenly found himself homeless and jobless but with a large family to look after. The needs to assuage (football team size) hunger, address basic clothing requirements, meet schooling expenses and of course accommodate his cheroot-smoking habits stared frighteningly at Ah Chek’s stoic face.
A scholarly gentleman - and he did look like a scholar - though aware earlier that his career as a manager in a faltering Chinese hotel industry wasn’t as rosy as it could comfortably be, had persisted in his unrealistic belief, an unfounded faith, that he lived in an unchanging and stable world of refined civilities and guaranteed life-long tenure in his job. He was thus woefully unprepared for the ugly reality of unemployment which he found himself rudely thrust into.
“Hmmm …,” he would probably have pontificated as he puffed furiously at a foul smelling cheroot, perhaps with just that teeny weeny tinge of perceptible concern, “what do I do now?”
Well, he did nothing because he was totally clueless.
Born into a middle class Teochew (Chaozhou or in Cantonese, Chiuchow) family, he unfortunately lacked the blessings of primogeniture to enjoy any significant inheritance from his family. Well educated in the classical tradition and thus trained to wield a scholar’s brush rather than a hoe, axe or hammer, he was more suited to an academic life or some genteel professions.
But alas, it was an era where there was no academic position nor any vacancy in a genteel profession nor indeed much use for a 55 year old Chinese man with classical education, and in the Teochew dialect too! If you are not familiar with the Teochew language, consider what Wikipedia has to say about it:
It is said that this dialect of Chinese is one of the most difficult ones to master, as it has 8 tones compared to the 4 tones found in Mandarin. Music, opera, and food are further characteristics that distinguish Chaoshan [Teochew] people from the rest of Guangdong.
Hahaha, now you know why kaytee ain’t no Canto-speaking man lah - my excuse anyway wakakaka.
Chaozhou dialect (潮州話), by which the Chaozhou culture conveys, is considered as one of the oldest Chinese dialects for it preserves many elegant and refined features* from ancient Chinese that have been lost in some of the other modern dialects of Chinese.
* Hmmm, I doubt the naughty Teochew words and phrases which I picked up from the conversations my grandpa had with his brothers and cousins (of course without their knowing) would fall under the category of ‘elegant and refined features’ wakakaka.
Though Teochew is significantly different from other Chinese languages, it’s still classified as a dialect (variety of a language) because of political reason, namely China's national unity. China wants to maintain Mandarin as the official language and all Chinese languages as mere dialects. In Singapore's earlier days of independence, the government went out of its way to discourage use of the predominantly Hokkien and Teochew languages in order to promote Mandarin as the ‘unifying’ Chinese language for its citizens.
Some suspect Antoine Meillet as the person who said “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, which means the classification of a dialect into a language (or vice versa) is a reflection of politics. An excellent example of political power making a dialect of British English into a language would be the classification of ‘standard American English’ as the language of the USA.
But elegant and refined as the Teochew language may be, it didn’t help Ah Chek find alternative employment. But wait, couldn’t something be done to harness the potentials of his classical education? Couldn’t that skill be used to participate in, say, the Teochew classical opera, on which Wikipedia has this to say:
Chaozhou opera (潮劇) is a traditional art form which has a history of more than 500 years and is now loved by 20 million Chaozhou natives in over 20 countries and regions. Based on the local folk dances and ballads, Chaozhou opera has formed its own style under the influence of Nanxi Opera. Nanxi is one of the oldest Chinese operas that originated in the Song Dynasty. Its tunes are graceful and pleasant, full of local colour. The old form of choral accompaniment still remains its special features.
Clowns and females are the most distinctive characters in a Chaozhou opera, and fan-playing and acrobatic skills are more prominent than in other types of performances.
Acrobatic skills? But Ah Chek’s major physical exertion (in public of course wakakaka) consisted of puffing his cheroot vigorously to prevent its flameout and walking aimlessly around in the hotel he once managed.
As I mentioned, he was a genteel scholar rapidly left behind in an aggressive modernising world, even one in the languid environment of tranquil Penang. Thus it was not just a job he lost. As an individual, husband and father he was well and truly lost!
It was left to his mild mannered wife to take over. In that moment of dire crisis for the family, now forced to leave the relative comfort of private accommodation of a hotel manager, Kow’s mum (Ah Ee), short, chubby and always smiling but beneath that sweet exterior obviously a Teochew matriarch with steeled determination, one of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘mailed fist(s) in a velvet glove’, made the decision to take her entire family to an affordable rented house in a slum area near the Ayer Itam market.
Perhaps the word ‘house’ in describing their new residence deserved the oxymoronic label of ‘gross euphemism’. It was more of a hovel, one in a row of ramshackle attap (thatched) shacks, owned by an absentee landlord who leased them out to mostly market stall owners to be used as storehouses for their goods. But there were the odd few which were actually inhabited by families like Kow’s.
Save for Ah Chek, the young men and boys slept in every nook and corner, even in the little space of the porch outside the attap shed where the thatched roof sheltered them as best as possible from the elements.
