My mother Ah Thiew grew up on King Street, once called The Street of Boatmen because of the South Indian sailors and stevedores who lived there. This blogpost is my re-telling of a story from my mother’s childhood in Penang’s Little India.
George Town, Penang, 1950s
A scrawny man rushes into Foo Heng workshop, surprising the few workers in the room. He looks around frantically before ducking under an empty work table, folding himself into the tiny space and refusing to move even when someone calls out to him to leave.
“Tolong!” he calls for help in Malay before mumbling incoherently in his mother tongue of Tamil, clutching the table’s legs.
Standing by the workshop’s inner doorway, eight-year-old Ah Thiew can hear the table rattle with the man’s trembling. She is close enough to detect the sweet-sour odour of his cold sweat mingled with the palm toddy on his breath. His thin face is turned towards her, the whites of his eyes stark against his deep brown skin. Ah Thiew thinks she’s seen him before.
Through the front windows, she can hear shouting and banging. It becomes louder as her father Thoong Foo and his staff try to shut the workshop’s double timber doors, but they’re not fast enough to stop a burly man from pushing his way in.
They shout at him to get out, but the man ignores them as he strides around the room, his fists clenched, his face thunderous. Ah Thiew shrinks back to avoid his eyes, which barely skim over her before they land on the shaking table. He reaches over to grab the smaller man by the arm, dragging him out of his hiding place.
Ah Thiew puts her hands over her ears to block out the man’s high-pitched cries, but not before she hears the sickening sound of bone crunching. She can’t look away though, transfixed by the blood streaming from the man’s nose as he runs out of the workshop, followed his attacker. Ah Thiew’s heart is pounding so hard she thinks it will burst through her chest, especially when she feels a sudden grip on her arm. She opens her mouth but has hardly made a sound when she sees her mother’s angry face in front of her.
“Nothing to see here – go to the back!”
Her mother Yew Choy pushes her into the kitchen. Her heart still beating rapidly, Ah Thiew glances at the workshop to see her father pushing a wooden bolt across the doors. His workers are putting several upturned tables back in their proper place as they shake their heads; she can hear snatches of their conversation: “playing cards…lost money”.
Yew Choy makes Ah Thiew sit at the dining table with her little sister Ah Moy, before plonking a bowl of warm congee in front of her.
Ah Thiew brings a spoonful of the rice porridge to her mouth. She tries not to think of the man’s bloodied face, but she now remembers why he had looked so familiar.
He is one of several men who would gather on the walkway in front of her father’s workshop every evening. The men that Ah Thiew and her siblings would watch through the iron grills of the workshop’s window as they sat cross-legged facing one other, each holding a fan of playing cards. Occasionally, they would slap a dog-eared card on the growing pile in front of them as they chatted in Tamil.
These men lived in the two boarding houses that neighboured Foo Heng workshop. They were among the many labourers from South India who were either stevedores at the nearby docks, or worked at the corner godowns on King Street. Ah Thiew had often seen them run out of the warehouses to unload gunny sacks of onions and potatoes from huge lorries.
Observing them from afar, she could tell the difference between the swarthy labourers in their scruffy t-shirts and sarong, and the godowns’ North Indian owners who were always dressed in white, shielding their paler complexions from the sun with one hand as they gave orders to the labourers.
But she couldn’t tell her neighbours apart, as so many of the coolie workforce came and went from the boarding houses. There were so many of them, they had to sleep in rows on the wooden plank floors, and they would escape the stifling indoors whenever they could, spilling out onto other people’s doorways every evening to catch a breeze.
For some reason however, Ah Thiew had recognised this particular labourer. Perhaps he had once smiled at her, showing his teeth stained red from too much makan sireh or betel-nut chewing, while most of the others hardly ever looked at the children living next door.
In the days following the incident, Ah Thiew would look out for him, curious to know what had happened to him, to see if he still had blood on his face. But when the group of labourers resumed their card-playing in front of the workshop, he wasn’t among them.
Walking home from school with her siblings, Ah Thiew would stop by the kiosks along the way to scan the faces of those buying sticks of rokok – cigarettes – and parcels of sireh from the vendors. She would peer at the men squatting by the roadside as they chewed their parcels of betel nut and leaves slathered with a chalky lime paste, careful to avoid the red juices of the sireh they would spit into open drains.
She looked for him among those perched on stools eating from bowls of coriander-flavoured sup kambing – mutton soup – sold by the travelling hawker who would set up shop outside the restaurant opposite her home every evening.
But Ah Thiew never saw him again.