Monday, August 29, 2011

National Library losing good books

SOMETIME back, I took my daughters to the National Library to see if I could find three books that inspired me when I was a teen. They were Son of Singapore, Man of Malaysia and Eye on the World.

Tan Kok Seng, a coolie born in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation, wrote them. They were his autobiography.

I borrowed the books from the National Library which was then housed at Wisma Tharkudas in Jalan Raja Laut, situated diagonally opposite the Plaza Hotel.

I wanted my children to read the books because they had left a lasting impression on me. I wanted to see if my daughters would be as inspired as I was almost four decades ago.

Tan was born at a time when there was much strive and hardship.

Despite starting work as a coolie, he moved up in life.

With colourful yet simple anecdotes, Tan wrote how he not only overcame the odds to survive but also learnt to read and write, and later penned what I thought was the most fascinating depictions of life during the three decades after the Japanese Occupation.

Unfortunately, when I returned to the National Library recently, I found none of the books at the loans section.

A search on the library's electronic database took me to the reference section where I found Son of Singapore.

The book could not be taken out of the library - if my children wanted to read the book, it would have to be done in the library.

The two other books, I was told, were no longer in the library's collection.

As we could not spend the entire day there to completely read the 130-paged Heinemann publication, or return the next day to continue reading if they could not finish, I decided that I would look elsewhere.

Besides, reading the first book without the second and third would be meaningless, so I decided to look elsewhere.

Before I left, I asked a library employee about the two books that were no longer available.

I was told that many books, including those two, had succumbed to wear and tear.

Many books had been defaced by readers and had to be removed from the shelves.

Those that could not be salvaged had to be destroyed.

I remember reading great books on writing at the library when there were more book lovers.

Among them were The Art of Plain Talk (1946) and The Art of Readable Writing (1949) by Rudolf Flesch, author and proponent of plain English who also invented the readability index.

In fact, I had also found a tiny blue hard-cover entitled On the Art of Writing (1916) by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, which, if available, is a treasure worth its weight in gold today.

Then, there was an investigative series of books written in by a local Malay writer who used the pen name Matlob. I ranked Matlob as our very own Alfred Hitchcock.

My recent email to Heinemann inquiring about Tan's books came to a naught -- they said they no longer published them.

I wonder if local librarians use the Internet to source and acquire valuable books that were once in their collection but had to be destroyed or were lost through time.

And for the old books currently in the library stores waiting to be destroyed, I wonder if efforts were made to give these treasures a new lease of life, digitally?

Monday, August 15, 2011

A couple who take pride in hard work, dignity

THE old lady who sold fried beehoon at the condo where I live did not come by the last two weeks. She used to make her way up the staircase as I was about to leave for work every morning. She appeared to be in her 70s, had a hunch and walked with a limp, possibly because of painful joints.

Once, as I was descending the staircase, she asked if I wanted to buy fried beehoon for breakfast. She had less than 10 packets in her blue plastic basket. I said I had just had my breakfast, perhaps another time. I felt guilty afterwards and thought I should have bought a packet so that her effort would not be futile.

Later, when I related the story to my neighbour, I found out more about the beehoon lady.

Her husband was the rag and bone man who used to come to our condo to collect old newspapers. He was also in his 70s, pint-sized but strong as an ox. He could lift thick bundles of old newspapers and walk down 10 flights of stairs to his trishaw as many times as he needed to fill up his day's load.

Although many surat khabar lama (old newspapers) buyers called at our condo, my wife always kept our pile for the rag and bone man -- even if we had to wait for weeks or even months before he came knocking at our doors. My wife chose to only sell old papers to Ah Pek (as we had fondly called him) because she reasoned that if he had to work at such an age, he must have needed the money.

I once asked Ah Pek if he had any children. He said his children were all grown up and were leading their own lives. I asked why he was still working at his age. He told me it was easier to live on his own income. I did not know the beehoon lady was his wife until my friend Simon told me about her.

Last year, I received news that the rag and bone man had died. I recall now that it was about that time that the beehoon lady began making her rounds in our neighbourhood. I asked Simon it was appropriate to give her some money the next time I met her, if I did not buy her beehoon. Simon told me not to or risk incurring her wrath.

"She does not take handouts," he said.

"If you give her money instead of buying her beehoon, she would take it that you are treating her like a beggar. For insulting her dignity, you even might get a scolding."

I wonder why I did not see the beehoon lady these two weeks. Perhaps she has found better business in other neighbourhoods and therefore did not need to sell her beehoon at our condo anymore. I pray that she is in good health.

It is not often you meet and learn about people like the beehoon lady or her husband unless you make an effort to find out about their lives. They may be a stark reminder of what's left of filial piety and what growing old meant if your children did not take care of you.

