Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Life on the Farm - Part 2

The Farm-House

Our farmhouse stood on a considerably high ground facing north, in the middle of a valley, (about a hundred meters west of the present Tunku Abdul Rahman College) with hills stretching from the north sea coast of Penang Island, runs southwards and round towards the west and then northwards again to where they end near the sea coast.  On the north-east stands a lone hill* joined to the eastern hill range by a shoulder, where the Guillemard reservoir is located.  There is a winding road through here from Tanjung Tokong which we always used as a short cut.  Those days when there were less traffic going through this pass, we often heard of spooky tales from those who used that road at night.  But if you were to travel via the coastal road, you could consider having reached Tanjung Bungah as soon as you get pass the Penang Swimming Club.

*This hill, originally called “Jaga Sua”*,was renamed "Pearl Hill" and was developed in the 1980s to hold some bungalows and apartments, perched precariously on its slopes.
 “Jaga” is Malay word meaning Guard or Lookout.

 “Sua” (pronounced with nasal tone as in ‘sign’) is Hokkien or Teochew for Hill.

Tanjung Bungah then was a haven for fishermen, rubber tappers and farmers until the 70s.  Eventually the rubber trees grew old and expired and the estates disappeared.  A granite quarry was opened up in 1959 at the foothills at the back of the valley.  The narrow dirt road that ran pass our house was widened and covered with loose stones for the stone laden trucks to run through.  And life has never been the same after that.

Our house was built on a spot slightly off a ridge which had almost tapered off into flat land.  According to father, a house should not be built on a ridge of a hill as the description for a ridge in Chinese means 'dragon of the hill'.  Imagine sitting on the back of a dragon.  There would be no peace in the house.  This was illustrated by our neighbor's house whose farm was behind ours.  His house was standing directly on a ridge.  True to the legend, the family members were always fighting with one another.  But of course, they had reasons for their turmoil as the guy had two wives and more than a dozen children of various ages, all crammed into a little 3 room farmhouse!  We were told, they used to sight strange beings in their house at night.  But we didn't know for sure if that was the cause of all the noise we sometimes heard in the evenings coming from their house which is about 200 meters from ours. 

The house in which I was born was actually our family's second house.  The first one was located across the narrow country road on a lower slope facing north-west.  There was a flat area here before a deep ravine at the bottom of which ran a stream which would swell into a raging river during heavy monsoon rains.  This house was converted into a store cum cooking-house where all the food for chickens, ducks and pigs were prepared. 

Our home was a single-storey, 3-room ‘bungalow’ with wooden front and zinc sides.  The floor was concrete with a very smooth finish.  The roof cover consisted of nipah (attap) leaves folded over and stitched together on a stick.  (they come pre-stitched).  Each piece measures about 1 meter long and every piece was tied to the framework of the roof from the lowest edge upwards and lined in a row to the apex at the top, each one overlaying the previous at intervals of about 75mm.  The next row would start again at the bottom edge and with the ends ovelapping the ends of the pieces in the first row.  The tying process would continue until the whole roof was covered.  The apex was then covered with 400mm wide strips of zinc sheets folded slightly in the middle to form the apex. These are tied down with pieces of steel wire.  The attap roof offered a very good cover and was cool during the day and noise from falling rain was muffled (as compared to zinc roofs which gave a deafening beating noise each time it rained, so much so that we had to shout when talking to each other.  This, we found out when we changed the roofing years later.) 

We had a porch right across the front which we called the 'five-foot-way'.  The family altar was located at the living room facing the front door.  This was required by tradition.  On our altar sat the 'Tua-Peh-Kong'.  In front of the altar we placed a square table where we would do our homework after school, hold discussions after dinner or where Pa would calculate our profits and losses from the farm.  I used to watch in fascination as he flicked the beads back and forth on the abacus and mumbled to himself and wrote the figures on the bills.  When he had done with the arithmatics he would hang all the bills stacked together onto a nail in the wooden wall.  From snatches of conversations between him and Ma, I gathered that we were somehow getting more losses than profits.  I would believe the profits that we made were probably spent feeding and educating our little army.

Before our 7th and 8th brothers came along, six of us children occupied the front room which was a raised platform covering the whole room.  We slept on straw mats, using oat bags sewn together for blankets.  Mattresses were a luxury reserved for our parents who occupied the 2nd room, while the 3rd room behind the family altar was occasionally occupied by my grandmother, who moved from house to house among my father’s two elder brothers and a younger sister.  If Ma had a story to tell Pa, or they decided to take their arguments to bed with them, we would have a problem trying to get to sleep.  There was no ceiling.  The dividing wall was about 4 mm thick hard-board and eight feet high.  It was quite a mental torture for light sleepers like me.  Grandma also had a mattress to sleep on.  I was about 12 when grandma passed away.  I then moved to her room, slept in her bed and used her mattress. 