For beds, they used por ee, Chinese camp beds of foldable wooden frame within which a sheet of either canvas or gunny sack material stretched out as the bed. During the day, the por ee’s would be folded up and stashed away to await nightfall. The two available ‘rooms’, basically walled but not ceiling-ed enclosures, were allocated respectively to the parents and the four sweeties.
I could tell you more about their accommodation but suffice to say, it was a hovel of the grubbiest kind that one would expect in a slum area.
Despite a complete lack of experience, Ah Ee decided that the family had to survive by being hawkers. I am not sure whether she employed Albert Humphrey’s SWOT analysis to develop her strategic business plans, but the Tan family started humbly in their food business by selling fried battered fruit fritters, such as pisang (bananas) goreng, ubi keledek (sweet potatos) goreng and sometimes the more expensive chempedak (artocarpus integer) goreng.
Overturning one of the many fish crates lying around the wet market to use as a cooking platform, they muddled their goreng pisang way through, surviving for months and even managing to save enough to invest in a hawker cart, the four wheeled type with a glass case for displaying what the hawker was selling.
Ah Ee had decided that goreng this and that was well and good but the revenue wasn’t enough to sustain a growing family with ever growing needs. Besides, the goreng pisang business didn’t sit well with the mainly Chinese taste of the people in my village. So, being Teochew, she thought of two alternative possibilities – char koay teow or moi (rice porridge), both quintessentially Teochew fares.
Teochew moi is obviously a speciality of the Teochew people, where there were and still are several approaches or levels to making and selling the product. Once I was taken by a Hong Hong millionaire to a Teochew restaurant for no other reason than him finding out about the Teochew DNA in me. Yes, he was that generous.
When I was a laddie, my entire experience of Teochew moi was limited to that of my mum’s Spartan version, basically rice gruel with only kiam ch’ai (pickled choy sum) and taujoo (fermented red bean curd). I believe the Canto term for red fermented bean curd is namyee. Some purists insisted that taujoo (Canto = fooyee) is the white fermented bean curd while the red version should be taujee (namyee). Well, taujoo or taujee, I only had the red version at home.
When I began my working career in Kuala Lumpur, a friend took me to a Teochew restaurant in Jalan Bandar. Compared to mum’s commando version of moi, I then thought that its moi was for me the ultimate culinary experience, bespeaking all that was indulgently high class in Teochew gourmet cuisine. Thus I was totally stunned by that sumptuous out-of-this-world Teochew dinner in Hong Kong hosted by my very generous benefactor.
It was very telling on the pathetically impoverished world I had grew up in, where by virtue of poverty and deprivation of experience, I was a culinary katak dibawah tempurung which literally means a frog underneath a coconut shell, or more idiomatically, the outlook and/or experience of a frog in a well.
For a start the Hongkie restaurant were palatial in its size and décor. Lovely elegant lissom hostesses attended promptly to our every nod, gesture and glance, to such an extent that I was afraid to scratch my head or some other less dignified parts of my body for fear of those sweeties rushing to my side – mind you, not that I didn’t want their sweet proximity but I was too embarrassed to tell them I didn’t want anything and was only scratching my … never mind!
Anyway, back to our Ah Ee – yes, as she was the wife of a man from a reasonably well off family, and thus familiar with the higher class Teochew fare, she did consider doing a gourmet version but her sanity prevailed as she realized sadly, surely not from a hawker cart. So after some wistful thinking, she decided that the Tan family would sell char koay teow.
As all things with Ah Ee, once she made a decision she was 101% in driving the project forward to operational implementation, and woe betide any member of the family who stood in her way.
Without much ado, she got into the swing of the trade and went about organizing and managing the purchases of essential goods from the market and preparation of same, such as de-shelling the raw haam (blood cockles or kerang) and lala or siput lala (orbicularia orbiculata) and prawns, and the cooking of fat into lard (cooking oil) and crackling crusts, a principal ingredient in char koay teow.
Then there were other stuff to consider, such as charcoal, larp cheong (Chinese sausages), taugeh (bean sprouts), koo ch’ai (chives), various sauces, pepper, salt, and the grinding of chillies and mincing of garlic, etc. She had to ensure that the wholesaler of koay teow noodles and hoo pniah (fried fish cake) delivered their goods promptly and to the ordered quantities.
But this story is not so much about the recipe and preparation of char koay teow nor about the vital family effort in managing the entire operations of planning, buying and preparing the ingredients (the most difficult part), frying and serving, and general support (washing dishes, post business cleaning, replacement of broken plates & lost chopsticks, etc) including securing the agreement of a coffee shop to locate their stall and extended use of its electrical, water and toilet facilities - as with all village contracts of this nature, all were by word of mouth and thus completely at the discretion (mercy) of the coffee shop owner but the Tan’s were lucky to have a kopi-tiam boss who proved to be a good bloke.
No, this story is more about the boys’ missed opportunities as they became (each in turn) the washer, wrapper-server and chef.
The Tan's char koay teow business required a minimum of 3 persons during peak periods – one to fry, one to wrap for take-aways and/or serve those eating on site, and perform the periodic cutting of fresh batches of chives, Chinese sausages, fish cakes and washing of taugeh, and (vital during peak periods) one to collect back the plates, chopsticks and wash/dry them up.
