A peek into the past

8 October 2008 at 7:34 pm (Thoughts) (, , )

An old Chinese mansion

An old Chinese mansion

This is the remains of an old Chinese mansion in a town called Jawi, on the mainland of Penang, Malaysia (previously known as Province Wellesley, now known as Seberang Prai). I think it probably dates back to the early half of the 20th century. I am standing at the main entrance to the house: the entrance reserved for the master and mistress of the house, and important guests. Minor wives and concubines were forbidden from using this entrance; they had their own smaller entrances further down the street.

The photo doesn’t show it all, but in its prime, this part of the house would have been the main receiving area for the master’s important guests. The courtyard is immense, and it’s not the only courtyard in the compound. Past this building, there will be an inner courtyard, and further on will be the master’s dormain (with possibly a second inner courtyard). The master’s bedroom chamber would have also been somewhere there, in the heart of the mansion.

I don’t know who owns this house today, but it is not open to visitors. One assumes it’s still in the keeping of the family’s estate. Not every part of the house has survived intact. Some parts further to the left and right of the main building looks like they have been sold or let out, as the walls between the buildings have been sealed up.

The stainless steel grill door that I have in my photo is not part of the original house. It’s an ugly 21st century addition. The original door would have been made of heavy wood, and one would probably not have been able to peep through to the main building the way I have done here.

My mother’s hometown is about 15 minutes away, in another neighbouring small town. I love the small historic towns of this country. It reminds you that things weren’t always the way they are today. Walking down the main street in Jawi, I felt like a piece of the past had been preserved for me.

This, by the way, is a snapshot of one of my childhood memories: the long, long corridor that connects the shops on the street.

The shops on the main street of Jawi

The shops on the main street of Jawi

My grandparents used to live in a shophouse on a street that looked like this one. I never dared to wander too far away on my own, even though it seemed like the street was a treasure trove of magical shops, each looking and smelling different from the next. I would take the dollar notes my late uncle would have given me (he was always generous with us kids), and skip along to the stationery shop 3 shops away, to buy a comic book or a notebook and a pencil. It seems like an eternity ago, but I still remember the sound, taste, touch and smell of my mother’s hometown. The wooden walls of the bedrooms. The creaking ceiling fans that threatened to fall on my head. The old-fashioned circular light switches. The busy street I could observe from my grandmother’s room. The delicious deep-fried banana my grandmother would get my uncle to buy for me from the market each morning. The black local coffee that I, armed with my grandmother’s green enamel coffee pot, would be sent to buy from the coffee shop 5 doors away (the furthest I would venture on my own).

Small towns like these remind me of sweltering afternoons watching cartoons and hearing the old man next door hacking out his lungs repeatedly, and the chatter of my mother and her sisters in their sing-song dialect that I often fell asleep to. The soundbites of my childhood. I don’t have the best short-term memory (in fact, it’s downright bad), but it’s nice to know that my long-term memory doesn’t seem too worse for wear. What does one want, if not a long, wistful walk down memory lane once in a while?

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1 Comment

  1. Eve said,

    Ah, this brings back memories for me too! The sounds and sights and especially the smells. Only difference is my mom’s hometown is Penang island itself. There was always this saltwatery tang in the water and the air. And yes, I also remember the old man next door. Funny how there always seems to be one next door hacking out his lungs!

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