But to me, their spirit to continue living without being a burden to others is an inspiration.

People who take pride in hard work and the dignity of being independent are a rare breed these days - just as those who are honest and have integrity.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Take it with a pinch of salt

THE owner of the mamak restaurant I go to for my weekly roti Arab has given up trying to persuade me to buy salt - Pakistan-mined mountain salt.

I told him I only used sea salt and the last 500g of coarse sea salt I bought was five years ago. We still have some left.

The sea salt I bought came from France. However, I no longer see the brand on the shelves these days.

Either the sea salt is no longer produced or the importer must have gone out of business, especially with people taking less salt and sugar these days.

Never mind what its manufacturer said it could do.

During my childhood in Kuala Terengganu, when the river was clean and the sea green, living at the estuary of Sungai Terengganu allowed my grandmother to make our own salt. Clean seawater was collected when tide came in and filtered using a strainer made of flour-sack cloth.

The brine was then boiled in a wok under low fire and continuously stirred.

When the water had evaporated, we got clumpy white salt.

However, not many people made their own sea salt because the wok would rust or crack if used too often for that purpose.

Besides, white table salt was sold at sundry stores for 10 sen per kati (600g) right up to the late 1970s.

Those days, organic and wholesome goodness had not been heard of yet.

A couple of years ago, I remember, rock salt lamps were in vogue.

Some people lighten up their interior decor with them.

Others used the stone-like lamps at the workplace to send a positive aura through the work floor.

The only trouble most salt-lamp users faced was to clean up the grime under the lamps each morning after they have been switched off for the night.

The mess from condensation-induced salt grime soon put an end to the enthusiasm of one user I know.

These days, mountain salt are making their rounds. I see them in pharmacies, sundry shops, mamak restaurants and even at the pasar malam.

They don't cost much -- about RM8 a packet for table mountain salt and RM10 for bathing salts.

The rose-coloured mountain salt come glowing with promises of putting you in the pink of health, or so one promoter tells me.

Soaking yourself in a mountain salt bath daily will keep wrinkles away.

A foot bath will help drain the negative vibes you picked up at work.

I don't know if it is true but believers say adding mountain salt to your diet will do wonders for your health because it contains minerals not found in sea salt.

I don't think I will switch to mountain salt any time soon.

I know I won't be adding more to my food or soaking gleefully in mountain salt baths.

I know that if the salt in the food doesn't get your blood pressure up, the corroding drain pipes will one day.

Monday, August 1, 2011

When hungry ghosts come out to play

IF you are wondering why the Chinese lit candles and joss sticks, and offered food by the roadsides yesterday (and for the next four weeks), wonder no more. You are in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar and it's the month of the hungry ghosts.

Yesterday marked the first day on which families offer food, incense, hell bank notes, and paper replicas of earthly possessions for their dearly departed. Until the last day of the Hungry Ghost festival on Aug 28, believers fete free roaming spirits with offerings of food and prayers by the roadsides, light candles and incense and burn joss paper.

The celebration peaks on the 15th day with a tribute to the King of Hades, known as Phor Tor Kong among the Hokkiens. The event, known as Phor Tor, takes on a festive air as believers pay homage to the guardian of the netherworld and ask for his blessings for a year of prosperity and freedom from fear of malevolent spirits.

Various offerings, including the burning of giant paper effigies of horses and men, are made at the height of the celebration. In days of old, Hokkien operas were held to entertain the spirits and the living. However, this has been replaced by modern concerts.

This is a month to be careful in speech and action so as not to offend the spirits, believers say. Exercise caution or risk having to be exorcised. Auspicious events like weddings and official openings of businesses are postponed if it can be helped, usually to next month. And if it cannot be helped, the event will be held on a smaller scale so as not to disturb the peace enjoyed by the free roaming spirits.

If your luck is on the ebb, you are advised to keep a low profile as a close encounter with the unearthly kind is possible. But the daring and the foolhardy say they can take a peek into the other side by rubbing the blood of a black canine on their eyelids and watch the spirits come for the food offered by the roadsides. However, it is not known if anyone has tried and survived to tell the tale.

In the old days, parents also discouraged their children from going swimming in mining pools, rivers or the sea because they believe that the spirits of those who died an untimely death would be roaming the area seeking a replacement so that they could be reborn. Those who drive for a living were also advised to be careful when approaching stretches that were known for tragic accidents, as vengeful spirits were believed to be on the prowl for substitutes.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, it was also taboo to ask for mooncakes. To do so would earn you the wrath of your elders. You would then be called eow kwee (Hokkien for hungry ghost).