Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Red and White Tea Set

Photo credit: Sabah State Archives

As the Sentinel No.13 clickety-clacked to town Katie and her best friend, Esther, discussed how they were going to spend the lovely afternoon. There were things to see and friends to meet and maybe they could even watch one of those talking movies!

The mile-long trip from the station at Karamunsing took them past the mangrove swamp; past the houses on stilts connected to each other with a maze of rickety catwalks; past the police station and the jails and clumps of coconut palms on South Road; past the raintrees standing at the edge of the padang. Then there was the long, final whistle from the front of the train and it was time to get off. A glance at the quaint clock tower near the railway station told the girls it was a little after two.

Photo credit:: Sabah State Archives


The coaches disgorged the passengers; tired mothers with sleeping babies strapped around their chests; traders with boxes and sacks; kampong folks with their bananas and bundles of vegetables; hawkers loaded with rattan baskets filled with snacks: boiled eggs, steamed corn, rice dumplings bound in bamboo leaves and sticky, angpow-red rice cakes sitting on bits of green banana leaves.

Neither Katie nor Esther wanted any of the snacks. They were going to have long, cold drinks—a glass of orange squash perhaps, or some lemonade with chunks of ice floating to the top of their glasses and sipped slowly through a straw. Off they went along Birch Street and into Market Street which would take them past Bond Street straight to the sea. But their favourite coffee shop was at Bond Street and that was where they went before they paid a visit to the store run by a Japanese man called Mr. Sakai.

The girls knew him well and Katie had visited him at his house (with a couple of other friends) where Mr. Sakai had made them take off their shoes on the stoop and insisted they put on slippers in the house. Mr. Sakai had a two-storey shop at Market Street. He operated a photo studio upstairs and ran a sundry shop downstairs where he sold everything under the sun: rice and salt; dried fish and rainbow-coloured sweets; slippers, dainty handkerchiefs and pretty paper umbrellas of mint-green, or drenched in pure sky-blue, or pink like the blush on a geisha’s cheeks.
Photo credit: R.Chin

That day Katie and Esther found Mr. Sakai carefully unpacking a ceramic tea set. His eyes sparkled as he held up a saucer to the girls.

See what has just arrived from Japan,” he said. “Have you ever seen anything as beautiful?” It was square-shaped with the corners cut off and the trim alternated with white and red. On the white parts were drawn a filigree motif in gold. It reminded Katie of her parents’ bright red dragon tea set and she fell in love with it.

Five dollars… special price for a special girl,” Mr. Sakai said. Katie smiled and shook her head as she fisted what remained of the two dollars her mother had given her. Five dollars was a lot of money. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the tea set. All through the day and on the bus home her thoughts kept going back to that red and white tea set!

As soon as she reached home Katie told her parents about Mr. Sakai’s beautiful tea set. Maybe her father understood how much she wanted it. Perhaps he wanted to show that nothing was too much for his little girl when he gave her five dollars so she could go back and buy that lovely tea set.

Photo credit: R. Chin

It was to be one of the last things Katie bought from Mr. Sakai’s shop and she has kept it all these years because it is a reminder of a time when Jesselton was a peaceful little town; the time before the war broke out and before Mr. Sakai changed completely from being a nice shopkeeper at Market Street to a fierce kempetai everybody feared and hated. Katie treasures the tea set especially because it reminds her of her father and his unique way of making her feel loved and special.

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