September 7, 2017

the balcony

*long post, wrote this composite post in a few sessions.

The hot afternoon breeze combs through the patch of sun baked grass, and carries with it the smell of a long lost memory that was buried deep inside me. Not forgotten, just lost. It brought me back to the time when I was alone in my old single room flat, at the balcony which overlooked the biggest cemetery in Penang. When I was in my elementary schooling years, my mother traveled a lot, and I spent most of my time alone at home. In that home, the balcony was my special place.

It was about 8 x 3 feet small, with glazed brown tiles adorning the floor. Because the flat was so small, we had to put the fridge there too. Up near the ceiling, there was a shelving for my mom to keep her unused items. There was once, a family of sparrows nested at the shelving, and some crows came to feast on the birdlings. It was a grisly sight. Separating me from falling 8 floors down to the ground, was a railing made of iron rods, painted over with several layers of glossy paint. I’d peel the paint off some parts of the railing, revealing its history of colors from decades of my family’s presence there. It had been blue and red and brown, before it was grey. Hanging out of the iron rod railing, was a suspended iron rack made by my mom’s brother, who welded it up as a gift for her to put her plants. My mom would keep her potted plants on the rack for many years. Over the years of water damage and exposure to weather, the iron rack rusted very badly and flakes of rust would drop on our neighbor’s awning. But it still stood when we left the flat for another home.

I’d often rest my forehead in between the railings and look at lives outside our tiny home on ordinary days. In the earlier years, there were wooden shacks with zinc roofs at the edge of the cemetery, just right below our flat, 8 floors down. The traders from the nearby market would keep their goods there. My most remarkable memory of that period was the midget couple, who lived at the 9th floor, and they trade general goods at the market (still do). I’d see the midget couple push their cart uphill to their shack, and unload all their goods into the shack, every day… for many years. It was at the balcony that I got the first glimpse of hardship in life, when I saw how hard the midget couple worked to earn a living. Anyway, it wasn’t long after those few years that the nearby market place finally got an upgrade and they eventually bought their own store there. The stretch of shacks then got torn down in the early eighties, and I watched them getting demolished by bulldozers and cranes (which was quite an entertainment for a kid). A wall was then built along the edge of the cemetery, and a parking lot was in place of where the shacks were.

Peering to our neighbor’s side of balcony on the right (left was a vacant unit), I could see the house of the ‘long winded lady’. I didn’t know the proper name of my neighbor, only that my mom would refer to her as ‘the long winded lady’. I know only her 4 sons’ Cantonese names (there was another daughter, but I didn’t know her name). There was a pair of twins and another 2 reserved guys. The twins were the naughty ones. They would howl out of their balcony units like wolves and would sing to Modern Talking songs in falsettos. There was once, both of them climbed out of their balcony and shimmied over into ours, then got trapped at our flat. My sister helped them to escape before my mom came home. Their dad was a durian seller I think, and their balcony would smell like ripe durians when it was in season. But our families came to bad terms when one of their kids (not the twins), climbed through the balcony (the same way the twins did) to burglarize our flat when we were out of town (there were footprints at the balcony). Since then, my mom got her brother to weld a piece of metal barrier to prevent those guys from climbing over through the balcony again.

Viewed out of the balcony, I got unobstructed view across the cemetery, all the way to Penang’s only racecourse. On a clear day, I could see Sunrise tower at Gurney Drive right across the cemetery, which was the only tall structure there back then. When viewed to the right side of the balcony (the side of ‘long winded lady’s house’), I could see the tallest building in Penang – KOMTAR, at the city (it still is). When KOMTAR was on fire in 1983, my family and I watched the inferno live from that very balcony. On the left side of the view, was a hill. At the foot of the hill, there was a temple with a pond full of tortoises. I could see the road leading up to the temple, but the temple was not in view from the balcony. At the start of that road to the temple, was a funeral parlor which the people of Taoist faith would use. If you could remember my post, I once wrote about the midget couple’s son who died in a tragic accident with another neighbor – it was at this funeral parlor that I saw his brother folding joss paper alone in this funeral parlor. Occasionally, we’d see some well to do people performing elaborate ceremony to appease the dead’s journey to the realms of afterlife with performances and stunts. On funeral days, we’d see/hear amateur band performances from a bird’s view. It was from there that I learned all the popular Teresa Teng’s songs – because most people who got old enough to die in the 80’s were Teresa Teng’s fanboys/fangirls. The funeral procession would go all the way to the end of the road, before the casket would be loaded to a van to be brought to the cremation center, which was at that cemetery right next to the road.

