Growing up on Northam Road, Penang

In their younger days, the writer and her siblings used to collect frangipani flowers from the cemetery near their house and sell them. —

From the day I was born, I grew up in a large bungalow on Northam Road (later changed to Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah).

Don’t get me wrong, I am not some towkay or anywhere near one, but merely a bungalow caretaker’s daughter. My father who was brought by the British from Punjab first settled in Perak in the tin mines and plantations before finally arriving in Penang. There he got a job at the Penang Port Commission as a guard.

Back then, people helped each other, so he was offered a second job as a caretaker in a rich towkay’s bungalow. My father changed shifts with the other guards when he was on duty at PPC. There were altogether three guards and, as papa had a wife, he was given the servant’s quarter. This was a separate section from the main building of the bungalow.

The ground floor was a large garage for the towkay’s imported car. We were given strict orders not to be near that area. The top floor had three medium-sized rooms and one small room. These rooms were for the driver and caretaker, and one was a dusty spare room. The small room was used to keep miscellaneous items.

Just next to the garage was a large bathroom and a cubicle for a toilet. In this bathroom, a cemented fireplace was built for the servants to cook their meals, do the laundry and to shower.

The towkay employed Ah Mooi who did the cleaning and laundry and Ah See who did the cooking. Those days, the maids came from China.

I was about four years old when the towkay left for the heavenly abode and his wife (we called her Nyonya) moved to Batu Ferringhi. Nyonya was kind to us as she let us stay on in the bungalow with a minimal wage, seeing my mother was expecting a second child. We did not have to pay for any other utilities during our stay in that big house.

After Nyonya moved away, Ah See went back to China, so Ah Mooi alone was left to clean the mansion. Ah Mooi did not want to stay alone inside the main building so she moved to the room next to our staircase so she could be near us. With Ah See gone, papa started calling Ah Mooi, Ah See and she called papa "yaka" (jaga). The driver too had left for there was no job for him there now. We were told to upkeep the surrounding and get the grass cut. There was a little orchard behind the house which had jambu trees, pots of beautiful flowers, pandan and serai plants.

Nyonya visited the house occasionally to oversee things and would bring us baked goodies. We were always happy to see her as she smelled really good. She wore a sarong with a kerongsang blouse and a pair of slippers similar to the ones worn by Nyonya ladies. Her hair was tied neatly into a little bun.

We had a dog named Moti and Nyonya was very fond of him. She would bring chicken bones for him and Moti would keep wagging his tail while she spoke Hokkien with him. I suppose he understood the message of love.

Ma took care of us and the house. Papa went to the Chowrasta market on alternate days and made sure we had enough food. He was someone who would never buy outside food, so Ma had to pack his meals for work. He also made sure we ate homecooked food, so when we wanted Char Koay Teow or Putu Mayam (string hopper), he would make a fuss. In a way, it was good for he saved a bit for our schooling and later in life bought two houses.

After dinner every night, Ma would ensure (with a cane in her hand), we sat down with our books and did our homework. I thank her till today for the education I had. I was able to get a corporate job with a good pay.

On New Year’s Eve, Ma would bake a simple cake and make some jelly to usher in the New Year. At the stroke of midnight, we would cut the cake and eat the jelly.

Hearing noises from the road, we would run out to the wall facing Northam Road to see cars sounding their horns and making a thunderous noise with tins attached to their back bumpers. One time, my excited brother started drumming on a bin and he went on for a while. Annoyed with the noise, the towkay (a famous tycoon) who lived opposite our house, came out to his second-floor balcony and waved at my brother to stop. My brother stopped instantly and ran back to sleep. We used to watch this towkay walk to a shop for coffee every Sunday morning but we never said a word to him.

While growing up with my brothers, I had the chance to fly kites and learnt to make strong string for the kites. With a stone, we ground glass and mixed it with starch to be applied to our string to make it strong. We could attack and cut the string of the other kites and bring them down. Once a kite came into our compound, it was regarded as ours.

On other occasions, we would spin a top for hours or play football in the garden. We found out that someone was willing to buy saga seeds (red seeds from the tree outside our compound) and we would hit the seeds with a stick. We collected the seeds and sold them.

Later, our neighbours (mostly caretakers like us) told us that dried frangipani flowers were bought for Chinese medicine, so we gathered a sackful of them from the cemetery near our house, sold it and got some money. Although we lived in a beautiful and posh environment, we did not feel we were poor or looked upon as low status.

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Northam Road (Penang)


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