Thursday, August 23, 2007

Befriending Your Neighbours

I once commented on Elviza's blog Write Away on the topic 'Love thy Neighbour'. I Felt compelled to write something of similar experience with neighbours. The slight variations do make a difference though.
In 1975 I was probably the youngest Manager that Felda Taib Andak has ever had. (Felda Taib Andak was made famous by Mawi of Akedemi Fantasia's fame). At 25 years of age with most sttlers in the above 45 age bracket it was pretty awkward for me to be advising settlers on their marital problems. The boom in the price of oil palm has brought about a drastic rise in the take home income of the settlers. The sudden rise in income had turned some of them into irresponsible fathers who frequent bar joints in Kulai for drink and women. Those who didnt indulge in that vice started changing their motorbikes or adding new ones. The good few invested in improving their homes.
My first child Azura was born while we were in Felda Taib Andak. She was delivered in Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor Baru.
I wanted out of Taib Andak and my request for transfer was granted and I was transfered to Felda Selanchar 2 in Pahang. The schme location was very close to the Johor border. The nearest town was Labis and Segamat. I chose to settle in Labis. My immediate problem was my wife Fatthiyah was due to deliver my second child and my maid wouldnt want to move to Labis which was quite far from Felda Taib Andak. My problem was resolved when my harvesting contractor, a chinese, suggested that I took along her 13 years old daugther Ah Ber to help us out until we find a new maid in Labis. Ah Ber wasnt schooling anymore and her main function with us then was to look after Azura while we went to work. My wife Fatthiyah managed to get a transfer to a school in town for her teaching job. Since we were desperate, Fatthiyah agreed to take Ah Ber along.
Prior to moving to Labis I have managed to find a vacant 3 bedroom terrace house very close to Labis. At RM70.00 a month the house was a steal. The landlord was an estate conductor and lived with his family and mother in the estate quarters nearby. How lucky I was I thought since suitable accomodation were hard to come by in Labis.
Labis was a small town in Noeth Johor. Electricity was supplied by an Independent Power Producer (small scale by todays standard) using generators powered by disel engines. Low peak period was from 7 am to 11 am and thus there was no supply during this period. Earlier it was until 2 pm but protests from residents of Labis shortened it to 11 am. We paid a different higher rate than those supplied by Lembaga Letrik Negara.
The terrace houses were comprised of 2 blocks of ten houses each arranged in series to each other. From the left end of my block, it was Cikgu Talib and Kak Intan's house. Cikgu Talib was a retired teacher and Kak Intan was an active and popular Ketua Wanita UMNO Labis member. Next to her and my immediate neighbour was Ah Chong's family. Ah Chong was a lorry driver and I would never miss my early morning prayer when Ah Chong started his lorry engine to warm it up befor going to work. Immediately on my right was a group of bachelors working for Malaysian Timber Industries Board. They are well off and well behaved. Next to them is Cik Gu Husin who married his ex student Kasmah. Kasmah later died after delivering their first baby. Next to Cikgu Husin was Rajoo, the brother of Krishnan, my landlord. Well at least I know most of my nearest neighbours.
To begin with Ah Chong's family wasnt the best of neighbours. The family was comprised of his wife in her forties, the eldest daughter of 15, a son of 12 and the youngest daughter of 5 years. (All ages are my guesstimate) The son was the naughtiest. He would climb on the roof of the houses and walk along the ridge from end to end. Should anybody tried to ask him to stop he would threaten to throw things at them. I never said anything to him, yet he shook all the papaya fruits on the only papaya tree growing in my garden while he was perched on the roof of my house. Ah Chong himself never returned the friendly smiles I used to break the ice in my attempt at being friendly. Any overtures to be friendly didnt get much response. Yet I didnt give up.
When we first moved in, I could read the amazement on Ah Chong's face when he saw there was a chinese girl living with us. I cant decipher further what went on in his mind. Maybe he thought that I had an adopted daughter. They found out the reality when his eldest daughter chatted with Ah Ber when we were away at work. Later they got even friendlier and chatted when we were at home. I thought that was good start towards the building of the bridge of neighbourliness. Towards us, there was no sign of welcome at all from his family. The rare meetings we had were mostly cursory and hostile in nature.
There was a piece of an old batik cloth hanging on the chain link fence between my house and Ah Chong's. It dawned upon me that the former tenant Cikgu Mad Yassin must have put it there to shield the sight of the 7 dogs that was kept in Ah Chongs front yard. I didn't know why the former tenant moved out. The seven dogs must be one of the reasons. The next thing I did was to remove the cloth. Only later that I learned from Ah Chong himself the significance of the removal of that cloth.
When Fatthiyah delivered our second child Azrin, my relative from Kelantan came with my mother to live with us during the confinement period. Ah Ber was sent back to her family in Kulai. I owed that much to her and her family.
