THE LEISURELY LIFE
MOST people from small towns tend to have the same memories of wide open spaces, great food and wonderful neighbours.
Sitiawan in Perak is no different. A quintessential small town with a large Chinese population, it is still the place I call home.
I was born in Taman Selamat, a neighbourhood in the centre of town and true to its name, it was a safe and stable place to grow up in.
But this was the 1980s, when the Internet was unheard of, smartphones didn’t exist and entertainment came only from two television channels, RTM1 and RTM2.
When there’s nothing inside the house to keep you amused, you naturally step outside.
Our semi-detached home had a large, shady garden dotted with fruit trees. l recalled mango, rambutan and ciku trees in the front garden. We even had a durian tree which surprised us one year with a single fruit after years of barrenness.
A wooden swing used to hang from the branches of the mango tree, which was strung up there by my father after I pestered him endlessly for one.
I spent many hours on that swing with my dog, Nancy, by my side.
Pets were the norm in the neighbourhood. There was Toyol the cat, which true to its name was sly and elusive with a penchant for pinching food, and another dog named Rainbow which was one shade of grey but certainly made up for it with his colourful personality.
At one point, I even kept chickens. One day, I followed my father to the market and spotted baby chicks with their feathers dyed a bright pink for sale. I assumed they would grow into pink chickens and we ended up buying two.
Needless to say, the birds grew into ordinary brown fowl but I adored them nonetheless. They would follow me around and eat from my hand.
The small neighbourhood was filled with semi-detached houses and everyone was a familiar face. The streets were our playground and we ran into each other’s homes without fear or hesitation, taking our pick of food from the kitchens.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival (Mooncake Festival), the children would come out at night carrying lanterns, with many dressed in pyjamas because that’s how safe the neighbourhood was.
Many of Sitiawan’s landmarks were within walking distance of our home. They included the Sitiawan Recreation Club, which annually held a dinner and dance that was the town’s main social event. The post office, cinema and library were also nearby, so we walked or cycled to most places.
As a 13-year-old, the library was my favourite haunt, not because I was a voracious reader wanting to expand my general knowledge, but because it had a shelf full of Mills & Boon romantic fiction novels which I read and reread.
Life moved at a slow but comfortable pace. There were no shopping malls or cafes.
Groceries were purchased from neighbourhood sundry shops. The one near my house also sold shaved ice balls coated in red syrup which was the best treat on a hot day.
Till this day, the sights and smells of a traditional sundry shop always bring back childhood memories; rice in gunny sacks, the pungent aroma of dried fish and shrimp paste and pickled fruit or jeruk stored in large glass containers.
I remember buying pickled fruit after school for just 5 sen a piece.
The shopkeeper would take it out of the jar using a pair of tongs and serve the soaking-wet fruit on a piece of torn newspaper.
Fresh seafood was also a staple on our dining table given the town’s proximity to the sea, and at prices most Klang Valley residents would find unbelievable then and now.
We usually dined out at family-run Chinese restaurants which served generous portions of steamed fish, stir-fried clams and prawns.
Fast food was unheard of in my early years but I recalled the day KFC opened its first outlet in Sitiawan.
The queue snaked outside the restaurant, almost to the traffic lights in the centre of town. It was a landmark event because previously, we had to travel to Ipoh to get a taste of the Colonel’s fried chicken.
Today, Sitiawan has so many fast food outlets, cafes and malls that it’s mind boggling.
It’s slowly losing its small town charm with its busy roads and new buildings.
But each time we make the three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and the car turns into our old neighbourhood so that familiar houses come into view, I feel a sense of comfort and peace. Some things, thankfully, never change.
Born and raised in Sitiawan, the writer fondly recalls the small town charm, which was largely untouched by large-scale development