“The Room Above the Sundry Shop”, by Zhang Su Li
ZHANG SU LI finds solidarity in the most unlikely of places during a storm in small-town Malaysia
AS A CHILD, I used to walk, run or cycle across the Kopisan landscape that is so unique to Perak.
I used to travel for hours until my body switched to autopilot and I stopped feeling my legs moving. I’m sure I could even sleep while walking if I tried. The rugged terrain and its clumps of tall lalang grass look a little like the beaches of New Hampshire—except for the red earth. My friends and I used to spend our evenings playing around the old mining pools that had turned into murky lakes. By the time we got home, our feet were red, and the fine red earth mixed with sweat looked like chilli paste lodged between our toes.
Kopisan’s famous landmarks are the large cast-iron water pipes dotted at the joints with rivets like giant buttons. Built by the British during the colonial days, they channelled water from the hills to the mining pools. Our favourite place was a cool spot under a pipe joint where there was a leak, and the water pressure created a fine spray, like a mist fan.
During those easy and carefree days, we made bird traps with slivers of bamboo and pretended to launch jet planes with lalang grass. To do this, we would tear a little bit of the blade on both sides of the stem, and place the two strips between our index and middle fingers. Then we would yank the strips off forcefully so the stem shot into the air like an arrow. We had to be very careful because lalang grass has tiny little sharp “teeth” that run along its length in one direction. On several occasions, we got a nasty shock from mistakenly pulling the grass from the wrong end. For a few minutes, we’d be speechless as a burning sensation seared through our bleeding fingers and numbed our arms.
The other unique feature of this part of the country is its limestone hills, densely covered with trees. From a distance, the layers of hills look as though they were draped over with velvet blankets in different shades of green. These hills form the undulating shape of the unique skyline of Perak. Water that flows from natural springs in these hills is so pure it made the best sar hor fun and tofu in the country. People here take longer showers as the water makes it difficult to rinse the soap off their hair. Their bodies remain slippery even after they have sluiced bucket after bucket of water over themselves. And girls from this area are believed to be the most beautiful in Malaysia because the water gives them such healthy soft skin. It has been said by many that if you touched a girl and a piece of tofu with your eyes closed, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them.
But this evening, that part of Kopisan was like a lingering ghost. Most of the land was now dotted with new shop lots and modern houses blocking out the horizon, where we used to watch flocks of birds fly home at dusk. The old cast-iron pipes had been taken down. But as I continued walking, once in a while I saw the remains of rusty frames that used to hold such pipes.
It was beginning to get late. I could just about make out the shapes of the large lily pads floating on the murky water of a remaining lake. Long-stemmed pink lotus flowers opened up towards the purple sky.
Twenty minutes later, when I reached the main road leading towards Gopeng, I felt a few drops of water land on my face. The sky had gone dark and the air had become heavy with moisture. I ran until I saw a row of shop lots on the other side of the road. By then the rain was beating hard against the pavement. To avoid getting soaked, I climbed up a dark, narrow flight of stairs next to a sundry shop.
As I sat on one of the steps waiting for the storm to subside, my stomach rumbled impatiently. Almost half an hour later, I was still sitting there, cursing the stormy weather. Once in a while, there’d be a girl or two walking back and forth on the pavement. They were dressed in short skirts, laddered black tights and high heels. From where I sat, I could only see up to their waists, but it was enough to know what they did for a living.
As a child, my friends and I always ran past this particular row of shops when we wanted to get to the other side of Kopisan. We would laugh at the last person to finish the race, chanting “chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken.” This was because the adults always warned us that if we loitered around that area too much, the mamasan would kidnap us and turn us into her “chickens”, a word used by the Chinese to refer to sex workers.
We didn’t know anything about sex workers except that they wore skimpy clothes, and that they were to be avoided because they were bad people.
A thin woman appeared at the bottom of the stairs. She spun her umbrella to shake off the rain before closing it. As she climbed the stairs, she glanced at me. I didn’t know whether to smile or not, so I looked straight ahead at a cobweb that was swaying from the ceiling.
“Are you waiting for the rain to stop?” she asked me in English.
I replied that I was on my way to the Gopeng market and that I’d left my car some distance away.
“Do you want some tea?”
The thought of a hot cup of milky tea made me accept her invitation eagerly.
We walked up the remaining steps and entered a tiny room. It smelled of fabric conditioner. There was a curtain that divided the room into two. It had bright yellow butterflies printed on it, and the air from the table fan made it flutter in waves. The woman led me towards a small foldable table under a wooden plantation window that was painted in cobalt blue. Against the adjacent wall was a narrow and rusty iron-framed bed on which a stack of neatly folded clothes lay.
She started emptying a plastic bag of cucur udang onto an enamel plate. Reaching for a tin flask with red roses painted on it, she smiled and apologised that the tea wasn’t freshly made. I assured her I didn’t mind. She pulled out the muslin-wrapped cork stopper and poured tea into two stainless steel cups.
