Stories of the recent past

  • Living
  • Saturday, 14 Dec 2013

Life in 1960s and 1970s Malaysia surely offers much fodder for stories.

I WAS in Malacca a couple of weeks ago to visit the Royal Press (more about this living museum in a future column) and was flabbergasted to see that there is a museum devoted to a certain brand of crispy noodle snack right on Jonker Street.

On the whole, Malacca, as a tourist destination, is an exceptionally tacky piece of work, but this museum really took my breath away. Really, guys? Really? The fact that it’s bang opposite the Royal Press just makes its presence in this historic town all the more ridiculous. I’m still trying to figure out why it even exists, but I suppose the easy answer is the company can afford the rent.

Well, I am still in a mood over the crispy noodle snack museum, but there was something (apart from the Royal Press) that makes up for it. I don’t know the proper name for it, or if it even has a proper name. We called it “honey lollipop” when I was in school and Google has revealed that it is made from maltose syrup.

I can still remember the face of the uncle who sold it at the back gate of my primary school in Segamat, Johor. He had a thin, dark brown face and a large toothless grin, and rode a bicycle. Hanging from one of the handlebars was a pot of the delicious, gooey dark-golden “honey” (maltose syrup), which he would twist around a stick to make lollipops. There was an old lady who sold them in Holland Village in Singapore in the 1990s (haven’t seen her since), and they are selling the lollipops in Malacca (and, Google tells me, Pulau Ketam, Selangor). I bought six sticks and wish I’d got more.

Of course they are nothing but sugar, but they are the taste of my childhood, as are multi-coloured ice-balls filled with red beans and served on a square of newspaper, and hard candy set in a large metal tray and broken into small pieces with a small hammer and chisel.

The ice ball vendor is immortalised in The Ice Ball Man, one of the poems in Farrer Park: Rhyming Verses From A Singapore Childhood. I was one of the judges who shortlisted this book, written by Ann Peters and illustrated by Lydia Yang, for the 2013 Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award (an award presented biennially for an outstanding book for children written by a Singaporean or Singaporean permanent resident). Looking at it now, I see that there is potential for another book of rhymes set in the present day. Imagine, someday readers will feel nostalgic about Sony PlayStation games, rainy afternoons watching YouTube videos, and Happy Meal lunches!

Seriously, though, I do enjoy reading stories set in the recent past and feel there should be more of them. Farrer Park offers just a glimpse of life in 1960s and 1970s Singapore and, because of the form, the picture is not as complete as it could be.

I think story books play a large part in preserving our memories of the past. History text books just present the framework. The details of everyday people and everyday life provide the filling and the colour. Thus, as I’ve said before, Malaysians should read (with a tablespoon or two of salt) Frank Swettenham’s stories about the Malay states alongside their Sejarah text books – it would complete the picture, flesh out the skeleton, spice up the proceedings.

I’m currently editing a mystery (one of Scholastic Asia Book Award’s successful entries) set in 1960s Singapore. It’s full of wonderful details of life before the island state got hard, shiny, modern and glamorous. Nevertheless, it presents just one facet of life there, at that time. Isa Kamari’s A Song Of The Wind and Rawa present two others, and there are many more waiting to be portrayed – of life in Malaya/Malaysia too.

Daphne Lee is a writer, editor, book reviewer and teacher. She runs a Facebook group called The Places You Will Go for lovers of all kinds of literature. Write to her at

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Stories of the recent past


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