My Dancing Years

Whenever I hear the beautiful Filipino love song, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, I remember the time we danced before the Filipino President, Ferdinand Marcos and his elegant wife Imelda. It was her favourite song.

Just out of High School I thought I’d have some fun and learn Malay folk dances so I joined the Dance Group of the Ministry of Culture. The practice sessions were grueling but after some months we found ourselves performing at various cultural events organized by the Ministry up and down the Malay Peninsular. We even danced before the King and Queen.

But the real excitement came when we were told we would go international! We would perform at the Grand Palace in Bangkok before King Phumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, and at Malacanang Palace in Manila before President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos. We who had never even seen the inside of an airplane were headed for faraway Thailand and the Philippines. As guests of Royalty no less!

A glittering banquet awaited us at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. After dinner the show began with fabulous performances by the Thai National Dancers followed by the equally fabulous Filipinescas Dance Troupe. And then it was our turn. We were very nervous indeed. During the “tari lilin” or candle dance I almost dropped the lighted candles fixed on little saucers I held in the palms of my hands. We got through all our traditional dances – Joget, Ayam Didek, Mak Inang and Zapin smoothly enough and with our dignity and “selendang” or scarves intact.

The King, the world’s longest reigning monarch, is a talented jazz musician and composer. I’ll never forget how he graciously played several tunes on the saxophone for us.

All too soon Bangkok was over but Manila was still to come.

Another night of splendour greeted us at the Malacanang Palace. Again there were performances by all three national groups. But I was truly mesmerized by the Filipinescas dancers. I thought they outdid themselves in Manila, performing before their President and his wife. The Filipinescas Dance Company today performs for audiences all over the world. What I would give to see them on stage again and to renew the friendships I had made.

Sadly my dancing years came to an end after the tour when I left for Singapore to continue with my studies.


My Father the English Teacher

My father taught Latin at the Penang Free School. Animus, animi, animo, animum, anime was the furthest I got with that language. I don’t know whether knowing Latin helps improve one’s English. It probably does. My father had an impeccable command of the English language. Master Basha his adoring students called him. He was Bash to the Headmaster, Mr Todd.

My father was my favourite English teacher. He would have answers to every question I asked, quite unlike my English teacher at school who would be inclined to say – go think about it, then come back to me. Which probably meant she didn’t know the answer. Her pronunciation, in particular, left a lot to be desired. Look up Jones, meaning the English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones, my father would say whenever I didn’t know how to pronounce a particular word. But if I asked him hard enough he would tell me.

Thanks to my dear Father I won many elocution, debating and essay competitions in school. I would invariably begin my debates with, Mr Chairman, I emphatically declare……and go on to dazzle my poor opponent.

At the end of one school term, I was reluctant to show him my Report Card. No problem with my English marks. But an ugly red number showed up against my Maths result – 38 upon 100. A clear “Fail”. I finally plucked up enough courage, gave him the report and waited to be roundly scolded. He looked at the report, calmly signed it and returned it to me. Aren’t you going to scold me? I asked. No. He said. Just do better in your Maths next term.

And I did.

Songs My Father Taught Me

My father was not gifted with a voice like Mario Lanza but he loved to sing. My brother, however, believed Lanza doesn’t sing. He shouts.

My father was a very gentle person. The violent tempers in our household were the monopoly of my mother, bless her soul. I recall the time she chased my brother all over the garden screaming and wielding a big stick. She did not believe in sparing the cane. She worked her heart so hard she lived till 93. The only time my father lost his temper he banged the car door with all of us inside it and walked away. When he returned my mother shouted even louder. He learned early it was pointless to get angry.

When my father was displeased with us he would shake his head and say, cheh! cheh! cheh! Or when frustrated he would exclaim in a slightly louder voice, Heavens to mergetroid!

My favourite time of the day was after breakfast when my father and I would head for the verandah and he would teach me songs. The ones about the man and his dog who went to mow the meadow, and the ten little Indians who found themselves on the wall were thrilling because they taught me to count backwards from 10. There was a sad one about the married man who wished he was single again because his pockets did jingle then, a lilting one about the Hula maiden on the beach at Waikiki who swayed his heart with her song, bouncy nursery rhymes about Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey and Little Jack Horner in the corner who put his thumb into his Christmas pie and pulled out a plumb and said, “What a good boy am I”.

The melodious Star of the Evening shining on the camp which he also taught his boy scouts (my father was a Scoutmaster in addition to being an English teacher at the Penang Free School), was followed by one I didn’t know the meaning of at all. It went like this:

O politai politas politai politai polito
Omi kodimas o sera amba
Omi kodemas sera amba, amba, amba, amba, amba…..

But this is the one I liked most of all:

You love me, I love you
That shall be all life through
As we go onward hand in hand
Making this world a fairyland.

My Favorite Storyteller

She would visit us in Kampong Bharu very infrequently. I suppose it was because she lived a long bus ride away from us. And she had to trudge a good distance from the bus stop on the main road to our house set deep in the kampong. She was tall, shapeless and very old and walked with a stoop. And how she loved her brooches. Three large ones always adorned the front of her kebaya. I remember my mother wore beautiful sparkling ones whenever she needed to attend a wedding. But Grandma Chak wore hers even to come visit with us and how I loved to look at them.

But what I loved even more about Grandma Chak were the stories she told us. When I think she’d chatted long enough with my mother while munching betel leaves with betel nut smeared with some chalky white stuff, what old women did in the old days, I would beg her to tell her stories. I would sit at her knees enthralled while she recounted the adventures of Sang Kanchil, the clever mouse deer. She told us many different kinds of stories but the Sang Kanchil ones were my favourite. I was sad whenever she stopped and said she had to leave.

I lived for her stories then and would wait impatiently for her visits so I could enjoy my favorite character’s new adventures which never failed to enthrall me.

And then Grandma Chak stopped coming. I waited and willed for her to come but many weeks passed without her making a single appearance. I asked my mother who said she was probably unwell. Finally my mother told me she had passed on. And that was the saddest day of my life.