Behind grandma's room was our kitchen/dining area.  The wood-burning cooking place with three built-in stoves was constructed out of concrete and bricks.  Under this contraption was a hollow base for storing the ready chopped, split and dried woods.   Naturally, our kitchen walls and roof became blackened over time from all that smoke billowing out whenever we started a fire.  To start a fire we used to burn pieces of paper dipped in kerosene.  Sometimes we ran out of kerosene.  We then had to use a hollow piece of bamboo to blow against the fire to get it to burn faster.  At first we couldn't get the knack for doing it right.  Instead of blowing we got short of breathe and sucked in and ended up coughing.  Wood-burning stoves later became out-of-style when made-in-China charcoal stoves were introduced to us in the early 60s.  That ended our problem of finding, cutting and chopping fire-wood.

On the other side if the dining and cooking area was the washing area.  There was a concrete water tank with half of it enclosed with zinc walls for the bathroom.  We used old Milo tins to scoop up the water for bathing and washing.  Later when plastic hoses were available, we used a piece of plastic hose to siphon out the water for washing clothes where continuous flow of water was usually required.  As kids, we were afraid of the dark bathroom.  So we chose to bathe outside until we were old enough to feel self-conscious, especially when we had visitors who liked to sit at our dining table and chat with mother when she was cooking.

When we started growing up and had two more additions to the family, Pa decided to extend the kitchen.  He had the old wood-burning stoves knocked out and relocated the water tank and bathroom further back.  We then had a bigger dining room and kitchen and another room where the washing area and old bathroom were.  It was this room I stayed in when I got married.

Our toilet was a pit latrine located across the road.  Those days only pit latrines were used in the countryside.  We dug it to about 6 feet deep.  But eventually it began to fill up.  Usually it wasn't our excrement that filled it up.  The damage was often caused by moles burrowing holes into the ground beside the latrine.  During heavy rains water flowed into the holes filling up the latrine with muddy water.  Our problem was when we needed to 'go' during the night.  Most of us dared not go outside alone.  So we needed to call up some escorts.  If you feel lazy and refused to provide the escort service when required, there was always the threat that next time if you need someone to escort you, you'd not find any volunteers. 

So, there you are squatting inside the dark toilet doing your thing, while the escorts stand outside chatting or stamping their feet chasing away mosquitos or keeping very quiet until you thought they had sneaked away.  You had to keep calling out to make sure they had not deserted you.  Sometimes the more courageous of us would start telling ghost stories and the rest would try to shut him up.  Another problem was trying to make sure we cleaned our behinds properly in the dark using old newspapers.  Tissue papers were probably not invented yet.

We didn’t have electricity until the later half of the 60s.  We had a pressurised kerosene lamp which was about as bright as our present 20 watt flourescent tube light.  But it was troublesome lighting it.  We had to pour in about 1 litre of kerosene into the chamber at the base, pump in air to pressurise it, then pour about 2 table-spoonfuls of spirit into a kidney shaped tray inside the lighting chamber which was surrounded by a cylindrical glass case, light up the spirit to heat up a cloth bag which was tied to a spray-head connected to a nozzle.  When the bag was properly heated, the pressurised kerosene was turned on to spray through the nozzle into the spray-head.  The resulting combustion transformed the bag into a luminous spherical shape which burned in a white continous flame until the combined kerosene/air supply was shut off.  After it was shut down, the bag remained spherical and can still be lighted up again and used as long as it remained unbroken.  But it was very fragile and any sudden drop or knock on the lamp would result in a broken bag, after which it had to be replaced with a new one.  

The responsibility of lighting the lamp started with Pa.  Then when he had enough of doing it everyday, he passed the job to my eldest brother.  Later, everyone had to learn how to do it.  Of course some of us were not as gentle as required and ended up breaking the cloth bag too often.
The nightly bedtime routine was the hissing sound of the shut down process of letting the compressed air out of the kerosene chamber.

Our water supply came from the foothills.  There used to be a stream flowing continuously with clear and fresh water, so clean you could drink it just by cupping it up with your bare hands.  Pa and some neighbors got together and fixed up about a kilometer of piping to get the water to our house and farms.  We enjoyed that luxury for a few years until the stone quarry started.  Then things started going downhill from there.  During rainy days we got a lot of muddy water from the pipes.  Most of the time the pipes were clogged up.  Pa had to go knocking on the pipes with a hammer trying to locate where the blockages were.  Sometimes he would open them up to find small stones jammed inside.  Now, during the dry seasons, whenever I hear a bird that goes "tang-tang-tang" in the evenings, I still remember Pa knocking on those pipes trying to get the water to flow again.

The stone quarry workers' quarters were located near the stream where we got our water supply.  Sometimes we were very suspicious about what we found in the water that flowed out from our taps.  Pa was terribly disappointed.  But life had to go on. 

