In the past, we guarded our culture and tradition but also enjoyed joining in the activities and festivities of other cultures.
AH Tai wasn’t around when I came back to my village on the second day of Hari Raya. He is somewhere in Johor Baru, living with one of his daughters.
It has been many years since I met him. Through a friend I heard he went through an open heart surgery last year.
His father was a fishmonger who lived next to my father’s barber shop. My father was a rubber tapper in the morning and a village barber in the afternoon.
Two rows of shophouses defined what my village was all about. The shops still stand. But many of the proprietors have long gone.
Ah Tai’s father died when he was 17. He went to a Chinese school and I to an English school. The truth is, I didn’t even know his real name. We were part of the gang sungai (literally, river gang) who took a dip at the river near my house at the slightest excuse.
There were a few Chinese boys other than Ah Tai, together with Malay and Javanese boys, swimming and splashing till darkness engulfed the village. We were race-blind back then.
Perhaps we were too innocent to understand anything else, other than friendship and joy. We were in and out of their homes, as they were in ours. It was in my village that I learned about “others” – about those who were not of the same race as I am, and of different faiths and beliefs.
Festivities were festivities, no encumbrances attached, no conditions to uphold. Hari Raya was a joyous occasion for all, regardless of who you were. Chinese New Year was a happening for everyone.
We looked forward to such occasions. We were mostly poor but we made use of our conditions to enrich our friendships.
We enjoyed bangsawan as we longed to watch wayang Cina (Chinese opera). TV was many years away.
Entertainment came in the form of fun fairs and theatrical productions like bangsawan or wayang Cina. Despite the fact that wayang Cina was performed at the temple’s ground during the Hungry Ghosts Festival, many among the crowd were Malays.
Back in Muar in the 1960s, to appease the audience, wayang Cina was performed with a mixture of Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin.
Ah Tai and I went our separate ways. We worked and raised our families. We seldom met.
I heard he opened a sundry shop in Kulai, Johor. Later on he sold the shop and lived in Johor Baru.
There were times when we met, but briefly. We exchanged pleasantries. We talked about our children.
But there is something that we don’t need to talk about. About growing up together. About the great times we had together. About friends that have aged like us or those who have died.
There were many such friends in the little enclave where I grew up. The pekan (little town) was largely inhabited by Chinese shopkeepers while the village was made up of Malays and those of Javanese descent.
The pekan is still there, but a new generation of shopkeepers are manning the shops. Younger generations are filling the spaces we left behind.
Kampung Sungai Balang Besar in the district of Muar in Johor brings back a lot of memories to me. My children can’t comprehend my obsession with the place.
I have few reasons to come back, to follow the balik kampung exodus every Hari Raya. But I did, without fail, the last many decades.
The society I grew up in is still like it was. My area of the village is populated by Javanese who largely came from the district of Ponorogo in Java.
They jealously guard their culture and tradition. Development came late here. But the people don’t seem to mind.
Ah Tai, like many Chinese boys back then, even picked up Javanese. It was a natural process for them.
Blending was cool. We were never less Malay or less Muslim going to a hailam shop. Or spending time with Chinese families during Chinese New Year. They were never less Chinese joining Malay and Javanese boys in various kinds of cultural activities.
How I wish things hadn’t changed. But sadly, even in my village, there is very little interaction among the races now.
Perhaps it is a national thing. Religiosity, some say, is rearing its ugly head. We are more acutely aware of our differences now than ever before. Our people are drifting apart.
Many of my Malay friends are now orang tua (village elders). A few are now mosque officials, even a few imams.
When I met some of them this Hari Raya I mentioned Ah Tai and other Chinese friends we grew up with. Their faces brightened. For a while we submerged ourselves in the good old days when things were perhaps less complicated.
Ah Tai has always been a part of us.
Johan was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He wishes Selamat Hari Raya to all his Muslim readers.