Two of them, the chef and his assistant, the wrapper-server, were full time jobs, starting from pushing the cart out from their shack at 11:30 am to the coffee shop front to commence serving the customers at noon and only finishing at 1:30 am, 14 solid hours of non-stop hawking in front of a blazing charcoal stove and a hot smoky frying pan, followed by another 45 minutes of post-operations cleaning up of both the cart and themselves, each and every day except for Chinese New Year eve.
On festive occasions such as the Chinese Seventh Moon month-long rituals and the also month-long Tua Peh Kong’s birthday celebrations, their tour of duty would be extended by another 3 to 4 hours, from an early 10:00 am till 2:30 to even 3 am to exploit the custom of the flood of hungry devotees. Though the Tans increased their revenue during these occasions, fortunately for the health of the two principal workers, these Chinese festivals was each only once a year.
Thus, whenever I read of some ‘far more fortunate’ people in recent times accusing the Chinese of being rich, avaricious and wanting more, I would immediately think of the Tan’s and many hundreds of thousands of Chinese Malaysians like (or even worse than) them who survived by the Churchillan phrase of sheer 'blood, toil, tears and sweat'.
The third member-helper was only required during peak periods (lunch period and evenings during non-festive season). However he was permitted to continue with his primary school education as he was only required in the evenings – the two principal players somehow managed during the short lunchbreak peak period.
But then, during the festive seasons, No 3 had no choice but to play truant to support the business. Many were the times during the festive seasons (usually) in August and September that the local Chinese primary school headmaster would pay a courtesy visit to Mr & Mrs Tan to persuade them not to involve the laddie and disrupt his education, but alas, to no avail for the simple reason the family’s business and thus survival also depended on his participation.
But when the chef decided to quit for another profession (because there’s just so much, and thus a finite period, a teenager could tolerate being a char koay teow hawker), his assistant, the No 2 person (the wrapper-server) would be 'promoted' to the No 1 role at the cart. This in turn meant that No 3, the auxiliary dish washer, had to take on the full time job as the new No 2 (wrapper-server) and was thus forced to leave school only after 3 to 4 years of primary school education, usually around the age of 9 or 10.
The next brother in line would then be designated as the new No 3, with the fate of his education then hanging in the balance, totally dependent on how long the new No 1 was prepared to remain as chef.
Each of the boys was in turn bummed upwards* to immediate adulthood and a life as a professional char koay teow chef-hawker, at least for a certain term, whether he liked it or not. Such was the precarious fickle nature of the Tan boys’ education and thus their lives and future.
* or downwards, depending on how you view their fate
Ah Kow was 7 when he became the No 3 in the family frontline team, 10 when 'promoted' to No 2 and thus signalling the end of his primary education (he told me in confidence that both his teacher and him shed more than a few tears, for he was a promising student, and occasioned several visits by the headmaster to appeal to his parents for him to continue his education, but sadly, the headmaster's efforts were all in vain), and only 13 years old when he became the pivotal actor, the chef of his family’s char koay teow business, on which revenue rested the very survival of his entire family (by then minus a couple of the elder boys who left and two sisters who married).
He was seldom paid for his role because for him to expect, let alone demand, payment for what was considered as the rightful duty of a son for his parents, would have been the ultimate anti-Confucian effrontery to them. Yes, he did receive the occasional pocket money from his mum as Ah Ee saw fit to give, which was seldom, not that she was mean but because there was barely enough to keep the family above the level of basic survival.
Needless to say, he had no social life other than the odd past-2 am or pre-11 am brief chitchats and kopi-aw sessions with me and a couple of other village mates. But like any normal teenager (not that he was ever given the opportunity to be one) he fell in love with the daughter of another hawker, but alas, given his all-work-&-no-play life-style even at his very young age, he was never ever in the running for that sweetie’s heart.
Out of filial obligation to his mum and family, and because the next brother in line was far too young, he bravely stayed on at his much detested role until he was past 18, the longest serving chef among his brothers and obviously the apple of his mum’s eye. But in the end he too had to leave his 14-hours-a-day-seven-days-a-week job to seek a new life in another less stressful profession.
Indeed, those who claimed Chinese Malaysians are filthy rich may in some ways be correct because, to recapitulate what I wrote at the very beginning, Ah Kow’s story would be that of a Chinese Malaysian who's very ‘rich’, but only in experience at striving to survive at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder, effectively a PhD post graduate from the University of Hard Knocks.
As one who lived in a hovel with his parents and 10 siblings, was forced to terminate his education prematurely at the primary level due to the need to survive, not only for himself but for his parents, brothers and sisters, worked for years in a 14-hour-per-day and seldom paid job, every day, he no doubt has earned the right to ask ‘what if’s?’ and a lot on ‘what could have been my future had I been allowed to complete my education?’. And he did so frequently to me, his village matey. Sadly, I found no answer to his wistful philosophical questions; I still haven't!
But certainly he would have more than enough material for a doctoral thesis on "The liminal universe of ‘what-ifs’ in the paradigmatic manifestations of adversity and its unambiguous correlation with forgone opportunities."