The cremation center had 3 chimneys and I could see it from the balcony. When a dead body gets burned, the chimney would emit black smoke, that was when my mom would yell at me to quickly bail the balcony and close the door. If my mom wasn’t around, I’d stay at the balcony to watch the cremation. It smelled of burnt rubber and other unidentifiable unpleasant odor. Smoke would turn white when it got to the bones, that was when the burning would fade off and cremation would come to a stop (I eventually had to go there to witness both my parents’ and all my grandparents’ cremation process there, the same building). At times when there was no cremation, the cemetery smelled of life. It was the same sweet smell of sun baked grass that hit my olfactory recently, and there were cows grazing there. During Qing Ming, the whole place would be lit up with colors and the graves would look like they’ve been painted with patches of new paint.

Not far from the cremation center, there was this giant tree that gave shade to a big grave with a couple of granite animals (which I had personally been to, and rode on one of the animals), that was the center of the whole cemetery. The tree would produce beautiful yellow flowers at certain seasons and lose all its leaves at some other time. I later learned that the big grave under that tree belonged to the late Loh Boon Siew (famous rags-to-riches Penangkia/mechanic for starting the Honda moped market in Malaysia), it was already there back when he was still alive. At the north-west side of the cemetery, there was also a route up to the hill, which was a popular hiking spot amongst the neighborhood locals (which I personally hiked before as well). Off the hiking route at the foot of the hill, there was a cave which someone made into a shrine to worship a Japanese-occupation-era rape victim – a popular spot for lottery punters. Word had it that she haunted the place and several market traders in the area got very rich because of her. I couldn’t verify the veracity of those claims, I could only see the cave from the balcony.

The cemetery had its ups and downs like most of us. I once saw a dark magic ritual with my mom from the balcony in the middle of the night, popularly known as the ‘green bamboo ritual’, at a newly interred grave which went terribly wrong. I had seen the whole place went up in flames (bushfire, yes we have it in Penang) a few times, and a few of the times, it got so bad that the firetrucks had to turn back due to the intense heat (which could be felt from the balcony as well). The aftermath was always a charred piece of land as far as the eyes could see (was quite a spectacular view). And there were also times when the rain poured down so hard and so much, that the whole place swelled up with so much water, that it looked like a big giant lake. I’d seen drug addicts smoking crack at some of the graves too. And there was once I even saw an attempted murder – a guy getting slashed by a couple of assailants with machetes, but fortunately the victim didn’t die on the spot. There had been countless of fights breaking out down at the coffee stall right downstairs near the foyer, we could hear every altercation and see them from the balcony. I had seen accidents happening on the road in front of us. In the evening, I could see my school bus parked at the parking lot there (which I once broke into).

My current apartment is about 3 – 4 times the size of that flat unit, and my current balcony is about twice the size. But instead of an awesome view of the cemetery and all the happenings, my current balcony views at only some trees and a patch of grass that people hardly use. My special place is no longer the balcony anymore, but a table with my personal computer and my gadgets. But the balcony in my old flat that overlooked the cemetery, will always be held in a special place inside my heart.

*you can catch a glimpse of the view from the balcony here. (courtesy of Google Street View. I have some surviving photos but they’re too personal).
– in the view, you can still see the tree standing in the middle of the cemetery.

michaelooi  | flashbacks  | 

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