Because our house was just near the road, we had to keep dogs around the house.  My favorite was a mongrel fathered by a German shepherd.  Nobody wanted him because he had a limp in the front leg.  Whenever anyone approached him he'd raise it like he was ready to shake hands.  We didn't have a name for him so we simply called him "kaokiah" (little dog).  He was great catcher.  I once saw him catch a rat which tried to escape through a hole in the fence.  He jumped and caught the rodent before it could get through the hole.  

I remember another dog we got from my cousin who lived on the main road about 3 kilometers away.  He was already full grown when we got him.  They called him Tiger.  We had to chain him up at first because he was not ready to accept us.  Later, we allowed him to run free once in a while, until finally we let him off the chain completely.  Then one day he went missing.  He went back to his old home.  My cousin brought him back to us.  We chained him up again for a while.  After a few times of this routine he got the idea that we were now his family.  But then, he still went back sometimes to his old home for a visit.  Along the way, he had to pass through hostile territories and probably had to fight his way through.  He would sometimes return home wounded and limping.  We also discovered why my cousin wanted to give him away.  We found him sleeping on top of the car one morning.  There were lots of scratches on the car bonnet.

We also had another dog which had the potential to be a killer.  He started off by attacking a neighborhood boy who was passing by.  Ma sent the boy to a clinic and paid his medical bills.  One day while I was tying him up after giving him his meal, he raised his head snarling and snapping his jaws.  It was only a split second but time was frozen at that moment.  I let go of him and stared at both my wrists.  There were 4 holes on each of them and blood was oozing out. 

It was some time before my wounds healed.  By then, my anger was gone, but I had not forgotten.  His aggression drove him to attack two more family members, Boon Kit and Chee Seng, before I decided to put him away permanently.  They were probably too young then to remember the incidences.  I took it upon myself to remove this menace from our home.  Jungle style.

We also had a cat which my maternal grandma gave to us.  She was black all over with white underbelly and white on one side of her face and her feet.  One day, she came back from her wanderings around the neighborhood looking very well fed.  We only realised later she was pregnant and gave birth to a few cute little kittens which were white all over except for the tips of their paws and their noses and tails.  Pa said they looked like Siamese Cats.  She probably had a Siamese boyfriend in the neighborhood.  We never knew who the boyfriend was or where he stayed.  Mother cat would not allow us to touch her babies.  She hid them among the bags of animal feed in the store.  Everytime she knew that we have found her hiding place, she'd move her babies somewhere else.   It was only when her kittens grew up and could run around on their own that she let us play with them. 

One day we heard mother cat calling out all over the place.  We couldn't find the kittens anywhere.  We assumed they were stolen by someone who thought they were pure Siamese.  But mother cat was never lonesome for long.  She attracted quite a number of toms who came and even stayed around for a while.  We were always getting more kittens than we wanted.  But the jungle seemed to take care of some over-population problems.  Mostly we don't know what happened, but some cats just disappeared and we never knew where they went.

Our home stood on this ground until the year 1996 when our # 7 brother decided he's had enough.  He had saved enough money to buy a new home and start a new life.  The construction company had started building the Tunku Abdul Rahman College nearby and they needed an access road to tranport material to the work site.  That road was to run right across our front yard.  It was also when severe water shortage, dust and noise pollution from the nearby quarry became too unbearable.  Termites, which I once thought I had taken care of permanently, had rebuilt their food supply routes all the way to the roof.  And there were incidences when he saw ghostly figures passing by outside the windows in the late afternoons or at night and dreamed about them telling him to leave the farm! 

Stay tuned, folks....


  1. When did Uncle shifted out from this nostalgic farm house? i remembered that i use to play with my siblings in the garage or went over to the backyard to see the vegetables when we visit during cny. Also climbed into Uncle Liang Kau`s school bus and play hide & seek. lol

  2. After I spent 9 months in Jakarta in 1985, I quit and returned home. I then found a job in SP. That same year I moved to SP permanently.

    For us, these memories are both bitter and sweet. Only time has healed the wounds so we can now see them from a detached point of view.

  3. Woohoo.. I'm mentioned in the story :p
    I do remember the dog bite, because that's the only time I ever got bit by a dog.

    Wow, the memories are coming back to me and I could barely remember how the house looked like. I did remember staying overnight once and the fireflies in the room scared the hell out of me!

    It's nice to see some drawings of the old house. Hope there's more of them lying around some where :)

  4. as I said, stay tuned... But I'll have to sketch them from memory.

  5. I remember those three dogs how they die, I WATCHED THEM DIE!:
    Kaokiah--die of pneumonia and sepsis, under the pouring rain....
    Tiger-- die of wound infection and sepsis, under the gun of dog catcher..
    and Nickey--who ended up in Jungle style, accused to be homicidal, under the cangkul....I'm one of the witness and part of the undertaker...
    May God bless them all....

  6. OOps!...oops. I thought I didn't have any witnesses... ssshh. I don't want the SPCA or animal lovers coming after me....
    I thought the others died of old age.

  7. Wow! Uncle you did a post mortem on all these dogs? hahaha