Glimpses of the Unhurried Life

I grew up in Kulim. A tiny, modest little settlement in rural Malaysia during the 80s. There were no traffic lights in our little town back then. Folks just slowly meandered through the sleepy streets in their softly puttering cars. Bicycles and motorbikes ruled.

McDonald’s golden arches didn’t manage to slash its way through our thick jungles until 2011. And a drive-thru hamburger joint at that. It is the talk of town until today.

The very first time I had a hamburger was when I was 14 years old. It was my first taste of American fast food served from a rickety street cart called Ramly Burger. It was a hamburger with a twist. Topped with lashings of Maggi Chilli Sos and Yeo’s canned baked beans and squashed between two slices of freshly griddled buns and a beautiful slab of smoky chicken patty.

All this cooked and flipped right before your eyes. Bundled up in a thin sheet of waxed paper, this greasy, dripping, messy mound was just heaven. We were only allowed this treat once a year.

For me, when I think of a hamburger, I think of a Ramly Burger.

When I was 12 years old, a fully air-conditioned cafe serving chicken chop, burgers and overpriced ice-cream called banana splits, opened its doors to our bewildered little gaggle of villagers. It was an ambitious dream to introduce upscale chic and forks and knives to our simple, unsophisticated palate. Sadly, this ambitious enterprise didn’t last very long. Of course it might just have had something to do with its rather unfortunate name “Kulim Bugger”.

My parents still live in the same old house we moved into almost 30 years ago. Translated into English, our neighbourhood is called Rose Garden. There is not a single rose bush in anyone’s garden as far as I know. But there are plenty of hibiscus bushes, banana, and coconut trees flourishing under the tropical sun. And the occasional monkey and iguana too. Chickens peck contentedly on the narrow lanes.

This little turf where I grew up remains the kind of place where time has simply stood still. Where neighbours still present bowls of freshly cooked curry chicken over the fences to each other. Friends drop in unannounced. It’s a place where I suspect, nobody is ever truly lonely.

Here are some photos from my last trip back to my hometown during the Chinese New Year. It is important for me to return to my family home. It is important for me to return to my roots and remember where I came from. Most of all it is important for me to share with my young son a way of life I still cherish.

Breakfast at the local dim sum shop. A stack of bamboo steamers filled with delicate morsels of dumplings. Eating is never a solitary affair here. It is an excuse to cram as many people around the table to share a meal together.

The wet market remains the hub of Kulim. This is where diligent housewives haggle over the freshest fish, sniff at bundles of fragrant herbs and point to slabs of wobbly tofu. Each item is then deftly wrapped in newspaper to be brought home for the day’s meal.

The Kulim Market teems with life, sounds, smells and colours. Sellers shout their wares and call out to those passing by. Mounds of dried shrimps and fish give off an odour that only a Malaysian can tolerate and appreciate. It is a morning cacophony that is somehow comforting to me.

It is like a giant open-air supermarket. From bamboo back-scratchers to pirated Angry Birds party dresses. My son is mesmerised. So am I.

But for me the best thing about growing up in this place and remains an unquestioned way of life is that Muslim and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist children come together side by side like brothers and sisters.

Nobody gets left out when it’s time to play. The neighbourhood kids from a diverse blend of cultures, religions and languages play together like it’s the most natural thing to do. And it is.

Where even the smallest finds a place in the big scheme of life. And children take their time to grow up.

The old and the young mingle in warm affection. My neighbour Aunty Rosmah sitting under her jackfruit tree outside her home making beaded necklaces for her grandchildren.

Where smiles come easy. A simple childlikeness and lightheartedness I rarely find anywhere else, I find it here. My lovely neighbour Aliya and her son out for a ride around the neighbourhood in the cool of the evening.

So much has changed since I left this little hometown of mine. Today we have a huge Tesco which sells chicken neatly packaged in clingwrap sitting on chilled shelves. We’ve got highways cutting through our town. Traffic lights have sprung up from every corner. The hills are being slowly carved out for more housing development.

And yet, I am grateful that even today there still remains a palpable sense of community and an unhurried sense of watching life unfurl. A way of life as old as the hills. I just thought that in a world gone mad and a country going through the birthing pangs of modernity, this little unknown spot on the map shines brilliantly.

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