Ah Chong was a habitual gambler. Quarrels were often loud between him and his wife. Often Ah Chong failed to bring food to the family's table. His children were hungry. One day I saw the children eating boiled oil palm fruits to tide their hunger. It was a pitiful sight and pretty dangerous as oil palm was never known to be edible in its fruit form even after boiling. The high oil content could result in dysentery as often happened to cattles free grazing in oil palm plantations. We had noodles for lunch that day and there was alot of surplus. I told Fatthiyah to hand it to the children. The eldest girl initially declined but the hungry look from her siblings made her changed her mind. All of them rushed into the house to help themselves to the food that they may have not had for the last couple of days.
Sometimes we forgot to close our gates. One of Ah Chong's dogs would wander into our compound to sleep under my car. This is the dog with four short legs. So they called her pendek. Kinda cute to look at. Unfortunately this dog had ear infection and the smell was nauseating. One day I found the dog sleeping under the car. I shooed the dog out calling her 'Pendek, chut chut'. The dog obediently went back to their house. Ah Chong was there to see it and for once I could see the smile on his face.
As fate would had it, I met Ah chong gambling at a shed near to where I sent my car for servicing at the edge of town on the way out to Chaah. The place was quite hidden behind the workshop. If I remembered it right all of them were chinese and about six or seven of them including Ah Chong were playing gin rummy while another five or six were watching from behind. I joined the watchers. When Ah Chong saw me he invited me to join in. Gin rummy was my favourite pastime and I knew with a bit of luck I could win some money and some friends here. As you guessed it right I did win. Most of the time they have to pay me and when I have to pay out I just dished it out on whatever thay said was due. I didnt know what was the stake. My usual rate was a sen a point but for this one it was definitely higher. It was ten sen a point, a stake that I would not have dared played if I had known it from the beginning. Since I was winning I wasnt bothered about it.
The workshop people called me telling me that my car was ready and that gave me the escape route to take home the winnings saying that my wife needed the car. Under normal circumstances it wasnt easy to stop from a game especially when you were winning. The losers would insist that he wanted a chance at winning back his losses. The winner sometimes wanted to ride on his good luck and win more. That was why a gambling session last and last. Only a police raid or an earthquake can stop a gambling session in progress.
To our surprise one day we found Ah Chong's house was quiet. No more dogs! Ah chong meekly told me that he kept the dogs to chase away the unfriendly Cikgu Yassin the former tenant of the house. He had vowed that he will increase the number of dogs till Cikgu Yassin moved out and he succeeded at seven dogs. That was the most that Cikgu Yassing could tolerate. He also told me that he thought I was different from Cikgu Yassin, and that positive impression happened the minute I removed the cloth on the chain link fence.
Deepavali came and we visited Krishnan's and his brother's house. Though liquor was served we had the option not to drink it and they respected it. Hari Raya came and all were invited to my house. Ah Chong's children came too. By now they were quite friendly and the boy was better behaved. They enjoyed the sumptous meals and delicacies served.
By the time Chinese New was near Ah Chong had left the family. The mother also went to work elsewhere. The eldest girl had to work at a petrol station. We visited the family on the eve of Chinese New Year. We were served orange drink opened from a bottle and some orange fruits. It was drinking the orange drink that was a torture to us. It was not that we had never had any food or drink in a non moslem house before. It was the glasses the orange drink was served in that gave us the problem. The glasses were visibly dirty by any standard. I downed my glass of drink like I was taking a glass of bitter medicine. Fatthiyah drank hers with more difficulty but somehow she finished it. We wished them 'Kong Xi Fa Chai' and went home next door.
Two years in Labis was enough. We moved to a house in Segamat to enjoy 24 hours of electricity supplied by Lembaga Letrik Negara and to enjoy colored television that had started to be transmitted in Malaysia.
We lost contact with Ah Chong and his family.
Sometimes it is hard to be neighbourly but a hard try can change the worst of neighbours. I am happy that we tried.

4 comments:

J.T. said...

Hi Zawi

It seems that life in the 70s was so much simpler. With a little kindness and openness, the muhibbah spirit was never far away. Although we can still get that today, it takes a lot more tolerance to rise to the ocassion. Anyway, that is just my observation.

A lovely reminiscent of the days gone by. I enjoyed it. :)

Zawi said...

j.t.
I think what you say is true. With distrust among the races rising and a feeling of anomosity due to being marginalised by the unfair treatment, people get hardened and will not thaw easily.
Things dont seem to be getting worse everyday.

Elizabeth Marks said...

The photo at the top of your blog - Is that at North Labis estate. If it is I have seen that before. My mother used to live there before and after world war 2. my grandfather was one of those colonial rubber planters, Gordon Tanner. Does anybody there remember him?

Zawi said...

Elizabeth Marks,
I am quite sure which picture you are referring to as that of North Labis Estate.
Anyway I left the town of Labis sometimes in 1978 and I didn't really know of the personnel of North Labis Estate. Since I am currently living in the State of Kelantan, I am unable to help you find much info about your grandfather. Should I be visiting Labis again in the near future, I will try and make enquiries. Estates usually have a record of their past managers. Just keep your fingers crossed. Who knows something may crop up.