Monday, September 24, 2007

Two Ladies, Gingseng and Sounding Board

When we first moved to Sibu from "across the river'where my first home called Hua Hong Ice Factory was,our new home was at Tiong Kung Ping Road, a small lane named after my grandfather who had served the Foochow people well since his arrival from China. This road was later reconstructed and became known as the famous Brooke Drive,probably the longest known road in Sibu for sometime. No one had measured the lengths of Brooke Drive and Lanang Road. No one ever complained that the name was changed. Our family perhaps being very humble, did not make any mention of the change, accepting it as the law of the day.

Our wooden house in Tiong Kung Ping Road had eight bedrooms and living rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. Our kitchen was huge with a big Foochow stove which had a lovely chimney going out of the side wall. Our "sink" was an ingenious wooden board constructed at waist level and jutting out of the wall. Three panels protected the sink and made it part of the house. Our kitchen windows were interesting sliding wooden panels, not seen today. Everything was wooden and I felt that it was a wonderful home with a lot of space and air vents. The person who built it, with my grandfather's instructions, must have been very ergonomically oriented in those days, without having gone to university .

My mother took to urban living like fish to water. And we kids started going to school. It was a new world to us.

As for my mother, she attained another level housewifery. She would entertain especially Foochow women pedlars who came to the house, some every day and some like circuit judges.

Two ladies sold her gingseng. Very amazing indeed.

One lady was a little rotund,short but was very cheerful. I remember her as someone who had very good teeth and sweaty underarms. She was the more talkative of the two. The other one was taller and quieter. Both of them had their hair in the regular Chinese over the age of 40 buns at the back of their head. They wore the exquisite cotton samfoo which I found very sexy and admirable.

The pair walked from house to house peddling their gingseng and other Chinese medicines. Whenever they reached our house, probably about once a month, they would have new things to show my mum, or present the order that she made a month ago. They would also come with new gossips: who gave birth, what kind of baby, who got married and to who, and of course who died. We did not have to read the local newspapers social columns.

Sometimes they would ask my mother questions about upbringing of the children, how naughty we were and we would cringe at the back of the chairs. After a few minutes my mother would bring out some warm water for them, as they would only ask for warm water and nothing else. Strangely, our house did not have Chinese tea for as long as we remember because my mother has never been a tea drinker, unlike many other Foochow women. We would have a Chinese thermos flask (red in colour with blue and white flowers painted on it.

This kind of hot water flask was a must in all Foochow homes. In the morning, before breakfast, it was compulsory for my mother to fill the flask up with hot water, which would last us throughout the day. This was to give her less work as our fire was a wood fire and it was difficult to light up any wood at a moment's notice. So a hot water flask was really very convenient and very efficient. Milo, Horlicks, Ovaltine could be made any time of the day and the housewife did not have to start a fire. The flask also helped a lot of new mothers make a bottle of milk to feed their babies very quickly.

The two aunties were good listeners. They were also very helpful in giving hints as to where to buy the best vegetables or fruits in Sibu. In retrospect, to my mother and I they were our Agony Aunts, our social critics and even our match makers. In many ways, they were good people. They did not allow their opinions to dictate my mother, nor did they use their positions of "opinion leaders" to brainwash my mother.

When they passed away many years later, many housewives missed them for a while. But by that time, supermarkets, cars, motorcycles have already crept into our social life.

With their passing, an era of village pedlars went out and never to be experienced again by the younger Foochows.

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