Saturday, February 16, 2008

Mobile River Boat Shop - "Mantong Sung"

As the darkness slowly crept up the skies, and the trees on the riverbanks began to take dark sinister shapes, we could hear the small "pep pep pep" of a small boat moving nearer towards our jetty. The smell of burning diesel also became stronger. Accompanied by the swish swash of the river tide, this expectant moment seemed to be an introduction to a great movie.

But it was the homecoming of Huo Ang, my grandmother's tenant whose business was a river boat shop or "mantong sung". It was the early day floating supermarket of the Foochows.

Hwo Ang was about forty years old at that time. He had a wife, two children and one boy who was born a "vegetable". His wife lived a simple life with our extended family. She had her own kitchen, two small rooms and we all shared an outhouse,which was beyong the pigsty.

Each evening whenever Huo Ang came back from his day trip we children would crowd into his small wooden boat and look at his stuff - icecream sticks in the cooler flask,little tubes of blowing bubles, which were our favourite,sweets (called at that time manga tong or caramel),Foochow cup cakes, coconut candies and aerated water. So what ever little money we had, we would buy and run home happily with our treasures. We would always buy our stuff at this time of the day because Huo Ang would move out very early in the morning. And sometimes he would be gone for more than a day.

And then, we would know that his wife would have prepared his simple dinner of salted fish, a bit of soy sauce pork, some slices of salted eggs and a vegetable soup and they would eat in kersene light.

Huo Ang's wife was a very humble and sweet person.And she would seek out my grandmother's counselling all the time. Life with my grandmother was a huge experience because besides having two daughters in law with her, her youngest daughter was also staying in one of the apartments. Huo Ang's family also became part of our extended family.

A very significant part of this period of our life was our experinece of having Huo Ang's severely disabled childin the house. He was about 8 years old, quite a big boy, and he was always in his little cot. Occasionally Mrs. Huo Ang would let us kids have a peep at the seemingly boneless child. And we would often wonder when he would be able to play with us.

In restrospect I remember once she asked a visiting doctor about the length of life of her boy. The doctor replied, " He will live as long as he can live. We cannot tell. So far, he is alright." The doctor advised her to bathe and wash him twice a day and keep him fresh at all times.

Huo Ang's wife made a very thick rice gruel mixed with milk for him. And she would put this in a boat like shaped milk bottle, which was the fasthion of that time.

In the early hours of the morning Huo Ang would sail out to the nearby villages selling his wares and products. He would sometimes gather some wild meat from the longhouses for sale. His best business was around Bawang Assan longhouses where his sugar, salt, salted fish, eggs, and rice would sell very well.

At that age then, we did not understand how difficult it was for Mrs. Huo Ang to live one day at a time. But being mild mannered and having a cheerful personality, she could get along with every one. She did all her housework carefully and waited for her husband to come home in the evenings and would strain her ears to listen to the pep pep pep of the mantong sung.

What I remember was that Huo Ang and his wife always talked together in very soft and loving tones over their kerosene light. AS in the night, every thing was very silent and the wooden walls could not keep small chat in. We seldom saw Huo Ang in the broad day light. The "vegetable" child passed away at the age of 16 one early morning. Every one carried their kerosene lamps to have a last look and I remember my grandmother crying. She comforted Mrs.Huo Ang by saying." It is good too in a way. God's will."

Perhaps it was both sadness that Mrs.Huo Ang wailed loudly. But perhaps it was also gladness that she was relieved of this caring. However, it was perhaps most important that at that time, when death occur, a mother would wail loudly as it was supposed to be her role to do so.

Later when I went to university, I heard that they moved away and his children did very well in life. Lfe's blessings come in strange ways. We only have to believe that God is above us and he will take care of us.

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