Sunday February 10, 2013
Rites of custom
CULTURE CUL DE SAC
By JACQUELINE PEREIRA
Malaysia is changing, as evident just from looking at how Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur has evolved in the last 10 years. Nevertheless, some things stay true and unchanged.
PETALING Street has something refreshingly honest about it very early in the morning.
Stalls selling breakfast, confectionery and roasted meat vie with those peddling fruit and flowers. They specifically cater to a morning crowd, quite distinct from those who patronise this heritage zone much later in the day.
On the street, the pace is less frenetic, as if it is slowly waking up, stirring from a deep slumber in the city’s belly. Perhaps this is just the way the street was like all those centuries ago.
Sure, girls in micro-shorts are already marking out men to tout happy massages but, then again, they do not pretend to sell anything else.
If you observe the exchanges – chatter, laughter, bargaining, even good-natured scolding – the street’s community conscience becomes palpable. Many traders have been there for decades and more, each at ease with his neighbour despite being competitors.
“Old people are like that. She said she forgot,” a 65-year-old woman, who clearly does not consider herself in that particular age category, complains good-naturedly about the waitress at a dim sum eatery.
Long after my steamed siew mai and pork bun had arrived, I was still waiting for my black coffee.
“See, see they can even leave without paying and yet she wouldn’t notice,” the woman at the table next to mine hastens to add, pointing out a pair of tourists about to rise from their seats.
“Oily, right, that one?” she says of the fried tofu that I’m about to place in my mouth. Although preferring to remain anonymous, she has lots to say. Mainly about the declining quality of food and the rising cost of running her 38-year-old stall, selling clothes from Thailand.
“Last night I ate a plate of fried noodle and it cost me RM35,” she confides.
Noting my raised eyebrows, she quickly adds, “But I had it with a large crab.”
As seems usual with things Chinese, everything begins with food. Last Sunday morning it was no different in Chinatown. It was not even 9am, and yet the food stalls were already packed with people, especially the famous ones selling their variety of rice porridge and noodles.
Alongside these, as people continued to queue, frenzied cart-owners were frying up a storm of carrot cake and fritters. On the opposite side of the road – golden sweet-potato balls.
Needless to say, the Chinese New Year rush for dried and roasted meat, as well as a host of other must-have eats to welcome the new year, was in full throttle. The tubby men in front of their waxed duck and dried Chinese sausages stall were particularly pleased, as many people stopped here first.
Along the way, air-tight plastic bottles of love letters, jam tarts and peanut cookies were snapped up quickly. Dried fruit piled up high in attractive mounds further enticed shoppers beginning to arrive in large numbers.
It is hard not to get caught up in the festivals that we celebrate here, especially when they are so numerous and each one is so disctintive. Little red lanterns for the garden, a funky prosperity wall-hanging and stalks of pussy willow for the living room. And I’m not even Chinese.
For trendy, man-about-town fashion businessman Alan Chan, co-founder and owner of Grafi-Tee, Philosophy and Salabianca, practising traditional customs during the Lunar New Year is his method of cherishing and continuing the links with his clan and ancestors. He believes that rituals, especially at Chinese New Year, not only help rejuvenate but also offer a sense of security.
Of course, his favourite part of the celebrations is always the food, the rituals and a vigorous bout of pre-New Year spring cleaning. For him the rites of welcoming the New Year keep him rooted in his origins; he also believes in their capacity to lighten the burdens of the coming year. He has already welcomed the God of Fortune with a newly purchased and lit coal-stove pot and bright yellow chrysanthemums.
Just like Petaling Street, changing with the times.
I note the many changes since the times I frequently visited the place in the 1990s. As my breakfast companion bemoaned, most of the workers here now are Bangladeshi. The Nepalese jewellery traders have moved into shop-lots instead of hawking their wares on the five-foot way. And, along Jalan Sultan, traders in a make-shift morning market sell everything from used cash registers and coal irons to single drinking glasses and comics.
Yet some things remain the same. Madam Tang and her Ma Chi cart have been here for the last 50 years. So has the upgraded Air Mata Kucing and the ubiquitous wet market. The fake branded T-shirts, watches, scarves and bags are still all the rage. That is why it was nice to be back in Petaling Street.
Nestled among the trappings of a modern-day city and society, familiar faces and memories of the past still survive, side by side. Therein lies the ability of our festivals to stay true to their roots while embracing change all around. Petaling Street holds out honest hope for the future, just like Chinese New Year.
Gong Xi Fa Cai!