MAK Limah called me over to her vegetable stall at this small rural wet market. Loudly, and with some pride, she invited me to a Chinese New Year open house next weekend.
This alone was enough to pique my curiosity. A Malay makcik invited me to a Chinese New Year open house!
This was a first time for me. Everyone at the stall turned to see who it was that Mak Limah shouted the invitation to.
“Jangan lupa datang makan masa Raya Cina ni. Ah Keong jemput semua orang yang Mak Limah kenal. Bawa anak bini sekali. Lagi ramai lagi meriah!” Mak Limah proclaimed for all to hear.
All Mak Limah said was she was asked by Ah Keong, one of the market’s fishmongers, to invite his regular customers to his makan-makan this coming Friday to celebrate Chinese New Year.
She said not to forget to bring all members of the family — the more the merrier!
I vaguely remember Ah Keong, an elderly person who sells all sorts of fish head ranging from tenggiri to kurau to kerapu.
Quite often, these fish heads find their way to Ghani’s restaurant, which is a favourite among locals.
Celebrating Chinese New Year in a small rural town can be fun. In Ah Keong’s case, he has such a big clientele that the annual affair is celebrated with much fun and laughter, according to Mak Limah.
A couple of weeks before the big day, Ah Keong already has boxes of mandarin oranges ready for distribution.
The whole market would wait eagerly for Ah Keong’s lokam.
Every customer is given one or two. Some take even more, especially those who have known him for a long lime.
Mak Limah, Ah Keong’s long-time friend and neighbour in the market, often helps to give away the oranges to customers.
Other Chinese retailers in the market do the same thing too, but Ah Keong looks to be the most popular one there.
This is partly because he was one of the pioneers of the market. His wife died a few years ago and most of his children have gone to major towns to work as professionals and entrepreneurs.
But, two of his sons are helping him to run the fish stall, ensuring his legacy will continue.
He has one son residing in Australia and a daughter in the United States.
Come Chinese New Year, they troop back to be with Ah Keong, making the old man and wife happy for a few days — just like the television commercial.
The return of these two was always a big affair. But credit to the two children — they remain humble and don’t forget their roots.
“Kalau kahwin orang putih, saya harap mereka jangan eksyen, (I hope they won’t change if they marry foreigners),” Ah Keong often said.
There was one year when Ah Keong, his wife and the two remaining boys celebrated New Year in Australia with his other son. They enjoyed the stay very much but Ah Keong returned early to open his stall.
After his wife died, Ah Keong preferred to spend the new year in his home.
The return of his children from overseas was always a major highlight, with a tinge of sadness as they recall the happier days when everyone was around.
This year, Mak Limah was tasked with preparing the ketupat and rendang. And many people know that her rendang is always a winner!
“Kesian tengok Ah Keong. Dia suka bila kawan-kawan datang makan. Macam-macam makanan dia tempah (We all sympathise with Ah Keong. But he’s happy when friends come over and join the feast. He has ordered plenty of food),” Mak Limah quipped.
In this particular semi-rural setting, the various communities do not always mix well. Each community keep very much to itself. They are mostly Malay rubber tappers, Chinese vegetable farmers and retailers.
Which is why Ah Keong’s gesture of goodwill is most welcomed. In the wet market where Ah Keong and Mak Limah conduct their daily businesses, there is good rapport among the communities.
They have a shared interest — to see their businesses prosper.
This is where the role of village headman is important. They are either referred to as Tok Penghulu, Tok Empat or just plain ketua kampung.
If they are proactive, relationships among the communities will certainly be better.
They are community leaders and should play the role well. There are those who take their job seriously. And, there are also those who do the minimum. The latter should be replaced. In fact, they shouldn’t have been picked in the first place.
In towns where there are residents’ association, more is expected of them. The leaders of such associations are picked by the residents and this must be done carefully. But, as we all know too well, there are associations and associations.
Anyway, let’s look forward to this week’s Chinese New Year celebrations.
It looks like it will be another long weekend. Be safe if you are travelling by road — keep the yam seng down if possible.
Ahmad A Talib is chairman of Yayasan Salam Malaysia