Monday, August 21, 2017

The Storyteller from Signal Hill

(Several years ago I was involved in a community project in KK. An important part of this project was collecting stories from members of the public to compile into a book. I met and spoke to a number of people who graciously shared their stories. One storyteller was this guy who also showed great interest in the old pictures we stuck on the walls of the Gaya Street shops. That was how I found him--- looking at the pictures.)

Francis—born on Signal Hill in 1945, at a time when Jesselton had been reduced to smoky piles of rubble—has enough stories to keep his listeners enthralled from morning till nightfall and still the telling would not be done. However, the stories need to be coaxed out of him but once he’s convinced he has an interested listener, the words tumble out effortlessly.



Even his name has an interesting tale. His father, also named Francis, gave the same name to two sons and also named his daughter Francisca!

“My father named us after his favourite saint,” he explains, “Saint Francis of Assisi.”

Francis’s grandfather and his wife were among the Hakka families recruited by the North Borneo Chartered Company to start farms in North Borneo. They landed in Kudat but made their way to Jesselton where Grandfather Chong became a trader dealing in sundries and selling them to the local community including the Bajau fishermen in Jesselton.



Francis spent his early childhood on his grandmother’s farm and among the families of Hakkas who cultivated vegetables for the market and grew rubber on Signal Hill.  These were deeply religious people who, along with Grandfather Chong, built a church on the hill. It was a Basel Mission Church and it doubled as a school. It was where Francis had his early education before he moved to Sacred Heart Primary School and later to Sabah College.

His father was a high court clerk who was proficient in Malay, Chinese, Kadazan and English.  His office, on the hill near the Atkinson Clock Tower, had a magnificent view of the town and the South China Sea. As a government servant, he was provided with quarters so the family need not live in the attap-roofed, zinc-walled houses built on stilts over the sea where, on windy days the houses shook and during high tides the walls were slapped and hit by incessant waves.

“My father’s government house was one of several arranged in neat rows near the beach in Tanjung Aru,” Francis says. “It was spacious and although all the government houses were built of attap and kajang there were no cases of fire.” Perhaps people were more cautious then, knowing the fragility of their situation especially when there was only the Armed Constabulary to turn to when there were fires because a fire brigade was non-existent.

What does Francis remember most about living in the kajang houses?

“I could hide in the attic,” he says. He smiles broadly before he continues. “The toilet… well, it wasn’t really what you’d call a toilet today. Each house had an outhouse some distance from the living quarters. There was a bucket placed underneath a hole and every morning a man we called Ah Pak would remove the bucket and pour the waste into another pail. Then he had to clean the empty bucket with water before replacing it in the outhouse. I was told he was paid three hundred dollars although I had no way of finding out whether it was true or otherwise.” He shook his head as though he couldn’t believe that there were people who didn’t mind working as a shit collector.

In Jesselton itself, latrines were built directly over the sea and narrow timber catwalks connected them to the land. Passing boats could be rowed very near the latrines and many townsfolk were known to sit nervously in the cubicles because they could not dismiss the possibility that a passing boatman might just use an oar or a pole to poke him in the rear just for fun.

There was a time when one latrine was painted white and another, some distance away, was red. No one now remembers why there was a white toilet and a red toilet. Perhaps one was for males and the other for females? Or it was convenient to tell a family member: "I’m at the red latrine if anyone looks for me”!

Francis himself worked at various jobs that included living in the wild and collecting soil samples as a Junior Agricultural Assistant. He later became a policeman but left the police force so he could go on his own adventures and chase dreams instead of law-breakers.

Friday, July 07, 2017

The Big Toe Misadventure

I'm nursing an injured big toe, the result of living in the past... of acting as though I still have the strength of a buffalo. What have I done this time? I pulled a pallet (that those workmen have left in the backyard) so it wouldn't get wet by the approaching rain. When the heavy pallet refused to move I pulled at it with all my might. It suddenly shot towards my foot and hit the big toe which had an extra long nail.

All I wanted to do was scream: "Ow ow ow owww!" But I didn't want to alert the neighbours of my stupidity and clumsiness.

Tips of  nails clipped before going to the doc... hehe

I have often been proud of my physical strength as it has allowed me to carry heavy objects all by myself. Most times I was able to pat myself on the back but there were times when my lifting heavy loads caused minor calamities.

Google Image

Take that long-ago time I had wanted the washing machine shifted from the small bathroom to the spacious bathroom upstairs. I asked Mr. Hubby to move it for me. But even after several reminders the machine hadn't budged an inch. Patience has never been my virtue so I decided to move the monster myself. I was young and strong and it required carrying/lifting the machine no more than 20 footsteps. Not a big problem except I was seven months pregnant with Sonny. Imagine my shock when I saw blood on my underwear after the feat! I went to the doc several days later for a scheduled prenatal visit and I told him about the blood stains.

"You need to rest," the doctor said and promptly gave me a chit for a 2-day sick leave even though I assured him the bleeding had stopped. I guess he had thought I was crazy or dumb to shift the washing machine.

And Mr. Hubby's reaction? He must have been happy he didn't have to move the washing machine after all.

Another time I over-estimated my strength was when I was taking care of my (bedridden) mother.  We weighed about the same...50kg. I had to wrap my arms tightly around her chest while she circled her arms around my shoulders.  Then I had to carry/drag her off her high 'hospital' bed to the wheelchair. Well, one day I forgot to secure the wheelchair to the bed (by tying the wheelchair to a bed leg with a string.) When I carried/dragged my mama to the wheelchair, the chair moved as soon as it was touched. In my attempt to 'run after' it, we were moving farther and farther away from the bed. I couldn't put her back on the bed and I couldn't put her in the chair. Exhausted, I put her down onto the floor. She didn't complain even though she looked all twisted and crumpled up. Luckily, Dottie was home and had heard my horrified cries from upstairs. She rushed down and we both 'unraveled' my mother's knotted legs and put her in the wheelchair. That was one exciting prelude to bath time but there was more drama to come!

This time it involved a potty... or rather the lack of one. I guess it was one of my mother's tests—to see whether or not I’d do her bidding. Or maybe she just craved extra attention and one way to get it was to repeat a request over and over until it was granted.

Well, she wanted a potty. I hadn't got around to shop for one. Even I know that the common plastic potty was not suitable for a bedridden adult. Anyway, on this particular day, she insisted she didn't want to sit on the toilet bowl and she didn't want to shit in her diaper either. She wanted a potty!

What was I to do? The pharmacy where the potty chair was available is nearby. But I couldn't run out and leave my poor old mother all by herself. What was I to do? The only thing that came to mind was—don’t laugh—using one of my big, empty flowerpots! It's hilarious now but it wasn't laughing matter then.

I put the flowerpot right next to the wall so that my mother's back would get some support. Then I helped her sit up on the bed, her lower legs hanging over the side. We hugged each other tightly and I half-lifted and half-dragged her to the flowerpot. It was hard labour and the clay pot was a little too low. Alas, just as her bum touched the rim of the pot, I began to have misgivings. What if the flowerpot broke and dug into her flesh? I couldn't take the risk. I tried to heave her up, away from the flowerpot-potty. And she, not understanding my anxiety, tried to stay down. It was a long while before she was safe in bed again. And it was weeks before my back stopped aching.

When I finally got the potty chair... it cost about RM600 then.... my mother refused to sit on it!

Back to my most recent misadventure...I had over estimated my strength. I frequently forget I am an old woman. And now I'm left with only nine toenails to paint a shocking pink.

Stay safe, folks. Don’t hurt your toes!