IF you were a child in the 1960s in Malacca, you would probably remember a man with a straw hat and a red box on a bicycle standing in front of your school, selling heavenly ice cream potong.
Fast forward 50 years; he’s still there with that familiar red box, probably selling ice cream to your children.
Gan Thar a.k.a Ah Thar turned 82 on March 31. The very private and soft-spoken man, who initially declined to be interviewed, finally gave in to the pleas of this interviewer, who reminded him of how he used to cut slabs of ice cream (hence, the term potong), before placing them on a stick and removing the wrapper for her when she was a kid in the early 1980s.
Red bean flavour was the favourite.
Gan Thar does not sell ice cream potong any more, ever since his supplier’s shop caught fire some time back. The children now have to settle for colourful ice lollies.
Recalling his childhood, Gan Thar says his father died when he was 5.
With that, his hopes of going to school and getting an education were dashed as his mother had six mouths to feed.
“We had to pay to attend school those days,” he says with a faraway look in his jaded eyes.
Every day, for the past 52 years, Gan Thar has been collecting ice cream from a supplier in Jalan Bunga Raya at 10am.
He then begins his rounds, and by noon, he stations himself in the vicinity of schools in Bandar Hilir, to the delight of scores of schoolchildren, who make a beeline for the “uncle” with the red box as soon as the dismissal bell rings.
Later, Gan Thar peddles his ice cream in the surrounding kampung and residential areas. He calls it a day around 6pm, returning all unsold ice cream to the supplier before heading home.
“Those days, the ice cream cost 5 sen. The taukeh took 2.5 sen and I would get the other 2.5 sen.
“I could bring home RM5 daily and that was enough to feed my wife and four children,” he says with a broad smile.
His wife, Sia Jin Neo, 78, who suffered a stroke three years ago, chips in proudly: “I used to work, too, as a cleaner in nearby houses.”
Gan Thar, his wife and surviving brother have been living in an old kampung house in Semabok for the past 49 years.
The dilapidated wooden house is equipped with the barest furniture, but the generosity of the couple knows no bounds as they kept insisting that I finish my packet drink and eat the cookies they served.
“I used to bake these cookies for Chinese New Year, but now, I have to buy them as I’m too weak to make them,” Sia says, almost apologetically.
An old 21-inch television set sits on a rack collecting dust as it has stopped working, following a lightning strike some years back. A kind soul then donated an old 14-inch television set, which is their only source of entertainment.
The couple have four children and four grandchildren, but “they hardly visit as they are busy with their own lives”, says Gan Thar nonchalantly.
“We don’t get much help from our children but we don’t mind as we know they have a lot of expenses, too. As long as they have enough to feed their own families, we consider it a blessing.”
With a twinkle in his eye as he gazes at Sia, Gan Thar says the happiest day of his life was when he married his wife.
The octogenarian says it is difficult these days to sell his ice cream because schools do not allow hawkers outside the gate and the security guards always chase him away.
Business is also very slow during holidays and the rainy season. He wishes to retire soon, but money is an issue.
These days, he usually earns RM20 a day as he can work only from 11am to 3pm, before rushing home to cook dinner for his wife and brother. He laments the high price of meals.
“I have to cook at home as I can’t afford to buy food. Otherwise, I can stay out longer for more sales.”
He is grateful for the RM300 monthly aid he receives from the Welfare Department as it helps pay for the utility bills and part of the groceries.
“But, I don’t know what I am going to do after February 2018. I have just received a letter from the department notifying me that they will stop giving me the aid from February 2018. They did not give a reason why,” he says softly.
When asked if children these days are different compared with those in the 1960s, Gan Thar says no.
“All the children who buy from me are good, they call me uncle and are never rude. And, I’ve had some who bought ice cream from me from the time they were in Year One right up to Form Five,” he says with pride.
Asked about his most challenging time, Gan Thar shakes his head.
“I can’t remember having any hard times. I don’t have any debts and I lead a simple life.”
It was already 3.15pm and Gan Thar anxiously asked if I was done. After saying thank you and goodbye to his wife, I took a peek at the side of his house, where he scurried off to. Gan Thar was lighting a charcoal stove to start cooking.
I walked away feeling humbled.
EDIT: Malacca’s ice-cream ‘potong’ man Gan Thar thanks readers of the New Sunday Times for their well-wishes and offers of help.
He politely declined assistance, saying he could still work and he also has children who can help him.
“Cakap dia orang tak mau susah-susah...” (tell them not to trouble themselves).
NST has also been informed that it is Standard Operating Procedure for the Welfare Department to require recipients of its financial aid to re-apply for the assistance periodically.
Note: A gas stove was recently donated to Gan Thar by concerned community members