The Hunchback of Kampung Pinang
Writer: Ong Kok Meng
Published: Fri, 10 Jun 2011
As a child, Yen had always been fascinated by the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Little did she know that she would meet an actual humpback woman right in her own neighbourhood.
Sitting on a swing hanging from an old starfruit tree, Yen could see an old woman going about her daily chores. She was pitifully humpbacked, the bongkok udang type. Her grey hair was tied into a bun. She was dressed in a traditional attire of navy-blue samfoo and black pants. She walked barefoot. Her gait was slow but steady.
Yen continued to observe the humpback woman, Ah Por, as she fetched water from a well. Ah Por proceeded to wash her clothes. Once her chore was done, she retreated to her easy chair on the front porch, cooling herself with a straw fan. She then indulged in her favourite pasttime, betel chewing.
According to word of mouth, the humpbacked woman’s life had been difficult. Back in her hometown in Hainan Island, China, she had been brutally stabbed in the back by a group of brutes armed with knives. It was a most brutal, unprovoked attack. The knife went clear to the bone. The brutes left her to die. But she lived. With her only worldly possessions of a jade bangle and a pair of heavy gold earrings, she fled to Malaya.
A foreman took pity on her and offered to let her work on a plantation as a rubber tapper. The price of rubber then was cheap, and the pay was little. From the stories she heard, Yen concluded that it was so much tougher to tap rubber trees than to mine for tin. One had to collect latex from one tree to another, mix the latex with toxic chemicals, and roll them to form slabs.
In her mind, Yen pictured Ah Por waking up in the wee hours of the morning. With the carbide lamp on, she would walk to the still, dark plantation. Back in those days, the dangers of being mauled by tiger, attacked by wild boar and bitten by a snake were ever present.
Yen learnt that Ah Por, an illiterate woman, had lived in Kampung Pinang, an ex-mining village, for over 30 years. Ah Por was clearly a broken and forsaken woman. Her husband had died in an accident 20 years ago.
When her only son died due to stroke, Ah Por inadvertently became dependent on her daughter-in-law, Ah Ngiong. She was mistreated by Ah Ngiong and her three grandchildren, who found her to be a nuisance. They shunned her because of her grotesque size. Children can be cruel.
So Yen made it her responsibility to care for Ah Por. Yen usually bought Federal Bakery bread and cakes from the Indian roti seller on a motorbike in the late afternoon. She would rush into Ah Por’s partially timbered house, bearing the bread and cakes.
“This is for you,” Yen would tell her in Hainanese.
Ah Por would look at Yen questioningly with her beady eyes. Seeming to understand her body language, Ah Por would reach out both hands to accept them.
Yen never went to Ah Por’s house empty-handed. She sometimes brought bottles of Hai-O essence of chicken. This continued for a few weeks until Ah Por passed away. She died of old age. She was sitting in her favourite chair on the front porch as usual. Her eyes were closed. Her family thought she was fully asleep. Her body, however, had turned cold.
The mortician donned silver earrings in her ears and a silver bracelet on her wrist. It was believed that by wearing accessories, Ah Por would be recognized as a rich man’s wife, and this would give her a better standing in the otherworld.
Ah Ngiong organised an elaborate wake for Ah Por. Her soul would be guided home by a tall white candle that burnt all night long. Family members, relatives and friends from the spirit world were invited to the wake with the consent from the underworld god. Yen did not attend Ah Por’s wake because she was only a child.
Fear skittered down Yen’s spine during Ah Por’s wake. She had the irrational, movie-inspired fear that Ah Por would return as a ghost. Yen was young and did not know better. The old humpback woman really touched a nerve that went deep in Yen’s young life, just as Quasimodo did. At the age of nine, she was struck by an emotion she could not pinpoint.
No life is untouched by death. Ah Por’s death was a sober reminder to Yen that “youth is sunny, old age has no honey”.