As we drank tepid tea, my gaze swept along the shelf above the bed. There was a hairbrush, a round swivel mirror, and a mint-green enamel mug containing a toothbrush and a tube of Darlie toothpaste. Several bottles of shampoo and lotion stood in line. Next to those, closest to the head of the bed, was an old, creased paperback wrapped in clear cellophane that looked just like the books in libraries and second-hand bookstores. It was a collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.
Introducing herself as Radha, the woman asked me where I was from. I told her that I lived in Kuala Lumpur, but made occasional visits to my hometown of Gopeng where I spent most of my childhood. This prompted Radha to talk enthusiastically about her own childhood. She, too, used to climb up onto the water pipes and walk along them barefoot.
“I still remember how nice and cool the pipes felt under my feet,” Radha said. “On clear nights, after dinner, I would sit on a pipe near a mining pool and look at fireflies hovering above the water. Sometimes I caught a few in a glass jar to bring home. I’d lie in bed and watch the fireflies under our blanket. I often fell asleep that way.”
I wanted to know more about Radha’s background and family, as it was unusual for someone living under her present circumstances to be so fluent in English. Assuming that she went to secondary school, I was curious about what happened between then and now. But the right moment to ask never came, so I did not probe.
We talked a while longer about the beauty of the hills, and lamented over the recent developments. In the past decade, developers have been using explosives to break down sections of the hills to obtain rocks for construction work. Many of the hills now have jagged edges that expose their reddish inner layers and looked as though they were bleeding.
“Every time I come back,” I told Radha, “another few hills along the highway are being destroyed.”
“There was once a lot of beauty here,” Radha said.
Radha’s expression was hard to read. There was a very subtle curl at the corners of her mouth, but it wasn’t really a smile. At times, I thought I saw a tinge of sadness in her eyes, but I couldn’t sense any sorrow. Possibly in her late twenties, Radha had a clear and radiant complexion, which made me wonder if it was due to the water found here. She wore clean and well-pressed clothes: a lime-coloured sleeveless blouse and a floral print cotton skirt that went down past her knees—dowdy in comparison to the girls pacing the pavement outside. Gold bangles adorned her bony wrists. I noticed small circular scars on her arms, exactly the circumference of a cigarette.
The storm had calmed down to a drizzle now. I heard a soft whimper and wondered where it came from. Radha bent over a cardboard box at the foot of the bed and picked up a toddler who looked about two years old. He stirred a little and whimpered again, but when he opened his eyes fully and saw his mother, he started to gurgle happily.
Radha’s face lit up and she seemed suddenly unaware of my presence. For a few moments, it was just her and her child.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Prem,” she replied, turning to me.
“It’s a nice name,” I said. “What does it mean?”
“Love,” Radha said proudly. “It means love.”
I stayed for a few more minutes and shared some cucur udang with her. Prem sat on his mother’s lap, sucking on a small piece. The grease from the prawn fritter made his plump lips and a spot on his cheek shine. Radha wiped her son’s face and hands with a damp towel.
“You have to go to Auntie Suba now, chellam,” she said to Prem in Tamil.
Radha carried him to the other side of the room, behind the curtain covered in yellow butterflies. I heard the sleepy voice of another woman. They conversed in Tamil for a few minutes. When Radha returned to her half of the room, I stood up.
“I won’t keep you any longer. Thanks so much for the tea.”
Radha didn’t reply, but gave me a quiet smile. She looked neither happy nor sad. Just peaceful and serene, like the face of the Buddha.
Outside, the rain had released an earthy scent from the ground. The air smelled of cinnamon.
AS I MADE MY WAY towards Gopeng market I couldn’t help wondering if Radha had been lying on her back earlier on that evening in the rusty bed while her son was sleeping. Letting sweat from the man on top of her drip onto her face. While the man did what he wanted with her, Radha daydreamed about W. Somerset Maugham’s stories of lavish dinner parties in colonial bungalows in Malaya, where English planters wore smart dinner jackets and pencil moustaches while their wives dressed in the fashion of the Twenties, with feathers in their hair and long strands of pearls around their necks. In Radha’s imagination, the clinking of champagne glasses and the sounds of jazz music from a gramophone drowned out the man’s grunts and the creaking of the bed. The fragrance of frangipani flowers from the garden floated into her mind to mask the smell of alcohol in his breath.
What Radha said kept echoing in my mind. “There was once a lot of beauty here.” I wondered if she was referring to her own life, and not just the hills. And if so, I wondered what led to its decay. I wondered why she invited me to her room for tea, and if her generosity was because she saw a kindred spirit in me.
For a long time, I couldn’t help thinking about Radha, and the beautiful innocence that was once in all of us.
ZHANG SU LI was born in Ipoh, educated in the United Kingdom, and currently lives in Kuala Lumpur. She is a freelance copywriter who spends half her day at work and the other half writing for causes she believes in, cooking, and taking walks in the jungle with her rescued dog Russell. A Backpack and a Bit of Luck is her first book.
Reproduced from Zhang Su Li’s A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (MPH Group Publishing, 2013)
JULY 2013 | NONFICTION TRAVEL | 5.15 x 7.75 | 300pp | ORIGINAL PAPERBACK | ISBN 978-967-415-866-8 | e-ISBN 978-967-415-867-5